What I’m Playing: January(?) – June, 2014

Wow, it’s been a particularly long time since I did one of these “What I’m Playing” posts. So much so, that I’m ignoring whatever I might have played in November/December last year, since I can’t quite remember everything.

Since I started being a full-time indie dev, I found I’ve had much less time to actually play games, since I’ve been so busy making them. As other game designers have noted, it also can be hard to enjoy games for leisure when you are constantly also treating them as ‘research’ – dissecting the mechanics and implementation. That said, I’ve probably played more interesting stuff in the last six month than the previous. Here’s a sample of the highlights I can remember:

Ossuary – great little puzzle adventure game that actually encourages some lateral thinking instead of just object hoarding and brute force testing of combinations. The dialog is all wonderfully written to fit the strange little world of the Ossuary, and the understated visuals in stylish black’n’white give it a real goth aesthetic. Purchased on the strength of the demo, and I haven’t been disappointed.

Anodyne – I was a caught a little off guard with this one since I didn’t expect too much, but it’s the most fun I can ever remember having with a [J]RPG. Not a fan of the jumping action sequences though – I hope there’s not too much of that.

Gone Home – a wonderfully crafted “first-person note reader” and burglary simulator. I sat down in the late evening and started playing this. Sometime around 3am I was finished & sheepishly crawled into bed with no regrets.

Electronic Super Joy – one of the better platformers ever made. In fact, if Super Meat Boy didn’t exist, this would probably be a massive indie hype train. My 9 month old son is always transfixed watching this.

BADLAND – You know when you start playing a game, and you kick yourself and say – “This is a great game. I wish I had made it. I could have made it !”. This is one of those games. It’s Flappy Bird, but smarter. With physics, glorious art and sound, that combines to create a world that feels dangerous, hostile, and darkly comical. I’ve been playing the Humble Bundle version of this sideloaded on OUYA – works great and looks stunning on the big screen. Also transfixing for 9 month olds.

NeonXSZ – a 6DOF Descent-like shooter, but with a massive tech tree of upgrades.

Descent – I haven’t played this for what .. 20 years ? It’s better now. Back in the day, my computer could barely run it and the default keybindings were tricky. Now it runs as smooth as butter in DOSbox, and since I can set up the keybindings to basically work like a standard FPS and it’s easier and more enjoyable. There is a lot to be said for standardisation of control across similar genres.

Giana Sisters : Twisted Dreams – I hadn’t quite grasped how stunning this looked until I played it for real. I would love some insight into how the mesh ‘morphing’ of all the scenery was achieved (Update: just did some Googling and found this turns out 3ds Max will do a lot of the heavy lifting, but there are some fiddly technical constraints on the art side. Looks like it’s also possible using Blender Shape Keys. Also for future reference – there seems to be a simple mesh morphing implementation for Unity here. Very very interesting).

Jets’n’Guns Gold – side scrolling shmup. Pew pew. Fun, quite tough. Gameplay is solid, but truth be told, I was slightly disappointed in the graphics (obvious tiled backgrounds, lots of indistinct, inconsistent and blurry art) – it looked much better in the promo videos for some reason.

Diadra Empty – an interesting ‘open field’ bullet-hell shmup that scrolls in both directions (a bit like Syder Arcade), with shot direction locking and pile of unlockable weapon options. I feel like the interplay of collection, scoring and special abilities in this game have more depth than I’ll probably ever find time to properly explore, since it seems generally more ‘complicated’ than your typical shmup.

Fallout: New Vegas – I liked Fallout 3. And this is more of that. I’ve really got to kick the hoarding habit though since searching EVERY SINGLE DRAW in an area is extending the playtime horrendously, while simultaneously compounding the problem through increased inventory micromanagement. It’s sort of part of the game, but I think I go a little overboard with it.

The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim – finally played this. Wonderful looking environments. After ~60 hours play, for whatever reason, I just forgot to keep playing and didn’t have the urge to pick it up again. I guess if I’m going to burn so many hours in a epic like this, I’d prefer it to be in the Fallout universe.

Oil Rush – some stunning water graphics here, and a great tech demo for the Unigine engine … but the gameplay is a little uninspiring. One of the voice actors is an Aussie though, which is always amusing.

Acorn Assault (OUYA) – I’d heard this was good but hadn’t had a change to check it out. Great fun turn-based strategy, with some non-obvious strategies you’ll only learn by playing it a few times.

Neon Shadow (OUYA) – finally up to the final boss after losing my saved game after an OUYA factory reset !

Mystery Castle (OUYA) – a Sokobanish game with a sense of humour. I can’t really explain why I bought this and kept playing it since it doesn’t feel super innovative or new (say, compared with something like MacGuffin’s Curse, of similar genre), but it’s got that ‘one more level’ thing happening, and is just generally well polished and presented with a well tuned difficulty curve.

House of the Dead Overkill : The Lost Reels (Android) – I love me a good on-rails shooter, and I wanted to see how they handled this franchise on mobile. Turns out, not the obvious way – you might expect a ‘tap zombie to shoot it’ control scheme, but they actually went for a ‘drag crosshair, tap button to shoot’ control scheme. I think it works better than the former option, since you can maintain a challenge without having to spawn a zombie every half second. It’s not terrible as a mobile casual game, although some elements feel a bit ‘cheap’ (like lack of variation in zombie models – when you are already at 100 Mb download, a few more isn’t going to hurt). Fair warning – this is a paid game that also includes in-app purchases and cross-promotional adverts. For a paid-up-front game, the including the option to buy ‘kash’ or whatever to bypass earning upgrades feels sleazy, as does the option to view adverts for virtual currency. The option to buy an extra level (traditional DLC) feels fine since there’s enough in the core game for it’s price (if you get it on sale as I did). There’s an interesting pricing experiment going on here – the Android version on Google Play costs $4.99. The iOS version on the iTunes App Store is now ‘free’, and as far as I can tell includes the same levels that Android users pay up front for. This is contrary to the usual advice that Android users won’t pay up front for games, but iOS users have been carefully trained by Apple to do so, and might.

Zombie Gunship – a great example of a simple game milking visual effects & great audio design to make it more interesting than it might otherwise be.

EMPIRE “Deck building strategy” – a curious mobile strategy game. Here’s my attempt at a whirlwind explanation, glossing over lots of details: Two phases – (1) town building / upgrading, army building and exploration. (2) Battles. For me, the battles are the most interesting part – the pieces in your army start semi-randomly arranged at the start of a grid, the opposing monster army at the opposite side. You have three unit types with different health and attack ranges and patterns – archers, warriors and cavalry. A hand of 6(?) cards drawn randomly from your deck. Cards allow you to do things – like move a single unit one square, or all units of one type up on square, move one an archery behind a calvary unit, or skip moving that turn. All units move forward toward the opposing army each turn. Every time you lose a unit, you get a useless “strife card” in your deck, decreasing the chances that you’ll have a useful card in your hand as the game progresses (unless you can use one of the upgrade mechanisms, like Keep, to discard strife cards) [Update: I just noticed this rule was removed in a recent update. Honestly, not sure if I like that]. I really like the puzzle & problem solving nature of the battles – since you aren’t able to move units freely, usually you are forced to make a best compromise in where you place them in the first few moves before they meet the enemy in the middle of the grid.

Intern Saga : Trademark Lawyer – too hot for iOS .. how could I resist ! Scan a generic mobile ‘app store’ for allegedly trademarking infringing titles and fire off cease and desist letters for you clients. Starts off trivial, where you are essentially just memorising a list of keywords. Quickly becomes brainesploding as you have to remember which ‘genre’ a keyword is associated with (yes, as of just now brainesploding is a word).

XCOM: Enemy Unknown – pick this up again after getting well and truly slaughtered in my first game. I folded and read a few strategy guides around the web. Seems like satellites are uber important, so I’m doing a little better this time, but resource management is deceptively difficult.

A whole pile of Ludum Dare 29 games – there were lots of good ones … and let’s face it, a few that I wish I didn’t have to waste time playing. It’s a game jam after all. In the spirit of community, I play stuff pretty much at random rather than focusing on games from ‘rockstars’ that I know will be decent, and give detailed and hopefully constructive feedback where appropriate. A month or so after the event, a few of the most memorable are: Kinetectonic (@headchant), Our God Lives Underground (Andrew Shouldice), Hot Diggity (DragonXVI) and Ant Simulator 2014 (@ETeeski). I Twitch streamed most of my plays, as my baptism by fire into livestreaming.

Okay … back to work :)

What I’m Playing: August – October, 2013

It’s that time again – where I recap everything I can remember playing over the last few months and try to tease out anything I can learn about game design, or just give a snarky one line review.

Stealth Bastard Deluxe – This is a stunning example of a stealth game and a puzzle platformer done right. It has that ‘just one more level’ addictive quality about it, and I expect I’ll end up playing it to completion over the next few months. Even though I’m pretty heavily investing in Unity3D now, games like this make me want to check out Game Maker Studio (the engine behind it) to see if it confers and serious advantage in making games like this.

X-COM: Enemy Unknown – now I know what all the fuss is about. My biggest gripe is that they wasted so much budget on amazing graphics it doesn’t really need, and just makes it a little sluggish on my aging Windows machine.

Bollywood Wannabe – a fun Bollywood themed rhythm game, which is a bit like Dance Dance Revolution mashed up with a very simple platformer. I’ve only picked it up twice so far, but it’s good for a laugh. I played it on my TV, viewing at a distance, and I don’t think it’s well suited to that – visually, your eye needs to be able to switch between looking at the oncoming beats, and the platformer obstacles you are walking toward, and I think this would be much easier at a close viewing distance like a PC screen or tablet.

qrth-phyl by hermit games – yes, it’s snake in 3D, but that doesn’t do it justice. I love everything hermit games releases, and this is no exception. I’m such a sucker for anything glowy.

3089 – Ph00t’s spiritual sequel to 3079 – another action RPG/FPS. I can’t say I’m as taken by this a 3079, but is has some great looking low poly trees and some interesting weapons (eg, the teleport ball gun thing which I’ve forgotten the proper name for). I’m holding off playing much more until the alpha is finished and the whole thing has gone through more iterations of balancing and polishing.

Star Command – I’m not sure if this was influenced by FTL or not, but it’s hard not to draw a comparison, since in both you manage a starship and it’s crew. FTL is procedurally generated and Star Command appears to be fixed scenarios. FTL tends to keep you on your toes, and Star Command mostly feels like a grind. I also wonder how fans of the simulation genre will like the inclusion of non-optional reflex-based mini games, which if you perform poorly at can extend the time a battle takes to win considerably. The pixel art is wonderful, but the difficulty curve doesn’t ramp up quickly enough for me, so I’m not sure I’ll keep playing unless I want something mindless on public transport to grind through.

Paranautical Activity – Quite liking this tough-as-nails FPS-rogue-like (famous for being rejected from direct publishing on Steam for having a Greenlight page). I find I can only survive more than one or two rooms if I use the grenade launcher character  – not sure if I’m just crap or it’s a balancing issue, but nonetheless I have high hopes for where this is headed in future updates.

Proteus – Whoa ! Mind blown ! Another one of those ‘I wish I’d made that’ games. I’m holding out for the consumer model of the Oculus Rift .. but you know one of the first things I’ll be playing once I get it …

The Walking Deadon Peter Silk’s suggestion, I decided to take the time to play this. I guess I’d been scared off by a few reviews that likened it to one long cut scene … no idea why I listen to some of the crap that popular gaming sites spout sometimes, since that’s a completely inaccurate assessment. There are interesting, emotional decisions to be made in this game, and it does a reasonable job of subtly exposing the internal ‘game model’ of trust relationships between the characters that evolves as you chose to favor the interests of one person over another.

Sonic CD (OUYA) – I bought this because Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Part 1 and 2 felt so bloody terrible to play, and this one has more or a classic Sonic feel.

Sentinel – another interesting take on tower defense, that evokes a bit of Rez-like synesthesia. Also uses a few ideas (pickups to click on) that I might steal for future expansions to Def :)

Rose In Time – I actually got this ages ago, when Sophie Houlden made it for an Indie Buskers event … but to be honest, I didn’t quite get it, and gave up too easily. I then also picked up the OUYA version since it’s a nice way to play it (right before Sophie pulled it from the store. Storm, meet teacup) and gave it a little more time … the penny dropped. It twists my brain in knots, but I love it.

X S.E.E.D (OUYA) – this is quite a unique take on a Metroidvania type game – you drop seeds that pop up different types of flowers – most of which shoot once like little turrets, and one type that forms a protective barrier (or can grab unreachable collectables).

Def – yep, as always, playtesting my own game lots, particularly to refine the gamepad controls on OUYA. It’s not just a shameless plug, it counts as something I’ve actually played !

What I’m Playing (Dec 2012) – in which I end up sort of reviewing Metro 2033

I haven’t done one of these posts in ages, so I thought I should. What have I been playing lately ?

FTL: Faster Than Light

Awesome. Not easy. Great soundtrack. It’s going to take many more hours of play before I learn enough strategies to get good at this game, but I love it. I honestly couldn’t do it justice by trying to give a detailed analysis or review at this stage. Just play it. It’s cheap, and it’s even on Steam for Linux now !

Metro 2033

I paid a stupidly low amount for this as part of the not-so-Humble THQ Bundle, reflecting the real value I placed on it (Windows only, DRM infected, herp derp lets shoot shit games). Continue reading…

5000th pic submitted to GrandMasterPixel !

Yup, another milestone. It has been just over two months since GrandMasterPixel went into beta testing on the Android Market. This week, the 5000th picture was entered into the Arena to battle it out.

Congratulations to “lava floe” by meant2live218 — lucky number 5000 !

lava floe by meant2live218

No prizes, apart from the glory of being randomly featured here :)

This is obviously a topical pic, inspired by Eyjafjallajökull’s recent activity. But did any one else notice ? Volcano-related pics seemed to start mysteriously appearing in GrandMasterPixel long before the world media was banging on about Eyjafjallajökull erupting. Spooky – it’s almost like GrandMasterPixel players can predict the future. Only time will tell :)