Game Streaming

What Game Streaming Means For Indies

Ubisoft co-founder Yves Guillemot recently said in an interview, “I think we will see another [console] generation, but there is a good chance that step-by-step we will see less and less hardware.”

More recently at E3, EA introduced Origin Access Premier, a Netflix-for-games streaming service which gives players access to more than a handful of games for a flat, monthly rate. Even Xbox has already started to play with Game Pass and by the end of the decade, I’m sure more publishers will announce their own services, as well.

What Netflix did to movie theatres and DVD players and what Spotify did to CD players and radio, streaming game services will inevitably do to the PlayStation and Xbox consoles (at this point Nintendo plays by its own rules so let’s move them aside for now).

There’s a very possible future where a smart TV and a game controller will be all anyone needs to load up Square Enix’s probably-coming streaming service and dive straight into Octopath Traveler. But what does this mean for indie games?

Octopath Traveler
Octopath Traveler

In order for this to be successful publishers will need to beef up their library in order to compete with each other and they may find (as Netflix has found with their premium content) AAA games to be too complex to pump out quickly enough.

Indie games could be the solution. Steam already offers an experience in which indie games populate most of their storefront, peppered in with extremely popular AAA titles. It would be easy to see EA mirror this infrastructure and bulk up their EA Originals line to try to curate a better offer for their Origin Access Premier service. This creates tremendous potential in the growth of the indie market.

However, in this console-less transition, indie games might begin to suffer an image problem too. It’s not unreasonable to think indie games will be held to a higher, possibly unfair standard. By removing price tags and putting all games on a level playing field, games like Tunic will be given the same scrutiny from players as Halo Infinite.

Tunic logo
Tunic

When players are paying the same base price for an indie game as they are for an AAA game, will they be okay with the obvious size and graphical disparity? Will gamers be upset if indie games make up the bulk of any prospective streaming? Gamers who already play a wide breadth of games may instantly think this won’t be a problem, but for the gamer who only plays Call of Duty annually, will they be upset that they’re paying for a service that keeps offering them indie games?

Celeste
Celeste

On the flip side, this could be an opportunity for that Call of Duty player to try their hand at smaller stories. There’s no extra work required to boot up Celeste when none of your friends are online and play a few levels in-between shooting matches.

Indie games could see a boom in their audience as they are paired next to games that they would otherwise not be associated. There can be tremendous potential to appeal to audience that wouldn’t otherwise choose to buy the game, but plays it now because they’re handed the experience for free.

The outlook may be bleak for consoles, but the future is uncertain for indie games. There could be tremendous potential to take advantage of future streaming services as long as they hold fast to their quality and create fun experiences.

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The Rise of Independent Voices article

Weekend Thoughts: The Rise of Independent Voices

In the beginning, computers were functional but not intuitive. With invention came innovation and today the world is walking around with personal computers in our pockets.

Technology’s ease of use has lowered the barrier of entry for game developers; it has democratized video game development and given the power to the people.

The Rise of Independent Voices

Software like Game Maker Studio, Unity, and Stencyl have opened the gateways for amateur hobbyists and small indie studios to tell a story and create an experience that, just fifteen years ago, would’ve been restricted to mass-market video game titans.

We are at a time when indie games are at their most prosperous and the call to action is here to begin filling the void of diverse, untold stories. In the 90s we got games with male protagonists or female protagonists with busty tops and wide bottoms. Granted the men were in peak physical form as well.

Today, we still carry this tradition onto a new generation, but also sprinkle in protagonists like Mae, a twenty-year-old cat college dropout, from Night in the Woods and Madeline trying to scale the titular mountain in Celeste.

The innovations in game development have opened the door for these types of representations, which can only be helpful in expanding the longevity of video games and growing the possible market.

Gameplay Ideas

It’s not just representation of characters, either. Indie games have become a breeding ground of new gameplay ideas from fresh perspectives.

The shooter is a genre that is as old (if not older) as the people playing them. It’s gotten faster, it’s added locked-on aiming, it’s added a battle-royale mode, but it hasn’t truly evolved in any monumental way since the second Halo brought playing online to the mainstream.

The Rise of Independent Voices
Superhot

That changed or is in the process of changing, with the help of indie titles leading the charge.

Superhot, a game that blasted onto the scene in 2017, introduced the idea of syncing your own movement with the game’s speed. They added a new perspective to the genre and created new opportunities to interact with FPSs.

Call of Duty slaps a fresh coat of paint onto their engine each year, but Superhot took the shooter genre and created a new way to play and think about killing your enemies.

An Influx Of Indie Game Developers

Indies have redefined characters and gameplay, but the biggest space that has developed from an influx of indie game developers is story. Games like the aforementioned Night in the Woods, Firewatch, and Undertale have tackled political issues and stories that would never dare be addressed in a AAA title.

The Rise of Independent Voices
Undertale

The ease of technology afforded by innovation has opened the market for indie video game developers to contribute their voices to the gaming scene. They have brought with them new characters, gameplay, and stories that can now appeal to a vast number of niche markets that were once thought to be unattainable from the AAA perspective.

Power has been given to quieter voices in the past few years and with Steam and Switch leaning hard into indie games, the roar doesn’t look to be silenced anytime soon.

Nintendo Is Playing The Long Game

There’s a meme that I’ve seen circulating on the Internet that shows the Xbox One console package promoting Microsoft’s exclusive characters. It shows Master Chief (obviously), Lara Croft, Marcus Phoenix, and… ‘car’. This latter figure represents the Forza series, but it’s a bit jarring to see it next to the likes of the others. This image speaks to Microsoft’s biggest problem, but that’s discussed so much that to elaborate more here would be pointless.

mascot.png

Nintendo Is Playing The Long Game

The real lesson to be learned from this meme is not just that consoles need exclusives to differentiate themselves, it’s that gamers get attached to their characters (as opposed to just gameplay) and a strong line-up will benefit the success of the console. Video game companies need characters that players can form an attachment to. PlayStation and Nintendo have cracked this code with Nathan Drake and Mario to name a few respectively. Where Nintendo differs, however, is in their decision to capture a child’s interest and hold their devotion through their adult life. The big N’s youth-targeted strategy ensures the company’s livelihood for decades.

They’ve been smart to create all-ages games. It ensures that almost all kids can play (believe it or not some parents don’t let their children play M-rated games) and form a connection with their characters during the prime nostalgia-building period of their lives. When Super Mario Odyssey came out last fall and sold over 9 million copies by the end of the year, the game wasn’t just purchased by children. While the content of the game was far more “kiddie” than other AAA on the market at the time, it tugged on the nostalgia cord of adults who had formed a connection with the character from their childhood. They were itching to dive back into adventures with Mario.

supermario odyssey.jpg

This year, one of the most anticipated games is Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo Switch. Yeah, the gameplay is fun, but more so it’s entertaining to see your favorite character kick the living [redacted] out of each other. These are characters that you’ve met before and they are characters you can look forward to meeting again (well, maybe not the Ice Climbers). Nintendo built their properties with longevity in mind and isn’t afraid to tug on the nostalgia heartstrings not just to attract their current audience of gamers, but also the audience that has grown up and retains fond memories of playing with these characters.

This is a strategy that is not just proven in games, but probably has been most visibly successful at Disney. They have created a stable of properties that appeal to kids, for example Beauty and the Beast from 1991, and continued to lean into these properties to keep their fans coming back time and time again, whether that’s enticing them to come to Disney World or see the “grittier” live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast from last year. That film made over a billion dollars and that’s not because the story was particularly groundbreaking. It’s because children wanted to see a princess movie and adults wanted to revisit the characters they had grown up with.

beauty-and-the-beast-trailer

The console market is extremely fluid. Just last generation Xbox 360 was the market king in the US and PlayStation was in third place. Even this generation Nintendo saw themselves struggling with the Wii U – one of their big risks that didn’t pay off. Given the tendency for the market leaderboard to fluctuate, it’s smart to focus on creating exclusive characters (not just games) that fans can attach themselves to only on your family of systems. This is, as aforementioned, something Microsoft has always found great difficulty with.

If your console is underpowered as a home console (Switch) or is lacking a huge online community (Xbox One) then you’ll still find an audience by milking nostalgia and using your core gaggle of memorable characters. Create fans when they’re young, keep them forever. That’s smart business – Rodders.

Be More Specific About Video Games

The Devil Is In The Details – Be More Specific About Video Games

When I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed, there’s something about zoning out into Mario Kart’s easy-to-play-hard-to-master, three-button gameplay that relaxes me. It’s not that I’m imagining my coworkers exploding from a blue shell or pretending that a cheating ex is knocked off the Rainbow Road into the empty loneliness of space. For me, the physical act of pressing three buttons on a controller (or handheld, because it’s a new era!) and watching Baby Luigi soar through anti-gravity puts me at ease.

The Devil Is In The Details

At a time when there’s increased scrutiny and negative opinions about video games, in America, we should remind ourselves that there are also benefits to digitally turning off the stresses of the day and that while the medium may have ‘questionable’ material, the industry as a whole should not be punished.

While Mario Kart’s effects on me might be anecdotal, there is tangible evidence to be found in science. In 2009, scientists at East Carolina University took up the challenge of measuring a player’s electroencephalography (basically brain wave) changes while playing casual video games. In their study, 134 participants played a combination of Bookworm Adventures, Bejeweled II, and Peggle as the scientists studied their mental behaviour. Not surprisingly, “the results of this study clearly demonstrate the intrinsic value of certain casual games in terms of significant, positive effects on the moods and anxiety levels of people suffering from any level of depression.”

Be More Specific About Video Games
Be More Specific About Video Games

While these games are tonally far from the cavalcade of gore that the President saw in the now infamous video about violence in video games, his talk about video games has been all-encompassing of the medium. He said: “I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” Full stop. He doesn’t qualify which video games he’s alluding to but refers to the industry as a whole.

While these talks continue and the US grapples with how to approach an increasing amount of violence in communities, it’s important to remember that video games are a medium and, just like any other medium, contain content that is mature and sensitive. To speak about the industry as a whole discounts the positives and I worry, if talks continue to be so non-specific, it could eventually hurt the growth of the industry. No one wants that.

This fear isn’t unfounded though. With almost poetic symmetry, comic books encountered a similar scare in the mid-50s. At the height of comics like The Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt, the US Senate began looking into how the content of these books affected their audience. What arose was the Comic Code Authority (think the ESRB for video games). They released a set of guidelines that a comic must follow in order to have their approval, among them rules like “no comic shall use the word ‘horror’” and “scenes dealing with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.”

Be More Specific About Video Games
Be More Specific About Video Games

They weren’t tactful with their rules, but instead targeted broad categories of violence and supernatural with an almost careless approach. In fact, the rule was so broad that the CCA discussed whether it was okay for an author with the last name “Wolfman” to be mentioned within the pages of the book. Yes, really.

Imagine if similar broad rules were put in place today in the video game industry. GTA would be the first to be banned, Activision’s biggest title could be Skylanders, and even Lego Harry Potter would cease to exist.

Ok, while this is a hyperbolic picture of the future, it’s a warning that if discussion about video games becomes more about the fear of the medium itself, the industry may face more victims than just the ultra-violent games. It’s always important to stress the positives and remember the benefits, on the other hand, we need to shine a light on questionable content while discussing censorship. So, we need balance, common sense and specificity.

Assault Gunners HD Edition Review

Assault Gunners HD Edition Review [PS4] – Even Mech Suits Can’t Save It

Perhaps hoping to piggyback off the promotion of Pacific Rim: Uprising, Marvelous Games brings their PSP, Japanese exclusive game about mech suits to the PS4 and PC with middling results. A lack of captivating gameplay, setting, or story stifles any chance of elevating this interesting concept above a sub-standard shooter.

Assault Gunners HD Edition Review PS4

If it wasn’t already clear from the early 2000s’ graphics, just starting this game immediately signals it’s a port from a previous generation (in this case a handheld) – the menus are navigated with the D-pad. Though scrolling through menus becomes more tedious this way, the variety of menu and customization options is worth it if you’re determined to play the game. Before starting one of the 20 main levels (or additional two DLC packs), the game lets you select a difficulty, set friendly fire, and modify your supporter settings.

Assault Gunners HD Edition Review
Assault Gunners HD Edition Review

In addition, the game allows you to personalize your units and manage your troops. Even seeing this pared-down version of an RPG-system is a welcome addition and a benefit to the game as a whole. However, this feature only became apparent to me after seeking it out and was not explained in-game, which would’ve been nice since the end of each stage listed various bonuses and supplies you collected from the level.

Though some may argue that video games have become too easy and straightforward, this lack of communication is frustrating (and it doesn’t help that all of the voice acting is in Japanese) and a flaw across many of the game’s aspects. There is clearly love, or at the very least effort, put into the story but the narrative never finds a compelling way to explain itself. Beyond slapping quick scrolling text (a la Star Wars) before every mission, there is little else directing the players’ motives. Who are these people? Why should we care? It seems the developer thought about those questions but buried them deep within the aforementioned menus to never be found unless the player is digging for them.

Assault Gunners HD Edition Review
Assault Gunners HD Edition Review

In addition, I often found it hard to determine whether my bullets or missiles were hitting their projected targets. If the attack struck (and the combatant was weak enough) the enemy would poof off the screen. For enemies that couldn’t be one-shotted, they merely absorbed the attack until, like the others, they just disappeared. I didn’t feel as if I was learning. I was just shooting until I cleared the stage. It wasn’t until the timer threatened to countdown and flunk me that I found any bit of fun, challenge, or variety of play. Those moments, however, were too scarce and most of the time I felt as if I was just mashing buttons and walking around the various arenas with no clear objective.

Assault Gunners HD Edition Review
Assault Gunners HD Edition Review

Button mashing can be fun, but the game has to have more diverse environments to explore or ambience to set the mood. It didn’t help that as you marched your mech suits across the mostly flat stages, the music was bland and consistently played a similar tune. At times it was disjointed with the action; other times it faded into the background. It wasn’t fully a failure, but not even close to a success.

Pixel Art

Why Is Pixel Art Still Around?

My obsession with video games came at a later stage of my youth than most; I was a late bloomer. Growing up in the 90s, I dabbled in Crash Bandicoot and earned all the gym badges in Pokémon Red (FWIW: Charmander is and will always be the best starter), but that was the extent of my gaming experience. No one played Doom or Wolfenstein in my neighbourhood, Mega Man was barely in my periphery, and abandon any hope for seven-year-old me trying to figure out which Final Fantasy to start with.

Why Is Pixel Art Still Around?

It wasn’t until the late 2000s (a less embarrassed me would claim the early 2010s) that I finally sunk my teeth into gaming. That’s all to say, I pretty much cruised past the first pixel art era – a time when pixel art wasn’t an aesthetic choice, but a hardware limitation. However, as someone who’s invested more than a handful of hours into Stardew Valley and watching Let’s Plays of Celeste and Hyper Light Drifter, I sought to understand why pixel art has resurged in a new era – an era in which popular indie games insist on returning to this stylistic well.

Link - SNES.png
Screenshot from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, originally released on the Super NES.

In the article “Pixel art games aren’t retro, they’re the future,” published by The Verge in 2014, author Sam Byford spoke with game designer Jason Rohrer. Rohrer claimed that he saw pixel art as “a digitally native [form of] cartooning.” His argument here is that pixel art is intrinsic to computers. Even though the technology has evolved towards high definition, the idea of breaking art into blocky pixels is something that transcends innovation. It’s a basic understanding of how computers display 2D images. To an entire generation of (older) gamers, pixel art is the simple, underlying language of the computer. The reason it has had such a lasting presence is partly a bid towards nostalgia, but more so because pixel art is a two-dimension expression of digital minimalism. It is, at its core, simplistic.

Compare an image of Lara Croft from the original PlayStation Tomb Raider to an image of Link from the SNES. The latter has aged well, while the former looks dated and low-tech. Tomb Raider’s low-poly aesthetic strived to push the technology towards complicated realism and landed too far away from the finish line to not be judged by time. In seeking to create the next-best thing, Tomb Raider moved away from graphical minimalism for flashy, groundbreaking effects. They didn’t embrace the jagged edges that they were limited to and, instead, attempted to mix curves and exaggerated body structures to hit a point of realism that they couldn’t achieve. Over the years, the low-poly aesthetic disappeared by way of graphical evolution but re-emerged after taking note from pixel art. Superhot, Minecraft, and Grow Home are just a handful of modern day examples.

Tomb Raider - PS1
Screenshot from Tomb Raider, originally released on the Sega Saturn, PlayStation, and MS-DOS.

As oxymoronic as it is to say, the resurgence of dated low-poly art and the longevity of pixel art lie in the ability to evolve with the technology. Designers of today who wish to re-connect with old gaming trends continue to refine the aesthetic and improve upon the capabilities of the original consoles. They take advantage of colors, expressions, and angles that were foreign to those classic machines.

In a blog post published on Gamasutra, Shovel Knight developer David D’Angelo talks about how their intention was to evoke the feeling of older games while simultaneously “breaking” the limits of the NES. They wouldn’t box themselves into old specs. He mentions the integration of parallax scrolling, an expanded color palette, and particle effects among other ways they improved the game’s pixel art aesthetic compared to its original era counterparts. While the style may originate from the 16-bit era, it owes its lastingness to its adaptability.

Ultimately, gamers are ageing into game designers who are seeking connection with their youth. They are embracing the technological shortcomings of the past and re-appropriating these aesthetics to become timeless art styles by paring them down to their most minimal, simplistic expression.

Yes, Mobile Gamers Are ‘Real’ Gamers

In South Park and The Simpsons we’re shown as internet trolls, in Future Man we’re a lowly janitor still living with our parents, and in The Big Bang Theory, we’re a group of gangly and awkward nerds with social anxiety. The stereotype of a “gamer” is not one that is often shown with tact. Often these characters are reduced to a trope that is tired, lazy, and incredibly inaccurate. It would be easy to blame these portrayals on the “others” who don’t play games, but the problem is only exacerbated by the sense of ego and console class wars that the gaming community has seemed to foster.

If you scroll through the comments section of any big gaming site you’ll notice there’s often a litany of rallying cries around the “PC Master Race,” or the declarations of the death of the “Xbone” or the idiotic ineptitude of both “Nintendo and Sony fanboys.” As a community, we have created a toxic class system in which one console, or more broadly speaking one medium, has power and a status above another. For example, there is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the idea that PC gamers are ‘superior’ to their home console counterparts. The PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch are subservient. Do PC games look and run better? Yes, if you have the right set-up they generally always will, (the technology advances at a quicker rate). Does that, therefore, make a PC gamer better than everyone else? Of course it doesn’t. Even within the said latter console communities, there is a further hierarchical debate considering power, portability, and exclusives.

It’s this very immaturity that propagates the gaming industry into not being taken as seriously as it should be. This ‘class’ system has done more than just fueled poisonous debates about which console or platform is the ‘best’; it has also stunted the very definition of a “gamer” and is a key reason why the industry as a whole is still looked down on when compared to films, books and TV. It has created a rubric for what constitutes a “good” game and has set in place a structure for how serious or dedicated a gamer is based on their choice of system.

Yes, Mobile Gamers Are 'Real' Gamers

Under these guidelines, it would be a stretch to consider anyone who plays three hours of Candy Crush Saga a day on their phone a “gamer”. A game on a device that is graphically substandard and comparatively low-powered. And yet the gamer is sinking the same amount of time in as someone who is playing a game purchased on Steam. Obviously, comparing the capabilities of a PC and the gaming abilities of an iPhone is a fool’s errand, but does that mean we should discount someone who chooses this type of user experience? That should be celebrated, or at the very least tolerated, but is instead often crucified by a community that is seeking to organize their players by superficial graphics and frame rates.

With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild winning Game of the Year at the D.I.C.E. Awards, we have definitely made an effort to discount the power of the console – the Wii U and Switch stand nowhere near the other platforms when it comes to frame rate or graphics. Let’s extend this trend to mobile gaming and acknowledge that people who seek enjoyment from a mobile device are putting their knowledge of power behind them and simply embracing the game experience. If they devote ungodly amounts of time to Alto’s Adventure on the iPhone, they are no less a “gamer” than someone who spends an equal amount of time playing Overwatch.

In a 2015 study by the Entertainment Software Association, they reported that four out of five homes owned a device to play games on. Further, 42% of Americans played video games regularly. This is not a community that is devoted to one system, but a population that is spread out over many different gaming experiences. I’ve personally played games on every format imaginable: a “gamer” is a “gamer” if they’re dedicated to playing games. Like a “reader” of books is a “reader”, regardless of the length of the book.

We should celebrate our wide range of mediums if only so our portrayal in the mainstream is not so inaccurate and narrow. We should put the console/system ‘war’ (the silliest war I’ve ever heard of) behind us and admit that wherever, whatever platform we choose, we’re all just gamers trying to navigate an increasingly harsh reality.