The many woes of GAME

•February 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

My Twitter feed has been full of stories about UK retail chain GAME and its recent financial troubles. The biggest story I’ve seen tweeted this morning was regarding EA titles and Mass Effect 3 both being pulled from pre-orders and sales (after the release of SSX on Friday).

The memo that got sent out to GAME and Gamestation staff this morning makes it clearer as to why this decision has been taken. It’s a huge blow (obviously), especially as Mass Effect 3 is likely to have brought in a huge revenue for the company. But obviously, if they’re unable to get the stock with their failing credit status, then it looks like things are only going to get rockier for the group.

They’ve already had to pull the GamePlay website and took another hard decision regarding PSVita titles from Ubisoft. Eurogamer provide an interesting insight into what could happen if the company does go under. The GAME group are far from out of the woods yet; and I have to say, at the moment it’s not looking good. The EA decision affects titles like FIFA Street and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13, and may go on beyond March and could affect future releases such as The Secret World.

It’s one I’ll be keeping a close eye on.

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All Jammed Out

•January 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

We’ve still got about 10 minutes til tools-down, but we’re pretty much done with our game for Global Game Jam 2012. When I’m more awake (6 hours sleep since 5.30am on Friday) and can be bothered to find the renders, I may share some stills of our level and the beautiful airship I textured. I’m not a UVW mapper or texturer (I was pretty rubbish at them during my uni days) but I have to say I’m proud of what I’ve achieved this weekend.

Can I steal a nap before presentations? Maybe…

We’re Jammin’ (Again)

•January 28, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Yes, it’s that time of year again. I’m back in the games lab at Uni working on a game for Global Game Jam. Yes yes, I thought I’d escaped after all these years, but Game Jam has brought me back.

I’ve already been UVW mapping (first time since 2009) and making texture maps (first time since… well, last Game Jam actually), and later I will take on my accepted role as Sound Effects Lady.

For now, have some links to the Staffordshire Games Academy group that are Jamming this year!

Our Tumblr: http://staffsgamesacademy.tumblr.com/post/16606681623/global-games-jam-2012-a-set-on-flickr-photos-from

Our UStream channels (E6 is the main Games lab, F5 is the other big room we’re using): http://staffsgamesacademy.tumblr.com/post/16590747695/staggj12-http-www-ustream-tv-staffsgamestech

And finally, our Global Game Jam page
http://globalgamejam.org/sites/2012/staffordshire-university-games-academy

Can’t post more for now, Hawaii haven’t started yet…

Afternoon Experiment #1 – Fantasy Characters

•January 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I was bored at work on Thursday (not a rare occurrence these days), and randomly thought back to my Masters thesis on the psychology of character creation. I had loads of ideas of how to take my study further- but I was lucky enough to get a job straight after graduating, so had little time to work on things.

But at that point I had Facebook at my disposal and a friends list full of people who were likely to respond to a simple question. Thursday’s question was:

You are starting an RPG game and are given the choice of Human, Elf, Minotaur, Demonborn and Demi-angel. Which would you be LEAST LIKELY to pick and why?

7 hours later, I had close to 40 responses- and they’ve made for interesting reading. Minotaur was the runaway winner (or loser, maybe) with many answers alluding to their stereotypically ‘brutish’ strength and hands-on melee approach to dealing with enemies. Human gained the second highest number of votes, which wasn’t unexpected; my thesis found that people admit to playing games as a form of escapism from real life, so wanting to play as a race other than your own is a good place to start.

But it wasn’t just the numbers that were interesting to me. It was the reasons people gave, and some of the unspoken stereotypes that they used in support of their answers. Many people who made Minotaur their least likely choice referred to their animal-like qualities and the strength aspect that harks back to mythology. I get the feeling that the cow-like Tauren from World of Warcraft may have been an influence on some respondents, as it leans heavily towards endurance and strength and is typically chosen for a tanking role (although my brief affair with playing a Tauren proved they were decent healers too). A number of people said they preferred playing as a humanoid character, so the more animal-like minotaurs were not to their taste.

I purposefully put in two races that are not seen in many RPG games to see if anyone would go for them and why. Demonborn and demi-Angel are intended to be the embodiment of the traditional ‘good and evil’ stereotypes, and also pull on the same sort of mythology as elves and minotaurs would. Demi-Angel gained a number of responses- but only because it is an unheard of choice that many people were unsure about. Everyone has heard of elves, dwarves, minotaurs, humans, demons- but offer someone a ‘demi-angel’ (essentially an angel/human hybrid) and they have no frame of reference and experience to go with it. Perhaps if presented with a set of statistics, typical characteristics or a racial background, there may have been more people willing to take on the demi-angel as a possible option.

I was glad to have a varied age range of respondents- my oldest (but not by much!) respondent named the minotaur and demonborn as her least favourite choices, as she ‘doesn’t like being on the side of the baddies’. I read this and could immediately see why- especially as she is a mother of three very well behaved and ‘properly brought up’ young children. You try and ward your children away from the ‘baddies’ of the world, and it seems she does so to her characters in the games she plays too.

Many thanks to everyone who responded and gave feedback- I hope to do some more of these quick little experiments in the future.

Seeing, Hearing and Doing – Why it’s important to think about learning styles

•January 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

We were made to take a test about it at secondary school, and I was taught about its importance when I learnt teaching skills- there are three typical learning styles. Almost everyone (there are always exceptions) falls primarily into one of the following groups- Visual, Audio or Kinaesthetic. Each group acquires data and learns better using related methods- through music or pictures or through repeating a physical task.

I learnt a lot of teaching fundamentals from my mom, who is a college tutor and had been forced to sit through countless development sessions on how to ‘differentiate’ her lessons to accommodate different learning abilities and styles. And, during a particularly slow day at work this week, I realised that the same awareness of differentiation can be just as important to the game conceptualisation process as it to the classroom.

Games immediately lend themselves to Audio or Visual learners; they are moving media complete with music, voices and sound effects. Kinaesthetic learners…it’s not so obvious, but they may appreciate games that they can do in short sessions to keep their attention (and enthusiasm for the game) high.

So, games that are split into sections where the player can choose to stop if they want might keep Kinaesthetics happy. Regular or semi-regular checkpoints work well (FPS games lend themselves to this), as do games that allow players to manually save whenever they like (very very useful for handheld systems where the player may suddenly realise they need to get off the bus). Using bright colours to highlight important items is a great help to Kinaesthetics, and a mechanic often used in game tutorials to give players and extra helping hand. Games that use it a lot (*coughcough*Resi5*coughcough*) can make the player feel a bit spoonfed after a while, but different ability levels may appreciate this feature being there.

Taking care of Visual learners may seem straightforward, but it still needs careful consideration. They may be able to spot hints and clues from their environmental surrounds, and are likely to make tactical decisions based on things they see. “Hmm, there’s an ammunition refill and a health pack near that door. I reckon enemies are behind it” or “That bookcase is better lit than the other three, I bet the hidden door is behind that one”; both real-world examples that some players have picked up on and other players have completely missed. Woe betide any sub-standard textures or graphical glitches, the Visual learners will spot these in a shot and may not be forgiving.

One guy I used to play Left4Dead with was quickly made leader of our little group due to his amazing auditory skills. As soon as any of the music stings for the Special Infected were triggered, he’d have heard it, interpreted it and warned the rest of us. That was despite us wielding chainsaws and shooting endless rounds out of various heavy guns. It was very rare for us to be taken by surprise by a Smoker or a Jockey thanks to our friendly Audio learner. They are good at picking up on special music cues and telling sound effects, and are more likely to know they are being followed from the faint sound of footsteps than a dot on a radar map. They’ll make good use of voice chat capabilities with their teammates. Remember Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and its option to let you yell “Objection!” into the DS microphone? I’m primarily and Audio learner, and I used that option whenever I was playing in the safety of my own home.

Difficulty curves and changeable difficulty settings are great for players of differing abilities, and are more or less standard in most games. Maybe a little forethought about learning styles could help make a good game concept great?

Gaming for Work – 5 things they might not tell you at Uni…

•October 14, 2011 • 5 Comments

A lack of blog posts is due to my new(ish) job – as a games tester for a well-known UK games company. The project we’re working on is scarily close to release so we’ve had 12 hour shifts, a huge load of test cases to work through plus making sure the game meets all the legal and ethical requirements (as well as the publisher’s requirements).

Obviously, I can’t say much about my job due to NDAs. But what I can do is comment a little on things I’ve experienced during my time here that I didn’t expect or wasn’t made aware of while I was studying Games Design at university.

1 – Making a game is a long long process. A long. Long. LONG. Process.
Sounds like I’m stating the obvious? Maybe I am. But making a game isn’t just about concepting it, pitching it, making it, selling it. Once a game passes certification, it is considered ready for release. But no build at this stage will be perfect; there will always be things that need tweaking or editing or just plain fixing. The work continues, and is often the more detailed and fiddly little jobs that are time consuming and downright frustrating. These all then need to be tested before they can be release as a title update (the things your console tells you it needs from time to time when you go to boot the game- they’re the little changes that have been made to the game assets to make the game better. We hope.)
That is, of course, if it passes certification. If it doesn’t, then fixes need to be made within a certain time frame to comply with regulations. Thankfully we didn’t experience that, but I can imagine all hell breaking loose in that scenario.

And then of course, there is Downloadable Content (or DLC). That’s another long process in itself.

2 – Even little changes can make a big problem
I work as a tester, so I get to see the game in all sorts of states that the final consumers never get to see. This is a very good thing- especially when you consider the amount of variable and intertwining controls there are in the background to any game. For everything you use/move/click on in a game, there are several/many/hundreds of elements affected. For developers, that means making small edits at a time to make sure one doesn’t mess up a whole load of the game.

Never has correct code been so vital as when a misplaced bracket or semi-colon can bring an entire game crashing to the ground as soon as it loads.

3 – Stuff that isn’t there isn’t always more of a problem than stuff that is
Games have thousands of elements- from the artwork and props you see on screen to the various sound effects and functionality points that you barely notice. Getting those thousands of elements in the right place and doing the right things at the right times is a nightmare; adding a new asset in adds a whole new range of variables to the situation that need to work with everything else that’s going on. It’s complicated, and hats off to the engineers and programmers and designers that make it happen.

However. When something that was previously working suddenly decides to stop, that is where the bigger problems lie. Often, that asset itself hasn’t changed- it’s something else that has been added in or taken away that somehow affects this little piece. Trying to narrow it down can be like finding a needle in a haystack, and can take lots of people a lot of time (I speak from experience here).
Simpler may not be pretty, but it can make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier.

4 – Overtime is to be expected, but not feared
Crunch time – this new build is needed and needed by the end of the week, fully tested and working. Today is Wednesday, and the build was dropped into the testing room just after lunch. There will be problems and they have to be reported, fixed and retested by Friday night.

Cue overtime. I’d been in the job two weeks and was told “We’re going on to overtime”. No problem! A few days of longer shifts was great. The week after, we were working 7 days a week- 12.5 hour shifts on weekdays and 8 hour shifts on weekend days. 76 hour weeks can be great for your bank balance, but not so much for your health and mental state. My longest stint was 16 days straight- one of the guys did about 26 days straight. It hurts, but if you can deal with it without it hurting you too much then it can be worth it.

5 – Don’t expect too much
Working on a game means looking at the same thing day in, day out, for months on end. Those with a short attention span might struggle. If, like me, you’re starting at the bottom and hoping to climb up, be warned- that’s a special case rather than the norm. The skills you learn are invaluable; but unless you use your non-work time as productively as your working time, there isn’t likely to be a shiny ladder for you to climb to the dizzying heights of game creator. You WILL get frustrated and tired and angry, and you WILL hate the game you work on after a period of time. It’s always great to see your name in the credits- but it seems that seeing the game on the shelves after so long of seeing it in various forms of disarray is not likely to cause you to dig our your wallet and buy the thing.

Hopefully this won’t have put people off wanting to get into the games industry; if you’re studying on a games-related course, you’re likely to be told (or know already) that it’s not an easy industry to get into at the level most people want to work at. It’s an ever-changing field with last-minute problems and changes meaning you can find yourself suddenly off work for a week or two, then back in full-time and with overtime looming for the couple of weeks after that.

It’s a challenging field to break into, stay in and keep up with. But for me (so far at least), it is worth it. If you’ve got the passion and the drive and the desire, you’re part way there already.

On Location: GAMEFest 2011

•October 12, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Games are big business worldwide, and this time of year heralds some of the big consumer shows of the games industry calendar. With PAX come and gone and the Tokyo Game Show too far away, UK gamers had Eurogamer Expo in London to look forward to as their chance to get hands-on with some of the big upcoming releases for the next year.

But for those of us (like myself) who don’t have the time or money to travel to London for Eurogamer, there is GAMEFest. Located in Birmingham and with tickets just as cheap as Eurogamer (£10 each, a bargain), there is only one catch- you have to have a GAME Reward Card to buy tickets.

(For non-UK readers, GAME is one of the market leaders in games sales. They are part of the same company as other major player Gamestation, but still like to keep separate identities as much as possible)

If you’re reading this and think ‘Sounds good!’, then you’re too late for this year’s show. I headed down to the show on its opening day to see what it had to offer; and I was far from disappointed.

The ‘Big Three’
Of course they were there- Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3 and Gears of War 3. And, as you might expect, there were at least hour-long queues for all of them. The most hotly anticipated games of the year drew mass attention, but there was still plenty else to take in.

Prototype 2
It’s been 2 years since Radical Entertainment introduced us to Alex Mercer and his Blacklight virus-fuelled shapeshifting abilities; and next April, Mercer has a new contender to deal with in the shape of Sgt. James Heller.

The game is still in pre-alpha stages, but that didn’t make the footage we were shown any less impressive. Radical have wisely kept in the elements of the first game that players enjoyed, but have improved them thanks to overhauls in their game engine. Combat and movement are both fluid and soul-warmingly destructive. Who doesn’t want to rip the gun turret off a tank and use it to smash the rest of the vehicle into the ground?

As you might expect, improvements have been made- you can now ‘equip’ two powers and switch between them with ease. Like Mercer, Heller can consume his enemies in order to take on their forms and memories- but now he needs to make sure they’re not being watched too closely or his attempts could be thwarted by nearby Blackwatch soldiers.

The open-world environment is now a lot more open, and even in pre-alpha it looked nothing short of brilliant. Heller can choose his own missions as he moves around the city, and can hack into Blacknet in order to find missions that will help him to his ultimate goal- destroying Alex Mercer.

With a release date set of April 24th 2012, this is definitely one to keep your eye on.

Saints Row: The Third
The only information and footage I had seen of this game came courtesy of an article on IGN. After reading that, more investigate into the truly bizarre nature of the latest game from Volition, Inc. was needed.
The game is everything IGN said and more. The same sandbox-style environment is there, there are still plenty of vehicles to steal and citizens to beat up- but there is a more than slight emphasis on the more….out there ways of setting a name for yourself in the city of Steelport.

For a start, there is now an Awesome Button (No joke- Volition have actually named it that). It acts as a way to turn normal actions into ones that are more…well, awesome. Want to steal that sweet truck that’s heading down the highway? You can still just run up to it and throw the hapless driver out of his seat before taking off. But why do that when, by pressing the Awesome button first, you can take a flying jump through the truck’s windscreen and aerial kick the guy out of the way.

The player, once again taking the role as leader of the Third Street Saints, is now given choices on how they want to end certain missions- total destruction of the enemy’s hidden cache, or the appropriation of these certain ‘resources’ to improve the morale of the Saints back at base?

There is still the array of weaponry to choose from; fists, handguns, automatic guns etc. But how about calling down an airstrike to get the cops off your tail? And what about a car that sucks up pedestrians you’ve run down- complete with a cannon that you can fire the hapless civilians back out of should you wish to cause a little more wanton destruction.

You can get your hands on a copy of this madcap game in two months time- so dust off your fur coats and spats…

The 3D revolution
Nintendo’s 3DS had a big stand to itself and showed off no less than 6 3D games that covered a good range of genres. I had a short hands-on with Mario Kart 7 and Kid Icarus: Uprising – unsurprisingly, the stand was attracting a lot of attention from all ages.

Mario Kart 7 has changed little from its previous incarnations- but if the IP’s not broken, why fix it! Mario Kart has been popular for years for its simplicity and bright gameplay, and the transition to 3D has just made it more visually interesting. It was great fun to have Yoshi tearing round a track, laying down banana skins as traps and zooming over every boost pad going- and an interesting sight to watch a handglider unfurl from the top of his kart and help him float through a ring of coins before landing back on the track. Add in extra kart customisation, and I think Nintendo have done well in keeping the series alive and kicking.

Kid Icarus: Uprising comes 19 years after the last Kid Icarus game- and appears to have been transferred fantastically to 3D. Playing much like a Zelda title, the player controls Pit in order to defeat Medusa. Armed with an impressive array of weapons (and of course the ability to fly), the game plays smoothly and is easy to pick up and get on with. The multiplayer modes were unavailable, but with options for both 6-player Deathmatch or Free-For-All play, this should round the game off nicely and keep it in the 3DS slot for a while.

The Dance Sensation
Dance games are big across all platforms; Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft all had their latest dance games on show at GAMEFest. As I’m not afraid to strut my stuff on the dance floor in public, I took to the stage for both Dance Central 2 and Just Dance 3.

Dance Central 2 has got everything the first installment missed- 2 player cooperative and competitive modes, voice interaction (thanks to an update in Kinect functionality) and even a campaign mode. 40 new songs have been added to the line-up, covering every decade from the 60’s up to now. And in much the same way as the Rock Band series, players will be able to import the tracks from Dance Central for use in Dance Central 2.
I had a go of Daft Punk’s ‘Technologic’ and geeky classic ‘Dragostea Din Tei’ by O-Zone – the Kinect has definitely been given a boost to its tracking sensitivity, as the more fluid dance moves in both songs were translated almost flawlessly into the game.

Just Dance 3 has one huge difference to its predecessors- it is multi-platform. I was initially confused as to why I couldn’t see a single Wiimote on any of the spandex-clad dancers on Ubisoft’s stage- until I spied a Kinect poking out from a stand. With support for all three consoles, everyone will be able to dance along to classics by Britney Spears, ABBA and the Scissor Sisters (amongst others).
Like it’s rival, Just Dance 3 has a multiplayer mode (4 players instead of 2), and the Kinect version comes with a mode called “Just Create”, allowing players to do just that- create their own dance routines that they can save and share with friends to play like any of the other routines. The Wii version has “Flash Mob” mode that allows 8 Wiimotes to be shared between players for a mass rotuine, and both the Wii and PlayStation Move versions have “Smart Shuffle” and “Dance Mashup” modes- the first is a challenge and unlocking mode, the second smashes two different dance styles together into one.

A favourite with girls and their mums, there is plenty to keep the family entertained (well, laughing at least) over the festive season. Both titles are released in North America on October 7th, with Dance Central 2‘s European release coming 4 days later.

Hedgehogs vs Plumbers
Sega had both Mario & Sonic at the London 2012 Olympic Games and Sonic Generations on offer, handily covering every platform and age group. The latest sporty outing for the Sega big names was surprisingly interesting, especially in it’s 3DS incarnation; in the space of one demo game, it utilised the gyros, touchscreen and thumbstick elements for different sports. I wouldn’t be surprised if it required you to puff into the microphone at some point too- they’ve taken on board every function of the newest handheld system and made it work sensibly with the various Olympic sports.

Sonic Generations lived up to the previews- being able to play the same level in classic 2D or modern 3D satisfies Sonic fans both old and young, with the 2D levels playing almost exactly as I remember from the Mega Drive days. Classic stages are reborn for this 20th anniversary of the original Sonic game.

The best of the rest
With over 80 games on show, there simply wasn’t enough time to enjoy them all. Finally, here are my top 5 games of GAMEFest 2011 that there just isn’t time to write about:

Batman: Arkham City – Beautifully dark and with an absolutely massive environment, being the caped crusader has never been so swift and sleek.
Driver San Francisco – Amazingly responsive gameplay and stunning cutscenes, this game is definitely worth a second look.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – As graphically stunning as we’ve come to expect, with the fluid gameplay to go along with it.
Disney Universe – Not just for kids! Bright and colourful and great for multiplayer, if you liked LittleBigPlanet then this is one for you.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Future Soldier – A great-looking shooter that requires teamwork and quick thinking- as well as some great tech you can use to your advantage.