Monday, December 15, 2008

On The Radar: Week of 12/15

Unfortunately, it is likely that until the new year the only new posts that will go up here at Punchy Title will be On The Radar entries. The holiday season is closing in and family obligations take priority. At any rate, come back here each Monday to get some insight into the last minute holiday releases.

Everything Old is New Again - Aquaria - PC (Steam) $19.99 ($15.99 before 12/31)

Aquaria is a great little indie game that you probably didn't notice when it came out a little over a year ago. This 2D side-scrolling adventure game is chock full of content. The Steam release this week includes SteamWorks integration. That means achievements and all the benefits that come with a Steam-enabled game.

With features like a cooking system that allows you to create useful potions to some of the most beautiful sprites in recent memory, Aquaria is really worth the investment.

Be Sure to Check Out - Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People Episode 5: 8-Bit Is Enough - Wii 1000 Points/ PC $8.99

This series, developed by Telltale Games (of Sam and Max Season 1 & 2 fame), is surprisingly engaging even for non-fans of Homestar Runner. Each game so far has had an entertaining storyline and successful dialogue. Many gameplay elements such as the map system and objective structure are customized to the particular gimmick of each Episode.

The result is that each episode maintains a good combination of familiarity and novelty. Let's hope that the fifth episode continues down the same path. My one caution would be that if you haven't been through the first four episodes then it might be wise to wait for the inevitable multi-episode discount right around the corner. Do I smell a Steam release on PC or a DVD release on Wii?

I Can Make No Suggestion in Good Faith - Final Fantasy Versus XIII - PS3 $59.99

Does anyone know anything about this game? So far the layperson has had the opportunity to see two CG game trailers that contains absolutely no gameplay footage. I think most people agree that this is probably an action RPG. Is that all we know?

This release totally perplexes me. Avoid it until someone can figure out what on earth is going on. Is this a good way to market a brand new Final Fantasy game?

Monday, December 8, 2008

On The Radar: Week of 12/8

On The Radar is Punchy Title's weekly column offering commentary about a selection of new releases hitting stores during the week. For better or for worse, you should know about what is competing for your gaming dollar.

What You Must Play - Persona 4 (PS2) - MSRP: $39.99

Persona 4 is hot off the heels of the 2007 release of Persona 3 and the 2008 (re)release of Persona 3:FES. Fret not, though. Early adopters of Persona 4 will probably not be burned by an enhanced rerelease early next year.

Persona 4 will inevitably be compared to Persona 3. One reason is that its visuals are stylistically similar, though, Persona 4 is set in a strikingly different locale than Persona 3. While Persona 3 took place in an urban environment where gamers revisited one central tower during the dungeon crawling portions, Persona 4 transports gamers to a small town where a local mystery is unfolding. More similar to the Shin Megami Tensei series, dungeons in Persona 4 should prove to be more diverse than Persona 3. Early previews and reviews suggest that the relatively collected and non-chalant cast of Persona 3 is strikingly different than the down-to-earth and intimate characters of Persona 4.

If you like jRPGs, it is likely that this "last-gen" game will cement the standard for many RPGs during this generation.

If You Are a Fan of the Series - Meteos Wars (XBLA) - $10 (800 MS Points)

Meteos debuted on the Nintendo DS back in June 2005. It was an incredibly strong puzzle game that managed to reduce stereotypically long puzzling sessions down to a frantic and energetic ten minutes. It was a refreshing change that was innovative and well-suited for portable play.

Over three years later (and after a puzzling spin-off, Disney Meteos), Meteos returns with Meteos Wars on Xbox Live Arcade. It boasts online multiplayer for two people, 720p resolution and the ability to customize your alien avatar. While the addition of online multiplayer is significiant, it remains to be seen if any of the game modes have received similar updates. Regardless, you should enjoy this title if you have felt the itch to launch large quantities of bricks into space since you quit the business in 2005.

If You Want to Be Surprised - Neopets Puzzle Adventure (Wii or DS) - $39.99 and $29.99

Quick, Joel! You have one more sentence to get their attention. Neopets Puzzle Adventure is the fantastic game Puzzle Quest wrapped in Neopets. Did that work?

If you seriously enjoyed Puzzle Quest in any of its incarnations, then I can wholeheartedly recommend Neopets Puzzle Adventure. Be aware, though, that the underlying mechanic this time around is based around Othello and not Bejeweled. That shouldn't stop it from being your next dangerous addiction. Gamespot has a good preview up if you are interested in learning more.

That is all this week for On The Radar. Check back tomorrow for a new article and next week for a new On The Radar. Please leave any comments you have about posts below.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

On the Twelfth Day of the Christmas My Publisher Gave to Me

Twelve Gears of War, Eleven Halo 3s, Ten Fable IIs, Nine Games a Failin', Eight 'Motes a Waggin', Seven Special Editions, Six Movie Licenses, Five Xbox Live Gold-en Games, Four DS Remakes, Three Console Upgrades, Two Turtle Doves and A Great Game That Will Never Be Played.

The holiday shopping season officially started last Friday. In this post, I want to take a look at the release calendar over the past few months and ponder the consequences for publishers and gamers of stockpiling major releases for the last three months each year. In the end, this model is detrimental for publishers and gamers alike.

The compulsion to release big budget titles near the holiday season is understandable. The amount of money to be made is ludicrous. But competing in such a saturated market is impossible for many titles. Take a look at a few of the major releases of the past few months. In September, the following big games were released: Infinite Undiscovery, Viva Pinata, Spore and Rock Band 2. In the two weeks following Rock Band 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, Crysis: Warhead and Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway were released. It only gets worse as you approach December.

Let's look at the last two weeks of October as an example. I promise this will be the last list I make you read. In two weeks gamers received Dead Space, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Fable 2, Wii Music, Far Cry 2, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Fallout 3 and Little Big Planet. (You can follow along here.) Even the most dedicated gamers would not be able to purchase and play half of those titles during their release week.

This is decades worth of work combined and delivered to gamers to sort through in two weeks. The result is that the largest of the large (in our example, Fallout 3, Fable II and maybe Guitar Hero) meet sales expectations. These games have brand recognition and large sums of money in advertising campaigns. They are part of existing intellectual properties that are safer bets for publishers.

It's obvious how this is detrimental to some publishers. EA took a chance on Dead Space as did Sony with Little Big Planet. Unfortunately for them, their first week sales were disappointing. Dead Space sold 180,000 copies while Little Big Planet sold 49,000. Compare that to Fable II which sold 700,000 copies its first week (or my God, Call of Duty: World at War which sold around 1.4 Million, I believe.) First week sales are important indicators for publishers because second week sales traditionally drop precipitously. If a game doesn't sale well during the first week, it's likely it won't be profitable in the short term.

One huge consequence is that it discourages publishers from taking chances with new intellectual property. In part, this is the fault of the consumer. If you choose a sequel like Far Cry 2 over Little Big Planet, you are sending a message that you desire well-known IP over something new. At the same time, there's no denying that Far Cry 2, Fable II and Fallout 3 are all great games and should be played. It's impossible to win.

It's impossible unless you spread the releases out. Putting more space between games allows each game to succeed based on its own merit and not on the competition of a given week. It also solves one of the most persistent problems in gaming: the dead zone between May and August where you would be lucky to see one big release a month. Sure, you can pick up last year's holiday games that you missed at bargain prices but publishers and developers barely take notice. Even if a new intellectual property has reasonable long-term trickle sales, it's still seen as underperforming in most cases (especially if it had high development costs.)

There are other issues to consider too. Many releases today are multiplayer-centric. Sad as it is (and a topic for another post) most multiplayer communities on consoles last for a matter of months before server populations dwindle to pathetic numbers. Purchasing certain multiplayer games after a certain point of time is pointless and gamers know it. Additionally, games that rely heavily on community content creation (like Little Big Planet) suffer similar fates if initial sales are low.

Publishers needs to take a step back and evaluate which release date would allow a game to succeed at its full potential. A roomy release date can be used as a very successful marketing tool, too. If a game stands out as the major release that month, then it should be much easier to drive preorder sales up. Also, publishers would not have to compete so heavily for air time or ad space at the local Gamestop.

And when it is all said and done, gamers will be rewarded with an evenly-distributed release calendar and the ability to support new intellectual property and their favorite franchises at the same time. Publishers will start to see sales figures that more indicative of their game's appeal and will probably make more money. Hell, if they want to sell it again at Christmas time, bundle some downloadable content released since a game's launch and call it a special edition. We might see the same crazy rush for sales in December but at least we'll have something to play in July.

Seriously... compare November to February. It's getting ridiculous.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars Wins

It's rather appropriate that the inaugural post for my new blog concerns a video game with quite possibly the least punchy title I have ever seen. I have played Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars for a few weeks now and I can safely say that there is a lot to be learned from its design.

Beyond its irrationally verbose title, Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars is a simultaneously simple and subtle game. It rewards open-minded gamers and harks back to an era of PC gaming that emphasized practice, patience and creativity. This hodgepodge of conventions is one of the most unique multiplayer gaming experiences offered this year.

At its core, Battle Cars is soccer with cars... turbo cars. Well they aren't turbo cars exactly but rocket-powered cars. They aren't just rocket-powered cars, either. They can break the sound barrier and perform insane mid-air feats. And they battle each other for control of the ball. So I suppose to summarize they are supersonic acrobatic rocket-powered... oh! I see.

Two teams use their cars to knock a giant ball into oversized soccer goals. That's it. That's all it needs. By sticking with a simple premise, Psyonix was able to create a game that is simple to learn but has the capacity for great competition and skill. At first, the tools available to help you score seem limited. You have your car and the boost capsules scattered about the arenas. Soon it becomes clear that the combination of these two tools provides such a wide array of options that to include any other staples of the car combat genre (weapons, power-ups, environmental hazards) would overly complicate this game.

The most beautiful part of Battle Cars is how it marries its primary gameplay elements: the car and boost. Boost allows you to accomplish whatever offensive or defensive goal you are aiming for if you get creative. Using boost when driving foward does what you'd expect. You zoom ahead of the pack to score a goal or to catch up to an opponent's shot. However, boost can be used for much more. Is the ball near the opposing team's goal? With boost, you could jump and fly across the entire map to slam the ball into the goal at supersonic speeds or you could ram into a defender to carve an opening for a teammate. You could even ram an opponent into the ball mid-air to force him to score on his own goal. The possibilities are seemingly endless.

A constant risk vs. reward battle rages during a match of Battle Cars because without boost, the movement options available to your car are significantly hindered. Is it safe to go after more boost if it means taking your attention off the ball? Perhaps not but lacking boost makes it extremely difficult to compete against an opponent with a full tank. These challenges add a strategic element that encourages being prepared and taking advantage of down time during a match.

Don't get me wrong; this game has very little down time. It's downright chaotic at times. For the first week I owned this game, I spent the majority of my time getting accustomed to hitting the ball with my car. Scoring was accidental if I ever managed to make contact. In fact, many newsites gave this game poor scores citing this as a major reason. Online games during the first week looked more like destruction derbies than a skillful game of soccer. It's easy to understand what you need to do but it's difficult to accomplish in the beginning. After you get comfortable with the mechanics, an order becomes clear within the chaos and what was once aggrivating is exhilirating.

For this reason, playing this game reminded me of early competitive PC shooters like the Quake and Unreal Tournament series. The first time you play Quake III Arena, the speed alone lends the game a frustrating quality that is only matched by the irritation of aiming directly at opponents and constantly missing. It takes time to learn to predict movement and to shoot where the enemy will be. In this way, older PC shooters and Battle Cars are similar. Their core gameplay mechanics are easily understood but difficult to master. They require patience to reveal the nuances that make their gameplay rich.

So after I spent an irksome week with Battle Cars it all fell into place. Soon I was working on jumping into the ball for midair shots or smacking the ball in the middle of a flip for extra power. I started to turn an opponent's once-annoying smash into the side of my car into an advantage as holding down accelerate allows you to continue driving at your air speed once you land. And now I am working at the type of shots that practiced Psyonix developers pull off online.

To enjoy this game involved taking a journey that forced me to question a lot of prejudices I have about video games. By all initial accounts this game should be terrible. It contains many red flags that with any other game would signify a terrible purchase: a poor demo, terrible single player gameplay, a title that screams, "Shovelware!", unimaginative graphics and a relatively unknown pedigree. Yet none of this turned out to matter. In fact, the saddest part about Battle Cars' flaws is that they make the game easy to write off. Sometimes it feels like the developers buried their gaming treasure behind countless traps to prevent anyone but the most dedicated from enjoying it as some sort of bizarre masochistic metagame.

But I understand in actuality that it probably will never be a widely-appealing game. Beyond the extraneous modes and unreliable netcode, it is not a game that excites on the first few outings. In such a crowded market having upfront appeal seems like a necessity. It is disappointing to me because I believe that if players invest a little more time into Battle Cars and try to see it as an online-only game, they will find one of the most rewarding online experiences of the year. The depth allowed by its simple concept creates a uniqueness and longevity in
Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars that are often absent in modern multiplayer gaming.

I suggest you give it some of your time. Online, please!