(alt title: vomiting and throwing iPhones: the future of video games)
To people who play games and people who make them: Our world is changing at a rapid rate, and for once, the people who spent their lives playing and making games are not the ones on the cutting edge. Kickstarter, free-to-play, mobile/social — all of these are things that are changing the medium we love (and not always for the better). Read these four stories about the future of video games, and you will come to embrace change, though maybe not with both arms but just one of those man-hugs that starts with a handshake and transitions into a shoulder-bump with a back-pat finisher.
One: Everything you need to know about mobile game development
I was wrapping up an interview with Parappa the Rapper creator Masaya Matsuura when one of his fellow composers asked me if I could answer a few questions for them. “What kind of mobile games do you want to play?” he asked me.
“Well, why don’t I just show you?” I said while pulling my iPad out of my backpack. I opened up Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon, moved around on the screen, died, and started again.
“What’s this?” he asked me.
“Super Hexagon,” I said while I moved around on the screen, died, and started again.
“How do you play?” he asked.
I moved around on the screen, and died.
“Oh.” he said. Matsuura was still sitting there watching.
(If Super Hexagon was a three-life arcade game, I’d be out of my quarter in under thirty seconds.)
I switched to ZiGGURAT (which I have already written extensively about) and showed them both how the aiming and charging worked. The composer said “Huh.” Matsuura nodded.
Super Hexagon is the essential mobile game; ZiGGURAT the essential touchscreen game.
In Super Hexagon, a long game lasts a minute. You will die early and often, and that’s okay, because there is just about zero friction between the moment you die and the moment you start a new game. It is kind of like someone took the pacing of an endless runner and sped it up about ten times faster. This is perfect for phones and tablets, since we’re constantly getting interrupted by calls, texts, notifications, traffic lights, bus stops, conversations, Reddit, and a million other distractions. Super Hexagon demands your utmost attention for maybe up to a minute if you’re good, then releases you. One minute is long enough to feel invested in a game, but not so long that if you are interrupted by any of the million things that interrupt you while you’re trying to play a game, you don’t feel like you lost something.
Super Hexagon is not made for touchscreens. It’s made for anything with two inputs (clockwise and counterclockwise). If Cavanagh had made Super Hexagon for a Nokia candybar phone, we’d never need to invent smartphones (except maybe for a Super Hexagon leaderboard).
ZiGGURAT is made for touchscreens. Everything about the charging and aiming is an absolute delight on a touchscreen. (I personally recommend playing it on an iPad, since you get a finer degree of control, and the act of swiping your fingers across the screen is far more joyful than it is on a small iPhone display.)
ZiGGURAT is not made for mobile devices, or at least, not as well as Super Hexagon is. (Tim may disagree with this one.) With ZiGGURAT, one minute is approximately how long it takes to begin to get invested in a play session. The better you get at ZiGGURAT, the harder it is to actually play the game, because it demands your uninterrupted concentration for longer and longer stretches of time.
ZiGGURAT is a lot of fun at first, but the more time you spend with it, the more time and attention it demands. Once you can consistently get to The End of The World, ZiGGURAT is your iDevice’s needy partner. Spend time with him, and you don’t spend time with anyone else (read: Airplane Mode); try to keep your options open, and he’ll just sit there and sulk in your direction. You’ll take him off your home screen; you’ll put him in the folder of Games You Don’t Really Play; every time you get a new iDevice you’ll make sure to reinstall it and then immediately remember why you stopped.
Two: Everything you need to know about free-to-play games (or: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game sucks)
(Disclaimer: For the record, I have no beef with the SNES version of Turtles in Time.)
During GDC Online, I wandered into a barcade in Austin, TX called “Recess” with Frank Cifaldi and Kris Graft. Someone told us they had video games there. I guess the “…in the loosest sense of the word, anyway,” part of the sentence was silent. Regional English differences, man.
Recess was a pretty standard-looking Austin bar, by which I mean it was really big and really empty on a Tuesday night, and it just happened to have a few arcade cabinets in there: Street Fighter II: Championship Edition, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, and the Area 51/Maximum Force combo cabinet by the front, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 off to the side, and NBA Jam Tournament Edition nestled with a few pinball tables in the far back. (In retrospect, our suspicion should have been raised with the first two in the front: Who the hell gets SF2CE and TMNT instead of Hyper Fighting and Turtles in Time?)
Well, we started playing TMNT on free play, and somewhat broken controls aside, it sure started to suck real fast. The thrill of standing there saying “Yeah, we’re three grown men who work for games publications standing in a bar playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!” lasted about until Rocksteady, the first level boss. Neither Rocksteady nor any of the other bosses we encountered had a discernible pattern we could take advantage of, or any visual cues to signify an impending attack that we could react to. The message was clear: You have to take damage here, most likely lots of it, and you’ll probably take enough damage that you’ll have to spend another quarter.
15 years ago, I would have thought “Wow, that’s hard,” and reluctantly dug another quarter out of my wallet. Maybe I would have thought “Wow, that’s too hard,” and walked away to play Street Fighter II. (I would have hit the “squeeze”, in modern game design terms, and I would have become a Lost Sale.)
Now, I think “Fuck you, you’re just trying to take my money,” and walked away. Of course, whether this is true/untrue/intentional/unintentional in this specific game design case isn’t really the point. We know that arcade games were designed to increase turnover rate because we’ve talked to old arcade game designers and seen the ads in catalogues for modded Pac-Man and Missile Command ROMs that promised to increase arcade owners’ profits.
The point is that I feel that way, just like I felt that way about The Sims Social and almost every other free-to-play game ever. Which is funny, because I have no problem paying money for games (in fact, I do it all the time on Steam), but when the game is designed to take my money during the act of playing the game, it’s harder to make the game good. Obviously, we see this all the time with free-to-play games on any platform; anything less than superb design will make your game feel like the Waterworld arcade game on The Simpsons.
But let’s pause for a second and take a look at this scenario, again: We’re three grown man-children with beers playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It should have been a perfect storm of “nostalgia” (more on this word later). But it wasn’t. It was actually pretty boring, and we stopped playing about four levels in. (Two days later, Frank and I would go on to finish the SNES version of Sunset Riders and find it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.)
I’m willing to bet that the missing element from the experience wasn’t the fact that we weren’t children any more, but the fact that we were adults with jobs that could easily afford to beat the game if we had to pay for it in blood and quarters. As children, playing with our finite allowances raised the stakes; each time we chose to continue, we had to decide if it was worth it to pay to see the ending, calculate whether we had enough money to finish the game, determine who among us was worth spending our collective quarters on to advance the cause of seeing the ending, and figure out whether we were throwing good money after bad. (Never mind the drama associated with changing bills for more tokens just in time.) Now Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles only offered to consume our time, and time was not a resource we were interested in gambling with.
It’s a proven phenomenon: arcade beat-‘em-ups are less fun when you don’t have to pay per game. We’ve seen it with X-Men: The Arcade Game, and The Simpsons Arcade Game, and just about any other normal arcade game you’ve ever loaded up with MAME. Free Play is No Fun. With console ports, the challenge is to complete the game with a certain amount of lives and continues, which is still fun (if less fun than the quarter metagame layer).
A good buddy of mine from my Street Fighter days loves playing for $1 money matches, because $1 is just enough for us to get serious but not so much that people would feel discouraged from playing at least a few games. We don’t need high stakes to make the games interesting (save that for the advanced UMVC3 players) — just low stakes are enough to bring out our best, add a little more spice to the game, and motivate us to play better (which will, in turn, make us better players).
Zynga’s games don’t suck because they’re free-to-play; they suck because they’re bad games. A well-designed coin-op game integrates the payment process into the game itself, like TMNT did. The problem with Zynga games is that they’re designed to be infinite cash dumps that prey on unhappy people with addictive personalities, and so 95% of the population reasonably thinks “Fuck you, you’re just trying to take my money” and leaves to go do something else.
Put another way: If we were to pay, in quarters, enough money to beat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, we’d probably spend maybe $10-$15 between the three of us and play it for 30-40 minutes. If we were to buy FarmVille on Steam, we’d have to pay, like, twenty thousand dollars and play it for the rest of our lives.
Addendum: The free-to-play game that is doing f2p right (and everything else wrong)
I’ve actually been really into the free-to-play game MechWarrior Online, because to me, it’s The First Free-to-Play Game That Makes Sense. I am one of those not-really-fanboy-BattleTech fanboys; I played a lot of MechWarrior 2 and its related games, which got me into a few of the BattleTech novels, but I never read a whole bunch of the books or played the tabletop games or any of the PC games after MW2.
MechWarrior Online is in closed beta as I write this, and it needs a lot of work. Lots about the actual gameplay feels crude, unpolished, clumsy (in MWO’s defense, that’s how ‘Mechs are supposed to feel, but I digress), and not satisfying in the slightest, and most of the metagame layer (inter-faction PvP conflict, game-world-wide events, etc.) simply isn’t in the game yet. (This is the “everything else wrong” part of the sub-heading.)
None of these, however, have stopped me from forking over $60 for one of the Founder’s Packages. Sixty bucks! I don’t remember the last time I paid that much for a game, and I’ve never dumped that kind of cash into a subscription-based or free-to-play game before.
What MechWarrior Online does do well is integrate its free-to-play payment model with the actual game itself in a way that makes me want to put a bit of money in.
When you start playing MWO (as of the closed beta, anyway), you pick a free Trial ‘Mech, click Launch, and get thrown into a multiplayer game where you will run around, overheat because you clicked the mouse to shoot and didn’t realize that you were, by default, firing every single weapon on your ‘Mech at once. With Trial ‘Mechs, you can get a feel for the game and each ‘Mech class’s different roles (scouting, support, frontal assault, etc.) without dropping a dime, and win or lose, you’ll win a small amount of in-game currency. Eventually, you’ll have enough to buy your own ‘Mech, and that’s where the fun starts: You’ll make more in-game money when you own a ‘Mech, but you’ll have to spend money to repair and reload it between matches, and if you want to customize your ‘Mech you’ll have to buy the parts you want and sell the ones you don’t.
In-game money ends up getting attached to all kinds of different game and metagame functions, too. If you spot targets for your teammates to attack from afar, you get money. If you kill enemies or assist in kills, you get money. You even get more money for killing your enemies in the most efficient way possible (either destroying the enemy ‘Mech’s core or killing the pilot with a headshot) because that means more of the ‘Mech is usable for salvage if you win the match. On the other hand, when you’re upgrading your ‘Mech, you can buy some really fancy parts that open more tactical options up — a lighter engine that maintains your speed but takes up less weight, so you have more space for ammo or heat sinks or armor — but if you go with the lighter engine, you’ll be easier to kill in-game (the tradeoff is that any critical hit to your left, right, or center torso sections basically could kill you, which doesn’t happen with standard engines), and these engines cost way more money to repair when they get damaged. So maybe you’ll have one ‘Mech you use as a “daily driver” — a low-maintenance ‘Mech that doesn’t use weapons that require expensive ammo and doesn’t have a fancy extra-light engine, and a special ‘Mech that you save for special occasions because you really can’t afford to repair it on the regular.
Essentially, they’ve made MWO a free-to-play game where the microtransaction stuff actually makes sense, both within the narrative setting (mercenary bipedal tank wars) and within the design itself. None of this “Oh, no! I’ve run out of energy!” bullshit. The game is made better not worse with the inclusion of real money, because it means I’m playing for actual stakes. I’m playing for quarters, which is just enough to not matter financially, and large enough to make things interesting.
Three: Your game makes me want to vomit in the best way possible
I was one of the judges for Tokyo Game Show’s Sense of Wonder Night, which is a kind of demonstration/awards show for interesting indie games. There were a lot of fascinating games there. One of my favorites was a simple one called Taiso (“gymnastics”), which was made in Unity and is exclusively controlled with the accelerometer. If you have an iPhone, you can download it here.
Here’s how you play the game: Throw your iPhone up in the air. The higher you throw your iPhone, the better your score.
It’s pretty much the best game ever.
A few weeks later, Kris, Frank, and I had a chance to check out the Oculus Rift VR headset at GDC Online. We went through a DOOM III demo for about five minutes each. At the end of the demo, each of us said, “Man, that was awesome. I kind of want to vomit.”
The Oculus Rift CEO, Brendan Iribe, looked at us a little bit sheepishly. “Yeah,” he said, “We still need to work on that.”
“You don’t understand,” we told him, “We love it. We want a game that will make us vomit. And shit ourselves! Yeah, we want to shit ourselves.”
Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe gave us a weird look. “Okay,” he said.
It’s the truth, though. I’m tired of seeing numbers go up and down. I want games to make me feel really, really good — and I want to risk them making me feel really, really bad.
I hear Insert Credit Superfriend Bennett Foddy (QWOP / CLOP / GIRP) wants to make a game that makes people want to vomit. Bennett, I have just the thing for you! Talk to me — maybe I can get a Game Developer magazine article out of this.
Four: Everything you need to know about Kickstarter
This revelation came while talking to one Conrad Zimmerman at the dismal press room during this year’s Tokyo Game Show.
“I didn’t back the Wasteland Kickstarter because I didn’t want to play an updated Wasteland,” he said, “There’s no way that will be a good game.”
Something clicked in my head. “So far, I’ve backed Double Fine Adventure, Wasteland, and Shadowrun Returns,” I told him, “but I don’t think I actually want to play any of these games.”
I got a blank look.
“These Kickstarter campaigns aren’t about nostalgia. Nostalgia is a feeling I have when I play Shadowrun again, not when I play a new Shadowrun. What I want is closure.”
I got a raised eyebrow. I figured I was on a roll.
“The games industry is characterized by endless rehashing, repetition, and re-iteration,” I said, “But none of these games — or genres, in Double Fine Adventure‘s case — have really been subject to that. We’ve lived long enough to see most of our beloved game franchises turn to shit, but not all of them.”
Took a breath. Definitely on a roll here.
“I don’t have time to actually play another Shadowrun and Wasteland and a Double Fine Adventure, or any of the other ‘nostalgia’ games I’ve thought about funding. I want to see these games made so I can see them turn to the same shit that happened to all my other beloved games. I need closure.”
“Well, time to get back to work.”
I think that “nostalgia” is quite possibly one of the most-overused words in games (well, right up there with “retro”, anyway). “Nostalgia” is what we felt when we started playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at a barcade in Austin; “closure” (and disappointment) is what we felt when we stopped playing four levels in.
The day after the barcade excursion, I meandered down to ArcadeUFO (a real arcade, with real Japanese head-to-head cabinets), played UMVC3 for a few hours with some strangers, and felt nostalgia; that is, a feeling of longing for the past. I hadn’t felt what it was like to play some strangers head-to-head and laugh/curse/talk shop late into the night in a long time. Nostalgia.
I want to feel nostalgia when I play the new-and-improved versions of the games we loved 15 years ago. I want to feel the same magic I felt when I first played the game that drew me forever into this medium. Believing that with the right game, at the right time, I still can feel those feelings once more, is probably the emotion that has propelled so many of us to work in the industry in some form or another, though we might not ever admit that to ourselves.
But, of course, I won’t. I’ll feel new and different and also-amazing feelings, but I won’t feel that magic again, not because the games have changed but because we have changed.
I asked Matsuura what he thought of free-to-play and mobile, and he told me that he’s afraid the games children play nowadays won’t leave them with the fond memories we all had in the earlier generations of games. (“It’s good for parents because kids are always annoying, though,” he added.)
He is probably right about some parts of that; I doubt the Red Bird in Angry Birds will have quite the same iconic status a 1UP mushroom has, especially considering kids these days can play a new mobile game every hour if they want to without paying a goddamn cent. But I think he is also wrong, because a lot of the games we played back in the day are objectively shit, and we loved them. I still love them, even if I can’t play them.
So I ask games to do the impossible and I am disappointed when they don’t, because I expect them to do what Super Mario Bros. did for a three-year-old me. And when I don’t see it happen in the present, I look for it to happen in the future.
The future isn’t coming, it’s already here.We have viable virtual reality helmets, portable internet-connected game consoles in our pockets that can instantly connect us to hundreds of our friends, and development tools that make it easier than ever for anyone to try their hand at making their own game. But I’m still stuck on a silly little cyberpunk RPG that came out when I was in grade school. I know we’re not getting back together. It just won’t work out.
patrick miller is the angsty nintendo nerd