Explore the Collective Consciousness with Farbs’ Playpen

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Rom Check Fail developer Farbs has unleashed on us all the Web-based communal adventure game creation game, Playpen.

The game presents you with a blocky point-and-click adventure interface; as you click around and explore, you will find your choices leading you down increasingly eccentric avenues — until suddenly you hit the edge of the world. Say you click on a path leading to a fountain, but there is no target page to the click. You are then dumped into a simple image editor, where you can paint the scene yourself and designate however many links you like, to however many other pages.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

FiNCK thrown into the Web

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As of yesterday, Within a Deep Forest and Knytt designer Nifflas has unleashed his briefly-awaited user-supported toss-’em-up, FiNCK. As reported earlier, the game’s abrupt announcement and release are due to an impulsive yet inspired development cycle, brought on by affection for the odd man out of the NES Marios.

FiNCK (”Fire Nuclear Crocodile Killer”; yes, it’s nonsense) has the same grab-and-toss mechanics as Super Mario Bros. 2 and a few other gems like Rescue Rangers, and Pastel’s much longer-coming Life+. Perhaps understandably enough, considering the free level editor and Nifflas’ existing fanbase, the game only comes with five (in effect) demonstration levels.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

Smaller Every Day… Hero Core [Review]

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

Somewhere in the early 1990s, the console-style adventure game got sort of codified, with Super Metroid as the main reference point. The ideal form, as wisdom had it, gradually opened up the world to the player as the player gathered new and usually tactile abilities, the better to traverse the world’s obstacles. Basically it’s a lock-and-key system, except instead of the green doors requiring green keys they demand super missiles and instead of unlocking the next section you climb or swing or blast your way there, once you’ve the right abilities.

This system is valid enough, and when done well it can be fairly invisible. You notice somewhere that you can’t go, and after trying everything in your power you remember your failure. So when you get a power that might let you past that obstacle, you race back to put it to use. The clever thing is that usually this new ability generally improves the player’s character, and slots into the existing move set naturally enough that soon the player kind of forgets that ability hadn’t been there the whole time.

This design’s appeal rests in an illusion of problem solving that makes the player feel clever and involved, when in fact the game is manipulating the whole situation, blocking off whole areas of its world until it figures the player may be growing bored of his current situation and powers.

This system — walling the player off until the game, or rather the designer, feels the player is ready, doling the game out in parcels measured both to prevent confusion and to manage enthusiasm and flow — has always bothered me. Mostly it feels transparent and mechanical. Its worst offenders, like Wind Waker with its inventory full of nearly identical items that each only is useful in one part of the game, raise too many questions. Why can’t I go down here? Because the game doesn’t want me to. Why can’t I open this? Because the game doesn’t want me to. Why can’t I just use the grapple instead of the hookshot? Because the game wasn’t designed that way.

A better way to limit progress is to put most of the onus on the player. Let the player decide when he’s ready to progress, and then be it on his own head. If he gets lost, or injured, or killed, or confused, that’s his decision. Let the player form his own rules: “Okay, the forest is too dangerous and is kind of scary; keep away for now.” And then later “Hey, I’m stronger and I have more resources; maybe I can risk the forest now.”

This is the system that you find in the original Zelda, and in Dragon Warrior. It’s what you get in Lost in Blue, and to an extent in Riven. And it’s more or less how Daniel Remar organized Hero Core.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

Digging up the Dirt on Life+

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Life+ is a rather adorable little exploration platformer by Pastel. The game is long in development, and the development blog is updated only infrequently. The game is coming along well, though, is smooth and gorgeous, and incorporates several interesting ideas.

The main mechanic is a digging/pluck-and-throw mechanism rather like Super Mario Bros. 2, FiNCK, or Rescue Rangers — the difference being, you can rip up a clump of floor nearly anywhere. Some objects are heavier than others, and you’ll need to power-up before you can seize them. Once you’re holding something, you can toss it, bowl it, or lock onto an enemy and sling from anywhere.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

Brütal Irony

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in, I believe, the September issue of Play Magazine.

Remember last year, when the newly-merged Activision Blizzard decided to shuck itself of properties unlikely to lead to a major franchise? Suddenly several high-profile one-off projects like Ghostbusters were left without a publisher. Though most quickly found a new host, Tim Schafer and Double Fine’s heavy metal adventure Brütal Legend was left grasping. In December the recently progressive Electronic Arts stepped up, and all seemed back on track.

Or maybe not.

Five That Didn’t Fall

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part nine of my ongoing culture column for Next Generation. After the popularity of my earlier article, I pitched a companion piece about companies that had lived past their remit, yet technically were still with us. On publication we lost the framing conceit and the article was split into five pieces, each spun as a simple bottled history. In turn, some of those were picked up by BusinessWeek Online. Here’s the whole thing, in context.

A few weeks ago we published a list of five developers that made a difference, helped to shape the game industry, then, one way or another (usually at the hands of their parent companies), ceased to exist. One theme I touched on there, that I got called on by a few readers, is that although in practical terms all the listed companies were indeed defunct, several continued on in name (Atari, Sierra, and Origin), living a sort of strange afterlife as a brand detached from its body.

This was an deliberate choice; although Infogrames has been going around lately with a nametag saying “HELLO my name is Atari” – and hey, why not; it’s a good name – that doesn’t make Infogrames the historical Atari any more than the creep in the purple spandex with the bowling ball is the historical Jesus. (Not that I’m relating Infogrames to a fictional sex offender – though he is a pretty cool character.) The question arises, though – what about those companies which live on in both name and body, yet which we don’t really recognize anymore? You know who I’m talking about; the cool rebels you used to know in high school, who you see ten years later working a desk job, or in charge of a bank. You try to joke with them, and they don’t get a word you’re saying. You leave, feeling a mix of fear and relief that (as far as you know) you managed to come out of society with your personality intact.

The same thing happens in the videogame world – hey, videogames are people; all our sins are handed down. This article is a document of five great companies – that started off so well, ready to change the world – that… somehow we’ve lost, even as they trundle on through the successful afterlife of our corporate culture. And somehow that just makes us miss them all the more.

And Then There Were None

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by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part three of my ongoing culture column; originally published by Next Generation, under the title “Culture: Five that Fell”.

For all its immaturity, you can tell the videogame industry is getting on in years. With increasing, even alarming, frequency, the faces of our youth have begun to disappear – forced from the market, absorbed into conglomerates, restructured into oblivion, or simply retired from the grind.

The first big wave hit back in the mid ’90s, when increased development costs, the demise of the American arcade, and the shift from 2D development left dozens of small and mid-sized developers – from Toaplan to Technos – out in the cold. Those that didn’t die completely – Sunsoft, Vic Tokai – often pulled out of the US market, or even out of the videogame business. Western outfits braced for the storm by merging with larger and ever larger publishing conglomerates, rationalizing that it was the only way to survive in an uncertain market.

The second wave came only a few years ago, after the burst of the tech bubble. In effort to streamline costs, parent companies began to dump their holdings left and right, regardless of the legacy or talent involved. Those that didn’t often went bankrupt, pulling all of their precious acquisitions down with them. Sometimes the talent moved on and regrouped under a new game; still, when an era’s over, it’s over.