Towerfall: The Re-Return of Social Gaming

Social gaming was hot.  Then it ‘died’.  And now it’s hot?  The fact is, video games have always been social.  In the earliest era of computer games there weren’t enough CPU cycles (or CPUs at all!) for AI.  Players had to move everything themselves–Steve Russell’s Spacewar being the earliest example.  But just look classic coin-ops like Pong, Warlords, Sprint, etc.  Same-screen multiplayer was just how things were done.  Arcades in the ‘80s weren’t solely the domain of nerds–a broad spectrum of people showed up and played games together.  Imagine that!

Towerfall

Local multiplayer ruled well into the ‘90s.  Games like GoldenEye, Mario Party, and Bomberman ensured there was always something to do when you had people over your place.  Yet, once Internet multiplayer hit in the early ‘00s, console games became strangely anti-social.  Today when someone comes over my house and wants to play a game with me–well, it’s complicated.  There really aren’t many games people can play together on the market.

That’s why Towerfall Ascension is so interesting to me.  At first I thought it was yet another pixel-art indie game over promoted by Ouya due to a lack of content.  After playing it with others its significance dawned on me.  Finally there’s something to play with other people!  It had been so long since I’d had a local multiplayer experience that it took actually playing it for me to recognize this one fact:  the local multiplayer brawler may very well be where the MOBA was when DOTA was merely a Warcraft III mod.

At GDC I noticed the beginning of this trend.  There were a few Towerfall clones already in progress or on the market.  In fact, some similar games even shortly preceded Towerfall.  Not to mention Towerfall’s release on the PS4 and Steam has been highly successful.  I really think a new (old) genre is born.

 

Feeling Ripped Off in Ravensword

If you’ve read my previous review of the Ouya, you may be familiar with my strange obsession with Ravensword: Shadowlands. It’s a hilariously inept Skyrim clone for phones, tablets, and the Ouya. The game seems like they went down the list of Skyrim features and implemented a bare bones version of each one. From horseback riding to guild systems, they all exist–but are laughably basic. Still, I must have dumped over 15 hours into this saga, exploring its ambitious yet flawed world.

One interesting element of Ravensword is the business model. It’s essentially premium, with an up-front cost to buy the game once the demo period is over. However, at any time you can buy gold, experience, gems, health restores, and talent points with real money. It’s probably the first single player RPG I’ve seen with such a business model.

Early in the game I hit a difficulty brick wall. Monsters were way too strong and there seemed to be no way to grind for gold or XP. I decided to make a one-time purchase of 5,000 gold pieces for $5. I then bought the finest equipment the shops in South Aven had to offer and ventured out into the wilderness, tearing through monsters that were previously kicking my ass.

Maybe 10 minutes after making this purchase, I found a chest containing a sword better than the one I spent the equivalent of 2 real-world dollars on. I felt ripped off. It’s the in-game equivalent of buying the latest iPhone a few days before they announce a new model.

This made me constantly suspicious of the game. Every time I hit a tough point, I thought about if it was some kind of game design sales funnel to get me to spend money. If there was any kind of competent story to be immersed in, it probably would have taken me out of the game, too.

As I stated in my Kotaku piece earlier this year, f2p game designs are still too primitive to carry a single player campaign. Ravensword is a prime example. I salute the developer for making a stab at merging a single player narrative with f2p economies. Yet, scattering purchases throughout a quest makes you second guess every design choice to the point of completely breaking any sense of immersion. Issues like this make me think it’s impossible to reconcile the design principles of f2p monetization and an epic single player experience. Yet, Ravensword is only the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully we’ll see some stronger attempts at this problem soon.

My Week with the Ouya

I’ve been skeptical of the Ouya since the beginning. Who would want to play mobile games scaled up on a TV with a box that’s about as powerful as a mid-range Android phone? Last year’s smashing Kickstarter success and resultant investor stampede was a mystery to me. Criticism of Ouya’s launch has been harsh. For a mere $99, I had to see if this microconsole ‘revolution’ is going to take off.

My Ouya

My Ouya

The console itself is a nice piece of industrial design–except for the fact that the vent is on the bottom. There also are shielding issues forcing some users to lay the box on its side or position it away from cabling to prevent interference with Bluetooth and WiFi. Contrasting Ouya’s sleek form factor is a cheap looking controller with no obvious way to put batteries in. At $99, you have to cut corners somewhere.

Setting up the Ouya is easy. It requires the creation of an Ouya account and a credit card link before playing anything. Some are complaining about this, but there’s no point in getting users on the platform if they aren’t going to pay. Making sure every user is billable and ready to buy stuff is a top priority for Ouya.

Despite having to create user accounts, Ouya appears to have no social network based around them. There aren’t any friends lists, achievements, or leaderboards. This is a glaring omission. Ouya’s somewhat unwieldy catalog is organized by curated arrays of games from celebrity editors and lists sorted by genre. At the very least, I’d like to see what some of my friends are playing.

What about the games? Frankly, they are atrocious. With over 100 launch titles, this is to be expected. Ouya’s games include half-baked ports from mobile (some don’t even bother to change the screen to landscape!), suspect exclusives, and tragically hip indie games about abused children.

As I dove deep into the Ouya catalog, I actually began to enjoy the experience. The diversity of games is charming. Plus, I’m a big connoisseur of b-movies and the Ouya feels like the MST3k of consoles. Blowing up games originally built for a 4-inch screen on my 60-inch TV really magnifies polish issues and sub-par graphics. Seeing just how bad some of these games are can be hilarious. However, I’m not quite sure that’s what Ouya had in mind.

Where Ouya shines is playing mobile game ports that originally had virtual buttons and d-pads. Games like Gunslugs and the unusually polished Ice Rage play MUCH better with physical controls. My current obsession is Ravensword: Shadowlands. Despite having bought it on the iPad last year, I purchased the Ouya version and have been ironically enjoying it as a PS2-looking Roger Corman-esque Z-grade Skyrim. It’s hilariously unpolished, absurdly ambitious, and infinitely more playable with a joypad despite the game being somewhat incompetently designed.

Ouya’s biggest flaw is the business model. All games are a hybrid of premium and f2p with a timed demo period. I learned way back in the feature phone era that demos are death for casual games. With an constant stream of content and bite-sized gameplay, users get their fill of your title for free and move on to the next demo. Forcing this model on developers is a major mistake. It’s the hallmark of a team clueless as to how to build a thriving ecosystem. If your mantra is “free the games,” then free the business model too. Straight f2p and video previews for premium titles is a much better option.

A lot of these early problems are to be expected from a company launching its first consumer electronics product so quickly. Also, people seem to have unrealistic expectations for a $99 box. It remains to be seen if the emerging category of microconsoles will be a market of any significance. Perhaps Ouya can break off some of their war chest for quality exclusive titles, or else they are doomed to drown in a sea of similar devices.

Quick Notes: E3 2013 Edition

WAR!

E3 2013 is over! This was the most exciting E3 in years. GAMES ARE BACK! Sony and Microsoft are putting up a vigorous defense against the cow clickers and hamster wheels that have taken over gaming in the mobile and social era. It was so refreshing to see such a variety of new IPs that are actual games–games based on fun, mechanics, and experience instead of pure compulsion. I’m psyched for the PlayStation 4 and XBOX One. I pre-ordered both during their respective press conferences. A few notes:

Microsoft needs to fire their entire marketing department. Everyone was talking about Microsoft’s DRM strategy and not the games. Microsoft has completely lost control of the narrative and it’s hurting their ability to promote the XBOX One as an actual games platform.

Microsoft’s strategy of promoting the XBOX One as some kind of media center hub is the wrong one this early in the cycle. They need to engage early adopters for a console launch–people such as myself. All we want to hear about are games. Sony smartly focused on games–even if most of them were multi-platform.

The new Sony is poised for victory. Roles seem to have switched this generation, with Microsoft’s XBOX 360 success creating an attitude of arrogance that has led them to a tone-deaf press conference and hostility to so-called “indie” developers. This is the same attitude Sony had when the PS3 launched that caused a huge decline in market share.

Sony has learned from their mistakes and have radically changed their publishing model. They have embraced indie developers and flexible business models as evidenced by two prominent f2p PS4 titles on the show floor. I talked to many talented developers who had PS4 kits but were refused by Microsoft for XBOX One developer access.

Where was mobile? Compared to last year, mobile had a much reduced presence. Many publishers showed mobile titles along with their console slate, but gone were huge booths from GREE and other Asian mobile powerhouses. It was interesting to see tablet and mobile elements blended in to console games, such as in Ubisoft’s awesome demo for The Division. As discussed here before, companion apps have a long way to go–but this was probably the best example to date.

Hardware on the fringe. Lots of niche hardware made noise at E3. Not the least of which was Oculus Rift. With the show floor abuzz with news of the HD version, it seems at least Sony may be investigating supporting it. Microconsoles such as NVidia’s Project Shield (not so micro at $349) and the Oyua made big splashes too. I’m skeptical of the long-term viability of these platforms–although TowerFall convinced me to pre-order my Ouya.

Nintendo? Where was Nintendo? Their decision to broadcast their press conference on Nintendo Direct may have been an error–but perhaps a good strategy since they really had nothing to show that could counteract the massive PS4 and XBOX One announcements. Their booth was heavily attended, but Nintendo was seemingly out of the running. Luckily, they have enough cash to hunker down and weather the storm this generation.

Favorite games at the show. I never really spend much time waiting in line to watch demos or play games at E3, but I did have a few favorites upon cursory examination. Killer is Dead is a spiritual successor to Killer 7 from Grasshopper Manufacture, and looks fantastic. Dragon’s Crown is a gorgeous 2D side scrolling RPG by Vanillaware in the same vein as Capcom’s old D&D coin-ops. Keep your eye on The Order: 1886 for the PlayStation 4. This will be one of THE exclusive PS4 titles to watch.

Anyway, this was a GREAT show. I’m really excited for the next generation consoles. GAMEPLAY IS BACK.