Last night I returned home from PAX AUS 2014. Long story short, it wasn't perfect, but it was quite possibly the best weekend I've had this year. It was a lot of fun. If you'd like to continue reading, the long story is just below.
Buckle up. This is gonna be...
Day 1 Coverage: Independent Games Summit, D3Publisher, Krome Studios, Seven45 Studios, EA Sports Season Opener
Featuring Puzzle Quest 2, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, and EA MMA
Indies and Publishers: Fixing a System That Never Worked
Speaker: Ron Carmel (2D Boy)
With his success of World of Goo, co-creator Ron Carmel began the Independent Games Summit at this year's Game Developers Conference on a less than chipper note, devoting his lecture to how the relationship between indie developers and publishers/distributors has become adversarial. The publishing system for indie games is substantially different from that for triple-A titles, a point which he believes big companies like Microsoft and Sony don't fully comprehend.
Such companies might pump $500K into an indie game when it only costs $120K to produce and when it will unlikely reach a full return on the investment. It also doesn't help that indie developers don't really receive publishing deals that differ much between each other, so it might seem as though they have no alternatives, and that the information on the statistics on budgets and profits for indie game development aren't transparent or made readily available.
As a reference point, he mentions that it takes about 1 day of legal and 4 days of tech to get an indie game on Steam, while it takes 2 months of legal and 2 months of tech to get the same indie game on Games of Windows Live. Of course, he admits that the comparison is a bit unfair since Games of Windows Live has had a short life compared to Steam, but the point still stands.
All of these factors has lead him and a team of other successful independent developers to start what he dubs the Indie Fund, which will help new indie games that they find worthy to get off the ground. Unlike most funding contracts, the submission process will be transparent, the terms will be publicly available, the developer will have full control over their IP, and the funding is based on progress - not on expectation - to respect the iterative process of game design.
One issue that was sidestepped, however, was the effectiveness of marketing by a publisher, which he believes is dubious or at least inconclusive. The trouble is that games like Braidand World of Goo, two games that he cites, was successful in part because they were on XBLA and Wii (respectively). And let's not forget all the indie games that have been successful on Wiiware, XBLA, and PSN. There was also no mention of media or press coverage (that's us) and no immediate solutions on how to fix the publishing system of big publishers to suit the needs of indie developers (or whether it is worth fixing). Still, the Indie Fund is a great idea, if just as a source of the indie community investing in itself. Truly, there is no reason why indie developers can't fund each other.
Abusing Your Players Just For Fun
Speaker: Jonatan "Cactus" Soderstrom (Cactus Software)
Some attendees claim that Jonatan from Cactus Software had one of the best, if not the best, talks during last year's GDC. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of his talk this year. The first half of his lecture was essentially a self-interested homage to David Lynch and to things he finds weird. It was almost a personals ad. It's not until the last third of his lecture that he actually stopped self-indulging and got to some of the troubles of making a game weird (like a Suda51 game... just pick one) - like if a game becomes too illogical, its puzzles might become too difficult for the player to solve.
Now, I can understand his point about turning nonsense into sense as a point of interest (I love Rez, Katamari Damacy, and the story of Bayonetta), but his argument borders on the line of "let's make weird stuff for the sake of being weird". I don't mind playing a drugged up WTF game, especially if the experience is new and makes me think, but I'm just not sure whether "abusing your players for fun" is a great rule to follow or just an egotistic remark by a developer on a power-trip who sees players as guinea pigs for his "hweird" experiments.
Scrap Metal: Pushing the Envelope with a Team of Two
Speakers: Kees Rijnen and Nick Waanders (Slick Entertainment)
As always, there always needs to be a handful of speakers from small indie companies during the Independent Games Summit that reiterate what all successful indie companies already know. So just in case you are wondering how a team of two people can create a competitive game on XBLA in two years in their basement, here is a quick rundown.
The first thing they must do is iterate fast - that means being able to create and test gameplay and art assets as quickly as possible. For Slick Entertianment, that means creating a tool that lets them edit the game as it is running in real-time. That makes everything from deferred shading, to pathfinding, mission settings, and car physics, a snap - especially when compared to art pipelines in large developers like Bioware that take a long time to import and export art assets. They also decided to code everything in C# for speed before converting it to C++ for the final product, and they took advantage of their small team to ensure that they could get as much time-effective work as possible, notably on days when a tool is updated and art assets suddenly don't work anymore.
At any rate, Scrap Metal (which comes out like... now) looks like a cool demotion derby, Super Off Road version of Twisted Metal. You're a mini-monster truck that shoots missiles at other mini-monster trucks. What's not to like?
From Big Studio to Small Indie: Guerrilla Tactics from Hello Games
Speaker: Sean Murray (Hello Games)
Just like the previous speakers from Slick Entertainment, this was another panel devoted to showing off what indie developers can do... and to show their new game (perhaps for coverage by journalists who actually cover so-called "boring" GDC panels like me). Hello Games fashioned themselves as guerrillas competing against the huge corporate Armies that strike fear in everyone else in the industry.
Interesting stats: Only 1 in 10 indie studios actually survive a year, only half go on to release a game, and then only 1 in 10 indie studios (that survive their first year... if their Powerpoint slide was interpreted correctly) last to survive three years. For an indie developer, every moment is make or break.
As for their title called Joe Danger, it doesn't look too shabby. Think of it as a cel-shaded, cartoon-physics remake of Excitebike. And if their videos are any indication, you can even create your own levels, a la LittleBigPlanet, by dumping everything from buses and ramps onto the track. Joe Danger is a daredevil to the max - he can do wheelies and backflips like nobody's business - so you can go as crazy as you want in your designs. Let's hope it's successful enough to keep Hello Games around until the end of the year... at least before it says goodbye. (Ba-dum kah!)
D3Publisher & Krome Studios
(I just want to say that I skipped a panel called "Make Your Game Appeal to the Asian Market" to cover all of the games at the meeting. So a quick chuckle will have to suffice.)
Kid Adventures: Sky Captain: A kid-friendly variant of the classic Pilot Wings, Kid Adventures: Sky Captain is a simple mission-based plane-tastic adventure for the Wii. Soaring through the skies of three worlds (green land, sky land, and volcano land), you must maneuver your plane by tilting the Wii-mote and prove yourself worthy of the job as a pilot captain. This means flying through precariously placed rings, watering fields with well-placed shots of water balloons, and beating your competitors in races. Earning XP by completing missions like finding treasure for pirates and performing tricks like barrel rolls will unlock additional planes. But the life of a pilot isn't really that hectic: There is a certain peace flying through the clouds... it's almost as relaxing as Flower and, dare I say it, therapeutic. Kid Adventure: Sky Captain, rated 'E', will be out June 15th for $19.95.
Blade Kitten: Imagine Shadow Complex if it starred a feline woman named Kit with pink hair, goggles, and a hi-tech floating sword, and you'll have a good idea of what Blade Kitten is going for. There's supposed to be some story about some chick stealing her bounty hunter license, but it's just a reason to beat dumb armored soldiers, climb walls and ceilings with her claws, and collect shiny pieces of money called hex. Expect Kit to blast through reams of breakable walls and ride what can only be called a lizard chocobo. So yeah, don't take this seriously at all. I mean, a goldfish in a bag is worth 10,000 hex. And there's a godzilla monster with crab claws. And there's a Blade Kitten comic. And she purrs.
Puzzle Quest 2: Chris will be providing a full preview of the game later, but let me divulge the key details. Puzzle Quest 2 takes place in a completely different world and is structured more like Diablo. Instead of exploring an entire kingdom, you will be taking quests in a town and then dungeon-crawling down the town's castle, fighting progressively more difficult gem-swapping enemies. There are also plenty of challenges and mini-games that will award bonus experience, gold, and items used to upgrade your weapons and armor. Getting a cascade of extra turns from 4- or 5-in-a-row matches is still a matter of luck, but Puzzle Quest 2looks to beis everything you wanted from Galactrix, and then some. Look for it to drop its way on XBLA and DS in late spring.
Blue Dragon: Awakened Shadow: Time allowing, I will be writing a full preview for this DS title, but in case GDC kills me by the end of the week, I should leave a short synopsis. Awakened Shadow is actually the true sequel to Blue Dragon for Xbox 360, and all of the characters from the first game (as well as some NPCs who weren't playable in the original) will join your party in your quest to save the world and discover why the Shadows, powerful manifestations of a person's soul and courage that are attached to their bodies, have disappeared... except for yours. There's not much that's surprising about this action RPG sequel: attacking enemies, collecting items and materials, upgradable weapons and armor, earning experience, and Akira Tokyama's character designs.
The only notable features are that it's very friendly, as your characters regenerate health and mana about every six seconds, so healing items are strictly for battle, and that Shadows are the ones that level up, not the characters. This means that you don't have to worry about mindless level grinding much. You can also join with up to two friends, ad-hoc or online, to defeat bosses for items on better loot tables. Oh, and the "poo-snakes" have returned. Yep, it's exactly what you think they are.
Power Gig: Rise of the Sixstring: I'm sure Blake, as our resident rock star, has already said his piece about this. But as the resident Guitar Hero and Rock Band expert, I must say that I'm cautiously optimistic about this Xbox 360 and PS3 title. The six-string functioning guitar peripheral is obviously the star of the show, and with Rock Band and Guitar Hero not fairing so well critically (and financially) as of late, this may well be the right time for someone like Seven45 to steal the limelight. It also helps that they plan to price the band bundle, including a mic and drums, competitively. (But do we really have room for more peripherals? Well, at least this is a real electric guitar and not some flimsy plastic thing.)
They believe that the future of the music genre is actually getting players to learn skills in the game that are transferable to playing the real-life instrument (I happen to agree). And by the time you reach the expert level of the game, you should be able to at least stroke the root chords of the song at hand. Truthfully, even if this doesn't work out as planned, I hope it's at least successful enough to convince "those other two music franchises" to get off their laurels and listen to what's happening here.
EA Sports Season Opener
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2011: This game gets a Ho in One... and with that out of the way (really, I don't think most Tiger Woods fans care enough about Tiger's sexual shenanigans to forgo the game), this year's installment of Tiger Woods will have two new main features: advanced Wii motion controls and the infamous Ryder Cup. Advanced Plus controls now incorporate everything from the backswing to the follow-through (as well as the rotation of the club), while Tour Pro controls incorporates that as well as the point of contact your club's head makes with the ball.
With the Wii Motion Plus accessory, your swings are pretty much as realistic as you want them to be. Thankfully, if you don't manage to hit the ball, you won't be penalized, though I'm sure the embarrassment will be enough. (I must also add that they have put in an elevation grid for the entire putting green on the approach. Finally!)
Celtic Manor in the United Kingdom, the home of this year's Ryder Cup, has been ceremoniously added in full "Go USA!" vs. "Olé! Olé! Olé!" glory. One special feature during this match play between the States and Europe allows you to switch between players on your team, so that you can ensure victory for your country. While you can play 2-on-2 in local play, the online Ryder Cup will feature up to 12-on-12 matches (!) where your victories count toward both your individual and team rankings. So make sure your teammates know what the bloody hell they're doing! Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2011 swings into stores June 8th for all three stand-up consoles.
EA MMA: This is another one of those titles I plan on writing a full preview for. Still, it's hard not to say something about a MMA game that has both Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko in its roster. The live demo showcased Nick Diaz and Le Cung from what seems to be a roster of 18 fighters, in at least the pre-alpha build. They strutted toward the ring, which can be circular, square (in Pride format), or hexagonal (Strikeforce), with their personal entrances and music. And then they duked it out with all the bombastic commentary and blood staining their bodies and the floor mat, with the Rockstar energy drink logo emblazoned on its surface.
Just like EA's Fight Nightseries, most strikes are mapped to the right analog stick: punches, kicks, elbows, and the like. Each primary body area - head, body, and legs - can be worn down, while stamina is drained by making an attack, performing sustained holds on the floor, and getting hit square in the mid-section. Even with Dana White spewing his words against this title and at any fighter that joins its roster, the team at EA is a devoted bunch with many of its members training in some form of mixed martial art. And, well, the world doesn't revolve around him. The sponsorship with Strikeforce as well as its inclusion of international fighters lends EA MMA an appeal unique from its UFC counterpart. Look for the fight between MMA franchises to begin late 2010 during the holiday season.