Mar 04
Posted by James at 10:15

You know you've made it when your game ends up being cloned by others - it's often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all. This is exactly what happened with Joost Van Dongen's Proun since its release on PC nearly four years ago, with clones like Unpossible and Polyrider cropping up after its release.

In spite of all this, Joost van Dongen saw all the cloning as a proof of concept for Proun, strengthening his resolve to expand on it and bring it to new platforms. This of course brings us to the here and now, with Proun+ on 3DS (also available on iOS and later, Android).

Proun+ is a twitch game at heart - it's fast, and you'll be avoiding things a lot. Except here you're speeding down a twisting, winding cylindrical rail, and these objects you're trying to avoid are pieces of modern art.

You read that right. The star of Proun+ really is the modern art, inspired by artists such as El Lissitzky. It's abstract, comes in all sorts of shapes and geometric varieties, and it's scattered around the cylindrical rail you're riding across. Avoiding collisions with it is a case of rotating clockwise or anti-clockwise about the rail, the game's centred camera lending an amazing sense of inertia to even the smallest movements as you see the whole world rotate around you.

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Discovering what you'll see next is a good chunk of the fun. One course boasts an interconnecting series of pipes, while another features more organic, ribbon-like shapes, all caked in a dazzling palette of orange-purple.

Finishing each race in the top three involves a lot of careful rotating, since collisions slow you down and too much rotation results in a loss of momentum. The trick is to strike a careful balance between making these smaller, well calculated movements, while possibly getting in a few larger, sweeping ones ad lib to manage your speed effectively.

It all kicks off with a carefully measured sense of speed: fast enough to make it feel exhilarating, but not too fast in order to give you a large enough window of time to avoid obstacles on the fly without the need for memorisation. Pulling off a clean run through intuition and instinct alone is hugely satisfying. The 3D effect adds a lot, lending everything an existence that's almost tangible, whether it's pieces of confetti suspended in mid-air, or a heightened feeling of claustrophobia as you navigate carefully around the inside of a larger object.

It also significantly improves your judgement of upcoming obstacles, since what was once a flat and busy image becomes a lot clearer in 3D space. Add to this the distinctive and well-judged sound effects - which help you focus on the action, rather than the heads-up display - and this is a game that makes it easy to get into the zone, as it were.

Two extra modes see the game take a breather from all the racing. 'Endless' is Proun+ in its purest form, where a single collision is fatal and your speed continually increases. It's here where you really get a feel for the course designs, since pulling off a flawless lap becomes a necessity.

'Points' goes in the opposite direction and attempts to subvert how you approach the game. Instead of avoiding objects, the order of the day is to run through translucent colour-coded gates in order to rack up a high score. Experimentation is key, because there's a trade-off to how points are earned: passing through consecutive gates of the same colour piles on the score multiplier, but consistency is rewarded too, with a secondary multiplier resetting if you make a collision. Despite this layer of complexity, accumulating a top-tier score rarely feels muddled or arbitrary due to some smart gate placement.

It's a shame, then, that a lot of what Proun+ gets right fades away when you play the final two (of five) difficulties: supersonic and speed of light. They speed the game up to the point where it's just too overwhelming to play via instinct. Obstacles zoom over the horizon with relentless speed, so not only is your brain not given much time to process the incoming threats, but it's so fast that your thumbs are going to be delayed in executing the right moves in time.

The good news is this doesn't do much to detract from the overall game. Proun+ bundles the same core content under each of its five difficulty classes, so simply choose whatever you're comfortable with and get rotating - there's a lot of fun to be had from twirling around a cylindrical rail, gawping at/avoiding modern art, and constantly bettering your game.
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Posted by Ben at 17:38
I've made no secret of my fondness of David Szymanski's games the past few months. Both Fingerbones and The Moon Sliver are worth your time. So it's good to see him working on something new in The Music Machine

Visually The Music Machine looks striking, and chances are it's going to have an interesting story. Aside from that though we don't know a huge amount about the game, but there's a trailer below

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Posted by Mark at 17:25
Back in 2009, Ben used an image from Splinter Cell to illustrate a story about how videogames have, by chance, been seen to reduces cases of 'Amblyopia', a sight condition more commonly known as 'Lazy Eye'.

This has turned out to be eerily prescient, as Splinter Cell's publisher, UbiSoft, have just announced a game designed specifically to combat just that.

The BBC, unusually reporting from this year's GDC, have noted Ubi's new tablet game, Dig Rush tackles the affliction using old-style red-and-blue 3D specs.

Lazy Eye gets its nickname owing to the fact that one eye is noticably stronger than the other, and is usually treated by simply patching the stronger eye, forcing the patient to use and develop their weaker one.

The game uses the glasses to block out red or blue on-screen graphics from one eye or the other, meaning the player has to use both eyes in tandem to progress.

The technology, originally developed by researchers at Montreal's McGill University, sold to Amblyotech and subsequently licensed to UbiSoft, is being pushed as more attractive and less intrusive- and thus, more effective- than eyepatches.

Representatives of doctors are for now holding a understandable amount of cynicism as to if the game should be included as treatment, waiting for more evidence to come to light as to its effectiveness, and it also has to go through regulators such as the FDA, so it's unlikely we'll see (Ha!) Dig Rush on the App Store any time soon.

But when it does make it to patients, just remember that Ben was right in on the ground floor on the matter, all those years ago.
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Posted by Ben at 17:05
It looks like retailer Shopto might have leaked a couple of facts about the European release of Vita visual novel Steins;Gate. First, that it's getting a physical release, or at least a code in a case. And second, that it's arriving 10th April

We'll find out when things are announced officially, which presumably won't be too long now if only to clear up the rumours
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Posted by James at 18:28
It's the first day of the Game Developers Conference and the event's already delivering, with some rough sales figures for indie games emerging, by way of a panel given by Gamasutra's Mike Rose.

View PlayStation and Xbox One figures here

Steam, Wii U, 3DS, mobile figures are here

Despite coming off a couple of slides, these figures still have an awful lot to tell us. Split into low, medium and upper bounds per platform, we now have a rough guide to how games from independent developers perform on a platform-by-platform, category-by-category basis.

Note: PC sales are based solely on Steam figures, which makes sense given Steam is estimated to account for around 70 to 75 percent of the PC gaming market.

Interestingly but perhaps unsurprisingly, Steam and Mobile platforms played host to the biggest hitters, with up to 2.5 million sales for indie games on mobile (that's almost certainly Monument Valley at the top), and up to 3 million on Steam. When games on these platforms go big, they really go big.

Sales at the lower bound on mobile are as low as you'd expect, however, with a tiny 0-2,000 units for games in this category. This perhaps brings into focus the importance of exposure and discovery for even the smallest selling indie titles. Wii U aside, every other platform's lower bound for sales figures started at 1000 units, regardless of perceived quality or promotion.

Indie titles performed similarly across both Microsoft and Sony platforms, though it must be noted that the PlayStation breakdown includes games which are on both PS4 and PS Vita, with figures on Microsoft platforms being Xbox One-only. Producing a Vita port is said to be fairly low cost, so assuming an availability of a Vita port increases sales this could be one of many reasons behind the difference in figures. It's too hard to tell without more details.

Sales of indie games on Wii U don't perform as well compared with other platforms. The difference is likely to be more pronounced given that the majority of Wii U indie titles are also ports which are available elsewhere, with the slide itself referring to games as seeing "massive success on other platforms".

The good news is that porting to Wii U tends to be cheap (especially if your game supports Unity), so developers still stand a good chance at recouping their investment. But it's going to hamper the chances of the system receiving unique titles that really take advantage of the two-screen setup provided by the Wii U GamePad, like the upcoming Affordable Space Adventures.

In contrast, indie games on Nintendo 3DS see much healthier sales across the board, with 3DS eShop titles shifting up to five times as many units than those on the Wii U eShop at each sales boundary.

There's a dilemma behind this, though. While it's relatively low cost to port to Wii U, the same certainly can't be said for the 3DS, with its specialised hardware. In most cases, a bespoke version of the game has to be made for Nintendo's handheld, which would consume more time, money and resources.

Indeed, it's likely that the majority of games in the upper bound of sales (50,000 to 200,000) were highly tailored to the platform and its audience: Shovel Knight, Retro City Rampage DX, Steamworld Dig, Azure Striker Gunvolt and Mutant Mudds all come to mind. So compared with the Wii U, your chances as an independent developer of making a successful specialised game are higher.

Too bad we don't have a percentage breakdown for the proportion of titles that make up the lower, medium and upper ends of the sales spectrums. On mobile the proportion of titles which become breakout hit is bound to be more skewed than other platforms. The situation on 3DS is likely to be similar, with output from a few teams (Renegade Kid, Yacht Club Games, Image&Form and VBlank Entertainment) potentially making up the bulk of the higher sales boundary alone -- 3DS indie success stories do happen, but they are few and far between.

Being able to compare these figures to equivalent ones from years' past would also tell us a lot more. Steam has done a lot to lower its barriers to entry over the past four years, something likely to change where its users spend their money. Hopefully Mike Rose will publish detailed findings once GDC is over.
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Posted by Ben at 15:17
We're a few months in to the year and about to hit a spurt of big new releases. It's been a quiet start, and you've probably caught up on some of the big games you missed from last year. So, before we all get swamped with games that we'll never get the time to play, why not have a look at some of indie games from 2014 that you might have missed

It was a toss up between Fingerbones and The Moon Sliver for which of David Szymanski games I was going to pick for this. Fingerbones is clunky, but it's story is startling and comes from left field. The Moon Sliver is the better game, with a more traditional story. It's interesting for how it presents its narrative though, floating and dream like, it helps create the fractious and ominous atmosphere The Moon Sliver is looking for.

I think I mentioned in the review that the game is also an example of the importance of graphics. The Moon Sliver loses something because of how it looks, the same thing Dear Esther gained. Still though, The Moon Sliver is an interesting and worthy horror game, more about heavy atmosphere than jump scares.

I didn't especially enjoy Betrayer, in fact there were points where I straight up hated it. It's got a clumsy navigation system, quickly falls in to a pattern mission wise, and the combat is hugely frustrating thanks to the ancient weaponry, borderline invisible enemies, and their eagle-like vision.

So, why pick it? I reviewed it last summer, around the same time as another indie horror Daylight, I didn't really like either, but Betrayer has never left my thoughts. It's a striking game to look at, and it uses that to benefit the gameplay. That first moment when you ring the bell in town and go from day to night is genuinely unsettling. The various stories dropped in to the game are grounded and unusual for the medium, it's just the game part that lets it down. It's very much worth experiencing though, especially if you only play the first hour of the game

The Fall feels a little like this year's The Swapper, and while that might seem a little disparaging, it's hard not to see the similarities in setting and tone. The conceit of playing as an A.I. that exists in a world that is bound by rules, and must bend it's programming, endangering it's unconscious pilot to protect him is, at the very least, interesting.

In gameplay terms The Fall is kind of an action point & click game, items have to be combined and enemies shot in the face. In what appears to be a theme on this year's 'Indie Games of the Year', The Fall is creepy, very early on you get imagery designed to unsettle you. It's a funny game too, and considering everything you encounter is an A.I. there's some great characters too. If you missed it on pc it's coming to consoles this year, and it's definitely worth looking out for

Schein is a strange one, for all the award nominations and wins the game boasts on its website and store page, it's completely flown under the radar. It reminds me a little of Nihilumbra from last year's indie feature, a game where production values take some of the gloss off. Maybe it's the gloom too, even the bright sections of Schein have a seedy undercurrent to them.

The game itself focuses on puzzle platforming, with pockets of reality being used to make progress through the level. Purple platforms won't appear in green light, that sort of stuff. Schein stands out because it nails its puzzles, I was never stuck for long but usually had to work through solutions, they weren't just apparent the second I laid eyes on them

Freedom Planet looked like it was going to make a huge splash, maybe if it had arrived on consoles it would have done, but on pc and given its relatively high price, it's not hard to see why people didn't gamble on the game. It's a shame too because Freedom Planet is fantastic.

The game is constantly compared to the Mega-Drive Sonic games, and that does seem to be the inspiration, but it actually has the feel of a Saturn game. There's a few differences between Freedom Planet and Sonic the Hedgehog, it's a more combat focused game for one, you don't bounce on enemies heads, instead you punch and kick, or plough through with a motorbike. It does move at a bit of a pace though, and it looks the part, but one of the issues I had with the game was that you passed through enemies, it made the world feel a little less solid.

Of all the genres to successfully make the jump over to the touch screen, the bullet hell shoot-'em-up wasn't one I expected to work. Anyone who's played Cave's Android and iOS ports will know that shooters actually work pretty well, with Danmaku Unlimited 2 being further proof of that.

Danmaku Unlimited 2 borrows a few of its better ideas from other games, but its a very well realised, and smooth representation of the bullet-hell style. I can't vouch for how it plays on pc, and there'll be plenty of people furious with me for not picking Crimson Clover in this spot, but I can't pick something I haven't played. Danmaku Unlimited 2 works well on a phone though, with very few rough edges, a great little time waster with the depth of a 'proper' game.

PIX the CAT takes a strong yet simple concept -- collect eggs, lead them to the dropoff points -- and runs with it. Its three central arcade boards lead you further and further inside a neon, lit-up television, each new piece of circuit board offering a new room layout to master, or an increasingly cramped space to operate within.

PIX the CAT's ability to always offer an engaging run on the same stage is why I love it so much. You'll obviously want to optimise your game as much as possible, but the developers scramble the circuit boards each time, keeping you on your toes and ensuring you take a proactive approach every game.

I revelled in bettering my high score, learning a few of the higher level mechanics and mastering the various pieces of circuit board. Many of my level attempts soon ended with my heart pounding, as I tried to drop off just one more egg before the timer expires.

I originally passed on this, because I thought the game's evident NES Mega Man worshipping would seep into developer Yacht Club's approach to designing it. I was expecting a game that revels in its ability to offer a difficult challenge for many wrong reasons.

I'm certainly glad I thought wrong, because Shovel Knight is a quality action platformer that's most certainly its own game. It continued to delight me in how smartly designed it was, each stage offering a brand new twist to get your head around, and plenty of chances to test out your skills in fair ways that are in your control.

It's all tied together with an overworld that adds a sense of place to all the proceedings. This overworld also houses these bonkers optional levels which revolve around the equipment pickups, like some mole claws that'll have you digging through dirt in midair.

The developers at Yacht Club make great use of any mechanic they put into the game. Even the little things, like realising you can shovel up a fireplace as you would a dirt heap, had me beaming with delight.

A great advertisement for videogame Kickstarter successes, then.

I'd been looking forward to the next game from the developers of the Bit.Trip series for some time now, and I like their new approach of bite-size pieces of sheer fun -- or "Miniature Visions" as they call them.

Woah Dave! is a freshly cut slice of arcade-style gaming. You're stuck on a single screen. Eggs and skulls occasionally drop down. And it's up to you to figure out what to do with your jump and throw.

It turns out that skulls destroy eggs, and eggs destroy the enemies that they spawn. And the beauty of Woah Dave! is in how it encourages you to experiment with every playthrough, and experimentation leads to more coins, and a higher score.

That's what made me fall in love with it. As soon as I discovered its bonkers risk-reward mechanics -- leave the aliens and eggs around for too long and they'll soon litter the screen and eventually grow wings -- I was hooked. There's something special about a game which encourages you to test your 'gaming instincts'.

I picked Year Walk amongst my games of the year, and while I don't know how 'fun' it is, it's certainly something that stays with you. It came out a couple of years ago on iOS, but arrived on Steam about 12 months ago. It seems strange that something so unusual and interesting would have come from the iPhone, but you can also see how the interface and features of the device helped build some of the more inventive aspects of the game.

Year Walk is about as grim a game as you're ever likely to play, and it's easily one of the most interesting. You'll have a hard time convincing people to play it if you tell them what it's about, so you'll excuse me if I don;'t go in to details, but the likes of Year Walk and The Room have breathed new life in to the point & click genre
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Posted by James at 16:40
Dan Adelman -- former head of Digital Content Development at Nintendo, now a consultant to indie developers -- has published an article which uses economic theory to explain the pricing of digital videogames.

It's an interesting read, touching on all sorts of factors that might determine a digital videogame's pricing and how much a buyer may potentially value a game in the first place.

Factors which include the differing amounts of information between players and publishers, or the race to the bottom which arises when publishers collectively and rationally act in their own interests.

It's not every day that you see this sort of thing, and this piece takes complex concepts and explains them in ways which anyone can understand it, so it's well worth a look.

It concludes with a sound justification as to why one of his client's games -- upcoming MetroidVania title Axiom Verge -- costs $19.99. Interestingly, he also makes a credible commitment not to put the game on sale for at least six months after launch.
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Posted by James at 11:56
Nintendo Network now allows true cross-platform purchasing across Wii U and 3DS, in what is probably the result of both a change in Nintendo policy and a change in its backend.

Curve Digital's Wii U and 3DS ports of Roll7's excellent OlliOlli is the first game to support this. Purchase OlliOlli on Wii U or 3DS and the other version will be 'unlocked' to download via your Nintendo Network account.

The change is to be welcomed. Nintendo has supported cross-platform purchasing before, but its never been as seamless as we've come to expect in the age of the App Store or Valve's Steam.

It used to feel like a hack before, with publishers having to dish out a free download code for the other version of the game -- which could in theory be given to someone else -- or having to put the other version on sale.

Furthermore, publishers could only do this on the European eShop, with no such deals emerging in North America or Japan last year. This new policy is worldwide.

It's great to see Nintendo finally implement this before the next generation rolls around, where they seek to unify both software and hardware architectures across their systems. It also shows that Nintendo is serious about moving to a virtualised platform in the future, rather than a hardware based one.
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Sonic Runners

Feb 26
Posted by James at 11:24

While Hardlight Studio handled previous free-to-play Sonic titles Sonic Dash and Sonic Jump, Sonic Team are behind Sonic Runners, a Free-to-Play (F2P) endless runner. The game soft-launched today in Japan and Canada, and having spent 4 hours with it, perhaps the endless runner and 2D Sonic aren't a match made in heaven...

Sonic Runners takes most of the hallmarks of classic Sonic - loop-de-loops, springs, ramps, enemies to bounce off - and translates them to the endless runner format. Tapping the screen makes Sonic jump and double-jump, while bouncing off enemies - whether by good timing or by luck - is still as delightfully tactile as ever.

Every so often it'll throw Doctor Eggman your way, and fending him off ramps up the difficulty for the next few thousand metres. Sonic Team have even thrown in the Wisp powerups from Sonic Colours, one of the best received Sonic games in recent times.

While that all sounds great in theory, in practice it's a different story. True to the Endless Runner genre, Sonic Runners never throws the same level layout at you, even if you're playing the same story chapter. While this does wonders for variety and at-the-moment challenge, it does all sorts of wrong to its balancing.

Sonic Runners does its best to incorporate the series' trademark sense of verticality, packing in multi-tiered platforms and boost pads that'll take you into the great unknown above. However, this severely limits your area of view below, and you'll often end up killing off the blue hedgehog and ending that high score run because of cheap deaths that are out of your control. Cheap deaths like leaping off a high platform and straight into a spike pit, or bouncing off an enemy and into a hole.

Elsewhere, some of the mechanics don't fit into a genre that requires precision control. If the time-limited yellow Wisp powerup expires when Sonic is close to a swarm of flying enemies, you're pretty much toast.

Its procedurally generated levels add to this issue, because you can't just figure out and master the best route through the level by retrying - that death was exclusive to your last attempt. As such, these sorts of deaths - which are common if you're good at the game - tend to put you at the mercy of the game's premium currency system.

You can continue where you left off if you hand over some Red Rings, and you'll want to do that because not only was that death cheap, but you probably just spent five or so minutes amassing a great score, (the game even tells you how close you were to your high score if you die). Meanwhile, if you wish to retry the stage from scratch instead, that'll still cost you, since your remaining lives are tied to an energy system.

The good news is that Sonic Runners generously hands out its in-game currency - at least in its current soft-launch state. You'll get large helpings of Red Rings for completing certain milestones, and Doctor Eggman even drops a few when you bash into him, a far cry from Pokémon Shuffle's drip feeding. You'll get an extra life every 15 minutes or so as well, so the wait timers are reasonable.

But even if you can continue or retry that stage at no big cost, it all still boils down to an endless runner game that feels like a mishmash of concepts which don't fit together in a compelling way. Sure, not all deaths will be cheap, as at times you'll certainly become victim of your own poor timing with Sonic's jumping. But being consistent and chasing a high score - arguably the whole point of the genre - becomes a game of unnerving uncertainty, your current run under the ever looming threat of the cheap death.

Meanwhile, Sonic Runners connects to the server whenever you do literally anything, suggesting a chunk of its core balancing and design is metrics-based. While this is pure speculation, it wouldn't be too farfetched to suggest that it's constantly tweaking the game in real time based on your own performance at the game as well as what players are doing (or spending) worldwide. Which in turn instantly makes the game's leaderboards feel redundant.

As it stands right now, in its soft-launched form, Sonic Runners feels aimless to play. And that's not compelling enough when the likes of Bumpy Road, Rayman Jungle Run, Bit.Trip Runner 2, ALONE..., Jetpack Joyride and Alto's Adventure are readily available as some of the best games in the genre.
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Posted by James at 12:16
In surprising news, Square Enix recently announced that they will be bringing Dragon Quest Heroes (a Dragon Quest-themed Dynasty Warriors Spinoff) to the west, but only on PS4.

This would be the first original release in the series since 2010's Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 to see a western release. It's been a while.
Interestingly, it's a PS4 exclusive in the west, the PS3 version being strangely absent from Square Enix's release plans.

2014's UK software sales were certainly indicative of an emerging trend. From last month's analysis:

Both PS3 and Xbox 360 software sales saw sizable declines in 2014 - declines which are in close range to overall PS4 and Xbox One software sales growth for the year. This is especially surprising given how the biggest releases of the year are cross-generation, indicating strong current-gen uptake for both software as well as hardware. Expect publishers to start dropping the older systems from here on out.

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