Blizzard + PopCap = World Domination?

May 13, 2009

blizzard_popcap_image_web

Blizzard announced yesterday that it has hired VP Greg Canessa away from PopCap Games. That’s right: the father of hardcore gaming bastions like World of Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo has decided it could learn a thing or two from the company that brought Bejeweled to stay-at-home mothers everywhere. Is this the Twilight Zone?

There seems to be an article written about the rise in casual gaming every other day, but until recently, casual gaming has existed in its own quirky bubble, totally separate from any conversations involving the so-called “hardcore gamer.” Even as the casual gaming world scored hits like Diner Dash and Puzzle Pirates, the gaming industry (and media) continued to treat its growing casual audience as something entirely different than its traditionally-held image of a “gamer.” After all, what could Red Bull swilling, twenty-something, male PS3 owners have in common with your Mahjong-loving mom?

Maybe more than we think. Casual game developer PopCap Games has roared into the spotlight recently, riding on the back of hits like Peggle and the recently released Plants vs. Zombies. What separates these games from the throng of competition is a beautifully executed mission statement: to weave hardcore gaming concepts into universally accessible formats. The result? Crossover appeal that has broken entirely new ground.

When it first became clear that Peggle had somehow struck a chord with both casual AND hardcore gamers, Clive Thompson proposed that where casual fans saw a light-hearted game of chance, hardcore gamers recognized a devious challenge of skill. Which audience is right? The answer, which also explains the game’s massive success across platforms, is that both groups are right. On the surface, Peggle appears to be a game of luck (it does look just like Plinko on The Price is Right, after all), and it can be played successfully as such. Once you bounce a ball off your first target, who knows where it will bounce next? And for the casual audience, that mystery just might hold the fun of it all.

But take a deeper look, as hardcore gamers are wont to do, and you begin to realize that the game engine’s physics allow you to predict where the ball will land several bounces down the line. Which is a big implication, because it means that Peggle can also be played as a game of skill. Doing so takes an almost obsessive level of patience, but couldn’t the same be said for reaching level 70 in WoW? PopCap struck audience crossover gold by weaving traditionally hardcore gaming tenets into a casual, non-intimidating format. In other words: simple to learn, difficult to master.

plants-vs-zombiesIt should come as no surprise then, that PopCap built its latest hit, Plants vs. Zombies, on the same adage. They have upped the ante this time by constructing a casual game with building blocks lifted from one of the most hardcore genres in existence: Real Time Strategy. Plants vs. Zombies is built to pull in your mother with its humor, cartoon graphics, and forgiving learning curve. But before she knows it, she will be harvesting resources, upgrading her weapons, and allocating strategic defensive structures. It’s Command & Conquer in a colorful candy coating.

PopCap isn’t out to reinvent the wheel: Plants vs. Zombies is basically a tower defense game, and these have been done almost to death. What separates this studio from the crowd is its ability to perfectly balance the casual and hardcore aspects of its games. The resulting crossover appeal allows PopCap to do one other thing differently than almost every other casual developer: make lots and lots of money.

Which explains why PopCap’s senior executives are hot commodities. Make no mistake, WoW prints money with its monthly subscription fees, but Blizzard is well aware that its audience is strictly hardcore. After all, how is one supposed to make a level-grinding, fantasy role-playing game about orcs and elves appeal to the Bejeweled crowd? Blizzard doesn’t know the answer either, but it’s betting that if anyone does, it’s the PopCap braintrust. If their bet pans out, then the gaming industry is about to be in for a paradigm shift. You’ll recognize world domination by its first sign: the day your mom calls to see if you’re free for a raid.


Things I Learned from Fallout 3

May 4, 2009

The Post-Apocalyptia Survival Guide

Just in time for the looming nuclear apocalypse, Bethesda Studios has delivered a survival training course for our inevitable future, in the guise of Fallout 3. To maximize your chances of survival in the horrific future that is almost upon you, I urge you to play this game immediately. But for those of you who cannot, please take the time to review the following vital lessons you WOULD have learned if you had valued your own life enough to play Fallout 3. Don’t say I never tried to save your life…

1. Might Makes Right
The local ruffians you will encounter outside of tomorrow’s towns may act tough, but you can show ‘em who’s boss by one-upping them at their own game. When the goons whip out their rusty brass knuckles and splintered police batons, simply counter with your sawed off shotgun, .44 magnum, 10mm submachine gun, alien plasma rifle, flamethrower, and cluster-firing nuclear missile launcher. Any weapon known to the townsfolk as a “Man Opener” will also suffice, in a pinch.

Gatling gun > soiled trousers

Gatling gun > soiled trousers

2. Remember that Abraham Lincoln was a Badass
Honest Abe will probably not be reanimated during the nuclear holocaust, but this doesn’t mean that his bloodthirsty spirit can’t live on through you. If you manage to locate any museums dedicated to Abe during your wasteland travels, be sure to search the displays inside for some of his old weapons. His repeating rifle was the scourge of Stephen Douglas, who once wrote that “the dread firearm wouldst surely explodeth the head of any Super Mutant in one volley.”

Honest Abe Packed Heat

Honest Abe Packed Heat

3. Don’t Drink From the Toilet
Of course the urinal water in the subway bathrooms will LOOK delicious, but don’t be fooled: it is almost certain to be critically contaminated with harmful radiation. This same rule of thumb holds true for any mouth-watering urinal cakes that may have survived the apocalypse as well. If you are simply unable to resist the temptation to partake, be sure to check the floor in the toilet stalls for any partially vaporized junkie skeletons that may still be clutching useful anti-radiation pills. Remember: one pill cancels out one tantalizingly irradiated urinal cake!

4. Save those Bottlecaps!
In the event of nuclear holocaust, society will revert to an economy built entirely around the intrinsic and timeless value of shiny objects. Bottlecaps are sure to be the currency of choice, but you would be wise to diversify your portfolio by hoarding any beads, shells, and bits of quartz you may find. Precious metals will have no value, unless you have the engineering credentials to construct some sort of deadly shoulder-mounted debris launcher. In this event, the metals could serve as makeshift ammunition, and therefore be upgraded to the value of a teddy bear, or even a severed limb.

5. Learn a Valuable Skill
You COULD spend your free time learning how to be extra sneaky or a savvy barterer, but before you do, consider the limited value that these skills will return in a post-Armageddon wasteland. Anything you desire can be better gained through more marketable talents, such as lockpicking or computer hacking. Would you rather be the chatterbox trying desperately to negotiate a slight discount with the town merchant, or the guy who’s already behind the counter, opening the safe? Bonus: if the safe contains a gun, you can use it to shoot the other customers who are wasting their time negotiating, then loot their corpses and sell what you find to the shopkeeper yourself! Who’s the savvy one now?

There you have it. Simply remember these five survival tips, and you will drastically increase your odds of survival in post-apocalyptia. Oh, and one last thing: if you’re not a fan of the vocal group The Ink Spots, you may want to bring ear plugs.

fallout3_wasteland1


World of Goo review

May 1, 2009

OK, so this review is a few months late. I’ve…been busy?

World of Goo

world-of-gooImagine that you are in charge of a major game studio. Under pressure to meet this year’s budget, you have a choice: take a risk on a brand new IP that may fall flat or churn out the eleventh installment in a franchise that will make a guaranteed buck?

If you chose the guaranteed buck, you’re not alone. We see the results of that decision on store shelves every day, as the studio bosses milk third and fourth sequels out of every reliable cow in their gaming barns. Innovation has stagnated as the gaming industry has grown to look more and more like its Hollywood cousin. Are we doomed to a fate of perpetual sequels?

We might have been, if not for an opposing industry movement that also happens to mimic the evolution of Hollywood: the rise of the independent developer. Compact budgets and streamlined development teams allow these upstarts to take chances on original game ideas that the major studios wouldn’t dare touch. World of Goo is the product of this environment, and with its release, developer 2D Boy has given us a promising representation of the capabilities of these small independent studios. It also happens to be one of the best games of the year.

World of Goo is so simple to understand that it doesn’t even come with an instruction manual. When you boot it up and find your way to the first stage, you will be greeted by a wooden sign that reads, “Drag ‘n’ drop to build to the pipe.” That’s it. You now know how to play the game! OK, almost.

What you will drag and drop throughout your World of Goo adventure are friendly goo balls. They have no minds of their own, beyond happily crawling all over the structures that you will use them to build. You see, the goo balls are actually slimy building blocks good for constructing towers, bridges, ropes and more, all in the name of reaching the stage’s goal: a single pipe. Any goo balls that you don’t use as structural elements will climb their way into the pipe and count toward your captured goo total. Use too many, and you won’t be able to meet the stage’s requirement for captured goo. See the balancing act?

The challenge of the game lies less in goo ball conservation however, and more in simply reaching the pipe at all. You will gain a new respect for architects as you struggle to build swaying skyscrapers that won’t collapse and carefully weighted bridges to span monumental chasms. You will become frustrated with your own inability to reach certain pipes that seem barely out of reach, but rarely with the game itself: the physics engine is pitch-perfect, and it’s immensely satisfying to observe everything in the goo world behaving just like it should. Even more satisfying is finally completing a tricky level by learning to use the world’s physics to your own advantage.

One edge the big studios typically hold over the little guys lies in video and audio production value. Not so here. 2D Boy went with a distinctive art style that hearkens to Tim Burton, but stands on its own so well that were you to see this artwork totally out of context, you would immediately know exactly what game it belonged to. Talk about branding. This game is colorful, mischievous, and knows how to laugh at itself. I particularly enjoyed reading the scattered messages left behind by the mysterious Sign Painter, which often break the fourth wall between game and player.

The music deserves its own recognition. In great circumstances, a game’s music perfectly complements the on-screen action, creating a full sensory experience. So what do you call it when the music brings the game to an entirely new level? The pace of frantic levels is heightened by song choice, and particularly devilish challenges are raised to epic proportions by music that may as well have come straight out of The Lord of the Rings. All of the sound effects exceed expectations, including the goo ball screams that are as funny the hundredth time as they are the first. To give you an idea of the sound quality at work, my fiancée played only a few levels of the game, but is now addicted to the soundtrack we downloaded from the game’s official website.

Buy this game if you like any of the following: puzzles, architecture, physics, symphonies, Tim Burton, rooting for the little guy, raging against the machine, fun.

For knowing exactly what it wants to be and achieving its vision with flair, I give World of Goo a 10/10.


Video Games Live review – April 25, 2009 – Richmond, VA

April 29, 2009

videogameslive1I was driving leisurely across town six weeks ago when I first saw the giant green banner draped across the front of Richmond’s Landmark Theater:

VIDEO GAMES LIVE – Saturday, April 25

Pedestrians hurled themselves to the sidewalks as I floored the accelerator, suddenly in a race against time to get home and to ticketmaster.com.

For the uninitiated, Video Games Live is a symphony concert featuring video game music of all eras. From Asteroids and Defender to Zelda and Halo, the best sounds and songs of gaming are given full body by a live classical orchestra and accompanying thirty-person choir.

I first heard about the show in 2005 when creators Jack Wall and Tommy Tallarico staged the inaugural performance in Hollywood. As the concert has grown and even moved on tour, I have waited for my chance to attend a performance, but I never expected to be able to do so right here in Richmond, Virginia. It was with great excitement that I bought my tickets that afternoon, and after finally seeing the show this past weekend, I’m even more excited to say that it did not disappoint.

Wall and Tallarico have a massive music catalogue to draw upon, and they take full advantage. Richmond was the 100th performance of VGL (w00t!), and yet no two shows have had the same set list! Here is the list of songs from April 25th, 2009:

Classic Arcade medley (w/ Richmond Symphony Chorus)
Metal Gear Solid (w/ RSC)
God of War (w/ RSC and soloist Claudia Carroll)
Space Invaders
Civilization IV (w/ RSC and soloists Jane Riddle & Scott Meadows)
Final Fantasy Piano Solo (Martin Leung)
Metroid
Zelda

Intermission

Kingdom Hearts
Sonic (w/ RSC)
Warcraft (w/ RSC)
Mario (w/ RSC)
Mario Piano Solo (Martin Leung)
Chrono Cross/Chrono Trigger
Interactive Guitar Hero event (w/ RSC)
Halo Suite and Halo 3 (w/ RSC)
One Winged Angel (Final Fantasy VII) (w/ RSC)
Castlevania Rock

As a wee bit of a Nintendo sycophant, the highlights of the show for me were hearing the soul-stirring Zelda theme in full symphonic glory and marveling at the talent of Martin Leung, aka “Video Game Pianist.”

Leung was still a teenager when he achieved universal college dorm room fame in 2004. A video of the blindfolded Leung playing music from Super Mario Bros. on the piano appeared on the Internet, and was soon viewed 40 million times. One year later, the Video Game Pianist had accepted an offer to join Video Games Live.

Videos of Martin Leung can now be seen all over the Web, but nothing quite compares to witnessing him bang out flawless renditions of Final Fantasy and Super Mario tunes, grinning like a blindfolded Cheshire Cat. Just when I thought a piano could not possibly be played any faster, cheers of appreciation from the audience encouraged Leung to kick it up another notch. A standing ovation confirmed that the kid was a hit with everyone in attendance; games and non-gamers alike.

Which brings me to the surprising diversity of the crowd. I expected to find only game geeks and cosplayers at VGL, but I was in fact surrounded by people of all ages and descriptions. From bouncing school children to couples on dates to older patrons of the arts, an eclectic crowd packed the Landmark Theater. I saw one married couple that had to be in their seventies, dressed in full formal wear, showing what looked like a true appreciation for the music of God of War.

When it comes to broad appeal, it helps that the show’s production level ranges from fantastic to absolutely awe-inspiring. During most song elections, three giant video screens on stage displayed scenes from the games being highlighted. Some of the video selections could have been tightened up (the Mario set included clips from what seemed like every game that has ever included the plumber) but the clips usually complemented the music nicely, and the show’s visual aspects often took the concert to another level.

During Metal Gear Solid, a cardboard box snuck stealthily onto stage, followed closely by an armed military guard. When a lit exclamation point suddenly appeared over the guard’s head, the audience loudly expressed their appreciation for this attention to detail. Similarly, well-selected clips of Final Fantasy VII’s villainous Sephiroth reignited emotional memories during the encore performance of One Winged Angel.

After years of hearing about this show, Video Games Live lived up to the hype. I walked out of the theater high on nostalgia and eager to hurry home and play some games. As I loaded Mass Effect that night in my apartment, I reached over and turned up the speakers a few extra notches. With VGL’s ever-evolving set list, this just might be the music I rock to the next time the show comes to town.