Archive | June 2015

Hooked On A Feelie

For those of you not in the know, a “feelie” is anything physical that comes with a game. This includes instruction manuals, maps and night vision goggles (no, really). Feelies were extremely common in the earlier days of home PC gaming, and it was basically a given that any game would come with some extra stuff. If you’re reading this, you probably know that’s no longer the case – games rarely even come with rudimentary instruction manuals, unless you fork out extra money for a “Collector’s Edition” bundled with some sort of excessive bullshit (again, this really happened).

I’m not sure I can pinpoint exactly when feelies became uncommon, but it seems to somehow correlate with the advent of console games. PC games continued to come bundled with feelies (most often maps, especially in adventure games) but for console games, it’s always been much rarer (which may have something to do with the word “feelie”, which is just awful).

"I just said I wanted to give her a feelie"

“I just said I wanted to give her a feelie”

The term “feelie” was actually coined by Infocom to refer to the stuff bundled with their own games, which unfortunately caught on – learn to love the word, though, because it’s used a lot more in this write up.

Having said that, I think feelies are potentially very interesting. It’s funny that developers are taking such big steps to bring gaming more into the physical world (motion / voice controls, VR, Augmented Reality) while mostly ditching the idea of feelies. One of my current projects uses feelies as a game mechanic, and it’s something I’d love to see more of – though I understand it’s probably not commercially viable, I’d love to see where the idea could lead.

Some games have done this already, in interesting ways. I’ll take every chance I get to talk about Metal Gear Solid, so my first example is Metal Gear Solid 1, in which the player needs a certain radio frequency to progress. A character tells you that the code is “on the case”. If you’re anything like me, you spent a couple of hours running around looking for a case, when he was referring to this:Metal_Gear_Solid_ntsc-back

Hey-o, it’s on the back of your physical game case! This is a great fourth-wall breaking puzzle, but comes with problems innate to feelies as a game mechanic; they’re separate from the game by definition. If you were to hire this game, there’s a chance you’d have one of those clear plastic cases instead, which would render the puzzle impossible. If you download it from the PlayStation Network now you get the same puzzle, but have to look at the online instruction manual to find the image, which renders your only clue obsolete. Though flawed, it’s a neat idea.

Way back when, feelies were also used as a way to squeeze more story and information into games with small file sizes. Back when ideas were bigger than games, back-story and character building were often left to instruction manuals or similar booklets. They were also used in place of poor graphics, with character illustrations used to show what the sprites represented.

That combined with higher quantities of games being produced certainly contributed to the decline of feelies, though we’re still seeing them in many special editions, as mentioned. I personally missed the main age group for feelies (I didn’t play PC games until I was well into high school), but I always loved thick instruction manuals. There was something about reading those suckers that got me so excited to play the game, and it’s something I really miss (especially now that I buy all my games digitally).

In the end, I imagine the sheer amount of work and money that goes into feelies is no longer worth it. This is why collector’s editions usually cost extra and are only in limited supply, and why most games don’t come bundled with even basic military equipment. Combined with improved graphics, mass production and more, I don’t see feelies coming back in a big way any time in the near future. While I think there are potentially interesting applications, it seems unlikely.

What do you think about feelies? Do you have any fond memories (or bad ones)? Let me know, and thanks for reading!

New Project and Milestones

Back at university, and our next project is already well-underway. We’re building a quick 6-week project in Unreal 4, and again, we’re going with an Oculus project. This time, however, there’s a much better reason for it – it’s really core to our gameplay, as you’ll see in a little bit. Last time the Oculus was used for immersion – which was nice, but I don’t think it’s fair to say it was necessary for our game. We’ve also learned a lot from last time (our team has a few of the same members), which will hopefully prove invaluable.

The game is currently titled Space Whispers, though it’s a very much a working title. The game is exclusively two player, with one player in an Oculus Rift using a Razer Hydra controller, and the other player using nothing but physical sheets of paper. We’re trying a few different things here, and I’m really excited to see how we go with mixing virtual and physical gameplay.

The player in the Oculus (hereby “Player One”) is in sitting in the center of an engine room for a space ship. Unfortunately, the ship is in the process of exploding, because the cooling system has been broken – and it’s their job to fix it. They do this by taking spare parts found in their environment and assembling them in a certain pattern on a grid (within a time limit). Their job is fairly simple – except they don’t know what the pattern is.

Luckily, the other player (“Player Two”) has a set of physical instructions (inspired by IKEA assembly instructions), which are used to explain what pieces to put where. The challenge comes from trying to communicate which objects go where, without either player being able to see what the other can.

Step_One

Anyone who has technology-impaired relatives or friends should be familiar with the feeling – being in a situation where you have to explain what to do, but can’t see what the other person can see (say, over the phone). It’s innately frustrating, which I’m a bit worried about – we’re doing some paper prototype tests in the next couple of days to see if it’s more frustrating than fun when translated into a game.

All-in-all, though, I’m optimistic. It’s a relatively small project, which makes it easier to manage; we’ll also hopefully have more time for polish than we usually do. Our team is relatively large (a total of six people), which is probably superfluous, but allows anyone with extra time to begin work on our next project, so it’s not a problem.

We decided to go with Unreal over Unity because of our previous experiences. It’s true we had some serious issues packaging our last project, but we now know that the key reason was that plugins are utterly broken in the recent 4.7 iterations of Unreal, which is something we can avoid. Otherwise, we had a very smooth ride with the engine, and especially appreciate the native Oculus Rift support (for those that are unaware, it’s literally “plug’n’play”).

My primary concerns at the moment are that Player Two won’t be enjoying themselves as much, or that Player One will be stuck in a situation where they have nothing to do until Player Two gets their shit together. We’ve tried to mitigate these in a couple of ways;

Firstly, the engine room will be interesting. Pipes will begin to burst, the engines will spin faster and alarms will blare as the timer counts down, and Player One should be taking stock of the objects around them in their down time, if they even get any. I’m hoping this makes it a bit more interesting for Player One if Player Two is taking their sweet time, but we’ll see come testing.

Secondly, we’ve tried to make the instructions a bit interesting. Player Two shouldn’t really have any downtime, but in the event that they do, we’ve scattered jokes amidst the pages, and tried to make them all interesting in their own way. We’re also trying to promote interaction that goes both ways – Player Two has instructions for three different models of ship, and only one is relevant for Player One – Player One has to figure out which model they’re working on and relay that information to Player Two.

At the moment, that’s our primary means of Player One interacting with Player Two, but depending on how testing goes, we can add more. The worst case scenario is that Player Two talks to Player One a lot, they fix the ship and go home. Ideally, they’ll scream at each other for a few minutes, fail and try again. Then again, and again, and again. This is the kind of game we want people to play with their friends when they’re drinking – not the kind of game people play alone in their underwear trying to get the highest rank in every mission.

I cannot wait.

I cannot wait.

So, frantic miscommunication is key. As I mentioned previously, we want players to struggle to communicate the instructions, but they’re actually fairly clear at the moment – we’ll need to see how people go with the current set of instructions and refine them from here.

Luckily, our lecturers have set a series of milestones for us to meet, so we don’t have any last-minute failure fiascos. Our first milestone is an Alpha build, this Friday (12/06/2015). I’m pretty confident we’ll meet this – the game likely won’t have a proper win (or fail) state, but we should be in a situation where it’s otherwise playable. From there, we’ll implement the final mechanics in plenty of time for the Beta, two weeks afterwards – the 26th. This build is basically the game, minus some polish – though because our game is relatively light on mechanics, I think we’ll manage to make these two milestones.

Two weeks after that, we present the finished product. If we meet the Beta deadline, all that awaits between weeks 4 – 6 are lots of testing, polishing and refinement, which is great. If we’re not in a good situation for the Beta, we’ll struggle to make a really great game, and probably end up with something much less than ideal – so hopefully we manage to avoid that.

I’m optimistic, though. The project is relatively small (though, that’s because we’re in pre-production on two others) and we’re all focused on getting it made. I’ll be updating every week (hopefully more) with how the project is going, as well as posting screenshots.

Thanks for reading!

The Pros and Cons of Gender Equality in Games

Feminism has been a hot topic lately, especially in certain circles of hardcore gamers. It turns out that a lot of young, straight white males have some very strong feelings about equality, and why it shouldn’t exist – so I thought I’d examine some of the pros and cons of having gender equality properly represented in video games.

Pros:

  • Equality would potentially attract new players to gaming, providing a financial boost to the industry.
  • Games would have a more positive cultural impact.
  • Games may contain female characters that amount to more than boobs with guns.
  • Women in role-playing games would finally get armour that covers more than their nipples.
  • Along the way, we could bear witness to more cunning and witty hashtags like #WomenAreWrong or #GamerGate.
  • The Mad Max game could be entirely about Furiosa, like the movie.
  • You could move on to discriminating against a different, potentially more interesting group.
  • Kotaku would get off our backs.

Cons:

  • If women felt like they could play more video games, they may spend less time ironing.
  • Many of us could no longer turn to video games as an alternative to soft pornography.
  • Talking to strangers over a mic is already intimidating, but talking to women is nearly impossible.
  • Implementing equality sounds difficult.
  • Many of those pushing for equality would suddenly find themselves without much to do.
  • It may become much harder to justify online tantrums.
  • Without suffering through discrimination, women of the future may become weak and ineffectual.