mercoledì 3 agosto 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 4: Fast engaging characters, how?

martedì 2 agosto 2016

Speed Oddities: embracing the flaws in Genki games

When we think about racing games, names like Gran Turismo, Forza Motorsport and Need for Speed are unquestionably the most popular in town. Over the years, we saw those series routinely set new standards in terms of polish, accessibility and mass market appeal, their influence bleeding into every declination of the genre's landscape - from hardcore simulations to pure arcade racers. Raising the people's expectations towards the category since the late nineties to such an high extent, though, had both good and not so good implications: on one hand, the overall quality of the products rose accordingly, while on the other, developers that used to do things a little bit differently ended up falling by the wayside somehow, especially in the West, and that includes the japanese Genki.

I've never concealed my appreciation for this studio, born in 1990 and firmly rooted in the racing genre (but they did Jade Cocoon for the PS1 in 1998 too, a lovely JRPG). Awkward logo aside, most people will probably recognize them for the Shutokou Battle racing series, known outside of Japan as Tokyo Xtreme Racer, Tokyo Highway Battle, Import Tuner Challenge or Street Supremacy, depending on the publisher. Born in 1994 on the SNES, this longstanding saga had 10 main releases up until 2006, when it was officially discontinued, and something like 11 spinoffs that dabbled with its core gameplay in interesting ways. Western developers recognized Shutokou Battle's importance by embedding some of its tropes (japanese cars, the focus on tuning, high speed public roads used as racing tracks, especially at night) into hit series like Need for Speed Underground, Midnight Club and Juiced.

Despite sharing some of its elements with the titles we've just mentioned, the core racing dynamics and rules in Genki's products are apart from all of them - so far apart, in fact, that they could even be considered the main factors behind the generally mixed reception of Shutokou Battle in the West during its 10 years run. To better understand why, let's try to sum up the Genki driving experience: racing occurs mainly on the Shuto Expressway, a sprawling system of highways that encompasses four prefectures (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Saitama), and is articulated in multi-lane routes with tunnels and elevated roads, all faithfully reproduced in the games but most importantly, blazed through at speeds far north of 186 mph (300 kph).

In Shutokou Battle, the fun emerges as the player becomes more and more aware of how to exploit the game systems' interactions - not by cherry picking and dismissing them for not being as elegant or refined than [insert any big racing game name here]

The extreme speeds makes breaking, cornering or even the basic lane changing maneuver far more dangerous and complicated than they should be, courtesy of some very deliberate vehicle dynamics: straight breaking at 300 kph screws up the cars' weight distribution, making them swerve nervously until the player tames them with equally nervous wheel corrections. Understeer affects each and every single car to various degrees, so the cornering phase has to be set up as early as possible in order to send the vehicle into a state of controllable drift: there's a precise timing for this, but randomized traffic placed in trajectory can make its evaluation pretty hard, so it's easier sometimes to just ram into the barriers and let them do the job.

martedì 26 luglio 2016

Power vs hardware design: assessing the Nintendo (NX) way

Following a report by Digital Foundry on what is supposed to be the hardware design of the still mysterious Nintendo NX, gamers have flooded the wide spectrum of social networks - be it forums, sub-reddits, Facebook or anything else - with opinions on whether the company's alleged new design is going to make it or break it. Especially when I read comments about consoles being underpowered, I realize how poor is the general understanding of why they were designed the way they were. In the same way, talks of the NX being either dead on arrival or a godsend sounds a bit silly to me. Internal software library, third party support, functions and price are what defines success in this market space, and the points every new console should be judged upon.

Sure, having 1080p/60Hz out of the box is nice, but it comes just as late in the generation as the WiiU did, with the consequences we've all seen. The NX is relatively close to launching, yet third party support looks sparse and despite the uniqueness of Nintendo's internal offering, its appeal towards an extremely diversified mainstream market doesn't seem particularly strong on the software side. For instance, I'd like to see Nintendo experiment outside of their historical brands' comfort zone, either by creating actual new IPs or better valorising the neglected ones.

Internal software library, third party support, functions and price are what defines success in the console market space, and the points every new machine should be judged upon

What about Nintendo's approach to hardware design? I believe the informations coming through Digital Foundry to be accurate: providing controllers that you can either use at home and interface with a TV screen, or carry outside of your lounge at any moment's notice caters to the same, immense smartphone users demographic that is so engaged with Pokemon GO these days. This could influence the company's home software plans massively, and I'm really interested to see if this is actually the direction Nintendo wants to go for.

It's not a matter of hardware, really. It's all about vision, strategy and contents - these are the fields where Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are going to clash hard, no matter how (or even if) they'll try to distance themselves from one another.

sabato 2 luglio 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 3: On the need for elegant game design

lunedì 20 giugno 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 2: A Game of Timings

domenica 19 giugno 2016

#RAPIDFIRE - 1: How do you do stop-gap consoles?

Hello everyone! Today, I'm going to start a little column on Videogames Beyonder titled #RAPIDFIRE: it is based on concise, straight to the point opinions that makes for very fast reads, but with more breathing space than Twitter's strict 140 bar less characters rule. Hopefully it'll enable more frequent updates to the blog too :) Text blocks on #RAPIDFIRE will be formatted differently from regular articles in order to make them identifiable at first sight; the format may change over time to further improve readability. Let's start with a topic that went on fire in the very last days:

 "Microsoft's E3 showed a complete misanderstanding over Sony's PS4 NEO update model: 4K is a major step up from today's gaming standards that even the most powerful gfx cards can't handle at high framerates. 98% of PC gamers still plays on Full HD displays.   To be acceptable in marketing terms, mid generation refreshes should either consolidate the de facto gaming standards (true 1080p/60fps) or bump them up in a slight but perceptible way: antialiased HDR 1620p/60fps games + 4K video support for 400$, 4 years into the cycle? Gimme!"

EDIT 06/20: 40 chars per line, 15 lines/600 chars spaces included at best. Seems like an acceptable format.

giovedì 16 giugno 2016

The clash of identities at E3 2016

While the Internet is full of journalists, analysts and commentators predicating the progressive loss of relevance of gaming trade shows, common people still floods these events year after year, eager to dive into the restless stream of content that the industry churns out, both in the hardware and software departments. 3 years into a new console generation, fairs like E3 serves more as an indicator of what the market balances are, what the developers are able to do with machines they've properly gotten to grasp with, and how the manifacturers' commercial offering shapes up their identity. I'd like to elaborate on the latter point, and more specifically on what are the overarching reasons why people are more attracted to Sony or Microsoft at this point in time.

Redmond's giant played out its E3 2016 conference on an alternation of tones that gave it an enjoyable rhythm: it started with a Battlefield 1 demo focused on its expansive 64 players online battles, followed by a more light-hearted overview of Dead Rising 4's over the top undead carnage. The hot trail of action went on with a colossal boss fight demo of Final Fantasy XIV, a live multiplayer session for the paint-trade friendly Forza Horizon 3, and a blood drowned run through a campaign mission in Gears of War 4. Action seems to be the underlining theme at Xbox, along with a pronounced taste for big scales and online interactions that projects a very dynamic, "in your face" image to consumers. Sure, there's more subtlety to be found among the platform's independent offering, but it's not something that really transpires from the company's communication, and experiences like the aforementioned ones tends to get more time under the spotlights. As the wording of Project Scorpio's annoucement demonstrates ("The most powerful console ever", "Uncompromised 4K gaming"), the company adresses a crowd which is more sensible to impact messaging.  

Things gets pretty different on Sony's court. The japanese company has always strived to valorize more nuanced, alternative contents on its platforms, resorting to impressive presentation styles: at this year's E3, they brought a full orchestra and had it score the biggest demos live, on the fly. The trick added a further emotional layer to Kratos' return as a father in God of War, and more atmosphere to the gritty apocalyptic open world of Days Gone. Speaking of worlds, one thing that this generation of PlayStation titles is doing on a regular basis is opening up to exploration and experiencial narrative: whether it's full-on open worlds like Horizon: Zero Dawn's or wide sandboxes à la Uncharted 4 and God of War, space seems to play a key role on the visual expression of games this side of the barricade. The Last Guardian will have players constantly checking out their surroundings for ways to leverage the interaction between the hero and his animal companion, and the same goes for the criminally overlooked Gravity Rush 2 with its physics altering mechanics. Along with a strong, recurring attention to heroes' design and characterisation (Detroit: Become Human), these elements seems to resonate greatly with Sony's audience.

There's both a necessity and a struggle to mix things up while mantaining a certain degree of uniqueness - in other words, a reason for people to choose one product over the other

It is interesting to point out these differences in a time where the gaming offering, on both sides of the pond, is getting somehow more homogeneous in its pursuit of diversity. After all, there's an infinite landscape of tastes to cater to, and manifacturers are modulating their software lineups accordingly: Microsoft is more inclined to put light-hearted things like Sunset Overdrive and ReCore on the forefront, while Sony is cutting down on the racing and shooting departments to reinforce its focus on exclusive, atmospheric AAA titles. There's both a necessity and a struggle to mix things up while mantaining a certain degree of uniqueness (in other words, a reason for people to choose one product over the other). This leads to an evolving exchange in communication styles where Microsoft's "call to power" about Scorpio sounds like a more extreme take on what Sony did with the PS4.

As discussed in a previous article, the way new hardware is going to be introduced in the coming months will change the market's configuration in ways that we've never seen before, but let's not underestimate how the shape of both manifacturers' identities is going to evolve as a result.