Archive for June, 2013

It occurred to me that my 9.5 review of Game Dev Tycoon might require a little clarification, especially considering that Skyrim (occupying the #1 and #3 slots at more than 18 months post-release) received only a 9. Am I cutting slack to an indie that I wouldn’t cut to a AAA developer? You bet your sweet ass I am.

In my mind (and you are certainly welcome to disagree), it comes down to resource allocation and usage. What were they able to accomplish with the resources at their disposal?

Greenheart is a fiddling small developer. They are a bit bigger than “a couple of guys working out of their garage” (aka Jobs and Wozniak), at least to judge by the game credits, but still small fry. They developed a game that, had it come from a major developer, would have undoubtedly earned a boatload of negative reviews. It is not a slick game. It does not have an interesting interface. It has annoyingly repetitive sound. Its graphics are borderline cheesy. There are exceptionally annoying elements to the gameplay (yes, those pop-ups still drive me to distraction, even though I know they’re coming). It has a pretty high frustration factor, unclear information on what the player is doing wrong (it occasionally tells you what you’re doing right) and a host of other problems.

But they are not a major developer. So should I hold things against them that they might not have had the resources to be able to fix? Should I expect the same qualities from a team with limited capabilities as I expect from a team that can hire the best of the best? Is every game, regardless of source, held to the same standard?

There are many of you out there who would burn me for a heretic (figuratively, anyway) for saying it, but I think the answer is a resounding “no”. One should not expect the same results from a small indie as one should expect from a major developer. And I think the reason for that is pretty obvious.

I am not a professional writer. If you haven’t figured that out by now, well there it is. My areas of study are history, economics, philosophy, and a good chunk of IT. Aside from a couple of required writing and literature classes, my journalism background is about as close to zero as you can get and still claim some degree of competence. But in spite of those handicaps, I sit down and write what I think will be useful and hope will be at least somewhat entertaining. In a head-to-head writing contest with someone who does this for a living, I’d get pwned every time.

The same reasoning, I think, is applicable to small indies. In a head-to-head contest with a major development company, the indie game isn’t even in the ballpark. They don’t have the same access to talent, they can’t draw on the same resources, and they are limited in the approaches that they can take… In short, they get pwned.

So, yes, I think it’s fair to hold different developers to different standards. If Firaxis had turned out Game Dev Tycoon, I’d be severely disappointed. Even though I generally like their games, the level of quality and sophistication they can achieve is significantly higher than what shows up in GDT. Greenheart, on the other hand, lacks that capability. Considering that “handicap”, they turned out an outstanding little game. I’d like to see more from them. Hopefully they will see where they can improve and their next outing will be even better. That’s really what it’s all about – propter ludos ludum.

Quill18, a YouTube’r that I watch occasionally, uploaded a short “Let’s Play” video of an indie game called “Game Dev Tycoon” about a week ago. The game was developed by Greenheart Games and was released about six months ago. A preview “Lite” version had been available for about six or eight months prior and a free demo version is currently available. The full version of the game is $8 and is can be purchased directly from the developers for Windows (up to Windows 7), Mac and Linux. If you are running Windows 8, you can purchase the game from the Windows Store. It will be available on Steam sometime in August. The developers promise Steam keys to current purchasers once it become available on Steam.

I haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to the indie scene as I used to and was simply amazed at the quality of the game. Keep in mind that “the indie scene” is only a comparatively recent thing in my mind. For a big chunk of the game’s time, the field was dominated by indies and major publishers were few. It is only recently that the field has become dominated by major houses and indies have become a bit of a backwater.

The game starts in the mid-1980s. In reality, video games predate that by close to 10 years and I don’t want to think about the number of quarters I shoved into “Pong” in the late 70s or into the likes of Pac Man and Donkey Kong in the early 80s. You are an aspiring game developer working out of your garage. Your aim is to dominate the video game market by releasing hit games, becoming a AAA game producer, developing and licensing your own game engines and eventually developing and selling your own hardware.

You have 30 years to reach your goal, but failure,in the form of bankruptcy, waits for the foolhardy. Along the way you will get to see some of the more notable (or forgettable) systems that have come and gone, choose platforms that meet your development and audience needs and crank out games of various types and genres. Easter eggs abound. For me, it was quite the trip down memory lane, although I am sure that younger gamers will look on a lot of this as being ancient history.

Story: 9.5 (“story” is a stretch – there is none; “premise” would be more accurate)
Graphics: 7
Gameplay: 7
Sound: 8
Replay: 10
Overall: 9.5 (not an aggregate or average)

Story: there isn’t much to tell beyond what I gave in the description. There is no story, just a premise for why you are doing what you are doing it. It’s a very good premise and the game supports it in every way. It’s simple, to-the-point, mostly believable and engaging.

Graphics: this is not a shooter or adventure, so don’t expect anything flashy. Simple 2D cartoony animations is about the extent of it. But it doesn’t require anything more, so that 7 is mostly just a heads-up that you shouldn’t be expecting anything eye-popping. The graphics fit very well with the rest of the game and it shouldn’t strain even a budget system.

Gameplay: there is a lot going on behind the scenes. You choose how to best allocate your development time into game engines, story-writing, quests, sound, gameplay, and the like. You will need to hire employees to help you reach your development goals and allocate their time and skills appropriately. You can focus on design features, go tech-heavy or try to strike a balance between the two. Choose your style, genre, platform, audience and engine components and crank out those games. Very straightforward, but not quite as simple as it sounds.

You will receive messages in the form of pop-ups that tell you about trends in the gaming world, new platforms being introduced, old platforms being retired, where you are in your development cycle and so forth. The low gameplay score is the result of the incessant pop-ups. Just when you’re ready to do something in-game, there is a pop-up that needs to be cleared so that you can continue what you’re doing. All in all, I found it extremely annoying to the point where it had a significant impact on my enjoyment of the game. For the most part, the news pop-ups occur at exactly the same points in time each time you play, so a suggestion to the developers would be to make the pop-ups appear the first time they are supposed to, but make them less intrusive in subsequent games (because there will be subsequent games – that 10 in Replay is there for a reason).

A second, and much more minor complaint has to do game responsiveness, or the lack thereof. Even though it’s likely that most players will be using a mouse to play, there is no right-click option. Everything is left-click and it is sometimes easy to miss your target. At times the game became very unresponsive. I had to dump out with the three-finger salute several times because the game stopped responding to the "<ESC> key. It didn’t happen very often and it mainly occurred when I was wanting to quit the game, anyway, but it unnecessarily raised the frustration factor.

Aside from the major and minor gripes, the rest of the gameplay was very smooth and very simple. This is not to imply that making it through the entire 30-years is simple (it isn’t), but it’s a sim and there is quite a bit of a learning curve on what’s OK at which times to keep yourself afloat, but that’s one of the major appeals of the game. It will certainly present a challenge the first two or three times you play through it. The subsequent challenge will be to repeat or surpass your earlier performance without becoming formulaic.

Sound: I’ll try to be fair on this. My wife found the sound to be exceptionally annoying. After an hour or so of playing, she would invariably come close the door so she didn’t have to listen to it. On the other hand, it didn’t bother me in the slightest. The music and sound effects fit very well within the context of the game and just kind of fade into the background. There is not a Grammy-winning soundtrack to be found here and it is repetitive. Like me, the player will probably just filter it out since they are engaged with the rest of the game. Like my wife, anyone else in the area might take issue with it. There are basic sound controls (master volume, music on/off, and sound effects on/off), so it’s not like there is nothing to be done for the rest of the house. Just be warned and maybe keep a set of headphones handy. All in all, the sound worked very well within the context of the game.

Replay: The game is not likely to become anyone’s obsession. It’s not horribly long. The whole 30 years can be knocked out in a handful of hours. Expect a lot of “What do you mean I’m bankrupt?!?” and reloading until you get the hang of it, though. The developers are continuing to make tweaks here and there, so I suspect that a lot of other people’s issues will get resolved before the team moves on to their next project. But in its current form, the game will definitely grab your attention, hold it and keep you coming back.

Overall: This is a great little game. If you’re into sims, you’ll get many hours of entertainment for less than the price of a matinee movie ticket, a late-release DVD or even a current-release CD. The game will keep you engaged and has a wonderful “just one more” feel to it that will keep you playing. In the words of one of the in-game reviews, “Quit reading and start playing.”