The folks behind the recent first-ever Indie Game Music Bundle are back with… can you guess the name?… the Indie Game Music Bundle 2! This one has five truly great soundtracks, which you can download for any price you'd like to pay.
You'll get the music from Aquaria, To The Moon, Jamestown, the bloody fantastic music from Machinarium, and even Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, which you'll recall was my favorite game soundtrack of all of last year. Jim Guthrie's work in that game is a big part of why I put it in as a contender for our Game of the Year award.
In keeping with the bundle tradition, if you drop $10 on those five soundtracks, you'll get even more soundtracks, with a lot of albums that I actually haven't hear, as well as some as-yet-unrevealed bonuses that will be unlocked if they sell enough copies.
Hmm. Unlocked as they sell more copies? That smells like gamification to me. It would seem that the musicians have indeed learned a thing or two from their game-developer brethren.
Well played, video game composers. Well played.
Indie Game Music Bundle 2 [Official Page]
Once upon a time it was easy. Just 15 years ago most games slotted into their categories with librarian-pleasing snugness. Take the adventure game.
In 1985 they were text games with a focus on storytelling and puzzle solving. Five years later it was the same but with animated graphics and mouse clicks replacing the typing.
But defining the genre now is like hugging fog. The once firm borders of adventures have crumbled and their ideas have diffused out into the wider gaming ocean. Today the definition of an adventure game depends on what school of thought you embrace.
Dan Connors, head of adventure specialists Telltale Games, sees the genre as a broad church. His definition is inclusive not exclusive. It includes Heavy Rain and Uncharted as well as his company's more traditional efforts such as the Back to the Future adventures.
"In the late '80s and early '90s it was very clear cut," he says. "Now you could attribute the dialogue trees in Mass Effect to adventure games. A lot of the scripted storytelling in Valve's games comes from adventure games. I think adventure games went out and permeated every single genre because they've always remained the best way to interact with characters in a world and to interact with an environment."
Others view adventures in more exclusive terms. "Stories in games need to mould themselves around what gameplay a game is trying to deliver," says Charles Cecil, founder of Broken Sword developer Revolution Software. "Uncharted is absolutely not an adventure game as I would define it, same with Heavy Rain. Both require considerable expertise with a joypad and an adventure is a cerebral experience rather than one requiring manual dexterity."
A lack of violence or death is also a common trait of adventures, he adds. But even then Cecil's definition has grey areas thanks to the likes of L.A. Noire, which lets players skip the action and focus on its adventure-inspired detective work.
While the exact definition may be debatable, the origin of the adventure game isn't. The first adventure is the aptly named Adventure, a 1976 text game created by Will Crowther on his workplace's PDP-10 mainframe computer. It let players explore a world described in text by inputting verb-noun commands such as 'go north' or 'get torch'. As well as exploring there were puzzles to solve and monsters to encounter.
Within a few months a Stanford University student called Don Woods had rejigged the game, adding more puzzles, locations and fantasy elements. Woods' version became a sensation in the mainframe-computing scene of the late 1970s. Other computer users began creating their own adventures and it went on to inspire MUD, the first MMO - but that's another story.
By the time the first mass-produced home computers began rolling off the production lines adventures were an obvious choice for making the leap out of the labs and into our homes. In 1978 the first commercial adventure game - Adventureland for the TRS-80 - reached the shops. Its success established the genre as a mainstay of computer gaming and its creator Scott Adams formed one of the world's earliest game publishers Adventure International to feed the growing demand for adventure games.
Adams wasn't alone for long. The following year the MIT students who created the Adventure-inspired Zork! formed Infocom to bring their adventure to home computer users. Around the same time in California the husband and wife team of Ken and Roberta Williams set up On-Line Systems (later renamed Sierra On-Line) to publish Mystery House - the first adventure to include still pictures of its locations in addition to the usual text. Soon text adventures went global, spawning especially vibrant adventure game scenes in France and Japan - although it was the work of Infocom and Sierra that dominated the text adventure era of the early to mid 1980s.
But as the '80s progressed the adventure game began to evolve. In 1984 Sierra came out with its fairy tale adventure King's Quest, which introduced animated visuals to the genre, and the following year Illinois developer ICOM Simulations released Déjà Vu: A Nightmare Comes True, which replaced text input with a Apple Mac-inspired point and click approach. By 1987 these two ideas - point and click interaction coupled with animated visuals - came together in Lucasfilm's Maniac Mansion. The text adventure had become the graphic adventure.
Lucasfilm's games outlet eventually became LucasArts, and it dominated the point-and-click era that followed with hits such as The Secret of Monkey Island (and at this time the adventure had mutated into a new genre - the visual novel - in Japan). In keeping with its roots in the movie business, LucasArts shifted adventure games away from Infocom's interactive novels to a more interactive movie with an approach drawing on the audio-visual and scriptwriting know-how of filmmakers.
By the mid-'90s adventuring's shift towards interactive movies reached its apex as the extra storage delivered by CD-ROMs allowed developers to add film footage, recorded audio and more detailed images to their creations. But for every CD success such as Myst or The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery there were dozens of dismal games clogging the shelves such as Psychic Detective.
"They were an unfortunate blot of the history of adventures," says Cecil. "They came about because the bosses of publishers went to live in California because they thought it was cool to be near the film studios. Thankfully gamers just didn't buy them and it collapsed."
The adoption of 3D graphics and the success of the PlayStation blew the interactive movie dream apart. Players became more interested in the thrill of action than the slow, cerebral offerings of adventures. By 2000 the adventure game had become a niche genre, clinging on in places such as Germany but banished from the gaming mainstream. Deprived of an audience, adventure developers played it safe producing budget replicas of what was popular before the PlayStation.
It could have ended there for the adventure game, but in mid-2000s the tide started to shift. Telltale found success resurrecting LucasArts brands and selling them online as episodes rather than complete games. Then Nintendo's DS and Wii brought adventure games to a wider audience through games such as Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and most famously the puzzle adventuring of Professor Layton. Finally the success of the iPhone and other touchscreen smartphones created a gaming platform that had not just a mass audience but controls that were perfect for adventure games.
Today adventures do sell in reasonable numbers and their number is spreading (there are even a few available on the Kindle). Cecil says the iPhone remake of Broken Sword sold three million copies, and Telltale is starting to release their games in stores with anticipated sales of 400,000.
Yet adventures often seem overshadowed by their past, partly because the point and click approach used in the LucasArts days is still standard. "It says something about how much love people have for the LucasArts style of gameplay that it's even talked about 21 years later as a one-to-one comparison," says Connors. "People still cling to this idea of what an adventure was in 1990."
But the way adventures function isn't as important as it might be for a first-person shooter says Dean Burke, creative director of the Hector games at Northern Irish developer Straandlooper. "The mechanics are rooted in the LucasArts games," he says. "But I feel that the reason people like adventure games is the characters in the stories. Adventures still have their flaws and could be improved, but the fundamentals will never change really. As with any form of entertainment it's about telling a good story."
While the core is unchanged, today's adventures place more emphasis on accessibility. "In the mid-90s adventure gamers liked the fact that they were getting frustrated so contrived puzzles sort of worked," says Cecil. "Now people want to play at their own pace."
As a result the puzzles are now more logical than the cryptic conundrums of old and adventures often include a hint option. The iOS version of Broken Sword, for example, has a hint option that offers a vague clue before, after several taps, the solution is revealed. "I was initially worried that people might find that it encouraged them to bypass the puzzles but it didn't," says Cecil.
More should be done though, says Jakub Dvorský of Amanita Design, the Czech developer behind 2009's robot adventure Machinarium. "Nowadays adventure games are more streamlined and accessible but they should try to be even more experimental," he says. "Any theme can be used for an adventure game and the developers should use their own new and distinctive approach to every aspect of game creation from plot and game design to graphic style, animation, music and sound."
The good news is that adventure developers now seem keen to experiment with new approaches. "The touchscreen is an extraordinarily good way of controlling an adventure because adventure games are very tactile in that you want to explore the environment," says Cecil adding that using first-person viewpoints, as well as the traditional third-person views, is something he is looking at.
Telltale, meanwhile, has tried to step away from the pace of traditional adventures with its latest game Jurassic Park. "We wanted it so that you come into the world and it makes you react and pulls you through it," says Connors. "We moved away from the 'I'm going to go through the world and interact at my own pace' and made it something where you need to react to the situation in front of you because it's a dangerous place. You know, we couldn't have it where you're trying to use a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle on a dinosaur."
Canadian developer Brian Provinciano spent two months negotiating his contract with Microsoft to get Retro City Rampage on Xbox Live Arcade. It was, to say the least, a tough process - and one that he could have done without. It delayed the creation of the game, but in the end he thought f*** it, and signed on the bottom line.
Retro City Rampage was first announced as a WiiWare game. Then, all of a sudden, it was delayed on Wii and coming to Xbox first. Money hats, the Nintendo faithful claimed.
"I got a lot of flaming and hate and trolling from when I announced it was delayed on the Wii because it's coming to Xbox first," Provinciano tells Eurogamer. "Everyone thinks I got this big, huge chunk of money from Microsoft. I didn't. I'm poor and I've got nothing. They haven't given me anything."
So why go with the big M rather than the big N? Put simply, Provinciano had had enough.
"I had been pitching the game, doing documents, vetting all sorts of review stuff for months and months and months," he recalls. "The contract negotiation alone was two months for Xbox, trying to negotiate the nickel and dime of it. It was a really rough process. I'd say a good 85 per cent of developers you talk to have had unpleasant experiences. It's like, stop nickel and diming us. If you just let us make our awesome game it'll be better and it'll make more money for all of us anyway. That's my opinion.
"It's one thing to go through the difficult process of going through the gate and getting your game approved, but once it's approved it's a really rough process of negotiating and trying to get a fair deal for yourself. That's a tough part everyone has to waste time on. In any case, I was talking to a number of other big publishers as well, and some smaller ones. And I was talking with Sony. But it got to a point where I was so drained.
"It was the most unpleasant experience of this whole project. It's like, years and years and years have gone into this and the worst part of it all was doing the contract. I was so drained with it, and so tired. Every day I wanted to finish the game and get the game out the door, but I had to deal with emails and contract negotiation. After all of that time I was like, okay fine, I'm just going to sign it! I just want to get it over with! And so I did."
Provinciano's contract stipulates that Retro City Rampage must not appear on other platforms for a limited period of time. But some other platforms, which he refuses to divulge, are not covered by the clause. "If I really get screwed on the launch I can put it out on some other platforms immediately, because they aren't covered in the contract," he says with a glint in his eye.
Provinciano's story will be familiar to most who have made or are making games for Microsoft's hugely successful downloadable platform - and even to some who haven't. Take Amanita Design, the Czech Republic maker of enchanting adventure games Samorost, Botanicula and Machinarium, a game due out on PS3 early next year.
"First we wanted to create an Xbox Live version of Machinarium," Amanita boss Jakub Dvorský says. "Microsoft contacted us some time ago. They were interested and very nice. But after about half a year of negotiations, they told us they were not interested anymore because they decided they don't want to support games which are not Microsoft exclusive. We had already released the game for Mac and Linux, so they said they were not interested anymore."
Dvorský's experience is in part the result of a Microsoft policy exposed by Eurogamer earlier this year. In short, Microsoft reserves the right to not publish games on the Xbox Live if they have appeared on other platforms, such as the PlayStation 3 or Steam, first.
There are other rules. To get your game published on Xbox Live, you either need to sign with a third party publisher, such as EA or Sega, or go through Microsoft Studios directly, in which case you are forced to sign an exclusivity deal. "And they don't give you a penny," Provinciano reveals. "It's just an unfortunate thing."
Microsoft has defended its policies, and Sony has attacked them, but the reason for them is clear: Microsoft wishes to maintain quality control over XBLA, preventing it being overrun by below average games, and it wants to make as much of what's on offer exclusive as it can.
On the face of it, this means Xbox 360 gamers will not get to enjoy games that have launched elsewhere, such as Machinarium, but for developers there is an additional frustration.
"They are changing their internal rules all of the time," Dvorský continues. "They didn't want to publish it [Machinarium] as a first-party publisher. If you want to make an Xbox version, then we would need to approach some third-party publisher, a big one.
"It doesn't make much sense to me. Why would we need a third-party publisher? The game is ready. We do all the PR and marketing. You just need to put it there on the platform. Why would we need an EA for getting us there? It doesn't make any sense.
"So we decided to approach Sony and they agreed they wanted the game, so we started to port it" - an explanation, then, for why PS3 owners will get to enjoy Machinarium, and Xbox 360 owners will not.
"If your game has come out on another platform before they will never publish it, except if you're dealing with a big publisher," says Phil Fish, creator of upcoming Xbox Live Arcade exclusive Fez. "Big publishers get to bypass these rules and release whatever they want whenever they want, which is kind of bullshit, because, like, why?"
Why indeed. "We're doing it without a publisher," Fish continues. "Meat Boy did it without a publisher. Braid did it without a publisher. It's not an open platform like the App Store, but the fact is, a single developer could make a whole game and put it out there without the need for the middle man, the publisher. It's not like we're printing boxes and shipping them and sending them to stores. You just have to put the game on Microsoft's server. That's it. That's the publishing. It's done. So I don't know why Microsoft has these special rules and privileges for the big publishers."
If convincing Microsoft to publish your game is tough, creating it is even tougher. There are a number of rules and restrictions Xbox Live Arcade games must all adhere to. Achievements are one example. Leaderboards are another. And then there's the odd issue with Avatar items, which are mandatory for Microsoft Studios games.
With these, some developers are charged money by Microsoft so they can pay an outsourcing company to create the assets. If the developer isn't happy with them, then they are done again - for another charge. This cost is taken automatically by Microsoft when the game is eventually released and the money starts rolling in.
"It took over six months of pitching and document writing negotiation and since then it's like months of work to deal with the controller stuff," Provinciano says. "The menus have to have the right items and when they unplug the controller it's gotta do this, and blah blah blah. The leaderboards, the Achievements, the Avatar items were a real pain in the ass.
"They're done by some external company and the external company was not doing a very good job. I wish we could have done it. We tried to and they wouldn't let us, because we're not the "experts". It was just many revisions and time wasted. It's like, hey, that's wrong. You've got to change this and change that. Hey that's wrong again. That's wrong again.
"Everything has taken longer than you would expect. You submit the stuff for localisation and then, it's like, wait a second, this is supposed to be a game of innuendos, and those are really crude blunt translations. Being the one guy, that's why this game has taken so long to finish."
All the concern over Avatar items and other silly necessities pales into comparison with the constant worry that, at any point, Microsoft may simply pull the plug and cancel an in-development game - whether a contract has been signed or not.
"Microsoft constantly changes their portfolio manager," Fish explains. "There's a constant rotation of staff at Microsoft. Sometimes you'll have a new portfolio manager who comes in and he decides, no more racing games. We're done with that. And if they had a racing game in development they would cancel it. They make a random decision like that based on whatever fact.
"I was afraid for years that would happen to us, we would have a new guy come in who would be like, no more pixel art games, no more 2D platformers and we would just get cancelled. That's happened to people I know, that they had a contract with Microsoft, they were greenlit for release, but for whatever reason Microsoft decided they were no longer interested. And they don't even give you a reason at that point. They just say you're no longer coming out on XBLA. That could still happen to us. It's ridiculous."
Provinciano is less worried about Microsoft cancelling his game than he is about it launching at a time that will give Retro City Rampage the best chance of success.
"Microsoft chooses the slots when you get released," he says. "It is a wide window. I could submit it in December and it could be several months after. But it'll probably be released relatively soon after I submit it. Fingers crossed. But it's luck of the draw. It's really tough. There's no guarantee on anything.
"There's no guarantee my game won't be released next to some $3 million, $4 million budget XBLA game. That's really screwed a lot of developers in the past, where they just get released on the wrong week against the wrong game, and get buried in the dashboard. There's a lot we don't have control over."
This, famously, is what happened to Super Meat Boy, the superb hardcore platformer that launched as part of Microsoft's 2010 Fall GameFeast promotion.
Developer Team Meat was vocal in its criticism of Microsoft over the way it was treated. Super Meat Boy was discounted on release (according to one developer we talked to this was because Microsoft prefers high unit sales to revenue because it makes XBLA look better). But, also, the game didn't enjoy dashboard promotion, which had been promised. Microsoft told Team Meat it would be promoted once it achieved a certain number of sales. When it did, the dashboard promotion, again, failed to materialise.
"I'm crossing my fingers they'll do their best to keep me happy," Provinciano says. "I'm sure they don't want another Team Meat situation.
"But what keeps me smiling is just the fact that I'm going to make more money on the other platforms than Xbox combined. So even if I get screwed on the Xbox launch I'll still be okay."
Fish is talking with Microsoft to work out how Fez will be promoted when it goes live next year - though he's being cautious with his hopes. "I have to work on the assumption that they're going to do nothing and I have to do all the promotion myself," he says.
"With certain publishers, I know some friends that have these clauses in their contract that says, you're not allowed to do any of your PR and marketing. We're the publisher. We're going to do it. And then they do a terrible job or they do nothing at all, and your hands were tied the whole time.
"Lucky for us that wasn't the case in our contract. We enter the game in every festival and every contest systematically. I do a lot of interviews. We do a lot of private demos we send to people. I have to do everything myself. I assume they're not going to do anything. If they do give us a good dashboard placement and do a whole load of promotion, amazing. That's really going to help. But I have to do as much as I can on my own."
When a game finally launches on XBLA the money starts rolling in. How much the developer gets depends on the contract it negotiated with Microsoft or its publisher. While developers and Microsoft refuse to divulge the terms of their contracts, we understand Microsoft, PSN and Steam offer developers a decent chunk of that 1200 or 800 MS Point cost.
The amount of money a developer gets can also be tied to the number of units their game shifts. The more units you sell, the higher the percentage of the sale you get - but there is a cap, an industry-wide standard across Steam, PSN and XBLA. "If I was a recording artist I would make a cent out of every album," Fish says. "We're going to make a bunch of dollars of off every unit sold. It's good."
It's a good thing, too, because game developers who sign with Microsoft do not get cash advances. Xbox 360 developer kits, which are valued at $10,000, and testing and translation costs are all provided up front, but recouped automatically when the game goes on sale.
Microsoft usually decides how much an XBLA game costs, as Fish knows well. "I thought for a while Fez was going to be 1200 points because that was becoming the standard," he says. "But they're trying to bring back the average to 800, because they believe it's the sweet spot and we're going to sell so many more units that way. I'm not convinced. If it was up to me I would charge 1200 points. I just spent five years working on this. I'm not going to give it away for free."
It's important to point out that for every Team Meat situation, for every Jonathan Blow nightmare, game developers have positive experiences with Microsoft. For all the trials and tribulations both Provinciano and Fish have endured making their game to the XBLA standard, they insist Microsoft has treated them well.
"We always get asked how has it been working with Microsoft, and they've been great with us," Fish insists. "Every time I say that people assume I'm being sarcastic. No, they've been great. Every other story I've heard from my friends and colleagues are horror stories. They've made a lot of weird decisions. I don't know if it's just because they really like Fez, but they've been great with us. They've let us make our game however we want it. They've never tried to interfere or change the game. They've been supportive. We've had to delay the game so many times and every time they were cool with it."
"The thing with Microsoft is it's tons of different departments and not necessarily a lot of communication," Provinciano says. "A lot of people don't have control. I look forward to being in a position after this game is sold to have made enough money that I don't have to worry so much about all these things I don't have control over."
But what of the future? Earlier this month Joe Danger: Special Edition was announced for XBLA. This came as a surprise for a number of reasons, but chief among them was that it seemed to contradict Microsoft's own exclusive policy.
According to developer Hello Games this was a one-off, an exception to the rule. But does it suggest Microsoft is willing to follow PSN's lead and relax its rules?
"It makes sense for Microsoft to take one of the more successful PSN games across if they're up for it," one game developer, who wished to remain anonymous, tells Eurogamer. "When there's a title that's done really well on PSN and the developer owns its own IP, then why not? Why not take it? It doesn't make sense for them to take, say, Critter Crunch. There's only a few other titles that would be released that would be independent studios that own their own IP. But say if Sony didn't own Fat Princess or something like that, it makes sense to make an exception for that.
"But it's an exception that hopefully changes their rules. They might think, well okay, this has worked quite well. Maybe we'll take a few others. That's good news for developers because right now if they don't go on XBLA first time then they can never go on XBLA, and that's really horrible. Right now if you release on Steam first, it's really difficult to get onto XBLA. That's quite crappy."
Why Microsoft may be willing to change its approach remains a mystery, but Eurogamer has heard from a number of sources that XBLA game sales have stalled since 2010's hugely successful Summer of Arcade promotion, which saw the likes of Limbo sell hundreds of thousands of copies. 2011 releases From Dust and Bastion enjoyed some success, but XBLA, overall, has hit something of a plateau.
This, combined with the incredible success that is Steam, the more open platform that is PlayStation Network, as well as the wild frontier that is the App Store, means that XBLA in 2012 and beyond could well be a very different place than it was only last year.
The iOS port of PC indie point-and-click favourite Machinarium will be exclusive to the iPad 2 when it hits the App Store next month.
As reported by Pocket Gamer, the game is too beefy for the first iPad or iPhone 4, and developer Amanita Design refuses to cut content to squeeze it in.
"Unfortunately, the game is performance and memory demanding, so we decided not to make any compromises and make it available only for iPad 2," explained studio founder Jakub Dvorský.
The game has been submitted to Apple for final approval and, all going well, should be up for download on 8th September.
Amanita's delightful puzzle adventure first launched on PC back in October 2009, winning an 8/10 from Eurogamer. See our Machinarium review for more.
An iPad version of acclaimed indie PC adventure Machinarium arrives on the App Store later this year, creator Jakub Dvorský has confirmed.
The Amanita Design boss told Pocket Gamer that he hopes to have the game on sale some time in August, insisting the port is "almost finished, but we still need to fix a lot of small bugs and test it properly. It should be ready during the next month...hopefully."
As revealed earlier this year, a PlayStation 3 version is also in the works though Microsoft has showed no interest in an Xbox Live Arcade release.
Dvorský's quirky adventure won a glowing 8/10 from Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead when it first launched on PC back in 2009.
"Machinarium is a treat for the senses that demands more of your brain, a paradoxically gentle yet punishing riff on a genre that, until now, had been revived but sadly defanged for modern players," read his Machinarium review.
The sun's shining. The sky is blue. That can mean only one thing: it's time to reduce your risk of skin cancer and sit inside and play games until your eyeballs bleed.
This week there were way too many releases to do the download scene full justice, so we'll try to get to G-Rev's shooter Strania next week, as well as the likes of Dino D-Day (Dinosaurs! In World War II!), Dungeon Hunter and the various PSP Minis and DSiWare nuggets that invariably look rubbish at first glance, but turn out to be rather good.
So, queue up those downloads, draw the blinds and ignore the warmest start to April in living memory.
There's a fair chance that Machinarium passed you by when it first emerged 18 months ago. That's the problem with the indie/download scene: keeping up with the dozens of really interesting titles that crop up all the time is like a full-time job in itself.
However, the really good stuff tends to keep rising to the top, and Amanita Design's decision to chuck Machinarium up on the burgeoning Mac App Store (and, shortly, port it to PS3 and Wii) does it no harm at all.
For those of you with fond, fraying memories of the golden era of point and click adventures, it's easily one of the most charming games to appear in the genre. Everything from the Tim Burton-inspired art style to the one-room-at-a-time puzzle design is absolutely first rate.
Despite the complete absence of dialogue, the game's tale of a tiny robot's journey to foil a thuggish plot is similarly adorable. Telling the story through occasional thought-bubble sketches, Amanita brings more character to the world through subtle touches and simple animation than most games ever manage.
Unlike most adventures, the game effectively feeds you one problem at a time, meaning that you cannot progress to the next area until you've solved the latest challenge. Although the it runs the risk of frustrating through such limitations, the inclusion of a helpful but non-spoilerific hint system keeps you invested even when you're stumped.
Perhaps the only thing that stops the game from being perfect is the slightly fussy way you can only interact with objects if they're within reach. When all you want to do is click on something, having to waddle across to it first can be a little testing.
But with so much in its favour, you'd probably forgive Machinarium if it cussed your mother. In fact, if you don't buy it, I'll cuss your mother.
While the world waits for the fourth in the Red Faction series to appear, what could be better than to toss out a downloadable teaser offering in the weeks leading up to its release?
But what worked for Dead Rising 2 doesn't really hang together in this instance. For one thing, Battlegrounds is little more than a tenuous twin-stick shooter spin-off which has almost nothing to do with the series it's based on.
What you get is essentially a collection of 16 against-the-clock challenges set inside terraformed arenas, and these act as your 'training' for the online modes.
Sometimes the sole aim is to survive an onslaught for as long as you can, while other times you'll have to wipe out a certain number enemy waves in the shortest possible time. Other challenges task you with capturing and delivering flags, or just destroying designated targets one after the other.
Despite its solid production values, it doesn't take you long to realise that Battlegrounds isn't destined to be regarded as another great-value download classic. The uninspired single-player content lacks spark and purpose, and there's nothing that the XP and medal system can do to lure you back once you're done with each level.
Online, it fares even worse, largely because the arenas aren't big enough. In the free-for-all deathmatch, for example, you seem to continually respawn next to an opponent, and matches boil down to whoever's fortunate enough to pick up a power-up first. Team Deathmatch and Capture The Flag are less painful, but only just.
Some committed souls might eke a few hours of mild entertainment out of Red Faction: Battlegrounds, but only if they try really hard. It might not be irredeemably terrible, but there are so many better games in the download scene. Don't waste your time on this forgettable spin-off.
It's a pity that Hemisphere Games never got around to porting the magnificent Osmos to consoles. But when you leave the door wide open like that, you can bet someone else will come along and take full advantage.
And that's exactly what 2.0 Studios has done with Cell. Just like Osmos, the premise is to grow your cell by absorbing smaller ones around you. Just like Osmos, you propel yourself around the playing field by ejecting a tiny piece of yourself. And just like Osmos, it's a thoroughly zen experience.
But some of the original spirit of its source inspiration has been lost in translation. Most obviously, the visuals are nowhere near the beautiful standard of Osmos though, to be fair, that applies to more or less every game ever made.
But the gameplay doesn't quite hit the mark either. Rather than opt for large, expansive levels that take time and patience to conquer, Cell opts for a much more stripped-down approach that makes it relatively simple to clear levels quickly.
On the plus side, 2.0 Studios does throw in some interesting new ideas, such as gravity wells that you have to steer clear of, and cells that think like you and try to grow at the same time. In addition, the ethereal electronica that accompanies your journey is outstanding.
So while you'll probably start out determined to dismiss Cell as a cheap knock-off, there's a grudging acceptance that 2.0 has actually built on the ideas in interesting ways. And for the price, you can't really complain.
Video: On cell now.
It's well documented that I enjoy killing things, but even my more psychotic urges have their limits.
As insane, side-scrolling beat-'em-ups go, this sequel to Ska Studio's indie hit delights in putting ideas of sensible moderation to the sword. Obliterating everything in the most frenzied, violent way possible is once again the name of the game, as you battle through 50 increasingly claret-splattered stages in the name of revenge over something presumably important.
The unremitting bleakness has a certain stylistic charm, but such is the relentlessness of it all, Vampire Smile is too intense to digest for more than a few levels at a time. It's an-all-you-can eat banquet at gunpoint.
But if you've got the appetite, the content is almost overwhelming. Two intertwining story campaigns provide the main meat, along with hefty side servings of co-op play, as well as various standalone battles to compete in if you enjoy leaderboard bragging rights. It's even got a 3D mode if you enjoy looking silly in your own home. (It made my eyes hurt after about 30 minutes, though.)
There's no question that the whole package is extremely polished. The dark, twisted artistry is a hellish vision like no other, but whether you'll get on with the endlessly repetitive button-mashing combat is another matter.
At its best, the lightning-fast dodge mechanic adds twitchy strategy, and the presence of unlockable special attacks and multiple weapons to discover lures you through the chaos. But when it boils down to it, there's only so much limb-severing a man can take.
Zoe Mode's wafting music-creation block puzzler felt like something of a work-in-progress when it first emerged on Xbox Live Arcade.
You'd settle down and have a thoroughly pleasant time, laying down irregular shapes, and trying to create as many 'quads' of 3x3 or more as possible within a time limit. The more quads, the more 'coverage', and the more notes layered on top of the basic backing track. It was forgiveable that there wasn't much in the way of modes or content, because it was all for charity.
A year further down the line, though, and its arrival on PSN addresses many of the niggles that people had with it in the first place. Zoe Mode has added a handful of new songs, for a start, as well as a glassy new visual sheen, beefed-up lighting effects and generally jazzed-up presentation.
More significantly, this Super Deluxe version adds both four-player (offline) co-op and versus multiplayer modes, giving the gameplay an entirely different slant. If you're feeling benevolent, working together in co-op mode to get that elusive 100 per cent coverage is a pleasantly chilled way to pass the time.
But if you're in a destructive mood, then, equally, being able to pinch each other's quads and generally cause havoc with each other's coverage adds a welcome competitive dimension to what was once all about feeling the love. The absence of online play is a bit of a shame, but maybe that'll find its way into the Super Duper Deluxe version. We can but hope.
While we're on the subject, Amanita have also recently done some amazing work on both the puppet film Kooky and its book. You can - and should - check that out on their site.
Machinarium creator Jakub Dvorský was at this weekend's GameCityNights event, announcing not one, not five, but three new games to come from Amanita Design. We (read: Kotaku's favorite Englishmen at Rock Paper Shotgun) dispatched monocled investigator Brendan Caldwell to track him down and find out everything possible. Dvorský tells us how he plans to rescue the adventure genre, his views on piracy, and what we can expect to see in the new projects. You, and anyone else you know, can read about the new games, and see their chat, below.
Remember that Samorost? Of course you do. Remember that Machinarium? Of course you do. You're a man and/or lady of prolific memorisation skills, unspecified reader. Plus, it had robots in it. Nothing sticks in the mind like robots. They're mnemonic. Or pneumatic. Or some other awkward word that's spelled nothing like it is said aloud. Oh, I don't know. You remember it. That's the important bit.
Jakub Dvorský of Amanita Design, the Czech developers behind Machinarium, has just announced three new games. Aye, you heard right. Three. Then he showed them off during a presentation at this month's GameCityNights event in Nottingham. It's nice in that Nottingham. I've been there. It's got caves in.
The first game is called Osada and will be available to play on Anamita's website within a couple of weeks. Jakub admits it isn't so much a game as it is an "interactive music video." The player is taken through several screens of delightfully twisted Monty Pythonesque animations set in the Wild West. Clicking on different objects and characters determines the musical instruments or sounds, ranging from tinny guitar to whistling bottles to a chorus of Native Americans. It's all deliciously surreal.
The second game announced is called Botanicula. It is more characteristic of Amanita's style. The player controls a band of five plant and fungus-like creatures as they wander around their home in a big ol' tree, trying to find the last seed in order to save their home from parasitic beasts. "So it is a simple story," Jakub says. "With a lot of exploration and a long journey." You progress in very much the same way as in Samorost. There is pointing. Also, there is clicking. And plenty of Amanita's typical part-bizarre, part-logic puzzles.
"For example, here we are trying to put together a chicken," says Jakub. "It's not easy."
Chickens are important, we are told. They power a giant engine within the tree. Of course they do.
The animation looks encouraging. But then you will have come to expect this from Amanita. As I have already said, unspecified reader, you have an elephantine memory of these things. Of course, I don't need to remind you of that. Sorry.
The third game looks even more characteristic of Amanita's visual trademarks. This is possibly because it is a sequel – Samorost 3. Yes! The little white guy is back. What is that little white guy anyway, you ask? "Uh… a white… nameless… space gnome," says Jakub. There we are folks. Mystery solved. A space gnome.
Right now Samorost 3 is still in the early design stages. But Amanita know that they want it to be set in the same kind of world, only much bigger, so that the story can be fleshed out. No prizes for guessing what genre of game it will be. Okay, one prize. Answers to my email. Winner gets a big stamp on their forehead. It will read: "I know a thing."
Knowing things isn't so important though. Amanita wants Samorost 3 to be a more welcoming puzzle game. "We want it to be more accessible. We just want to change the approach of the whole game. The goal shouldn't be to defeat it and solve all of the puzzles as quickly as possible. The player should enjoy it. So we are thinking of it as an interactive toy."
Jakub laments what he calls a lack of replayability in the adventure genre. "We want to approach it like a music record. You hear it once, but it still has value the second time, the third time."
His presentation ended here, just after Jakub showed us a change to the main character's design. He will be more ninja-like, able to jump around and move more fluidly. So there we are. A white, nameless, ninja space gnome. What do you make of that?
But more questions must be asked. Questions are important. They help us learn.
RPS: So. Botanicula. What does that mean exactly?
Dvorský: Oh, it's nothing in particular. The whole game takes place on a tree, so. We're probably just trying to create a new word so that when you Google it and you get the first result – it's your game. It's worked so far with Samorost and Machinarium.
RPS: With Botanicula and Samorost 3 you've said you want to change the way the games play slightly, from what you had before with Machinarium. How are going about that?
Dvorský: We want to make it more accessible and more playful. So, it should be really relaxing experience. You shouldn't be trying to think too hard or need any special skills to play the game. You should just enjoy playing it because it's easy and it's fun. Basically it should be fun. We want to achieve that by having an interesting world which is fun to explore, by having interactive things that are fun to play with. I was showing earlier our interactive music video Osada, which is not a game at all… to call it a game… it's too easy, too simple. You're really just switching on and off different tracks. But still it's fun to play it. And try it, you will realise it's quite fun to just click on it and to play with the sounds and with the music. So this is the way we want to go. That it should basically be fun to play with.
RPS: Some developers have said for a while that the point and click adventure genre is broken, that it doesn't really work any more.
Dvorský: And they were right. There was some golden era of adventure games which were great and then later the games started to be more and more difficult and you had to [handle] tens or even hundreds of items at the same time in your inventory and there was no logic involved in places. And there were endless dialogues which were sometimes really boring. Sometimes the dialogues were funny but it's not playing a game. It's reading a book. So, it started to be quite annoying to play adventure games. I want to change it, make it more streamlined, more fun to play, more accessible. Of course we want some hard puzzles but still it should be in some boundaries of possibility. To solve it on your own, without help.
RPS: Machinarium was still quite hard at times though. You still had to use trial and error at times.
Dvorský: I believe it's possible to find out the solutions by logic only. But sometimes I must admit it's really hard. This is why we integrated the help system there. It's just different. We want to change this approach a bit.
RPS: When you talk about dialogue being very long, in Machinarium you used speech bubbles with simple pictures in them to keep the narrative going. Is that something you're going to continue for Samorost 3 and Botanicula?
Dvorský: Oh yeah. I'm always saying that I am a bad writer and I can't write meaningful dialogues or funny dialogues. But anyway, I always hated the dialogues in adventure games. But some communication is needed for telling the story and for broader reasons. I just believe that these comic bubbles are communication by animation, which is much more fun to look at.
RPS: And your games do put an emphasis on their visual impact. How are you going to develop that in the new titles?
Dvorský: We want to make the visual style of Samorost 3 a little different. It was me who created all the backgrounds in Samorost 1 and 2 but this one will be created by our graphic artist Adolf Lachman, who created Machinarium. So it will definitely change because of this. But we are actually trying to find a new look for it – a new technique for this game. And we do that every time we are starting a new project. We are first thinking about the world where it takes place, then trying to invent the proper graphic style. So, we are now trying to find it. It's not easy.
Dvorský: No. We are making two titles but at the moment we are in fact two separate teams inside the studio. It's just Jaromír Plachý who is creating Botanicula and one programmer and the musicians. The other team members are just speaking to him and I do a little bit of game design for it. Samorost 3 is our main project so all the members will be involved in it. Our main music composer, Tomáš Dvořák, isn't involved in Botanicula. So in fact those are two separate teams so we are quite free and we are not under pressure when in development. And because of the success of Machinarium we are also quite all right with money and everything's fine so we're not under pressure at all.
RPS: It's very popular in Russia, apparently.
Dvorský: Not only in Russia! It's doing well everywhere, so…
RPS: Would you contribute some of that success to deals like the Humble Indie Bundle? How much do things like that help?
Dvorský: It did help a lot. It was a big success. The game was already more than a year old and then we created the Humble Bundle with the Wolfire guys who are really nice and it worked so well. More than 230,000 people bought it in fourteen days, which is great. So it helped.
RPS: Were there any points during those three years of development when you felt it was going to fall apart?
Dvorský: I never believed that it was going to fall apart but there were some moments when it was really dark. We had to change the main artist, the main painter of the backgrounds in the early stage of development. The guy who started working on it was great and talented and everything but he wasn't really passionate about it. I think he didn't believe that it would be a good game or a successful game so he wasn't working really hard. So we kicked him off at some point. Or rather he just stopped working so we had to find another [artist] and we were very, very lucky to find Václav, whose really professional and a really nice guy and talented. So there were moments, sure, when we got depressed. It's always like that.
RPS: Considering the piracy that hit you guys, is that something that riles you up?
Dvorský: Despite the piracy of the game and other games too being really high, there is also a huge amount of people who are willing to pay for it. Even some pirates. Even some pirates who downloaded it for free somewhere realised that they really enjoyed the game and pay for it afterwards. Or at least they spread the word. So, they are part of our free marketing efforts. So that's not so bad with pirates. Definitely we don't believe in any piracy protections because finally any protection can be cracked or overcome.
RPS: Not a fan of DRM then.
Dvorský: No. In the end it's always an annoying thing for paying customers so we don't believe in it. However, I don't have any examples of it, just our guess that it wouldn't help.
RPS: What brought that interactive music video about?
Dvorský: It's our side project. It's developed by one of us, just by animator Václav Blín, the second animator, or the main one from Machinarium. And he developed it with an external musician, who's also not our member – he's not part of Anamita. He created it in his spare time, he's also hard working. Only our programmer helped him. I was helping him very little with design in places. Basically it's a one man project.
RPS: Where did the inspiration for the scratchy animation style originate?
Dvorský: I don't know. Maybe from illustrations or older animated movies. We definitely wanted to achieve a warm feeling for this cold robotic world, so we decided for a hand drawn style. And I also wanted to make it with some more free handed drawings. I can't explain this well but our graphic artist created everything very precisely and it wasn't ‘it' so I was pushing him to work more freely. And in the end he found out that it was much better to draw it with his left hand because he is right-handed. When he was drawing it with his left hand it was perfect. It was more loose or not so precise. So he created all the backgrounds with this left hand. But the problem was that in the end he started to be very skilful even with his left hand.
RPS: You should make him draw with his feet.
Dvorský: Next time.
RPS: Or his mouth.
Dvorský: Or his ear. But it could hurt.
RPS: You say you took inspiration from old animated movies. Now that you've actually worked on Kooky, what's it like going from designing an interactive medium to puppets in a movie?
Dvorský: It was quite a pleasant experience and very refreshing. Because when I am doing games I am the director of the team, I am the game designer, I am partly art director and I am also the businessperson, the marketing person, the PR person. And responsible for everything. So it was really nice to be a small part of the big team for a while. It's nothing that I want to do all the time but it nice to be just the designer of the puppets and the props on the film. It was quite a nice experience.
RPS: This indie scene has kicked off over here quite a bit. Is it the same in Eastern Europe?
Dvorský: I would say the situation is quite similar to the UK or America but we are just much smaller in number obviously, so the scene is smaller. But I would say the scene is quite strong. In our country there's lots of big studios. Well, not lots. There's two of them. But really big. And many small developers and beginners. I would say it's okay. Quite a similar situation to the UK.
RPS: Finally, any release dates set for Samorost 3 and Botanicula? Any time schedule set for yourself?
Dvorský: We want to finish Botanicula maybe in the end of this year, or the beginning of next. For Samorost three we don't really know. We don't want to promise anything yet. It's really at the early stages. So, we will see.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Republished with permission.
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