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Why Game Developers Should Take Note of Portal’s Success

April 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I love video games.  I also like critical thinking.  It might sound weird at first, but sometimes I really do just sit and think about stuff.  Why this or that is the way it is, reflecting for far too long on a decision I made that day, etc.  Needless to say I also love subjects like philosophy.  I had a professor (economics, not philosophy) in college that I absolutely hated but he told us one thing I still carry with me that can be summed up like this:  Don’t let your brain get lazy.

He didn’t use those words but he emphasized the importance of challenging yourself mentally on a consistent basis.  It could be reading a book and not only think about what you’re reading but keep a dictionary nearby to look up new words you encountered, doing a crossword puzzle, or even something small like organizing a grocery list.  In other words staying mentally sharp is a valuable commodity that will allow you to “perform” at your best in all types of interactions.  It may even make you smarter.  Lastly, you might even *gasp* start having fun doing it like I do.  That’s why I love Portal and its newly released sequel Portal 2, both by Valve Software.

Valve is a really cool developer and I could spend another entire article making general arguments about why the industry as a whole should begin to mimic them.  They’re not like Electronic Arts or Activision who both publish good games in their own right, but whose objective is mostly to throw as much crap at the wall as possible and hope more of it sticks than not.  They don’t own a bunch of other developers and don’t publish a new game every two weeks with mixed results.  However what they have produced is a nice, tidy list of hit games that are incredibly well thought out, simple but fun, or both.  Everyone loved the Half-Life series when it first broke onto the scene for the PC.  This spawned “expansions” like Team Fortress and the original Portal that were also well received.  All of this, including the Hall of Fame-worthy Half-Life 2, were including in what was named The Orange Box; essentially a collection of all valves accomplishments to that point.  They also developed Left 4 Dead and its sequel.  It was a no brainer “fight tons of zombies with your friends” formula that was a smash hit.  They’ve been using the same graphics engine for over a decade and still manage to churn out quality games that are easy on the eyes.  They created Steam, a system/website that allows games to be downloaded quickly and easily instead of running to the store amongst countless other uses.  Through Steam they also regularly hand out free downloadable content for their games.  In other words, if you’re a video game consumer they’re your kind of company.

All that stuff is great and some of it is arguably more important than what I’m going to focus on here, but I need to make this clear:  Valve’s Portal and Portal 2 represent what should be the future of gaming…….but probably won’t be.

You see Portal really was an expansion, an excuse to play with Half-Life’s engine and create a puzzle game with it.  It took place in a lab from the first person view of a test subject armed with nothing but a portal gun.  Shoot a portal at the wall next to you and another on that ledge 100 feet over your head and jump right through.  There, you’re now 100 feet above your previous location.  Also you can pick up blocks with it.  That’s it.  With such a basic tool Valve managed to create a puzzler that was nifty at first and then slowly but surely gained cult status, the culmination of which only moved slowly because frankly gamers were surprised such a game existed and that they could like it.

And that’s kind of the point I’m making.  Have you ever heard someone proclaim that kids only act the way they do because they’re not treated like adults?  Whether that’s true or not game developers have been treating gamers like kids for the last 5-10 years.  Just because a kid likes throwing food at his brother doesn’t mean he wouldn’t enjoy building a model airplane.  To make it more age appropriate, just because someone likes dumb action flicks or Maxim magazine doesn’t mean they wouldn’t enjoy Schindler’s List or Moby Dick.

These days the best-selling games every year are the latest Madden incarnation or (for now at least) Call of Duty installment.  Not bad games really.  Not at all.  The problem is that when a publisher wants to make money they need look no further than Call of Duty and instantly a clone appears.  Then another, then another.  That’s not to say gaming is completely stale.  There are more games available than ever before and they come in all kinds.  The problem lies in the fact that not too many of them really make you think.  Sure a lot of them make you consider every so often and force you to make decisions, but we need not actively seek out an activity that allows us to do those.  We can simply walk out the front door for that type of thing.  Exercising your brain on the other hand is a very different animal, and that’s where Portal comes in.

Like I said, shoot portals and carry blocks.  That’s all you need to make a brain buster rolled up in a great video game.  The other beautiful thing about Portal is that it takes the ever-present graphics issue out of the equation.  It’s not that they’re good or bad (for the record they’re average or slightly above), they just don’t matter.  Now name me one other quality game that’s come out recently that can say that.  Sound?  Sure it’s there, but who cares about sound?  Your brain should be busy sorting out how to catapult over laser sighted robots to toss a block through a portal and onto a big red button that will allow you to advance to the next stage!

I mentioned crossword puzzles earlier.  Ever done one of those (or a word search) and worried about how pretty the paper was or how the letters looked?  Of course not.  Not everyone likes stuff like that so how about hooking up a surround sound system or building just about anything?  You’re not worried about the aesthetics, you’re busy problem solving.  That’s why Portal and its sequel are amazing.  They are designed around a medium that is still very much about flashy lights, big explosions, and macho trash talk and have managed to give people the same satisfaction by using their minds.

It really is a tribute to Valve and should be a strong message to other developers:  gamers like to think and feel rewarded by their games aside from simply “beating” them.  Using your brain is rapidly becoming an afterthought in our society.  It’s great to see games like Portal 2 become successful.

Did I mention there’s a co-op mode?  Two players, four portals, bigger puzzles?  I don’t know if my brain can handle it, but it’ll be fun as hell to find out.

Post-E3 Want List

June 22, 2010 Leave a comment

I felt like my last feature about E3 was heavy on the negative side so I decided to reaffirm what’s coming out in the near future, more specifically the games I want and how many of them there really are.  While I’m in agreement with most of the gaming public about Microsoft’s conference and somewhat E3 in general, people are overreacting far too much.  Hell, there was a person on the Xbox forums claiming they were putting their console on eBay!  Seriously everyone calm down.  Just because you didn’t like the conference doesn’t mean the games you’re looking forward to went away.  It’s so strange how people come to these type of conclusions.  “Kinect sucks!  I’m done with Microsoft!”  Why?  You were probably like everyone else before E3:  You have at least 3-4 games on your radar to buy before the end of the year.  Those games are still coming out people.  You’re still going to play them and probably enjoy them whether Kinect sells one unit or one million.

But I digress.  To prove you’re all insane I’ve compiled a list of games I want or am highly interested in that are on the horizon.  There’s even a few more I won’t even get into because they’re not my taste (Fable 3, Crackdown 2, etc.).

Metal Gear Solid: Rising I’m pretty excited for this series to come to Xbox 360.  Admittedly Konami’s morphing of the series into a movie/game bugs the crap out of me, but the gameplay will most likely be there.  Snake is long gone (at least for now) so we’ll have to deal with Raiden but at least the sword play looks very well done and very fun.  No release date yet.

Halo: Reach Halo 2: most fun I’ve had with an FPS.  Halo 3?  Hated it.  Hated the maps, hated the bubble shields, hated the 800 types of grenades, hated that the noob combo wasn’t removed.  Reach seems like a compromised between the original Halo and its sequel.  No dual-wielding, which I think will strip it down for the better, but everyone can equip one of a handful of wacky “powers” (jet pack, super sprint, charging blast, etc.).  Sounds good to me.  Seems like it will remind us all of the days where we would kill to take Halo online on the original Xbox but there will be just enough spice thrown in to make it a great new installment in the series.  September 14th

Call of Duty: Black Ops I’m not going gaga over this one or anything, but if I’m in the market for a new game the month it releases I’ll pick it up.  If we can learn anything from history I’m sure the campaign will be really exciting yet short, and there will be millions playing it online.  Manning vehicles and the Vietnam setting inject a little life into the series, which it does need when you really think about it.  This franchise isn’t as entertaining as the equivalent of the number of gamers who purchase it, but they’re still very good games.  November 9th

Fallout: New Vegas Like many people I’m really clamoring for this one.  Sure it looks almost identical to Fallout 3 when you’re out in the wasteland, but it’s the wasteland!  Plus from the little amount of video we have you can see the settlements and New Vegas itself seem pretty well done.  Word is there are four different casinos where you can actually gamble and there will be good or bad consequences depending on how you play.  Awesome.  Cannot wait.  October 19th

Dead Rising 2 I thought the original Dead Rising had its strengths but I also wasn’t blind to its weaknesses.  The save system was very bad and the game made you shoot guns a lot, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing if the shooting mechanics weren’t the worst I’ve seen since the PS1.  This is one of those where if they stopped and listened for two seconds about what gamers had to say, this sequel will be a helluva lot of fun.  You’ve already got the zombies, the humor, and the everyday items used to create crazy death bringers, now all they have to do is polish the technical side of things.  The multiplayer looks like it could be a sleeper hit as well.  One game has you running around collecting blenders to plop on top of zombies to shred their melons to bits.  August 2010.

Portal 2 Just got into playing Portal: Still Alive again and I’ll be sure to pick up the sequel when it eventually comes out (2011 release).  A great puzzler that can at times be a brain buster.  Just goes to show how simple a game can be if you have creative people behind it.

Sniper: Ghost Warrior The title sounds like a Tom Clancy game but it’s not.  It’s by a mostly unknown publisher (to me at least), City Interactive. You’ll play a sniper doing the sniper things we all love to do, but you’ll also play a normal soldier as well.  I’m not sure if I like the second part but the game is going to be $39.99 at release and doesn’t look cheap from the screens I saw.  One to keep an eye on if only for the price.  June 29th.

EDIT:  I don’t think I’ll be picking this one up.  From what I’ve read it seems like the development actually wasn’t up to snuff.  Incredibly cheap AI and restrictive gameplay take this one off my want list.

Medal of Honor I’m reaching a bit here but I personally liked what little I saw of Medal of Honor. Yeah, it’s another shooter set in modern times but it looked fun and it seems like there’s a leveling system as well.  We shall see.  On the other hand what are the chances I’ll be investing in three shooters this fall?  As the British say, not bloody likely.

Marvel vs. Capcom 3 Okay I’m cheating with the next two because they’re not coming out until next year and probably not early next year.  I thought they should be mentioned though.  MvsC3 needs no introduction.  If you had the last one you’re getting this one and if you’re not into fighters you’ll pass.  Those of us that do like fighters will be in heaven though come February 2011…….or June 2011……or whenever it’s coming out.

Brink Another one to keep an eye on for next year, there’s not much footage of Brink so far but it’s essentially an FPS that pits a bunch of parkour guys against each other.  In other words you run, shoot and kill each other like normal except you do it all while everyone is leaping, bounding, climbing, rolling, and sliding all over the place.  I think it’s a neat concept and if nothing else it’s something different considering most of us play a bunch of shooters anyways.   Fall 2011.

XBOX LIVE ARCADE

Hydro Thunder Hurricane I was nuts for the original Hydro Thunder on the Sega Dreamcast.  Despite a bit of slowdown in a few of the more scenic parts of certain tracks, it was arcade perfect.  Now a sequel will be appearing on Xbox Live and probably in the next few weeks (it appears first in line whenever the Summer of Arcade titles are presented).  If you’ve never played it, think San Francisco Rush with boats and even crazier tracks.  I’ll have a lot of fun with this one.

Castlevania: Harmony of Despair I couldn’t get into Symphony of the Night. I have no idea why, but at first I thought I’d grab this and enjoy it since I knew more what to expect.  Then on top of that I see it’s a dungeon raid game for 1-6 players with the Castlevania mojo attached.  Sounds great to me, as I’m sure Konami will bring the challenge that’s required too.  August 2010

Limbo This could be something really cool and different, much like Braid was when it came out way back when.  It’s a 2D platformer/puzzler with a very nice black and white aesthetic.  Lots of potential, hopefully it hits the mark.  Summer

Comic Jumper

I knew this was being developed by the creators of ‘Splosion Man and that was just enough for me to file it away to get more information on later.  Then I saw the HD trailer available on the Xbox 360 dashboard.  I really think this is going to be a great one in terms of XBLA.  The gameplay looks varied and the themes look great.  You play a comic book superhero that gets involved in action across different genres of comics:  contemporary comics, fantasy/mythology, silver age comics, and manga.  Best of all these all have their own totally unique graphical styles.  It really LOOKS like you’re in a silver age comic or a manga.  To top it all off the game boasts 200+ unlockables!  Now a lot of it seems to be crap like developer commentaries but I think it’s a safe bet to assume there will be a lot of gamer pics, avatar items, and in-game tchotchkes too.  I’m pretty much sold already unless it somehow ends up a complete disaster.

So there you have it.  More than enough to keep you occupied until the end of the year and probably until the next E3 rolls around.  I didn’t even mention Crackdown 2, Fable 3, Gears of War 3, Star Wars: The Force Unleased 2, Dead Space 2, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Rock Band 3, Crysis 2, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Bulletstorm, XCOM, Madden 11 (NHL 11 for me), etc., etc. etc.

What in the world do you care if someone else buys a Natal when you can’t stand the sight of one?  Play your games and enjoy them!!!