What Happened Last Month - May & June 2014

Posted by Euan 17 July 2014

It’s the summer, which means we trade the good weather (ish) for a drought of games. It’s a prime time to catch up on your Steam list (which has surely expanded with the recent sale) or to start looking at indie or Early Access titles, which fill in that yearly gap quite well.

Before we begin…

Ever wondered what 3rd person Crysis looks like? You shouldn’t have. It’s terrifying.

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E3 came and went, leaving behind questions on if it should exist at all in it’s current form.

E3 is the video game equivalent of a childhood Christmas morning. You spend the weeks leading up to it excitedly thinking what is going to be under the press conference tree, praying that Gitaroo Man HD remake is going to be sitting there all wrapped up in a shiny bow. Then the day comes and you rip back the wrapping paper with a healthy mix of surprise, acceptance and possibly mild disappointment that you got Grim Fandango rather than The Last Guardian. You’re still going to play with it, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t what you REALLY wanted. Then as quickly as it started it’s all over for another year. You go clean up all the mess left over from the day before, and hope that what you got is enough to last you till next year, or at least till your birthday.

This years show was an important one for many reasons. This was Sony and Microsoft’s chance to prove to everyone that your jumping on the next-gen bandwagon on day one was a move that will be rewarded with plentiful titles. Unfortunately the theme of both first party presentations was “2015”. With the PS4 having only Driveclub and LittleBigPlanet 3, and Microsoft putting out Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 2 and the Halo Master Chief Collection before the end of the year. In fact both of the big companies really need the help of the third parties to tide the next gen over till next year, and Ubisoft at least stepped up to help with that.

Ubisoft continue to impress with their year on year “maturing” of their show, going from being the butt of jokes (Mr Caffeine, laser tag, et al.) to being something that you could watch without pushing your cringe scale up to “dad dancing at a wedding” levels. Their showing was solid, and most titles were something that I was personally interested in. When that collection includes a Kinect based fitness game, that says a lot about the quality of what they showed. EA, however lay at the other end of the spectrum. Their “6 new games” proclamation before hand would have been decreed as “a bit of a stretch” by the most hardcore marketing spin doctor in existence. A collection of trailers marked as “conceptual footage” and developers talking about how much they love Star Wars in front of some moody lighting does not count as a “new game”. Neither does “conceptual footage” of a new Mirrors Edge title that might as well have been running on a last gen console, which spoke a lot like they were simply allaying fears that the game had been lost under the feet of a thousand developers scrambling to fix Battlefield 4. Actually that was the theme of their entire presentation, reminding you that they have a bunch of cool IP, and that they still exist as a company. It felt like the result of a hastily constructed internal email chain, desperately asking for footage that would look promising on a huge screen, and resulting in an array of renderings of ethereal products. This was EA desperately clinging onto their allocated slot so that they don’t lose it.

The real surprise was Nintendo pulling a pretty respectable showing out of the bag. Nintendo did what they do best, take their established franchises and drape them around genuinely new and novel gameplay experiences. It really feels like they are starting to not only listen to their fan base, but also are realising their valuable history and reputation. I would never have imagined a day where a Nintendo press conference had an introduction done by the Robot Chicken guys, followed by Iwata and Reggie in a Dragon Ball Z esque fight. Nintendo cracking Mother 3 jokes is so incredibly self referential it threatened to collapse in on itself.

Nintendo lead the way two years ago by skipping out on a stage show, and going fully digital with their Nintendo Directs. After the pulling out of the E3 press circus causing the initial proclamation that they are running scared, the Nintendo Directs have turned into something that the company is using to great effect. It actually starts to bring into question the continuing purpose of E3 in the years to come. With increasing numbers of publishers choosing to start bypassing the traditional media and go straight to consumers. What would once have been a website exclusive trailer requiring negotiations and probably some kind of financial incentive, becomes a Facebook post on the games official page linking to the publishers YouTube channel. The cost of putting on a show of this scale must be substantial, and it wouldn’t be a stretch for an EA to follow in their footsteps to save themselves both time and money, especially in years such as this where they don’t actually have anything to advertise.

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Assassins Creed: Unity developers say there will be no female Assassins, because it’s going to be too much work.

For as long as I can remember, I have played as female characters in RPGs. Neverwinter Nights started the trend, leading me to take a Femshep through the Mass Effect trilogy, into my brief stint in Guild Wars, and will undoubtedly result in a super awesome female Awoken in Destiny when it finally drops in September. In the second instalment of Ezios Assassins Creed story I was very much an equal opportunities employer, with my Brotherhood going against its moniker to be a pretty even 50/50 split between the genders. I have, and will continue to, thoroughly enjoy playing and interacting with interesting female characters in games.

Upon seeing the gameplay demonstration of the Assassins Creed: Unity multiplayer, finally bringing co-op to the franchise, I looked forward to being the most bad-ass lady assassin that has ever lived, dropping from the rooftops to rain death on Templars across Renaissance Paris. As it turns out this was not to be the case, as Ubisoft put out a statement saying that there would be no playable female characters in Unity, as it would require “double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets”.

I’ve got a number of issues with this stance, but I do want to clarify my position on this subject, which has resulted in swathes of commentaries like this very piece of text. There are legitimate reasons for not having a choice of gender in a playable character. This choice needs to be made at the very start of the development process, and the writer/writing team need to write a story that from the outset encompasses this. Mass Effect should be held up as a prime example of how this can be done when it is incorporated as a core part of the story, where it affects dialogue, player choice and at points the way the narrative plays out. If on the other hand the story that you want to tell involves a named male character that is fleshed out and throughout the play time the player becomes emotionally connected with, then go ahead and let no one tell you any different. Maybe next time you should experiment with a female lead, but the fight you are going to have with your Marketing department is going to be lengthy, so I will leave that idea with you.

Ubisoft did later respond to this criticism by explaining that there are only four modelled assassins in the game. When joining a co-op mission all four players will see themselves playing as Arno, with the other players as three unnamed but constantly the same members of the Assassins. This means that customisation of your character, via gender or otherwise, is utterly pointless considering as your player model will not be visible to anyone else.

This was not, however, the reasoning that they gave. “Too much work” is not a reason that anyone at Ubisoft can throw around for anything. Black Flag had around 900 people over eight of Ubisofts plentiful studios on it’s credits, with Unity supposedly bumping that up to 10. While art creation is for sure the most expensive and time consuming part of modern AAA development, my personal feelings are that they could have got this done if they had really wanted to. The concept of a game built around a custom assassin character is personally incredibly appealing, and could evoke the same level of connection with the character that I had with my Femshep. The story of Assassins Creed has never precluded there from being a female lead up to this point, and provided this decision is made on day one of development, Ubisoft have the resources and capability to pull this off. The series already has had a reasonably good track record (in the industry) of varied player characters. The Black Flag expansion Freedom Cry featured issues of race at the core of it’s narrative, while the PS Vita instalment Liberation featured a black female lead.

Taking this into account, along with the fact that they have clearly written a story around Arno, and have a co-op mechanic that doesn’t allow for custom characters, they begrudgingly they get a pass this time around. List this in their report as “could do better”. I will say though, Ubisoft, for future reference if your going to make up an excuse for lack of female representation in your game, at least use one that makes sense.

Stuff You Should Probably Read

Postmortem: The Chinese Room’s Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs – Peter Howel – Gamasutra

Amnesia is a game that I could never bring myself to play, and when the sequel was announced to be called “A Machine For Pigs” I very quickly put that one on the back burner too. My interest in knowing the behind the scenes details on how games are made got the better of me, however, when I saw that Gamasutra had a post-mortem on the sequel. It’s a really interesting read, especially when talking about how to design moments made to actually scare someone.

The Kiss That Changed Video Games – Simon Parkin – The New Yorker

I lost a lot of time to the original Sims when it came out in 2000, mainly to just building the most abstract houses that I could think of (the floating UFO houses were my favourite). I had no idea about the stress the team were under the year before at the ’99 E3, where they knew that if the game did not get a good response from the media, it would be cancelled. They shouldn’t have worried however, as the invisible dice rolls of simulation caused an event during the live demo that ensured they would get all the coverage they would want.

Wolfenstein is the rare game that shows sex as both fun and healing – Ben Kuchera – Polygon

Wolfenstien: The New Order came out of nowhere to be one of the most talked about games of the year with it’s surprisingly deft handling of story and characters, a shock for the latest in a series primarily about blasting Nazis to oblivion. As it turns out, it also well handles the particularly troubled relationship video games have with sex, in a light way that never comes across as titillating or exploitative.

Childhood, Barbie dolls and make-believe: designing thoughtful games about sex – Nina Freeman – Polygon

Even at it’s basic level, Nina Freeman’s article on how games were a part of her sexual discovery as a child (referencing even the water scene from Final Fantasy X as an important moment when growing up), and how they are portrayed in games in general is a great read, and well worth a look. The flash game of her own creation linked to in the article, about a young girl mashing her dolls together to try and work out what this “sex” thing is just takes the cake however. You really should take a look at them both.

Stuff You Should Probably Watch