Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
March 2009
Independents' Day

One of the problems of years gone by is that titles are either big enough to fill store shelves (though quality is a crapshoot), or they fail to reach that size and get relegated either to the bargain bin or to random places on the internet (where quality is even more of an unknown).  For independent games and games without a huge publishing force behind them, there were a lot fewer ways to bring titles to people's attention and to have them fairly evaluated in the market.

With the rise of online distribution channels like Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, PlaystationNetwork, and many others, that is changing.  These large, common marketplaces (and a myriad of smaller ones) now give smaller/self publishers much deeper penetration into markets, opening up far more opportunities to get games seen, reviewed, and purchased by gamers around the world.

Independent games are nothing new and many smaller publishers have survived since the dawn of gaming, but what has seen huge improvement in the last few years is the ease with which your average, casual gamer can get access to these titles.  I, for one, am a pretty avid gamer, but like many, I don't have unlimited time or money for games and when I do decide to get one, I don't want it to be garbage. Prior to these online marketplaces, I would rarely take a gamble on a title from a no-name publisher unless it had received great word-of-mouth feedback, which meant that these purchases were pretty rare.  Now, all that has changed.  I now buy a number of these titles each year, not only because they tend to be cheaper ($15-$20 vs $50-$60 for a AAA title), but also because they tend to innovate in ways simply not seen in major titles.

Sticky Situations

A recent example of the success of the online-only, marketplace-driven model is World of Goo. WoG was released last year for the Wii and PC/Mac/Linux and took off not by filling store shelves and heavy advertising, but by releasing a quality, non-bloated game through the right channels.  With only two developers, 2DBoy created a game that was innovative, fun, and quirky and then let it loose to communities.  Pretty soon, it got the attention it deserved in these marketplaces and began racking up the awards and the sales.

The idea behind WoG is deceptively simple: for each level, get a certain number of goos into a pipe.  To do this, you will have to use the properties of the goos you are given to create a stationary or moving structure that can get you to your goal. There are a variety of different kinds of goos, ranging from the simple, one-time-use black and red goos to the recyclable greens and the bomb-proof whites.  Add in balloon goos, bombs, wind, etc., and things start to get really interesting.  While there are a lot of variations, the majority of your time will be spent simply making stable towers/structures with as few goos as possible - something I find surprisingly satisfying.

Goo structures bend but careful, they also break!

Like any good physics game, the puzzles are their own reward and don't necessarily need a story or context to be enjoyable.  That's not to say having a story doesn't add to the depth, though, and WoG succeeds not only in making fun puzzles but in really feeling like a complete game thanks to a quirky tongue-in-cheek world that gives meaning to your goo manipulations.  

While pieces of the story are told in cut scenes, much of the context and humor comes from signs spread around the levels that are penned by the mysterious "Sign Painter."  In these messages are not only hints to the levels but hints to what this world is all about.  The messages may not always make a ton of sense, but they do help you to feel like you are not just solving cool puzzles, you are also saving this world!

Music to Get You Moving

Another independent success story is AudioSurf, a racing/rhythm game for the PC.  The basic premise is pretty simple: try to collect groups of the same colored blocks to score as many points as possible before a song ends.  What makes the game take off is that each level is based on music of your choosing.  Stick in a mellow CD or choose a mellow mp3 from your hard drive and you will get a calm, easy track.  Select an intense song and the track will reflect this with far more blocks and speed.

If you like music and casual puzzle games, AudioSurf is a good fit.

Music visualization has been around for a while and is built in to iTunes and other applications, but AudioSurf goes beyond just a passive representation of a song and actually allows you to "play" through your favorite music.  Your scores from the song are then compared with others who have raced through those titles so you can see how good you really are.  I personally didn't love the game, but I think that is probably because I am just not the right type of gamer rather than because this is a poor game.  If you love music and enjoy casual games, AudioSurf can be a blast.

Got Time?

Messing with structure in WoG is interesting and messing with rhythm in AudioSurf is cool, but to really blow your mind, check out Braid, a side-scrolling platformer based on messing with time.  Released for the Xbox Live Arcade last year and coming out for PC this soon, Braid is all about solving seemingly impossible puzzles by altering the flow of time.

Braid is set up as a journey through multiple worlds, and each world has a twist on altering time.  In one, it may be that some pieces of the level are immune to your turning back time. In others, your shadow will act out the path you just took after you rewind time to go back to the start.  Through all of them, you will be forced to think about game and level strategy like you never have before.

Like most of these games, Braid isn't very long, but it makes up for the gameplay length with a novel and fun approach that is lacking in many major titles.  Not only is the puzzle mechanic fascinating, but the story woven into the game is deeper than you would expect.

Let's play Global Thermonuclear War

Defcon is a couple of years old but still deserves mention as a game that wouldn't have had the success it did without a good online marketplace.  Made by a small group of developers, Defcon is pretty close to what you would expect the WarGames simulators to play like.  

The game takes place entirely on a pretty simple, chalkboard-esque map of the world which gives an eerie aloofness to the horrific things happening to the Earth.   The games starts at Defcon Five with the world in relative peace as you start placing your silos, air bases, naval fleets, and radar stations.  

My fleet moves into place to defend the Eastern seas

As the clock ticks down to Defcon One the tension rises as you start moving subs and planes into position and you start mapping out targets.  By the time Defcon reaches Level One, the ICMBs are flying, the fighters are battling for air superiority and cities are being leveled.

A game with such simplistic graphics and drawn-out, strategic gameplay only appeals to a small slice of gamers, yet thanks to its placement on Steam and great word of mouth, Defcon has become moderately successful and gained quite a bit of notoriety.  It's certainly not a game to get giddy over (due to the nature of its content) but it is pretty unique in its simple presentation and complex strategy.

None of these games are ones that will keep me busy for dozens of hours like Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2 or other best-of-breed AAA titles, but they are a refreshing alternative and should certainly be part of a healthy gaming diet.

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