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Sep 072011

Just an administrative note:  Systemic Babble’s server has been changed (for the better).  If anyone notices any problems with the content or performance, please drop me a comment.

As a software developer I have been exposed to many different methodologies for managing a project and writing code:  test-driven development is one of the most popular, however there is behaviour-driven development, model-driven development, feature-driven development, and probably a whole lot more.  My current team is not dogmatic enough to force one of these methodologies down everyone’s throat and declare it The One True Way To Write Code, however we do utilize a methodology all our own: donut-driven development.

Donut-driven development is a simple concept:  if a developer’s code submission causes one of the team’s automated check-in or nightly builds to fail, then that developer has to go to Tim Hortons and buy a dozen donuts for the team to share or risk facing hungry cajoling from teammates.

Adhering to this system has two main effects.  Firstly, individual developers are less likely to carelessly submit patches because they know that there is a penalty – albeit a tasty one – associated with sloppy performance.  Secondly, the entire team’s waistlines grow in tandem as frosted goodness is spread around the office.

In all seriousness, institution some form of light slap on the wrist for broken builds is good policy.  Frequent broken builds lead to less productivity, lower code quality, and enhanced team frustration.

Many teams resort to shaming build breakers with a trophy or banner that they have to keep in their office until someone else breaks the build, however this can degrade developer morale over time.  While it is not professional to submit sloppy work, it is less professional to force someone to wear a dunce cap because of a mistake.

Donut-driven development has been a hit with the teams that have used it at my company.  We have relatively few broken builds, and everyone enjoys the social aspect of having a snack in the rare case that something does go wrong.

Back in my university days I played the original Dungeon Siege.  It was a passable roleplaying game – I remember the world being generic and the combat being slow-paced – but not special enough to warrant the purchase of the sequel.  With that history in mind, I never would have given Dungeon Siege III a second glance without the mini-revolt that diehard fans of the series started when details of the third game started to surface.

This isn’t a Dungeon Siege game – it’s more like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance!” the complaints went.  That got my attention.  My wife and I have been searching for a console-based action RPG for years with very limited success, and we loved BG: DA.  After playing the demo, Dungeon Siege III became a day one purchase for us.

Graphically, Dungeon Siege III is an extremely good looking game that runs smooth as silk on the Playstation 3. The game’s diverse environments – from the dark forests, to the bustling towns, to the oppressive dungeons – look and sound great.  The character models are well done, although some corners were obviously cut along the way – for example, facial animations are largely absent since you usually see the back of your characters (if anything) while they are speaking.  Combat is colourful, with player and enemy special attacks lighting up the screen frequently, and often spectacularly.

As a story, Dungeon Siege III was interesting enough to hold our attention, but ultimately was nothing special and did tend towards some of the standard tropes of the fantasy genre.  The game’s plot is mainly delivered though character dialog, with a small amount of narration thrown in to tie the different scenes together.  The world’s backstory is delivered through purely optional books and papers, which are scattered throughout the towns and dungeons.  Voice acting is a mixed bag – most of the NPCs are well done, however the two main characters that we used – Anjali and Reinhart – are absolutely awful in delivering their lines.

Speaking of the plot, like many modern roleplaying games, Dungeon Siege III allows the player(s) to make dialog-driven moral choices at key points during the game.  Since I’ve only played the game once I’m not sure how much consequence is afforded to your decisions, however early in the game there is the option to kill or release a fallen enemy, and she played a key role in quite a number of plot points throughout our story.  I’d be interested to see what happened if we had chosen to kill her.

 

Character progression choices in the game are fairly minimal, but do manage to force you to make some impactful decisions.  During the course of the game each character is guaranteed to obtain all nine of their skills, however those skills can be specialized using skill points that are earned with each level up and there are not enough skill points to max out more than a couple skills.  In addition to skill modifications, characters earn customization points that can be invested in the twelve specializations, which are different for each character.  Each specialization can be boosted by up to five points, and again there are not enough points to max out very many of these options. The equipment system is reminiscent of the Diablo experience; most of the loot is randomly generated, however there are a few unique (and powerful) pieces to collect along the way.

Combat forms the core of Dungeon Siege III’s gameplay, and it does not disappoint.  One button on your controller is mapped to a basic attack, which the other three trigger special attacks that consume mana.  Mana is restored by damaging enemies and collecting blue mana orbs (which drop frequently), which means that it pays to constantly launch special attacks and not just mash the basic attack button.  Holding one of the bumper triggers puts your character into defensive stance, and then pressing in any direction after that triggers a dodge move (which, for both Anjali and Reinhart is a teleport).  Blocking and dodging are essential to surviving not only the boss battles, but also the normal encounters; it pays to be mobile.  Finally, all characters have two combat stances – loosely mapped to hand-to-hand and ranged – and offensive skills are automatically mapped to one of these two stances.  To get the most out of your character you need to switch stances fairly frequently.  All of this leads to very active and technical gameplay – you do not have a hope of succeeding on normal difficulty if all you do is stand still and mash attack.  The game’s combat system feels very rewarding.

Boss battles in Dungeon Siege III deserve special mention, as these are the moments when the game ratchets up the difficulty and really challenges the players to step up their game.  Far from being raw slugfests, fighting a boss requires observation of attack patterns, aggro management, quick reflexes to evade area attacks, and quite frequently trash mob management.  When playing co-op, being vocal really paid off as my wife and I had to quickly communicate situational changes and let each other know what we were doing.  The bosses in Dungeon Siege III reminded me like all the best parts of an MMO raid encounter without having to deal with organizing dozens of players, slapping around AFKers, or handling whiny loot whores after the fact.

 

Although reviews have been mixed, as a couch co-op game Dungeon Siege III is a spectacular success.  It channels all of the best aspects of older games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, while updating the mechanics and graphics to work on newer systems for modern gamers.  I almost never replay a game, but both my wife and I have discussed the possibility of trying the campaign again with different characters, and making different choices along the way to see how the story plays out.  With nothing like this on the horizon any time soon, it may just be our best option.

There are a lot of reasons to avoid shopping at GameStop, or their affiliate EB Games:  they rip off gamers with their used game pricing, they stock very few copies of PC games, they push terrible warranties onto unsuspecting / less savvy consumers, and they pre-open all of their new games just to name a few.  But now they’ve managed to sink to a whole new low:

 

OnLive and Square Enix announced yesterday that as an extra incentive for gamers who couldn’t quite bring themselves to pull the trigger on the new Deus Ex release, all boxed copies of the game will include a coupon for a free copy from cloud gaming company OnLive. I don’t really see it as a “seal the deal” offer but it might come in handy someday and hey, free stuff is free stuff, right?

Not if you bought it from GameStop. Shortly after it went on sale, buyers began reporting to GameSpy that their supposedly brand-new copies had been opened and that the OnLive coupon was missing. Dodgy, yes, but things didn’t get full-on greasy until an anonymous source provided the site with a photo of an email, allegedly from GameStop management, telling employees to pull the coupons and throw them away. “Our desire is to not have this coupon go to any customers after this announcement,” the memo said.

 

That’s right – GameStop employees were instructed to steal and destroy  pack-in content from a newly released game.  It makes you wonder what other casual theft that GameStop has been instructing its staff to perform in the name of hindering its competition.  Buy your games anywhere else other than GameStop – they don’t deserve your money after this underhanded stunt.

Aug 222011

I’m having a hard time deciding what to write about Bayonetta after polishing it off last Friday because, after all, I’ve already written nine hundred and twenty two words about the game’s demo. I played the game at an incredibly leisurely pace which was completely at odds with the cadence of the game’s content; the twelve hour story mode took me nearly two months to complete (but that was mostly a result of the beautiful summer weather and should not be taken as an indictment of the game).  In almost all respects, Bayonetta’s demo was an extremely accurate portrayal of what the full game included:  insane visuals and plot, crazy action, and a boatload of Japanese-influenced style.

There are three main game elements that the demo does not touch on:  a scoring system, collectible weapons, accessories, and powers, and a variety of mini games.

Bayonetta is broken down into levels, each of which is further subdivided into “Verses”, some of which are optional.  Each verse is scored based on time, combo points, damage taken, item use, and deaths and at the end of a verse the player is awarded a trophy based on their performance.  There are six different trophies, which range from stone to pure platinum and earning the higher quality trophies deliver higher in game currency rewards.  At the end of each level players each an overall trophy that takes into account their performance  throughout all of the verses (including penalties for optional verses that were missed).  The best I ever managed to achieve for a full level was a Silver trophy – I’m not exactly adept at this sort of game.  Levels can be repeated at will, and the game keeps track of your best scores.  Perfectionists should have a field day with this feature.

Throughout the action, Bayonetta will be constantly picking up items and currency (halos) from defeated enemies and smashed scenery.  This booty can be spent mid-level at the shop (if you find it), or else between levels.  Shop items range from lollipops that heal you, to a variety of buffing candies, to a potent syringe that will revive you when you die.  In addition to consumables, there are weapons to buy (I almost exclusively used the swords once I unlocked them), trinkets that grant extra powers, or new moves to purchase that expand Bayonetta’s repertoire.  Unless you’re replaying a lot of levels you will have to be choosey in the shop – items are expensive, and you will not find enough halos to buy even a quarter of the total items in a single play through.

The final elements in the main game that were not present in the demo are the mini games that are used as a sort of palette cleanser to break up the levels a little bit.  Between each level is a carnival-style shooting game (Angel Attack!), however some of the verses within the levels deviate wildly from the core beat ‘em up action as well.  One of the best examples is a shmup sequence late in the game in which Bayonetta is riding on the back of a missile hurtling towards an enemy stronghold.  The action is reminiscent of the SNES classic Star Fox, with loads of shooting, dodging, and twirling through hordes of airborne enemies and the occasional big boss.  Other mid-level mini games include motorcycle racing, surfing, and some strange platforming.

As a player who does not generally enjoy beat ‘em up action games, I can truly say that Bayonetta was far more fun that it had any right to be.  The entire game was a candy-coated joyride from the start to the beginning, with forgiving enough mechanics and game play that anyone who can hold a controller should be able to button-mash their way through the main plot on normal difficulty.  Fans of the genre should be pleased with the amount of depth and finesse there is with the myriad of combos and the different items and weapons that can be brought to bear on their angelic foes.  If you see a copy of Bayonetta for $15 – like I did – be sure to grab it, it is well worth your time.

Ever wondered why some people rabidly defend the bands that they love, while attacking products that compete against their favorites?  Ars Technica has an article up that helps explain the phenomenon:

You may think you’re defending your favorite platform because it’s just that good. But, according to a recently published study out of the University of Illinois, you may instead be defending yourself because you view criticisms of your favorite brand as a threat to your self image. The study, which will be published in the next issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology, examines the strength of consumer-brand relationships, concluding that those who have more knowledge of and experience with a brand are more personally impacted by incidents of brand “failure.”

The researchers performed two experiments, one on a group of 30 women and another on 170 undergraduate students, in order to see whether the subjects’ self esteem was tied to the general ratings of various brands. Those who had high self-brand connections (SBC)—that is, those who follow, research, or simply like a certain brand—were the ones whose self esteem suffered the most when their brands didn’t do well or were criticized. Those with low SBC remained virtually unaffected on a personal level.

The residual effect of this is that those with high SBCs tend to discount negative news about their favorite brands, and sometimes even ignore it altogether in favor of happier thoughts.

[...]

“Because the brand is seen as a part of the self by virtue of being intimately tied to the self, failure on the part of the brand is experienced as a personal failure,” reads the paper. “Therefore, in an effort to maintain a positive self-view, high SBC individuals react defensively to brand failure by evaluating the brand favorably despite its poor performance.

I wonder where that leaves me. I tend to attack brands or ideas that I dislike, even if I don’t have any good alternative in mind, or preconceived loyalties.

A recent family episode has forced me into admitting that it is finally time to upgrade my ancient Sony Ericsson flip phone for something a little more capable.  My parents were vacationing in Newfoundland and my mother had to be hospitalized for a couple weeks.  During that time, a tonne of information was conveyed between my father and the rest of the family using a combination of SMS text messages and MMS images and video.  I sent and received probably a year’s worth of texts, and the experience was a miserable one for three main reasons:  (1) a number pad is a awful way to type words, (2) the image quality on my little flip phone is atrocious, and (3) I couldn’t play any of the videos.

These deficiencies led me to go phone shopping with the following criteria:

  • I’d like a keyboard – either slide out or on the face of the device. I dislike virtual keyboards immensely.
  • I’d like to be able to view photos that people send me without them looking like line sketches, as well as play videos.
  • I would like the phone to have a decent camera.

And of course, I don’t want a bloody smartphone.

Well, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that a basic phone meeting my three simple requirements does not exist.  Basic feature phones don’t have keyboards, and feature phones that do have keyboards are optimized for online interaction, boasting (unwanted) features like Facebook and Twitter integration, web browsing, and so on.  Even more damning, these feature phones are not all that far from having the capabilities of low end smartphones so they seem like purposefully gimped offerings to sell to suckers.

The sales people that I spoke to at phone kiosks were no help – when they weren’t busy trying to convince me that I wanted to buy their latest and greatest smartphone offering, they were looking at me like I had sprouted an additional arm because they simply could not grok the concept of someone wanting a plain old disconnected dumb phone.

After too many failed visits to wireless stores and a bit of soul searching, I’ve come to accept that I need to compromise a little bit:

In the next month or so I’ll be springing for a Blackberry Bold 9900.  Technically it is considered a smartphone, however it is more of a tool than a toy, unlike both iPhones or Androids.   A Blackberry has way more features than I need (or want), but the compulsion to pull it out and play with it incessantly (like most smartphone users that I know) should be lessened or, with luck, eliminated altogether.  I chose this model over top of a basic web-enabled feature phone because it seemed like a waste not to – I can buy an unlocked Blackberry for a good price due to my contacts and don’t need to bind myself to an inflated long term contract from any of the sleazy Canadian wireless providers.

The expressions of disbelief and snorts of derision from my co-workers when I told them my plan only confirm that I’ve picked the right phone for me.

During the PSN outage I managed to clear up my backlog of demos, but the gorgeous Canadian summer weather has me behind the eight ball again, although not as severely as before.  I recently carved out a chunk of time to sample a few games that caught my eye.

Red Faction: Armageddon

The most recent installation of the moderately successful Red Faction series, Armageddon, is sadly also the last.  It’s a damning indictment of the mentality of the huge AAA publishers that a series that sells decently is not considered profitable enough to continue.  You sell a gazillion titles, or you get canned – there is rarely any middle ground.

As a third person shooter, Armageddon is a solid effort with enough unique flavor to set it apart from the me-too military games that see the most success amongst the unwashed masses.   If the demo is any indication, the arsenal that you command in the game is as outlandish as that found in a Ratchet & Clank title; aside from the boring assault rifle, Red Faction hands you a magnet gun, a charge launcher, and a singularity gun almost right out of the gates.  All of the weapons cause an incredible amount of damage, tearing apart enemies and the fully destructible terrain with equal ease.  It is completely possible to blow apart nearly everything in the game, including elements that are required to progress the plot.  Fear not, your character also comes with a nifty nano device (which I dubbed the Hand of God) that repairs all structural damage with a simple wave of your arm.  All of this combines in Red Faction: Armageddon to make the player feel like a total badass, and that’s always satisfying.

Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls

Many of the early roleplaying games that came out for home computers were turn-based first person dungeon crawls.  I didn’t like that style of game then and, as it so happens, I discovered that I still don’t liked them.

Labyrinth of the Lost Souls is unforgivingly old school: at the start of the game you manually create a party of six adventurers, selecting the name, sex, class, race, and stats for each character before being dumped out into a menu-based town filled with menu-based buildings to “explore”.  You can’t afford anything except perhaps a torch and a map to start, but eventually you’ll stumble into an NPC who will assign you a quest to dive into one of the game’s dungeons and…… kill ten rats.  (Okay, kill six goblins; close enough.)  Exploring the dungeon is tedious – you can only move in the four cardinal directions, and as far as I could tell you need to manually map out your surroundings if you don’t want to get lost.  Combat is vicious – the starting enemies hit hard, and since your characters are gimpy to start, death will occur.  After a half an hour I’d had more than my fill of the Wizardry demo – in this case 1980′s game design should have stayed in the 1980′s.

Eat them!

Back in 1986 Midway released an arcade game named Rampage that put players in control of movie monsters and set them lose to destroy a fictional cityscape.  Eat Them! is 2011′s version of Rampage, and it’s filled with just as much stupid fun.

Rocking a slick comic book vibe, Eat Them! takes the basic formula of rampant destruction and adds in a simple story mode and some cool monster creation facilities.  As you play through the game’s challenge levels you earn body parts that can be mixed and matched to design the monster of your dreams (or nightmares); completing a level allows you to progress the plot, but achieving various milestones (usually score-based) earns you the body parts.  This mechanic by itself adds a depth to the game which would not otherwise exist:  it’s not only important to cause destruction – you must cause destruction efficiently in order to get everything out of the levels.  Game play itself is what you expect:  you can punch, kick, and shoot buildings, monuments, and vehicles to rack up points while fending off the police force and military that are trying to take you down.  If you suffer enough damage, simply scoop up a handful of citizens and wolf them down to recover your health.  Eat Them! is silly, silly fun.

No More Heroes: Heroes’ Paradise

No More Heroes is, in a word, in-fucking-sane.

Let me start with the graphical style:  the game is rendered intentionally jagged despite being on a system that can output crisp perfect visuals.  All of the icons, GUI elements, and interface sound effects are torn right out of the 8-bit era, with oversized pixels standing out like eyesores.  Then there’s the plot:  you play an assassin currently ranked 13th in the world, and your job is to kill off all of the other assassins in front of you and become the best assassin in the world…. even if you don’t really want to.  Game play is mostly arena-based brawling, in which you use your lightsaber-like weapon to beat on your adversaries until a QTE prompt appears, at which point you dispatch them with excessive gore if you press the correct buttons.  I’m not sure who No More Heroes is designed for; while it is undeniably unique, it is definitely not for me.

Limbo

A critical darling ever since it was first released for the Xbox 360, Limbo has finally come to the PSN (and Steam) so that all serious gamers can enjoy it.

Limbo is a puzzle-platformer that is drawn completely in silhouette, to amazing effect.  I would have never believed that a mostly silent game drawn with grayscale art could be so gorgeous, evocative, and emotional.  In Limbo you play as a young boy trying to rescue his sister from a dark and dangerous forest.  As you explore your environment you will invariably stumble into a trap and die, often gruesomely.  In the demo I managed to fall into a pit of spikes, drown, get caught in a huge beartrap, get impaled by a giant spider, and fall to my death.  Dying only sets you back a few seconds, as you are reset to just before the area that killed you; this design decision allows death to be used as a learning tool, and not a frustrating impediment to progress.  Between the minimalist design, the dark and brooding atmosphere, and the great puzzles, Limbo is guaranteed to find its way into my library in short order.

Having recently ponied up the full price for a brand new 3DS, it would be easy to rant and rave when, less than a month later, Nintendo moved to slash the price by nearly a third, from $250 down to $170. Of course, I knew going in that I was buying high and that the price would be slashed eventually, but who could have predicted that the move would come so soon?

Slow sales of their latest handheld are the stated reason for the unprecedented and aggressive price action by the normally-stoic gaming giant – less than a million units have moved in the United States since its launch.  To say that they are panicking would be an understatement.  Anticipating nerd rage from their core fanbase, Nintendo has offered up twenty games – ten NES classics and ten GBA ports – to be made available for download at a later date.  To me that feels like over-compensation, but I’m not about to complain.

What concerns me, as aptly pointed out by Chris Kohler in a recent article on Wired’s Game|Life, is that this price cut might not be enough.

On the one hand, the drastic nature of the cut, unprecedented in the company’s long history, puts Nintendo 3DS in a totally new pricing bracket. As Stephen Totilo pointed out on Kotaku, it is “no longer more expensive than an Xbox 360; it’s now cheaper than an iPod Touch.”

Except it’s not really cheaper than an iPod Touch. Sure, the price of entry is lower now, but what happens after that? New 3DS games cost $40 each. There are no demos, and third-party publishers seem to be taking active steps to make used games less appealing.

$40 is a not a price point at which you say, “Oh, hell, I’ll just try it.” When you’re a kid, $40 means you get new games on your birthday, at Christmas and maybe after getting a root canal if you cry enough. Meanwhile, you could just ask for an iPod Touch and stalk the Free Game of the Day websites, loading up your system with games while spending nothing.

The smart phone industry has been racing relentlessly to the bottom of the barrel in terms of pricing for games, and they have been slowly brainwashing consumers into believing that the proper price point for electronic entertainment is not $60 or $40 – hell, it’s not even $20 like I’ve long argued – it’s $0.99 per game, or $1.99 if the title is really good.

The problem with this mentality is that, except for a few outliers, smart phone games are primitive, simplistic, and cheaply made.  Huge megahits like Angry Birds are essentially knockoffs of free Flash browser games, and only the most complex offerings exceed the depth of the roleplaying games and strategy titles found on zero dollar services like Kongregate.

Full length games filled with expensive graphic and musical assets, complex mechanics, lengthy campaigns, and real depth cannot be produced for $0.99 per download unless they become wildly popular, and yet it is exactly these games – which will populate the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita’s catalogs – that are being compared to Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope, or any other cheap smartphone diversion.

Young consumers are being trained to value all mobile gaming experiences the same, and are starting to believe that $5.00 is an exorbitant price to pay for a video game.  This isn’t healthy for the mobile industry, as these kids make up a huge portion of their business model.  There is certainly a place for disposable budget titles, however full length experiences should not be allowed to wither and die.

A 3DS price cut is not going to change many minds.  Nintendo needs to start by reducing the base cost of a 3DS game to $20, and then move to educate consumers of the increased value that these titles (and their gaming system) provide over and above the typical smartphone tripe.

I started dabbling with my Web Critters project again yesterday, and had some fun analyzing early “meat eater” strategies.  It looks like successful early-run omnivores and carnivores are cannibalistic, whereas those that evolve later in a simulation tend to specialize in predating species other than themselves.  This makes a lot of sense.  It’s easy to eat your own kind, however you run the risk of eating yourself to extinction, whereas it’s tougher to find a stable second species to chew on, but once you do you can expand without worrying about your own population quite as much.

It’s little insights like this that make artificial life systems like ECHO so intellectually engaging – I didn’t codify any of these behaviours, they manifest on their own as a side effect of some extremely simple rules.

Even though I have the basic model up and running and a big backlog of work to do, I find myself tempted to rewrite the core Web Critters engine in F#, a functional programming language.  Functional languages are much better suited to the type of processing that I’m doing down in the guts of the application, and lend themselves more easily to massive parallelization.  I’ve had an F# book sitting on my desk for months because I like to try to learn new programming languages every so often (it helps me keep sharp), but of course that means that I’d take a long time to reimplement what I have because I’d be taking my first steps with the language on a non-trivial application.

I’ll have to make a decision soon, but at least I’m back to thinking about Web Critters – it’s been neglected for too long.

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