Skyward Collapse

Friday, May 31, 2013

I am a victim of mental conditioning. Most every game I've played in my time has made me choose a side. Skyward Collapse is one of the first to force me to choose neither.

An Indie game launched on Steam by Arcen Games, Skyward Collapse is a god game. Your goal is to achieve a sort of balance between the red and blue factions. Far from simply building walls between the two, you are encouraged to create thriving towns for both sides, build armies and wage war with your reds and blues. In fact, the score tally acts as a sort of carnage meter. When units are fighting, your score goes up, and the longer you live without some kind of conflict the more your score plummets.

To aid in the slaughter, and to help keep one side from completely running the field with the other, you have the ability to summon civilization appropriate mythological creatures to aid in your fights. Minotaurs and Centaurs for the Greeks, Frost Giants and Valkyries for the Norse.

Early on, I assumed that each side was merely aesthetically different, and that the units they produced and powers they exhibited were mirrors of each other. When the Norse Light Elf took out the Greek Chimera in one shot, I began to reevaluate the stats. Red and Blue units not only have different abilities, but different resource costs and battlefield tactics.

Even the resource gathering is different between the two sides. While the Blue Greeks seem to do well by creating mythological creatures from breads and incense, the Norse creatures require meat and precious stones before they step into the fray.

The game is staggeringly complex even before the lesser gods appear. At the beginning of the second round - known as the age of Monsters - each faction receives a Deity from their pantheon. Each Deity has a single passive ability and three activated abilities. These abilities range from creating hordes of hostile bandits to making one of your units temporarily invincible.

Complex and unpredictable, Skyward Collapse is a turn based game that functions at a frenetic pace. Constantly weighing both sides against each other while watching out for cataclysms and plagues (known aptly as Woes) and managing the terrain to keep strategic buildings safe, there is a lot to take in. The game sort of chucks you into the fray with a minimal tutorial that gives you a lot of room to play around.

A game with this much depth could easily burden itself by being too inaccessible. Skyward Collapse counters this with a light and playful tone at the outset, aided by a very funny comic intro by Strip Search contestant, Nick Trujillo. As terrible as my early performance was, I never found myself frustrated or lost. This game is immense fun.

I however, have a terrible handicap in Skyward Collapse. As I mentioned at the outset, aside from one or two sandboxes out there, I've always been forced to come down on one side of a conflict. That has been my greatest undoing in Skyward Collapse. I cannot help but choose a side in the conflict. I lean towards the Blue side heavily, and it nearly ended the game very early on. I only survived by flooding the world with bandits and minotaurs and building new towns sealed off from the rampaging armies in the center.

The numbers can be a little difficult to keep track of early in the game. Take this bit of advice to give you a leg up. The factions resources are enumerated on the right side of the screen, and you can hover over any building to see what unit is up next, or how much of any particular resource they create per turn.

Skyward Collapse is very different from other god games out there. It's strategic depth and light mood make it easy to play over and over, trying out new strategies, or just screwing around. The numbers and constant balancing keep the pace quick, but could turn off some younger players. Available via Steam on PC and Mac for $4.99, Skyward Collapse is a game well worth owning.

Wub-Wub, Wub-Wub, Wub

Monday, May 27, 2013
My first introduction to Borderlands was years before it became the phenomenon it is today. I remember the old trailers for the game. Pre cel-shading, pre wub wub. The Borderlands I saw appeared to be a straightforward game of unforgiving wastelands, ruthless bandits, and legendary alien technology.

This Borderlands seemed to take itself too seriously, with little to show for its strange, clich├ęd efforts and odd humor. I lost interest in the title for the most part and the game dropped off my radar.

Then came PAX '09. Desperate for food and lured by the promise of pizza and a friends interest in their panel, I found a seat at the Gearbox Panel. The attendance was so sparse we found ourselves with a pizza each. As the gearbox team began to speak I found myself looking at that same old trailer I'd dismissed before. They spoke for some time about the game they started to make.

As they went on, I was surprised to hear them talk about their own disappointments. They received unenthusiastic response from the press and public, even from publishers. The game was missing something.
So the team at gearbox did something unorthodox. They scrapped the game as it stood. They went back and changed the look and feel of the game. Replacing the realistic, gritty look with the cel-shaded graphics we see today. The humor they had tried for at the outset suddenly fit. They were able to take it further, finding new elements they could expand on with the freedom their now more overtly lunatic realm gave them.

More than a hilarious and solid game, I saw a team of developers that loved what they were doing. To take a project they had slaved over for years and remake into something entirely different was more than bold. It was insane. But to see their faces light up as they talked about what their vision had become, to hear them squee when they found some other little tidbit to show off. I think that is what sold me on Borderlands.

It's a shame that when we talk about the series today, this crucial step in the games development is so often glossed over or forgotten. It shows in every inch of Borderlands and even more so in its incredible sequel.
Since its release I have seen countless posts on Reddit from players that found specific, personal moments within Borderlands 2. This is often attributed to the writers skill and attention to detail. Its more than that, in my opinion, though their decision to take Anthony Burch on board is yet another spot of brilliance. The ability to find the humanity and depth in what on the surface is an insane, blood and mutant filled treasure hunt comes from that same heart and gut I saw at that panel in '09.

The Gearbox team created an expansive and entertaining world. I enjoyed my time working against (and sometimes for) Handsome Jack. He was a far more interesting villain than I'd first understood him to be; one with a real investment in the world we shared, a goal that seemed rooted in the corruption of heroic ideals. Nuanced and calculating, Jack is a villain I will remember for a long time.

I'm not done with Pandora. I still have the DLC to play through. Pirate's Booty and Big Game Hunts await me. And hell, I'm only level 37. I'll be happily traversing the wasteland for many more hours. Thanks Gearbox for your dedication to good storytelling.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

No doubt about it, I've been a very busy person so far this year.  A very large portion of energy has been put into my senior design project, which I am very excited to post about here!  Releasing very, very soon is a  very interesting board game called KickShot (link to original website).  Why is it interesting?  For a board game, it has a very unique theme for a board game, soccer.  It seems like the tabletop gaming world has been more and more interested in sports based games, but normally the rules are very complex and are only played by those with both the interest and wallet size with which to successfully play them.  It also requires painting miniatures, which I'm not very good at.  The beauty of KickShot is that it is for everyone and geared towards people who both enjoy the sport and know the rules, and to educate those who do not know the rules of the game by using memorable characters which aid with the visual cues during a real game of soccer.

We here at Somnambulant Gamer are very excited to play the final iteration of KickShot on its release, but in the meantime, I have had the opportunity to play one of the prototypical iterations of the game.  The rules have since been simplified, but they contain the same merit.  The group with which I played it and I had a wonderful time figuring out the nuances and how to further streamline the game, and indeed it was streamlined when we received the first set of finalized rules!  The game is now very smooth to play and maintains its educational merits for those who are learning the rules!

Our client for the project and creator of KickShot, Aziz Makhani, has been an absolute joy to work with and has a great enthusiasm for the game, he was also willing to humor me for a short interview regarding KickShot:

What got you into soccer initially?

  • I played soccer (or football where I grew up in Burma, now called Myanmar, and Bangladesh) and I have been refereeing soccer for over ten years. I referee youth and adult games. 
  • How did you decide you wanted to create KickShot?
  • As a soccer referee, I observed that many players, young and old, have difficulty executing certain nuances of the game, it is specifically thrown in and slide tackle. So, I had an epiphany one night to create a game that players could engage in and educate themselves and have fun playing. Since starting the development, I have learned that research confirms a direct correlation between mental engagement directly impacts physical performance on the field. So, this makes KickShot an ideal game for soccer enthusiasts, young and old as well as parents and grandparents, who may want to learn and be engaged with their kids.
  • What have been some of the biggest challenges along the way?
  • There have been challenges all along the product development and commercialization journeys as one would expect for a small startup. In the product development journey, the biggest and most time consuming challenge has been authoring, reviewing and editing the instructions. On the commercialization journey, the biggest challenge has been creating and nurturing relationships needed to make the product a success. Social media offers a great medium to expand and reach out to the target audience faster and bigger than I can imagine.
  • What is your favorite part of the game creation experience?
  • My favorite part of creation experience has been watching the players enjoy the game. These pictures show how much a five year old is enjoying the game. Here are a few pictures of 14 year olds and here are some of middle school students loving the game. 
  • What is your favorite part of KickShot?
  • My favorite part of KickShot is the value the game offers in educating, engaging and entertaining people of all ages. 
  • Who is your favorite character?
  • Lei Ting (the alligator) executing a throw in perfect form is my favorite character.If I could offer a few more, the list would be rather long. lol
  • Any further comments?
  • The instructions describe three variations to suit players of different ages and tastes. Additionally, the action cards offer the players unlimited ways to create their own variations. It gives me great satisfaction to have created a game  with rules, but feels great to know that players can create their own rules and share with the rest of the world. Lastly, there are possibilities of using the game in classrooms and treatment of autism and Asperger Syndrome. Physical Education teachers at local elementary and middle schools and an Associate Professor in Family Science will be pursuing these applications. Additionally, the game has offered opportunities for engagement with Computer Science and Business students at University of Idaho,  Washington State and Rice Universities. I have also shared my journey with students at Pullman High School who created flyers for their entrepreneurship class project. KickShot has also enabled me to meet with influential people in the industry, such as this picture taken at Borah Symposium at U of Idaho. It makes me really happy to see that KickShot is enabling such diverse interests and possibilities. It has been a real joyous journey.

  • The correct way to perform a Throw-In as performed by Lei Ting

    So, I should probably note that the project mentioned earlier was not assisting in the creation of the board game itself, but my teammate and my goal was very similar.  The goal of the project was to mobilize KickShot via the iOS platform.  Working on games is very much different from reviewing them!  Creating applications for iOS is also ridiculously tedious.  The programming itself isn't particularly tedious, it's simply getting Apple development software to cooperate on non-Apple devices (i.e. we bricked my machine for any future use of VMware until reformat).  And this is much more a gripe on Apple's developer accessibility than anything regarding the mobilization of KickShot.

    Our second, and most interesting, challenge was deciding how we should display a game board and cards in a play space that is approximately .1x the size of the full game without the feel of the gameplay suffering.  Overall, I very much enjoy the design we chose, but unfortunately we will not be the ones to complete the project.  Overall it has been a very challenging and rewarding experience to begin work on a project that has such beneficial applications!

    All In?

    Wednesday, May 1, 2013
    Let us be clear at the outset, I suck at poker. I like the idea of poker, the game itself always looked cool and alluring when portrayed in fiction. A crippling fear of losing my hard earned monies always kept me away from learning the most basic rules of the game. I even had a good opportunity back in ancient days, when I dated a professional poker dealer, to learn the game, but I still didn't pick up a thing.

    Poker Night 2 is effectively my only real exposure to playing any kind of poker so you will have to forgive me, dear readers, if I have missed some of the finer (or lesser) points of Telltale's portrayal of the ever popular card game.

    First thing, Poker Night 2 is not lacking in character. Telltale upped the ante (see what I did there!) from the original Poker Night at The Inventory's cast, populating the game with gaming/comic/cartoon favorites - Brock Sampson (Venture Brothers), Claptrap (Borderlands), Ash Williams (Army of Darkness), Sam (Sam & Max), and GLaDos (Portal) with respective tertiary characters to boot. That cast of players is plenty enough to make any geek squee with joy. I had a little hesitation initially upon learning that Ash Williams was not voiced by the iconic Bruce Campbell, but a Mr. Danny Webber. Among Webber's previous work was "Birdemic" and "Birdemic 2" which didn't fill me with confidence. Much to my surprise Webber did an excellent job of voicing Ash Williams and I would be hard pressed to find another voice actor that could do a competent job replicating Bruce Cambell's distinct voice.

    I honestly wasn't sure, given my nearly complete and total ignorance of poker's structure that I would enjoy Poker Night 2 at all. Telltale's introductory to the two styles of poker available in the game (Texas Holdem' and Omaha) are simple and straight forward, thought the game itself is deceptively complicated with the "human" element of bluffing key to it's function. I am sad to say that even though the game provides tutorials, an easy cheat sheet of possible hands, and the ability to order drinks for characters to loosen their tells, I remain dismal poker player.

    Fortunately for the player, characters and their entertaining banter are well worth struggling through one losing hand after another. I didn't expect that all the "extras" (dialog, in game props and bonuses, obscure jokes) in any video game could keep me playing while I lose thousands of fictitious dollars at every turn. Even though Lady Luck had dumped me for "I-Only-Know-One-Dave-Matthews-Song Guitar Guy" every single tournament, I never felt bereft of company or amusement with Brock, Sam, Ash, Claptrap, and GlaDos belittling me about my life choices.

    As lovely a way to spend an afternoon Poker Night 2 is, it never did cure me of my fear of losing money. I am currently $200,000 imaginary dollars in the hole and terrified that they are going to send Brock to collect.