achtungexplosiv: (Default)
It's been a while since I last posted: life has been busy and my gaming has been predominantly Rift and Alchemy Genetics based, with a bit of Borderlands and Champions Online here and there, which gets boring to read about after a while. I failed to get interested in Star Wars: The Old Republic in any way despite the behemoth PR engine and the obsessiveness of many of my friends (some of whom were barely gamers before it hit). I failed to get Skyrim too, though I plan on checking it out eventually once the price is down and I'm over my Rift phase.

Mobile apps for games and gaming networks aren't new by any means, however it's only in the last year or so that official apps from the producers of various games have started to surface. From Authenticator programs to add an extra layer of account security, to linked chat systems and replication of some in-game playable features; the companies behind the move to integrate the mobile market have been playing catchup to the enterprising third party app developers who've been offering addon support for years now.

Android Market iPhone Store

As an example of such a third party app: those who've played Eve Online with any degree of seriousness will know of Aura, an API-using app that monitors skills, manufacturing, market orders and so on. When I was playing Eve, it was invaluable as it'd let me see at a glance exactly what order on which character had been filled by whom, if I was about to superceede my current clone and also when my next skill was due to pop. It's been around for a good long while (in mobile app terms) and is quite the success story. It's not the only one of course, there's a ton of apps for Eve and the same goes for pretty much every game out there with a following. People like the functionality; they like to be able to stay connected. Games companies have taken heed and have started to produce their own versions.


Playing catchup

The earliest 'Official' apps were the account Authenticators for games such as World of Warcraft. In games with a high profile, and thus sporting a large target for unscrupulous account-breaching activities, keyloggers grabbing passwords are commonplace, as is account sharing and plenty of other means to gain access to an account from the user's end. Authenticators add another layer of security by requiring a code generated by the app to be entered when you login. It's a unique key attached to your account and changes frequently (usually a 30 second window) when synched up with the server. The idea there is that unless someone has your mobile phone as well as your username and password, it's no use trying to keylog the code as it'll be invalid shortly after use.

Now, gaming companies have introduced apps that do more, often linking into game servers' API to allow for communications such as reading in-game mail or chatting in channels, or more. An example of this is the official Rift mobile app, currently in Beta, for the iPhone and Android platforms. It allows you to log in as many of your own characters as you like in order to chat to friends and guildmates, keep track of world events and play minigames to earn small in-game rewards. Whilst the latter is opening a can of worms regarding paying subscribers not have equal access to content and loot unless they own smartphones, the functions offered have proved to be extremely popular (even if it is buggy as all ungodly hell in it's current Beta incarnation). It's not alone: World of Warcraft has had a similar app for some time, as have other games. Some of them are even paid apps that require an initial purchase fee, or else cost a little extra on top of the game's subscription fee in those games that have them, such as WoW's Remote Services app that allows the use of the auction house from a phone, among other things.


Social Networking?

It's not just online games that could benefit greatly from associated apps. Gaming networks, notably Steam, have been bugged for years about releasing apps, or at the very least allowing the API to become available for third parties to develop apps in their stead. It took a while but Valve finally pulled their collective finger out and the Steam Mobile App is now available on iPhone and Android markets. It's a beta test at the moment, and once you've logged in it'll take that as registering interest in beta participation. If you do that, keep an eye out on your Beta notifications (Setting menu in the main Steam client) for an invite and once you've got that accepted and sorted out you can get stuck in. They're being a little slow to send out beta invites but as I understand it everyone who registers interest (i.e. downloads it and logs in) will eventually get one.

Steam Mobile App

I've been using it for the last few days. So far, so good. You can't access your game library sadly, but you can do most other things such as chat to friends and see the friends list, view the store, make purchases and so on. It's also pretty stable so far, which is a plus in my book.


The haves and the have-nots

Clearly there is a future in mobile apps associated with online gaming. There will always be third party apps, some paid and some free, and any online game company that sees itself as a major player will want to have its own suite of official apps. But there are lines being drawn over what constitutes convenience, and what becomes an unfair in-game advantage. Checking a mail message versus winning rewards. Favoring owners of some devices and not others.

My personal line in the sand is at direct manipulation of in game content. Chatting to a friend is one thing, acquiring free loot and manipulating auctions is quite different. Particularly because not every player of a game will own a supported smart device. Computer-aimed software with the same functionality would be an equiliser, because one would presume that if your machine is capable of running the game in question, it's capable of running a small associated applet too. However, I have yet to see such a thing implemented and I do wonder why that might be. It can't be a question of losing money because many of these smart device apps are free, and even if they're not you can charge for applets like any other piece of software.

Finally, let's not forget security issues, and what might happen if your phone goes walkabout. Saved login information and account details could be a problem. Authenticators might end up locking you out of your own account unless you spend hours on expensive support phonecalls and post ID halfway accross the world to prove you're the real account owner, as happened to a friend of mine when her phone was stolen.

All in all, if you have a smart device then there's much on offer by way of expanding your online game experience through apps with varying degrees of integration. I'm riding this wave with interest and looking to see where it might go.
achtungexplosiv: (Default)
Over recent years, the dissemination of game content has shifted from a single complete and finished product in a cartridge or on a disk, to a first release version that then has updates added at various later points. This is even becoming true of consoles, such as XBox Live and PSN games. Whilst there are debates about whether it means paying players are the new beta testers, rushing releases and suchlike, one thing that has caught on this year especially is the idea of seasonal updates.

In short: christmas has come to a video game near you.

MMOs

MMOs have had this sort of content for years, with plenty of titles adding in bits and pieces ranging from encounters to phat lootz to social costumes. Halloween and Christmas seem to be the most popular and this year is no exception with just about everything on the market going for it. Even EVE Online gets in on the act, though these days they have restricted it to gifting each account with some sort of present item such as a ship or an implant.

Trion Worlds Holiday Greeting

The MMOs I have dealings with all have Christmas festivities in some form or another. Anarchy Online has present-dropping leets in tower fields, big christmas trees in the main cities and a series of minigame encounters around a tongue-in-cheek storyline about aliens (lead by the commander Grin'Cha) infiltrating Santaleet's workshop to spread throughout the planet... Rift has had a three phase Fae Yule event going on for the last month or so and and the final phase is due to being any day now, revolving around the newly-freed Fae going overboard in celebrating the rites of Grandfather Frost with gifts, special footholds and costumes. Champions Online has costumes and perks associated with defeating armies of misfit toys, and the final part of an adventure pack series with a wintry theme.


Elsewhere

But it's not just MMOs. Game all across Steam have popped up free DLCs with christmas content ranging from decorations for the Tavern in Dungeon Defenders to a new map with its own achivement and music in Sanctum*. Killing Floor has christmas-skinned zombies, to follow up their Halloween themed DLC. Bunch of Heroes also has a holiday pack... You get the idea.

It's even becoming present in mobile gaming: Alchemy Classic just updated with a christmas addition set, chaging the backgrounds to be festive and adding some 50 new combinations for christmas and yule related items, like Coniferous trees.


But...

Of course with a fixed theme such as Christmas/Yule, there's only so much you can do based on the same hashed-out old tropes (trees, presents, candy canes, snow etc) and it is all a bit jarring with the setting of each game unless it's based in the real world and the here and now. Ultimately it's why Eve Online moved it's christmas celebrations out of game, so to speak (although it was fun pelting the devs with snowballs in my destroyer). It's all just some silly fun, though, and it can make a change in the scenery from the rest of the year.


*For the record, Sanctum devs can't sing. It is funny though.
achtungexplosiv: (Default)
Back at the keyboard after a busy week, I'm going to move onto something of a tangent and look at the audio component of modern video games complete with Wikipedia links for further general reading without having to wade through a ton of different sites. If you want to read a much more technical retrospective on the evolution of sound in video games, read up on it right here. My post is not about tech specs, but instead looks at the evolution of the sound concepts over time and the directions the industry as a whole has taken.


Whilst it is true to say that the visual impact of a game is the greatest in terms of aesthetics, the sound and music can enhance or detract from the experience to a degree. Consider games that you turn the music off and substitute some of your own: how long did it take before getting fed up or simply bored of the soundtrack? Has a game's sound or music ever put you off to such a degree that you stopped playing? Has it ever been so good you want to listen to it on its own merits?

Personally I prefer to have both the game sound effects and background music on unless I've grown tired of it or it's irritating. I'm fairly sound-oriented so to me, video game music is srs bznz.

In some games such as Eve Online, it can negatively affect performance and turning it off comes with a noticeable improvement in client-side lag. Doesn't matter how nice it sounds, if it means the difference between losing my expensive battleship and claiming phat lootz as the victor, it's getting turned the hell off. Of course, this is mitigated somewhat by the usefulness of audio cues alerting you when something is going on that you might not be able to see too clearly, perhaps because a ship behind your field of view has targeted you or there's too much happening on screen at once. Eve is a tricky balance because the music can be very relaxing, if a little inappropriate for a heart-pounding fleet fight unless you switch the in-game jukebox over to one of the Drone tracks, or some Caldari techno.

The flip side of engaging music is in the game Rift. Whilst it's not horrible and doesn't provoke a 'turn it off right now' reaction, it's extremely dull and unmemorable to the point where I don't even notice if it's playing or not. Attempts to make it quietly fantasy-epic haven't succeeded, to my mind. This is quite unlike the music in Anarchy Online which is very fitting and memorable indeed and likely to provoke bouts of nostalgia within the first 3 bars when I hear it, and had me running around various locations just to trigger certain tracks playing like outside Baboon's nightclub in the Omni-1 Entertainment district.



Scores old and new

These days, sound in games is big business rather than the hastily tacked-on blips and bleeps of the 8bit days and earlier. Full orchestral scores with composers; popstar singers with a CGI video release; studio suites dedicated to blending a medley of sounds into a single door-opening hiss and so on. Whilst some earlier consoles had sound chips that were advanced for their time, with memorable soundtracks to boot (the Commodore 64 being a famous and notable example of this) it wasn't until the 8bit generation was in full swing that gamers developed the expectation of a good aural experience to complement good graphics and good gameplay. The sound of claiming a coin in Super Mario Bros. on the original Nintendo Entertainment System has become iconic and can even be heard nowadays coming from a Blackberry near you.


The 8bit days were about a catchy repetative loop of background music that changed every so often, perhaps even every level or when it was time to fight the big boss. Sound effects would mimic the characters' actions and were meant to be distinguishable from the music track and perhaps related to the action they were attached to, but little else.


By the time the 16bit consoles rolled out, some publishers were being more adventurous in their use of sound as everything from enhancing the atmosphere to providing audio cues for something off screen or about to happen. An excellent example of this is the Delphine Software game Flashback (released in 1992 for various consoles including the Amiga, Super Nintendo and Sega Megadrive, and since re-released periodically on newer formats). The background music was intermittent, triggered by entering certain areas, or when enemies were due to appear. Sounds for enemies and traps off-screen would be heard quietly and by listening to the sounds growing in volume and if you had stereo speakers or headphones, the direction they were coming from, you knew to get yourself ready for what was about to appear. All very basic stuff that we take for granted now but in the early 1990s this was new and groundbreaking.

The 16bit days also marked the popularisation of the idea of releasing game soundtracks on CD for retail. As an example, Squaresoft produced and sold OSVs (original sound versions, also called OSTs or original sound tracks), arrangements of OSVs and 'music inspired by' OSVs for their RPGs such as Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI (known as Final Fantasy III in the US). The Super Nintendo was blessed with an excellent Sony-produced sound chip of the SPC-700 series making up the core of it's S-SMP sound processor, which would later find an upgrade inside Sony's original Playstation. This allowed game music composers to really flex their creativity as the consoles were capable of more than a series of bips and boops. Some of the most well-known, remixed and replayed game tunes of all time came from these 16bit games and their writers have become legendary figures in the video game communities; for example Nobuo Uematsu and his work on the iconic Final Fantasy soundtracks or Yasunori Mitsuda and his Chrono Trigger, Shadow Hearts and Xenogears series (he's a particular favourite of mine with a distinctive style that can be spotted even through heavy remixing).


When the next generation of consoles hit, the 32bit Playstation and Sega Saturn in particular, video game music had become integral to the whole playing experience. Music composers led teams of dedicated sound engineers and musicians to produce polished and original works of sound art that would be marketed as products in their own right, and sometimes even made the music charts. An example of this can be seen with Final Fantasy VIII's Eyes on Me which was sung by Faye Wong, a popular Chinese singer and released as a pop single in Japan where it did extremely well, selling over 400,000 copies. The famous Wipeout series of futuristic racing games began life in 1995 with the original Playstation and it's heavily-pimped soundtrack was written by CoLD SToRAGE featuring tracks from the Chemical Brothers, Leftfield and the Orbital.


Since then, collaborations between musicians and game publishers have become commonplace with soundtracks and albums of music inspired by game soundtracks charting commercially worldwide, exclusive tracks appearing inside games, soundtracks partly or wholly written and performed by popular bands and so forth. In 2010 the Ivor Novello Awards introduced a category for Video Game soundtracks and from 2012 the Grammy Awards will have a section for game music as well. There's even college and university courses that include or specialise in game music composition in the US and Europe.

Current examples of video game music crossing over with more traditional avenues of music include:-

There's an ever-increasing number of games that integrate sound into the experience in a fundamental manner by essentially dictating the gameplay based upon the player's interactions with sound-generating mechanisms. These games include the rail shooter Rez on the Dreamcast, Playstation 2 and XBox 360; the freeform music game Electroplankton on the Nintendo DS; and puzzle-racer Audiosurf on the PC. Whilst they've enjoyed mixed success, the ability to play your own music instead of the in-game soundtrack with XBox 360 or PC games is popular and I wonder if we'll see more games that wrap themselves around the player's choice of music.


tl;dr

Game music has evolved from tinny beeps meant to fill the silence punctuated by clicking keys and thumbs on pads into a multi-billion dollar star-studded industry with global recognition and awards. It's not just for us saddo obsessives any more...




* Flashback was groundbreaking for other reasons, including the hand-drawn backgrounds, the rotoscoped animation, the Conrad sprite using a real person moving as it's base etc. A personal favorite of mine.
achtungexplosiv: (Default)
At the moment, I'm not hardcore into any one thing. My general game usage is based around my 3DS while I'm out and about, which keeps me sane on my commutes and when I have a quiet lunch, and my home PC. On the 3DS I'm usually playing Ghost Recon; at home I'm often bouncing about on Minecraft. It's one of those lull periods I get where I'm not intensely focused on somthing in particular, and end up casually playing a few different games depending on the people I game with and their availability. Until recently I was up to my eyeballs in MMOs and I suppose could describe myself as 'between games' at the moment.


General MMO-flavoured notes

I've become an MMO gamer over the years, after initially being highly critical of a genre of game which, as I saw it, you had to re-buy the damn thing every month. The reasons for my change of tune are twofold:

Firstly, MMOs tend to be huge games with a lot of variety in scope, long character progression, plenty to see and do, a lot of freedom to explore, experiment and generally mess around with a wide variety of ways to play such as player vs game content, player vs player, combat, crafting, social activities etc. As living worlds that in theory are updated by their creators with new content and changes, this mitigated the 'subscription fee' niggle I had had.

Secondly, MMOs have communities; the people you play with in groupings of varying size and arrangement in order to accomplish things, so it's a social affair in which friendships can develop. It goes beyond in-game activities into forum participation, websites resource creation and the development of third-party tools that give rise to smartphone apps, wikis, theorycrafting with equipment listings and so on. The entire process can be very rewarding.

Both of those aspects appeal very strongly to me and I've had many years of good times with the genre. A quick overview of my time:

I started out with Eve Online in 2004 some time before the first big expansion, Exodus, was released. That's one hell of a baptism of fire, believe me. Internet spaceships appealed to my interests because I'm a sci-fi fan and I had a few friends that were playing it at the time. After some years and many adventures both good and bad, I burned out and decided to give it a break. I have returned to Eve off and on over the years and am currently subbed (just about) despite the CCP debacles of late.

After some time experimenting with other games, I found myself really getting into Anarchy Online which I had first come accross in 2006 shortly before the release of the Lost Eden expansion. I realise that this way round of playing those two games was arse-backwards to most others, but hey. Several more years of good and bad were spent here doing it all until I suffered a similar burnout and developed an extremely jaded view of FUncom (putting the FU in fun).

Some more random games later (most recently Rift, which I am still technically subbed to but no one I played with still plays and I'm bored on my own) I find myself adrift once more.

At a later point I'll do a more detailed write up of each game, including the various other games I played and didn't stick with for one reason or another.

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achtungexplosiv

May 2012

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