Category: Articles

Desert Island Games – Episode 1 part 1

Welcome to the first edition of the new Desert Island Games series. This series was initially inspired by a combination of the famous BBC radio 4 show, Desert Island Discs and a section that was in the Digital Cowboys podcast several years. I’d been considering something like this for a while and then I stumbled across the very excellent Final Games podcast by Liam Edwards (which I would recommend everyone listens to). Liam’s format works very well on a podcast and I wondered whether something similar could work as an article.

Each episode will take a member of the GR community and strand them on a desert island forever more. But I’m not completely heartless so they’ll be able to take along their favourite 8 games to play for the rest of their days. There are a couple of rules in place though, any game with an online component is fine but any kind of voice or text chat is banned (we can’t have you calling out for help). Also, availability of DLC is completely at my own whim.

So who is the first (un)lucky fella to take the long journey to isolation? They’ve been a member of GRcade since the very start, back in 2008, having jumped ship from the old home at Future. Aside from gaming, it looks like they’re GRs unofficial NFL cheerleader. This episode’s contributor is Rax.

So Rax, what was your thinking behind the choices? Was it picking games that would last a long time or be replayable or was it games that you just couldn’t bear to be without? Or a mix of both?
Initially, I focused more on the games I love to play and had the fondest memories of so I had games like Ocarina of Time and Halo on the list but, while I love those games, I realised that I wouldn’t want to play them forever. They’re great games and I do enjoy going back to them from time to time but they have a defined start and end with not a huge amount to do once the story is over. If I’m going to be on a desert island, I want to be able to play for hours and hours at a time.

That’s when I looked at the genres of games, I wanted a good range of games because I like to jump around, I can’t go from shooter to shooter, I need that variety in my games. So I started to add games from different genres, including games I don’t play that often anymore and in the end, I think I got a pretty good range on there. I didn’t want to double up on a genre of game and while I do have 2 very similar management sims on there, to me they’re very different games and I love them both for different reasons and I kept them both on the list. Everything on the list is a unique thing that gives me a different kind of experience than the other games.

I also tried to get a range of complexities on the list, I didn’t want everything to be a big world with loads of systems to interact with, sometimes a simple game to unwind with is all I want. For this reason, I originally had mobile games on the list, Threes and BigBigBig 2 (it’s a kind of Chinese poker game) were both on the list at one stage but they both scratch the same itch. Then I realised that something else scratched that itch way better so both of them could go.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the list.

Game 1 on the list is the business sim which has players attempting to become a virtual Richard Branson. It’s an open source remake of the incredibly engaging Chris Sawyer game, Transport Tycoon Deluxe which was originally released back in 1995. This was a pseudo-sequel to the 1994 original Transport Tycoon. So Rax’s first choice is OpenTTD and if you’ve an interest then you can play it now for absolutely no pence!

Did you play the original Transport Tycoon?
I didn’t play the original release, I got on board with Transport Tycoon Deluxe (TTD) which was like a GOTY edition released a year or so later, but I was late to that party too. Back then there was nowhere in my town to buy games, I used to save up and go on a trip to Cork City to pick up the last few months releases. Along with the games I planned to get I’d pick up the odd impulse buy, TTD was one of these. I had played and loved Rollercoaster Tycoon and I was mad for some more Tycoon goodness, when I saw TTD had Chris Sawyers name on the box I had to get it.

But I was disappointed, I didn’t actually like it at first, I had no idea what I was supposed to do so I was on the verge of dumping it and never playing it again when I decided to actually give the included tutorial levels a go. They did a great job of explaining things and I was able to actually play the game properly. From there I fell in love with it, there’s a certain charm to Sawyer’s Tycoon games that really resonates with me for some reason and I couldn’t get enough of it. I’d play it obsessively for a week or two and then forget about it for months before going back to the obsession again later.

A few years back I came across OpenTTD, which started as an unofficial expansion for TTD but is now it’s own a self-contained game available for free. It’s made some major improvements to TTD, from nerdy stuff like adding better train signals and better routeing to things like allowing bigger maps, long bridges and different AI settings. I still play it as regularly as I used to, obsess over it for a week or two, leave it for months and come right back, usually picking up where I left off. I can’t really explain the appeal of it, I just love the mechanics of the game, connect up a transport route, make it more efficient, upgrade it, integrate to your wider network, expand it, it’s not heart pounding stuff but it’s the kind of game you can lose hours to, “I’ll just improve this next section of track then I’ll go to bed”.

My problem with TTD (and probably by extension OpenTTD and probably one of your later choices) is I get my business to a certain level and then just get bored, give up and start again, is that something you find yourself doing or are you constantly adding to the same save file?
A little bit of both really, I sometimes want the challenge of starting from scratch and seeing a new map but other times I want to have a pile of cash to try and improve my network. For this reason I have multiple save files on the go, sometimes I’ll add to an existing empire, sometimes I’ll be the small fry and start from scratch.

One thing that I do in every game is focus on trains, they’re the deepest and most interesting part of the game. They’re also the part that needs the most optimisation and upgrading, just when I get bored of having diesel trains I can use electric, then monorail and finally maglev. Sometimes I’ll skip the middle 2 phases and do one huge conversion job as soon as maglev arrives, doing it that way gives me a few in-game years of upgrade work to do and once that is done I’m itching to expand and optimise again.

I will admit to reading up on how to optimise the track layout in different situations, it’s magnificently nerdy I know, but getting every little bit of efficiency out of a virtual train network is a weirdly entertaining thing for me. The satisfaction of reconfiguring your stations and track layout to prevent trains having to wait to enter a station is a real guilty pleasure of mine.

I also try out the other tile sets from time to time, temperate is the original and definitely the best but I know where everything needs to go there so I don’t need to actually put much thought into how the industries fit together. A new tileset changes all that so while it’s still trains and cargo and things, where everything goes and the value of each is all changed so strategies need adjusting and I can’t just use the same early game strategy I always use. Toyland will always be shit though. :P

Much like another of my choices it has scope for foul play if you are willing to put the effort in. Park trains across roads your competitors use to slow them down, snake a train over and back the road to destroy his buses, bribe a town council to let you bulldoze the town and replace it with train tracks. I don’t do it that often but if I have the cash and have taken a dislike to a particular opponent then I’ll do what I feel needs to be done!

Originally created and designed by Swedish game designer Markus “Notch” Persson, and later fully developed and published by the studio he co-founded, Mojang. Mojang was subsequently acquired by Microsoft for $2.5 billion. Released on just about every platform under the sun and having sold an estimated 120 million copies, it’s the digital lego box known as Minecraft.

The whole minecraft thing seems to have passed me by but having seen my kids get addicted then I can easily understand the attraction. Is there a particular aspect of it that keeps you playing?
I think it’s the freedom of the whole thing that I love, it’s really only bounded by your own imagination. I dread to think how many hours I’ve actually put into it, I have a number of copies of the game and multiple worlds on each, I have a main one that I’ve been working on for years but lately I find myself preferring to play new worlds rather than adding to existing ones.

I wasn’t sure I would like it at first, everyone on here had been raving about it for ages but I was hesitant, I didn’t jump in until it got its official 1.0 release but I loved it. Looking back I’m actually not sure how I did fall in love with it as my first world was terrible, it spawned me in a desert so I had no wood and nothing to do, I had to pick a direction and walk until I found somewhere interesting. The lure of the unknown was a big deal in the early days, not knowing what I would find the other side of the mountain or a little deeper in the cave was pretty exciting. I think knowing that others loved it so much kept me going in that first world to try and get a handle on how things worked.

These days I don’t go in so much for the exploration stuff, I’ve “beaten” the game and seen all the stuff there is to see really, now when I play I play to build, or to survive. I’ll either set it to creative and make some crazy stuff or set it to survival hard mode and see how long I can survive without dying, the fact I can do both and get so much joy out of them both is one of the great appeals of the game to me.

What about other similar games such as Dragon Quest Builders or Terraria? Do they have the same hook with you?
I tried Terraria but it just didn’t click with me, I think part of that was that it felt like a Minecraft ripoff to me. I know since then it has grown and is now very much it’s own thing but the controls didn’t feel right and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing the inferior product. Maybe I should give it another go some day but for now I’m happy to stick with Minecraft.

Dragon Quest Builders is something I’ve been interested in trying but I don’t have the time right now, I’ve had my finger hovering over the buy button more than once but I know deep down I won’t have the time for it. I did dismiss it when I first heard about it but the reaction to it had been positive and it sounds like it brings something new to the table instead of just trying to be like Minecraft. If I do ever run out of things to play it will be near the top of the list for me.

I’ve also tried Lego Worlds, it seems perfect, Lego and Minecraft in one, but again the controls just aren’t right. I do still have Lego Worlds installed on my PC though and I will give it a proper try soon, I really want to like it and I don’t want to be turned away by a negative first impression, especially with something like controls which can just take some getting used to.

Some excellent choices by Rax in part one with a real emphasis on games that are open ended with masses of content. Will the rest of his list continue this trend?

Extra Lifespan – Getting more from the games you own. Part 1: User-generated content.

Games like Counter Strike, Team Fortress and Dota 2/League of Legends all began in the late 1990s and early 2000s, coming from a melting-pot of third party modding and creativity from open-ended game engines and modding tools like Valve’s Hammer editor and Source engine and the early iterations of the Unreal engine. However in addition to systems like achievements promoting more player engagement but less creativity, these flagship games have become more stringent ‘services’ which are the opposite of the creative spirit.

The addition of paid and consumable spray decals for Counter Strike Global Offensive, a game whose previous iterations let users load their own images as sprays to use as many times as they want, is an example of this shift away from user-generated content as a builder of community cohesion towards a more service-oriented model where content is more controlled and crucially monetised. As much as achievements encourage you to explore a game further through replays on higher difficulties, progress milestones or specific player actions they have had the compound effect of limiting player creativity. Open-world games have a lot of space, content and systems in place to give you plenty to do however most of it involves box-ticking side missions which equate to tidying up the map rather than having any creative input. On the other hand more linear shooters are often scripted to ensure the player sees all the set-pieces or that the multiplayer can be monetised for as long as possible. For example Call of Duty Black Ops III only got Steam Workshop support towards the end of its year of support/interest and not long before Infinite Warfare’s PR kicked into life.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make your own fun. Engaging in the user-generated content systems of games which have them is a great way to extend their lifespan through fostering creativity and a collaborative community well beyond the lifespan of its core content. Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout games are the most popular and prevalent mainstream games which openly support modding (despite criticisms that this approach lets the community fix the games for the developers free of charge) and even the Doom reboot included a level creation toolset of sorts. Halo’s Forge editor has opened up its multiplayer mode to survive competition and maintain relevance in the face of the more bombastic Call of Duty and Battlefield games. CoD has its own limited USG in the form of player-created profile logos, but outside of these we have to look slightly further outside mainstream games to the relative periphery of the market to find games which openly facilitate user-generated content.

The Forza Motorsport/Horizon series has distinguished itself through its livery creation system which lets players create and share custom car designs and images with each other. The toolset gives you a large selection of shapes, curves, gradients and letters which can be stretched, skewed and resized over the bodywork. Over the last 10 years the community for this has produced absolutely stunning artistic designs and accurate replicas of real-world car liveries to be shared and used by others:

I find recreating real-world designs or liveries from other racing games to be a relaxing creative outlet with practical ingame application; in order to share a design you have to have used your own layer groups and designs. If you download someone else’s sponsor logos or art to make it you can’t share anything you make with the wider community. Every time someone downloads, uses or likes your designs you get a small amount of in-game money as a reward and an incentive to produce better designs in the future.

I’ll discuss the game more in the future, but the PC version of Star Trek Online has a powerful set of tools which enables players to create and write their own story missions which others can play through. You choose the start locations, environments, encounters and write the dialogue for every interaction therein. This system is almost as feature-rich as the tools used by the developers and is an extensive avenue for the creatively-minded to get significantly more life out of an already large game:

The PC version of Neverwinter (also made by Cryptic, the developers of the UGC-heavy and unfortunately deceased City of Heroes) also features a similar system which plays to the storytelling/roleplaying nature of the Dungeons and Dragons IP.

The problem with these systems is that they require an audience to get the most out of them. Far Cry 3 included team multiplayer with a map editor however the population dropped off relatively quickly, so what would be the point of spending time making a map for it? I had some plans for a few Far Cry 3 maps including the ruins of a coastal town which a plane crashed through the middle of as well as a precarious cliff-side temple but then I saw that there was nobody playing the multiplayer so nobody would ever play them. Other games like Trackmania present track creation in an accessible drag-and-drop package so there is a low barrier to entry but like Far Cry 3 its popularity has markedly declined in recent years.

These systems let players channel their creativity and potentially extending the lifespan of a game and its community indefinitely, however the reality of a game’s community can be at odds with the intentions behind the creation of such systems. There are of course other games I’ve missed here; Arma 3 has a deep level editor which underpins its community, Mario Maker and Minecraft are entirely built on user-generated content and have both been incredibly successful. The WWE wrestling games continue to expand on their creative suites letting users create individual wrestlers, shows, arenas, belts and entire story-lines to play and share. There are a surprising number of smaller indie games whose bite-sized structure mean that level editors and infrastructure like the Steam Workshop can be combined to build a community, offer more to prospective buyers and maintain collective interest in games which are often much cheaper than larger but more restrictive AAA/mainstream counterparts.

Watch Dogs 2 and the problem of marketing versus reality

When Ubisoft revealed Watch Dogs 2 at E3 2016 I was not impressed. The first game was bogged down with controversy surrounding its graphical downgrade compared to the promotional materials. It took itself seriously in a way which seemed at odds with its own mechanics, positioning itself as a William Gibson-esque gritty cyberpunk thriller but was a fairly standard third-person open world shooter with a few extra UI overlays and some nifty environmental interaction; not to mention its fundamentally unlikable protagonist. The reveal trailer for Watch Dogs 2 showed a fundamentally different but, to me, an equally off-putting premise. It looked like an example of corporate executives and marketing gurus trying to be “down with the kids”:

[embedyt]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hh9x4NqW0Dw[/embedyt]

Fortunately for me (and less fortunately for the first-week sales figures which were down 300,000 from the first game) I was wrong. Beneath the memes and millennial-baiting buzzwords is a game with some real moments of emotion and camaraderie as you work with the crew of DedSec, find out more about them through inter-character dialogue and the documents you find/hack during missions. Watch Dogs 2 discusses the murky legality of mass surveillance, criminal profiling, election fraud and corporate collusion by those who do not necessarily have our best interests at heart, all filtered through a neon analogue to real hacker groups. These issues are more immediately relatable to the everyday life of the game’s target audience than Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare’s pro-war space jingoism disguised as deep commentary moral browbeating or Battlefield 1’s inconsistent and one-sided narrative on the horrors of the First World War as a framing for what appears to be more of the same old Battlefield experience but with biplanes.

However Watch Dogs 2 does more than that, but in a way that may be too subtle for its bombastic purple and green neon visage. During conversations between the members of DedSec the point that what they’re doing – hacking corporations and government departments all over the San Francisco Bay area – is only reinforcing the position of the tech and big data giants who they are targeting; showing that such security and control is necessary to counter these dangerous hacker groups. This tautological loop is similar to the problems faced by real groups like ‘Anonymous’ who Ubisoft have candidly explained were the inspiration behind DedSec in the first place in a now unfortunately deleted interview. This inspiration is clear throughout Watch Dogs 2, whether it be arranging attacks on the game’s Scientology analogue or the textual/visual language of DedSec’s public releases.

Science fiction presents an opportunity to extrapolate real-world issues to their extreme; certain episodes of the original series of Star Trek are blatant Vietnam allegories and Paul Verhoven’s 1999 adaptation of Starship Troopers is a scathing critique of US foreign policy. Watch Dogs 2 achieves similar ends through taking current real-world issues, which is no mean feat considering how long games take to make, and expanding them for the player to unpick in a detached and experimental environment. Unfortunately in this case Ubisoft have hidden this so successfully its flashy exterior that the marketing is potentially sabotaging the game’s appeal to certain audience demographics, who may only discover its appeal when its price drops or when an inevitable “Complete Edition” or “Game of the Year” bundle comes out next year.

“Walking Simulators” like Dear Esther and Gone Home are often criticised for not having enough game behind their exposition, something that Watch Dogs 2 successfully deals with. Even if you don’t care about the direction of its political and technological commentary there is still a large and robust open world action/stealth game to enjoy underneath that deserves to succeed, almost in spite of itself and the intentions of its publisher.

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