Monday, April 21, 2014

PAX East 2014: Serious Games and This War of Mine

It’s not all about killing bad guys and saving the princess anymore.

When you take a look at media as a whole – books, comics, movies, games – and take a step back to see how they’ve evolved over time, you’d see a pretty interesting evolution.  Over the last few decades look at the changes that we’ve experienced – not only the ability to be immersed into graphically realistic depictions of different environments, but the type of ideas that they can convey to the reader, viewer and player.  Take the graphic novel as an example – once upon a time it wasn’t considered a medium that could convey serious thoughts, then came works like Art Spiegelman’s holocaust survivor story Maus and Joe Sacco’s journalist comic Palestine.  These are only two examples in a number of titles that are more than superheroes and traditional good versus evil.

Games have been a little bit slower to evolve on that front – there’s a field generally referred to as “serious games” out there but a lot of times that focuses on using the platform for interactive learning more than gaming in a traditional sense (… is there even a traditional sense of the word anymore?).  What I’m talking about here though is a little bit different. I’m talking about games that through the very story and gameplay put the player in a position to wrestle with difficult decisions and make them think about more than just what’s on the graphical surface.  Look at Papers Please, for example, a game where the player is an immigration official.  Your job as said official is to decide who is allowed and denied entry past your checkpoint based on information your supervisor has given you.  Simple enough right?  What do you do when a elderly couple can’t come through together because one’s papers are right while the other’s aren’t? Do you let them both through and face a violation that prevents you from feeding your own family?  How do you choose?  There’s a whole other side to the traditional “war games” we see that is represented here in the moral quandaries regular people are put into during hardship.

And that other side, inspired by Papers Please, is where we find This War of Mine.

When you play a lot of big studio titles on the topic of war, you’re going to find a lot of common themes.  First person shooters and real time strategy games are focused on peace through superior firepower.  These games all tell stories from the viewpoints of the commanders, or the soldiers themselves.  This War of Mine on the other hand focuses on everyone else that is still impacted by the conflict, exploring war with the focus shifted away from the soldiers and tanks, and onto the people suffering from the fallout, just trying to survive.

You begin in a besieged house with a group of survivors.  Because of snipers outside, you’re trapped where you are.  Immediately you have to salvage for anything in the house – spare parts, food, wood, medicine – anything that can be used to help your party survive.  These materials can be put together to provide needs for the house – beds for sleeping, drinking water, wound dressings.  At night you can leave the house to salvage at nearby locations to bring back more materials to use the next day.

In  addition to salvaging you also decide who sleeps (on or off a bed) and who stands guard.  The problem is that your backpack is extremely limited, and you have to prioritize what you bring back for the good of the party. Scavengers and guards don’t sleep.  If you haven’t made a way to prepare food then they go hungry, making it easier to get sick and need medicine.  All of the needs of the survivors must be juggled to survive.

Let me give you an example.  During the first night I sent one survivor to scavenge and brought back materials for making beds for proper sleep.  During the night, the house was attacked.  My guard was hurt and the other survivor fell sick.  I didn’t gather enough to be able to collect water for drinking or preparing food. OK, now what?

The next night I have the sick survivor sleep in bed while I send a scavenger out again.  I pick up enough materials to construct a water collector – but that doesn’t leave me enough for picking up medicine.  I made the decision to drop water filters for medicine.  Now she had medicine, but no one got food or water.  I now had 4 hungry and thirsty survivors. 1 was injured. 1 was sick and not getting better.  None of them were rested.  All of them hiding from snipers.  The following morning, my sick survivor succumbed to illness ad died.

All because I had to make a choice between medicine and clean water.

It was a difficult and dark experience to have to go through those kinds of decisions, even if the characters were virtual people on a screen.  And that was 3 days of virtual time (about 30 minutes real time) with me comfortable at a computer with a mouse and keyboard.  I was forced to think about the hell someone in that situation must be in somewhere in the world at this very second.

I got to speak with 11bit’s Pawel Miechowski about the game, who said that while the game has gotten huge positive feedback there’s also been some negative backlash, complaining that games can’t handle serious topics and are for entertainment only.  “I believe that games are perfect for talking about important things,” he says, “because they’re interactive.”  And I totally agree.  It’s the perfect vehicle for expressing thoughts and ideas, and this game forces the player to think.  “Imagine yourself in a city under siege, and your mother is dying of sickness.  How would you treat her?  Would you be willing to kill someone to steal antibiotics to save her?”

To drive the point home Pawel decided not to name the city the game takes place in, to remind people that “it could be your city, your country – it could happen anywhere.  And when it happens it doesn’t matter if you’re American, Indian, Polish, or Russian or whatever, because you’re a human being and you have the same needs.”

To those who say games are no place for tough topics, he says that as developers they feel that like movies, games have grown up.  And the same way directors now make movies about love and hate and deep topics more now than years ago, so too can depth be found in games like This War of Mine.  “It’s natural evolution.”

“Games are 30 years old, most of us have grew up with games and we treat them as a natural way of storytelling.”

Now for those with positive feedback about the game, Pawel did say that many survivors of conflict that are willing to help spread the word about the game, and are very supportive about it because it’s so important to talk about.  He made sure to mention by name former Marine Corpsman John Keyser, who through what he saw during his time in Fallujah became anti-war, and is serving to help Pawel with this game.

“I’d like to send my greetings to John and thank him for his help.”

With the countless number of games glorifying war, in my opinion this is a very important game that through its story reminds us that in war there are no winners.

This War of Mine is being developed for Windows, Mac and Linux and 11bit will have something sometime this year, with a mobile experience coming too.  As Pawel says though, “not a free to play ruined mobile experience with microtransactions.”  It’ll be a pay-once, get it all from A to Z premium experience. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

PAX East 2014: In-Depth with Blizzard

PAX East had a lot of great things to see all over the huge show floor at the Boston Convention Center – enough to confuse a person about which booths to hit first and which games to demo.  Luckily for me, we’re spoiled with shiny media badges, which gave us an extra hour before general admission to roam peacefully and make that decision.  As a dude that has played Warcraft and Diablo games for over a decade, I decided to hit up Blizzard first. Last year’s PAX East being their launch platform for Hearthstone, I was excited to see what they had in store for us this year - and as far as I’m concerned, they didn’t disappoint.  While Blizzard crew was still setting up the last of the demo stations, I settled in to try out World of Warcraft’s upcoming expansion, Warlords of Draenor, and their upcoming free-to-play mashup barn burner of a title, Heroes of the Storm

Warlords of Draenor @ PAX East 2014
World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

Let me be straight here – what I played was definitely not a complete representation of the game.  The demo was limited, but I’m not going to hold that against them – they had an alpha build, and for those of you that have never worked in software or game testing, an alpha build is early earrrlllyy goins on.  So naturally I wasn’t expecting everything to be in final form.  That’s just how alphas go.  At least they were giving us what they got. The demo allowed players to see all the skins for all of the genders and races (including the updated Alliance models), but restricted player selection to Horde characters only.  It made sense to me really, since the first quest is literally speaking with Durotan in this tweaked timeline, and it wouldn’t exactly be a Gnome carrying that out now would it?  So I made a Blood Elf hunter (deviating from my Night Elven lineage), cranked him as brown as a Blood Elf can get and away I run.  The problem was that whenever I summoned a pet, debug windows came up instead of said pet, and I got good and killed in a sea of mobs despite my best efforts trying to close windows.  That’s ok though. The gameplay (at least as far as I can tell for hunters) is not drastically different at level 90 when you just start out.  BUT if big numbers jumping all over your screen is the life you're about then prepare to make an adjustment. We were equipped in character level 90 greens comparable to Mists of Pandaria endgame gear, but the numbers and damage I was doing was tremendously downsized.  With this expansion they've gotten away from the crazy exponential increase in stat values and damage, meaning I wasn't throwing out six-figure damage with my critical strikes like I'm used to seeing.  It doesn't mean that it takes that much longer to down enemies though - their HP is scaled to match your decreased stats.

Alliance Garrison
Thank the lords of Azeroth for that too.  Right now my hunter is walking around with half a million HP unbuffed, and I get 1000+ agility from just my bow.  My endgame bow in Wrath of the Lich King didn't even break 200.  The numbers now are just getting out of control and more or less have lost all meaning when my 140k DPS is the low number on Recount charts. The big change with Warlords  that everyone’s excited about (and with good reason) is the concept of the garrison – it’s like having your own little Warcraft III style homebase with peasants running back and forth gathering materials for you.  I wasn't allowed to take game footage pictures, but I got some screenshots from the press kit, and as more data is available I'll make sure to get that out to you kids.  I got in on the closed beta, so when I kick that off I'll have some real goods for you.

Heroes of the Storm Alpha Character Select
Heroes of the Storm 

Is there anyone that doesn’t love a good crossover?  How much fun did we have with Super Smash Brothers?  Kingdom Hearts saw Disney and Square-Enix collide.  The Marvel universe squared off against Capcom a number of times behind the controller, and even went head to head with DC Comics on the page before that.  And we love it.  There’s something about different universes coming together that is just pure meta appeal for the geek inside all of us. So what happens then when one company has enough isolated universes to do it within itself?  The answer is Heroes of the Storm – a crossover that pits the heroes (and villains) of the WarcraftStarcraft, and Diablo universes against each other in a good old-fashioned melee. Now you see the thing is this - upon first glance this looks like the MOBA style (multiplayer online battle arena) we’re used to seeing in League of Legends and DOTA.  Do not be fooled though, it’s not.  Well not completely.  I mean it does have the concept of lanes, and you have to take said lanes to crush your foes.  But you don’t have to do a million things to be successful or have fun.  It’s like they stripped out all the annoying parts of the MOBA genre (sorry MOBA fans) and… the only way I can put it really is that it combines that with some old Warcraft III charm, down to unit jokes.

Hero - Baby Murloc Murky
The heroes are split into different types - Warrior, Assassin, Support and Specialist, each bringing a different type of play style into the game.  One of the interesting new heroes they revealed under the Support style was Brightwing the Faerie Dragon.  She has the ability to not only heal but to blink from ally to ally throwing heals anywhere on the map.  With her other skills she can be a pretty complex hero to play.  Tyrael on the other hand is a Warrior class, primarily dealing damage with high defense, having a less complex play style.

... and then there's Murky.  Yes Murky the Murloc is a hero because as the developers put it, "we decided to make a hero that was awful" and one to consider the "Wile E Coyote" of the game.  Murky has almost no health and no attack, but lays an egg before charging in.  When he dies, in a few seconds he will just respawn from the egg - over and over again.  It was absolutely hilarious to see Murky use this method against Diablo and ultimately run him off with a Murloc army.  So how's that for varied play style?  Each hero has his or her own signature attacks to customize it that much further.

Arthas calling in an air strike from Sapphiron
As far as skins and upgrades are concerned, yes there are some for purchase, but there are also some that can be unlocked just by playing a particular hero a lot without a fee, including what they call "ultimate skins."  There's some humor in these too, like having the abomination Stitches in a bikini. I'll let that one sink in for a bit. I'll be looking forward to when I can get my hands on HotS for real.