Jun 292013

Jacked coverDavid Kushner’s Jacked is the story of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and its implementors’ troubled co-existence with the moralistic society.

Rockstar’s journey from a small scottish publisher to the forefront of digital entertainment hasn’t been simple or free of troubles, and this book doesn’t shirk away from the bad press. On the contrary, actually, as at times the author seems to contradict the main interviewees.

Jacked also details the career of Jack Thompson, the single-minded lawyer who took on the company, and lost. Lost his career (getting disbarred in the process) and his credibility.

But as the book notes, things could have gone the other way. The sex and violence inherent in the criminal sagas might have been just too much for the american sensibilities, as some of the games did get banned in various countries. And the behaviour of the founders borders on self-destructive at times.

The book doesn’t attempt to be a company level ludography of Rockstar. It omits a lot, and concentrates on the controversy (such as the “hot coffee”-minigame of San Andreas) instead of the games themselves.

Also, for a book published as late as 2012, the coverage of the studio’s most recent games (GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption) is way too shallow. After all, the company reclaimed its seat with those two sandbox-games.

Jacked is not a bad book by any means. The text flows well, and the context of the issues Rockstar and its publishers faced is explained well to people not that familiar with the game industry.

But for most of its length it’s a book about a company and its founders, rather than its games.

And that, in my book makes it a far lesser book it could have been.

Feb 022013

Lohikäärmeen Luola logoLohikäärmeen Luola is a freely available finnish translation of Dungeons & Dragons. Or actually a translation of the System Reference Document (which is basically the third edition of the game with the serial numbers filed off).

It’s basic.

It’s late.

It’s without art.

But it’s mostly very well done (I have some language issues, but they’re on the minor side).

Jan 272013

Hill Climb Racing logoFingersoft’s Hill Climb Racing was one part of the finnish trifecta a couple of weeks ago: then a finnish game was on top of the three categories in the Appstore (most downloads for free [this game] and paid [Angry Birds Star Wars] games and most revenue generated [Clash of Clans]). The other two are pretty famous on their own, but Hill Climb Racing took pretty much everybody by surprise.

It’s a simple game with plenty of meat below a simplistic surface, there’s a lot more on offer than initially seems.

The objective of the game is simple, drive as far as you can, without succumbing to the twin hazards of a tricky track and a limited gasoline supply. And the track is indeed tricky – a two-dimensional hilly road that quickly gets challenging. The challenge needs to be tackled both with skill and with vehicular improvements (more powerful engine and such). And behind the first track and vehicle lie several more.

The controls match the game. There’s just two virtual pedals –

Despite an initial appearance that Hill Climb Racer is yet another IAP-monster, the need to purchase coins subsides fast once the track set on Moon opens – in the lighter gravity the jumps and flips quickly generate a seriously positive cash flow.

Hill Climb Racing

As individual games are short, this is a very good casual timekiller.

Jan 252013

Dndclassics logoWizards of the Coast was one of the first companies to publish their inventory in .pdf format.

They abandoned the practice a few years ago, and Pirate Bay was the best source for the files since then.

There’s a legal way, these days, as dndclassics.com has opened shop. The selection is quite limited for the time being, and the prices are on the steep side.

Jan 212013

Carcassonne: Traders and Builders logoThe Codingmonkeys’ fabulous iPad rendition of Carcassonne has been updated with the Traders and Builders expansion.

The second expansion adds a two new dimensions to the game: trade and repeated turns.

Some city tiles now provide trade symbols, and the player who hoards the most by the end of game gets ten points for each majority. The trick here is that the trade symbols are awarded to the player who completes a city, even if he has no meeples within.

A player may also place a builder meeple on a road or city – and whenever he grows the structure where the builder assists, he gets to pick and play a second tile.

The third addition, a pig meeple that boosts the scoring on a field, is more limited in scope to these two.

Both change the flow of the game quite a bit, and especially in games that use both expansions the scores tend to run high. In some ten games the AI has proven a bit fragile, the personalities that have been reliable high-scorers (count and countess) no longer rule the land as they have used to.

Like its somewhat simpler predecessor that went unreviewed here, this expansion is heavily recommended, even if its gamecenter achievements are very much on the boring side (and pretty much demand a few games against a local opponent that lets the wookiee win).

Jan 202013

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters coverThe first book I read this year was Anna Anthropy’s Rise of Videogame Zinesters.

It’s a short book on a very good topic: democratization of videogame creation.

In the age of expensive, publisher-driven, minimum-risk AAA games, there’s clearly a niche for interesting, topical alternatives written by a minimal team.

And that’s exactly what this book promotes: an era when videogames have been taken back from the few big publishers, when the barrier of entry has been lowered and the barrier of discovery kept really low symmetrically.

However, behind the admirable aims, the execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. Currently the outlook of gaming is far from the bleak present laid out in the initial chapter – the indie games movement has significantly expanded frontiers, and the era of the appstores has eliminated the need to court publishers for an audience. Even the basic premise “games are for white males interested in shooting each other in the face” is increasingly less valid even in the mainstream – apart from the annual Call of Duty-dose (and its colleagues), it’s quite a varied world out there (especially outside the consoles where both development and distribution costs are orders of magnitude lower).

The answer to the dearth of interesting games is for the gamers to create new ones and distribute them.

Certainly a noble target, and the author both describes quite a few tools to get started with as well as laying out her own experiences.

The former is an eclectic selection – it covers the obvious (Scratch and a few commercial toolkits), not-so-obvious (Inform and Twine) and downright awkward (ZZT, which doesn’t even run in modern machines without emulation). The role of programming (and even understanding the basics of the art) is not really described that well (and a golden opportunity for tools like Processing is missed altogether).

As is the latter – the author’s quite keen on highlighting the queer (her word, not mine) agenda of her games thus far. But in quite shallow fashion, she doesn’t describe how she crafted the games, but lays out her biography via them.

The book is short and quickly read.

It provokes the reader in many ways.

And while hardly a real manifesto for changing the industry, it’s definitely a worthy read.

Oct 022012

Ticket to Ride: Heart of Africa box coverTicket to Ride expands to Africa in its third map collection.

Haven’t bought any of the collections. I have Switzerland as an independent game, and the Asian board in the iPad game.

The newest entry in the franchise hasn’t escaped controversy before release.

It’s quite expensive (30$) for a single board. And the board doesn’t even cover the whole continent, just the central parts. The cost is partially offset by the fact that the map comes with a new set of cards. And adding a second map would have necessitated a second set of destination cards anyway.

Sep 252012

Cabinet Noir logoCabinet Noir is a text-format game from Failbetter Games, who debuted with Fallen London (née Echo Bazaar) a couple of years back.

The new game is far shorter than its predecessor, and quite a bit less grindy. And as an interactive short story from a single author, absolutely more cohesive.

The subject matter is intriguing: cryptography and secrets in the service of Cardinal Richelieu, in the tumultous 18th century Paris. But sadly the game mechanics are quite intrusive, and the repetition in tasks is unavoidable.

The nature of the game is not interactive fiction in its common sense. This is a “create your own adventure”- game on steroids, not a parser-based conventional piece of IF.

Cabinet Noir is the first product of StoryNexus, a new toolkit for building such games. And while I’m not that fond of this piece of french adventuring, the arrival of a commercial development tool is definitely an interesting prospect for both authors and players.

(Right, I was sure I had blogged about Echo Bazaar, but that seems not to be the case.)