Thursday, June 24, 2010

AI War and Zenith Remnant Bundle 66% Off During Steam's Summer Sale

Today through July 4th, there's an incredible discount on AI War: Fleet Command and AI War: The Zenith Remnant via the Steam "Perils of Summer" sale! We're experimenting a bit by trying out a discount rate of 66%, which is unusually large for us. We recently did something similar with Direct2Drive, and now we're trying it with Steam, but this deal definitely won't last, so make sure and tell your friends and family if you think they might be interested (or if you haven't yet taken the plunge, you might want to get to evaluating the demo while this deal lasts).

So what's going on with AI War, anyway? AI War is still very much a living and growing game, with a big version 4.0 + Mac OSX support upcoming in a few months, and our upcoming for-charity micro-expansion, AI War: Children of Neinzul. Those are both currently scheduled for release in August, but in the meantime we've also got a current beta version chock full of updates that will become the next official free DLC release within a few weeks (around the same time that preorders for AI War:CoN begin).

So, while it's safe to bet there will probably be other sales in the future, after this summer they probably won't go this deep again until 2011 at the earliest. Just fair warning!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Response to "The Kotaku Review"

The Kotaku Review is a great article by Jordan Rivas, presenting what I think is a healthy way of thinking about game reviews. I'll let you read the full article, but the basic gist is that the numeric scores are meaningless (which lots of folks have said), and that the long-form describe-everything-in-the-game-briefly is fundamentally flawed (this is the new part, and is especially thought provoking to me). The contention being that basically the short format of the Kotaku reviews is helpful, because they highlight a few key things (bad or good), which is what we're geared as humans for doing, anyway.

Just read the article, if that didn't make sense -- the author did a much better job of explaining it than I just did.

My thoughts
There is only one counterpoint that really occurs to me, and that is the fact that people are looking for such different things out of games. So, for instance, you might love the pvp in Starcraft, whereas I might not even care at all. I'm interested in how many stars there are in Mario Galaxy 2, because I know I'll collect them all and I want to know how difficult and long that will be (my hope being very difficult and very long); but you might not care one iota.

So I think that fragmentary nature of the readership is one of the drivers behind this "everything and the kitchen sink" type of long-form review. For people who want the details on all the modes and content they might be interested in, all that length is really important. As Rivas says, the individual experience is best described by just a few key moments, but in many games those key moments will vary wildly. Certainly something like Silent Hill 2, Prince of Persia, or Braid is linear enough that probably everybody enjoys (and/or hates) mostly the same parts.

But when it comes to something like an RTS, a 4X, a simulation game, or a many-mode-bearing FPS, that's where things start to get increasingly fragmentary. I might not even play the part of the game you love the most. The only part of Left 4 Dead I've ever played is the co-op, and that in itself was a worthwhile and complete experience for me. Others that want to really make that game a daily event need more, and for those people, there are... some other modes I forget the name of.

This is the conundrum of both reviewers and game creators. Typically the public from-the-developer information about a game is pretty lame and filled with marketing spin. Often it's not even updated once the game is finished and comes out, or at least that used to be the case when I routinely looked at game websites. But the added problem is that many players are naturally skeptical of anything a developer or publisher says about their own titles (I know I sure am), so we want to hear about those things with the slant of an impartial third party. Enter the gaming press, which is therefore left to thus fill the role of both documentarian and reviewer.

All of that stems from the subjective nature of the whole business, I think. With cars or electronics, you can pretty much just relate the hard specifications data, and you can pretty much trust the manufacturer -- because if they lie, it will come out pretty quick and there will be lawsuits. Because all of that sort of thing is pretty objectively measurable. Unlike "fun," "good graphics," "great music," "long," or any of the other adjectives that often get used to describe the various parts of games. All of those terms are either subjective or relative.

My proposed way of reviewing
I think the above is why we have the long-form reviews. In many respects, that sort of documentarian role of the gaming press is super important, and I make frequent use of it. But that tends to make reviews so long that people can't read every last one. Thus we have numbers attached to games, so that players can scan a list of 100 games and choose the 5 they want to read about in more depth.

And, broadly speaking, that makes sense, I think -- we need ways to cull games down so that we can find the ones we are interested in. That's why the concept of "genre" exists, and why those numeric scores came about.

Maybe I shouldn't complain about numeric scores, because my last game was one of the best scored PC titles of last year, but I can't help agreeing with Rivas that the numeric scores are not the best reflection for games. Instead, I think we should have a short-form executive summary (in the style that he admires at Kotaku) for longer-form reviews that provide all that needed extra context. You could even pair that with a very simple pattern of "Avoid, Maybe, Yes" like Nintendo Power tends to do for their downloadable game micro-reviews.

Then if I want to know what games are good, I'd go to a site, and look at the executive summaries for anything in the Maybe or Yes categories for the genres I like. For anything that struck my interest, I'd read the full-length review.

In Conclusion
To be honest, the above is more or less what I'm already able to do with the numeric scores (most of which have a breakdown score for each component of the game -- graphics, sound, fun factor, longevity, etc -- along with description of what stands out about each component). But, I think the numeric score implies precision where there is not, and confuses some folks -- certainly causing a lot of distraction both among the press and players. When you have a lot of commentary about a game consisting of "look how many 10s it has!" instead of "look how awesome ," then I think we're hitting a level of abstraction that harms the discussion.

But, let's be realistic here; this style of review isn't likely to go anywhere anytime soon, and as far as systems for review go, it's better than many. Try to find out if a mass market novel is any good without reading excerpts from it -- that will drive you to drink.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Tidalis Beta 0.854 Released (Gargantuan Updates) and New Videos

It's been a while since we've done an update to the installer for Tidalis, but if you've been following the Tidalis forums or the budding Tidalis wiki, you already know that the game has been seeing massive nearly-weekly public beta releases since mid-April. The latest version, 0.854, represents the culmination of everything we wanted to get done before the PAX 10 contest deadline. And look! We've also now done an official trailer for the game:

So what all is new since the last time we updated the installer build (which was version 0.407)?

Visually and Aurally
  • We've now completed all the visual/art themes for the game, though we're still adding animations and polish on the art. There are now 21 of these themes in all, counting three hidden ones that get unlocked during adventure play.
  • There are now over 50 minutes of music in the game, or 90 minutes if you count the "dire" versions of the tracks.
  • A lot of the music has been updated since 0.407; we had some trouble initially getting just the perfect sound, but now we think we've really nailed it.
  • A ton of the art has already been polished and animated to a heavy degree; check out the Title Menu, the Open Plains theme, or the Volcano themes for specific examples. Pretty amazing, if we do say so.
  • We're now up to 16 game styles for the game (counting the Normal style), which will probably be the final count for release.
  • We're now up to 31 special blocks for the game, which will probably be the final count for release.
  • The game now has items -- 25 of them -- which will probably be the final count for release.
  • There are now 74 (out of a planned 114) adventure levels, as well as 39 brainteaser-type puzzles. More coming on both of these.
  • The game now has achievements -- 20 so far -- with more coming.
  • There are now 19 story cutscenes out of a planned 40 or so.
  • Both co-op and VS play are available on the local computer, either with two humans or 1-2 humans against the AI.
What Isn't Complete?
  • We're still working on the networking, that will be done soon.
  • We still need to finish the last quarter or so of the adventure mode and story.
  • There are a few specific VS and co-op features that we still want to add.
  • More polish is still being added to the art, and we'll probably add a few more sound effects, too.
  • The VS AI is already pretty good in the specific game styles it is allowed to play in, but there are some tweaks we have in mind to make it better. All game styles are supported in human vs human play, but not all of them will be available for the AI; it's considered a fairly minor part of this game, by contrast with AI War.
  • Gamepad support.
  • Various other tweaks, polish, and bugfixes still remain, though our list is considerably smaller of late.
So, What's The Plan?

The beta is still in full swing, with the demo being free for anyone, and the full beta being available for anyone who preorders. Right now you can preorder at the main Arcen site, at GamersGate, at MacGameStore, and at myGameIQ. All of our existing partners who sell AI War will also be carrying Tidalis either at release or a few weeks ahead of release.

So when's the release? Right now we're looking at the week of July 12th, although we don't have a specific day nailed down just yet. We're still talking with our distribution partners and figuring out which day makes the most sense for everyone. But we expect to be materially complete with the game (including all the last polish, etc) by July 9th at the absolute latest, so anytime that week should be a possibility.

Check out the trailer if you haven't already, and if you're interested you might like to try the demo. Tidalis is available on both Windows and OSX (you get a license for both platforms when you buy it for either).

This game has grown incredibly far beyond what we had initially planned when we set out to make it, but that's largely due to the promise that the core mechanics showed and the team's enthusiasm for the project. Everyone on the team has the feeling that we've got something really special with this game, and so far beta customers seem to have that feeling, as well.

Definitely exciting times! We'll update with more news as the release gets nearer, and we'll also be having news in the next month about our upcoming AI War 4.0 (which will add full OSX support), and our upcoming charity-focused micro-expansion, AI War: Children of Neinzul. In the meantime, here are some other brand-new Tidalis videos that show off recent additions to the game:

About Tidalis

Tidalis is a block-based puzzle game with casual appeal, hardcore depth, and an addictive new "streams" mechanic. The basic rules of the game are this: blocks fall down into the board and have a color and an arrow direction. If a stack of blocks exceeds the height of the board, you lose. In order to clear blocks, you must right-click and drag paths through the arrows to set up chain reactions of like-colored blocks.

If this sounds simple, that's because it is -- you'll be lining up lengthy chains within minutes. But you'll be surprised how much brainpower it takes to set up combos of multiple chains, and the many brainteaser-style puzzles include some real stumpers. Tidalis has co-op and competitive multiplayer modes (offline only in this beta version); action-oriented modes and timer-less brainteasers; a lengthy, casual-friendly adventure mode; fifteen unique game modes providing innumerable twists to the basic gameplay; dozens of special blocks and items; and over fifty minutes of beautiful music to go with the painterly art.

In short, several games' worth of content are built on top of this core mechanic, which you'll quickly find to be as iconic as it is novel.