Early Access with Dungeon of the Endless

2014-06-29_00001Oh how I love this little game. Oh, oh, oh how Dungeon of the Endless delivers such delight! This game is brought to us by Amplitude Studios, an indie outfit

Early Access games are, rightfully, under some scrutiny right now and not just by angry gamers who have been sold terrible games, or games which have had their development cancelled. Developers are also questioning whether Early Access does more harm than good for the game and what it does to player expectations. While I support Early Access, I share all the same concerns. It’s not an exclusively good thing. But in some cases, it seems like a worth while risk and ever so often a developer will deliver a game experience that’s so very satisfying that players will treat it as though it’s officially been released already.

Dungeon of the Endless comes very close to that line. It’s current condition leaves lots of justifiable hope about it’s future and the game does much to deserve player support.

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It’s a beautiful game, isn’t it?

DotE is a dungeon crawler at heart with added tower defense and RPG elements. These features compliment each other pretty well, but the game brings them together effortlessly nonetheless. It just feels right to play the game and have the mechanics feel intuitive, which is always a treat. You start the game on a crashed ship with a special crystal on board which you must guard with your life. The location of the crash is some foreign area infested with darkness and aliens. It’s your task to explore this endless dungeon, bring light with your awesome technology, and slay aliens who get in your way.

2014-06-29_00009Like most games these days, it’s a rogue-like, which is the most annoying feature to me. I don’t know why this genre is so damned popular right now (has been for the past few years), but James at Extra Credits has a theory about it you should listen to. All the same, the game is fun as hell and the rogue-like element doesn’t seem to add to that. If anything, it detracts a little and it would be nice if they implemented an Endless mode that allows you to carry on even if you die.

Right now the devs are having a competition to design a spaceship for the game. Different ships mean different game modes, with their own unique rule sets so it’s a pretty cool and fun idea. I think I’ll submit something. If i do, I’ll post it so you guys can tell me if it’s a ship you’d play.

The controls don’t feel great, but I have confidence that Amplitude will shine them up before release. They aren’t atrocious, but they do break the flow of gameplay because giving your character commands just feels kind of clunky. It would be nice if all the commands could be moved to the mouse or restricted to just 2 or 3 keys on the keyboard.

Scree Tags: #dungeonoftheendless #gamereview #earlyacess

Lexica Has a Way with Words

2014-07-04_00003A week after the Steam Sale ended I found a little game on sale called Lexica. My wife loves crossword puzzles and this appeared to be a crossword puzzle type game. The size of the screenshots lead me to believe it was a game designed for mobile, so I picked up her phone and searched for it. Turns out, there’s no Android version of this small game. Still, for $2 I went ahead and bought it for PC. One can almost never go wrong with word games, and Lexica has a clever way with words. It’s also lacking a human element that I think is becoming too common in games development. I’ll explain this in a moment, but for now let me tell you about the game itself.

The object of the game is to assemble the words of a crossword puzzle. All of the letters are given to you, but they’re scrambled. Those letters surround the board and can only be moved in two directions: either up and down or left and right. This means that any given row can have several blanks that the letter can go into, so figuring out what the words are makes for interesting gameplay. I don’t know if this gets more complex as you solve each puzzle, but there are usually some gimmicks in games like this.

As of this writing, I’m in love with the game. It makes for a perfect evening of gaming with my wife and even our small children can grasp how it’s played, though they may not have the vocabulary to know the words. Each puzzle is timed for competitive purposes, but right now the game seems to be very basic. There’s no multiplayer mode and no scoreboards, but it has Steam achievements and a community to compete with.

2014-07-11_00001While it doesn’t seem to have a strong long-term presence, this isn’t a bad first iteration of a word puzzler at all. I think the next prudent step would be to port this thing to Android because it seems perfectly designed for mobile devices. I’m still quite perplexed that it’s for PC, but that’s fixable. For now, if you enjoy word search puzzles, pick this little gem up. It’s a great way to spend 5 to 10 minutes and an easy game to share with another person.

Some Interesting Notes on the “Developer”

In my search to find the website of the developer of this game, something I always do when I encounter something new that I like, I quickly realized that – like many “indie” games these days – there’s no developer. Not in the sense that we use the term in game blogging.

There are several components to the game development process that brings us games like Lexica. First, a game maker is hired to do the work of actually creating the game. In this case Vexus Puzzle Design are the designers who created the puzzles in Lexica. Apparently they create all sorts of word search puzzles that are published in dozens of places, from newspapers like the New York Times to Steam games like Lexica.

The other piece of the game development puzzle here is Merge Games, a publisher. They help indie companies get their games distributed to international markets. We’ve all played games by indie developers who have used their services, games like Terraria, Binding of Isaac, Gemini Rue and Limbo. Their role is publishing.

This isn’t a strange arrangement and it’s clearly quite common in the world of games development. What makes this interesting to me is how increasingly my games are made by no one. There are no humans named in it’s development and there are no websites for the team responsible. These are, instead, manufactured products in the strictest sense of the term, made strictly for sale and profit. Again, this isn’t strange, but it’s very interesting to observe these trends in the gaming industry.

2014-07-04_00001For a consumer like me, when I find a good product I try to get to know the company behind it. Most of the time, it’s so I can find more products to buy. If I liked the first game, i want more games just like it so I search. When I reach dead-ends like this it just drives home the fact that the industry is increasingly a faceless place. Not to be too nostalgic or naive, but I enjoy knowing who the game developers are and I enjoy supporting them. When I run into stuff like this, it takes out just a little of the joy and magic I find in games.

Lexica is a very decent game, but learning all of this about the its development made it perfectly clear why it’s so featureless. It is quite literally the digital version of a word find from a newspaper. Ideally, this game would be on mobile (because it’s PERFECT for such a thing), but since there’s no humans behind it, since it’s just a manufactured piece of software designed for a quick buck, it’s wound up on PC strictly (for now). There are n multiplayer aspects despite it also being an ideal game for multiplayer. There are no scoreboards, which such games will usually have. These things make sense when there are no passionate people behind the development of the product.

So what do you think of this? Does this diminish some of the magic of games, knowing that – for all intents and purposes – a robot made this game, probably for pennies on the dollar?

Scree Tags: #lexica #gamereview

Rolling with Dice Heroes

logoDice Heroes: one of many upcoming saviors for mobile strategy games.

At first glance, I kinda rolled my eyes at it when I spotted it in the Google Play shop. “Another game coasting on pixel-nostalgia game sales …” I thought. For the next couple of days, as my wife and I lay in bed browsing the app shop for games to play on our upcoming road trip, I eyed this game from the corner of my eye.

After I got over myself, I decided to click it and read what it was about. It was fairly new so I went ahead and downloaded it. And it’s charmed me in a really special way.

Yes, it’s coasting on the good-feel, good-sale vibes of pixelated games. Really, if you’re a developer that’s not doing this, you’re no friend of Money. But other than that, the game is truly it’s own thing. It’s cute, sure, but it’s got talent and as a strategy game it’s actually better than most things I’ve picked up in the app store. And besides that, the visual style suits the game very well. So it’s hard to hold the style against it.

First, what does Dice Heroes even mean? Well, instead of playing as some humanoid hero you are a die. And you and your die buddies together make up a pack of adventurous dice travelling throughout these strange islands in the sky, getting rid of the evil dice out there. If you’ve played role-playing games before then you know exactly who these evil, death-deserving die are. Every time you rolled a critical miss or landed a glancing blow, it was these evil beings that brought it upon you. DEATH TO THEM ALL.

You, of course, are the good dice. You’re the saving throws, the critical hits, the crushing blows. You and your dice buddies have 6-sices and you can arm yourself with weapons and gear to take on the evil dice.

diceheroes-victoryAs a strategy game, you’ll begin each battle on a uniquely laid out map. You and your dice must navigate the obstacles of the map, position yourselves to successfully strike the evil dice. What’s truly magical about Dice Heroes is that it seems to do something very interesting with chess mechanics that other similar games don’t see privy to. When it comes down to it, the dice movements and abilities are designed in the same way that movements and abilities are assigned to chess pieces. It does all of this without making you feel the complexity of a chess match. It’s well done.

diceheroes-mapI’m only at level 16, but I’m enjoying Dice Heroes a lot. It’s surprisingly fun, but simple and all good strategy games need to be those things in order to not become a bore fest. My one gripe is the successful design of in-app purchases, which does a good job of making you feel compelled to purchase gold. It’s not very subtle at all, and at first glance you might be tricked into thinking the prices aren’t bad. The prices are quite horrible, but the gameplay really make purchases seem not only worth it, but justified. I strongly dislike the fact that money is the most efficient way to play the game, because with it you can level your dice and buy equipment at a rate that keeps pace with the difficulty of each level. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself needing to farm previous stages for gold in order to kit out your dice for your strategy.

It’s free to download, so I highly recommend giving it a try if you enjoy strategy games.

Game Reviewing for New Bloggers

Game bloggers usually want to blog about …well, games. I have my own reading favorites from bloggers who do game reviews and others like me who tend more towards game criticism. I used to do far more reviews than I do today, but these days I enjoy game criticism a bit more. What’s the difference?

There’s a subtle difference. In fact, I think there are too few writers – indie or otherwise – who write buyer’s guides for gamers. Much of the time when we’re reading game blogs, we want to know how others feel about a game we like or are curious about. Reviews mix the best of both worlds: Objective and subjective critique.

Reviewing

A good review will give a breakdown of the core features of the game and summarize how well they fit together. There’s lots of room for being creative with your writing style to deliver something that’s fun to read.

For mainstream reviews, I like the style of reviews that I find on Rock, Paper, Shotgun andIndie Game Reviewer. They don’t simply give the facts, but actually report in a creative way that mixes facts with opinions. RPS has a style that takes the dryness out of rote reviews while IGR is fairly straightforward with it’s game impressions. How the review is written matters if your goal is to make your blog a reliable source for game reviews.

What’s Your Scope?

Whatever the general theme of your blog, the scope will be important to who enjoys your reviews. For example, if you’re an MMO blog, then writing reviews for MMOs will refine and add to your audience. No blog truly focuses on ALL genres. Each writer has a gaming preference and this will usually be apparent in what you write about. As an example, most of the games I’ve reviewed are single-player. I tend to write about RPGs in general, showing a preference for games with story. So I’m not a good source for reviews about platformers, even though I consider my blog to be a place for info about games in general (all genres). So it’s important to have a limited scope to the kinds of games you’ll be reviewing so that its consistent with the kinds of games you tend to write about. It’s part of avoiding trying to be everything to everyone. Specialization, in this case, is a good thing but that doesn’t mean you can’t review all the games in your library. It just means you’re a human being with diverse tastes, but whose preferences are clear to your readership.

What You’re Rambling About

In my opinion, reviews should contain details that tell me who made the game, what the game is (genre), and where I can learn more about it. Next, a good review will tell me what the game’s core features are and how long a play through will take on average. From there, the review should talk about how all those features tie together and what kind of experience the writer had.

Reviews absolutely don’t need spoilers and they should be avoidable if that’s your style (some reviewers provide spoilers).

To Score or Not to Score

I used to actually score my reviews. If I ever get back into game reviewing, I’ll probably go back to scoring because I think they’re a valuable addition to a thorough review in that it gives your readers at-a-glance impressions.

While scorecards terrible for definitive game impressions, they’re definitely helpful to readers. I prefer to use a scorecard which takes into account multiple facets of the gameplay experience. Here’s an example of how I used to score games in my reviews and you can take a look at the review itself here.

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This was on a scale from 0-5.

I’m pretty sure I went through several iterations of criteria (it’s really, really hard to try to be fair with it), but I ultimately settled on this because it’s how I, as a gamer, understand the different facets of a game. Now this will be purely subjective criteria for any writer — and that’s exactly what will make your reviews unique! If you decide to use score cards like this, it will undoubtedly have different criteria than mine. It’s our unique point of view as gamers which is the true value in what we publish for our readers. So don’t be afraid to experiment. In the end, I stopped using score systems because it required more time than I had (I didn’t have children when I used to score games like this). Still, I actually liked doing this and I’ve considered going back to it many times.

I think, though, score cards have limited value to readers. I wouldn’t ever substitute written reviews for strict scorecards and it’s for the same reason that players despise sites like Metacritic. While the score has it’s uses, their prominence discourages thoughtful review and many will try to reduce the game to an arbitrary score. A well-written review can’t be substituted for a scorecard!

When you’re writing your reviews, just remember to focus on the actual game content while being critical at the same time. Rote reviews are boring – if you’re too objective, the review loses it’s appeal to readers. If you’re too subjective it becomes nothing more than another opinion by another blogger, losing credibility.

Reviews are actually fun to write and I’ve been told very recently I need to get back to it. I’m taking that advice for sure and I’ve decided I will narrow my scope to mostly indie games because those seem to be the kinds of games I play most lately.

For veteran bloggers, I want to leave you some questions to join the conversation: what makes a good review for you? Do you enjoy writing reviews and why? What advice would you pass on to new bloggers who want to review games?