Over my years writing about video games, I’ve become burnt out on the big AAA games. “Oh boy, another shooter.” “Look at all the gray.” “Are there any new ideas left or just more sequels that are guaranteed to sell somehow?” Turns out that there ARE new ideas, and those ideas are in games made by small 1-10 person development teams doing this because they still love it. How creative can you be when you’re making the latest Madden? Indies are where the big ideas are born. If that’s not cool enough, the people that made the game are standing right there next to it 8/10 times at these conventions. You can get the full picture of what actually goes into a game besides thousands upon thousands of lines of coding. There’s also a ton of love and enthusiasm. It’s almost enough to inspire one to make games themselves…
*Ahem* Well now, let’s take a look at the little guys with big ideas over at E3’s IndieCade section.
Remember those goofy VR headsets from the 90s, where you got dropped into a blocky, textureless environment? We were lucky and more than content to just be able to walk around, let alone experience anything even remotely resembling an actual “game.” The Oculus Rift ain’t that. A VR headset that already has support for Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, the less-than-expected eventual retail price of around $300 is a far cry from the $1,000+ gadgets of yesteryear. I was lucky enough to get to try one out at E3 with a meditative “game” called SoundSelf.
At its early stage, SoundSelf was more of a tech demo than anything. You’re falling down a neverending tube, Sliders-style, and humming into the headset’s microphone. The different volumes and intensities of your hums affect the speed of the tube and the shape of a floating spark hovering in the middle of the screen, like something straight out of Windows Media Player. It was easy to fall into a trance as you try to find the perfect hum to maximize the 3D-ness of the whole experience, and then woooow. The possibilities of this thing are limitless.
And now we have a game that couldn’t be further from the solitary experience of the Oculus Rift: the Wii U exclusive, multiplayer only Spin the Bottle. You may have seen a few screenshots of this game floating around the internet with captions like “that weird game with the dogs shaped like dildoes.” And that’s fair. I got to play it with the developer for a bit and, while he said he hasn’t seen any cosplayers yet, he has received some rather salacious fanart in his inbox. That’s nice.
Spin the Bottle is a mini-game collection for teams of two people. The one I got to try had me and Knapnok Games Creative Director Lau Korsgaard balancing two Wii Remotes between our palms while we both sat on the floor then stood back up. The speed at which we did this activity (which was slower than it would have been if I hadn’t have practically flipped over a concrete block outside the convention center with my shins earlier that morning) netted us points. Then you spin a spinner (which adjusts probability to keep everyone having a similar number of turns) to see which two people are paired up next. It’s very social, ridiculous, and fun. Just like Nintendo used to be!
One of the things most important things that Spin the Bottle is bringing to the Wii U is a new type of pricing structure only seen once so far, to my knowledge: the MineCraft model. It will launch at $9 and whoever gets it at this price will receive all future updates for free. Then, when Knapnok patches the game and adds huge amounts of content periodically, they’ll increase the price a bit. This encourages people to get on the bandwagon early, as each new flurry of content will be like getting a whole new game, especially if they’re spaced far enough apart that you’ve lost interest and need something to rekindle that fire. I hope this model catches on, even if it makes traditional reviews a thing of the past. Good riddance, I say!
These odd little things reminded me of Cube World, which was a brand of cube-shaped toys with screens on them that could link together with magnets. The stick person in one could then interact with the stick person in the other. Sifteo Cubes are much higher quality, however, and there’s a lot more you can do with them. The game I got to try had me turning two of them in different directions then smacking them together to make a guy run through a maze. It took a bit to figure out the logistics of the thing, but the three-player gameplay was compelling enough. The biggest hurdle they’ll have to overcome will be the price of entry: you can get a set of three cubes and the wireless base for $130, and six with the base for $200. Additional cubes (it works with up to 12) are $30 a pop. It includes four games pre-installed, and you’ll be able to download new ones from the App Store for $8-12 each. That… seems like a lot, even for licensed games like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ninja Slide. We were also told that there’s a Legend of Zelda-type game, but we didn’t get to try that one.
See, I know these cubes are solidly built and the tech is cool, but asking the price of two full AAA games for what – so far – is just a handful of multiplayer mini-games is a tough sell. If they can’t get the price of the hardware down, these games are going to have to be free, or at most $.99. I hope it succeeds, though. The game world needs more new ideas.
Forsaken Planet is a cross-platform, multiplayer, twin-stick shooter. In contrast to most of the other indies at the show that seem almost frightened of online play (there’s just so much that could go wrong and so much more work to do!), Forsaken Planet went all-in. Android devices, Google Play, PCs, and Macs all play on the same battlefield, trying to blast each other out of the sky while collecting camels and bringing them back to base for points. You can pick up fallen enemies’ ships, as well, although they respawn fairly quickly so you’ll have to hustle to get them to the score zone. The actual look of the game is super basic, and it remains to be seen how compelling this simplified gameplay will be over the long term, but as a game to play for a few minutes while on the train? It could be just what the doctor ordered.
Probably the simplest game of the show with traditional controls, Soundodger is just what it claims to be: a game where you dodge sounds. Moving around a circle with the mouse, you dodge triangles that fly toward you in time with the beat. Hold down the mouse button to slow down time, because you’ll need it when the game basically turns into Ikaruga. Each stage is the length of one song, and the soundtrack is stellar. I wonder if this is the kind of game that could get non-gamers to play video games? If not, at least they’d have to appreciate the music.
Remember Qix? How about Jazzball? Now imagine that the obstacles in those games were other players, and your movements would cordon out a section of the playfield for yourself. It turns into a sort of tug-o-war, with huge swatches of controlled land changing hands over the course of seconds. Control the most space while keeping your opponents lacking to win! Definitely a good game to pull out at parties. Might even be more fun if you’re drunk! Plus it’s from part of the team that brought us Skulls of the Shogun, so you know it’s gotta be good.
The most teamwork-y of any game at E3 except maybe Spin the Bottle, Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime has two players piloting a heavily armed ship through heavily fortified areas. Each section of the ship has control stations for weapons, shields, or even just to pilot the ship, but the catch is that you can only sit at one control panel at a time, and the same goes for your buddy. So it’s a mad scramble from one floor of the ship to the next, trying to man the right turret at the right time to keep from becoming space dust. Will one person fly while the other blasts aliens? Two turrets? One spaceman on the rotatable shield? Lots of “AaaaaahhhHHHHHHH!” moments as you get overwhelmed and – hopefully – make a daring escape. But most likely not. This game is hard!
And that’s it for E3 2013’s IndieCade! There were a bunch more games that I didn’t even have time to try (also Deirdra Kiai’s, where the meeting ended up with me saying, “I know you from the internet!” before immediately realizing how awkward that was and running away). My favorite thing about conventions like these are the opportunities to actually meet the game developers who, more often than not, are the most excited, fun, charming, awkward, affable people in the world. They make these games to entertain, or to deliver a message, or just because they can, and I salute them. Thanks for being the people with new ideas. We need you.