The Problem With… Nintendo Apologists

bundle_gray_tabletopI’ve pre-ordered a Switch. I do however still stand by my original stance that the Switch isn’t an impressive system; it’s ugly, under-powered and will struggle to get 3rd parties back on board. So why then have I pre-ordered? I’ve been a Nintendo fan since back in the NES days and their games still have that something special that keeps me coming back. Don’t get me wrong, they do occasionally churn out some shit. Even big franchises like The Legend of Zelda have the occasional “miss”; I thought both Spirit Tracks and Skyward Sword were among the worst in the franchise. I also like the idea of taking some potentially great games like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild with me while I travel. These days I find myself playing handheld systems like my Vita more often than my home consoles so the Switch might be a great setup for me.

I understand Nintendo get a lot wrong (as we’ll delve into in this article) but there’s a lot of fans who I guess we’d call “fanboys” who are so blinded by their sheer love for everything Nintendo that they cannot and will not accept any criticism thrown at the company. Now to be clear, there’s die hards in both the Sony and Microsoft camps too but Nintendo breed a special kind of loyal fan. In the past I’ve been labelled a Nintendo fanboy and a Sony fanboy but honestly, I’m neither. I criticise things I hate with all 3 video game giants, I just have a tendency to enjoy first party Nintendo games and in recent years my consoles of choice tend to be Sony devices – that’s my personal preference. So let’s explore the special flowers that are Nintendo apologists. I’m going to use a few personal anecdotes in this article which I’m ok with as I’m specifically making an argument about these types of fans, not Nintendo fans in general.

I recently got into a debate on a Facebook group when I saw a post stating “That explains why the pro controller is more expensive, that’s insane it has that all built in. Glad to know that”. The post was accompanied by a brief description of its features. The tech inside the pro controller boasts features such as “motion controls”, “HD rumble” (whatever that will end up being) and “built in amiibo functionality”. Firstly, I’m not totally convinced that these features do explain the high cost of this controller. Doing a quick search, the Xbox One controller retails for around $50 and includes their own version of updated rumble in the form of “Impulse Triggers”. A PS4 DualShock 4 can also be picked up new for a similar price and they too feature new tech such as the light bar, speaker (new to PlayStation controllers) and a “Clickable touchpad”. Arguably of course the Switches HD rumble might be a revolution compared to the rumble of old but do an NFC reader and a fancy update to rumble justify a full $20 increase over the competition? Let’s give the poster the benefit of the doubt here and agree that this “new” tech actually does justify the $20 increase. WHY DO I NEED IT? And here’s my argument that I posted in response:

“That doesn’t mean the majority of players want all that tech. Does everything in your house really need to have the ability to scan amiibo? Or would the main screen be sufficient? I’d certainly take the lack of amiibo scanning in a specific controller if it meant the price was £15 less.”11396097-6244453754475000

A second poster then argued that indeed, this same logic could be applied to PS4 or Xbox One controllers. I agreed that indeed that is true but that doesn’t justify Nintendo bumping the cost of their controller up significantly. We as consumers come to expect a certain price bracket for consoles and accessories and indeed on this matter gamers will vote with their wallets I’m sure. The worst part about this is that the pro controller isn’t even the most expensive controller on offer. A set of Joy-Cons will set you back around $90! Journalists and fans alike (well, except for Nintendo apologists) seem up in arms about the price, Polygon seemed to have done the work for me here, after checking Twitter Ben Kuchera stated “I checked Twitter to see if I was just suffering from a case of unrealistic expectations and nope, there seems to be some serious pushback from others about the price of these accessories”1. Jim Sterling commented after the reveal “Let’s look at everything else Nintendo did to kill my interest in the switch”2 before going on to complain about the price of not only the pro controller but other accessories. Colin Moriarty explained on his new show “Colin Was Right”:

“You do have to do something to keep people around. The games aren’t there and they aren’t going to be there and these ridiculous peripheral prices are simply isolating potential customers even more.”3

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Gamers could chose to take or leave the console and any accessories; Nintendo has every right to charge whatever they feel is reasonable but get this. Since the NES we’ve seen a notable decline in install base throughout all of their home consoles4, with the Wii being the one anomaly here. The NES for example shifted over 60 million units whereas the Wii U has managed fewer than 14 million units and with the Switch releasing in less than 2 months that figure isn’t likely to creep up much further. With that I’d consider it a reasonable expectation that Nintendo should do everything they can to win back a bit of loyalty. Maybe sell the console for a significant loss in order to get the install base back up? After all they’d make a killing on software, much like the business model Sony and Microsoft have used many times in the past.5 How about charge a reasonable price for extra controllers? Maybe bundle in the ability to charge the Joy-Cons with the included grip rather than having to shell out for a special charging grip?6 So the slightly higher than expected price of controllers and accessories alone isn’t the only issue here. I think a Facebook post I wrote summaries this nicely:

“What exactly would Nintendo have to do in order for you to call them out on it? Shit on your lawn? There are a stack of issues surrounding the switch and so many Nintendo apologists are coming out with excuse after excuse.

Look, it’s not JUST the charging issue here, that’s merely the icing on the cake or should that be cack?”

Let’s address some of the other points then that are contributing to this mess. The launch line-up is really weak, on the launch day itself we have The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Ok, here’s a decent first party franchise) and 1-2 Switch in terms of first party titles. As for 3rd party? Skylanders something or another, Just Dance 20 whatever year it is and Super Bomberman R.7 Nothing really to write home about. And as for Zelda, well although this is a beloved Nintendo franchise it really isn’t a big system seller; just take a look at past Nintendo sales figures.8 I’d also add that out of these games 1-2 Switch and Super Bomberman R are the only exclusives, Zelda is also on Wii U and the rest of the bunch are coming to multiple platforms. Ok, so how about games released during 2017? Notable “big” games include Super Mario Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles 2, FIFA, NBA 2K18, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Splatoon 2 and ARMS. Notice the absence of a lot of major cross platform games? Where are Call of Duty, Battlefield, Resident Evil 7, Kingdom Hearts III, Mass Effect Andromeda, Metal Gear Survive, Red Dead Redemption 2 and South Park: Fractured But Whole to named but a few. Sure, as the saying goes “people buy a Nintendo or Nintendo games, not cross-platform games”. Hmmm, I’d be convinced of that if only the sales figures showed that to be the case. The fact is when most households chose to splash out on a console they are clearly picking the Sony or Microsoft boxes that can play a few great exclusives as well as being supported extensively by 3rd party developers. Think about it, gamers with a bit of excess cash might buy 2 or even all 3 of these home systems but many kids or adults on lower incomes will only buy one console. And these consumers will certainly want a box that gives them a decent variety of games, including games that their friends are talking about.  And this brings me to the next comment I found on Facebook:

“The hybrid nature of the console will hold it back from being a mainstream success. But it will likely do pretty well, Zelda at launch, MK8 Splatoon and Mario Odyssey all in the first year, will keep the system selling well all the way through its first year.”

My response to this statement?

“4 games in a year will not “keep the system selling well”, especially when 2 of them are essentially “deluxe” versions of existing games and zelda is not an exclusive.”

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The conversation continued with this user stating that I was “forgetting those are four of the biggest games Nintendo has”. The problem is that these “biggest” franchises also made appearances on Wii U and they didn’t shift enough consoles so what makes him think they will just because they are coming to a new platform? Another user then chimed in to tell me games like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe aren’t simply ports like we saw from PS3 to PS4. I’m not sure what he’d consider a port then when Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is (as the name implies) a Deluxe version of an old game, it includes all previous DLC and a couple of extra bits and pieces to sweeten the deal. It is by no means a brand new game and it isn’t being marketed in that way either. To top off this debate the original user then informed me that these games did in fact sell the Wii U console. Really? REALLY? The 85 million or so gamers who bought a Wii but didn’t buy a Wii U might disagree with you there! The final comment from the original user was also a bit of a surprise after I’d mentioned to him that you only have to look at how the media reacted after the second reveal. Proving my point that Nintendo apologists are almost blind to any criticism he noted:

“The “buzz surrounding it died”? In what world are you living in? Ever major gaming, tech, nerd , and even news outlet has covered the Switch conference.”

Well I’m actually referring to the likes of the Jimquisition episode9 on this subject where Jim Sterling does a fine job of highlighting some of the points (and others) that I’ve mentioned here. Jim specifically mentions at the end of the video that he made the episode out of frustration because he believes Nintendo has “the potential to be the best platform holder…”.10 I’m doing much the same thing here, I haven’t written this article to slate Nintendo – I’ve ordered the Switch! I’ve wrote this article to vent my frustration at a company which makes so many stupid mistakes that they really shouldn’t make.

Would you like more proof that the buzz died after the reveal? How about the Kinda Funny guys? Colin specifically stated after the Nintendo reveal11 back in October 2016 “I’m excited to pre-order”.12 After the second reveal Colin commented that he was “not very excited”13 before the guys commented negatively on the price of the accessories14 and everything else for that matter!15 Anecdotally I might also add that during the original reveal I left several comments on forums expressing my dislike of the Switch’s ugly, clumsy design. I was pretty much shot down immediately, not a lot of people agreed with me. Fast forward to the second reveal and forums are now seemly divided down the middle with arguments revolving around the high price of the accessories, the Nintendo network becoming a premium service (more on this soon) and the sparse launch line up. And then there’s the articles, of course it wouldn’t be fair to say that all the Switch press was negative. There are indeed a lot of positive posts and many fans and journalists alike have been won over. But just look at a few of these headlines and I think you’ll agree that Nintendo haven’t exactly knocked it out of the park:

The pricing on Nintendo Switch accessories is a bad, bad joke1
Nintendo Switch online service’s ‘free’ monthly games come with a huge catch161-2-Switch is not the killer app the Nintendo Switch needs17
Nintendo Switch will launch with fewer games than the Wii, Wii U or 3DS18
Nintendo Switch’s bundled Joy-Con grip doesn’t charge controllers19

And I think that sums up Nintendo, there are always caveats with their services, games and products. And talking of services, let’s take a look at Nintendo’s new offerings. First of all there’s news that the Switch’s voice chat is done…wait for it… via a smart phone app!20 That’s right folks, there is no native voice chat built into the Switch, and here’s the reasoning behind it according to NOA’s head honcho Reggie Fils-Aime:

“we want to reinforce the capability to take your experience with you on the go…. The ability to do matchmaking, voice chat through your phone, it’s a hell of a lot more convenient than having a gamer headset stuck into your backpack trying to do that. That’s why we’re doing it the way we are. We see the convenience, we see the ease of delivery. We think it’s going to lead to a better experience.”20

This is another common problem with Nintendo, they do things so against the grain that it defies all logic yet Nintendo will outright defend these decisions, as will their apologists. If the issue here is parental controls then implement controls to block this feature for children. If however the issue really is convenience then why can’t we have the best of both worlds and include voice chat out of the box as well as via a smart device app? Is Reggie seriously trying to say voice chat via a phone is more convenient? Not only does this mean anybody who wants to voice chat needs a couple of hundred pounds worth of mobile phone, but it needs to be charged, have a decent signal and be used separately from the Switch’s interface. And how about the “gamer headset stuck into your backpack”? Is he suggesting you no longer need a headset? So I just sit on the train with my phone next to my ear or with the speaker blearing out? Or do I use a small set of headphones with a microphone? If the latter then why can’t I use that with a Switch instead of the massively inconvenient headset Reggie assumes I need if voice chat was native to the console?

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For the record, personally I don’t care about voice chat, especially on a Nintendo console as I’m not a big online gamer. Like voice chat or not though, there’s a hell of a lot of gamers out there who use this feature daily on the PS4 and Xbox One. How can Nintendo ever hope to gain a big fan base when online gamers are denied basic features like this? Yet again though, the apologists help justify Nintendo’s absurd decision. One Facebooker commented “When you make things more difficult for people to use – voice chat – you deserve to be endlessly mocked.” Perhaps he was trolling a little as this was on the Nintendo Voice Chat Facebook group, however, just look at this response “I don’t agree. Nintendo is pivoting towards mobile as a focal point. They approach online differently as such. So, it may not be for you, but mocking is for kids online.” “Pivoting towards mobile”? So that’s the justification for shafting core online gamers?

It seems that voice chat isn’t the only online feature Nintendo is having a stab at butchering either. Much like Xbox Live and PSN, Nintendo will now also start charging for online functionality and in return gamers can expect online lobbies with voice chat, exclusive deals and monthly game downloads from the NES and SNES libraries.21 Here’s the catch, not only have Nintendo miserably failed with all online ventures on previous consoles when compared to Sony and Microsoft but their new paid for service will be giving fans access to an 8 or 16-bit game for one month only!22 Ok, so I’m a firm believer that gameplay is king and I also think that some of the finest games in existence can be found on both the NES and SNES but there’s no denying that offering gamers limited access to 20 or 30 year old games for a month isn’t exactly on par with their competitors. Sony alone offers 6 games per month (2 on each platform from PS3, PS4 and Vita), not forgetting that quite often a selection of these games are also cross-platform so the argument of “I only have a PS4 though” doesn’t wash here. Arguably a lot of these games aren’t worth the bandwidth they use to download but there have also been some great games on the service over the years. And what’s more, both Sony and Microsoft let you play these games for the entirety of your subscription. Having now been a subscriber for 5 or 6 years myself I literally have access to hundreds of games.

I actually put this question to members of the Nintendo Voice Chat Facebook group and in general most responses agreed with me. There were however a couple which tried to justify Nintendo’s decisions and put a positive spin on things. Here’s a couple:

“I like it the flavor of the month concept to it. In reality most of these games take a few hours to beat. So a month should be more than enough time with an NES or SNES game.”

“In a way wouldn’t having it only as a month motivate people to play right away, fill the online modes and most will be done with NES and SNES games after a month anyway? Just a thought.”

“The good thing about the monthly thing would that it would encourage a lot of people to play it that month. This would make it a lot easier to find people to play online with during that month.”

“I like it, i think it will be great for everyone to have access to the same title at the same time.”

Now, I understand what the first commenter is suggesting. In general a lot of NES / SNES era games can realistically be beaten with a couple of hours. However, what I don’t agree with is justifying this decision just because a game is short. Let’s put it this way, sometimes I might buy a game or get one free with PS+ but not actually get around to playing it for months, or even years in some cases. Why would Nintendo putting a restriction on the availability of the game be a good thing? Isn’t it better for the gamer to decide when they want to play the game instead of having it dictated to them?

I’d urge you all to throw away your nostalgia and throw away your biases and really take a look at Nintendo’s decisions. This is a company I grew up with, I love their consoles and love their games but there’s nothing wrong with calling out a company when they do something shitty. It’s pretty clear from Nintendo’s dwindling sales figures that they are struggling to stay relevant and keep up with Microsoft and Sony and if they at least don’t try and offer similar services and technology they will eventually fall.

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Finally, please go and watch both the Colin Was Right episode “Same Old Nintendo” and the Jimquisition episode “What Nintendo Fucked Up With The Switch So Far”. Both of these episodes are excellent, level headed and delivered by Nintendo fans.

A note about any Facebook quotations I’ve used.
I’ve left quotes unaltered, including spelling and typos. I felt this was the best way to avoid misquoting anybody. I’ve left out any citation here; they are simply being used as anecdotes to protect the users anonymity.

1 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14261342/nintendo-switch-extra-controller-price-terrible
2 – https://youtu.be/7fH_wl8ceAg?t=341
3 – https://youtu.be/LenzNAyRnWU?list=PLy3mMHt2i7RJjrxBVoVL5tDTbhimG4NFz&t=540
4 – https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/hard_soft/
5 – http://www.pcworld.com/article/127906/article.html
6 – http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-01-16-nintendo-switchs-basic-joy-con-grip-doesnt-charge-controllers
7 – https://twitter.com/NintendoAmerica/status/820006323328864256/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
8 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/01/29/these-are-nintendos-lifetime-hardware-and-software-numbers
9 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fH_wl8ceAg&t=352s
10 – https://youtu.be/7fH_wl8ceAg?t=681
11 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5uik5fgIaI
12 – https://youtu.be/HONQAWV5nxQ?t=754
13 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=333
14 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=452
15 – https://youtu.be/QdNiaVEzrwM?t=511
16 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14266290/nintendo-switch-monthly-games-not-free
17 – http://www.polygon.com/2017/1/13/14268204/1-2-switch-nintendo-switch-pre-review
18 – http://www.polygon.com/nintendo-switch/2017/1/13/14263186/nintendo-switch-lineup-wii-wiiu-3ds-comparison
19 – http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2017-01-16-nintendo-switchs-basic-joy-con-grip-doesnt-charge-controllers
20 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/01/14/nintendo-talks-voice-chat-online-approach-for-switch
21 – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2017/01/13/nintendo-switch-online-services-will-be-free-at-first
22 – https://twitter.com/kobunheat/status/819956802741747712?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

So you want a job in the games industry? Musings from Codemasters Birmingham audio department.

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I’m occasionally asked how I got into the games industry and while my path is fairly straight forward I can ask almost anybody else at Codies and they’ll tell a different story of their own path into audio design. The core audio department here at Codies Birmingham consists of three audio designers, myself in a senior position as the project lead designer, James “Duke Uterus” Kneen in a senior position and Dave Gurney in a junior audio designer role. Here we share those three stories.

I never formally interviewed for a job in audio when I was originally taken on. I’d started out as a QA technician at Codies and got talking to the audio department and one of the audio programmers. As well as continuing with my general QA bug reporting I also went out of my way to add each and every audio related bug I could find for each project I worked on. The benefit here was that I was immediately identified by the audio department due to how few people in QA seemed to concentrate on entering audio bugs at the time. On top of that I’d make it my mission to go over and chat with the audio guys that I knew a couple of times a month – not so often that I’d become annoying but not too infrequent that they’d forget about me. The important thing to remember here was that I’d never normally get a great opportunity like this had I not worked in QA. I couldn’t exactly turn up unannounced at game companies for a chat with the audio guys. Even handing in CVs and show reels and bugging designers via email doesn’t have quite the same impact as being able to walk across the office and interact with people face to face.

Luckily, at this stage two great steps forward happened, firstly the audio guys mentioned that there might be some “dog’s body” work coming up. Generally this would be tasks such as chopping and organising assets or adding regions and markers to projects. The second step was that one of the audio teams really needed somebody to focus on audio bugs for a particular game – having seen my list of audio focused bugs on the database and knowing I had an interest in audio they approached QA management and asked if I’d be interested in some focused QA audio work. Even to this day this is quiet a rarity; it involved me temporarily moving over to the audio department and specifically working with the audio guys to identify as many audio bugs as I could, all while still under QA management and budget. You can read more about my QA job role here:

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/working-in-qa/

06062008287.jpgNew beginnings – My first desk in QA.

After several months of working with the audio team they decided to take me on permanently in a junior capacity. It’s worth adding that before working in QA I’d been studying music technology for 3 years at college and a further 3 years at University. I then gained around 1 ½ years of QA experience which in itself provides great background knowledge when moving into games development. Two of my previous articles go into more detail on my time in education:

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/studying-music-technology-at-college/

https://leavelucktogames.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/is-an-education-really-needed/

I’m actually the only member of Birmingham audio who started off in a QA role, Dave (our junior) completed a master’s degree in game audio before applying for the junior role we opened up. Both Dave and I enrolled on generalised audio / visual media degrees but Dave furthered his education with a game audio master’s degree where he got to grips with middleware such as FMOD and Wwise. At degree level neither of us went into game audio territory, the assignments I completed during my 3rd year were specifically massaged to steer towards game audio but there was no training with any middleware or any game audio practices.

Dave applied to us straight after his master’s so he had gained no previous professional experience. One of the audio designers at Codies contacted him through Linkedin after seeing his profile, at which point Dave sent in his CV and show reel for us to consider. James and I looked through all the CVs that were handed in before narrowing down the candidate list to around 6 or so or of our favourites. This decision was based on multiple factors such as the applicant’s previous experience, the quality of their show reel and how excited they seemed to be about working on racing games. For us it wasn’t essential that our junior be into racing or racing games but let’s say in a situation where two very similar applicants applied then somebody with a good interest in motorsport would have the edge. Not only would this mean the applicant is less likely to tire of the sort of audio design work we do but they’d also be more likely to be excited to attend recording sessions, watch reference footage and suggest and work on very specific features present in motorsport. This might include things like turbo systems, detonations, engine bundles, mechanical tools and so on.

img_0146David Gurney – We insist he wears this hat when working on critical tasks.

Once we had narrowed down our search we held a skype or phone call interview with each candidate. James and I went through each candidates show reel; before we gave them feedback we asked them to critique their own show reel to see if they understood where their short comings and strengths lay. We then provided our own feedback on the show reel before going over each applicants CV and asking them for further questions. Typical lines of enquiry here were questions such as “Why do you want to leave your current job?”, “What games do you play?”, “Do you play any Codemasters games?”, “How do you feel about re-locating?”. After narrowing our search down further we finally invited our candidates in for a face to face interview. By this stage we were finding it difficult to choose one applicant, there wasn’t a lot in it and in all honesty I’m sure any one of these guys would have fitted in just fine. The main goal here then was to talk to each candidate to see how well they would fit in and so we discussed their hobbies, games, audio and other generalised chat. Importantly though, Dave was also excited at the prospect of working on a motorsport game; he suggested ideas for systems and asked us how existing systems were implemented. He’d asked questions about recording sessions and what we’d be expecting from him. He showed a clear interest in what we were doing and how he’d like to help build upon our work if he were given the opportunity. James and I both felt it was important to take on somebody that we could get on with as a friend as well as a colleague; after all we have to work very closely with each other day in day out.

Unlike Dave and myself, James doesn’t have any formal education in audio design. James seemed destined for a job in the audio industry; he grew up with a passion for all things sci-fi and audio related. Sometimes I wonder if he’s part synth – both of the android and musical instrument varieties. The “Duke” as we affectionately call him here at Codies first became interested in audio when his parents bought him a portable cassette recorder when he was a child. He started off recording joke “radio” shows and silly sounds before moving on to recording episodes of Doctor Who. Listening back to these recordings sparked an interest in sound effects and synthesis. This passion stuck with James through his teenage years and the first wave of hip-hop only helped cement this passion. From here on out James decided that he’d like one day to become a sound designer. With no qualifications to speak of James decided to go down the experience route and seek out a tape operator position in a studio. Unfortunately James found this extremely difficult to secure and ultimately failed.

Capture.PNGExterminate! – Where it all began for James.

Although James remained passionate about audio and production he decided to seek alternative employment and instead tried to break into the games industry. James considered trying to start a career in QA (similar to my own route into games audio). By his early 30s he found himself working for Empire Interactive but rather than a QA role he found himself burning game builds to disc. This ultimately would form the basis of his path into game audio. After a few years James made the move over to EA in a similar role and during his time here he’d spotted the recording studio and over time became friends with the audio studio head. Not one to miss a great opportunity James sweet talked his way into using the studio for a few evenings a week. A junior audio designer role eventually came up and after cutting his teeth with the EA studio gear James decided to apply. Once again the Duke was on the cusp of making it into one of his dream jobs but it was not to be. Although interviewing well, James lost out to an applicant with current experience.

IMG_0148.jpgJames “Duke Uterus” Kneen – He’s really not that grumpy, he really is that old though.

An audio assistant role eventually came up which James did secure – finally he was in! By this point James was into his late 30s, so a relatively late starter. James currently holds a senior audio designer role here at Codies Birmingham and readily admits how difficult his path to this position has been. I’d asked him for advice to pass onto up and coming audio designers seeking a position within the industry to which he replied:

“Securing a position in game audio is difficult, but not impossible. It’s about your attitude, passion for audio and your tenacity. If you keep on keeping on, you will do it. I am of course biased but I reckon it’s the most interesting and fun job on the planet.”

Three designers all with different paths into the industry; so where does that leave you if you’re seeking the best way to secure a job? Well you’ve still got to carve your own path out but here’s some general advice to help you along the way.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. The important points to remember are to network and gain some experience and while these steps are by no means sure fire ways to success they’ll greatly help you out. About a year ago I had a situation where two budding audio designers contacted me about work experience; one was a recent college graduate who was mainly interested in composition while the second was on a temporary contract in QA. Both prospective designers had graduated from sound related courses at college and both had at least started out on the right track; they’d done what many in my opinion fail to do. They had both contacted me and politely introduced themselves and shown some level of enthusiasm. As always I asked both of them for a show reel and a CV and asked them what they wanted to get out of any work experience. The guy in QA replied to tell me he would have to update his CV – I heard back from him about 4 months later! I politely informed him that unfortunately he’d missed the boat on this occasion as I’d taken on somebody else who’d replied with the information I’d asked for. The college graduate who applied was given a shot, despite primarily being interested in composition.

F1_2016_May_012_WM-823x436.pngF1 2016 – Sound design by Brad, James and Dave.

A decent education does help and in all honesty these days I don’t know of many young audio designers without a degree or higher. That being said, you could land a 1st class honours followed up by a master’s in game audio and you’d still not be guaranteed a job. Considering most of the other candidates will also have a degree it probably won’t do a lot to help you stand out. Think of your education then as a good fundamental framework once you’ve landed the job. It’s pretty obvious when we’ve spoken to or taken on work experience designers which are from a University background and which are not. That’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to this rule.

Experience is great but none of us in Birmingham audio took the work experience path and although it’s a great way to get a foot in the door we quickly discovered our work experience graduate didn’t have enough knowledge to be considered anywhere near ready enough for a job in the industry. I have however dealt with one intern here at Codies as well as managed a handful of University students on weeklong work experience. What I will say here is that you should only take on whatever work experience you feel you can manage. Generally you’ll find yourself forking out for travel and accommodation as well as working a full time, unpaid job! On top of that jumping in head first to something you’re totally unfamiliar with may actually deter a future employer from taking you on. Before taking on any experience try and find out what software the company uses, ask what their day today workload consists of then prepare yourself. Work experience is valuable and not easy to come by so if you do land a temporary position utilise it and make the most of it. Jump on new or unique tasks; ask the designers what they are currently working on and how different systems work. Don’t be too pushy but make it clear that you are interested in learning all you can in the limited time you have at the company.

Apply for the right positions and tailor your CV and show reel to appeal to these positions. We had various applicants apply for the role which Dave ultimately ended up getting. Dave handed in a show reel which highlighted various types of sound design, but importantly it also included motorsport. Not only did this show he was interested specifically in the role he was applying for but it also highlighted his aptitude for tailoring assets to suit motorsport content. Contrast this with some of our other applicants who handed in show reels full of low budget mobile games and no examples of motorsport. Some applicants occasionally send in show reels which only highlight compositional skills rather than sound design ability. We were specifically looking for a full time sound designer and there was no mention of music in the job specification so highlighting these skills didn’t really give us any idea as to whether the applicant was suitable for the position. It’s important to note at this point that I’ve had quite a few composers contact me over the years asking for advise, work experience or just to pass on their show reel and CV. I’ve explained to each of them (including our previous work experience graduate) that generally speaking not many game devs will take on a full time in-house composer – it’s just not something that happens. My advice here would be to go freelance or work on some small indie projects. If you are clued up on sound design you could get into the industry and eventually you may even find that you’ll be suited to score some of the projects you’re working on but composition shouldn’t be your primary driving factor.

Some of the really great applications we received showed off actual middleware implementation and video of middleware projects in action. I personally find this an excellent and interesting way to highlight sound design ability as well as the ability to implement finished assets and take into consideration variety and dynamically altering soundscapes. Audio for games is quite a different skill from track laying for linear media such as film so highlighting this ability proves you’re able to fulfil some of the requirements for a job in game audio.

Finally, as James experienced, don’t be deterred by rejection. We’d actually turned down a previous applicant because we were only taking on one designer. It pained us to turn him away as he was just as good as the applicant we offered the job to but we had to make a decision. Several months later we called him again and offered him a job on another project. You’ll apply for jobs and most likely you’ll be rejected for quite a few of them. This could be through no fault of your own, maybe another applicant took the position for a lower salary, maybe you were just as good but a coin flip decided on another applicant for the one vacant position, maybe your skills were tailored for a different role. Refine your CV, ask the company for feedback on why they didn’t proceed with your application, continue working on your show reel and continue applying.

Tokyo 2020 – The year of the gamer

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Gamers and geeks alike should embrace the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. If the Tokyo 2020 handover ceremony during the closing of Rio 2016 is anything to go by, the opening and closing ceremonies may well show the world just how relevant our culture now is. The handover ceremony that took place in Rio included nods to traditional and modern architecture, the bullet train and Mount Fuji while also fully embraced geek culture, anime and computer games. We were treated with appearances from both Pac-Man and Super Mario and although brief these mascots showed just how important computer games are to Japan as a nation.

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Japan’s president, Shinzō Abe even went as far as cosplaying as Super Mario, entering a warp pipe which then remained front and centre for the remainder of the show. Tokyo 2020 could do far worse than using a mascot such as Super Mario and indeed there’s a good chance that Mario, Pac-Man, Sonic and other famous faces will feature in the 2020 opening and closing ceremonies. These mascots would be far more appealing and relevant than the tragic London 2012 mascots and what the fuck was the 1996 Atlanta mascot supposed to be? What better mascots to use for the 2020 games than Mario and Sonic, some of the most recognisable characters of all time? Nintendo’s relationship with the International Olympics Committee stretches back to 2008’s Beijing games with the release of the first Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, and this could serve to bolster that relationship.

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While it’s true that the games themselves will be much the same as previous hosts games the opening and closing ceremonies are a spectacle that show the host nation’s culture, history and industry. Pushing computer games forward on a stage like this not only shows how big this industry really is but will go somewhat towards brushing off the notion that games are for kids. That’s not to say the 2020 games should be used as a marketing tool for the games industry, far more is at stake here. This is about showing the world what we’re all about and inviting everybody to take part.

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Let’s not forget there is still a stigma surrounding games, despite the medium being more popular than ever before. We still have the age old problem, particularly with older generations frowning upon anybody seen as “wasting” their time playing a game. The reality is an awful lot of people are now gamers without realising it, just take a look around the train on the way to work and see how many people are playing Candy Crush Saga on their phones. They might not consider themselves “gamers” but they’ve probably ploughed more hours into that game this week than I’ve put in on my PS4. Part of the importance here is Japan outright saying this is us, this is our culture and not just a child’s pastime. So let’s rejoice over Tokyo 2020, it might a unique opportunity for both sports and computer games.

 

NX Launch title speculation

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The NX should be in our homes within a year but what games can we expect to play on Nintendo’s new box? Nintendo has to strike a balance between releasing enough 1st party games on a regular basis to satisfy its fans yet not shoot its load too early and leave fans in a software drought for months at a time. After all, with Nintendo’s track record we can’t count on 3rd party support, especially if the NX turns out to be drastically different from the PS4 and the Xbox One – making porting more hassle than it’s worth. 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Legend-of-Zelda-Breath-of-the-Wild-Screenshots-02-1280x720

Nintendo have already confirmed Breath of the Wild will be an NX launch title1. No doubt this will please many hardcore Nintendo fans looking for a meaty title to get their teeth into during the launch period.

Personally I think Skyward Sword and Spirit Tracks are among the worst Zelda games Nintendo have released. Breath of the Wild needs to do something special to restore my faith in the franchise and after watching some of the footage that Nintendo have released I have to say this is shaping up to be one of the best Zelda games in recent years. That being said, Nintendo aren’t very forward thinking so Breath of the Wild could go either way. It’s all well and good offering us new mechanics, new items and a vast open world but will it have substance? Walking around a large open world scattered with a few fetch quests and several handfuls of heart containers placed slightly out of reach just isn’t going to cut it. Nintendo needs to make a believable, fun world packed full of a variety of side quests that offer up new experiences and offer unique rewards.

Chance: 100% 

Super Mario

Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel were both critically acclaimed2 and many fans were hoping that Galaxy 3 would find its way onto the Wii U. What we got instead was Super Mario 3D World which was also a fantastic game, although it didn’t quite hit the sale note that the Galaxy series did. So what does this mean for NX? Will Nintendo finally release a Galaxy 3?

The Galaxy series would undoubtedly make it into my list of favourite games of all time yet I think it would be a shame for Nintendo to bring us another. Nintendo needs to do what Nintendo does best and bring us yet another fresh, genre redefining Mario game that we know they are capable of. We want to be blown away with an all new concept that shows us why Mario is truly the king of platformers.

Nintendo have released six home consoles to date with only two of them (Gamecube and Wii) not having a core 2D or 3D Mario game as a launch title. The chances are then that Mario will either be a launch title or released within the launch window (a moving target, that let’s say for arguments sake will be within the first 12 months). Nintendo have a lot of fans to win back with the NX so a Mario game early on will be a no brainer, and let’s face it 3D World was released back in 2013 and aside from some smaller projects the team have been pretty quiet since.

Chance: 90%

Donkey Kong Country

We know that Retro have actively been working3 on an unannounced title since Tropical Freeze was released back in 2014. Based on Retro’s previous track record we could be looking at a new Metroid game, a 3rd DKC returns game or even revitalising another beloved Nintendo franchise. I’m playing this one safe then as I don’t think it’s a certainty that we’ll get another Kong game any time soon. Nintendo have been known to rest many well know franchises with Metroid skipping the N64 entirely while Donkey Kong has been put to bed a few times throughout the decades, coming back years later reinvented.

Chance: 33% 

Metroid

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Nintendo would do well to come out swinging with this one. We haven’t seen a core 3D Metroid game since 2007’s Corruption while a core 2D game last graced our screens back in 2004 in the form of Zero Mission (a remake of the original Metroid game). Of course we all remember the rather lack-lustre Other M4 which was a bit of a bastardisation of both the 2D and 3D games but even that, as the most recent Metroid outing was released in 2010.

Metroid producer Kensuke Tanabe stated to Eurogamer that a new entry in the series likely wouldn’t drop until the NX is released5 due to the development time of a new game. It’s also difficult to predict whether a new entry in the series will return to the games classic 2D roots or if Retro would pick it up for yet another Prime-esq game. While it’s not strictly an FPS, my guess is that Nintendo will want to offer up something within that genre.  After all the prime series looked gorgeous and was perhaps the Trojan horse to help sell the Wii to the FPS market.

I do think though that a new 2D Metroid could be on the horizon but this would suit a more niche audience and so Nintendo would do well to develop a 3D game first.

Chance: 70%

Kirby 

There’s no shortage of Kirby games, we tend to receive one in some form every couple of year. Be it a pinball spin off or a platformer with a new aesthetic, Kirby is constantly being reinvented, some love the franchise and some hate it. Kirby is a great addition to Nintendo’s library as the games are generally kid friendly but appeal to old skool Nintendo fans.

Kirby is arguably one of the lesser franchises that jumps to mind when thinking about Nintendo games so while the chances of getting at least a few Kirby games on NX is fairly high I wouldn’t hold my breath that there’s going to be one for launch. In fact, to date no Kirby game has ever been released on any platform for the launch date. Kirby doesn’t have the appeal to draw in gamers looking to invest in a new piece of hardware; instead this franchise should be used more as “filler” to bolster months with fewer 1st party releases.

Chance: 20%

Pikmin 4 

While not strictly a lunch title, the original Pikmin was a launch window game, releasing within a matter of weeks of the GameCube. Pikmin 2 followed around 2 years later, also for the GameCube while Pikmin 3 hit around 6 months after the Wii U launch – technically being another launch window game.

Back in August 2015 Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed that Pikmin 4 was nearing completion6 and with no word on progress since it has presumably been ported over to NX. The chances are then that Pikmin 4 will certainly be released within a matter of months of the NX launch, if not on launch day.

Chance: 80% 

Fire Emblem

SI_3DS_FireEmblemAwakeningAs an old school Nintendo fan I’m always surprised when a game emerges that I know nothing about – Fire Emblem is one such franchise. I was already familiar with Advance Wars but I’d never even heard of Fire Emblem until Awakening was announced for the 3DS. Glancing at sales figures, previews and news articles makes one thing clear since the release of Awakening; Fire Emblem is now more relevant than ever. A Fire Emblem game heading to the NX then seems like a no brainer.

With Fates releasing very recently for the 3DS it’s hard to predict what developer Intelligent Systems will do next. They may return to the sister series, Advance Wars or work on something totally different. With the huge sales enjoyed by Fates7 (even outselling the massively successful Awakening) Nintendo may decide to strike while the iron is hot and choose to release a follow up as quickly as possible. And what better way to release a follow up to a successful franchise than to develop it for a new piece of hardware that they are trying to push?

Although Fire Emblem is far more relevant than it’s ever been its important not to overstate how big this franchise is. Nintendo’s big hitters such as Pokémon, Mario Kart and Super Mario regularly shift in the region of 10 times the amount of copies that Fire Emblem can8. Why send out Fire Emblem to die when Nintendo could ship it during a slower period?

Chance: 25%

Pokémon

“Pokémon on a home console?” I hear you cry? Rumours are rife9 that the NX will in fact be a hybrid console, combining both the power of a home console, playable on a TV along with the flexibility and portability of a hand held.

Pokémon is without doubt one Nintendo’s most beloved, best selling franchises and since its inception back in the late 90’s the franchise has never skipped a handheld generation. With Sun and Moon arriving later this year it’s doubtful that we’ll see a new entry in the series for the NX launch. We don’t yet know what compatibility will be like with previous consoles though so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to see a 3rd game to complement Sun and Moon. The last time we got a 3 game generation was back on the DS with Diamond, Pearl and Platinum.

Chance: 30%

Star Fox

Over the years Star Fox has gained average to good review scores10, with the most recent entry in the franchise, Star Fox Zero scoring among the lowest in the series. Nintendo need to plan their next move carefully. It’s fair to say Star Fox has never been among the top echelons of Nintendo’s all-stars so it would come as no surprise if Star Fox doesn’t make an appearance on the NX any time soon – if at all (Star Fox was notably absent from the Wii).

Chance: 10% 

Mario Kart

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Since being introduced on the SNES, Mario Kart has had a single release on every piece of Nintendo hardware (with the exception being the Virtual Boy). There’s no doubt that Mario Kart will make an appearance on the NX but what’s more difficult to predict is when it will see the light of day.

Mario Kart 8 was released around 2 years ago so it’s fair to say another entry in the series could be well into development but then again how often are Mario Kart games launch titles for a system? The answer is never. Although we’ve seen Mario Kart games during the launch window we’ve never actually been able to pick up a copy day and date with a new piece of hardware. The chances of Mario Kart NX being a launch day title then? Not good. The chances of it being released within the first year? Fairly good. 

Chance: 60%

Splatoon

Splatoon is a hard one to call, is this destined to become a staple Nintendo franchise or will fans see it relegated to the likes of Pilotwings, Wave Race and Kid Icarus, popping up every couple of generations with no real consistency?

Considering Splatoon was universally praised11, sold fantastically well12 and had its own range of Amiibo it seems only logical that Nintendo will continue pushing it in the coming years. Not only does Splatoon fill the role of a pseudo-shooter (a genre lacking from Nintendo’s 1st party teams) but it appeals to a wide range of gamers and offers online play, a market which Nintendo really needs to cater to.

Chance: 50%

Animal Crossing         

Animal crossing is another heavy hitter for Nintendo. The game uses a tried and tested formula and iterations don’t tend to offer much in the way of new mechanics but nevertheless fans lap up each entry in the series. Animal Crossing hasn’t made an appearance on the Wii U so there’s a good chance a game might have been in the works and is now being ported over to the NX.

Animal Crossing would be one of the better games to show off the capabilities of the NX. Taking the game on the move and street passing with other players then heading back home and visiting their village with your home internet connection all while enjoying the graphics on your HDTV seems like a great way to sell a new game in the series. 

Chance: 70%

Super Mario Maker 2 

Super Mario Maker was a great idea. Take the LittleBigPlanet formula; throw in a bunch of Super Mario Brothers items, power-ups and landscapes then create a bunch of near impossible obstacles or novelty music levels for friends to enjoy. After offering players all the recourses they need to faithfully recreate levels from the golden age of Super Mario Bros. what more can Nintendo offer?

Chances are a Super Mario Maker 2 would do something completely different. The less likely idea would be to offer players a Super Mario Maker 3D, featuring elements of games from Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. Not only would this overwhelm players but seamlessly transitioning between these 3 generations of Mario games and mixing up mechanics such as FLUDD from Sunshine or planetoids from Galaxy would be an absolute nightmare.

The other, far more likely scenario then is to tackle a different franchise. How about a The Legend of Zelda Maker? A Metroid Maker or a Donkey Kong Maker? All 3 of these would work well and after up different, unique experiences. Imagine creating dungeons in a Zelda maker or creating sections of a space station in Metroid and deciding which doors can be unlocked with which upgrades? What about designing mine kart sections for Donkey Kong?

Sales of Super Mario Maker were pretty strong so Nintendo must have had the conversation about where to take the “maker” franchise next. That said, this type of game probably isn’t suited as a launch title to show off a system and its graphics. I’d expect to see a game like perhaps 2 or 3 years into the NX’s life.

Chance: 20%

Super Smash Bros. NX

Smash Bros. is now a staple Nintendo franchise, with an entry hitting each Nintendo home console since the N64. Each game in the series is received with overwhelming praise14, so what better way to celebrate Nintendo’s rich history and character roster than with an all-star game?

There’s no doubt that during the life of the NX a Smash Bros. game will release, the question is when? Furthermore who will develop the next game? The wait between Melee and Brawl was 7 years, while the 4th entry in the series Super Smash Bros. Wii U and 3DS came a further 6 years later. With that in mind were not likely to see a new game until around 2020, well into the NX life-cycle.

Series director Masahiro Sakurai has also expressed a desire to move on from Smash Bros. due to its lengthy development time and fan expectations. If Sakurai really is done then Nintendo will want to carefully select a worthy development team to take over the reins – this could take some time. All signs then point to the next Smash Bros. being a fair few years away yet.

Chance: 20%

  1. https://www.nintendo.co.uk/News/2016/April/Nintendo-provides-updates-on-mobile-NX-and-The-Legend-of-Zelda-along-with-annual-earnings-1102529.html
  2. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii/super-mario-galaxy
  3. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/02/28/wii-u-is-a-powerhouse-says-donkey-kong-country-developer
  4. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii/metroid-other-m
  5. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-06-17-next-proper-metroid-prime-would-likely-now-be-on-nx
  6. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-07-20-pikmin-4-in-development-and-very-close-to-completion
  7. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427_4e.pdf
  8. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427_4e.pdf
  9. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-07-26-nx-is-a-portable-console-with-detachable-controllers
  10. http://www.metacritic.com/search/all/star%20fox/results
  11. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii-u/splatoon
  12. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427e.pdf
  13. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/software/wiiu.html
  14. http://www.metacritic.com/search/all/smash%20bros./results
  15. http://www.gamesradar.com/super-smash-bros-creator-may-be-done-series/

The problem with… The last boss

I’ve been playing video games for the best part of 30 years but I don’t consider myself to be exceptionally skilled. I’ve never excelled at PVP games and I’ve never been top of online leader boards. I don’t mind a challenge but I don’t always crave it which is why I can enjoy an easy run through of Kirby’s Epic Yarn or get stuck into Demon’s Souls should the mood take me.

What I do have a problem with though is excessively scaling the difficulty when approaching the end of a game or when reaching the final boss. Generally speaking I think the concept of a final boss is outdated, sure in some cases it’s useful but it shouldn’t be the default. Did The Last of Us feel as if it were missing something for not including a last boss? Granted genres such as the RPG need a final boss, the whole purpose of progressing and in some cases grinding in a JRPG is to power up and become strong enough to obliterate the antagonist.

There have been a good handful of games that have left a sour taste in my mouth specifically because of an annoying or particularly difficult final boss. It’s almost to the point for me where an outstanding game can be relegated to an “ok” game purely based on that final impression that it leaves. So this then is what I’d like to discuss throughout this article. I’d also like to make it clear that all of the games I’m about to list have left an impression on me over the years for having issues when it comes to the final boss, some are old, some are new. I’ve specifically chosen to not revisit these games while writing this article as the point is this – these games did or almost did turn me off them just because of one final battle and that’s one of the memories I’ve been left with.

Of course spoilers will follow as we’re talking about the end of several games here.

Final Fantasy VIII

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Final Fantasy VIII was defiantly my least favourite of the PS1 trilogy of games, that being said I still enjoyed the game, the story and the characters. I’ve actually played through the game at least 2 times from what I can remember but I’ve never actually completed it. My problem with the final boss, Ultimercia isn’t necessarily with the battle itself but rather an overwhelmingly broken system. The draw system in my mind was undoubtedly flawed, permanently limiting the amount of magic you can store and use and forcing the player to constantly grind to “draw” more magic from enemies offered nothing new or exciting to the battle system. Sure it ensured players thought a bit more about each move. Should you really use the highest tier of Fire magic (Firaga), which you’ve only stocked 10 of when you could use the basic Fire magic which you’ve stored 99 of? Essentially though, I found the system at best a grindy nuisance and at worst game breaking.

When reaching Ultimercia for the first time I quickly realised not only did I need to level up my characters but I would also need to spend time grinding in order to draw useful magic. And here’s where I encountered the second problem – I had no way of returning to the world. I could be wrong here but I could only figure out how to access certain areas of the world map and if memory serves the towns were blocked behind magic barriers, preventing me returning to areas to stock up on items and equipment. I’m sure at the time I consulted walkthrough’s to figure out exactly how to return to different islands but it either couldn’t be done or it was too convoluted. And with that Ultimercia still reigns supreme.

My complaint then might seem more about the gameplay mechanics of Final Fntasy VIII rather than the boss but I’ll stress this, I had no problem progressing through the game up until this point. It was literally a case of I was powerful enough to progress through the entire game but not powerful enough to beat Ultimercia.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

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Now hear me out – pretty much every game on this list I like, some I even love. Uncharted 2 is without doubt a superb game, it’s one of my favourite PS3 games but I can’t deny the last boss, Lazarević was a right cunt. In all fairness I play the Uncharted games on hard and crushing difficulties so I’m fully expecting to die a lot during my adventure. That being said the difficulty ramped up considerably during this fight to the point where I wanted to throw my pad against a wall and feed the plastic shards to Lazarević himself.

On top of being difficult, this boss fight was extremely dull, essentially it involved running around in a circle in order to hide from Lazarević then pop a purple ball of goo over him before he spots you. This process had to be repeated several times in a row and if you were attacked you were screwed. I remember attempting this boss fight many, many times in a row before I finally took the big bastard down.

Uncharted is one of those series where I really wouldn’t mind if they totally left out the final boss fights. There wasn’t really one in Uncharted 3: Among Thieves and I didn’t feel cheated because of it.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

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Alright, so I’m picking on Uncharted here. Naughty Dog are up there as one of my favourite developers and the Uncharted series is one of my favourite franchises of all time, so why am I complaining about yet another boss? Surprisingly I actually thought this boss fight was excellent, I loved it! Mechanically and visually this boss fight was superb, what I didn’t like however was the difficulty of getting through it.

This final boss fight sees Drake in a good old standoff with one of the games antagonists, Rafe. You engage in an epic sword fight with stunning animations and great mechanics, really impressive stuff. The fight itself consists of a series of attack and parry moves where you have to correctly block whichever side Rafe is about to attack you from. These moves feel so quick and difficult to judge that most of the time I either couldn’t react fast enough or I couldn’t quite figure out where he was going to attack me from. There’s also a bunch of quick time / button mash sections which aren’t so bad. I actually enjoyed this battle to begin with before I realised just how damn difficult it is. I think there are 3 or 4 checkpoints scattered throughout this fight but getting to each one became a real chore to the point where the novelty of the fight really started to wear off. It’s a real shame as this game is near perfect but perhaps the difficulty of the final boss could have been better balanced.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

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I distinctly remember how I felt when I finally finished Donkey Kong Country Returns. I almost didn’t feel like finishing this one, I was immensely frustrated with how broken this boss was. Whereas the previous games featured in this article felt too difficult, DKC Returns actually felt broken. I could pass off the previous boss battles in this article as me not being good enough, with this tough it felt like I needed a whole lot of luck – which in a game like this is unforgivable.

Tiki Tong is essentially a huge head with fists who floats above the stage, pounding down every now and again in order to squash the titular ape. So what’s to stop you applying general boss fight logic and carefully watching his attack pattern? Well that’s just the thing; Tiki Tong seems to break the rules of the game, attacking in ways that are seemingly unpredictable. The difficulty curve throughout the game seemed to gently ramp up but by the final boss it shot through the roof. Why frustrate players like this? I didn’t feel a sense of achievement for defeating Tiki, I simply felt like burning the cart and never returning to the game again.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

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Another broken, totally unfair boss fight, there’s no other way to put it. The battle against Senator Armstrong feels like a broken mess and offers nothing except frustration. As with Tiki Tong, I felt absolutely no sense of achievement for taking this big bastard down, I simply felt annoyed that developers, Platinum had deemed this a worthy end to the game.

The boss fight includes a bunch of quick time events where you have to slash in particular directions in order to stop Armstrong from hitting you with various projectiles. I can’t quite remember exactly what I was apparently doing wrong here but I couldn’t get the timing nailed down and he’d repeatedly pummel me. I seem to remember spending a couple of hours over the course of several nights trying to overcome this fight. I’d consulted walkthrough’s and asked other people who were playing the game exactly how I should kill him and I still had issues.

The worst thing here is that slashing in the correct directions was a broken mechanic in itself; I had to look up video walkthrough to figure out how to get around the broken system by moving the analogue sticks in very specific ways to allow the game to correctly recognise my input direction. Bosses like this are truly awful, why should I suffer because of a clearly broken gameplay mechanic?

Bloodborne

Bloodborne

Probably another controversial one for the list then is Bloodborne’s final boss Gehrman (which I’ve learnt isn’t actually the final, final boss but he happened to be the boss I defeated to see the end game). This Jerk doesn’t look anything special, especially in a game like Bloodborne where many of the bosses tower above you. Forget his looks though, this is one difficult boss who caused me to almost stop playing the game right there and then.

Now I realise Bloodborne, along with the Soul’s games are renowned for their difficulty. That being said I’d made my way through the game up until this point and I’d previously finished all the Soul’s games. My character was around level 100 by the time I reached Gehrman, which I’m guessing is pretty powerful considering a lot of people seem to finish the game around the level 70 sort of mark. I’d expected a challenge by the time I reached the final boss but after levelling up so much and killing every boss in the main game I imagined I’d prepared enough for this final encounter.

Gehrman charges right for you and he doesn’t give up so you’ll need to be quick and skilled in order to dodge, shoot and counter him. The problem here is I just never really got comfortable with the shooting to stagger your enemies mechanic throughout the game and by the time I reached the final boss I struggled to get this right. Regardless, I was able to stagger Gehrman multiple times but on the odd occasion he did manage to attack me I’d basically had it. So time and time again I respawed and had to start the battle again, and here is the underlying problem with the boss battles throughout this game.

I noticed fairly early on that the blood vials mechanic was either massively broken or so cryptic that I couldn’t understand or figure out how it worked. Generally speaking you have a set amount of vials (let’s say 10) that can be consumed to regain health. These vials can be obtained by killing enemies and collecting them as loot or bought. Once consumed, they have to be replenished – or do they? I never quite figured this out. Many times I’d start a boss fight, fully stocked up on vials, consume several then die. Once I respawned it was pot luck as to whether these vials automatically replenished themselves back to 10 or whether I was left with the amount I had when I died. This continually happened throughout the game during boss fights. Die – respawn – check vials. Sometimes they’d be full, despite using them during the boss fight, other times I’d be left with the amount I had once I died.

So although Gehrman was a difficult boss battle, the game mechanics made it infinitely more frustrating. I’ts no exaggeration to say that for every time I attempted Gehrman I was probably spending 15 minutes grinding the starting area to replenish my vials. 

Dishonourable mention 

DrinkBox Studios’ Guacamelee came to mind while writing this article but I’d realised it wasn’t the final boss that almost had me quit this game. Jaguar Javier, a boss towards the end of the game actually gave me the biggest headache while playing Guacamelee. In some respects this is the worst offender on my list as I wasn’t even at the end game when I encountered a boss that very nearly made me quite the game. 

Conclusion 

Many games take the approach of the action film genre where the main protagonist finally catches up to the antagonist of the film and takes them down in one final battle. Back when gaming was in its infancy the majority of experiences were action based and involved heavy amounts of slaughtering and thus a last boss was a nice full stop to a game whose ending generally consisted of a “The End” screen. Thankfully games are starting to mature as a medium and in cases like The Last of Us or Journey the narrative is good enough that the inclusion of a final challenge is not always appropriate for the player to feel satisfied.

Developers need to be bold enough and confident enough with the experience they have created to not have to shoe horn in a final boss battle. However if a boss battle is required then developers need to realise that offering one final challenge should be satisfying and not frustrating. A good boss battle should require the player to use the abilities and techniques they have built up throughout the game but not feel cheated by the difficulty curve ramping up inconsistently when facing the final boss.

The Vita – Sony’s love letter to the games of yesteryear and the hidden gems you’re missing

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Note: This article was originally published November 10th 2015 over at Playstation Enthusiast

I’ve always been a bit of a Nintendo devotee when it comes to handheld gaming. There’s something about Nintendo that just nails the handheld experience every time. Not only is the price point typically pretty good but you are generally offered a different experience than what you’re presented with on the big N’s home console counterparts.

Although I’ve owned every PlayStation home console I’d skipped right past the PSP because I found nothing about the system appealing. After all, what did I want with a multimedia device with big clunky mini-disc inspired game discs? Sure the PSP looked great but it didn’t really speak to me, it didn’t offer the experiences I was looking for. After all the PSP was well known for trying to replicate the PS2 experience on the move, I was interested in new experiences like using the touch screen on my newly acquired Nintendo DS. Eventually during the dying days of the PSP I decided to borrow one and I bought a couple of essential games to play on it (Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII).

Not long after my hands on time with a PSP the Vita was announced. Unfortunately it didn’t ignite my interest; I did however keep a close eye on its catalogue of games. So what changed? Why did I feel the need to dive in and finally buy a Vita? Certainly one of the more common complaints is the lack of AAA games on the device, what could I possibly want with it?

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Here’s the reality, the Vita will never please the gamer looking for the latest blockbuster. What it will absolutely do is please the gamer looking for the curve ball, the unique, crazy Japanese experience, the niche visual novel that nobody has heard of. There is a treasure trove of gold if you’re willing to take the time to look because unfortunately, Sony does a bad job of advertising not only the system but its unique collection of games. The Vita doesn’t have to be about Call of Duty, Mass Effect or Bioshock; the Vita is about Danganronpa, Tearaway and Freedom Wars. Indeed it was upon hearing about the imminent release of Danganronpa that ultimately convinced me that the Vita was worth buying, that and the recent announcement that the original 1000 series (with the OLED screen) was about to be discontinued. I had recently played through and enjoyed 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors on my DS and upon hearing about the visual novel-esq Danganronpa I started looking at other games that I might be interested in if I owned a Vita. I gathered a small list of games that I either wanted (but were not system sellers alone) and games that looked interesting but had previously passed me by because I didn’t own a Vita. The time felt right to grab a Vita, after all even if no other games would be released that interested me at least I’d got together a handful of games that I was happy buying a system for. And so my journey began.

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Here’s where it gets interesting, originally I didn’t want a Vita because much touted features such as cross-buy to me felt like a nice extra but not a reason to own a device. I’d rather have a great library of games exclusive to a system rather than the ability to play many of my PSN and PS3 games on the move. Over the next few months I started to notice sales crop up on the digital store for PS1 classics and I found myself grabbing bargains here and there for many classic games that had passed me by. You see I’d owned a PS1 but I primarily did my gaming on my N64 so I’d played Final Fantasy VII yet I’d missed out on Grandia, Wild Arms and the Suikoden games to name but a few. Rather than paying the outlandish prices some of these games now fetch on disc I grabbed them for £2 or £3 per game! I then started searching for great PSP games I’d also missed out on and I discovered delights such as the Patapon series and added Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, LocoRoco and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony to my backlog. Suddenly I found myself in a position where I couldn’t keep up with all the gems available to me and to top it off another Danganronpa released, I caught up with Persona 4 Golden and grabbed Steins;Gate. The vita really was turning into a love letter to the PlayStation legacy, offering not only some unique hidden gems but a library full of classic games from yesteryear. As for the “nice extra” in cross-buy I found myself downloading previous games I’d purchased for my PS3. Some of which were games I’d purchased several years ago, yet as soon as the Vita version was released it was available to me for free. What more could I ask for?

This sleek, small device has proved to be my go-to console of choice. I found myself disregarding my 3DS and spending many hours while in bed, commuting on the train or simply taking a breather from house renovation to play on my Vita. I could happily leave the Vita in my work bag, still in sleep mode from the previous nights Persona session and resume during my lunch break at work. It’s luscious OLED screen, its dual analogue sticks, the fully encased screen flush with the chassis and multi-touch screen. The Vita feels like a serious bit of kit, the total opposite of a Nintendo handheld. Don’t get me wrong, I still find myself sucked into a good 3DS game every now and then but my preference is generally with Sony’s handheld masterpiece.

Surely there are downsides though right? As previously touched upon, many gamers feel the absence of AAA games has left the Vita gasping its last breaths and yes, I’ll admit this is a deal breaker for many but it’s not the only problem the Vita suffers from. One of my biggest complaints is with the memory, unlike the PS3 and PS4 which both have the ability to easily replace the internal hard drive with any 3rd party 2.5” drive, the Vita uses proprietary memory – and it’s not cheap! You’re looking at approximately £1 per 1GB if you go all out and buy a 64GB card; go for something smaller and you’re going to get significantly less bang for your buck, somewhere in the region of £20 for an 8GB card. Keep in mind that many Vita games and all PS1 and PSP games must be downloaded and you quickly chomp through your GB’s! As the Vita isn’t exactly the must have gadget it doesn’t seem that 3rd party companies are even interested in trying to create their own memory cards for the system either so Sony have the monopoly on this purchase. For this very reason I find myself looking out for bargain Vita games on physical media, I have both a 16 and 32GB card so if I see a game cheaper in its digital form I’ll normally grab that over a physical copy.

The future looks pretty bleak for the Vita, with Sony exec Andrew House referring to both the Vita and PlayStation TV as “Legacy Systems”1. It’s also a pretty fair assumption that the handheld won’t see any big hitters so you can forget another Uncharted, God of War or Killzone. Likewise you can kiss goodbye to the once, much anticipated Bioshock game and don’t expect any sign of infamous. What I can promise you though is that even if the Vita were discontinued tomorrow and development on all titles was halted there would still be enough content on the device to satisfy even the most hardcore PlayStation fan.

A few Vita facts for you to digest:

  • PlayStation TV can be used with a selection of Vita cartridges or downloads to continue playing on a TV using a controller
  • You can stream many of your old PSN games from your PS3 and any PS4 game to continue playing over Wi-Fi via the Vita
  • Vita was originally codenamed “NGP” which stood for “Next Generation Portable”2
  • Uncharted: Golden Abyss is Vitas best selling game with around 1.46 million units sold3
  • Lifetime sales of the PSP far exceed that of the Vita with an estimated 80+ million4 units shifted, compared with the Vitas estimated 4 million5 or so units revealed during 2013

1 http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2015-05-27-sony-admits-first-party-lineup-a-little-sparse
2 http://uk.ign.com/articles/2011/01/27/psp2-announced-codenamed-ngp
3 http://www.vgchartz.com/platform/43/playstation-vita/
4 http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/06/03/sony-discontinuing-psp
5 http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jan/04/playstation-2-manufacture-ends-years

What makes a great sounding game?

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That well known phenomena we as sound designers experience, if the game sounds great nobody bats an eyelid. If the game has any audio issues at all they are quickly picked up on in reviews and on forums. And so the most obvious question to ask is what makes a great sounding game? I put this to Alyx Jones, a recent graduate of the University of Surry. “It might sound a bit pretentious…” she begins, “…but I think the best sounding games are those with something a bit different or memorable about the music”. Alyx believes games that allow for more experimentation are much easier to write music for and therefore lead to better sound design. She also stresses the importance of silence adding “I think it’s really important to know when not to put music or sound in places, Limbo is a really good example of this”.

After graduating with a very respectable 2:1 honours degree in Creative Music Technology Alyx had wasted no time in diving into this fast moving, often cut throat industry. The caveat being however that she was to do things her way and work on small scale indie developments, and so Silver Box Games was born. Not content with working on one project Alyx also began working on her own Oculus Rift project titled Wanderift. Why games development though? Surely for somebody primarily interested in composition she would have an easier time working in TV or film? “…film and TV is a very static experience” she states. Alyx elaborates by explaining how within a linear experience there is only one story to tell, and that’s done by the director. A game on the other hand is shaped by the player. I ask Alyx why a non-linear approach particularly appealing to her. She responds by informing me that:

“…it gives total immersion and I suppose an escape in so many aspects that watching a film doesn’t provide. To be able to create your own character and shape your own story and environment is so much more exciting than sitting and watching the latest episode of Eastenders.”

Growing up Alyx’s Gameboy never left her sight and playing games quickly became her favourite means of entertainment. With her love of music and technology the games industry seemed like the obvious choice. Alyx finds far more possibilities to experiment with audio in the world of games rather than film or TV, after all she states “technology is always changing and improving so the ability to constantly adapt and learn new things is a fantastic process to constantly be involved with.” But I digress, why was I asking Alyx about great sounding games in the first place?

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As it transpires she’s also a freelance editor over at The Sound Architect, an online audio resource for professionals and enthusiasts alike. Since early 2015 Alyx has been critiquing a range of smaller scale games including PSN releases such as Rain, Sound Shapes and the recently released Volume. With Limbo in mind I asked Alyx to give a little insight into what it is about the sound design in that game that is particularly appealing to her.

“Well, Limbo is quite a dark game and I think the music and sound design create that intense atmosphere so perfectly. The composer used a lot of analogue equipment to reflect the distant, bleak imagery of the game. It’s used sparingly in places, sometimes you can be walking and the only sound is your footsteps. I find the whole soundtrack quite experimental and creative, it’s mostly drones and he doesn’t use any real rhythms but I always remember how I felt playing that game.”

Sonically, another stand out game for Alyx is Proteus, an indie game in which the landscapes are procedurally generated giving different objects in the world their own unique sounds. Alyx remarks that “the audio is procedurally generated so if the sound were separated from the game it wouldn’t exist”. I thought this was an interesting choice as in some ways Proteus takes some of the sound design, or at least the presentation of the audio away from the sound designer and into the hands of the player. I posed this to Alyx who suggested “…if you have a soundtrack that’s just generic it’s not quite going to fit. How can you write music for a different environment every time? There are so many possibilities, it would be very time consuming!” So does this mean Proteus wouldn’t have worked as well with a standard approach to its sound design? Alyx doesn’t necessarily think the approach was better, but rather “more interesting” leading to “a different kind of experience”. This kind of process could lead to some interesting situations though; could the audio turn into a disaster if the procedurally generated landscape was a mess? “Well yes it could be considered “a mess” by the average listener”, Alyx remarks. I asked her to elaborate on this, she added:

“There are multiple approaches from a completely random selection of notes, chords, effects etc to a very structured system that might utilize music theory that would tailor more to a “western” listening audience. A totally random approach could use any pitch (not even adhering to western tuning), any velocity, any rhythm and note durations (the list goes on) so it is likely to not sound “pleasant”. It’s likely that a random approach wouldn’t be used commonly in games unless they were particularly experimental. Most composers have their own recognizable sound, the same as they aim to give particular games trademark sounds, so it’s perhaps a better approach to find a generative system that you can set certain rules that would give the game its own consistent sound (probably more likely in the case of Proteus).”

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Having an understanding of how sound travels and interacts with its environment is also very useful. Take for example a racing game. Real world phenomena such as occlusion, reverb and Doppler can all be made use of to improve the sound design and make for a more immersive experience whether in a realistic game or a fantasy setting. How can you achieve an authentic sounding racing experience if sound is not reflected off walls or other cars as it would be in real life? This may seem like a subtle technique but it breathes life and subtle cues into the game world. When another car passes by how can you achieve a sense of realism and more importantly speed without Doppler? Wouldn’t you also expect a car’s engine sound to be occluded when it disappears behind a mountain?

So we’ve established that some boundaries have to be put in place to ensure a pleasant audible experience is achieved. So what would an audio designer have to take into account when designing such a pallet of sounds and how do they ensure that these elements work well together? I proposed this to Alyx:

“To ensure elements work together you might group stems together by key or tempo and compose them in such a way that at regular intervals they might be changeable. It’s a similar approach to reactive music in games that would perhaps bring in a percussive beat as an enemy approaches to signify their presence in-game. Multiple layers are synched alongside each other and can either be switched seamlessly or use a stinger to cover up the “switch” when adding another layer or skipping to a new part of the composition. If you were being more experimental you might compose without rhythm or tempo, or maybe even without a key. You could create a soundscape in the same way by maybe grouping stems by timbre or frequency range, or a combination of both approaches. It really depends what you’re doing!”

Whatever the approach, one thing’s for certain, Alyx is sure that the music and sound design are both integral to the overall audible experience. She explains to me how important it is to have a good understanding of sound design within an interactive medium if the composer is to write an “informed piece of music to function as well as it needs to.” I thought this really backed up what Alyx had already touched upon when talking about Proteus. If Proteus were an indie film for example there would have been a linear soundscape, no matter how obscure the film was. Take this very same concept and apply it to an interactive medium that can be procedurally generated and you have a very different beast on your hands. Alyx goes on to explain this point by adding:

“… You may need to have a lot of layers that can be switched between but that can all play independently and in any combination; it’s very different from writing a 3-minute loop or a “score to picture”. There are no time limits, your music and sound environment need to have the ability to play infinitely and adjust to the player and game environment.”

So does Alyx consider herself a sound designer, a composer or both? After applying for several jobs in the games industry she realised that it wasn’t actually sound design she was primarily interested in. Instead she had subconsciously already decided she wanted to focus more on composition. After figuring this out she resigned herself to freelance work which is a wise move as very rarely these days will a company employ a full time composer. Generally audio staff are employed as sound designers; they might also create music as part of their job role but quite often a freelance composer will be hired. I really doubted that Alyx would have been able to take on a full time job even if she wanted to as her schedule is already pretty busy what with writing game audio reviews, working on indie games and taking on her recent role tutoring school children in the art of sound design, game design and programming during after school classes. On top of this Alyx also plans on returning to the University of Surry in 2016 to complete her masters in music composition.

We’d briefly touched up sound design going hand in hand with composition so I asked Alyx to name a few games she considered to have great soundtracks. The first to come to mind for her was thatgamecompany’s masterpiece, Journey which she describes as “…just so beautiful”. I then asked Alyx if she is influenced by her favourite works when creating her own compositions. Not exactly, rather she takes influence “more from the product as a whole” in that she does indeed use orchestral instruments but not to create classical or epic orchestral scores. In the case of Journey, rather than taking inspiration directly from the score Alyx is instead inspired by the feelings Journey’s music invokes. Another favourite is the Dragonborn theme from Skyrim, she elaborates on its impact by adding:

“I suppose on some level all the music I listen to shapes me as a composer. Perhaps in a way, I might listen to Skyrim and be really struck by the powerful vocals and the way the human voice can be used in a new language (the dragon language in Skyrim) to evoke that sense of power. I might use a similar kind of technique or think about how the voice can be used in different ways.”

Reviewing game audio and taking influences from her favourite scores all goes some way towards improving her own compositions. Alyx believes that the review process helps her understand and make decisions with her own projects and analyse why something may not be working. Alyx notes however that critiquing other peoples work is quite a difficult task.  She approaches a review by taking an analytical and logical approach, playing the game to completion and listening to the score during natural game play (where the developers intended it to be heard). Alyx doesn’t listen to the music in isolation as many scores created for games aren’t really designed to be linear pieces. “It’s the same when I’m writing music”, she adds. In much the same way as she reviews games Alyx doesn’t construct her music in a linear fashion as a continuous 3 minute piece for example as that’s not how the player will primarily experience it. Although over critical of her own work she does share some advice for other composers, “Take a break”! While she adds “asking friends for feedback is much better than trying to be too critical of your own work.”

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And so to answer my original question “what makes a great sounding game?” Different games can sound great for a variety of reasons from Limbo’s very minimalistic but atmospheric approach to Skyrim’s epic theme song and Proteus’ almost user generated soundscape. Music and sound design need to work in harmony by complimenting each other, not only in terms of frequency range but also in terms of placement. That said, the sound design must also be sympathetic to the visual style of a game, take Minecraft. By no means are the sounds in Minecraft the most unique, high fidelity assets yet they perfectly suit the blocky textures that Minecraft sports. A great sounding game can certainly be subjective but we have covered several factors that can ensure the sound design works from a technical and artistic point of view.  Analysing other great sounding games is a good place to start, as is experimenting with different techniques. Knowing what to use and where to use it, how sound interacts with the environment and how music should be woven in and out of that experience all help the audio to sit within the game world, blending into the experience. And so we come full circle by creating a sound design experience that the average player is oblivious towards but the audiophiles out there might appreciate.

Alyx and her work can be found on the following sites:
http://www.alyxjones.co.uk/
http://www.thesoundarchitect.co.uk/