IndieSider #5: The Counting Kingdom by Little Worlds Interactive

Posted in IndieSider by on Aug 20th, 2014 12:00 PM

The Counting Kingdom, released on August 5 on Steam for PC and Mac (and coming soon to iOS), is a math tower defense game. As monsters advance on your castle, you group them by their numerical values and then cast the corresponding spell to banish the fiends. Later levels introduce higher values, monsters with unique abilities, and potions that let you adjust their values and positions.

As neither a parent, a math educator, or a tower defense fan, I wasn't sure I'd like this game. But I grew up playing "edutainment" titles like Scholastic Microzine on the Apple II, so I gave The Counting Kingdom a go. Much to my surprise, it's actually quite fun. It eliminates the frenetic quality of games like Plants vs. Zombies in favor of more thoughtful consideration of the options, as there is never just one right answer. Turns out my addition skills are rustier than I'd like! After playing a few levels, I called developer Jenna Hoffstein to ask how she came up with her methodology and what shortcomings in traditional educational games The Counting Kingdom avoids.

Links mentioned in this episode:

IndieSider pairs Let's Plays of indie games with developer interviews. New episodes air every other Wednesday and can be found in video format on YouTube or as audio in iTunes.

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IndieSider #4: Road Not Taken by Spry Fox

Posted in IndieSider by on Aug 6th, 2014 12:00 PM

Road Not Taken by Spry Fox is a turn-based roguelike puzzler for PC, Mac, Sony PlayStation 4, and Vita. As a freelance ranger, you are charged with rescuing children from a dark winter woods. Rearrange the contents of each room to group like items, opening the path deeper into the forest. Or combine different items to craft new equipment necessary to keep your ranger alive.

Road Not Taken starts off easy, but its 16 levels quickly ramp up in difficulty. It wasn't long before I found myself cornered by forest spirits, lacking the stamina and mobility to move trees or fires out of the way. I interviewed game designer Pat Kemp of Spry Fox to ask not only for some advice, but what how this game was inspired by the Robert Frost poem, why it splits its time between forest puzzler and village simulator, and how its checkpoint system builds on the legacy of Rogue.

Download Road Not Taken for PC or Mac from Steam.

IndieSider pairs Let's Plays of indie games with developer interviews. New episodes air every other Wednesday and can be found in video format on YouTube or as audio in iTunes.

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IndieSider #3: The Nightmare Cooperative by Lucky Frame

Posted in IndieSider by on Jul 30th, 2014 12:00 PM

The Nightmare Cooperative is a roguelike — a turn-based dungeon crawler featuring procedurally generated levels and permadeath. But here's the catch: your party, composed of fighters, priests, miners, and astral walkers, must move collectively. When one goes north, they all go north; when one attacks, so do they all. Can you keep your party members alive through all four worlds?

Having grown up playing the original Rogue on the Apple II, I was instantly attracted to this game's thoughtful action, graphics reminiscent of SSI's Gold Box role-playing games, and dry sense of humor. After finally beating the final world, I interviewed Yann Seznec, founder of Lucky Frame, about The Nightmare Cooperative's influences, strategies, and future iterations in the following video.

Download The Nightmare Cooperative for PC, Mac, and Linux from Steam or Humble Bundle.

Other resources mentioned in this episode:

IndieSider pairs Let's Plays of indie games with developer interviews. New episodes air every other Wednesday and can be found in video format on YouTube or as audio in iTunes.

Play

IndieSider #2: Breakers Yard by Dan Dujnic of Protophant

Posted in IndieSider by on Jul 16th, 2014 12:00 PM

Welcome to IndieSider, where I pair a Let's Play of an indie game with an interview with the game's developer. New episodes of IndieSider air every other Wednesday and can be found in video format on YouTube or as audio in iTunes.

This week's show stars Breakers Yard, a web-based twin-stick shooter that features procedurally generated levels and weapon stacking. I first encountered this game and its developer, Dan Dujnic of Protophant, when I attended the Boston Games Forum's June Playtest Party. I had the high score until someone dethroned me. Incensed by my defeat, I ordered an Xbox 360 wireless controller adapter for my Mac so I could play the game at home. Watch me vie to break my high score, followed by an interview with Dujnic about being inspired by Smash TV and Geometry Wars, the value of keeping a development log, his take on Steam's Early Access games, and more.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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IndieSider #1: Gone by Logan Harrington

Posted in IndieSider by on Jul 2nd, 2014 12:00 PM

Welcome to IndieSider, where I pair a Let's Play of an indie game with an interview with the game's developer. New episodes of IndieSider air every other Wednesday and can be found in video format YouTube or as audio in iTunes.

In today's show, I play Gone, a mental illness simulator that represents what it's like to live with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This empathy game, a free download for Mac, Windows, and Linux, raises many questions: How did these disorders get chosen? What research went into the metaphors used to represent them? Who is the game's audience? Developer Logan Harrington walks us through the decisions and processes behind this indie game.

A video of this Let's Play and interview is embedded below; for the interview-only audio edition, please click the links below the video, or subscribe in iTunes.

Let's Play Shovel Knight

Posted in Let's Play by on Jun 26th, 2014 11:31 AM

I've been awaiting Shovel Knight from Yacht Club Games ever since I backed their Kickstarter more than a year ago. It's a platformer inspired by all the best NES games—Mega Man, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. 3, and more—developed by a team that includes alumni from WayForward, who previously revived DuckTales and Double Dragon. The soundtrack is by Jake Kaufman, who rocks chiptune music like nobody's business. With all this talent and pedigree, Shovel Knight was sure to be a hit game, even being touted in Nintendo's E3 trailers.

Sure enough, the game released today for Wii U, 3DS, Mac, PC, and Linux, and it's excellent. Thanks to an advance review copy for Wii U, I have the first ten levels already posted to YouTube. The playlist is embedded below and will be automatically updated as more videos are added.

Happy Father's Day!

Posted in News by on Jun 15th, 2014 11:28 AM

When I think back to my childhood, there are two things I don't remember ever not having: an Apple II, and video games. From computer games like Castle Wolfenstein and Choplifter to Atari 2600 classics such as Space Invaders and Adventure, I've always been gaming.

Having such entertainment opportunities is typical in the modern household — but thirty years ago? It was almost unheard of. Who decided I should grow up to be a gamer?

The answer is my dad — and to commemorate Father's Day, I found out what makes him the family's original gamer.

I'm so grateful my father gave me this opportunity to interview him. The subject matter may not be so serious, but it answered some questions I'd always had, like: how did we end up with a pinball table in the basement? (It was Gottlieb's Spirit of 76, if you were wondering.) Why don't you game much anymore? These questions were always in the back of my mind but never important enough to ask.

When I asked Dad if he had any specific memories of me growing up playing games, I thought he might remember how I excitedly relayed to him every plot point of the original Final Fantasy, one of my first RPGs, as I encountered them. Or how he accompanied me to the Nintendo World Championships in 1990, where I placed second for my state and age group. Instead he abstracted out the concepts of what made me unique in a family of gamers. I could never dominate an arcade machine like my brother Dave could with Q*bert and Pac-Man, but it's true that I really appreciated the context and minutia of these imaginative worlds, which I don't think I ever consciously was aware of until my dad said it on camera.

I suspect Dave is more like my father than I am in that regard. My father has always played games obsessively, fixating on a single game for years or decades before moving on. I can remember him playing only Snake Byte, Pac-Man, Centipede, Tetris, Dr. Mario, and Tetris Attack. I used Creative Commons videos or Virtual Apple II to capture demos of these games to include in the video.

So thank you, Dad, for this opportunity to remember that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Happy Father's Day!

Tech specs: this video was shot with a Canon EOS Rebel T2i DSLR and RØDE VideoMic mounted on a Manfrotto MA7301YB 7301YB tripod. The scene was lit with two Bescor LED-500K lights, and the footage was edited in Final Cut Pro X.

Let's Play NES Remix & NES Remix 2

Posted in Let's Play by on May 28th, 2014 10:42 AM

NES Remix arrived without fanfare in the Wii U's eShop on December 18, 2013, with a sequel quickly arriving on April 25. Each compilation features more than a dozen first-party 8-bit Nintendo games, sliced up into smaller challenges that last anywhere from two seconds to two minutes. Finish these excerpts from the original games, and you're treated to remixes that add new gameplay mechanics or which cross characters from one game with the engine of another. Play Donkey Kong as Link from The Legend of Zelda, or traipse around the Mushroom Kingdom as Metroid's Samus Aran! The mashups aren't quite as extensive as Super Mario Bros. Crossover and is more likely designed as a sales pitch for the individual games, all of which are for sale in the eShop. But for $15, each NES Remix collection provide about six hours of great gameplay and nostalgia.

NES Remix 2

How meta.


Each level grades your performance (essentially speed runs) on one to three stars, with rainbow stars for an especially swift completions. I earned three stars on every level in my Let's Play of NES Remix:

And then again in my Let's Play of NES Remix 2

There are three levels not featured in my NES Remix 2 series. A 22nd bonus stage, earned by getting 504 rainbow stars, is non-interactive, showing the ending of Super Mario Bros. 2, Dr. Mario, and Super Mario Bros. 3. There are also two additional modes I didn't demonstrate. Super Luigi Bros. is the original Super Mario Bros., except mirrored and played as Luigi instead of Mario. And Championship Mode is modeled after the 1990 Nintendo World Championships, tasking players with collecting 50 coins in Super Mario Bros. and 25 coins in Super Mario Bros. 3 before playing Dr. Mario.

Could Super NES Remix or Game Boy Remix be on the horizon?

Mountain Goats and Kaki King

Posted in News by on May 25th, 2014 12:41 PM

Fourteen years ago, I was at a resort in Australia when the most amazing instrumental piece came over the lobby speakers. I thought it too odd to ask the concierge what the song was, and I've always regretted that decision, as now I'll never know.

Since then, I've not been shy about asking store clerks unexpected questions. That includes a recent visit to Bourbon Coffee in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in which I encountered an unusual tune. The underlying jazz piano sounded like Vince Guaraldi, who's best known for the soundtrack to the Peanuts animated specials — but the lyrics, being more spoken than sung, were reminiscent of Willie Nelson. I asked the barista what we were listening to. She grabbed her co-worker's iPod Shuffle and slowly read the scrolling title: "Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle", by the the Mountain Goats and Kaki King, from their Black Pear Tree EP. It tells the perspective of Toad the Mushroom Retainer waiting for rescue in the original Super Mario Bros.

I immediately took to the song and had no trouble finding an MP3 to download from Stereogum. But, as a believer in supporting artists and respecting copyright, I prefer to purchase my music legitimately whenever possible. Unfortunately, no music vendor I investigated — iTunes, Amazon, CD Baby — listed this particular song. I left a comment on the above video asking for help and guidance.

Good samaritan Zoot Sax went out of his way to send me an email, which I quote here with his permission: "Unfortunately, the EP was only released on limited vinyl, so it is not easily obtained. I found one for sale on this website, secondhand."

My experience is that musicians who purposely make their songs difficult to purchase are doing so for collectors' benefits, giving them a rare, physical product to obtain and cherish, while expecting fans themselves to make the songs available in more accessible formats. I don't pretend to know the intention of either the Mountain Goats or Kaki King, but I do dig listening to this song, even if my turntable is on the fritz.

Thanks for the insight, Zoot Sax!

Sex, Sexy & Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in Gaming

Posted in News by on Apr 29th, 2014 12:25 PM

At this month's PAX East, I had the honor of being joined on stage by four industry veterans to discuss the issue of gender quality in the gaming industry: how women are represented in games, how the community behaves toward gamer girls, and how the industry treats its female colleagues. "Sex, Sexy & Sexism: Fixing Gender Inequality in Gaming" was held Sunday morning, which I expected would mean low attendance, with many PAX goers sleeping in from the Saturday night concerts and parties, or else leaving Boston early. None of us expected that we would instead fill the Dragonfly Theatre to capacity with over five hundred attendees.

Samus Aran dimensions

The change in Metroid's Samus Aran is an example of how the industry sometimes portrays women.


The topic was so large that an hour of discourse left little time for questions from the audience. But we monitored the running commentary throughout the hour using the Twitter hashtag #paxfeminism. Highlights from that stream, as well as two videos of the panel, are included in a Storify (embedded after the jump).

The panelists represented several different areas of the industry and came to me through a variety of connections. Susan Arendt is the managing editor of Joystiq.com and was on a panel I moderated at PAX East 2013. As a public figure in the gaming industry, she is exposed to far too much harassment but has never shied from speaking her mind. Arendt was on a related panel the day before, "Why it's awesome being a female in the gaming industry".

Brianna Wu is head of development at Giant Spacekat, a Boston-based indie studio; we met at a Can't Stop the Serenity movie outing I organized last summer. I realized she was more than just a Browncoat when I read her article, "Badass Girls Need Not Apply", and its
follow-up
.

Duane deFour is an activist in violence prevention and response; not only does he blog about gender in video games, but we have day jobs together at MIT Medical.

Finally, Tifa Robles is the founder of the Lady Planeswalker Society, an organization for women to learn and play Magic: The Gathering. She came recommended to me through the GaymerX2 convention, whose Kickstarter I backed, and I got to attend her related panel, Creating Diversity Playgroups.

paxfeminism Twitter handles

Reach out to us, during or after the panel!


And then there was me. As the only white male on the panel, I've experienced none of the harassment the other panelists have; to that end, I felt at best unqualified, at worst hypocritical in addressing this matter. But the diverse makeup of the speakers was well-received by the audience, underscoring that harassment and exclusion is an issue men and women need to work together to solve.

Given that positive reception, I asked a colleague if I have the experience or education to consider myself a feminist. She put it simply: "If you believe that women are men's equals, then congrats, you are a feminist." But she cautioned: "Feminism is something that's done daily, not just once."

The dialogue on feminism in gaming didn't start at PAX East, and it won't end there, either. But I hope to continue doing my part to further the discussion, with help from brave and outspoken individuals such as those on the panel and in the audience.

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PAX East 2014 photos & cosplay

Posted in News by on Apr 14th, 2014 9:37 PM

It's the first day after PAX East 2014, and I'm still in recovery mode. Joining 80,000 gamers in a celebration of games, cosplay, tournaments, panels, exhibits, and contests across cutting-edge and retro desktops, tablets, consoles, handhelds, and coin-ops is more fun than anyone has a right to enjoy.

As always, I spent less time playing games than I did listening to people talk about them, enjoying several of the panels on the schedule. Despite the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center's size, panels still filled to capacity, requiring queuing in line anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours in advance. My own panel on feminism in gaming had an amazing turnout; more on that in a later blog post.

Whether you were conferencing or competing, cosplayers exhibited their amazing costumes throughout the weekend. Lucca Ashtear from Chrono Trigger won the S2 Games cosplay contest promoting their Strife MOBA. Meanwhile, BioWare had their own Mass Effect cosplay catwalk, at which Emma Bell as Aria T'Loak the Asari absolutely blew me away with an outfit that took five hours to put on. Other awesome cosplay spotted on the show floor included Fix-It Felix Jr. and Wreck-It Ralph; TMNT's April O'Neil; King Hippo from Mike Tyson's Punch Out; Mega Man; Earthworm Jim; Street Fighter's Cammy; Kid Icarus; GLaDOS; Zelda's Twilight Princess, Midna; and Ruby from Rooster Teeth's RWBY.

Here are some photos capturing the weekend. If you missed PAX East, you can look forward to PAX Prime in Seattle, Aug 30–Sep 2; PAX Australia in Melbourne, Oct 31–Nov 2; or — new this year — PAX South in San Antonio, Jan 23–25.

PAX East 2014

Photos from the fifth annual Penny Arcade Expo East, held at the BCEC in Boston, Apr 11-13, 2014.

45 Photos

PAX East 2014 Cosplay

Cosplayers, or gamers dressed in costume, at the fourth annual Penny Arcade Expo East, held at the BCEC in Boston, Apr 11-13, 2014.

32 Photos