Who shot Kinect? … How ‘The Gunstringer’ went awry

‘The Gunstringer’ infuriates, dissapoints and charms all at the same time. A difficult feat to achieve.

As the poster boy for the only valid pure Kinect mature experience, ‘The Gunstringer’ is the mature breakout hit on the platform that wasn’t.  The fundamental issue for Twisted Pixel was outside of their control, Kinect. Kinect artificially restricts the freedom given to game designers by a control pad. Microsoft would claim this as an oxymoron, as freedom was a central pillar of the Kinect experience.

Ironically, giving freedom to gamers has tied the hands of game designers.

The best Kinect games take gesture based input, or control schemes based upon familiar actions. Finesse and accuracy aren’t fundamental to Kinect (yet); and as such a game based upon aiming and shooting was always going to struggle. Even so, in ‘The Gunstringer’  the reticule is astonishingly forgiving, a little like playing CoD with a bazooka where every enemy is the size of a barn. The most imprecise gesture summons a rewarding lock on. The main problem? It feels hollow and unrewarding. Leaning  from cover is a flick of the left wrist. Is this immersion? Nah. The basics of this game would have improved a thousandfold on a controller. Twisted Pixel nailed the 2D platformer (Ms Splosion Man) with precise, infuriating level design that was punative and rewarding all at once. At no point do you ever feel frustrated by the controller input, just your ability. At every point ‘The Gunstringer’ feels like shadow boxing the Stay-Puft man. However, it’s nowhere near as amazing as that sounds.

‘The Gunstringer’ shines in terms of characterisation;  the premise of  a demented marionette hellbent on revenge is impossible to resist. Sadly, the gameworld is inconsistent. In a world based on the bizarre, its still a mish mash with some levels looking like they were ripped straight out of Little Big Planet, some created from a splash of Monty Python, and then within the game universe itself;  a lack of internal consistency, that manifests in oversized kitchen cutlery and water made from hand-sewn blankets. Its not odd or eclectic … it just feels half baked. Breaking the fourth wall is, simultaneously, the games greatest achievement and folly.

The game feels as though its been stretched to justify a packaged release. Originally slated as an XBLA title the game morphed into a packaged title, its painfully apparent in sections such as a steamboat ride where only the left hand is utilised, or the endless waves of paper enemies who explode into confetti in a dark cardboard environment. The latter feeling so sparse on content that it felt like the scenery would fall over at any moment to reveal the developers sniggering in the background drinking tea. Publisher pressure feels like it influenced the game design for the worse. The reason is simple, ‘mainstream’ Kinect games don’t buy XBLA titles, to broaden the games reach it had to be on a disc. This is incongruous as all of Twisted Pixel’s previous titles had been digital only.

As a digital developer at the vanguard, a packaged release felt like betrayal.

‘The Gunstringer’ feels like the kernel of the right game, botched and rerubbbed then released on the wrong platform for the wrong motives. And that’s a real shame.

Concept: Are Digital Storefronts A Barrier To Entry?

Game Over for Digital Stores?

In a recent opinion piece Graham McAllister of Vertical Slice identified a fundamental flaw in the digital revolution. The customer can’t get to the content.

The birth of iTunes, immediately empowered the discovery journey, it launched with a simple and ubiquitous tool at the time. Search. As a PC based client it also had another useful ally. A keyboard. This melded a familiar mechanic with the perfect tool for the job. Searching on iTunes unlocked a world of music a click away. All of the tribulations of the early P2P days wiped out. If you wanted to buy ‘Africa’ by Toto you were seconds away. in 2011, if you’re a consumer looking for Galaga Legions DX, you could be traversing the store, driven by genre clues or an A-Z listing on Xbox LIVE, or tortuously using the search function on PSN. It’s laborious. McAllister is damning and correct in his piece.

He points to a 44 minute transaction. 20 minutes to browse and 24 minutes to purchase. This was a first timer, confused by a counterintuitive platform, with minimal guidance. McAllister extrapolates this to an endemic problem. In some respects he’s right, but he also doesn’t allow for the fact that humans learn over time. Agreed the purchase funnel is far from smooth, but regular transactors overcome this, week in week out. To that point I agree with McAllister, purchase intent should never be fulfilled by overcoming adversity. There is a problem.

McAllister turns to PSN and identifies issues with core mechanics on the platform. Agreed, PSN has challenges to overcome. Neither XBL or PSN are perfect, but McAllister’s comparison to traditional retail, is a fundamentally misleading comparison. The content of XBLA, PSN and Steam overlaps and augments physical goods, it also replaces them. Xbox LIVE Indie Games (as McAllister instructs) don’t exist in retail, neither do most of the XBL and PSN ‘starpowered’ games. The failure of these titles in packaged form, alludes to differing audiences. There’s also a core concept, in the future there will be no need to visit the stores, its likely they wont be there. The traditional retail experience of 2011 is a throwback thirty years, its tired, broken and on the way out.

Like an explosion of Venn Diagrams. It all points back to Chris Anderson. The man who proved ‘niche’ is a viable digital model.

In essence its misguided to think that Grandma and Little Johnny can’t adopt new ideas, but they certainly need help, McAllister and Vertical Slice are clearly perfectly suited to smooth the path. A ready reference to iOS and it frictionless delivery model, infers that the revolution will be digitized (with ease) but ignores DRM, Continual amends to T&Cs, the rampant piracy and jailbreaking on iOS, and that fact that the App Store is drowning in a mire of content reminiscent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The App Store is as much gristle as ‘secret sauce’

Widespread adoption of digital games may have a glass ceiling (but the ‘all digital’ ecosystem of the App Store would refute that claim), and it might be that there is a bifurcated future, of packaged for one audience and digital for the rest. Gifting, Second Hand and Budget ranges might be the things that keep physical goods alive, and as those falter and wither its imperative that Digital Storefronts have adopted the lessons McAllister points out.

Gatling Gears (XBLA, PSN, PC download)

The formula for an optimal XBLA title  keeps changing. In the early days loveless ports of classic retro and previous gen titles flooded the platform surrounded by puzzle clones and the occasional gem. Geometry Wars:Retro Evolved was undoubtedly the absolute star of the early days of XBLA on 360. It ushered in a new era of high def twin stick shooters on console. Since then XBLA and PSN have been awash with twin stick shooters. Apart from shmups, card games and side scrolling shooters they are probably the most over saturated genre. Why are they so prevalent? They are well suited to the dual stick input,  easily contained in scope (with scant or little narrative often needed) and they also fall into the familiar retro/futro groove that seems to blight XBLA. Standardised concepts and control schemes can always be challenged however.

Gatling Gears ticks all the boxes but manages to inject a familiar formula with personality. The universe of Mistbound is awash with moustaches, cutesy mechs and preposterous tales of Good vs. Evil. Inspired like every Steampunk universe it’s a maelstrom of early industrialisation amplified to the improbable. In the case of Mistbound it works creating a sumptuous world, held together with rivets, steam power and ammo. The first foray into Mistworld had been the turn based strategy game Greed Corp. The Mistworld universe deliberately spans game genres. W!/Vanguard have conceptualised the universe with flair and are unrolling it with imagination.

Gatling Gears succeeds as it melds a twin stick shooter and shmup-lite together with a polish this is still (all too sadly) uncommon in the download space. Is it the best looking download game? No, but it is beautifully realised with mist, depth of field and incidental details. Gatling Gears, suffers from a blight common to the Twin Stick Shooter genre, namely that gameplay is inherently repetitive, but the game world engages with subtlety and imaginatively realised bosses. The shmup component comes from the walls of ammo, Vanguard have been shrewd to slow the bullets, thereby making the game much more approachable. Gatling Gears is a world away from Bangai-O HD (which quite frankly is batshit crazy). hardcore shmup reviewers are unfairly treating the game and dragging down the metacritic, by judging the book by a different cover.

In short, Gatling Gears is an imaginative addition to the twin stick shooter canon delivered with polish and flair. Vanguard have delivered.

Does File Size Limit Creativity?

Xbox Live Arcade in 2004

The current file size limit for XBLA is 2GB. Since the service started on December 3, 2004 the file size has been slowly creeping up. Previously the Xbox Live Arcade file size capped titles at 50 MB to accommodate consumers who purchased the hard drive-less Xbox 360 Core SKU (those consumers had to use one of Microsoft’s memory cards). As consumers migrate to larger and larger hard drives (a 250GB Xbox 360 slim retails for £159.99 in the UK), the file size restriction of 2004 are starting to become increasingly irrelevant. But its clear these users are the whales as the Kinect bundle for 360 only comes equipped with 4GB of storage. Having said, this represents a huge leap forward from the fact that 360s we retailed as an arcade bundle with no hard drive at launch.

Storage is ubiquitous, accepted and dropping in price each year. Yet again, Moore’s Law flexes its influence.

So if, conceptually storage represents no issue for the consumer and home users are frequently leaping to 2 terabytes and beyond (2TB now retails for as little as £60), there is no real issue about keeping XBLA title throttled at 2GB. The issue is that Xbox currently only supports a maximum hard drive of 250GB, whilst PS3 has supported 500GB hard drives since 2010. The 360 Elite launched with 120 GB.

These artificial restrictions to supported storage capability are becoming increasingly redundant as the migration to the cloud becomes inevitable. Cloud storage is not the silver bullet for games consoles, as the ability to stream the game world from a server-based source could dictate the experience. The solution would be to ensure that local storage and broadband speed compensated for any degradation in game experience. Onlive and Gaikai overcome this issue by pushing back video feeds delivered from remote servers. Onlive is dependent on local area connections. The issue with Onlive is can it deliver an experience comparable to disc or local storage? .

All of these points are symptomatic of growing pains in an industry destined for the cloud. Physical manufacture is irrelevant, storage is disposable, and the primary issues surround the continuing acceptance of the consumer to accept ownership that they cannot touch, or in the case of the cloud, cannot even see as a retained file size.

In the case of XBLA and PSN file size has been of little consequence to the innovation and development on the platform delivering some of the most compelling game experiences of the last decade. The questions now remain about the role of pricing, physical retail, customers perception and delivery speed.

Around the wretched rock the ragged Raskull ran

From the outside looking in you could be mistaken for thinking Raskulls is fun. The cutesy characters and vibrant art style infer a boisterous world of frivolous joy destined to put a smile on your face. Not so. It’s a miserly and punitive experience that seems at odds with itself. As a collection of mini-games it lacks depth, primarily built around speed runs and collection challenges, that more often than not end in defeat.

Am I the only person who thought this was a platform game? It’s a racing game not a million miles away from The Club, that’s been bolted to a version of Tetris with vertical swimming sections. It delivers a joyless experience.

I want to like it but I can’t. It doesn’t give me anything, completing a challenge delivers no reward and the banal jokes aren’t funny. Halfbrick created Raskulls with XBLA in mind, for an audience that isn’t there and doesn’t get the joke. Halfbrick also delivered Fruit Ninja to the iOS platforms which also had an odd dure tone. Reasonless chopping fruit interspersed with random exploding bombs. Fun for about 20 seconds but stunning popular on the App Store. Does that define the iOS platform game experience? … ‘Nasty, Brutish and Short’ or a truncated psychadelic Cooking Mama for the MTV generation with the attention span of a gnat.

Halfbrick exhibit talent and imagination I only wish their games weren’t like the unwrapped candy at Halloween that your parents told you never to eat.

Raskulls is available on XBLA now.

Hydro Thunder Hurricane: Loud, Brash and Genius

Every digital game developer and publisher should sit down, play Hydro Thunder Hurricane and ask themselves, why didn’t we do this?

The game’s gestation is an interesting one as developer Vector Unit was originally developing the game as an original IP called ‘Barracuda’, after trawling the game through the publisher waters it was Microsoft Games Studios (MGS) who expressed keen interest. An A&R flashpoint was allied to a fortuitous moment in the ongoing collapse of Midway, and MGS bought the rights and bolted it to the game. The game was built by seven people and took fourteen months from prototyping to release candidate build. The game isn’t a port and was built from the ground up using proprietary tools and third-party middleware.

  • So is Hydro Thunder Hurricane a success as it represents an opportunistic and timely reboot of a midrange franchise, on a platform with a hazy memory and a willingness to dip into its collective pocket for the right proposition?
  • Did Vector Unit play the publishing system to quickly bring a product to market in a hugely crowded and competitive space and ended up with a prime slot in the premier marketing promotion that XBLA has to offer (Summer Of Arcade) beating top-tier publishers to the punch?
  • Or is it the fact that Hydro Thunder Hurricane unequivocally delivers a visceral, screaming thrill ride of the a game with huge buzzing flys, hokey Norse mythological stylings and huge and entirely unnecessary monsters leaping from whirlpools for no apparent reason?

All of the above.

The guile, speed and downright bloody cheek of Hydro Thunder Hurricane is to be cherished, and I can’t wait to see what Vector Unit do next. You can find Hydro Thunder Hurricane on XBLA now. Buy It.

www.vectorunit.com