Four Innovations I love in Gaming

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A lot of times, particularly where technology is concerned, we’re so focused on the future that we forget to enjoy the present. With ridiculously capable laptops, tablets, and smartphones at our disposal, many are looking ahead with hope to Iron Man-style hologram displays. With powerful cars setting new standards for safety and efficiency, we’re seeing advertisements for driverless vehicles. And in gaming, many seem to be turning their focus toward wearable, virtual reality options that will no doubt be widely available in a matter of years—not decades.

That’s all well and good, but as a bit of a gaming nut, I like to focus more on the present and what I can play today. Furthermore, there have been some pretty great innovations—some small, others large—throughout the gaming industry in the past few years. Here are a few I’ve enjoyed in particular.

The Spread Of Open World

Open world gaming is nothing new, but the concept has exploded in popularity over the past couple of years. A decade or two ago, a video game employing an open world format felt unique and special. For example, pretty much the only thing that made Skyrim remarkable (in my opinion) was the sheer size of its world. Well, now it’s just about the standard for action and adventure games. Look through this list of the 12 best open world games, and you’ll find a lot of releases from the past couple of years, such as Far Cry 3 and Grand Theft Auto V. To some extent, the concept has even extended to mobile platforms, with Minecraft Pocket Edition now offering a limitless world creative option!

Narrative Gaming

Narrative gaming is nothing new on the console level, other than that it’s gotten better. Not long ago, it was a common complaint among gamers when a game attempted to be too cinematic in nature, but that’s because it was usually done via interspersed, non-playable graphic clips used to move the story along. This is still a problem in some titles, but generally speaking most now have natural, free-flowing narratives that make them more interesting. Even in sports games, “My Player” and “My Career” modes let you play out the story of an athlete or franchise. The trend toward sharper narratives is also particularly prevalent in app gaming, where indie developers like Simogo focus as much on story as action. In my view, this is a positive trend.

Live Dealing & Interaction

This is a trend that exists primarily in the casino gaming industry. Given that this industry now occupies a significant portion of the video game business as a whole, it still feels noteworthy. Live interaction is nothing new. The best online casino sites allow players to face live competition, and even some of the popular poker and blackjack apps, most of which operate with play money, allow for live online games. But one fascinating trend that I first noticed here is the idea of using an actual video feed of a live dealer in roulette and card games. Naturally, this concept makes the games feel a great deal more realistic. While there’s not an obvious parallel in non-casino gaming, the implications of using a live feed in gaming are interesting. One can imagine in-game video chats with other players, Google Maps feeds of real geographical areas, etc. helping to make other games more realistic.

Retro Appreciation

And finally there’s this, my single favorite trend in modern gaming. As mentioned, we have a tendency to always look forward when it comes to technology. But thanks in large part to new-ish formats of gaming, such as mobile app stores and console download stores, there seems to be a broad recognition of retro games going on. In part, we see it through the continuation of old, beloved franchises, with the most relevant example being the coming Street Fighter V PS4 game from Capcom. But mostly, the retro appreciation is seen in apps and downloads. On modern consoles, players have access to huge libraries of old games, either for free or for just a few dollars. In app stores, we can play with all kinds of old characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog, the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat fighters, and so on. According to ZDNet, we may even soon have a Mario game or two available on iPhones! This is a trend any serious gamer can get behind.

The Rise of Mobile Games

The rise of mobile gaming is of interest to many people, both technology lovers and historians. In the last 20 years mobile gaming has really taken off, especially gaming on tablets. Whether it be Angry Birds or poker, the majority of us have played on a mobile device. This info-graphic from www.jackpotcity.co.uk details the rise in mobile gaming in geeky fashion. It’s impossible to say for certain what the future of mobile gaming holds, but from the looks of it, it’s going to be exciting. Click the image to see the entire info graphic.

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Ramp Champ’s Ticket to Ride

Back when Ramp Champ was released for the iPhone in August of 2009, it was one of only a handful of boardwalk style games in the App Store. Although it had taken much longer to produce than we had initially thought, all of us at the Iconfactory and DS Media Labs were proud of the effort. From its pixel-perfect artwork, and the fantastic original soundtrack to the design of Ramp Champ’s in-app purchases, every part was crafted with love. I wrote back then that the game was a huge risk for us as developers, but no matter what happened, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. All of us had tons of fun creating the game and the effort was hugely rewarding. Fans loved the rich graphics and cleverly designed puzzles that brought back memories of arcades and boardwalks long gone.

Shortly after Ramp Champ’s release, Skee-Ball by Freeverse hit the App Store and quickly stole Ramp Champ’s momentum. Skee-Ball was limited in its game play and far less graphically rich than Ramp Champ, but thanks to its straight-forward approach and realistic 3D physics, it became a huge hit. With Skee-Ball’s success, dreams of hitting the top 25 of the App Store quickly faded and although the game held its own, it never rose to the level that we had hoped it would. We produced several new add-on ramp packs for the game, but both the Iconfactory’s and DS’s resources were limited and we each turned our attention to other projects.

With the advent of the iPhone 4′s retina display 4 in June of 2010, Ramp Champ fans clamored for an updated version of the game with new high-resoultion graphics. The problem was that most of the content for the game was produced using raster (bit-mapped) graphics, not scaleable vectors and re-creating the entire game for retina proved cost prohibitive. For a while there was talk of a sequel that would be designed around all new vector graphics, and an internal prototype was even built, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Sometimes it’s difficult for small companies to devote time and money to a project when success is far from assured and such was the case with Ramp Champ. Its future seemed bleak indeed.

Then near the end of 2011, Ben Stahlhood and I started talking about DS Media Labs taking the reins of our favorite gaming son. DS had gone through some restructuring and was hiring fresh new talent to position themselves well for 2012. It’s always tough handing one of your most treasured creations to another to foster, but with Ramp Champ the move made sense. DS had been a fantastic partner in the game’s creation and we knew that if anyone was going to give Ramp Champ a bright future it would be them. With our development efforts focused on xScope, Twitterrific and the upcoming Astronut for iPad, we finalized the arrangement and I’m pleased with the result. I don’t know what’s in store for Ramp Champ any more than you do, but DS’s recent press release promises at least updated retina graphics, and I’m confident there will be much more to come after that.

All of us at the Iconfactory wish Ben and the gang at DS Media Labs all the best in their success. We look forward to rolling balls, knocking down those damn ducks and collecting tickets for even bigger and better prizes when Ramp Champ ultimately gets the update it so badly deserves. Good luck gang!

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For Wii, Fun Trumps Flash

Video games are supposed to be fun. Any game’s primary purpose is to engage and entertain in ways that are new, exciting and challenging. Which is why early calls from critics and fan boys alike that the Nintendo Wii console was just a passing “fad” were out of their depth. The argument went that since the Wii didn’t have the horsepower, graphics or true HD support that the XBOX 360 or Playstation 3 had, it was doomed to failure.

In September of 2007, the Nintendo Wii surpassed sales of both its rivals and has never looked back. This year the Wii weathered its second holiday season with flying colors. According to VG Chartz the Wii sold an incredible 1.7 million units the week before Christmas. By comparison, Microsoft’s XBOX 360 sold 535,806 units and SONY’s struggling PlayStation 3 sold a mere 239,576. VG states that when December is done, Nintendo will have sold more than 3 million Wii’s for the month, an astounding number especially considering the current economy.

It is certainly true that most fads enter the market in a blaze of glory and then promptly burn themselves out. However, they also rarely have direct competition from similar products. Fans never had to consider “My Pet Log” when running out to the store to own their first “Pet Rock“. Fads are unique and unpredictable and by their very nature, a flash in the pan. From the very beginning, the Nintendo Wii was designed to be the very opposite of a fad.

From the Wii’s conception, Nintendo’s game designer Shigeru Miyamoto said the console was not about graphics or frame rates, but user interaction. He wanted to make a new way for players of all ages to interface with video games, and he succeeded. Unlike the XBOX or PS3, the Wii was the first video game platform that appealed to adults in large numbers. The Wii has become hugely successful in retirement homes where seniors play endless hours of Wii Bowling and even tone their aging muscles with Wii Fit. Hard core gamers can’t stand this aspect of the Wii. PS3 and XBOX fan boys argue that any console granny plays isn’t a “real” system, and is only geared for kids and old people. Somehow they say this with a straight face while SONY & Microsoft blatantly copy the parts of the Wii that people love like motion sensors and customizable player avatars.

Will the Nintendo Wii manage to stay off the competition for yet another Christmas? If I was a betting guy, my money would definitely be on Miyamoto and not Ballmer. That being said, eventually the Wii’s unique game play will lose its novelty and the console’s sales will slow. But rest assured, Nintendo has plans for the Wii’s successor that takes all the best parts and improves the rest. Nintendo didn’t become the giant of the video game world it is today by following others, Miyamoto and company had the vision to lead. They skillfully knew what the rest of the industry is only now figuring out – frame rates and flop cycles will only get you so far, but fun lasts forever.

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Time Keeps On Slippin’

Inspired by a recent tweet from my friend Craig, I’ve sat down and thought about the various forms of media / technology transitions that I’ve personally taken part in. This list is amplified by the fact that my 39th birthday is coming up and for some reason, I’m keenly aware of my age.

How many of these evolutions have you experienced? Do you have others you could add to the list? If so, I encourage you to post them in the comments section. Are these changes painful reminders or fond remembrances? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

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vinyl > 8-track > cassette > CD > MP3

Walkie talkies > rotary > touch tone > cordless > cell

Finger paint > crayon > Lite-Brite > Etch-A-Sketch > Magna Doodle > WACOM

8″ floppy > 5 1/4″ > 3 1/2″ > SyQuest > Bernoulli > ZIP > removable

Apple IIe > IIgs > IIvx > Performa 6400 > Powermac G3 > PM G4> Dual PPC G5

Mattel Football > Merlin > Quiz Wiz > Game Boy > Nintendo DS > iPhone

Laserdisc > VHS > DVD > Blu-ray > Bit Torrent

Coca-Cola > “New” Coke > Coca-Cola Classic > Coke 2 > Coca-Cola Classic > Coke Zero > Coca-Cola Classic

Rubylith > Letraset > Pagemaker > QuarkXPress > InDesign

Adventure > Ultima > Bard’s Tale > Moria > Diablo II > World of Warcraft

Dewey Decimal > microfiche > Encyclopedia Britannica > Wikipedia

Odyssey > Atari 2600 > Intellivision > Nintendo ES > SEGA Genesis > Super Nintendo > Playstation > N64 > Game Cube > Wii

serial > SCSI > USB > Firewire > USB2 > WiFi

Play-Doh > Tinkertoys > Lincoln Logs > Erector Set > LEGOS