[Review] Bejeweled Blitz Exits Beta; Gets a Makeover

This article was originally published for Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video game blog, on October 8, 2009. I have attempted to recreate the article here, complete with images (when possible).

PopCap Games debuted the brand new version of Bejeweled Blitz Tuesday, the popular one-minute version of their puzzle game involving matching gems in lines. The game, finally out of its beta status, more closely resembles the full Bejeweled 2 game with its fantasy-world settings and echoing sound effects. The makeover also introduces some new game elements, including two new gem types, making for more exciting gameplay.

The new version of Bejeweled Blitz keeps all the glitz and shine of the beta and the full version of the game, but makes it easier to score high even if your eye-mouse coordination isn’t as blazing fast as you’d like.

The goal of the game remains the same: match three or more gems of the same color and shape to destroy them. The faster you go and the more gems you match, the higher your score. But gems created from four of the same color, formerly called Power Gems, have been renamed Flame Gems, and take out matching gems in their radius while also activating other Flame Gems for a massive explosion.

If you match five gems in an “L” or a “T” shape, you’ll create the brand-new Star Gem, which wipes one whole column and row from the board. You can still create Hypercubes, which wipe out all gems of a particular color, but they look a little different from their nebulous glowing counterparts of the Beta game.

Multiplier Gems still remain, but a brand new feature is the “Last Hurrah,” which allows you to get a few thousand more points in within the very last second of the game. Instead of your near-matches and Multiplier Games going to waste, you’ll actually get points for them, which varies depending on your current Speed Multiplier.

If you keep matching gems at a rapid-fire pace, you’ll start to fill up your speed bonus meter, and your speed bonus text (in the upper left) will change from white to orange. Once that meter’s full, you’ll in the new “Blazing Speed” mode. From then on, each match will grant you the same effect as detonating a Flame Gem until Blazing Speed mode ends.

Bejeweled Blitz exits its beta status with a bang, but it’s still got some issues: sometimes scores don’t get recorded on the Leaderboard, or the game seems to pause while you’re mid-move. You need to have Flash 10 and a pretty speedy browser to get the most out of Bejeweled Blitz, but if you’ve got all that, the game should be a blast. Just try not to get addicted.

Overall, that makes the game a:

Survivor: 4/5

Why Video Games Based on Movies Usually Suck

This article was originally published on Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video game blog, on November 28, 2009. I have attempted to recreate it here, complete with images (when possible).

I was reading through a lecture for an online class of mine when I read a very interesting line: “the track record for video games derived from movie franchises typically don’t fare very well, and that’s because movies are a linear experience, whereas video games are an interactive experience.” My professor’s got a point. Movies have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Video games can be from different characters’ viewpoints, and you can often skip sections or miss scenes. Most games also have multiple endings, with two or three being a common number and 104 being the highest number of endings for a single game that I know of.

Another quote: “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” That usually applies to sports more than video games, but, applied to this whole tie-in concept, it says something about why most video games are awesome in the first place: it’s about the journey. Winning is great if you’re playing Pong or a similarly basic game, where the gameplay revolves around surviving to the highest level and demonstrating your button-mashing or joystick-tapping expertise, but for almost all other games, the idea is to have fun, whether that means you die 25 times or you zoom through the levels faster than a speeding bullet.

It’s equally difficult to change a popular video game franchise into a successful movie. Take Doom. It’s quite possibly one of my favorite games ever, and so when I heard that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would be starring in a feature film adaptation of it, I got excited. But the end result, while action-packed and as predictable as such a movie could be, wasn’t that great. Instead of getting the same (or a better) kick out of the movie as I did the game, I thought the movie didn’t come close enough.

Check out some similar examples of suckitude:

Title Source Material Adaptation’s Level of Suck
Super Mario Bros. Video game franchise 5
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within Video game franchise 4
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Video game franchise 3
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children Video game 2
BloodRayne Video game franchise 4
Spiderman Movie 1
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Movie 5
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark Movie 5
Back to the Future Movie 4
Iron Man Movie 3

On a level of 1 to 5, where “1″ is “awesome and super-fun to play” and 5 is “I could have made a better adaptation than this in my garage while sleepwalking,” the vast majority of super-sucky games are often those video games based off of awesome movies. On the flip side, movies based off of video games can and do suck on occasion, but just how bad is dependent on player opinion; in my research for this article, I discovered at least a handful of people that really liked the Tomb Raider movies or Advent Children, for example.

There appears to be an occasional inverse relationship between how good the source material is and how awesome the adaptation will be. If a video game is incredible, the movie based on that game will probably suck. If it was originally an awesome movie, the video game will probably be a bore (or worse, too damn difficult, as was the complaint of many players of the Iron Man video game). I say “occasional” because it’s not always true: the Spiderman movie game, for example, is supposed to be just as fun as the web-slinging movie (but how a game could be comparable to a movie with Bruce Campbell cameos is beyond me).

Adapting a video game with multiple possible scenarios is hard because screenwriters have to pick an overarching plot so the movie has a clear beginning, middle, and end. This might mean inadvertently taking out the best part of the game because screenwriters don’t usually devote hours to playing the game before they churn out a script. When you start with a movie script and then turn it into a video game, there’s added pressure coming from the studio to release both at the same time. Plus, there’s no way of knowing what the public will like the best about the movie until it’s out, so how can you incorporate those elements into the game?

 

I know I’ve watched movies before and thought to myself, ‘This would make an awesome theme park ride!’ But it’s a lot harder to translate the events of a movie into those of a game, especially if a scene can’t translate to anything more than an FMV in the game. Making the events of a movie playable, and therefore changeable by a player means that they might be disappointed by not being able to match up to the movie, or by different choices resulting in the same events.

People continue to maintain the belief that if a movie is awesome, then a video game based on it can only be awesomer, since it can expand the events of the movie, include all those “cuts” and edits in side-quests, and fully explore all the characters that got shafted for screen time in the film. The downfall of any given movie tie-in product, video games especially, occurs when the delicate balance between movie relationship and playability is shattered. If a video game based on a movie has no apparent connection to the events of the movie, why would a gamer even pick it up?

Unfortunately, this trend shows no sign of stopping; new video game-based movies and movies-based-on-video games are popping up all the time, most of them landing in Best Buy’s blue $9.99 bargain bins like Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li. The good news? Apparently, gamers in high places are getting behind some potential blockbusters, like Sam Raimi’s Warcraft movie, out in 2011. As long as the blood elves don’t all resemble Sephiroth, I’ll watch it and be a happy camper.

Dr. House Brings Genius, Snark to PC, Mac, DS

If USA’s weekend and holiday marathons featuring Dr. Gregory House simply aren’t enough for you, you’ll be pleased to know that Legacy Interactive, makers of a number of titles based off of popular TV shows, are releasing a game for the PC, Mac and (later) the Nintendo DS, featuring the chronically-snarky doctor and his team.

The game, which involves five medical mysteries fans of the show are well-familiar with, lets the player become Dr. House and take advantage of his characteristic wit to help you get the evidence you need to solve a series of cases and over 100 varieties of mini-games and other puzzles.

Not familiar with House? Imagine having to diagnose a slew of mysterious illnesses through your powers of observation and deductive reasoning. Players of the game will get to interview and examine patients, find evidence at their homes, analyze lab evidence, and even perform surgery in order to save the patients’ lives. Each of the five members on House’s team has their own specialty and unique traits, while House himself runs into trouble from his best friend and hospital oncologist Wilson, in addition to sometimes-love interest, sometimes pain-in-the-neck hospital administrator Lisa Cuddy.

The game will be available for digital download and retail purchase for PC and Mac later this month, and for the DS in April 2010. Since the show’s wildly popular even outside of the U.S., the game will also be released in French, German, and Spanish. Just don’t tell my dad about this or I’ll never see my computer again!

Better Gaming Guides: Strategies for Being Unsucky

This article was originally published on Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video game blog, on December 31, 2009. I have attempted to recreate it here, complete with images (when possible).

Ah, strategy guides. To some, the very phrase is synonymous with “cheating.” For others (like me), strategy guides serve merely as a means to an end, with the end being “getting every damn item, character, secret ending and bonus scene available.” But it’s a little hard to do that when your strategy guide is lacking, often in more ways than one. If you’ve ever found yourself flipping through a glorified art book and wishing for just a few more details (or directions on how to find them) on enemy stats or items, or tossing that 300-pager across the room before finally heading to GameFAQs, read on.

Regardless of the genre, gaming guides exist for practically every game out there: RPGs, side-scrollers, first-person shooters, puzzle games. You name it, there’s probably a guide for it.

Two major publishers exist for gaming guides: Prima and BradyGames. Having had a few bad experiences with Prima, I tend to buy Brady when and where I can, and usually, there’s not too much crossover between the two houses. What one company covers, the other company won’t. I don’t know if this is because of some sort of agreement between the game distributors and the publisher or between the two big publishing houses, but it’s the way it appears.

I’ve never needed a gaming guide for Tetris or any Mario game, but I haven’t played a single Star Ocean title without one. With well over 80 endings for my favorite in the series, Star Ocean: The Second Story (and its PSP remake, Star Ocean: Second Evolution), along with hundreds, if not thousands of items from food to armor, bombs to jewels, a strategy guide seems like a must for such a huge game. For the sake of this article, I’ll be comparing the two guides released for the game in its first iteration for the PS1 and the remake for the PSP. Both guides do some things right and others horribly wrong, but since both make flubs that apply to a variety of game genres, one can learn from both versions.

Prima released the guide for the PS1 game, and it was downright ugly. While it was helpful to a degree, telling players when and where they could engage in Private Actions (special side-trips into towns to view special scenes and alter relationships with the other characters), some information was either missing or wrong.

After years of publishing gorgeous (and expensive) guides for a variety of games, you’d think BradyGames would get it right with the Second Evolution guide, especially with famed guide writer Dan Birlew at the helm. Alas, they’re missing even more information than the Prima guide, which is no strategy for success, if you ask me. What follows are some tips for making the best, most complete strategy guide ever: sometimes it’s Prima that gets it right, other times Brady, and more often than not, neither of them.

1. Include everything. Yes, everything.

One thing the Prima guide does well is it includes what might, at first glance, be interesting but generally useless information. Hours into the game (and likely long after), you’ll realize that the “starting relationship values” and a given character’s favorite instrument aren’t such useless tidbits of information after all.

In the Brady guide, Claude, the male lead of Second Evolution, is decidedly lacking in a birth month. His birthday is just “23.” No one has a chart of starting relationship values like they do in the Prima guide. And the Brady guide is also missing a complete customization section (which ends up being a pretty vital part of the game, especially when you only have so much Fol/iron/special event items to play with), many descriptions of what some items actually DO, and of course, a list of possible endings (and in the PSP version of the game, there are over 100!).

2. Take a design class.

A strategy guide is more than just tips and tricks bound together in a pretty package. What separates guides that people shell out upwards of $10 (and sometimes even as much as $50!) for and the info they can get on GameFAQs, Neoseeker, RPGClassics, and other such sites is all in the design. A crappy design can make the information that a gamer is looking for inaccessible. The Prima guide is a bad example of design: the private actions are put in large boxes with “label maker” headlines in them, while the rest of the text is big and bold. The only way to tell the two lead characters’ private actions apart is that they’re slightly tinted: Claude’s is blue, while female lead Rena’s is red. Shared PAs are tinted green. The boxes are often randomly placed all over the page, as are screenshots.

No gaming guide would be complete without maps, and here’s where I think most guides fail miserably. Both the Prima and BradyGames guides for the second Star Ocean game toss screenshots on a page willy-nilly, with arrows supposedly leading from one area of the map to another. I don’t know how many times I’ve been in a dungeon and referred to the map, only for the arrow to point to a location very different from what’s on my screen. When dungeons are puzzles, this kind of thing can be dangerous. Instead, do what the famous Japanese Ultimania guides do (and do excellently): stitch all those screenshots together and make a complete map! No more arrows, bunches of colored shapes with strange labels, or scattered screenshots!

While the Brady guide has a bestiary, a staple for most game guides these days, the Prima guide puts monster information in boxes on over the pages that cover the area where those monsters appear. Though the guide writers undoubtedly tried to make them look neat by putting them in columns, they don’t always succeed, because there’s a lack of consistency with where these sections are placed. Plus, sometimes additional information on the enemies (beyond HP, MP, and known strengths and weaknesses) is helpful, but there’s no room for it here! And what’s with those gutters so wide I can easily fit a finger in them? Too much empty space, not enough helpful information!

3. Check your work!

There are errors in a few strategy guides that I couldn’t have gotten away with in my old 10th grade English class! Sure, a lot of the errors that appear in a guide tend to be small and irrelevant overall (like the missing month for poor ol’ Claude’s birthday), but they can add up and make the guide look a lot less worth the paper they’re printed on.

Whether you’re writing a glossy guide or a basics GameFAQs guide, the point is to have someone check your work. Have a fellow gamer read through it (thoroughly) and see if anything’s confusing, missing, or just plain wrong. It’s also helpful to get a fresh set of eyes and maybe a gamer with a different play style than you. Not everyone reads a guide (or a section of a guide) through when they’re playing. Whether you’re a writing for the player that’s replaying a game and working from memory but referencing the guide every now and again, a gamer that only glances when you get stuck in a rut, or the gamer who’s a complete n00b to the whole affair, you’ve got to write a guide that they can all use.

The Brady guide makes the mistake of assuming the readers have played through the previous sections and memorized them like they’re the times-tables in second grade. Don’t do that. It doesn’t matter if a boss later ends up becoming a random encounter: give strategies that work for the player who might think to look on that page (be it the section of the guide that covers that area, a portion of the story, or just monsters in general)!

4. Love your inner Lister.

 

Let’s face it: a lot of game data involves lists. Lists of characters, lists of weapons and armor, lists of attacks or spells. The important thing is to make sensible lists and consistent lists. That means if you have a particular style of marking where items in treasure chests can be found, and a list that corresponds to what each item is, keep it up–for each area, each world, each dungeon. You don’t have to use the same style, but you should use consistency when doing other lists, even if they’re for different things in a different part of your guide.

Here the Brady guide shines: it’s got orange lists of people to pickpocket (along with their locations in orange squares on the area map), green lists of stores and what’s in ‘em, and blue lists of enemies in the area. Unlike the Prima guide’s enemy lists, the Brady enemy data lists are always neatly off to the side and only contain the most necessary of information: enemy name, HP, Weaknesses, what it drops after the battle, and the enemy sprite on a simple blue background. That’s it. If I wanted to check the bestiary in the back, I could do so quite easily and know just where to look, too. Lists make everything easier, don’t you think?

5. Everything in its place.

So now you’ve got tons of data, a beautiful design with some nicely-colored and positioned boxes, consistent with the rest of the guide and from one section to the other, some pretty screenshots, lots of lovely lists, you’ve checked your work…and there’s MORE!? Well, yes. Great guide writers know that it’s not enough just to have a lot of “stuff,” even if that stuff is darn shiny. Everything should not only look pretty and be consistent in that prettiness, it should also be a place that makes sense.

Star Ocean: Till The End of Time, the third game in the series and the first for the PlayStation 2, required an even more massive guide than the ones for its predecessor. It was a big, thick thing, and while it had a lot of great information, fabulous art, and high-quality screencaps, it was hard to tell where to look for what. Half of every page for the first section of the book had a summary version of how to get through the game–something that would have been better off in its own section, not in a blue box at the bottom of every page. If it might confuse a reader as to “why is this here?” or, if they’re in another section, “why isn’t something here?” then you need to rethink your organizational strategy, no matter how pretty it looked before.

Pretty means nothing if it’s not functional. If I can’t use a guide because it makes no sense, it’s about as good as kindling.

Five simple steps to making a guide great: would they work for you? What are your biggest irks with gaming guides, whether they’re plaintext or purchased–or do you not bother with them at all?

[Review] Bejeweled Blitz Beta Adds Coins, Boosts

As if Bejeweled Blitz, the one-minute version of PopCap’s massively popular jewel-matching game, wasn’t addicting enough, the latest iteration of the Facebook app, currently in beta, adds two new interesting features: coins and boosts.

Bejeweled Blitz can only gets better with the addition of new point-hauling features: coins and boosts. “Just a minute” players will find themselves turning into “Huh? Where did the time go?” addicts of the fan favorite Facebook app.

The idea behind them is that you earn “coins” when you make smart moves in the game, the same way you get special gems that explode other gems to help you up your score. With those coins, you can purchase $3000 “boosts” that can add five seconds onto the end of your game, detonate all special gems on the board, get a free multiplier gem at game’s start, get a mystery power gem at the game’s start, or scramble all the gems on the board. Up to three boosts can be active at one time, and each boost lasts for three rounds of consecutive gameplay.

Players already raking in the points in the hundreds of thousands might find this a way of banking even more points, but average players (such as yours truly) might need to spend another few minutes earning the coin to buy the boosts. And of course, there’s no guarantee that your boost will help you: you’ve still got to be a savvy matchmaker for those shiny gems. The good news is, like the multiplier gems on the board during your Last Hurrah, players can still earn the coins visible on their screen that they didn’t necessarily match up with like-colored gems, earning them the same $100 value of the coins as they would have had they matched them up.

Of the five boosts offered, by far I’d say the best is the one you wouldn’t expect: the Scrambler. Simply by rearranging select gems on the board (in something of a crosshatch pattern), new power gems can emerge immediately, scoring you tons of extra points. The Scrambler lasts for two clicks per round, so it’s almost got double the value of the other boosts. The Detonator and Mystery Power Gem were also useful boosts, but the Multiplier and the +5 Seconds were all but useless to me: I got much higher scores using the other Boosts than I did with those two. Most Boosts, like the Detonator and Scrambler, start out in either the bottom left or right corner of your board, while the Multipliers could be anywhere, as could the Mystery Power Gems. Keep your eyes peeled, because the game doesn’t always do you the courtesy of pointing those special Boosts out for you!

The new beta doesn’t feature a Leaderboard for people to compete with one another while they’re earning coins and boosts yet, but presumably, the Leaderboard will return as soon as the new features are out of beta.

Besides the new features, some more subtle differences can be detected by a player with a well-trained eye–or ear. There are new sound effects not just for the coins, but the various explosions of gems. The visuals seem even smoother than ever, but if you want to enjoy them, first make sure your Flash is up-to-date. The announcer who says “Good” and “Excellent” and so forth sounds a bit different to my ear, but I could be wrong.

Get in on the newest Bejeweled Blitz Beta action by becoming a fan of the app on Facebook, and look for an email from PopCap Games containing the super-secret link.

Survivor: 4/5

PlayFirst Partners with Big Fish; Still Has a Long Way to Go

This article was originally published on Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video game blog on January 26, 2010. I have attempted to recreate it here, complete with images (when possible).

In the words of the late, great Harry Snyder (founder of In-N-Out Burger, in case you didn’t know), “Do one thing, and do it well.” Some game companies have unofficially adopted this credo, namely PlayFirst, the makers of the mega-popular Diner Dash series of games. The bulk of their games are based on the same premise as Diner Dash and its successors: meet the criteria given to you by a picky customer. Meet it fast, and meet it while you’re also sweeping the floor, cleaning up tables/racks/counters, and letting others in. Whether you’re Flo in a diner or Sophie, the 1940s perfumer, the concept is basically the same. The vast majority of their games fall into this “time management” genre, although there have been a few notable titles (including spin-offs of their hit time management games) that add mystery, puzzle-solving, and adventuring to the list.

PlayFirst recently partnered with Big Fish Games, maker of Penny Dreadfuls: Sweeney Todd and Expedition: Everest and other “casual” games in many of the same genres as PlayFirst’s own titles.

Unlike their competitors, PopCap Games (makers of Bejeweled) and Playfish Games (makers of Who Has The Biggest Brain? and the Restaurant City series of games), PlayFirst has yet to really break into the world of Facebook apps-as-games. A recent post on their forums indicates a beta of Wedding Dash Bash, a Facebook-sized version of one of their popular time management-genre games in the vein of Diner Dash, is on its way to Facebook, but the game is not available through an Application Directory search, and supposedly is only open to a select audience through a special email promotion.

Many PlayFirst forum members cried foul, but even when the link was released by another fan in the forums, the game failed to please: those that could access it claimed it was a “Mafia Wars clone,” while others, such as yours truly, couldn’t even access the game, no matter what browser was used.

PlayFirst has got a long way to go before reaching PopCap or Playfish’s level of popularity, at least where Facebook is concerned. It’s known for its time management-genre games and it’s good at those, and the fans expect games in the same vein, with new twists on old favorites, rather than “clones” of other popular games or brand new style games altogether. PlayFirst doesn’t need to change its offering of “casual” games in order to be a success. Here are a few tips for them that might bolster its popularity.

For starters, it needs to actually open more of a rapport with its fans, not just posting one blurb in a single thread on its forums. While it’s got a small following of fans on Facebook, the vast majority of their posts lead right back to pages on their own site, rather than things for fans to do on Facebook. There are a few discussion threads where the people behind the PlayFirst logo have actually responded, but not that many discussions about the future of PlayFirst on Facebook.

Next, those fans–be they on the forums or Facebook–should be treated equally and with respect, since these are people that have gone out of their way to let the companies know that they are fans in the first place. It not only humanizes the fans by giving them a name (and usually a face, too), rather than just an order number or an account name, but it allows for direct interaction with the people lining PlayFirst and Big Fish’s pockets. That translates to letting all fans get in on the beta-testing action, and create an obvious, directly-linked space for testers to give their feedback since it’s the only way a game can improve and bring in more bucks.

Third, it has to take the one or two things it does well–those genres it excels at creating games for–and starting thinking of new ways for people to play them. Beyond Facebook, there’s the possibility of “mini-games” for phones, since smartphones like the iPhone and any of the Google Android OS-powered devices are hot right now. People don’t always think of games the second they park themselves down in front of a computer, but plenty of people find themselves bored and fiddling with their phones: what better way to introduce a way to pass the time than with a mini version of their hit games?

Plus, making games for the phone opens up new possibilities that it couldn’t with their classic computer games: multiplayer options, competition with other players either in the area or around the world, or even taking advantage of phone features like accelerometers or built-in cameras. Games where one just points-and-clicks aren’t the rage anymore: people want feedback, whether it’s audio, visual, or even just a simple vibration. Phones can do all of these things and more, which makes them an exciting possibility for game companies that have been pretty static with their game designs and genres.

PlayFirst and Big Fish Games teaming up is, overall, a great move. It makes a variety of games more affordable and accessible, and may even introduce fans of particular titles to new games and genres. But for the companies to become a paired powerhouse in the world of casual games, they may need to step their own business game up a notch.

[Review] Gotcha! Celebrity Secrets is Amusing, Sign of the Times

This article was originally published on Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video game blog, on April 4, 2010. I have attempted to recreate the article here, complete with images (when possible).

Every now and again, it’s good to take a break from all those first-person shooters, monster-thrashing RPGs, and gem-matching puzzles. Enter the world of casual games, where companies like PlayFirst and Big Fish excel. Sure, a lot of their games are the same type of casual game, just in a newer, shinier package, but they can be surprisingly addictive and fun to play, like PlayFirst’s Gotcha! Celebrity Secrets.  I picked it up because PlayFirst offered me a $2.99 game from their selection of already low-priced games. I decided to pick the one where the protagonist looked suspiciously familiar….

“Gotcha! Celebrity Secrets” is a fun “hidden person” game with a bit of a replay value and a lot of laughs. It’s an original take on the “hidden object” type of casual games, but with a challenging and modern twist.

The plucky heroine of this game is Gaby, a would-be celebrity blogger. She hates her dead-end job and would love to be a top gossip blogger, but she’s got competition in the form of snooty Dante. But luckily, she’s got a mysterious secret informer who tells her all about the goings-on of Hollywood’s elite, including such folks as Bobby Rocker and Carrie D’Away. Your mission is to help Gaby locate the people who can tell her what’s what and who’s who. Every “chapter” consists of eight “scenes” where you go and locate people.

At first, you’re given small pictures of the people to look for and plenty of time in which to look for them. There’s also only a smattering of other people nearby, so it’s pretty easy to zoom through the first chapters of the game if you’ve got a good idea. But the scenes get increasingly crowded, and eventually, you have to locate people according to headshots, silhouettes, or just descriptions like “Pirate” or “Woman with keys.”

You also have to try locating Gaby herself and a special person or object, along with pocket watches and stars for bonus points. Getting all five stars in a level nets you a special bonus, as does locating everyone before the timer on the Expert Goal bar runs out. The pocket watches freeze that timer so you have more time to locate people or objects, and you can always refer to your handy rechargeable Hint bar if someone is being particularly elusive.

Finding more and more of Gaby and the chapter’s special person or object allows you to modify Gaby’s blog, changing her header image, background, and animation, but in order to get all three, you have to complete every scene in every chapter. The scenes are broken up with amusing mini-games, often involving puzzles with shredded pictures or other “drawings” you have to assemble.

If you fail to find Gaby or the special person or object or don’t find all your “sources” by the time it takes to reach Expert Status, you can play again and again. The scenery will be the same, but the folks you have to find will be different. The good news is, you don’t have to relocate stars, Gaby, or any other special hidden people/objects if you found them during a previous play.

Finding all the people (including Gaby) in a chapter, or being a trigger-finger sleuth might get you medals, which add to the game’s replay value: the likelihood of you successfully earning all the available medals in your first play-through of the game is unlikely, unless you’ve got laser eyes.

The overall story is at times amusing, heartwarming and downright funny, but it’s also a sign of the times: people love to read celebrity gossip and Gotcha! Celebrity Secrets takes advantage by offering a game that is a mirror to our own obsessions, whether it’s secret weddings, new babies, or catfights at award shows.

It’s unfortunately short-lived with only five chapters and eight scenes in each; since characters meeting a particular description (e.g “Man with playing cards”) never change appearance, they can get easier to find with each progressive chapter, assuming you don’t get distracted by all the other goings on in any given scene. The game lets you submit your score online to a Global Scoreboard, but PlayFirst could stand to expand on this connectivity by offering downloads of additional chapters or customizable blog features for Gaby to “buy.”

As mentioned in my dissection of the PlayFirst/Big Fish partnership, the two companies could expand their casual games as major casual game companies Playfish and PopCap have done by taking advantage of the ultimate casual gamer: those on Facebook with only a “minute” or so to spare for gameplay. It would be fun to see Gaby’s adventures on Facebook, or perhaps even scoreboard integration with one’s Facebook friends’ list.

Unlike a lot of other hidden object games, Gotcha! Celebrity Secrets features a fresh, modern story that is both amusing and true-to-life. Gaby is likable and well-meaning, not coming across like an eager paparazzi, and so it’s fun to help her locate “sources” to up her rank in the Hollywood Gossip Association. The game encourages the perfect amount of replay necessary for a casual game; having finished all five chapters, I’ll probably forget about the game for a few months and then play it again from the start, not knowing who to look for or where. But my goals will be different: to get all the available medals and to beat that old high score!

Gotcha! Celebrity Secrets is a PlayFirst original game, available for $6.99 from either PlayFirst or Big Fish Games, for both Mac and PC.

Survivor: 4/5

Repo Men Viral Reality Game Begins

This article was originally published for Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video gaming blog, on February 27, 2010. I have attempted to recreate it here, complete with images (when possible).

Lone Shark Games and Wired Magazine, in conjunction with Universal Pictures, have teamed up to introduce a viral “reality game” to promote the upcoming Jude Law and Forest Whitaker film Repo Men, due out March 19.

“Reality games” are a new way of generating buzz about an upcoming movie; The Dark Knight did this through a massive, Webby Award-winning campaign involving The Joker taking over major “Gotham City” publications and media outlets. Now it’s time for the people to be hunters rather than Gothamites; in accordance with the storyline, players can sign up to be “repo men” and hunt down the four “runners,” who are in severe arrears on the payments for their artificial organs, or artiforgs.

The runners’ goal is to stay hidden until March 25; the hunters/repo men’s goal is to catch them using technology, sleuthing, and deductive reasoning. The runners also have a list of tasks supplied by a mysterious organization known as Groundswell, who help keep the runners off-grid in exchange for performance of these seemingly-mundane tasks, like skating at an ice rink or attending a book reading.

When a hunter catches a runner, they’re supposed to say three special words (no, not those three words!) and get the runner to give up their artiforg and cell phone; upon calling the runner’s connection, the hunter will receive a $7,500 bounty (that’s real cash, my friends, not $7,500 in “Second Life” money or anything). With each runner netting the same amount, a dedicated repo man (or woman) could bring in $30,000!

Media outlets were informed of the game through the delivery of a special package courtesy of The Union, the fictional organization behind the artiforgs and the entity in the Repo Men movie. The kit contained an artiforg brain, posters, dossiers on the runners, and additional material, getting the hunt off to a good start through the revelation of the runners’ names and some basic stats and Facebook profiles. The runners are Ciji Thornton, a gamer girl that you may well have seen on TV, Will LaFerrie, a (former?) soldier, party girl/soccer star Alex Gamble, and the techy Usman Akeju.

To find the four runners and cash in on their bounty, hunters have a plethora of resources, ranging from ARGUS (the artiforg repossession group; underground resources) to the #repomen hashtag on Twitter, along with numerous accounts to follow, plus the newly-established Repo Men Wikia and the March issue of Wired magazine, which has clues laced throughout its pages (hint: if you have a barcode scanner and a good eye, it’ll help). The runners, of course, will be watching what the hunters are doing, and leaving a boatload of false clues along the way; if they can stay hidden, they get money for their trouble.

This “alternate reality” game is, of course, a really huge marketing scheme, or a giant ad for the upcoming movie, but because it’s so intriguing and fun for all involved (or so we assume; another guy who tried to “vanish,” Evan Ratliff, had a heck of a time of it, but he did write some intriguing articles about the experience for Wired), people treat it like the next great sleuthing game, but one with a prize that far outweighs any gold or herbs that regular games “award” after arduous battles.

I’m also a hunter myself, though being so fresh to this type of game, I don’t expect to be the first to find many clues, let alone find a runner myself. But tracking the progress of this “reality game” sure looks to be fun, so stay tuned….

The Death of Arcades

This article was originally published for Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video gaming blog, on April 19, 2010. I have attempted to recreate the article here, complete with images (when possible).

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, in a place not unlike the town you’re in now, there existed a magical place known as an arcade. Nowadays, these arcades are almost like a mythical creature: unbelievable and hard to find. Where once, arcades could be found scattered around any given town or city, now, they seem confined to movie theatres and tourist traps and are but a shadow of the greatness of what they once were.

The sad truth is, arcades are dying, if not already dead.

For me personally, arcades were the place I went to discover games as a child. Before I had an SNES, a PlayStation, or a PS2, I went to an arcade called Dodge City in the Northern California town of Petaluma. Dodge City was full of pinball machines and old-school arcade games ranging from Buster Brothers to Marble Madness. Back in those days, several hours of unlimited gameplay were only a few dollars, and often I was there with only a handful of other people, playing Tron one moment, and The Machine: Bride of Pin-Bot the next.

Years passed, and by the time I entered high school, most arcades I knew about were located strictly in movie theatre corners and tourist-filled areas. But the economy was shifting too, and that meant that arcades that were formerly strictly for the tourists had to think differently and attract locals to come in on a regular basis. That arcade was Riptide Arcade (RTA) at Pier 39, and their idea was to have a weekly Bemani Night, where all of the rhythm-and-music games in the Beatmania (Bemani for short) collection, including Dance Dance RevolutionDance ManiaX, and Drum Mania, were half off, while many other games were discounted too. During the summer, Bemani Night fell on a Wednesday, while during the school year, it fell on a Friday.

After playing games for hours, my huge mass of friends would often split: some heading back to their homes all over the Bay Area, others going to San Francisco’s lone In-N-Out burger location at Fisherman’s Wharf, others heading to keep playing games at the Metreon entertainment center, which stayed open late on its top-level movie theatre floor with a smattering of video games like Dance Dance Revolution and various first-person shooter arcade games. The Metreon had a full-size arcade too, one that changes its name almost as often as Lady Gaga changes her hair, but to my friends, it would always be ATG, or the “Airtight Garage,” one of its earlier monikers. But unlike Riptide, ATG didn’t create that blind loyalty to keep coming back week after week. They weren’t open late, the games were consistently expensive, and even if they did have a variety of games that RTA didn’t, they were often in poorer condition than Riptide’s games. You could stomp all you wanted on that left arrow, but it wouldn’t register your steps if you were playing at the Metreon…but it would if you were at RTA, and I think that’s part of the reason why we kept coming back. It was just better.

I visited the old Riptide the other day. It’s now called “Player’s Arcade,” and has been through a bit of remodeling, taking over what used to be a Hollywood-like gift shop and expanding into the formerly-private back area. It’s now half-restaurant, half-arcade, but the arcade games are more spaced out, lending a dizzying feeling to this arcade with shiny hardwood floors.

The shooting gallery is often quiet and dark, and while there are always a handful of people present, it’s never packed to the point where you have to shove tokens, bus passes, and school IDs onto the rim of game monitors while waiting for your turn to come up.

Where a multitude of Bemani games used to be, now there are more ticket-spewing machines, capable of luring children and tourists into playing for an extended period of time, letting their dollars, Euros, or what-have-you turn into lava lamps and RC cars (I’ll gladly admit that I played equal amounts DDR and ticket-spewing machines back in my days at RTA; I’m now the proud owner of a blue-and-yellow lava lamp as the result).

There are only two Bemani games left now: Dance Dance Revolution X and Drum Mania. There’s no more Dance ManiaX, no more Beatmania IIDX. Many of the games that my friends would pour their change into are gone now. What used to be a gathering place for crowds of disparate gamers to come together and hang is now a Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining venue, but I’ve got no desire to trade my tokens for fractions of an airfare credit. For some reason, it made more sense to while away my hours trying to get tickets for a lava lamp than it does to eat some overpriced barbecue wings in an effort to fly away from a place I used to love.

This is heartbreaking enough, but RTA isn’t alone in its supposed need to change to accommodate the times. The Metreon arcade and others like it are also changing: changing their names, changing the games, changing the things that used to bring crowds but, for whatever reason, no longer do. A lot of the games at TILT, the arcade formerly known as ATG, are up for sale, their dusty monitors plastered with yellow and pink price tags with hastily-scribbled quadruple-digit numbers. “Everything must go!” these tags seem to say, because nothing is the way it used to be, and trying to recapture a successful, happy past is a futile exercise.

We live in a world of so-called “social media,” where everyone is tethered to some device or another, be it a smartphone or a laptop, a gaming console or an iPad. People don’t gather at arcades anymore: they smack-talk one another on XBox Live, calling one another names for using the wrong card in Uno. You don’t have to worry about remembering faces or names because everyone’s got an avatar and an alias. This is the new arcade: the digital one, the one where “socializing” involves little more than a controller and an Internet connection, and the connection you make with people is severed–at least for the night–until you log in again.

Arcades are dead, and the autopsy says C.O.D. includes laziness, greed, and dissatisfaction. But just longing for “the good ol’ days” won’t change anything. If The Next Big Thing fails to register that all humans, from the casual gamer to the nerdcore who can’t let go of his controller, need to socialize–truly socialize, in person, with other humans–then it won’t be The Next Big Thing for very long. If anything, maybe it’s time for the world of gaming to apply a defib to its heart: take a line from Hollywood and think about remaking itself in the image of the past, when gamers got out and played.

 

 

[Review] Playfish Lets Facebook Users Become Hoteliers in Hotel City

This article was originally written for Site of the Gaming Dead, a now-defunct video gaming blog, on April 20, 2010. I have attempted to recreate the article here, complete with images (when possible).

Start screen for Facebook game Hotel City by Playfish game studio

Playfish has done it again, introducing yet another micro-managing app to the wide world of Facebook applications and games. This time it’s Hotel City, where you can build, decorate, and maintain your very own hotel. Like some of the other games in Playfish’s growing Facebook arsenal, Hotel City revolves primarily around your acquisition of stuff (guest rooms and functional rooms), your sense of decor to make that stuff even more awesome, and visiting your friends’ spaces in order to get money.

But while the more-established, popular Playfish title Restaurant City still has “BETA” stuck next to its moniker, there’s no such label on the fledgling Hotel City, despite the fact that it’s missing a number of features.

Hotel City is fun, but it doesn’t encourage more than five minutes of total daily interaction the way most Facebook games, including many Playfish titles, do.

The game starts out by giving you a sizable lump of in-game cash to use to get started building your hotel, along with a brief tutorial on what to make of your space, like how you should not just have a lobby with a few small guest rooms, but add other spaces, like a cleaner’s closet, a gym, earning more functional  rooms as you continue to level up. Every room costs you money and takes up “blocks,” but as you level up, you can earn the ability to buy more blocks.

Already this is a change from how Playfish first introduced the game: initially, hotels had to be designed according to a fixed grid. In other words, all hotels are rectangles, but not all rectangles are hotels. Now, the new “total block” system lets users design hotels in all sorts of crazy shapes, including rooms that appear to be floating in midair. The catch is how many blocks you have to design your hotel in. Will you be fine with 30 or want to upgrade to 40? Go for 50 or maybe aim for the Stratosphere with over 100?

Standard rooms, with only a single bed, gray flooring, and green wallpaper, take up one block. More spacious rooms, some of them pre-decorated, can be purchased for cash, or you can make use of the small-but-steadily-growing collection of decorations ranging from wallpaper to floor lamps to decorate your rooms. The nicer your room looks, the more money you get when a guest stays in there: the goal is to get the bars inside each room to fill as far to the right as you possibly can, meaning you’re squeezing the most possible money out of that space.

You can also build commercial rooms like a “Posh Restaurant,” an “Outdoor Disco,” or even a “Bar,” if you’ve got the gold to spend. More commercial rooms become available as you level up, but many of them are prohibitively expensive. Sometimes the pricing and what’s available at what level changes; most recently I noticed the “Outdoor Disco” suddenly changed from being available at Level 13 to not being available until Level 30. But who cares about discos? I’m saving up to get an arcade once I hit Level 28.

If decorating isn’t your forte, you can choose to work at a friend’s hotel, but currently, the only way to do this is by clicking on a Wall post made by your friend indicating that they’re “hiring.” Likewise, friends can only work in your hotel if they click on the links that you post. What your friends end up working as is entirely random, and they can’t specify the appearance of their avatars the way you can in Restaurant City.

When a friend is working in your hotel (or if you’re working in theirs), your name will appear in green above your character’s head. You can collect tips from a tip jar usually found on the right side of the screen in the room you’re working. So, if you’re working as the bartender at a friend’s hotel, look for the jar near the right side of the bar. Once you click on it, the jar will vanish until enough time has elapsed for “you” to accumulate more tips. Sometimes a tip jar that’s ready to be plundered is indicated by a bellboy icon appearing on the lower left of your friend’s avatar, but sometimes it’s not there at all.

You can also earn money by waking up guests. It’s a bit like you’re the hotel Mafia, shaking up your guests and telling them “Hey gimme some money!” Sometimes you succeed, other times you just get sleepy-eyed guests bouncing on their bed for a moment before they head back into Dreamland. This applies to guests in your own hotel or in your friends’.

Also randomly, you can visit your friends’ hotels when your friends have a speech bubble with a money bag in it. This means that there’s a random sack of money just waiting for you in their lobby. It’s usually not much, but collect enough of them and you’ll at least have enough to redecorate one small guest room.

Gifting items and selling them is a basic feature in other Playfish games, but it’s not quite enabled in Hotel City; while you can send some free gifts to friends (and the selection is based on your current level), you can’t buy gifts and send them to friends yet, nor can you sell items you don’t need any more.

The general goal is to get your hotel up to five stars, all while leveling up, increasing your hotel’s girth, and adding prettier and prettier (or scarier, as is the case with one of the pre-decorated rooms: a dungeon) rooms as you go, all to squeeze a bit more gold from your cartoonish guests.

The game has a ways to go before it’s nearly as fully-featured as Restaurant City. Besides more content, bugs such as disappearing rooms need to be ironed out, in addition to making gameplay more fun and interactive. As it stands, there are so few players that it only takes a few minutes to add a room, decorate a bit, grab some money from your guests, friends’ tip jars and guests, and finding what random sacks of gold may be awaiting you in various lobbies. Since you can buy “shifts” for your staff in increments up to 48 hours, there’s often no reason to even go back to the game unless it’s to see if you’ve earned enough cash to buy a pre-decorated or commercial room.

Without the ability to customize your avatars or the jobs you take at friend’s hotels, it seems like much more than usual is controlled by an AI than by the player. This contrasts with Restaurant City, where the success of your eatery depends largely on your ability to buy and trade ingredients to level up dishes, all while keeping your restaurant clean and your friend’s venues free of bears, skunks, penguins, leaks, and poisonous mushrooms. So far in Hotel City, I’ve only seen one cockroach, and that was because someone failed to put in a Cleaner’s Room for a floor of their hotel.

Until Playfish adds a bit “more” of everything, like what I’m used to in Restaurant City, that poor ol’ addicting game still stuck in beta, I’m giving Hotel City a:

Wounded: 2/5