Category Archives: Itech

Feast your eyes on these uniquely beautiful indie games from E3

The AAA games on display at E3 this year have, as usual, an amazing array of beautiful, nearly photorealistic graphics — and while they’re amazing in their own way, I always find it fun to highlight a few games that take a totally different approach to their art. Here are a few that caught my eye this time around.

Sable is a “coming-of-age tale of discovery” set in an open world that you can explore at your own pace. The overall look of the place is rather Journey-esque, but there’s also a shade of Hyper Light Drifter in the environments. Most interesting of all, however, is the visual effect that makes the whole thing look rather like a comic book by Moebius.

The effect is a bit hit or miss — some details can end up warping or looking odd — but overall it’s extremely arresting and definitely set the game apart instantly from its more realistic peers. Hopefully the writing and gameplay live up to its visual style.

Overwhelm is a chunkily pixelated hardcore shooter-platformer with a couple of interesting twists.

First of all, you die in one hit. That’s what makes it hardcore.

Second, you only get 99 bullets per level, and your gun needs to cool down after firing three times.

Third, whenever you beat a boss, it gives a special ability like wall climbing not to you, but to all the enemies.

It reminds me a bit of Abuse, a classic side-scrolling shooter with free mouse aiming and scary aliens. But its art style is far more reminiscent of the excellent Downwell, which itself was modeled on (I believe) the original Game Boy’s four-shade palette. Minit is another recent example of successfully using this ultra-pared-down look.

Noita (Swedish for “witch”) is one I’ve actually been following for a while now. At first glance this looks sort of like a dig-’em-up, à la Terraria, but the visual and gameplay twist is that every pixel is physically simulated. That means everything in the game can be burned, exploded, melted and so on — dirt will fall, fire will spread, water (and acid, and lava) will flow and escape its container.

You also create your own spells as you delve deeper into the procedurally generated caves looking for “unknown mysteries.” Well, that’s a bit redundant, but you get the idea. It looks like a real blast.

Signalis goes retro, but in a much different direction than most others. Instead of recreating the beloved pixel art of the SNES or Saturn, it goes to the less-beloved chunky polygons of the PlayStation era. Think Resident Evil. I’m also reminded of the cutscenes from Another World.

Although it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on from the trailer, I’m definitely digging the look and feel. The control panels, the mix of polygons and hand-drawn backgrounds, the scary, lonely air and threatening atmosphere… right up my alley.

Last is Ooblets, which as far as I can tell is about planting and farming strange little creatures that eventually have some kind of dance-off in the forest.

It can be hard to really express a visual style in 3D, but I love what Ooblets is doing. Everything is delightfully awkward and cute, with a deliberate stiffness to it as well as a clear design. The unshaded polygons, careful lighting and modeling, it all creates a strange but compelling whole. The closest thing that I can think of to it is the Katamari Damacy series.

I realize now, having written this, that I put “uniquely” beautiful in the headline and then cited similar looks or inspirations for all the games. But really, though, they do take inspiration from others, they’re definitely all doing their own thing. (Really, really, though, I just didn’t want to scroll up and change the headline.)

There were plenty more striking games at the show — check your local indie games site to see what others have dug up!

Telemundo, Universal and TreasureHunt are launching a shootout game in time for the World Cup

Just in time for the World CupTelemundo Deportes, Universal Brand Development and the startup TreasureHunt have launched a shootout game for the Instant Games platform on Facebook and Messenger.

Telemundo Deportes is putting out the game in conjunction with its Spanish-language coverage of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.

GOAL! SHOOTOUT (WHICH IS CLEARLY VERY EXCITING) lets players vie for the title of penalty kick all-star so they can all bend it like the virtual Beckhams that they are.

“The World Cup provides us with the opportunity to tap into the passion of soccer and engage with our viewers in different, authentic ways leading up to and throughout the tournament this summer,” said Miguel Lorenzo, director, Digital Product Development, Telemundo Deportes, in a statement. “We are excited to launch this collaborative initiative with Universal Brand Development, which is Telemundo Deportes’ first release in the games space, and we look forward to offering a high quality social gaming experience for our soccer fans.”

Through the game, folks get points by successfully taking penalty kicks. Over the course of the Cup, which runs from today through July 15, players can perfect their technique by practicing against special targets, unlock new designs for soccer balls and challenge friends to beat scores.

“At Universal, we want to offer games wherever people want to play them, so we are thrilled to be launching our first game on Messenger,” said Chris Heatherly, executive vice president, Worldwide Games and Digital Platforms, Universal Brand Development, in a statement.

The free-to-play game developed with TreasureHunt has to be one of the biggest opportunities yet for the young, Berlin-based startup. It was only last June that the company raised $6 million in its first institutional round of financing led by The Gauselmann Group, a Germany gaming company, with participation from angel investors.

For Kyle Smith, the leader of TreasureHunt’s team of veteran game developers from companies like Electronic Arts, Zynga, Rovio and King, the goal was to appeal to the widest possible audience.

“We really wanted to capture the momentum leading up to Telemundo’s coverage of the World Cup by creating a highly social, super accessible game that can be enjoyed by sports fans anywhere,” said Kyle Smith, CEO, TreasureHunt. “Our goal was to create an experience that appeals to a mainstream audience by making them feel part of this historic worldwide tournament.”

The free to play GOAL! SHOOTOUT is out now.

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This AR guppy feeds on the spectrum of human emotion

Indiecade always offers a nice respite from the wall of undulating human flesh and heat that is the rest of the E3 show floor. The loose confederation of independent developers often produces compelling and bizarre gaming experiences outside of the big studio system.

TendAR is the most compelling example of this out of this year’s batch. It is, simply put, a pet fish that feeds on human emotions through augmented reality. I can’t really explain why this is a thing, but it is. It’s a video game, so just accept it and move on.

The app is produced by Tender Claws, a small studio out of Los Angeles best known for Virtual Virtual Reality, an Oculus title that boasts among its “key features”: 50-plus unique virtual virtual realities and an artichoke screams at you.

TendAR fits comfortably within that manner of absurdist framework, though the title has more in common with virtual pets like Tamagotchi and the belovedly bizarre Dreamcast cult hit, Seaman. There’s also a bit of Douglas Adams wrapped up in there, in that your pet guppy feeds on human emotions detected through face detection.

The app is designed for two players, both holding onto the same phone, feigning different emotions when prompted by a chatty talking fish. If you fail to give it what it wants, your fish will suffer. I tried the game and my guppy died almost immediately. Apparently my ability to approximate sadness is severely lacking. Tell it to my therapist, am I right?

The app is due out this year for Android.

Here’s what having the biggest game of the year looks like at E3

For all of the beautiful photo-realistic titles shown off at E3 this year, for all the mind-bending storylines and beautiful art styles, it seems that nobody can stop thinking about Fortnite.

The battle royale title has picked up users at break-neck speeds, announcing yesterday that it now has 125 million active users logging in and dropping into battle. The Epic Games title is available across a wide variety of platforms — it just launched a version for the Nintendo Switch yesterday, successfully rounding out the most viable gaming platforms.

In short, this is Fortnite’s year, and on the E3 show floor, Epic Games made quite the splash with one of the more elaborate booths, complete with mechanical llama piñatas, photo ops, merch, snacks and plenty of opportunities for fans to stop and play a little Fortnite.

Check out some more of the ridiculous opulence below.

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Playmaji is looking to bring its modular retro-gaming console to market

Tucked away in a far corner of the West Pavilion of the Los Angeles Convention center among the independent game developers showcased by IndieCade during E3 is a small booth demonstrating the latest Polymega hardware, a device that’s billing itself as the NES Classic for every old-school game released on every old-school gaming platform.

The company that’s making the device first debuted last year as Retroblox, and while its name has changed (it’s now called Playmaji) and its hardware has gotten more refined, the vision remains very much the same.

Playmaji debuted the new system and its user interface last year at E3 and it’s back again this year to tout its new pricing and drum up support for a pre-order campaign — even as it tries to raise money to license games from publishers.

Last year, Playmaji eschewed going down the crowdfunding route and instead raised $500,000 from undisclosed angel investors, according to chief executive and co-founder Bryan Bernal. This year, Bernal said his company would look to launch a pre-order campaign within the next three months and begin shipping systems by the end of the year.

While there are plenty of consoles (like the Retroengine, or Hyperkin’s SNES clone, or Analogue’s SuperNT) that tout similar capabilities to play retro arcade and console games from gaming’s golden age, Playmaji’s grand designs to provide an all-in-one networked console for gaming that can stream to Twitch or YouTube may set it apart.

The company wants to ensure that it’s doing everything by the book and not tacitly encouraging piracy, according to Bernal.

Eventually Bernal does envision a move into licensing (aiming for 50 to 100 games when the company launches its first product in the fourth quarter of this year), but for now users are limited to the cartridges that they own — or that they can find somewhere.

Both Bernal and his co-founder Eric Christensen have a history in the games business, coming from Insomniac Games where Bernal worked on the Ratchet and Clank title.

The hardware console will sell for $249.99 initially, with module sets that allow for users to upload games from different consoles starting at another $59.99. Those modular sets also include controllers that resemble the classic designs from NES and Sega systems.

“We designed new classic controllers packaged with the element modules,” said Bernal. “You can have a retro controller ready to go. To allow the classic feel and emotion of the games to carry on into the future.”

So far, the company has only raised $500,000 in pre-seed funding, but Bernal is gearing up for a larger round of $2 million to $3 million for licensing additional games. He said preliminary talks were already underway with companies like Sega, Konami and Capcom.

“The closest corollary on the market is the Classic Mini,” says Bernal. While Sega supports classic cartridges through one of its game platforms, no other console that’s on the market presents a unified device for all of a user’s old games, he said.

“This is supposed to serve as the home base in your living room,” said Bernal.

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Check out this adorable Bluetooth controller for the Nintendo Switch

8bitdo debuted a bunch of gaming controllers at E3 this week, but honestly, we only care about one. The Zero 2 is an adorable little Bluetooth controller that fits in the palm of your hand. It’s compatible with all sorts of systems, including desktop computers and Android devices, but the size makes it perfect for playing the Nintendo Switch on the go.

And as you can see by the “classic” color scheme above, the peripheral maker was clearly interested in evoking some serious Nintendo nostalgia, with a device that looks a lot like a Super Nintendo controller at first glance.

The Zero 2 sports four number buttons, select, start and a D-pad on the front, with L and R buttons up top, flanking a microUSB port. All have a solid click to them, though the company didn’t have a full operational unit we could play with (the controller isn’t coming out until the end of the year).

I suspect that the diminutive size means it won’t be ideal for long gaming marathons, but it does beat having to hold the Switch for an extended period. Better still, it can be connected to a keychain, so you’ll never lose the thing.

No pricing has been announced.

Valve sets sights on Discord with updates to Steam Chat

Discord has risen among the ranks of gamers as the most common choice for game-related communications. And it’s easy to see why: it works well and the competition is pretty dismal. But Valve is looking to keep users in-house with an overhaul of the chat options on its game platform Steam .

It’s a welcome change, one of many that Steam’s users have surely been asking for — the platform, while convenient in many ways, is also incredibly outdated in others. The friend and communications options may as well be ICQ, and let’s not get started on the browser.

Today’s news suggests that Valve has not failed to hear gamers’ cries. The revamped chat is very Discord-like, with text and voice channels listed separately, in-game details like map and game type listed next to friends and a useful quick list for your go-to gaming partners. There’s also a robust web client.

Voice and text chat is all encrypted and passed through Steam’s servers, which prevents the NSA competition from monitoring your squad’s tactics during PUBG games and griefers from tracing your IP and ordering a hundred pizzas to your door (or worse).

It’s long past due for a platform like Steam, but more importantly it lets them keep Discord in check. The latter, after all, could conceivably grow itself a game store or promotions page in order to subsidize its free services — and that would be stepping on Valve’s turf. Unforgivable.

That said, it’s far too late for Steam to steal away Discord’s users — it’s been adopted by far too many communities and the benefits of switching aren’t really substantial. But for people who have not yet installed Discord, the presence of a robust chat and voice client within Steam is a powerful deterrent.

It’s currently in beta, but you can request access here (web) and here (Steam). No word on whether they are developing a whole system of chat icons based on those wiggly little egg-people in the top image. (Please.)

How Nintendo regained its footing with the Switch and smartphones

As recently as a couple of years ago, Nintendo very much felt like a company at a crossroads. The Wii U presented a rare major misfire for the gaming giant, while its executives stubbornly clung to a strategy that actively excluded smartphones.

The Nintendo of 2018, however, feels newly invigorated. In January, the company announced that the Switch had blown past the Wii’s record to become the fastest selling U.S. console, with 4.8 million units moved in 10 months. These days, that number is closer to 5.9 million in the States, with 17.79 million units sold globally as of April, by NPD’s count.

“We learned from previous launches,” Nintendo executive Doug Bowser (different Bowser) said in an interview with TechCrunch upstairs at the company’s E3 booth. “We made sure we launched with great content. And then we’ve had a steady drumbeat of new titles.”

The company addressed that issue with the launch of the flagship Zelda title Breath of the Wild, alongside the console. This time two years ago, the company’s booth was awash with Zelda imagery, made up to look like a small-scale version of Hyrule. In 2018, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is the clear focus, as its E3 presence has shifted to something more tournament style, with large screens displaying the mega-crossover fighting game.

For the company, those two titles represent the company’s first-party play for an “active gamer” segment — a more direct take on the likes of PlayStation and Microsoft. Nintendo’s family-friendly approach is still present in those titles it produced in-house, but things have softened a bit, perhaps, when it comes to embracing third-party titles.

“Our goal with Nintendo Switch is to appeal to a broad audience,” said Bowser. “That goes well beyond family-friendly titles, and obviously with some of the third-party content we’ve brought to the platform, there’s more mature content. We want to make it accessible, but clearly when it comes to our own IP, it’s in a more family-friendly arena.”

Today’s release of Fortnite for the Switch is a pretty clear example of this. It’s a big win for both parties, as the fast-selling console gets access to the large cross-platform title. But even that is a far cry from some of the extreme gore we saw on the big screen last night at Sony’s big kick-off event.

For younger players, the 3DS/2DS is still going surprisingly strong for an eight-year-old system. 2017 actually saw a jump in consoles sold over the year prior. “Younger consumers are coming in through our 2DS and 2DS XL platforms,” said Bowser. “It’s a great entry point for us. As long as consumers are voting, we’ll continue to support it.”

And for all of its early foot-dragging, mobile has clearly been a boon for the company. First-party games like Super Mario Run and third-party partnerships like Pokémon GO have gone a ways toward spreading the gospel of Nintendo IP. Late last month, Niantic announced that its AR game had hit a staggering 800 million downloads.

The newly announced Switch titles Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee represent another step toward a more open, cross-platform Nintendo, as well. The Poké Ball Plus peripheral lets users capture Pokémon on the mobile title and utilize them into the Switch game. It’s a compelling bit of synergy that could point a ways forward, wherein smartphones and the Switch play even more nicely together.

Gaming leans into diversity at E3, but not hard

To say the gaming community is not known for its friendliness to women and minority groups is something of an understatement. But we’re starting to see developers abandon the usual excuses of tradition, demographics and, the most absurd of all, “realism,” in favor of making gaming more inclusive. Kind of.

This has been an ongoing theme for years, of course. But it feels like this year it was a little less self-congratulatory and a little more self-motivated.

The fun started early, well ahead of E3, with the apparently devastatingly diverse front lines in Battlefield V, which takes place during World War II. The predictable objections as to “historical accuracy” appeared — unironic, despite the utter lack of historical accuracy in pretty much any of these games. The way the war was fought, the locations and situations, the weapons and vehicles have all been liberally massaged to turn the worst thing in history into a fun multiplayer game.

But it was EA’s chief creative officer, Patrick Soderlund, who made the headlines with a searing riposte in an interview with Gamasutra. Citing the historical record of women and people of color in the war, he called out the peanut gallery as both incorrect and irrelevant.

What’s the most unrealistic part about Battlefield V? It ain’t her.

“These are people who are uneducated,” he said. “They don’t understand that this is a plausible scenario, and listen: this is a game.”

A game, he added, intended to surface stories that have been hitherto relatively seldom told, including the roles of those groups.

“This is something that the development team pushed. And we don’t take any flak. We stand up for the cause, because I think those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game. I’m fine with either or. It’s just not OK.”

Then E3 got started. As a pleasant early surprise, Gears of War 5 has you playing a female protagonist in what has long been a mainstay of grizzled space-marine mandom, and your companion is a black guy. Of course you have the new Tomb Raider, a solid franchise with an increasingly strong, well-written female lead.

In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft went so far as to twist the lore of the series to accommodate the player’s choice of character: Alexios or Kassandra, between whom there are no real differences — including romance options, a quietly provocative decision.

The Last of Us Part Two has a badass young woman as its protagonist, defending herself with shocking brutality in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. (Yet you can be sure it’s the kiss shared with a girl on the dance floor that will generate more controversy.)

Nintendo offered a variety of customization in the new Smash Bros. for Switch, with male and female options for all kinds of characters, including Pikachu. Even Cuphead has a playable lady in it now.

Elsewhere we saw diversity on display in something as simple as having men and women of all races represented as pirate captains, commanders of futuristic forces, medieval knights (a nice Joan of Arc feel from For Honor’s trailer) and futuristic jet pilots. (My favorite outfit was in Control, by the way.)

What it felt like to me, though, was not that these companies were fulfilling some kind of diversity quota — that bogeyman so often invoked by critics — but rather the simple acknowledgement that the world of games should resemble the world of gamers.

Of course, when you pull back a little bit, it becomes extremely clear that the majority of games are still very much dominated by the garden variety grizzled white male protagonist. But that’s fine. We have a similar problem in film, TV and other fiction as well, right? Moving on from outdated ideas of race and gender in the world of media is an ongoing concern and it won’t happen all at once.

But at least at this E3 we’re seeing indications that developers and publishers are moving in the right direction.

As for the people playing — well, that’s a different story. Whatever the flexibility of your choices in the latest crop of AAA games, female gamers and people of color will still be ruthlessly harassed, abused and otherwise targeted. Developers can’t change the bigoted minds of toxic players — but they can ban them. Here’s hoping that side of things is getting equal attention.

Hands-on with Nintendo’s Poké Ball Plus

Nintendo doesn’t come out with a ton of hardware in-between system launches, but the peripherals it does come out with have a history of being pretty quality. That being said, the Poké Ball Plus may be the nicest little game-specific system accessory Nintendo has sold yet.

At Nintendo’s big, honking E3 booth I had a chance to go hands-on with the little golf-ball sized device. Nintendo was not allowing us to take video or pictures of it during use, but rest assured, this is exactly what it looks like in real life.

For what should by all means be a gimmicky little device, Nintendo put a thoughtful amount of engineering into the little ball, which was surprisingly fun to play the new titles with and seemed to offer a lot more than nostalgia for prospective owners.

Build-wise this thing feels nice and hefty with an experience that feels a bit more immersive than using a Joy-Con because you are holding a little ball rather than flicking a controller. Additionally, there are some lights on the joystick/trigger that light up to showcase when you’ve caught a Pokémon or are housing one. You can charge the Poké Ball Plus via USB-C and you’ll get about six hours charge on it, the company tells us.

You can navigate your character through the game with the joy-stick and push it in to make selections. When it comes to actually capturing Pokémon that you encounter, you can sort of flick the little ball — there’s a strap and a little ring to ensure the ball doesn’t go flying.

Will this be something that drastically improves your experience playing the varieties of Pokemon: Let’s Go? No, but you probably won’t feel like an idiot for spending extra money on something your system’s Joy-Cons can already do if more fun is an acceptable system spec.

It’s cool, it’s cute and tiny and, similar to the Pokémon GO Plus wristband, you’ll be able to connect this to your phone and catch the little creatures on-the-go, so you are getting some added functionality if you’ve bought into Niantic’s Pokémon world on mobile, as well.

Other features beyond being able to house a Pokémon that you have captured on the move is that you can actually shake the device and hear the sound of the particular Pokémon you currently have captured. As far as fun little features go, this has a lot to offer fans.

We don’t have an official price for the accessory itself, but Nintendo did reveal today that it will be included with a $100 bundle with a copy of Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu or Eevee. You’ll also get the mythical Pokémon Mew with your Poké Ball Plus.