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How Two Developers Made A Living With Awful Games

Mobile games were supposed to be an indie developer nirvana. When the iPhone debuted in 2007, Apple pitched consumers on the promise of an endless stream of tiny creative games and other productivity applications. Indie developers immediately recognized the market’s potential: A small team of developers could release their experimental projects to millions of users at a low price and reap large rewards. Early mobile hits like Words with Friends, Fruit Ninja, and Temple Run seemed to confirm this notion, and those titles helped their developers amass significant nest eggs.

Then the gold rush happened, and the mobile market metastasized into something ugly. App stores overflowed with ad-driven, free-to-play games that catered to the lowest common denominator. Mobile game development became financially unsustainable for many. In the midst of this mobile “indiepocalypse,” two friends found success in an unlikely place. Their secret: Make a thousand bad games.

Ziba Scott and Alex Schwartz at a GDC party in 2013, around the time they came up with the idea for Slots

THE BROKEN DREAMS OF GAME DEVELOPERS

In 2013, Alex Schwartz and Ziba Scott joined a shared workspace co-op in Boston while independently pursuing careers in game development. Both designers had shifted to the mobile space with the dream of making their big break in the industry. After their first meeting, they quickly bonded over the struggle to realize that dream.

Schwartz had attended college for game design before landing a job at Seven45 Studios working on a failed Rock Band clone called Power Gig: Rise of the SixString. After its release, Schwartz set off on his own and formed Owlchemy Labs, the indie studio that released the racing smuggler game Snuggle Truck as well as the early VR standout Job Simulator.

Scott, on the other hand, worked for seven years as a Linux consultant and web developer when he decided that making games was more fulfilling. After earning a master’s degree in serious game design from Michigan State University, Scott secured a publishing deal with Adult Swim Games for his puzzle game Girls like Robots. By the time Schwartz and Scott met, they had both signed contracts with big publishers and released creative indie titles to favorable reviews. And yet, both designers still struggled to make ends meet.

“We always felt like if we could do something that was creatively fulfilling, and we made enough money on game number one to fund game number two, then that was top-tier success,” Schwartz says. “We played the multiplatform hustle, where if you make something in Unity you can put it anywhere, and it wasn’t working. The dream wasn’t ‘Oh man, I hope we can be kings of mobile.’ We were just chasing platforms, and we were watching the concept that people would spend three dollars on a premium mobile game nosedive super hard.”

We played the multiplatform hustle, where if you make something in Unity you can put it anywhere, and it wasn’t working…”

“It was 2013 when it became clear that that premium mobile market was dying,” Scott adds. “It was becoming a strange beast. Even now, you can’t follow the successes from two years ago. You can’t follow those rules because the industry is constantly changing. That was something we were learning. I think both of us felt like we were a year or two too late to release a three-dollar game or even a five-dollar game on iOS that would even make its money back.”

Half a decade after the release of the iPhone, the mobile market was awash with clones, reskins, and other low-effort shovelware. In some cases, the clones were actually making more money than the originals, which famously happened to number-based puzzle game Threes in 2014. Schwartz and Scott felt that it was nearly impossible for the average game developer to get noticed without a million-dollar marketing budget. As young indie developers struggling to pay the rent, Schwartz and Scott were growing disillusioned.

Then they had a crazy idea. If the system had stopped working for them, maybe they could just work the system.

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QUANTITY OVER QUALITY

Every January, MIT helps host the Global Game Jam, the world’s largest game jam, which takes place at multiple locations around the world. While teams of programmers and artists beat their heads trying to come up with one “perfect idea,” Schwartz and Scott giggled in a corner and asked themselves, “How can we do worse?”

The two developers had often joked about how they could reskin and clone their own games and flood the mobile marketplace. Now they were ready to actually do it. But first, they needed to make a game that was incredibly simple and easy to clone. Schwartz and Scott never intended to spend a lot of time or effort on a project like this. Cutting corners was not only encouraged, it was a mantra. Ultimately, the designers decided that they didn’t even need to make the game themselves – they could just download and repackage some prebuilt program off the Unity Asset Store. Reskinning and cloning a game they hadn’t even made felt like one gigantic corner to cut. It was perfect. Schwartz and Scott hopped online and bought a slot-machine game for $14.99. The duo didn’t know it yet, but they would eventually see a massive return on that investment.

“Slot-machine games seemed like the perfect fit, because they have such a low barrier to entry,” Scott says. “There aren’t many games simpler than pressing a button that says good or bad. You can hardly abstract the concept of a game any further -than -that.”
“Slot-machines are the one world where there is already an entire industry built around reskins, and no one gives a s—,” Schwartz adds. “Walking through Vegas, you see hundreds of different slot-machines. You walk past Cleopatra slots and then Wheel of Fortune slots, there are even Fruit Ninja slots. It’s such a weird world that we didn’t understand, but we knew that humans seem drawn to them in some way.”

Once Schwartz and Scott had a working game, they set to work making copies. They added new background images, in-game “about” descriptions, and a custom theme song. Their slot games were of admittedly low quality, but they had taken less than an afternoon to cobble together. Future clones would take only a fraction of that time.

Scott wrote a Unity editor script that automatically grabbed images off the web, swiped an about blurb from Wikipedia, and then used a text-to-speech program to generate new lyrics to their electronic theme song. At this point, all Schwartz and Scott had to do was type a theme into their Unity editor and the program would spit out a new slot-machine. Before long, they had dozens of slot games with titles as absurd as Lobster Slots, Richard III Slots, and Harlem Shake Slots.

The designers then took the hundred-plus games they had made and published them onto the Google Play store. They marveled at the fact that a few people actually downloaded them and laughed over the smattering of bad reviews. At this point, Schwartz and Scott’s silly experiment seemed like a success. They didn’t know what it proved, but releasing a glut of low-quality games onto Google’s marketplace felt like a snarky middle finger to the industry and its rising tide of low-quality content that was drowning out premium mobile products dedicated developers had poured their blood, sweat, and tears into. Their curiosity satisfied, Schwartz and Scott walked away and forgot about their little experiment.

Over the next several months, while quietly unobserved, their games continued to accrue downloads.

DOUBLING DOWN

After the Christmas break of 2013, Schwartz and Scott returned to check up on their slot-machine experiment. They were startled by their discovery. All of Schwartz and Scott’s games were free to download, but like most free games, these slot games featured integrated advertising. It was almost a joke. One of the most annoying aspects of the mobile market were the “gacha” free-to-play games that roped players into watching one ad after another for another spin at the wheel. Schwartz and Scott were trying to mock those types of games; they hardly expected to make money on the ads in their own crappy games.

“A lot of times app stores have a bump over the holidays and we wondered what happened,” Schwartz says. “We saw that our downloads had gone way up, but then we checked our ad network backend and saw that in January and throughout the holidays we were making over $200 a day.”

“It’s hard not to look at a few hundred bucks a day that took no work and not draw a line from $200 to millions twinkling in our eyes somewhere,” Scott says.

Schwartz and Scott didn’t need any more encouragement to fire up their automated workshop again. But this time, they were ready to take things to the next level, so they incorporated under the name Signal to Noise. The pair even came up with a cutesy tagline, “We are the noise.”

Making slot games was a snap, but there were a few speed bumps to Schwartz and Scott’s automated system. It took several minutes to fill out all the forms to submit a game for publishing on Google’s App store, and the pair still had to sit down and brainstorm new themes for future slot games. Sure, typing in a new theme took seconds, but they felt that even this process could be automated.

To solve the first problem of submitting games for publishing, Scott used a web-automation tool that played back browser-based interactions. This allowed him to record the inputs for filling out the developer agreements needed to submit a game to Google’s Play Store. To solve the second problem of generating ideas, Schwartz and Scott had Google Trends feed their system relevant news and celebrity gossip, which resulted in games likes Deer Antler Spray Slots and John Boehner Slots. Next, they downloaded massive lists of words and coded a formula that took random adjectives and paired them with random nouns. This program spit out a stream of nonsensical slot-machine ideas like Stupid Pumpkin Slots, Tremendous Face Pain Slots, and Inexperienced Great Horned Owl Slots. “We had reduced the gap between conceiving a game to publishing it to market to typing a single word and hitting enter,” Scott says.

After a few months of tinkering, Schwartz and Scott had developed an automated system that could be accessed via Wi-Fi from any country in the world. They had visions of sipping drinks on the beach while periodically checking in on their slot-machine empire. The duo nicknamed their system The Goose, as in the fabled bird that laid golden eggs. Before long, The Goose was churning out and publishing games at an insane clip. In fact, Schwartz and Scott were amassing more games than they could ever publish; Google actually restricts developers from publishing more than 15 games a day. But even with this artificial restriction, after its first year Signal to Noise had already submitted nearly 750 games to the Google Play Store. Most games only got a few hundred to a thousand downloads, but even the least successful slot-machines contributed to Signal to Noises’ overall downloads, and ultimately ad impressions.

We had reduced the gap between conceiving a game to publishing it to market to typing a single word and hitting enter,” Scott says.

“One month, we looked at the drip income of Owlchemy’s entire portfolio,” Schwartz says. “I remember that Slots, this low-effort garbage pile, was somehow bringing in more money than the past four years of my creative endeavors. That was a real laugh-while-crying kinda moment. I went, ‘What the f— are we doing with our lives if this joke has started to supersede true effort?’ … I almost didn’t want it to make money, because it proved that it’s more effort to make games the right way. There was a feeling of it shouldn’t be this easy, because it proves that, as a society, people are not as discerning with quality as we had hoped.”

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WALKING AWAY FROM A WINNING HAND

On a good month, Schwartz and Scott wouldn’t even interact with The Goose and they could watch the ad revenue roll in. But eventually, The Goose always needed attention. Schwartz and Scott had built a fragile scaffolding with several points of failure. Their entire automated system relied on over a dozen different online services, from Google to Wikipedia to small web-based freeware. When Google Images caused problems for their automated system, they had to switch over to Bing’s image search. When Google Play required game submissions to include high-res images, they had to update their photo capture system. When Unity changed its privacy policy, a country altered its laws on gambling apps, or a checkbox on Google’s publishing forms shifted even 10 pixels to the left, The Goose would grind to a halt and the system had to be updated. Fixing these problems was rarely complicated, but The Goose needed the-occasional greasing.

The bigger issue was that Signal to Noise had started as a joke, but it had grown into something larger – something unfulfilling. “I was constantly torn between pride and amusement and a sense that I should be doing something else,” Scott says.
“There was a joke here, where if the mobile market was more sustainable for premium content, then we wouldn’t have had to lower ourselves to following through on this joke idea,” Schwartz adds.

When Google started to implement systems that made it difficult for cloners like Signal to Noise, Schwartz and Scott ultimately decided to walk away from their project. On March 19, 2017, after more than four years, 1,500 slot-machine games, and over 1.6 million downloads, Signal to Noise published its last game: 3D Astronomer Slots – Free.

To be clear, Schwartz and Scott didn’t shut down their automated system, they just stopped updating it and let The Goose die a slow death. They left the keys in the car and let it slowly roll into a ditch. Surprisingly, The Goose lived far longer than either Schwartz or Scott had expected. Today, Signal to Noise’s entire portfolio of games has been suspended by Google for failure to keep up with the latest updates. Even so, as of this printing, Schwartz and Scott are still scraping in a small amount of ad revenue from users who occasionally fire up the apps still lingering on their phones.

BIG PAYOUT

Fortunately, these days, Schwartz and Scott don’t have to play the slot game to make money, and both developers have found some of the indie development success they yearned for. In 2016, Scott used Fig to successfully crowdfund Make Sail, a physics-based construction adventure, and the game is currently in early access. Meanwhile, in 2017, Schwartz’s company Owlchemy Labs was purchased by Google, and Schwartz has spun off once again to form another, currently unnamed, indie game company.

Both Schwartz and Scott say Google has made it more difficult for developers to flood the market with the types of automated clones that they released, but that doesn’t mean the mobile market has become more friendly to developers, or users for that matter. App stores are still brimming with clones and ad-driven shovelware that make it hard for premium titles to be discovered. This problem isn’t localized to the mobile space, either. As online stores like Steam continue to open up and make it easier for anyone with a computer to publish software to the platform, developers will continue to find ways to exploit those systems.

“It’s interesting how this experiment tied into my ideas on curation,” Schwartz says. “This is the logical outcome to a completely open, uncurated platform. Quality goes down, people think of various schemes to flood the market, and consumers are left with a low-quality experience overall. I feel very passionately that consumers should have a curated experience. So this was us jumping over the tiniest of tiny fences to go muck around in an open ecosystem to show people how bad things are, and how bad they can be.”

If Schwartz is to be believed, then maybe the problem isn’t with the kinds of developers who churn out endless clones and other low quality software. And the problem might not be the consumers who find themselves lost in a sea of likeminded apps that constantly demand their eyeballs. The problem is likely the systems platform holders have built that allow for this level of exploitation. Some developers are trying to stem this tide. Valve has taken a player-driven approach to discoverability, allowing user reviews and trends to drive many of Steam’s algorithms, but as more new games flood the market, developers continue to complain about getting lost in the sea. Online stores are full of garbage, but who’s cleaning up the trash?

This was us jumping over the tiniest of tiny fences to go muck around in an open ecosystem to show people how bad things are…”

If anything, experiments like Signal to Noise expose the inefficacies of our current online markets, and offer a peek into one potential future where automation spirals out of control.

Today, the internet is crawling with automated bots that do everything from sending emails to leaving consumer reviews to responding to Twitter comments. It’s easy to get lost in the cacophony. Tomorrow, bots are already learning how to make, publish, and even promote games. What happens next is still up to us.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Game Informer.

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Replay – The X-Files

Click here to watch embedded media

Set roughly during the third season of The X-Files show, the 1998 PlayStation game of the same name follows FBI agent Craig Willmore as he tries to track down Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. This point-and-click adventure uses a full-motion-video technology called Virtual Cinema, which offers up a number of choices called … wait for it … UberVariables.

The Game Informer crew is playing through the opening moments of this forgotten gem and will do their best to not butcher X-Files legacy in the process. Enjoy the episode, and we’ll see you again live in seven days!

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Exclusive Pokémon Sword And Shield Concept Art Gallery

As you probably already know, our cover story this month features Pokémon Sword and Shield. As part of our coverage, we received a glimpse of concept art from the early days of development. Now, you can get a look at these never-before-seen pieces of concept art. These pieces were illustrated by director Shigeru Ohmori, art director James Turner, and managing director/art director at Game Freak Ken Sugimori, who has been a character designer and artist for the series since the first entries.

You can see the full gallery, as well as descriptions provided by Game Freak, below.

This was drawn by James Turner, the art director, as an example of the final art direction he wanted to pursue for Pokémon Sword & Shield. We then developed 3D models of the same environment to try to match the look.

This was a quick sketch done by Ken Sugimori while we were talking about just how big the Poké Ball should grow in size when thrown out to catch Dynamax Pokémon. We came up with the idea that the ball would expand from the center during this conversation.

A concept image of the player character’s home, inspired by what a typical U.K. home might look like. With lots of small objects placed in the house, it was difficult to replicate it faithfully in 3D. Some adjustments in positioning of rooms were made in the final version, so I hope players will look forward to seeing how it has changed from this concept!

A concept image by James Turner that aims to capture some of the feeling and color of an environment in the U.K. The coloring of the patchwork farmland is very similar to what ended up in the final game.

A concept image by James Turner showing what a Galar region Pokémon battle broadcast on TV and enjoyed by the masses might look like. The idea is to make it look like a still from a TV broadcast. Some of the U.I. design in the game was inspired by the typical flat design you might see in a sports broadcast.

An early concept image of a Galar region Pokémon Center drawn by Shigeru Ohmori while he was traveling for media interviews ahead of the launch of Pokémon Sun & Moon. Pokémon Centers are meant to be a building that symbolizes the region in which they exist. This design was partially inspired by pubs Ohmori saw in the U.K. and reflect the concept that lots of people would gather here to relax and watch Pokémon Battles.

This is an early sketch that Ken Sugimori came up with while we sat and discussed what Rotom might look like it if it inhabited a mobile phone. The face rotation gimmick remained through the final version of the design.

This was an illustration by Shigeru Ohmori while he was visiting the Lake District in the U.K. during a trip for media interviews ahead of the launch of Pokémon Sun & Moon. The winding path scenery particularly captured his imagination and this specific illustration ended up being incorporated into one of the routes in the game. He also heard a legend that catching the floating fluffy cotton balls in the air could bring good fortune, and that served as the inspiration for Gossifleur.

This was another sketch done by Shigeru Ohmori while traveling the U.K. during a trip for media interviews ahead of the launch of Pokémon Sun & Pokémon Moon. It’s inspired by the scenery he saw in Windermere. It was done in late September of 2016, before the release of Pokémon Sun & Moon. He was inspired the atmosphere of the town, with its countless sheep and walls of stacked dry-stone. This concept ended up serving as the basis for the design of first town in the game.

This was another sketch of scenery by Shigeru Ohmori while traveling the U.K. during a trip for media interviews ahead of the launch of Pokémon Sun & Pokémon Moon. He was inspired by the beautiful scenery of lakes and rivers with towns far in the distance that he saw from inside the train he was riding. It gave him the impression of endless adventure and he wanted to instill this feeling into the game. This concept helped inform the design of the Wild Areas.


For more on Pokémon Sword and Shield, head to our hub by clicking the banner below.

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Pokémon Cut From Sword And Shield’s National Pokédex Will Return In The Future

Pokémon Sword and Shield

Fans are eagerly anticipating Pokémon Sword and Shield, but some of the biggest news coming out of summer was regarding what won’t be in the first mainline Pokémon console RPGs. During E3, producer Junichi Masuda explained that not every Pokémon will make the leap into Sword and Shield. This news left many fans disappointed, so I caught up with Masuda during our trip for this month’s cover story to dive deeper into the reasoning for the cuts.

According to Masuda, the sheer number of Pokémon the series had accumulated over the last two-plus decades got to the point of being unwieldy. “Up until now, we’ve been proud we’ve been able to include so many Pokémon in the games, but as a result of that, there’s actually been quite a few features or gameplay ideas that we’ve had to abandon in the past,” he says. “Going forward, thinking about the future of Pokémon, we want to prioritize all those new gameplay ideas, new ways to enjoy the game, and want to challenge ourselves at Game Freak to create new ways to enjoy the game. That’s really what drove the decision for this new direction.”

Pokémon Sword and Shield

The decision was the result of collaborative talks between Game Freak, The Pokémon Company, and Nintendo. “We have a lot of awesome new challenges that we haven’t even revealed in Sword and Shield,” Masuda says. “We want to continue to come up with these new features, so we figured this was the best path forward for the franchise”

Things are a bit complicated when diving into how the team decided which Pokémon wouldn’t carry over into the Galar region. “A wide variety of discussions happened; it’s not just one kind of criteria for deciding which Pokémon are going to appear in the games, but a lot of different reasons, a lot of different directions, a lot of debate over which ones would be the best in the game,” Masuda says. “I think one example of that is figuring out the Pokémon that would make sense for the setting of the game the most; these Pokémon look like they could live in the Galar region. We really spent a lot of effort deciding which would best fit the setting of the adventure and the features that we wanted to implement. I think players will be satisfied. There’s quite a few Pokémon that you’ll encounter in the Galar region Pokédex, so I think players will have fun seeing all the Pokémon.”

Pokémon Sword and Shield

When I ask for specifics about the Pokémon that didn’t make the cut for Sword and Shield – including names and total number of creatures – Masuda did not elaborate. However, he was much more explicit when I asked if cut Pokémon will return in future games. “Definitely,” he says. “You can look forward to seeing Pokémon that don’t appear in these games appearing in different regions in future games. I think Pokémon Home, for a lot of players, will serve as a launching pad to gather them all there and then embark on future adventures.”

Pokémon Home has been announced, but details to this point are scarce. Masuda intends on keeping it that way for a bit longer, but he did offer a bit more insight into the upcoming app. “We’re really designing it as the place for all of your Pokémon together, so it’s really important for the future of the franchise, and it’ll be more than even Pokémon Bank as a place to gather all your Pokémon together in one spot.”

We’ll have to see which Pokémon we encounter in the Galar region when Pokémon Sword and Shield launch November 15.

For more on Pokémon Sword and Shield, head to our hub by clicking the banner below.

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Sword And Shield’s Max Raid Battles Could Be Among Pokémon’s Most Challenging Encounters

Pokémon Sword and Shield

Pokémon Sword and Shield are introducing myriad new mechanics to the series. One of the biggest new additions is the ability for Pokémon to grow to massive proportions. While this is most prominently on display in battles through the Dynamax and Gigantamax mechanics, players can also challenge powerful giant Pokémon in cooperative Max Raid Battles. We spoke with the developers to learn more about these encounters.

Initially, the Max Raid Battles were called something more generic like “cooperative battles,” but following Pokémon Go’s implementation of co-op raids, the word was entered into the vocabularies of Pokémon fans across the globe. “The initial concept of having cooperative battles against a Pokémon – the raid idea – came before raids were even implemented in Pokémon Go, but we saw Pokémon Go implement this raid feature and how popular it was for people to get together in the same space and enjoy these cooperative experiences,” director Shigeru Ohmori says. “I think there was some influence like how in Pokémon Go, you don’t need to be a hardcore battler to enjoy the raid battles. It’s really easy to invite a friend. We wanted to have that element in Sword and Shield’s raid encounters as well.”

Pokémon Sword and Shield

While Ohmori likes the idea of not having to be a hardcore battler to enjoy these raid encounters, planning director Kazumasa Iwao cautions that you shouldn’t expect to walk right in and take down the highest-ranked beasts. “I think some of them are going to be pretty difficult,” Iwao says. “I think it’s going to have a kind of difficulty we haven’t seen in a lot of main series Pokémon games up until now, but there is a wide spread of difficulties even in the Max Raid Battles.”

Much like the raids in Pokémon Go, Max Raid Battles are represented by a ranking system. In Sword and Shield, they’re ranked by stars; the more stars a Max Raid Battle has, the more difficult it is. “It starts out a little easier, then you can choose the difficulty based on how powerful your Pokémon are,” Iwao says. “Even for me, a seasoned Pokémon player, even if I go with one of the five-star Max Raid Battles, I can definitely run into situations where I’m not able to win.”

We’ll learn just how difficult these raid encounters can be when Pokémon Sword and Shield launches on Switch November 15.

For more on the upcoming Switch RPGs, head to our hub by clicking the banner below.

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Unboxing The Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Collector’s Edition

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is rolling out today, and Bungie was kind enough to let us check out a copy of the collector’s edition and share details and pictures with you. Hop down into the gallery if you just want a glimpse of the goodies inside, or read on for some brief descriptions of what you can expect to find within. Most reports indicate the Collector’s Edition has been broadly sold out, so if you didn’t snag a copy, here’s your chance to see what you’re missing.

The Collector’s Edition box opens up and immediately offers up a letter from Eris Morn, who writes to our Guardian of a doomed Golden Age expedition on the moon, and a mysterious power sought by the Hive. The opposite face of the letter includes a map of the First Light Mission Complex on Luna, with several areas circled.

The collector’s edition also includes both a digital code for an exclusive emblem and is supposed to include a digital soundtrack code, although I should note here that the soundtrack code seemed to be missing from our copy. Hopefully, that’s only a function of the early copy of the product we received, rather than an indication of what’s going out to consumers.

Dig a bit deeper, and you get to other goodies, including a physical patch (depicting the same image as your new digital emblem), and a piece of Eris’ jewelry that recalls prayer beads in its look, which is contained in a cinched cloth sack that may remind some of a dice bag.

A “Codes and Procedures” book offers some lore goodness to dig into, and seems to detail information about the lost Golden Age expedition that once visited Luna.

A “Luna Journal” is also included, and it features a wealth of new lore for fans to dig into, some of which veers a bit into spoiler territory for Shadowkeep. Without delving into those elements, it’s enough to say that the journal has mostly blank pages, but scattered across the pages of the book are log entries from the mission to the moon. Within the front cover, there is also a postcard and similarly sized images that are meant to look like pictures taken during this mysterious mission.

The pièce de résistance in the Collector’s Edition is the Hive Cryptoglyph, which will certainly be the display piece you’ll have out on your shelf as you play through Shadowkeep. The detailed artifact includes actual twisting bands that feature Hive runes, and the whole thing is actually a puzzle to be solved and opened, but we’ll leave the secret of how to do so up to you to discover, in case you’re actively avoiding being spoiled. 

Take a look at the gallery below to see what’s included. And whether you sprung for the Collector’s Edition or not, best of luck on the Moon, Guardians!

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Where’s Our The Surge 2 Review?

The Surge 2 is out tomorrow on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. I’ve logged over 30 hours into this exploratory actio… 繼續閱讀

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Looking Back At Zelda: Link’s Awakening With Its Director Takashi Tezuka

The Legend of Zelda is celebrating 30 years this year, which is as good a reason as any to look back at one of the stranger entries in the series: The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. This feature originally appeared in issue 269 of Game Informer magazine.

Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy was more than just a handheld offshoot of a popular franchise. It established important Zelda staples in terms of story, humor, and a focus on character development that the series still uses to this day, all while carving an identity that remains distinct more than 20 years later.

Link’s Awakening was the first Zelda to feature fishing, allow Link to grab cuccos, and highlight musical instruments as more than just another item in Link’s inventory. The game also had extended side quests, like the mission to find all the secret seashells and a trading game with the world’s inhabitants. Link’s Game Boy adventure was a huge success for Nintendo, dramatically boosting handheld sales in 1993 and selling more than 5 million copies over its lifetime. It sits comfortably at number three on Game Informer’s top 25 Game Boy games of all time list, and also cracked the top 100 on our Top 200 Games of All Time list.

For players who grew up with the Game Boy instead of a home console, Link’s Awakening was the entry point into one of Nintendo’s most important and popular franchises. But in many ways the game was meant to be a strange love letter to the Zelda games that came before it. In an Iwata Asks interview with Nintendo – where the company’s late president and CEO Satoru Iwata shared stories with the creators of its most successful games – Link’s Awakening director Takashi Tezuka said that during development it felt like the team was making a parody of a Zelda game, as opposed to a true Zelda entry.

“When we say parody, I’m not sure where that word comes from because maybe there are translation issues,” Tezuka told us when we asked what he meant by that comment. “With Zelda games we usually plan them out, every detail is considered. With Link’s Awakening, we were working on that after our other work was done. Kind of like a club of people who loved Zelda and got together to make it. It has a different feeling for that reason.”

The original plan for Zelda’s first Game Boy adventure was to bring a modified version of Link to the Past to the handheld, but that idea fell by the wayside. Instead, Link’s Awakening started as an unsanctioned after-hours passion project for members of the Link to the Past team. “The main programmer wanted to challenge himself to create a Zelda experience on a portable system to see what he could do, and I was into the idea. We just had a passion to try and do something interesting,” Tezuka says. “We didn’t really have permission to do it necessarily. We were just playing around.”

It didn’t take long for the game to become more than an after-hours experiment. “Once we got it to a certain level of creation and completion that we wanted to show, then we took it to the company and got permission to continue developing it,” Tezuka says. “But initially it was just a little pet project of ours. Because we started it that way – just making a game we wanted to make – it may defy Zelda conventions. It might have interesting characters and situations we may not have had otherwise.”

Link’s Reawakening

Two versions of Link’s Awakening exist. The original released on the Game Boy in 1993. In 1998, Nintendo followed up with Link’s Awakening DX for the Game Boy Color. This version added a new dungeon and compatibility with the Game Boy Printer, allowing players to print out in-game photos after visiting a camera shop. The expanded DX version of the game is available on Nintendo’s eShop for the 3DS.

At the time of development, Twin Peaks was at the height of its popularity. The show’s dreamlike world and focus on a small cast of characters in a small town were elements Tezuka wanted represented in the game. As a result, Link’s Awakening was one of the first Zelda games to have a stronger focus on story. Link built relationships with NPCs with more dialogue interactions, had extended conversations with Marin (the girl who found him washed up on shore after his boat crashed), and was guided along his journey periodically by an owl (who would later make an appearance in Ocarina of Time). “I wanted to make something that, while it would be small enough in scope to easily understand, it would have deep and distinctive characteristics,” Tezuka said during his Iwata Asks interview. Link’s Awakening was about more than just solving puzzles, fighting enemies, and saving Zelda. Koholint Island was far different from Hyrule, and its characters were charming and mysterious. This was why many callouts from other Nintendo games made their way in.

Link’s Awakening featured strange scenarios that served as the platform for cameos from Mario, Yoshi, and Kirby, as well as Mario enemies like goombas and chain-chomps. Reminiscing about the game with his boss during the Iwata Asks interview, Tezuka admitted he wasn’t even sure if he got official permission from Kirby’s creators, HAL Laboratory, to include him in the game.

Alongside Majora’s Mask, Link’s Awakening continues to be among the stranger entries in the Zelda series. With its Twin Peaks influences, myriad outside Nintendo references, strange characters, and surprise ending, the game stands out despite its limited visuals and smaller world. It was the first Zelda game for many young players, and will retain its legacy for years to come even as handheld gaming technology moves forward at a brisk pace.

Ballad Of The Windfish

Many think the events of Majora’s Mask are the product of a dream, much like they are in Link’s Awakening. One hint of this is the presence of the song “Ballad of the Windfish” in Majora’s Mask. The song serves as an important plot element of Link’s Awakening. “It really came down to a decision by the sound team,” says Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma. “They were looking for inspiration, something that would fit the theme, and since Link’s Awakening was about collecting instruments it made sense that you would want to use this for a band in this case. For us, really, it was just a playful choice that referenced a previous game and nothing more than that.” 繼續閱讀

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Marvel Champions Is The Next Card Game You Should Play With Your Friends

I like knowing what I’m going to get with a game, and that means that Fantasy Flight’s living card game formula is very appealing. Unlike traditional collectible card games, the core sets and expansions for a living card game have a fixed distribution model; put simply, everyone who purchases a given set gets exactly the same content, cards, and components. Over time, it’s easy to stick with the basics or expand your engagement on a month-to-month basis, catering your purchases to your level of engagement.

Marvel Champions is the latest game to explore this model, and the initial core set is especially impressive. This single release includes all the cards you need to play the game solo or with up to four players total, without any additional purchases. The included rules books are articulate and welcoming, providing preset starter decks for your first few games to help get players up to speed, but a bevy of additional cards that allow you to begin experimenting with deck customization. The included cards are bright, the art generous and evocative of the original comic characters, and the related tokens and other components are solid and well produced. This is a robust game packed into a single box, and one that you can get to playing much faster than many comparable strategic card games.

All that risks burying the lead; Marvel Champions is a ton of fun, especially if you are a fan of the Marvel universe. And, let’s be frank here; doesn’t just about everybody have at least a passing familiarity and enthusiasm for characters like Iron Man and Black Panther at this point? Marvel Champions is a wholly cooperative game in which each character controls one of the iconic heroes, including in this initial set Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, She-Hulk, and Spider-Man. Working together, you confront one of several villains (Ultron, Rhino, and Klaw are included here) and their scheming plans, even while juggling the competing needs of both your hero and alter ego identities.

The general flow of play encourages players to balance a number of competing interests. Without a doubt, you must smash the opposing villain into submission with regular and concerted attacks. Simultaneously, you must counteract and thwart the villain’s blossoming scheme before it comes to fruition. Along the way, you’ve got to steadily improve and upgrade by attaching upgrades to your hero. And, from time to time, make sure that you recover from your battles as your alter ego, resting up and sometimes tending to your life outside of the suit.

That all plays out through a straightforward flow of turns. Each player enacts as many plans and attacks as they can with their current hand of cards, expending resources to perform actions and getting more beneficial cards onto the table. Villains then trigger, attacking each hero in turn, or advancing their schemes if the hero isn’t there to fight (because they are recovering as their alter ego). Then every player resolves an encounter, which might for example be a side scheme enacted by Rhino to steal stuff across town, or the arrival of Sandman into the fight to further cause trouble. Players pursue that structure of play until the villain has either been beaten to reach victory, or until the villain has either defeated all the heroes or completed them scheme, leading to a loss.

Even in my first game, I was impressed by the ease of play. Part of that is the included starter decks, which do a stellar job of onboarding new players through a structured first game that is characterized by the most straightforward cards and actions available in the box. But even beyond that initial game, Marvel Champions is one of those card games that just clicks very quickly. Heroes act first, villains respond; the natural flow of play is logical. Villainous minions trigger against the character who drew them, but not the other heroes. Character cards (which flip between their hero and alter ego sides) can only trigger powers that match the side of the card currently facing up. Through these, and dozens of other intuitive ideas, Marvel Champions is easy to learn and teach.

Simultaneously, it will only take you minutes to recognize the many ways that the designers have maintained strategic depth and engagement. Cards combo in exciting ways, like when Black Panther flings out “Wakanda Forever!” to trigger all his available upgrades, with damage bonuses if he manages to save those energy daggers for the last to trigger. Planning ahead pays dividends, like if Spider-Man thinks a big attack is coming, he can web up the bad guy to prevent the assault and stun them instead. Each character plays differently, and it’s fun to learn the playstyle for each, and makes me excited for the promised new heroes that will be introduced to the game over time. And importantly, many abilities are structured to encourage teamwork, like Carol Danvers’ core ability, which lets her choose any player to draw a card, expanding that hero’s options. Actions encourage the players to contrive for victory together, but independent character card decks encourage each player to still engage on their own, helping to avoid the dreaded dilemma of the single over-controlling player that can sometimes bog down a cooperative game night.

Beyond strategic depth, it’s clear that the makers of the game simply “get” what works about the Marvel heroes and villains, and recognizes ways to help each character feel right. Black Cat joins Spider-Man as an ally, and steals cards to bolster his hand. She-Hulk breaks out a massive gamma slam that deals damage proportional to how much battering she has already taken. Iron Man can head into battle with a carefully curated set of upgrades, but only after taking precious time as Tony Stark to carefully shuffle through those options and to build up his Mark V suit.

That sense of really being enmeshed in your character is aided by a number of other card types, including nemeses and obligations. Captain Marvel may be pulled away from the broader villain scheme being enacted by Ultron to deal with the arrival of Yon-Rogg. Or maybe Peter Parker must take a break from the action to deal with an impending eviction notice for his apartment. I love that give and take between the different aspects of the characters’ lives, and the need to regularly move back and forth between their identities.

One of the biggest triumphs of Marvel Champions is the way that it simultaneously offers a complete experience, but also leaves you hungry to snag those inevitable expansions as they come down the road. I’m already stoked to see what Captain America brings to the table in his announced hero pack, or how Green Goblin will seek to advance his plot in his impending scenario pack. And while the included and recommended starter decks offer a lot to play around with, the game also suggests intriguing deck customization options, which virtually beg to be tweaked through the addition of cards. For me, given that I can confidently purchase new expansions and know what I’m getting out of them, I don’t mind the drive to expanding the game, but it might be a turn-off for some players to feel like there’s always more to buy. With that said, this initial set includes almost 350 cards to get you going, and that’s going to add up to many hours of fun, even without any additional investment.

Cooperative games can really succeed or fail on the strength of the engagement they engender with the players at the table. Even the most interesting strategic affairs can fall flat if the core concept doesn’t get the whole group on the same page. It’s here that the Marvel license really pays dividends for Champions; after the last few years, these characters are at the top of their cultural popularity and enthusiasm, and the shared vocabulary of things like “web shooters” and “repulsor blasts” can do a lot to get the table engaged. That’s why I feel so comfortable offering this up as a broad recommendation to virtually any gaming group. My only caveat? The roughly 90-minute playtime, alongside the high dependence on reading and strategy, mean that the recommended age of 14+ is something you should think carefully about before breaking it out at the next family game night. While the colorful artwork is sure to hit a lot of buttons for that 8-year old Spider-Man fan, you need to judge for yourself if they’re ready for the complexities and time investment the game demands.

Whether or not you decide to give Marvel Champions a shot, I’m confident that I’ve got some sort of tabletop game to recommend that’s the right fit for your family and friends. Click into the hub banner below to explore past recommendations from Top of the Table, and drop me a line if you need some personal guidance, whether on whether Marvel Champions is a good fit for your group, or if you’re looking for something else entirely.

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Nintendo Switch Lite Review

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say hardly anyone used the 3D functionality built into the Nintendo 3DS; removing it from the 2DS iteration made sense. But I also believe people frequently use their Nintendo Switch both as a handheld and TV-docked console – which makes removing the TV functionality from the Switch Lite seem like a mistake. It isn’t. Nintendo is effectively taking the “switch” functionality out of the Switch with this handheld-only offering, and that’s perfectly fine. If you want a home console to play on your TV, the standard Switch model is still being sold. If you are primarily interested in the handheld functionality, you now have a considerably cheaper model as an option.

The Switch Lite retails for $199 (a huge $100 cut over the standard Switch model), and the lower price reflects a number of sizable cuts from the device’s performance. The unit is slightly smaller, with a 5.5-inch LCD screen over the original machine’s 6.2-inch screen. The Switch Lite is also a little lighter at .6 pounds opposed to .87 pounds, but you likely won’t feel much of a difference. This handheld-only option also doesn’t have a motion camera, HD rumble, and the joy-cons cannot be removed. On the original Switch, I periodically ran into issues with one of my joy-cons detaching while in handheld mode. That’ll never happen here, but not being able to remove them does render a number of games somewhat unplayable.

If you’re thinking of picking up the Switch Lite to play motion-based games, you may want to buy a pro controller or an extra set of freestanding joy-cons, as motion is not handled well on this device. Shaking the entire unit is not a viable way to play a game like Just Dance, Arms, or 1-2-Switch, which are designed with motion in mind. Subtle motion movements like precision aiming for sniping still works well, but if you are asked to rapidly shake the device or rotate it, you’re going to have a hard time playing.

If you are viewing Switch Lite as a travel companion, it’s battery life is about five to six hours (up from the two- to three-hour range of the original Switch model). Anyone who has taken the original Switch on a lengthy airplane trip can attest to Switch’s battery life being an issue. Nintendo has addressed this with the Switch Lite AND the standard model, which was just re-released with a battery that lasts for seven to nine hours.

Outside of the motion problems, gameplay functionality on the Switch Lite is a little better than the standard model. The face buttons have more give, which I like, and Nintendo’s decision to add an actual d-pad (as opposed to four little buttons) is a huge improvement. The screen is nice and bright, and the unit feels far more durable than the standard Switch.

Audio is somewhat suspect on the Switch Lite, making headphones a necessity. The built-in speaker might be a little too powerful for its own good, as it periodically delivers a little vibration through the plastic casing. If you opt for headphones, know that the Switch Lite (like the standard model) doesn’t support bluetooth audio out of the box; you can buy a device that allows bluetooth to work, but you may be better offer with a wired headset. Another legacy issue: The Switch Lite only offers 32GB of memory, and once again pushes players to buy a microSD card for game storage.

Minor complaints aside, the Switch Lite is a fantastic option for people who view Switch as a handheld-only device. The attractive price point, increased battery life, and slightly improved controls make it the perfect vehicle to play Switch’s awesome (and rapidly growing) library of games.

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