Friday 24 December 2010

A Year in Video Games: My Top 5 for 2010

2010 has been a great year for me in both gaming and game development. Being, as I am, perpetually late to any party, rather than list the best things that have been released or developed this year, I'm going to list the top 5 best things I've discovered.

Merry Christmas, a happy new year, and I hope you all discover something cool too!

5. Consolevania/VideoGaiden

I always have a "thing I'm watching when I should be going to sleep," and in January and February of this year, it was low-budget game review show Consolevania (and its BBC counterpart VideoGaiden). I love games criticism and it's creators, Glaswegians Ryan MacLeod and Rab Florence, are great fun to watch. It's got a very edgy sense of humour, so it's not for the easily offended, but these guys really know what they're talking about.

It goes back to 2004, and fizzled out around 2008, but if you enjoy looking back at cool stuff you might have missed when you were following the hype, this might pick up a few surprises.

Rab and Ryan are also pretty knowledgeable about their subject, as this opinion piece on violence in games shows, bucking the traditional gamers' view on the subject.

4. FlashPunk

When I started out exploring my options as a career-indie, I first looked into flash games. Compatibility is a big issue for me, and what is more universal a platform than a web browser? Making games using Flash and ActionScript on their own is pretty frustrating, and getting efficiency into your graphics can be a real chore, so discovering FlashPunk was fantastic.

It offers much of the 2D functionality of a games library such as XNA, and is wonderfully simple to use. The documentation is excellent, and it has a very active community (which, while I've not participated in, I have learnt a great deal from the discussion boards). If you want to make flash games, or indeed want to have a punt at learning game programming, this is highly recommended.


The first game on the list is a fantastic indie platformer I bought on Steam this autumn, brainchild of Terry Cavanagh. It's a lo-fi gravity-flipping platformer, with much of the audio-visual style of a Spectrum of C64 game... taken TO THE MAX.

What really works about this game is how it takes a very simple concept (instead of jumping, you flip gravity), and works it to its full conclusion, working out all kinds of level designs based around this simple basis. This is simplex platformer design at it's best, with each screen based around a simple premise, but challenging you in a new way.

Challenging both physically and mentally, stages are phenominally hard, but the forgiving checkpoint system allows you to keep trying with barely a setback. Because there's very little sense of punishment, the player rarely feels frustrated, but still gets that wonderful sense of accomplishment when they reach the end of the level.

The pumping sountrack really gets you going and has you playing the game in your head even when you have the game turned off. It's a beautiful use of Spectrum-style graphics, and its level design is the best I have seen in a platformer.

2. iPhone/iPad

Well, it's what I'm developing for, isn't it? Let's forget my business decisions for a while, and look at it as an exciting set of devices. So the Wii didn't quite revolutionise game controls, but perhaps the iPhone and iPad will, opening up the game market to all kinds of non-joypad games that anyone can control.

Tilt-sensitivity, multi-touch, and (in the case of the iPad), a big canvas to work with, are accurate and intuitive, and give lots of room for developers to play with. It's also got a very healthy independent development scene, and allows small-time developers a great opportunity to get their games onto what is, essentially, a console.

There is so much yet to be explored by developers, but there's so much room for it to grow as a console, and I can't wait to see what the future holds. In fact, it annoys me when home-console-styled games such as Rage HD come out, and people call it a sign of the device maturing - I feel that's completely missing the point. iPhone games are a sign of game development maturing, away from unnecessary stagnant home-console design standards, and into a richer more diverse world.

1. Kongai

I'm a professional, aren't I? Surely my number one should be some kind of tool or news channel, maybe revolutionary games writer or community? Oh sod it, when a game becomes one of my favourite games of all time, that means something, as I'm a very picky player and it's a very exclusive club.

Kongai is one of Kongregate's flagship titles. It couldn't be simpler: a strategy game where you have three cards (each representing a character) and battle them online. Each character has four moves, and each round consists of some very simple decisions. There's a bit of rock-paper-scissors involved, which adds a bit of reading your opponent into the mix, weighing out your different available strategies alongside your predictions of your opponent's moves.

There are very few options to choose from, but the different combinations of strategies make this into a very intense and intelligent game. It's also ridiculously simple to pick up. It really has to be played to be believed. Kongai is simplex in its purest form.

The game was designed to be a pure game of strategy and opponent-reading, and is very successful in that respect. As a result, every hour I have spent on this game has been an hour spent in deep concentration, which is a wonderful relief, and has expanded my mind. I used this game to exercise my mind during my university finals, but had to quit because I got too invested in it. It's incredibly addictive, because as you get good at it, you invest so much of yourself in the game and your strategies, all because you're judging your own abilities. Sure, it can take over your life if your not careful, but every minute spent playing Kongai expands your mind... which is part of what makes it so addictive! You could possibly say that this game is too good. I would even go so far to call this game perfect.

High praise for its designer, David Sirlin. Sirlin himself has an excellent blog where he writes about competitive game design, much of which can be applied to single-player games. He's also written a book, Playing to Win, on the subject which I also recommend.

I hope you enjoy discovering this stuff too, and I wish you all happy holidays and a prosperous and exciting 2011!