About a year ago, I wrote an article talking about the shabby relationship major games developers have had with the people buying their games (a trend that, as previous posts I’ve made this year illustrate, is still alive and well), coupled with the ability to vote with your wallet – if you’re not always looking for AAA high-definition graphics, there are a lot of indie projects that you can help fund with a “functional preorder” – that is, a preorder where you get access to the current development builds of the software, and can follow it all the way through to its full release (and afterwards, in some cases).  By doing these preorders, you can directly use your funds to support the completion of projects you want to see realized, as well as get a fascinating under-the-hood look at how the game is developed, and how the gameplay evolves over time.  This trend still fascinates me, and so, one year on, I’d like to talk a little more about it, as well as mention some new games that I’ve looked into with this model.

A year on, and the commercial setup is about the same – the only games I bought at full retail were Fallout: New Vegas, a couple of DLC packs for it, Test Drive Unlimited 2 (and you probably know what I thought of that, ah, car wreck), and Mass Effect 2 (I think it was this year?).  Everything else was bought on sale, at a deep discount – 50% of retail or less for games not all that much older.  Looking forward, I’ve earmarked some funds for just 2 games: TES V: Skyrim, the sequel to Oblivion, and Saints Row 3 – two wide-open sandbox games in which I’m reasonably certain I’ll be able to make my own fun, whether they’re buggy or not (as previous games in the series had bugs out to here, but I managed to enjoy both of them immensely despite it).  There’s nothing else I can think of on the horizon from a major publisher that I couldn’t take a pass on and buy a bit down the road for a small fraction of the price – there’s just nothing that compelling out there.  The only things I’ve been excited about have generally been various smaller, indie projects that are actually doing interesting things, and are generally priced at a level where you’re fine taking a risk.  Buy a big game for a lot of money, and you feel seriously burned when it fails miserably to meet your expectations – buy an indie game with a new mechanic for cheap, and even if it disappoints as well, you’re only out a little and you’ve had a chance to try (maybe) a slice of a promising gaming future.

Of the games I mentioned in the last piece, most of them are doing quite well.  Overgrowth is still a work in progress, and is coming along quite interestingly – it’s been enlightening to watch some of the weekly dev blogs and see new gaming technology coming together piece by piece, including some of the most realistic and fluid fight animations I’ve ever seen (as well as a truly harrowing, bone-cracking damage and blood flow system, which makes it the only game in recent memory, or at least since Soldier of Fortune 2, where I saw a character get hurt and viscerally cringed because it was just that realistic).  While it’s still a long way from completion, it’s getting more functional, and can be “played through” in a rudimentary way now (I have yet to install the latest build, as I’m currently having some trouble with their download system, but I’ve been able to download fine in the past so I think it’s just a temporary issue).

Minecraft, as I’m sure you’ve heard every gaming outlet ever say, has become one of the “next big things” in gaming.  It is, I suppose, a rarity, a game that’s sold millions before even coming out of beta due to creating a type of gameplay that hadn’t really been available before.  The game is still in beta, with a release planned for later in the year, with post-release support and potentially new features after that.  In certain ways, it’s advanced a lot, although the basic gameplay has remained similar throughout – build what you want, mine stuff, build stuff, survive and have fun.  I’ve only just barely touched the most recent update, which promises to add in “adventure” elements, such as new in-game villages and a somewhat opaque “leveling” system, along with basic needs (hunger), along with a revamped creative mode and other sundry improvements.  I’ve had a lot of fun with the game so far, including an epic exploration session in the vein of Towards Dawn (and then went back and marked the path and all the various safehouses along the way, in a map that I should probably post here already), and while I’ve taken a break from it lately, I always find myself jumping back in every so often to see what’s new.

Interstellar Marines is, well…  still in progress, I suppose.  Since the last time I checked, the only really new thing is that they released a fun little Unity demo thing for the holidays, and that they now have regular bulletins on their site talking about doing things, but there are no further interactive demos to play on the site that weren’t there a year ago.  I’m still on the fence with this one, but I’ll probably give it another look once the multiplayer segment comes out and there’s a good sense that the game is moving forward.

Those were the ones I looked at last year, and all of them are still moving forward in some capacity – small-number statistics, I know, but generally a pretty good sign.  This year, I’d like to talk about a few more that have come to my attention.

The first one is Kairo, a somewhat abstract exploration/puzzle game slightly in the vein of Myst (although definitely emphasis on the abstract).  Right now, there’s a version that is generally playable, and includes the first of three planned areas for the game.  I’m still not quite sure how this game came to my attention, but the notion of a game of this type, but focused a lot more on exploration and finding interesting things over a heavy emphasis on puzzles, definitely piqued my interest.  The one thing that always bugged me about Myst was the limits to what you could explore (even RealMyst had rather restricted boundaries to where you could go).  I’d always wanted a game like Myst or its sequels, but with much less focus on puzzles, one in which you could just wander around an interesting landscape and interact with interesting things, without much of a structured or linear gameplay path (which, I suppose, is why I like open-world games so much, but there isn’t much exploration in those that isn’t generally accompanied by shooting or swording something or other through the head).  Uru was a little better, but still… not quite it.  So, does Kairo deliver in that respect?  After playing it a bit, I’m still not quite sure.  It’s certainly very ambient, and you can spend a lot of time just wandering around and looking at the various interesting things contained within its world, although eventually you reach a dead end with a puzzle of some sort in it.  Whether this will change in the final version, I’m not sure, but it’s been an interesting bit of exploration thus far, and I’m quite interested to see how it will develop further.  (Additionally, browsing the game’s IndieDB news feed gives some interesting insights on the challenges and puzzles of game design, including how to make puzzles that aren’t obstacles or frustrations to the core gameplay, and insights on how to show a solitary, single-player experience to a crowd at a games expo.)

(I suppose along the same vein I should mention a game called Proteus, which should theoretically be available soon as a fairly cheap preorder, a fascinating game where the focus is almost entirely on exploration, as well as a world that interacts dynamically with you in the form of a constantly evolving pattern of sound and music.  It’s fascinating to experience, and according to their blog, there should still be an alpha version that you can download and play around with.)

Another game which I can only say a little about is a game called Starfarer, which is a semi-strategic squad combat game, only in space, with surprisingly complex action gameplay.  I honestly haven’t gotten very far with it yet, as I’m a bit, well, horrible at it so far.  There’s a part of me that wants it to be something like the original Escape Velocity, and while I realize that it probably won’t be, it has a lot of promise, as it’s more directly action-oriented than something like Gratuitous Space Battles (which is another awesome game that I am horrible at) while still having a serious amount of depth and customizability.  Since I’ve started looking at it, it’s continued to evolve, with a lot more systems, the full customization system, and improved squad command.  It’s looking to eventually be a full-fledged tactical action-RPG in space, and honestly, that’s a niche that I’m happy to see more games fill (as I can only play EV so much without wishing for something more).  It’s cheap to get right now, and I’d say the price is definitely worth the potential.

The last one I’ll talk about for now is A Valley Without Wind, from Arcen Games.  Arcen is one of those developers that I’ve heard great things about, but could never really get into their games.  Their first game, AI War, is a complex space strategy game that I installed the demo for, started up a test game, felt my eyes spin round in their sockets from the sheer complexity of it all, and shut it down after about 5 minutes (given how much I’m not good at GSB’s much more limited campaign mode, and how something more like Dawn of War is more my speed for RTS-type games, AI War, as brilliant as it might be, is simply too daunting for my usual gaming attitude).  Their second project, Tidalis, was, interestingly enough, a complete departure from their previous game – a casual block-matching game with a somewhat unique mechanic.  However, it also quickly collapsed into complexity, and I dumped the demo for it as well.  Once again, their upcoming new game takes another radical departure into different territory – but this time, I’m more than interested.  That’s probably because the new game is a procedurally-generated, open-world game with near-limitless territory for exploration, split between an RPG-style overworld map and individual map areas with 2D, “metroidvania-style” gameplay.  While the game is not yet in a playable form, it will apparently be released for preorder this month, and this is one I’m definitely looking at with some keen interest (as well as a probable purchase, at the very least to encourage more games like this one).  Right now, it’s a bit tough to tell how it will eventually turn out, as the game has already changed perspectives from top-down to side-scrolling, and the internet chorus regarding the somewhat dubious graphic style of the game (read: heavily tiled graphics that look like they’ve been pushed through some of the default Photoshop filters) may indicate another approach to graphics in the future (and wouldn’t be unprecedented either, as AI War got a graphical revamp, and I think an entire engine reworking, after launch).  Given that, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect at this point,  but assuming the preorder price is reasonable I think it’s probably worth it just to see where this game goes.

Those are the games that I’m looking at so far in terms of alpha preorders (there are also a lot of other, released indie games that I’m enjoying, and thinking about interesting things to write about regarding them).  However, I want to finish this article by mentioning a more formal version of this project: Alpha Funding, by indie game and mod distribution platform Desura.  While the games I’ve mentioned have mostly used their own sites to solicit preorders, and some others have used crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, this program is the first one I’ve seen directly integrated into a game distribution platform.  Admittedly, the currently slate of games that are currently up under the program don’t really interest me that much (with the possible exception of King Arthur’s Gold, but it seems a lot like Terraria, which I’ve played quite a bit, and probably have a lot to write about, occasionally through clenched fists).  However, I think the concept is an excellent one, and that having something like this coupled with the high visibility of a game-distribution platform could help to realize a lot of innovative new concepts in gaming, and giving someone who has a great game idea and wants to create it a viable way to fund pre-release development.

(Super-quick edit: I actually had an email announcement from the Kairo developer come in this evening, announcing that there’s a new alpha build with a number of bug fixes and refinements to the parts that have so far been released.  So, it’s definitely making some progress, and should be even better to explore now – I’ll take a look at it tomorrow and update the above info on it if need be. )