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Thank You for Taking Over Pokemon: The Animated Series, Disney XD December 7, 2016

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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The views expressed in the following editorial is protected under the First Amendment.

For those of you who haven’t heard, the US rights to broadcast Pokémon: The Animated Series have shifted from the basic cable channel Cartoon Network to the digital cable channel Disney X D as of Monday.  This is hardly an unprecidented move, as Cartoon Network wasn’t even the first channel to have the US rights to animated Pokémon either, that honor goes to the now-defunct WB Network and their KidsWB programming block.  Since Disney X D started broadcasting the newest animated Pokémon content, they have already proven themselves to be better stewards of Pokémon animated content than Cartoon Network has been in the last three years.  I know what you’re thinking, “How can I comfortably say that after just a few days?”  Well I do have some very good reasons why I can say that, so keep reading to find out what they are.

I have to admit I really like the Disney X D Network. I am a fan of a few of their original shows, and I greatly enjoyed their coverage of the 2015 Nintendo World Championships last year. To me, Pokémon seems like a perfect fit for the Disney X D network, and because of that I had a lot of optimism going into the transition. However, the reason I believe Disney X D is a better home for Pokémon is simply this, Disney X D knows how to organize their programming schedule better than Cartoon Network ever did!

I know that harsh statement is going to require specifics before some people will accept it so I’ll produce my evidence right here. First, take a look at Cartoon Network’s current programming schedule. It doesn’t matter what day you look at, but let’s not count anything between 10PM-6AM because that’s considered Adult Swim’s time. The odds are you’ll be finding regular marathons for the show Teen Titans GO, and not much else. I actually liked Teen Titans GO when it first started to air, but even I have to admit that the show has just gotten stale, and the fact that it’s almost always on doesn’t help.  Heck, most fans of the original Teen Titans show don’t even like GO.  With that show dominating their entire schedule, and the entire nighttime broadcast hours dedicated to Adult Swim content, there isn’t much room on the schedule for Pokémon. In fact, Cartoon Network’s dedicated programming slot for Pokémon had been relegated to 7AM, a time that was far too early for younger fans to be able to watch, and far too late for their older fans to enjoy before they’ll have to go to school or work.

So that’s how they would schedule the TV show, but what about brand-new animated Pokémon feature films?  Cartoon Network would usually broadcast new Pokémon movies mid-day on a Saturday.  The film would be broadcast exactly once and never be reaired until around a year later when it would get scheduled in the time slot just before the next new film premiered.

So how did Disney X D schedule their first Pokémon programming?  They started strong by broadcasting an all-new feature film, Volcanion and the Mythical Marvel and following it up with two all-new episodes of the new series, Pokémon Sun and Moon.  The movie and the new series were broadcast starting at around 5PM on Monday, a perfect time. Younger fans would be home from school, and adults would just be getting home from work by that time.  Back in the day, KidsWB saw fit to broadcast new Pokémon episodes in their after-school programming block, and if they hadn’t picked that timeslot I may never have grown up to become a Pokémon Trainer.

However, picking a great time slot for a major broadcast isn’t the only great thing Disney X D did,  they also added the film to their Video On-Demand (VOD) service and rebroadcasted the event a day after it premiered!  Cartoon Network never replayed a new Pokémon film so recently after it first premiered, nor did they ever add them to their VOD service. If you didn’t have a DVR, and you couldn’t watch the film during its initial broadcast, you would not have a guaranteed chance of seeing it again on the Cartoon Network channel.  What a shame.

So I hope I made it clear to whoever is reading this that while Cartoon Network had the rights to Pokémon, despite the property’s recent resurgence of popularity they barely did anything with it.  Disney X D meanwhile has already proven themselves willing to throw their weight behind this beloved property.  Farewell Cartoon Network, Pokémon will be happier elsewhere.


Sunset Overdrive: The Overlooked Exclusive Part 3 – After The Release October 24, 2016

Posted by Maniac in Editorials, Sunset Overdrive: The Overlooked Exclusive.
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The following is the third of a three-part series detailing the announcement, marketing and release of the Xbox One game Sunset Overdrive.  You can read part one here and you can read part two here.

Sunset Overdrive was one of the biggest exclusive titles released on the Xbox One in October 2014. Microsoft had sunk millions of dollars into marketing the new property, but after it launched it unfortunately just wasn’t selling.  As I said in the previous part, slightly over one hundred thousand copies of the game sold at retail in its first week, and the few stores who chose to host midnight releases for the game found their events overwhelmingly underattended.

Press for the game during its development was quite positive, early reviews were mostly positive and Insomniac Games has a decent following of loyal supporters, so why wasn’t the game selling better?  Was the game’s premise just that unappealing to the majority of the gaming public or was something else going on?

I mentioned earlier in this series that the install base of the Xbox One platform was in second place behind the PS4 at this time, but that’s not enough information to paint a full picture about the state of gaming in 2014. The truth is, the Xbox One was in second place because gamers were very angry at Microsoft.  They still resented the Kinect as an expensive gimmick, despite the fact it was no longer being bundled with every new console.  They were also resentful Microsoft was buying so many third-party exclusive games that they preferred would get released on the PS4.  In short, Sunset Overdrive was released on the Xbox One at the worst possible time.

With so much negativity still directed towards the Xbox One platform, if Sunset Overdrive was going to sell, they needed to make it appeal to current Xbox One owners. So what could Microsoft do to convince Xbox gamers to buy Sunset Overdrive?  If the game was getting good reviews, could giving players the chance to play the game for themselves bring up sales?  Unfortunately that was a bit of an issue since Sunset Overdrive had no demo and without a demo, there wasn’t an easy way to get a small piece of the game into gamers’ hands.

Microsoft would need to come up with a new idea to get gamers to try the game and they did.  One month after it was released, Microsoft made the decision to offer Sunset Overdrive as part of an Xbox One Free Weekend.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with an Xbox One Free Weekend, it basically works like a free rental.  During an Xbox One Free Weekend, Microsoft allows anyone with an Xbox One and an internet connection the chance to play a promoted game for a limited time. While this time limit may sound restrictive, there are no restrictions on gameplay and as long as the game was played during the free promotion period you could earn achievements in it.  Heck, once the Free Weekend ends, your savegame could be brought into the full game if you decided to buy it.

The Free Weekend was a moderate success, not only for Sunset Overdrive, but for the Xbox One’s image.  In fact I remember buying the full retail version of the game shortly after the Free Weekend promotion wrapped up.

Insomniac Games continued support for the game throughout the first half of 2015.  These free updates included not only bug fixes and optimizations, they also added entirely new achievements players could unlock without paying for any new content.  On the paid side, they were working on two new DLC expansion packs which would be offered to anyone who bought the game’s Season Pass.  One of the first pieces of content offered with the game’s Season Pass was an exclusive set of four weapons.

The weapons were a lot of fun to mess around with, but they didn’t add that much to the game’s universe. Players hoping to see new single-player game content wouldn’t have to wait much longer. The first DLC expansion was released just in time for Christmas called The Mystery of the Mooil Rig.

The Mystery of the Mooil Rig was a great expansion I recommend playing immediately after completing the game’s main story, although it could be played at any point once it is installed.  It included a huge expansion to the game’s open world environment, all new side missions, and a hilarious story.

The second Sunset Overdrive DLC mission was titled Dawn of the Rise of the Fallen Machines and it added an all-new environment that was teased throughout the main game, the Fizzco Robot Factory.

Shortly after the release of the second DLC expansion pack, Sunset TV wrapped up its production.

The final two-part episode was pretty funny, although if you ask me the series got the best possible sendoff in Dawn of the Rise of the Fallen Machines‘s finale.

A month or two after the release of Dawn of the Rise of the Fallen Machines, Microsoft did something really nice for the game’s players, they gave away download codes for the game’s Loyalty Pack to anyone who had played the game before that time.  The Loyalty Pack included costume pieces that were previously only available through retail and digital preorders.  It was a really nice gesture for players, and it convinced me to pick up the game’s Season Pass.

As someone who has played through the game, I thought it was great and I’m shocked Sunset Overdrive isn’t better remembered over a year since it was released. It was addictive as hell to explore the game’s environment searching for collectibles and completing missions. It had a hilarious sense of humor and an art style that set itself apart from every other game on the market.  In short, it is totally worth picking up.

Sunset Overdrive is out now exclusively on the Xbox One.

Sunset Overdrive: The Overlooked Exclusive Part 2 – The Road to Release October 14, 2016

Posted by Maniac in Editorials, Sunset Overdrive: The Overlooked Exclusive.
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This is the second of a three-part article discussing the marketing and release of the game Sunset Overdrive. If you missed part one, you can read it here.

It was early 2014 and it was clear to gamers and publishers that the Xbox One was not selling anywhere near the numbers it should have been. Even with solid hardware and tons of great exclusive launch games, the PS4 was outselling the Xbox One by huge numbers.  However, Microsoft was in for the long game and they still had some new cards to play. About a month before E3 2014, they released this preview for Sunset Overdrive.

If any Xbox One exclusive games had a chance to sell, Microsoft needed to rethink their strategy to increase their console sales. Two things were clear to anyone with a passing familiarity with the new console war, the Xbox One was $100 more expensive than the better selling PS4, and it came with a peripheral that a majority of consumers just didn’t want.  At E3 2014, without notifying their Xbox One developers in advance, Microsoft announced they were no longer bundling the Kinect sensor with all Xbox One consoles. That meant that new Xbox One consoles unbundled with Kinect sensors would sell at the same price as the PlayStation 4, and while gamers would still be able to buy the Kinect separately, many gamers just didn’t want to due to privacy concerns.

But just hardware and price changes aren’t enough to sell a console, you need to show great games and Microsoft was ready to do that.  Ted Price’s Sunset Overdrive gameplay demo would later be reported as one of the highlights of E3 2014.

Microsoft rarely throws advertisement money behind a new intellectual property if they don’t own it, but Sunset Overdrive was going to get their full support. I mean, just look at what Microsoft did to promote the game at E3.

After E3 concluded, the hype train for Sunset Overdrive officially kicked off.  Things were looking better for Microsoft. They re-priced their hardware to better compete in the console war and they had a unique exclusive game that was getting ready for release the holiday season.  Tons of plans were being discussed on how to promote the new IP.  Everything from T-Shirts, a viral marketing campaign, branded energy drinks, to a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade were being discussed.

Meanwhile, Insomniac started their weekly Sunset TV webseries.  Like their Full Moon Show Podcast, Sunset TV would keep players up to date with the latest Sunset Overdrive news and updates. In fact, new episodes of Sunset TV could be broadcast in-game.

As the months passed, Sunset Overdrive was gearing up for release and Microsoft was putting a lot of money into promotion for this game.  Just take a look at this live-action commercial.  You can see the high production values on it from a mile away.

That’s not even my favorite trailer for the game. After discovering they couldn’t get a balloon in the Thanksgiving Parade, they invited gamers to pretend it was.

This kind of interactive marketing really works for me, and Sunset Overdrive was certainly on my radar as the game lead up to launch.

By October 2014 the game was ramping up for launch.  There was even going to be a coveted Day One edition of the game, offering exclusive DLC to anyone who got one of the first copies.  Here’s the game’s official launch trailer:

Sunset Overdrive launched at midnight on October 28th, 2014 and things were not looking well at first. Only five Microsoft stores across the US participated in the Sunset Overdrive midnight release and based on the reports I’ve heard, the ones who had were mostly empty.  Initial retail sales estimates for the game’s first week range at about 138K in the US.

Was Sunset Overdrive destined to fall into obscurity after being such a promising new title?  Was the Xbox One’s low sales to blame?  Could Sunset Overdrive come back?  This story isn’t over, so stay tuned for Part 3 where we will discuss the game’s postlaunch promotions, its DLC expansions, and the unique content it inspired.

Sunset Overdrive is out now exclusively on Xbox One.

Most Requested Origin On The House Games October 10, 2016

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For quite a while now, EA has offered a PC game from their enormous back catalog for free to drum up support for their Origin online game distribution service. The specific game offered for free will change but anyone who purchases the game while it is offered for free can keep it for as long as they continue to use their Origin account.  This promotion is called Origin On The House and it is something I regularly look forward to.

Right now, EA is offering the original Dungeon Keeper for free through this promotion (Editor’s Note: So if you want it, sign into the Origin client and get it now) but what will they offer next time?  The online community seems to overwhelmingly want Dungeon Keeper II but perhaps it is a bit too early to ask for that since they just offered the original Dungeon Keeper for free.  So I thought I would help EA out and offer them a list of some of the games I think they should offer through On The House if the promotion continues.

Here are the rules for this list. Out of respect to sales numbers for more recent titles, I’m going to limit this list to older games from EA’s back catalog with a heavy focus on titles that are now out of print. I’m not going to include any games that have already been offered, but sequels and prequels to games that have already been offered on the house are okay and could make the list.

Before we get started I would like to give an honorable mention to Hellgate London, but I don’t think I can include that on this list since I don’t think EA has the rights to publish it anymore.  With that out of the way, let’s start the list.

Mirror’s Edge (2008) – The original Mirror’s Edge game was overlooked when it first launched but was soon considered a cult classic. Since then, the game has already been offered for free on PSN and Xbox Live, why not on PC?  It could give the franchise a boost by offering the PC version (with its superior PhysX engine) on the house, and might get people interested in picking up the new game on their platform of choice.

Ultima 9 – A few years ago EA released Ultima 8, a rushed, buggy, PC RPG with broken gameplay and poor platforming. Then they released Ultima 9, a game that was really bad.  In fact, it was so bad this was the game that many gamers have credited for killing the Ultima franchise, but after seeing Spoony’s review of the game I really just want the chance to play it for myself.

Dead Space 2 – The first Dead Space game was the very first game EA offered on Origin through their On The House promotion so I felt it was important that it’s sequel be included on this list. This game is my favorite of the Dead Space franchise as I feel it strikes the perfect blend between action and horror. Plus, EA offered a lot of paid DLC for this game including a full single-player expansion, so there is a slightly better chance for them to release it if it gives them the opportunity to make more money from DLC.

Wing Commander 4 – I remember first seeing an incredible trailer for this game after receiving the DOS version of Privateer 2: The Darkening as a gift. I thought the game had production values on par with Hollywood blockbusters. Many consider this the best game of the entire franchise, and for a very good reason, it had solid gameplay, fantastic graphics, and an engaging story. Wing Commander 3 has already been offered so why not offer its sequel?

The Sims 3 – My friends would never forgive me if I didn’t include this game on the list.  That’s really all I have to say about that, the game really speaks for itself.  Plus, EA could make a fortune in selling the game’s expansions to a whole new group of consumers.

Dungeon Keeper II – Currently this is the most requested game I’ve seen the online community ask EA for so I felt it was important to include it here.  So yeah, ditto.

Mass Effect – One of the best games released for the Xbox 360 became one of the most unplayable games when it was first released on the PC…all because of DRM.  Now, EA is working on an all new title poised to revolutionize the whole franchise, so what better time to offer the original game on PC with a DRM system that actually works?  I mean, EA did briefly offer Dragon Age: Origins on the house for a brief time in anticipation for a new Dragon Age game, why not offer Mass Effect‘s original game?

Command & Conquer 3 – This was the game that got me back into PC RTS games for a brief time.  I freaking love this game.  It has a great storyline performed by incredible actors and competitive multiplayer.  If you aren’t currently a fan of Real-Time Strategy games, C&C 3 is the perfect way to get you interested in them.

So what do you think?  Are there any games I forgot about?  Post a comment below and give me your thoughts about what games you want to see EA offer through On The House.

Sunset Overdrive: The Overlooked Exclusive Part 1 – History and Announcement October 7, 2016

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If you’re a long-time PlayStation fan you’ve probably heard of the name Insominac Games.  Over the past twenty years they’ve developed some of the finest games avalible for Sony’s game consoles including Spyro The Dragon and Ratchet and Clank.  With each game, Insomniac has always been able to deliver solid gameplay sprinkled with a quirky sense of humor.

I first became aware of Insominac Games right around the time of the PlayStation 3’s release. A cover feature in Game Developer Magazine which has sadly not been re-published online as of the time of this article talked about the development of a PS3 launch game called Resistance: Fall of Man. After reading the postmortem, I did some of my own research on the game and by the time I eventually bought a PS3 in summer 2007 I made sure to pick up a copy of Resistance: Fall of Man with it. I wasn’t disappointed because it was without a doubt the best launch game for the fledgling PlayStation 3. In fact, I stand by the statement that until Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released, Resistance: Fall of Man was the best game on the PS3, and it would remain the best PS3 multiplayer game for quite some time after that.

Since playing Resistance: Fall of Man, I became a die-hard Insomniac fan and began to pay close attention to their work. I would even regularly listen to the official Insomniac podcast, The Full Moon Show, for news about their upcoming games.  Years passed and Insomniac released two more Resistance games which I greatly enjoyed.

In early 2013 Sony announced their next console would be the PlayStation 4, and Microsoft announced their next console would be the Xbox One.  Months later, at E3 2013 Microsoft made it clear to consumers they were going to release as many exclusive new games on the Xbox One as they could.  Third party publishers and independent developers were lining up to produce exclusive games for Microsoft including Dead Rising 3, Titanfall, Quantum Break, and D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die.  However, I think everyone was most surprised when Microsoft revealed this trailer brandishing the Insomniac Games logo.

That’s right, you’re seeing the teaser video for a colorful open-world action game with a sick sense of humor, and it was only coming to the Xbox One.  Turns out that was a big problem.  When it was first announced, the Xbox One held a $100 price premium over the Sony PS4.  Microsoft planned to force anti-consumer policies in the Xbox One’s operating system, although they were keeping hush about the details unless the gaming media directly questioned them about it.  Then there was the fact that a new Kinect was going to be included with each Xbox One, fueling every wild conspiracy theory you could imagine, and probably some you couldn’t.

Microsoft would go on to reverse the anti-consumer policies they had planned before the Xbox One launched, enabling players to trade and resell their Xbox One game discs, but consumers didn’t trust Microsoft would not reinstate their policies later on.  The Xbox One launched in late 2013 and languished on shelves.  Even with all the great exclusives, gamers were overwhelmingly choosing the PS4 for its lower price and improved performance for multiplatform games.

Months passed and the third party publishers who developed Xbox One exclusive games were not happy. The console was not selling as well as the PS4 and gamers were not buying the Xbox One’s exclusive games regardless of their quality. To make up for lost sales, some publishers ported their Xbox One exclusive games to the PC, but they could not bring their games to the PS4, which had a commanding market share. Things were not looking good, Sunset Overdrive was still a year away from release and there was no way to tell if it could compete as an Xbox One exclusive.

Stay tuned for next time as we continue talking about this overlooked gem!  Sunset Overdrive is out now exclusively on the Xbox One.

Why Do Online Only Games Have Such Rocky Starts? September 12, 2016

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Anyone who downloaded Pokémon Go when it first launched probably found themselves unable play it most of the time. The application was fundamentally tied into its online component, which was bogged down for weeks by the sheer number of simultaneous user requests. It would take a while for Niantic to iron out all the issues with the game on both the client and server end, but they made the adjustments needed and now the game is (barring the occasional odd crash) pretty playable.

So why did the game have such a bad launch period?  Well, Pokémon Go is hardly alone when it comes to issues with games requiring online services during their launch.  Heck they’re hardly tied to the smartphone platform, because triple-A PC titles like Sim City and Diablo III were downright unplayable at launch, rightfully angering fans who bought them at release.

So why is this happening?  It can’t be for lack of dependable testers, I know for a fact that millions of people all over the world were willing to test Pokémon Go before it launched, and those players could have been used to test the game before it was released. While I’m not totally certain of the exact number of testers the game had during development I can certainly confirm they didn’t accept everyone who applied because I applied and I know for sure I wasn’t picked!

After all these bad game launches, a lot of frustrated players have asked why weren’t these games properly tested before they launched? The truth is they had been tested, but after their poor launches it’s clear they weren’t tested adequately.  How could this be?

I spoke to a friend of mine who had a passing understanding of Google’s online testing methods who shared his thoughts with me. He doesn’t work for Google or Niantic, but he does work in the tech industry and he is familiar with a lot of their testing methods.  While I can’t confirm Niantic (or any other online game developer) uses this method to test their games, his information did make these day one problems gain some sense.

Games are tested in controlled environments before they’re released to the public. We call that QA Testing for Quality Assurance.  You don’t have to read further than The Trenches webcomic to see just how bad QA Testing can get, but what about games that require an online component to function?  Those are tested in what are called “proportional” circumstances. Just like the Mythbusters will test theories in smaller scale conditions before replicating a myth in full size, online game developers traditionally test their games in limited environments with fewer devices. The idea behind it is that if a server with limited bandwidth can remain stable under a proportionally limited test case of players, their servers can handle the expected amount of end users at full bandwidth when the game is finally released.  It’s believed that testing online games proportionally during development is the best possible testing method.

After he finished giving me this information I told him, “Wow after Pokémon Go‘s launch was such a disaster, they must be really rethinking that flawed test method, aren’t they?”

You would have thought I insulted the man’s mother if you could have seen the face he gave me after I made that statement.  After telling me in no short order that there was nothing wrong with that testing method (ignoring the fact it failed miserably when the final games were brought online in many different cases), he told me that I had no idea what I was talking about and I just looked at him like he was completely out of touch with reality.  If proportional testing was the indeed the method Niantic used to test Pokémon Go or EA used to test Sim City, and that testing method had worked, Pokémon Go would not have had the plague of crashes, login failures and random quits for three weeks after it launched, and Sim City would have been playable.

When I grew up testing games on the PC, developers would traditionally hold a “stress test” period where they would get as many simultaneous users as they could to see if their game would break or buckle under the strain of the number of users testing it. Sometimes they would start with fewer testers and add more as time went on, but by the end of the testing period they would usually offer everyone they could the game’s online beta test client as a free download. This testing method is still being used for games like Gears of War 4, Titanfall 2, and Halo Wars 2, whose developers have all offered open online stress testing this year.  From a practical standpoint, this seems like a far more fruitful method of testing a game toward the end of its development cycle.  By offering your game’s test client for free to everyone with even a passing interest in the game, developers can better predict player numbers as high as or higher than a game could expect to get at launch.  It can also help investors shape sales expectations and ensure a smoother launch period.

I sought advice from other peers of mine familiar with the tech industry as I was writing this article and they had plenty they felt needed to be added to this discussion. They argued that hosting an open beta test for a game like Pokémon Go would have been a bad idea, since the normal spectrum of bugs and glitches that players could experience during testing might have had the side effect of giving testers a poor initial impression of the game, and make them lose interest in playing it when the full version was released. While I understand some players could accept this arguement, I do not.  It is reasonably accepted amongst gamers that test clients could have their fair share of bugs and glitches. In fact, every EULA I’ve ever read for a beta game references this, so players are prepared for it. However, nothing turns potential players off a game more than a glitchy launch, and I would argue that it would make more sense to have bugs show up during the game’s test phase then to hold back testing and discover your game has problems only when the game is in the hands of paying customers.

I have not talked to anyone from Niantic and I’m no more familiar with insider information about recent Pokémon Go developments than anyone with access to the company’s Twitter feed. Pokémon Go earned millions of dollars of income in the first few weeks since it was released. There’s no telling how much more money Niantic could have made if they provided a stable platform on day one.  Perhaps if they had done a stress test they would have been better prepared for what they were in for but I guess we’ll never know for sure.

Gaming, Star Trek Style: Starfleet Academy September 8, 2016

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Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast of the very first episode of the groundbreaking Star Trek television series.  Not too many classic staples of science fiction get to say that they’re still going strong fifty years later, but today Star Trek gets to say that.

On this website we’ve talked about our past with the franchise, particularly when it comes to gaming. This is after all a gaming website.  Earlier this week, we discussed a Star Trek game that never came out, Secret of Vulcan Fury. Today, we want to talk about the game I played that made me aware of Secret of Vulcan Fury in the first place, the PC flight sim Star Trek: Starfleet Academy.

I first became aware of Starfleet Academy after completing Star Trek: Borg for the first time.  In 1997, I was becoming an enormous Star Trek fan. After being one of the first tourists to check out Star Trek: The Experience in Vegas, I found myself enjoying reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation and post-season 3 episodes of Star Trek Voyager.  However, even though I had a decent PC at the time, I didn’t have much money to spend for new games, due to the fact I was still in grade school. One day, after celebrating my birthday, I saw a copy of Starfleet Academy for sale at Circuit City and I happily put down some birthday money for a copy of the game and its official strategy guide.

I installed the game as soon as I got home and was greeted by this trailer once the installation concluded, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to fire myself up.  I watched the game’s live-action introduction cinematic and got through the first simulator mission.  With the first mission complete, I saved my game and selected what I thought would be the next simulation mission only to find myself watching another live-action cinematic. The game was putting a heavy focus on the personalities of the crew I would be directing through these simulations and it turned out I would be making major decisions for these trainees as the school year went on!

Starfleet Academy‘s live-action component was no small undertaking. Heck, these FMVs were so detailed they deserved to be their own game and to this day I’m shocked they haven’t been rereleased on DVD.  They included a great cast of original actors for the training bridge crew, and William Shatner, George Takei and Walter Koenig all returned to their iconic roles of Captain Kirk, Pavel Checkov, and Mr. Sulu.  These three served as the experienced mentors they needed to be, a perfect fit for a game focused on the next generation of Starfleet.

The game’s story was so fleshed out it was later adapted as a novel by Diane Carey.  I actually used the book as the basis for an oral presentation in my sophomore English class. If you want to know how well I did on the presentation, most of my peers put the class to sleep droning on about their books, but the class enjoyed my presentation, as I weaved them a complex story about a group of students dealing with a difficult year while tragedy strikes.  My peers liked it so much they wouldn’t let me step off my podium until I told them how the book ended.  I’m pretty certain I got an A.

However, unlike Star Trek: Borg, which was an interactive FMV game with a fairly linear narrative, decisions you made in Starfleet Academy could have an enormous effect later in the game. Heck, halfway into the game you could make the wrong decision in a cinematic and lose the whole game.  Cinematic decisions could also affect your simulator scores, which I later learned would have an effect on the game’s ending.  My strategy guide had no information about these cinematic sequences, only the simulations, so I had to trust I was making the right decisions as I went on.

I was never much of a flight-sim player growing up and this game’s simulation had a really steep learning curve. In fact it took me months to figure out how to complete the final mission in the Alshoff campaign. After what must have been the hundredth attempt, I was finally able to beat the mission.  Once I had that level beat, I was able to complete the rest of the game in less than two days.

If you want to know my favorite missions I fondly remember a mission based on the plot of The Wrath of Khan, a mission taking place in a nebula (where sensors were limited), the final mission and of course the mission where you actually got to play the Kobiashi Maru no-win scenario. I totally won that.

In fact I remember the night I beat the twentieth mission and saw the game’s credits roll. I was puzzled as hell that the game was over because the strategy guide listed strategies for one more mission. That’s when I realized that the final mission would only be playable depending on if you got the game’s best ending.

What can I say about getting this game’s last mission?  To this day I don’t think anyone has come up with a strategy on how to unlock it, which is a real shame because it puts the player in control of the real USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A.  The only advice I could offer is to make decisions in both the simulator and the cinematics that keep your team’s scores as high as possible, and devote as much time as you can to further studying the McClanty during that story arc in the last few missions.

In my case, I may have lucked into the best ending because of some kind of bug. After the game’s credits finished rolling, the game immediatly started rolling one of the earlier cinematics. Apparently I had been sent back to replay the last three or four missions. I figured further study of the McClanty was important to unlocking the last mission so I decided to choose to investigate the McClanty as much as possible. Of course this is not a guarantee to earn the ending because your crew still needs to have high simulator scores, and tons of different variables can affect them.

Regardless of if you can unlock the last mission or not, this game still has the best presentation of the Kobiashi Maru no-win scenario, hands down. If you want to hear more about my thoughts on it, you can read them here. I actually played this game before I watched most of the Star Trek feature films. Imagine my surprise when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on VHS for the first time.  I felt like I was experiencing the fandom the game’s developers had for the franchise in reverse.

I know Interplay later released an expansion pack for Starfleet Academy called Checkov’s Lost Missions but by the time I finished the original game I could not find a single software store selling it, and to this day I’ve never played it.

I’m afraid I’ll have to end this article on a down note. After talking all this time writing about this triumph Interplay published I’m afraid to say that earlier today I’ve just read that Interplay is planning to sell off their assets. My question is what happens to Run Like Hell?  I think Bawls should get it.

The Star Trek Game That Never Was, Secret of Vulcan Fury September 4, 2016

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the incredible Star Trek Franchise.  Created by the late Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek started as a television series that took place in the 23rd Century where an international crew of explorers solved modern day problems during their trek through the stars.

While the initial series only lasted three seasons, it was a cult hit, especially among young people.  In the fifty years that followed, five television series (with a sixth on its way), thirteen feature films, numerous books and countless video games have been released under the Star Trek name.  I’ve already talked about my first experience playing a Star Trek video game, but I thought that in honor of Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary I would tell you all about a Star Trek game that never was, a game called Star Trek: Secret of Vulcan Fury.

In the late 90s I was quickly becoming obsessed with the Star Trek brand after watching the film Star Trek: First Contact. This was a great time for Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation had ended its run but the entire series was being actively rerun in syndication. Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were airing some of their finest episodes, and companies like Interplay and Simon and Schuster were releasing  all new Star Trek games for the PC.  Heck, I even visited Star Trek: The Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton twice. After enjoying the CD-ROM FMV game Star Trek: Borg I decided the next Star Trek game I would play would be the PC flight-sim Starfleet Academy.

I got a copy of Starfleet Academy for my birthday and quickly installed the game on my Windows 95 PC.  After the game finished installing, this trailer immediatly autoplayed.  Enjoy this first look at Star Trek: Secret of Vulcan Fury.

What you just saw was a trailer for a fully CGI-rendered Star Trek game based on the original series. Not only did the game’s art style perfectly match the look and feel of the original Star Trek tv series, veteran Star Trek writer D.C. Fontana was penning the script and the cast of the original show was preparing to donate their likenesses and voice work to the game.  Interplay was essentially making an all-new interactive episode of Star Trek in time for Christmas 1998. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?  In a way, it was.

As I’m sure you all know by now, the game was never released and that trailer was the only thing most gamers have seen of the game in twenty years. So what went wrong?  A few years ago someone asked about the cancelled project on Interplay’s official forums.  That’s when I discovered there had actually been a second trailer produced for the game, which premiered what would have been the game’s opening. I think this trailer was included with copies of Fallout 2, but I’m not totally sure about that.  Take a look.

That brief scene would have made a great opening for the game.  The CGI was top of the line at the time, James Doohan and William Shatner sounded great back in their iconic roles, and the trailer ended with some amazing teases including a promise to give players an interactive tour of the planet Vulcan.  How could this game fail?

Essentially Interplay had bit off more than they could chew with this game and you could see some of that when you look at all the features the trailers promised. Interplay was experimenting with fully pre-rendered CGI at a time when the technology for fully-CGI movies like Toy Story was only in its infancy. In fact the game was expected to feature even more CG footage than Toy Story, making it the most ambitious project to use prerendered CGI of its day.  While the technology was available to them, time was just not on their side.  Other development issues were mentioned including incomplete actor performances due to poor health.  This all spelled out bad news for not only the developers trying to complete the game but also for gamers who wanted to play it.

Christmas 1998 came and went without the game’s release.  Eventually information about the game was removed from Interplay’s website. Several reports have stated the game was only 5% complete when it was cancelled.  The publisher eventually lost the rights to the Star Trek license and would go on to weather financial turmoil during development of a new Fallout game.  Interplay bounced back and they currently license their properties for outside development while rereleasing their back catalog on modern distribution networks. 

With all that development turmoil happening I had no expectations anyone would ever see any more from Secret of Vulcan Fury. Then, YouTube user Ken Allen published this footage online.  It was originally shown behind closed doors at E3 1997 in Atlanta, but thankfully it is now available for the public to see!

I’m just going to say right now this footage is incredible.  It looks like it takes place right after the events depicted in the second trailer, and while the animation is still a little rough the art style matches the original sets perfectly.  He even posted up a closer look at the game’s interactive interface.

This looks like a pretty intuitive interface, and this is coming from someone who remembers the oversimplified scan and decision interface from Star Trek: Borg.

It’s a shame we never got to play this game back in the day but I want to thank Ken Allen for giving us this look at it.  Ken did mention on one of his YouTube videos he was considering releasing the game’s original design document online. Please do, Ken, we would be more than happy to report on it here.  It’s a shame this game never came out, but I would love the chance to read what is essentially a lost Star Trek episode.

As for my thoughts about how I liked the game Starfleet Academy, well that is a story for next time.

You Can’t Register Codes in Pokemon TCG Online for iPad June 10, 2016

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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We are really busy over here on the site and now that we had the chance to publish today’s video content, we wanted to devote some time this weekend before E3 to talk about what’s going on in the Pokémon community. What better way to start than by giving an introduction to the incredibly popular Pokémon Trading Card Game!

The Pokémon Trading Card Game has become a phenomenon since it first launched.  The game can even be played online without ever needing to open up a physical card deck.  That’s right, trainers who choose the TCG can sign up for the game at the official Pokémon website and use their skills, experience and wits to play online against other TCG trainers from all over the world.

Like with the physical TCG, players can purchase new card packs to improve their play decks. Online codes for digital cards can be obtained in physical game packs or through occasional promotional campaigns. This latter option is how many players preferred to get new cards online, and since the official application launched on the iPad (with Retina screen) last year, it was a popular option.

However, I was extremely disheartened to discover that Apple forced The Pokémon Company to disable the online code redemption for the iPad version of the game.  The Pokémon Company claims no credit at all for this policy change and say the decision was forced on them by Apple.

So what can you do if you are an iPad player with some card codes you would like to redeem?  I’m afraid you have no choice but to play the game on another platform. I personally would recomend the PC or Mac option. The computer interface is identical to the tablet version, barring the portability options offered by a tablet.  There’s no touchscreen support for the computer versions, but I still remember how to use a mouse, and that works fine.

I don’t blame The Pokémon Company at all for this decision as Apple has had a track list of dictating to developers what they will and will not allow on their digital marketplace, often to the detriment of the consumer. If you ask me Apple should reverse this decision immediately. Up to this point, there have not been widespread reports of issues with code redemption on the iPad, this new Apple policy is in my opinion an enormous mistake.  If you leave out an important feature of the game that your rival platforms will allow, players will switch gears and choose to use your rival’s platforms. It could inspire loyal players to trade in their iPad and switch to an Android tablet for their next upgrade.
The Pokémon Trading Card Game Online is out now and can be played on PC, Mac, Android Tablets and iPad.  You can download the game to your desktop or laptop for free right here or at your tablet’s digital marketplace.

Science Check: Quantum Break May 22, 2016

Posted by Maniac in Editorials, Science Check.
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We’ve been playing the new Remedy game Quantum Break nearly non-stop over here at GameXcess.net since the game was released back in April. It’s a phenomenal title and if you have an Xbox One or a VERY powerful Windows 10-equipped PC, I cannot recommend it enough.  The game’s plot revolves entirely around the concept of time travel, and developer Remedy put a lot of hard work into researching the most plausible scientific basis when defining their vision of time travel’s underlying rules. Without trying to spoil too much, the player will learn eventually that while time travel is possible within Quantum Break‘s universe, changing the past is not.

I’ve been facinated by time travel stories since I was a small child. In fact, the Back to the Future movies were some of my absolute favorite  films growing up, so I’m proud to finally have the chance of taking on the subject for this site. That’s right boys and girls, today we’re going to be talking about time travel. Buckle in.

Sometimes, you’re forced to make some severe leaps of logic as to just how plausible a video game’s grounded reality can be. Some things we’re willing to take for granted, like enemies will simply just carry health and ammunition supplies with them at all times, and you will be immediately able to make use of them.

But then sometimes there will be moments in gaming which skirt the bounds of reality and you are forced to ask yourself…COULD THAT REALLY HAPPEN? Fortunately for me, I happen to have a bunch of friends on speed dial with science backgrounds and when I ask them questions, they have no problem filling me in on just what reality would do in these situations.

So this is Science Check, where I take a look at the leaps and bounds of scientific logic that games have made over the years and check if it would indeed work, or if you tried doing it in the real world, you’d be totally screwed.

I was fortunate enough to speak about time travel and Quantum Break specifically with a friend of mine recently. My friend, who wished to remain anonymous, has a degree in physics and while he is not an active participant in any current time travel related research, he is familiar with some of the work being done in the field.  I was lucky enough to pick his brain on what he thought about time travel in Quantum Break, and just how plausible it is.

Quantum Break was exceptionally clear about what it would take for a human being to travel through time.  The game’s premise is that you could travel forward or backwards through time by circling a black hole.  Based on that theory, a time machine’s design would include a modular circular pathway wrapped around a central core.  The core is made up of an artificial black hole which would not only be capable of powering the machine, but would alter the flow of time for anyone walking through the circular pathway.  After inputting the destination date, the machine’s computer would automatically calculate the proper distance the circular pathway would need to be positioned around the core and deploy it.  The specific direction the traveler would need to walk around the pathway (clockwise or counter-clockwise) would be dependent on if the traveler was planning to go to the past or the future.

This setup had lots of advantages but also lots of disadvantages. Essentially, the time traveler would enter the time machine in their present and exit directly from the machine sometime in the past or future.  That meant that all time travel from that machine would be tied directly into the individual core used to power it, so the user would only be able to time travel to periods when the core was active and could not travel to a time before it was first built.  The user would be able to exit from a different time machine only if the core from the machine they used to travel was moved to power a different time machine at a later time.  To protect against the Grandfather Paradox, time travelers were made incapable of altering the history of known events in the game’s world.  For example, it was noted several times in the game that any attempt by a time traveler to prevent a predestined event only served to cause the event they wanted to prevent to happen in the first place.  If a user was to set the machine for a minute in the past, they could essentially see an older version of themselves exiting the machine as they were getting ready to enter it. Their younger self would still need to enter the machine to close the time loop as their older self went about their business, or they would face breaking time.  It’s as if time is fixed, and regardless of who is in what time, only what has happened in the past will happen in the future.

So how does this concept stack up to reality?  While there are physicists working on methods of traveling through time, none of the work I’ve seen has included sending a human being forwards or backwards through time. I’m afraid to say that my friend was of an opinion that time travel in this form was simply impossible.  While there has been work on time travel in the real world, the method that seems furthest along only involves sending simple messages into the past.  While that may be useful, it is still unknown if even this method will be successful.

My friend argued, simply, that if time travel is EVER invented, humanity would be well aware of it by now.  That old joke, “When do we want [a time machine]?  That’s irrelevant!” rings true.  If a time machine is ever made real, regardless of the form it takes, he believed it would eventually become mass-produced for civilian consumption. Night vision, remote-controlled drones and GPS are all examples of private technology intended for military applications eventually finding massive popularity when they were eventually released in a civilian market who would probably buy them like crazy.   Anyone who has seen the movie “Time Chasers” knows where this point will eventually lead. If time travel is possible in the future, having time machines eventually sold in the same volumes as private automobiles are today is a real possibility.  Statistically, this runs the risk of misuse, intentionally or unintentionally.  My friend used the analogy of having an immature child borrowing their parents car and taking it out for an illegal joyride. Now imagine what would happen if instead of a car, the parents owned a time machine.

Since a time machine could theoretically exist at any point in time once it’s built, if they’re possible to build it would be highly likely time travelers from all over history could be walking among us.  It’s then inevitable the world would be aware of them and there would be records of odd people appearing in time periods they don’t belong. I argued the possibility people capable of time travel would be intelligent enough to keep quiet and reports of time travel related events to the media could be dismissed as hoaxes and left unreported, but that did not take accidents into account.  Statistically, it is possible if time machines are mass produced, eventually one is going to be used by some idiot who won’t respect these rules.  Even if some genius is able to successfully build and test a machine in secret and use it properly for personal use until he either dies or retires the machine (a la Doc Brown), my friend has said that when it comes to innovation, especially for electronic devices, if just one person is able to figure out how to make something statistics say that someone else would be able to eventually replicate his work on their own.  If Will didn’t build his time machine himself, perhaps Sophia would have eventually been able to build one on her own.

I’m sorry to conclude that because no credible events of time travelers have been reported to this date, it is likely a time machine is simply not something humanity is capable of creating.  However I need to give great regard to Quantum Break writer Sam Lake for making such a believable story. If I hadn’t talked to some of my own experts, I might have tried to build one myself.

Quantum Break is out now for Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs.