survival-crafting

Online Survival-Crafting Games are the New MMORPGs

Posted by | Feature, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One | No Comments

Multiplayer survival-crafting games lack a succinct acronym or single genre-defining style, but they’re absolutely taking over the world of modern online gaming. Older MMORPG behemoths like World of Warcraft have begun a steady decline while there doesn’t appear to be any stopping the new juggernauts like ARK: Survival Evolved. These new breeds of shared sandbox worlds evolved from Minecraft and traditional MMORPGs that had dominated the last decade and a half of online gaming.

MMORPGS: The Rise and Fall

The modern video game industry grew up alongside the rise of the internet, from dial-up modems tying up phone lines to being able to stream games online and store your entire life in the cloud. Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Games began cropping up as early as text adventures and crude pixelated games in the early 90s – most with exorbitant subscription fees that caused many a parent to faint when they saw their phone bill.

In the late 90s gaming began testing the waters of truly massive online servers with thousands of users. Emerging 3D technology helped shape new virtual worlds that players could only dream of a few short years prior. Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Asheron’s Call paved the way for even larger worlds and universes like Dark Age of Camelot, EVE Online, and Star Wars Galaxies.

The year 2004 alone saw three incredibly huge, genre-defining MMORPG releases: City of Heroes, EverQuest II, and World of Warcraft. You don’t need to be a gamer to recognize one of those games as the most popular MMORPG of all time, reaching over 10 million subscribers in 2014.

World of Warcraft wasn’t the first MMORPG but it is the last survivor of the traditional subscription-based model. WoW exploded the MMORPG market in a genre that was already seeing massive growth.

Major publishers began scrambling to concoct their own WoW. In the last decade we had the Matrix Online, Guild Wars 1 and 2, The Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Champions Online, Neverwinter, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Even traditionally single-player franchises like Final Fantasy and The Elder Scrolls embraced MMORPG spin-off entries.

The MMORPG bubble began bursting nearly as quickly as it started. While everyone can have a different definition of what constitutes success and failure in the MMORPG world, the goal of all of these games was to produce ongoing gaming experiences that would last for years. Nearly every single monthly subscription model failed in the long run, with the 13-year old World of Warcraft being a notable exception.

Save for the occasional oddity, it’s unheard of for a MMORPG to launch with a subscription model these days. Nearly every MMORPG has had to completely shift their revenue model from subscription into either free-to-play with microtransactions or simply relying on an upfront box cost plus paid DLC. The Elder Scrolls Online represents the rare success story of the latter, shifting to a “buy-to-play” model one year after its release, and releasing its first major paid expansion earlier this year.

Your World, Crafted

But the traditional WoW-style MMORPG has become quaint when faced with the explosive new genre of Survival-Crafting games.

Minecraft changed everything. It birthed an entirely new genre based on gathering resources, shaping the world around you, and sharing it with others. And it didn’t require a monthly subscription.

This new genre of games has steadily risen in popularity over the last several years. Minecraft begat single-player survival adventures like The Long Dark, Stranded Deep, and Subnautica, 2D pixelated adventures like Terraria and Starbound, and online first-person worlds like Rust, Osiris: New Dawn, and ARK: Survival Evolved.

They take full advantage of a generation who’s grown up with high-speed internet, YouTube, and livestreaming. These games provide tense, unpredictable gameplay with heartbreaking losses and hard-fought victories, all in real-time.

This week alone sees the Early Access launch of two more online survival-crafting games – Dark and Light and Citadel: Forged with Fire. Both games could trace their genus back to ARK: Survival Evolved, which debuted on Steam Early Access in 2015 and is launching in a few weeks on August 8. These games effectively blur the line between the Massively Multiplayer Online games that were all the rage a decade ago and the new world order of Minecraft-like shared worlds and private servers.

citadel

Theme Park vs Sandbox

Most MMORPGs subsisted on the Theme Park concept. The world was set up like one grand amusement park, with everyone standing around ready to dole out quests to park-goers. It was fun to explore the park and ride the rides, but at some point you could see everything. Your mark upon the world typically ended with customizing your own character with bigger and better stuff. Regular expansions added new theme park zones to explore, but in the end it was your guild or friends that kept you coming back, not the rides or gear.

Many Survival-Crafting games generate a completely random, empty world. Your world. You, along with friends and/or random strangers (depending on the server), help create the world around you. There may be existing cities and NPCs in place, or a meticulously crafted island. But you construct the houses, tame the beasts, and assault player-built fortresses. It’s a sandbox waiting to be built.

survival-craftingTheir worlds aren’t quite as massive, instead relying on relatively smaller areas for more densely packed content and crowded neighbors who incite conflict. Servers are more democratized, with the best games offering both hardcore PvP options and more friendly cooperative atmospheres. The downside of free-form servers is they open up to hacking and cheating problems, which feels like an accepted trait that comes with the territory these games provide.

As a parent it can be difficult to navigate the murky world of online gaming. Due to the nature of building and sharing in these survival-crafting games, there’s an even greater risk of frustration, loss, and all manner of negativity, regardless of the game’s rating. Thankfully with so many games to choose from, it’s possible to steer your younger children in a direction you deem more appropriate, such as Dragon Quest Builders instead of Rust.

You can discuss with your children about what games they’re playing and why they’re playing them. Building a world together with friends can be an incredibly nurturing, positive experience at a time when many kids and teens feel they may lack control over their lives, or simply want to hang out with friends.

Only time will tell if this is the 2004 of Survival-Crafting games. We’ve seen some explosive growth in the last few years. According to Steam’s player counts, some of the more popular games in the genre like Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved hit 40-50,000 players every day, and both are still in Early Access. Meanwhile Final Fantasy XIV and The Elder Scrolls Online – hugely recognizable gaming franchises, enjoy a much more humble 10-15,000 players.

Since they don’t rely on monthly subscriptions the market may be much kinder than the MMORPGs of yesteryear. But one thing all these games have in common is they demand a large amount of time and dedication. You start with nothing and have to work hard to do everything, building your own theme park before you can ride any rides. It can be incredibly rewarding, as well as overwhelmingly frustrating.

Either way most gamers can only dedicate their time to one of these games at a time. It’s exciting to have so many new avenues to explore within a still relatively new genre. But history tells us it’s also a bubble preparing to burst, and only the best games will survive.

 

e3

Ranking the E3 2017 Press Conferences

Posted by | Feature, PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One | No Comments

It’s a pompous, yet time-honored tradition to grade each publisher’s E3 press conference. Companies go through an interesting cycle every year where some have exciting new game announcements or console reveals while others tow the line with some extended trailers. And some just go completely bonkers.

E3 2017 is further proof that physical, live-audience press conferences are increasingly becoming obsolete. Each show is live streamed and can be easily watched from the comfort of your own home on a myriad of devices and websites.

The majority of each show was dominated by trailers, which soon show up on YouTube for bite-sized viewing. The showmanship and spectacle of each conference continues to dwindle, instead replaced by flashy sizzle reels and carefully orchestrated cinematic trailers.

Before we drown ourselves in our own cynicism over E3, it’s important to remember that each conference remains an informative and enjoyable way for major publishers to shine the spotlight on their developers and the games they’re making.

Here is our ranking of the E3 2017 press conferences.

1) Ubisoft

Ubisoft has had some down years lately. But they really brought their “A” game to E3 2017.

For the first time in years they dropped frequent E3 host Aisha Tyler in favor of just letting Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot anchor the presentation. It began with Guillemot announcing the surprisingly awesome-looking Mario + Rabbids Battle Kingdom by bringing Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto on stage. It was self-congratulatory but also disarmingly sweet thanks to Guillemot’s boyish charm and enthusiasm.

Two other brand new announcements were the online pirate adventure Skull and Bones and the sci-fi toys-to-life Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Astonishingly Ubisoft spent minimal time on its core franchises like Far Cry 5 and Assassin’s Creed: Origins, smartly giving more time for new games. Assassin’s Creed: Origins looks completely amazing with its intriguing Ancient Egypt setting. Ubisoft made the correct call putting the annual franchise on hold for a year. Now we can get excited about more Assassin’s Creed again.

Ubisoft had the biggest finale of all the conferences with the jaw-dropping cinematic trailer for Beyond Good and Evil 2 – a game no one expected to see at E3 at all. It’s been in development for so long with little information that to see a lengthy trailer in a beautiful sci-fi world was incredible.

Final Grade: A

 

2) Nintendo

Nintendo had the foresight to see what E3 was becoming and switched to pre-recorded video conferences for E3 years ago. It’s worked well for them, but this year was especially exciting given the recently released Nintendo Switch just a few months ago. This was Nintendo’s chance to show off all the new games coming for their new console and they did not disappoint.

They focused exclusively on Nintendo Switch games and had several new announcements – Kirby, Yoshi, Metroid Prime 4, and a new Pokémon game all coming to Switch. Unfortunately Metroid Prime 4 was very much a teaser and we got less than that for the upcoming Pokémon Switch title.

What we did get to see were spiffy new trailers for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Fire Emblem Warriors, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s upcoming DLC, and the belle of the show – Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo’s E3 Spotlight was the very definition of short and sweet with a refreshing run time of less than 30 minutes. Switch owners have a lot to get excited for this year and beyond.

Grade: A-

 

3) Xbox

Microsoft had the distinct advantage of unveiling a new piece of hardware this year: the Xbox One X. Confusing name aside, the Xbox One X is a powerful upgrade that takes advantage of 4k resolution and HDR lighting. While the specs are certainly impressive, Microsoft knew that what ultimately sells gaming hardware is the software.

The Xbox E3 presentation was dominated by trailer after trailer, most of which boasted exclusivity – a glaring complaint that Microsoft is trying to address. I was very impressed with trailers for State of Decay 2, Sea of Thieves, Metro Exodus, Super Lucky’s Tale, Ashen, and Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Nailing exclusivity for the extremely popular online shooter PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds will pay dividends, as was the Minecraft news of cross-play between Xbox, PC, and mobile.

Microsoft also got to show off the first footage of Assassin’s Creed: Origins and show expanded gameplay footage of Anthem and Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Based on this year’s E3 conference the Xbox brand looks stronger than ever.

Final Grade: B+

 

4) PC Gaming Show

Watch live video from PCGamer on www.twitch.tv
The PC Gaming Show fills an awkward space in the E3 conference line-up. It’s technically not hosted by a publisher but by a media outlet, PC Gamer, and sponsored by Intel. It does provide a unique focus on PC games and developers in a trade show that’s usually obsessively focused on console news.

This year marked the third PC Gaming Show and everyone has grown far more comfortable with what the show is. The unique format lets game developers come on stage to discuss their game with host Sean “Day9” Plott. Plott keeps the event moving quickly, asking dev-friendly questions and showing a trailer and/or slice of gameplay. We got some fun looks at Battletech, Wargroove, Sea of Thieves, Tunic, and Ylands. We even had some fun new announcements, like a trailer for GriftLands, the LawBreakers release date, and the reveal of the upcoming XCOM 2 expansion.

Compared to other events the PC Gaming Show is much smaller and lighter. But I appreciate the talk-show format, and letting the developers talk briefly about the games and content they’re excited to show.

Final Grade: B

 

5) PlayStation

Sony had a very strong showing last year and the PS4 has been doing extremely well this console generation. It was disappointing to see them mostly resting on their laurels, continuing to show more impressive trailers for games that first impressed us last year.

Monster Hunter: World looks like a triumphant, AAA experience that should please fans of the series and a Horizon: Zero Dawn expansion is very welcome news. The rest was a collection of PlayStation VR games that are always difficult to show off in a trailer, and many new trailers for games we’ve already seen, like God of War III, Days Gone, and Detroit: Become Human.

Only a single person ever graced the stage, Sony’s CEO Shawn Layden. Layden always feels uncomfortable in his host position, leaving Sony’s event devoid of personality. Spider-Man was their big send-off trailer and while it looked nice, it also featured a whole bunch of eyebrow-raising quick time events.

Final Grade: B-

 

6) Electronic Arts

EA had one of the more traditional E3 press conferences with a hefty dose of flashiness – including revealing a new Porsche on stage to help promote Forza Motorsport 7. It was also ridiculously long. With a Saturday time slot all to themselves the EA Play show lasted a bloated three hours.

A solid 30 minutes was dedicated to shoutcasting a Star Wars Battlefront II multiplayer match. While I always appreciate raw gameplay footage of upcoming games, it came across as awkward and even a bit embarrassing as they tried to explain the game during a live match where many players clearly didn’t know what they were doing. The actual press conference was not the best time for this.

Almost the entire rest of the show was dedicated to the next sports game installments, which are mostly incremental, and racing games like Need for Speed Payback and Forza. EA felt far less diversified this year. Oddly while they did get to announce the upcoming Destiny-like BioWare title Anthem, we didn’t get a good look at it until the Microsoft show.

The one memorable highlight from EA Play was A Way Out, a uniquely forced split-screen co-op game. Josef Faris, maker of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons took the stage to talk about his upcoming title and was one of the more engaging speakers at E3.

Final Grade: C+

 

7) Devolver Digital

If you wanted to bottle up all the weirdness and memes of internet culture into a game publisher, you might end up with something like Devolver Digital. The small publisher has made waves producing dozens of small but fun indie titles, many of which are very streaming-friendly. The publisher held a very late night press conference that lasted all of 15 minutes. They didn’t  announce any new games and only two actual game trailers were shown.

The majority of the show was designed  to poke fun at and explicitly mock traditional E3 press conferences, as well as modern gaming trends like Early Access games and knee-jerk community feedback. Comedy is tough to pull off but Devolver did an admirable job that went over very well with its fans. I enjoyed it for what it was but I wish they would’ve peppered in more games.

Final Grade: BANANAS

 

8) Bethesda

Oh, Bethesda. You had such a fun idea. I loved the show’s theme around “Bethesdaland,” a visual representation of all their franchises. But when it came time for the actual show, the publisher just didn’t have anything new and exciting this year. At just over 30 minutes it felt more like they needed to hold a press conference since they’ve hosted one the last few years.

It was business as usual with some new content for existing games (Dishonored 2 DLC, expansion for Elder Scrolls: Legends) and VR spin-offs of Fallout and DOOM. They sneaked in a new paid mod system called Creation Club, but it raised more questions than answers.

The two new announcements were sequels – The Evil Within 2 and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. The latter had an especially cool eight and a half minute trailer but ultimately it wasn’t enough to lift Bethesda from last place.

Final Grade: C-

 

Pixelkin E3 2017 Complete Coverage

Posted by | Feature, News, PC, PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One | No Comments

EA Play

Saturday, June 10

Electronic Arts’ EA Play media show spent the majority of its conference on Star Wars Battlefront II, including showing off a full 20v20 multiplayer match. Other news included a new co-op adventure from the developer of Brother’s: A Tale of New Sons, gameplay from Need for Speed Payback, the first major DLC expansion for Battlefield 1, and more sports gaming news for Madden NFL 18, NBA Live 18, and FIFA 18.

ea play 2017EA Play 2017: New Split-Screen Co-Op Adventure A Way Out

 

 

 

EA Play 2017: FIFA 18 Coming to Nintendo Switche3 2017

 

 

 

EA Play 2017: New Gameplay Trailer for Star Wars Battlefront 2

 

 

 

EA Play 2017: The Russians Are Coming to Battlefield 1e3 2017

 

 

 

e3 2017EA Play 2017: BioWare Teases Brand New IP – Anthem

 

 

 

Xbox E3

Watch live video from Xbox on www.twitch.tv

Microsoft’s E3 show didn’t waste any time. Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, took the stage to reveal the Xbox One X, the new 4k console coming this November. The show was dominated by trailer after trailer of exclusive new games coming to Xbox One over the next year. We also saw gameplay footage of Forza Motorsport 7, Assassin’s Creed Origins, BioWare’s new co-op sci-fi game Anthem, Sea of Thieves and Middle Earth: Shadow of War.

xbox one xXbox E3 2017: Project Scorpio Revealed as Xbox One X

 

 

 

xbox e3Xbox E3 2017: All the Exclusive Games Coming to Xbox One

 

 

 

e3 2017Xbox E3 2017: First Gameplay Reveal of BioWare’s Anthem

 

 

 

minecraftXbox E3 2017: Minecraft Crossplay with Mobile, PC, Xbox One

 

 

 

life is strangeXbox E3 2017: New Prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm

 

 

 

Bethesda E3 2017

Watch live video from Bethesda on www.twitch.tv

Sunday, June 11

Bethesda  hosted a very late night press conference that lasted only 40 minutes. Bethesda is known for The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, but in the last few years have expanded into other series like Prey, Doom, Dishonored, and Woflenstein.

The short but succinct event continued to use the “Bethesdaland” theme to reveal new content for nearly every series and franchise, including Skyrim on Nintendo Switch, Dishonored 2 DLC, Elder Scrolls: Legends expansion, and a new paid mod system called Creation Club. Two new sequels were also announced: The Evil Within 2 and Wolfenstein II: The New Order. All the announced games and content are coming later this year.

bethesdaAll the News From Bethesda’s E3 2017 Press Conference

 

 

 

PC Gaming Show

Watch live video from PCGamer on www.twitch.tv

Monday, June 12

The PC Gaming Show is hosted by PC Gamer, sponsored by Intel, and emceed by Sean “Day9” Plott. It focuses on many games coming to PC (as well as other platforms) with a particular focus on smaller indie titles. Firaxis announced their new expansion for XCOM 2, and we saw new trailers for Ooblets, GriftLands, Ylands, Tunic, and a Killing Floor 2 seasonal event. We got an extended look at Battletech, Mount and Blade, and Wargroove. Cliff Blezsinki also revealed LawBreakers release date and pricing. Finally Microsoft revealed a new Age of Empires HD remaster.

xcom 2E3 2017 PC Gaming Show: XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Expansion

 

 

 

lawbreakersE3 2017 PC Gaming Show: LawBreakers Release Date and Price

 

 

 

tunicE3 2017 PC Gaming Show: Tunic Is an Isometric Zelda-like Adventure

 

 

 

Ubisoft

Watch live video from Ubisoft on www.twitch.tv

Monday, June 12

For the first time in years Ubisoft ditched their E3 host Aisha Tyler and stuck with CEO Yves Guillemot and some Ubisoft developers to show off their new stable of games. Ubisoft had one of the most exciting press conferences of E3 with many brand new announcements, including Skull and Bones, Starlink: Battle for Atlas, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, and the shockingly fantastic trailer for Beyond Good and Evil 2.  We also saw more South Park, Assassins’s Creed, Just Dance, a Steep expansion, and Far Cry 5.

mario + rabbidsUbisoft E3 2017: Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle Features Tactical Combat

 

 

 

skull and bonesUbisoft E3 2017: New Multiplayer Pirate Game Skull and Bones

 

 

 

starlinkUbisoft E3 2017: Build Real Starships for Starlink: Battle For Atlas

 

 

 

beyond good and evil 2Ubisoft E3 2017: Beyond Good and Evil 2 Announcement Trailer

 

 

 

PlayStation Live

Monday, June 12

Sony’s press conference was light on the sizzle and even lighter on the new games. We did get an announcement for a new Horizon: Zero Dawn expansion called The Frozen Wilds and Monster Hunter: World. Many of the games Sony showed during last year’s E3 have yet to come out. We got deeper looks into Detroit: Becoming Human, Spider-Man, and Days Gone. Sony had the largest VR presence, with several new games coming to PSVR.

spider-manPlayStation Live E3 2017: Watch Spider-Man Gameplay Trailer

 

 

 

psvrPlayStation Live E3 2017: All the New Games Coming to PSVR

 

 

 

call of duty: wwiiPlayStation Live E3 2017: Call of Duty: WWII Multiplayer Trailer

 

 

 

monster hunter: worldPlayStation Live E3 2017: Capcom Announces Monster Hunter: World

 

 

 

marvel vs capcom: infinitePlayStation Live E3 2017: Marvel Vs. Capcom: Infinite Story Demo Now Available

 

 

 

Nintendo Spotlight

Tuesday, June 13

Nintendo has settled into a comfortable routine each E3 with a pre-recorded, shorter event that highlights new games. This year they could take advantage of having released a brand new console earlier in the year. The Nintendo Switch completely dominated the show, with new trailers for Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Fire Emblem Warriors, Breath of the Wild DLC, and Super Mario Odyssey. Nintendo had reveal trailers for new Kirby and Yoshi Switch games. We were also teased with Metroid Prime 4 and a new untitled Pokémon game.

super mario odysseyAll the News and Trailers from the E3 2017 Nintendo Spotlight

 

 

 

We Have Reached a Golden Age of Space Strategy Games

Posted by | Feature, Opinion, PC | No Comments

Not long ago the strategy genre was struggling when it came to the final frontier. Fans of endlessly replayable strategy games and galactic empires frequently cite 1996’s Master of Orion II as the pinnacle of the sub-genre. Nearly two decades have gone by without much competition.

Fast-forward to 2017 and suddenly we have a myriad of excellent space games all vying for your star-faring gaze. If you want to smash spaceships together, you’ve got Homeworld Remastered. Fancy jumping into the cockpit and playing Choose Your Own Adventure in Space? Try Elite: Dangerous or Rebel Galaxy. Want to learn the actual real-world science behind the space program? Hello Kerbal Space Program! And I haven’t even mentioned Eve Online, which remains one of the most popular and successful Massively Multiplayer Online games without the word Warcraft in its title.

But what if you want to take a few steps back and guide an entire galactic empire to victory? The time has finally come for my beloved strategy genre, or “4X” (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) to take its place among the stars.

Between 2015’s Galactic Civilizations III, last year’s Stellaris, and the recently released Endless Space 2, I’m officially declaring it the Golden Age of Space Strategy Games. But which one is right for you, O Conquistador of the Cosmos?

Galactic Civilizations III

The Galactic Civilizations series, published and developed by Stardock Entertainment, was one of the few games proudly carrying the torch of 4X space games through the dark ages of the 2000s. Galactic Civilizations III had a rocky launch two years ago but has since received some quality updates and well-received DLC.

Galactic Civilizations III is the most board game-like of the space strategy games in its visual style. Planetary maps and even space itself are represented by hex grids. You can dive into micromanaging adjacency bonuses on each planet, or let a governor run things and turn your attention to those pesky space orcs next door.

A short story-based campaign is included, which features humanity facing off against the Drengin Empire. The visuals boast some fairly high production values, with fully animated leaders and voice acting. It adds a rich amount of personality to each playthrough, whether in the campaign or through scenarios with dozens of potential players.

GalCiv 3’s best component is the ship builder. It features one of the most comprehensive spaceship creators since Spore, letting you resize pieces and slide them around to create unique designs. It’s easy to lose hours designing your dream vessels with the LEGO-like builder. Unfortunately the actual space combat is little more than watching ships pew-pew each other (a problem every space 4X game seems to suffer from).

Play Galactic Civilizations III If: You’re a galactic warlord who loves customizing and tinkering with spaceships.

Stellaris

If you’re coming from a Civilization background, Stellaris will feel completely alien, and not just because you can play as a fungus hive-mind if you want to. Stellaris is developed by Paradox, who carved out a successful niche with their Grand Strategy titles. Their games eschew standard turn-based gameplay for a real-time experience that demands constant attention as you fly through epochs of technological advancement, explore anomalies, and colonize distant star systems.

Stellaris has the weakest visual presentation but comes with a large amount of customization for building your own galactic race, from totalitarian lizards to honorable space-birds. Diplomacy comes down to your chosen ethics and technology choices, and combat largely relies on who can muster a bigger fleet to throw more spaceships at their opponent.

What makes Stellaris compelling is the emergent narratives that crop up, such as uplifting a young race on a promising planet only to have them rebel against you. Or catching a scientist being worshiped as a god in another planet, complete with pyramids.

If you haven’t played any of Paradox’s Grand Strategy games, Stellaris can be an intimidating game to get into, with a steep learning curve. But it’s a rewarding experience that is absolutely worth discovering for fans of space strategy games.

Play Stellaris If: Taking turns is for suckers and you want to shape the entire history of your galactic empire.

Endless Space 2

endless space 2

Hopefully you’ve already read my review and know that Endless Space 2 is a great game. It brings everything that made Amplitude Studios’ Endless Legend a breath of fresh air back where it belongs – in space!

Endless Space 2 may be the easiest game of the bunch to get into, even if you haven’t played Amplitude’s previous Endless games. It’s the most Civ-like of the bunch as each unit in your diverse population produces food, industry, science, and dust to empower your military, build structures, research new technology, and grease the right palms.

Unlike Civ choosing your empire doesn’t just provide a few bonuses, it completely changes the way you play, from space vampires who drain planets to a race of genetic clones and tree-people. Each faction has dramatically different play-styles, political affiliations, and narrative arcs. RPG-like quests demand you make choices that affect your entire empire, letting you customize your game both mechanically and narratively.

I’ve never played a game that let me enjoy politics as much as Endless Space 2. The political system is built into every area of the game, making politics an integral and compelling feature.

Play Endless Space 2 If: You want to run your galaxy with a hefty dose of resource management and RPG elements.

 

TEALS Uses Tech Volunteers, Video Games to Teach Computer Science

Posted by | Feature | No Comments

Computer Science is a vastly under served industry. Given how interconnected technology has become, all industries are looking at the next generation of workers to be well versed in Computer Science and engineering.

An organization called TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) works at the high school level to provide tech-savvy volunteers, curriculum for teachers, and computer lab lesson plans. The goal is to empower teachers and schools to provide Intro level Computer Science courses to prepare young people for an increasingly tech-focused world. And they do it using video games.

I attended a TEALS panel at PAX South earlier this year to learn more about their philosophy and process. The panel was hosted by Brett Wortzman, Instruction and Training Manager and John Jannone, Regional Manager for South Central.

“We help build sustainable high school computer science programs,” said Jannone. “Because of how hard it is for teachers to learn how to code, and how much money people in tech can make not doing education, we decided to pair them off.”

TEALS brings volunteers from the tech industry to partner with schools and teachers to help teach the unique games-based TEALS Computer Science programs.

TEALS has been operating since 2009 and is supported through Microsoft Philanthropies. Jannone mentioned that they don’t use or promote any Microsoft products in their courses so as not to create conflicts of interest: “We couldn’t do this job effectively if people thought we trying to sell something.”

Leveling Up Gaming in Education

Why use games to teach computer science? Jannone referenced a 2012 TED talk by Daphne Bavelier, a college professor and research scientist who studies games and their affects on our brains. Her findings turned a lot of pre-conceived stereotypes of gaming on its head: Gamers have better attention and sharper vision than non-gamers. They can also resolve visual conflicts and process mental problems quickly. In fact, 10 hours a week of playing action games can improve cognitive functions by a noticeable margin.

TEALs sorted through a hundred thousand studies that involved gaming. “Asking are games good or are they bad in education is no longer the question we should be asking,” said Jannone.

TEALS uses three approaches in using gaming in education: Engagement, Motivation, and Mindset.

“Students tend to be more engaged when there are gaming activities in the classroom,” said Wortzman. Gaming offers a low barrier to entry. Students are more comfortable in a gaming environment, and it promotes active learning. “We can sort of ‘trick’ students. We can use an entertaining veneer over what we would consider boring topics.”

For motivation, gaming is an obvious benefit. “There’s an immediate feedback loop in most gaming activities,” said Wortzman. “There’s an opportunity to very quickly and very definitively find out if they’ve been successful or not. In school students wait hours, days, even weeks to get a grade, and they still might not know how well they did.”

Gaming provides intrinsic motivation, with rewards in the games themselves, like earning points or gaining treasure. Wortzman also suggested using classroom leaderboards to incite healthy competition to promote students to keep going.

The gaming mindset works well when adapted to the classroom. “[Students] are used to being successful in games, but they’re also used to having to try a few times,” said Wortzman. “They’re not used to that in the classroom. There are a lot of students that believe they should get it right the first time and if they can’t they should just give up.” The acceptance of failure and repetition that gaming provides is an important concept that can be applied to classroom learning.

civilization vi

Not every game can be a great educational tool. The panel outlined four levels of using games as a framework for teaching tools.

  • Level 0: Coincidental Learning
    • The game wasn’t designed to be an educational activity, you just happen to learn something from it.
    • “I played Civilization and along the way I learning something about the ancient Aztecs,” explained Wortzman.
  • Level 1: Game-influenced Learning
    • Also known as “game-ified learning.” Games of this level are often used as assessment or review of learning that has happened prior to playing the game.
  • Level 2: Game-supported Learning
    • Games are combined with learning objectives and other activities (such as writing assignments).
  • Level 3: Game-based Learning
    • The game stands on its own as a complete learning tool. This is the ultimate goal for using games in education.

Design, Create, Play

TEALS does more than just provide games to play. Classrooms also design and create their own games as part of the Computer Science curriculum. Design, Creation, and Play all contain their own levels depending on how effectively the game content is used in the classroom.

“In our Intro Computer Science course, most of our projects are game assignments: recreation, riffs, or watered down versions of traditional well-known games, such as a Super Mario Bros. platformer, Pong, and Zork text adventure,” said Wortzman. “They are creating these games as part of our project-based curriculum. They are learning and practicing their programming skills by designing and implementing these games.”

redstone

TEALS uses a custom-built Minecraft mod as a learning tool. A former TEALS student took the Minecraft Forge project and added extensions and scripts, letting students create their own objects. It’s a good tool for teaching students how to operate within third party software that they didn’t create, which is how a lot of professional game design operates.

“I’ve been using Minecraft educationally for the last six years,” said Jannone. “There’s curriculum, there’s inspiration, there’s YouTube videos filled with Redstone circuitry. People make functional computers and Pong games using nothing but the mechanics of Minecraft. It’s an amazing tool. That sandbox environment encourages kids to be more exploratory and experimental.”

Game-based learning doesn’t have to be restricted to programming in Computer Science class. One example Wortzman used was for English or Language Arts. Students would read Lord of the Rings, and their assignment would be to create a character from the novels within World of Warcraft. What class would Frodo be and why? What equipment would they have? It’s an example of game-supported learning (Level 2) by using World of Warcraft as a book report.

Games can also be used as a springboard to teaching bigger concepts in a variety of school subjects. Board game Settlers of Catan can be a case study in economics and geographical dependency and sociology. The simple mobile game Angry Birds can be used to discuss parabolic motion in Physics class. These kind of games can easily be applied as Level 1 and Level 2 teaching tools. They would still require a teacher to bridge the connection between the game and the lesson plan.

kerbal space program vehicle assembly

For a true Level 3 game-learning experience, see Kerbal Space Program. “You can learn a ton about gravity, orbital dynamics and astrophysics just by playing Kerbal Space Program,” said Worzman. “If I were teaching a class on that, I could just tell you ‘Go play KSP for 6 weeks – you’re going to learn everything you need to learn.'”

For an in-house example, Wortzman created a game called Space Battle. “This is a programming game a bit like [board game] Robo Rally, except that you have to lay out all your programs at the beginning, and then not touch anything for the rest of the game.” Students program their out spaceships to include in the game, then gather around a projector to watch how their ship performs based on the programs they implemented. “They watch and scream and teachers three doors down tell us to be quiet because they’re giving a final exam – true story,” said Wortzman.

Once we accept games as learning tools we can begin to use them to enhance lesson plans, motivate students, and integrate gameplay and mechanics into lessons as outlined above. Even just using games in the simplest ways, like creating the Lord of the Rings characters in World of Warcraft, is hugely motivating to young people in which gaming is a normal background of their lives, and can make classroom education far more engaging and fun.

Today TEALS programs can be found in 329 high school classes in 225 schools in 25 states. Over 750 volunteers from 400 different companies help bring engaging computer science lessons to schools. TEALS is always looking for volunteers from tech industry professionals, teachers, students, and anyone who’s interested in helping support education and promoting games for learning.