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Click here to read Two Weird New Games Are Coming To Vita Very Soon

Believe it or not, the PlayStation Vita has been quietly picking up steam this fall. Two new Vita games from Japan with weird premises and even weirder titles—Dokuro and Orgarhythm—are coming to the U.S. within the next couple of weeks. More »

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Just another day in the pixel mines.

Queasy Games

Music games can generally be divided into two broad categories: games that ask you to take part in making the music, and games where the music drives the gameplay. Sound Shapes straddles the line between those two types of games while layering an incredibly satisfying, abstract take on 2D platform games on top as well.

As you know if you've read our previous coverage, Sound Shapes turns you into nothing more than a small, sticky circle, caught in a world full of simple, abstract shapes rendered primarily in stark, solid colors. The goal is to roll and hop around to collect floating coins dotted around the game's rooms while avoiding enemies and their attacks, which are helpfully highlighted in a deadly red.

It sounds simple, and it is, as far as the gameplay is concerned (though the designers do a good job of stretching the simple concept as far as it can go, with levels that force you to make smart use of the jumping and sticking mechanics). But what makes the game really stand out is the way that each coin you collect activates a note that gets layered into a constantly evolving, mesmerizing backbeat that follows you from room to room.

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Futurlab's PlayStation Mini Velocity wants to add some teleportation to the shmup genre, and the trailer suggests it makes for an exciting experience. With so much of the thrill of modern shmups being dodging, fitting teleportation into the typical shmup design seems challenging.

Futurlab's James Marsden tells IndieGames that it was tough to balance the gameplay around the teleport mechanic. "I don't think it's hype to say we've had to redesign what a shootemup is. We've changed the emphasis from being able to get through a level at all, to being able to perfect a level, and the inclusion of the scroll-speed control acts like a Flow-State pedal."

The game becomes more challenging when moving faster, so players can learn a level without using much of their scroll boost, and then the better they get at it, and the closer they get to the perfect medal, the more they use the scroll boost. "The game at its most impressive sees a player masterfully pumping the gas at the right times to fling bombs at targets at just the right moment, teleporting into the middle of alien waves to get the best bullet coverage and bomb fling accuracy," Marsden shares.

He adds that he finds dodging in a typical shooter to be dull. He says Velocity is a much richer gameplay experience "because a player has to keep their attention on more interesting gameplay challenges - like how fast they managed to take the last corner and how accurately they teleported /into/ a group of enemies to take them out with well aimed bomb flings in each direction." Once players can rescue all survivors and kill everything in a level, and do it quickly, they get a perfect gold medal.

Velocity is developed as a PSP-mini and runs on PS3 and PS Vita in an emulator. "In the case of the Vita, it is a perfect 1 to 4 pixel ratio, so Velocity looks great on Vita, and not quite so great on PS3," describes Marsden.

The release date is up to Sony, says Marsden. "We do know that it's likely to be in middle of March in EU, and most likely May 1st in US. We tried very hard to syncronise the release dates across territories but it has been difficult to manage with just the two of us!"

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Five-man indie team Nnooo is bringing its retro styled arcade game escapeVektor to PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS late this year. Players control Vektor, an entity trapped inside the console's CPU. The gameplay that ensues is a bit like Qix if you and your enemies were only skirting along the edges of the play area.

The team released escapeVektor: Chapter 1 for WiiWare last year. Although the game was met with critical acclaim, the developers decided to roll all four chapters together into one game and bring it out on these new consoles to reach a wider audience.

"Playing the game in 3D on the Nintendo 3DS is really cool," said Nic Watt, Nnooo's Creative Director. "With the background to each level pulsing in time to the cool chip-tune soundtrack you really get drawn into game's environment. For PlayStation Vita players we hope to make use of Near and location based leaderboards. We'll also be experimenting with the front and rear touchscreen controls."

I followed up with Nnooo about possible PC and Mac ports. "It's definitely something we're considering, but you'll appreciate with only 5 staff it may take a while!"

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It's a confusing time in the world of mobile and portable gaming. Consumers seem to be moving away from the idea that they need an entirely separate device to play games on the go, settling for cheap, generally simple touchscreen games on their cell phones and tablets. Nintendo, following up the insanely successful DS system that rested on a seemingly gimmicky double screen design, added a newer glasses-free 3D gimmick to its Nintendo 3DS—only to see extremely slow sales force it into a premature price drop. Sony's PlayStation Portable, meanwhile, has carved out a niche for itself as a serious gamer's system, especially in Japan, but is beginning to show its age as a system designed in the pre-smartphone era.

For the new PlayStation Vita, Sony responded to this confusion by throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the system. For hardcore gamers, there are two analog sticks—a first for a portable system—and a gigantic screen loaded with pixels. For casual players, there's the now-ubiquitous touchscreen as well as a unique rear touch panel to enable new tactile, touchy-feely gameplay. The Vita has two cameras, a GPS receiver, and a 3G data option. There's music and video players, a Web browser, Google Maps, and even a proximity-based social network. Oh, and it also plays games, I guess (more on those in a separate post).

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The indie talent backing the PlayStation Vita is steadily increasing as the system approaches its US and EU February‭ ‬22‭ ‬release.‭‬ Last month,‭ ‬Everyday Shooter developer Jon Mak shared how Vita's technology allows for interactive music to form the key of‭ ‬Sound Shapes‭' ‬platforming experience.‭‬

The Vita's array of inputs,‭ ‬including its front and rear touch screens,‭ ‬has also grabbed the attention of Honeyslug‭ ‬developer Ricky Haggett,‭ ‬whose games have found their way around events such as Eurogamer's Indie Games Festival and E3‭'‬s Indiecade Expo.‭ ‬However,‭ ‬Honeyslug has put everything aside to create microgame collection Frobisher Says‭‬.

Here Haggett speaks on the team's progression of Frobisher Says from a Flash prototype to a handheld console title,‭ ‬on the challenge of communicating to playtesters the required actions on each microgame,‭ ‬and the approachability of the hardware for iOS developers.

What kind of game is Frobisher‭?‬

Frobisher Says is a surreal party experience in which players must obey the instructions of a strange little man called Frobisher.‭ ‬Frobisher is spoilt,‭ ‬used to getting his own way,‭ ‬and his orders are often quite whimsical.‭ ‬You might be asked to deliver his pudding on a toy train,‭ ‬poke an otter with a stick,‭ ‬or face Antarctica and curtsey.

‬There are over‭ ‬50‭ ‬different challenges,‭ ‬and each one uses different features of the Vita in different ways.‭ ‬We've also worked with over‭ ‬20‭ ‬different artists‭ (‬from all kinds of backgrounds‭)‬,‭ ‬so in addition to the input mechanism of the games constantly changing,‭ ‬so too do the way they are presented.

How did you get involved with Vita development‭?‬

Earlier this year,‭ ‬we were asked by Sony Europe whether we wanted to submit a proposal for a Playstation Vita showcase app‭ -‬-‭ ‬something which would highlight the unique features of the device.

We had previously attended Sony's Vita presentation to developers,‭ ‬and our main reaction to the device was,‭ "‬Wow, this thing does a lot of different stuff‭!" ‬All the controls of a dual-shock,‭ ‬plus front and rear touchscreens,‭ ‬tilt,‭ ‬accelerometers,‭ ‬front and rear cameras‭ (‬with facial recognition‭)‬,‭ ‬compass,‭ ‬GPS,‭ ‬microphone‭...‬ just thinking about the possibilities was a bit bewildering.‭

Then Dick Hogg‭‬,‭ ‬our collaborator on several other games‭ (‬including Hohokum and Poto‭ & ‬Cabenga‭) ‬suggested making a bewildering game which would use ALL of the inputs‭ ‬--‭ ‬and jump between them at high speed‭! ‬And so Frobisher was born.

What games served as backgrounds for Frobisher's research/dev‭? ‬I'm thinking Rhythm Heaven/Tengoku or WarioWare...

The main‭ '‬minigames game‭' ‬that influenced us was Rhythm Heaven,‭ ‬which Dick and I are both big fans of.‭ ‬That game definitely informed the flow and atmosphere of Frobisher at the start. I consciously didn't go back and replay WarioWare or the Raving Rabbids games,‭ ‬because I didn't want to be directly influenced by them.‭

The games in Frobisher are actually more inspired by Frobisher's world‭ ‬--‭ ‬they came from us thinking about the character and what kinds of things he would demand you do,‭ ‬then intersecting these thoughts with the unique opportunities the Vita controls gave us.

What tools and tricks did you use to develop Frobisher‭?‬

Our starting point was the C++‭ ‬engine I built for Kahoots Minis on PSP.‭ ‬The process at Honeyslug is that we prototype everything in Flash first‭ (‬Actionscript‭ ‬3,‭ ‬Flex Builder‭ ‬3‭)‬,‭ ‬before moving it to its target platform.‭

I've built up a pretty comprehensive game framework for‭ ‬2D games in Flash,‭ ‬which makes trying ideas out really fast‭ ‬-‭ ‬and we also have the benefit of the Flash IDE‭ ‬-‭ ‬which is wonderful for laying out screens/GUI‭ ‬-‭ ‬and the ability to publish an SWF and send it to anyone to run,‭ ‬which is particularly useful when you're working with so many different people,‭ ‬many of whom are on Mac,‭ ‬and live in a different country.

I then have a C++‭ ‬implementation of this engine,‭ ‬with C++‭ ‬versions of all my game framework classes,‭ ‬plus a layer which provides the basic functionality of Flash‭ (‬Sprites,‭ ‬MovieClips etc‭)‬.

We hired an awesome engine coder called Caspar Sawyer,‭ ‬who also makes his own games,‭ ‬under the name‭ "‬Public Domain Corporation Ltd.‭"‬.‭ ‬Caspar has his own cross-platform engine,‭ ‬for which he started making a Vita implementation,‭ ‬while I integrated my engine on top.‭

‬It took us about a month to get to the point where we could make games in Flash,‭ ‬check we were happy with them,‭ ‬then port rapidly to Vita‭ (‬each game taking somewhere between half an hour and a day to move between Flash and Vita,‭ ‬depending on the complexity‭)‬.

Then we spent another month getting all of the inputs wired in‭ ‬-‭- ‬first the‭ '‬traditional‭' ‬controls,‭ ‬followed by touchscreens,‭ ‬then motion.‭ ‬After that it was audio,‭ ‬and more recently we've been getting PlayStation Network functionality in,‭ ‬clever camera features‭ (‬including facial recognition‭)‬,‭ ‬and support for some fun shaders.‭

Whilst this has been a lot of work in a short time,‭ ‬the Sony libraries have been really helpful,‭ ‬so we've been able to get things done quickly,‭ ‬which has been great.

Sony has claimed to make the Vita a much easier platform to develop on.‭ ‬How has your experience been‭?‬

We've certainly found it to be very smooth.‭ ‬The SDK and dev kits are really easy to set up,‭ ‬and the integration with Visual Studio works great.‭ ‬We found the level of support we received from Sony's dev support team to as good for Vita as it was for PSP‭ ‬--‭ ‬they reply promptly and get to the heart of the problem,‭ ‬which helps issues get resolved really quickly.

In terms of the hardware itself,‭ ‬we've really enjoyed working with the device.‭ ‬Apart from using all the input devices‭ (‬for which the Sony APIs work great‭), ‬Frobisher is technically fairly simple‭ ‬-‭- ‬certainly compared to AAA games like Uncharted‭ ‬--‭ ‬but we've been able to leverage the speed and power of the device in another way.‭ Instead of trying to fit as many polygons as possible,‭ ‬the Vita's power has given us quite a free,‭ ‬relaxed environment to work in‭ (‬not unlike working in Flash‭)‬.

All the time we've saved by not having to optimize our engine to make graphics fit is time we've spent working on the fun stuff instead‭ ‬-‭ ‬timings of animations,‭ ‬honing the jokes,‭ ‬and most importantly,‭ ‬refining the gameplay to make something which plays and looks fantastic.‭ ‬It's been especially good working with professional animators‭ ‬-‭- ‬used to working in film,‭ ‬where they can have as many frames as they like‭ ‬-‭- ‬and actually having the memory available to do their work justice.

The design has benefitted hugely from this atmosphere of development going smoothly and things being technically achievable,‭ ‬and we've had a lot of fun coming up with games inspired by the input possibilities of the devices.‭ ‬I think my favorites‭ (‬and the ones that playtesters seem to love most‭) ‬are the ones where the mapping between the game and inputs is most transparent.‭ ‬Frobisher says‭ "‬Scratch my Back‭" ‬is a good example of this‭ ‬-‭- ‬as is‭ "‬Smile at the Ladies,‭ ‬Don't Smile at the Badgers‭"!‬

Speaking of playtesters,‭ ‬what's Frobisher and the Vita like in their hands‭?‬

From our playtests,‭ ‬one of the most challenging things has been communicating with players how exactly the games are to be played.‭ ‬For most games it's obvious,‭ ‬but we've had some trouble with the ones involving the touchscreens,‭ ‬because there are a lot of possible input mechanics when you have front and rear multi-touchscreens,‭ ‬and we don't want to have to break out into a tutorial,‭ ‬because that would ruin the quickfire flow.‭

We started off with animations which attempted to visualize what to do with your hands,‭ ‬but we found that to actually be counter-intuitive:‭ ‬if you show a diagram that attempts to show people what to do,‭ ‬they just mimic it,‭ ‬without actually looking at the game or thinking about the solution‭ (‬especially against a time pressure‭)‬.

We now have more general control hints‭ ‬-‭- ‬showing the part of the Vita which must be used,‭ ‬but not the exact action.‭ ‬Players must then look at the games,‭ ‬and interpret the correct response‭ ‬--‭ ‬which is actually part of the fun of Frobisher Says (‬although hardly any of our games are deliberately obtuse‭!)‬.

We also noticed a strong bias in players‭' ‬first reaction to many games being to go straight for the front touchscreen,‭ ‬despite seeing a control hint which tells them otherwise‭ ‬-‭- ‬which must come from constant use of smart phones‭! ‬It'll be interesting to see how this phenomenon develops throughout the course of the lifespan of the Vita,‭ ‬and whether rear touch,‭ ‬or front‭ ‬+‭ ‬rear touch can develop control-memes of their own‭ ‬--‭ ‬allowing players in the future to intuitively understand that something in a game is probably‭ '‬rear multi-touch‭'‬,‭ ‬without having to be explicitly told.

What would you say to iOS developers considering the system‭?

If you've made an iOS game in C++,‭ ‬you shouldn't have no problem making something for Vita‭ ‬-‭- ‬there are plenty of sample‭ '‬starter games‭' ‬to refer to if you're new to the platform.‭ ‬You'll need to buy a Vita devkit,‭ ‬but if you're a PC-based developer,‭ ‬there's a similar level of expense investing in iOS development‭ -‬-‭ ‬buying devices and a Mac.

We used the same Flash-like engine for Frobisher as we did for the PSP and iOS versions of Kahoots,‭ ‬so for us there was plenty of crossover. A solid understanding of the issues surrounding multi-touchscreen input for games will certainly be useful for Vita development.

And yet some people may worry about the pre-existent touch market share held elsewhere.‭ ‬How would you propose Sony overcome such challenges‭?‬

Vita seems well placed to do well in the hardcore experience stakes:‭ ‬it's super-powerful and has twin analogue sticks,‭ ‬so we should see plenty of console-like experiences coming out for it.‭ ‬It feels like it's hitting a spot that nothing else is right now‭ ‬-‭- ‬as the announcement of that ridiculous extra stick for‭ ‬3DS would seem to attest.

I'm much more interested in seeing to what extent Sony support a marketplace for games and applications which will appeal to a more casual gamer:‭ ‬the Vita offers so many possibilities that it would be a shame to focus too much on hardcore gaming experiences at the expense of everything else. I would hope they'd be looking at the App Store,‭ ‬and thinking about how successfully it appeals to a wide range of different sorts of people.

Any closing thoughts‭?‬

Overall,‭ ‬we're really excited about Frobisher Says,‭ ‬and the Vita generally,‭ ‬and it'll be interesting to see what kinds of audience they attract.‭ ‬Initially,‭ ‬there will no doubt be solid uptake from Sony's core customer base,‭ ‬but beyond that we'll be looking at the extent to which it can attract other kinds of people,‭ ‬and hoping Sony can position it as a something which appeals to non-hardcore gamers,‭ ‬in the way that they have the PS3‭ (‬which many people‭ ‬-‭ ‬myself included‭ ‬-‭ ‬use as the main media device in the lounge‭)‬.

As a consumer,‭ ‬a device which can perform the role of an iPad‭ --‭ ‬but also let me play twin-stick shooters‭ ‬--‭ ‬has considerable appeal to me. And as a small indie developer,‭ ‬we're keen to see to what extent Sony can engage with the market for smaller,‭ ‬downloadable content‭ ‬-‭ ‬the early indications are positive,‭ ‬and the possibilities tantalizing‭!

[This post originally appeared on Gamasutra and was written by John Polson.]

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Click here to read How Good or Bad Are PS Vita Games Looking?

In recent years (and maybe longer) PlayStation has put their graphical power front and center. The original PSP, the PS3 and the upcoming PS Vita are all graphical powerhouses compared to the competition. That fact is a large reason Sony is in the position it's in today. More »

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