Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Reset Generation

Nokia have held the coming out party, Project White Rock is now offically Reset Generation - Ewan takes a closer look at the new information about Nokia's flagship N-Gage title, due out this summer.

The covers have been lifted, and while not everything is on show, 'Project: White Rock' is no more – we now know that Nokia are hoping their key title in the new gaming world will be Reset Generation.

What Do We Know Now?

We’re still missing a fair amount of information, and key evidence, such as gameplay videos, haven’t yet made an appearance, but let’s put together what information we do have via Nokia’s recent press events around the game, and via some questions put to the game’s Designer and Executive Producer, Scott Foe.

Nokia sums up the short answer with this simple quote: “Inviting to play and unfairly addictive, this [is a] fast paced multiplayer puzzle game…” Your goal is to rescue the princesses from the castles, and to do so before the other opponents in the gameplay area, while defending your own princess in the process. To help you on your way you have everything a good computer hero needs, from puzzle blocks, defensive cannons, legendary items and special hero powers.

If this all seems a touch cliché, and harking back to the plots and ideals of games from the 80’s and early 90’s, then that’s because it is – every game needs an artistic theme and direction, and Reset Generation is no different. And the team must be in heaven, as the game is aimed squarely at other video games, primarily the games that those in their twenties and thirties would have grown up with. The colours are bold and brash, the design is very much of the Amiga and Atari ST era, and the in-game soundtrack is from the band 8 Bit Weapon (who make all their music on, you’ve guessed it, old video game machines).

Meet Your Heroes!

Expect lots of hidden tips of the hats and homages hiding in the game (could the Biggest Freaking Gun Possible, the BFGP be any closer to DooM’s BFG9000?), and that’s after you look at the characters you have available to play. We have:

Reset Generation, 9 of the Cast

* The Aggressor (Special power: 4 way laser shot)
Modelled on the Recognisers from Tron, the slow and orderly progress of the Aggressor could suit players who like to build up to victory.

* Babe Runner (Special power: leap diagonally across the map while firing)
The Buxom Brit on a quest for the legendary artifact - hmmm, who could that be? - is likely to be a fast and lithe character.

* Cyborg (Special power: Rocket Jump in any direction, burning the ground beneath you)
Sounds like we have our Samus from Metroid, although a rocket firing laser toting cyborg is very, very specific.

* Level 50 Elf (Special power: dropping a line of coloured blocks with her stick)
Elfs usually get a raw deal in games like this, being the average of everything, but expect the Elf in Reset Generation to be very capable in the hands of a good player.

* Dr Lovebomber (Special power: colour bomb that hurts enemies and changes block colours)
Constantly defeated by The Plumber (coming up in mo!) the Dr continues a long line of in-game end-of-level foes.

* Monster Trainer (Special power: summon the dark wizard to blast blocks and other heroes on your behalf)
Gotta catch em all springs to mind, with a tiny square to collect, file, index and stamp tiny creatures from a popular video game series at your behest.

* Ninja (Special power: Switching places with another hero)
Born from Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, or Way of the Exploding Fist (depending on your age) the cries of "I am ninja!" will surely ring round the Reset Generation arenas.

* Plumber (Special power: Ladies Man, which can charm the Princesses to fetch him special items off the map)
Video games? Plumber? Nope, no idea who this could be...

* Hedgehog (Special power: super fast running across the board)
Well if you've got the plumber, you're gonna need to have the arch rival as well, aren't you?

* Sci-Fi Knight (Mind Trick, which can temporarily allow you to control your enemies)
Perhaps 'this isn't the game you're looking for', but no matter. Everyone wants to be a laser sword wielding mystic magician... with a gravelly voice like Alex Guiness.

Bonus points to the first hacker (who’s not part of the Nokia Dev Team) who patches the released game to switch these names back to what your brain is remembering.

That's Very Nice, But How Do You Play It?

Foe has previously talked about the challenge of online multi-player games in high latency environments (that’s when it takes a long time - in computer terms – to pass information out to all the players) and how to overcome that while preserving the challenge. This lends itself to a turn based game, which is what Reset Generation is, but the turn is not as simple as a single move. There are phases to the turn, so for example there will be some actions that will happen before all the players move.

Moving across the grid means making a path in your own colour, which is achieved by dropping Tetris style puzzle pieces onto the game grid - this is the first phase of each turn. You can't move on anything other than your own colour, so you'll need to balance building paths for yourself against blocking your opponent - oh and trying to get a 'five blocks in a row' combo which allows you to move further along the paths than normal. Dropping blocks where you think your opponent will drop blocks will cancel out both blocks - and it's possible to strand your opponent in no mans land while you slowly advance towards your target princess.

After placing your pieces, you can fire your cannons, taking out up to two enemy colour squares on the board. Again, if two players target the same square, they're going to cancel each other out and nothing happens. Remember that with these phases happening sequentially, the opportunites for tactical play, second guessing and striving to trigger combos is going to lead to a whole host of different ways that people will be able to play the game. Expect tactics to be discussed frequently and often around the N-Gage forums.

Like any good action movie though, getting the princess is only half the battle, you need to sling her over your shoulder and high tail it back to your home castle to win the game, which is where the movement phase comes in. This is where everyone takes turns to romp across the board, heading for their princess - or operating a decapitation strategy, because if you fight and knock out an opponent, you are automatically delivered their Princess, which could be a potential shortcut.

The Only Valid Test Is Combat

While Reset Generation has a single-player story, I suspect that this will be regarded as a extended tutorial for the main action,, letting you experience the skills and quirks of each character before embarking on what the game is really about - the online multiplayer mode. Balancing that out is the big design challenge. How have Foe and his team gone about this?

“The main way is in the super powers,” explains Foe. “These are truly devastating – come on, these guys are super heroes. They should be able to lay waste to large areas, they should be able to flatten the bad guys.” He puts it in terms of Hold Em Poker – if an unskilled player draws a pair of aces at the start of the game, it’s very likely he’s going to win, no matter what the skilled player does. The same situation happens if an unskilled player in Reset Generation lines up a superpower play. Of course, over ten hands of poker, the skilled player is likely to win seven or eight of them, so while there is still luck involved, skill is a vital component in matches where players are not paired with other players of a similar strength.

“We like to think that Reset Generation is a high luck, high skill game,” punctuates Foe. While you could take on anyone in the multiplayer environment, the server will do its best to pair you up with someone of similar ability – one of the hidden benefits of having a global leaderboard is allowing this match up facility, as well as providing bragging rights for those at the top of the overall board.

The ranking boards are also going to be a fascinating tool for learning – every game played on Reset Generation will be available for an instant replay by anyone out there. Fancy watching the top players to see their strategies and tricks? Not a problem, it’s all going to be on show. Given that Foe’s last game, Pocket Kingdom, had a huge amount of game data facing the public, it wouldn’t surprise me in this user generated content world to see a ‘This Week in Reset Gen’ sports punditry style video show online.

Other boards are available, and these will be represented in-game with ‘belts', in a similar way to those used in boxing and wrestling. These will be visible and tradable, and belts for goals (such as most princess captures) will be strewn throughout the gaming world.
Are We Ready to Rumble?

Nokia and Foe certainly have confidence in the project – it’s the biggest push I can recall for any N-Gage game, past or present, and the early press is not missing a beat in heaping praise on the title in the run up to its release.

One interesting sideline is that Reset Generation will be multi-platform, running not just on the N-Gage compatible smartphones, but also as a web-based widget that will run on Windows PC (browser compatibility and other Operating Systems hasn’t been made clear yet). This is free to anyone, not just those who has purchased the game, and is going to mean that, as well as an expected smartphone demo, you could in theory become the world’s greatest Reset Generation player not through your N-Gage phone, but through playing the game on Facebook.

That is breaking new ground – it’s not a silo gameplay area that's tasked with keeping smartphone and web players separate, but one connected world (surely a message Nokia as a whole wants to push). In any case, it adds another interesting strategy to the campaign, allowing it to promote a service effectively being given away for free – even with a 5% conversion rate, the number of potential eyeballs that could see the widget is huge, and the knock on effect for N-Gage as a whole could mean that Reset Generation is perceived as the title that launches the fabled N-Gage ‘next generation gaming platform’ to the masses.

This isn’t a 'by the numbers, grind it out' title. Years have been spent on this title, and Nokia are right to believe that it could be an absolute game changer – sure there is a fear that it could fall absolutely flat, but coverage in the regular gamng press has been almost universal in delivering praise for the title – Edge magazine devoted six pages, and you don’t do that for a clunker.

Foe closed off my brief time with him on a note that indirectly addresses that love of gaming in the development team; “Companies don’t make games, people make games.” To that I would add people play games as well, and Reset Generation looks like it’s going to be one of the most playable games of the year. That’s right, no qualification on ‘mobile game’ or ‘portable game,’ but over the whole gaming landscape.

Reset Generation is coming.

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