Mr Shifty

Mr. Shifty sells itself as a mix between Hotline Miami and Nightcrawler, but as you never have to sell questionably legal news footage to anyone, I don’t think that works. It’s really more a mix of Hotline Miami and that all time classic of young adult fiction, Jumper. Questionable marketing aside, Mr. Shifty managed to give two incredibly enjoyable hours of gameplay. Then the game did something truly amazing; it took everything I was loving about the game and made me hate all of it. (Editor’s Note: What a twist!)

You play as the titular “Mr. Shifty” who’s been sent in to a highly secure building to steal the “Mega Plutonium” hidden inside before it can be weaponized. Who Mr Shifty is and who he works for is never brought up; nor is why it’s important to stop the game’s villain from turning the Mega Plutonium into a bomb in the first place. Maybe he was just a humble war profiteer. Won’t someone think of the poor billionaires exploiting human tragedy? The one thing that is apparent right from the start is that Mr Shifty is a pretty shit thief. The first thing you see in the game is a large group of armed goons waiting for him, then he literally has to have it explained to him how to use his own powers.

MrShifty 2017-04-27 19-06-29-057

As annoyed as I am that Mr Shifty doesn’t know how to use his own powers, I am amazed he was able to convince the bad guys to paint an explanation on the floor.

While Mr Shifty‘s story isn’t all that good, the narrative doesn’t takes itself too seriously, so it never becomes unbearable. The humor is a bit generic, but I found a certain charm to it. Ironic statements, like about how little resistance there should be before a particularly heavily guarded level, and self-deprecating mission titles like “Operation Certain Death” are pretty common, but they fit the game’s overall tone and land well enough not to feel too cliche. This, plus overly straightforward puzzle solutions, give the game an irreverent tone that should have been able to carry the game on it’s own, but I’ll get to that soon enough.

The one issue I have with the story is the ending. After being forced to play through two extraneous hours of the devs basically saying “we’ve run out of ideas but don’t want to end the game yet”, you’d think the ending would have had some form of pay off. Instead, you punch the bad guy a few times, and then the credits role. The second half of Mr Shifty was like my first time listening to Metallica’s Saint Anger. I spent nearly two hours getting pissed off, only for it to end with me not knowing why I sat through it all. Coincidentally, the first half was like Metallica’s previous album, Garage Inc; something I didn’t know I wanted until it was in my hands.

Gameplay-wise Mr Shifty wears it’s inspiration on its sleeve. The top-down perspective and overall feel of each level shows a clear love for Dennaton Games’ Hotline Miami. I could have lived with the guys at Team Shifty not including the deaths from enemies off screen, but props to them for the dedication. The one way Mr Shifty differentiates itself from its predecessor is in the movement and combat. Instead of running around each level, shooting everything you see for even a slit second, Mr Shifty has the ability to teleport short distances and much prefers melee combat. It’s kind of like being Tracer from Overwatch if she got big into boxing.

And I know I keep saying this, but for the first half of the game, it’s damn near perfect.

Literally everything a game like this should do is done in that first half. New and visually distinct enemies are introduced regularly, keeping things fresh by bringing additional challenges every level or so. Plus, the enemy AI is tuned precisely to be fun to play around with, like finding ways to clear a level using only their own friendly fire to wipe out your opponents. New weapons with their own advantages and disadvantages are also brought in regularly as well, which stops the combat from becoming a monotonous grind of poofing behind enemies like a member of the X-Men and giving them the ol’ one-two punch. The game even finds interesting things to do when it strips you of the ability to teleport.

MrShifty 2017-04-21 16-59-05-665

With how often this happened, I’m surprised there wasn’t more of a police presence. How shit must this place be to work that the police have stopped showing up to people falling out the windows?

That is, until then the second half of the game roles around, and all of this stops being fun. And the odd thing is, most of my issues stem from the exact same systems I was enjoying before hand. For example, the AI. What was once dumb enough to have some fun with becomes frustrating as the total lack of self preservation means a character with a rocket launcher will shoot you at point blank range, killing you both instantly and forcing you to restart. This made it feel the game cared more about me failing than being entertaining, and not in the Dark Souls “death teaches you to get better” kind of way.

It also doesn’t help that checkpoints get increasingly sparse in the latter half of the game. While each level take place on a different floor, the game saves progress after each room. As the game drags on, the distance between checkpoints grows, as do the number and variety of enemies in your way. Some levels will put you against a host of these big burly guys that can kill you with one hit, but take at least three to take down. And because of that AI, they come out you like a tidal wave, forcing you into the middle of them to deal some damage of your own.

Other levels will pit you against an array of enemies with so many different firing capabilities that I found it nearly impossible to prioritize any one target, as there was almost always another foe there ready to counter me wherever I went. One level was so packed that I’m pretty sure it’s why the devs added in the ability for enemies to kill each other, as I only made it through because most of them ended up wiping themselves out. By the end of the game, my main tactic had turned into finding the guys that blew up shortly after dying and use them to take out everyone else. It rarely failed. The last few levels do bring back some of the original creativity, with the bad guy figuring out Mr Shifty’s power and using it to randomly bring in reinforcements and changing the level lay outs, but the gameplay issues persist and I was long since checked out by them.

MrShifty 2017-04-21 17-04-43-608

In the gritty reboot of “The Little Mermaid” King Trident takes to the land himself to get his daughter back.

The one thing I can say held up through out the game was the UI. There’s a clear counter telling you how often you can teleport, and an obvious white dot that stands out clearly against the game’s backgrounds to indicate exactly where you’ll end up. Unless you’re using a mouse, where there’s a second white dot for the cursors that made following the action a needless hassle. Take the game’s advice and play with a controller.

There are definitely games I hated more than Mr. Shifty, but it might be the game I am most disappointed with. Mr. Shifty didn’t fail to live up to its own hype, it failed to live up to itself and the promise its early levels show. If the game has ended halfway through, it would be my front runner for my Indie Game of the Year, but it didn’t. If there ever is a Mr. Shifty 2 (and I do hope there is one day), all I ask from Team Shifty – learn to end your game before it runs out of good ideas.

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Nyx seems cool. I kind of want a game where I’m just hanging out with her. If only spin offs didn’t suck.

header

Mr. Shifty was developed by Team Shifty

Point of Sale – Steam, Nintendo Switch

$14.99; 15 bucks for two really good hours? Seems a bit shifty to me…

A Review Copy of Mr. Shifty was provided by tinyBuild

 

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Bleed 2

If there was a core design philosophy behind Bleed 2, I think it would have been “do the same thing as before, but better”. In almost every way that matters, Bleed 2 feels like a more polished version of its predecessor; you find yourself fighting a lot of the same enemies with some of the same weapons and all the same abilities. There’s even a boss rush near the end where you literally power though each of the original Bleed‘s major bosses.

This familiar design, plus whatever the developer may have chosen to either downplay or take out of the game altogether, might have made this feel like an insulting cash grab sequel if it didn’t just feel so much better to play. Developer Ian Campbell pretty much took the Nintendo route and polished his formula rather than innovating on it, to nearly the same result. Bleed 2 feels familiar, yet is fresh enough to stand on its own.

One of the games biggest changes is that there is an actual running narrative this time. Instead of just literally going through a list of levels for no discernible reason, here Bleed 2 fluidly movies you from one level to the next, with each mission book ended with a news reporter gushing over your actions. This doesn’t add much to the overall experience, but it does add a bit of flow that was sourly lacking from the original. You know what would have made this set up better though? If Will Mcavoy had been the news caster instead. “Greatest Hero on Earth? I don’t know what the FUCK you’re talking about!” (Editor’s Note to Self: Update Will’s swearing tally.)

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I guess the developer is more of a dog person. Now that I think about it, I’d like a game explaining why this world is filled with Ninja Kitties. Never mind, spin offs never work.

While the story gets expanded, the gameplay in Bleed 2 is heavily streamlined. Sometimes for the better, other times not so much. The biggest offenders here are the new levels. Where the original game had full stages leading up to each boss, here you only get a short reprieve between bosses. That’s not to say that any of these sections were bad, but with all the work that clearly went into smoothing out the controls, it’s a shame the game puts a hacksaw to its run time.

I think this change was made to accommodate the new upgrade system, where instead of purchasing new equipment, you have to beat the game on different difficulties. If that’s true then it’s doubly disappointing, because your starting gear is ridiculously overpowered. Right from the start you’re given a pistol as well as a sword that not only deals damage to enemies, but can reflect enemy shots back at them. I went through the entire game not even knowing you could change weapons and only found out when I checked specifically for this review.

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You can just see the “Oh fuck” in the bosses eyes as Wryn slows time and sends bullets back at it. (Editor’s Note: Update the tally again. Might get bingo today…)

That really is the extent of my issues with Bleed 2. Everything else has been polished to a mirror shine. The controls are tighter, the graphics are cleaner, and the soundtrack is more enjoyable. It really is such a shame that the the game ends so soon. I’ve already run out of things to talk about, and I haven’t even found a way to shoehorn in my contractually obligated Metal reference yet. Okay, I can do this. How about: Bleed 2? More like Bloodbath, amiright? Okay, not my best. But at least I didn’t make a fucking Linkin Park reference. (Editor’s Note: I guess you aren’t crossing that New Divide today. HEYO!)

headerBleed 2 was developed by Ian Campbell

Point of Sale: Steam

$9.99: Not to big a wound for your wallet.

A review copy for Bleed 2 was provide by Ian Campbell.

William Shelton is awarding Bleed 2 the Indie Gamer Team Seal of Approval.

the-seal

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Butcher

When I first saw the trailer for Butcher I had two thoughts. The first was “Wow, this is some edgelord bullshit.” No joke – it’s the kind of thing only misanthropic high school nihilists would think up. It might not have been Hatred levels of cringe, but it was up there. Once I was able to straighten out my face, the second thought occurred: “You know, this kind of reminds me of Doom.” The fast paced action, the fact that you can bring Chainsaw Ripping Death to your foes, it all reminded me a lot of last year’s Doom reboot, and I. LOVED. last year’s Doom reboot. So with that in mind, and an already embedded love for these kinds of retro demakes, I decided to go ahead and give Butcher a try.

And I… wish the game was better. (Editor’s Note: Never let it be said we don’t try to be optimistic about games… until they crush our expectations, and our hearts.)

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Chainsaw splash painting really hasn’t taken off as much as I thought it would.

Butcher isn’t offensively bad, but I can’t say it was all that good either. I think I see what the game was going for, and what it wants to be is right up my alley. However, nearly every aspect of the game is flawed. Let me get the few good things I have to say about the game out of the way first, mostly because I want to remind myself that they actually existed.

The music was alright. Nothing phenomenal, but it suited the game’s tone well and is easily the best part of Butcher overall. And while the game’s marketing of “FUCK YEAH, this game is ultraviolent” was cringe-worthy as hell… I do like me some ultraviolence, and seeing the bloody aftermath of that violence was a nice treat. The levels become so coated with blood and giblets that I almost expected the character to start sliding around each level.

Unfortunately for Butcher, creating that mess wasn’t nearly as fun as witnessing the aftermath. Right from the start things, Butcher has some of the worst visual design I’ve ever experienced. I normally try not to focus so much on a game’s graphics because I genuinely believe they are the least important part of a game, but Butcher‘s aesthetics are so bad it actually hurts the overall experience.

Like a lot of indie games, Butcher uses a minimalist, pixelated aesthetic. However, character models are small, lack almost any detail, and don’t stand out well against the game’s dark backgrounds. Even after I cranked the contrast all the way up, everything still had issues blending in together. Because of this, the act of picking out the enemies from the levels was more of a chore than it should be for any game.

Once I got accustom to differentiating the NPCs from the background, the lack of detail still hurt my ability to process any given scenario. Is this enemy one of the crazy melee guys that are going to rush me? Does he have an assault rife and can hit me from afar? Or does he have a shotgun and thus I can easily kill him from a few steps back? The only way to know is to get shot at and lose a shitload of health.

The only character that I could consistently point out were the jetpack wearing assholes, since it’s pretty obvious when someone isn’t touching the ground. For the first time ever, I almost found myself wishing I was playing some shitty early access game. At least then I could tell the ugly, asset flipped zombie apart from the ugly, asset flipped cityscape and miles of fucking nothing. (Editor’s Note to Self: Update Will’s swearing tally…)

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While it’s not impossible to spot enemies, they still shouldn’t blend in as much as they do here.

I had said earlier that part of what drew me to Butcher was how much the game play reminded me of Doom‘s 2016 reboot. To it’s credit, when Butcher allowed me to play it the way I think it was intended to be played, it does hold up to that impression.

Which usually lasted about 20 seconds at a time.

Most of the walls and floors can be shot or moved through by both you and your enemies, meaning you’re almost never safe from fire. This kind of set up usually means the developer wants you moving your ass throughout the level to avoid getting shot. This kind of frantic pace also tends to mean they don’t want you wasting your time lining up your shots. If you played Doom 2016 (or any of classic arena FPS) this will feel familiar to you.

Butcher fails to live up to this in two major ways. The first is dealing with enemy fire. Most of those classic shooetrs used projectile based attacks, meaning you could see bullets coming at you so you were able to react to them. Now, remember what I said about how it was hard to pick out enemies in this game? Projectiles aren’t any easier. Once an enemy starts shooting, you’re more or less guaranteed to lose some life.

Butcher‘s second failing is the ammo given to the player. While there are ammo pick ups scattered throughout each level, and enemies do often drop additional ammo when killed, I never felt like I had enough to play the way the game was asking me to. Maybe it would help if ammo from foes didn’t disappear so damn quick, but my guns were constantly running dry. That doesn’t work when you are asking players to take this kind of spray-and-pray approach. (Editor’s Note: In other words – you can’t be both Doom 3 and Doom 2016)

At first I thought this was an issue with my playing. So instead of rampaging through the levels, I tried to take a more calculating approach. This got me killed instantly almost every time. Then again, I thought I knew what the game wanted from me. It wanted me to memorize the levels, to be able to anticipate where enemies were going to spawn in and get the jump on them. This almost worked, but the game was rarely consistent in how it reacted to my input.

Sometimes I could kill certain enemies with my shotgun from a distance. Other times, when I took that same shot at the very same enemy, I’d only manage to stun them for a bit. Maybe this was due to me not hitting them in the right spot, but like I said, there is so little detail in the game’s aesthetic design that it’s literally impossible for me to know that for sure.

In the end, Butcher felt like it was asking you to play Doom but with Resident Evil‘s ammo count. Maybe this stops being an issue later in the game, when the player has more than two guns and a chainsaw that’s pretty much useless when you’re up against armed foes, but I couldn’t be bothered to find out. Of the games five stages (each with four levels) I made it through the first two before calling it quits.

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This has the contrast cranked all the way up. While it’s easier to pick out enemies, there is still too little information conveyed here.

Guys, I was rooting for this one. I really, really wanted to like it. And to be fair, there is enough here to where I wouldn’t be opposed to giving a sequel a try if the team at Transhuman Design cleaned up….pretty much everything. That being said, this game probably would have been better had it been Butchered at Birth. (Editor’s Note: HEYO!)

headerButcher was developed by  Transhuman Design

Point of Sale: Steam, coming to PS4

A review copy of Butcher was provided by Transhuman Design.

Posted in PC Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Stupid Legal Tricks, Chapter 1

Greetings, indie game lovers!

My name’s Marc Whipple, and I’m a videogame lawyer. Indie Gamer Team has invited me to write about legal things that might interest the indie community. While this might be of more practical use to developers, even players and fans should get some entertainment out of seeing how the sausage is made.

I’ve been working in the videogame industry since 1998 when the company I worked for, Meyer/Glass Design, started a videogame subsidiary and developed the first authorized version of the classic strategy game Axis and Allies for the PC. I was the General Counsel of Meyer/Glass Interactive until it was spun off, and later I was the General Counsel of Incredible Technologies, makers of GOLDEN TEE and many other fine games. Now I’m of counsel to an intellectual property law firm just outside of Chicago, IL and do a lot of work with independent video game developers.

As far as my personal gaming life, my first console was an original Atari 2600 and I’ve been playing, loving, and frequently swearing at video games of all stripes ever since. Also, a) I have a Violet Proto-Drake, and b) I played Wernher von Braun in a cinematic for the Axis and Allies PC game, so don’t try to knock my gamer cred.

Since this is my first post here, this is where I’d usually roll out the “Introduction to Intellectual Property” spiel that any IP lawyer can do in her or his sleep. However, I thought I’d do something more fun and much more legally problematic! Namely, discuss a recent trademark registration in the context of “What does this mean for indie games?

Our target for tonight: US Trademark Registration No. 5135888 to King.com for “SUPER.”* (I can’t link directly to the registration on the USPTO database because it uses sessions, but if you search for “US Trademark 5135888,” you will find it quickly.)

WAIT!” I hear you cry, (Might want to check the privacy settings on your Amazon Echo.) “How can they trademark SUPER for video games? What does this MEEEEEAN? Has the whole world gone MAD?” Well, if you’re asking that, I assume you haven’t been paying attention, but in the context of this trademark registration, there is both more and less here than meets the eye.

Now, I could go into all the ways that in my opinion, this is a badly filed registration. And believe me, there are many. This thing is a mess. But a lot of them are technical and of interest only to trademark geeks (yes, we’re a thing)** so I’ll focus on what this registration does and does not mean to developers of video games and the people who love them.

First of all, here’s the actual trademark which was registered:

SUPER(Obtained from the USPTO TRAM database. Used for educational purposes only.)

Now, what’s the first thing you notice? Well, obviously, it’s adorable – but what’s the next thing? This is not the word SUPER all on its own. This is a graphic mark with colorful little smiling thingies and the word SUPER in a fun, cartoony font. In fact, that’s not far from how the mark is actually described in the registration:

The mark consists of an image of “SUPER” in white outlined in pink/purple, a cartoon fruit shaped image behind “SUPER” in pink and various cartoon fruit shaped images in the colors orange, green, yellow, and blue outlined in brown with several blue squares making up the background with white stars and faint radiating lines throughout with an orange semi-circle outlined in white in the right lower corner.

The color(s) blue, pink, green, orange, yellow, white, purple and brown is/are claimed as a feature of the mark.

Here is another USPTO trademark registration for a mark you may have heard of at some point:

US Trademark Registration No. 2345441 to Nintendo of America, Inc. for “SUPER MARIO”, issued in 2000, first use 1985.

So how can King have SUPER when Nintendo has a registration for SUPER MARIO which predates them by literally thirty years? Well, there are multiple answers to that, but the most important answer is that King does not have a registration for SUPER. The mark is just listed that way in the trademark database because that’s the only word that appears as part of a larger overall graphic composition. Therefore, unless Nintendo put “Super Mario” in a fun cartoony font in the middle of a bunch of cute colored fruits, there would be no “likelihood of confusion,” which is what the test is for whether one trademark infringes another.

And that is the crüx of the matter. The only thing that registration gives King the right to do is stop people from using similar marks in a way which creates a likelihood of confusion in the mind of a reasonable consumer. Which is the whole purpose of trademarks: to protect the public, not the seller, from being misled (purposefully or not) about the source of a good or service. Is there any likelihood that people will confuse Super Mario with a cartoony “Super” surrounded by cute colorful fruits? Not really. (NOTE: This is not legal advice to Nintendo, not that they need it.) So they can have the registration, and it causes no beef with Nintendo.

Mario Design Mark Registration

One of the design mark registrations for the MARIO character by Nintendo of America. Did you know Mario was a farmer-hobo?

That being said, and without naming King in particular, the problem for Indie game developers is that sometimes trademark registrants get a little… liberal… with their interpretation of what might potentially cause confusion. So, again without saying King has or would do this kind of thing, it is entirely possible that they could see somebody use the word “Super” in the name of a game, and the name has a few colorful things near it in the title screen, and next thing you know they’re sending a Cease and Desist letter to an unsuspecting indie developer who was just trying to make a game about Super Mutant Ninja Mice who have brightly colored uniforms or something.

Actual chance of confusion? Zero. (NOTE: This is not legal advice. If you do wish to create a game about colorful Super Mutant Ninja Mice, you really need to talk to a trademark attorney.) But if a case that isn’t wholly irrational on its face can be made, they can ethically and legally send that letter and scare the Bejeezus (Editor’s Note: Approximately 1.21 Bejeezuwatts) out of somebody with few or no resources to fight it.

And this happens all the time.

Here’s a link to a blog post I wrote about what to do if this happens to you: HELP I GOT A LEGAL THING. The first thing?

Don't Panic

Don’t panic. It never helps. (Editor’s Note: Also, bring lots of towels.)

Anyway, whether or not they could win such a hypothetical infringement case, big video game companies spend more on coffee for lawyers than you will probably earn in your whole life. The law presumes registered trademarks are valid: if you want to fight, you are starting from a very bad position. The only winning move in this particular indie game development… game… is not to play.

Now, does this mean you can’t make a game called “Super [Something]?” No. But it means there’s a little more risk to using that word now. And the closer you get to whatever eye-meltingly colorful game King associates “Super” with, the bigger that risk gets. This is just one example, if a particularly egregious one, of the sort of pitfalls that await Indie developers when it comes to naming their games. You might see this and decide it meant you couldn’t use the word “Super” in any way. You might see it and emit howls of derisive laughter because you think it only counts if you have “Super” in a fun cartoony font with specifically colored fruits around it.

You would be wrong either way.

Game naming is one of the most hazardous aspects, legally speaking, of independent game development. Here there be monsters – with giant legal teams. (Worst kind.) While I applaud developers who at least have the initiative to try to clear names themselves, they don’t increase their odds of avoiding claims of infringement much more than developers who don’t bother. Sad but true.

The first line of defense is to make the game’s name as original as you possibly can. Distinctive is always better than non-distinctive, all things being equal.  But you want people to understand what the game’s about, and for that you may need to use common words. Those common words may be part of somebody else’s trademark registration. And once you get into that situation, only advice from a trademark attorney (NOT your uncle Benny who does wills and house closings, a trademark attorney.) can reliably keep you out of trouble. Or even, dare I say…

Super trouble. Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. (Editor’s Note: You people make my head hurt.)

Anyway, thanks for reading: questions and comments are always welcome.

*Editor’s Note: Must… resist… making… Super. Hot. Reference. Super. Hot. Super- I DON’T HAVE A PROBLEM.

**Editor’s Note: We checked. Yeah, seriously, they are apparently a thing.

Posted in Tales from the Dev Side | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments