Category Archives: EA

This is a triumph

5 Rogue Video Game AIs They Should Have Pulled the Plug On

Today, Artificial Intelligences are beating us at Go. Could their next move be plotting our extinction? Here are five video game AI characters that needed James T. Kirk to pull the plug:

GlaDOS (Portal - 2007, Portal 2 - 2011, Valve Corporation)

Sure, the AI matriarch (aka Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) of the Aperture Science Enrichment Center is pure evil. After all, she did lock down the facility “within two picoseconds” of her activation and flood it with a deadly neurotoxin, and on ‘Bring Your Daughter to Work Day’, no less. But she also serves as a twisted kind of comic relief in the excellent Portal games. In an overly polite voice (supplied by Ellen McLain) dripping with passive-aggressiveness, GLaDOS does all she can to demoralize, hinder and just plain kill the series protagonist Chell as she is forced through a series of increasingly complicated test chambers. Oh, and there’s cake too (not really).

shodan_AI

SHODAN (System Shock - 1994, Looking Glass Studios/Origin, System Shock 2 - 1999, Looking Glass Studios/Electronic Arts)

Not happy to just murder the inhabitants of the mining and research space station Citadel Station (or convert them to murderous cyborgs and mutants), SHODAN {Sentient Hyper-Optimized Data Access Network) seeks to eradicate all human life on Earth, to be replaced by the devoted army she will create. A much more arrogant rogue AI than GLaDOS, SHODAN considers herself nothing less than a God. Not only this, but she mercilessly taunts the player character human ‘insect’ all the way through the games! SHODAN disciples can rejoice: she will return in System Shock 3, confirmed in December of 2015.

Robotrons (Robotron: 2084, Williams Electronics – 1984)

Set in the astounding year 2084, the plot for Robotron: 2084 marched out of the mind of legendary arcade game creator Eugene Jarvis as a kind of mechanized take on George Orwell’s 1984. In Jarvis’ dystopian future, computers have become more and more sophisticated, all in the service of solving mankind’s problems. The Robotrons become so advanced, in fact, that they decide to erase the one common denominator in the equation: humans. To facilitate our extinction, the Robotrons start cranking out lethal robots like the unstoppable Hulk, the dangerous laser-spitting Enforcers, and the diabolical Brains capable of brainwashing the wandering humans and turning them into mindless Progs.

AM (I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, The Dreamers Guild/Cyberdreams – 1995)

If you’ve seen the excellent 1970 movie Colossus: The Forbin Project, AM’s origin story might seem familiar. From the Harlan Ellison novel and video game, AM came about when an American supercomputer (known as the Allied Mastercomputer) absorbed its similar counterparts from China and Russia after gaining sentience. Seething with hatred at being imprisoned in its vast underground complex, AM proceeds to nuke humanity… save for five humans it keeps alive indefinitely to endlessly torture. A forerunner of the villainous GLaDOS, AM makes her seem like a paragon of decency.

reapers_AI

The Reapers (Mass Effect - 2007, BioWare/Microsoft Game Studios, Mass Effect 2 - 2010, BioWare/Electronic Arts, Mass Effect 3 - 2012, BioWare/Electronic Arts)

The worst on this list has to be the Reapers, a synthetic intelligence “with neither beginning nor end” that strives to hold its dominance in the galaxy by purging all organic life of a significant technological advancement. By doing this purging every 50,000 years, they eliminate any possibility that a race of intelligent beings could create a competing AI that would threaten their existence. In the bargain, they also harvest victims of inhabited worlds and convert them into Husks, zombified synthetic creatures that augment their army of ground troops.

Of course, not every AI entity in video games is malevolent. GLaDOS herself becomes a potato-based ally to Chell in Portal 2, EDI controls the Normandy in the Mass Effect games and eventually joins the fight personally as a playable character, and we have Cortana from the Halo games who made the jump to reality to assist users in real-life in Windows 10! Right now the idea of a rogue AI being able to threaten the galaxy seems pretty far-fetched, considering our smartphones can barely understand human speech with any kind of accuracy. But in 2014, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warned that AI technology could render humanity obsolete, and perhaps even destroy us. And this from a guy who uses a form of AI to communicate! If video games teach us anything, it’s that we might just end up autocorrected out of existence.

Electronic Arts “We See Farther”

Where we give you the famous “We See Farther” ad, heralding a new kind of video game company… Electronic Arts.

"We See Farther" magazine ad for Electronic Arts

One of the famous “We See Farther” ads

Founded by Trip Hawkins in 1982, the company is originally named Amazin’ Software.  With the new name of Electronic Arts, Hawkin’s venture would revolutionize the industry with flashy packaging and bold advertising, lessons Hawkins probably learned at the knee of Steve Jobs as an early employee of Apple Computers.  In a lot of ways, Hawkins is a lot like a video game version of Jobs, although not quite as lastingly successful.

To find out how one of the largest game companies operating today got its noble beginning, please check out our Electronic Arts article here.

The God Game Genre Born Again

Molyneux’s Latest: Godus on Steam

Late last year I posted about Peter Molyneux’s Kickstarter project called Godus. It is a reinvention of his classic game Populous, which created the God game genre back in 1989. The Kickstarter campaign was successful, pulling in £526,563 from an initial £450,000 goal.

Godus is now available on Steam Early Access, which allows you to pre-order the game and get access to a playable beta version. It is available for Windows and Mac for $19.99.

To get you in the mood for some Godly blessings (or smitings), I’ll leave you with video footage of Molyneux demonstrating Godus to Adam Sessler, as well as TDE footage of the original Populous in action:




Not so humble

The Humble Bundle Is Now Populous

The Humble Bundle has always been a popular way for gamers to put money toward charities, and get a bunch of great games to boot. This year’s Bundle features EA games, and it is a terrific deal. Called the Humble Origin Bundle, you can pay what you like and get:

  • Dead Space
  • Dead Space 3
  • Burnout Paradise: The Ultimate Box
  • Crysis 2 Maximum Edition
  • Mirror’s Edge
  • Medal of Honor

If you pay over the average of $4.83, you also get:

  • C&C: Red Alert 3 – Uprising
  • Battlefield 3
  • The Sims 3 + Starter Pack

And to give retro gaming a little loving, in that last tier you also get Populous.  Designed by Peter Molyneux, Populous created the God Game genre and put Molyneux and his Bullfrog game development studio on the map.  Here’s a video of one of the first levels in this classic game:



The Humble Bundle is a terrific value for gamers, and a huge boon to the charities involved. As always, to find out more about the history of EA, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

A New Godly Kickstarter Project by Peter Molyneux

Peter Molyneux helped define the “God Game” genre with Populous, developed by his Bullfrog game development house and published by EA in 1989 for Amiga and Atari-ST computers.  In the game, players controlled the fates of a race of little people wandering around varying landscapes, smiting them with boiling volcanoes or spreading pestilence across the lands, or nurturing them with flat fertile soil on which to build homes and prosper and multiply. You were either up against a CPU-controlled rival race of beings, or, in an early instance of online play, against another human via dial-up connection.

While the game was a blast to play, after awhile things would inevitably devolve into a “land flattening” simulation, with players scrambling to smooth the landscape faster than his opponent in order to expand housing for his own minions, resulting in higher influence and more and stronger followers.

The repetitiveness of the game was not its only shortcoming.  It had a very unwieldy user interface that took up 1/2 of the screen,  squeezing the player’s actual view of the landscape for precious screen real-estate.  Populous made true believers out of computer gamers and created Molyneux’s name in the industry, but that gigantic block of icons has been a personal cross he’s borne for decades.  It eventually fuelled the “gesture-only” interface that powered the UI in his magnum opus god game Black&White, doing away with most on-screen icons but not entirely successfully.

Thus, it comes to pass that Molyneux and 22Cans, an indie development house he begat earlier this year, have launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new project called Godus, that promises to redefine the god game genre as much as Populous established it 23 years ago.  Of course, your excitement level about this venture depends on whether or not you still trust promises coming from Molyneux, who has developed somewhat of a sketchy reputation for promising big, paradigm-shifting game elements while hyping an effort during development, only to fan on the actual implementation of these elements and apologizing afterword when the game is released.  Rinse and repeat.

Although, you have to admit that really only those of us who slavishly follow every little detail of the development of his games throw stones over the results.  Those people who just walk into the game without knowledge of things promised are generally happy with it.  I hope you’ll join me in keeping the faith that Godus and Molyneux aren’t leading us down the garden (of Eden) path once again.

You can check out the Godus Kickstarter project here.

Here’s our Populous gameplay video, for those not as old as Methuselah.  For a  history of the genesis of EA, consult your local Dot Eaters entry.

via neoseeker.com

Retro Computer Games Hit iOS

From Elite Systems Ltd., the guys who made the classic space exploration and trade game Elite in 1984, comes World of RETRO Computer GAMES, an iOS app featuring a collection of  near-100% accurate replicas of classic computer games.

Bruce Lee climbs the tapestry

And classic is the operative word here. In the free version of the app,  Datasoft’s action platformer Bruce Lee (1984) is provided free of charge, with three packs of three games each available as in-app purchases for 99 cents a pop.  Paying 99 cents up front for the app gets you all the game packs included, along with Bruce Lee.  Any self-respecting computer gamer from the 80′s will remember Bruce Lee, running and jumping through multiple screens collecting lanterns in order to open up secret doors in order to progress, all the while chased by a stick-wielding ninja and the green Sumo menace Yamo.  The game packs contain such gems as Freefall’s chess-by-way-of-Tolkien Archon (1983), Epyx’s one-on-one fighting game Barbarian a.k.a. Death Sword (1988), and the original The Bard’s Tale: Tales of the Unknown (1985) by EA.

My usual landing in Infiltrator

As almost always with these things when gaming on iOS devices, the app falters slightly with the control scheme, although this is mitigated somewhat through what Elite calls their iDaptive controls.  What this amounts to are contextual buttons that pop up in-game and are completely customizable by the user. You can increase their size and position, adjust transparency to see behind them, and switch from keyboard directional keys to a simulated joystick.  The stick is definitely a necessity for most of the games here, in particular for action games like Bruce Lee.  The ability to move controls to a more comfortable position is key to keeping things from getting too frustrating, although the low-resolution response of the joystick takes some getting used to.  Even with this stilted response, I’d have to say that the controls aren’t a dealbreaker with this one.  The ultimate workaround for the virtual joystick, of course, is to use ION’s iCade, a nifty mini-arcade cabinet that connects with your iPad via bluetooth and provides eight physical buttons and a solid joystick.  Retro Games supports the iCade, and using this feature makes all the difference in the world when it comes to controls in the game.

iPad controls done right

There’s so much to love here.  The games feel spot-on, and give one a visceral thrill to be able to play these classics on a modern mobile device.  There are separate apps for both iPhone and iPad, but the latter is the best way to go, as buttons get crazily cramped on some of the games on the small screen.  A much appreciated ability to save and load games at any time is another big plus.

It’s promised that 100 more games will be made available through in-app purchase,  touting such pleasures as Ozark Softscape’s seminal M.U.L.E. and Archon’s sequel, Archon II: Adept.  With a lineup like that, Retro Games should have the mobile classic gaming scene in its pocket.

A Quick Look Back: Mail Order Monsters

Post Office refuses to
deliver to your house ever again

As part of the glorious early history of Electronic Arts, Mail Order Monsters (1985) is an intriguing and involving game that offers a metric tonne of fun, originality and replayability.  Either against the capable AI, or pitted against another human in front of the computer, MOM makes for hours upon hours of vat-bred enterslainment.

The game was designed by Even Robinson, Nicky Robinson and Paul Reiche III.  Reiche had previously designed the classic Archon: The Light and the Dark chess-like fantasy game for EA, as well as its equally enjoyable sequel, Archon II: Adept. The one-on-one battle system from these games are reprised in MOM, now with some deep creature customizations available for players to tailor their charges to their tastes.

Title Screen

EA revolutionized video game packaging in their formative years, presenting their wares in large, flat, square cardboard sleeves reminiscent of LP record albums with colourful, creative covers.  The entire premise of MOM is summed up by the image up front: a tricked-out creature bursting forth from an envelope.  The whole idea is that the player is a participant in a futuristic pastime, that of growing and splicing various beasts for sport.  It offers three types of play from which gamers can choose: the Free Trial, where one can pick from any of the 12 stock monster types without any customization, and take them for a test drive.  Choosing Rental opens up the game considerably, putting the player on the Morph Meadow and letting them walk around to the various facilities available.

You got your scorpion in my Lyonbear

Visiting the Vats lets you pick out and grant stats to a “morph” to do battle with, along with allowing as much physical changes as you can afford with the currency, or “pyschons”, granted you.  Care to add a stinger to your Lyonbear?  Be our guest.  Think acid spitting is more your style?  Right this way, we have some particularly caustic toxics today.  You can then take your newly formed charge and visit the Weapons Shop for outfitting with some more mechanical armaments, like a Gas-Gun, or a perhaps a Multilaser for you tentacled types.

Leading the creature around the meadow

Then its a trip through the Transmat, and time for some one-on-one mayhem.  A battleground of varying landscape types is randomly chosen, and one of three game modes is chosen by the player: Destruction is a duel to the death, there’s Capture the Flags in which the flags must be obtained in order, and The Horde featuring co-op play against a steady stream of invaders while competing for the most kills.  Once chosen, a large map appears, with the two monsters as small dots.  As the creatures approach each other, the view narrows to feature the two combatants at close range.  The players not only have to contend with each other’s monsters; randomly placed among the battleground are guardians and other enemies, who come under the control of your opponent when tripped. Upon completion of the duel, the winner is presented in a graphical flourish, and the game is over.

Battle royale
M.U.L.E. cameo

If Tournament is chosen from the main menu, then the players have access to the corrals, granting the opportunity to save their creatures, and upgrade them with phychons awarded to the victorious. The corral also features a nice homage to famed early EA game designer Daniel Bunten, with one of the eponymous creatures from his classic EA game M.U.L.E. waiting inside it.

MOM is charming, deep, fun, and challenging.  The amount of creature customization available is staggering, and ensures that the game gets many a spin through the floppy drive as would-be monster handlers try their hands (or claws) at the vast amount of strategy on offer here.

A Quick Look Back: PowerMonger

Molyneux, 2010.  Game designer, sheep herder

In celebration of famed British game designer Peter Molyneux receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at GDC 2011, I want to take a look back at one of the many great games he has been responsible for creating.  But instead of picking the obvious Populous, the (literally) earth-shattering game he made in 1989 under his freshly minted Bullfrog development label,  a release that helped create the god-game genre, I’d like to go with a more obscure choice.

The followup game to Populous, released in 1990, wasn’t quite as successful at cementing itself as a timeless classic. PowerMonger reduces the scope from all-seeing deity to power-hungry army general, but in my mind this helps to make things a bit more intimate.  Directly picking up arms and taking it to the enemy on the ground is much more viscerally satisfying than merely influencing your flock from above.

Gentlemen, we have located their sheep flocks.

PowerMonger’s elaborate opening cinematic definitely gets the blood boiling and ready for battle.  The player, however, might give pause when he sees the task at hand after choosing  a name for himself: a giant scrolling map that represents the 195 lands he must conquer in order to win the game.   From top left all the way down to bottom right, he must spread his influence across the entire world.

A game typically plays out thusly: there are many smaller villages scattered throughout each land.  The player must take over these smaller towns as quickly as possible, recruit fighters to his cause, raid the village and surrounding sheep flock to feed his growing army, build whatever weapons he can at the workshop, and then move on to the next.  It’s rinse and repeat, building his force up to a size that can take on the larger towns, culminating in a battle-royale at the city that inevitably remains.  One land conquered, dozens upon dozens remaining.
C’mon men!  Those sheep ain’t gonna slaughter themselves!
PowerMonger’s graphics are a mixed blessing.  On one hand, polygonal landscapes make for dramatic zooming and 360 degree rotational abilities for gamers.  However, the villagers and soldiers are reduced to nearly indistinct blobs, especially considering the larger, more distinct populace from Populous.  But as they say, the devil is in the details, and the amount of detail contained in the worlds of PowerMonger is nothing short of enchanting.  Villagers roam the lands around their communities, chopping wood and setting sail in their little bowl boats to fish.  Flocks of birds burst from the trees as your army marches across the land.  The seasons pass visibly, with springs rains giving way to summer giving way to orange leaves in the trees in fall giving way to blizzards in winter. The seasonal impact on the game is not only visual; when the snow flies you can expect villages to cease production and take shelter in their houses, burning through their stockpiles of food.

The battle for sheep rages on

Contributing greatly to the feel of the world is the game’s wonderful sound design.  Troops mumble and whisper as they huddle around the crackling campfire.  There is the constant blatting of sheep, annoying enough to have you relishing ordering your army to descend upon the helpless buggers, slaughtering them to help feed the mass for the next battle.  The hammers and sawing drifting up from the workshop as your men concoct new implements of destruction.  The clash and clang as the fighting rages. The belch of acknowledgement from your general as you issue commands is a common audio cue, and one that shows early on Molyneux’s obsession with providing the player with organic feedback on how they are playing; the enthusiasm with which the general replies to commands indicates whether or not he thinks it’s a good idea.  Also of note is the rousing score that accompanies the epic opening, done by prolific video game music composer Tim Wright.

“Psst!  How does one sheep feed all of us?”  “Shhhh!”

The downside to all this is the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the proceedings.  Once you get the rhythm to beating the lands, it’s more and more of the same. Most people probably didn’t make it all the way down to the bottom of the world map; not because of difficulty, but by giving up out of sheer boredom.  Another issue is the confusing litany of buttons on the screen, taking up nearly 1/3 of the gamefield real-estate.  The profusion of buttons needed in his increasingly complex games would continue to haunt Molyneux, until his not-entirely-successful attempt to do away with them completely in his magnum opus, Black & White (2001).

You may take our sheep, but you will never take our freeedoooom!!!

However, is it really a bad thing to repeat battles that are so enjoyable?  PowerMonger is a marvelously fun game, that also provides some respite from the predictable AI by offering online multiplayer, something exceedingly rare in 1990.  The game was also given a WWI themed add-on pack the next year.  Molyneux would go on to create even more elaborate and responsive worlds with games such as the aforementioned Black & White, and Fable (2004), but some of the first steps in the march towards his amazing and amazingly hyped career were made here, with PowerMonger.