Indie Games

Up until a few years ago, independent or “Indie” games were few and far between. There was always an underground scene, but it was almost like Fight Club. You had to know a guy who knew a guy to get involved. Now, thanks to digital distribution, and movies about them, Indie games are making an impact on the industry.

I was late to the party on Indie games, and the first one I remember playing and loving was Braid. But the music and visuals were so beautiful I did not realize it had not come from a major developer. I only knew it was cheap and I beat it in a couple of hours. As I delved more into the ‘Indie scene’, I saw that the number and creativity of games was mindboggling.

Large companies that are going to make a game for $100 million are, by nature, risk averse. Also, their overhead in terms of development staff, buildings, marketing costs, etc. etc. etc. means that they cannot spend time and money on a smaller project that is not likely to see a huge return on their investment. Large companies are not going to take a risk on a game about launching birds at pigs. Since Indie teams are smaller and more agile, they can make more creative decisions. They can revolutionize old genres, or they can introduce us to new protagonists and heroes that don’t fall into the same old “thick necked, grizzled, white male” archetype which the maintstream “AAA” industry seems to love so much.

Indie games are a growing force in the industry, which is exiciting because the games that we are now able to find and play can be beautiful, educational, and even moving. Not to mention the fact that they tend to be a lot cheaper than your standard $60 price tag for a big budget game.

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Angry Birds

The Basics
Game Name – Angry Birds
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre – Mobile Game
Educational Values – Cause and Effect, Trial and Error, Failure, Physics, Geometry
Platforms – iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Symbian, Blackberry, Kindle, Mac OSX, Windows PC, Chrome
Where to buy – Pretty much everywhere, but the links are all on their site
When should you buy it? –  If you are looking for a fun game to play while waiting in line, or bored on the subway, or have a few minutes. Or if you have small children who could use a distraction

About the Game

Do I really need to talk about Angry Birds? I went back and forth on writing this piece as Angry Birds is one of the most ubiquitous games in history. The series of brightly colored cartoon birds are approaching Mario in terms of market penetration with over 1.2 billion downloads of the games, countless merchandising, a theme park, and a TV show in the works.

Had you asked *anyone* in the games industry in 2007 if Smart Phones would have an impact on the industry, they would have laughed. Trying to convince someone that a mobile game about birds being shot from slingshots could be among the biggest selling games of all times would have had them worrying about your mental health. And yet, here we are.

For the five of you who have not played it, Angry Birds is a mobile game where you fling you various colored birds (each color a different game mechanic) at a series of elaborate constructions to try and knock out the piggies that have stolen your eggs. Does it sound a little silly? Sure. But it takes advantage of the growth of touch screens, with all of the controls so simple a three year old can play.

Get those piggies!

What the Game Teaches Us

Angry Birds is one of my favorite examples of a game that can teach us. As difficult as some of the levels are, the time it takes to restart each level is minimal. This keeps the gamer from getting frustrated and quitting and allows them to quickly get back into the game and learn from their previous mistake. Failure is something we have written about before, and that is because we see it not just as character building, but one of the best ways to learn.

Trying to knock down the scaffolding in the picture above is going to be difficult. You have to understand the physics and mechanics of the game. you have to know what tools you are given and how best to use them. The bird in the illustration will drop and “egg” that explodes on impact when you tap your screen, but where should you use it? Some of the scaffolds look precarious. Can you set off a chain reaction that causes each level to collapse?

Modern games have perfected the ‘physics engines’ to the point where we expect them to act like real life. Angry Birds is remarkably close to real life (at least as close as a cartoon birds can be), not in terms of Force = Mass x Acceleration, or any math based physics, but in how the reactions feel to the gamer. The cause and effect of the game make sense and are internally consistent. You know that when you use a yellow bird, it will smash through wood easily. Or when you take out a support beam, the platform will wobble and collapse.

The game will also show you the line that represents the flight from your previous bird, so you can make adjustments to angles, speeds, etc. very quickly. That kind of instant feedback is key to making an immersive experience, but also in helping your recover from the frustration of a bad shot as well. It also helps improve hand to eye (finger to eye?) coordination by allowing you to trace out a good shot, or quickly identify where you could improve.

Those helmets won’t save them if you can reach that TNT.

General Feelings on the Game

I love Angry Birds. The game is fun and well constructed. The cartoony aesthetic is charming, and it is rare to find a game that both my 3 year old nephew and I can both play and enjoy. Thanks to the many expansions, you can play the game for 3 minutes or for hours all for a couple of dollars. The price to fun ratio is amazing.

This game is so much fun that you will not realize that you are learning anything. And, while you may not be learning calculus, you will be learning something. If you have never played it, take a few minutes and try out Angry Birds.

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Social Aspects of Gaming: Guilds and Clans

In the beginning of playing games, having a multi-player aspect meant having someone stand next to you at the arcade, or sit on the couch next to you with a controller. It could mean split screen action, or trading turns back and forth to play. There was stress when the person or people around you were not as good as you would like them to be, but people were generally nice to one another, even if you weren’t as good as they were, because they were typically your friends and or family or because you could always punch them in the nose.

Then the Internet happened. With the rise of gaming online from the first Multi User Dungeons(MUDs) over dial-up connections to the latest Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) or First Person Shooters over broadband, a new type of social interaction was born. I have written previously on ‘griefing‘ which was an unfortunate side-effect of this new type of interaction. But another spin off was organized groups of players. The most common names of which are Guilds or Clans. The desire to join a group is natural for human beings and, as games have matured, many developers have embraced this need to offering tools within their games to help gamers organize themselves. In more modern games there are even group Achievements that can only be met by being in a Guild\Clan, with each individual contributing Experience Points and Gold to the Guild\Clan help finance the group’s ongoing maintenance and adventures.

A good Guild\Clan can teach the gamer social skills in a larger group. Often a Guild\Clan has its own rules and code of conduct for acceptable behavior, much like a company. There are social norms and scripts that a gamer must adhere to to remain in the group, and it is important for kids especially to practice being part of a larger group. Since many games require large groups to reach the most coveted items (though, sadly the 40 man raid has pretty much fallen by the wayside), there is incentive to band together. This incentive forces people to work together and provides leverage for the Guild\Clan to help regulate some behavior that they see as bad for the group. For example, excessive rude or disrespectful behavior by the members of a Guild\Clan can earn it a poor reputation which Guild\Clan Masters can crack down on by disciplining or kicking out the offenders.

A Guild\Clan will typically crack down on the most egregious of behaviors (Griefing, name calling, outright sexism or racism, etc). But that does not mean that they are appropriate for all ages. The bulk of gamers still tend to be adult males and the language and choice of topics that is acceptable to their social group may not be acceptable for the youngest gamers in the group. I have seen more than one Guild\Clan started by and kept for families to play together, thereby enjoying many of the benefits of guilds\clans without having to concern themselves that their children are being exposed to the adult conversations.

guilds\clans are a great way for a gamer to find a ‘safe’ group of friends to play with. They provide support, feedback, help, training, tips, and shared goals that enhance the gaming experience and keep a gamer enjoying a game much longer than if they were playing by themselves. They teach gamers to be excellent to one another, and they are generally great things. The parents of a younger gamer should exercise some caution and discretion, but by and large guilds\clans are excellent constructs that help us learn to be better people and better gamers.

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Endless Space

The Basics
Game Name – Endless Space
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre – Turn-Based Strategy, 4x
Educational Values – Decision Making, Critical Thinking, Planning, Patience, Perseverance, Strategic Thinking
Platforms – Windows, Mac OS
Where to buy – Steam, Directly from their site
When should you buy it? – If you want a longer game that will allow you to develop an empire and dig deep.

About the Game

Endless Space is a space conquest game where you take the role of leader of a faction trying to conquer the galaxy. You must develop technology in four areas: Science, Exploration, Military, and Economy in order to expand your empire and colonize different planetary systems.

Using some core mechanics found in other turn-based strategies, Endless Space shines by allowing a gamer to delve into the details of ship building, unique planetary features, resources, wonders, and anomalies. Or, if they choose, assign an computer governor to manage the minutiae of running their empire while they explore the galaxy with their fleets.

The game starts with a series of selections a gamer can make for their game. Choices include everything from the faction to the size and shape of the galaxy, to the game speed and difficulty. Once the gamer makes their choices, the game starts at their empire’s homeworld with a scout ship and a colony ship. These two ships can be sent out to start exploring nearby star systems and expand your empire.

While exploring the galaxy and starting new colonies, the gamer has to direct research into developing weapons, planetary improvements, ship upgrades, planet colonization, and empire improvements. Each discovery builds into more sophisticated technology as a gamer puts resources into each area of the ‘tech tree’.

As the game progresses, the gamer will need additional star fleets. Ship design is one of the more complex and interesting aspects of the game. The player can customize ships according to their role. For example, ships built to be a support roles will include modules for repair, scouting, etc. While ships built for direct combat will focus more on weapons, defenses, and armor. There is a great deal of discretion at play and the gamer can decide the armament and configuration of each ship if they choose.

A small portion of the Galaxy Map

What the Game Teaches Us

Endless Space requires endless planning. There are choices that lead to other choices that lead to still more choices, and the gamer can plan down to the individual laser beam on their destroyer. This focus on planning and choices helps develop critical thinking and decision making skills. As a gamer realizes the consequences of his/her choices as the game plays out.

As a game of Endless Space takes several hours to complete, it teaches patience and perseverance. Any decision will take several turns of planning and building before it is complete. The feeling of completion is huge when your fleet protects a star system, but it is not a quick pay-off.

Setbacks are common. After a defeat, the gamer must analyze why they lost, what decisions were costly, and where the next focus should be. Fortunately, there is an “auto-save” feature and a gamer can quickly move back before a decision that cost them everything. Unlike some other games

Several of the mechanics require higher-level thinking due to the constant decision making. For example the gamer has to identify weaknesses in an enemy fleet and exploit them, or lose every battle. To win more battles, should the gamer focus on building ships with more armor or more weapons? Would it be a better strategy to ignore the growing pirate harassment on the northern borders and focus on building up planetary infrastructure? Or would it be wiser to divert resources to a larger star fleet to deal with the threat? The decisions are not as simple as “paper beats rock”, if anything they are closer to this paradigm. Given the complexity of the game, the decisions never stop.

Just a portion of the ‘tech tree’ for upgrades you can research.

General Feelings on the Game

Put simply, Endless Space is fun. Loads of it. The combat sequences are entertaining to watch, even if your ships are going to take some nasty hits. The details throughout the game coupled with the AI allow a gamer to be as hands on or as high level as they choose. You can order the build queues of every single building on every single planet, or completely ignore them. And the level of complexity in the game, combined with a thorough tutorial allow a gamer to get sucked in very easily. The biggest problem I had was the The Turn Based mechanic leading me to continually say “just one more turn!” Which I only get from the very best of games.

Space simulations have come a long way over the decades in terms of graphics, details, and style, but few match the complexity, immersion, and all around fun of Endless Space. By synthesizing details creating a better whole than the sum of its parts, this game truly is the successor to Galactic Civilizations and Master of Orion, some of the greatest games of all time.


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The Basics
Game Name –Reus
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre –God Game, Strategy
Educational Values – Strategic thinking, Sequencing, Synthesis, Analysis
Platforms – Windows
Where to buy –Good Old Games, Steam, GamersGate, Desura, or directly from their website.
When should you buy it? – If you are looking for a game to play with a small child on your phone or tablet, this is the one.

About the Game

On the surface, Reus looks like a kid’s game. You control several cartoony-looking Giants to terraform a world and provide the villages that build up there with resources to help them accomplish their goals for buildings. It is a straightforward concept with fun music and a unique art-style. The game seems simple enough to almost overlook. Your giants create plants, animals and minerals to provide food, wealth, and technology for the villages. They grow over time and improve their village. And, at first, it is that straightforward. Until the game really gets going. Before you know it, you have multiple villages all spread out and demanding your attention to help them improve.

The first level of buildings is also deceptively simple. A village wanted to build a school which just needs some food and technology. So your giants create plants and an exotic animal. Done. But now, they want to expand that school into a University which requires more food, more technology and now some wealth. This is where it starts to get tough, because you have a limited number of spaces on which you can create resources. You have to start using their “Symbioses” whereby each resource has bonuses to the resources surrounding it. No longer can you just create what you want where you want it. You must now plan each move carefully to upgrade your resources and have them work together. All the while a counter is running on how long you have left for this project, as well as the overall time to complete the level, as well as the creation and maintenance of other villages… As you can see, it gets intense very quickly.

Your forest giant and mountain giant are providing resources to a village.

What the Game Teaches Us

I have written before about games that require one to plan backwards. Understanding a ‘tech tree’ is essential to any strategy game, and Reus has one of the most complex trees I have ever seen. It seems overwhelming at first, but having the tree provides a gamer with choices. Real choices increase the depth of gameplay dramatically. They force the gamer to understand their options, analyze the individual components, and synthesize a single path to victory from the various choices available. Should the gamer replace the plants next to this mineral? Or upgrade his animals and place them next to more plants for grazing? The completion of each project also supplies the Giants with “Ambassadors” from the village which unlock special abilities. The gamer must choose at the completion of each project which Giant gets the Ambassador. The decision of which can have lasting repercussions throughout the game.

Over time, a gamer begins to see the patterns in the needs of the various villages and projects and can start planning early to make sure a village has the appropriate starting resources to easily complete the level 2, 3, or 4 projects, as well identify which Ambassadors to go for, and which Giant to give them to and in what order. This kind of higher order sequencing is a crucial skill for gamers of all ages to develop. While many strategy games lay out clearly a sequence of buildings to get to a final goal (for instance, Barracks -> Factory -> Armory = Tanks), Reus takes this concept even further by allowing for multiple, non-linear sequences to achieve the same result.

This increase in complexity makes the game more challenging, but also more engaging, and more educational.

Such a small world, but so many opportunities on it.

General Feelings on the Game

I enjoy playing Reus immensely. It requires focus and commitment for the time you are playing it, but the immersion is excellent. Everything is on a timer, even the individual rounds of gameplay. So I found myself sitting back at the end of an hour long round and shaking my head that it was over so quickly.

The Symbiosis mechanic, as well as the Ambassadors that I have described do not even scratch the surface of Reus. Every time I load up the game, I learn about something new about it. Though the complexity and the learning curve that provided so much depth to the gameplay also made Reus difficult to get into. I recommend bookmarking the wiki to help you get started.

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Tap the Frog

The Basics
Game Name – Tap the Frog
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre –Casual Mini Games
Educational Values – Reflexes, Hand to Eye Coordination, Counting, Visual Discrimination
Platforms – iOS, Kindle, Google Play
Where to buy – iTunes Store, Amazon, Google Play
When should you buy it? – If you are looking for a game to play with a small child on your phone or tablet, this is the one.

About the Game

Tap the Frog is a kid’s game I picked up on the iPad while searching the app store for something to play with my 3 year old niece. The list of games that a 3 year old can play and enjoy is growing longer, but most games, even casual games, are aimed at older audiences. We sat down, tapped the titular frog together, and we were off playing several of the mini-games. She loved it.

The mini-games range from “Tap the frog when it turns pink” to “Tap all of the frogs you can in 10 seconds”, to “Put the frogs in order by number”, etc. Some of the games were over her head at the time, but we still had a great time sitting on the couch playing together. It is also fascinating to see how she has grown into the more complex games over time. She is now 5 years old and can play through nearly every mini-game on her own, and my 3 year old nephew has taken over as playing the easier games with me.

Avoid the cones and try to hit the speed boosters!

What the Game Teaches Us

It is an oft-remarked point that games improve hand to eye skill. Even some doctors and surgeons are finding benefit in video games. Tap the Frog may not be training your children to become doctors, but it is the first step. Having to use a bike pump, or pick out only the yellow frogs from a group in a set time helps a gamer process visual information more quickly and completely. This is a core component in learning to read as well as reading comprehension, math, etc. As Winnie the Pooh said, “to the uneducated, an A is just three sticks”. Tap the Frog helps young gamers see those three sticks as a letter, and a separate part of a larger structure in a word, or help them see the difference between a 7 and 1.

As this is a children’s game, there are points that an adult will likely not appreciate as much. Specifically the counting games such as the “pick the highest number”, or “Tap the numbers from lowest to highest” are going to be basic. But to a young gamer, Tap the Frog is fun and engaging. They are learning without realizing it, and while games that are specifically about learning can still be fun and worthwhile, I know from my own experience that sometimes you have to be sneaky when you are trying to “teach through fun”. Tap the Frog is a sneaky way to get your young gamer to learn.

Look at all of the games you can play!

General Feelings on the Game

The opening up of casual games for multiple platforms has been a boon not only for developers, but also for anyone interested in video games. With the cost of games being traditionally in the $40-$60 range, it was always a big investment to purchase any game, especially an “educational game” that may or may not spark your young gamer’s interest. Now that there are so many “Free to Play” or, in this case, extremely cheap casual options, finding a high quality educational game does not have to be so risky.

Put another way, if there is a young gamer in your life, Tap the Frog is the best dollar you can spend right now.  The visual aesthetic is spot on, and the frogs are fun and funny. The games are varied and interesting. The learning opportunities are subtle, but built into the game play mechanics. This is everything you could want out of a casual game for children.

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Gaming with your kids

As a member of the first generation of gamers who grew up with video games a central part of their lives, I did not have gamers for parents. They mostly saw gaming as a ‘kid’ activity. What few games we had that they were interested in I remember very fondly. We spent many hours conquering the galaxy. But by and large, I was left to my devices to find and play games.

The ESRB did not come around until I was 12 years old, and even then it was not widely known or followed, so there was very little to guide the purchasing decisions for my parents. It worked out well, with only a few exceptions. But now that I am on the other side of the equation, I see that some of the games I play and enjoy are not appropriate for children. As I sit down with my daughter, nieces and nephews, I am reminded of that fact very sharply.

So what are we to do as parents these days? Start by paying attention to what your kids play. Just like paying attention to the TV and Movies they watch. Do not buy them a game without doing at least a few minutes of research on the type of game, the ESRB rating, or reading a couple of articles about them. If you feel the game is appropriate, sit down and play a couple of rounds with them. Or at least watch them as they play. Games are a wonderful way to learn about the world, but they are not babysitters. A game does not care about the age of the person playing it.

With all that said, do not necessarily shy away from games that are sometimes considered ‘adult’. The greatest example of this I have ever heard was a father playing Grand Theft Auto with his kids. All they would do was drive around the city and obey the traffic laws. He would have his kids call out the colors, make and model of the cars as they passed them. There was no violence, or adult content at all in their experience of one of the most adult franchises in gaming.

You can even enhance their gaming experiences without having to play the games themselves. Be available to look up where quests will take them, or read the wiki information of games to answer questions, or use the experiences in the games as jumping off points for discussions with your kids. Ask them what they are playing, what they learned, and how did it make them feel. The games they are playing can be a jumping off point for you to talk about history, culture, ethics, morals, life, etc. Use the experience of something they love to bond with them.

The times I spent gaming with my parents were some of the best of my childhood. I guarantee the times you spend gaming with your kids will be some of the best of theirs.

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