Independent game development is fast becoming big business, so PCWorld took a sneak peek at four of the five indie games being developed as part of IGN's Indie Open House project. It's kind of like a residency program for programmers, and the project provides the teams with free office space in San Francisco for six months, as well as licenses to use GameSpy Technology's online gaming development tools. Here's what we learned about the future of PC gaming after meeting with the next generation of developers and playing early builds of their upcoming games.
First up for the day was Ethereal, a medieval action game intended to imbue third-person melee combat with the thrill of a Counter-Strike match. During our preview we had a chance to play through a team deathmatch demo with some of the developers, students at Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center who earned a spot in GameSpy's Indie Open House. Our match began in the armory screen, where players spend their silver on suits of armor, shields, and a variety of instruments for slashing or bashing the enemy to pieces.
After equipping ourselves, the match began and we started circling one another with shields raised, seeking weak spots to strike a killing blow. Combat in Ethereal is designed to replicate the lethality of an actual melee; the developers spent a semester studying medieval combat with the Society for Creative Anachronism, and different weapons are more or less effective depending on what sort of armor and shield an opponent is wearing. Bashing weapons are more effective against plate armor, while piercing and slashing weapons are better-suited for slicing through leather and chainmail. Plate armor and heavy shields will keep you alive longer, but they're more expensive and cause your stamina to deplete more quickly when moving around the battlefield.
The fun lies in using Ethereal's unique mouse-guided targeting system to swing attacks over an opponents shield or straight into the weak chinks in their armor, and scoring a killing blow with a mace to the face is as satisfying as a headshot in Counter-Strike. Unfortunately, the controls are still sluggish and complicated, making it difficult to quickly block and evade enemy strikes. If the team behind Ethereal can smooth out these issues before release, it could easily become an indie hit.
Veteran indie developer Alex Austin (Gish) of Cryptic Sea had a few fascinating demos under his belt for the day that stressed the creative potential for physics models in indie games. He started by showing off a few clips from a work-in-progress flight sim and tank combat sim that will eventually be integrated into one title called Anza Attack. Both sections were largely in the proof-of-concept phase, but the end goal is to create a "casual" combat sim closer in nature to X-Wing or TIE Fighter than a truly realistic simulator. After Anza Attack came a top-down racing game that featured more realistic driving physics than most arcade-style racing games--meaning that cars were skidding, swerving, and losing control all over the place--and a neat match-three puzzle game that looked like Columns with electrified, magnetic bouncy balls.
Cryptic Sea's star for the day, however, was a first-person hockey game. That's right: Unlike typical sports games that give you top-down control over the whole team, Austin created a multiplayer hockey game that had everyone clumsily blundering around on the ice together. You skate with the W-A-S-D keys, and you use the mouse to control the hockey stick. It took a while to get used to the physics, but we eventually got the hang of it--no triple dekes a la The Mighty Ducks here, though.
Thankfully we had an opportunity to redeem ourselves with Rapscallion, a side-scrolling platformer with a parkour twist from indie developer Runt. During our brief demo, we strapped on the steampunk boots of protagonist Ransom Wylde and ran through the tutorial level, scampering across girders and smashing through brick walls to deactivate a series of magnets strewn across the landscape. Every magnet begins to emit a strange gravitational aura when Ransom hits it, and the aura will grow to encompass the entire level unless Ransom tags the next magnet, which deactivates the previous one. The challenge comes in avoiding the pull of these magnetic auras as you bound across the level. It's a cool mechanic that can become frustrating if you get sucked into the center of a magnet or stuck to a piece of scenery, forcing you to quit and retry.
Guiding Ransom through the world is a blast with just the directional keys and a jump button, though it may be possible to upgrade your character with additional moves and equipment like a grappling hook or teleporter in the final game. During our play session Ransom had a habit of getting stuck or hung up on ledges, corners and stray bits of scenery due to bugs which will hopefully be fixed before release.
Rapscallion is intended to be an open-world experience with seamless transitions between areas, but the real challenge comes in racing through discrete segments and hitting every magnet in sequence as fast as possible. The final version may include multiplayer challenges and leaderboards predicated on such speedruns, as well as unlockable characters and additional modes of play. But frankly, Rapscallion is most enjoyable when you're simply running through the beautiful scenery as quickly as possible. It looks like Limbo and plays like Sonic, an addictive blend that's worth sampling if Runt manages to work out the kinks.
Last for the day was Interabang Entertainment's Super Comboman: Struggles' Adventures, a 2D beat-'em-up that felt like equal parts Viewtiful Joe and Super Smash Brothers. The demo level featured Struggles, our hapless protagonist, beating on his coworkers at a construction site. Of course, this game is called "Super Comboman" for a reason--the game is centered around mixing in strings of light attacks, directional "smash" attacks, launchers, pile drivers, and all kinds of other fun moves together. As you build up your combo string, Struggles gets speed and damage bonuses. However, they expire as soon as you drop the combo, so you'll have to keep them going for as long as possible. No release date yet, but they eventually plan to sell on Steam--and if all goes well, they'll have a level editor and support for sharing replays, as well.