How Chocolate Castle shames triple-A accessibility

Thursday, 19 January 2012 07:09 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Brenna Hillier just wants to play some games, but it’s all so hard. Maybe the traditional games industry could stand to learn a thing or two from the accessibility of indies.

We live in the future, apparently, and yet the daydream of pressing a button and seconds later enjoying a world of interactive delight is yet to materialise.

I don’t play enough games, and I’m ashamed of it. I just don’t seem to have the time to spend with major releases any more. The most time I’ve spent on a game in the last month is a tiny indie puzzler called Chocolate Castle, released two years ago but given another lease on life by a recent Humble Bundle.

Chocolate Castle is a really low-fi affair. The graphics are simple and low resolution. The audio is best characterised as beeps and boops, along with a pretty delightful munching effect. It’s not going to win any awards for dramatic narrative, nor does it feature a single exploding landmark. What is does have, by the bucket, is playability. Chocolate Castle is technically a sliding or block push puzzle game, but it has a number of twists, like blocks sticking to each other, which give it a great deal of flexibility in level design. Some of the later puzzles – there are 120 in the full version – are fiendishly difficult, and every single one is different.

All of that is reason enough to play Chocolate Castle, but more and more I find myself returning to it because it’s just so accessible. Not “accessible” in the PR way meaning “push X to win,” but accessible in that whenever I’m at a computer, I can fire it up and play a level or two with no obstacles. This is increasingly not the case with triple-A games, which, I posit, have grown too big for their boots.

Are You Equipped?

The path between conceiving of a desire to play a video game of some kind, and actually achieving this goal, is long and frustrating. I have both HD consoles; a couple of handhelds; a PC; and a Mac. With this collection, I can play almost everything that comes out. For those with access to fewer platforms, innumerable games are denied them.

Chocolate Castle in action.

“Them’s the breaks,” you might scoff, valuing cliché over grammar. We’re not talking about a few exclusives here, but, in some cases, entire catalogues. PC gamers have more grunt in their customised cases than two consoles strapped together, yet have to wait a year for a dodgy port. Macs have become an important computing platform in the last decade, and yet the idea of timely OSX ports is laughable. The console networks are so tightly locked in licensing and proprietary secrets down that some games – and entire publishers – are just never going to make the leap.

Chocolate Castle is available for Mac, PC and Linux. It released on all three platforms simultaneously as if that weren’t even a thing. If console gamers were more open to spending money on adorable indie puzzlers, it could presumably be ported to either network, and perhaps to mobiles, with relative ease. Chocolate Castle is portable because of its scale; it’s nowhere near as ambitious as this year’s blockbuster shooters, and that makes it infinitely more flexible – and accessible to a greater audience. You don’t need a whizz-bang CPU to play Chocolate Castle. It does not demand you upgrade your RAM.

Arr Me Hearties

Reviewers came afoul of Ubisoft’s DRM this week, when they found that their three-install license for Anno 2070 fell over when they dared to swap in a new graphics card. The DRM software apparently interpreted this as an attempt to illicitly move an install to an entirely new machine. The French publisher gets a lot of flack for its severe approach to anti-piracy measures, but it isn’t the only company to protect its games this way. Even the Steam client – which many forget is itself a DRM tool – will panic and require unlocking if you move your installations to a new hard drive on the same computer, something recommended on the company’s support pages. Let’s not even talk about always-on DRM and the regular failure of internet connections.

Ubisoft seems to believe it can’t afford to risk its IP without DRM – and many other publishers feel the same way. When games cost tens of millions to make, there’s an exceptionally fine line between success and angry share holders.

Chocolate Castle is DRM free. It takes about ten minutes, from start to finish, to purchase, download and then install Chocolate Castle dozens of times.

So maybe it’s time to make some games which you can afford to release into the wilds. Chocolate Castle is DRM free. It takes about ten minutes, from start to finish, to purchase, download and then install Chocolate Castle dozens of times. I installed it on my PC, and my Mac, and then on my partner’s PC and Mac, and I’m probably going to put it on my dad’s computer as well, because these are all machines I use on a regular basis. When I get a new computer, I’ll install it there, too. When I swap out hardware or drives or move a folder, Chocolate Castle won’t even blink an eye. You paid for me, it offers calmly. Do whatever you like. I think I’d like to buy another license, actually, because I like this game a great deal and it would make a nice gift. Take my money.

Chocolate Castle has probably been pirated thousands of times, but while it represents a significant investment of money, time and energy on its developer’s behalf, it’s small enough and cheap enough that the goodwill of happy users – and the word of mouth which, it must be said, piracy generates – will generate sales which a game without marketing might never otherwise see. Lexaloffle would probably prefer you pay for its game, but it isn’t suing you because you didn’t. It has built a certain amount of piracy into its business plan, and moved on, while legitimate customers reap the benefits.

Stop Faffing About

Games seem to demand more and more of our time every year. To stay competitive in multiplayer games, you’ve got to practice regularly. RPGs require grinding – and everything’s an RPG now. Single-player campaigns go on for hours and hours and hours (including: forever. Thanks, Skyrim). If you want to see all or even just most of what a game has to offer, you’re committed to about eight hours minimum – and there are new games coming out every week.

The time to do these things has to be salvaged from the rest of your day, and it doesn’t always come in solid bursts, which is why it’s so frustrating that when you do want to play, you’re given a bunch of hurdles to jump. If you’re lucky, the game you want will be available at your local shop, or you’ll have pre-loaded it – otherwise, you’ll need to set aside a chunk of time in which your machine sits idly, downloading, and then installing.

Once the core game is in place, there’s the patches. No programming above the most basic level will ever be entirely bug free; that’s simply a sad fact of our imperfect human existence which will persist until our machine overlords retire us in favour of genetically-engineered slug slaves. It’s understandable that a game will release with one or two issues. Even the occasional game-breaking glitch is forgivable, after much grinding of teeth, but game-breaking glitches aren’t exceptions any more – they’re the norm. When was the last time you played a triple-A game which didn’t require a patch in the first week? How many times has your latest favourite been patched since release?

Chocolate Castle takes approximately half a second to load to the main menu; less than that between menus; and closes in the blink of an eye. It encourages sessions of ten minutes, whereas that’s just about long enough to get through the opening cinematic at the beginning of the tutorial that’s an hour before the first checkpoint in Shooting Things VI: Revenge of Bullets.

If you have an hour’s lunch break, chances are you’ll have just enough to time to buy and maybe – if you’re very lucky – download and install a game. Assuming you have it pre-loaded, and your system, client or the game itself doesn’t need patching, you’ll get an hour’s gaming in – minus loading times. That’s one hour down, then. Only seven to go and I’ll have an achievement. Hooray.

Chocolate Castle hasn’t been patched once since I got it. I’ve never seen a single bug or crash. It’s a complete package managed carefully to ensure that its team’s resources for testing and reiteration met the scope of the project and its release schedule – something huge triple-A projects simply cannot afford. Another couple of things Chocolate Castle never requires is client updates and password resets. It takes approximately half a second to load to the main menu (the opening logo is skippable), less than that between menus, and closes in the blink of an eye. Because it’s such a tidy little thing, it encourages pick-up-and-play sessions of ten minutes, whereas that’s just about long enough to get through the opening cinematic at the beginning of the tutorial that’s an hour before the first checkpoint in Shooting Things VI: Revenge of Bullets.

Chocolate Castle, in short, does not faff about. If I did not own Chocolate Castle, I could acquire and install it in the time it takes for the kettle to boil. When I want to play Chocolate Castle, I click the icon, and I’m playing Chocolate Castle. When I want to stop, I stop, and lose nothing.

We live in the future, apparently, and yet the daydream of pressing a button and seconds later enjoying a world of interactive delight is yet to materialise. Triple-A development is too big, too feature-packed and too risky to do what Chocolate Castle does. We need more Chocolate Castles. The industry could stand to learn a lot from Chocolate Castle.

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