Thursday, November 27, 2008

Mirror's Edge

Finished Mirror's Edge tonight.

How was it? It depends. Overall, the game had some frustrating points. The combat can be annoying, there's a reasonable amount of trial and error, and the animated cutscenes look like absolute shit next to the in-game stuff.

On the other hand, when the game works it fucking WORKS. Running across the rooftops, grabbing ledges, sliding under things, kicking off walls and running up stuff, busting through doors, scrambling to get away from the cops...

When you're running, the game is perfect. It's unlike anything else you've ever seen. Reminiscent, at times, of Namco's Breakdown, though Breakdown focused more on the hand-to-hand combat, and totally fell apart at the end. But no game has had such a "complete" first-person experience that really makes you feel connected to the world. The things you do are incredible - leaping from rooftop to rooftop, jumping off a stairwell that cops are rushing up, and bounding from beam to beam, descending the stairwell by basically leaping down the center column and bypassing the cops... it's awesome.

The visual design is stellar - again, totally unique. The story... eh. The story's alright. Predictable, more or less boilerplate stuff - serviceable. Has some nice moments. All in all, though, what can I say? There's stuff in there that will annoy most people. It's not perfect. But it's trying to do something really, really difficult, and something really, really new. In that respect, it's actually a massive success. So it fails in some ways - they've taken HUGE risks. So, if you want something that isn't your run of the mill FPS/third person cover shooter, this is it.

For me, so far, despite its faults, despite the fact that there are tons of other really extraordinary games out there... I think it's my game of the year.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Blog Moving

This blog's going to be moving in the relatively near future. will become the home of Helava Systems, my dad's new company, and the game blog will probably move to, or something on blogspot.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Yes It Is.

Read this, which was linked from Kotaku today. The thrust of the article is that a game isn't a series of interesting decisions, and games like Guitar Hero prove that some wave of new games moves away from this definition into something new.


I mean, I don't even know why I should have to explain this, but maybe it's difficult to understand if you're not a working designer. Rock Band/Guitar Hero/Beatmania, etc., all rely on a combination of pattern memorization, quick reflexes, and a good sense of timing - no decisions there - but the good rhythm games, and when you get to harder levels where the "expert play" comes in, you have to be constantly making decisions about fingering, which hand to use at a particular time, and when to use your Star Power/Overdrive to maximize your score or save your friends.

These are all decisions - the fact that you're functionally repeating a linear pattern of notes doesn't make those decisions go away - they're the "stuff" in between the decision points that Soren Johnson was referring to in his quote in the article.

The author of the article states that this may be an appropriate definition for a strategy game, but isn't appropriate for other genres. I disagree. FPS's are almost entirely about ammo management, proper weapon selection, and use of the environment - all those are decision points supplanted by gameplay that requires ridiculous reflexes and hand-eye coordination.

Brain Training is a serioes of short, controlled decision points (what does 2+1 = ?), Guitar Hero is described above, and the Sims *is* a straightforward strategy game, with a suburbanite layer, full stop.

I could see there being an argument that the granularity of the decision points makes them into "gameplay" rather than "decision making," but I think that's improper - the speed and magnitude of the decisions you're making doesn't transform that process into something different.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Battlefield: Bad Company

The latest and greatest version of Battlefield actually has a single player game. It's also on console in its full multiplayer glory, and not an uprezzed port from a last-gen game.

I can't say I liked Battlefield: Modern Combat all that much. I really wanted to like it, because I couldn't run Battlefield 2 on my PC at home - but its awkward mix of arcadey game conceits and realistic military combat never sat right with me.

It's a shame for them that they didn't get the balance right, because a couple years later, Call of Duty did more or less the same point accrual system and worked out the kinks. Bad Company gets it much more like Call of Duty, and as a result is a huge step up from Modern Combat.

The other "hook" that B:BC has going for it is destruction. Almost every wall can be destroyed with enough high-explosive, and the mechanics work like a charm. On top of that, it really *feels* like you're laying waste to huge environments, and has pretty substantial gameplay ramifications. No longer are walls guaranteed cover, no longer are long-distance snipers safe from rocket fire.

The multiplayer is fun, frantic, and evolves substantially over the course of every match due to a progressive map-unlocking structure. As you play, if one team achieves their goal, another portion of the map unlocks, the defenders fall back, and the attackers press their attack. It's great fun, and the constant medal award system keeps you hooked for just one more game.

The single player's a bit strange. While again, it's leaps and bounds above Modern Combat, and mechanically, it's as sound as any other FPS out there, they strike a strange "lighthearted" tone throughout the game. The characters are constantly spouting jokes (to limited success, though some of the background animations are *really* well done), and talking about very cliche things (If Sarge makes it to the end of the game with his constant talk of retirement, I'll be really surprised) - so it's clear that you're supposed to take this all with a wink and a nudge.

The problem is that periodically, something like having an allied helicopter or patrol blown to smithereens right in front of you breaks the lighthearted tone, and reminds you that people (and not just the enemies) are being killed. It's a difficult balance to strike, and while for the most part, the game's story works, it periodically veers into the unintentionally grim.

Overall, between a fun, engaging single-player game and a ridiculously entertaining multiplayer game, Bad Company's definitely worth picking up if you're done with Call of Duty 4... or even if you're not.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Follow up to a Previous Post

In the comments to "When is a Medium Not a Medium," A_B basically makes two points (if I'm summarizing correctly):

  1. The designer can't be an "other" in game theory
  2. There is no distinction between the medium and the method
On the first point, he asks a mathematician about the post, and the response is this:

"However, in particular, he stressed that the "others" are the participants in the system and not the creators of the system. The whole point of game theory is to "consider interests that are not your direct interest. It's not the choices of the designers. It's not a choice if they're not players in the game. It's irrelevant."
While I think that's true in most games, as it is in the example given (pool), I don't think it's the case in all videogames. In pool, the designer created a game where two people compete on a level playing field. That, to me, is like the creators of Quake 3, creating the maps, placing the weapons, etc. They're creating the tools for two people to test themselves against each other.

In a single player game (and this is where I should have been clearer), the designers aren't creating a playing field - they're creating the playing field and they're creating the competitors - everyone in the game who isn't you. While scripting AI or various in-game events, the designers are interested parties - they're betting on your expectations, how you'll respond to various inputs and what you level of skill is. Yeah, it's disconnected, and (for the most part) doesn't happen in real-time, but you do make decisions, as a videogame designer, about what you think the player will do, whether they'll sacrifice health for a better gun, whether they've developed an emotional attachment to an NPC or not.

In some sense, yeah, it's like you're administering the Prisoner's Dilemma, but at the same time, you have a vested interest in the other prisoner. But yes, some games you can definitely make the argument that it is like pool and the designer isn't a participant - I was thinking more of single player games, though that's a little narrow-minded of me.

I'm familiar with the McLuhan quote, though I can't say I've really "internalized" it. I think you can say that videogames, as they've traditionally existed, have been a medium - for sure. I think when you get into the realm of "games," though, you're moving out of the "medium" territory, and even out of the "message" territory. You can have games that are almost entirely devoid of message, except those that are conveyed by their mechanics (though I'd guess McLuhan would tell you that's the message that's inherent in the medium...).

I guess the way I'm thinking about the application of "game" (not "videogame," which I think is harder to categorize as a non-medium) is more like a paintbrush than a brushstroke. It is, essentially, a tool for motivation. A structure that creates both a carrot and a stick, and provides the user with feedback at regular intervals. Whether that manifests itself as something on a screen, or a card, or what have you, it's essentially an engineered experience that encourages a particular behavior.

Is that a medium?

Getting back to an earlier point - I wonder what the distinction is between something like Quake, where the designer is entirely uninterested in the specific outcome of the game, and a single-player game where the designer *is* interested in how the player is doing, how they're making decisions, and are actively trying to guide them through an experience. Obviously, they're both "games" - at least as they're currently labeled.

Saying there's a distinction between "game" and "sport" feels sort of right, but that's using such baggage-laden terms that it's impossible to discuss the distinction without getting really confused.

I think where I'm trying to draw a distinction is maybe not with "game" as something non-medium-y, but rather, the concept of applying a very tight cycle of feedback, consistent behavior, and regular rewards as a motivational tool to encourage specific behavior. That *is* a method, and divested from any particular medium. It's not "videogames," or even "games" as they're traditionally known. It's more the idea of taking the part of videogames that makes the good experiences compelling and using that in other applications.

Gack. My brain hurts. Ei-Nyung and I had this problem trying to talk about this post after the fact - calling something a "game" has a lot of other implications, "game theory" has a specific definition, "medium" and "method" are both terms that people have discussed to death, and wandering through the minefields of potential misinterpretation is pretty bonkers.

But yeah - I guess it's the application of the process that concerns me.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


would post, but my right hand hurts a lot. I think I managed to pinch a nerve playing Rock Band - of all things, drumming to "Go With the Flow."

Will post once the hand is better.

Monday, June 9, 2008

When Is a Medium Not a Medium?

For many years, videogames were dismissed as toys, incapable of artistic expression or meaning. Then, as time passed, the medium matured and began to tell stories that meant something. Sometimes, at least. For years and years, people have argued over and over that games are/are not a legitimate medium unto themselves, independent of the conventions of cinema, books, blah blah blah.

The argument's always been a strange one, because I've always been of the view that what games are capable of is much broader than simply story or no story. Obviously, there's a huge spectrum of possibilities, and they're all legitimate. The only time that they're not legitimate is when they're not games. That is, when they're not interactive.

For a long time, my personal definition of a game went like this: "A game allows the player to make informed choices that affect their ability to make further, better choices." Over the last few years, this definition has served me well. If a game allows you to make multiple choices, that's a good start - but it's the sort of causal cascade that makes a good game really satisfying - not only feeling like you're having some impact on the story but that your impact on the story changes the way you interact with the story on down the line.

Great. And frankly, it works for everything from Halo to Tetris, from Grim Fandango to Madden. It weeds out the things that aren't interactive, where the choices are meaningless, and where there's only one binary choice of any consequence (strangely, this pops up every now and again).

Today, I saw an interesting snippet from Will Wright on Kotaku - he said,

We have yet to prove we can do meaningful things with this form of expression, but I believe we are at the cusp of a Cambrian explosion of possibilities [referencing the geological era in which complex life flourished]. We are a couple years away from being respected as a form of expression, but it's not a battle we need to fight. We'll win anyway."

Here's what I wrote in response when I shared the item in Google Reader:

“This is sort of an interesting issue that's shaping up a little as games continue to evolve. More than "winning" legitimacy as a form of expression, I see games simply becoming part of *everything*.

"Games" will simply be the delineation between passive and active media. TV will include games or game-like qualities in shows where it's appropriate - hell, you already have large-scale participatory shows (American Idol, et. al.). Sure, right now, they're the functional equivalent of "Hello, World," but the fact that participatory, active media is now not an aberration but something that's expected and well-understood, expansion of the concept is sure to follow.

Similarly, interactive art installations, remixable music, blah blah blah - they've been around for years, but videogames have shown how these things will develop in the future.

Think of it - for years, MIT's Media Lab wanted to do something that made music interactive - the Brain Opera was a step in that direction. But it wasn't until the mechanics of that interaction worked like a game that it exploded into mainstream entertainment. (Yes, I'm aware of the direct link between the Brain Opera and Harmonix.)

Point being - it's not that movies, comic books and games are fighting for legitimacy. "Games" aren't a medium - they're a method.

It's the method that's proven to have results - genuine, inarguable, positive results. The medium is still a pseudo-cinematic mishmash that only a few companies (Valve) have managed to crack. But the mechanics are everywhere, and they're getting only more pervasive as time goes on.

The battle Wright alludes to is already over.”

This kept rolling around in my brain. While I wrote it somewhat on the spur of the moment, without thinking about it a whole lot, the notion that "games aren't a medium, they're a method," really stuck with me.

It reminded me a lot of Jane McGonigal's "Reality is Broken" rant from the 2008 GDC. Her central tenet was that the real world can benefit from the application of game design. It's something I wholeheartedly agree with, but it's not making reality a game medium, it's simply an application of a method to a thing.

Then, there was this article, on Wii Fit being expensed as a fitness item. Of course it can be - it's barely a game - it's a fitness tool that uses game mechanics to motivate the user to keep using the game. The reward structure is pure game, but the product itself is not first and foremost a game. It's a game as we currently define it, but let's just call it what it is. It's a fitness tool whose reward structure is derived from games.

So, I'm sitting here, now in retrospect thinking, "Duh. This is such an obvious conclusion that I'm going to look online, and hundreds of people are going to have well-written, thorough discussions about games not as a medium, but as a method." And I'm sure they're out there. But unfortunately search terms being what they are, it's difficult to find out for sure, since people may be using slightly different wording.

But to me, this is the end of the debate about whether games are art, or whether they're a valid medium. Of course they can be art, just as they can also not be art. But the question isn't whether games are a valid medium or not: it's whether they're a medium at all.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Assorted Completions

Finished Superstar mode of Sega Superstars Tennis this afternoon. Talk about a strange game. On one hand, it's a very straightforward tennis game, mechanically not very different than Virtua Tennis. Fun, and one of the best tennis games out there (though Top Spin on the original xbox is still my personal favorite), but a little ... workmanlike.

On the other hand, it's a nostalgic romp through Sega's DC-era games and characters, and that part of it strikes a chord in me, as I have very, very fond memories of the 2000-era DC lineup. Seeing Beat, from Jet Set Radio, playing tennis against Amigo, the dancing monkey from Samba de Amigo brought an irrepressible smile to my face. Yeah, it's tennis, but they managed to capture some of the iconic visuals from the games. JSR *feels* like JSR. The House of the Dead stage feels just like House of the Dead 2. Samba's stage is exceedingly bright and cheery, while the Outrun stage has a laid-back beach vibe. With Magical Sound Shower playing, the game took me back to my middle-school days, playing Outrun in the sit-down motion cabinet version of the game on some lazy Sunday afternoon at the local pay-once play-all-day arcade.

So, it's a strange game. I don't know why tennis, though I suppose tennis is as good as anything else. The Virtua Tennis-style minigame structure was perfectly suited to Puyo-Puyo, Super Monkey Ball, and House of the Dead for sure. I'm not really sure what else you could do with the Sega lineup. A lightgun/fishing/driving game? Sonic Shuffle tried the Mario Party-style game with little success, though that failure owed more to the failure in execution than anything else.

I could see a Kingdom Hearts-style Sega Superstars RPG working out really well. Maybe taking Ryo from Shenmue, and pulling him into the Fantasy Zone where he has to samba his way out of a horde of zombies...

Anyway - tennis. Fun, not the best game ever, but definitely for *me*, a nostalgia-inducing good time. B/80

Also finished the "7th and 8th" missions of Army of Two. For free content, they integrate remarkably well into the storyline. They might as well be Army of Two 1.5, given the brevity of the original campaign. The maps are more interesting than the originals, and there's even a final "boss" fight that feels strangely like an old-school videogame boss fight. I ended up playing it co-op with a friend, and it was a really good time.

For free, A/95. One major technical glitch made me have to "push" a guy who was trapped in an improper collision box - almost made me lose 15 minutes of gametime, but since I knew what I could do to potentially resolve the problem, it didn't hurt too badly.

Monday, June 2, 2008


Yeah, I missed last night's post.

So, two things, re: MGS4 - the first being that IGN has reviewed the game despite Konami's insistence that they not publish a long list of unspecified information. EGM, on the other hand, has refused to review the game because of those restrictions.

Kudos to EGM, whose reviews continue to actually have value, and boo to IGN, whose entire catalog of reviews instantly became utterly worthless. They continually show themselves to be unable to grasp even the simplest concepts of basic journalism.

The second bit is this - there's some rumor swirling around about MGS4's plot, and though I've only played through MGS, MGS2 and part of MGS3 (that game was completely broken, from a gameplay perspective, IMO), and am REALLY unlikely to play through MGS4 any time soon, I wanted to give speculating on what Kojima's undoubtedly ludicrous plot would be.

Basically, I think the entire game is Snake dying as a result of the virus that was injected into his system way back (MGS1?). The player's basically playing his last few moments, as his brain tries to sort out the meaning of his life, and at the end, all of the action the player took was essentially a metaphor for his entire life. Or rather, "It was all just a dream." I know, sounds stupid. But it sort of fits into the whole VR-as-reality schtick of MGS2, and the whole "Oh shit, the past!" schtick of MGS3.

So, you're not *really* old Snake, and that's why Snake is old but no one else is. The current explanation is that since Snake is a clone, he ages really fast - and maybe that's the actual case as well - but I think it's more about the fact that Snake is thinking about the fact that he's hit the end of the road, and he can't imagine the other characters as old/decrepit as he is, which is why they're represented at their current (younger) age. The physical appearance of the character indicating more of a mental/emotional state rather than the physical *reality* of the situation would, IMO, be an interesting use of current-gen technology, fooling the player on a really fundamental level.

I dunno whether it'll happen in MGS4, but if I had to guess, I'd hope it was something that interesting.

Thursday, May 29, 2008


If you take every game I've worked on that's been rated on Metacritic and averaged them all, you can sum up my career in a single number: 69.2.

That's not good.

Sadder still, as time progresses, it's almost consistently downhill:

Seaman: 82
The Urbz: 70
The Sims 2: 75
The Sims 2 Pets: 68
Brooktown: 53

Those are the five games I had a material contribution on. If you include Lair, where I had an "Additional Design" credit but essentially nothing I did made it into the game anyway, the average goes down even further to 66.5.

This means, if my entire career were averaged out into a current game on the market, it turns out to be... Lost Cities, the card game recently released for the 360 on Live Arcade.

Hrm. That's not a terrible game.

The other current 360 game with a 69 Metacritic: Turok.


It's frustrating. Obviously, everyone wants to do well - for their games to be well-received and fondly remembered. Of all the games I've worked on, only two really fit that bill - Seaman and The Sims 2 for consoles.

The easy excuse is that I've never had any measure of control over the overall quality of the game - I came on to Brooktown quite late, for instance, but the counterpoint to that is that the for the biggest success, Seaman, I had *nothing* to do with the game design, and only had an impact on the implementation (though don't get me wrong, I think there's still significance in that).

So, while Metacritic is obviously not an infallible measure of quality, it's not a terrible one - and it really is up to me to try to make my contribution drag that number up - to make games that are memorable, quality experiences that people *love*.

There's really no other reason to be in this industry, is there?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Games I'm Finishing

So, GTA IV is out, and it's got a long-assed, involved, complex single player story of astonishing production values and scope. But since it came out, I've finished:
  • Assault Heroes
  • Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Volume 1
  • Band of Bugs
and I've made substantial headway on The Club, and Sega Superstars Tennis. All five of those games have one thing in common - they're quick to pick up and put down, and can be played in relatively short bursts. Yes, GTA can be played in relatively short bursts, but it's all part of one monolithic narrative, and re-immersing yourself in that mindset takes a reasonable investment.

Finishing a game is not necessarily a barometer of quality, either - GTA IV is a better game in every way than Band of Bugs, which is a largely over-simplified turn-based strategy game with a nauseating visual aesthetic and cast of characters. Still, I played it to the end - and I'm not the kind of person that finishes games that they actively don't like.

So why do I make a decision to play The Club instead of GTA IV? Why do I play Sega Superstars Tennis instead of finishing Episode 2 in The Orange Box? There's something to be said for a self-contained burst o' interactivity without the story to put it all into context and make it mean something. Sometimes I just want to hit buttons and have flashy lights go off.

  • Assault Heroes: B/65 - some interesting features (weapons, car as the default avatar) and some nice boss fights, but a really sloppy implementation that was often missing audio, with really badly timed cutscenes.
  • Band of Bugs: C/50 - a genre Live Arcade could use more of (I never got Commanders: Attack of the Genos, but it's in the same vein), but a really "bleh" instance of the genre. Not enough real strategy, too much randomness, a sometimes indecipherable UI/visual style with a story about bugs. Ick. Not a game for the turn-based strategy fan (not enough strategy), not a game for the casual player (indecipherable). Bad combination.
  • The Club: A/80 (so far) - have only made it about halfway through, and it's starting to feel repetitive, but the shooter-as-racing-game works *really* well. No other game has made me feel like I'm scrambling through an environment, desperate to find the next thing. Great stuff, and sadly overlooked.
  • Orange Box: A/100 - the best value on the planet. Portal would be worth the full price alone, but combined with Half Life 2 and Ep. 1 and 2, and Team Fortress... it's *ridiculous*. If you don't have it, you should.


On Wednesday, I grabbed Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Volume 1 from Xbox Live Arcade for $20.

I'd been looking forward to the game for a while, given that it's from the creators of Penny Arcade, was supposed to be some sort of pseudo-adventure-y turn-based combat episodic thingamabob. The short version is: If you're a fan of PA, it's worth getting. If you're not, it's not.

You play a custom character whose home gets flattened moments after the game starts. You meet up with Gabe & Tycho, though they're sort of alternate Steampunk-y versions thereof, and chase after the giant robot that smashed your house.

For the first part of the game, there's not much more to it than smashing garbage cans, walking to the right, and periodically fighting stuff. That's actually all there really is to the game, plus talking to some people and periodically walking in other directions.

The bulk of the gameplay is in the combat, and this part of it actually worked really well for me. It's a JRPG-derived "active timer" system, so each player can make a move when their meter fills. In this case, you can use an item after a short time, attack after a slightly longer time, and do a special attack after an even longer time. If multiple characters have specials ready, they can "team up" and do unique team-based attacks. When an enemy attacks, their health bar blinks - if you hit a button at the right time, you can block the attack or even counterattack for free.

It's relatively simple, but a little ungainly - you're constantly shifting your view from the upper window (where the attack/block indicator is) and the bottom half of the screen where the various characters' counters are running. There are a couple other mechanical "difficulties" here - you've got to have the right character highlighted to make a move, but if a special move then gets activated, it interrupts your menu commands, which can be a touch disorienting, for instance - but the core mechanics work pretty well.

More, they're *tuned* really well. You can get by against easier foes just doing straight up attacks, but very quickly you'll have to learn to manage your items, block attacks, and make sure you're accounting for the enemy's vulnerabilities and resistances. More, you can carry a relatively limited amount of each item, and in this case, it really works to encourage players to *use* the items, or exploration becomes basically meaningless.

So, the combat is engaging. The rest of the game doesn't *quite* measure up. The visual aesthetic is a reasonable approximation of PA, but there's something about it that definitely feels a little "off" - Gabe's smile in the talking sections, for instance. There's something really distinctive about "Gabe's" art style, and it's easy to spot even minor deviations from model.

The oddly disappointing bit for me was the writing. I *love* Tycho's weekly posts. He's got a really great way with words, and will often find turns of phrase that make me awestruck. So, when I say I'm disappointed by the writing, my expectations were really, really high. Looking at it with a (relatively) objective eye, it's not bad, it's even very consistent with the Penny Arcade's strips. It feels like Gabe and Tycho, for the most part - I just wish it felt like "Tycho" - that is, Jerry Holkins writing the news posts for Penny Arcade.

Still, the story's fun, the interactive dialog is funny in the way that old adventure games are funny - lots of humorous item descriptions, etc. I'll definitely be picking up future installments of the game, and I'd recommend it with some reservations to Penny Arcade fans. It's one of those games I wish I *loved*, but I just don't - it didn't quite pop for me, but it showed there's some potential there. Looking forward to seeing what these guys can do now that they've got some experience under their belts. I'd guess that for the most part, Ep. 2 is nearing completion already, so likely it's more of the same, but it'll be interesting to see how Ep. 3 & 4 evolve based on feedback from the first game.

B/75 - B for the episodic nature, the mix of JRPG-style combat with a slightly adventure-y feel, and 75 for the very well-tuned battle system, but a slight miss for the somewhat disappointing story. I'd love to see what these guys do next.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Cry Me a River

I saw this piece of drivel linked from Kotaku a couple minutes ago about some guy who tried to get into the game industry, failed, and is publicly whinging about the fact that he wasn't given a fair shake.

There are a LOT of things about this article that I could go on for pages about, but let's just hit a couple of the big ones:

1.) "Two years ago, I moved from Ohio to Arizona to pursue my dream of becoming a part of the industry. I attended a school that offered the promise that with hard work, the school would provide the education and support I needed to learn skills I had never learned before. I was told that over the course of my studies, a powerful portfolio would be created and my degree would confer confidence to game developers because the school was known and accredited. "

A piece of advice - if you're looking for an education that is relevant to a specific field, rather than looking at the advertising brochures (or worse, the late-night TV commercials), you should figure out whether any of the graduates of a program *actually* move on into the game industry.

I did a quick Google search for game education programs in Arizona, and nothing came up. Frankly, in terms of game education programs, if it wasn't Full Sail, USC's game program or the ETC at Carnegie Mellon, game-specific education is functionally worthless, IMO. If you want to break into the industry as an artist, go to art school and get a well-rounded art education. If you want to break in as a programmer, get a well rounded software engineering education. If you want to break in as a designer... good luck. But the industry is only 30 years old, and is one of the fastest growing, fastest changing industries around.

Game development depends at this point on people of wildly varied educational/experiential backgrounds to bring new perspective to the industry. If your education has been solely focused on game development, and your hobbies/passion are games, what new perspective do you bring?

2.) "I believe the industry needs to allow for outside and inexperienced people to reinvigorate the game development process. I believe that those who have a shipped title on their resumes, while talented and dedicated, perhaps are closer to burning out than an individual out to make his or her mark."

Awfully presumptuous, don't you think, to talk about the people who have shipped games without actually having gone through the process? The people in the game industry are incredibly talented, incredibly energized creative people. There is almost no shortage of ideas, and no shortage of people who want to push the envelope. There are a lot of issues that make that difficult - the business model, the money involved, blah blah blah - that's probably a hundred posts on its own. Fundamentally, though, everything in this paragraph is wrong.

Yes, new people bring fresh perspective that is great - but that's balanced with a naivete about how development actually works. If you want to break the rules, *learn* the rules first. Yeah, maybe you'll be the new face that destroys the paradigm and revolutionizes the genre, but even in those cases, generally the people are smart enough to learn what's going on before flipping the table over and peeing on the floor.

3.) "New studios understandably don't want some inexperienced person with a mixed portfolio and no projects or titles. It's very risky. However, I believe that a new studio should take some risk to recruit hungry and fresh outsiders instead of just looking for people who may already be disaffected by their own careers."

Again, it's infuriating that you're talking about how burned out and wasted developers are when you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT. Yeah, hiring someone with no shipped games with a "mixed" portfolio (whatever that means) is risky. And yet it happens all the time. People find incredibly creative ways to break into the industry. Create a mod. Make a map and get people to play it. Get involved with community sites. Write a Flash game. You're an artist? Make some models while you work another job to pay the bills. Bust your ass and don't give up.

The fact that you've quit - walked away with your tail between your legs is a *sure* sign many companies would *never* hire you. Game development is a tremendous pain in the ass. It's an industry that you're *only* in because you have a ridiculous, overbearing passion for game development. If you wanted it so badly you gave up, you didn't want it badly enough.

4.) "Individuals with base skill sets and true passion are ready and waiting to be given a chance to shine."

And they'll keep waiting until they get off their ass and go grab the opportunity, or they turn those "base" skill sets into extraordinary skill sets. Passion doesn't get you shit. No one gives a flying fuck that you *want* something. You show them you *need* it, and more, that they *need* you, and maybe - just maybe, you'll open those doors yourself. No one's going to give you a chance. You've got to earn it.

5.) "The industry needs to do something to bring in new talent and prevent scores of people from wasting money on schools that won't help them when they're done."

It isn't the industry's responsibility to keep you from making bad decisions. It's not the industry's responsibility to keep you from giving up. Yes, there could probably be better sources of information out there, but did you check the easily discoverable ones, like the IGDA or Gamasutra? Probably not, but that you're putting it on the "industry" shows me where you think the responsibility lies.

6.) ""The game industry needs more women because it needs more games that appeal to women, thus allowing the market to grow further."

Your wisdom is inspiring. None of us have ever thought of this before.

7.) "My own lack of a mind-blowing portfolio and lack of completed projects -- due to many factors both within and beyond my control -- is not the reason I set out to publicly harangue the industry."

Here's where you're mistaken - your lack of a mind-blowing portfolio is your fault, and your fault *alone*. And your public "harangue" of the industry is such an embarrassment that it boggles the mind - it's like those guys on Craigslist who post how nice they are and how much they love and respect women and how those fucking whores never give them a chance.

8.) "I just want the industry to be aware that there are people out there with deep passion and love for this medium who simply want a chance."

Just to make this absolutely clear, the chances you make are the only chances you get. You wanna sit around and wait for someone to hand you a job? Fuck you. Get a job in test. Prove you're passionate and willing to bust ass for the job. Build up your portfolio with amazing work. Persist. Passion and love don't get you shit - show me you're *talented*. Show me you bring something new to the team. Show me why we can't live for one more second without you, and then, when we talk, it's because you made that opportunity happen.

Otherwise, keep waiting.

9.) "I believe the game industry would be pleasantly surprised to find that those on the outside really just want to make appealing games, the same as someone with a Grand Theft Auto title on her resume."

You know who wants to make awesome games? EVERYONE. The reason you go with the guy with GTA on his/her resume is that they've busted their ass on a crazily ambitious project and finished it. You know they've got the passion, the drive, and you can see their talent in their work. What do *you* have to show?

10.) "I am now pursuing my "plan B" and have no doubt I can lead a productive and happy life outside the game industry. All I want is for those with base skills and the deep desire to make a difference get a fair shake, too."

Good luck on Plan B. Seriously. Game development is clearly not for you - you have *no idea* what it's like. I'm not sure what you think happens, exactly - that there's some inner circle that conspires against n00bs or what - but the game industry is one place where a lot of the entry level positions are genuine meritocracies. In most cases there are so many extraordinarily talented, driven people vying for the same jobs that it's *easy* to give the job to the best of the best, and completely ignore everyone else. You're not in that 99th percentile with a portfolio that'll blow everyone's mind?

Cry me a fucking river.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My Life as a King

So, interested in how the WiiWare service was going to work, I plonked down 1500 Wii points for Square Enix's Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King (stupid name).

The experience started out quite badly, as purchasing points through the Wii is about as elegant as any of their other online offerings - that is, it's total garbage. Having to input a credit card number, security code, city, state, county and more to get the points is idiotic. It's even dumber that on the last screen where you actually say you want to get the points, they switch the position of the "yes" and "no" buttons, but don't give you any confirmation that you're about to quit and have to reenter all that information again, from scratch.

I honestly almost didn't get past this point, just because the experience was such a pain. What's worse is that the game is taking up 250+ blocks of the Wii's memory, which actually puts it to the point where it's no longer 999+ blocks free - now there are only 700 some odd blocks free. From the sound of it, this would imply that I've essentially only less than three games worth of space left before I have to start juggling them around on an SD card. Given that there are no free trials of WiiWare games, I can guarantee you that it'll make me very, very gunshy about future purchases, as that memory (and the convenience thereof) is extremely valuable.

I honestly don't know how Nintendo's failed so badly at their online implementation - every aspect of it is horrible.

But then, finally, I was able to (without background downloading, naturally) grab the game and play. It's interesting. It's almost like the anti-Dungeon Keeper. You apparently have to manage a small town, commissioning adventurers to do all the assorted crap you'd do in your standard Final Fantasy games while you stay at home and make sure your town's developing based on the revenue you're taking in from taxes and looting the nearby dungeons.

It looks like FF:CC, which is to say that it looks ludicrous. Your characters are semi-SuperDeformed, they wear a traditional excess of nonsensical accessories, and your avatar, the King... well, the term "androgynous" doesn't really do him any favors. Effete? Maybe. Still, it's all saccharine-sweet and still strangely sort of charming, and the process of seeing a town grow still has a nice positive effect, just like you had in old-school Sim City games.

As you post adventures, the people who take the tasks level up and grow stronger. I haven't yet pushed a low-level adventurer into something that's sure to kill them, so I have no idea what'll happen there. I'm only an hour or so into the game, but so far, it's been fun - it's a nice twist on the FF franchise - something that shows the world from a genuinely novel perspective. I'm looking forward to building the city, leveling up the adventurers, and seeing where this all goes.

Definitely good counter-programming to GTA, but good grief, I wish Nintendo's online had been even marginally competent. The whole purchasing experience is terrible, and if Live Marketplace or the PSN store was this bad, Sony and MS would have been torn to shreds. Still, if the quality of the game is any indication, WiiWare does hold some promise. I'm looking forward to World of Goo, and possibly picking up LostWinds.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Quick Bits

Been playing more GTA IV over the week - still trying to wrap my head around it. I've gotten more used to the car physics, and the missions have gotten a little more involved, which is both a blessing and a curse. Failure is now a bit more frustrating, but the overall experience is much more fun.

The world they've created is quite astonishing, but it actually feels a little more sterile than past games. I know that's a bit of a weird thing to say, but it's almost as though they've reached the uncanny valley of interactivity. The city *looks* so realistic, I want there to be more - it now feels like a game system operating on top of the real world, but the real world is missing.

The original complaint is still quite relevant - that they've spent a lot of time modeling things that are mundane. Obviously, this increases the sense of reality, but it's also really annoying. I want to catch a cab to skip to the destination rather than drive, but I need to *find* a cab, which sucks. Still, as the game progresses, it definitely gets better. The story's taken some interesting twists and turns. The writing is passable - certainly better than most games, but what stands out for me is the characterization. Yeah, a lot of the characters are stereotypes or relatively two-dimensional, but they use those stereotypes effectively, then turn them on their head enough that it's a pleasure to see who will stick to type and who won't.

Lots left to do in the game. I'm enjoying it, which means I've gotten over the controls for the most part. It's strange to me that the early parts of the game weren't better than they were, but in the midst of a four-star police chase... that's definitely when the game shines. Looking forward to more of that.

In other games, I've been playing a lot of Advance Wars: Days of Ruin. It's pretty much more of the Advance Wars formula - if you have an older AW game you haven't finished... you might as well keep playing that one. This one has a bizarre aesthetic - it's taken AW's traditional cheery approach to war and made it much more dreary. It's got amnesiacs, the destruction of most of humanity, and a bunch of people betraying each other to survive. Which means it's a really weird turn of events for a game that's lived on its charming bobble-headed approach to combat.

If you've read reviews, you'll probably have heard that the game's been stripped back quite a bit - most of the new stuff in Dual Strike is gone. To me, I'd say it's for the best. The game feels streamlined and efficient again. One of the things I really enjoyed about Advance Wars was how much it felt like a game of chess or checkers - simple pieces in complex combinations. Everything had a purpose, and each piece's utility was perfectly balanced. With Dual Strike, things got a bit out of hand. Managing two fields of battle with a bunch of units that didn't feel particularly distinct... it got to be a bit much. Where in AW, you could jump right in after not having played for months because there were only a handful of units, with AW:DS when I did the same, I felt lost. With Days of Ruin thus far, even if there end up being more units, the core mechanics have been dialed back a bit, making the focus more on the strategy than trying to juggle multiple fronts all the time.

As for the aesthetic, it's strange - it's almost like Jak 2, for me - something that had the "right" aesthetic in its earlier iteration needlessly tarted up to appeal to brooding fountains of teen angst. I didn't like Jak 2 (the core gameplay also felt focus-tested to death and a clear rip-off of the flavor of the month (at the time GTA3)), but I still like AW:DoR, simply because the game mechanics feel so right.

Other than that, game-wise, not a lot going on. I keep meaning to play more of Viking, but I don't. Instead, I finished Assault Heroes and played some PGR4. PGR is hands-down my favorite racing franchise. Here's to hoping that Activision lets Bizarre do their thing uninterrupted.

Friday, May 2, 2008


I've spent about five hours with GTA IV. Five hours with a GTA game is basically just scratching the surface, but I've played enough to experience the core mechanics and a reasonable chunk of the world.

This game currently has a 99 Metacritic, which (I think) makes it the highest game *ever* reviewed.

That is fucked up.

While obviously no game is perfect, and I don't mind giving a "10" or a "100" or whatever to a game that really moves me even if it has some technical flaws, GTA IV has some serious problems that I can't ignore (on top of the control issues mentioned in the previous post).

The car physics are horrid. I mean really, genuinely, almost-unusably awful. Every single car I've gotten into has barely been able to go around a normal 90 degree turn at a relatively normal speed. The motorcycle handling is abysmal. Yes, I understand "GTA Physics" are not real-world physics, but when your car can't take a single goddamn turn in an entire chase sequence, something is *wrong* with the way you have the cars set up. When I dread driving in a game that's called Grand Theft AUTO you have a pretty serious problem. When you have that problem in one of the two major mechanics of your game, it would seem to me that that's the kind of thing that should affect your score.

Will I get used to it? Probably. But I've been playing for HOURS, and I still can't go around a standard corner with any sort of regularity. It's unbearable.

The second thing (again, this is all in addition to the awful character controls) is that they spend a huge amount of time giving me beautifully animated representations of SHIT I DON'T CARE ABOUT.

You know what the last thing I want to do in a game is? Play pool. There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of shitty pool games throughout the years. I don't want to spend 10, even 5 minutes to play a shitty version of a shitty videogame. Arguments that it lends the world depth and believability have been made, but they don't fly with me. The makers of GTA have spent a huge amount of time building a gorgeous world of epic scope, and they've filled it with minigames I wouldn't even play for free. The bowling sucks. The pool sucks. I haven't played darts yet, but given the quality of the other two games, I'm not all that compelled to.

Take a game like Crackdown - there's an open-world game (by one of the original creators of the GTA franchise) that takes what's fun about the open world sandbox (exploration, visceral combat, freedom of movement) and makes the fun stuff even more fun. GTA IV has taken exactly the opposite approach - they've removed the fun (by making the car physics unmanageable), and increased the real-world tedium (phone calls, people nagging you, etc.).

Yes, the story and characters in GTA are lightyears beyond Crackdown. Yes, the world is more detailed and fully fleshed out. And in the end, I don't care. I don't give a shit you can play darts. I don't give a shit I can buy clothes. I don't give a shit about all the real world bullshit I do *in the real world*. I feel guilty for doing the stuff the game requires me to do because the narrative is REALLY confused about what kind of guy Niko Bellic is. Sometimes I'm free to choose my morality, and other times I'm not - with no clear cut reason why, other than some stuff needs to happen because the core story is linear. It's lazy, it's inconsistent, and it really breaks the feeling of immersion and investment in the character.

I really want to like it. But I keep hoping it'll be more than it is. The controls are horrible. The car physics are even worse. The missions (so far) have been more tiresome and tedious than interesting. The world, while more realistic, has been less fun than previous iterations of the game. That every reviewer and their goddamn mother has given the game a nearly perfect score is *absurd*.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Fucking Useless

So, this isn't about GTA 4. This is about GTA 4 reviews.

I picked up the game yesterday and gave it a shot. There are many things that are astonishingly good - the rich characterization, the scope of the city and the level of detail and interactivity are revolutionary.

And in terms of reviews, 10/10 isn't "perfect" - there is no perfect game. But when I *read* the reviews, I hope to have some understanding of what I'm thinking about purchasing. And when I read all the major reviews and there's no mention of control problems or that the multiplayer experience is either really unfocused or different enough that it takes a lot of getting used to, I'm generally not expecting to notice that the main character controls like a tank and that the multiplayer experience is a really unfocused mess.

One of the first things that I noticed when picking up the game is that while there's a lot of interesting animations (scaling walls, leaning into turns, etc.) and the character *looks* much better than they ever have before, the controls are incredibly sluggish and unresponsive as a *direct* result. On more than one occasion playing multiplayer, as a result of triggering an animation - some collision response, the animation has caused me to clip through a boundary and fall a substantial distance (the airport map, clipping through a railing next to a ladder, specifically). These are problems with really fundamental things in the game. The last game I played where the character control was so unresponsive was Virtua Striker, in 1999.

Yeah, the game is epic. Yeah, the writing so far has been great, though the contrast between the more realistic art/writing and the pervasive juvenile humor is a bit starker this time around. Yeah, the sheer scope and variety of the game is unmatched by anything else. But the game has problems that really affect a person's enjoyment of it - I suspect I'll get through it and love the game - but the point is that *no* review I've read points this out. Worse, *no* review I've read points out that the camera control is completely non-standard and that there's no option to return it to something more familiar.

Why? This is what a REVIEW is supposed to be about - it's not just the story - this is a GAME, and it's gotta be about the experience. The controls are a huge part of that experience. Yeah, everyone's falling over themselves to be the most sycophantic yes-man for the game, but that's NOT YOUR JOB. PR people get paid a ton to do that sort of thing. YOU are supposed to be CRITICAL. YOU are supposed to do BETTER.

Stop fucking up.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

What is Your Game About?

One of the best pieces of advice about game design I've ever heard was, "Figure out what your player is doing most of the time, and concentrate on making that fun." I don't remember where I heard it - I think it might have been at an IGDA meeting or something, but it stuck with me.

What's strange about that relatively straightforward, relatively simple piece of advice is how few game developers really understand the concept, but more, how people can be easily confused because they don't actually know what the core of their game is.

Look at a game like GTA - you could make an argument that what you're doing is running and shooting, but what you're *really* doing, because of the auto-aim is running, picking a weapon with the right capabilities, and then managing the auto-aim algorithms. Yeah, it's a little nitpicky, but it makes a *huge* difference. It's really surprising how many people will suggest auto-aiming as a "tweak" to make a shooter more accessible - it's not a tweak, it's a fundamental revision of what the gamer is required to do on a moment-to-moment basis.

The game no longer becomes about understanding the weapon you're using, aiming at a target, then pulling the trigger at the precise moment where your aim is dialed in. Instead, the game is about selecting the proper weapon, making sure the computer has locked on to the right target, then shooting 'till dead. There's possible decisions to be made re: ammo conservation, which target should be the highest priority, and whether you're using a weapon that has the right range/damage combination - but aim is removed, timing is radically de-emphasized, and a large number of potential variables for weapons (lead time, etc.) are removed from the equation.

Think of it this way - where is the player's skill required? In a game like Quake, the skill is seeing a target, tracking them, having the right weapon, shooting it at the right time, and managing ammo. In Quake with GTA's auto-aim, for instance, seeing the target may not be an issue - they may be automatically highlighted if they're the only target in the area, tracking them is not an issue (that's the "auto-aim" bit), having the right weapon is solely about range, ammo, and firing rate, and shooting it at the right time is solely an issue of line-of-sight and range. Ammo is pretty much the same, though.

So, that adage about finding what your players are doing most of the time may not be quite specific enough - it's also about finding where you expect the player's skill to be required and ensuring that those decision points are compelling. This means developing the game with a very thorough, detailed understanding of what those decision points are - something like auto-aim changes *everything*. Level design is less about the process of aiming, tracking and maintaining lines of sight - it's less about skill at mitigating the technical differences between weapons and exploiting the actual differences between weapons. If I've got a sniper rifle and my enemy has a shotgun, at a long distance I should be at an advantage, except that I *suck* at using sniper rifles. Auto-aim means that independent of my personal skill at aiming/shooting sniper rifles, I will *always* have an advantage over shotgun guy because my skill doesn't play into the conflict at all.

How does that get resolved? How do you create gameplay out of those kinds of situations? Some of the answers are very similar to how you'd do the same for the manual-aim versions - break lines of sight, create mechanics where a player can mask themselves (smokescreens, invisibility, etc.) - but they're less about confusing the opposing player, and more about forcing the auto-aim algorithm to abandon its lock on you. A good player could predict where you might go, even if they can't see you - a lost auto-aim makes that skill totally useless.

Anyway - it's just strange how many games suffer from people either not fully understanding what the core of their game is, or simply not spending the lion's share of the time on making that fun. Find where the player is making the most skill-based decisions, and ensure they ahve a good time doing it.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Solved Problem

I recently picked up Blue Dragon for the 360 (this is not the US cover art) for cheap at Toys R Us. While I'm not a real fan of JRPGs, for $15, I figured it'd be worth checking out what Microsoft hung their hopes of Japanese success on.

It's a strange game. It's obviously a JRPG in the traditional JRPG mold both mechanically and narratively. It tries to do a couple things differently, but the differences are so insignificant that they may as well not have existed at all.

The rendering style is somewhat unfortunate, as well. They took some sort of sub-par Akira Toriyama character designs and made them into a plasticky 3-D that only serves to make them even more generic-looking. While in hi-def, it has a distinctive, clean look, the characters just aren't as memorable or interesting-looking as the (still generic) characters from a cel-shaded game like Dragon Quest VIII (also Toriyama-designed characters).

One bit where the game does something really nice is that it has a very unusual depth-of-field effect. Combined with the relatively spare, clean aesthetic design, the game definitely has a unique look to it - the problem is that it's a really unique-looking blandness that still feels boring. It's nice that it's a contrast to Final Fantasy's excessive business, but still not all that appealing on its own.

The big problem for me, though, is that it suffers from one frustrating design failure - you can only save at predetermined save points. This is totally ridiculous, because there are only two reasons to have predetermined save points:

  1. You don't have enough memory to save the game's current state in a complete enough fashion - this is obviously untrue, as many other 360 games allow you to save anywhere, and honestly, Blue Dragon doesn't even save that much info.
  2. You want to create a specific risk-reward balance - by having save points spread apart, you create an escalating tension the further the player is from a safe haven.
While I can sort of academically understand point 2, it SUCKS when someone invites you to play another game online, and you have to run around like a jackass looking for a save point or lose an hour's investment of time into the game. Worse still, this is a problem that *already* has a solution - allow the player to save & quit. When the player resumes the game, the temporary save file is destroyed, meaning the player can't restore to that state - they can only restore to the predetermined save points. Essentially, this allows the player to indefinitely "pause" the game at any point, but only save where the game allows them to.

Why Blue Dragon doesn't allow this is completely beyond me. It's technically within their grasp. At this point, it's almost purely a design failing. Is there something I'm missing? I just can't see any reason to ever have a save structure like this, when the temporary save & quit solution has existed for years and years. Lunacy.

Delay of Game

In case there are people who actually check this for posts, sorry, tonight's post is going to be late. I've got a cut on my thumb that makes it a bit of a pain to type. Expect a post shortly about how save points in jRPGs are a solved problem and that it's really, really stupid that Blue Dragon doesn't handle them right.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


So here's a really great question: Why do good people make bad games? Here's a really insipid article written based on that premise.

There are a LOT of reasons good people make bad games. More than it's reasonable to put in a single article. Still, there are really three big reasons this happens:

1.) Resource limitations
2.) Creative conflicts
3.) Innovation

Resource limitations are the most obvious culprit - the main ones being a lack of time, a lack of people, and a lack of money. In most games' development, some of these are known from the start. You can have a pitch with a budget and ship date before the content of the game has been locked down. On more than one previous occasion, I've known when the game was supposed to be done, the team size, and the overall budget before even knowing what the game was. It's crazy, but it happens more often than you'd expect.

This causes some pretty serious problems. If the ship date is inflexible, and your time is limited as a result, if you have to push for more resources, you can only push for more people and more money. But often, hiring more people requires more money (obviously) and worse, more time - it takes time for someone to "ramp up" on a project. So, what usually happens is that the resources don't change - the game design is "scoped" to fit into the available resources.

"Scoping" is a hard process - it's where you take the beautiful, detailed, well-integrated design that's full of awesome, revolutionary, genre-defying innovative genius, and you hack it to pieces so that it can be made with five guys, a box of socks and an old hamburger.

It's where you have to find the "core" of your game, and throw almost everything else away. If there are other features you absolutely must have, you find a cheap, fast way to do it, and hope it all holds together. Often it doesn't - we'll come back to that when we talk about innovation.

The second point - creative conflicts - is a tricky one. Game development is a creative process - a unique combination of art and engineering that requires tremendous collaboration between people with wildly different skillsets, working in a new medium where the end user's input can radically change the experience. Getting everyone on the team on the same page is fantastically difficult, and there are often huge creative differences between members of the team.

"Fun" is a really subjective thing. If someone thinks collecting 300 flags in Assassin's Creed is "fun," I think they're completely out of their mind. But I know people who have tried to do it, and who think that it brings genuine value to the game. In some sense, it's just a creative difference - a difference in what someone thinks is fun. There's a huge amount of that in game development. Is jumping "fun"? Is death "fun"? What *kinds* of death are fun? What aren't?

Worse, the longer you've been working on a game, the harder it is for the developer to really understand what's fun and what's not. If I've been working on an action game for two years, I have *no* idea what it's like to play that game for the first time. I take a lot of things for granted - the controls, the "intention" of a level, etc. I have a lot of information that the novice player won't. But because development is such an iterative process, and it takes so long before a game is really *playable* in a way that's polished and working, that it's often difficult to playtest with "new" eyes and hands on the project until relatively late in the development process.

That mentality's slowly changing - people are learning to playtest with less "fully-developed" games, but the simple fact of the matter is that the people making the decisions about what's "fun" or what goes in the game are people who are so deep into the game that they no longer even understand what it's like to play it. So, a combination of creative differences between the developers, and the inability to actually make good judgements often lead good people to make bad decisions. If there's a reason that you've seen something that appears to be totally unreasonable, that's probably the main reason.

Last, though, the reason that things are difficult is because games continue to be innovative. Trying new things is difficult. Making something fun is a hard process. Making something new fun is astonishingly challenging. It's an extremely iterative process, where you need to be able to try a number of approaches, scrap the ones that don't work, and polish it up until you can tell whether in its final form, it will be fun or not. Even when well-managed, this kind of iteration can't be guaranteed to result in a fun, new idea. When poorly-managed, this kind of iteration can spiral out of control, consuming huge amounts of resources and resulting in little that can be applied to a fun, new experience.

Thing is, while in game development the main development process is referred to as "production," it's nothing of the sort. In manufacturing, "production" is cranking out a million widgets. In game development, "production" is creating something entirely new. That's research & development. In R&D, budgets can't be set to the dollar. Timelines can't be set to the day. You can try to reach certain goals, you can make educated guesses, and you can work hard to meet targets - that's how you can keep the process focused and efficient - but the end result is never guaranteed.

You can't give someone six months to make something fun. Adding another week doesn't make a bad idea good - it takes good ideas to turn the bad one around - but finding that good idea is an unpredictable process. I've seen people work at an idea for years - literally - and not be able to breath that spark into it to give it life. Not for lack of trying, and not for lack of them being a quality person with good ideas. Sometimes it just doesn't come together how you thought it would.

Everyone who's worked on a bad game knows these things - the lack of resources, the creative conflicts and the iteration required to take something new and make it work. Hell, everyone who's worked on a good game knows these limitations, too, and how sometimes the difference between one and the other is almost intangible. Good, even great people can make terrible games - for me, I'm much happier seeing someone try for something new and fail than I am seeing a dozen cookie-cutter games all molded from the flavors of the day. Innovation is hard, sometimes it sucks, but it's the only thing that makes us better.

Social Cooperation

So, it's been more than four months since Rock Band came out - there's not a lot I can say about the game itself that hasn't already been said. Best multiplayer in-person game ever made, blah blah blah.

But four months later, I play Rock Band more than any other game I own. Rarely a week goes by without a couple games or Rock Band with other people, which means that almost every week since the end of December, I've been playing a game with a friend, in person, every week.

Rock Band's almost like a social "endcap" to an interaction. Brunch ends with a game of Rock Band. Dinner, then Rock Band. An afternoon get-together -> Rock Band. Almost everyone I know has played it and enjoyed it. People I would never have thought would sing, sing. People I would never have thought would have any rhythm play drums. The cooperative nature of it prevents newbies from feeling incapable, and there's enough levels of difficulty that even four months later, I can have a nice challenge while playing with someone who's never played before.

So it's a great game - but that it's become such a part of my social landscape is unusual, and that it's become a regular experience for so many non or casual gamers is astonishing.

Would that every game were this good.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Echo Chambers

I finished Super Smash Bros. Brawl tonight. Well, not "finished" per se, since collecting all the random trophies and such would take the better part of my free time for the rest of the month - but I did finish the Subspace Emissary mode, and I'm about halfway through the challenges. So, for single player, I'm functionally done with the game.

It's fun. The mechanics are still a bit "mashy" to me - I absolutely despise the "up to jump" functionality of the controls, and even playing with a classic controller, if I hit Y (to jump), and then hold up, I immediately double-jump, which is idiotic.

Still, the fighting is fun, fast, and frenetic. It's largely accessible to new players, though I'm not sure whether that's because of, or in spite of the visual chaos that makes the game nigh-unintelligible. An unfamiliar player can quickly jump in, smash some buttons, and periodically hit an experienced player out of the ring, getting some sense of satisfaction in the process.

So, it's a reasonably entertaining multiplayer game, and if that was all it was, it's successful. But that's not all it is. It has a single player mode, and online multiplayer - and it fails pretty dramatically on both counts.

The single player mode has one (or two) player(s) basically doing a combination of platforming and fighting through a series of levels, periodically unlocking little cutscenes that nonsensically pair up the various casts of Nintendo characters in improbable ways. The major problems with this mode are that the controls aren't particularly good for platforming - the jumping problem I mentioned above made a lot of the jumping sequences really, really frustrating, and that there's little reason to actually stop and fight except for the few areas where the game requires you to. For the most part, you can simply run by everything until you get to a little staged fight, beat that, and be on your merry way. It's repetitive, it's boring, and while charming at times, all that charm is undone by the last level, which basically recycles half the content from the earlier parts of the game and makes you play through them again.

Why this has become a staple of Nintendo games I have no idea. It's boring, it's tedious, and really, really annoying.

Worse still is the online multiplayer. It's impossible to find your friends online, impossible to get a game together while using the Wii, impossible to do anything while waiting for your friends to get coordinated (since you're "not online" unless you're explicitly connected to the WFC), and even when you can get people together, you can't talk or even type. It's intensely pointless, and compared to Xbox Live, it's so utterly backwards and ill-conceived that it has almost no practical use. I don't see myself ever playing Smash Bros. Brawl online. Ever. I've tried for three weeks to get a game together with absolutely no success. What a waste of my time and theirs.

So, what's that all mean, in the end? The mechanics are good enough that I tolerated the absolutely horrid last level of the Subspace Emissary mode. It's the first game on the Wii that I've actually finished (SMG and Zelda included). So that says something. But I don't often have friends over to play games in person, and the unusable online functionality basically means that the multiplayer portion of the game is totally lost on me - which is a real shame, because it clearly has the potential to be a good time.

All in all, if you have friends over for games regularly, it's worth getting. If you're a die-hard long time Nintendo fan, you have to pick it up simply because it's fan service explosion. But for anyone else? It's really nothing special.

Single Player: C/70
Multiplayer In Person: B/90
Multiplayer Online: D/0

A huge amount of content, a lot of love of the characters, and a lot of really, really big disappointments.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Simpsons, or, How A Bad Camera Can Almost Destroy An Entire Game

Full disclosure: I had the distinct pleasure of working with a LOT of the people who made this game. I don't think my opinion of it is particularly skewed by that fact, but I can't say for sure.

Overall, I liked it. I mean, I played it through to the end, which is quite rare for me these days. The writing's funny, the graphics are pretty darned good, and the game does a really good job of evoking Springfield - whatever it means to you.

It's really self-referential - the characters know they're in a game, and as a result, it's quite ... er... "gamey." There are a lot of essentially randomly placed collectibles, there's even a whole collection of "game cliches" that you can find, though the fact that the game knows they're cliches doesn't make them any less... overused.

Still, for almost every downside, there's an equal upside. The writing is really quite good - it's as funny as a reasonable episode of the Simpsons that just happens to be focused on games - keeps things clever enough to dress up the relatively generic platforming bits. For the terrible partner AI, there's the option to play with a second live player. The list goes on - for all the characters' special powers, their use in-game is often very hamfistedly scripted - use the Homer Ball here, use Lisa's Hand of Buddha here, etc. It's not a bad thing, it's just that the powers seem so single-use that it's almost like they're keys to locked doors, and not interesting things that the characters can use anywhere.

All in all, it's probably the best Simpsons game ever made. A solid B/80...

Oh, wait. I forgot the camera.

The camera is *horrible*. It is one of the worst implementations of a relatively straightforward camera I've ever seen. It's not that it tries something spectacularly different and fails at it - it's that it tries to be absolutely generic and still manages to be utterly horrid. The worst thing is that conceptually, at least, it's relatively easy to fix. It all has to do with what happens when the camera collides with an object.

In the Simpsons Game, the camera circles the player character at a fixed radius. If there's an object in the way, the camera stops on that object. After a few seconds of being obstructed, the camera then changes to (what feels to be) an arbitrary position. Where the camera moves appears to be completely unpredictable - sometimes it moves nearly 180 degrees, sometimes it moves maybe 10 degrees. If there is a pattern to it, as a player, it's impossible to discern. Sometimes it tries to recenter itself behind your character, other times it doesn't.

For a game where precision jumping is important, having a camera with a mind of its own is an unmitigated disaster. Every time the camera moves during a series of precise jumps, it's the game's fault I die, not mine. The biggest problem is that this is something that's been done to death in other games. This is a "solved problem" - when the camera collides with an object, you move the camera closer to the player until the object is out of the way. In the worst case scenario, the radius R goes to 0. When the camera becomes obstructed by the player, you fade out the player-character so that the player can continue to see the environment.

This prevents the camera from getting stuck on obstacles, generally prevents obstacles from getting in between the camera and the player, and ensures that the camera almost never has to move automatically. At the very least, in some of the sequences that required precision jumping, they could have locked down the camera to a fixed perspective, which would at least have made the jumping easier.

This problem is *so* bad that it almost ruined my enjoyment of the game. Honestly, had another friend of mine not been playing it recently, I probably would just have never bothered to play it again - which is a shame, because a lot of the best levels are closer to the end.

If you're a Simpsons fan, and you go into it knowing the camera's garbage, it's an enjoyable part of the series, and a fun time. If you get frustrated dealing with a finicky camera, this is NOT the game for you, even if ou are a Simpsons fan. If you're not a Simpsons fan, it's probably not really interesting enough to be worth getting anyway. While there are attempts at diversity, the basic platforming is really nothing to write home about.

Still, I played it as a Simpsons fan, and knowing the camera was garbage (I played the demo). It was funnier than many 10th Season-to-Present Simpsons episodes, and a good sendup of games and the game industry in general. I enjoyed it, despite its flaws.

B/55, mostly due to a bad camera and some really, really insipid collectibles.

For a Simpsons fan, who cares more about the "Simpsons" than the "Game" part: B/75 (the camera will still piss you off).

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cooperation is the New Black

Over the last few weeks, I've been in the middle of the spring gaming glut. I know, there is no spring gaming glut - except there is. Games that got overlooked during or delayed during the holidays are hitting shelves (or hitting shelves cheap), and I've got more on my plate than I have time. Two games that I've been playing a little of recently are Burnout: Paradise and Army of Two.

Now, the notion that co-op games are awesome is so old that it's hardly worth mentioning. But between Rock Band, Army of Two, and Burnout: Paradise, what's clear to me is that games that involve social cooperation/collaboration are absolutely here to stay - not as a fad, or a feature, but as an entire genre of gaming. It used to be single player or two-player, back in the day of games like Contra and Ikari Warriors. Then, for a good long while it became single player or competitive multiplayer, and the cooperative, social nature of games was shelved for a while. Now that it's back, I can't imagine letting it fall by the wayside again.

There's something deeply satisfying about saving a fallen bandmember in Rock Band, or hitting that last note and getting the bonus. There's a lot of communication involved in synchronizing barrel rolls in Burnout, or trading aggro in Army of Two. Yes, you get it in team-based competition, but the shift towards one-on-one cooperation creates a much more personal dynamic that's been missing in games for a while.

Any other co-op experiences like this I've been missing?

Army of Two: B/80 (not very far in, very limited multiplayer experience)
Burnout: Paradise: B/95
Rock Band: A/100

Thursday, March 13, 2008


So, Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out this weekend for the Wii. It's a fun game - sort of a charming, fluffy timewaster. There are a lot of people who think the SSB series is manna from heaven, but I don't really "get" what it is they get out of the game.

While it's fun, it's a mess - it's basically a spastic buttonmasher - I don't doubt you *could* get good at the game, but I also don't doubt that people who have invested hundreds of hours in it still get beaten on a regular basis by total n00bs.

That said, it's fun. I'd like to get some chaotic, four-player action going. There are enough wacky control options that I can actually provide four suitable controllers, which is awesome. The problem, of course, is time and space. I can regularly play with four people - they're just not all in the same place at the same time. So the fact that SSBB comes with online play was a huge factor in why I picked it up. But here's the kicker(s):

1.) Setting up a friends list is nigh-impossible: You have to give them your SSBB "code" - a 12-digit code that is utterly without identity. You can then give the person a five-character nickname. Fine for me, but not for people with names longer than five characters. On top of that, THEY have to input YOUR code as well. There's (as far as I can tell) absolutely NO WAY to transfer a friend code online. That is pure insanity. It means that tonight, even though we'd agreed to play together, I had to text-message my coworkers my code, and vice versa. How stupid is that? Really, really, really stupid. It's cumbersome, user-hostile, and a giant pain in the butt. There's no way this should be acceptable in a post-Xbox Live world.

2.) No voice chat: There's no way this should be acceptable either, in a post-Xbox Live world. No voice chat at all. There's no support for a microphone peripheral, nothing. There's barely even text chat. You can input four phrases, and map those to your "taunts." That's it. When you're playing with friends, there's effectively no trash talking. When you're playing with randoms, there's enough that they can be incredibly annoying, but otherwise basically remain faceless, nameless might-as-well-be-AI characters. It's ridiculous.

Here's the thing that bugs me - SSBB has been getting rave reviews all over the internet. 9+ scores all over the place. But they agree that the Subspace Emissary mode (the bulk of the single player experience) is an incoherent mishmash of stuff that doesn't work very well with the controls, and that the 1995-era online implementation is abhorrent.

And yet, 9+ scores, all over the place.

I'm sorry - SSBB has a lot going for it. The core mechanics are fun, and it's fun when you have people over (I assume). But the lack of what are now *critical* features is a knock against it, and the fact that the core single-player experience is a total crapfest should also be a knock against it. I get that it's a party game. But as a multiplayer experience, it's missing the MULTIPLAYER EXPERIENCE for anyone who has a full-time job and whose friends are the least bit geographically distributed.

I enjoy the mechanics, but there's no way this can possibly rate higher than a 7.

For me, it's a D/85 - the core gameplay is technically accomplished, but it loses points for having a really badly designed single-player experience, and the lack of innovation is for an absolutely garbage online implementation - something that can barely even be considered to meeting the minimum standard.

Poor showing, Nintendo - while I expected as much, given past online forays, it's unacceptable that something as good as Live could have been around for more than FIVE YEARS and the implementation of online play in SSBB is so bad.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ninja Warrior

So, this isn't a videogame, but it is a game. Twice a year, the Tokyo Broadcasting System runs an obstacle course called "Sasuke." 100 people compete to finish a four-stage obstacle course that tests the competitors' strength and speed.

There are a lot of reasons that Ninja Warrior is so appealing - obviously, watching people do extraordinary things is often interesting. And if that's all there was, Ninja Warrior would still be quality TV. Still, there's more to it than that. There's almost no prize money given out. The prize for winning the contest - finishing the fourth stage, is only $17,000 dollars (or thereabouts, in yen), and over ten years of the competition, only two people have ever completed it.

So, the competitors aren't just in it for the money. They're in it because of the challenge. But there's more to it than that. Here's the thing that I think makes it really appealing: Everyone can win.

Now, let's be clear - that's not "Everyone deserves to win." That, I think, would be the sentiment in the States - that everyone deserves to win. They'd make the obstacle course reasonable. A course that no one completes in eight years of attempts would be intolerable to US TV audiences. But everyone *can* win. One person winning doesn't exclude anyone else from *also* winning. The competition is solely with yourself, and the clock. The only competition with others is to see who can do it first.

To that degree, I'm sure the competition is quite fierce. In the US, you'd have the top ten all trash talking each other, spouting how they're the best, and no one else can match their skills, blah blah blah. Here, the top competitors share a common interest, and have a camaraderie that is really refreshing to watch. They share each other's joy and agony, as they all work toward a common goal. They aren't keeping their competition down, they're cheering them on.

There's something in this, I think, that can be learned by game designers. It feels like there's a link to the concept of "biasing toward success," that I talked about in an earlier post - that Nintendo, by allowing even new players to succeed, has made the Wii appealing to a broad audience. I'm not sure what the link *is,* exactly, but it feels like there's something there. That developers can make multiplayer experiences that are social, buoyant, collaborative, and still be challenging and fun without fostering hostile competition.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Sega Bass Fishing came out sometime in the last couple weeks. I had no idea it was coming out, but I saw it on store shelves and bought it on the spot. It's basically an arcade fishing game, and if that doesn't sound fun, don't worry - I didn't think it was, either.

But in 1999, I saw it at E3 on the Dreamcast, and on the drive up from LA, instead of going straight home, I swung by an import shop (Network Video, in Milpetas) and picked it up with the fishing controller, naturally, for my imported Dreamcast. I played the crap out of that game. My friend would come over, and we'd take turns sitting in the "boat" - the loveseat that sat sideways in front of the TV.

"Small one!" the announcer would shout, in Engrish. Years later, my friend (who is at best a casual gamer), still remembers the "Enjoy your fishing!" shout-out at the beginning of the game.

So, when I picked up the game on the Wii, it was pretty obvious we'd have to get together and get some fishing on. We ended up playing for hours while my wife and his girlfriend watched, sometimes participated, laughed and laughed.

Is Sega Bass Fishing a great game? Yeah - it's great. Maybe not in the same way that something like Ico is great, but it's sort of like Rock Band - it's accessible for the non-gamer, it's charming, and a really good time. More, it's part of some really great memories - having fun with friends.

The other experience I've had that is sort of like this was playing Virtua Striker on the Dreamcast while in Japan. I was at my aunt & uncle's house with my parents. My Japanese isn't particularly good, and even when it's alright, it takes about two weeks before I get comfortable really speaking. So, my young cousin and I were hanging out in awkward silence, without really being able to talk to one another.

After a while, he got bored, and threw in Virtua Striker. Now, if you've never played it, it should be made clear that Virtua Striker is a terrible, terrible game. It's not only bad as a soccer game, but it's bad as *any* game. The controls are so unresponsive that it's often difficult to tell whether you have anything at all to do with what's happening on screen.

But I picked up the controller and played with him. At first it was strange, and awkward, but within a few minutes, we were both sucked in to the game and the friendly competition. It gave us something to talk about that was simple, clear, and accessible. We got to talking about other things - slowly and in a combination of terrible Japanese and terrible English - but we had a common experience that we could share, and it opened up a lot of other communication that we didn't really have any other avenue to explore.

Eight years later, I have really fond memories not only of that time, but of that game. Whenever I think of unresponsive controls, I have a sort of warm, happy feeling that reminds me of my cousin.

Wacky stuff.

Sega Bass Fishing: A/90
Virtua Striker: D/20