Sunday, January 27, 2008

No More Heroes

No More Heroes, for the Wii, is the latest bit of insanity from SUDA51 and his crew at Grasshopper Manufacture. Their last game, Killer 7, was an incredibly audacious and daring ... uh... monstrosity. While the Sin City-inspired graphical style was unique for a game, and the story was a mind-bending bit of weirdness, the actual gameplay left a lot to be desired.

Still, with Killer 7, it was hard not to admire its total devotion to insanity. The tutorial system was a strange, bondage gear-clad man who randomly appear, the main character was an assassin with a variety of different personalities... the whole game, from its core concept down to how it dealt with very basic gameplay concepts (moving forward required you to press the A button) was crazy. It was like the game wanted to break every expectation you might have had about what a game was. In that regard, it succeeded - the problem was that it also failed to be comprehensible, or in many cases, genuinely engaging.

I don't mean that it wasn't "fun" - I'm really pretty sick of games being pigeonholed into 'fun' being the only metric by which a game is judged. Killer 7 was a disappointment because while it was incredibly interesting, and challenged my preconceptions, the core mechanics were actually actively boring, and the story was so bizarre it simply failed to keep my interest after a few hours of play.

Given that, I was really looking forward to No More Heroes - it promised to be a bit more accessible, but still push the boundaries of normalcy. In that regard, it's quite a success. Think of No More Heroes as a classic hack & slash - that's what the core of the game is. The main character, Travis Touchdown, runs around and hacks people to bits with his lightsaber (they call it a Beam Katana, but come on, let's call a spade a spade). For the most part, this is accomplished by just mashing the A button, but finishing moves are gesture-controlled. A quick swipe of the Wiimote in the direction of the arrow, and Travis hacks his opponents in two.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten, as a game designer, was to take a long, hard look at your game, figure out what the player is doing most of the time, and focus on making that fun. It's also a pretty good metric of whether a game is actually good or not. Is what you're doing for the majority of the time fun? Why? Why not?

In Final Fantasy X, you spend most of your time walking around. There's simply nothing to do while walking around. You walk at a middling pace, there's rarely a genuine reason to walk anywhere but the obvious direction the game guides you to, and as a result, the vast bulk of the time you're playing FFX, you're simply walking, slowly, to your next destination. The end result was that the game bored me to tears. That the "reward" for walking around was more of the hamfisted, stupid story didn't help matters.

This is also where Killer 7 and No More Heroes differ. By really changing up the basic control scheme for a game, Killer 7 made tasks that are normally simple quite tedious or confusing. In No More Heroes, the core mechanics of the game are relatively familiar and accessible. It's pretty easy to just jump into the game and do things.

Still, the thing that really stands out about No More Heroes is how dedicated it is to its particular vision of the world. Travis, the main character, is a bit of a loser slacker. His whole existence is a mix of the absolutely tedious and the extraordinarily bizarre. The game has the player both mowing lawns and getting into full-scale lightsaber fights with opera-singing assassins or school janitors.

The Grasshopper Manufacture logo which appears when you load the game has the slogan "Punk's Not Dead" at the base of their crest. It's clear that the game is meant to have a bit of over-the-top excess mixed with a bit of nihilism. There's something very ... exuberant about the game. It's like a high-school slacker's notebook illustrations and fantasies come to life - intense, rebellious, a bit angry and a bit entitled. It's completely weird, but also completely dedicated to that vision.

That dedication is what sets the game apart, and what keeps me interested in where it'll go next. In a sea of this last holiday season's excellent, even extraordinary games, No More Heroes stands out. Call of Duty 4, Halo 3, Mass Effect - there's something about them that does feel similar, and eventually, you feel the need for something different. No More Heroes is that something. There sure as hell ain't anything else out there like it.

(Still in progress) A/85

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Wii

So. You may have heard about Nintendo's new console. It has two major things that set it apart from its competition:

1.) It has a novel motion-sensing controller
2.) Its graphical horsepower is substantially worse than the 360 or the PS3

The graphical horsepower issue is sort of a mixed blessing. On one hand, games on the Wii tend to look worse than they do on either of the other consoles. Sure, art direction can mitigate the hardware issues, but only to a limited degree.

The fact that the Wii is limited to 480p is almost a dealbreaker. Once used to 720p+, 480p is noticeably pixelated. It looks terrible in comparison.

However, on the plus side, games are cheaper to make on the Wii - you don't need extremely high-res art assets (or high poly models), your environments by necessity have to be smaller and less densely populated, and AI and such have to be much less complex. This means that compared to the 360 and PS3, game development on the Wii costs much less, and involves less risk.

The motion sensing is a similarly double-edged sword. On one hand, you have a really novel, accessible control scheme. Players can mimic real-life motions in games like Wii Sports, and feel like they instantly understand how to play the game. You also have a pointer, which by now is almost a universally understood input mechanism.

The problem is that the technology is really limited. It can fake a lot - Wii Sports is a great example of taking only the "right" data, faking a lot, and really creating the illusion that the Wii can understand subtle and complex motion inputs. There are undoubtedly ways of tricking the player into believing the hardware can "understand" more than it can, but it's not as easy as players might think.

Still, the biggest problem with the Wii's motion-sensing capabilities will likely eventually become its biggest strength: Game designers don't have a clue what to do with the Wiimote. In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, the controls are essentially a remap of the Gamecube controls with some minor "waggle" and pointing added for effect. In practice, it's functionally *worse* than the Gamecube controls.

Similarly, a game like Alien Syndrome should have a relatively simple control scheme - one stick for movement, one stick for camera control, and some buttons to shoot, change items, and the like. Problem is, the Wii has no second stick for camera control. As a result, the game completely botches the control scheme in order to get camera control *somewhere*, by putting it on the tilt control on the left-hand controller. It's insane.

But that's the crux of the problem. Some games simply *don't work* with the Wii's control scheme. The dual-analog control that has become the standard over the last few years often cannot be elegantly remapped to the Wii. And even if it could be, it shouldn't be.

The thing that people love about the Wii is the belief that you're *doing* something. Wii Sports works because people can utilize their real-world knowledge about the sports they're doing. Warioware and Zack and Wiki work because the motions of the controller mimic, in surprising ways, motions the player is already intimately familiar with.

Once people figure out how to make games that focus on the *right* way to use the Wiimote, Nintendo will have a lock on that whole genre of games. But until then, you get games like Alien Syndrome, which are really square pegs in round holes.

Even Super Mario Galaxy, hailed as one of the best games of all time, doesn't really use the Wii to its fullest. Almost everything about its control would have been better on a Gamecube pad. And with the exceptions of Wii Sports, Warioware: Smooth Moves and Zack and Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros' Treasure, that's true of all the Wii's games.

It's going to take a generation or two before designers really "get it," or for the technology to allow for better recognition of high-speed motion. Until then, the Wii remains a console with more potential than most people know what to do with.

Recommended on the Wii:
  • Wii Sports (obviously) A/100
  • Zack and Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros' Treasure A/(85ish - not far enough in to really give it a definitive rating)
  • Warioware: Smooth Moves B/85
  • Super Mario Galaxy B:/85
Not Recommended:
  • Alien Syndrome D/20
  • SSX Blur (an interesting, but failed attempt at a novel control scheme) B/35
  • MySims (a game that strips away what makes the Sims interesting, and replaces it with painfully clumsy and boring "construction" tasks) A/15

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bias Toward Success

Good input leads to good results. Bad input leads to bad results. This isn't something that's true about games, it's true about most things in life. Sure, there are some strange times where bad input accidentally leads to good results - the people who follow up on why their assessment of the quality of their inputs was wrong are the people who make all sorts of wacky discoveries.

But that's a bit of a digression. The point is, in most games, when you do the right thing, you're rewarded. Mario jumps on the mushroom, and an obstacle is cleared. If he fails to jump at the right time, he's likely killed, resetting the player to the start of the level. Most games have this sort of punishment for failure - whether it's the limited life scheme of old-school arcades, or reset to a checkpoint a'la Halo, the punishment for failure in most cases is death. This is a paradigm that has existed in videogames from their very inception. Spacewar has this risk-reward balance exactly.

And then there was Wii Sports.

In Wii Sports, if the game doesn't know what to make of your input - if you're swinging the Wiimote around haphazardly, instead of bowling properly, the game tends to interpret it as successful input, and behave like you told it the right thing to do. Try it - next time you're bowling, instead of "bowling" properly, swing the Wiimote in a completely arbitrary way. You'll find that a huge portion of the time, your ball will still go mostly down the lane, and probably even hit a couple pins, if not strike altogether.

The first time this happened, my wife's younger brother showed us how to "break" the game by swinging in a completely oddball way. Nothing like bowling at all, but he nearly doubled our scores, and we'd been trying to "bowl" legitimately the entire time. At first, this seemed like a glitch - some exploit he'd found, and in a way, it is.

With most traditional games, input is binary - you either hit the button or you don't. Sure, there's "analog" input on the sticks, and all sorts of strategic decisions you can fail, but the core mechanic for most games is that you either hit the button, or not. With motion control, everything becomes a lot hazier. There isn't a single "right" input - how you hold the controller changes the input. How long your arms are, or what degree your wrist is twisted in your natural relaxed position... all these things affect the specific input of a motion controlled game.

How, for instance, in Wii Sports, can you really quantify every part of a bowler's pitch? It boggled my mind, originally, when it "felt" so right - but the simple fact of the matter is that they don't actually read all that much input from the swing - it's mostly a very limited set of inputs that they check, and they assume everything that they're *not* checking is going well.

Because everything that's important to the gross motion of the bowling swing reads right - because the output feels like a natural extension of the input under normal conditions, most people aren't going to question specifically which input is being taken in. Enough, it seems, to understand what the player is doing correctly. Not so, I'd say. Not at the edge cases. Not during the weird swings - things that would normally be considered failure states.

Now, it was undoubtedly a conscious decision on Nintendo's part to bias the game toward interpreting uninterpretable input as "good" rather than "bad" input. But the repercussions are astonishing. Wii Sports is a spectacularly inclusive, accessible game. People can jump right in, and feel like they're doing well. Imagine if they'd biased the game towards the traditional failure? The first few times you'd bowl, you'd gutterball, or miss all the pins. Your first experience with the console wouldn't be one of success and joy, marveling at how the console interpreted your obviously wonderful bowling motion for what it was, but instead, a feeling of misunderstanding, failure, frustration, and defeat.

This kind of reward isn't limited to Wii Sports - a lot of casual games bias the player towards success. Peggle's a good one. There's no way that anyone is making judgements about the fifth bounce of their ball in that game (a weird mix of pachinko and Puzzle Bobble), but that randomness tends to work out on the player's behalf. Bejeweled is the same way. There's strategy involved, but no one's making 8-chain combos - they just happen periodically as a random reward to the player. Is it a result of random gem generation? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is, it makes the player feel successful, rewarded, and happy, even if they really had very little control over it. They gave the game input - good or bad, and it tended to reward them with something.

I think it's interesting to note how few other console games (even on the Wii) actually bias the player towards success. So often, the punishment for bad input is failure, which just leads to frustration, irritation, and anger. It requires a huge amount of finesse on the designer's part to keep that level of frustration low - to make the player feel like it was their fault for failing, instead of the game cheating them out of success. But there's one really straightforward way of making that frustration disappear. Bias the player's input towards success.

I'm not going to say that all games have to be "fun" - some games are about giving very controlled, "right" input. Mario is the classic example - remove the challenge and you remove what the game *is* at its core. But there are a lot more games that could benefit from learning how to turn bad input into good results, or at the very least, bad input into good input. Encouragement is a good thing. For many years, games have responded with the stick. It's time to learn how to respond with a carrot.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


So, last week, for the "Best of XBLA" post, I mentioned Undertow as a game that had gotten some reasonable buzz, but one I hadn't played myself.

Over the course of the last week, I picked it up and ran through the single player. It's basically a dual-stick shooter in the vein of Geometry Wars, but with the control-point gameplay of something like Battlefield. Basically, what that translates to is that you control a unit that can shoot and move in any direction, and you have to take over areas of the map, and hold on to them until the other team runs out of points.

There are four basic classes that progressively increase in size, firepower and hitpoints while decreasing in agility and speed. Each unit can be upgraded with points that you earn for killing enemies and holding on to control points. The player also has "depth charges," which act like proximity mines, and can "dash" - move quickly in a particular direction for a short period of time.

Though the basic mechanics are simple, there's a surprising amount of strategy and depth. The units nicely counter each other, each has a purpose (hulking destroyers are easily taken out by fast-moving soldiers, but the destroyers' projectiles do a huge amount of splash damage, which make them very good for holding down tight corridors) and a counter. You can play single player or co-op, or play competitive matches online.

The problem with the multiplayer is that there simply isn't a community forming around the game, and online games are extremely hard to find. This is a real shame, because the game is really quite good. A simple, quick diversion, but a real breath of fresh air in this year's onslaught of epic, 20-plus hour games. Undertow is a sad victim of bad timing, but one that I hope doesn't get totally overlooked. I'd love for Chair (the developer) to do another marketing push for it somehow, or for MS to release this as the "make up for two weeks of shitty Live service" game.

The game deserves an audience.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Presentation Matters (no spoilers)

This is an example of how a relatively small change can make a really big difference in how a game's mechanics are perceived.

From the first time I saw Assassin's Creed, I knew I would have to play it. On top of being done by the same team (or as much of it as possible, I suppose) that did Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (one of my favorite games ever), the mechanics and scope that they described were extraordinary.

Parkour, dynamic crowds in an open world, "social stealth," espionage and free-form assassinations... wow. This game has everything! And indeed, it did. The parkour, in particular, is extraordinary. Controlling the main character is a pleasure, and the way he runs through the city is nothing short of revolutionary. The game's other individual mechanics, from blending in with monks to simply listening in on a conversation are also well-executed and entertaining. The story is interesting and well-told, and that's as much as I can say about that without getting too spoiler-y.

However, Assassin's Creed suffers from one major problem, and it's bad enough that it is, I believe, the cause of all the "hate it" reviews on the "love it or hate it" spectrum:

Repetition. Or rather, the fact that the game *feels* repetitive, not that it necessarily is any more repetitive than any other game.

Calling the game repetitive feels really unfair, having played through the entire game. The game consists, essentially, of nine individual assassinations. For each assassination, you have to scout your target, learn where they're going to be, what the general populace thinks of them, and what the best way to get close to them is. Every assassination has potentially an identical flow: find local assassin's bureau, find a number of "viewponts" (tall locations from which to survey the surrounding area) to find the "scouting" objectives, perform a number of "scouting" objectives (which include things like pickpocketing, listening in on conversations, interrogating people, and performing random fetch quests), then carrying out the actual assassination.

This is actually a really wide variety of stuff to do, and the fact of the matter is that you can perform a relatively minimal number of these tasks in whatever manner you wish. You don't have to do every single one - it's up to you how you want to scout the target. The problem is that each task is highlighted on the player's map once it's found via a "viewpoint", and all you have to do is go to the area on the map, perform the task, and be done.

This is a really, really big problem, because fundamentally, that simplicity and straightforwardness work against the core mechanics of the game.

The game is about freedom of movement and observation. The best parts of Assassin's Creed are when you are running around making really quick decisions on the fly, based on where you are and a quick analysis of your surroundings.

Unfortunately, the highlighted tasks on the minimap force the player to concentrate on the minimap, and not on their surroundings.

That the player knows everything that they have to do without looking at their surroundings is a really big problem. It completely breaks the illusion that the people are behaving autonomously - all their actions are predetermined, and the player is told by the minimap that they'll happen on cue.

When the player gets to the highlighted spot, the conversation the player needs to overhear starts, or the NPC with the item you need to pickpocket starts in a specific location and walks off - always perfectly on cue. Obviously, for a game, you need things to be controlled and communicated to the players in some way, but this still sucks.

Thing is, the trigger for the behaviour *still* happens, even if you don't have the objective on the map. When you happen across one of these things and recognize it in the world, it's much, much more immersive.

Best of all, it's still recognizable. If there had been a slightly different HUD element that kept the player's focus on the world, that forced the player to watch the crowd instead of the minimap, the entire atmosphere of the game would be totally different. Even better, if the animations and crowd reactions were distinct enough to draw your attention to the events, you could conceivably do it without HUD elements, or restricted to the existing in-game HUD elements that are used to highlight characters.

The second problem with the minimap is that it shows *all* the local events. When you present a gamer with a variety of events and they're all undifferentiated, it places the same value on them all. If you have to complete one objective, you have to complete them all. Again, this works against the concept of a world that feels real. In a real world, you never have five objectives that all have the same basic value. Because everything feels the same, there's no real way or REASON for players to choose one objective over another other than what they want to do.

That's not the right kind of choice to present to a player, again, because it destroys the illusion that the world is a living place. If the player can say, "During every assassination, I want to do only the pickpocketing objectives," and they can, it's not a real world with real people in it. In a real world, the assassin has to find the opportunity and utilize it. In this game, they present you with every opportunity, and it's up to the player to take their pick.

Again, the weird thing is that this doesn't make the game any better - it's one of the main reasons the game feels so repetitive. Not only is each option present in each assassination, each of those objectives is essentially free of context. They're simply small objectives that open a larger objective. If the objectives were put into a larger context, if they weren't all there at the same time, and it wasn't solely up to the player to choose, these things could be woven into the larger objective in a stronger way.

The context, then, would make the objectives themselves feel less isolated. A pickpocket objective where you're pickpocketing a specific person in a specific place is interesting - but because of the choice you're given, and how isolated each mission feels, each pickpocket mission feels basically identical.

Assassin's Creed is fundamentally an extraordinary game. Its movement mechanics are utterly unparalleled, and the world feels really well-defined and real. The story is interesting and the mechanics are diverse and varied. The problem really lies in the details of the presentation - by giving the players choice but stripping away the reasons one would actually make a choice, the developers missed a great opportunity to take a collection of excellent mechanics and turn them into something greater than the sum of their parts.