Saturday, February 23, 2008

GDC: A Call to Unspecified Action

Went to GDC for a couple days this year, and attended a wide variety of talks, mostly design and writing-related. Good stuff, for the most part. Met a lot of interesting people (albeit briefly), and caught up with some friends from old jobs.

Over lunch, one of these friends and I were talking about what we'd been to, and he mentioned he'd gone to Jonathan Blow's "Design Reboot" talk, and that it was an inspiring talk about shaking up the status quo, but that it ultimately led nowhere. An inspiring call to unspecified action.

The Game Designer's Rant session, which I'd just gotten out of, had a similar call. In some cases, the desired outcome was more specific (Jane McGonigal, for instance, talked quite specifically about applying game design to the real world to make it better, and Clint Hocking called for games about things that matter (why isn't Medal of Honor about honor, or Call of Duty about duty?)), the overall message was "break out of the idea that games are limited to what games are now." The problem is fundamentally, I think most people want that, but there are obvious barriers.

When someone asked Jonathan Mak (Everyday Shooter's creator, whose rant was a couple minutes of interactivity - bouncing balloons with messages on them around while some upbeat music played - genius) how to break through those barriers, his response was, I think, incredibly naive - he said you just have to own it. Make the goal your own, and work towards that. That's how to get past the barriers.

I was surprised, honestly, that no one just stood up and said, "Money." The obvious answer to that problem is money. In any media, any brave artist can make something for just about nothing. You can write, and it costs you little, even if you want to experiment. You can write intensely non-commercial music, and there are ways to distribute it. You can make art-house movies, and be supported by offshoots of mainstream movie studios.

In games, part of the problem is that to make a game requires a lot of investment. Even if it's only time, making a game takes a tremendous amount of time and a wide variety of talents. Art, design, programming, audio... it's a lot of stuff, which translates to a lot of time, which translates to a lot of money. I hugely, hugely, hugely applaud Microsoft for allowing people to publish their Creator's Club games straight from XNA into Live Arcade. It's a great move on their part, and will undoubtedly pay off in spades. It does genuinely lower the bar to a mainstream audience in a way that's never been done before on a console. While XBLA allows small teams to get their games out to an audience, the barrier to entry (certification, etc.) is still quite hefty for a group of only a couple people.

The details for getting an XNA game published are still somewhat uncertain (at least publicly), but from what they've said, it sounds relatively straightforward (how they deal with QA is the big mystery to me). But I can't wait to see some of the stuff that comes out of this. We will see things that are going to break from the standard game mold. Things on XNA may not change the world, but when this generation began, I said to a couple people that the best game of this generation would come out of XBLA. I stand by that, and with this XNA initiative, the probability just got a whole lot bigger.

The only question I have to ask myself is whether I'll seize the opportunity or let someone else be the one to make that game...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Yeah, so I'm almost three games behind on this series, I know. I played halfway through the first one about two or three years ago, and had a good time of it, but didn't pick it up at the time (was borrowing it from the company I worked for's library).

I thought it might be a good game for my wife, though, so at some point when it got cheap, I grabbed it. She played through it (and the second, and part of the third) and really enjoyed it, so finally, I sat down, figured out where I had left off, and started playing the game again.

It's interesting - there's very little *to* the actual game. Branching dialog trees, some locations that have clickable hotspots and a basic inventory management. It's like "text adventure plus" in terms of complexity. That said, it's still really entertaining, and it comes down to two basic things:

  1. It's really well written. The plots of the cases are interesting, the characters are multi-faceted, and there is actual clear character development over the course of the game.
  2. It's about something really unusual. I don't know of any other lawyer games. In the same way that watching a show like Project Runway gives you some perspective (however warped) into a fashion designer's career, the Phoenix Wright series is interesting because it's about putting yourself into an interesting person's shoes, and not just shooting everything in sight.
I think point two is why I didn't really enjoy Cooking Mama all that much. while Cooking Mama is more complex that PW from a mechanical perspective, there's no narrative content to it. There's no insight into the process of doing the mechanics, you just do them because that's what you're supposed to do.

If Cooking Mama had a reason to cook, the player would not only have embraced the mechanics, but also the motivation behind them. PW isn't particularly complex or deep, but it forces you to be in the mindset of the main character, and provides a totally compelling, unique narrative and mechanical experience - something that I think you could hold up as the hallmark of a game that gets the balance of interactivity and narrative right.

I'm on the fourth case right now - I've heard the whole game structure goes a bit weird in the fifth case - the only one specifically written for the DS (and probably the best hallmark of what the upcoming Apollo Justice will be like) - but I'm looking forward to knocking the rest of this down, and moving on to the next two in the series.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - B/90
Cooking Mama: A/40

ps: No, I don't feel like I need to finish a game to give it a "review score," nor do I feel like the scores are immutable. This is my impression of the game right now, and if I enjoy a game five hours into it, it's probably worth playing, unless it goes totally bananas at the very end. If it sucks, I have no intention of slogging through suckage just because maybe it gets better later.

The only games that I've played that would really get radically different reviews from the start and end would be Mass Effect (horrible beginning, but awesome once the player learns the mechanics), and Breakdown (awesome first-person brawler, but with a last boss that is so awfully designed that it literally ruined the entire experience for me - up until the last boss the game was an A/90, then with the last boss, it goes to an A/10. It's not a really fair review, but that last boss is so bad I almost broke the game in two, and threw the pieces in the trash. The frustration alone makes the game not worth anyone's time.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Good Customer Service: Rock Band Drums

So, after weeks of enthusiastic playtime, our Rock Band drums finally met their demise last night. The yellow pad had split in two sometime during the evening. The pad still works, technically, but it's clearly going to degrade from here - the rubber pad's already showing where the edge was rubbing up against it last night.

I called the Rock Band support line (since the automated stuff all assumes faulty pads from the start), and talked to a guy there. I explained entirely honestly that the pads failed through normal (but heavy) use, and that I was just wondering if it'd be possible to order a spare part.

He told me the pads were still covered by warranty, and it wasn't a problem to replace them. Using the same "Express" method that they shipped our replacement guitars with, the new pads should be here in a couple days, and then we have a month to ship out the old set. While obviously, I'd have preferred indestructible pads, or guitars that worked correctly from day one, the Rock Band customer service has been really, truly excellent, going well above my expectations of what they needed to do.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Professor Layton & the Curious Village

Professor Layton and the Curious Village may be the perfect game for the DS. It's essentially a collection of puzzles - some are logic puzzles, some are basic math, and some are tricks - presented in the form of a Euro-style comic mystery.

The setting and story that frame the game are charming and distinctive, and they lend the relatively straightfoward puzzles a visual style that keeps them from feeling as mechanical as they actually are.

It's a game you can pick up and play really quickly, make progress in short bursts, step away from for a long while and return without penalty (they even have a "The story so far..." re-intro whenever you load a game), and more, the game has an addictive, "just one more..." quality that keeps a person playing for dozens of puzzles in a row.

Yeah, the fact that every time you talk to someone, they want you to solve a puzzle is strange. Yeah, it's artificial - but it's like a musical. People break out into song, and you just accept it for what it is. When you buy into the game's setting, the puzzle-ness comes along with that. It works, I get a huge kick out of it, and I can't wait for more. If you've got a DS, this should be in it.


Sunday, February 10, 2008


The Nintendo DS is a curious console. As anyone reading this is probably aware, it's a huge, huge success - far beyond what almost anyone could have predicted. It's still regularly selling out, and since late November, it's been impossible to find on store shelves.

When I first saw the DS, I was completely dismissive of the touchscreen. There's no feedback, they tend to be imprecise, they can't really track fast movement all that well, they get scratched up, and are generally frustrating. The PSP trounced it from a graphics perspective, its high resolution screen made the DS look like a sorry joke, and overall, I thought the PSP was going to hand Nintendo its ass.

Of course, the best piece of advice you can ever give someone is to never, ever bet against Nintendo in the handheld market - for NINETEEN YEARS, Nintendo's owned the space, and handfuls of challengers have had their dreams shattered by the lower-tech Nintendo handheld. The Lynx, Game Gear, Nomad, Wonderswan, Neo Geo Pocket Color and PSP were almost universally "better" than their Nintendo counterpart. Why the success?

Normally, I'd say it comes down to software. Hardware power's never been the determining factor in a console's success, except as it relates to how that power translates to software. But the PSP's had some great games that look much, much better, complex, console-style games like Metal Gear: Portable Ops, Wipeout, and Daxter. These are portable games that feel like their console counterparts with minimal sacrifice except load times.

But where the PSP is frustrating - the delicate media, the huge, unprotected screen, the short battery life and long load times, the DS is extraordinarily elegant. The screen is protected by the clamshell design. You can 'sleep' the system for weeks on end without worrying about the battery, the battery lasts almost a full reasonable weekend of play, the media is nigh-indestructible (and small), and the load times, where present, are minimal.

The DS, as a result, actually works *as a handheld*. It's explicitly *not* a portable console - it's something uniquely geared towards playing games in short bursts. While the available software is a really mixed bag (there are a few extremely high-quality standouts, like Mario and Zelda, as well as some really interesting options like Phoenix Wright and Elite Beat Agents, but the vast majority of the DS's software lineup is *terrible*), the good games are designed to actually work in a completely "portable" environment.

The DS's big problem is that Nintendo needs to start clamping down on quality. Both the DS and Wii's software libraries are so full of shovelware that it's increasingly difficult for an uneducated consumer to actually make *good* purchasing decisions. If Nintendo continues to let garbage like Elf Bowling and Chicken Shoot taint their libraries, they're really risking killing the casual market through bad games.

Still, it's hard to question Nintendo these days. I was sure the Wii was going to be their last console, and the PSP was going to hand them their hat. I was wrong on both counts, but I worry that between the Wii's relatively low attach rate and the DS's mixed library that their success is not as stable as people seem to think it is. Obviously, they've made a huge, huge amount of money so far, and as a result, they are free to make some genuinely risky decisions. The ones they've made so far have paid off in spades.

We'll see how it goes from here on out...

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Week In Games

  1. Rez HD: As awesome as I remember it, but with better graphics and sound. A/100 - if you've never played this, you absolutely must. For $10, it's a steal.
  2. Need for Speed: ProStreet: I don't really know why I'm playing this. Forza 2 is, by many measures, a better game, with a better handling model. Still, for some reason, I've been playing this more than Forza. C/80
  3. Rock Band: Got some drumming in today, but also played a bit with the Oasis Pack, which is definitely worth picking up if you like the game, and have any inclination toward the band. Rock Band: A/100, Oasis Pack ?/90
  4. No More Heroes: Played a bit more of this. The action and style remain as engaging as ever, but I read a review where the reviewer basically summed it up - the game is split into two parts - action and "open world." The action is great, the open world is a failure in every way that matters. Still a really enjoyable game, but some really boneheaded design decisions do make the game more frustrating than it needs to be. A/80
  5. Call of Duty 4 Multiplayer: Hit up a bit of this one night with some coworkers and a friend from way back. Really, really fun with a really unique and addictive reward structure. One of the best multiplayer games I've played in ages. B/95

Not a bad week of gaming. I'm hoping to pick up Burnout: Paradise at some point in the relatively near future, and I'm curious to see the reviews of Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles for the DS. If the reviews are good, I'll almost certainly pick it up, but I haven't heard much about it, so my hopes aren't way up. Culdcept SAGA is also coming out, and it's a series I've always heard a lot about, but have never played. Maybe worth checking out? Who knows. It'll probably be one of those games that disappears instantly and is hard to find for a reasonable price, or is $19.99 within a month.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"Wouldn't it be cool if..."

That phrase drives me absolutely batshit crazy. Why? Isn't that what you think, when you're trying to come up with an interesting idea? Wouldn't it be cool if you could build your own city? Wouldn't it be cool if you had a sword made of light? Wouldn't it be cool if you could fly, or run super-fast, or be invisible?


So, I guess the phrase itself doesn't drive me nuts. What drives me absolutely crazy is how many people I've known that seemed to think that a game designer's job starts and stops with that phrase. Some of those people are themselves game designers, but the vast majority are executives and managers who don't really understand what it is a game designer brings to the table.

Designing a game isn't terribly different than the process of cooking, so let's try that analogy. The designer is basically a chef - they need to figure out what they want to make, and in general, how ot make it. Now, you can run a perfectly passable eating establishment without a chef - you can have line cooks who work from a plan, or you can have an untrained person come up with a general menu, and noodle around until they get something that's tasty. But the chef will make sure the ingredients are use to their fullest.

They'll be used in dishes that are designed to accentuate their flavor. They'll be used at the right time of year. Leftovers will be reused in ways that extend the ingredients' value. They'll adapt to the changing palates of their clientele. While it's *possible* to run an eating establishment without a chef, doing so means you miss out on a tremendous amount of efficiency, quality, and direction.

The designer's job is relatively similar. A good designer has a deep understanding of the field - they know the full spectrum of ingredients, as it were, and how to use them. They're always on the lookout for something new, and how those things can be used in interesting ways. They understand the conventions of their medium, and are constantly looking for new ways to push the boundaries. Sometimes, they'll even invent something completely new and different.

It's not simply, "Wouldn't it be cool if..." The thing is, while people push the notion that games are art, they're not just art. The're also science. Basic psychology plays a huge role in whether a game is successful or not. Games need to be subtle in how they direct the player. They need to use the conventions of the genre appropriately, and they need to have a keen awareness of difficulty, frustration, and how to balance those aspects with rewards that entice the player to keep playing.

Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria are artists - but they're also scientists. They experiment and analyze their food to discover new and interesting ways to manipulate it. The basic mechanics of food are science. Blumenthal says you should cook asparagus in oil, not water, because some of asparagus' critical flavor compounds are water-soluble. When you cook asparagus in oil, you retain those flavors, making the asparagus taste more like itself. This is more than just "art," it's a combination of art with a deep understanding of *why* these things work.

I'm no Heston Blumenthal. While I try to understand why a mechanic should be a certain way, and devise things that bend (and sometimes break) genre conventions, I don't have a genuinely deep understanding of the psychology of how this all makes people feel. But I can apply basic knowledge of art, music theory, interactivity, film, writing, years of game playing, and an understanding of the design process to create something far more interesting than a simple rumination of, "Wouldn't it be cool if..."

Still... it's a semantic niggle. A pet peeve I can't let go of, because it viscerally pisses me off. It's not a bad starting point, but finding something that's superficially cool is barely even scratching the surface. Genuinely good ideas are a hell of a lot more than cool.