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.