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*.