Sunday, December 26, 2010

growth

Z.H.P.: Unlosing Ranger vs. Deathdark Evilman is all about numbers – you repeatedly start as level 1, and all the progress you make is fed back into your base level-1 state, and then you can modify your body to make those numbers grow faster, and then you can merge your modifications to make the growth faster, etc etc etc. It's ultimately linear growth, though, and I can't say I really care for the mechanic – the time/reward payoff is way too slow for me.

Just as I was about to give up, though, the game gave me a kick.

Quick premise: You are the Unlosing Ranger, and Deathdark Evilman kicks your ass so hard you are warped back to boot camp to grind levels. Like, 2,000 levels.

This is a lesson about how true heroes never give up.

Seriously! The main motif of the game is “play our roguelike a thousand times, not because it’s enjoyable, but because a true hero never gives up even in the face of impossible odds”. Every dungeon starts with your mentors stating this premise explicitly. Every new dungeon is unlocked by you getting “teleported” (bludgeoned) back to Earth to rematch Deathdark Evilman, trying out your 1 new move, losing, and watching the internal monologues of Earthlings saying, “Boy, he never gives up, even in the face of impossible odds, how idiotic/heroic!” and then a lesson on heroics from your mentor. For a genre that prides itself on tedium, repetition, and idiosyncratic knowledge, at least Unlosing Ranger is pretty straightforward about it.

True to Nippon Icchi form, though, the genre is slightly enhanced by the characters themselves, as they interact with each other, often in slapstick self-aware Saturday-morning-cartoon humor. Which is true to the setting, where Saturday-morning superheroes appear to be real and omnipresent. Occasionally, it stops being slapstick and becomes weirdly moving as characters accidentally reveal bits about themselves they never intended to reveal.

And then a character comments on how the names of Brick Oldllama, black president of the United States, and her sacrificial lamb, “Japan”, are insulting in their transparency.

And then you whip back into a commentary about how “justice” is a sham perpetrated by equal powers to justify their own personal agendas to their inferiors delivered by a dead soldier who fought a pointless war at the hands of an idealistic warmonger who was trying to stamp out an invisible enemy that may not even exist (link to a partial discussion/transcript of that scene).

Compare this to AC:Brotherhood, where my main gripe was artlessly fingering John Roberts as a key part of a Templar conspiracy. Z.H.P. makes an allegorical allusion to America's policy of endless war and bullying our allies into joining us. AC:Bro states "hey, you know who likes big business? REPUBLICANS". Z.H.P. parades Barack Obama as someone who has continued this policy of endless war, which is subject to a bit of misinterpretation ("But Bush started it, how dare you blame Obama for continuing to escalate it!") – AC:Bro doesn't go far enough in fingering the true culprit (hint: it's not just Republicans who are pro-big-business and squelching dissent and enforcing totalitarian control). Z.H.P. focuses on the consequences and ramifications– dead soldiers, the possibility of "justice" not being all it seems, where a true "hero" draws the line. AC:Bro doesn't really focus on anything except the revelation of conspiracy (unless "Republicans are bad!" was particularly mind-blowing to anyone in the audience).

Here is the theme I keep harping on across all my writing on RPGs. Just because D&D campaigns used to be about “small battle with evil force, in context of large battle with evil force”, doesn’t mean the evolution of the genre is going to be in that same direction. It’s why I constantly rag on Bioware despite genuinely enjoying their games – because they are standing on the same plot and character archetypes, over and over again, and they show no signs of breaking that pattern.

The player character is just one character – the one I want to build the relationship with, the one I want to see grow and evolve and personalize, sure! – but the growth and evolution I want from an RPG is something more than +1 strength, +5 to reputation, conversation tree unlocked. Sometimes it's about taking your basic premise and exploring it, in full, to its conclusion – tapping into conversations you would never otherwise have, using your plot to give the entire conversation context.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

learning to play pinball

Pinball is a game with a long, incredible history.The basic idea for pinball has been around for hundreds of years, so the design is polished and play tested more thoroughly than most computer games.  The learning curve, in particular, is beautiful in its simplicity.

Stages of learning pinball:

Controls: On a physical pinball machine, there are exactly 3 things you need to know: The glowing “START” button starts the game. The ball ejected into the plunger slot is launched via the obviously spring-loaded mechanism extending into your thigh as you lean over the table. The buttons on the edges of the table flip the flippers.

Each one of these buttons has the unique virtue of being completely comprehensible within seconds. The start button glows once you push in your quarters – so you press it. The ball clanks into the launcher tube – so you pull it, and feel the resistance. You can test it, letting it go gently and watching it push the ball gently. You can slam it back and hear it kick the ball – perfect visual and mechanical feedback long before the rumble pack was conceived. The flippers are also simple– you can push the button, and see the reaction. There is no confusion about the actions and reactions available to you. If you don’t understand the mechanics, you don’t play – the game doesn’t start, the ball doesn’t launch, the ball falls out of play. Compare this to a PC or console game, where the buttons never have a 1:1 relationship with the game functions available to you.

Strategies: Once you understand the buttons you need to press, you start thinking about how to press them. Experiment with the launcher – see how you control the ball as it exits the launch. Your muscles tune themselves to the resistance of the launcher, so you can learn to reproduce shots consistently.

Naïve experimentation: Experiment with the flippers, the most important part of the game – you can start by mashing them, but you’ll quickly learn that’s more prone to throwing the ball under a flipper than back onto the field of play. However, another byproduct of mashing is you will learn the ball, when it has no momentum, can rest safely in the space between the pivot and the board – a “cradle”.

Corrective measures: Once you learn that mashing isn’t an optimal strategy and you’ve figured out how to cradle, you can start aiming for control of the ball. This will probably mean cradling every time the ball comes your way. It’s a natural progression from mashing the flippers – you go from complete chaos, with the ball flying everywhere, to complete control, trying to impose your dominance on the table by forcing the game to progress at your own pace. You’ll still lose a few balls now and then, but you won’t blow through a round nearly as quickly as when you mash the flippers.

Getting comfortable: once you’ve exhausted the “control” playstyle, cradling the ball every time it comes your way, you’ll notice 2 more things: a ball with no momentum can’t reach the top of the board. A ball with too much momentum can’t be cradled. You stop trying to bring the ball to a dead stop every time it approaches the bottom of the board– your instincts are being honed, ready to hit the button just as the ball touches the flipper. This takes practice, but you can do it. There’s nothing stopping you but time, patience, and quarters.

Learning the board: The game has, to an observant and thoughtful player, already taught the virtues of a chaotic playstyle (pure speed) and a controlling playstyle (accuracy, not losing your ball as frequently). Your instincts are becoming better along the way. Now you can see the high scores – orders of magnitude higher than anything you’ve accomplished. As you launched the ball previously, you might have noticed ramps flashing, the dot-matrix board giving orders, the voice cues changing. Before, you were focused on keeping the ball in play, but now that you feel comfortable with that, you see “2x” lit – hey, maybe that’s the key to a higher score. You start learning the board, not just the basic mechanics – this ramp takes me here, and does this. Launching the ball from here takes me to the bumpers, which increase my multiplier. Putting the ball in this bucket lets me choose a “mission”, which requires me to hit the flashing ramps.

There’s a directions sheet at the bottom left of the board. You glance at it, but it’s too vague to be useful. You continue exploring, attempting to master what you think you know.

High Scores: The best aspect of videogame pinball isn’t the quarters you save- it’s that your high score is tracked. You’re no longer at the mercy of whatever high-scorer dominated the Top 10 scores with his initials that somehow happen to spell out “ASS”. You are only responsible to yourself. Your first few high scores are negligible, they show no improvement over the last – on a lucky fluke, though, you hit 10 million. That score sits there, taunting you as you continue to learn: “You have no idea how your score got this high. You will never be able to reproduce me.”

And then: You start hitting the ball off the flipper’s sweet spot, and the ball doesn’t lose any momentum as it rolls from the left ramp back to your flipper and perfectly flipped on to the right ramp. It happens again, and again. You look at a spot on the board, and think “I need to go there”, and the muscles in your left hand flex, and the ball goes there. Your eyes focus on the entire board, not just the motion of the ball. The lights, the sounds, every bit of non-essential information is blocked out until the exact second you need it. You feel the clank of the flippers, the bounce of the ball, not much else – unbeknownst to you, your brain is now emitting alpha waves. You are in an alternate state of consciousness, the same state that professional athletes and musicians enter when they’re performing at their best. Unlike them, you won’t set any world records, you won’t be recognized – but that ball keeps moving, keeps going, the flow doesn’t--- you drop the ball. You swear, profusely. The game asks for your initials, and suddenly you are able to see your score – twice that of your previous high score. You are getting better. You have objective proof that you are getting better.  You start a new round, your ball drops within the first twenty seconds, you swear again, and restart the round from scratch immediately. You’re better than this.

Friday, December 17, 2010

i work for microsoft, standard disclaimers apply

hi sorry to interrupt your day I just realized I should probably clarify this for internet strangers:
My employer (Microsoft)'s HR guidelines would prefer it if I were completely open and honest about where I work (at Microsoft) especially if there are situations where a "conflict of interest" might arise, and since "Microsoft" makes "video games" which are the primary subject of this blog, it's probably worth noting that I am in fact employed by Microsoft, the company.

HOWEVER! I do not work in the field of "video games". Or actually anywhere close to the Entertainment & Devices division. In fact I work on "enterprise" stuff, IE I am in the "Server and Tools Business" where I work on mostly things I can't talk about publicly, and also things I am not interested in talking about publicly because I like to leave my job at my job and this is just a hobby of mine.

The reasons I don't state this right on the header or at the footer of every post are because 1) it's kind of a nerdy thing to do, to talk about working at Microsoft. 2) until recently this blog was read by exactly 3 people, all who knew me IRL (thanks, additional 17 people who subscribed via Google Reader! I promise more interesting things are coming soon!) 3) I really, strongly believe it has absolutely no relevance whatsoever to my writing. Yes I own an xbox360 that I purchased in between my internship at Microsoft and my full-time position at Microsoft, yes I love the xbox360 dearly, yes I strongly believe the 360's interface is a better interface than sony's, and I always choose to play on the 360 - however I always feel I provide plenty of evidence to back up my opinions and if you disagree with me challenge me and I will respond.

And obviously since "This blog is a hobby" and "this blog has nothing to do with work, i do not write on my blog using company resources, or on company time", everything expressed in this blog is, as stated clearly at the top of the webpage, my opinion and my opinion alone, and not endorsed in any way by my employer, and absolutely should never be taken as such. Furthermore I have absolutely no inside knowledge of the gaming industry via my job - any information you find on this blog is gathered from Joystiq or other gamers and never, ever, at all, even a little bit from microsoft employees who have any knowledge whatsoever about the internal workings of the E&D business at microsoft. (i fucking hate writing this legalese cover-your-ass bullshit but i love my job kind of a lot and would never want to endanger it because of some stupid fucking misunderstanding)

if you are shocked & saddened by these revelations give a shout in the comments and we will hug. this. out. even if you want to call me a dishonest corporatist flak. i also promise that when relevant (games for windows live) I will not hesitate to criticize (games for windows live) gaming platforms owned by Microsoft (my employer, the company that gave us Games for Windows Live) for doing a terrible job and failing to live up to their competitors (games for windows live), but this is not a tech blog and I will not resort to criticizing every microsoft action (terrible marketing campaigns) just to prove I am a free thinker etc etc etc

thanks for reading, sorry you had to sit through this bullshit, it's a consequence of large corporate bureaucracies, plz don't ragequit my blog. and obviously feel free to ask questions about any of this and let me know if you have any concerns about my presence in the "srs gaming community"

-z!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

AC: Brotherhood & Project Legacy

Look yes I know, the whole Assassin’s Creed future-plot setup is kind of silly. The “aliens gave us the Apple of Eden” crypto-Truth bullshit is just embarrassing. The Borgia family, though… They had history. Not a codex entry, not an expository cutscene, not a hundred NPCs saying “oh look the Citadel is big and important, look how big and important it is [it is big and important]”, but actual literal history. Yeah okay you probably won’t see the PBS documentary explaining that the Borgia killed Ezio’s uncle or whatever – but that doesn’t undercut the sheer menace of your love interest being held in the Papal prison, or the hilariously overwrought bacchanalia of the collapsing church in the fifteenth century. So if the future-plot seems weak, it’s mostly in contrast to the incredibly strong feeling of historical significance you get from exploring Ezio’s memories.

The historical background also plays off AC’s other core strength contained within the titular Creed: “Nothing is true / everything is permitted”. A lot of the bad guys in the game are bad, sure – plotters, betrayers, incest…ualizers?, and, uh… hypocrites. But you’re a fucking remorseless serial murderer. The future-plot gets a little weaker here, because you don’t really witness Templars acting evil – you just get told over and over how evil they are. But the historical context gives you a lot more motivation in the past-plot – fuck yeah I want to pounce on some Crusaders from above in Jerusalem. Shit just feels right. Hell yes I want to stealthily take out corrupt Church officials at their own orgy. Dudes painted children in gold, like across their entire bodies, until the kids just up and died from the poisonous effects. Future-plot “Templar agents” are launching “a satellite” and use “cell phone radar” to track me? Sure. Whatever. Can I get back to infiltrating the Vatican so I can murder the Pope?

Yes the plot is all an elaborate conspiracy theory - but the actors have emotion, and reasons, and justifications. unlike The Collectors or The Reapers or The Sith or The Darkspawn, who are a threat because of numbers or magic plot-powers you never get to witness, the Borgia aren’t a threat to the world. they’re an annoyance. You don’t act out of some abortive sense of duty – you act out of revenge, and then convenience, and then just because the dude is a incestuous prick who went from tears to full-throated rage when his uncle cut off his funds (god, I love hearing Cesare’s voice break with anger and grief and fear as he demands money and recognition). The writing emphasizes these are all people, who have motivation, who need to react and compete against each other and not just you.  if we as gamers are starting  to push back against the idea that ludonarrative dissonance is a necessary condition of gameplay*, it’s because we’re starting to see that the player character doesn’t always have to be at the center of each and every drama. the player character can just as easily be a bit character hanging off a ledge watching this unfold. it’s no less engrossing that way, and a wonderful change of pace.**

*Not actually a part of the original ludonarrative dissonance critique, but it’s certainly been interpreted to be a necessary part of a game.

** and actually AC is a little weird if you’re talking about ludonarrative because the core of the game is actually a stated simulation via the Animus. So if you try to do something against the narrative – say, kill a civilian – the Animus says “hey, Ezio didn’t do that originally, be careful or you’ll get desync’d and have to start over”. So the entire past-plot exists in the context of reliving memories and if you deviate from that path (by dying, by failing missions, etc) there’s this very neat corrective system that says “oh that’s not how it happened”. essentially you have this additional layer of abstraction to mitigate the player’s natural impulses to fuck around with the rules of the open world against the desires of the story. Is another layer of indirection the only way to counter LND? …time will tell!

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Of course, it’s a love-hate relationship with this franchise. Ubisoft, for all its brilliance in game design, still has some serious software design issues – the map is a pain in the ass when you need to see elevation clearly, there’s no way of knowing you need to turn in feathers,  and the assassin missions are more of a chore to organize than anything else (Why are missions organized by region – a useless abstraction with no consequence – when I always want to see missions organized by difficulty?).

There’s a bit of irony here, actually. I’ve seen a few complaints about the “Facebook” nature of the assassin missions. Yet the review didn’t mention there is an actual Facebook game, probably because the facebook game has terrible design. I’ll concede that gameplay mechanics in a Facebook game are historically not very rich, but the interface design is required to be top-notch in order to make success a possibility. Ubisoft’s bungling of the Facebook game is almost entirely because they seem reluctant to engage with actual software design. [For example: unbearably slow loads, not being able to differentiate between different collectables, not being able to see all the requirements a mission has before entering the mission, the hellish and nearly-impossible and undocumented process of linking your uPlay to your Facebook profile to your actual instance of AC:Brotherhood – with exception of the last, all problems that have been long solved by Zynga &c.] And so Project Legacy’s failings mirror Brotherhood’s failings. The feature list is there, but the implementation is senseless, which speaks to a to lack in playtesting/QA.

The worst part about Project Legacy is the brush with greatness. If I could actually organize the accused “facebook-style” assassination missions through Legacy instead of doling out a measly 75 exp every 4 hours, I would have spent a lot more time and care on it. As it stands, I played through a few rounds and promptly forgot about it. It’s a mediocre tie-in, but the richness of interaction is possible – we have a facebook game sending data to an Xbox game*! In near-real time! The next step is being able to play a continuous game session regardless if you’re on a computer, xbox, or (probably Windows 7) phone, where each platform uses its strengths to create a rich, living, interactive environment that you can pick up whenever you need to scratch the itch.

 

*This connection is through a third-party connection service, uPlay, which like EA’s 3rd party server service is a huge pain in the ass that everyone hates having to deal with (forcing users to create yet another account with yet another password is such a terrible idea). I suspect that the 3rd party service is probably a necessary condition for arbitrary data connections & persistence since xbl does not explicitly provide that service, although obviously I have no idea if this is true or not. 

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a few more notes on brotherhood since I love this series obsessively: I’m holding out hope the 3rd game will take place in World War I. Great setting, and, you know – it was triggered by an assassination. I’ll take any non-American historical turmoil, though – French Revolution? The Bolsheviks Revolution? The Boxer Rebellion? All great settings that have been completely untouched by games (except for some dense historical sims).

The ending was the LEAST bullshit ending in an AC game – previously the PoE bullshit came out of nowhere for a ridiculous and unintentionally campy boss fight in the first game, and in the second game the fisticuffs with the Pope leading to space alien creation myth bullshit was just too much – the Truth video was even worse. In Brotherhood, at least dialogue in the credits made returning to the animus complete creepy in a way that nicely mirrors how freaked out I am by the bleeding effect (Which, by the way, completely justifies the entire animus future-plot setup. The first time it happened I actually freaked out and instinctually tried to fight ghost-guards).

The Cristina missions were lovely. Perfect, even. The romance was real – more real than awkwardly seducing a crewmate in Mass Effect – the tension & pathos were affecting, and I love love love that it was triggered by standing next to a very certain type of woman. I love that the explanation was that these were repressed memories. I love that they were completely straightfoward – a lot of side missions feel the need to include lots of worthless combat for no reason, but here it was clean and fast.

The Truth was a fucking copout this time. At least last time we got something. This time we got an abstract “puzzle” lair and a short, nonsensical conversation. The puzzles were worse, too – especially when it named Justice Roberts as a templar because of the Citizens United case. It’s the laziest sort of critique, and violates a key tenet of conspiracy theories – never make a falsifiable assertion.

Monday, November 15, 2010

low stakes

As promised, more on Fable 3 – this time tracking closer to Mr Wasteland and Brainy Gamer’s conversations.

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Assuming we’re all gamers here – we’ve all faced moral “dilemmas” in games. In Dragon Age, we can sell elves into slavery for profit! In Mass Effect, we can choose to save dangerous space aliens at our own risk! In Mass Effect 2, we can choose to save dangerous space aliens at our own risk!

Those decisions are barely more complicated than choosing if you should save up money for your future or stab your parents to get your inheritance now. Instead of true dilemmas where you have to negotiate a delicate moral balance between following your principles or making sacrifices to fight another day, you’re more often left with the choice between:

(1) Do something that breaks social taboos or violates common sense for immediate benefit, with a murky chance of repercussions that won’t end your game outright

(2) Do something good for no immediate benefit, with a slightly higher chance you’ll be rewarded in other ways (Exp, alignment points, etc. ).

Or:

(1) Do something hilariously evil for no purpose for minor gain and with no negative impact whatsoever

(2) Do something moderately-to-hilariously ambiguous-to-benevolent in order to avoid option (1).

And it’s always weighty. It’s always, fate-of-the-world-is-in-your-hands, do-these-civilians-live-or-die.

Fable 3 threw me for a loop by giving me chickens.

At the end of the Chicken Chaser quest, you get a lengthy and hilarious debate between a farmer and his wife about the fate of the runaway chickens (“They could have destroyed the town! Possibly the world!”), ending with the farmer pleading: “You’ve lived among them. You’ve seen their ways. You decide what to do”.

Your options are:

(1) Kill the chickens.

(2) Save the chickens.

Also, this entire time, you’re wearing a chicken suit. Completely absurd. Over-the-top ridiculous.

And I was stuck.

Let the chickens live cooped up, occasionally breaking out and threatening the civilian populace (Well… probably threatening them. They did cluck out a marching song as I led them back, and that’s clear militarism) – or kill the chickens and let the villagers have some peace of mind?

After all, killing chickens isn’t really “evil”. It doesn’t bump up against my moral boundaries. In fact, I do it all the time. I had chicken fingers this week, as well as chicken breast, and chicken stock, and even some eggs!  And this early in the game, I wasn’t committed to a particular ideology. So I stared at the screen and thought about how to choose between mercy-killing and stuffing chickens into captivity.

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Fable 3 handed me a choice that was inconsequential, but completely critical to how I would play the rest of the game. It ended up being the point at which I chose the alignment I would keep for the rest of the game. If it were elves in those cages, it would have been a completely different situation – the moral choice would have been stark and quickly decidable . Low-stakes, absurdist humor was able to get my attention, and create an ambiguous moral situation in a way heavy “evil enemy is amassing on the horizon” setups couldn’t. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

high stakes

I want to talk about some of the successes and failures of Fable 3, both from an interface design perspective and a game design perspective. Since this post got long enough, right now I’ll focus on the interface choices and next time I’ll look at the game itself. Before that can happen, we need to establish a few baselines.

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Let’s say you’re in Microsoft’s position. You’re facing severe competition from the Wii. Even the Playstation3 has some degree of motion control. What’s to be done?

You can’t just mimic the Wii. First, you’ll never catch up to the wild success of Wii Sports. Second, you can’t fragment the controller tech you already spent years training developers and users on, by introducing a whole new schema. Finally, mimicry is already Sony’s game with the Move. You have to differentiate yourself, you have to take it to the next level. Motion control? Fuck that, body control. Regardless of how it works out, whether the technology has merit - it’s objectively the only business decision you can justify.

Now imagine you’re trying to redesign the RPG,  a genre famous for its menus upon menus. EA tried it with Mass Effect 2– removing the loot for which the genre is known, streamlining the entire process down to a few skill points and rarely-changing weapons loadouts. ME2’s fatal flaw, though, was trading poorly-organized information for virtually no information (just try and tell me how you were supposed  to realize one weapon was ‘better’ than another in the loadout screen).

=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

I think that if your mission is to redesign the RPG, something Molyneux has long held as a goal, you don’t have a lot of choices but to try something big, and bold, and something that will more likely than not fail. It’s not “innovation” if it’s not a risk!

I think Corvus is largely correct that Fable 3’s design decisions were influenced by the up-and-coming Kinect (The press-and-hold-ring gesture is a dead giveaway when you compare it to the hold-your-hand-ring on the Kinect Hub).  The other part of this puzzle is the “natural UI” movement (Bill Braxton of Microsoft Research describes it in practice here – it’s something more easily explained in video than text, by definition). Kinect is, of course, one part of this movement. Fable 3 is also attempting to be part of this movement above and beyond some rumored Kinect integration.

Of course, there are plenty of criticisms to make w/r/t the design choices. Again, Corvus is correct that menus are largely remapped to 3d space. I don’t think this is an incorrect decision – the speed with which you can get to the sanctuary screen, and the d-pad shortcuts prevent this from being an undue burden. Seeing your wardrobe choices organized on mannequins is certainly better than seeing “Left Auroran Men’s Glove, Right Auroran Men’s Glove, Auroran Men’s Pants (Red)” on a menu screen (I haven’t played Fable 2 – I have no idea how it handled this situation).  The singular flaw in implementation is limiting how much shit you can see and interact with at a time.

“Natural UI” doesn’t mean “literally the same motions you would make in real life”, it means “using a metaphor the user is familiar with to make things more convenient”. A wardrobe for clothes is perfect! A weapons rack is perfect! Limiting your entire interaction with a weapons rack to “look at each weapon one-by-one”? Not only is it a pain in the ass, but it ignores the entire purpose of going to the weapons rack – to compare things you own side-by-side. To quickly see what progress you’re making on your upgrades. To check out new items at a glance and look at all the cool shit you own at once. That’s a lot of information you need to see, which the interface isn’t providing for. For all that screen space available, you can’t see two or three-level displays stacked on top of each other? You can’t compare two weapons side by side? Regardless of high aspirations, that’s poor design.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

super meat boy & signalling

if we're going to talk about games as software then yeah, super meat boy is exceptional. it's very obvious the team had a clear vision about what they wanted to do. It's designed from the bottom up to be a platformer. Not a platformer-RPG,  not a puzzle-platformer, not a monochrome-with-sad-piano-music-platformer. Just a platformer.

The team also had a wonderful idea of how to do it. The controls lend themselves well to muscle-memory, so once you figure out a tricky bit you can blow past it next time. When you die, you respawn before you can even think about throwing your controller across the room. When you finally beat a level, the tiny parade of failed attempts lets you laugh at your failures and celebrate your eventual success. Wonderful design! Brilliant design! 

You can’t play Super Meat Boy without the knowledge that this is supposed to be a “true” platformer, a “hardcore” title. Ten or fifteen years ago, there was no “hardcore vs. casual”. There was “RPG vs FPS”, there was “PC vs Console”, and maybe there was “I beat it on easy with cheats vs I beat it on HARD”, but there were no Facebook games to rage against. There weren’t Bejeweled clones to sniff at.

No pandering here.

Super Meat Boy is an homage to a different time, sure. A natural extension of that homage is the signaling contained within the game. The game itself, as a response to “casual” games, seems to be a shot across the bow – true gamers are still here. We are still a force in the marketplace.  This isn’t a game for Halo or Call of Duty meatheads / bros. This is a game for people who grew up in the SNES era – demonstrated by the warp worlds which gave you everything from Atari 8-bit to Genesis 16-bit callbacks. And this is definitely not a game for the Farmville crowd, demonstrated by the fact that your character is a disgusting ball of meat that leaves a blood trail, navigating piles of needles and rivers of – you guessed it! – blood.

I mean the game starts off with the female character getting punched, in the face, repeatedly, by her kidnapper. Even if you ignore the "it's humorous to depict women getting beaten and aren't you the real sexist for even bringing it up" element (Up next: T-shirts saying "Robotic fetus abuse survivor"?), there’s a pretty clear underlying signal here: This game is By Us, For Us. This game is Part Of The Club of True Hardcore Gamers. The unlockable characters are probably shit you’ve never even heard of, unless you happen to know Mighty Jill-Off, Gish, and Bit.Trip. At minimum.

There’s nothing wrong with a little in-crowd nudging. There’s nothing wrong with calling out other authors who you have respect for. And, to be clear, there’s not anything wrong with making a platformer designed to be difficult. But when you make a game that calls back to 1996 in 2010, I can’t help but think of what’s changed in that time. This is a personal preference, not a reflection on the quality of the game – but I’ve played platformers from 1996 quite extensively. I look forward to something new, not a rehash of the old. Apparently that makes me quite unique in the hardcore gaming sphere.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Comparing interfaces

 

It seems impossible to criticize design without seeming like you are nitpicking. Obviously the entire issue of design is one of small nitpicks that pile up – for every small decision made, especially in a computer system, someone said “Well, this should behave in this way”. Good design guides these small choices. Bad design might “ship the org chart”, or more commonly, fail to provide any guidance at all.

Let’s talk about the Xbox360, and the PS3. They’re both pretty mature at this point, they can handle it. I’m leaving the Wii off these discussions since its iPhone interface is pretty boring to me – it’s well executed, simple, and neither flawed nor innovative in any instructive way.

The scenario in our apartment is “no autologin” since the gf and I share both consoles, so let’s look at the just-turned-on experience (sorry for the dubious quality photos):

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Both screens are trying to solve the same problems: Trophies/achievements, online stores, and friends lists require a user to be logged in even for playing a game. The PS3 chooses not to show you what capabilities it has until you login, where the Xbox shows you what’s possible, what game is in the tray, and defers forcing logon until the user actively chooses to do something.

You can also see some of the basic design aesthetics at work: Sony is no-frills. Xbox is colorful and uses a whole bunch of visual tricks to give you an intuitive look at what elements are movable – the faded type, the use of depth to stack tiles in the background, and always the legend at the bottom to tell you exactly what buttons do what. See that at the bottom of the PS3’s screen? Of course not. Sony expects you to know “X” means “accept” and “O” means “cancel”.

Now logged in:

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This is a fairer picture of  Sony’s interface. Aside from the use of vertical and horizontal space, there are gorgeous custom overlays for every game - when you’re on the game “blade”.  The game icon is also animated to give you a few action shots. The interface for Xbox doesn’t change too much when you login – it’s consistent with the logged-out experience. Game icons can’t be animated on the Xbox, and custom themes are generally something you have to purchase. However, there are a few gripes I want to share about the PS3 screen:

  • If you look closely, you will see that Flower is on my games blade twice – once in a little capsule that is just the downloaded file I got from the Marketplace, one is the actual way to launch the game. Duplicated information is pretty sloppy, especially when you’re first using the interface and you have no way of knowing which is which.
  • On the “top” of the blade (Above the horizontal line of parallel blades) is a bunch of meaningless stuff about save files and import utilities. What? Xbox puts these in the “Memory” section of My Xbox –> Settings, which seems a little bit more logical. Why do these utilities exist here? Some of them are related to the PS2 – but my playstation can’t play PS2 games! (This will lead into a digression later)
  • Xbox uses the top right corner to show my avatar, gamertag & gamerscore. Sony uses it to scroll ads, which I never read.
  • And finally, most egregiously - THE ICONS HAVE LOAD TIMES. LOLWTF. I consistently get 2sec of load times on the fucking icons? Look, human perception is a capricious thing. The absolute boundary of our perception is about 1/10th of a second. 1 second is noticeable. 3 seconds is perceived as very noticeable, to the point of distraction (5 seconds is boredom, 10 seconds is the limit at which you switch tasks – in case you were curious). But for a primary input on a common function… Could you imagine if your mouse took 2 seconds to register every click, or your keyboard had a 2-second delay on every stroke? Plus, you know, they’re fucking ICONS! You’re telling me the PS3 couldn’t spend the 6 kilobytes of memory to keep that speedy?  It drives me up a damn wall because anyone with any expertise in user experience or interface knows those perception limits off the top of their head – to ship a flagship console with that problem? I can launch a damn web browser faster than I can select “Play Game” on a gaming console.

Still, despite these gripes  - at first glance, the two interfaces don’t look that different. How many ways can you make an navigation pane? There’s a horizontal element, and a vertical element. When I said the PS3 was “no-frills”, though, I wasn’t kidding. Its dominant metaphor is pretty clear:

guis

Yeah.

By the numbers: 10 icons when the PlayStation is online (The PSN icon is not shown when the console is offline, as above; Xbox has 9 blades, with 1 being quite simple to disable). Sixteen menu options under “settings”. My particular PS3 has thirteen menu options under “games” (Xbox has 9…ish under “My Xbox”, which is the biggest category).  And of those sixteen menu settings, all of them are hiding 5-6 individual settings beneath that single category. So the PS3 interface is hitting the same problems as the old Office interface. 

Here’s the 360 settings screen in comparison:

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Okay, still a ton of options hidden in these menus. But there’s text stating exactly what settings are contained within, which I think the PS3 needs pretty badly after I spent too much time hunting for specific options.  And the settings are organized in much more concise categories.

Editing a profile:

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Yeah, good luck trying to figure out what you’re editing in the PS3 screen. And look – my achievement icons are fucking loading. And every time you enter this screen, you have to sit through a progress bar as “trophies are syncing”.  Don’t bother trying to figure out what exact trophies you have from this screen, or how you got them– you need to exit out completely and go back to the Games menu and find “Trophies” sandwiched in between the twelve other icons.  Absolutely terrible interface here on the PS3’s part, while Xbox is concise. Also, speaking of trophies:

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See that little toast? If I hit the center jewel on my controller (it looks exactly like the icon on the toast!) , it pulls up my friends screen to show me who just logged on! If I hit it when an achievement pops, it shows me the achievement I just popped! If I hit it normally, it pauses the game I’m playing and brings up  an extremely compressed interface that gives me a very efficient overview of what things I can do:

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Here’s the PS3’s “jewel screen” when a trophy pops, a friend logs on, or whatever else is going on:

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As with a lot of my other criticisms of the PS3 – it’s not really a flaw in the interface. Showing the same menu screen is consistent(although this triggers the god-damn loading icons). It’s just the Xbox experience seems really well thought out: “When a user sees a new achievement, they will probably want to know what it’s for”, “When a friend logs on, the user might want to interact with their friend” , “When the user is in the middle of a game, they might want a compact, lightweight interface”. In contrast, the PS3 interface doesn’t really seem “designed” as much as “plopped down into place” – when apologists say it has a “functional design”, they mean “it has some functions and it shows you what those functions are”.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Games are software

One of the pleasant surprises of PAX was the strength of the panels. The talks I attended ranged from academic studies of games to women’s position in the field to the impact of Farmville on the industry. All of them were lively, engaging and nuanced talks that proved the industry was capable of developing and nurturing mature and critical thought in the industry. On top of all that, the show floor was lively – by ignoring the big-budget gameplay demos, I was able to talk to several gamedevs face-to-face about their games, what platforms they were publishing on, why, and etc etc etc. (And yet I still missed Jonathan Blow’s new game! Which, considering the sloppy blowjob I’d love to give to him, is probably for the best.)

ANYWAY. There were so many things going on I can’t help but point you towards Brainy Gamer's last 3 podcasts, which covered the con from the POV of press, enthusiast, and producers. I will restrain myself and only recap the one panel I thought will have the most impact in days to come.

World of Farmcraft: Social, Massive-Multiplayer, and Casual gaming.

One of the amusing things about PAX was the thread of capitalism strung throughout. There {was a time / is an audience} that {would have / currently} gnashes its teeth and self-flagellates on re: wrt: $$$ in games. All the panels briefly alluded to industry / money / profit blithely, an obvious fact that needed no rhetoric of contrition.  This panel’s moderator went the furthest of them all, saying the core difference between casual, MMO and social games was the underlying monetization strategy.

I chose to attend this panel partially because I’m interested in the future of social & casual gaming – they’ve been HUGE movers & shakers in terms of raw profit and audience numbers, which seems to catch in most gamer’s throats. The second reason I attended was because I was sure the Q&A session would reveal some wonderful truths about the mindset of the PAX attendee. I was not disappointed. WITNESS the first 3 “questions”:

* “So, my boyfriend thinks Skinnerville – I mean farmville, isn’t a real game”. Response: “He’s obviously never had an entire crop whither on him”.

* “Farmville is for fucking retards”.  Response from the Zynga rep (who works on Mafia wars): “Well, about 50 million people disagree with you”, which I thought was a pretty classy way to disarm the question.

* “Farmville isn’t making people into real gamers”, spat out with as much venom as one can manage. The response was another vague platitude, but I couldn’t help linking it to the discussion here. I take up the banner in the comments – it leads to an interesting discussion on gender.

People are drawing up the battle lines on Farmville. Lord knows I can’t abide anyone telling me it’s “not a game” or “not worth discussing”, and will launch into a month-long crusade against Farmville haters on the slightest provocation – and I don’t even play Farmville.

It’s idiotic for us to ignore social gaming. It’s idiotic for us to dismiss what is clearly a huge shift in business because it doesn’t align with our interests. Farmville, on its own, may not be the most fun game in the world. Zynga might be a company composed entirely of genetic clones of the leeches that killed George Washington, leeches that have invented time travel and come to 2010 in order to suck life from as many Americans as possible.  The sheer number of Farmville palette-swaps might be overwhelming to the point of revulsion. And yet, last night, instead of writing this post, I went onto City of Wonder and spent hours re-organized my city’s structure while blasting my friends with wall posts begging for help in constructing Stonehenge.

Farmville, on its face, might be simple. Yet that’s no reason why games can’t take the base formula and improve on it, to create a civ-light experience or whatever your genre-boner  demands.  Dismissing Farmville is no different from dismissing Bejeweled – and now Popcap’s past success seems like a eerie precursor to the App Store.

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There’s a huge demand, obviously, for games as software. Not games as complicated, triple-A titles you line up in front of Gamestop for. Not games as glorified tech demos.  Not even games as 60-hour epics. Games as pieces of software that work, reliably, simply, with no setup, and no install process. Games that have strong design ethos, that do what the players expect, and that don’t have complicated inventory management screens.

Because, fuck you, games have terrible design choices. Starcraft 2 requires you to be logged into Battle.Net? Go fuck yourself. Your game requires me to download an .exe, find it, extract it, run the installer, click 6 times, wait for 10 minutes, and then hunt down a shortcut and play it? Go fuck yourself. Your game lets me cancel out of the character creation screen without saving my changes, and with no warning? Go fuck yourself. To switch weapons I have to hit left bumper + d-pad? To transform I have to hit right bumper + left trigger + A? You don’t let me save in between boss fights? You don’t even have an autosave?  Design choices like that would get me fired at work. In the games industry, it’s barely even commented on.

The only reason we accept such terrible, convoluted, impossible, horrible design choices is because we all lived through the evolution of games. We adapted to it, and now we perpetuate it. Now that Farmville has reduced us back to a mouse move + click, we’ve got nothing.

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I loooove agile development. This post talks about how using metrics creates better social game software (although not necessarily better games)

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The worst panel I attended at PAX was “The Future of the PC”. It consistented of a bunch of 40-year old men crowing that 3d and multimonitor setups (IE an $8000 rig) were the future. That Apple and the app store was a threat to Sony and Nintendo, but not the PC. They dismissed gamers who only own laptops (I am one such person). One panelist literally said the keyboard + mouse combo was the perfect control scheme, and “I’d like to see someone snipe with a controller”  - apparently he had never heard of Halo? I walked out at that point.  It was obvious they were not reacting to disruptions and threats coming in. I think the attitude of ignoring threats and changing landscapes is very closely tied to the attitude that dismisses/ignores/pities social games & social gamers.

Friday, July 16, 2010

language of game design II

I GOT SOME ‘SPLAININ TO DO.

First! A formal definition of what I was talking about last post.

A game {G} is defined as a set of rules {R} and artefacts {A} which interact on a set of boards {B}.

{R} consists of  statements about the beginning and ending conditions of game G, as well as valid player moves and responses. A statement r ε {R} may refer to any other member of R, including itself.

{A} consists of unique objects within the gameworld that have specific properties. (Properties may be, but are not necessarily, rules).

{B} consists of a finite arrangement of artefacts arrayed in a specific fashion. The rules may alter the appearance of B.  (Rules may govern how a board b behave at its border. Rules might create an infinite population of artefacts.)

Some changes! First, “player actions” aren’t really necessary as a specific category, since they’re essentially special rules. Consider a card game: The rules specifically state how many players may engage, what actions they may take, and when. It is useful to call out player actions as a sub-category of rules, but in the end they are still contained within the set of rules that govern the game.

In place of player actions, you really do need a “board”. Yes, this is exactly the same as GameMaker’s rooms. Boards can also be levels or stages or whatever. YOU WIN THIS ROUND, GAMEMAKER MODEL.

Anyway. I’m still convinced this model is powerful and all-encompassing enough to subsume the category of “games”. Let’s talk about something more interesting now!

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I can clarify a bit why a rules-based system is better than a GameMaker-type system. Besides being “more natural”, rules give two main advantages. Instead of iterating repeatedly to import new sprites and turning those sprites into objects, the creator simply iterates over one set of items: rules. And the cool thing about rules is they contain implicit definitions of the artefacts, and sometimes even the boards!

Check out this series of rules:

1) The game ends when time expires

2) Picking up the “timer” artefact will extend time by 5 seconds

We have actually just defined a timer inline with our rules. What if our tool looked like this?:

rules


Editing rules should look as close as possible to natural language. That means providing a bit of a dictionary for concepts that are nearly universal in games: timers, score, lives. Rules obviously need to govern when the game is over – so we should suggest the creation of this rule up-front. “Time” should be a prepopulated noun, like “lives” or “score”. Because rules are programmatic statements, it isn’t hard to translate the first rule into:

while (timer > 0) continue;

or whatever.

The second statement is a bit trickier because it essentially becomes an in-line definition*. From a user’s standpoint, we already know (having thought about the design of our game previously) that we need an artefact that increases the timer. Instead of importing a sprite, creating an object from that sprite, and giving that object the event “Collision with player => timer gets 5 (relative)” , realizing you never created a timer object & scrambling to define that before you can complete editing your rule, we simply create a rule that says what an artefact a does. Our magic game-generating program recognizes we are trying to govern the properties of an artefact, and automatically creates one for us – even giving us a space to sketch a quick doodle of what the artefact looks like (allowing for the quick insertion of programmer art!).

rule_editor

Here’s a quick look at how the rules screen might be organized. There would be sub-categories for player actions and artefacts (since they interact with the rules quite often). Of course, the artefact rules here would be equal to artefact rules in the individual artefact interface (which, so far, still looks like GameMaker’s object interface in my head – less the events and plus an in-window sprite editor). And changing the sprite in either interface would reconcile that in both interfaces.

So how have we improved the GameMaker design?

1) A more natural language suited to how we actually talk about games

2) Repeated iterations on the rules, instead of on sprite+object+event.

3) In-line generation of objects based on rules, instead of  forcing the creator to pre-create every object and sprite they need beforehand.

Sound good? Are there any interface improvements GameMaker badly needs to their room/object editors? How would this system work at an implementation level? ALL QUESTIONS I NEED TO ANSWER, OR GET SOMEONE TO ANSWER FOR ME.

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*Obviously this poses a problem because, at a programming layer, we need to define objects before they’re actually used. So there is some resolution that needs to occur before compile-time here – shuffling around objects defined in rules to be defined previously to the actual rules themselves.

Incidentally, I am not sure what form the rules themselves take in the actual implementation of this engine. They almost need to appear as first-order functions for maximum flexbility – which suggests an implementation linked to .NET’s C#, or even F# if you are so brave. Scheme or LISP if you are more of a traditionalist who wishes to forego XNA

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Language of Game Design

PREVIOUSLY I mentioned the view that the language of game design is kind of undeveloped. I also mentioned that the tooling for amateur game development kind of sucked.

I decided it was time to put up or shut up . I downloaded GameMaker. Surprise: The tooling sucks AND the language sucks!

First: The tooling. GameMaker operates on a “Game”. You add “Sprites” – pieces of art, which can become “objects”. Objects can have “events” attached to them, which govern their behavior. Then sprites and objects are added to a “Room”. Essentially, it’s a thin layer over the programming approach, where you import art, create (programming) objects, and write event handlers to govern their behavior. Which is mostly fine – although I’ve yet to see a graphical approach to programming work well.

The real problem is the work flow. Sprites, objects, events and rooms are all handled in separate windows, so you constantly switch back and forth, interrupting one task to start another. Creating events is repetitive and there seems to be a lack of macros to automate the beginning process of importing sprites (you need a LOT of sprites and objects, even if you are dedicated to the timeless principle of shitty “programmer art”).

I think part of the problem here is the language being used. Games are formal systems and need a strong, deterministic language to describe them, but if you asked me to describe  Bejeweled, I wouldn’t tell you it’s a collection of  objects represented by different colored sprites, and when you click one gem it triggers an event… Only a computer (or, a programmer) would describe something in such a perverted way.

Let me describe Bejeweled in my own words: There is a gridded board full of a random arrangement of gems. The rules are:

  1. 3 or more similarly colored gems in a row or column will disappear and give the player points
  2. any gems above the disappeared ones shift downwards, awarding the player with an increasing number of points
  3. any empty slots on the board created by disappearing or shifting gems are filled with a random gem coming in from the top
  4. The player can only move gems to create matches
  5. The game ends when there are no valid moves for the player to make

The player is easy to describe: there is only one player, and the only action the player can take is to swap 2 gems according to the rules.

There are various artifacts*, especially dependant on what version of the game you’re playing – there might be a “wildcard” that can match any color, there might be a “bomb” gem that, when matched, makes several gems in the surrounding area disappear, etc.

If you stick to these 3 ideas, you can describe any game perfectly adequately. Mario is a game whose player actions consist controlling an avatar across several “boards” or “screens” or “levels”by walking, running, jumping, or using power-up artifacts.

And the rules are:

  1. If the player falls off the screen, they lose a life
  2. If the player is touched by an enemy, they lose a life
    1. Unless the player has a power-up artifact, in which case they lose the artifact
    2. Unless the player has jumped on an enemy, in which case the enemy dies
    3. The above rule is negated if the enemy has spikes
    4. If the enemy has a shell, the shell artifact is left behind
  3. If the player collects 100 “coin” artifacts, a “1up” artifact, etc, they gain a life
  4. If the player reaches the end of the level, they are allowed to proceed to the next level

I left out a lot of the rules about how the powerup artifacts work – fireflower gives the player ability to create fireballs, which kill enemies of a certain class, etc. Overall, it’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the point is it is easily recognizable as Mario! We’re looking for the minimum necessary system that expresses a game adequately, because people who aren’t programmers don’t care about “events” or “sprites” or “objects”.  I think this system is more intuitive and equally powerful to the GameMaker model, and I challenge you to find a game that is not expressed as a series of rules, player actions and artifacts**.

And if this system is powerful, then it should be possible to create a tool that wraps the programming layer in a intuitive and useful way. A pre-generated set of common rules would be ace– at least enough to cover all the significant genres, from match-3 to FPS (PLAYER ACTION: Multiple players move forward/back/left/right and consumes artifacts as a means of doing damage. RULES: Players struck by artifacts take damage according to properties of the artifact. Players who have 0 health die and lose the game. Last player standing wins. ARTFACTS: Guns, health, ammo) to RPG (PLAYER ACTION: Player navigates avatar and selects choices to interact with computer-controlled enemies and scripted allies. RULES: Health, MP, exp, damage dealt, turn-based or real time actions, level-up. ARTIFACTS: Healing, weapons, etc). And with these common rules, it’s easy to mash up genres so you have an RPG-platformer or whatnot. New rules can still be hacked in through the sprite/object/event implementation underneath, but this should at least as expressive as Game Maker. It’s Turning complete, after all…

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* I like the principle of calling artifacts “gems” but it would be confusing since I brilliantly decided to use Bejewled as my first example.

**It’s also tempting to say “goals” are a necessary part of this system, but I think goals are largely player-driven and defining them as part of our formal system would be too constraining. It’s not neccessary to state that Metroid can be played with the goal of collecting all the artifacts, or with the goal of completing the game as fast as possible – those arise naturally from human interactions with the rules within the boundaries of the player actions.

Monday, June 28, 2010

safe spaces

Everyone talks about Eternal Darkness and Metal Gear Solid and how they “broke the fourth wall” ie violated the commandment to never acknowledge the audience (which videogames routinely ignore in order to deliver tutorials anyway). So why haven’t there been more attempts to duplicate their success?

we have this weird conception of what belongs in a game and what doesn’t. killing hookers or unarmed civilians or arabs is somehow normal and conventional. we praise games for pushing the technological, but we don’t look for people to really give us a good mindfuck. the most creative thing we can muster up is a twist ending. not sure why this is, except for a dearth of creativity – but creatives are still less expensive than the latest 3d engine and voice actors and motion capture.

it’s probably a matter of tooling, then – the instruments of game design aren’t well-defined. the problem, of course, is exposing arbitrary complexity to a non-technical audience. some people think it’s an issue of having a clearer language around game design – how would you explain a game to a 3rd party, and have them output something whose mechanics are even remotely similar? Others think it’s an issue of cutting down the complexity of tooling and getting those tools into everyone’s hands – making the workflow less complex (RPGMaker, in particular, is atrocious at handling dialogue and scripting – 2 of the most important elements of an RPG!)

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I just finished Braid for the second time. The game gives you a lot to chew on – it’s not necessarily hard, but the puzzles make you think in different ways. I think that Blow does himself a disservice to treat the plot like it’s some zen fucking secret when he could be honest without being directive (FOR INSTANCE:“It’s a game about loss, trial and error, and what fixing your mistakes means” instead of “I am literally incapable of using words to communicate the plot I wrote, using words” one-hand-clapping bullshit.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

ayn rand

too long for twitter, too inflammatory for facebook:
“Do you mean Ayn Rand, the greatest philosopher of all time, whose razor-sharp novels of ideas showed us, with their brilliant and uncompromising prose, the way out of a collapsing society dominated by bad architecture and Communist welfare moochers?”



“No,” said Sady Doyle. “I mean the one who wrote The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.“

http://tigerbeatdown.com/2010/06/18/sexist-beatdown-the-artistic-individuality-of-this-recurring-blog-feature-may-be-compromised-by-no-man-edition/

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

gender wars

Is there really a more perfect summary of the arguments around casual gaming than the responses to this article?

Monday, May 31, 2010

worlds

floating from one game to another is a little bit too easy. i spend my time attacking one game, exploring it to its conclusion, then before i remember to reflect, another game pops into the disc tray. the previous game’s universe collapses into a .sav – the next one expands onto the hard drive.

i finished Prototype about a month ago. I didn’t hear much about it besides the fact that it was based on the Incredible Hulk game where you could drop-kick tanks, so I snatched it up for $20. The plot was as sparse or as intricate as I wanted it to be – I could glide from story mission to story mission, I could only play challenges testing my ability to mow down 100 Infected in 30 seconds, or I could stalk the city for people who knew about the plague settling on NYC. It was actually very reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed –  surprisingly faithful to its real-world setting, intricate conspiracy theories to explore or ignore, interesting ways to move around the city. GTA, as a comparison within the genre of open-world games, was never very good at either of those issues – salient plot points are either doled out meticulously by story missions or not at all, transportation is either conventional and pedestrian (can cars be pedestrian?) or unforgivingly sparse. Gliding from Times Square to the top of the Chrysler Building, hijacking a miltary helicopter in midair and taking out several tanks before bailing above ‘Whichcraft, while whipping scientists out of the crowd and consuming their memories doesn’t compare to “running over a bunch of pedestrians in a car and then ramming into other cars until my car sets on fire and explodes” in my book.

I also concluded my experience with Resonance of Fate – not as in “completed”, but “had one of my party members removed for a mission in a game whose central mechanic is that all your party members need to work together”. it’s a fun game, i will probably pick it up again in a month or so after my indignation subsides. like random battles (also in this game!) or escort missions (the mission right before this), removing a party member is a sacred RPG trope dating all the way back to FF1, whose existence is a crutch for gamedevs to lean on when they run out of ideas. Resonance of Fate seemed to work fairly hard to shed Squenix cliches, giving us a battle system without menus, characters with reasonable hair, no MP system with fire/ice/water/air/life/death spells. It’s unfortunate that despite the vastly different mechanics, RoF ended up with the same old tropes – simply because the genre has a history of that trope.

Starcraft, though. Jesus.

Part of the reason I posted a partial history of online gaming was because the PC was once, unquestionably, dominant. Around the time of the Playstation and N64 (and even the Dreamcast, PS2 and GameCube), some enthusiasts were tolling the death knell for the PC. but there were 2 factors working in the PCs favor: (1) online connectivity, which was horribly implemented or outright ignored by everyone except the dreamcast (lol) (2) PC hardware was still expanding rapidly since the heat wall of Moore’s Law hadn’t yet been hit. The chart below shows how dramatic this wall is – you still don’t see CPUs hitting more than 3gHz without dramatic cooling aparatusususussim (I don’t care what the plural of “apparatus” is)

moore's law capped out around 2005

 

And if you correlate with the previous timeline, you can see 2005 is the beginning of the end – Xbox Live launches a popular online gaming service, getting it completely right to the point where Microsoft can charge a monthly fee and get customers for it.

ANYWAY.

STARCRAFT.

StarCraft is the penultimate PC game – something that requires delicate controls only a PC can provide, a multiplayer component that can’t be played split-screen, and a deep, thoughtful, immaculately balanced player-versus-player matchup that only Blizzard can provide and mantain. Add in a dedicated community using public tools to create entirely new genres – Tower Defense? Started as a StarCraft custom map. Defense of the Ancients games? Started as a Warcraft3 custom map. Farmville? Started as a – okay, that’s a lie (But for the record, Farmville inherits heavily from browser-based MMORPGS created before “social networking” – or even “Web 2.0” – was ever a thing).

I chose the word “conclusion” extremely carefully in the first paragraph of this endlessly massive post. StarCraft is so finely tuned that, like many of the finest FPS’ (which are, of course, the flagship of digital graphics, smart twists on old formulas, and online play in the gaming world), its appeal seems nearly endless, impossible to conclude. Yes, you can “finish” the single-player campaign, but like Half-Life, single player is barely the beginning. StarCraft’s multiplayer world is so rich it has developed its own language. Learning the language, improving your play, watching players comment on their games and share knowledge – I won’t get tired of this anytime soon.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

history lessons

1996 - (Indpt) QSpy first launches to make it easier for gamers to find Quake (an early FPS) servers for online play. As it expands to matchmaking for other games, it is acquired by investors and renamed GameSpy.

1997 – (Blizzard) Battle.Net is launched, making it easy for people to play Diablo (an action game) online with complete strangers, and friends. Hacking abounds, but it’s a small price to pay for a centralized server system.

1998 - (Valve) Half-Life is launched. It’s the first first-person shooter to attempt an immersive story without taking control away from the player at any point. It is backed by an extremely easy-to-modify engine.

(Blizzard) StarCraft (a strategy game inheriting from Blizzard’s previous WarCraft titles) launches, using battle.net for online match-making. A huge “pro-gamer” competitive scene launches a year later

1999 – (Indpt) 2 college students who cut their teeth on Quake mods release a mod for Half-Life called Counter Strike. It becomes insanely popular, and the go-to competitive game in the FPS genre.

2002 – (Valve) Steam, a content distribution & matchmaking tool  is packaged with the new version of Counter-Strike, ensuring up to 300,000 new users.

2002 - (Microsoft) Xbox Live is launched with the original Xbox, and brags a unified friends list, a single user identity regardless of game, and basic voice chat . Although Ventrillo also launched in this timeframe and eventually became extremely popular on the PC, a single identity becomes the most flexible and powerful tool Microsoft offers. At this time, Microsoft’s Xbox is the only console with such a powerful online presence. It is also the only platform requiring users to pay for online services.

2004 - (Valve) Half-Life 2 is released and requires a Steam account to activate. Although technical issues bring the authentication system to its knees, Valve sticks with it.

(Microsoft) Xbox Live Arcade is announced, a digital distribution service for the Xbox.

2005 - (Valve) Steam has its first 3rd-party software ready for distribution.

(Microsoft) The Xbox 360 launches. Xbox Live Arcade is re-launched, now integrated into the 360’s interface.

2006 - (Microsoft) Games for Windows is announced, an effort coinciding with the launch of Windows Vista to make it easier for customers to identify and install games suited for their computer.

2007 - (Valve) Major publishers begin to publish their content through Steam. Almost all major PC releases are now found on Steam’s digital distribution network.

(Microsoft) Games for Windows adds a “Live” onto the end of its name, signifying its entrance into the online world. However, it keeps the Xbox’s pricing structure, which pushed users towards titles with free online play (which is basically “every other title in existence”). Adaptation is still low, and isn’t helped by Vista’s abject failure.

2008 (Microsoft) – Late to the game, and struggling heavily in the PC market, Microsoft makes Games for Windows Live free to play online.

2009 (Microsoft) – The 360 gets digital distribution for new release games, on top of its ever-growing online catalog of Arcade and Indie games. Games for Windows Live finally brings digital distribution to the PC, except for the fact that Steam beat it to the punch years ago.

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The evolution is incredible. In 10 years we went from the first matchmaking tool to a nearly complete digital ecosystem. Microsoft made incredible pushes on the Xbox, and completely neglected to show the PC any love at all – leaving the gap open for Valve to completely dominate the scene.

Monday, April 5, 2010

chrome & games

I’m dicking around with Google’s Chrome browser. It’s the only browser that renders Legends Of Zork at anything approaching playable speeds. But it doesn’t have Firefox’s handy “top 10 websites” dropdown from the awesome bar, which I’ve ingrained into my surfing habits instead of using bookmarks. Although there’s an adblock plugin, the Something Awful Forums plugin doesn’t have mouse gestures to navigate the forums. I am a huge jackoff for using mouse gestures linked to a specific forum, I know.

Why am I playing Legends of Zork? Because the gamestop clerk gave me a free card that said “register with this code and get a sweet avatar and the chance to win $6k once you hit level 5”. And then they hit you with “double your chances to win the money by hitting level 15”. The game itself isn’t bad – the enemy names are a bit heavy on the “random” element (Not charming since Dwarf Fortress decimated any other game’s claim to randomness by randomly generating an entire world with unique climate and geology plus 1000 years of civilization, history, and religion to go with it). There’s a sense of humor, executed with varying degrees of success. Essentially it’s a Vampire Wars / Mafia Wars / facebook action-point-based RPG. You can even spend real money to get advantages in-game.

I’m also playing Resonance of Fate, a game with a battle system so complicated it needs its own extensive guide. Fun. I’ll probably write more once I’ve finished.

Same for Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, a DS game where you collect and breed demons like they were pokemon, except this series has been around for much longer and it’s a lot darker. I’m stuck in the second dungeons – the game is known for its punishing difficulty.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

getting what you wish for

Abbot's argument that a realistic war game centered around the battle of Fallujah should be released because of its “potential” strikes me as hilariously misguided. He gives the game the benefit of the doubt, that this game will be an artful, delicate discussion of war and its consequences. I think we can all see this coming: Six Days in Fallujah will be Modern Warfare, but with the main character shooting at actual Iraqis instead of pretend-Iraqis.

Assuming a first-person-shooter war game will treat combatants with respect and artfulness instead of targets in a shooting gallery is just a hilarious way of framing the history of the genre. Even the comparisons to Hurt Locker don't faze me - in a movie, it is possible to work in a genre other than action. Maybe you haven't noticed, but every video game since the death of adventure games have been entirely dependant on "action" as a genre - the way we classify games is not the subject of the game, but by the mechanic with which we are experiencing the action. "Drama" doesn't really suit the existing paradigm for games. In order to argue Six Days in Fallujah will be a Hurt Locker instead of a Call of Duty, you literally have to argue it will completely repurpose the entire medium.

I have nothing to say about the morality or wisdom of releasing such a game. To do so would force me to address every FPS game that was set in a non-fictional circumstance.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

the critical phase

My mind has been blank lately. The games I’m playing now aren’t particularly stimulating (Darksiders, which is… Zelda. And Bowser’s Inside Story, which is… Mario RPG) until I get stuck on something for an hour because I’m terrible at videogames. Nothing interesting is happening politically except for a few fringe things like a dude promising to destroy liberalism in three weeks (Countdown timer!), the health care summit was boring, my programming attempts are foiled by simple technical problems, ET CETRA

So this is the time where I either buckle down and continue to stretch my brain, in order to write without anything occupying my mind – or I abandon this project in a fit of apathy. Since I’m writing this, that seems unlikely.

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I occasionally revisit the global warming post with new information and links.

In a fit of whimsy, I also decided to ask ChaCha (the text message service that will pay someone to answer your inane questions, along with tons of ads) if global warming was real. About halfway through the convo I think someone else picked up the conversation though:

me: Is global warming real

chacha: No, Global Warming was created by politicians in Washington. They paid scientists to invent the idea of global warming.

me: How much did american politicans pay scientists to invent global warming

chacha: Most scientists consider global warming "unproved," dismiss it altogether, or highlight the dangers of focusing on only one point.

me:  What percentage of climate scientists do not believe in global warming

chacha: Over 31000 American scientists have signed petitions against global warming stating that it has not been proven.

me: How many climate scientists are there

chacha: There are hundreds of climate scientists or climatologists such as Krishna AchutaRao,Mark Cane,Joe Farman,Phil Jones and manymore!

me:

If there are "hundreds" of climate scientists how did tens of thousands of climate scientists sign a petition against global warming?

chacha: Perhaps it's a misunderstanding. I believe it was said that tens of thousands of scientists in general signed the petition. Only hundreds would actually be climate specialists. Also, some sources are known to inflate the numbers to suit their cause.

me: Have average global temperatures increased or decreased in the past 100 years?

chacha: Over the past 100 years, the average surface temp has risen by about 1.3 degrees. Most of the increase has occurred since the 70s.

me:

So the globe is warming, but its not global warming?

cha cha: It is global warming. Global warming isn't everything turning hot all the time; it means changing the delicate balance of climate. (This is where I got a new person, I guess)

Anyway. Cute fun. It’s silly to see how the person responded to my direct and specific fact-based questions (except for the last time, which was a silly trap), but I’ve also asked for Metacritic ratings on videogame titles in the past and gotten “The gamespot score is… !” so. Next time I’ll ask about the “hockey stick” study and if it’s legitimate or not, and see what the person being paid to sit in front of their computer and research this question comes up with (It will probably be wrong).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

children’s games

Looking at this article reminded me of my childhood, but not because I ever played Quake.

I wasn’t allowed to have videogames as a kid. I didn’t have an NES or SNES or Genesis, only my trusty x386 PC, running DOS 5.0 with a small collection of educational games.

My parents held 2 beliefs on the subject – that videogames were a brain-draining waste of time, much like television (Did I also mention I wasn’t able to watch TV, except for PBS, from 4pm until my parents came home at 6:30pm?), and that computers were the future. My father was in the computer business, working at a research institute in the IT department. My mother cut her teeth in the Math department learning assembly and Fortran on the mainframe (She later decided to go to grad school, and chose between becoming a florist or becoming a physician when she got accepted into med school). So my parents had no problem plopping me down in front of the x386, on loan from my father’s workplace so he could work from home, from a very early age.

Very early. In fact, my earliest memories are of the computer room, playing Reader Rabbit (the original) and Tom and Jerry (lord knows how that got past my family’s violence standards – I couldn’t even watch the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Power Rangers. Yet by the tender age of 5 I was dropping sticks of dynamite on a cat). My father later admitted to railroading my childhood so I would go into the extremely lucrative field of computers like he did.

ANYWAY – no videogames, except for the approved list. Yet my friends had videogames – Eric next door had an NES. Ray two doors down had a Genesis.  My cousin had a SNES with Super Mario World (still one of my favorite games of all time – every holiday we’d brave Long Island traffic to go visit, and I would camp the television, replaying Yoshi’s Island 2 and Vanilla Dome 3 over and over again, handing the controller off to my cousin so she could beat the ghost houses and Bowser).  I eventually recieved a Game Boy Pocket for my 11th birthday, with a copy of Pokemon Red – and as time progressed I was able to sneak in a few PC games without my parents really noticing or caring.

All our parents limited our game time, though. So when we were run out of the house, we ended up drawing our own levels on notebook paper, which ended up looking extremely similar to Romero’s sketches of Quake.

Historical documents -- okay, sketches -- reveal Quake\'s earliest stages

It’s funny to think of adults doing the same things children were doing, around the same time, and making themselves famous from it. As children, we didn’t really understand what was coming: internet connectivity, AAA titles produced by hundreds of people, media controversies over violence, social & casual gaming, the iPhone. I’m not sure adults saw the future either – they just had an empty space to explore, and the child-like urge to make their own worlds. I don’t think they looked at the world where I called up a friend on one telephone line to negotiate a TCP connection for our second telephone line so we could co-op Descent together, and saw achievements and friend lists and voice chat.

The shape of the industry has, obviously, changed over the past 20 years. The trajectory for the next 20 has been set up: touch & motion controls, massively social and persistent gameplay from your phone and your computer, ferocious competition from both global corporations making AAA platform-exclusive titles, and small developers making flash games. Yet in a lot of ways, the industry & community are still children. We have that sense of wonder and creativity, but also the limited vision, the simple themes and conflicts, the moral clarity of good v. evil. The technology will progress at the rate of industry, but our minds require more time and space to nurture.

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I don’t want to cast technology vs creativity as an arms race. That false dichotomy is already prevalent – the “indie” community, who are supposedly on the forefront of making games for adults that deal with complex or artful themes, almost always cast their creations in a “retro” aesthetic, pixilated graphics, chiptunes and all. Don’t get me wrong, I love that aesthetic, I understand it’s much easier for a single person to do than AAA 3-d graphics, and sometimes it can even be justified as an artistic purpose (I’ve seen one person claim that retro graphics force your brain into processing at the symbolic level, preparing you for the symbolic elements of the game – whereas 3d graphics don’t make you think, so your brain isn’t primed for taking on high-level concepts. I don’t think it’s true, but at least someone is trying to justify the movement). I just think that Mass Effect or Modern Warfare 2, or any triple-A title is capable of more than what they’ve shown. The real issue is design by committee, not technology vs creativity – although complex technologies do require more people to work on a project, there is nothing stopping a strong-willed creative from taking a directorial position and ensuring all components fit her vision.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

combat

I’m fascinated with the idea of an RPG without combat.

RPG Combat is, 90% of the time, a chore. The trend really started with Final Fantasy (yes yes I know about your “basements and demons” and “random encounter charts”. shut up, nerd) on the NES which was so underpowered that keeping track of what enemies you had already defeated was impossible, so it was easier to either respawn all the enemies (a la contra or mega man) or, for jRPGs, have a “random encounter” every couple of steps – essentially invisible enemies stalking the map.

This has the side benefit of turning your 20 hour game into a 60 hour one at minimal cost to your programmers/scripters. It was such a winning convention that I don’t think it was significantly overturned until Chrono Trigger, which had the groundbreaking innovation of letting you see enemies before you fought them.

In my mind, RPG combat is forgettable and skippable. It’s filler. It doesn’t achieve anything besides maybe letting you see your character grow when you hit level 60 and can kill sand crabs in one hit (Expressed best by Earthbound, where lower-level enemies ran away from you, and if you caught them you just got your loot without even going to the battle screen. No one has done this since, which irritates me). Otherwise they’re just containers that make you trade time and hp/mp for a splash of exp and currency/items/ rare loot.

Anyway, I tried to make a combatless RPG once for a SA Gamedev competition. I had a month to do it. I spent most that time trying to get my custom menus to work, instead of doing game scripting or making interesting maps. It didn’t work out so well, although a few generous people saw what I was trying to do and encouraged me.

The premise of the game was simple: You woke up as a newly created robot, sent off to explore the nearby forest. As you approached, you discovered humans, at which point you black out and end up in “heaven”. Then you reappear – at the same point in time that you were originally created. And you are sent on your task, but some glitches occur. You hear things out of order, the world seems a bit different. And then you meet the humans, and black out, and you are in heaven. And you can complete this cycle endlessly, trying to determine what happened before the humans gave you a virus to wipe your memory in order to preserve their hiding place, trying to distinguish what was “real” from what the virus was doing to you. Or you could go to heaven, and enter the gate, and sink into peaceful oblivion, ending the game.

It wasn’t executed very well. I’m not a good writer. I’m a worse programmer. Scripting was clunky and difficult, even using a toolset. I’m waiting for the right tools to come down, something that integrates map design with character design and a better flow for scripting events. I didn’t have the patience to put in all the triggers my story needed. This is my common failing with projects – I give it my all for 2 weeks, or a month, and then I lose interest and get distracted. This is my fear for this blog as well.

The point is, combat wasn’t necessary for this game. It was an RPG, but you didn’t need to fight forest animals or humans or anything, because it served no purpose to the story. The sole mechanic (barely implemented – god I’m such a lazy ass) was collecting information for the robot’s central database by examining items – and learning about humans would allow you to query the DB about them, which would trigger a catastrophic event.

I think there are a lot of stories that can be told without combat. Imagine a small town where you went from door to door, helping people with their problems & learning about the dark secrets hidden beneath the town. A great horror story, better if it ends with your inevitable death.

Or taking the combat mechanic and fitting it to something more suitable to a turn-based blow-by-blow. Like a conversation RPG (NOT OBLIVION).

* You used: angry tone! It’s super effective!

I think we can all agree that the best parts of Fallout3 weren’t the combat (although there were some great combat moments!), but exploring the new world laid before you, trying to make sense of it all, entering a convenience store to find elaborate traps laid out, hacking into computers to read the last words of a dying family… There are a ton of things you can do without assuming an unlimited army is assailing the player every 15 steps.

I guess I’m essentially asking for “short story” RPGs instead of sprawling 60 hour epics. Bundle them up and sell them as a package, like we do for books. It’s a great way to break out of the sci fi / fantasy rut the genre is currently in.

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As always, there are a few games that break the rules completely. Deus Ex made combat almost like a puzzle, if you wanted to play stealthy. Fallout3 used limited ammo and shaky aiming to create the impression of being dumped in a hostile, scary world where every shot is critical (and has a 10% of being critical, hoo hee hah hah). But by the end of it, you took 100 skill points in your favorite weapon and several perks to create more ammo, and you were a damn god of the wastelands.

Plus the first time I entered the metro system, I got bullrushed by a horde of feral ghouls, at least 10 or 20. I pulled out my shotgun and blasted away furiously until I discovered i had backed into the wall and had run out of ammo. I died, but it was one of the most pitch-perfect moments in gaming for me. I have never had such an experience with a jRPG – unless you count the time I spent an hour grinding a boss’s health to 0, and then his minion healed him back to full health before I could deliver the killing blow. Wait, no – that was the wrong kind of emotion. god damn you, shin megami tensai series!