Friday, December 12, 2008

Fable 2 - Moralizing vs. Choice

For some reason there's a stigma about posting something on one's blog that one has said elsewhere. If I've said something in such a way that I think eloquently, and quickly, gets to the point, what's the harm? That's right - there is none.

This is a discussion with the ever-thoughtful Simon, over on the GA Tech News Games Blog, about Moralizing vs. Choice in Fable 2. Enjoy.


Great article.

On the topic of Fable 2, as you know, after passing the game you are given an excellent, and truly differentiated set of choices. The largest problem therein lies with the fact that each of these choices gives varying degrees of reward *quality*. Let me stress the word "quality" once again.

By presenting rewards of different quality, the game inherently biases the player toward one of the three outcomes (guess which one?).

One of the choices gives the player something they could otherwise not have (given they choose one of the other rewards), another of the choices gives the player something they could easily obtain on their own with a little more work, and the remaining choice gives no reward whatsoever (except maybe feeling a little better, morally).

By giving rewards of different quality, the game is in fact NOT asking the player to make a moral choice, but one of utility.

In order to truly task a player with moral choice, a game must offer rewards that are unique, but generally equal in utility. You hint at this briefly with your reference to the first KOTOR - by choosing one path the player inherently gives up another. In Fable 2, though, the player can effectively have it all by making a single choice, thus making the other two choices moot.

Thoughts? And keep up the good work.

~David S.



Thank you so much for this comment. It's the best I've gotten on the articles I've posted for this site (maybe because you're a designer, so you know how to cut right to the chase). I definitely tried to voice my general discontent with the alignment choices in Fable II when I said "despite the utter lack of meaningful choice I found while playing Fable II..." but you really nailed it. For me the last choice was difficult only because I'd been playing the game as a complete bastard. The third choice, the one with the least quality, would have been much better if like the other three it had anything to do with the Spire and the souls locked within it (but it doesn't). Since I'd played the game slowly over the course of a month, I had so much money from rent payments by the end that this choice was really laughable. But the other two gave me quite a pause. I liked that the game all of a sudden made it difficult for me to a bastard.

So yes, I completely agree with you that the varying levels of quality in these choices makes the somewhat obvious. Raising the idea of utility, however, I'd be interested in playing through a game like KotoR or Morrowind or Fallout 3 as a strict utilitarian to see how many "good" or "evil" choices I end up making. Also the idea of designing a game with more nuanced philosophies than "good" and "evil" would be fun (I think Fallout 3 does a good job of making neutral a viable option). Thanks again for reading and writing!


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Comedy & The (Short Essay On The) Linearity Conundrum

In early 2006, a team from Harmonix, creators of the original Guitar Hero (and now Rock Band), gave a presentation at the GDC’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop titled “Guitar Hero – The Failures.” (link) At this talk, Dan Sussman and Eric Brosius discussed their experiments with an unreleased game mode for Guitar Hero called “Freestyle Mode,” where the player is given relative free reign to create a melody of their choosing.

Ultimately, the mode didn’t work and they provided three reasons why: they couldn’t get it to sound good; they couldn’t fit it into game design; and it was hard to teach the usage to players. A simple way to sum this up would be “it’s too free.”

In mid-2008 a game called Metal Gear Solid 4 was released. Although this game received the requisite across-the-board high scores, there was one common gripe that many reviewers, and players, had with the game. Namely, the cut scenes were LOOOOONG. 30, 60, or even 90+ minutes long. During this time, the game provides you with one of two interactive options: watch the cut scene, or skip it. A simple way to sum this up would be “it’s not free enough.”

OK, I admit, MGS is only a half-assed example, but you get the point. These are two extreme examples of stochastic and linear gametypes. Many players would love to play freestyle mode, and many players enjoy watching MGS’ long cutscenes – but this article isn’t about those games or how fun they are, nor is it a critique on either.

Balancing the linear and stochastic elements in our medium is the difficulty we face; make a game too free and players flail in their freedom, but make a game too liner and the game fails to take advantage of what makes games great, namely, the way our choices affect the game’s outcome. Movies and books have an advantage in this sense – they are inherently linear, so do not have to deal with this quandary. A non-interactive game is nothing but a movie.

But there are certainly ways to blend the two (in fact, most games are a blend), and there are even ways to give the player a choice between a more liner experience and a more stochastic one.

Take Fallout 3, for example, the epitome of a modern day open-world game (or any of the Elder Scrolls games, for that matter). Anyone who has played this knows that they spend more time than is truly necessary pulling up their map and determining which direction to travel in the labyrinthine undercity. A simple solution would be a visible waypoint crumb trail, a la Fable 2 or even GTAIV. This would dramatically increase the accessibility of the game, and thus increase the games sales. They could even make it optional by being one of the game’s perks, so fans don’t decry such heresy.

My girlfriend spent literally 5+ hours creating her character in Oblivion, only to stumble out of the sewers into the wide world, overwhelmed with too many quests and no clear goal or direction. She wanted to play Oblivion, but it lost her due to the difficulty of figuring out what the game wanted her to do. Conversely, she played Fable 2 more than I did, and always knew where to go thanks to a proverbial yellow brick road. There’s no reason the game can’t have this option (hmmm… mod opportunity!), especially considering how there’s a strong possibility the entire world’s AI navmesh is already present, making it so the hard work is already done.

Finally, we get to the reason I wrote this article in the first place. I pose a question to you all:

Is it possible to create a game where the central premise is comedy, or is comedy inherently too stochastic and too subjective to be the pivotal gameplay determinant? There are plenty of games that include comedy as an element in their presentation, but I know of none that, for example, strive to have the player create comedic situations. And really, in what ways could a piece of software determine what is funny and what is not?

A gold star to anyone who nails this one, and a high-5 for getting half way there.


An Email...

This isn't directly related to Interactive Media, but considering my strong interest in the business of said industry, it might apply. Enjoy.


Yes, I think you're exactly right. The article definitely hit home with me, b/c I've seen the same things that he noticed years ago. All the problems we face today were visible years ago, but it was so easy to make money that everyone just went along their happy way.

The incentive structure that most CEOs and boards have created is extremely misaligned with investor interest - and not just in the financial sector. Managers are incentivized to take absurd risks, partly because the manage to quarterly earnings (not, say, 5-10+ year earnings, even though most shareholders hold their shares for a much longer period of time than a few quarters), and partly because, even if they are fired, they still walk away with millions and millions of dollars.

The best example of this, in my mind, was the CEO of Bear Stearns, who lost billions of dollars for shareholders, yet walked away afterward with hundreds of millions for himself due to his golden parachute. And just last night AIG announced that it was paying "retention bonuses" to its top executives, b/c it's no longer allowed to pay "end of the year bonuses" due to the terms of the gigantic bailout the government gave it.

The amount of money the government has already spent on this bailout is ridiculous - it adds up to about $30,000 per US citizen. Wow! It makes Iraq look like a drop in the bucket.

But this too will pass, and once things settle down another bubble will eventually come, that's just the way it works. I've come to the conclusion that there's not much that can be done to change the system - the robber barons of the early 20th century only lost their power because the great depression was so bad and so many people had so little. While the masses are placated, they have no reason to start a revolution or rock the boat, and even the poor of today have refrigerators.

We hear about all the layoffs at the financial firms, and yes there are lots of people out of jobs, but the companies are hiring them all back, just at much cheaper rates. Why pay a middle manager 200k when you can pay someone desperate, but just as good, 100k?

Can you tell that working in this industry has made me a little jaded to it all? Hehe. I think back when I first started, a wide-eyed idealist who believed that in the business world when people tell you something that they meant it, and that it was necessarily true. I like to think that I've done a lot of growing up during this time, and will be much, MUCH better prepared for the future because of it. As the famous quote goes "trust, but verify." All too true.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Quotes Entirely Relevant to Game Design

In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting or statue in its existence apart from the human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventions that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience.

~ John Dewey

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Games as Art: You are the Painter

Games can most definitely be classified as art, but maybe not in the way most people think.

Each game presents a new medium upon which to paint one's own experiences; each is a different canvas evoking different emotions, feelings, or lack thereof (just as traditional art does). The differences are subtle: Halo is the acrylic where WoW is the oil, and yet you can paint whatever experience you want with all of these things, given the limitations of the material. You can't surf the Nā Pali coast in Halo any more than you can use traditional tempera paint to coat an acrylic gesso surface (not counting mods, of course).

Like each painting, sculpture, or art style, each game has a different meaning to different people, and enjoyment of each will depend on personal taste. How many refrigerators have been home to finger paintings over the years? And how many mothers have loved every messy line or wobbly resemblance of a smiling face? How many crappy garage bands have emerged from band practice feeling like kings of the world? Yet, regardless of the quality of these creations, we still refer to them, and love them, as art.

But the most important part to understand is that it's not only the game itself that is the piece of art, but the player's interaction with it; the art is channeled, and truly created, through use. A game with no player is a keyboard with no pianist; beautiful, yes, but incomplete. You can't appreciate the Mona Lisa if you have no eyes, just as you can't appreciate Super Mario Bros. without physically interacting with it. You can't appreciate Macbeth without experiencing it (reading, watching, or listening), just like you can't appreciate the aforementioned Halo without needling some grunts. In order to appreciate an art form it takes a certain degree of fluency; if you don't speak English then Shakespeare may be lost on you, just as if you don't learn to use a controller then you won't be able to fully experience a game in the way it was intended.

But wait, can action or interaction really be classified as art? Certainly. Look no further than the art of dance or stage play. We can watch a dancer, just as we can watch other people play games, but a type of magic happens within the dancer that can at best be empathized by the outside observer and at worst misunderstood.

Roget's 21st Century Dictionary defines art as "creation meant to communicate or appeal to senses or mind." There's no arguing that video games fall under this definition. It's easy for a non-game player to disregard games as art, for you can't understand something without using it in the way in which it was intended.

If you are reading this, you've probably had a video game experience that moved you in a way that no piece of traditional art ever could. Think back upon an especially exhilarating or captivating moment. Do you realize that that amazing moment was created through the interaction between yourself and the game? And thus I say to you: welcome, artist!


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Quotes Entirely Relevant to Game Design

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
Of all things physical and metaphysical,
Of all things human and all things super-human,
Of all true manifestations of the head,
Of the heart, of the soul,
That the life is recognizable in its expression,
That form ever follows function. This is the law.

~Louis Sullivan

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Level Design Musings

I've been thinking a lot about level design recently. I use the term "recently" in the relative sense; it's effectively consumed every free thought for at least the entirety of 2008, but... something's changed.

I realized the change when I was playing Super Mario Galaxy this weekend. Somehow 6 months ago I was unable to appreciate the sheer genius of the game's level design; so simple, so purposeful, so charming, yet so complex. Why can't other games live up to what SMG has done? Maybe it has to do with sheer dedication and time spent in development (the game was in production for nearly four years, and I’m sure was conceived of long before that). Maybe it has to do with Miyamoto’s overall vision. Without having worked with large development teams, that's not a question I can yet answer, but hopefully soon…sooooon.

These days when I walk into a room I think about how it would fare as a gamespace. What type of game would this space lend well to (if any)? How would I change the layout? What is this space’s intended function and was it designed with that in mind?

When looking at these IRL spaces, one difficulty arises in my mind over and over again, namely, if I were to recreate this space as a level, would I still include the obvious architectural flaws? For example, in the hallway of the building I live in, between my apartment and the elevator, this is an area where the beam running along the ceiling is misaligned, creating a ledge in the ceiling with a gap about one foot wide. It may have been the building was remodeled, or possibly poor architectural design (judging from the rest of the building, I have a feeling it was the latter).

So the question is, should this obvious error be included in a gamespace recreation of my apartment building, and in what context would it be most appropriate? If I were to recreate it as it was, it would probably look like my world modeling skills were sub-par, or at the very least it would be a little distracting.

As level designers we create a world for which the player to lose themselves in, and we want that world to be as believable as possible in the context of the game. At the same time, as level designers we must ask ourselves the purpose of every detail, and unless it adds to the believability of the gamespace, my instincts tell me that a flaw like this should probably not be included (unless of course the goal was to do an exact recreation, warts and all).




Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Discussions with Leigh - Japanese Dominance

I love Leigh Alexander. And by that I mean I love her writing and I love her blog and I love that she's not afraid to tackle NSFW topics. And I'm proud of her being the news editor over at Gamasutra. Good job Leigh!

A few weeks ago she and I had a discussion about her post
here and I wanted to touch on that topic a bit. To summarize, we were talking about the fall of Japanese developer dominance, and here were my thoughts:

Regarding the lack of Japanese dominance, it goes back to Raph Koster's "Theory of Fun," insomuch that we have fun when we are learning. Let me explain...

Like you said, even *gasp* YOU are getting sick of JRPGs. The very fact that a reader can be pretty sure what sort of JRPG they are getting by reading a poorly written review says that there is little new ground to cover in the JRPG space (or at least, little new ground is being covered). The formula (and that's what it is) has been beaten to death so many times that we are no longer learning anything by playing JRPGs, it's the same old formula over and over again, thus, we have stopped learning and they stop being fun. Boring.**

A good example is Resident Evil 4. It's not THAT much different that the old REs, but it was given a cinematic flair and a significant facelift to change the way the core game was played, thus creating a new challenge and a new learning experience. As they say, you can't tell the same joke twice and expect the same reaction. It was the best thing that could have happened to the arguably dying franchise.

Can you tell I've lamented the death of the JRPG? ;)


**(I contend the Pokemon RPGs were such a huge hit, b/c they catered to the younger generation less exposed to JRPGs, and provided a safe, new genre for them. The youth will, and should, always have JRPGs made for them. They're a damn great way to learn.) (Additionally, if Japan produced a dark, gritty JRPG with ADULTS in it, one that is not anime-style, the west be more inclined to play it. Hell, we'd probably gobble it up. We don't associate as strongly as Japan does with anime teenage boys. All I have to say is Marcus Fenix and Master Chief.)

And here was her response:

Savid -- your (and Raph's) theory is a good one, but oddly, the games on which I get the most hooked are the most TOTALLY repetitive. My two biggest time-sinks, at over 150 hours on the most recent DS titles, are Harvest Moon and Pokemon. Perhaps that's because I'm not using them to "play" so much as I am to kill time? What do you think?

And my response in return:

Damn, you're quick! Has anyone ever told you you should write for a living? ;P

Hmmm... and I have found myself pouring equal amount of time into FFTactics A2. The DS rocks!

But is that just us?

I can't help but think that if it truly IS the case that Japan no longer dominates the videogame space, it's because most other game buyers/players aren't playing Japanese games. Maybe it's because of a lack of new ground being broken, but maybe... maybe American games just comparatively sucked back in the day so it was pretty easy to dominate.

To look at it another way, I wonder if, say, Mercenaries 2 (to use one of your recent plays) could ever sell in Japan as well as it does elsewhere. I know Gears of War didn't, but that may be due to lack of penetration. Japanese games seem to sell pretty darn well in Japan. I don't see any plans to port Monster Hunter Portable G to other regions, despite huge success at home. Is it a matter of cultural preference?

Like you touch briefly on in your article, maybe it's a disconnect between the way things are today marketed between the regions (XBOX's marketing in Japan has historically been pretty abysmal, and sadly, so has Okami's here.). Capcom has overtly stated that they try to design their top games with a global eye.

Or, maybe it's just
The Long Tail working it's way through the gaming world. If that's the case, many games will probably continue to be made regional-centric and no one region will dominate.

But I think the most important point is something you bring up at the end of your article, namely, that the cross-cultural partnerships being developed ARE happening, and that's a GOOD THING! From a sales standpoint, that's absolutely necessary. From a gamer's standpoint, that only means better games. And I, for one, am excited.

After much consideration, I've come to believe my Long Tail theory is most applicable to this topic. Japanese developers dominated in the 80s and 90s because they were (mostly) the only ones who made decent games. There's just no comparing the polish of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat or even Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore. Today, studios from all over the world make decent games and will continue to.

And JRPGs aren't boring (well, mostly), but I am certainly tired of playing yet ANOTHER anime-inspired linear game. In fact, the only JRPGs I even take a look at these days are the main Final Fantasy series, and those are only modestly anime-inspired (tho I am REALLY tired of every freaking FF having basically the same characters. Squall looks like Tidus, who looks like Vaan. And of course there's Yuna and the new FF XIII chick who might as well be clones. C'mon guys! Some variety please? There's a reason I never got through FFXII).

So, in short, US developers will continue to cater to the US consumer base, just like Japanese developers will continue to cater to the Japan consumer base, and that's OK. Hopefully the good games, the games that really push the limits, are the ones that will get localized and then we can all benefit (Katamari, I'm looking at you as a historical example.).


My Huge Contributions Part 1

In case you were ever wonder what the heck I've ever contributed to our video game culture, look no further, and feast your eyes upon.... THIS! It's from the always awesome Kotaku. (Yes, the David they are referring to is indeed me).


Phew! I just got done with a big project I've been working on. MAN that feels great! Right now it's a secret; hopefully I'll be able to discuss it in the coming months. I have a few posts which have been mulling around in my head, so here they come ;)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mercs 2

I’ve been looking forward to the Mercenaries 2 demo on XBL for a few weeks now, and it finally arrived! I quickly downloaded it and fired it up (pun intended), only to be… well… disappointed. For a few reasons. The first being that I couldn’t easily tell what the heck I was supposed to do.

I was plopped down in front of a base, eventually figured out I had to land a helicopter on top of a building, and then… nothing. Nothing happened. I get out of the helicopter and a baddy immediately spawns out of nowhere and flies it away. I like to think of myself as someone who can usually figure things like this out, but… no dice.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never played Mercs 1, or maybe I wasn’t paying good enough attention to what the objective was. Regardless, I’m disappointed. Possibly in myself; I can’t decide if it was me or the game who is broken, so it’s hard to direct my disappointment.

I still plan on gamefly-ing it, if I can get my hands on a copy before October’s slew of awesome releases (Fallout 3, Fable, Gears 2… well that’s in November, the new Castlevania DS), at which point I will be so distracted that I will probably never come back to Mercs 2. Gamefly is a long shot, tho, as 95% of the time they are out of whatever game it is I want to play. Sometimes I question the validity of their service, but I suppose that playing a game 6 months late is better than not playing it at all. Plus, I get to play tons of games that I KNOW I would never consider purchasing, if for no other reason than to dissect them from a design perspective. And I suppose Mercs 2 falls under that umbrella.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Super Power Club

My mom, presumably going through some old boxes or something, found my first wallet and sent it to me (I don't even remember owning it!). Check out the treasure I found inside:
Awww, that brings me back. Somewhere, rotting in my old closet in Hawaii are the first 50 or so Nintendo Power magazines (you know, back before Nintendo Power was one giant ad for Nintendo games, and instead had awesome maps, walkthroughs, tips for bosses, and what not). Those are probably collectors items now. These are the baseball cards of my childhood.

I've been working my way through the excellent series by Darius Kazemi titled Effective Networking in the Game Industry. FASCINATING stuff. That guy is a networking addict, it's great.

Specifically I've been contemplating his suggestions for business cards and have decided it's pretty necessary design one of my own. I'm sure I'll put a copy of it up here once that's done. I'm going to have Tracie (or if she refuses, someone else, or even myself) draw a little picture of me with some of my trademark distinctions (badass claw-shaped scar on my left eyebrow, childlike grin, blue eyes, yellow shirt). Or at least those WILL be my trademark distinctions after I, you know, network better. Not that I've ever had trouble meeting friends, I like to think I'm a pretty likable guy. That and I'm a good listener, ooooh how people like to talk. I'm such a good listener, in fact, that I spend 6 hours a day reading game news and other game-related blog entries, and ignore my inbox and this blog... hmmm...

Ok, back to the mines I go.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Game Design Challenge: Satire

Woo Hoo! My submission was chosen as one of three "Best Entries" in the most recent GCG Game Design Challenge! I'm freakin' pumped! You can read all the winning entries here.

The topic was satire; develop
a game concept that satirized both one theme of your choice and video games in general. That sort of topic is RIGHT up my alley, as I basically live my life saturated in satire and camp. I love it. What's the point of life if you can't laugh at yourself, right?

Here are some of the judge's observations:
This was a difficult challenge, and the submissions reflected it. It seems that not many readers are worked up about particular themes and topics to such the extent that they want to rip into them in a satirical way. Most submissions focused more on pointing out typical flaws in video games than any other theme. For example, more submissions played on Final Fantasy than on the upcoming U.S. presidential election -- and politics is among the most common themes in works of satire that there is. It was a very difficult challenge, indeed.

Unlike other challenges in this series, there was a lot of room here to express personal opinions, but very few people really took advantage of that.

This brings up a good point: the aspiring game designers who are readers of this site might be at a stage in their learning and career paths where their focus is on acquiring and internalizing foundational game design skills (such as game mechanics and prototyping). A focus of this nature often precludes the ability to focus on the kinds of skills that will be developed later, like one's artistic voice. But eventually, all game designers should be asking themselves, "What is it that I have to say through my games?"
(Emphasis Added)

The answer doesn't have to involve satire or politics or morals or education -- but it does have to be something. For now, think on it, and give it time.

Here is what they wrote about my entry:
I have a feeling David G. Saunders was sitting around one day and thought to himself, "You know what this world needs to do? It needs to start picking on hippies again." His game idea, Eternal Happiness, teases video game players by not giving them an army of undead, but an army of Grateful Dead followers. Check out his list of names for game levels, too.

Haha, that's great. For the record I have nothing against hippies, and actually some of my best friends are in a freaking awesome hippie-tastic reggae band. Growing up in California and Hawai'i has certainly instilled more than a little hippie-ness in me, and really, I like to think of myself as a "corporate hippie."

The idea actually sprouted from a conversation on the couch with Tracie about how zombies are always evil. WHY are they evil? Why can't they be reanimated and actually be quite friendly; who are we to assume they are always evil? Then I started to think about ways in which you could possibly raise zombies, and the necronomicon - the book of the dead - was right up there on the list. Well, I've known some Dead Heads in my day, put two and two together (it equals four, BTW) and here we are. Genius!

Anyway, here was my entry:

Warning: The following piece of satire may be offensive to some people.

Today's title is called Eternal Happiness. The back of the box reads something like this:

In this pulse-pounding game of survival horror, you are Pantagrulian, an ancient and wizened necromancer of pure evil. At the bidding of your dark master, the dark god Darkrath, god of darkness, you have finally purged the great secrets of the fabled Book of the Dead: the hippienomicon. Now you can finally fulfill your lifelong desire to raise an invincible army of undead and thrust the world into eternal darkness.

There's just one hitch: The reanimated undead army you just raised isn't very evil. In fact, they want nothing more than peace, love, happiness, and to shower you with kindness!

With this newly amassed army of love zombies, the enemies of light have grown nigh-unstoppable. You and your companions must traverse the world in search of the seven lost pages of the hippienomicon before happiness spreads across the land forever!

Like all interactive media masterpieces, Eternal Happiness starts out with an un-skippable 130 minute cut scene. During this time the player learns that after summoning the horde of hippie undead, Pantagrulian somehow missed the fact that the hippienomicon is not the book of the dead, but rather, the book of the Grateful Dead. In this survival horror game the player must avoid the love-filled hugs, kisses, and goodwill of love zombies and other creatures of the light, all while trying to save the world from, yup, you guessed it, eternal happiness.

Our anti-hero is joined by his faithful companion, Sackboy, an evil-loving, comic relief sidekick who has the misfortune of being born in the shape of what can only be described as a part of the male genitalia (hence his name). Luckily, Sackboy has many helpful powers, such as the ability to stretch his body into various useful shapes (a ship's sail, for example). He just can't take a punch very well.

Along the way, the player will encounter light-loving enemies that include an androgynous 14 year-old boy with uncommonly stylish hair who is on a quest of monster collecting and self-discovery (so that the game automatically sells a gazillion copies in Japan), a gruff veteran bad-ass who is obscenely buff (so that the game automatically sells a gazillion copies in the U.S.), and of course the player's arch nemesis: a mustachioed paladin.

Eventually the player will encounter the female lead, a scantily clad woman by the lengthy name of Morrigan Ivy Tifa Samus Chun-Li Taki MsPacman Laura Croft, who just happens to have a burdensomely large chest -- so burdensome, in fact, that this buxom beauty has difficulty moving, not to mention chronic back problems (her 14-inch waist doesn't help).

The companions travel all across the world, and level titles include names such as Obligatory Snow Level, Inside a Random Spaceship, Tower of One Billion Floors, President Evil, Mushrooms and Pipes -- The Long Strange Trip, and Emancipation City.

In the end, the player is given a choice: banish the forces of light in celebration and reign over the dark lands forever, or embrace the light and plunge the universe into Eternal Happiness. Ultimately, both choices give the same ending, because if there's anything we've learned it's that disparate good vs. evil choices in video games make little to no difference anyway.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Learning From Too Human

Too Human is a title I’ve been watching for about a year now; small potatoes compared to the oft-quoted 10 year dev-cycle. According to our outspoken Canadian friend Denis Dyack, it wasn’t actually IN development for 10 years (it had been conceived of way back around the time of Blood Omen, so it’s REALLY an idea that has been around for something like 17 years), but its real development time was more along the lines of 4-6 years. Semantics. I had still been out of the loop for far too long. When I DID finally learn about the title, I was really excited. Really really excited. I’m generally excited about ANY game that lets you play co-op on a single console (which means Tracie and I can play together – more game time!). Well, they scrapped the co-op on a single console (if it ever was really in development), but I still got the game anyway. Rented, mind you. (I love you gamefly). Given the WIDE disparity of preview impressions, I had known for some time that this was a title to be approached with caution. But I enjoyed the demo. For the record, I’m on the final chapter and about 7 hours into the game. I would probably give the game a 7 overall.

It’s strange to reflect upon, but there are few games which have taught me as much about game development as Too Human has. Let’s look at what we can learn, shall we?

  • Watch what you tell people; manage expectations. Too Human is a polarizing game – either players LOVE it or they LOATHE it. Most of those that loathe it were excited about it at one point. And half of those loathers became disgruntled b/c Silicon Knights had “cut” so much from the game. Don’t tell people you’re going to do 4-player co-op if you aren’t sure you want to do it, you set expectations too high, and that’s NEVER a good thing. I first came across this lesson years ago thanks to Peter Molyneux’s ambitious Fable, which “cut” the big-picture (but ultimately non-important) things like acorns turning into oaks and the player having a true effect on the world. I would argue that Fable was still successful because those things, cool as they were, weren’t required to be part of the core experience. (Tho part of dungeon running is doing it with your buddies).
  • Do your homework. I’m not talking about the Norse mythology here, but instead SK’s decision to use Epic’s damned-awesome Unreal engine. SK is currently in a litigation struggle with Epic, stating that the engine they received didn’t work correctly and instead SK had to develop an engine of their own, which took about a year. I won’t weigh in on the validity of these claims, because I know far too little on the subject, but I will say that the engine SK made is pretty crappy. If you are using an engine that is new to the marketplace, or one that your employees have never used before, pencil in plenty of extra time to iron out the unforeseeable.
  • Create a believable world by never mixing vernacular phrases. When characters say something to the tune of “there be monsters here,” but ONLY speak in non-modern English dialogue when it is convenient, it just comes off as cheesy. Searching the Googlebox for good (or should I say, bad) Too Human quotes, I came up with this page. There are plenty more examples littered throughout the game.
  • If you traverse semi-large worlds you need a minimap, a compass, or some sort of waypointer. Too Human is fairly linear, but those with less than an exceptional sense of direction are sure to go the wrong way from time to time.
  • Always make the player aware of the rules. In a recent interview with Dyack, he stated that the game takes a higher degree of strategy than traditional clickfest RPGs. Why? Because if you don’t first take out the boss monsters you’ll probably die a lot; the bosses will enhance the abilities of their minions through their buffup auras. If I had not watched this interview I would have had NO IDEA that the bosses have buffup auras at all! WTF?! Without knowledge of the rules how are players supposed to get a sense of mastery over the game’s various challenges?
  • Beware changing aspects of a genre that players are used to without asking the question "why is this way better?" A different way to put it would be to “get customer feedback early.” Every time you die in Too Human you receive a 30 second, unskippable sequence of your body being carted to Valhalla. I’ve never once heard a player say that they LIKED this, but that's not the point. Plenty of games have punishments for dying, and punishments are a satisfactory way of conditioning the player to feel like they have overcome hurdles. Denis defends this specific punishment by saying that an unskippable death scene is significantly better than having to go recover your body. I disagree. While yes, it is more convenient and may take less time, the player is being FORCED NOT TO PLAY YOUR GAME. I’ll say it again, the player gets LESS in-game time. I’d rather have my character walk around unarmored, naked and timid, then to FEEL like I am having my precious time wasted. An unskippable cut scene, which in this case is effectively as bad as a loading screen (maybe worse), is nothing but a waste of time. Additionally, by having a palpable punishment that actually affects the player’s character instead of a punishment that affects the player himself, we keep the sense of immersion in tact. This is a significantly better design choice. When the player dies and is forced to wait during a cut scene then player is much much much more likely to get bored with the game. It gives them a chance to put down the controller and walk away. But when the player dies and is forced to go back and pick up their armor, the player's sense of risk increases, making the successful recovery from death that much more enjoyable. Even epic sometimes. That experience is impossible to re-create by watching even a cool cut scene over and over and over.
  • Finally, we come to presentation/polish. Where to start? Too Human generally plays well. But at the same time characters clip through the floor, the animation feels stiff, targeting enemies is difficult, it’s hard to differentiate between one room and another, the main character has a weirdly shaped head (and is generally uncompelling), and anything organic just looks… relatively unattractive. Too Human is meant to be a game for hardcore gamers. With all the other well-polished AAA titles out there, the competition is fierce, and if you want to run with the pack you can’t piss with the puppies. Know your audience and give them what they want. If your audience is used to perfection and you give them anything less you are going to get bad reviews. Period.
I didn’t write this post to bash Too Human – it’s easy to be the critic. And I’m pretty sure I’d like to finish the final chapter, which says a lot considering how I have a hard time finishing the games I love. In the end, for all its faults, the game is enjoyable enough. I don’t expect the game to sell well, but it won’t be a total flop. The one thing that resonates through most of the reviews I’ve read is that the game has “potential.” I agree, and I hope they make a second game. But more than anything, when developing their next title I hope they listen to the community’s feedback.


Thursday, August 14, 2008


Braid. Braid definitely needs to be talked about (as if it’s not talked about enough these days).

When I first came across Braid, I wasn’t especially excited about it. The art style just doesn’t grab me the way it seems to everyone else. I mean, it’s not bad by any means, and the more I’ve played it the more I appreciate it, but I think that’s just preference. I think because of this reason, coupled with the fact that the game has been in various stages of development for YEARS, and I mean YEARS and YEARS, I had decided to just wait and see if it was worth my attention at some point in the future. I’m sure the long development is one of the major reasons why the level design is so excellent; pure iteration (I’m a huge fan of design iteration). But again, at first glance the game didn’t really grab me.

As time went on, though, and as those around me got more and more excited about it, I too became swept up. All the early reviews were talking about how amazing a game it is, how it is a (excuse the pun) game-changer, how the story actually MEANS something (unlike most games), and it’s an example of what all us game lovers and game designers should aspire to achieve.

When Braid was released I immediately ran home from work and downloaded the game. The process I went through to obtain Braid is almost laughable; because we had recently moved apartments nothing was set up and we had no internet. I pulled TVs and consoles from room to room in order to bootleg our neighbor’s erratic internet. Fortune favored me in the case of Braid, but the internet cut out before Geometry Wars 2 could be completed (awesome, awesome game BTW). Because my girlfriend was sleeping, I dreamed up a crazy method of receiving audio into my headphones (which involved undoing all I had done to set up the stereo system in the first place), plugging in various wires through not one, but two amplifiers (one for my guitar, the other for my computer), and in the end, yes I had gotten the music, but the amps had distorted and magnified the audio so much that I could barely get the headphones next to my ear for how loud they were. The sound quality wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough.

Braid was different than I thought it would be. Through everything I had read about the game, it was somehow left out that it involves turning back time. I guess reviewers were too busy hailing it as a masterpiece. I think this feature is unbelievably wonderful; the ability to go back indefinitely coupled with the idea of having no lives makes the game that much more accessible, letting the player essentially learn at their own pace. (File that one away in the design repertoire.). Having to play and replay the same parts over and over would have been over-the-top aggravating, and I’m sure the game wouldn’t be half as awesome without it. And of course, turning back time is integrated into the puzzle solving itself.

The game is much harder than most other, similar games are, yet at the same time, like I said, unbelievably accessible. A better way to put it would be that the game actually forces the player to think about finding a solution to each of the puzzles. There were more than a few times in which the solution just clicked in my mind, only to have me say “you bastard, I can’t believe I have to do THAT!” And it’s an amazing feeling. It plays exceptionally well into the whole learning = fun thing. (Read Dan Cook’s The Chemistry of Game Design if you haven’t already, Dan’s great at explaining this concept.)

The story didn’t make me cry bittersweet tears of emotion, but it was certainly deeper, and maybe hit closer to home, than most other games I’ve played. I loved the fact that the story wasn’t pushed on the player (I’m a big believer in the Valve-esque non-cut scene.).

Right now Braid is the highest rated XBL game in history, according to Metacritic. Wow. Jonathan Blow estimates that in the first week of release the game may have sold around 55,000 copies, not yet enough to recoup development costs, but enough to extrapolate that development costs will be covered sometime soon and enough to support his next project. That’s pretty cool.

But for being the #1 rated XBL game, 55k copies isn’t exactly phenomenal. Braid, for starters, is a game made by an experienced gamer FOR experienced gamers. This is in no way a bad thing (I love it!) There are tons of references to games, and it’s great to see that. But at the same time while the game is accessible, it’s hard to imagine it being played by the masses. Maybe it requires too much deep thinking and not enough stuff blowing up. It’s more proactive than reactive. It’s not quite puzzle solving in the traditional math class sense that, say, Professor Layton is, so maybe the platforming aspect is not quite as intuitive to non-game players. The story itself also requires a certain amount of critical thinking; and not everyone wants “deep.”. Those who get it, get it, those that don’t, well… don’t.

There is no doubt in my mind that Braid will be hailed as the masterpiece of flawless execution that it is. It pushes the boundaries of what 99% of games out there are willing to do, and it’s obvious when playing it that Jonathan Blow actually CARES about his game. I mean really CARES. Only someone that invested, both emotionally, and I’m sure monetarily, can create a game with this much attention to detail. Hats off to Jonathan and the whole Braid team for setting the bar that much higher.

~Savid D

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Welcome to the New Age

It’s official: we have entered a new age of video gaming. Bioshock, Okami, GTAIV, Braid, Castle Crashers; what do these games have in common? At the surface, each plays differently, features vastly different art styles, and target different audiences. It’s the 2nd of these characteristics that is the most illuminating, namely, we have reached the point in gaming history where artists can now express themselves HOWEVER they wish, with little hardware limitation. This gives an unbelievable amount of freedom to the artist, and really, also the game designer. I’ve never been more excited about games in my life.

But Bioshock and GTAIV go much much deeper than this. They have a distinctive difference that sets them apart. I might argue that it’s this very difference which has granted each of them exceptionally high review scores. The difference is very subtle: both games feature their worlds as characters. I use the term ‘characters’ in the loosest of senses, but world as character is a characteristic that these games were hailed for. By creating a world that FEELS alive, these games have created a sense of immersion which is considered the absolute best that gaming today has to offer.

When I first played Bioshock I was in… well, shock. Immediately immersed. Having read more than one of Ayn Rand’s books, I found the world that was created to have grabbed my imagination; it was absolutely believable and mesmerizing. The first few hours of the game are truly memorable in a way which is different than any game I’ve played recently. In fact, Bioshock may have set my own personal immersion bar higher; I hope to give players a similar feeling in my future exploits.

(As an aside, over time I realized that Bioshock’s gameplay itself was certainly less than polished, and a little shallow. What happened to the exceptional scripted events that the first 1/5 of the game contained? A good example of this is parts of Rapture flooding or falling apart – in the beginning those events kept me on my toes, but since no similar events ever occurred after the first few hours or so, I quickly became confident. I kept hoping for new types of enemies; none came. I kept waiting for new and innovative plasmids, none showed up. Regardless, I’m sad to learn that the Bioshock team isn’t working on Bioshock 2.)

GTAIV’s world as character needs no explanation to anyone who has played the game.

I had considered putting Oblivion on this list, but Oblivion didn’t quite have the… what’s the word?... cohesiveness that these other games had. Oblivion is amazing in that you can create your own story, and absolutely one of my favorites (I’ve clocked over 100 hours on that game, possibly the highest of any game I’ve ever played). But I didn’t really get the sense that what was occurring in one place had any relevance in another place. To put it another way, the lore, concerns, and happenings of one side of the world didn’t seem to mesh with the other side of the world. The world is big, but it’s not THAT big in the real world sense of the word (16 square miles, if I remember correctly). Granted, it’s easy to be the critic.

But I digress. Innovative and visionary artists: I’m talking to you. Your time has come.

~Savid D.