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.