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.


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