Thursday, November 29, 2007

Free games and tools!

Some of you might have noticed I'm not commenting on sites quite as much as I used to. Sorry about that. Or you're welcome. =)

Right now, I'm doing some temporary contract work for a game developer named Isotx. It's a pretty cool company I think you'll be hearing a lot about in the next year.

One thing that means is I'll be contributing articles to Write the Game over the next month. Yes, that's right... another blog! I suppose it's yet another symptom of mental illness, but wouldn't you rather believe I just love all of you that much?

Anyway, I'm not the only writer there, and it's a little different than this one since it's aimed more at developers. So, if you're a developer or going into game development, check it out.

Since I'm not really part of the company, just a temporary contractor, I don't feel the least bit guilty for directing y'all toward the sweet tool they've come up with.

One of their products is a unique tool for gamers and developers alike called CrosuS. Nifty gadgets like the Apple iPhone combine all sorts of useful stuff into one quick and easy tool. That's basically what CrosuS is, except it's a free software program. Browse and download free games, mods, gamer videos, chat tools, audio tools, modeling programs, and modding tools, among other things. It handles mod installation and switching. It also acts as a news-tracker, linking to articles by 1UP, Gamespot, and other sites. It also has an IRC channel. They're always adding new stuff, as well as new services.

I've only just begun messing with it, so I probably don't even know all the stuff CrosuS does.

For example...
If you play World of Warcraft, you might be interested in one of the many add-ons included on CrosuS. There are probably other places you could find them, but CrosuS is all about making them ridiculously quick and easy to browse, download, and install. There are mods for single-player games, like Oblivion, too.

There's a tool that connects all of your instant-messenging programs (AIM, MSN, ICQ, etc.) into a single chat program. Once, I would have thought only a cheerleader or a prom queen would need something like this. These days, with the internet, it seems everyone's a celebrity. But I still think people who can carry on three IM conversations at once are possessed!

There's a real-time spell-checker and dictionary...for blogs and forums! Don't worry. Nobody has to know you're cheating. ;)

Then, of course, there's the free games. Which leads me to...

I didn't start this article just to point you to some cool software or recommend yet another bookmark for your endless list of interesting blogs.

I want to hear about the cool free games and software you guys know about. Even if it's not free, but it's really useful software -- be it a gamer's tool or a developer's tool -- post a link.

CrosuS reminds me of GuildCafe in some ways. It's meant to link communities and enable people to tell others about the cool stuff they stumble upon. So if you know about anything worth checking out, tell Isotx or post it here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Last to know

One of my sisters is "always the last to know." What about? It doesn't matter. She's the last, regardless, it seems.

And she doesn't like it. Aferall, she's family, and people share important goings-on with those they care about. We all have our secrets, but loved ones don't appreciate being kept out of the loop.

If your company or game is in trouble, or if something dramatic in some other way is about to happen in or around your game, tell your players and fans.

They're your family, the ones who care and feel close to you. They'll understand if you're not completely open about everything, but they expect to at least be notified about the big things.

Fans hate being the last to know.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Games parody

If you haven't played the new Simpsons game, I recommend a rental to anyone who grew up on games and knows a bit about the industry assembly line. I tried it last week, and it's an excellent parody -- a video game that makes fun of video games.

Each level has a cliché for the player to find. These range from the infamous crates to heroes who apparently never learned to swim. The "marketing machine" is just one of many settings devoted to game production. And, of course, the endless stream of Simpsons-style dialogue is hilarious.

I mention it because it's worth checking out, but also because I've never seen a game before that appealed so directly to industry insiders. Some of the humor requires familiarity with particular developers, like Will Wright. Other parts seem much funnier if you know the business of making games. It reminds me of Adaptation or other Hollywood films making fun of Hollywood.

There's a demo for the Xbox 360. I'm not sure about other trials. But the demo doesn't contain many of the inside jokes I'm referring to. Go rent it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Kiss those old games goodbye

Keira over at Write the Game provided a brief history of the game industry before Nintendo's original console. She took the time to do some research, so it's well worth the short read.

As many already know, the University of Texas is building an extensive and formal history of the industry before veteran developers start going the way of the dodo. Richard Garriott and Warren Spector are among the old fogies who are helping out.

Once, I was a history major in college. I love histories in general. One thing you quickly learn by being a lover of that field is that any history is as much about definition, organization and selective context as about facts.

As Keira's article touches on, we are already seeing competing histories about the game industry's infancy. How much further will our understanding of the past fragment into conflicting stories? Which histories will dominate? I expect that UT's history will prove very influential, largely because of its formality.

Also, how much longer will we be talking about those early generations of games? How much longer will they remain accessible to new gamers?

I was born in 1980. I can count on one hand the number of people from my generation who have demonstrated any knowledge of black-and-white movies to me. I can't think of even that many who would watch a black-and-white movie by choice, rather than just because some grey-haired relative commands the TV remote. How many people of my generation have seen the earliest of movies -- silent films? I have yet to know of one beside myself.

Will there come a time when the only people who care about those early generations of games are the folks who grew up with them?

Christmas is about the only time my large family reunites each year. This Christmas, we plan on having a Mario Kart tournament. Mario Kart on the SNES is a game that lapsed-gamers still love and non-gamers still enjoy watching. But, though its release might seem so very long ago, the game actually came out only 15 years ago!

Generations shouldn't be measured in years, but in movements. It was not the passage of time that made black-and-white movies inaccessible to people around my age. It was major changes in focus, style, and presentation. The game industry will age at a much faster pace than the film industry has. The leap from Frogger (pun intended) to Command & Conquer is greater than the leap from silent films to "talkies". The jump from Doom to games like Spore and Mass Effect is greater than the jump from black-and-white films to color films.

I expect many important games of early generations to preserved but generally forgotten in the very near future.

SUWT #14

Darren invited me to join this week's Shut Up, We're Talking podcast, along with Adam and Mike. It was a lot of fun. Feel free to continue the discussion here or at one of their sites.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Come play

There's often a difference between an online friend and an offline friend. There doesn't have to be, but I bet most MMO gamers know what it's like to appreciate another player as groupmate but not want to give that person an email address.

Why not give players an option to be emailed group invitations by other players?

For example: I'm offline, but I've enabled this option. You and I grouped for the first time last night, and you enjoyed my company in the game. You're in the game now, you can see that I'm offline, but you're hoping I'll be able to group sometime before you log off. So you select an in-game option to email an invitation to me without need of knowing my email address. Just as "/tell [name] [message]" only requires that you know my character's name, this only requires the character name and my selection of "enable invitations by email".

The value of such a feature is simple. Sometimes, you may be doing something other than playing the MMO, but you're available and would log in if you had a group waiting for you when you did. You can be notified of friends logging in (only at the friends' discretion) without needing to fill your time with boring actions in the game. Such notifications would be more common if they didn't require sharing personal information.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Mass Effect: initial impressions

Bioware makes great games. Few companies of any kind maintain such a consistent focus on quality. Mass Effect, like all Bioware games, is something innovative and well-designed.

After 3 or 4 hours of play, I'm impressed... but not as much as I expected to be. That's not because of hype. The game has some serious flaws.

From all the preview videos I had seen, I thought this would be a game to share with my non-gamer family and friends. I expected Mass Effect to have broad appeal. Now, I have the impression that this is a game for hardcore RPG fans, and few others.

First, there's pacing. The pace, at least in early hours of the game, is incredibly slow. The combat isn't slow, but I would estimate that I've spent only a third or less of my time in combat. I have the impression that will change soon, but the overwhelming majority of the early game is spent in dialogue and running around. Keep in mind, I've been exploring side-missions, and fast-travel within the first city is only possible after having first walked to each location.

Inventory management and character upgrades are significant barriers to the game's pace. There's an automatic levelling option for ancy gamers, but there's no automatic gear system. Expect to spend considerable time in paused gameplay. You'll pick up new gear surprisingly often; which is great, aside from its effect on pace.

Wordy and unrealistic?
The dialogue system is engaging, but not as engaging as I expected. Because I'm something of an idiot in regard to body language, perhaps it shouldn't surprise me that the dialogue doesn't grip me much more than the dialogue in Neverwinter Nights did. But the semi-gamer who watched me play stopped watching after only five minutes and never got excited, so I'm thinking the problem isn't just me.

The visuals and voice-acting are both superb (I can forgive the mediocre lip-synching). The dialogue, however, is often unnaturally verbose and eloquent. I'd expect more dialect variation between characters. The pace of dialogue often seems unrealistic, especially since it's apparently impossible to interrupt NPCs by choosing a response option early -- I could have sworn they had advertised that interruptions would be possible. Different, real-world cultures have different expectations of pacing and pausing in conversation, but there's definitely a problem when a relaxed Southerner, like myself, thinks the pauses are too long. The problem might rest largely in not dividing high-intensity conversations from low-intensity conversations. The more intense the conversation, the smaller the pauses should be between speakers.

The player's choice system during dialogue is not so simple as previews and interviews have suggested. On the right side of the dialogue menu, Up represents a positive tone, Middle represents a flat tone, and Down represents the negative. That much is intuitive. However, you'll want to read each option.

If you have any explorative blood in you, expect the level designs to waste your time on occasion. You'll come down a ramp and notice a path to your right, then follow that path and realize there's nothing there. Environments include a lot of dead space.

Volume troubles
There are no speaker options in the game's audio settings menu. I'm assuming that's why some character dialogue is so much quieter than other dialogue. Elevator conversations, NPC chatter, and other non-cutscene dialogues are significantly quieter than dialogue in the cutscenes. As a result, I have to make my TV's volume much louder than with most games and bear with the cutscene dialogue being louder than I'd like, if I want to hear all of the other dialogue. I'm assuming the game's audio was configured for surround sound only. Whether that's true or not, speaker options certainly should have been provided to avoid this constant annoyance.

Those are the problems that stick in my mind, but I'm still anxious to play more of Mass Effect.

Surprise attacks
One benefit of the game's unusual emphasis on storytelling is that it can trick you into lowering your guard. I've run into one fight in a place I didn't expect. I've never felt ambushed in any game so much as in that moment.

Another time, I had just finished a fight and began to make my way back out of the area. I wondered if I should have my gun out in case more enemies had filled the room I cleared a few minutes ago, but I kept my gun holstered. That decision cost me my life. I was ambushed again, and it was too late by the time I got my gun out and crouched behind something.

Gear selection
I didn't expect new items to drop so frequently and make me think so much. Mass Effect feels a bit like Diablo 2 in that I have to make subjective decisions about gear. Should I load the armor-piercing ammo into my assault rifle and the phasic ammo into my shotgun; or vis versa? Do I want more physical protection for my armor? Or would I rather upgrade my armor with a mechanism that improves my melee damage? Should I specialize particular weapons to particular enemies (one for organic enemies, one for mechanical enemies)? Or would I prefer ammo that does lesser damage, but to all enemy types?

Significant story decisions
I mean that in two ways. First, an NPC once walked away and decided not to offer me his mission because I was rude to him. My dialogue choice affected mission gameplay. Second, moral decisions must be made which define the player's character. You'll be surprised how much complexity this will add to your character's personality. What causes does he sympathize with? What sort of behavior will she tolerate?

Assassin's Creed certainly has wider accessibility. Mass Effect seems, initially, more for experienced gamers and people who are interested in story-driven games. My early impression of the game is that it will be fun, but it's probably a niche experience that many gamers won't be interested in.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Room for the reckless

Ever noticed that "berserkers" in video games are never encouraged to go berserk? Their rage can make them faster, more powerful, or open up special attacks, but it never really sends them into a frenzy.

Games usually emphasize strategy and thoughtful play for a number of reasons. For one, many people like to be challenged intellectually. Also, it's easier for a developer to control a game's pace and intensity if the game is focused on overcoming set obstacles in controlled ways.

But there's something to be said for reckless gaming. I like intellectual challenges, but I also enjoy careless mayhem in wild environments. Some people have first-hand experience of my reckless habits, like charging into the midst of five Halo 3 brutes so I can smack one in the face with the butt of my assault rifle.

Sometimes, I want to play without a seatbelt. Sometimes, I want to drive off-road... in a sportscar. Sometimes, I don't want to worry about death penalties, health bars, mana bars, etc; I just want to play in the experential, unfocused way that we all enjoyed when we were little kids.

The first game I can remember that was devoted to this sort of play is Rampage. Here's your giant monster. Here's a city full of terrified citizens and skyscrapers. Now, go eat people and smash buildings.

Spore will certainly involve more strategy than Rampage, but it also is devoted to experential play. I, for one, expect to be spending more time in the editors than in any other part of the game. When I take my custom creature out into the wild, I can expect the environment to be wild... to be strange and untamed. When my creature meets another, there will be no name coloration to tell me, "This thing's going to spank you, then laugh at you, then eat you. Run away!" That's because the game isn't about victory and defeat. It's about enjoying the moment, and exploring.

Should there be more games like this? Definitely. But perhaps a better question is: Can there be room for the reckless in games that also include strategic play? Can an MMO, for example, allow my berserker to truly be a berserker, while also allowing my wizard friend to play thoughtfully to conquer fixed achievements?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Assassin's Creed review

So I've finally put enough hours into Assassin's Creed that I'm comfortable reviewing the game. I was able to play about halfway through the game before a scratch on my disc prevented me from progressing further. I blame gnomes.

Overall, it's a great game. Gamers of many genres and styles will love the gameplay. What will vary considerably from one gamer to the next is how quickly that gameplay gets old. Rather than cover every feature, I'll try to use a few features to reveal the big picture.

A lot of strong points. It has the most engrossing melee combat I've ever experienced. The level design is beautiful and provides a great playground for climbing, jumping, and escaping. The excellent graphics, camera angles, and voice-acting combine for a cinematic quality that will have you thinking of Hollywood films. There's a lot of room for gameplay customization.

It's most significant problems are inconsistencies in realism, occasional camera mistakes, long cinematics, and potentially redundant gameplay.

I've got three words for you: best swordplay ever.

Like in many games, you'll start out with minimal abilities and weapons, acquiring more as you progress. When all you can do is attack, block, and grab, combat feels a little frustrating and isn't so impressive. But the first addition to your reportoire, the ability to counterattack, changes everything.

When you counterattack, the camera changes to a cinematic angle to highlight Altair's graceful, dramatic kills. There's an impressive variety of counterattacks. The distance between Altair and the enemy, the relative position the enemy is attacking from (behind, from the side, etc), whether the enemy is using a normal attack or a power attack, and perhaps other factors combine to determine what sort of counterattack Altair uses. One slams his sword through a shoulder. One thrusts his blade through the enemy's chest and out the back. All are bloody and graceful, but each has a unique flavor.

The sword isn't the only option in combat. You can also fight with your dagger, or even rely solely on your assassin wristblade. Each weapon has its own style and counterattacks. Fighting with the wristblade alone is challenging, but definitely satisfying. There's also grabbing (throwing), counter-grabs, and evasive leaps.

And you can mix it up during combat. Surviving is generally not very difficult, but the player is rewarded for learning the nuances of combat and responding quickly to the emerging situation. For example, I was once fighting with the dagger, stabbed someone in the throat with my wristblade, then was able to catch another's attack with the sword in time for a counterattack. You can grab one soldier and throw him into another, thereby evening the odds slightly for a brief time (you might be surrounded by five or six enemies). Or you can throw someone to the ground to make him easy prey for your sword.

A few other points on combat: The animation and sound effects for stabbing someone with your wristblade is incredibly satisfying. Killing an archer on a nearby building with a throwing knife, just as he's aiming his arrow at you, is also great. And there is mounted combat.

What I'm trying to make clear is that you can fight your own way. There's room for developing your own style of combat, and choosing your own difficulty. The cinematic quality of it all sucks me in completely. I know that this is a game I'll be able to replay from time to time, because there are multiple ways to play the game.

"Is he crazy? Why is he devoting an entire section to horses?" Because I think they're a microcosm of the whole game. Seriously.

First, they're beautifully rendered and animated. Turning, galloping, trotting, jumping, rearing... it all looks perfect.

Then there's the surprises. You can charge through enemies on your horse, knocking enemies aside and possibly killing them with that alone. You can pull out your sword and swing at them as you race by, too. But, careful! They can trip your horse and send you tumbling! Generally, I jump off my horse once I'm a few meters past the soldiers to face them on foot... and there are multiple animations for this, depending on how fast the horse is moving when you dismount.

If you're fighting by your horse, she'll kick any enemy that wanders too close!

That one took me completely by surprise. And that's what I mean about the horse being representative of the entire game. You notice the visual beauty right away. It moves realistically, immerses you in the gameworld. But there's depth to everything that must be discovered gradually. When you start the game, it seems much simpler than it actually is. The more you play, the more actions that you realize you have at your discretion.

As I've discussed before, cinematics in Assassin's Creed are definitely more compelling than the usual fare because of the player's limited control of camera angles and character movement during the scenes. However, some of them are noticeably long and will irritate many players despite the exceptional player-involvement.

I mentioned inconsistent realism. Beneath your rooftop perch, citizens of many types wander, chatter, preach, and even react to your actions. You sprint down a city street, and a guard says you're going to hurt someone. You climb a building, and a half-dozen people stop to watch, saying things like, "Why would he do that?". I onced killed a pair of guards on a busy road; every person who walked by noticed and responded (some through action, some through words). I'm talking about literally dozens of people over a period of five minutes or longer. Bodies don't fade when they're out of sight. You have to go considerably farther away before corpses disappear.

So what's the problem? Well, one moment, you'll gaze across a district of old Jerusalem, based on real historical information, in awe. The next moment, you'll walk behind a guard who has his back to the wall -- a space hardly big enough for you to squeeze into -- and that doesn't raise any suspicion in his mind. Two soldiers stand within a couple paces of one another, and you can stealth-kill the second before he responds to the first. Honestly, I'm impressed by the degree of realism in the game, but it seems that success makes faults that much more obvious.

The cinematic camera changes during combat are great, but you'll occasionally want to scream in frustration as the camera is blocked by a person or bush. Camera control is an important part of combat in Assassin's Creed. You won't be fooling with it constantly, but slight adjustments now and then help to prevent problems like this. Still, I find it hard to be forgiving about mistakes so obvious. It might have been a difficult problem to fix, but the average gamer won't understand or care about such difficulties.

The story and cinematics are certainly interesting -- more interesting than any game I've played in the past year -- but some cutscenes are irritatingly long.

I think Assassin's Creed is an exceptionally good game. Its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. If you're an action-oriented gamer, you'll love the combat, roof-jumping, and escapes. If you're an explorer, you'll appreciate the level design, hidden flags, and explorative combat. Achievement-focused gamers can make choices to complicate gameplay, and finding all the flags is no easy feat. Social gamers, this is a game that people can enjoy watching you play; this is gameplay you can share with even non-gamers (the controls are simple enough for non-gamers to perform the most basic actions, too).

But not everyone will enjoy the game for more than two or three weeks. And people who do buy the game should experiment to discover some hidden depths (try switching weapons during combat). I would recommend it as a rental to absolutely anyone, though.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Review timing

A couple of people pointed me to a great post, by Gabe of Penny Arcade, about a problem professional reviewers are likely to run into when reviewing sandbox games. The gist is that sandbox games are not designed to be played through quickly or in a linear fashion, so a review of a such a game is not likely to be accurate unless the reviewer has the time to play the game as most gamers would play it: leisurely.

I think there's more to consider when reviewing sandbox games than just the time constraints, but I'll save that for later. For now, I want to re-emphasize something I said in response to one of Brian Green's articles. Basically, I think there's little sense in any game's review coinciding with its release date. Short delays in getting games reviewed are really not a big loss to developers, reviewers, or fans.

Who are reviews really for?
I'm not sure, but I bet that most people who read any type of gaming coverage at all read game previews. And odds are that a gamer who hasn't been hooked by a game's previews isn't going to pay much heed to the game's reviews. That gamer has probably gotten into the habit of glossing over any news about the game, so it would take an extraordinary marketing stunt to get him or her looking again with an open mind.

If the gamer is on-the-fence and waiting for reviews to tip him one way or the other, he's probably already skeptical and therefore more open to non-professional reviews than to professional reviews.

Reviews probably make a bigger difference with non-gamer gift-givers, like parents, and very-occasional gamers than with regular gamers. These are the people who are in the most need of when help making a purchasing decision. Even then, such consumers are more likely to simply ask an offline friend or store clerk about the game than to look up a review on a website they probably haven't even heard of.

Reviews probably have a more significant effect in influencing delayed purchasing decisions than purchases on release day or even within the first week of release. Reviewers, please don't feel rushed. Marketing folks, relax!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

MMOs and Happy Hour

Every once in a while, someone comes up with something that's a lot of fun to think about. By now, you've probably heard the analogy that MMOs are like themeparks. Well, what if an MMO was more like a bar or pub?

That's the first thing that camed to mind when I read Raph's article. Sometimes, people choose which bar they'll go to according to who's cutting the price of their drinks on that particular night. Cinco de Mayo? Pappasito's is having a special on margaritas. St. Patty's Day? Molly's pub is selling Guiness cheap. Similarly, a "free to play, pay to gain" MMO could host weekly or monthly specials on their RMT items.

Bars usually have such specials to coax more folks in on nights which would otherwise be slow, like weeknights. An MMO could similarly host special events to ensure server populations remain within a fun range (i.e., players can find groups).

What are some other features of our favorite waterholes that might be translated into MMO features? I might come back to add more ideas later.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Body language in Assassin's Creed

I've only played Assassin's Creed for 2-3 hours so far. I'll probably write a review at some point. But, for now, I want to focus on just a single element of the game. It's an element that I have not noticed in any other game I've ever played, and I fervently hope other developers will realize its value. That element is body language.

At many points in the game, I feel like a movie director. Cutscenes take over to reveal the story, but I maintain some control of both the camera and movement of my character. Believe it or not, such a simple feature opens up new and exciting roleplay opportunities. Through a little experimentation, I quickly realized that my choices could add significant nuances to the portrayal of Altair and his involvement in these scenes.

In one scene, Altair is being lectured by a superior. I can't control the dialogue or its tone, but I can choose Altair's body language.

One option is to leave Altair standing in front of the authoritative figure who is admonishing him. If I do this, there is an implicit suggestion that Altair is being obedient; humble, even. Altair will speak with defiance regardless of my choices, but he will at least pay full attention while his superior is talking to him.

Another option is make Altair turn his back on the man; a sure sign of disrespect.

Yet another option is make Altair pace, back and forth along the dais, during the lecture. This is what I did, and it created the impression of Altair being in a state of frustration or indecision, like he was mulling something over in his head.

And, of course, such actions can be combined in direct response to the conversation. At one point, I had Altair's back turned to his superior. When the boss surprised Altair with an insulting twist to his orders, Altair spun around (evidently in shock and fury) to face the man. The turn happened to coincide perfectly with Altair's verbal response.

As Altair, I was sitting on a bench and eavesdropping on some nearby NPCs (an actual game mechanic... not just me being imaginative when I could have stood right by them). In this case, I didn't have control of my character, but I did have control of the camera in 1st-person perspective.

I'd occasionally look directly at the men I was eavesdropping on. But, to make it more interesting, I often looked at the characters only out of the corner of my vision or not at all, as one would really act if he or she didn't want to be noticed eavesdropping.

I could also watch other, unimportant NPCs with "my eyes" (the camera) as I continued listening to the quest-involved NPCs. Like in an MMO, peripheral characters wandering by help to flesh out the gameworld. Allowing me to watch them as I was eavesdropping on others made it possible for me to complicate the story setting through my imagination. If you were eavesdropping, perhaps you'd be a little anxious that someone would spot you doing so. With the aid of the game's camera, I was able to manifest this same line of thought in Altair by having him remain wary of passers-by. See what I mean by complicating the story?

Such control of the character's movement (with a little imagination --> body language) and camera encourages me to experiment and enables me to become immersed in these cutscenes like no other. My gripe about cutscenes has always been that they essentially pause gameplay, replacing it with the passive viewing we experience with TV and films. Cutscenes have always suspended the player's interaction with the gameworld, and interaction is what games are fundamentally about. But Ubisoft has found a way to reveal story cinematically while maintaining interaction.

I'd love to hear a member of the Assassin's Creed development team comment on this. While allowing the player to control his or her character during cutscenes was certainly deliberate, I wonder if they realized the depth of impact it would have.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

RPG doesn't mean slow

Rampant Coyote raises the question of how much action is too much in an RPG?

My Bartle-type is EKAS... equally obsessed with Exploration and Killing, not so big on Achievement or Socialization. Take out either the exploration or the combat, and I'm not a happy gamer. Many of my favorite games (Battle for Middle Earth: 2, Stars Wars: Battlefront, Diablo 2, Deus Ex, etc) have involved a combination of visceral action with character development/selection and an imaginative setting.

Turn-based combat usually means a slow and uneven pace. Combat in Neverwinter Nights is the closest thing to a middle ground between turn-based and real-time; it kept the pace up enough for me to enjoy it, but I was still frustrated by the artificial pauses in between actions. I enjoy combat for the thrill of the moment. I'm a greater fan of tactics than of strategy. Pauses in combat, interruptions of my character control, break up the experience. I understand that other gamers prefer a more easily manageable pace and want every action to be carefully thought out, but I'm as much a fan of FPS games as RPGs. And, yes, I'd like to see the genres combined to an even greater degree than has already been seen.

More focus on action does not require less focus on roleplay elements. One's development doesn't have to be at the expense of the other.

There are two elements that I think are essential to RPGs: setting and character customization. Some might argue that only setting is necessary. A game might let you roleplay Batman by forcing you down the exact path Batman takes in the movie with the exact same skills and dialogue. But that's only a semblance of roleplay. True roleplay involves making choices, because choices are the driving force of personalities. Without being able to make decisions for the character I'm roleplaying, I will not become very attached to that character. And it's just not fun. If you tell a toddler that he must play with his He-Man toy in a very particular way, he's likely to stick He-Man's sword in your eye.

That's how Dark Messiah of Might & Magic fails, in my opinion. There is some skill customization, but defining the character should involve more than skills. That game forces the player down a very linear path, and all the environmental manipulation (like knocking the legs out from under a platform, so it falls on the guard walking beneath) is plainly handed to the player. Too many constraints. Too much hand-feeding. Oblivion does a better job of adding personal style to combat, but what makes it infinitely more worthwhile than Dark Messiah is the inclusion of choice in so many other aspects of the game.

I feel like I'm just rambling, so how about an idea of how to connect action and roleplay?

Include story-relevant dialogue during the action. We see it all the time in films and literature. Not only are there countless examples of fun, minor revelations in the midst of combat ("I am not left-handed" --Dread Pirate Roberts), but serious story-progression during combat is also common ("I'll never join you." "Luke, I am your father."). If gamers can be expected to listen to spoken objectives during such intense combat as in Medal of Honor: Airborne or the Call of Duty games, then I think we can reasonably expect gamers to catch story-related dialogue during combat. Though, it would probably be a good idea to include a text record of dialogues (similar to the Objectives window in many games), so the player has reminders.

Likewise, I think there's a lot of room for growth in making actions more meaningful to plotlines.

Monday, November 12, 2007

MMO change will creep, not explode

Postulating that Tabula Rasa will open the door for new game models to sneak into the MMO genre, Keen wrote: "A storm is brewing and the winds of change are going to be mighty strong."

If there's a storm brewing, I expect a light drizzle. No thunder, no lightning; nothing to catch the attention of the folks inside (the people who aren't already playing MMOs).

It looks to me that The Agency will be a bigger step away from the traditional MMO model than Tabula Rasa is; and it's significant that The Agency is by one of the main players in the genre, SOE. Still, I doubt even that game will be successful enough to take everyone's eyes off WoW. Developers will go on mistaking World of Warcraft as the pinnacle of MMO gameplay for years to come (I am thankful to Richard Garriott, though, for publicly stressing that they're mistaken). And when WoW is a distant memory, the mechanics which drive it will still be around.

The MMO genre won't experience any sweeping changes soon or, perhaps, ever. What will happen is we'll see more games blurring the boundary between MMO and other genres, like Hellgate: London and Habbo have done.

Hellgate is focused far more on small groups and individual players than on a massive community... which is why a single-player, offline mode is even possible. Habbo, on the other hand, is a social sandbox in which most goals are invented by the players, rather than the developers. In the nature of its appeal, it's more similar to Myspace than to Everquest 2. Yet both Hellgate and Habbo are regularly referred to as MMOs.

One by one, developers are going to design games with oddities like these; oddities which are noted but have no widespread impact on the genre. One by one, they'll sneak in there... until one day we all look around and say, "How did we get here?". The genre's eventually going to look different, alright. But the change is going to come so gradually that most of us won't even notice until it's already happened.

A side-note
I forget who said it, but some developer once pointed out that "Massively Multiplayer Online" is not a genre of games in the same way that "First-Person Shooter" or "Real-Time Strategy" are. "FPS" and "RTS" summarize styles of gameplay in ways "MMO" doesn't. If a game isn't in first-person perspective or doesn't focus on (or, at least, heavily involve) combat, then it's not an FPS. But just look at the differences between all the games popularly called MMOs!

Perhaps, ultimately, that's the reason change will come gradually to this genre. One FPS game can change the whole FPS genre because most FPS developers are focused on the same goals and most of the genre's games share one audience. Different MMOs, on the other hand, focus on different elements of gameplay (such as RvR, small group instances, solo play, etc) and there's less crossover between players of games.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Another blog?

The horror! As if I don't drone on enough already, I started another blog over at GAX (blame Brent).

Basically, I wanted a blog I could take less seriously and where I could post whenever I felt like it, rather than on a semi-regular schedule. If it's not about gaming or not something I want to post here for whatever other reason, I'll post it there. I'm going to try to make it more casual than here (though I need to lighten up on this one, too).

I called this site Anyway Games because I use the word "anyway" entirely too much. My mind jumps around constantly, and my friends and family often get lost as I race into a new subject without warning. Well, this other blog is going to be even worse. =)

My first post there is about my annoyance with the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray format war.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Lighten up

Some good review advice.

And some more good review advice from a couple weeks ago. Ironically, it covers a different subject but could be summarized by the same title.

Prototypes, storyboards, sculpting, and other production thoughts

Once again, Craig got me thinking. This time, he got me thinking about the usual process of building a game and how it might be improved.

A long article. Sorry, I'm a thorough thinker. =P I might not write anything tomorrow, so no one feels rushed. Anyway...

The core difficulty in game development is that the necessary process of trial-and-error is much more expensive for games than for other arts.

With any art, there's usually a lot of revision in production of quality works. So far, the development tools aren't such that game revision can be done quickly and cheaply. I think there will be a day when comprehensive software makes programming far less necessary (HeroEngine and Metaplace are just the beginning), but programmers will always be useful, since games will never be as malleable as literature or music.

The other side of that coin is prototyping. Prototyping lets you try different iterations of the same idea. It also lets you try different substructures within a main structure. And, most foreign to current game development, it lets you try many ideas (like concepts for entire games) before choosing the one with the most promise to flesh out.

I've been making music for something like 15 years now. I have literally thousands of recordings of song concepts (some are just riffs on one instrument; some are a full half of a song with multiple instruments and movements). I don't just imagine the concepts. I make sketch recordings; I build prototypes. One of the main benefits of this is that it allows me to receive feedback at the earliest stage. Not only could I let someone listen to a song concept and offer me feedback, but I could also let that person listen to half a dozen concepts and tell me how they compare. Often, words aren't enough to paint clear pictures for review.

Imagine being able to take half a dozen game prototypes to people you trust and ask them which they prefer. Like with revision, the technology will be there eventually, I think.

Considering how game development compares to the development of other arts, I wonder if more could be learned from the film industry. Blockbuster films, like AAA games, involve incredibly high production costs.

So how does a blockbuster film get made? First, the script goes through multiple iterations before the final copy. A smart director, like Spielberg, then translates the script into a storyboard; drawings of each scene (camera angles, settings and props, actor positions, etc). The scenes are then filmed in order of setting and resource availability/efficiency, not in the order of the story. The director has some leeway to try unplanned shots and perhaps even extra scenes. Finally, when all the filming is done, there's a sculpting period in which excess scenes, filmed moments, and camera angles are cut out.

Concept iterations
The first question to ask: Are game developers beginning to code too quickly?

Hollywood scripts are often revised on-set. Surely, though, beginning "hard" production with more than just a basic skeleton saves a lot of money. Perhaps the game industry should expect more conceptualization up front, like the film industry does. A film director wouldn't start filming until the script is finished. Why should a game director start coding before the gameplay is more than outlined? I doubt that anticipating enjoyable gameplay is inherently more difficult than anticipating enjoyable film experiences.

Polish should be part of the concept phase, not just the production phase.

Essentially, a storyboard is a production map of the IP. It goes beyond a Gantt chart's representation of what resources are neeeded when and by whom. It specifically diagrams how assets will relate to each other within a particular moment of the film.

I'm not a programmer, but it seems plain to me that half of programming is language (the code language, like C++) while the other half is logic. Why couldn't the logic be mapped out, similar to a film's storyboard?

I'm not suggesting that programming knowledge isn't useful at this stage. Like an experienced guitarist understands the constraints and capacities of the guitar as a particular music-communication device, an experienced programmer would understand the contraints and capacities of a particular programming language and/or other technical mediums.

Storyboarding saves money by keeping the production team small as long as possible. A storyboard also acts as a surrogate prototype, a more detailed representation for reference.

Order of production
Some game developers have shifted to a model of "pods and cells" (as one EA developer called it). Rather than having a programming department, an art department, a sound department, and a design department, one or more members of each discipline is placed onto a team devoted to one particular game feature. For example: on the production of Battle for Middle Earth: 2, one team was devoted solely to the Create-a-Hero feature for a time. I see this as an important movement in the industry. Perhaps it doesn't work for all games, but I wouldn't be surprised if it became the dominant organization style soon.

Unfortunately, in non-linear games, there's the problem of interdependency between features. If you give each feature to a team, how do you arrange for these teams to interact?

Obviously, leeway's a balancing act. There are always surprises, so there should always be room for adaptability. Constraints are good for people, good for creativity. But hanging over someone's shoulder isn't so good. That balance really boils down to common sense and personal judgement.

I suggested somewhere before that identifying a game's audience should not be a developer's first step. It should be part of the concept phase, but at the end of the concept phase.

You should start out conceiving what you, personally, think is fun. Then you outline the game, and even flesh it out to an extent. Once you have this general picture of the game, then you consider the audience. That's when you look at what you have and ask, "What is this game trying to be? What is its primary appeal? What features are peripheral to the game's core? Who does that core appeal to?" Then you whittle idea down to its essence, ensuring that the peripheral features support the main feature in some way and that nothing is extraneous.

It's an old method that was used by such successful artists as Michelangelo, Beethoven, and Edgar Allan Poe. Poe called it "unity of effect". Everything comes together into a fine point, a single purpose. Removing unnecessary frills and whimsical additions is vital to clarifying and empowering the main theme.

Sculpting makes sense for the early phases of production. But I wonder if it might be usefully applied to the final phases of game production, as it is to film production.

Some substantial differences between films and games make film editing necessary. For one, film editing usually involves reducing the length of the film, because films are designed for a single, uninterrupted viewing. Game developers have to consider disc space and other tech limitations, but gamers generally want their games as long-lasting as possible, since games can be played in sessions.

Films are also edited so that the director can experiment and see how unexpected insights fit within the greater framework. One version of Scene 19 might give the audience a better sense of who a character is (perhaps because an actor was really on his game that day), while the other version of the scene is faster-paced and has a lighter tone. Because of the sculpting phase at the end of the film, the director can watch each version in the context of the other scenes (now linked together by the editor) and have a better understanding of how each affects the flow of the overall story.

In game development, the whole crew gets to play each new build of the game. Certainly, that doesn't eliminate the value of someone coming in toward the end of production for a completely fresh look at the game, but it does mean that game directors have access to feedback in a way film directors don't (yet).

So I suppose there's no obvious benefit to game developers of adding a similar sculpting phase at the end of production. I do, however, believe sculpting should be mixed in with other considerations throughout game production. In every phase, the director should periodically think back to that "unity of effect", and consider whether or not every aspect of the game is still finely focused on that ultimate purpose. Subtraction should always remain a part of your artistic palette.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Kane & Lynch multiplayer

This sounds like the most innovative multiplayer mode for an FPS in some time.

It's too bad Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect are all I'm going to be able to afford this year.

Unsympathetic villains

Recently, I commented on one of Heather's articles that I generally prefer the horror stories of past centuries to modern horror.

That's not because modern horror is more brutal, graphic, or callous. In fact, the sadism and unrestrained malevolence of films like Hostel and Saw are nothing new. Hundreds of years ago, books like Zofloya and The Monk revelled in that sort of stuff, too. There was more of a demand at the time that a story's evil-doers are eventually punished, though. No, the main difference that makes old horror stories more interesting is that their villains were better than modern villains.

One movement in modern fiction has been to make antagonists more sympathetic. Many people don't believe in good and evil in the way folks did centuries ago, and completely malevolent characters are thought to be unrealistic. So modern authors try to justify the villain's actions or personality to some extent; to explain how the innocent character was corrupted by an unjust world. He was betrayed, neglected, abused, brainwashed, or made wicked by some other terrible events. The audience is meant to pity him or to, at least, attempt to understand him.

You know, it's funny... I hadn't made the connection before, but the emphasis on realism in Western gaming is actually part of a bigger picture. Read literature from the 20th century or watch films from the 1930s and '40s. You'll notice that realism wasn't valued so much back then in the arts. It's only modern audiences that can't understand the value of fables and fairy tales. Maybe games can help people regain that understanding.

Anyway, villains...

Unsympathetic villains can be valuable for many reasons, such as symbolism. But their greatest strength is that they focus the audience's emotions into something certain and definite. Sympathetic villains muddle the audience's feelings. Unsympathetic villains keep feelings clear and sharp.

Mixed emotions can be powerful, but they're not great motivators. Clear emotions are powerful motivators.

If your game is about puzzling out a mystery, then mixed emotions are fine. But if your game is about overcoming evil or defeating a particular antagonist, keeping your villains entirely villainous will offer a more powerful experience to the player.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

They're coming

Originally, this post was about labor unions, strikes, and how petty and foolish I think they both usually are. But, instead of that rant, I'll settle for a simple question:

When will the game industry experience its first strike?

I say "when" and not "if" because I think it's inevitable. While I was reading about this week's Writers Guild of America (film and TV writers) strike, I caught this bit from IGN: "Part of the impetus for the Videogame Writing Award is to draw more game authors into the WGA fold." Yes, they're already recruiting in the game industry. And there's been talk for years now among non-writers in the industry about forming unions.

Are unions and strikes imminent? Or will it be another five, ten, or even fifteen years before enough game developers are unionized to even consider striking? There seems to be less antagonization of workers in the industry now than years ago. Some employers have realized that expected crunch-time is a consequence of poor management, and a growing industry means more jobs available for disillusioned employees. Will that slow unionization much?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Crossing worlds

Keen and Graev just introduced me to The Eye of Judgment. Thankfully, I don't own a PS3, because I'd be completely obsessed with that game right now. I'm hoping it will eventually make its way to the 360, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Nothing I've seen has seemed so close to the holographic boardgame in the original Star Wars film (surprisingly, YouTube doesn't have a clip of that scene). The Wii games might also approach that dream, but the PS3 game captures some other element.

How else might a virtual world and the real world be connected in such a visceral way? How might you use the basic technology of The Eye of Judgment to create a fresh game experience?

I'll come back with some ideas of my own later.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Voice commands and magic

These days, Raph and a number of other developers talk about trying to make game controls more intuitive. The ideal situation is that a person with no history playing video games can pick up the controls quickly and easily, and retain that knowledge without need of a tutorial system.

Aside from ease of use, intuitive controls also engage players more strongly than more artificial control schemes. One of the main reasons I'm excited about the upcoming Tom Clancy's Endwar is that the use of voice commands in that game fits perfectly with the game's setting: a general commanding his troops from afar. Implemented well, a system of voice commands could really connect players to their role.

I was just thinking that spell-casting would be another intuitive use of voice-commands. In most fantasy stories, summoning magic involves some form of vocal incantation. What if players learned magic the same way as Harry Potter, Merlin, Allanon, or Ash ("Clatu! Verata! Nic...[cough]")?

I see two interesting consequences to this.

First, it would facilitate a natural and flexible learning curve. The player wouldn't be learning language like college students learn a second language (lots of foreign words all at once, and a bunch of mechanics which would be better acquired through intuition); the language would come just a word or phrase at a time, expecting little of the player. But there's flexibility in that a player could choose his or her own pace; by researching in libraries, meeting and learning from NPCs, learning from other players, or any number of other ways.

Also, voice-commands for spellcasting would add retention and recollection as gameplay factors. Player personalities would become a factor. One player might be the absent-minded apprentice who has to write down the spells on her hand because she's always forgetting. Another player might be the flustered bookworm who is always teaching spells to others, but whose mind tends to go blank when danger is imminent. Another might specialize in group incantations, able to carry on the lead incantation as the others repeat a different chant. And this also allows for some players to establish themselves in the community as truly phenomenal wizards... players whose encyclopedic knowledge and instant recollection makes them stand out in the crowd.

There's no denying that voice-commands as a game's only control scheme, as opposed to merely an option, is not conducive to a level playing-field. But a level playing-field is not necessary in all games; not even in all multiplayer games. Sometimes, compelling gameplay is best achieved by allowing for real differences.

Voice-commands could be combined with other intuitive systems for more depth and difficulty, if desired. Similar to D&D, spells could require a combination of voice and movement. Imagine having to draw a symbol with your mouse, ala Black & White, while also recalling a voice-command. It could be as simple or complex as you care to make it.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Film-based games and timing

Alexandre Remy, of the Beowulf game development team, said "if you don't come out at the same time as the film it's just a waste of the license." That seems to be a common sentiment.

But is it true? I don't think so.

First, a game released even years after the film it is based on can sell very well, but it must be more than merely a scene-by-scene mimickery of the film. The reason most film-based games suck is that the player's interaction (and games are fundamentally about interaction) is limited to unlocking inevitable events (the film's events), rather than having any influence on the direction of gameplay; limited to character behavior from the film, rather than skills and depth which match that character but were believeably absent from the film; limited to the film's setting, rather than settings which fit into the story's universe and goals.

Basically, most film-based games fail because they are little more than funnels; too many limits, not enough freedom and acceptable divergence from the film's storyboard. The game should be able to stand up on its own, like the N64's Star Wars podracing game or Knights of the Old Republic. Those games would have been fun without the concurrent films; note that KotOR is only loosely related to the films, and the N64 game is entirely focused on just a single scene of Star Wars: Episode 1. MMOs are different animals than smaller games, but Star Wars: Galaxies is worth considering. I'd point to a non-Star Wars licensed game, but I can't think of any that were worth a dime (I haven't played the Batman games, Constantine, or some others).

Second, it's better to release a great product late than a mediocre product on-time, if you have the funds. Players will forgive a great game for being late, but they won't forgive a timely game for being lackluster.

Timing matters... I'm not denying that. But the most important parts of timing are considering industry-wide trends (ex: Is the market already saturated with horror FPS games?) and maneuvering around heavy competition (ex: Halo 3, Mass Effect, etc).

All I'm saying is that releasing your licensed game in time with the film it's based on is advantageous, but it's not necessary to succeed and doesn't waste the value of familiarity and IP-enthusiasm. If I can get a thrill from playing in the British Museum (Hellgate: London) many years after the only time I ever visited the museum in real life, then I it's not unlikely that playing in the setting of a film I saw years ago will give me a thrill as well.