Friday, March 28, 2008

co-op storytelling

This is a reprint of my comment on a Write the Game article, to invite y'all into the discussion and to make it easy for me to find this discussion when I want to come back to it.

I think the best way the create co-op stories is for the game to provide feedback to the players as a group, rather than as individual players.

So, for example, NPCs will respond differently to you (trade prices, quest options, helpful or aggressive, etc) based on their approval or disapproval of who you’re grouped with.

Also, allow each player to have situations that do not fundamentally concern the other. For example, the two player-characters might be from different towns. One is begged to return home to save his village — a situation that concerns the other only because it is the home of the friend. If they save the town, the NPCs’ dialogue and actions are devoted mainly to just the one player (the local PC), but the experience of saving the town is a shared (group) story.The sense of charity that allows us to take joy from helping friends in real life does not disappear in games. It should be designed for.

Anyway, Fable 2 seems to be taking a large step in this direction. It can be played co-op, and one player can have very significant impacts on the other player’s world (such as killing/aiding the other’s family). When one player partially shapes the world of another, that’s a shared story.

casual vs hardcore -- too simple

Tobold quotes an interesting observation about raiding which touches on the casual-vs-hardcore debate. I read yesterday that someone will be presenting at the IMGDC about that debate, seemingly to argue that "casual" MMOs are where the money's at.

I generally don't participate in the debate, because a worthwhile discussion is almost impossible when the participants can't agree at least on what they're talking about.

And the only times I find much agreement on the meanings of "casual" and "hardcore", the portrayals of gamers are clearly over-simplified... not quite to the point of being completely useless, but not far from it. The typical agreement among developers is to use available playtime as the measure, but there are often terrible assumptions about how that playtime is spent. Many people seem to think that those with a lot of playtime are all fanatical raiders while those with a little playtime solo and are equally obsessed with achievement.

Amount of playtime doesn't suggest play-style. If a raid takes over an hour to finish, then a person with less than an hour to play consecutively can obviously not participate fully; but that doesn't say anything about that player's desires and what sort of content (apart from time) attracts that player.

If you're going to emphasize time in the definition of "casual" and "hardcore", then don't always use games like Maplestory and Bejeweled to represent "casual" games, because games like Age of Conan and Halo 3 fit the bill just as well.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

design masters:Paul Barnett

This is great game design.

"It's why we're human." Sound familiar? Paul Barnett is quickly making his way onto my list of favorite designers.

Monday, March 24, 2008

...and again (story in games)

Will it ever go away -- this silly assumption that the interactive storytelling should aspire to mimic linear models and methods? (referring to the Gamasutra articles that those blogs point to)

There are definitely multiple ways of including writing in games that make sense. Mass Effect and Final Fantasy are games driven by linear, dev-defined narratives, and have admirably pleased many gamers. But games like that represent a blending of mediums, and are really more film than game... just as those "choose your own adventure" books are a mixture of novel and game.

Blends like that are fine, but it saddens me that they are commonly considered the epitome of storytelling in games. It saddens me because games are fundamentally about interaction, and the influence of players on those stories is minimal. What effects players do have are limited to immediate dialogue, and have no bearing on the gameworld or the player's future experiences. And, perhaps more importantly, stories are hardly individual/personal.

The greatest strengths of this medium are its malleability and potential for personal relevance!

As I've said before, the works of Will Wright and Peter Molyneux are better models for the future of storytelling in games. Storytelling in games like SimCity, The Sims 2, Black & White, and Fable strives towards three major goals: (1) the player directs the story, (2) story is largely comprised of responses to unpredictable, emergent events, and (3) the game provides the setting via visual, auditory, and moral (value) feedback.

Anyway, I go into much more depth in this old (long) post.


Friday, March 21, 2008

would real A.I. be perceived as real?

A question entered my mind as I played a little football today. As has been pointed out before, an accurate simulation of human intelligence would be capable of mistakes. But do you think gamers can ever be expected to perceive the mistakes of their NPC companions and teammates as acceptable... or even realistic?

Frankly, I doubt it.

When an NFL wide receiver doesn't catch a pass, when a World Cup goalie loses sight of a corner kick, when a basketball player misses a free throw... fans, in my experience, are generally not very forgiving. Most fans don't think "Well, even a professional's going to mess up sometimes... ". No, they think more along the lines of "C'mon, you idiot! Even I could have caught that!". Right?

If most people don't keep in mind that even the best trained and most experienced veterans will mess up and have off days, then how could we possibly expect gamers to accept mistakes from NPCs... even if those mistakes are intentionally included as realistic variables?

Every long-time gamer has had an experience that makes us say "the game cheated". Sometimes, we're right. Games do cheat. But it's often the same sort of response as yelling "Catch the freakin' ball!" while watching our favorite quarterback shake his head in disbelief (even the players have trouble accepting mistakes). We habitually choose to believe the simplest answer, rather than the truth.

If we're so willing to doubt our flesh-and-blood comrades, then NPCs don't stand a chance in hell.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

making room for the little guy

From IGN's preview of Warhammer Online:

"At this point, a large hydra steps off the Ark, accompanied by his Dark Elf beastmaster. Players have twenty minutes to defeat these bosses before the whole quest resets and starts over again at the beginning. This massive, multi-headed baddie was far too powerful for our little fifth-level Swordsman, so we had to be content with darting in to get a few quick hits in while some higher-level players distracted him."

The emphasis is mine. This is one of those things that should occur in all MMOs, but sadly doesn't: weak characters helping powerful characters to conquer a shared encounter.

Let's face it... Frodo was a child playing a man's game. He was tiny. He was weak. He was inexperienced. And yet, he participated in combat with trained badasses like Aragorn and Legolas; and yet, he was a hero.

A player doesn't have to be capable of single-handedly slapping a dragon silly or stuffing a kraken in a goldfish bowl to feel heroic. A player doesn't even have to be capable of killing his enemy to feel heroic. The player just has to feel as if he's contributing to something of great importance, and in a way that reveals individual merit.

I, like so many other gamers, am more than willing to play characters like Frodo and Samwise. I'm more than content to act as just a small character in a drama that stretches far beyond my own involvement.

I, like so many other gamers, am more than willing to play characters like Aragorn and Legolas. I''ll take weaker friends along on my journey, knowing that their contributions will be worthy of remembrance, too, if they are only made capable of individuality. Don't you think those veterans would have been impressed by and laughing about Sam's masterful use of a frying pan against his goblin foes in Moria? After the battle, were they talking about the elf's crazy arrow work or the lowly hobbit's surprising possession of a mithril chainmail vest?

Enable true individuality (in skills, possessions, experiences, etc), create common causes to fight for (ala Warhammer or SWG), and the grouping of the powerful with the weak will be commonplace and fun.

Friday, March 14, 2008

improving animations

There's a great (but technical-oriented) article on NaturalMotion's euphoria physics engine over at AI GameDev. You might notice that two of the games using that physics simulator, Backbreaker and GTA: IV, are on my wanted list. I'm anxious to see Star Wars: The Force Unleashed as well, but that one could more easily be a short and shallow game (and Star Wars is easier to spoil than football).

Anyway, the article got me wondering how animations could be made better. I have zero experience in animation or programming, so odds are that my speculation will mean very little (which is why I post this here, and not over on the pros' forum). But sometimes an ignorant outsider can raise the right questions... in the same way young children sometimes amaze educated adults with profound insights. So why not throw some stuff out there on the off-chance that it will help?

Besides, I need a Friday post. ;)

A body as a community of symbiotic member-parts
Perhaps one possibility is to divide up a body into functionally separate, but joined and cooperative parts. Just because a player collectively perceives two arms, two legs, a torso, and a head as one object (a human body) does not mean the game's simulators and animators must focus on them in the same collective way.

As millions of diverse living cells in a body act without consideration of their fellows (self-focused programming) while simultaneously maintaining cooperative/collective value (much like thousands of self-focused, individual persons inadvertently cooperate in a stock market), a dozen or half-dozen parts of an animator's model might operate independently of one another and yet not disrupt the player's focus from the whole model.

There are two downsides that I see. First, it means extra processing, but that is becoming less of an issue as an increasing number of games are shifting resources to physics and A.I (away from the tyrannical graphics). Second, more interactive elements means less predictability for programmers. But this, too, woud become less of a problem over time, as one designer's experimentation becomes the next designer's foundational knowledge.

This is probably not a good example, but let's look at walking. The human body when walking is like a series of connected machines, each one reacting to the movements of another. The ankles allow the feet to pivot forward, back, and (to a lesser extent) sideways. The legs then make up for what balance deficits the feet and ankles can't counter. The back then twists in reaction to the legs and waist, also occasionally bending (vertebrae and ribs stretching or collapsing into each other) to absorb shocks. The arms shift, not just forward and back, but in all directions to act as counter-balances (your arms swing outward when you turn). Finally, the head attempts to remain upright in most circumstances. Each section of the body has its own goal which generally requires attention to only one or two other sections.

Joints: more is better
How often do you see models of humans in games with flat feet? Almost all the time, I'd guess, if not all the time. Now stand up and walk around the room, paying close attention to how your toes are involved in walking. The mere fact that the front of your foot (i.e., your toes, collectively) can bend enables a much smoother motion.

Now look at your hands. Each finger has three joints. Try to pick up a coke can or water bottle while only using your back knuckles, the joints that attach your fingers to your hand. There are two differences between that and normal gripping of the container. First, you obviously have a better grip when allowing all of your knuckles to bend and your fingers to encompass more of the container. The second consequence is that removing knuckles from the equation concentrates pressure on two specific points; the pressure is not as widely and evenly distributed. Especially as we move into a gaming era of more depthful and intuitive interfaces (such as virtual gloves), this considerations like these might prove useful.

Lastly, straigthen your arm back as far as it will go. If it was forced much further, your arm would break. Now imagine if injuries in Madden were actually related to events such as that and were not almost entirely random, as they always seem to have been. I know a lot of players who would be much more accepting of injuries if they actually got to see how the injuries happened (from a T-rated distance, at least).

There's a couple of ideas, anyway.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

what D&D character am i?

I Am A: Neutral Good Human Cleric (3rd Level)

Ability Scores:

Neutral Good A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment because because it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron's vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity's domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric's Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed at being human. =/

I wish more games would present clerics similar to those of the first Neverwinter Nights. A cleric would select so many spells of each level from a wide variety of options, then would select two "domains" of magic to customize his spellbook with. So one cleric might specialize in Death magic and Animal magic while another might specialize in Water magic and Sun magic. I really despise most MMO class skill systems for making players so similar to one another.

reviews vs trailers

Honestly, I don't think reviews have ever been as influential as developers make them out to be. The fact that good reviews correlate with good sales doesn't mean good reviews cause good sales. I think it's more likely that consumers can spy a good game on their own through screenshots, FAQs, trailers, and (most importantly) speaking with gamers and salespeople.

Regardless of how influential reviews are now, I think they're starting to lose influence to the power of trailers.

Most movie-goers don't read reviews. They attract viewers almost entirely through trailers and word-of-mouth. Only now are video game commercials on TV becoming normal. As the airwaves become increasingly saturated by trailers, I think game trailers will become more important. Afterall, most viewing of game trailers now occurs among hardcore and veteran gamers, the only people who frequent gaming news sites and official game sites. When trailers are placed on TV and in movie theaters, then they're truly reaching a mass audience and mainstream gamers.

Undoubtedly, reviews make more sense for games than films. A review for a linear story can't offer much objective information without giving the plot away. Something like Spore or Command & Conquer, on the other hand, can explain exactly how gameplay occurs without ruining the game. But just because reviews are a good resource for gamers doesn't mean gamers will be any more likely to seek reviews than movie-goers are.

Anyway, expect to see more emphasis on trailers from marketing departments in the next 5-10 years.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

a natural slow-down for graphics tech?

Tipa said something interesting in this thread about PC gaming and graphics, as inspired by Tim Sweeney's ridiculous comments.

"Games requiring high-end graphics demand high-end gamers keep upgrading their systems, spurring the need for even better graphics cards, which means more games must take advantage of them in order to return the investment; and more processor is needed, requiring more development in processors and the supporting software to make them work.


She's absolutely right that gaming has long been the driving force behind most PC hardware innovation. Without gaming, PCs would have developed akin to calculators, simple and small machines that perform just a handful of tasks and remain basically the same from decade to decade. Major advances would have been seen in laboratories, not in households.

But I'm wondering...

Last week, I watched a great video interview with Dennis Dyack of Silicon Knights. He spoke about the basic premise of Too Human, the moral and pragmatic questions surrounding technology, and mentioned how we in the post-industrial era place technology on such a high pedestal. We put tremendous faith in it as a solution to our problems and desires.

Perhaps, in our admiration for computing technology in the past 20-30 years, we've mistaken the rate of progress we're used to as sustainable. Perhaps Moore's Law is actually just the steep beginning of a curve which is soon to level out. The computer industry might still be only in its infancy, and the next stage of slower growth is nearing.

Or maybe we're nearing something similar to the Uncanny Valley, a point at which equal innovation produces less thrilling results. The jump from Halo graphics to Crysis graphics is not nearly as impressive as the jump from 2-D to 3-D environments.

We've been thinking that hardware progress will continue as it has forever, but we will eventually find ourselves in a situation where the systems we have are so adequate for our needs that progress is no longer a priority. Eventually, more people will be interested in fully exploring utilization of our present resources than expanding our resources.

My thoughts on this aren't clear in my own mind, so it's come out muddled. But can you see what I'm essentially getting at?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Spielberg "gets people"

According to Louis Castle, "More than anything he [Steven Spielberg] gets people. I have made a lot of games, more than a hundred and I am quite accomplished in this field, even I don't have that kind of instinct."

It's a surprisingly simple characteristic that explains so much about his mastery of film-making, right? He gets people. And because he understands them so well, he's remarkable apt at tapping into universal themes, desires, and habits, and letting those insights guide his craft.

I can't help but think that's the core characteristic of a master game designer, too. They get people.

Think of Will Wright, when he's explaining how human beings learn through experimentation, and love learning. Think of Peter Molyneux, when he proposes that Fable 2 will touch gamers' hearts... not through romance, but through an unshakeable companion (a dog) and unconditional love.

If you need a demographic chart to know what people want, then you don't really "get people".

anonymity gets the boot

Wow. Well, this one's a doozy! A Congressman's proposing a bill that would outlaw anonymous posting on the internet. You'd have to register your name with wherever you post and your full name would show alongside every post you make.

Once again, I find myself on the opposite side of the aisle as my fellow bloggers and gamers. No, I haven't read any rants about it yet. But, let's face it, the online gaming and game development community is a predictable bunch. I'll be very surprised if I hear as many as five people supporting this move online.

Anyway, I don't have a problem with the proposed bill, from what details that article provides.

The "right to privacy" is a modern invention, a legal "right" only... and even that invented imagined by a judge, rather than legislators. Those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up without it realize how unnecessary it is. The only act that has almost always been private cross-culturally is marital sex, and not even that at times. Christians once confessed their sins on the front steps of church, acknowledging that our every failure is a public failure. There is no private act without public relevance. And there is no righteous act that needs to be hidden (even if "no good deed goes unpunished").

One change I would make to the law, though, is that an IP tag should be included with the name, as well as middle names. There were three Aaron Miller's just in my one middle-school! I'd rather not catch hell for their stupidity again. =/

Let's face it... Killing anonymity on the internet wouldn't stop idiotic ranting, nor the mindless insults and "bullying" this Congressional bill is supposed to hinder, but it would inject just enough responsibility to make many folks a little more thoughtful and considerate online.

Monday, March 10, 2008

the non-gamer problem

As Weekend Gamer points out, the "easy to play, difficult to master" description so often used by professional reviewers doesn't mean the same thing to non-gamers as it does to veteran gamers like us.

Veteran gamers typically have no idea just how much our gaming experience has trained us for present games. I know people who were gaming addicts for many years, and a mere 3-5 years away from gaming crippled their familiarity with gaming controls and goals. They can skillfully play an RTS and a sports game because the control scheme's closely match games they've played before. But something unfamiliar, like controlling character movement and camera movement independently in Halo 3, is beyond frustrating.

People who didn't play video games as children have an even harder time. A good eye-opener is when a game says "Press Start" and you have to show the non-gamer where the Start button is (that small, camouflaged button in the middle, with "Start" written in camouflaged print so tiny that most 40+ folks probably have trouble reading it without glasses and optimal light).

Anyway, there are obviously many implications to this, most of which have been discussed many times before. But one I'd like to point out is that I bet this is a major reason for the popularity of Flash gaming and similarly simple internet games. People don't get stupid with age. Old folks can learn complex new systems, like boardgames. But learning control schemes and unfamiliar concepts (video game goals and strategies are not perceived like boardgame goals and strategies) is different and difficult.

Flash games are the door through which a lot of non-gamers are currently passing to enter the world of gaming. I don't think they're lesser games. I'm just saying I think a lot of non-gamers perceive them as an undaunting way to familiarize themselves with this still-new passtime called video games. A person's first game has to be dirt simple, because the mere concept of interactive entertainment through a monitor or TV screen and controller is foreign to them. There's more to learning Pac-Man than "up, down, left, right", eating the dots, and avoiding the ghosts. The medium itself must be learned.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

could Spore help Metaplace modelers?

I've mused before about collective assets in the upcoming community of Metaplace designers. Now, I'm wondering if Maxis would be willing to join that community, and if there's any financial reason they couldn't.

Spore seems to have a load of impressive editors. Its gamers will soon be designing animals, plants, buildings, transports, military vessels, spaceships, music, and who knows what else. And, just as Wright said he hoped, it all appears to be Pixar-quality.

All of those assets will be shared between Spore players through highly-compressed but detailed files. Well, what about sharing with non-Sporedians?

Just think of how useful those editors could be to Metaplace designers! Designing art, like designing anything else, can be much easier when shaping some pre-existing thing and receiving real-time feedback than when having to imagine somehing new from a blank slate. I think Spore could greatly empower the Metaplace design community. All that's needed is Maxis and EA's permission, and a tool that could convert Spore item files into 3-D models that could be imported to a Metaplace game.

Do Maxis or EA have any incentive to prevent the sharing of Spore players' creations outside of the Spore community?

If they do, it's not obvious to me. I don't see how their choice to share could hinder Spore's popularity or act as direct competition. If anything, it would direct more attention to Spore.

I hope Wright, Maxis, and EA will consider the possibility of creating or allowing a program that transfigures Spore item files into non-Spore files. It would be greatly appreciated by hundreds of gamers and designers.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

why most reviews get higher scores?

This GDC panel dicussion raised a very interesting point. A review score can dissuade people from actually reading the review. I would think a low score is the most likely to make a reader skip the actual article, with a medium-high score being the most inviting.

What this means is that game reviewers have an incentive to score games a particular way, aside from developer/publisher pressures. If they score a game too low (or too high?), their articles will be read by fewer people and thereby make less advertising money.

I'm not being accusative... just laying it out there for everyone to chew on.

where might RPGs go?

Toward the end of an article on RPGs that I read, Peter Molyneux muses, "... I predict that the RPGs we’ll be playing in five years time will be radically different from the RPGs that we are playing today".

That got me wondering: What paths have RPGs yet to try?

Roleplay has already been combined with every genre, and efforts of inclusion continue. Take Tom Clancy's Endwar, for example... an RTS that is recording voices for each individual soldier in an attempt to humanize the gameplay of giving them orders in combat.

The first idea that popped into my mind is something like The Sims in first-person. "Fragile" is what I thought to title the game.

The player selects, rather than creates, a character to play. The selection is made from a large group of characters, all of whom will act in the game as NPCs if not selected for the player's direct use. The player then plays with that character just as one might in a game like Fable 2 or Oblivion. The tricky part is that the character is "fragile" in the sense that permadeath is a close and constant possibility. No, that's not the innovation.

The fresh idea is that the player then selects one of the other NPCs to take control of. The consequences of the first character's life, and that character's reputation, remain active in this second character's life. When the second character dies, the player takes control of a third character; and, again, the new character must witness and live through the effects of the previous character's life. This situation continues through several characters -- characters of the same generation, but different personalities and circumstances.

This basic scenario could set the stage for tons of replayability and some powerful player-directed drama.

The prince and the pauper
For example, let's say one character is a prince and another is a pauper. If you play as the pauper first, you might decide that your character is bitter about his circumstances and blames the aristocracy. In an act of revenge, he kills one of the royals (and is quickly slain by the guards). When you later play the prince, you must decide how to respond to the situation you set up. Does the murder of the prince's sister send him into a rage, and all the city's peasants must pay the price? Does the murder direct his attention to the poverty around him, so you guide him into charitable acts that help the city's unfortunate? Or is the murder meaningless to him? Does he ignore it entirely or use the absence of a fellow royal to consolidate his own power?

On the other hand, you might first play as the prince. If the prince makes it his duty to aid the poor, then your later experience as the pauper might begin in very different circumstances (such as beginning in public housing, rather than sleeping in the street; or being able to rely on a few gold coins from the queen, rather than a few coppers from the baker at church). If the prince decides to outlaw beggars, your pauper might not even be allowed in the city, but instead have to survive in the woods.

That's just two characters. Now imagine continuing through another ten characters. The possible ways the overall story could play out are incalculable.

The fragile part
Apart from the more obvoius meaning of the title "Fragile" (permadeath), what it's really about is a Montessori-like learning experience... the sort of learning brilliant designers like Will Wright and Peter Molyneux are always talking about with their games. The game would be an intuitive and player-guided lesson in how precious time is and how monumental even the simplest actions can be.

For example, it would be possible for the prince to have no effect whatsoever on the pauper. If he spends most of his time hunting and partying with the aristocrats of other cities, the beggars of his own city might never see him or be affected in any way. But if he gives a few gold coins to the pauper just once, the player's pauper will begin with those coins and have a chance to change his life with them (such as by purchasing a bow and arrows, thereby becoming capable of acquiring food without stealing). Or the pauper might spend those first few coins on booze... attracts attention while drunk, and gets stabbed during the altercation (and dies). The simple act of giving or withholding a few coins, spending those coins wisely or foolishly, can result in huge consequences. Players learn a thousand ways in which the smallest of actions can change a life.

And it would not be difficult to be killed in this game. That sounds harsh, but I would make it so for one reason: true sacrifice is only possible through the possibility of true loss. The surest way for the player to prolong any character's life would be to "play it safe", to live with reservation and fear. Molyneux said he wants Fable 2 players to experience that living a good life is difficult. Likewise, I would want Fragile players to experience that goodness often requires making oneself vulnerable. The greatest, most memorable deeds require great risk. The more players are willing to risk, the more their characters would be remembered by surviving NPCs.

I'm fully aware that there are a number of difficult problems in that basic design, and that plenty of gamers would hear "permadeath" and not care about any qualifying circumstances. I'm just trying to offer an example of something RPGs haven't done before (to my knowledge).

What else haven't RPGs done before?

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

my gaming setup

A few people have posted pictures of their gaming setups. Well, someone asked to see mine today, so here it is. This is my desk, as seen from my webcam as far back as it would go (I don't have a camera).

What you might get a sense of is that my desk is a 6' x 3' hardwood monstrosity. I could jump on it and it wouldn't even creak; not bad for a $50 garage sale item. On the left is my 360 and the old CRT TV I have it hooked up to. Sadly, a TV upgrade is probably years down the line. The computer's a Dell Dimension 4800 (at least 3 years old... and acting like it, too) with a 3+ GHz Pentium 4 HT, 1G of RAM (DDR?), a Radeon 9800 Pro, and a nice 20" LCD. Instead of an HD-TV, I'll probably buy a new computer with one of those nice wrap-around widescreen monitors.

I couldn't get a clear picture of the games, but they are...

360: Crackdown, Culdcept Saga, Overlord, NCAA Football '08, Halo 3, Saints Row, Assassin's Creed, Oblivion, Fight Night, and Medal of Honor: Airborne.

PC: Sid Meier's Pirates, Hellgate: London, LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2: RotWK, both Star Wars: Battlefront games, Titan Quest, Diablo 2, Neverwinter Nights, Warcraft III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and two games being shipped here right now (The Sims 2 and Fable: The Lost Chapters).

There are plenty of PC games that I wish I had kept over the years, like Black & White and Command & Conquer: Generals, but I obviously have more than enough at the moment. I've traded in more than a few 360 games too now, including Mass Effect and Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

PC gaming is never dead

Spurred by this and a half-dozen other articles, I'd like to explain why I think PC gaming is not dead, dying, or even dogpaddling in the kiddie pool and screaming that it can't swim.

A market will always be there.
As long as PCs are capable of gaming, people will be playing games on them, and other people will be making those games. Desktop PCs might very well disappear in the next 20 years, perhaps to be replaced by a non-centralized interface and AI that follows you from wall to wall to ceiling to countertop to oven to dashboard to [any flat surface you can think of], like a dog you cuddled too much as a puppy and now just won't go away. That is, afterall, the ultimate goal of Microsoft's LiveAnywhere project. When that day comes, there will be games for that platform. But until then, millions of people will play games on their PCs every day... and often when they're supposed to be working.

Modes of profit and delivery can and will adapt.
In fact, they already are adapting. As the first linked article mentions, companies are already experimenting with the use of advertisements to fund games. Some games will integrate advertising seamlessly and invisibly, but don't think the annoyance other games cause will prevent advertising from catching on. The first TV commercial wasn't three frogs croaking "Bud... Weis... Er!" -- it was probably three jerks, obviously high on Mountain Dew, yelling at the screen how Dapper Dan's hair gel could change our lives. Yet, despite our almost-constant loathing, we've come to the point where roughly a third of primetime television is commercials.

If you doubt this development for a second, consider that Battlefield: Heroes (which looks like a fun game, incidentally) will place its advertisements at the loading screen between levels/battles... just like TV commercials between plot events. Hopefully, the additional profit scheme, undisruptive microtransactions for things like appearance, will stave off greed long enough that we won't see 5-minute loading screens for another 10-20 years.

And let's not forget franchising -- the new industry buzzword. Even if Spore is pirated left and right, Maxis will recoup those losses from custom trading cards, creature models, and any number of other peripherals. On top of that, they'll be providing a number of online services which strongly reward connection to official (key-accessed) EA servers, thereby making pirated copies of the game weak and shabby by comparison. A thief hidden in anonymity is much more likely to respond to positive incentives than to threats, because he ain't scared of you.

Far from being on the decline or soon to be replaced by Asian business models, I bet we've only seen the beginning of subscription gaming. Prices and plans will vary greatly, largely because savvy developers will realize that they can start publishing content within six months or less if they simply abandon the nonsense that is the traditional MMORPG world. Start with less, expand more often -- made possible by increased dynamics and decreased emphasis on power and balance. Of course, that's only one of many development styles that will take advantage of subscriptions.

Games will be better
The quality of games matters. The PC platform, like console platforms, will occasionally have a bad series of years on the development side. The original Xbox was the victim of poor development throughout its life. Aside from the Halo games, few other games released on that console were worth a damn. Today, the 360 is the most profitable console out there -- selling more games per console than the Wii --because it hosts so many quality games. In fact, 9 times out of 10 when I hear someone raving about the Wii, they're raving about Wii Sports... which comes with the console (I hope to own a Wii eventually, so don't take this as an attack). When PC game sales slump, a major factor is probably the abscence of quality-focused and reasonably limited game design on that platform.

"Reasonably limited?" I mean games, like WoW, that don't spit on owners of older PCs through insane processing requirements. I mean developers thinking about what they could do with a fraction of the funding and team size that has become the norm, rather than automatically accepting any resources available to them. I don't mean designing the next great solitaire game for Flash, cellphones, and a 5-year-old's Etch-a-Sketch. Games don't have to be quick, easy, or shallow to appeal to millions.

What sort of PC games are selling best? Of the top 40 best-selling PC games of 2007, nearly all are open-ended. MMOs, Sim games, RTS games, Oblivion, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Diablo (yes, still!) ... almost every one is a game with months or even years of gameplay, most with a strong social component. Even on consoles, what are the most anticipated games of this year? The ones with dynamics and replayability: GTA IV, Fable 2, MarioKart, etc.

open-ended gameplay + simple but smooth graphics and a limited scope = lower costs, greater revenues

But then, I'm not a dev, so why listen to me?

Speaking of open-ended games: