Thursday, July 31, 2008

silence in production

You might have heard about Paul Barnett's choice to discourage his designers from playing WoW. Not everyone likes the idea.

As I said at Ryan's, odds are that most of Barnett's team played WoW before, so it's not turning a blind eye to ask them to not play WoW now.

It's a trade-off. Fresh isn't necessarily better, but avoiding too much exposure to other games will help the designers to approach things from the fundamental goals and pressures, rather than starting with models. As Paul pointed out, the fact that something was extremely successful for someone else doesn't mean it will be successful for you. In any work comprised of many elements, it's how things fit together to create a whole that matters most. And in any art, masterworks reflect the individual designer as much as shared wisdom.

Beethoven wrote his best work when he was deaf. He had been influenced and trained by many other composers beforehand, but the silence allowed him to explore in a way he couldn't have done otherwise.

As with most things, balance is good. Designers should alternate between periods of studying others and periods of quiet seclusion (from other games). One truth every world religion pinpointed thousands of years ago is that periodic silence leads to clarity. It's harmful to cut out inspirational influences entirely, but it's good to moderate them with peaceful reflection and lone exploration.

multiplayer does not equal grouping

Again, I'm going to cheat and simply reprint a comment I made over at Cameron's site.

First, MMOs attract gamers for more reasons than just the other players. The worlds are huge compared to single-player games, as are loot tables. There's simply more to explore than in single-player games.

That said, the point of playing in the same gameworld as other players can potentially extend far, far beyond grouping. In the real world, individuals constantly affect the lives of others without direct contact. In fact, that's the basis of modern economics. The same can happen in games.

In Shadowbane, I once wandered onto a smoldering ruin. There were no players around, but the burning buildings and broken walls I was viewing were the results of a siege that had taken place just a day or two before I arrived there.

The now extinct Trials of Ascension included many ways in which players could create gameplay for each other without ever meeting. For one example, a player could sacrifice the last of his lives to create a relic which would be randomly hidden in the world.

Simply watching other players run around helps to create the feeling of a living world. Multiplayer can mean so much more than merely grouping!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

solo-based classing

As I said over at Cameron's article, I think the reason soloing has become empowered in MMOs is not because developers think more people want to solo, but because it's easier to make both soloing and grouping viable option by beginning production with solo gameplay.

People love to group in Diablo 2, yet every class is capable of being a powerhouse on its own. What makes grouping attractive is mainly loot sharing and the ability to tailor one's skills to match any partnership. Both grouping and soloing are fun because complimentary skillsets are an option, rather than the rule. A necromancer can focus on curses, thereby playing a support role, but necromancer is not essentially a support class.

Solo-based design is more versatile.


Diablo 2 is one of the best games of all time. It's the 15th bestselling game on Amazon seven years after its release... and at the price of a new game! One of the elements that made it so is its visceral combat.

Some might dislike the word "visceral" the same way they dislike "immersion", believing such an impression is subjective to the point of being a useless subject. But making experiences visceral seems more objective than making them immersive. The following are some ways in which Diablo 2 makes combat visceral.

If you club a centaur in Titan Quest, its body almost floats. It hovers in the air for a moment before collapsing to the ground. Compare that to the way the body of a dying demon in Diablo 2 immediately slams against the ground. This slight difference in animation makes the latter feel more violent and the former more cartoony. Slight changes in the pace of animations can have profound effects.

Creatures in Diablo 2 die in many different ways. The spirits of dark rangers are released from their cursed bodies. Zombies can be cut in half. A gargantuan beast collapses into a bloody mess. Skeletons crumble into a pile of bones. Such animations encourage an impression that enemies are made of different materials and structures.

Each enemy type also has a different sound that it makes while dying. I'm not sure, but I think Diablo 2 might be one of the only games I've ever played in which absolutely every individual enemy makes a noise when dying. For skeletons, this sound is crumbling bones, but most other creatures scream, gag, or grunt.

There are two sounds played for every killing blow: the sound of death and the sound of impact. Diablo 2 does an excellent job of making every impact felt through sound. The audio designer ensured that every impact is satisfying, rather than merely realistic or intriguing. Some weapons have sounds beyond impact. Swing a two-handed sword and here it swoop through the air.

Countless other sounds engage the player without him or her even realizing it. Every step the character takes is heard. Rats squeak and make a squishing sound when stepped on. Flies buzz around corpses. If you've got a copy of Diablo 2, play it while being attentive to sound and you'll be surprised how much there is. There's great attention to details.

I've started writing three or four posts about Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 ever since 3 was announced. Blizzard did and is doing many things right with that series. It should be required material for game design students, regardless of whether or not they're interested in hack-and-slash games. I'll probably post some other important lessons I've learned from that game.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

my Spore creations

Being the idiot that I am, it took me this long to realize that the reason my Spore creations were not showing up on the public Sporepedia is because you have to manually choose to share each creation by clicking on an icon in the game's Sporepedia page. I assumed they were supposed to upload automatically.

Anyway, they're available for viewing now. Just type "hallower" into the Sporepedia's search engine if that link doesn't work. Let me know which are your favorites. And tell me how I can find your creatures.

Also, you can find me now on the SporeVote site by going to the "More Spore" section. I'm not sure why EA wants to advertise my site alongside their Sporelebrity contest, but I'm grateful. It's always weird being asked to provide a bio for myself. The site's not finished, so they don't have a video of my creep up yet.

If you haven't voted for a Sporelebrity yet, you ought to. The winner will receieve money toward a charity of his or her choice. I like Santana's batuka, shown above.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

companion milestone

In a hands-on preview of Fable 2 at Kotaku, Michael McWhertor notes that the game's combat is fun "especially when the dog comes to your aid, gnawing on the limb of some recently dispatched foe". That's a sort of enjoyment that is common in games, but the potential is largely unexplored.

I'll venture to say that what Molyneux's team has done with canine companions is a monumental achievement; a stepping stone toward an important trend in future games. He's capitalizing on the joy of love.

As the philosopher Peter Kreeft once said, love is about "with-ness". It's a desire and/or choice to be together with something; in presence, in experience, in ideas, etc. Love is about communion.

When you love any being, you take joy in simple exposure to it. A newborn baby can't even focus its eyes, yet family and friends are captivated by anything and everything he or she does. Likewise with pets and wild animals. There's joy in merely watching and listening to them.

The deeper, more complex NPCs become, the more potential they have to entertain the player through exhibitions of personality, quirks, and dynamic experiences. In McWhertor's Fable 2 experience, the dog in combat is doing nothing very different from companions in Diablo 2, yet the player's interest in the dog's actions is significantly deeper. A well-rendered, clever (AI), dynamic pet evokes a stronger emotional response than a 2D, simple-minded skeleton without a name.

One of Bungie's brilliant moves with Halo was giving NPC companions dynamic comments. The player kills an enemy and a soldier behind him says, "Aww, man. That one was mine!" (or something like that).

NPC mistakes can be made endearing, rather than frustrating. Trivial dialogue can be made more memorable than story arcs. It can be done through deepening characters... adding individuality and dynamicity. Fable 2's dog is an important step that barely hints at things to come.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

genre desperation

I started watching old episodes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I can't say it ever caught my eye before. But after getting endless pleasure out of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (the first two episodes, anyway) and Firefly, and having subsequently read countless ravings from fans of Joss Whedon, I figured the series was worth investigating.

Just a few shows into the series, the villain is a woman who transforms into a giant praying mantis. A giant bug. Buffy takes it down with bug spray and a recording of a bat's sonar.

A giant bug.

Never underestimate genre desperation. Countless horror fans wade through bad story after bad story because there simply aren't that many great tales of horror. Likewise, there are fans of vampires, monsters, dragons, wizards, space colonies, aliens, war, great leaders -- people with favorite settings and character types, and they're always on the hunt for the next worthy showing.

So why not shovel garbage down their throats and make some money, right? No, the point I'm getting at is that genre fans will cut designers and storytellers a lot of slack, so don't pay too much heed to expectations.

For example, having grown up on The Hobbit, Dragonslayer, and D&D, I'm a fan of dragons.

That picture's from Reign of Fire. Simple awesome.

I prefer dragons that don't speak English or cast spells or anything like that. I just like huge, flying, intelligent, nasty-tempered, fire-breathing lizards that love to eat people and burn villages to ash. When one starts talking, I'm a little disappointed. But my love for dragons outweighs my distaste for certain details, so I keep watching the movie or playing the game... begging to be satisfied. And you know what? Sometimes I'm happily surprised, like with the first Dragonheart film.

If everyone expects elves like Legolas, Galadriel, and Drizzt, that doesn't mean you'd be shooting yourself in the foot to give them Dobby.

Expectations aren't iron-clad. They just mean you'd better be substituting something cool or genre fans will forever curse you for spoiling hallowed ground.

By the way, I'm also a fan of ghosts and monsters. One of my favorite books is a collection of Victorian and Eduardian ghost stories. I think this is an updated version.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

competing audio

A common problem in games on all platforms is competing audio tracks. Two sounds are activated simultaneously, and the result is either noise (garbled playback) or a sudden and annoying leap in volume.

I have no idea why the latter occurs, but it just happened for the Nth time as I was playing Civ: Revolution. In this case, construction of two wonders completed the same turn, so the sound for completing a wonder played at a volume far beyond normal.

In the case of a duplicated sound like this, the solution is simple: code the game so that only one copy of any (or particular) sound can play at any given time. I would think that'd be simple to code, but I suppose I could be wrong.

In the case of separate audio files competing for the same space, all I can say is that it's a potential problem that needs to be accounted for during production.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

dramatic consistency

If you haven't seen Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, you should. It's hilarious.

But after watching the third and last episode, I'm left wondering if the story took too hard a turn at the end. An unhappy ending is one thing, but Whedon seems to have mistaken the tale's serious themes for its heart.

Comedy is its heart. The first scene of the series is comedy, and humor comprises the majority of the story. Even in most of the serious scenes, there are humorous elements (like Dr. Horrible taking the place of the soup server and blindly pouring soup back into the pot while he stares with hatred at Captain Hammer). So to end on such a heavy note, which overshadows the jokes at the end, leaves the audience confused and disappointed.

I don't expect monochromatic narratives. I'm a big fan of mixing many types of drama into one story. But stick to your guns. Make sure you and the reader always have a clear understanding of the story's heart. And don't let any story element or idea distract you.

I get the impression that Whedon mistakenly tried to apply his usual strategy from longer narratives to this short one. The ending might have worked in a TV series with ten or twelve episodes, but there wasn't enough time in this series to gradually shift from comedy to drama. It's like what Whedon did in Firefly and Serenity, with the ending being much more serious than the beginning. The characters were always that story's heart, and the feel of the story changes as the audience gradually sees deeper into those characters.

Anyway, short stories generally must work differently than longer stories.

Friday, July 18, 2008

interactive sadness

I wonder to what degree sadness can be included in games.

People who think of games purely in terms of fun often suggest that making players sad or angry should never be a goal. But it's clear that this industry has potential for becoming an artistic medium, like films or music. As I've said many times before, games don't have to be fun. They just have to be compelling. Countless films have become very popular and financially successful while focusing on effects other than fun and joy; such as Ben Hur, Schindler's List, Pay It Forward, and Saving Private Ryan. In fact, serious themes are expected in most entertainment. How many comedies can you name without any?

So I don't question if more seriously-toned games could be popular. Of course they could. Nothing about the medium prevents a serious focus. And a serious focus certainly doesn't exclude fun or light entertainment. There are plenty of jokes in Fiddler on the Roof and Patton.

The reason I wonder how sadness can be incorporated into games is because sadness is a negative force. It more often drains us than motivates. And games, more than any other medium, rely on the will of the audience. Games require more investment than movies to continue.

What do you think? Is incorporating sadness into games a challenge?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sony's 2008 E3 press conference

Sony's conference started out slow. But by the end, I'd say their presentation was as good as Microsoft's.

Interestingly, despite having some good games on the horizon, the selling point Sony pushed was a 10-year life cycle for their consoles. On the one hand, they're telling PS2 owners and PSP owners that their time is not over. In fact, over a hundred titles are on their way to the PS2. On the other hand, Sony's telling potential PS3 buyers that their newest console is a long-term investment. Not only is the Playstation Network evolving nicely, but developers are slowly learning to tap the PS3's tremendous power to make great and innovative games.

The games
I'm not sure Sony can count on non-exclusive titles ever taking full advantage of the PS3's power, because most of the design in those games is geared toward all platforms. It's exclusive titles that are driving and will continue to drive most of the innovation on the PS3, and that's evident in the games Sony showed.

Resistance 2 looks beautiful and touts 8-player co-op. Like it's Microsoft doppleganger, Gears of War 2, scale is the main focus. Everything's bigger and better than the first game. Colossus-size monsters and epic battles. God of War III was another predictable, but great showing. I don't normally follow PS3 news, but Infamous might also fall into that category. Little Big Planet appeared again (using this during the sales summary was genius).

The idea of AAA content in smaller chunks for a lower price is being tested with the new Ratchet and Clank. The game looks great, and I bet it will do well at a $15 dollar price regardless of how short it might be. Oh yeah... you'll soon be able to buy even new blockbuster titles for 30 bucks! Smart move, Sony.

A trailer for DC Universe Online was shown. I have two reservations about this one. First, the development team is led by a guy who grinded through the original EQ in months to become the first person to secure certain paladin gear. In other words, this guy is so far from representing the average MMO gamer that I wonder about his design values. Second, the trailer seems to only show boss battles, which tells me nothing about the majority of gameplay. What do players do when they're not side-by-side with Superman or The Joker?

One of the cooler announcements of the conference was definitely Gran Turismo TV. Gran Turismo 5 players on the PS3 can watch countless TV shows and documentaries related to racing and sportscars. Anyone who loves cars will be salivating over that game now. This is a feature that will sell consoles. Do you have any idea how many auto enthusiasts there are in America alone?

Finally, a game called MAG was announced that included one jaw-dropping feature: 256 players fighting in the same FPS battle! Wow. Now that's use of PS3 hardware. Players will fight in 8-person squad and strive toward long-term goals in a single gameworld.

Starting tonight, TV and movies will be available for both rental and purchase on PSN. Being able to purchase and not just rent movies is a big feature that will convince some people to buy a PS3 instead of a 360. The interface for browsing and downloading content looked better than Xbox Live's, too. Also, those movies can be trasferred to the PSP... which still looks like Sony's strongest console to me.

In at least some games, including a baseball game, videos can be captured and uploaded to YouTube from the PS3.

Home was shown briefly. It seems that each game will have an area on Home that visually fits the game's theme. I'm assuming that these will act as visual lobbies for multiplayer.

In closing
Two of the bigger announcements were that Sony will be distributing in Latin America (glad to see our southern neighbors finally included!) and 80GB PS3s for $400. Both are great news.

In the end, I was wishing I had the free money to buy a PS3. I've never been that interested in the console until now, but it's starting to look great. I still don't believe that Sony will have more success this year with the PS3 and games than Microsoft with the 360 and 360 games. Quite simply, the Xbox has and will continue to have the better games library through the end of this year. But I expect PS3 sales will grow, and Sony's well on its way to a good 10-year console lifespan.

Nintendo's 2008 E3 press conference

I missed most of the conference, but here are my thoughts on the parts I caught.

Wii Speak? Finally.

Wii Sports Resort. If it has more games like that sword-fighting game, it will sell like hotcakes and be Nintendo's next big game. Many Wii owners play Wii Sports and little else. When people think about buying the Wii, it's always for Wii Sports. This is the sort of gaming that defines the Wii. These are the sort of games Nintendo should focus on.

Wii Music is both intriguing and disappointing. I expect this will sell alright, but not especially well. There are two reasons this one won't also sell like hotcakes. First, it's a toy, rather than a game. Games involve goals and rules. Second, the designers seem to have forgotten that the beginning of all play is agency. Children first discover the concept of play when they realize that they can cause things to happen. In Wii Music, the correlation between between player actions and on-screen events seems weak. It will be enough to entrance toddlers, but not adults. It will be fun initially, but the shine will wear off within days, which makes this an impulse purchase for non-parents.

I like how the developer paused to laugh after it was said that the drummer is "already quite good".

grow up, ESRB

I'm told the ESRB refused to rate this new trailer for Dead Space because of the gore. Considering that the ESRB seems to have become a non-goverment organization with governmental authority (like the American Medical Association), I take it this means the trailer is semi-officially banned in the U.S.? At least the EU allowed it.

Since the devs studied a ton of horror movies while making the game and because the game will include different types of scares, it's probably a safe bet that the music and audio will alternate in the game like in the trailer. At times, it will be loud and discordant. Other times, it will be soft and creepy. That's just a guess, though.

Anyway, refusing to rate something is like refusing to talk to someone. It's childish. It's a child's way of avoiding an issue, rather than confronting it and working your way through it. If that is what happened, the ESRB needs to grow up. But I suppose the ESRB might have just been overloaded by all the E3 trailers and such, and they knew this one would take time to debate. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt.

On another note, I've added two games to my watch list: Fallout 3 and Rise of the Argonauts. I decided to add Rise of the Argonauts after watching this interview. The devs talk about making a HUD unnecessary and ensuring that every skill and item is felt, rather than merely known.

Too Human demo

After two times through the demo, I'm definitely underwhelmed.

I can see what Dyack means about Too Human being a different kind of game. As I led a group of soldiers who commented on events in both serious and humorous tones, I was reminded of Halo. The skills, loot, and combat are reminiscent of Diablo 2, but also significantly different (which is both good and bad... mostly bad). The cutscenes are frequent and, I'm tempted to say, the focus of the game; which makes it seem more of an adventure game than an action game. You can't skip all of them completely. In addition, there are a few Gears of War moments, when the camera suddenly zooms in on a point of interest before returning to the player's character. The game-controlled camera also gives it the feel of an adventure game, because it's better suited to cinematic angles of what's happening than to helping the player manage combat and find what he's looking for.

It's a unique game. Let's hope it stays that way.

The first thing you might notice is the visual quality. The art direction is great. There's a lot of detail. The game looks good, but not as good as Mass Effect or some other games. The faces are great, but not much else. The game starts with cinematics, so you'll have plenty of time to nitpick on this.

The next thing you'll notice is the camera. Because the camera is meant to make every scene cinematic, you might initially find yourself waiting for the game to continue because you don't realize the movie is over. It's definitely a strange feeling at first not having direct control over the camera, but you get used to it. Mostly you move away from the camera, but sometimes toward it or sideways.

It works alright most of the time, but there are definitely moments (and not just a few) when it's working against you. The object or path you're trying to reach is occasionally off-camera. The main way you know a fight is finished and all enemies are down is that nothing's hitting you, because you can't scan the area for survivors headed your way. In my experience, it was never possible to really look around from one spot. Pressing LB + Right Stick results in a minor swing of the camera; not full control.

In the end, the camera is definitely an annoyance, and whether or not you think it was a smart idea will depend on how much you like the stick-controlled combat system. It's a trade-off.

Gear and weapons look great, but you might sometimes be reminded of the original Everquest... the flourescent, mismatched armor that plagued that game's high levels.

Melee combat with the Champion class, in the demo, involves a lot of sweeping moves and finesse. If you figure out what you're doing, then you can perform combos. You also carry a gun, which you draw and fire by combining RT with the Right Stick. Simply let go of the trigger and you're swinging your melee weapon again.

My most successful tactic so far is knocking enemies into the air with my sword and then lighting them up with my gun. There are skills devoted to melee in the air, but air melee is no easy task since it requires hitting the A button and then the Right Stick within a split-second of each other. Controls can probably be changed, but that's the standard configuration.

One great idea Silicon Knights had is the inclusion of areas that act much like arenas. When you enter these round areas, a timer shows up at the top of the screen and enemies come at you from every direction until (it seems) the timer runs out. Survive alone and there's always the equivalent of a treasure chest nearby (in the demo, at least).

One area is bugged. There's a "bridge", for lack of a better term, and enemies knocked onto the sides will simply sit there and wait for you to kill them or push them over the edge (I can only assume they die, because you can't retrieve their loot or even look down to where they fall).

Death is punished with a long animation of a Valkyrie carrying you to Valhalla. Battle continues during the animation, and you're afterward reborn exactly where you died without having to restart.

Another problem I encountered is that those petty human soldiers who tag along can actually finish off the game's first boss... robbing you of the glorious killing blow! I've never seen that in a game before, and for good reason. They killed Grendel while the Valkyrie was taking its sweet time raising my dead body, before I could return to the fight. I was shocked.

With bosses, you can apparently target body parts, which offers some room for personal strategy.

NPC dialogue is strictly scripted -- not dynamic like the off-hand comments of Halo soldiers. As a result, it only adds to the game experience the first time through.

Items and Skills
The demo only lets you progress to level 6 or 7, so you can't try many skills. You can't even make a skill choice until level 4 (your first 6 skill points must go into the first and only skill at the beginning of the skill tree). Every level, you get 3 skill points. The Champion class (the only class in the demo) has 3 branches that comprise 15 skills in all. You can't move on to the next skill in the tree until you've invested 4 to 6 points in the present skill. I had three skills by the end of the demo (level 7)... and two of those skills were merely stat boosts.

And that's the main problem with skills in Too Human. Too many are stat modifiers which are not obviously experienced by the player. There's almost no point to including such skills. But I do like the spider skills, like turning my spider into a turret (ala the turret in Perfect Dark 64).

In Diablo 2, I had filled every armor and weapon slot, and reequipped some slots, by level 3 or 4. By level 5 in Too Human, I had equipped only two weapons and a helmet, with my other slots stuck with basic trash gear. And don't expect any cool visible effects. Item effects are stat modifiers.

Cutscenes can come quickly and unexpectedly, beginning before you can grab all the loot laying around. At one part, you can knock enemies over edges and lose whatever loot falls with them. This includes the first mini-boss encounter, which I assume could mean especially good loot!

Inventory management is slow and more complex than necessary due to a poor interface. I'm not sure why they didn't streamline it like Diablo 2's drag-and-drop system. That game's more visual inventory system also got players more excited about their loot. In Too Human, you don't even see a model of an item until you hold the Select button over the item (after you've looked at its statistics).

The character stats window shouldn't even exist, because the player has no choice over stats. There's so little there anyway that it could have been joined with the equipment window.

At least the HUD is small and can be turned off. I might do that next time, since I almost never looked at it.

Based on the demo, this is a powerfully mediocre game. With so many great games due out in the coming months, Too Human easily falls to the backburner. If I buy it, that will be months from now when I see a used copy. If there's anything that really shines about the game, I can only guess that it's the co-op or something that emerges beyond the early levels of the game.

And just think: this is supposed to be the beginning of a Too Human trilogy! I hope Silicon Knights can adjust to the feedback they receive post-launch, and make a game that stands high above this first one.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Microsoft's 2008 E3 conference

I just got finished watching a live stream of Microsoft's E3 press conference. It was, quite simply, awesome! And I don't just mean awesome for myself, my own gaming.

The reason I chose the 360 as the console worth buying this generation (though I'd like to own the others.... just don't have the cash) is the games. In its first year, the 360 had many top-notch games. There have been dry periods since, but this certainly is not one of them. Microsoft easily has the best library of games this generation. We're about to enter one of the best periods of games in the industry's history.

The big guns
Microsoft highlighted four games early on: Fallout 3, Resident Evil 5, Fable 2, and Gears of Wars 2. All of them look phenomenal.

I knew very little about Fallout 3, since I never played a Fallout game, but it's definitely on my must-buy list now. The option for cinematic combat via a pause-and-target system is a great idea. Fable 2 and GoW 2 were already on that must-buy list, but both impressed with new features. Molyneux showed how incredibly quick and easy inviting someone into co-op could be (there's no screen for it -- just click on a little orb that shows up in the world). Gameplay in GoW 2 looks fluid, dramatic, and full of surprises. And Resident Evil 5 has co-op! Graphically, all the game's look beautiful.

Vision camera games
The next Viva Pinata will apparently incorporate trading cards. They can be scanned into the game via the Xbox Live Vision camera. I imagine kids will like that. I'm not sure if parents will.

In The Movies could be a phenomenon. This is Microsoft's first big step into Wii-type gaming. You start out playing mini-games in which you run, dance, swat at wasps, etc. Then your camera-recorded actions are placed into a mock movie trailer. This game looks very well done and potentially very attractive to non-gamers.

Music games
There's a karaoke game called Lips on its way, and it looks well done. I don't think I've ever met a woman who doesn't love karaoke -- they're striking oil here. The best aspect of the game is that you can "sing to your own music collection". Just plug in your iPod or Zune and you can find the style that best suits you. Motion-sensitive mics were mentioned, but I'm not sure how the motion plays in.

Other music games had news, of course. Metallica will release their new album on Guitar Hero (hopefully, it won't suck like the last album). Similarly bland is the news that Axl Rose will release the next Guns 'n' Roses album through Rock Band (as if it was still really Guns 'n' Roses after 1994). The good news is that AC/DC (the most requested band) has finally entered the realm of gaming rock. Rock Band will have over a hundred songs, and includes forwards and backwards compatibility.

I'm generally not a fan of Japanese games these days; especially not JRPGs. I grew up on Nintendo consoles, so this always seems a bit strange to me. The simple fact is that they have different aesthetic values and those values are seen much more in complex games than in simple arcade games.

Anyway, Square Enix showed three trailers we've already seen before... then walked back onto the stage to say "oops! I'm almost forgot!" and announced Final Fantasy XIII for the Xbox 360. That news means nothing to me, but I know a lot of my friends will be hopping with glee. This is a game that will sell consoles.

Indie games are on their way. One called Coliseum (or something like that) peaked my interest. It's too bad I don't remember how to download those games.

They also showed a new Galaga game and a new Geometry Wars.

Microsoft had many great announcements regarding XBL. Sometime this year, Xbox Live will be completely remade to introduce avatars, Primetime, and other cool stuff.

Avatars were an important, if predictable, announcement. Microsoft stressed that these are just 3-D equivalents of gamer pictures or characters for you to buy accessories for (which I'm sure is on its way). You can stream pictures from your computer and share them with friends online in real-time. When the sequel to Scene It comes out, you'll be able to play with anyone online and see everyone's avatar bouncing around on the virtual couch.

Primetime is like a TV gameshow channel, except XBL users and their avatars will be included in the games. They showed a game called 1 vs 100 that had a crowd of a full hundred avatars participating in the game and another avatar on stage. And the prizes are real (some, at least). This is another phenomenal idea. This is an idea that could change the whole industry. Expect the TV industry to cooperate more actively with games from now on.

Live groups
When friends pop online, you'll see their avatars appear. You can become a group leader and set up a game for the whole group instantly -- no need for them to do anything. This not only makes things quicker, but it means that gamers like us can invite less regular gamers to play without worrying if they know how to join.

TV and movies
MS has partnered with Netflix, as I think I've read about previously. I'm intrigued by what this might mean, but I don't know the details yet. If it means I can download movies as often as I want instead of waiting on them in the mail, I'll be switching from Blockbuster to Netflix soon! I wouldn't be surprised, though, if they limited downloads or had some other catch.

One of the cooler revelations concerning TV and movies is that you'll be able to watch them online with XBL friends! That's an awesome idea... especially with avatars and voice-chat, to discuss them afterwards. Microsoft has a deal with another TV studio and another movie studio now.

In short, Microsoft had a great press conference. They're making smart decisions and really pushing the industry in ways. For that, I say thanks.

The Too Human demo and plenty of videos are up on XBL now. Hopefully, more will go up in the next few days.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

classes vs roles (response to Warhammer news)

If you're interested in Warhammer Online at all, you've probably read about Mythic's decision to drop four classes before their imminent launch. I respect that they're willing to abandon or postpone so much content for the sake of quality, but I'm not sure yet if this specific move was a smart idea.

Questions arise only because they removed the tank of two factions and the barbarian (melee DPS) of two factions... while leaving other factions with both tanks and barbarians. Jacobs has said they don't expect a balance issue, despite the uneven role distribution. I think whether or not they're right depends on the fundamental nature of classes in Warhammer Online.

It's possible for the removal of classes (on one side but not the other) to not upset balance... but only if the classes are designed more in the style of Diablo 2 than in the style of typical MMOs.
  • In a typical MMO, each class is designed primarily to fulfill a specific role in group combat. The class's efficiency outside a group or outside that specific role in the group is secondary and generally suffers in some way(s).
  • In Diablo 2, on the other hand, each class is designed to be a damage-dealing powerhouse in itself, and any class can be tailored to a variety of roles in group combat. The specific skills, open skill selection and upgrade system, open stat selection, and mostly-open item system make this possible. Even the barbarian can be made into a ranged support role through skill and stat selection.
I prefer Diablo 2's system. There was no need to nerf one class and empower another after release, because every character is so unique and optimization is subjective in that game. Also, it's possible to have a very effective group comprised of any class combination... including all characters of one or two classes. Any choice can be both fun and efficient in that game.

I know that WAR is abandoning many ridiculous MMO traditions. And I know they want every class to be capable of soloing. So it's possible that Jacobs is right, and there's really not a severe balance issue caused by this recent move by Mythic. We'll just have to wait and see, right?

In any case, I recommend Diablo 2 as a model for anyone working on a skill or class system.

Friday, July 11, 2008

virtue hurts

Peter Molyneux has revealed a bit more about Fable 2 here. The part I found particularly interesting was mention of "... a beautiful girl who is about to be stricken by a curse of terrible scars - do you save her by taking on this curse yourself?"

From the interviews I've read/watched, it's clear that Molyneux is admirably making a didactic game. He really wants Fable 2 players to feel that being virtuous is difficult. In the case above, being horribly scarred (as a consequence of a virtuous action) would often result in even good people reacting to you with repulsion or disgust (in reality, though the consequences in the game have not been revealed yet).

I wonder how far such realism could be pushed in a game.

Acts of good are often unjustly punished. That's reality. But it is and has always been the case that most human beings do not have the wisdom or courage to fulfill justice in the face of that reality. Most of us desire justice, but we also desire comfort and to be liked by others. Sometimes we do the right thing and sometimes we do the easy thing, but few of us consistently choose the hard path (virtue).

In everything, I support holding people to high standards. But watching someone make sacrifices in a movie and making those sacrifices yourself through a game character are very different experiences. When roleplaying a character, there is always a choice of whether or not to push forward, to move on. You can wish a film character made another choice, but you know you must accept that character's action. In a game, the choice is yours and regret is a more palpable force.

I'm all for what Molyneux is doing: challenging players to live up to virtue. But how hard can he make it to be -- how much virtue can he expect from players -- before the game becomes too difficult, too realistic, for the majority of gamers? How far can such games push reality before their potential audiences shrink?

Virtue, by the way, as Aristotle defined it, is how well a thing performs the action it was designed for. A knife is virtuous if it cuts well. A hammer is virtuous if it is solid and well-balanced. A human being is virtuous if he or she loves well.

E3's resurrection

So, apparently, E3 is back to its old self this year. Last year's was small and sad compared to the orgy of trailers and demos that graced it in previous years. But it looks like E3 is once again where the big dogs have decided to stake their flags and shout at gamers from the mountaintop (mixing metaphors, but oh well).

This can't be pleasing developers. The many weeks, or even months, of stagnant production caused by trailer and demo prep for the big show -- I could be mistaken, but those unwelcome periods of hiatus and distraction seem to have returned. I read sighs of relief from countless developers when E3 pretended to hide behind close doors.

As a gamer, sure, I love trailers, interviews, and previews. But the quality of those games is likely to suffer from such major distractions. Distractions delay games and increase production costs, thereby putting unnecessary pressure on developers. Shows like this help journalists more than game publishers.

I could be wrong, but it seems marketing departments are given too much power in this industry. They start the ball rolling too early, serving themselves more than the games. They force milestones into unrealistic timetables, enabling them to reach a slightly wider audience with a less focused, completed, and polished game. I'm only guessing at who's to blame, but the problems are there. Advertising anything a year in advance is more bravado than good marketing sense. And quality sells in any season.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

a trailer that tells all?

Wow. So LucasArts really decided that revealing the whole plot of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is what their launch trailer should do?

I mean, perhaps there are plenty of entertaining twists that haven't been shown yet, but it looks like they just gave us the main plotline. Suddenly, the story isn't a main incentive for me to buy the game. If I buy it now, it will be much more for the action (which was already pivotal to me, but the story used to be as well).

Was there any good sense behind this move? Why not just show us the montage of action moments with only half the story moments and all dialogue replaced by music? Why reveal more than the setting?

mysteries and puzzles

Corvus talks about mystery novels and how they compare to video games. The point that stuck with me was that a reader doesn't have to struggle to reach the end of the novel, but does have to struggle to anticipate the ending and/or completely understand the story once the end is reached. Games could work the same way.

As a gamer, I'm drawn mostly to exploration and action. So linear, puzzle-based adventure games (achievement-focused) aren't the sort of games I play often. But I do have some experience with puzzle-based gameplay.

Puzzles are great, but the reward for solving them doesn't always have to be narrative/game progression. Like novels involving mystery, games involving puzzles could be completed without players being required to solve all or even (perhaps) any puzzles.

Instead, solving the puzzles could offer the player a more accurate or complete picture of the story. And, like characters in popular novels, the player might have only one opportunity to notice/find clues or solve a puzzle before the story moves forward. Keep in mind... I'm not trying to imagine a particular game system here so much as raise questions about the use of puzzles and clues in games.

The original Neverwinter Nights included a mission in which the player acts as judge over two brothers. The player investigates a crime by speaking to all parties involved, then decides who will be punished. What I love about that mission is that, if my memory is correct, the player can pass judgement and the game moves forward regardless of whether or not the investigation is thorough. You can judge wrongly (not just wickedly, but mistakenly) and keep playing.

That mission did not affect the larger narrative, but a similar scenario could be used to offer the player insights into the central plotline, side narratives, characters, setting, or any other story element. The player needs to be assured some things to feel satisfied at all when the game's end is reached. But, if replayability is supplied by non-narrative elements (like action or exploration), then the player can be allowed to reach the end without having the fullest or clearest picture of events.

If well done, the ending would hint at what replaying could offer: where the gaps are in the player's understanding of characters and events, what unfortunate events could be prevented or rectified, etc. The original Doom game told the player after each level what percentage of secrets he or she discovered, forcing the player to wonder what was missed. Deeper games could accomplish the same effect in more artful ways.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

100 DVDs of ghosts and lasers

The guys at EA building Dead Space have come up with a pretty sweet sweepstakes. If you're willing to receive the game's newsletter, then you can enter a drawing for their collection of 100 sci-fi and horror DVDs. The team watched all those movies to study and learn from what's been done before -- an admirable effort to make a quality game.

I've included a list of the 100 movies below. Remember... until someone wins, EA's intern must stand there day and night, without food or water, to ensure the DVD tower does not fall.

1. 12 Monkeys
2. 28 Days Later
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
4. The Abyss (Special Edition)
5. Acacia
6. Alien
7. Alien vs Predator
8. Aliens (Collectors Edition)
9. Altered States
10. The Amityville Horror (1979)
11. The Andromeda Strain (1971)
12. The Audition (Special Edition)
13. Bad Taste
14. Basket Case (Special Edition)
15. Battlestar Galactica Mini Series
16. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds
17. Blade Runner (4 Disk Collector’s Edition)
18. The Brood
19. Cemetery Man
20. The Changeling
21. The City of Lost Children
22. A Clockwork Orange (Special Edition)
23. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Ultimate Editition)
24. Creepshow
25. Cube
26. Dawn of the Dead (Ultimate Edition)
27. Dead Alive
28. Deep Rising
29. Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle)
30. The Descent
31. David Lynch’s Dune (Extended Edition)
32. Event Horizon
33. Evil Dead (Ultimate Edition)
34. eXistenZ
35. The Exorcist (The Version You’ve Never Seen)
36. The Eye
37. The Fog (1980)
38. Freaks
39. Friday the 13th
40. Gozu
41. Halloween (Need Date)
42. Halloween 2
43. Haute Tension (High Tension)
44. Hellraiser
45. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
46. Hostel
47. House of 1000 Corpses
48. I-Robot
49. Ichi the Killer (Special Edition)
50. Inferno
51. In the Mouth of Madness
52. The Iron Giant (Special Edition)
53. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Collector’s Edition 1978)
54. Jacob's Ladder (Special Edition)
55. Jeepers Creepers
56. Ju-On
57. Logan's Run
58. Metropolis (1926)
59. Minority Report
60. Night of the Living Dead (30th Anniversary Edition1968)
61. Nightmare on Elm Street
62. Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors
63. Oldboy
64. The Omen (1976)
65. The Orphanage
66. The Others
67. Pan's Labyrinth
68. Phantasm
69. Pitch Black
70. Planet of the Apes (1967 Collector’s Edition)
71. Poltergeist
72. Predator
73. Psycho (1960 Collector’s Edition)
74. Re-Animator (Limited Edition)
75. The Ring
76. The Running Man (Special Edition)
77. Saw (Saw Trilogy)
78. Saw 2 (Saw Trilogy)
79. Saw 3 (Saw Trilogy)
80. Scanners
81. Serenity (Collector’s Edition)
82. The Serpent and the Rainbow
83. Session 9
84. Seven (Platinum Series)
85. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (Special Editions)
86. The Sixth Sense
87. Slaughterhouse Five (1973)
88. Solaris (1972 Criterion Collection)
89. Soylent Green
90. Stephen King's IT
91. Sunshine
92. Suspiria (Special Edition)
93. A Tale of Two Sisters
94. The Terminator
95. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 Ultimate Edition)
96. They Live
97. The Thing (Collector’s Edition)
98. The Time Machine (1960)
99. Total Recall (Special Edition)
100. War of the Worlds (Spielberg)

I'm going to add some of those to my Blockbuster queue. What are some other good horror or sci-fi flicks?

a single PC standard

Yesterday, I said that game prices should be more similar to DVD prices than to utility software prices. I realized afterward that one of the barriers to that change is the lack of unified standards for PC software. A CD or DVD can be expected to play on any hardware of a given region (America, Europe, Asia, etc). But every PC game is made with different hardware demands.

It doesn't have to be that way.

First, let me say that I don't believe, or even hope, that the game industry will see a time of one platform... or even one data storage method. There will always be some variety, and I thank God for that. I also think that PCs will continue to be developed at a pace that leaves many consumers with outdated hardware and heterogeneous units (mixes of old and new components). Though the computer industry might eventually model itself (if it hasn't already) after the automobile industry, which plans decades into the future and withholds truly "current" technologies so that progress can be made gradually (and every penny can be squeezed).

That said, the auto industry could similarly be a model for cooperation between competing producers to set unified standards. If EA, Ubisoft, Activision, Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, and other big publishers would be willing to work together in this way, then they could agree on an appropriate pace of technological development. In other words, they (and companies like Nvidia, Intel, AMD, etc) could agree each year on maximum system specs for all games. Some developers would continue to make games for cutting-edge computers or "retro" machines, but developers working through the industry bosses would work within a particular range of specifications... resulting in more predictable software and higher consumer confidence.

Is this realistic? I certainly acknowledge that it is unlikely in the immediate future and would emerge gradually if it did occur. But, as I've said, look at the automobile industry (I'm sure it's not the only example). This sort of thing has happened in the past, so it could happen again, right? And if it's a possibility, publishers should begin the discussion now... many years before the change would occur.

... and if it does happen, I suppose I could be wrong about hardware advances. The hardware industry would adapt to such a change in software. Games, afterall, are the primary movers of hardware advancement in residential computer sales.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

50 or 60 bucks is too much

Over at Second Story Gamer, Mark asks a great question: Why do games cost so much? As he points out, movies cost as much or (usually) more than games to produce, yet DVD film copies are sold for half or a third the price of most games.

Certainly, more people watch films than play games, and games are divided by platform in a way that is not qualitative; so it is probably true that games have a smaller audience to work with. I say "probably" because the number of people interested in movies does not directly translate into number of DVD consumers. There is an even more significant difference between theater customers and DVD consumers. But the audience size and newness of the game medium definitely has an effect.

I doubt that alone justifies the prices.

I would buy twice as many games each year if they didn't cost so much. More importantly, I know many people who do not consider gaming a viable hobby mainly because of the prices. Last year, my brother and cousin were avid fans of LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2 on PC. We played together multiple times per week and, for the first time since the SNES, they were unrepentant gamers. They were both initially hooked when they watched me play the game, but both were hesitant to purchase the game until I pointed out that it had been on the market for many months already and could be bought for under 25 dollars.

I think the primary cause of the current price norms lies in the industry's origin: software. Because games were originally sold as software, they were and are sold like other software. They shouldn't be. Games are marketed and bought for aesthetic appeal, not for utility. If you can't think of games as an art form, get over it -- something doesn't have to be good art ("artistic") to be art. Games should be sold like other works of art; in particular, like movies... the other technology-based media.

Like Mark, I see reason for hope.

He's right that the growth of direct downloads will have an effect, but that's not the only light at the end of the tunnel. Much of the change begins with retailers. Already, Walmart and similar retail chains place game products next to music and movie products, whereas games were sold only in software and computer shops not long ago. It's occuring the opposite route, too. Gamestop and other game-focused retailers are gradually increasing stocks and presentations of DVDs in their stores.

Not coincidentally, the film industry and music industry are increasingly involved in the game industry. Writers, animators, and actors are shared. Spielberg, the most popular film director of his generation, has taken a direct interest in games. Games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band continue to rake in phenomenal sales, and the upcoming BrĂ¼tal Legend: Roadshow of Destruction is being built from the ground up with the help of legendary rockstars like Lemmy and Zakk Wylde. I wouldn't be surprised if we eventually see further corporate convergence across mediums... in the way Sony publishes films, music, and games.

Lower prices will eventually be forced onto publishers by such changes. A smart publisher would be figuring out right now how to beat the tide.

Monday, July 07, 2008

the thing about sci-fi

If I've said this before, I apologize. One Tired Blogger reminded me of it.

I’m pretty good at suspending disbelief and letting myself get lost in whatever film or book I’m enjoying. But the thing about sci-fi that jars me sometimes is technological inconsistency — when some technologies advance and other don’t.

That does happen, of course, but it has to happen in sensible places. For example, we’re still building structures out of concrete, bolts, and screws thousands of years after those things were originally invented. But TVs won’t be around 100 years from now. They’ll be replaced by other video communication technologies; such as holograms, flexible screens, and LCD paints.

A lot of sci-fi stories make the mistake of imagining what the world would be like with a handful of technological improvements while ignoring other technologies included in the story. If your astronaut’s going to eat toast for breakfast, take 10 minutes to ask whether a 20th-century toaster should be in the background.

Friday, July 04, 2008

segmenting difficulty

Keira wrote an article today that got me thinking about difficulty again.

I had an interesting experience in Oblivion with regard to difficulty. I found that my favorite thing to do in that game is to sneak through the shadows and snipe enemies with my bow. But in order for it to truly feel like sniping (one-hit kills), I had to lower the difficulty. So I was in the peculiar position of preferring low difficulty when fighting with a bow and preferring high difficulty when fighting with a melee weapon.

Oblivion offered admirable control to players by creating a difficulty slider with more than three or four settings. But what would be even more appreciated is player control over specific aspects of difficulty.

This isn't a new concept, of course. Long ago, Nintendo introduced unlockable cheats which could be toggled to affect difficulty in very specific ways. Goldeneye included a cheat that equipped all enemies with rocket launchers. Many games include cheats for invincibility, infinite ammo, or resource availability (weapons, armor, etc). Perfect Dark 64 brilliantly allowed players to choose the personality types of AI opponents.

I just want to point out that much more could be done here. Make players unlock advanced difficulty controls through completion of gameplay, because you've crafted a carefully balanced experience that they might cheat themselves out of if offered control too early or easily. But there are countless kinds of gamers with different needs and desires. Advanced difficulty controls enable players to make your game more personal, as well as add invaluable replayability.

For example, Oblivion could have included damage sliders for different kinds of weapons (bows, melee, magic). Halo 3 could have included a cheat for kamikaze AI (fearless, constantly charging enemies) or put those terrifying hammers in the hands of more enemies. Fable 2 could include cheats that affect the dog companion's combat effectiveness or AI personality (make him vicious or apathetic to combat), or change how NPCs react to the player's character. Dead Space could let players turn on zero gravity in any area, or offer a "Hell" difficulty mode (ala Diablo 2) with more enemies and stronger weapons.

Changes like these are often simple number-switching... quick and easy to implement as a feature to be toggled on or off. If you could offer a player hours of extra fun with only a few extra hours (if that) of development time, why not do it?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

role model system

In games with lotto-type reward systems (not necessarily random, like Diablo 2, but some degree of unpredictable variation), you can encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior by adjusting reward probabilities.

If a player is disruptive in any predictable and measurable way, shift loot tables and such so that he or she is less likely to receive the best rewards; and, if possible, vis versa. Thus, bad behavior is discouraged without completely demotivating disruptive players from abandoning the game... and this might even offer a chance at redemption. Conscientious players are the most likely to have the best rewards, so these leaders are thus placed in the spotlight and advertised as role models.