Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween traditions

So what are your Halloween traditions? I'm particularly interested in what my foreign friends do for this time, if anything, but I'm talking about more than just jack'o'lanterns and trick-or-treating.

If my 360 wasn't shipped off for repair, I'd play Dead Space tonight. What other games are good for a scare?

My main Halloween tradition is listening to a handful of creepy tunes. Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain is excellent, as is the pencil-art accompaniment Disney included in Fantasia. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is another classic, particularly good when played on an organ. But my favorite Halloween music is the Astro-Creep 2000 by White Zombie! Wonderfully dark and creepy.

As for movies... Unfortunately, the only horror DVD I own is Frailty. It's a good one, but I wish I had more. I do own The Ghost and The Darkness, which is creepy for some but not for others. Some other random horror movies I like: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Event Horizon, Alien .... It's hard to think of good ones. There are so few.

Anyway, what do you do for Halloween?

shocks vs scares

A number of people have said they don't consider Dead Space and other horror games to be truly scary. These people point to the difference between startling someone with unexpected events and giving that person a lasting chill. It's a valid distinction.

As many have pointed out, the greatest barrier to evoking fear through games is emotional distance from the danger. Like any emotion, fear is rarely, if ever, pure. There are many types of fear, many mixtures. But any type of fear is basically a defensive reaction to perceived danger.

Some people are more sympathetic with story characters than others. A strongly sympathetic person can be affected deeply by fear through story, because there is not a great division between that protagonist(s) and self. But many others have a harder time connecting to characters. They do not feel much fear via games and movies because they themselves are not in any perceived danger.

So, obviously, the way to bridge that gap, to make a game truly terrifying, is to endanger the audience!

I'm only half joking. The best scary stories put the audience on edge long after the story has been told. This is generally, though not always, accomplished by making the imaginary danger seem real. The movie Jaws convinced a whole generation of movie goers that human-hunting sharks are real. Films like Child's Play and Poltergeist instilled fear of dolls in countless kids. And how many grown adults are uncomfortable in front of poorly illuminated mirrors because someone locked them in a dark room with Bloody Mary? The scariest tales live on in reality.

Is it cruel to instill such lasting fears in people? Not necessarily. The great American writer Flannery O'Connor used horror to communicate themes which her readers would normally be resistant to. In other words, she used fear as a form of mild violence to break past emotional barriers in her audience. In O'Connor's own words: "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures." The most impressive lessons in any person's memory are often those cemented by deep emotional experiences. Fear is one emotion which can ensure the questions your story raises are not abandoned the moment the player steps away.

Cheers to the things that go bump in the night!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

PC compatibility

The day a PC game tells me I have to uninstall other software to install the game... that's the day I stop buying games on the PC. Afterall, opened PC software can't be returned for a full refund when it doesn't work.

There's a point at which this anti-piracy nonsense angers the average consumer, and not just tech savvy gamers (as was the case with Spore).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

rigid pricing

This Christmas season, there's a ridiculous number of good/great games for both regular and occasional gamers to choose from:

Spore, Fable 2, Dead Space, Fallout 3, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Far Cry 2, Saints Row 2, Portal: Still Alive, Rock Band 2, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Quantum of Solace, Tom Clancy's EndWar, Gears of War 2, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Call of Duty: World at War, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, Left 4 Dead, Need For Speed: Undercover, Tomb Raider: Underworld

... and that's just two months and one platform!

This strikes me as a year which is great for gamers and not so great for game makers. The competition is simply too thick (for 360 and PC games, at least).

In other industries, pricing would adjust to the crowded market. But in this industry?

PC game publishers are only recently learning to be fluid, it seems, despite their products having little resale value. Less than ten years ago, a game that offered ten hours of gameplay was priced the same as one offering fifty hours of gameplay, regardless of quality. The situation has improved somewhat since then, but prices are still determined more by publisher fiat than by the market.

The prices of console games are even less fluid, because each console's publishing is monopolized. Microsoft controls all prices on the 360, Sony all prices on the PS3, Nintendo all prices on the Wii. I could be wrong, but I don't think console developers can adjust the prices of their games without approval from these publishers. If so, it's a tragedy, since developers have far greater incentive to respond to the market than these publishers.

Is there reason to hope game pricing, particularly on consoles, will become more dynamic in the near future? What might lead to more variation in pricing?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

relative pricing

All pricing is relative.

In other words, all prices will be judged by consumers in their relation to other prices. Your customers will compare the price of your product to the prices of other products. The big question is: what will they compare it to?

With expansion content, I always use the original game's price as my primary measure. Expansion content should not cost nearly half the price of the original game if it offers significantly less than half the amount of content.

But I don't assume that the majority of game consumers think like me in this matter. What do you use as your measure of fairness when considering the price of expansion content or full games?

Monday, October 27, 2008

dead console, Dead Space

Well, I had been planning to finish Dead Space in time for a Halloween review, but my 360 died on me. Fortunately, this is only the second time I've had to replace a 360.

That I consider two replacements fortunate is certainly a testament to the console's terrible reliability. When my first 360 got the Red Rings of Death, I donated the replacement to my brother and bought myself a 360 Elite, believing the updated console would last longer. It didn't. Apparently, Microsoft decided at some point that it would be cheaper to stomach the cost of countless console replacements and continue to sell blatantly unstable hardware than to meaningfully modify their original design and forge new contracts for the manufacturing and shipping of new parts.

As I've always said, the Xbox 360 is unreliable hardware saved by an excellent library of software.

I've highlighted a lot of stuff in this review for quick browsing.

Anyway, Dead Space. Before my console broke, I had only completed the first chapter or two of the game, in between sessions of Saints Row 2 and Fable 2. But I've decided to go ahead and offer my impressions, however limited, because this game is awesome and the perfect center of a Halloween party.

The other day, I was playing Dead Space on a friend's console as he watched. Even though I was playing on a small TV and with sunlight streaming through the windows, my friend was enraptured just watching. And this is a friend who's as fidgety as can be. Dead Space is one of those rare games that's almost as enjoyable for those watching as those playing.

The first thing you notice is the stellar graphics. Dead Space looks as close to film quality as games come. The animations are fluid and believable, matching well with dialogue. The voice-acting is excellent.

The storytelling early on is compelling overall, accomplished largely through player interactions. It has a lot of what I'll call "soft" cutscenes, for lack of a better term, because they're basically cutscenes that occur without removing the player from gameworld. So, for example, rather than watch a movie, your character is separated from other characters by a locked door as he watches a scripted scene through windows (ala Bioshock). At many points, you'll pick up an audio or video log which pops up in front of your character, allowing you to move as it plays and continue imagining yourself as Isaac.

My only gripe with the story so early in the game is that one of the main characters, Kendra Daniels, strains believability. Kendra is the tech support of Isaac Clarke, the player's character. What is hard to swallow is that her relationship with Zach Hammond, sergeant and apparent captain of their ship, seems to suggest Kendra has no experience working with captains or military, even though her earliest dialogue suggests she is not a rookie at her job. She's brazen and independent... that much seems real. But who tries to countermand a captain's orders to his pilot and constantly act like she knows better after having worked with captains or military many times before? She's hysterical, and people prone to hysteria aren't uncommon, but I would think that sort of behavior would be dulled somewhat by experience. Wouldn't you? Kendra's actions don't seem to correspond with the experience her dialogue suggests.

But that's really the only significant flaw I've found in the game so far.

The controls are direct, simple, and fluid. Using one of the 360 controller's bumpers to sprint throws me off sometimes, since the opposite bumper is used to sprint in Saints Row 2. Arm and boot swings feel appropriately weighted.

The UI is completely integrated into the world so as to be unobtrusive. The health bar on the spine of Isaac's suit doesn't dominate attention the way typical health alerts do. I'm very impressed by the ability to click on the Right Stick and see a momentary blue line appear on the ground and direct me to my next objective. That's so much nicer than constantly having to look at a map (the game also provides a map, though I never needed it). The blue line doesn't linger on-screen like Fable 2's golden trail does, a small but appreciated difference.

But none of that really says anything about the game, because the ultimate point is: this game is scary.

Like Bioshock, Dead Space has a unique and intricate setting which is fulfilling all by itself. Even before I saw my first enemy, I was sucked into the game. The audio is full of eerie noises that keep you guessing at the source. The lighting also toys with your expecations. Sometimes the lights go out, leaving you with only the light on your weapon's sights; you're sure you're going to be attacked, but then the lights come back on. Sometimes you'll enter a room that you've been in before, but you don't realize it's the same room right away because the lighting is different or now there's water dripping from the ceiling.

When you do start encountering necromorphs, the audio is often what alerts you to danger. You'll hear movement, or breathing, or the music as it rises to a terrible scream. And the game doesn't just frighten you with attacks. Sometimes the monsters will be crawling toward you from the other side of a grate, unable to reach you. Sometimes you'll only catch a brief glimpse of one as it jumps into a ventiliation duct or runs past a corridor.

The combat in Dead Space is the edgiest I can ever remember playing. You never know when a necromorph is going to lunge at you or is sneaking up from behind. One caught me completely unaware from behind as I was focusing on killing another in front of me. They don't all charge you from the moment they see you. Some creep toward you, then sprint toward you suddenly. Some leap out at you. Some fall from above. It's the unpredictability of enemy locations and behaviors, as well as all the uncertainty of sights and sounds (the lighting and audio), that keeps you on your toes and makes familiar enemies fresh terrors.

I'm surprised to find a good degree of replayability in Dead Space. Horror games are always so linear and static. But Dead Space allows some variance through the strategic selection of supplies, the customization of gear through power nodes (a branching modifier system), and dynamic AI.

You loot money from necromorph bodies (they used to be humans, afterall) and can sell surplus items for more, then purchase gear and items at stores. How much surplus can you afford to sell? If you're a little short on cash, do you sell an extra med-pack to buy that new gun? Which weapon will you buy, or do you prefer an upgraded rig instead?

You also must choose what to apply your limited power nodes (upgrade tools) to and how to apply them. Do you go for better armor before damage? Is increasing your suit's air capacity for ventures into space or vacuums a priority? Damage, rate of fire, and clip size are other possible gear upgrades.

And lastly, the enemies themselves offer some replay value. The ship has a fully developed ventilation system for the necromorph AI to use in response to your varying actions. So enemies won't always come at you the same way or time on your second or third play-through.

Anyway, as I said, I only managed to play through a few hours of Dead Space before my console died on me, so these impressions aren't based on a complete experience. I haven't even experienced zero gravity in the game yet, which comprises a significant chunk of the game. But I'm very impressed with what I've seen so far. Dead Space kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time I played.

It's too bad it had to be released in the middle of so many other great games. But if you've got the free money, consider Dead Space an investment in this and future Halloween get-togethers. Turn out all the lights, crank up the stereo, and watch your friends jump as you play the game in front of them.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

imperfections and details

Again, I'm going to use a comment of mine as my post for the day. I have many good games right now that are demanding my attention (Fable 2, Dead Space, Saints Row 2, Spore, etc).

Savid Daunders asks whether or not imperfections, like flawed architecture of a building, are important to good level design. Well, consider these examples.

My first thought when commenting on his article was of modeling human faces. Modelers learned long ago that old people are easier to simulate accurately than young people, because the skin imperfections make the skin seem more real.

Another example is tree modeling. Trees generally don't look realistic without variation. Each tree is shaped by its response to unique challenges (ex: competing for sunlight) and setbacks (drought, bugs, disease, etc). One might argue that a perfect tree is one unhindered by any obstacle. The variety we see in believable tree simulation replicates the plants' struggles to survive and conquer. In other words, good simulations mimic the results of tree vulnerability to conditions and interactions.

Now consider item placement and arrangement in interior settings. Games started simulating building interiors more accurately when they started to include random objects and messes, like magazines scattered on tables and floors. When an interior setting is entirely neat and orderly, it feels unnatural. This might only suggest that someone recently cleaned it up for a special occasion, like guests coming over, but that's still an impression that should be deliberately created by artists when it exists.

Unlike novels and films, games are still only conceptual presentations. A concept is abstracted enough to lose many particulars. It's used as an inexact representation of actuality, begging forbearance from the reader or listener who is well aware of what detail the abstract omits or blurs.

Compared to best-selling novels and films, games include far fewer and, generally, less accurately rendered details of every setting, object, and character. An average book or film places dozens of high-detailed objects in one room which the audience might only witness a single time in the story. For example: in the film I, Robot, only five minutes of the movie occurs in the AI creator's home office; yet there are bookcases full of unique books (individually titled, colored, shaped, etc), many pictures and framed photographs, loose stationary, and countless other peripheral elements of setting... including a cat.

One of my creative writing instructors used to say that good fiction, like good lying, is in the details. Good storytellers make ample use of peripheral details to project a setting that can't be accurately portrayed with adjectives.

Technical limitations are certainly at the heart of this shortcoming in games, but also production focus. Developers make a conscious choice to focus on expanse, rather than depth and detail. It's a balancing act, and the proper course won't be the same for any two games or teams, but it's a necessary consideration in the process of planning and implementation.

There are many ways to tackle this issue, of course, but I recommend making it the sole concern of one employee to create details for the game's settings and characters. Let one person focus on fleshing out the presentation.

Anyway, the game industry still has a long way to go before our stories and experiences are as detailed as other media. And I say that will due respect for the admirable amount of detailing in games like Dead Space and Mass Effect.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

marketing Alan Wake

There's nothing wrong with a story-focused cinematic that reveals almost nothing of actual gameplay, provided that cinematic excites people and interests them in the game's setting. But Microsoft and Remedy must to do much more than this if they me to take Alan Wake seriously.

The problem is we were offered the same vague hints at gameplay, albeit presented through superb graphics, over three years ago with the launch of the Xbox 360. Alan Wake screenshots and videos were a vital selling point for the console's release, yet still today there's nothing beyond Remedy's reputation suggesting that this is an actual game. Judging from its use years ago in 360 marketing, I'm inclined to think it's really a tech demo which is merely being glittered with gameplay.

I could be wrong, and I hope I am. I like the concept of alternating players between safe daylight (investigation) and dangerous night (defense).

But if this really is a game through-and-through, it still seems Microsoft marketed this game too strongly when the developers hadn't solidified anything beyond the most basic premise and graphics. To use something unformed and unproven as a major selling point seems unethical to me. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

the LBP delay

I have mixed feelings about LittleBigPlanet being recalled by Sony worldwide because of a song that includes a verse or two from the Koran.

The song in question was written by a Muslim musician who supposedly cares himself about being respectful. Even if he considers his action honorable, the other Muslims who disagree should also be listened to. But the key here is who has the most reasonable argument. There will always be people who are offended only because they are being unreasonable, short-sighted, or selfish. Such people should be engaged in conversation, but it is only reasonable objections that should be acted upon.

To some extent, I agree with this guy, also a Muslim. He does not like to see holy verses used in songs not of praise or in frivolous games (as opposed to educational games), but he also does not like to see censorship for the sake of guarding someone from conflicting beliefs. Speaking as a deeply religious person myself (orthodox Catholic), I can see the balance that must be found between open expression and sacrificial respect.

If someone insults a person I love, it's right for me to stand up for that loved one, but (in most cases) that person should be free to insult. We don't want to encourage people to be harmful or callous, but free will should be honored and people should often be allowed to act with even unreasonable disrespect. It's complicated when that loved one is your King, Savior, and Creator, but the same principle basically applies. People should be generally free to insult God. God is the giver of free will, so to undermine free will is to disrespect God.

Free will is not an absolute freedom, of course. Some censorship is justified. But it's right to generally rely on self-censorship. It's right to allow informal interventions to ensure interactions between persons and peoples are respectful. In that article, Jasser calls these informal interventions the "free market", but that seems to me a limited view of our informal interactions.

So what do we have so far? (1) Act only on reasonable objections. (2) Honor free will and allow informal interactions to filter discourse. What else needs to be added?

Well, we also need to recognize Sony's freedom to govern its own operations and determine what works will represent it in the market. Whether or not we believe the Muslims who objected to this song in LBP are reasonably offended does not matter as much as whether or not Sony agrees with their objection. Even if Sony's thinking is flawed, it is still that company's decision to make. As a publisher, it has a duty to honor the free expression of its artists, but those artists reflect on Sony and the publisher has a right to filter them within reason.

Ultimately, I think it's good if Sony decided to delay LBP because they agree the objections are reasonable and LBP is not intended to be a game that challenges ideas, though the disappointment of thousands of anxious fans should certainly have been a factor in the decision (as I'm sure it was). I only think this reflects poorly on Sony if the decision was more political than sincere. Like Tipa, I have to wonder if Sony is just following the popular trend of protecting Muslims while caring nothing for Christians and Jews.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Saints Row 2 single-player

I've beaten the single-player campaign, though I have a nagging suspicion that I haven't seen everything in that mode (I can't explain without giving something away). I haven't tried multiplayer yet, co-op or competitive. I'm really looking forward to trying the co-op, since the entire single-player campaign and gameworld is open to it.

The Saints Row series is about silly, raunchy, over-the-top gameplay in an open world. The heart of its appeal is variety and that it seldom takes itself seriously. Saints Row 2 expands and improves on the original game in more ways than I could list. A few annoyances remain, but the game offers a truly unprecedented variety of activities for the player to enjoy, and the humorous tone only adds to the replay value.

There's so much in Saints Row 2 that I'm only going to talk about a fraction of it. So, for example, I'm only going to talk about three of a dozen or more Activities.

The old activities are back, along with new ones and a lot of mini-games called Diversions.

One new activity has you riding in a sewage truck spraying people, buildings, and cops with crap as your communist driver makes comments like "I shed no tears for the bourgeois!". Another has you in an attack helicopter guarding a homie driving below as he makes his drug deals. That one is particularly fun and unlike anything I've seen in other games. Unlike the aerial guard duty in one of the Call of Duty 4 levels, this makes you fly as well as aim and attack. It's easy to bump into a skyscraper while focusing on the ground.

The activity Fluff is also a lot of fun. In it, you pose as a cop and take a cameraman along as you distribute justice in, shall we say, eccentric ways... including shooting streakers and cutting up violators with a chainsaw (which looks very much like using the chainsaw in Gears of War). It's particularly funny when you get called to break up a fight between pirates and ninjas, or when there's a "hooker uprising in progress" and you get called to "inspect" the hookers.

Old activities have been improved and expanded upon. Insurance Fraud again has the player leaping in front of vehicles, but now you can build up to Adrenalin Mode. With adrenalin, you're knocked much higher and farther, allowing you time to aim for other vehicles and be knocked around like a pinball, earning more fraud money. Destruction Derby allows limited customization of vehicles. You earn points with each win, and those points can be used to increase the offense, defense, or speed of your vehicle. Defeat all levels of Destruction Derby to unlock the Special Derby. In that derby, you can compete in monster trucks, golfcarts, 18-wheelers, and even Lamborghinis, just to name a few.

Diversions include familiar activities like taxi driving and tow truck driving, but also new stuff like blackjack and poker, flashing, streaking, zombie uprising, and drive-bys. Diversions also include what I'll call passive activities, because they have no set timeframe or clearly defined challenge. For example, as you drive, near misses (with other vehicles) and driving against oncoming traffic will earn you respect with your homies, as will jumping ramps and driving on two wheels (or one wheel on a motorcycle).

Simple additions like enabling the taking of a human shield or tossing NPCs make a big difference. The ability to throw NPCs is much like the sticky grenade in Halo, in that there are countless ways it can be used to different effects. You can toss someone head-first into a brick wall, or toss him over a rail, or off a building, or into an oncoming vehicle, or through a window, etc. And this time around, you can click a button to enter an over-the-shoulder view for better aiming and a more intense FPS-style experience.

Just like in the original game, you can customize your character's appearance to fine detail, both at the onset and mid-game. The amount of sliders will annoy many gamers, but there's a Randomize command so you can just flip through optios until you see a face you like. What's really great this time around is that you can choose from one of three voices for your character (three male, three female), as well as choose a compliment and taunt. I can't help but think my character's British accent goes perfectly with his giant green mohawk and punk-rocker style.

This time around, you can customize your gang with a general theme (80s, prephop, pimps and hos, gangstas, sporty, etc), a taunt, three vehicles, and... umm... something else.

There are eight cribs for you to call home. Two will be earned in the beginning, but the rest must be bought. You can buy customizations at each crib, and a slick crib will add respect bonuses to your activities, but these customizations represent progression and don't reflect personal choices of the player.

You can purchase every store in the game (at least fifty) and earn daily cuts of their revenue. There's definitely a thrill to earning money through ownership. And you might even be surprised to see your character's face on a billboard advertising one of the stores you own! That one took me completely by surprise.

There are many weapons and clothes to both buy and earn. Before the campaign's end, I unlocked a new shotgun and infinite shotgun ammo, as well as a biker's leather jacket and a pimp's outfit. Different clothing shops sell different clothes. All clothing can be changed in color, while many can be accented with a symbol or word logo.

Vehicle customization seems improved since the last game. There are many more rims and other additions available. And this time performance improvements include frame and tire endurance. There are dozens of vehicles in the game. The majority of them can be captured, stored, and customized. You can also collect a handful of boats, planes, and helicopters (one with missiles and guns).

As you progress through the story, each mission will earn further renovation at your gang's hideout. It's really satisfying to see your rise to power visually reflected in this way.

This game features an insane amount of dialogue, store signs, and other momentary thrills waiting to be discovered. It's all well voice-acted, and it plays a huge role in keeping the game fun and light-hearted.

Much of the dialogue is semi-randomly blurted from passing NPCs, but other dialogue is tailored to a specific NPC or group. For example, a student sitting down on the ground with her laptop at the Stillwater University has a line or two specific to her. Cops have different lines than hicks, who have different lines than yuppies, who have different lines than bums, etc.

You could play this game for many months and never hear every line of dialogue or notice every funny sign or store name. There's so much.

I thought the campaign was both interesting and amusing. Most of it doesn't take itself too seriously, though there are certainly some intense moments. It's well-written and well-acted. I've started the campaign over to see how much it changes with a different character voice.

Just like in the original game, all cars but your own disappear the moment you turn your view away. If you see a vehicle you want but it drives beyond your vision before you can catch it, you're out of luck. This issue is particularly annoying when playing Insurance Fraud, when the timer is ticking down and no vehicles are moving your way. I can only guess that this system of spawning vehicles only in the player's view was designed due to memory limitations, to eliminate lag, but the average gamer can't be expected to understand that this is the lesser of two evils.

My 360 has frozen a few times while playing the game over this past week. I haven't had freezing troubles since I played Oblivion a year ago. Perhaps this is just a hardware problem, but none of my other games have caused a freeze in many months.

The game stalled after I completed the campaign, forcing me to replay the last mission (you can continue to roam the city, customize vehicles, play activities and so on after you've completed the campaign). My console didn't lock up when this happened, but I was forced to exit the game and restart it.

I've gotten stuck a couple times, and seen NPCs stuck once or twice as well. It's a big, complex gameworld, so it's understandable that this could happen, but being forced to reload the game is still annoying. And again, average gamers aren't aware nor care about technical inevitabilities.

Sometimes, I get the feeling modern developers all play their games only on giant HD-TVs. On my 32" standard-definition TV, many logo and message customizations for clothing are unreadable while browsing them at a store.

Overall, it's a great game, one of my favorite games on the 360. Advancement focuses on variety of ways the player can interact with the world, more than increases in strength and challenge; and the variety is staggering.

The style of humor, the music, driving controls... whether or not you enjoy these aspects of the game depends on your personal preferences. Some people won't get into it, I'm sure. It's unfortunate that there isn't a demo, though not surprising since it's more sandbox-style than linear. If you're not sure if it's for you, then I recommend renting it and seeing if you catch yourself wishing you could play it more a few days after returning the game. This is the sort of game you can enjoy for however long, take a break, and return to it over and over again.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

challenges of sci-fi

I try not to repost my comments from elsewhere too often, but since this one's article-length anyway...

The heart of any story, regardless of genre, is humanity. The best science fiction stories explore humanity and personal relationships with technology being the catalyst and/or guide of that questioning. Isaac Asimov used AI to explore what makes us human. Arthur C. Clarke used space exploration to theorize on our place in a vast universe, as well as to explore our natural origins. Kurt Vonnegut uses technology to explore the basis and limits of our morals and cultures.

The popularization of the internet has greatly complicated science fiction, I think. It has because average people now interact with distant individuals, distant cultures, distant businesses and technologies in ways unimaginable just fifty years ago. When one's life can be so directly affected by something happening halfway around the world (such as a satellite being destroyed, or some service supplied by a foreign country being disrupted), then science fiction authors must either localize their focus to a small setting or consider a vast number of interacting technologies and events.

The rate of innovation/discovery and its variety has exploded, partially thanks to the internet. One can literally read a dozen articles every day of new technologies and scientific discoveries occurring somewhere around the world. Since the Industrial Revolution, science has increased in scope and speed with every generation (scientific exploration is, afterall, a privilege of hands freed by affluent times). There have always been times when innovation proceeds before the human effects are adequately considered, but I believe that's an especially common occurrence this far down the rollercoaster.

The challenge of the modern sci-fi author is that change occurs more rapidly than it used to and plays a greater role in life. For an example of the latter claim: as often as authors like to imagine a world without oil, they never imagine a world without plastics (made from oil). We are utterly dependent on many technologies, and new necessities are added all the time (power steering, computers, cell phones, etc).

Anyway, the focus on humanity, rather than technology, is what is most often missed by would-be sci-fi authors. But I think writing sci-fi can often be harder today than it used to be. It's too easy to predict one technological advancement and forget so many other technologies. Why, the audience might ask, is a person whose car is flying still watching a TV set?

Friday, October 17, 2008

true pets are personal

A repost of my response to Brian's latest challenge, on pets:

I'm very interested to see how the dog in Fable 2 plays out. It's a combination of both combat and show, and has uses well beyond those... such as pointing out hidden treasures and reacting to NPCs.

What I loved most about the Creature Handler system in Star Wars: Galaxies was the variety in pet types and ways of acquiring them. By making wild creatures open to taming, the designers provided a huge assortment of potential pets without having to design a lot of pet-only creatures (the wild creatures could be fought and skinned, thereby providing PvE content).

A pet is much more meaningful when it clearly represents a personal choice, individualizing the player. In real life, people show off the individuality of their pets, not the common features. They might describe their pets from afar as "a black lab" or "a beagle", but they always point out the pet's individual personality and appearance when we actually meet it. And the individual characteristics are what we take the most joy in, even when watching wild animals.

Fable 2 allows individual players to train their dogs differently. That's a good example of making pets both personal and meaningful.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

balance vs customization in Diablo 3

Damion Schubert gave a good talk at the Austin conference one year in which he spoke of how the game aspect, world aspect, and social aspect of any MMO often interfere with each other. He presented a triangle with those three points and argued that a good designer is conscious of where within that triangle lies the focus of the game.

Of course, tensions like this exist among many other aspects of design. One such tension is between "balance" and customization. The more influence designers offer players over direction of their experiences, the less they are able to predict and control the gameplay overall. I prefer more emphasis on customization in the games I play.

One of the most successful games that favored customization over balance is Diablo 2. It offered unprecedented freedom in skill selection, gear selection, item customization, attribute distribution, and even pacing. Because the world repopulates with each play-session, the player could choose to replay old areas rather than push forward (thereby providing excellent control of the gameplay's difficulty to the player).

Each character was not only capable of being unique and personal, but likely to be so. Through both choice and luck, five characters of the same class and level were likely to all have different degrees, and types, of power. Customization and dynamics go hand-in-hand, and that's why I and many others are still able to enjoy Diablo 2 over seven years after its release.

So I'm wary of the news that character attribute points will be distributed automatically and not by player choice in Diablo 3. Blizzard says this allows them to go even further with items, but it seems at first glance like a step back from customization and toward the more common emphasis on power balancing.

Even if it is a step towards balance, the gameplay of Diablo 3 is still likely to be more customizable than that in most games. But Blizzard has also replaced the health potion system with health globes which cannot be stored in inventory (they can only be used automatically when running over them). I like the idea, but again choice seems to be taken from the player. Will players be able to control the pace and difficulty as much as in Diablo 2?

Two similar changes does not equal a trend. But if I see a third change of this kind, I might wonder if Blizzard is bringing Diablo 3 in line with the dominant design culture of balance obsession. Will Blizzard emphasize uniform difficulty and predictability over player choice? If so, I doubt I'll enjoy it as long and as much as I enjoyed Diablo 2.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

a sweet October

Graphics have definitely improved over the years:

I've got my copy of Dead Space, but haven't dived into it yet. Once the sun goes down.

I'll probably write something up on it and Saints Row 2 in the coming weeks.

scripted choices

Lionhead has come up with a cool and relevant flash game to advertise their upcoming 360 game. I call it relevant because it gives people a taste of the sort of choices they might have to make in Fable 2.

It's interesting and fun, but it demonstrates the problem I mentioned when playing Mass Effect, the inevitable consequence of offering players scripted choices: the designer can't include or even think of every choice different players would choose to make in a given circumstance. Scripted choices are still worthwhile, but the player should also be able to choose in less restricted ways.

mind games

If I were designing a game with mind control, I'd pit players against their own gut reactions.

In a normal video game, the player can imagine multiple moves before choosing one to activate with their hands on the controller. But if the game could discern what, generally, is going on in the players' minds, then it could test their instincts by removing that ability to consider before activation.

It would be kind of like removing the super-ego. In fact, it might be more fun if the game had something like the sanity meter of Eternal Darkness in which the player gradually succumbs to the danger of losing the super-ego's intervention. If the player's character becomes too sad or too angry, then the game temporarily shuts off the filter between the player's mind and character's actions, thereby simulating a fit of hysteria.

If you tell someone "Don't look!", he's probably going to look, right? Likewise, if you place a player in a situation in which his character would probably want to do terrible things (exact revenge, for example), effectively tell him "Don't do it!", and then turn off that mind-control filter... :)

It would be a hard game to design, but potentially a fresh sort of fun and storytelling. I hope the technology advances quickly.

Monday, October 13, 2008

publicizing game music

I realized today that I've never heard of game music being on a radio station (aside from internet stations). Assuming that's true, that game music really is confined mostly to the internet, it makes me wonder two things:

(1) Is this due to lack of promotion by game publishers?
(2) Is this an indicator of the game industry's cultural relevance?

It might simply be a case in which marketing hasn't caught up with product advancement. It was not long ago that the production value of game music rarely exceeded MIDI files. The Mario theme is great, but the original recording is clearly dated (and it's really no more than a short ditty). Orchestral scores and CD-quality recordings are still relatively new on the scene. Perhaps publishers have not marketed their soundtracks beyond the internet yet.

If that's not the case, then why do film soundtracks make the radio and XM stations in TV satellite programming while game soundtracks do not? My gut reaction is that the audiences for those stations do not play games and still consider video games to be childish entertainment. Esteemed composer Danny Elfman's works from Fable (most of the music is by Russel Shaw) are not heard on classical radio stations, but his works from films like Edward Scissorhands are. Laura Karpman's work for Spielberg's Taken TV series might have earned her praise, but what about her work on Everquest 2?

To be honest, I'm not sure to what degree this issue is real or imagined, since I have no idea what is being played on the radio outside the Houston area. But here, at least, it seems only hardcore gamers care to hear game music once the controller is put down.

Friday, October 10, 2008

damn the end

What's really interesting about the typical MMO philosophy of "the real fun is at the end" is that people regularly accept it with MMOs but not with anything else.

Would you watch a movie that's pretty boring for nearly two hours but has a great ending? Would you buy a song that's mediocre at best until the last 30 seconds?

Frankly, standard MMO design is based more on manipulation than quality. Even the outstanding games of the genre have failed to abandon what are clearly seedy practices.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

"anything goes" settings

The benefit of a setting not meant to be taken seriously is that nothing is off limits.

For those of you who avoid links like the plague, that's a video showing a Saints Row 2 "Zombie Uprising" mini-game. That's right, zombies in a ganster's paradise. Hilarious and fun!

A more serious, focused setting is often better, of course. But the benefits of a light-hearted setting should usually be considered while planning the game's fundamentals.

Aside from making expansion content easier to come up with, such openness in the setting also allows more opportunity to pivot during the production process. If a particular feature or activity looked better on paper than it feels after programming, then there are few limits to the alternatives available to you.

Incidentally, I might be looking forward to Saints Row 2 more than any game due out this year.

After playing GTA IV, I went back and played the first Saints Row... and I'm 100% convinced Saints Row (the original) is the better game. It's what the GTA games used to be. Rockstar is free to take the GTA series in whatever direction they want, but their last few games haven't felt anything like the early GTA games. The early games were sillier, wilder, and more open. THQ took over where Rockstar left off.

That's why I think Saints Row 2 is competing more with GTA's history than with GTA IV.

Monday, October 06, 2008

creative customization

While reading George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and Martin's many descriptions of elaborate armor sets and weapons, I had to wonder why fantasy RPGs still don't offer gear customization like that. Many games allow customization via selection, but how many offer creative customization?

Certainly, there are good reasons that games which focus on the winning or discovery of items don't favor player creativity. But there are plenty of RPGs in which gear takes a backseat to other thrills. Neverwinter Nights, for example, adhered to D&D's bland item system (Halberd +1, Halberd +2, etc), but was still a fun and bestselling game. Oblivion had plenty of items, but also seems to focus on other goals.

I think games like Spore and The Sims have shown how popular creative customization can be. The outfit editor in Spore's tribal stage offers ideas for RPG gear editors, as do the clothing and tattoo stores of Saints Row and its sequel. And as those games show, creativity needn't exclude achievement. You can offer players new options as they advance through challenges or earn wealth in the game.

Why not? Honestly, I'm surprised I haven't seen this in RPGs.

Friday, October 03, 2008

rivalries -- only for sports?

A rivalry is basically a fun sort of feud. And is it ever fun!

We rarely see them outside of sports games, because a necessary condition is that victories and defeats are not final. A nemesis or archenemy is different from a rival in that a rival cannot be permanently defeated. Each time you defeat a rival, there's a chance that rival will be back one day to defeat you. Victories are only temporary.

In fact, for the rivalry to retain emotional gravity, the competitive balance must remain relatively even. If you know you're always going to win against the enemy, then there's little emotional investment in the game.

Another necessary element of rivalries is history. Pointing a player to another as his rival can add a bit of fun, but the emotional investment in that rivalry is meek compared to if the two players shared a history. The longer and more eventful the history, the more powerful that rivalry becomes... which is why I can't wait to see Bama roll over Auburn this year!

Mario vs Bowser can be called a rivalry in Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers. I grew up on Nintendo consoles, so I knew those two had been locked in a never-ending battle for years. I still would not call that rivalry if the those characters met only in Mario adventure games, but the many competitive spin-offs have allowed Bowser to have his share of wins, too.

Even so, Bowser and Mario share a public history only (to my knowledge) in the adventure games. Their interactions in the competitive spin-offs are limited to personal histories. Mario always wins in the adventure games, no matter who's playing. Bowser's victories were seldom recorded and shared.

Notice that those Mario spin-offs in which a rivalry exists are, again, sports games.

Warhammer Online is a non-sport that includes rival factions. For long-time Warhammer IP fans, those rivalries have long and eventful histories, so they are powerful. But for players new to the IP, like me, WAR is like suddenly joining a centuries-old feud you know nothing about. Thankfully, the history there is a living history, seen in the game's environments and felt throughout gameplay. But the rivalries are still shallow in comparison to sports if you're new to the IP. And while sports have dozens of teams with many rivalries, WAR is limited to just three (not counting the broad Order vs Destruction).

So, considering all that, how can deep and lasting rivalries be included in non-sports games or developed over time among their players? How can that gap between sports and non-sports be better bridged?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

the future of gaming

What is the future of gaming? It's a fun question.

Michael Pachter made a great point about how little content for TV has changed in the past 50 years. Countless innovations have showed up here and there, but the shows in general follow the same rules and formats; they present stories, information, and views in basically the same ways. Are games different?

I'm going to limit myself to two points.

Will games ever be "platform agnostic"? Some will be, of course; but never the majority. Games are not like movies in that every film is experienced in the same way at the most basic level.

No matter what cable or satellite TV package you subscribe to or what format your movie purchases are in, the basic controls are immediately recognizable: Play, Stop, Forward, Rewind, Pause, Channel Up, Channel Down, Volume Up, Volume Down, Menu, Select, etc. There are certainly control variations, but they're all based on this classic setup. With Spore, Street Fighter II, Assassin's Creed, NCAA Football 08, Tom Clancy's Endwar, Wii Sports... the buttons might look similar, they might even share names (A button, B button, Start, Select, Right Trigger, Left Trigger, etc), but they perform different functions.

Most game controls still are not intuitive enough for many non-gamers to explore gaming. The thumbstick on the Wii nunchuk, for example, is a complication. That minor addition is not problematic for long-time gamers like us, but the combination of two unrelated, graded control devices for simultaneous use on the same hand is not a minor complication for someone who has never picked up a controller. Even just a button at the end of that device would frustrate many people who are not used to complicated control devices. Sure, common electronics like microwave ovens and TV remotes have a lot of buttons, but you only have to press one button at a time.

Imagine what could be done with just one light-weight, force-feedback control stick the size of a wand. You could wield a lightsaber or sword. You could cast spells, ala Black & White. You could fish. You could play baseball. You could carve and shape objects, move and manipulate them.

The simpler the hardware you use to create deep, expansive, compelling experiences, the more money you can make off quality software. The Wii only hints at the potential simplicity of focused consoles.

Though I certainly don't think everyone should aim for simplicity. Corvettes aren't for the average car consumer, but they're still profitable.

Some great games will cost tens of millions to make. I accept that. But the idea that any blockbuster game must cost millions is silly.

For a long time, we've seen games of vastly different qualities and durations for equal price. Now we're starting to see developers experiment with individual pricing and new pricing models. The industry will never fully abandon the traditional models we're used to or cease to apply general standards. But a lot of strategies are being tried right now, and some of them are going to stick.

Perhaps best of all, game design is becoming more accessible. Programming is an increasingly popular skill, often the result of informal learning, and an increasing number of communities and organizations are encouraging amateur design. It's becoming easier to reach large audiences.

We might even see a revival in garage game design. More and more tools are popping up for designers. Those tools are getting better, as well as more accessible to non-programmers and non-artists. We might see a day when a couple high schoolers design a game that sells half a million or more copies.

Both costs and prices are going to vary much more in the near future.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

R.I.P. Jeff Freeman

I'm going to point back to a post I made last year about another developer's suicide. I'm sure now, like then, many friends and family are having trouble understanding the tragedy and are perhaps asking themselves what they might have done to prevent it. I hope this helps.

I'm grateful to Raph for sharing a bit of his history with Jeff. To be honest, I rarely read Jeff's blog or interacted with him. But now I know that I've thoroughly enjoyed some of his works, such as the Creature Handler class in SWG. I enjoyed SWG more than any other MMO, and I spent the vast majority of my time playing with Jeff's handiwork.

will games get a Hollywood?

Keira makes an interesting observation in passing in this article:
What’s interesting is that no single country has risen to dominate. Modern mainstream games are frequently compared to Hollywood, but Hollywood is distinctly American, whilst modern games contain quite a blend.
She's right that no city has become as synonymous with games as Hollywood is with movies... yet. But I wonder if such an association still might emerge.

New York used to be more important to films. Perhaps Hollywood gained its reputation only after duking it out with that city. Or perhaps Hollywood got where it is because it lies outside a major city, rather than in one. That allowed the whole area to become devoted to films in a way that couldn't have happened in the midst of other industries. We might see someone start a suburb or town devoted to games one day.

In any case, I don't think we've seen the industry consolidate fully yet. Until that time, I'd say the industry's still in its early years and the possibility remains for a Mecca of game design to emerge. What do you think?