Thursday, May 28, 2009

E3 '09 predictions

Why not? Here's my reply to Q's prod on GamerDNA:

Most of the big hits of this E3 are already known, and almost all sequels: Modern Warfare, Assassin's Creed, Bioshock, Mass Effect, God of War, The Sims, etc. Smaller titles like The Saboteur and Brütal Legend will impress with hands-on previews, but remain only moderate interests for most people due to so much crowding of blockbuster titles. I'm looking forward to seeing those in action, though.

Though I see no reason to get excited about Alan Wake yet considering how little has been shown, it was made such a big deal years ago and has been talked up enough since that a little gameplay footage at E3 would generate a lot of hype. A sequel to Left 4 Dead would also generate a lot of press, even if it's nothing more than the same gameplay in new levels. If Zelda or another famous franchise gets a new installment, there will be much ado regardless of quality.

Borderlands might have the most to gain. It looks impressive, but few gamers know or care about it so far. They'll need some savvy marketing to supplement good gameplay. I'm also hoping to see some progress on Backbreaker, and perhaps Bloodbowl on the 360.

If The Agency and Huxley are ready to show off, those could dominate MMO news. A lot will be revealed about many upcoming MMOs.

Overall, Microsoft will do well mostly because of their flurry of great games this year, but they'll likely overhype 1-vs-100 and similar content. They need more than one new use for avatars. If they're revealing a motion-capture system, they'll need something better than In the Movies to win over critics. An announcement of another service in the vein of Netflix would be huge.

Sony's got more to show this year than last year, but they'll still come in last. I don't think Heavy Rain will draw as many gamers as they think it will. They'll talk about the success of Little Big Planet and talk about their non-game services.

Nintendo will talk up the Wii Fit's success, but their strong point this year is hardcore games. The Grinder, Dead Space: Extraction and Dead Rising are wins for them... but The Grinder will have to live up to its promises regarding online co-op. Wii Motion Plus has to wow consumers with great game applications, because another "must have" peripheral will irritate frugal gamers. And there will of course be handheld game announcements.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

replay systems

I recently joined Lots of good discussion there and good resources for new developers. The following's a carryover of my comments there.

Recordings of player moments (screenshots, video clips, etc) are great both in terms of player enjoyment and marketing. But a distinction should be made between planned and unplanned clips.

On the one hand, you have player-scripted events; machinima. Spore and The Sims 2 offer players in-game tools for this. Alternatively, World of Warcraft is commonly used but through external tools not provided by Blizzard. Such recordings are popular, but the planning and interface know-how required limits their user appeal.

On the other hand are unexpected events which the player discovers and wants to memorialize. Replay systems are more rare, but also, I think, more valuable. NCAA Football '08, for example, automatically records every play and allows players to select from those recordings events for permanent memory. That means that if something unintentional or unexpected excites the player, it can be recorded after-the-fact. The game also allows the player to view the event from different angles. Similar systems allowing cropping and editing, but the simplest systems have the broadest appeal.

Of the two kinds of recordings, planned and revisited, the latter appeals to more gamers. It is more useful for marketing as well, since the recorded events represent actual, unscripted gameplay which any player might hope for.

I wonder if there might also be occasional value in audio recordings. At this time, apart from music, audio in games is rarely worthy of memory. Undoubtedly, some game enthusiasts have favorite lines of dialog and such which they would happily preserve, but game audio is not dynamic enough to offer individual experiences -- the primary basis of personal recordings. How to make it so is worth consideration.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

civilians and facing mistakes

I'm happy to see civilians running around in Modern Warfare 2's latest trailer, as well as fighters in civilian clothes.

I can only guess the scenes with people running away are during battles and not between. If there are civilians present during battles, with actual risk of civilian casualties, I consider that a big leap forward for first-person war games. War is never just between soldiers.

I have played games before in which it was possible to shoot the wrong people and be punished for it. Anyone who has played the Call of Duty games has been forced to restart from a checkpoint after shooting an ally. I believe that's the wrong way to punish such mistakes.

A reset means the offending action never happened. It's like a deleted scene or an expunged record. For mistakes to truly matter, they must remain part of the player's journey, an irrevocable moment which demands reflection and penance. If that moment can be erased, even in a punishment like a reset, then the player is not made to face it and reflect.

Civilians are important to war simulations (as opposed to arcade shooters) because they epitomize the moral complexity and uncertainty of war. Some civilians are hostile but not threatening. Some are dangerous in their foolhardy support. Some who would run away and seem harmless are dangerous, not by will, but due to the information they possess that enemies could gain by interrogation.

Fun over simulation -- I understand. But such complications of real warfare can make settings and stories infinitely more compelling, and potentially add replayability. Civilians are not a vital element for war games, but represent enormous untapped potential.

Friday, May 22, 2009

what you know

I'm going to try something different today. Instead of droning on and on with my thoughts, I'm just going to pose a quick question. Then y'all can respond to it and I'll respond to your thoughts. So...

A common bit of advice for writers is to "write about what you know". Surely, this advice has some relevance for game designers. How so?

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I bought Sacred 2 for my 360 when it was released, and traded it back in only a few days later. I didn't even want to make use of my money before getting rid of it. So I agree with GameTrailers' review, as usual. But I'm surprised kinetics was never mentioned.

I call it kinetics, but there might be a better term. What I'm referring to is the feel of action: the way animations and sound effects combine to bring actions to life.

Timing is key to kinetics. Imagine a baseball game. When a player swings his bat, is the animation slow or fast? Either could be fun, but the speed affects the feel. Now consider the sound. Is the crack of the bat against ball perfectly synched with the animation? Or does the sound come a split-second before or after the animation?

Now imagine there is no sound when bat meets ball. That would suck, wouldn't it? No game would forget to include that sound. But what about surrounding sounds? Does the crowd cheer when the batter gets a hit? Does the crowd's noise change at all depending on whether it's a home run, a grounder, or a bunt? What about the player's footsteps as he's running to 1st base? Does they get any sound?

Does every player throw or drop his bat the same way? Does every player swing the same way? Do they all run with the same gait?

The point is that even simple actions can have surprising potential for accompanying sounds and animations. And, generally, the more visual and aural details included, the more compelling an action feels.

So back to Sacred 2. Play that game, Play Diablo 2, and tell me which has better kinetics. Compared to combat in Diablo 2, combat in Sacred 2 feels like flag football. There are more sounds, including reactive lines of dialogue (not commentary... screams, yelps, and such), and animations are quick enough to keep combat tense and frantic. Titan Quest also fails by slowing animations and creating a slight disconnect between player attacks and enemy deaths and defense. That one's a good game, but the timing is slightly off and dying enemies often float in the air a moment.

All games are limited by time and expense. But pinpoint the actions your players will employ most often and devote as many sound effects and animations to those actions as possible. Other parts of your games can be sketched simulations, but core actions should be represented as fully as possible.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Super Bowl ads

The best advertisements are often the ones that even non-gamers can enjoy:

Monday, May 18, 2009

E3 hopes for Microsoft

I'm not going to speculate on which games Microsoft will announce and showcase at E3 this year. But here are some general hopes for their conference.

First, Microsoft needs to make avatars worthwhile. They made avatars a big deal last year, but what can we do with them? They act as faces on a few arcade games. A single game, A Kingdom for Keflings, makes use of the full avatar. 1-vs-100 is a good idea, but that can't be it.

Second, this new motion-detecting camera should have some game applications that regular gamers can enjoy. The Xbox 360 will never have as strong appeal as the Wii to the same groups. The 360's marketing to regular gamers can't help but color its perception among casual gamers, and casual gamers aren't likely to care enough about games that they'll accept the hardware's notorious unreliability. Microsoft would have more success focusing on their present audience.

Third, I hope they discuss the issue of persistent online games on Xbox Live -- whether or not it's acceptable to charge players on top of the Xbox Live subscription; and, if so, how much. It's bad enough that we pay for multiplayer in games that don't have dedicated servers and are always disconnecting.

Fourth, for Pete's sake, have the courtesy to not announce things that won't be materializing this year or similarly set ridiculous expectations. The "New Game Experience" was a bad joke. I find it hard to get excited about Alan Wake since it was made a centerpoint at the 360's first conference years ago. Microsoft has a bad habit of greatly disappointing their players by setting up expectations they can't meet. It makes for an exciting press conference, but it undermines consumer trust in the long run.

Friday, May 15, 2009

the uncanny in sci-fi

Science fiction is fertile ground for the uncanny. As I've explained before, uncanny describes objects and situations which are simultaneously strange and familiar, often disturbingly so. This is typically manifested in a character or object that is familiar in all ways but one.

I thought of this while watching the Skynet infomercials (clever ads for the Terminator: Salvation film).

The characters in this video have an oddness about them. The man seems like just a poor actor. But the woman's head movements, facial expressions, and repeated touching of her earpiece suggest something disturbing about her.

Anyway, while watching that video, I realized that robots become creepy when they resemble creatures that don't move like robots. For example, one wouldn't expect a robot to move like a snake or a fish. The eye-scanning robots in Minority Report were creepy because they moved like spiders.

But if there's not enough familiarity, then it's not disturbing. For example, the cybernetic tree in Too Human is equally like a tree and like a computer, and so it simply looks cool. A cyborg is more unsettling when it is mostly human than when it is only half human.

One could design a good sci-fi horror story by filling the world with uncanny technologies.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

false positives

I recently watched a submarine movie called Grey Lady Down. In one part, radar is disrupted by canyon walls, making everything a blur. Sonar similarly returns much information that must be filtered out and many false positives.

Could this sort of scenario be made fun with FPS radar?

What if some parts of a map were radar dead zones? What if certain objects on some maps appear as false positives on radar, requiring familiarity for players to know the static dots aren't poachers?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

E3 revived - spectacle is good

The beast is back this year, and everyone's wondering if it's a good thing.

When E3 was a made a small, pitiful industry get-together, as I understand it was originally intended to be, I commented to a number of people that the industry's bound to have a huge marketing extravaganza one way or another. The ESA could only decide whether or not that inevitable extravaganza would be theirs.

Of course, the bad news is that the presence of any big industry bazaar disrupts the development of many games by way of distraction; forcing developers to produce marketing materials, rather than ultimate gameplay. Marketing stunts like E3 are largely responsible for the industry's crunch time pandemic.

But let's talk about why this annual orgy of gaming news is good, too. Keighley raises the criticism that piling so much big news into such a small timeframe leads to good games being overshadowed by more sensational news. That's true, but it's also true that many games reach a much larger and more diverse audience because of E3's size and noise.

E3 is a circus, and many acts get attention only at a circus. Its concentration of so much interesting news, so many new videos and interviews, convinces many people to make that news a higher priority than they would normally consider it. It's like the Super Bowl. Countless people who haven't watched every regular season game, if they've watched any at all, tune in because of the epic nature of the event. Suddenly, they care about things they didn't care about before, welcoming all sorts of information that would normally fall under "Eh, I'll read about it some other time".

What I'm saying is that many game interviews and previews will be read, many trailers watched, because E3 makes games the temporary focus of consumers who normally pay attention to such things only occasionally, if at all.

And each year, non-gaming mainstream news outlets have payed more and more attention to this event, exactly because it is the gaming event of the year. Now we have a recession and those news outlets will want to tell stories about the industry that's charging forward despite. They'll want to capture their stressed-out audience with the stunning visuals, crazy technologies, and epic experiences this industry has to offer.

I disagree with Croal and the others. Publishers shouldn't hold themselves to a few choice announcements at E3. This is a rare time when you'll have the attention of occasional gamers and lapsed gamers. This is a time when regular gamers will devote more time to reading and watching gaming news. Market your smaller announcements by tying news of them to your larger announcements, and by making those smaller advertisements your most intriguing. Think of Super Bowl ads; how everyone looks forward to them because they're not typical ads.

The spectacular nature of E3 is definitely a burden, but it's also a blessing. The extravagance is a source of opportunity.

I received a priority code for E3 registration this year, but I'm assuming I'd still have to pay the $500 for a pass (not to mention plane tickets, hotel reservations, food, beer, etc). I can't afford to go this year. But I might plan ahead so I can go next year.

Monday, May 11, 2009

rocker of the day

In a moment of brilliant epiphany, Gabriel decided to change his entry in last week's contest from Kyuss to a far superior band. And with that choice, Gabriel has won the giveaway!

This band not only rocks, but their style perfectly fits Brütal Legend. Metal anthems, a feel of medieval fantasy, skilled musicians, a dark doom about them, and one of the better names I've heard for a metal band. Did I mention I'm a sucker for harmonized guitar?

So, in the immortal words of Jack Black, let us raise our goblet of rock to...

Hammers of Misfortune

Congratulations, Gabriel! Be sure to email me at so I can send you your prize.

Thanks to everyone for the band recommendations. There were definitely some good ones.

Friday, May 08, 2009

illuminating characters

In the recent "Blinded" episode of Lie To Me, an interesting thing happens (spoiler alert).

Throughout the show, a support character demonstrates no skill or productivity. He's driven by anger, not by reason, and that anger doesn't help. He's nothing but a burden to the team. One could almost say he's unimportant.

But at the end, a situation arises that suits his aptitudes. Suddenly, this character is the saving grace. In moments, he reveals a few profound insights that lead directly to the team's victory. The sudden departure from his past image is surprising, but believable.

This is a great example of what round characters should be. Authors should know more about their characters than they reveal. It's interesting to audiences when characters make sense but are never entirely known and understood. And character actions are more interesting when they can't be traced to a single origin.

Surprises like this can also encourage the audience to expect surprises throughout the setting and story, to wonder if they've misjudged other characters. Watch that episode sometime to see what I mean.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

libraries for developers

For as long as I've been following the articles and comments of game designers, I've heard that good designers play many games. The most common reason given is, as Ian Fisch put it: "When the designers all have experience playing the relevant games, their ability to express ideas to one another is greatly enhanced." Ian also points out that hands-on experience with a game mechanic can often dispel misconceptions from abstract analysis.

The advice is good, but playing games isn't free. It costs money to buy or rent a game. It costs time.

Fisch argues that development companies should schedule play time to enable more exposure to ideas and implementations. It's a good idea, but that still leaves the other hurdle: money. Which is why I suggest development companies should keep game libraries. I bet many companies already have such libraries, but it could be a standard practice.

But why libraries? Why not just keep a list of all the games each designer owns and promote sharing?

Well, that's not a bad idea, but there are some snags. First, anyone who has much experience sharing things knows how those things don't always come back in prime condition. Different people have different standards of care, and unforeseen events regularly happen. Reimbursement can be complicated in private transactions. Second, different employees will have different consoles. Loaning consoles can be a burdensome task, and many people share their consoles with family and friends. Third, it's simply easier to track ownership when the games belong to the company. And lastly, employees should be able to choose what they spend money on. A library, by contrast, can provide games that are more educational than fun, without forcing anyone to purchase a game they don't really want. Veterans might have large enough salaries to afford a lot of job-related investments, but I doubt rookies do.

So what I'm suggesting is a company room in which a wide variety of games and platforms are both stored and played.

The company might even arrange meetings in which the whole development team, or whole departments, play through a particular game together and discuss that game's features. Such collective play sessions would help the designers understand each other's styles and biases (which would greatly facilitate debates about their own game's design issues). Those sessions would also provide a regular and structured means for senior designers to impart knowledge to the rookies; and vis versa.

Again, I expect some of this is already practiced. But should it be a standard practice? And how might the idea be improved, if it's a good one?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

sympathetic villains

One of the core beliefs of the West's major religions is that evil is a corruption of good. The well-known seven deadly sins of Christianity are all distortions of love. Lust is a corruption of physical pleasure (no, not all such pleasure is sinful). Vanity is a corruption of love of beauty. Envy is a corruption of love of experience, pride a corruption of love of self, and so on.

A major trend in 20th-century literature and film has been to demonstrate this in the form of sympathetic villains. Unlike with pure villains, the original nobility of these villains is shown. It is revealed how their perceptions and desires have been corrupted, how pain has led them to reject their good inclinations, how some noble instincts remain. The audience roots against such a character, but is not wholly against that character.

So it's perhaps surprising that sympathetic villains do not appear more often in games. A notable exception is Bioware's Neverwinter Nights, with one character corrupted by misplaced faith and another turned by pain and bitter regret. But such a scenario seems rare in games.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I'm a fan of fables and mythic characters. But complex characters have their place, too. Why do you think games have gravitated so exclusively toward stick figures and moral extremes?

Mythic villains have been making a comeback in recent decades, particularly through comic books and their film adaptations. Perhaps games are just following a new trend in fiction?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

free-to-play content placement

FreeRealms is a good game. It's worth checking out if you don't mind cartoony games, especially if you have young kids. But its method of generating revenue will ruffle some feathers.

It's not a bad method, but it has a significant problem. Non-paying players are likely to be annoyed by the pay-to-play content staring them in the face all the time.

Losing a non-paying player matters because that players can tell people he or she knows about the game, and those people might end up being paying customers. Non-subscribers are a significant part of your marketing.

Another reason is that some players might not enjoy the game enough to pay early on, but become willing to pay after they have invested more time in their characters or experienced more content. For example, I didn't come across FreeRealms' tower defense games until after having played and explored a good bit. I enjoyed those mini-games a lot, and my hands-on experience with the full variety of mini-games in FreeRealms would factor heavily in my decision of whether or not to subscribe.

Obviously, you don't want the pay-to-play content to be "out of sight, out of mind" either. But there's more customers to be had than the ones you hook immediately. Smart placement of DLC and incentives in a "free" game includes focusing on the players who you won't catch right away or even at all. Try not to annoy players by advertising what they don't have access to every two minutes.

Monday, May 04, 2009

rocker giveaway

In tribute to Brütal Legend, a biographical account of my youth, I'm offering this Audio V Rocker free to whoever introduces me to the best under-appreciated rock band. It's a futon chair with speakers near the head rest. If it's too loud, you're too old.

The chair is being provided by Mounts and More, a CSN store that specializes in TV mounts, projection screens, audio and video cables, and other electronics accessories. Since different people need different size mounts and screens, CSN generously offered this audio chair from another of their stores.

Due to shipping restraints, you must be in the United States or Canada to enter this giveaway.

This is how the giveaway works. Introduce me to a rock band, of any style and any era, that never received the popularity it deserved. It doesn't have to be completely obscure... just a band that many people haven't heard of, but one you're sure has earned its axe in Valhalla. For example, I'm a big fan of Corrosion of Conformity (COC). Another band I like that would qualify is Badlands.

Whatever band you choose, you must provide a link to the band's music so I can hear them. I listen to just about every style of rock. I like both heavy and light stuff. But, to guide you, my favorite music is stuff from the late 80s and early 90s: Metallica's black album, Pantera, Alice in Chains, Guns 'n' Roses' Appetite for Destruction, Anthrax's Sound of White Noise, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, The Scorpions, Skid Row, etc. It can be dirt simple too, like Gruntruck or Helmet. It can be as laid back and light as Steve Miller Band or as rough and heavy as Down and Children of Bodom. I do prefer stuff with some melody, though.

I'll pick the winner next Monday, May 11. You must be willing to email me your address, so I can pass that info along to Mounts and More and they can ship you your rocker for free. I'm looking forward to hearing what y'all come up with!

You can email me at, but post your recommendation as a comment here as well so everyone can hear the bands.

Rock on!