Thursday, April 30, 2009

fluid personalities

People who know me only casually often say they're impressed with my intelligence or something similar. But when I'm with family, I often feel like a moron (and they share the sentiment). The simple fact of the matter is that I often am.

I've noticed that my tone of voice changes with family. My voice becomes higher pitched, somewhat timid and submissive. On the other hand, if I'm hanging out with a bunch of guys on a back porch or in a bar, my voice naturally becomes deeper, my comments more assertive. This is nothing particular to me. It's similar with everybody.

Only the core of our personalities are hard-set. Who we are changes slightly from moment to moment depending on who we are around and what the situation is.

Our expressions change from group to group. We're silly and light-hearted around some people, serious and philosophical with others. In some groups we take leadership roles, in others we become followers. Our interests rise and fall with the settings.

Why don't we see this more in game characters?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

audio nuances

One of the questions I've asked The Saboteur team is whether or not the visual changes of their "Will to Fight" system will be mirrored by changes in audio. Locations heavily occupied by Nazis will be mostly black-and-white, and will be colored more as the Nazi occupation is lifted. I figure this could be accompanied by audio effects, like making the music scratchy (like old records) or distant (reverb, gating) in the black-and-white settings.

Anyway, that general concept of connecting visual events with audio filters can be applicable to many games.

For example, most people have experienced static in radio signals while driving. They know this is due to distance from radio towers or interference. So degrees of static can be used to give the player an impression of entering wilderness, being cut off from civilization, or to suggest looming events... like an alien invasion!

Reverb effects can be connected to events for affective purposes. Suddenly introducing a tight, enclosed audio effect or a cave-like echo while the player is in a wide-open environment, for example, can create tension. Setting audio and video against each other like this can be a useful technique.

Any related ideas?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

grill the Saboteur

The Saboteur team is taking questions about the game, if you care to walk down that road.

You just need an EA forum account. I'm not sure how long they'll let the questions build up before answering some.

Here's a picture that shows off the black-and-white style of the more Nazi-dominated areas of Paris:

player dynamics vs scenario dynamics

After reading GameInformer's preview of Assassin's Creed 2 and other tidbits, I'm excited about the game. The first game provided gameplay that was excellent but redundant. Ubisoft seems to be tackling the redundancy problem.

That said, I hope they don't focus on player dynamics to the exclusion of scenario dynamics. Player dynamics are the various methods of interaction offered to the player. Scenario dynamics are variations in all that exists with or without the player, like the setting and fixed events. One sort of dynamics is initiated by the player, the other by the gameworld.

In my gaming experience, the latter is more vital. Both should be present, but gameplay is better refreshed by environmental dynamics.

Bioshock offers players many choices in character development, weapons and strategy. But how eager were you to watch the same cutscenes, hear the same dialog, follow the same path, encounter the same enemies, etc? Scenario dynamics certainly existed, but player dynamics clearly received much more emphasis.

Oblivion is another example. Though the game had perhaps the best terrain variety ever, and dynamic weather to boot, too many things were static and predictable: enemy types and behaviors, NPC dialog, quests, gear, etc. I could approach the same adventure in a different way, but that's a mediocre, half-hearted thrill.

Scenario dynamics can include neutral factions/characters/beasts (will attack anything, the player or the player's enemies), visual events (like a flock a birds flying by or a piece of driftwood moving along a shoreline), variation in enemy AI, dialog variation, and gear variation. This is the adventure aspect, the unpredictable elements which the player must respond to.

It's not enough for a dynamic to create a new experience. It must be a meaningful and memorable experience. Wood that splinters under pressure from the player's bullets, for example, is a dynamic, but not necessarily a meaningful dynamic. A few crates falling apart or boards snapping in two as the player trades bullets with one enemy probably isn't going to leave a big impression. However, a huge battle with many enemies all around and splinters flying everywhere might be a fight to remember. If the player is able to shoot some support beams to drop enemies from a collapsing balcony, that's even better.

Anyway, I'm just saying, don't forget the environment and events out of the player's control when you're looking for possible dynamics to include. The unpredictable is usually more affective than the predictable.

Let me repeat an old point: replayability is what prevents gamers from trading in their games and forcing you to compete with used copies. And it increases value for gamers, because our games have lasting value. It's nice when we can revisit old games the same way we revisit old movies on DVD.

The games that earn my loyalty to a series or brand are the games that last for months.

Monday, April 27, 2009

multiplayer personalities and UI

One of the things that made Perfect Dark 64 great was the variation in AI personalities. As I recall, the sims I included most often were the JudgeSim, VengeSim, and KazeSim.

Anyone who played that game realizes how much fun those personalities added. Players could be given a similar mix of roles with supportive interfaces.

For example, a player in the role of Judge could be shown only the player with the most kills on radar. The same could be done for a Venge role. Another player's role might be to lay traps and explosives.

Such multiplayer might get complicated, but roles of this general style are worth considering.

Also, it's not always necessary for competitors to each have access to a type of knowledge (like radar). It can be alright for one player to have different information and tools than another player, as long as that's considered in the rest of design.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

possible Ustream show

I decided the other day that I'd like to do something special for the release of BrĂ¼tal Legend, since the music Shafer seems to be celebrating in that game is an important part of who I am. One of the possibilities that jumped to mind was to crank up my amp and rock out on my guitar live.

So then I thought, "I've already got a good webcam coming in the mail. Is there some way I can stream a live show for free?". And you know what? Hell yes, there is!

Well, now that I've seen Ustream in action, I've decided I'm going to start a live show there in the coming weeks (assuming the new webcam I got is up to the job). The question is: What sort of show should it be?

It might just be about guitar and music. I bought that webcam so I could upload videos of my songs onto YouTube. No matter what I do with the live show, I'll be playing guitar at least some of the time. But I could do a show about gaming.

I'd basically be responding to whatever articles I read that day, perhaps using that day's blog as the starting point... then responding to questions and comments. Maybe I'd mix it with brief guitar lessons. When I write a review, I could answer questions about the game and respond to criticisms. When I hold a contest or giveaway, the gist of it would be on the show. Honestly, I'm a clearer thinker when I'm writing, but it might be less dry for y'all if you can watch and listen to me. It would be sometime in the afternoon or night, Central Standard Time.

What do you think? Would you be interested in a live or recorded video show that reflected this blog's content? Check out Ustream show or two, like this one, and let me know.

By the way, I'll likely be away from internet most of the time until Monday. Don't worry. I'll make it through... somehow.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

thoughts on LEGO Rock Band

On the surface, it's a brilliant idea. A Rock Band game that young kids and parents can share.

After I gave it some thought, though, I realized that designing it could be tricky. Here are some potential problems I see... and, afterward, some ideas for how to bring rock! into the land of LEGOs.

Potential Problems
Young kids have smaller hands, which means they need smaller controllers. Can Harmonix design instruments that are fun for all ages? Or will they expect customers to buy controllers separately for themselves and for their kids?

Part of the Rock Band thrill for adults is nostalgia; hearing songs we grew up with. Young kids won't have that history. But Harmonix knows better than I do what their current demographics are and how vital that is.

LEGO Rock Ideas
There's never been a better excuse to smash our instruments and destroy the stage! Kids love to smash stuff.

Imagine a LEGO character crowdsurfing when he gets pulled apart -- one torso goes left, one goes right.

Let players design/build their own stages and venues. Introducing creativity to the mix adds replay value (which decreases turnover to used copies, among other benefits).

Let players design their own instruments by combining parts. A guitar could have a headstock, fretboard and body.

Kids are as smart as you let them be. Fill the game with plenty of music history.

By the way, I realize many people buy the LEGO games for themselves and not for kids. But I think they're going for family entertainment.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

review timing

Yesterday, I spat out a couple theories (like I do every day) about game reviews, and I want to see what y'all think of them.

Any reviewer's fairness to a game diminishes with his or her workload. The more games a person has to review at one time, the more difficult it is to be patient with your thoughts and not rush to judgment on any one of those games. Time pressures can also discourage you from settling into a natural pace of play.

Also, any person is likely to be less fair in reviewing a game if he is playing that game while eager to play another game. For example, I think Medal of Honor: Airborne is a great game. But if I had bought it the same week that I bought Call of Duty 4, then I probably would have been much more critical of it. Even now, I don't like to play them back-to-back.

So, basically, timing matters. That means how long it's been since the last game you really loved, what similar games are released around the same time, what dissimilar games are released around the same time, how your playtime happens to be interrupted by life in general, etc.

Monday, April 20, 2009

game subscriptions

Michael Pachter mentioned a discussion between a number of CEOs about whether or not cloud gaming (ala OnLive) should encourage publishers to adopt a more TV-like model of business. He then raised the old idea of episodic content being released weekly or monthly, with each episode being purchased individually.

If games do go the way of cloud gaming, subscriptions which include simultaneous access to multiple games makes more sense to me. In other words, let's stop talking about a Pay-Per-View model and instead talk about an HBO model.

With Pay-Per-View, you pay for each individual show, as in Pachter's example. But by subscribing to a service like HBO or Starz, one fee buys you access to many shows. Some of those shows are developed by the service provider while others are only published by the provider. And how long has HBO been around? Obviously, it's profitable.

Of course, HBO's service is scheduled and sequential. You can only watch certain shows at certain times. That's one of the reasons I and others increasingly avoid traditional television and instead prefer on-demand services like Netflix.

So what happens if game rentals go online and do not require installation? If a subscriber can place multiple games in his queue and play any of them at any time with no extra fee, ala Netflix's streaming model, is that less profitable for game publishers than current services, like Gamefly and Gametap, which stagger rentals either by mail restrictions or by limited hard drive capacity and download time?

In short, I'm hoping for a day when I can pay a monthly fee to play any of a collection of games at any time, ala Netflix with movies.

For now, Netflix includes in this service only a portion of their movies. I can only guess this is because the film publishers do not want all of their movies to be available for the service. That suggests to me that they think they'll profit more per rental through the traditional rental model. But would it really be unprofitable, or less profitable, if they offered their entire libraries for on-demand rental subscription services?

And does the same apply to games? If on-demand rental subscriptions are profitable for film publishers, is there any reason the same model would not work as well for game publishers?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

XBL Achievements as credits

I whole-heartedly agree with Whipple that that Xbox Live Achievement are underdeveloped and should have some tangible use.

Whipple proposes the gamers could spend their Gamerscore points on downloadable content (possibly content designed specifically for Gamerscore purchases). That's a good idea, as long as one's public score continues to represent all of the player's Achievements while the spendable points from those Achievements is presented elsewhere.

Another possibility is for Gamescore to unlock privileges. The higher the score, the more privileges. This rewards people for playing games.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

official websites

I have no training in marketing/advertising, but here are some basic criticisms I have of many official game sites.

No automatic animation, no Flash menus, please. Sure, that stuff grabs some people, but I bet it annoys just as many. Sound isn't so bad if you bring it in gradually, thereby offering some warning and time for folks to turn down the volume. Animations and Flash tricks can make the page loads considerably slower. Some people check out a game site with only mild interest because there was a link in an article or email, and those people aren't going to wait long for the page to load.

And most importantly, fancy stuff like that often delays the real hook, the real meaning. While there's something to be said for ads that slowly but methodically suck the audience in, it's generally better -- in a world ever fuller of advertising noise -- to start with the punchline.

It's a mistake to make news about the game the intro page. The vast majority of gamers reading your news have already been hooked, regardless of how recently. That's secondary, peripheral information; details. The first thing visitors should see is the game's core concept -- one or a handful of primary selling points. Returning visitors can either bookmark the news page or skip the old info with one click.

If your game is for a mature audience, don't make the first thing visitors see an age verification prompt. In some cases, that might be unavoidable, but in many cases it isn't. Your intro page doesn't have to be part of the main framework; it doesn't have to be one section of many (News, Media, Forums, etc). It can be separate from the comprehensive site. If possible, show what you can that's age-agnostic and make your main pitch on this separate intro page... then let the player pass to the comprehensive site through an age verifier. As I've said, this doesn't make sense for all games, but at least consider it for yours.

When I say to start by showing the game's core concept, I don't mean just a tagline or text alone, obviously. What exactly is optimal depends greatly on your particular game. Some games must be seen in action to believed, in which case embedding a video (just one, and not automatically played) might be a good inclusion. Don't let the structure and design of your site as a whole over-influence the design of the intro page. If you've got a Media section with screenshots and videos, don't let that deter you from including or even repeating a screenshot or video on the intro page.

On the other hand, a game's core concept might be represented well by something other than facts or footage. Destroy All Humans! is an example of a game that could be advertised with a simple graphic along with the title, since the gameplay is fundamentally defined by the silly setting.

Anyway, what do you think? Do you disagree with any of that? Do you have any ideas for making official sites more inviting, more informative, and generally more effective than what we usually see?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

RPG physics

Good physics simulation has been used in RPGs before, such as in Might & Magic: Dark Messiah. But I'm surprised those physics simulations have never been tied to character statistics and skills.

For example, as your character becomes stronger, his strikes become visibly more powerful by doing more damage to objects and transferring more momentum to enemies. Wood is splintered faster, metals dented more, enemies knocked back further, weapons and shields shattering, physical stun attacks are more effective, etc. In other words, the number or other value representing the character's strength has a direct effect on the physics calculations.

This could be applied to any number of other influences, of course, such as speed and agility.

And the physical changes can be related to gameplay events other than character stats. Changes could be tied to the environment in the form of astronomical events (the day/night cycle or alignments), for example.

I'd love to see interaction between physics simulation and story events, character development, etc.

Monday, April 13, 2009

knowing a good thing

In response to the latter half of this week's Bonus Round discussion:

Sometimes, good works fail. And by good works, I mean the whole shebang: a good concept, good execution, good marketing, etc.

The hard reality is that not everything is under your control. Occasionally, the stars will align against you. Wise publishers and developers know when they've put out something great, regardless of public acceptance. They know that problems don't always signal a need to change.

Sometimes, first impressions aren't telling. Timing can be everything. Trust yourself.

the Valhalla project, etc

I've added a new link to my blog list, but it's not really a blog. It's a blogger biography project meant to help bloggers get to know each other a little better. What I like most is how you can browse by different criteria, like location and profession.

I'm on there now as well, if you ever get curious. And since it has the familiar "five random things" question, I no longer feel obligated to respond to Ysh's meme. =P

I might really update my blogroll eventually, but not today. Some of those sites are in permanent hibernation, I think, and I read others that aren't listed there.

And in case you're curious, I get most of my gaming news these days from friends in Twitter (especially Alchemic Dream) and N4G. For previews and reviews, I usually turn to GameTrailers. What sites do you rely on?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

better quick-time events

When I heard that Dante's Inferno will be full of quick-time events (QTE), I sighed in disappointment. I later made a comment that QTE are often fake participation. I'll explain what I meant by that.

I'm not completely dismissing QTE as a viable game feature. How could I? One of the industry's most popular game series, God of War, has thrived on them. I've never played God of War, since I never owned a Sony console (due to limited money -- not that I've never wanted one). I can't comment on that game. I've only experienced QTE in other games, and those experiences haven't been fun.

What I object to isn't the basic idea of simple actions that facilitate a cinematic experience, like climbing a gigantic monster. What I object to is purely reactive button-mashing... a complete disconnect between what the player is doing and what is happening on screen.

There's a great scene in one of my favorite movies, Fierce Creatures, where a zoo's manager leads his zookeepers to a large cage with a panda sitting amid the bamboo. The zookeepers coo and smile... until they realize it's an animatronic panda! It's in a cage for viewing as if it were a real animal, but it's really just a robot. The ensuing conversation goes something like this:

Staff: "You can't put an animatronic animal in a zoo!"
Manager: "Why not? It gave you a thrill."
Staff: "But it's not a real thrill, is it? It's artificial!"
Manager: "Having pandas in England is artificial."

The zoo manager clearly has a good point. We could fill our zoos with fake-but-convincing robots and there would still be a thrill to be had by audiences. So why don't we? First, because we value truth, and people shouldn't be intentionally fooled unless they want to be (like with magic shows). And second, because real animals can offer a grander, better experience.

Quick-time events, like any other design concept, can take many forms. The QTE that I've seen is basically like that robotic panda in the zoo. By making the player react to a series of random button requests ("Press X! Press Y! Press X!") to unlock parts of a scripted animation, these games are faking participation, in a sense. The player's button combos have no real relationship to the character's actions. Players are just jumping through hoops.

In such games, participation isn't really a significant source of enjoyment. The player's thrill isn't from the whack-a-mole action... it's from whatever epic event that action unlocks. Seeing my character climb on the back of a huge beast and stab it in the eye -- that's awesome. But while I'm concentrating on reacting to random button prompts, I'm not watching the monster. The experience is schizophrenic. The player is distanced from the action, rather than given opportunities for true engagement.

So how would I do it? What's a better way?

One example of making quick-time events truly participatory would be to mimic Assassin's Creed's acrobatic system and place the grapple points on live enemies, rather than on structures. In Assassin's Creed, every building has been strategically covered by the designers with edges and objects which the player's character can grab onto. If monsters and such were designed with grappling points like this, then gameplay could be designed to let players climb them in a dynamic, intuitive, and player-directed way.

That sort of use of QTE means each player can have a unique and personal experience based on individual decisions and circumstances.

One player might go up the giant's arm, another up the back, another latching onto its weapon or facial horn when it attacks, etc. The enemies could be capable of shaking the player off, grabbing him, or crushing him against a wall... thereby making the player's anticipation of these actions and scenarios part of the gameplay.

For example, the player's character might climb on a monster's back. The monster responds by trying to slam its back against some rocks. The player sees this coming and quickly shifts the monster's head or arm. He stabs the monster in the neck. The monster howls in pain and reaches to grab the player, but the player shifts again to the monster's back and stabs it again there.

The game might even get really crazy and allow another, smaller monster to see the player on the giant's back and climb onto the giant's back as well, trying to bite the player.

Anyway, that's just one way quick-time events could be implemented that would allow players to truly participate in the events and never lose focus on the real experience: the enemies and setting. Hopefully, Dante's Inferno will surprise me with something like that.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


April's Round Table challenge:

"This month’s Round Table challenges you to design a game that deals with a social issue that personally troubles you."

My game idea's simple.

Pixels rapidly shift all over the screen. Gradually, faces of people are formed. The object of the game is recognize faces forming as early as possible and shoot them before they're obvious.

The earlier the correct shot, the more points. As the game progresses, more and more faces form on the screen. Shoot all the images before they become clear. But shoot a full revealed face and the game ends!

fill those buildings!

I was thinking of games like The Godfather II, Saints Row 2, and GTA IV... about how the cities are so big but also full of empty buildings. For every two-story structure you can enter and enjoy, there are dozens of shops, homes, and skyrises that are locked and might as well be stage paintings. That's understandable. Open world games like those already offer a lot of content, and a huge world with limited content placed amid stage props is often more fun than the alternative.

But perhaps there's a way to have our cake and eat it too.

Bioware forever changed the gaming landscape by including their Aurora toolkit with Neverwinter Nights. The intuitive software Bioware used to create the Neverwinter campaign was given to players so that anyone could design further adventures using the same assets. To date, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of adventures have been crafted by amateur designers with the Aurora toolkit. And while much of that content is basic and shallow, a community has arisen that recognizes the best designs and encourages quality contributions.

A long and deep, but ultimately finite game, was made infinite and ever new by enabling players to design additional content using developer-provided assets and tools.

Why can't games like GTA and Saints Row do that?

In the case of these games, players could expand not only out but also in. It's time to fill all those empty buildings. That can be accomplished by sharing the load with creative players. Design your big city or vast countryside. Polish it. Complete it. But then let players fill in the gaps.

Bioware has already demonstrated how this can be done efficiently -- create and maintain a player community that weeds out the bad input and sublimates the good stuff. So what if the game is for the 360 or PS3? The professionals designed it on PCs, right? Is there any reason content created by players in a PC community can't be transferred to the consoles as DLC?

Keep in mind, I'm not talking about MMOs. I'm talking about single-player and limited-mulitplayer games being fleshed out by a player community, ala The Sims 2. The idea has been out there for years. I'm just wondering why is hasn't been applied to some genres of games.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Microsoft Surface games

If Microsoft Surface does become a popular household item one day -- or even just a hotel lobby passtime -- there will certainly be games for it. I don't believe it will greatly change device interaction in general (not person-device interaction, anyway; inter-device interaction, yes), but its unique interface definitely invites fresh types of gameplay.

Touchscreen technology has been around a while now. The iPhone and Nintendo DS are popular, but all such products require one hand to hold and one hand to operate. MS Surface, being a table, invites use of both hands. That drastically affects gameplay potential.

You might immediately think of arcade-style games when imagining Surface games. But deep AAA action adventure games are also possible... especially if linked to a pair of gaming goggles (3-D films and games should be common by the time Surface comes down in price, so using 3-D goggles might be common).

For example, imagine a game involving free-diving and swimming in the ocean. The player could move her hands on the MS Surface similar to true swimming motions. Starting one's hands in the middle of the screen and dragging them outward would propel the character forward in the water. Dragging both hands to the left or right would turn the character. Dragging both hands up or down would send the character to deeper or shallower water. Meanwhile, the goggles would allow the player to look independently of her movement... which enables gameplay like chasing and fleeing.

Placing the fingertips of one's open hand on the Surface and dragging them together would enable you to grab objects (including ladders). The opposite could drop or throw items, depending on the quickness of the movement. Dragging one hand could also throw objects, since only both hands together move the character through the water.

A light slap of the hand on the table could signal a punch or other blow (though I'm not sure how resilient Microsoft's table is). Dragging a finger in a circle around an object could throw a net.

Anyway, I'm really not trying to design a game here. I just mean to show that being able to interact with a touchscreen using both hands creates many possibilities not available when using only one hand. I don't forsee MS Surface becoming an ubiquitous device anytime soon. But if such a day comes, it could be fun for gamers.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Godfather II review (Xbox 360)

It's a good game. Not great, but good. I expect achiever types will like it best. The Godfather II offers a lot of challenges which can be approached methodically, and plenty of brutal executions to humiliate your friends with in multiplayer. The multiplayer deathmatches are fun and even allow competing Dons to bet family money from the single-player mode on the outcomes. But the game is probably too repetitive for most exploration-focused gamers, like myself, and perhaps a bit too familiar to fans of series like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row.

The Godfather II is definitely a game where all the parts fit. I take issue with a number of design decisions, but the overall experience is enjoyable.

Let's start with the first things you're likely to notice: graphics and pace.

The first thing you'll do is customize your character. Facial features are morphed using the Left Stick and Right Stick to move on quadrant maps (up <--> down, left <--> right). This is much quicker, easier, and more accurate than most character creation systems. Aside from morphing, though, options are pretty basic. When you're done with face and hair, you choose apparel. I have to say, I was really satisfied with my character's appearance after just 10 minutes or so of tweaking.

Visually, The Godfather II has improved from its predecessor, but isn't likely to wow many regular gamers. The one exception is the fire, which is about as realistic as I've seen in a game. Faces are well done. And there are some great visual moments when you shoot through a window... or throw somebody through. Aside from that, the graphics are about average for an open world game of this kind... good enough that cutscenes are enjoyable, but sights and locales are quickly forgotten.

Speaking of cutscenes, the voice work is excellent. That goes as much for Made Men and passing civilians as for the actors voicing Michael Corleone, Hyman Roth, and your own character, Dominic. Needless to say, Robert Duvall also does excellent work in his portrayal of Tom Hagen. Unfortunately, the fact that EA couldn't secure the rights to Al Pacino's likeness for the part of Michael is a frequent annoyance, but his replacement does a good job. As I'll explain later, bits of random dialogue are one of the game's strengths.

The game's pacing will certainly be a problem for some. The Godfather II includes three cities, and the first is basically a tutorial period. In my first few hours of playing, gameplay felt much too easy and slower than I expected.

It's easy because you need only use the Left Trigger to automatically lock on to the nearest enemy within view, and only one or a few shots is generally needed to take an enemy down. What is not immediately obvious is that this auto-aim feature has a purpose beyond helping you kill rival mobsters. It allows you to then adjust with the thumbstick where on the enemy's body you would like to shoot. Since there are many possible executions (surprisingly brutal, too), shooting an enemy (or innocent bystander) in the knee and then calmly walking up to deliver his mortal release can be a common source of amusement. That is, if you like putting a machine gun into a person's mouth and pulling the trigger... or embedding a crowbar in someone's head. Yes, I loved it, and feel dirty.

The game also feels easy initially because The Don's View and the events it tracks are less dynamic than they might appear from The Godfather II previews. Even by the end of the game, I was returning to The Don's View for map directions more than for strategy. Since money can easily be acquired through performing jobs for random civilians and cracking safes (the first bank is ridiculously easy to rob), I never had to rely much on racket earnings. Hiring five or more guards for every business I own was never a problem. And because there's always a warning when a rival family attacked one of my businesses, sending two of my Made Men to deal with the intrusion meant attacks were little more than a predictable nuisance. I can only recall one or two times that one of my businesses was bombed. I called in favors with the press of a button and the buildings were good as new.

Speaking of Made Men, the cronies you gradually hire as the story unfolds, the point of their skills seems to be less about backing you as making them stronger to defend your rackets when you send them out in The Don's View. Those I kept with me were there for their specialties, like safecracking or demolitions, rather than combat. I could hold my own fine without them until the final stretch... by which time you just need a Medic specialist or two to be somewhere around to revive you when you fall. Commandos they are not, though the AI is generally unobtrusive. They seemed designed to mostly eat bullets and throw rocks until you finally get around to killing all enemies.

That said, I'm a frequent FPS player. I'm sure plenty who would enjoy The Godfather II will appreciate the AI backup.

The only real strategy I found in The Don's View is choosing the order in which to seize Crime Rings. Some businesses are linked to others (two or three each) of the same type (prostitution, automobiles, etc). Control all businesses in a Crime Ring and your family will share a benefit like bulletproof vests or brass knuckles. These make a difference, but there aren't that many Crime Rings and some choices are made for you... by way of the story's linear progression from New York to Florida to Cuba. You'll take the Ring in New York first. Armored cars can't be taken until you reach Cuba. And another Crime Ring includes businesses in both Florida and Cuba. Needless to say, this is a bit annoying and reduces variation (and so replayability).

One of the first businesses you're directed to take in the beginning is a whorehouse. This is not an accident, I think. It sets the tone for the entire game -- meaning that this is a game more about action and brutal power grabs than about the subtle character explorations which define The Godfather films. The single-player campaign thrives on three things: extortion, dialogue, and executions. All will be repeated many times before you're through, but remain enjoyable.

Brilliantly, The Godfather II encourages players to vary gameplay by trying different executions via conditions for permanently eliminating rival Made Men. Each rival Made Man can be hospitalized from defeat in combat by any means, but killing him in a suggested manner will eliminate him permanently. Suggested manners of death include being tossed off a building, executed with a shotgun while kneeling, strangled from behind, choked, pounded against a wall, run over with a car, etc. There must be twenty or more ways to kill someone in The Godfather II, all of which are fun.

Extortion involves grabbing a hold of a business owner, after you've cleared the place of rival mobsters, and doing bad things. You can beat him against a wall, punch or headbutt him, smash up his shop, lean him over third-story rail, throw him around, or point a gun in his face. Each shopkeeper has a weakness, and finding out what that is makes the extortion go faster (and make some extra money). If you're not ready to seize a rival business, you can always torch the place instead, thereby removing it from the gang's income or Crime Ring.

As for dialogue, it's the little things. Honestly, I'm not a big fan of most of the cutscenes. They adapt the second Godfather film's plot in a smart way, but the conversations and animations are often dry. If you do many Favors (missions), expect to have heard all the possible conversations quickly. Where the dialogue really shines is the random outbursts of Made Men and passing citizens. One of my favorites is when I was driving once and my Underboss remarked, "So this is what life is like in the slow lane." The bastard. Unfortunately, outbursts are occasionally timed poorly, making the comments nonsensical.

There's a small variety of vehicles to drive, a few of which are fun. Don't worry if you have three Made Men with you but you want to drive the two-door sportscar -- they'll show up when you arrive wherever you're going. If you've played many games like Saints Row 2 or GTA 4, then the world will feel awfully small, but there's a fair amount of content.

So, multiplayer. In a unique twist, the single-player mode and handful of multiplayer modes are tied together. I mentioned before that players can bet money from the single-player campaign when competing as Dons in multiplayer matches. It's a phenomenal idea. This allows players to adjust their claims to bragging rights from match to match. Hardcore competitors will love the potential for hard-felt losses and easily measurable stakes. "All or nothing" ain't just words anymore. And you just know there will be some staggeringly large bets taking place months from now.

By letting serious-minded achiever gamers set high entry fees for their matches, it will be easier for them to find each other while avoiding more casual, relaxed players; and vis versa. This might act as a sort of intuitive and exceptionally accurate matchmaking system. Only time will tell.

I didn't get to thoroughly test the four or five multiplayer modes, but I can say that I prefer team deathmatch to the specialty-based modes I tried. You start off with just one weapon, which you select before the match, and then it's the old-school method of using whatever you find. The variety of weapons and player styles makes it fun. And it's always a joy to see one player manage an execution on another during multiplayer.

Anyway, there's plenty more I could say, but for the sake of brevity. Too late, you say? =P

The campaign took me about 20 hours. I'm guessing that's about average, since I did quite a few Favors but had no trouble knocking out the rival families. It was fun, but rarely exhilirating aside from executions and a few epic battles. The story was well done, but following the film through the three separate locations adversely divided what is essentially an open world game. The later families can attack earlier territories, but they were never successful in my experience. The multiplayer deathmatch is where I suspect many players will spend their time, because fellow players offer the dynamics the campaign lacks and the betting feature, as I've already said, is awesome.

So, again, The Godfather II is a good game, but not a great one. It will be more appreciated by gamers who are into achievements and multiplayer bragging rights.

Do you have a question I didn't answer? Feel free to ask in the comments.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Spore: Galactic Adventures trailer

I haven't played Spore in months now, but the recent trailer for the Galactic Adventures add-on has me thinking it might be time to play again.

My main complaint about Spore has been that it's more toymaker than game. The creation tools are excellent and offer so much variety. Unfortunately, there's little you can do with them until you reach the Space stage. Actual gameplay is so sparse and shallow (though there are a few fun dynamics in the Creature stage).

Judging from the Galactic Adventures trailer, EA seems to have listened to feedback like that and has offered players something more like an actual game with rules, goals, and progression.

Still, there's another reason Spore quickly lost its shine for me. By the time you reach the Space stage, your design decisions no longer affect anything other than visuals. Gameplay is still personalized to a degree by the order in which you do things like terraform, conquer, and form alliances. But spaceships all work the same regardless of design, and your creature is just a talking picture in the dialogue screens. The Space stage would be more compelling if design decisions really mattered and led to unique experiences.

Spore players would share their stories, and not just their designs, more often and with more enthusiasm if each player had experiences which are truly unique and personal. It's not much fun telling someone a story they already know.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Chasing Churchhill

I watched an excellent documentary last night by the granddaughter of Winston Churchhill, called Chasing Churchhill. It avoids retelling all the old stories of Churchhill's brilliant leadership during WWII, and instead focuses on the man as an adventurer and painter. I couldn't find an online gallery quickly, but I highly recommend taking a look at his paintings. They're beautiful and serene. He had a great sense of colors.

The documentary showed many of Churchhill's paintings. Surprisingly, all of them were pleasant. That impression might just be due to his granddaughter's selection, but I don't think so since she said he rarely painted during the great war. The man endured many conflicts. He experienced bullets whizzing by his head in battles, scenes of a hundred war-torn bodies and groaning men, assassination threats while walking foreign streets, and much more. Yet those experiences are not reflected in his painting. He chose to paint, or was moved to paint, only the pleasantries of life: beauty, hope, light-heartedness, etc.

It got me thinking: How many big, triple-A games are so? How many games are about beauty and joy to the exclusion of all conflict and darkness? I can think of many arcade games and small titles like that, but it seems there are few blockbuster titles of this sort besides sports games.

What do you think? Does the industry for big titles tend to emphasize struggle and strife? Do many games celebrate beauty and the lighter side of human nature? Or is it hard to stay joyful and keep your eyes on beauty while writing code?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

war, off the battlefields

I've always wanted to play a game about war away from the battlefield.

If you watch a lot of movies and documentaries, you start to associate war only with soldiers and epic battles. But what's war like for civilians? What's it like for the small groups of soldiers in between and separated from major battles? There's a little of this in films like The Longest Day and The Scarlet and The Black.

Well, it looks like Pandemic's open world game The Saboteur might offer me a taste of that experience. From this Unscripted 360 interview with Lead Designer Tom French (I can't believe nobody has mentioned the irony of that name): "you can drive straight out of the city limits [of Paris], into a sweeping French countryside, on to neighboring French chateaus to other towns and even across the border into Germany".

This isn't a game about a soldier charging into enemy emplacements with helmet and orders. This is a game about an Irish racecar mechanic with a grudge against Nazis, ala Indiana Jones, stuck in occupied France. And it's even inspired by a true story.

I'll be most interested to see how the "Will to Fight" feature works and how the lives of the oppressed Parisians is portrayed. In any case, wandering around a war-torn country without being a formal part of that war should be fresh and exciting. I'll see if I can interview someone form Pandemic sometime to learn more about The Saboteur.

Another upcoming game, Velvet Assassin, developed by Replay, has a surprisingly similar setting. Also inspired by a true story (Violette Szabo), it's about a civilian in Nazi-occupied France killing Nazis. It seems to be a more linear game focusing on stealth kills and a dark, gritty atmosphere. IGN has some info on it here.