Thursday, July 30, 2009

earning vs taking

I've been playing Mercenaries 2 the past couple days. One interesting feature is how allied and employer factions are in possession of resources you need, and you can take those resources at any time. By completing missions for those allies, you can earn rewards like special airdrops. But you can also take oil and money from them, albeit angering them in the process.

It reminds me of Neverwinter Nights. In that game, some NPCs offered quests or items, but you could also earn experience points by killing them. One reward could replace the other, or you could find ways to achieve both.

In any case, it can be a fun scenario when an NPC or faction has resources the player can only obtain by force and opposition. It's particularly interesting when the game challenges the player to stick to good and friendly actions, because evil is the easier way.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

madness and conspiracy

In responding to Trent Polack's post on unreliable narrators, I shared a bit of my family's history with schizophrenia and how different symptoms might be made into gameplay. I gradually realized that placing a hero with schizophrenia in a real conspiracy could make for a unique and exciting game.

You might think of the movie Conspiracy Theory, but that's not exactly what I had in mind. While some degree of paranoia would be a good feature, the protagonist I'm suggesting would exercise more self-control. The hero's madness would take a more sporadic, more hallucinogenic form that the player could feel. Here are some examples, from my comment on Trent's post:

Schizophrenia runs in my family. For my cousin, hallucinations have taken the form of believing others are angry and yelling at him when they are not. In a game, experiences like that could be used to make a player unable to discern who can be trusted, who are enemies and allies.

I have much milder schizophrenia. I've had hallucinations where my mind couldn't organize the patterns I was seeing into a meaningful image, so I saw one thing as something else. In gameplay, the player might see something falsely the first time and correctly every time after that, creating the possibility that the player bypasses something useful. Imagine fighting with a baseball bat and realizing halfway through the fight there's a gun nearby.

I've also had memory blocks. A few years ago, I asked my brother how he got the eggs in the frying pan to be all yellow. For about 5 minutes, the very mundane memory of eggs was trapped in my mind and everyone was looking at me like I was crazy. That frustration of hearing everyone around you identify reality as something other than what you're seeing it as... that's gameplay I haven't seen yet. It could be compelling gameplay if the character also saw some things differently than other people and was correct in those observations. Imagine a schizophrenic hero working to unravel a true conspiracy.
The basic idea is a character who can carry on a very clear and orderly conversation but occasionally falls victim to delusions and problems such as these. These problems could make him distrustful of others, make other distrustful of him (when he's telling the truth), and affect the player's interaction with the environment.

The visual delusions might even be used to create an adaptive AI that adjusts difficulty to performance, ala Left 4 Dead. The more help the player needs, the clearer the character's perception becomes, opening up new opportunities.

There are other schizo symptoms that might play a role, such as being aloof or having trouble finishing more than a couple sentences without a pause or wandering thought. But, in any case, my point is that an unreliable "narrator" and conspiracy could be a great mix.

Monday, July 27, 2009

cliffhangers as guidance

Over the weekend, I watched a movie called Limbo. It has an especially clever ending.

In the final scene, the main characters are stranded on a small, out-of-the-way island in Alaska. They see a plane coming towards them. They were expecting this plane, but they don't yet know whether the pilot has come to rescue them or to kill them (for reasons I won't go into). For many tense moments, the three hug each other as they watch the plane slowly make its way toward them.

Then the camera cuts out and the credits roll. Whether they were rescued or slain is left unanswered.

What's clever about that ending is that it strongly emphasizes the story's theme, which was how these three characters living in a sort of limbo grew together into a family. The jarring lack of resolution to the action demands questions from the audience, forcing them to reflect and consider the theme more deeply.

The usual purpose of cliffhangers is to ensure the audience is interested in viewing the next episode of a story. In this case, a cliffhanger was used to illuminate a finished story. How might something similar be done in a game?

Friday, July 24, 2009

interactive films

Imagine watching a detective film or TV show where an interface like Project Natal allowed you to shift objects within the scene. While the characters are talking or doing whatever, you can use virtual hands to pick up things to look underneath, or push things aside to look behind them -- do your own sleuthing.

Imagine having limited control of the camera angle so you see what's happening behind or above the characters. You could peak around corners before the character does... but can't warn him or her of the danger.

Or imagine being able to change the setting in ways that the characters can interact with. Perhaps you steal the investigator's mug of coffee, and he looks around for a few seconds in puzzlement. Or perhaps you stack a lot of boxes just behind the character so, when he turns around, she bumps them and they collapse on top of her.

All of these examples have problems. For example, in the first scenario, what happens when the detective looks at an object which you've just moved and carries on his conversation as if nothing changed? I'm proposing these examples just to show there is much untapped potential for the blending of films and interaction.

It could be more game-oriented, making the audience's interaction vital to the plot. A mystery story might not be solved unless the player finds and points out clues while the detective is on the scene. Think of it as a real-time mystery game, where the player does not have all day to find clues. The player might even have to point out facial expressions on witnesses during interrogations for the detective to notice and respond.

Or it could be basically a film with view-only interaction, as in my second example.

It's one of the great wonders of life that we never run out of room for discovery and innovation. This is one area where I'd like to see more.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

game companies making films

This is a very interesting article. Apparently, some game publishers are considering making their own feature-length films, rather than outsource that work to Hollywood.

I've hoped Blizzard would make full animated films for the theaters ever since I first saw the Diablo II cinematics, and later the World of Warcraft cinematics (I never played StarCraft). In those cases, a game company doing movies makes sense, because the films would be a natural extension of what Blizzard already does for their games.

On the other side, there are games like Bioshock and Modern Warfare. Great films could made of those, but I'd expect live action and not animation. Ubisoft and Activision would have to create wholly new subsidiaries to make those films.

If the merger of games and films within one company became common, I would worry that we'd see more film-based games rushed to market. I've written before about such games. They're great when they only use the film's basic setting and are not held to a matching release date. The popularity of Ghostbusters, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and LOTR and Star Wars games demonstrate how little timing matters when making quality games of great IPs.

On the other hand, I think films based on game IPs could succeed in the same way. In most cases, I'd like to see the films use only the settings and characters of games, rather than the plots. Great films could made of Halo and Destroy All Humans! if new plots were devised. Bioshock, Neverwinter Nights, and Deus Ex are possible exceptions (I would follow the game plots).

If any company should be trying to make films, it's Bioware. Their reputation is primarily as storytellers already, and they rely heavily on cutscenes in their games. Bioware and Blizzard are best set to lead game publishers and developers into film-making, if that's where the industry's headed.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

dynamic crime investigation

I wonder it's possible to randomize crimes in an open world for a crime investigation game, in the vein of the NCIS or CSI TV shows.

By open world, I don't mean a simulation where characters in the world are all living dynamic lives and crime springs from those activities. I mean a gameworld akin to those of GTA or Saints Row, with the game dynamically producing one crime in that city for the player to solve or close the book on, then producing another when the player is done.

For each crime, the player would be called to a specific location to find and analyze physical evidence like bodies, fingerprints, DNA, murder weapons, etc. Analyzing some evidence might prompt the player to go to another location to search and analyze. Eventually, the player would find the suspect and must chase down that suspect through buildings or the city streets. If the player loses the suspect, then a new chase is arranged. If, at any time, the player feels stuck or doesn't like the crime, he can close the case and move on. Ratio of successful vs unsuccessful cases would be among statistics shared online.

There are two reasons I'm not sure this sort of game is possible.

First, you'll notice I didn't mention any dialog.

If crimes are randomly or procedurally generated and not scripted, then it's unlikely questioning, interrogation, and such could be made fresh and interesting for each case. Investigators and civilians could blurt out humorous lines. But conversations can't be dynamically produced to mimic the lies, dodgy answers, and withheld information of conversations with witnesses and suspects.

Dynamic witnesses are possible if they simply blurt out basic details at the crime scene, though. They could even bear witness to verbal confrontations and scenarios in general ways, like "They were yelling at each other" or "They looked like they were having a romantic dinner". Anyway, could a crime investigation be fun without deep dialog if the crimes were countless and unpredictable in an open world?

Second, how can crimes be procedurally generated and feel both deep and fresh?

I figure this would be easier if the crimes actually happened. So the game invents a scenario, then plays out the scenario so that witnesses are possible and the placement of physical evidence is truly dynamic. The game invents these scenarios by creating relationships between random NPCs (family, business partners, crime partners, drugs, testimony, etc), searching its index for crimes possibly resulting from such connections, and then playing it out in a dynamic setting.

Honestly, I believe much of this is possible, but perhaps not enough to make a full and consistently fun game. What do you think? Is the crime investigation genre of games capable of procedurally generated or emergent content?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

goal sequencing

I started replaying Saints Row 2 the other day. One feature that stands out is the relation of Missions and Activities to each other. The order in which you tackle these challenges makes a big difference.

Completing Activities (Fight Club, Heli Assault, Drug Trafficking, etc) unlocks performance bonuses and adjusts gameplay. Finishing some makes rival gangs and cops forget about you quicker. Completing others increases melee damage, makes vehicles you drive tougher, or gives you discounts at particular stores.

On top of this, the player chooses the order in which weapons are acquired through purchase. Also, one's collection of vehicles affects how some missions and activities play out. Completing Missions gains one territories that generate money to buy these weapons and vehicle customizations, so tackling Activities before Missions isn't a no-brainer.

Offering so many choices and making the sequence of those choices really matter helps greatly to personalize gameplay, offering one player experiences which are different from another player's experiences. It's the combination of unique experiences and common references, resulting in something new but understandable, that makes people inclined to share their stories with others. The sequence of events can be a powerful dynamic.

Monday, July 20, 2009

metal Monday

The Brütal Legend team has been celebrating "Metal Monday" on Twitter for the past few weeks.

Since my internet was knocked out the other day and I only now got it back, I'm going to forgo the usual stuff and post some of my own metal riffs for Metal Monday. I make up all kinds of rock, but metal might be my favorite to play.

I just recorded the video, so try refreshing the page if the video doesn't play right away.

Rock on.

Friday, July 17, 2009


Since I grew up in a sup-tropical climate, I'm very used to bugs being absolutely everywhere. I was shocked when I traveled to Paris and was able to lay down in grass without anything deciding it would rather walk over me than around me. Until then, I thought people lying carelessly in grass and fields, or sitting against a tree, was the stuff of movies and fairy tales.

Still, even people in rural areas don't like having tiny things crawling on their skin. Unlike larger animals, you're often unaware even when they're right on top of you. It can be hard to kill a fast-moving bug. And when you've got a dozen or more on you, as happens with ants, you're likely to get bitten before you can swipe off all of them... or even find all of them. Walking by a nest of yellowjackets or hive of bees is even more fun.

In other words, bugs are a universal symbol of creepiness. Worldwide, cross-culturally, being covered in bugs or surrounded by them is a bad thing.

Dead Space included a scenario in which the player's character is covered and frantically swipes them off. I'm not sure how many other games have something like that.

It occurs to me that Project Natal might be able to make such an experience feel more real, more terrifying. Unfortunately, games can't yet simulate the sense of touch beyond rumble effects. But I imagine using fully real motions to brush spiders and such off an avatar's body could be fun and very creepy.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


This is the dumbest suggestion I've read in a while.

Yes, games that emphasize traditional storytelling at the expense of actual gameplay (interaction) have often sold well. I liken such games to "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. They're a respectable mixing of mediums. But they certainly don't epitomize the heart of either medium.

As I've said many times before, games are fundamentally about interactivity... with objects, with other players, with rules and setting, etc. Play is fundamentally defined by player input. Games have defined rules and goals. Play can occur in games but also in sandbox-style experiences in which the player is free to create, change, or even ignore rules and goals. I make this distinction to point out that games and play aren't exactly the same, though they are certainly related. Gameplay is play within the confines of a game.

Film-like storytelling certainly has a place in games, but it does not represent the heart of gaming because it is more dictation than interaction. When the player is merely receiving and not interacting, he or she is not actually "playing" anything... except perhaps in that story might be considered "rules" when they guide the player's choices and actions, in which case the player is only learning the rules (ancillary to core gameplay).

The ideal of story in games is for the player to become co-author. The player should not be just choosing between actions and conversations authored by developers. That's a weak form of interaction. Nor should the burden of authorship be placed fully on the player's shoulders. The ideal game story is one in which developers provide the setting, ingredients, rules, and basic goals; and player interacts with that gameworld to produce and discover events which reflect that player's personal and creative influences.

In other words, emergent gameplay better represents story within gameplay than scripted events. The latter is a combination -- the two elements remain distinct even when placed together. The former is a blend -- the two things become one. The challenge is to offer the player both deliberate and accidental control of story events.

I have no problem with games which combine gameplay and film-like storytelling. But I believe the blending of play and story is the ideal. Developers are mimicking Hollywood too closely. We need to stop talking about storytelling and start talking about storyfinding or storymaking.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Battlefield 1943 review (360)

I bought Battlefield 1943 when it was released last week, and I think it's a steal for 15 bucks. The pace won't agree with everyone. Combat is slower than similar games. But the game has depth and dynamics which are not immediately apparent. When you try the demo, try to hold off final judgment until you've played multiple times. The more you learn, the more fun it becomes.

As I discussed yesterday, elevation plays a big role, distinguishing 1943 from similar games. Hills, trenches, slopes, and towers all provide for cover and surprise in wide-open exterior maps. You can view layouts of the maps here. Buildings are scattered around checkpoints, but all structures except pillboxes are destructible. For example, a tank can destroy walls with its cannon or simply run into them.

Use of cover is limited by small red icons above enemy players (allies are marked with blue icons). These icons seem to appear in some circumstances and not in others, but I haven't quite figured out the rules of it yet. Knowing this arrow is above your head giving away your position is annoying at times, but it ensures camping is rare. And you often would not be able to recognize friend from foe without them.

Don't think that icon eliminates the element of surprise! Battles are full of surprises, largely thanks to the map designs. There are 5 checkpoints to be captured and protected on every map. Having so many checkpoints relative to the number of players, and on big maps, makes it nearly impossible for any team to control all of them simultaneously. Players are constantly moving from one checkpoint to another. And every checkpoint can be approached from many directions. It's impossible to anticipate every attack.

There's no kill cam, ala CoD4, that ensures you always know how you died. But bullets have tracers and a damage indicator informs you what general direction you were hit from, so you usually know.

You don't have to wonder who has the UAV Jammer, Juggernaut, or Stopping Power perk. There's no customization in this 1943, so you can see what you're up against. Whether opponents have chosen to play as Infantry, Rifleman, or Sniper, you know which they are just by looking at the guns in their hands. An Infantry unit has a machine gun, bazooka, and two grenades; he can also repair vehicles. A Rifleman has a rifle, three rifle-grenades, and two hand grenades. A Sniper carries a sniper rifle, a pistol, and two remote-detonated satchel charges. Basically: close-range/mechanic, mid-range/balanced, and sniper.

It's very rare to run out of ammo for your primary weapon. You start each life with a lot of ammo, and you'll probably die before expending half of it.

The Sniper class seems more difficult to use than in most games. Since terrain is rarely flat, you're constantly having to adjust your aim vertically as well as horizontally. As I said before, icons reveal enemy locations. And characters are smaller than in games like Modern Warfare. Enemies can't be sniped while still on their aircraft carrier (home base).

Infantry are particularly useful for their ability to repair vehicles likes tanks and jeeps. Half the time, your tank is destroyed before you can make use of the ability, but still. If an Infantry soldier locks onto you at close range with his machine gun, then there's nothing you can do to defend. This seems to be the most popular class, judging by how often enemies fire bazookas at my tanks.

Riflemen, as I've said, are balanced. They are useful at short range, but a machine gun will win if aimed well. They're useful at long range, but not so far as snipers. Rifle grenades are weaker than bazooka missiles, but the arching shot is better sometimes.

Grenades can be thrown a mile.

As for vehicles and stationary guns, there are tanks, jeeps, planes, boats, mounted machine guns (found in pillboxes/bunkers), and anti-aircraft (AA) guns. Vehicles are found at particular checkpoints. Two planes are available from the aircraft carrier base from which you begin.

You start each battle leaving the carrier by either plane or boat. There are four gunboats with one seat for a driver, two seats for gunners, and more room available for passengers. Enemy planes often try to sink these boats before you reach the island, but your guns can attack them as well. Most of the time, this boat trip is like a calm before the storm. At any time during the battle, a player can choose to respawn back at the aircraft carrier and use a boat to sneak up on a checkpoint from the sea.

Tanks are very powerful, but also surprisingly vulnerable. The driver can operate the cannon and a turret, and another player can take the role of gunner up top. Behind the gunner's seat is hole leading to the interior. While it takes many explosives to destroy a tank from the outside, an explosive placed on or in this hole is an instant kill... analogous to a headshot. There are often hills and slopes on either side of the roads tanks must generally use, so it can be difficult to defend against these one-hit kills.

Jeeps have two seats up front and a gun in the back. I've had three passengers before, with one hanging on the side. The beauty of the jeep is its speed and maneuverability. Enemies can be run over or left in the dust as you speed on to another checkpoint. Unlike with tanks, the driver can be shot with a gun, and only one explosive is needed to destroy the vehicle.

Planes are a challenge to maneuver at first, but a lot of fun when you figure out the controls. They have machine guns and can drop bombs. It's difficult to use planes well against ground troops mainly because you can't see them soldiers from high up, and dropping near to the ground makes you vulnerable to the AA guns which are by every checkpoint.

Which leads me to the Air Superiority game mode, found on the Coral Sea map. This is a very different kind of gameplay. There are no checkpoints. It's purely a dogfight between planes over a ring of islands. Each side has two carriers, starting with four planes. This game mode isn't nearly as dynamic as the rest of 1943, but it's a nice change from time to time. If an enemy plane falls in behind you, you can only hope one of your allies is behind him unless you're a much better pilot. It's all about trying to get behind an enemy without letting an enemy get behind you.

I just realized I haven't said a word about graphics or audio. They're both great for an arcade game. You can hide in shadows or in the sun's glare. If your character is caught next to an explosion, he will temporarily lose hearing. You can sometimes hear enemies or allies making exclamations in Japanese or English, and it can alert you to dangers you didn't see. Sound effects are good. I like the music at the loading screen. If there's any music during battles, it hasn't caught my attention.

Overall, it's a great game... one of the best on Xbox Live Arcade. It's well worth fifteen dollars and will last most people months. The action is solid and there are many dynamics to provide for fresh and unique experiences.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I've been having a lot of fun in Battlefield 1943 on Xbox Live. I'll post a full review soon, perhaps tomorrow, but I want to point out one feature in particular which I'd like to see in more FPS games.

1943 makes great use of elevation. Half or more of each map isn't flat. As a result, players are constantly using hill slopes and water banks as cover. The maps are almost entirely exterior, but players are still constantly surprised by enemies coming up from behind, below, or above them... or even right in front of them (hidden by a slope).

Elevation plays a strategic role in anti-tank combat, since tanks are vulnerable to explosives on top, just behind the cannon. A tank can drive onto some raised areas, but then its guns are useless as they cannot aim down.

Elevation also provides for some unique experiences. I once drove a tank up a slope that was barely wide enough for it. Below the end of the incline was a hill checkpoint, particularly hard to capture. Players are used to infantry attacking from the incline I was using, but not used to seeing tanks there. I kept driving forward and dropped my tank on top of an enemy, crushing him. Another unique experience is hearing a plane but not seeing it until it appears from behind a hill and drops its bombs on you.

I'm sure even more could be accomplished when elevation is considered an explicit game feature.

Monday, July 13, 2009

sex scenes

The thing about sex scenes is they usually don't communicate anything that couldn't have been communicated just as well or better in more subtle ways.

That's not always the case. Sex scenes do make sense sometimes. Ironically, the first example that comes to mind is clothed sex scene in the movie Hot Shots, where Topper Harley cooks breakfast on the woman's sizzling belly. I know that's not a good example.

The sex scenes in A History of Violence are a better example. The story is about a reformed man who is forced to face his thuggish past, and forced to realize that those thuggish inclinations remain a part of him. Both sides of his personality are shown in two very different sex scenes. In the first, he is gentle and giving. In the second, he is brutal and selfish. Since the story as a whole is graphic and adult-oriented, using sex scenes to show this dichotomy makes sense.

On the other hand, consider the movie Big. That film shows Susan unbuttoning her blouse and John putting his hands on tits for the first time, but then camera fades out before even her bra is off. It's a simple, subtle scene that shows little and reveals much. Later, the characters laugh after Susan expresses some anxiety over the relationship. John leaps onto her and the camera cuts away. Sex is again implied, and all that the storytellers wanted to convey is expressed without actually showing the sex.

To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly is another good example of subtlety.

Mystery can be a powerful tool. In horror stories, keeping the monster/ghost/psychopath hidden or mysterious often increases suspense. It allows the audience to interject their own fears and suspicions, thereby personalizing the story... as well as demanding much of the audience's concentration and making them more susceptible to awe and suggestion. Likewise, mystery surrounding sex allows the audience to imagine what they will, allowing for personal expectations. It can also preclude conscious consideration by moving on quickly, thereby encouraging the audience to react with gut instincts.

Not showing sex doesn't reduce its presence or impact on a story. Dracula is a great example. The vampire's habit of biting on the neck is suggestive and provocative. Ever since Stoker's novel, vampires have been associated with sensuality. Stoker wrote more graphic scenes, as have many authors of vampire stories, but it is the neck-biting that most audiences remember.

The increasingly common inclusion of sex scenes and their increasingly graphic nature is more a cultural trend than an artistic one. I've seen almost as many films made before the Sexual Revolution as after, which is rare for someone of my generation. And I'm sure many of you are familiar with many classic works of literature, like Oedipus Rex or The Taming of the Shrew. These stories don't shy from sexual themes, but instead present them in thoughtful, rather than obvious, ways.

As is often the case in art, restraint can inspire. Just think of your daily conversations. Who usually speaks more artfully -- the person trying to be polite and considerate, or the person who accepts no bounds? I cuss quite a bit on occasion, but it's when I'm not cussing that I speak more eloquently. Try to tell a dirty joke in a clean way; you might find that the nuance makes the joke funnier. Restraints are challenges, and challenges feed the imagination.

As I said before, showing sex explicitly certainly makes sense sometimes. But I think trying to present the same themes without obvious presentations often leads to better results.

The same goes for making particular characters sexy -- try to make him or her sexy without any brazen comments, without tight clothes and a lot of bare skin, and you might be surprised at the effect.

Friday, July 10, 2009

empty space

Take a minute to look at this picture:

Such an impressive image, yet so empty.

Empty is good sometimes. Space without objects isn't always wasted space.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

hero-focused RTS

Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics!

I played some LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2 with my cousin last night. And I again experienced something I had never experienced before, despite having played the game frequently for over a year.

This time, the fresh experience was seeing multiple battles with three, and even four, dragons in the same fight. Some were on the ground, torching buildings and armies. Others were striking from over head. And still others were battling each other in the air.

I realize now that those dragons were dominating my attention almost completely while they were on the battlefield. I had other heroes and regular units battling there or nearby, but I ignored them while the epic monsters bit and clawed at each other overhead.

I've seen and played RTS games, including BfME2, which give the player control over a "hero" character or unit in addition to regular troops. And that's fun. But I think it would also be fun to merely plan an army's attack and then relinquish control of that army entirely, or almost entirely, while controlling the hero in battle.

As I recall, the original Rainbow Six game did this on a small scale. But it feels very different controlling one character in the midst of an epic battle with many types of units in conflict. The second Star Wars: Battlefront game perhaps comes closer by allowing the player to be a Jedi in an epic battle, but that game lacks the variety of an RTS game like BfME2 as well.

Those games also don't offer RPG-like character development. Hero progression during battles in BfME2 is limited to unlocking pre-selected skills. If a game focused on a hero moving through a war, then the time between battles could be given to the player to choose the hero's skill advancements, weapons and armor, etc. That war, by the way, could be dynamic, rather than scripted... ala the War of the Ring mode in BfME2.

In any case, I'm basically saying I'd like to see some games focused on that thrill of being a special, customized character in the midst of epic battles involving a wide variety of allies and enemies. Many games have attempted some aspect of that, but I can't think of one off-hand which put it all together: an epic character, customization, NPC variety, and huge battles. Do you know a good game like that?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Natal dance game

So, yesterday, I talked about Natal hardware. Now, I want to propose potential games for Project Natal. Here's my first idea.

That's a Steve Miller Band song, if you're not familiar.

Natal could easily compete with Dance Dance Revolution, a very popular game. Just as Microsoft's demo game Ricochet showed a see through form to represent the player, this game would use such a character to prompt player movements. The goal of the game is to roughly mimic the avatar's dance movements as they are happening. If the avatar twirls to the side and points an arm left, the player does the same simultaneously. Hand graphics would be accented so they can be seen clearly through the avatar's body.

Simultaneous motion is possible because the dances are set, rather than random, so the player can gradually learn different dances. The game would also allow players to create and record their own dances, and perhaps even share those online.

Another mode might play like Simon, with the avatar performing an increasingly complex series of moves and the player repeating this series for as long as he or she can.

The simultaneous mode could include a historical campaign in which the player learns many of the famous dances of the past century and even before (potential DLC) with the music of those time periods. Players could also learn these dances separately. This history mode is important because it is what would attract older people... people who would remember such dances from their childhood or films.

And this game could even include cooperative multiplayer. Two players could dance together, leading to some funny moments when one player gets it right and another keeps messing them both up.

This game has a ton of potential for downloaded content and microtransactions (such as period music and settings). It appeals to a wide variety of gamers, and even non-gamers. And you just know it would find its way into bars and other public venues.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Natal thoughts

In response to the GameTrailers discussion of Project Natal and competitors...

First, let me repeat that Microsoft stands to leave Nintendo and Sony in the dust if they make Natal useful for general TV viewing. If they can design Natal software that mimics the basic functions of TV remotes, then many non-gamers will bite into an intuitive product which frees them from ever again needing to hunt for a TV controller. Considering that the Xbox's original purpose was to move Windows into the living room, this makes all the more sense.

Certainly, a couple hundred bucks is a lot to pay to replace your TV remote, but not if the same hardware acts as a DVD player and on-demand TV/movie service. How far this strategy would take Microsoft's console would depend largely on the targeting and substance of its marketing campaign. But this basic Natal application could explode the market, attracting consumers far beyond the boundaries of present gaming audiences.

Reliability seems like the main issue to me. I still disbelieve projections that the 360 will remain Microsoft's primary console for another five years. The console has survived its dismal reputation for hardware failure largely thanks to the warranty. Once present owners are no longer comfortable under that umbrella, a new wave of bad publicity will pour down. And, like Windows Vista's reputation could not be saved from the mistakes of its early presentation, the 360 cannot shake its original failures even if new models perform better. The 360 market won't collapse completely when hardware replacement is no longer guaranteed, but it will definitely be shaken. A fresh start will be necessary by 2011.

Pachter has suggested Microsoft might come out with another version of the 360 soon, instead of a wholly new console. It's possible. But, as I said, anything that looks and feels basically like the original 360 will suffer from its RROD reputation.

That avid or "hardcore" gamers are not rushing to buy Wiis just to play The Conduit and Metroid Prime 3 is no surprise. Some people do buy consoles just for one or a few games, but that is certainly not average consumer behavior. The success or failure of hardcore Wii games offers little insight into potential Natal game sales because the Wii is not a comparable console. Even among occasional gamers (such as those who buy only a sport game or two per year), the Wii is popularly defined as a family or kids' console because that describes the majority of its games. Present gamers and non-gamers alike who are disinterested in the more dazzling Wii titles will be attracted to similar content on Natal, simply because the 360 console has a different general focus and appeal.

Really, the more the 360 becomes the multimedia console, offering TV/movies and other non-game services, the less the Wii and 360 will be direct competitors. If Nintendo continues to focus exclusively on games and offer an obviously unique experience, then Microsoft and Nintendo might soon compete only in the way that DVD manufacturers compete with the iPod -- the consumer only has so much money, but buying one product doesn't affect one's desire for the other.

I agree 100% with Pachter that controllers are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Motion control is an exciting alternative, not an unqualified progression. The most obvious reason is that physical activity is not always welcome. Gamers will always want to game from the couch on occasion.

Will some genres always demand a traditional controller? I doubt it. Even a system like Natal, which seemingly enables 1:1 representations of player movements, isn't limited to 1:1 animations. I don't need to wave my arm completely to have my character wave his arm completely. A game could be designed so that a small movement on my part results in an exaggerated movement on-screen. Thus, a game like Mortal Kombat won't necessarily have players leaping and twisting around in their homes. I can't think of any basic style of game which is impossible to translate well into motion control.

Natal's proposed ability to incorporate the unique objects of individual players could play a major role in games. For example, as a guitarist, I own guitars which are different from the guitars of other musicians. If Natal can scan a guitar of mine so that others can see it, that ability to share in an active environment online is a great appeal. Even without the online component, I'd love to play with my own guitar in Rock Band 2.

The scanning function could be applied to many games to match the protagonist's body proportions and clothing to the player's. This would personalize heroes, but there are other benefits. Imagine your character looking a little different every day, just as you do.

Anyway, I've focused mainly on hardware here. I'll probably write another Natal article focusing on potential games. In the meantime, any thoughts?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Brütal awesomeness

Fanaticism is alright where heavy metal is concerned.

I used to sleep to music like that (my brother would say he couldn't sleep without the radio on). Pantera, Judas Priest, you name it. My entire life has had a metal soundtrack. "Children of the Grave" is just one great tune Tim Schafer has seemingly divined from my past. And, I swear, listening to Jack Black in this game is like a typical conversation with my cousin Danny. It's like this game was made just for me.

Maybe that's why I'm the only one who uses the umlaut. In any case, I think this 16-minute preview speaks for itself. Say it with me...

Brütal Legend!

In the words of my cousin:
Then the Lord said, "Let there be rock." And Aaron said, "No, let there be metal, and let it be heavy."

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

gravity points

Birdfeeders and watering holes are a couple examples of places animals gravitate to in large numbers and great variety. In open world games, points like this can be useful.

One reason is that areas of enemy/prey congregation offer players set points to find content quickly, easily, and repeatedly.

Another reason is that engaging NPCs in a crowd is different than doing so while they're alone or in small groups. The Commonlands savanna outside of Freeport in Everquest 2 is a good example. Hunting one hippo is difficult when another could wander up behind you, lions are roaming nearby, and snakes are slithering hidden in the high grass.

I said "engaging NPCs" instead of "fighting" because congregation points could affect gameplay in non-combat scenarios as well. One NPC could overhear your conversation with another NPC and respond somehow, if programmed to do so.

Congregation points can also serve to place opposing forces together for potential conflict.