Tuesday, September 06, 2011

memory markers

Dynamics make a game feel longer.

I realized this after reading an article about "Why Times Goes Faster as You Get Older." The article's point is basically that new or unique experiences act as markers in one's reflection on one's history as a whole. The older a person gets, the more routine his or her life is likely to become. By seeking out new and bold experiences, we can slow our lives down... at least in perception.

Likewise, unique and memorable experiences act as markers in a player's reflection. If you want players to feel like they have gotten their money's worth, dynamics can help create an impression of a grander adventure.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Kinect bar games

Microsoft could sell a lot of console-Kinect bundles by creating a good collection of bar games which involve shouting.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

NPCs as geographical indicators

Maps are great when designed well, but landmarks also help.

While roaming alleys in Deus Ex, I realized that I was using particular NPCs like landmarks to tell me which direction to go.

I was able to do so because the NPCs were various and unique. One had wild red-dyed hair. Another had a green mohawk.

If your NPCs are going to be just standing around anyway, why not make them useful in this way?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

preorder bonus announcements

Dear publishers,

If you're going to offer different preorder bonus content through different retailers, announce all of those offers simultaneously... or at least inform us that further offers are upcoming. Otherwise, you're ensuring that some customers will have to cancel one preorder to place another so they get the specific bonus content they want.

A choice is less of a choice if not all options are on the table when the decision is made.

If physicians take an oath to do no harm, salesman can at least try to avoid needlessly annoying their customers.

I'm looking at you, Warner Brothers.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

CGI could be more than advertising

CGI trailers are expensive to make. I get it. But so is the average live-action Hollywood film.

So why haven't we seen Vivendi, EA or Ubisoft devote some of their CGI talents toward making full feature-length films? Surely, there's a market.

production team size vs pacing

How much of the growth in development team sizes is a result of scheduling pressure from publishers?

Just because four people can accomplish the same work in half the time as two people doesn't mean putting four people on the job is the most efficient use of human resources. Accepting just two people means accepting slower production, but those other two folks can be applied to a different game.

Would publishers be better served by producing more games at a slower rate?

Bear in mind, this doesn't necessarily mean a barren publishing schedule. If average production takes four years instead of two, the publisher can still rely on regular releases by offsetting the various studios (Studio A's game releases in Spring 2010, Studio B's in Fall 2010, Studio C's in Spring 2011, etc).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

powerful doesn't mean solo

Diablo 2 and Borderlands have proven that it is not necessary to make classes difficult to solo to encourage grouping.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


It has become almost mandatory to include a tutorial process at the beginning of any game. That's great. But how often are you only partially through a game when something distracts from it for weeks or even months?

A tutorial at the beginning of a game's campaign isn't of much use then, because you don't want to start over. Explanatory videos are not much better than simply showing you a control map before dumping you into the action. A tutorial split into a series of active experiences can feel tedious, largely because after each one you're confronted with a list ("Four more to go..." /sigh).

Games with complex control schemes might benefit from what I'll call a "retutorial" — a comprehensive hands-on experience, similar to the introductions of many campaigns, which can be played at any time.

The main difference between an introduction and a retutorial should be a lack of emphasis on story, allowing the player to skip any assignment which covers something the player remembers. Give the player some control over the pace and content.

Most big games ramp both the complexity of controls and the difficulty of encounters as the story progresses. Players shouldn't feel like they're jumping onto a speeding train when picking up where they left off.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

E3 2011: Microsoft and Nintendo

I watched this year's E3 streamed by GameTrailers, so here are some impressions of the console presentations. I didn't catch much of Sony's, which is just as well since I have no experience with the PS3.


Microsoft reminded 360's core gamers why they like the console: deep, HD experiences and a wide variety of quality games. Skyrim, Arkham City, Mass Effect 3, Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 3, Bioshock: Infinite, Gears of War 3, Saints Row: The Third, Far Cry 3 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Rage, Driver: San Francisco, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Kingdoms of Amalur, Prey 2, Assassin's Creed: Revelations... and on and on. The Xbox 360 delivers an impressive library of quality games.

There are a ton of Wii owners, but they don't buy nearly as many games as 360 owners. Nintendo's best console was the original NES, and that's because of the games. Back then, Mario and Zelda were popular, but Nintendo didn't rely so exclusively on 1st-party games and established IPs. There were plenty of good games on the NES. With each successive Nintendo console, the number of quality games has diminished... particular the number of games designed with American and European aesthetics. I would be surprised if the typical American Wii owner has more than five games.

THE WII U (such a terrible name)

Nintendo announced that they will be bringing many popular Western titles in HD to the Wii U. It's great to see Nintendo finally embracing Western developers, but it's too late for this console cycle. Core gamers interested in deep, HD games have had five years or more to buy a system which suits their tastes. On the other side, the many Wii owners who don't consider themselves gamers and only use the console for social gatherings a few times per year will not be interested in shelling out hundreds of dollars for an HD system with complex controls for core games.

Who is the Wii U's intended audience?

It seems like a well-designed, innovative system which certainly opens opportunities for exciting new gameplay. But I strongly doubt it will be nearly as popular as the Wii because it won't attract many non-gamers as the Wii did, it will cost more, and to attract the majority of core gamers it must demonstrate gameplay significantly different from the 360 and PS3. The cross-console games Nintendo advertised at E3 for the Wii U were designed for traditional controllers, so Wii U adaptations will not be fundamental changes. Nintendo's new console needs games designed from the ground up for the new interface. That means the Wii U won't really wow gamers until a year or two after the console's release.

And it sounds like the console won't be released until late 2012, anyway. I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft and Sony have announced new hardware by the time the Wii U really becomes significant competition.


Microsoft pushed Kinect hard this E3. The Rayman Rabbids game, Disneyland, Kinect Sports 2 and Dance Central 2 will appeal to the kids and women who form the heart of Kinect fans presently. But Microsoft also pushed to expand the Kinect audience with Fable: Journey, Ryse and Star Wars.

They have at least convinced core gamers that they are part of Kinect's intended audience. But developers have yet to prove that they can deliver great core Kinect games (which I'm sure they can). In Star Wars and Fable: Journey, it seems clear that combat has been dumbed down and the adventure has been put on rails. Challenge and freedom take a backseat to confined toybox scenarios.

Kinect has a ton of potential, but developers are still only beginning to figure it out.


That brings me back to the Wii U. Corvus made an excellent point the other day: Nintendo needs to open up to independent developers the way the way Microsoft has with Xbox Live.

The industry's big publishers need to open their doors so that small developers can demonstrate how to achieve more with less. Let the little guys lead the way in bringing production costs down and exploring new styles of entertainment.

Friday, June 03, 2011

design trumps technology

How long have I waited to hear these words from a game developer?

"...it's all about graphical design, artistic design and direction; not only about high-resolution textures and bump-mapping." --Tomasz Gop, Senior Producer on The Witcher 2

I'm glad there are developers who push the limits of graphic technologies. It's thanks to them that we have the options presently available. But sometimes it seems too many developers fail to recognize that the tools and resources already commonly available enable greater results than are typically seen.

Limits do not always affect creativity adversely. Restraint can be a catalyst for invention.

It's like the evolution of console hardware. Every year, Xbox 360 developers make better use of the hardware than they did the year before. We need people to push the boundaries. But most are better served by exploring the untapped potential of what we already have.

I'm a musician. After thousands of years of use, we're still finding ways to arrange the same 12 notes into exciting new forms of music.

Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Ode to Joy, Michaelangelo's David, Da Vinci's Mona Lisa — countless works by their contemporaries are far more complex, yet far less popular. Complexity of design is meaningless to most audiences. It's the refined effect that matters. Simple designs can be powerful. It's like the beauty of a child's love: simple, uncomplicated, but Earth-moving.

Art directors should focus on effect, not on tech. What can you achieve with last year's graphics capabilities?

If you want a concrete example, look at World of Warcraft.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

less skill = more need of xp and rewards

If I could change one thing in Black Ops, I would attempt to better separate casual and hardcore gamers from each other. One way would be to offer them different contracts.

The current system makes all contracts available to all players. Only the most skilled players even attempt the most difficult contracts which offer the best rewards. This is silly, because more skilled players have an easier time leveling up, anyway. They also tend to be achievement-oriented gamers (challenge junkies) who would be more tolerant of a slower pace of leveling. It's the less skilled players who most appreciate and need the bonus XP and CoD Points.

So separate them.

Black Ops
already allows players to sacrifice all progression for Prestige. Offer players interested in Prestige more difficult contracts. Make it so that the hardcore's "easy" contracts are similar to the casuals' "difficult" contracts.

This would lessen the frustration of casual players by giving them contracts which are both within their ability and worth plenty of XP. More accessible contracts would provide more short-term enjoyment, and more XP would increase long-term enjoyment.

Currently, too many CoD players are frustrated because they are lobbed in with players of vastly different skill levels.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Coaches vs CEOs

Why do we expect coaches to acknowledge and respect the strengths of their competitors, but we don't expect the same of corporate CEOs?

Here is Alabama football coach Nick Saban after defeating LSU. Notice how he praises his own team while simultaneously complimenting the opposing team.

Would anyone expect Steve Jobs or Bill Gates to praise each other's companies in a similar manner? Why not?

Rather than ignore and belittle the innovations and quality of their competitors' services, corporate leaders should acknowledge excellence in other companies while aspiring to be the best.

E3 is almost here. In the past, console representatives and game publishers have occasionally mocked their competitors. Let's hope they are not so petty this year.

I hope to see quality products from all companies at E3. Competition is good for the entire industry.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Homefront mini-review

Rather than repeat what dozens of reviews have already said by trying to be comprehensive, here are some things about Homefront that many reviews have missed.

The maps aren't just big. They're square. By that I mean merely that they're not alleys like Bad Company 2's maps, with each team coming from a definite direction. In Homefront, you can almost always be attacked from any direction. There are battles where the map is evenly split between factions, but matches more often involve a scattering of players... leading to more dynamic gameplay.

Are snipers bothering you? Send out a scout drone to reveal his hiding spot to your entire team. If you're playing Ground Control with 32 players, it's often possible to sneak around and simply shoot that sniper in the back of the head.

I generally enjoy Homefront multiplayer, but I'm usually among the top players of a match and I realize that skews my view. So here's what I think multiplayer is like for lower-scoring players... and how the game helps such players.

You have probably heard of the Battle Commander system which makes it more difficult for skilled players to keep killstreaks going (Battle Commander is a game mode — you can join matches without it). What's less often touted is the availability of 500 Battle Points to each player at the beginning of every match. That's enough points to buy a drone, a rocket launcher, or a flack jacket.

Does your aim suck? Buy a rocket launcher. There are few things more satisfying than using a launcher to blow up someone's helicopter or tank (tanks require multiple hits). You start off with EMP grenades, so you can often "stun" vehicles long enough to aim your rocket carefully. If someone blows up a tank after you EMPed it, you get points for that.

Or you can find yourself a nice bush to hide in while you guide a Wolverine battle drone. By level 6, you can also guide a scout drone and earn Battle Points by marking enemies for your teammates. By level 10, you can hop in a Humvee and run people over; or park it and press Y to quickly switch seats and mow someone down with the turret, if a buddy's not there to shoot for you.

Even if you're out of Battle Points, you have the choice of spawning directly into an allied vehicle if somebody else bought one. Riding shotgun in a chopper or tank is lots of fun.

I'm not going to lie to you. Sometimes, Homefront multiplayer feels unfair. The Battle Point system means that momentum matters. Occasionally, a match ends with one team utterly dominating with multiple attack choppers and/or tanks. That can make it difficult to remain alive long enough even to see what's shooting you. There are also snipers who watch spawning points, but I've never seen them able to do this for long.

Homefront multiplayer gets my blood boiling at times. I generally enjoy it, though. I would describe the pace and feel as a happy medium between Modern Warfare and Bad Company 2…with more vehicles, more open maps and a flexible skill mod system.

As for the singleplayer campaign, all I will say is that it is short, but probably not much shorter than a Modern Warfare campaign if you removed all the times you had to respawn because of the greater difficulty. Unlike others, I didn't buy Homefront for a John Milius story. I bought it to shoot stuff.

Monday, March 14, 2011

give players the scales

While playing Blur the other day with a friend, we got to wondering what stats and behaviors the game tweaks to adjust difficulty. Then we thought, "Wouldn't it be great if games allowed players to mix and match the stats how we please?"

For example, the settings which affect difficulty in Blur (regardless of which the developers coded into the Easy, Medium and Hard options) include vehicle speed, vehicle durability, collision damage, powerup strength, powerup frequency, mod availability, and number of laps.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, but it seems a fairly simple system of checkboxes and sliders (ala Oblivion's difficulty slider) would enable players to tailor gameplay to exactly their preferences.

Some players would turn off collision damage. Some would create endurance races with many laps or quick one-lap competitions. Others might make powerups available but scarce.

What's wrong with this scenario? I'm basically describing a detailed cheat mode... the sort that was extremely popular in Goldeneye 64. Such options do not eliminate appreciation for the developers careful balancing. They simply add further ways to play the game at very little developer expense.

Almost any style of game can benefit from such options which exponentially expand gameplay customization. This feature would simultaneously open the game up to more playstyles (potential consumers) and encourage players to keep their games for replay (discouraging trade-ins).

It's a no-brainer.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

information dumps are good marketing

Typical game marketing involves revealing features months, if not years, before release and gradually sharing more information with potential players. This is a mistake because it allows people to form perceptions of the game based on incomplete information.

Perceptions are not changed easily. I know we all like to think of ourselves as humble and open-minded, but we're not. Human beings invest pride in even our most trivial opinions. And we are often unwilling to sacrifice time and energy for the sake of clarity in matters we don't know much about.

So if a potential buyer isn't hooked by the first advertisement he or she happens to see, that one ad might be the only sales pitch you're going to get. Some consumers might be interested enough to be open to further information, yes. But others will form an opinion immediately and ignore any future ad campaigns. Or they will form a mental summary through which all further information is filtered.

It makes more sense to provide all information about the game immediately. Features can then be gradually highlighted and illuminated over the course of a campaign.

Game design increasingly takes into account the variety of player personalities. Marketing should, too. Dumping all information in the beginning acknowledges that some potential players are not going to wait for a complete picture before writing the game off.

Providing all features up front also gives fans the resources and confidence they need to pitch the game for you. Word-of-mouth is the most persuasive marketing short of hands-on experience.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

"game industry" deprived of meaning

All the time, I read industry articles that pretend Facebook apps and games like Oblivion or Modern Warfare 2 exist in the same industry.

Television and film production might require similar skills and technologies, but they are different industries with different concerns. Revenues in one are not related to the other. Books and magazines both revolve around writers, but you don't hear book critics claiming that book publishers benefit from magazine sales.

Sure, publishers like EA and Activision are involved in both apps and console games. But that General Electric makes both kitchen appliances and medical equipment doesn't unify those products within one industry.

The sales of Angry Birds and Plants vs Zombies have no bearing on the sales of console RPGs and shooters. Let's acknowledge that in the way we discuss games as an industry (or two).