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).