Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Obligatory Year-End Post part Drei: Five Things 2009 Could Hold

Five Hopes for 2009

To finish off the year, here are five things I'm looking forward to in 2009. These are less predictions and more things I'd like to see happen. As always, I'm curious about your thoughts about these and what you think 2009 may hold.

Free-to-Play Games Coming Onto the Stage

Gamasutra identified this as one of the 2008 trends, but then referenced mainly unreleased games. Those games should be released in 2009 though and I think some very interesting things are going to start happening with free-to-play games (full disclosure: I'm working on a free-to-play game, Sugar Rush, that's launching in 2009). Despite some truly abhorrent marketing that has almost entirely soured me to the game, I'm very curious as to how people take to EA's Battlefield Heroes. I've got a vested interest here for sure, but part of the reason why I accepted the position at Klei was because I feel there's a lot of potential in the free-to-play model. With even The Old Republic talking about microtransactions being a serious part of the game's monetization (I'd be shocked if they went fully free to play, but I would definitely commend them if they did), I'm very much looking forward to seeing how high quality free to play games will affect the industry in 2009.

Developers Embracing the Wii

To reference Gamasutra again, they identified the Wii's lackluster catalog as one of their biggest disappointments in 2008. To be the eternal optimist, I think 2009 will finally see some solid progress in offerings for the Wii. Given that a gajillion Wiis were sold in November and December, publishers big and small would be absolutely mad to think there isn't a lot of money being left on the table here. Those buying the consoles may not be "traditional" gamers, but it's quite possible to create titles that will please them and veterans gamers alike. Imagine something akin to Katamari Damacy; I was hoping de Blob might do this, but it looks like it hasn't received a ton of attention. Regardless, titles like Zack & Wiki and Boom Blox have proven that publishers other than Nintendo can make the Wii purr and I hope they'll do so in 2009.

Tim and Ron's Glorious Return

I didn't think I'd call out specific games, but with both Tim Schafer and Ron Gilbert releasing new games in 2009 (Brütal Legend and Deathspank respectively), I couldn't resist. When they hit, I think we'll have cause for much revelry. If you watch this and tell me you're not excited, you're lying.

Mobile Games Integrating with the Real World

This one is also pretty indulgent and a little hopeful, but I did my Computer Science Masters thesis in Ubicomp, so it's a temptation too hard to resist. I'm hoping 2009 will have at least one mobile game title that interacts meaningfully with the real world. This is the core of Ubicomp, the idea that the when, where and why of a computing device's usage will serve as an invisible form of input (in parlance, it's "context awareness"). The potential applications for this are myriad, but one fertile area is creating games that incorporate real world actions meaningfully into their gameplay. There's been a lot of acedemic research about this, such as this project from Nokia, but the games themselves are usually not terribly fun and certainly don't have any longevity. Giving these ideas and tools to a proper game developer, however, could result in something really compelling. With the DSi including a camera and the iPhone starting to look like a proper gaming platform, it's possible a game that interacts with the real world via media creation and the device's data connection could manifest itself in 2009. Here's hoping.

Seeing '09 Surpass the Mark Set By '08

2008 raised the bar in a lot of ways. Little Big Planet and Spore made signifcant advances for user-generated content in games. FarCry 2 showed us new depths in immersion, while Fallout 3 showed the possibility of a massive explorable, nonlinear world. Mirror's Edge showed us the "S" in FPS isn't necessary. Braid demonstrated new possibilities in integrating meaning, emotion and gameplay. World of Goo demonstrated two dedicated guys (with a little help) can produce a game that's more aesthetically pleasing and clever than the fruits of a multi-million dollar budget. Left 4 Dead has completely recalibrated what's expected from a cooperative game. There are countless other examples as well. Success or not, 2008 was extremely ambitious in a lot of ways. I'm very excited to see if developers rise to meet, and hopefully exceed, what the titles of 2008 have shown is possible.

And that's it for 2008 folks! I'm very new to this blogging thing, having started barely a month ago. I appreciate everyone making me feel welcome and I'm looking forward to carrying on ceaslessly with you all in 2009. Have a good (non-liver-destroying) New Year's Eve everyone!

Labels: ,

Monday, December 29, 2008

Obligatory Year-End Post part Deux: Five Awesome Things about 2008

Five Things About 2008 That Pleased Me Greatly

Games as a Service

Steam has been around seriously since Half-Life 2 launched on it in 2004, but it seems that this year Steam really came into its own. It took until 2008, but finally most publishers, even EA, have some of their games available on Steam. The only shocking thing about that is that it took so long. Sure, I realize they don't like giving a cut to Valve, but it can't be worse than a retailer's pound of flesh. And aside from Valve's cut, which I assume covers bandwidth, et al., it doesn't cost the publisher anything. And it actually gives a lot of control back to the developers/publishers, instead of leaving it at the mercy of big box stores and pawnshops disguised as game retailers.

It can also help solve one of our industry’s largest problems- out of print titles. By making a publisher's back-catalog available at any time, important "vintage" games are still accessible to those that may have missed them the first time, even if there isn't enough demand to warrant another run of the title for retail. It seems like most people have found one gem on Steam they meant to play when it was released but never got around to it. For me, that was Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines. I picked it up for something like $10 during a Halloween sale in 2007. Made by post-Interplay Tim Cain, Leonard Boyarsky & Jason Anderson as Troika, it's wonderfully dark RPG that knows exactly what it wants to be.

Some people worry about putting all of the eggs in one service's basket, but Valve (or rather, the folks currently at its helm) are one of the few organizations that appear honest and decent enough to assuage these concerns for me. Steam isn't the only digital distribution service for games; Hothead's Greenhouse focuses on hand-picked indie titles and I've heard Stardock's service is pretty good as well. Regardless of which service it is, 2008 was the best year games-as-a-service has seen so far and I hope it's a harbinger of even better things to come.

Interface Improvements Abound

This one is especially indulgent, but I'm a big interface nerd, so I couldn't avoid it. If 2007 was a year of horrid interfaces (see Mass Effect), 2008 was the year of what I consider to be some significant advances. Aside from a few missteps, I loved a lot of this year's interfaces. Alone in the Dark and Dead Space integrated inventory completely in the game world, FarCry 2 keep you perpetually rooted in the tactile nature of the game and Mirror's Edge was without any kind of HUD at all. Hell, even Mass Effect's PC version had its awful interface fixed.

One of my gaming pet peeves are the interfaces that accomplish game tasks (e.g. inventory, not saving/loading or changing settings) but do so completely removed from the game world. Resident Evil may be the worst offender here, where you could be mere inches away from getting a chainsaw in the face, but if you push Z, you can take as long as you want to rearrange the herb garden in your pockets. Seeing this disappear more and more is fantastic.

The Summer of Downloadable Indie Awesomeness

In retrospect, it's somewhat amazing that World of Goo, Braid and Castle Crashers were all released in the same two month window. Braid and World of Goo were two of my favourite games this entire year, and Castle Crashers’ co-op glee has been exceeded only by Left 4 Dead. Summer may have seen the best of the downloadable indie games, but it certainly didn't have a monopoly. Hothead Games released two episodes of On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (made by Ron Gilbert and some other great folks here in Vancouver, and if you haven't tried it, I highly recommend doing so, even if you're not normally into Penny Arcade), Sam & Max: Season Two hit last November through April and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People may be the best game based on existing IP since Goldeneye or Lord of the Rings Online (which I embarassingly forgot to mention when talking about MMOs yesterday). This is just scratching the surface; there are lots of gems to be found in the downloadable indie space. More than anything else, working for an indie developer myself, it was incredibly enlivening to see other folks achieve this kind of success.

Three Peaks of the Fall Glut

While I maligned the Fall Glut yesterday, it was problem because there were simply so many excellent games released seemingly at once. From the downpour, there were three titles that I absolutely loved. Sequentially, that would be FarCry 2, Fallout 3 and Mirror's Edge. Other folks have written more eloquently about them (especially this one) than I could hope to, so I won't wax too poetic. But to me, they represent three of 2008’s great bastions of success. One an ambitious and extremely dark treatise on the nature of conflict whose depths many seemed to have missed. Another, the brilliant, polished and almost unbelievably expansive modernization of a beloved franchise. The last, a much maligned attempt at taking a well known genre in a completely new direction. I'm not sure if I could pick a favourite, since these plus some of the indie games mentioned above all affected me in different ways. That being said, I haven't finished Michael's holiday podcast roundup of favourite games bonanza yet, but if nobody on there picked Mirror's Edge, it might well have been what I would have picked. If you all don't hear from me again, it's likely because the angry spectral hand of Mitch Krpata reached through the internet and strangled me.

(Aside: Left 4 Dead would have muscled its way in here too, except it seems almost everyone I'd like to play with opted for the 360 version, and I'm a PC guy at heart. If I could play it with non-strangers more, I would have found a space for it here somehow)

Excellence in Thoughtful Conversations about Games

Yup, I co-opted Michael's tagline and it's entirely deliberate. While thoughtful writing about games certainly precedes 2008, I think things really gained momentum this year. And often the best work wasn't coming from paid writers with professional editors, but from bloggers, both inside and outside the industry. Bloggers who care deeply and think critically about what games are, and more importantly, what games could be. The blogs I have linked over there on the right are just a sample of the excellent writing being done about games. I've wanted to work in games for a while, but I'd be lying if I said my move into the industry had nothing to do with the fantastic articles and post I've read over the last year. Thoughtful gamer writers, you all inspired me and helped me believe I do have some interesting and meaningful contributions to make. I thank you all genuinely and if there's one thing in the last year that's made me happiest about the medium we all love, it's talking about it with you all.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Obligatory Year-End Post: Five 2008 Disappointments

I was hoping to do some writing while I was visiting the family for Xmas, but as evidenced, that didn't happen. Sorry folks. In an attempt to make up for this, I'm doing my requisite End of the Year series of posts for the next three days. I'm not going to post a Top 10 lists or anything like that. Honestly, our industry has enough quantitification of things that needn't be quantified (no offense intended to those that did the top 10 thing, it's just not to my taste). Instead, today I'm going to discuss five things in 2008 that left me disappointed, since I'm a "bad news first" kind of guy. Tomorrow, five things in 2008 that pleased me greatly and on Tuesday I'll finish up with five things I'm looking forward to in 2009. As always, I'm interested in what other folks think, so feel free to put those thoughts down in the comments. Note: none of these will be in any kind of order, beyond the sequence I thought them up in. Without further ado ...

Five Things About 2008 That Were Lame and Disappointing

Nothing Even Came Close to Unseating WoW as the God-King (Lich King?) of MMOs

As a prelude, I have nothing against WoW or Blizzard. I had the WoW needle deep in my arm from launch day until just before The Burning Crusade came out. I slayed Nefarion countless times and led raids in Ahn'Qiraj. But WoW has been dominating the MMO space for a long time, and that worries me. Anytime someone's on top for that long, things get stagnant. Worse, other organizations try to replicate that success by creating largely the same thing, sometimes with a few enhancements (Age of Conan, Warhammer: Age of Reckoning), sometimes with just a new skin (Tabula Rasa). Of course, they tried to do this without the experience and playerbase of WoW and, not too surprisingly, didn't succeed. Though rare, even seemingly interesting MMOs (e.g. Pirates of the Burning Sea) can't seem to compete against the WoW juggernaut.

I feel there's a great deal of potential in the MMO space, but I worry that's not going to happen when the options are 1) WoW or 2) new project seeking to be WoW. A few niche MMOs like Eve and City of Heroes are doing well, and I think that's absolutely fantastic, but I'm not even sure there's much more room in the niche MMO area. So what will come next? Bioware's officially announced The Old Republic, which may be able to shake up the MMO space. It's hard to predict what may happen, but if TRO is a big success, it may allow a few other new MMOs to grow up in the space between it and WoW as well. Only time will tell.

DRM vs. Piracy Resulting in Countless Civilian Casualties

Gamasutra identified piracy as one of their biggest disappointments of 2008, but I think draconian DRM is as much of a problem as piracy is. Don't get me wrong, I think piracy is absolutely vile and people who "protest" DRM by stealing (see: Spore) are only giving more fuel to executive's arguments that even more DRM is needed. 2D Boy's statement that some ~90% of World of Goo installs are pirated might have disappointed me more than anything else this year (if you haven't played World of Goo yet, do so). Ultimately, the only people that really get hurt by the salvos between pirates and DRM advocates are the paying gamers that just want to play their games. Why draconian on-disc DRM schemes are even still being considered when services like Steam are available is beyond me. But if the whole Spore debacle spurred EA to put some of their games on Steam, I suppose some small amount of good might have come from that mess.

The Fall Glut

Lots of other people have complained about this as well, but I too was quite dismayed by that October-November stretch where something like 2/3 of the year's major games were released. Lots of excellent games were lost in the shuffle and, while I certainly didn't feel this way, some more experimental games that would have otherwise been received with some degree of interest were found lacking in the face of some supremely polished, more familiar offerings. Indie games released during the torrent were also hit pretty hard, and some folks I know personally lost jobs because of this. I really hope the industry can grow up and stop thinking holiday sales are the only target that matters.

Obsession with First Week Sales Numbers

I wish we'd stop evaluating a game's commercial success entirely on its first week sales. This is nothing new to 2008 of course, but the fall glut may have exacerbated things, making this even worse than in years past. I think this is something we inherited from the film industry using opening weekend sales as a bellwether. I've got pretty hardcore film geek friends and yet even they get caught up in guessing how much a movie is going to make on opening weekend. Honestly, does it matter? Given a bloated release period, opening weekend/first week might not be an accurate reflection of how well a title will ultimately do commercially. Crysis dealt with this when it was released, but it was able to maintain consistent sales and ended up doing pretty well. Mirror's Edge (a supposed commercial "failure") seems it might be doing the same. With analysts, executives and stockholders clamouring for numbers, I understand why. I just wish we could all take a slightly longer view before rendering a verdict.

A Seeming Fear of Innovation

A lot of this year's AAA titles seemed pretty binary- they were either new IP with some pretty radical design decisions or iterations on existing proven formulas that offered "bigger, better, faster." Now, I'm totally bias, vastly preferring lofty goals not quite realized to safe bets. That being said, I'm surprised at how hostile the general reactions were to the titles that tried to do something different. It seems like there was a lot of depth that was missed, in FarCry 2 and Mirror's Edge especially. Honestly, FarCry 2 might have made a more interesting statement about games, violence and conflict than any other game I've ever played. Some other bloggers noticed this, but the general reaction seemed to be "a good shooter, bad guys respawn too much." Are we even playing the same game? I'd make the worst reviewer in the world, but I find there's much more to praise in something that shoots for the stars and misses than turning the crank on smash hits from a year or two ago, ala Gears of War.

And that's the five things I least liked about 2008 (probably). Tomorrow we'll be more positive and I'll talk about five things about 2008 that were awesome, and they totally outweigh these.

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Stop and Smell the Pixels: Are Some Games Better in Smaller Doses?

I don't know how many New Yorkers would recognize this man, but nearly all of them would be familiar with one of his greatest works- Central Park. Frederick Law Olmsted might well have been the 19th century's greatest landscape architect. Aside from Central Park, he designed countless other parks, the grounds around the US Capital and the landscape of the World's Columbian Exposition. Without Olmsted, there's no doubt the American public park system would be fundamentally different.

Olmsted is featured prominently in Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, which I've been reading lately1. About half of the book focuses on the creation of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, from a largely architectural perspective. The other half focuses on a far darker subject, which I'm sure I'll write about before long. What does this have to do with games? Thanks to Iroquois Pliskin, I've been thinking about architecture and games a lot. And there's no reason that can't include landscape architecture.

I'm planning a broader post about Olmsted's efforts to advance recognition of landscape architecture as an art form. But as an introduction, I wanted to comment on something I've observed recently, but was made clear when reading about an essential feature of Olmsted's design philosophy. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Olmsted's works were not meant to be immediately colourful or impressive. Rather, the true design was meant to emerge naturally over a period of years, even decades. Given the reaction I've heard from others about some of the games I've been playing lately, I can't help but wonder if those games are more enjoyable for me because of how I'm playing them.

I don't mean JRPGs that are 80+ hours long, I mean playing the average ~10-20 hour game in shorter bursts over longer periods of time. Mirror's Edge was a rather ... polarizing title. I pre-ordered2 and have been playing it off and on since. Usually no more than 30-45 minutes at a time and I've been enjoying it quite a bit. Of course, the sound of meat hitting pavement and a grumbled, "Dammit Faith ..." are not uncommon. Yet I've never been frustrated to the point of wanting to stop, not even close. And I'm not usually one for unforgiving games either (e.g. Mega Man 9). But I can't help but wonder, if I had run (no pun intended) up against those issues for the course of a couple of hours, would I have enjoyed the game less overall? Do those mild annoyances aggregate over a play session?

Chris Remo noted FarCry 2 has a "slow burn" rather than being immediately impressive. I picked it up on Steam when it launched, playing it pretty intensely until Fallout 3 launched and devoured all my gaming time. After finishing one go through Fallout, I've been taking small nibbles out of FC2 much like Mirror's Edge. It compartmentalizes quite well, taking 20-30 minutes to find a mission and finish it, maybe grabbing a diamond or two along the way. Playing it in small bursts I've found to be more enjoyable than the long stretches before Fallout 3. The respawning guard posts are a non-issue and the diamond hunts are challenging instead of repetitive.

Is it just excusing flaws by saying they're less annoying if you face them for shorter periods of time? Perhaps. But it seems like there is some media that is genuinely more enjoyable if it's broken up into smaller pieces. I've noticed people having this reaction when reading Lovecraft. A few stories are fantastic, but reading a whole collection cover to cover without interleaving anything else can be exhausting.

When Olmsted designed Central Park, he did not design a space that would immediately awe and impress. He designed a park that would become increasingly breathtaking as it was visited year after year. If one were to visit the park frequently, it would seem similar. But visiting less often over a longer period of time, growth and change in the park would be striking (that was Olmsted's intent, at least). He intended a space that, even over a hundred years later, would still be a place of serenity and natural beauty in the heart of one of the world's largest cities.

Have you ever played a game slowly, in smaller bits, and ended up enjoying it more than those that powered through it? If so, what kind of game was it? Do you think it was deliberately designed this way, or just a happy accident? I'd like to hear if other people have had similar experiences and if so, what kind of games it was with.

[1] - Technically I've been using my iPhone to listen to the unabridged audio book from Audible at the suggestion of Pseudopod, both of which I highly recommend.
[2] - For the awesome Timbuk2 messenger bag. Timbuk2 bag at a discount + game? Hell yes.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Reconciling Immersion and Pace

Steve Gaynor recently posted a fantastic article where he encourages exploring a narrative structure that's less Hollywood-esque in linearity and more of an immersive, organic exploration. We've been teased with this model before, most obviously in sandbox games and RPGs like Fallout 3, where a great deal of optional content is disconnected from the core narrative. Steve says we should take this to the next level and start thinking seriously about what games look like when there is no core narrative at all, when we treat the game as a place to be explored rather than as a path to be walked. Of course, he's not claiming that this model should serve as a universal replacement to a traditional narrative structure, just that it should be an equally valid alternative. (He's far more eloquent than I about this though, and his blog is excellent in general, so please give it a read)

Now, I completely agree with Steve that this is a model games are particularly well-suited to and that holds great promise. My concern is that it's going to be difficult to realize and harder still to make enjoyable. The model that Steve proposes is the section of map labeled hic sunt dracones. It's a framework that's very divergent from many forms of narrative storytelling, and certainly all the common ones. One area that I feel will be especially challenging to address is pacing.

Gamasutra recently published a pair of articles about pacing in games. It focuses on action games, but the basic lessons are applicable to most narratives. A emotional exchange between characters, coming upon a grand landscape vista, discovering a hidden fact that reverses a player's perception of some vital situation; these can serve as peaks in the intensity graph as much as a pitched gun battle. Another Gamasutra article (last link, I swear) suggests that not only does good pace affect our conscious enjoyment of a game, it actually evokes a physiological response as well.

Some studios demonstrate better understanding of pacing than others, but none more so than Valve. Listen to the commentary on their more recent games (which was an absolutely brilliant addition and I wish other developers would follow suit) and it's immediately obvious that the pace of each level and encounter is thought about quite seriously. Even in a game like Team Fortress 2, where Valve has little control over how the game plays, they still manage to adjust the pacing of a match by adjusting things like respawn time, spawn points, changes to the map itself as the game progresses, etc. And of course, the heart of Left 4 Dead is its AI Director which basically serves as a pacing engine.

Pacing a game is hard. If the intensity is too flat, the game feels dull, plodding and won't be able to hold a player's attention. Too much intensity leaves the game feeling exhausting from being cranked up to 11 continually and moments that were truly intended to be poignant get drowned out. If pacing a single, linear storyline is hard, how much harder will it be to pace an immersive experience, where the player has total control over where they go, what they see and how they interact with it?

FarCry 2 seems like a step in the direction of immersive meaning. There is still an overarching narrative, but the player can approach it entirely at their own pace and from a number of different directions. The world itself is fully navigable and the games goes to great lengths not to break the 4th wall. But even in FarCry 2, we can see the difficulties of pacing a more immersive game. While oft-derided, the respawning guard posts provide much needed amplitude in the game's intensity. As the player navigates between points of greatest intensity, the mission climaxes. Even if the player chooses to avoid them, they're (at least meant to be) moments of excitement and variation. The diamond briefcases serve a similar purpose; when the player sees their diamond tracker start pulsing green, they can choose a few moments of excitement with a payoff at the end. I'm not going to claim that these mechanisms are perfect, but that only goes to demonstrate how difficult they are to get right.

Where I think the issue of pacing will be most noticeable is in a game's climax (or lack thereof). Steve uses travel as a metaphor for what immersive games should feel like. The issue of climax here is problematic as well though. Travel may sometimes end with a crazy final night, but more often it just ends with going to bed early to be at the airport on time and feeling a bit melancholy that the experience has to end. Without a climax, I fear immersive games will conclude the same way. They'll peak at some point and everything will be downhill from there. They won't end with a bang, but merely with a whimper when one day we just don't come back.

This could entirely be my bias, though. I'm not a "must get to 100% found" completionist, but I do make a point of finishing almost every game I buy, to the point of maybe passing on something I was interested in if I haven't finished what I'm currently working on. A game has to be really quite bad for me to stop playing it. I may well be overthinking the issue. That being said, I have difficulty imagining a game having strong emotional resonance without some kind of cathartic conclusion. I'll probably never forget the first time I finished Earthbound, the Curse of Monkey Island or Portal. Yet when I think about Alpha Centauri, despite that game consuming way too much of 1999, it makes me a little sad to think that the only conclusion it had is that one day I simply stopped playing it.

I've posed a lot of questions here and not many answers. I'm mainly interested in hearing what others have to think about these issues. That being said, it may be interesting to look at how tabletop RPGs have addressed the issue of pace. Immersive, choice-emphatic gameplay is de rigueur to the point that its absence is negatively referred to as "railroading." As the story is built around this model, the GM has the ability to make plenty of changes for the sake of pace without having to worry too much about repercussions. But this is enabled by the fact that the GM and the players are sitting at the same table and it's pretty easy for the GM to see when things are lagging and pick up the pace.

Perhaps AI constructs like L4D's Director could assume that GM role as an executor of pace. Or perhaps there is another solution as of yet unrealized. Most likely it will be a combination of techniques that will allow immersive games to still keep the player's attention and provide interesting, memorable experiences. I'm quite interested in hearing your take on this, even if it's to tell me I'm completely barmy.

Additionally, this is my first real post, so I welcome any feedback that you have. Please feel free to comment or email me at above49.ca {at} gmail.com.

Labels: , ,

It's a dark and stormy night. You meet at an inn ...

I've decided to join the early 21st century and start blogging!

I've been continually engaged and inspired by other bloggers who take games and gaming seriously (but not too seriously), notably Michael Abbott, Iroquois Pliskin and Corvus Elrod, but many others as well. Instead of abusing the comments on their posts with increasingly long and tangential missives, I opted for space I can abuse myself.

The intent of this blog is to discuss games from the perspective of a someone relatively new to the industry and to Canada. I'm a game developer at Klei Entertainment in Vancouver, BC, but the opinions expressed on this blog are entirely my own and in no way represent those of Klei or any other organization. I welcome any discussion and feedback, either in comments or at above49.ca {at} gmail.com.