Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Far Cry 2: Memento Mori

"So I don't know, maybe you're dead, maybe not. Maybe you'll find these stupid tapes and do whatever the hell you wanted to do with them. Or maybe the interview is over. Wasted words, wasted life. Maybe I'll see you soon."

(If you're just joining, here are part one and part two of this series)

I had wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, surrounded by explosions and a ring of fallen militiamen. To go down fighting, the proverbial last stand. Instead, it was quiet, quick and anonymous. It was so sudden, I didn't even get a screenshot. Andre fell without any ceremony at all. His body was likely dumped in the desert for the buzzards or thrown in a truck with those he killed, ready for smuggling C4 or whatever else Mbantuwe had in mind.

I got sloppy, just like Paul. Despite a few close calls, I had only required one buddy rescue and that was due to a nasty fall. Perhaps that was an omen, but instead I continued to ignore the few instant-death perils present in Far Cry 2.

After the unfortunate incident with the king's gold and Paul's death, I quickly headed back to Mike's to find another buddy. There the infamous Michele asked me to retrieve a briefcase of her intelligence, stolen by one of the factions and stashed at the railyard. I headed north and stopped into a safehouse on the way, to ensure Josip had my back. But that proved an unnecessary caution. Despite the viciousness of the firefight at the railyard, I got away clean without needing Josip's help. I returned the briefcase to Michele and took another mission from the UFLL.

They wanted the Occidental Growers Company razed. I accepted, but to my surprise, Josip called me as I was leaving. He had some mad scheme involving chemical defoliant and an old prop plane, but as I'd never lost a main buddy before, I wasn't sure if I needed to complete this mission to "promote" Josip and have Michele replace him as my rescue buddy. I went along, secured the defoliant and made it to the airfield without any problems.

Now, getting from the airfield to the OGC is a long and awkward trip no matter what route you take. In retrospect, I should have just headed west to the bus station, gone to Pala and drove east from there. Had I done that, Andre would still be alive. Instead I drove east, looking to clear scout more checkpoints and perhaps find some diamonds. I ended up ditching my jeep to go after a diamond case and then following a semi-hidden switchback path into the rear of a guard post. I easily dispatched the three militia, but as I did (as is often the case), an assault truck tore up the road.

Feeling brazen, I threw a grenade in the truck's path. But it advanced too quickly and passed the grenade, bearing down on me. I moved lazily to the side, opening fire on the truck's gunner. But at the last second, the truck veered sharp to the left, the direction I was dodging. It clipped me by just a hair, but that was enough. Andre fell to the ground and I was staring at the game over screen. Andre was run down like an indecisive squirrel crossing the interstate. And the face of his killer does not impress:

(To be fair, I had completely forgotten being hit by a car is an instant kill, or I certainly wouldn't have been as brazen)

I was sorely tempted to reload, saying such a death "didn't count" because it wasn't fair. But it's never really fair, is it? Andre's abrupt end was actually pretty affecting. I was shocked that things had come to such a sudden halt, and my feelings of (over) confidence were largely at fault. But as I laid in bed, still reeling a little bit, I couldn't help but think about how quickly the end can come sometimes. A gas leak, another driver nods off at the wheel, crosses the median and hits you head on or you just slip on the ice and hit your head; sometimes, you don't get to say when. I held my fiancée a little tighter as I fell asleep that night.

I thought I would be fine without a buddy for such a short time, with Josip being occupied with the mission and Michele not yet my rescue buddy. I ended up reminded most harshly that, without them, even small accidents can prove fatal. I forgot that unless you've got someone watching your back in Far Cry 2, you don't get to choose your time. In life, you don't even get that. Memento mori indeed.

This isn't necessarily big, dramatic life & death things either. I wasn't expecting to lose my first job in the industry, but it did happen. And suddenly, without warning. Sometimes, that's just how things are.

That a game could make me reflect on something like this is further evidence that games are not mere diversions or amusements. Even though I had to change the context of how the game was played a bit, it was able to affect and significantly so. Plus, isn't it the hallmark of a great work that it can be examined and utilized in many contexts and produce different interpretations?

I'm not going to say I felt some amazing landmark moment, but it was significant. I almost felt a little shame saying so, but I'm doing everything I can to throw those feelings overboard. If my aspirations as a game designer include emotionally affecting others through games, I have to seek out and embrace existing games that can do the same to me. Especially ones that do so without merely replicating the emotions evoked by linear narratives in other media.

I'm actually really tempted to do this again, even though I'm currently working on about three other games. This little taste of FC2 was not enough to satisfy, even if I have to play the first four-five hours again. It's dynamic enough to stay engaging and in writing this, I've come to appreciate this little experiment even more. So my thanks to Ben Abraham for proposing it, and to Michel McBride for joining as well. Bonne chance lads, may you make it further than Andre.

I've got Wednesday off for Canada Day, and I'm not sure I'll be able to stay away. I probably won't write about it in as much depth, maybe a quick synopsis when that run eventually comes to its end. This really was an excellent experience and I'd encourage you to try the same with FC2 or another game of your choice (but I'll admit that the buddy rescues make this a far more tenable proposition in FC2 than in other games).

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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Far Cry 2: I'm Here and You're Gone

"These guys don't even know why they're fighting anymore, if they ever even had a reason."

I'm not sure you knew either, Paul. Maybe it was just for the money and drugs, maybe it was quiet guilt after deserting the IDF or maybe it was just because you didn't know how to do anything else. It doesn't matter now. I called it- you're gone, I'm not. You got paranoid and sloppy. Seeing Mossad agents everywhere (as if you, a backpacker gone mercenary, were their most pressing concern), you took too many risks. Going in with the prince, and rattling the APR, you brought the whole hive down upon you. Upon us. I did what I could, but with the pistol and rifle both jammed and the RPG launcher literally broken in my hands, the Jackal's old machete couldn't keep us both alive. I turned and you were already gone.

The permanent death Far Cry 2 engagement continues. Ben's second post is here and Michel's is here (and my part one is here if you missed it). Unlike the other two, I didn't opt for the buddy expansion to the first mission, since I remember the shantytown being a deathtrap my first time through. The "special forces" and their supplies in the desert were dispatched easily. After that, I ran a number of missions for the local arms dealer, looking to kit out my weapons as quickly as possible.

The tension I identified in the first sessions has largely dissipated. As both Ben and Michel have noted, Normal difficult really isn't that hard. Even with lots of rusty, fragile guns and malaria flaring up, I've only required one buddy rescue. And that was due to my failing to make this jump, looking for a diamond briefcase. I guess Paul told Josip to go looking for me at the fort, where he found me, blacked out after banging my head on a rock.

Despite this, and after losing Paul at the hidden gold ambush, it's still not as tense as that first hour was. I'm currently without a main buddy and Josip isn't rescue-ready yet (not sure if I need a new main buddy before that will reset or not). I've got another arms caravan to ambush and we'll see if running that without a net will prove more alarming.

But unless things get demonstrably harder very soon, I think I'm also upping the difficulty as soon as I get a new buddy (I may be a little crazy, but not that crazy).

Still, playing the game this way gives the game a feeling distinct from the first time I played it. Maybe I'm more aware of the overall aesthetics and themes, but the game feels more dire, more grim than last time. I'm looking forward to seeing where else this goes and, ultimately, where it ends. Hopefully it will be with a bang, and not with a whimper. With a literal bang would be even better.

(conclusion in part three)

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Far Cry 2: On the Permanent Death Bandwagon

Oh, how I detest you, Paul.

Ben Abraham recently began a fantastic experiment playing Far Cry 2 with (user-imposed) permanent death. The constraints are simple- play on Normal difficulty and stop when you die. No second chances, we're playing for keeps. Michel jumped and, as I'd been looking for a reason to revisit FC2 again anyway, I'm getting aboard the train too. Plus, this feeds into a few posts I'm going to be doing in the near future quite well.

Truth be told, I'm not too optimistic for Andre Hyppolite. I barely made it to the hotel's entrance before a rocket reduced me to unconsciousness. I fear this a very dark harbinger for Andre's end.

Ben and Michel covered the introduction/tutorial well, so I'll be brief. But I have to note that the game feels incredibly tense. Every staccato burst of gunfire is horrifying. My assault on the first safehouse, guarded by only two militiamen, was nervewracking (possibly because a lucky shotgun blast killed me there at my first time playing). It was also a little surreal killing the first militiaman. I hadn't killed anyone in Pala. Now I'd killed a man, in cold blood (he didn't even get a chance to draw), simply for guarding a hut. All because a man named Carbonell told me to do it. For most games, this is completely de rigueur. But honestly, it's pretty disturbing if you stop and think about it.

At the lumber camp, it's quite apparent scouting will be far more important now. Previously playing, nearly all my scouting was through a rifle scope, but I think a well-planned approach is going to become far more important this time.

And, of course, whom do I rescue but the odious Paul Ferenc. That smirk permanently etched upon his face is similarly carved into my mind. Or, more appropriately, the casual disregard for suffering it contains. Paul's not in love with conflict per se, he simply doesn't care in the least about who gets hurt, as long as it isn't him. If he can get some money or some laughs, all the better. At least the bloodthirsty warlords act with intent.

I don't think this will end well for either of us, Paul.

(continued in part two and part three)

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Monday, June 22, 2009

No, Not That Midway

As we stand listening to the echoes of another E3's passing, my thoughts return once again to the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. And I am not directly referring to this year's return to spectacle, although that would probably be legitimate. Instead, E3 makes me think of an event promoter by the name of Sol Bloom1.

During the initial planning of the World's Fair in Chicago, the Midway Plaisance aspect of the fair was under the direction of the head of the Department of Ethnology at Harvard University. It was intended to be a scholarly depiction of humanity's progress, beginning with an African village and terminating at the fair's "Court of Honour," a series of buildings that were not only themselves architectural marvels, but housed some of Western civilization's latest innovations. It was to be educational and dignified, to the point where Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show was refused inclusion (Cody merely set up the show across the street from the fair's entrance and made a mint).

Now, Bloom had been a successful salesman and promoter in San Francisco, and had left home to see the world at age 19. He ended up at the Parisian World's Fair in 1889 and had witnessed how visitors had flocked to exhibitions of performers from "exotic locales," especially Algeria. Bloom secured a two year contract to represent the Algerians in the Western hemisphere and upon returning to the US in 1891, he implored Chicago's fair board to include his Algerian Village in the midway. He was rebuffed, but upon discovering the stuffy, formal affair the midway's supervisor was intending, he contacted Michael de Young, a member of the national World's Fair organizing committee. Frustrated by the midway's laggard pace, not only did de Young arrange for Bloom's Algerian village to be included, but he offered to pay Bloom to manage the entire midway. At only 21 years of age, Bloom accepted.

Under Bloom's watch, the midway of the World's Columbian Exposition was a tremendous success. Instead of the pretentious, ivory tower affair, the midway was a hurricane of games, restaurants, performances and rides. It featured acts and performers from all over the world, hosted the world's first Ferris Wheel (a towering 80 metre tall structure that carried over 2000 passengers) and to many of the fair's literally millions of attendees, the midway was the most memorable part of the fair. The word "midway" entered into the English vocabulary and is mandatory at every fair, carnival and expo. Bloom himself introduced the "danse du ventre," or belly dance, to Americans and wrote a song (offhandedly, at a press preview no less) that is still familiar even today.

So what does this have to do with video games, beyond giving Mortal Kombat's terminal parent company a name? Bloom understood how to create an environment conducive to entertainment. He understood how to get people excited. And, whether we like it or not, that counts for a lot.

E3 return to spectacle did the same this year. From Natal/Sony's motion thingie to Scribblenauts, there was energy this year. The excitement was palpable and, to be honest, welcome. After six months of depressing closures and layoffs, seeing positivity again was great.

In a lot of ways, E3 is awful. It caters to the lowbrow, hype runs rampant and we could all do with less bullshit. But Bloom exaggerated too; when promoting the fair's colossal Manufacturing building, he didn't merely repeat, as many other had, that it had 36 acres of floor space. He claimed that the entire standing army of Russia could fit within the building. While unlikely, unless it's possible to convince about a million Russian soldiers to occupy about one and a half square feet each, the claim itself didn't matter. Bloom was able to convey the grandeur of the Manufacturing building.

Bloom was not a shyster or a swindler, and this is very important to understand. He delivered upon what he promised. Those that visited the midway at the World's Columbian Exposition saw splendours beyond their wildest imaginations. As those that think games can aspire to far greater than the status quo, it's easy to look down our noses at spectacle. But spectacle doesn't make people excited, spectacle happens because people are excited.

In our efforts to make games more meaningful, we run the risk of doing what the original midway organizers did. By making them too intellectual, we might be taking away what excites people most about games.

[1] - Bloom was actually a rather interesting man even beyond his work at the World's Fair, eventually going on to become a Congressman for many years and serve as a delegate at the convention that founded the UN.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

GDAotM June - Prototyping

June's Game Design Aspect of the Month article has been posted. This time it's some pretty nuts and bolts thoughts on prototyping. Feel free to share your opinions via GDAotM's comments. And if you're feeling particularly engaged, feel free to contact Sande about submitting an article of your own.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

It Began With Horse Armour ...

This is my response to Michael Abbott's post regarding DLC. As you're almost certainly aware, Michael is responsible for the superb Brainy Gamer blog and podcast. He's the kindest person I've ever met and is, without a doubt, the coolest thing in Indiana. And yes, that's counting Gen Con.

You may not remember the exact date, Michael, but you do remember the event. On April 3rd, 2006, the DLC genie was let out of the bottle. Owners of Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion could spend the equivalent of 2.50 USD to purchase armour for the game's horses. Many felt the cost, while low, was still unfair given the rather minor impact the purchase would have in the game. There was a significant backlash to the point that "horse armour" is still idiomatically used to describe overpriced downloadable content.

Since then, there's been a lot of discussion, experimentation and contention about DLC and its place in the development and business models of games.

Now, I'm in all favour of downloadable content for games, and of course entire games themselves. My ability to pay my rent depends on this, actually. But I must confess that the I find the trend toward more use of DLC to unlock existing game content a bit disconcerting. Early today, you remarked that Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 features DLC that can unlock all the courses in the game for $2.25 and max your golfer's stats for $3.75 (and quite amusingly, your comment is the second Google hit for "tiger woods 10 unlock dlc"). This breed of DLC isn't new; I believe it's been a feature in Tiger for at least the last couple of iterations. Criterion offers a Time Savers pack for Burnout: Paradise that unlocks all the game's cars for $5, and so forth.

Before I dive too deeply into this, I'll note that I feel looking at this through the lens of Mitch Krpata's New Taxonomy of Gamers is helpful. In the case of unlock DLC, it's all about the difference between skill players and tourists. And as is often the case in the real world, the tourists end up getting a bit fleeced.

Unlock DLC holds little appeal for skill players, as you noted. Tourists, on the hand other, "just want to play." Repeating content time and again until certain milestones are reached seems like a chore for them, not a source of enjoyment. They just want to engage with the content they find most interesting. It feels strange to me then that this style of play comes with an additional price tag. It feels as if the legacy of unlockable content in games is being used to justify taking advantage of the tourist's desire to "just play."

Digital content locks in games are completely trivial to create. Asking for money to remove them instantly is charging because some tourists are willing to pay, rather than charging to recoup the cost of creating those locks. Even the despised horse armour required the time of some artists, designers and programmers to create. With unlock DLC, only abstract locks are being removed. It seems exploitative to ask these players to pay more, simply because their style of play differs from that of "traditional" players.

One of the biggest challenges our industry has is making games accessible to new audiences without dumbing them down or killing the spirit of games that so many of us have grown to love. I don't think it's appropriate asking newer gamers, who are more likely to be tourists, to pay more just so they can enjoy the game in their preferred style of play. It feels like unlock DLC is taking advantage of newer gamers simply because, well, they don't know any better.

Or, more simply, just because EA can doesn't mean they should. I would much rather see the Rock Band model of unlocking content adopted in lieu of unlock DLC. All the game's content is available in a "free play" mode that deactivates achievements (or their equivalent) and restricts online play to others in the same mode. A "career" mode allows content to be unlocked with the usual MO. It seems like this would facilitate the tourist style of play well without asking them to pony up for the privilege.

Your observations on value are keen, but I think making achievements the sole domain of "career mode" still provides enough enticement for the skill player while demonstrating the tourist there's something incomplete in the "free play" mode.

The truth is Michael, I'm not necessarily opposed to unlock DLC as it currently exists. I certainly don't plan on ever purchasing any, but it's entirely possible that 6 USD is a fair price for all courses and a maxed golfer in Tiger 10. What I really worry about is how easy it is to slide down this slippery slope. Knowing many tourists will pay for this unlock DLC, can the temptation be resisted to push those unlockables just a little bit further out? How easy it is to make just a little more content locked, facilitating multiple unlock DLC offerings. It sounds a little cynical, but at the same time, I worry it's not that far fetched at all.

To be clear, I am not advocating the Angry Internet Man response to "boycott" games that feature this kind of DLC or anything similarly absurd. But I can't shake the feeling that unlock DLC is exploiting a certain segment of the audience by erecting artificial barriers and then asking for a fee so those barriers can be removed. If we want to see more people playing games, and playing games more interesting that match-three Flash games, it seems antithetical to charge many of them extra just because they haven't been to the theatre before.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts on this issue and it's always fascinating to hear what you and others have to say on this matter.

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Fallout and The Procedural Skald

To many, the appeal of games is being able to meaningfully interact with a world, making decisions with lasting consequences. Unfortunately, providing this is a very difficult challenge for developers. The combinatorial explosion that even a small number of decisions creates requires providing outcomes for all possible combinations of decisions. Just creating that content is a tremendous amount of work; creating it in such a way that all outcomes connect harmoniously and do not feel unnatural is realistically impossible.

Commonly, developers address this issue either by providing small, isolated pockets of agency that do not interact or by providing choices that are largely illusory, with the core story hitting on the same beats regardless of the player's specific decisions.

Interestingly, Fallout 1 & 2 addressed this issue cleverly, but Fallout 3 abandoned that device for a weaker solution. If Fallout 3 had augmented this instead of abandoning it, I think it could have represented a more significant step toward minimizing the complications of these issues.

Most areas in Fallout 1 & 2 provided a number of different outcomes to the player's decisions, but these outcomes were almost always isolated from each other area. Beyond adjusting the player's abstract reputation (karma), events in Shady Sands don't change what happens in The Hub. Unlike other games that adopt that model, however, Fallout remembers the outcomes of various decisions the player makes. At the end of the game, the player sees a substantial epilogue that describes the impact their actions had on the people they met and the places they visited.

Fallout 3 provided a minimal version of this, describing in binary terms how the player acted at maybe a half-dozen locations. To be honest, this disappointed me far more than the content of the ending itself. Instead of an epilogue, the bulk of response to player actions comes from the game's procedural skald, Three Dog.

(As a note, this construct came from some comments made by Marc LeBlanc at his Game Design Workshop at GDC this year. He used "procedural bard," but I'm going to use the term "skald," as being a tabletop RPG veteran, "bard" has some degree of baggage.)

Three Dog serves as a dynamic skald, providing disc jockey poetics of the player's decisions. This gives the player's actions context, demonstrating clearly that their decisions are not made in a vacuum. Karma serves a related purpose, but responding to the player's actions with a real, human voice has the potential to be more poignant. The nursery scene at the beginning of the third act of Bioshock does the same.

Similarly, this allows for the world to reaction to generally immoral acts without just making all NPCs hostile. Given the reward structures of most games (rewards being experience points, money and/or equipment), making some number of previously friendly NPCs hostile really just gives the player relatively guilt-free access to resources. This only serves to further incentivize immoral actions, rather than causing the player to reflect.

Finally, Three Dog provides live feedback, instead of only at the end of the game, as the epilogue in Fallout 1 & 2 did. I understand that some didn't connect with Three Dog, but hopefully the value of a procedural skald construct is clear. The skald doesn't necessarily need to be a specific person or even a person at all either.

As I mentioned above, the lack of a substantial epilogue in Fallout 3 left the ending feeling quite unsatisfying, and many others felt the same way. Fallout 1 has a very strict time constraint, and Fallout 2 only loosened this somewhat. Without the strict time constraints and very pronounced goals of Fallout 1 & 2, exploration is at the heart of Fallout 3. As the end of Fallout 3 terminates any further exploration (until the Broken Steel DLC, at least), without any kind of epilogue that gives the player's actions greater context and meaning, I can understand why many found the end so unsatisfying.

Players seek the ability to affect change in the worlds they inhabit. Providing meaningful outcomes with cascading consequences explodes into an uncontainable number of stories. Even the most dynamic stories still must collapse to a few certain story points. But by using both epilogue summary of decisions and active in-game feedback, we can make the player's decisions feel more substantive and influential. As our procedural skald tells epic poems of the player's actions, they're providing what many players seek. They are saying something to the world and it will speak back.

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Friday, June 5, 2009

Yes, I Mulch Discussions

My recent post on player-generated content was used as a springboard for this week's Experience Points podcast. Good discussion is had and I'm quite flattered they used my post as cognitive fertilizer. Scott and Jorge run a great site and podcast over at Experience Points and if you aren't reading it yet, I'd highly suggest giving it a look and listen.

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