Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's All Cloak & Dagger

If I had to wager, I'd say the most common reply to the question, "What are you working on these days?" for those working in the games industry is, "I can't really talk about it." There's a great deal of secrecy in the industry. Sometimes it's necessary, simply due to the way projects evolve. The relationships with the media and public also necessitate some amount of secrecy. But more often that not, it's excessive and may actually be stymieing the advancement of the medium.

Making games is hardly an exact science, but I'm not sure many outside the industry realize exactly how much things can be in flux at the beginning of a project, and even well into production.

I know of projects that have radically changed directions in their early stages. Sometimes good ideas just don't have enough substance to merit a full game. Certain business conditions, which can be legitimate, may necessitate changes. Seemingly core features may prove untenable for artistic, technical or design reasons. Legal constraints regarding rights, licenses or something else could also change a game from its initial concept.

Anyone not familiar with the way games are made might see such changes as sign for concern or of poor leadership. The truth is, this is how the best games get made. There's a lot of chaos and experimentation at the beginning, which gradually settles toward something good. But if every tech demo, vertical slice, prototype, etc. was available for all to see, not only would lots and lots of it appear quite rough, but it's a recipe for disappointment and a diagnosis of schizophrenic production.

It really is the case that more often than not, it's better to be tight-lipped about a project until it's pretty close to being done. And even then, it will probably still change quite a bit.

Developers' relationship with the press is another big cause of industry-wide furtiveness. Entertainment journalism covering other media (film, TV, even music) is largely about people. While absurd and unfortunate in its own way (gossip rags, etc.), actors, musicians, directors and the like are emphasized more than their current work. But for games, it's all about products.

There's a number of reasons for the focus on product, but going into these would be a whole other post (at least). Suffice to say, it's partially due to the different genesis of different mediums. Film/TV grew from the theatre tradition, which has always been about actors, directors and playwrites as much as the actual script itself. After 400 years, one can't just talk about Hamlet. You talk about the performance of Hamlet by these actors and this director. The software tradition games grew out of is far more anonymous.

Modern Warfare 2 just launched, selling a ludicrous number of copies, but I couldn't tell you the name of a single person that worked on that game. Granted, I haven't followed IW that closely since the first Call of Duty, but I think I'd be able to name at least one person. Conversely, despite that fact that I'd rather shove bleach-soaked pipe cleaners in my eyes that watch a minute of Twilight, I can tell you the names of the stars, their characters' names, the director and a number of the producers/writers (although the Twilight Rifftrax is quite brilliant).

While there are some simply amazing game journalists out there, most simply write previews/reviews and post press releases. With gaming news and sites' profitability tied to pageviews, any information about an upcoming game is worth posting, no matter how unsubstantiated or trivial.

But this can actually be at odds with the ultimate success of a game. Oversaturating the media builds up audience expectations to levels that are impossible to reach. Combine this with the fact that almost nothing substantive is ever said about a game before it's released (more on that later), and too much media coverage too soon can be a bad thing. Dakitana and Duke Nukem Forever are the most infamous examples, but lots of games have fallen prey to this. I'm glad that many developers and publishers have shortened their media cycles and I hope they'll continue to do so.

This post has become longer than I was intending, so it's now a two-parter. Next time, I'll discuss that while some secrecy can be good, excessive secrecy not only harms developers' ability to learn from each other, but might well be impairing the audiences' ability to have deeper and more substantive conversations about games. Until then, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on secrecy. Bane or boon?


Monday, November 23, 2009


I started writing here almost a year ago, and for my own sake, I've tried to keep a schedule of posting something once a week, give or take a day. I'm actually somewhat proud that I've managed to keep to that schedule. Even lined up some posts to run autopilot during my honeymoon. So when I say no post this week, believe me that it is due to grand events ... that I cannot speak of.

I've been busy reading and thinking a lot about a hopefully upcoming project that's tremendously exciting for me personally. Very exciting, very consuming. Of course, in typical game industry style, I'd be out of line talking about it. I think there actually are some good reasons for being clandestine in the industry, but it still gets a bit excessive at times. I don't feel this is one of those times though, so please forgive the veiled statements.

Inspired by such, I'll actually be writing about the secrecy in the industry this weekend. And hopefully I'll be able to talk about the project before too long. And at some point in between, there will be great fanfare, trumpets and liver poisoning once DeathSpank is released.

Thanks for your interesting in these mad gibberings. Despite being glib, I really do appreciate that anyone takes the time to read what I have to say. More soon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

One More Russian

There's been a lot of virtual ink spilled about Modern Warfare 2's now infamous "No Russian" level. In an attempt to not till the same wee patch of soil, there's just one specific issue I'm going to call out. I actually wasn't intending to write about this at all, but a friend brought up an interesting issue when we were talking about this last night. (And obviously, there are massive spoilers ahead.)

There are a lot of problem with the "No Russian" scene, most of which have been discussed in the links above. It comes out of nowhere, fitting poorly into the game's plot. Even if it's meant as a critique of Jack Bauer's "ends justify the means" hawkishness, it still makes little sense. It's also severely incongruous with the rest of the tenor of the game (which just minutes before had you rocketing down a snowy mountain on a snowmachine, doing totally sweet, crazy jumps and all but swilling Mountain Dew).

But the biggest failing of "No Russian" is that it unnecessarily betrays both the player and the uniqueness of interactive systems to create something "shocking."

"No Russian" falls down because if you don't play this scene exactly how Infinity Ward wanted, they rub your face it in and say, "You'll do it again, just like I said this time." Any attempt to deviate from the intended sequence of events, including getting killed too early, means failure and having to try again.

There's absolutely no reason for this kind of strict control. The outcome of the mission is your character being killed and framed by Makarov.

The scene would have been vastly more effective if firing upon the terrorists, being killed by the Russian SWAT response and making it to the end of the level all had the same outcome. In the case of the former two, a fade to black after being shot and then briefly back into consciousness where Makarov reveals his intentions. It doesn't even need a separate failure state, beyond making the presentation a little dynamic.

In short, you should play "No Russian" just once. Succeed (get to the end) or fail (take too many hits, fire on your "allies"), the outcome should be the same. But this would allow the player to express themselves if they felt as Anthony Burch did, and simply couldn't watch the atrocity anymore. It would set it apart as something different, asking you to sit up and pay attention.

Unlike other media, games are a conversation, their systems the lingua franca. But in the case of "No Russian," there is only the lecturing schoolmarm, wrapping the player's knuckles when they dare speak up. This isn't even about emergent vs. authorial or anything like that. It's about recognizing that games are interactive systems and they are far, far more powerful when they exploit this.

Beyond the other problems with "No Russian" (and they are myriad), this scene is a squandered opportunity to demonstrate to the likely tens of millions of players what more interactive meaning looks like. Instead, it's just another level where you shoot some dudes to get to the end and at the beginning, there's a horrific cutscene. I won't make hyperbolic claims about it being the worst thing I've ever seen. But given the reach Infinity Ward has with Modern Warfare 2, it's a shame they opted for a shocking but shallow moment instead of utilizing the unique strengths of interactive systems and creating something truly memorable.

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Monday, November 9, 2009

Machinarium - Falling Down Gently

Machinarium has been praised for its gorgeous visuals and atmospheric soundtrack. But it also features surprisingly solid puzzle design. It does so by simplifying the core adventure game formula and finding ways to minimize points where other environmental puzzle games often get bogged down.

Often, adventure games become frustrating when the player can't determine whether or not they have all the necessary pieces to solve a puzzle. This ambiguity, combined with puzzle logic that often only makes sense to its creator, often causes gameplay to collapse to "rub everything in your inventory on everything in the world." Only once this painful process has been completed can the player be relatively confident they haven't assembled all the pieces and can resume hunting.

Machinarium addresses this by keeping the puzzle areas relatively compartmentalized. I haven't finished it yet, but at least thus far, the puzzles rarely span more than a handful of screens, sometimes as small as a single screen. This keeps the number of possible components and interactions limited, but not to the point of seeming shallow or painfully obvious.

Obviously, this conflicts with the adventure format that LucasArts laid down and has been kept alive by Telltale Games. In this style, usually shortly after the beginning of a chapter/episode, the game will present a number (usually three) of orthogonal puzzles that can be resolved in any order. The advantage of this format is if the player is stuck on one, they can change course and attempt to progress on another. The disadvantage is the various solution pieces to all the puzzles are in play at the same time, muddying the waters for any particular puzzle.

The other way Machinarium addresses potential points of frustration is by providing a pair of hint systems. The simpler one is actually far more interesting. It's a thought bubble hint that can be selected at any time. I think there's only one hint per room and it's usually very obvious. Rather than being a detriment, the obviousness is quite an advantage. The truth of any design is that, no matter how obvious you intend something to be, some players will simply miss it.

There's a puzzle that requires a plunger to solve. The plunger is in plain sight, but for whatever reason, I simply didn't see it. I had assembled all the other pieces of the puzzle and had been spinning my wheels a bit on that last component. Wandering back into the various accessible areas, I happened to check the hint bubble and I was clued to something right in front of my nose.

Basically, the game has a separate mechanism for resolving missing information that wasn't intended to be part of the puzzle in the first place. This provides more latitude for not needing to make things painfully obvious, while providing alternatives for those who happen to miss something.

Machinarium's secondary hint system is a fully illustrated walkthrough, accessible by completing a miniature Gradius-esque side-scrolling shooter that substitutes a key for the spaceship. Since it requires some amount of effort, it may prevent the player from immediately accessing the solution when stuck. While I'm not sure this will prevent stuck players from just looking up a walkthrough on YouTube, I think it makes a difference for players who prefer not to go outside the game for assistance (I count myself in that number).

There are other interesting changes to the core adventure gameplay, such as basically clearing the player's inventory after each successful solution and preventing red herrings from clouding future puzzles. The game is also completely free of dialog, which prevents conversation-based confusion (in addition to requiring basically no localization). It lends itself well to the game's aesthetic and definitely provides a healthy dose of charm.

Of course, I'm not saying Machinarium is the future of adventure design. More complex designs certainly have their advantages. But it's very interesting to consider how much can be stripped away and simplified without diminishing the experience at all. It makes you think about how many tropes in other types of games could be removed. Oh Machinarium, you may have opened a Pandora's Box.

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Monday, November 2, 2009

The Simple Things

It's easy to lose perspective sometimes, being caught in trying to realize the potential for games to express things that are deep and meaningful. Thinking about the future of the medium, what changing demographics will mean, the consequences of the growing gulf between AAA titles and other projects; all very serious, weighty subjects. And of course, organizations Infinity Ward/Activision doing things that range from questionable to outright idiotic bullshit can make one shake their head at the industry too.

But at least part of the reason why games are interesting is because they can be really damn fun (and yes, I mean "fun" fun in this case). And Torchlight is really damn fun.

If you haven't heard of it, Torchlight is a Diablo-esque click-y, loot-y action RPG. It was made by Runic Games, which consists mainly of Blizzard North veterans responsible for Diablo and Diablo II. Given they have nearly 13 years of experience making action RPGs that hit that "holy crap, how did it get to be 3 AM?" sweet spot, it's hard to imagine Torchlight being anything but fantastic.

Two things about it are particularly interesting- how well it matches its aspirations and its price point.

Torchlight is intentionally simple. It seeks to take that fundamental Diablo formula, polish it in a few places and that's it. Runic built it in 11 months with a team of less than 30. Admittedly, the game had basically been built once before as Mythos, an internal prototype at Flagship Studios. Still, it's very clear that Runic had a clear vision for Torchlight and executed on exactly that. They even managed to stave off feature creep, which alone is an impressive achievement.

Such a exact focus and relentless schedules means Torchlight probably didn't cost that much to make. Correspondingly, it doesn't cost that much to buy. I've purchased three copies of Torchlight so far, one for myself and two for friends as birthday gifts. At any more than $20-30 (i.e. what most games cost), that never would have happened.

One of the things I appreciate about the PC as a platform is that there is space between cheap downloadable games and AAA blockbusters that doesn't really exist on consoles. Steve called them "Single A Games," and while they pop up time and again in XBLA/PSN, the PC is where they really thrive. Of course, the PC is also host to the casual games ghetto, so it's not all roses. Still, the flexibility and breadth offered by the PC is laudable and I wish that advantage of the platform got more acknowledgment.

Even with Diablo III coming down the pike, Torchlight is still a perfectly viable and entirely fantastic game. Obviously, I don't want all games to share Torchlight's intentionally paper-thin story and shallow, kill-monsters-get-loot gameplay. But I'm glad games like these come about every now and again, especially with such an obvious PC genesis. In terms of polish and focus, there's a lot that can be learned from Torchlight. And damn, it really is fun.