Monday, December 28, 2009

Obligatory Year-End Post '09

I was considering repeating last year's roundup of five things awesome, five things lame and five things for the next year. But I also wanted to look back on the '09 predictions, and the culmination of all this would be too much overlap and too many words. Instead, I'm just going to look back at '09 and forward to '10, perhaps with some tangential thoughts drizzled in.

2009 Astern

Free-to-play didn't gain much prominence. Current F2P games remained so, and few new ones made much of a splash. Dungeons & Dragons Online went free-to-play, which may save the game from withering in WoW's shadow. Battlefield: Heroes is unimpressive at best. Runic is saying they're going to create a Torchlight-inspired F2P MMO, so there might still be a chance of F2P catching on in the west.

Wow, embracing the Wii definitely didn't happen. While there were some true gems (Little King's Story, House of the Dead: Overkill, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories), 3rd parties haven't seen much success on the Wii. There isn't a single simple reason: the confluence of a blizzard of shovelware, a poor understanding of the audience, WiiWare never really hitting stride, general marketing misfires. All have contributed to a lack of 3rd party success on the Wii. Can this be turned around in 2010? Your guess is as good as mine but there's still a real monetary opportunity here for the publisher that nails it.

While BrĂ¼tal Legend didn't receive accolades from all sides, I found it fantastic. The world, the characters, the love and deep appreciation for the material more than outstrips the somewhat noisy and unfocused gameplay for me (much as Psychonauts did, really). It's one of my favourite games from last year, no question. I couldn't have predicted it, but I'm working on DeathSpank now. Still a little surreal, but god damn, I've learned a lot. That's almost a post by itself.

Mobile games haven't really integrated into the real world. Not surprising, but still a shame. I think there's a lot of potential here. Still shocked someone hasn't done this with an iPhone game yet.

Did '09 surpass the mark set by '08? I ... don't know. There weren't any moments of blazing glory, but there were some very, very competent games. Sequels doing what sequels should (Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin's Creed 2), bullseye executions on a licensed IP (Arkham Asylum), excellent ideas that didn't quite deliver (Scribblenauts). It was definitely an interesting year. Maybe having more weird but awesome moments is as good as a handful of brilliant games that everyone acknowledges.

2010 Off the Bow

Single A and the PC

The momentum had been building for a while, but 2009 is really when the "single A game" proved viable and distinct. And those successes have largely been on the PC. From Zeno Clash to Machinarium to Torchlight, there's clearly a space for highly polished but smaller scope games to deliver extremely compelling experiences. XBLA and PSN contribute as well, but the freedom the PC allows provides even more potential for single A games in 2010. And while some AAA games still soar on PC (e.g. Dragon Age) and others are PC games by necessity (MMOs, RTS), I think we'll see a growing divide between large AAA games that are primarily console-focused and single A games launched on PC.

Spring 2010 is the new Xmas 08

Ye gods, there's a mess of (hopefully) excellent games coming out in the spring of 2010. I fear we'll have flashbacks to when Fallout 3, Far Cry 2, Fable 2, Little Big Planet, Mirror's Edge and so many more all came out in a 6 week span. It will murder our free time. But hopefully sales will still be strong and we'll get one step closer to laying the "must ship for the holidays" thing to rest forever.

Motion controls? Middling.

Microsoft will release Natal, Sony will release their ... wand-thingie and they will be okay. They won't revolutionize gameplay from here on out and unless Sony or MS really hits on a killer app, they'll remain somewhat niche. There will be a few interesting and clever games, a lot of clumsy, optional motion controls added to core games and that's about all. But if it means the current console generation stays on the field a few more years, that's a wholly commendable accomplishment even if nothing else comes of it.

DeathSpank - Game of the Century

Or at the very least, you'll be able to play it and laugh. It'll be the first game I've shipped (the previous title I was working on was canceled) and for me, that's tremendously exciting. Hopefully we'll hit our mark and you'll be able to appreciate our labours.

And that's it for 2010. It's going to be another exciting year and one I'm greatly looking forward to. But it's also quite murky, so it will be interesting seeing how things shake out. I'll see you all on the other side.

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Monday, December 21, 2009

It's All About Putting Them on a Pedestal

New Super Mario Bros Wii is a delightful conundrum. Some love it, others less so. The most significant addition to this iteration of the Mario series is the addition of 4-player co-op. The dynamics of this new co-op differ slightly, but importantly, from similar co-op titles. I think these dynamics are responsible for the wide range of reactions.

Unlike other 4-player co-op games, NSMBW isn't about everyone working together to succeed together. Left 4 Dead has "live together or die alone" in its marrow. But the collaborative goal in NSMBW is subtly different. The goal is really about working together to make sure at least one player succeeds. More often than not, the other players end up as kingmakers so one can succeed on everyone's behalf. In L4D and Rock Band, doing your personal best nearly always contributes to the group's success. In NSMBW, doing your best often comes second to taking one for the team.

Only one player needs to go through a pipe or a door, enemies don't become any stronger or more numerous and as long as one player is alive, the game continues and the players can still succeed (a feat impossible in all but the last few seconds of a Left 4 Dead scenario). The fact that players collide instead of sharing space a la Little Big Planet has been much maligned. And while frustrating, without this mechanic, players would not be able to bounce off each other to reach greater heights.

NSMBW has been a roaring success, to the magnitude of Rock Band, with myself, my wife and another couple. Our old school Mario backgrounds vary a bit, but it's been a blast for everyone. It took a bit to get past the initial frustration, but once we did we realized that it's really about us succeeding as a unit rather that succeeding as individuals. A favourite moment when when I held a portable spring with another player bouncing on top, synchronizing our jumps to reach absurd heights.

I imagine the dynamics would be more frustrating with just two players as well. If I was constantly killing my wife by accident or vice versa, I imagine it would be far more frustrating than the weal and woe being spread amongst three others. It's definitely a different dynamic and takes a while to adjust to, and could well not be for everyone. But for us, it's never been more satisfying to take a bullet.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

What We Have Lost

Planescape: Torment was released ten years ago yesterday. It is a masterwork and still unsurpassed in many ways. It remains one of my favourite games of all time and it is only by technicality that it's not dominating every "Best Of 00s" list. While I don't plan on doing a Best of 00s list of my own (too many choices, too busy with other endeavours), I have been thinking about how games have changed in the past decade. The transition from text to voice acted dialog in games, especially RPGs, is one interesting change to consider.

We're wrapping most of the recording for dialog in DeathSpank right now, which is probably why I've been thinking about this. DeathSpank has about 7000 recorded lines of dialog by Ron's count. That seems like a lot, especially considering the effort I've seen the folks closest to that aspect of the game putting in. But then one hears Dragon Age shipped with over 80,000 lines of recorded dialog. I am horrified thinking about the logistical scope that much dialog necessitates.

Planescape: Torment had about the same number of lines as Dragon Age, but very few of them were recorded (similar to Fallout). And from what I remember, most of the recorded lines are more like barks rather than conversational dialog. I can't help but wonder how the lack of that constraint affected the development of Planescape: Torment's writing.

In game development, dialog recording is almost always done last. There's too much in flux for dialog recording to take place early. But with 80,000 lines, that's a tremendous amount of content that needs to be cast, recorded, edited, implemented and tested. If the game is sim-shipping worldwide with foreign language recording, all of that work must be done in time to allow translation and testing as well. Relative to the development time of the entire project, the time writing can be flexible is shorter than it was a decade ago.

With text only dialog, written content can be changing right up to the point where it needs to go off for localization. And even then, sending a few pages with changes that require additional translation is much easier than rerecording lines in a half-dozen languages.

I can't help but think having that additional freedom to make changes and keep improving and polishing the script contributed to the excellence we saw in games of the late 90s/early 00s. Aside from Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate II, Fallout 1/2, Arcanum and others still stand out for their writing excellence.

As much as poor voice can pull one out of an otherwise excellent game, a good voice actor truly can bring a character to life in ways otherwise impossible. Once the recorded dialog started going into DeathSpank, I couldn't help but start listening to conversations I had read many times before, simply because of how much more engaging it is with a good performance (and hopefully you'll agree). I don't think we're going to see voice acting in games go away and as long as we can get good performances, I think this is a good thing. But I can't help but think we've lost something along the way.

While the delivery is different, how the dialog is presented remains the same for most games as it was a decade ago. Perhaps Mass Effect did take the right tack in creating a system for interacting with dialog that fits more naturally with voice acted dialog conversations. If we're never going to surpass the quality of Planescape: Torment's writing on its own terms, perhaps we should find ways to best exploit the advantages of voice acted dialog, rather that just having an actor read the same text the player would have done in the past.

While I appreciate what a good voice performance can bring to writing in games, it's maybe unfortunate all games opt for voice acting by default. While I can't see this trend reversing, I would love to see more experimentation in how players interact with dialog in games.

In an unrelated anniversary, I've also been blogging for just over one year, with 70 posts made starting December 9th, 2008. My first post was a reflection on something Steve wrote, and I think it really exemplifies what I've found so excellent about this endeavour. Being engaged in the conversation has challenged me to not only pay more attention to what other have to say, but to be more reflective about my own thoughts and opinions. So to everyone that has given me something to think about, or taken the time to consider something I've written, my sincere thanks.

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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sometimes, The Spy Games are Too Much

Previously, I wrote about why clandestine conduct regarding upcoming projects can be a good thing (or at least a necessity). But excessive secrecy can also be harmful. Especially so in two ways, one impeding developers, the other inhibiting the audience.

Simply, the culture of secrecy that pervades most game development prevents developers from collaborating with each to advance their craft as a whole. Especially in terms of design, what I consider the most nascent aspect of game development, a lack conversation makes systematic progress in this area difficult.

Part of this stems from the understandable, but often unchecked, corporate desire to control a game's message. Saying in an interview that an in-production game is suffering from some
serious challenges is probably not conducive to generating excitement about your game. But even after a game ships, there often doesn't seem to be enough deep conversation about what the objectives of a game were, what worked and what didn't in meeting those objectives and what could be done to solve such problems in the future. The postmortems Think Services put together are good, but they're only 4-6 pages.

Some local events facilitate these conversations wells (e.g. Boston Postmortem), but obviously offer little to those not local. And if your city doesn't have a development community strong in this regard, it's a pretty difficult thing to change (believe me, I'm trying). Part of the reason why GDC is such an important event is that those spatial constraints are temporarily removed. But it's also once a year, and perhaps because of such, it's a pretty ... chaotic event.

As a pseudo-aside, one fantastic trend (as usual, set by Valve) is adding developer commentary to games. While some of the comments are known best practices to experienced developers, others are surprisingly technical. And it's useful to hear things you may "know" but haven't been at the front of your mind for a while. This is a trend I'd really, really like to see more studios adopt.

It's unfortunate but true that one of the best ways to spread development knowledge around is to close a successful studio. While the closure of Looking Glass still saddens, its extremely talented ex-pats ended up at Irrational/2K Boston, Harmonix, Bethesda and others. This spread of talent produced some of the best games of the last decade.

So, that's the cost of excess secrecy to developers. But the audience suffers here as well. The need for secrecy and to control the message shapes the conversation the audience has about upcoming games, and it's not for the better.

Prior to a game's release, statements about it from the publisher/developer are almost universally ebullient and vague. Descriptions of features are almost always glowing. I'm often struck by how often a pre-release interview just sounds like flipping through a thesaurus for "intense," "visceral," "over-the-top" and "compelling." Only rarely is the essential why discussed.

Unfortunately, this drives conversation about a game toward its "objective" quality at the expense of basically everything else (the absurd fixation on percent scoring isn't helping this either). Rather than ask, "Is it interesting?" the conversation is primed for "Is it good?", where good is how closely a game lives up to its pre-release promises.

Now I understand the need to sell a product (all too well; this exclusively keeps me housed and fed); this isn't a call for elimination, just moderation. Reaching a little further, and honestly, expecting more from ourselves and our audience, would serve both well. Secrecy in the games industry isn't going away, nor should it, but we should really be asking if we're being secret for the right reasons. Letting it all hang out from time to time would probably do us all some good.