Monday, September 28, 2009

Eastwood Always Shot First

There is a difficult balancing act involved in getting the most use out of the custom assets/systems created for a game, and overusing them to the point of wholly blunting their effect.

I was listening to Scott and Jorge discuss Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood and thought their comments on the quickdraw shootout system/scene were quite interesting. The game attempts to simulate the quintessential western high noon, staredown shootout (like this). And while it's interesting to watch and play once, as I did playing the demo, Scott and Jorge comment upon its impact quickly turning negative as more quickdraw events occurred and became increasingly difficult.

Implementing that quickdraw system was likely a significant undertaking. While I would applaud Techland for using it only once or twice during the game, I can understand the thinking that doing so wouldn't be a good return on investment. Unfortunately, trying to maximize the value of that particular system by increasing its repetition is problematic on two fronts.

One, it's not really in the spirit of the fiction. The staredown at high noon is a climactic event and usually incredibly slowly paced. The end of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West would not be nearly as impactful if there were showdown scenes at thirty and sixty minutes in as well. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood attempts to make their showdowns poignant, but given it can't really be a climatic if it happens again and again.

But even more than seeing so many different quickdraw showdowns, is the problem of seeing the same one over and over if you fail. The wow moment disappears basically on the second go, and patience for most players wears thin quickly. Even if someone manages to push through after failing a handful of times, they're absolutely not going to have the experience that scene was meant to create.

In general, bosses in games are meant to do something similar. Provide special, climatic moments. But like Call of Juarez's quickdraw scenes, it's very easy for them to become the opposite of what was intended. After finally defeating the last boss in Metroid Prime, I didn't feel triumphant, merely exhausted.

Even recently, I've had these same issues with the boss battles in Little King's Story. The boss fights are tremendously imaginative and every one is very unique, but they're also pretty hard at times. And their cleverness and charm wears out when you've lost the King Shishkebaboo fight half a dozen times. Being enraptured by the game (if you hadn't noticed) means I can press on, but those moments aren't as gleaming as they should have been.

I understand the desire to get the most bang for developer buck. I also understand the additional challenge posed by so many people not finishing games. If you save the big awesome thing for the end, maybe half of your customers will even see it. I don't think there's any one solution to this issue. Shorter games might help, if that's a possibility. I'm sure far more people saw GLaDOS than the ~50% that saved the missile silo from the Combine at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2.

More orthogonal challenges, rather than ones that simply increase the difficulty of a known mechanic, might be another way to address this issue. I met Scott Rogers after his talk at GDC last year about level design and Disneyland, but his talk about designing enjoyable boss battles is renowned. Failing to mention it here would have been a grave omission indeed.

Obviously there's a whole lot going on with boss battles and there's been a ton of ink (bytes?) put down about the issue. I just thought it was interesting how Call of Juarez shared many issues in their quickdraw scenes, as have other games attempting to accomplish something similar. As is so often the case, if the design isn't treated with great conscientiousness, the end result can be the exact opposite of what was intended (and quite possibly worse than the thing being absent entirely). Proceed carefully, and test often. I don't think any player wants to find themselves in a mash-up of Tombstone and Groundhog Day.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Perfection? I'll Take Personality

I would much rather play a flawed game with personality and a sense of who it is, than a perfect execution of a soulless, boilerplate design.

I discussed Little King's Story previously, but I've only fallen more in love with it since. And after over 13 hours of play, that's a whole lot of love. It's by no means a perfect game, but it's a game with heart.

The boss fights are some of the best I've seen in ages. Each boss is a sovereign of a kingdom defined by its vice- too much television, booze, worrying, food, etc. Not only do the bosses have a ton of personality (conveyed in just a few seconds), but the fights themselves are themed wonderfully to the enemy king's vice. The approach through a hedge maze to the king of the Worrywart Kingdom features a series of small paintings describing the worries that plague most of us at different stages of our lives. It's an especially dark and affecting moment in a game that moves frequently from whimsical to somber.

As I said, Little King's Story is not perfect. Its save system is terrible, the difficulty oscillates all over the place, there is some filler content that the game would be better without. Sometimes the screen becomes too full of your citizens and enemies to really see what's going on. Perhaps worst of all, the targeting of your citizens' attacks (vital for the mini-boss and boss fights) is atrocious.

These flaws are relatively easy to ignore though, given how much spirit and charm Little King's Story possesses. The fact that I care about what's over the next horizon means I'm happy to tolerate problems getting there. So many games, even good ones, end up feeling like a slog once their thesis has been revealed. The spirit and personality of Little King's Story carry it further than the technical competency of multi-million sellers. No small feat for a little king.

I've also been playing a lot of Artificial Mind & Movement's Wet recently. It heartily embraces its 70s grindhouse film aesthetic, including film grain, a cinematically timed rockabilly soundtrack (including The Gypsy Pistoleros, Knock Galley West and The Arkhams) and interstitials including a brilliant notification of a $50 reward for information about anyone stealing the drive-in's speakers.

There's an unhealthy obsession with monkeys, evoking similar era films like Any Which Way You Can. Add a few personal nods, like the game's health power up being a bottle of liquor whose label features only "Québec" and four fleur-de-lis, a wink at AM&M's Québécois heritage, and Wet has a flavour entirely its own.

There are sequences in the game ("rage mode") where the game washes out to red, white and black and you're rewarded for dispatching as many opponents in sequence as possible. It ends up feeling like a combination between The Club and Mirror's Edge. It's also wholly cinematic, in a real "similar to cinema" sense, not in a "totally epic cinematic gameplay" way.

As you likely guessed, Wet is not without problems. The gameplay isn't tremendously deep; the combo systems are good, but it rarely reaches beyond the bullet time dynamics of Max Payne (incidentally, both Max Payne games are on sale at D2D for $5, MP1 and MP2). It also features some dodgy voice acting from Eliza Dushku as the protagonist Rubi (and I'm someone who likes Dollhouse and Dushku in general). But none of this seems to matter, as playing Wet is simply joyous. Wet is in love with the films and aesthetic that inspired it, much in the same way House of the Dead Overkill was. That fondness is palpable and infectious.

Given Wet is AM&M's first original IP title, I hope it does them well. Both critics and audiences tend to be more charitable toward flawless executions that tread the same familiar ground, and review scores and sales figures reflect this. It's a shame, because some of the games I've found to be the most interesting are not perfect. I'm happy to cut some slack to a game with personality and substance (which is very much not the same thing as "innovation," but that's another post). I wish more people were, as it might be easier for creators to be more aesthetic without worrying it will come at the cost of some people's jobs. There's nothing wrong with well executed games, and it's certainly a difficult feat to achieve, but it would be great if that wasn't the only thing that mattered when appreciating games.

Are there some other titles you've loved despite their flaws, simply because they were bold and interesting? The more light that's shed on these flawed but brilliant titles, the better.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

And They Both Rot Your Brain

I think at this point, most of us have come to hate hearing, "When are games going to have their Citizen Kane?" It's an inane question for a lot of reasons. But it's also drawing the wrong comparison.

Games have far more in common with The Sopranos than they do with The Godfather. There are a significant number of similarities between the fundamental form of games and television. As developers and as audiences, by looking at games through this lens, instead of comparison them to film, there is a great deal we can learn about both mediums. I talked about this briefly in the past, but this discussion is greater than just the context of sequels. Plus, the fall TV season is about to start.

On the recent flight to Hawaii for my honeymoon, I read Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You. If you haven't done so, I would highly recommend it. The core of the book discusses how modern media is substantially more complex and demands far more from its audiences than most give it credit for. He convincingly challenges the widely-held notion that modern TV is a race to the bottom that panders exclusively to the lowest common denominator.

Comparing Dragnet and The Wire, his argument is obvious. An important distinction he notes, and this is relevant for games as well, is the distinction between form and content. The content of older media is almost always going to seem a little hokey and dated. In contrast, modern media's content may be more excessive, explicit and morally grey. The implications of this bear discussing, but at least to me, are far less interesting than the staggering evolution in form that television and games have seen in the past 20-30 years.

Old television especially was characterized by simple, stand-alone storylines that demanded little retention from audiences. Even if you've never seen Three's Company, if you watched the seventh episode of the third season, I imagine it would be more or less intelligible. Now imagine showing someone the seventh episode of the third season of Lost or 24. Additionally, old tv rarely had any depth and offered little value on repeat viewings. My wife is watching Carnivàle again with a friend on Friday evenings and even though I've seen the entire series twice, there are still new things I notice passively watching with them for a third time.

Film can rarely offer this kind of depth due to one fundamental limitation - running time. There is only so much that can be done in 90 to 150 minutes. One season of a television drama is probably between 12 and 24 hours, similar to the core playtime of most games.

In terms of creation, there are more similarities between games and TV as well. Film almost always begins half-made, at least. Usually a script has already been written and the final film will not deviate from that significantly. A game may move from pre-production into production with a design document "written," but I can promise you that the vast majority of games will deviate from that document significantly. Similarly, even when the pilot of a TV show is finished, the season's narrative arc will still be flexible. Future episodes will evolve and change as they are written. Future seasons only exist in the show runner's imagination.

I discussed this with Steve Gaynor and Wes Erdelack on Michael Abbott's Gamer's Confab 25 Extravaganza. This is all separate of actually creating games episodically, which has all kinds of complexities and is the subject for another post entirely. But just looking at the form of most games and a complete season of a TV drama, the similarities are significant.

Some games, especially level-based games, have a very similar structure to TV shows like The X-Files or House. There will be a core cast of characters and a general overarching storyline, but there will be many moments that simply exist in the fictional world. And ideally, these moments still manifest the core themes and aesthetics of the show/game.

Steve said that it may be difficult to look at large, free-roaming games like Fallout 3 this way, but I think it's actually a fantastic way to look at games like that. In Fallout 3, there are moments that contribute to the core story, the search for your character's father, but many, many moments in the game are completely independent of that. And honestly, that's often when the game is at its best (much like how The X-Files was at its best with stand-alone episodes like "Humbug", "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose", "The Post-Modern Prometheus" and "Small Potatoes"). Whether I go to the Dunwich Building or the Oasis in Fallout 3 before or after finding my father doesn't affect that portion of the game's narrative.

There are other games more similar in structure to Lost, Deadwood or 24, where they are heavily serialized and rely heavily on experiencing all the content from beginning to end. In games, this may be due to an intricate plot, but it just as easily could be due to a set of mechanics that grow increasingly sophisticated and complex.

The more we put good games and substantive television shows next to each other, the more similarities we'll see. Maybe we could learn something about pacing and production from them. Maybe they can learn something about engagement, creating invested audiences and experimenting with content from us. Regardless of the exact lessons to be learned, we've got allies in television and it would be great if we reached out to them more (even if that reaching out is just looking each other's projects with the same lenses).

And if it means I never have to hear someone ask, "When are games going to have their Citizen Kane?" again, well, that would be great too.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

It's About You

These guys are what PAX is all about. And in turn, PAX is a microcosm for the best of gamers. It's inclusive, warm, exciting and there isn't a hint of cynicism. I've seem this same spirit in countless discussions about games, in person and in the better parts of the Interwebs. Perhaps by coincidence, Steve wrote an excellent post about the heart of games yesterday. I think he's describing the same condition all those PAX attendees demonstrated over the weekend.

It was fantastic to see so many people excited about games (that many of them seemed excited about DeathSpank didn't hurt either). Ben made the astute observation that while GDC is emphasizes thinking about games, PAX is all about feeling good about them. And he's exactly right. While I love thinking about how to make games better, being reminded quite personally about why that actually matters is truly inspirational.

I met some amazing folks, not only developers and other game writers, but random people that dropped by the Hothead booth. The panel that only Corvus could make possible went great and the conversations that fell out of that were quite enlivening.

As an industry, we're still figuring a lot of things out. As a community, we fall short sometimes. But PAX reminds me that we do this because we love it. From the attendees and their boundless enthusiasm, to the Enforcers that work tirelessly to make the show possible, to all the developers who give the same talks and answer the same questions without ever seeming sick of it; that shared passion never fails to astound me.

Even though everything below and including my knees hurts like hell, it was a fantastic weekend and a very pleasant reminder as to why these crazy video games are so worthwhile. It really is all about you. Thanks for letting me take part.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Plurality of Pontification - Podcast and PAX

The ever-gracious Michael Abbott invited me back to his excellent podcast once again. For his 25th podcast, Michael rounded up 14 (!) of us to talk about our most significant game/idea/trend/person in 2009 up to now. A mid-year retrospective, if you will.

I believe there are five different segments and the first features myself, Steve Gaynor and Wes Erdelack/Iroquois Pliskin. Be sure to subscribe to Michael's podcast and check out all the other segments as they come out later this week. As always, it was pleasure to be on Michael's podcast and have a chance to converse with such fantastic folks.

If reading these mad ramblings isn't enough and you'd like to see me froth in person, myself and a cadre of other excellent developers, authors and bloggers will be having a panel discussion at PAX about "Murder, Sex and Drugs" and why they're awesome. Or perhaps if there a gulf between the seriousness of these subjects and how games address them. Somewhere along those lines.

Corvus put the panel together and it includes myself, Hothead coworker Dierdra Kiai, N'Gai Croal, Damon Brown and Max Battcher. We're in the Serpent Theatre (6th floor, room 6D) at 1 PM on Sunday.

Additionally, Hothead is going to be doing hourly demos of DeathSpank at our booth! Myself and some other members of our awesome team will be giving the demonstration. I hope you can stop by and see what we've been working so hard on. Our booth is in the smaller section of the expo hall, right by the PAX 10, Klei Entertainment, The Behemoth and other awesome folks.

If you've ever commented or just read the blog, feel free to track me down at the show and say hi. Hopefully I'll see you PAX bound folks at one venue or another!

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