Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Geisterfahrer: Rubber Meets the Road

After writing about it several times, I finally had a chance to actually play Sleep is Death this afternoon. I was the Controller (having never been a Player), with another local game designer being the Player. Unsurprisingly, it was nerve-wracking feeling like I had to juggle so many things at once. It wasn't a bust though; we definitely created a cogent story and the experience itself was very interesting. The story actually ended up kind of clever and went places I didn't expect at all. That's successful in my book.

(As an aside, the above photo is from an abandoned prison farm near Atlanta, GA. Yikes.)

I'm going to withhold posting a description of the story itself for now, as I'm very curious about using the same initial setup with other Players and see what things change. I did want to write some thoughts on how the experience went functionally. This could bleed into some more meta/structural ideas as well. Without further ado:

0) The default turn time of 30 seconds isn't nearly enough for new players.

Go to your Sleep is Death install directory, look for a folder called settings. Inside there will be a file called timeLimit.ini, which has only a single value in it that is the length of a turn in seconds. Open it up in Notepad or another text editor and change it. We doubled it to 60 and that seemed far more manageable. This seemed more important for a novice Controller like me. More familiarity with the tools and I probably could have handled 30 seconds, even with a novice player.

1) The available assets will drive where the story goes.

Even with turn time doubled to one minute, this still isn't nearly enough time to create significant new assets on-the-fly. I'm sure the fact that my art skills are rubbish doesn't help, but I couldn't improvise anything but the simplest objects. New characters? New rooms? Forget about it. The story went to a courtroom and a graveyard because, well, there were assets for those rooms available. I didn't plan going there beforehand, but when the locale had to change, the possibilities were pretty limited.

I had created two starting rooms and figured I'd just let the story flow from there. But I didn't realize there weren't many places for it to flow to. The number of locales available in SiD by default are quite limited. I was expecting a handful of "stock" rooms, like an apartment or a store. Not quite the case. The scenes available seem like they were used in other stories and come prepopulated with characters and objects. Should you want only the space, you have to clear out the rooms in dwindling seconds.

My recommendation is that if you want a more freeform story, find or modify a number of generic locations that can be quickly repurposed.

2) Searching for assets could be much better.

The only search functionality for assets in SiD is searching over the titles of objects/rooms. These titles are not unique (multiple objects can have the same name) and have a 10-character limit. Searching for "person," "guy" or "lady" results in nothing. Characters are titled by fictional names.

Tag-based taxonomies are a bit fad-ish, but having some kind of lightweight attribute system would make finding specific types of objects much easier. Even being able to filter by people, animals, interior objects and exterior objects would reduce the time-pressure felt by Controllers needing to find an unexpected object.

3) Adding assets from the community is difficult.

Sleep is Death facilitates adding assets created by the community members. Adding the assets is quite easy, but due to the above challenge with searching, actually utilizing them is less simple. The main community site, SiDTube, has a resource page whose searching is basically the above. It can't be filtered by music/objects/rooms. The scale of some objects varies wildly from the stock SiD assets. There is a rating system, but it's not that useful when assets like this have five-star ratings.

The framework of Sleep is Death means just about any style of sprite-based art can be easily used. The stock resources for SiD use a very basic 8-bit style. Unfortunately, many of the community resources do not. Shannon Galvin created a fantastic world-building tutorial that looks gorgeous, but his resources are unusable unless you're willing to create more assets of the same fidelity (which is well beyond my talents and spare time).

I very much appreciate that Rohrer has structured SiD to easily incorporate community-generated assets. But it seems that, like the in-game asset manager, better tools for searching and organizing assets would make adding community assets much easier. If you're expecting to use community content to expand your story, expect to spend quite a lot of time searching for assets that match your aesthetic. And even then, they will be a baseline for modifications rather than drag-and-drop additions.

4) Clarify expectations with the Player beforehand.

I didn't confer with the Player about our story at all before we began. As such, I think we had different ideas of how the game should progress. I had two initial scenes vaguely planned, but had not (intentionally) structured much beyond that. I did not setup any kind of goal or motivation beyond a vague time limit within the narrative itself.

Coming from a tabletop background, I was very leery of "railroading" the Player. I wanted to provide as much freedom as I could feasibly support. However, the Player was initially expecting more direction from me (we had a little debrief afterward). He kept his statements a bit vague, concerned that he'd say something that would upset or derail the story I had planned. Little did he know there was no planned story to derail! I was hoping he'd commit to concrete details, allow me to play off those in ways he wouldn't necessarily expect. About halfway through he took control of the story, which is what I had expected all along.

In theatrical improv, players can see when other players are floundering and try to bail them out. I'd say that interplay to always keeping the scene moving is actually a vital part of theatrical improv. However, in Sleep is Death, there's no way to ascertain if the Player is struggling to keep the scene moving. Clarifying expectations with the Player and either a) letting them know they're wholly in control of the story or b) provide more specific goals/motivations should help ameliorate possible floundering.

A lot of this may sound critical, but I very much enjoyed this first foray with Sleep is Death. I just didn't realize quite how much preparation was required in terms of assets. Going forward, I'll make a point to converse with Players before the game and make sure I have a good suite of scenes (ideally, generic ones) available.

Again, I'd encourage you to check out Sleep is Death for yourself, especially now that the game costs only as much as you want to pay (and for two copies of the game). And for anyone who has spent time on the Controller side, I'd be quite curious to hear how it went for you.

Labels: ,

Monday, May 17, 2010

Do We Need Fair Trade Games?

Red Dead Redemption comes out this week and while I know I'm going to buy it, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't somewhat hesitant to do so. It seems the controversy is now mostly forgotten, but in January, the spouses of a number of Rockstar San Diego developers penned an open letter decrying the working conditions in the studio. Reminiscent of the then unnamed Erin Hoffman's EA Spouse letter, it details conditions that grossly overreach the usual game development crunch time. And of course, the response from Rockstar HQ and Take 2 was typical mealy-mouthed PR bullshit. While I'm sure plenty of other games I have enjoyed were made under similar conditions to Red Dead Redemption and simply didn't receive public outcry, a pall is still cast over RDR that it won't ever be able to fully shake, at least for me.

Hearing the alleged conditions in Rockstar San Diego were also unfortunately familiar; by several accounts, Bully was created at Rockstar Vancouver under very similar conditions. And even though I quite enjoyed Bully, I couldn't help but feel a little ... uncomfortable about it. It was that same twinge of discomfort you get seeing "Made in Bangladesh" on the tag of your shirt. I don't mean to pick on Rockstar, I'm sure this is a problem at many studios, but you know, they did pay out almost $3 million after a lawsuit was filed by employees about a year ago.

While I'm being facetious about the idea of "fair trade" certification for games, even if such a thing could exist, I'm not sure something like it would actually be desirable. The purpose of fair trade is to avoid purchasing goods produced in unfair conditions. But if I had slaved away on a game, seeing it sell poorly because consumers disagreed with the conditions it was made in would only be adding insult to injury.

And of course, I don't think it's very risky to say most of the potential audience really doesn't care. Most are simply unaware of such circumstances at all and of the small percentage that are, many seem to have the perverse and naive attitude that being a game developer is some invaluable gift. Once this legendary position has been obtained, all expectations of fair and decent working conditions evaporate.

A couple choice comments from the Shacknews post about this: "Come to NY and see who cries for you." "Oh please. These guys have the best jobs in the world and they love doing it. Have a problem with it? DON'T MARRY THEM." "This sucks, but god damn those screens look good."

Unfortunately, this attitude exists even in some new entrants to the industry. Willing to do virtually anything to "break in," their enthusiasm results in a seemingly unending supply for the digital salt mines. Eventually circumstances like the above burn them out and they leave for good, resulting in less than one third of developers making it to ten years in the industry.

And I have no idea what to do about it. It seems buying Red Dead Redemption is better than not doing so in protestation, but good sales likely aren't going to inspire change at Rockstar San Diego. More likely, a good swath of people will leave, replacements will be brought in and things will get as bad again the next time a project is well behind schedule. I do not think the solution is a union, as I'm very skeptical of a union ever being a good idea for knowledge workers. The great, bloated beasts SAG and the WGA have become certainly give me little hope.

The only thing I can do, personally, is refuse to ever work at a studio that operates under such conditions and strongly council others to do the same. If great, experienced developers will only operate at studios with respectful, fair working conditions, and they make this known, that might incentivize certain changes. The passion people have to making games is also a great weakness, because it can be exploited. Game developers will tolerate conditions I can't imagine someone making accounting software ever would. We cannot allow our passion to be taken advantage of.

I really hope Red Dead Redemption is a big success, both in terms of quality and sales. It's better condolence than the alternative. It sure sounds like its creators were asked to give far too much and there's a part of me that will feel a little guilty enjoying the game because of it. I long for the day when developers' passion will be respected rather than exploited, but honestly, I don't know how soon that day will come. Not soon enough, I think.

Labels: , ,

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fly Me To The Moon

A few years ago, user-generated content (UGC) was described by many as a panacea for ever-rising costs in developing content for current generation games. While there have certainly been some successes, it's hardly proven to be a guaranteed recipe for success. At least partially, this is because creating any game content is difficult, no matter how streamlined the toolset, let alone creating game content that's actually fun. The 90-9-1 rules applies, creating a Catch-22 where a game needs to be popular to have good content, but it needs good content to be popular. UGC is still being explored, notably in upcoming titles like ModNation Racers and APB, but it's clear we haven't figured out exactly where it works best yet.

Enter Moon Taxi. A coworker sent me a link, predicting it would be right up my alley. And I daresay, he was right.

Had he not sent me this link, I doubt I would have noticed Moon Taxi. It's exclusive to the Xbox Live Indie Games channel, a venue which I pay little mind. Aside from a few titles like Weapon of Choice and Flotilla (further recommended reading on Flotilla from Telltale's Sean Vanaman), XBLIG doesn't boast much of interest. Now I'd add Moon Taxi to that rare breed.

The game portion of Moon Taxi is simple- you fly a yellow and black space shuttle toward the moon. As you fly, a conversation between the passenger and driver is narrated. Certain choice words from the narration appear from the starfield. The goal is to collect these and avoid asteroids. The more words you collect, the more narratives you unlock. It looks like this:

This likely appears uninteresting, but the fascinating part of Moon Taxi is where the stories come from- the stories are entirely written and acted exclusively by the game's community. These are the only guidelines:

1) Start with "Take me to the moon"
2) The narrative is being told by one or more passengers in a taxi to the moon
3) In some way, involve why the passenger(s) are going to the moon

Beyond that, anything is fair game.

Without question, the best narrative currently in Moon Taxi is a portion of John F. Kennedy's address to Rice University ("We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard"). The speech alone is inspiring and one of my favourite pieces of oratory, and it works extremely well in Moon Taxi.

Unfortunately, Moon Taxi's concept is often stronger than the execution. The writing on most of the stories is passable, at best, and the acting is almost universally poor. It far more evokes grade 10 drama class than something like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio play. What appears to be the best story hasn't been narrated.

Still, I think the idea is fantastic. I'm hoping the developer, Popcannibal, will continue to update the game with new stories. Hell, I may well take a swing at narrating the story above myself if that's the case.

I often bang on about the great power of constraints, and Moon Taxi is a powerful example of this. I've written about Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death previously and while I think SiD is fascinating, the ability to create anything is as much a burden as it is a freedom. The blank canvas can be tremendously intimidating. But having even the small sets of constraints creates an enabling focus. It's far easier to think of an interesting story about someone in a cab to the moon than it is to think of an interesting story about "anything."

It's a bit surprising that games that rely on UGC haven't leveraged constraints more. I can easily see a game like Little Big Planet running weekly/monthly themed contests. Rather than leaving to players to simply creating levels about anything, the contest could be to create a level based on a historical event. If UGC-based games are truly going to succeed, finding ways to motivate and reward creators is going to be vital. Constraints seem an excellent way to do this.

Despite some actual weakness in content, I still find Moon Taxi fantastic. I highly recommend checking out the demo at least, and at less than $3.50, still a good deal. Especially if a few more purchases encourage the developer to keep updating it. There's a great deal of potential in games like Moon Taxi; I really hope we can find ways to make that potential a reality.

Labels: ,

Monday, May 3, 2010

Now Go Back to Another Earth

If you haven't played Another World in the past few years (or ever), you'd be well served to do so. Right now. Seriously, it's $10 on GoG. Go, I'll wait.

Another World was the latest selection of the Vintage Game Club, a group started by Michael Abbott, David Carlton and Dan Bruno to "demonstrate how a community of gamers can work together to discuss, analyze, and enjoy classic games." It's a great group that has looked at all kinds of titles, from Grim Fandango to Alpha Centauri, from Beyond Good & Evil to Thief.

I had not seen Another World since playing the SNES port with a friend, well over 15 years ago. I still remembered certain moments vaguely (the arena, the steam baths), but I'd forgotten almost the entire experience. And wow, how much I forgot. Another World holds up incredibly well. Not just in a wistful, nostalgic way, but in a genuine, this is still really good way. With far, far less, it is able succeed where games today still struggle.

Aside from a small amount of text during the introduction, there isn't a single line of text or dialog in the entire game. Everything learned about the place you find yourself in is discovered through the environment and the agents in it. The player is explicitly told nothing; they are left to piece together the narrative themselves. It's a subtlety that's still uncommon in games. Often, players are either bludgeoned with excessive backstory and unengaging cutscenes or the pendulum swings too far the other way and we get games that are abstract to the point of meaningless. Another World trusts the player to put together what they want of the narrative and does so basically without ever taking control away. It's bold even today and it was downright revolutionary then.

The other most notable character of Another World is that you die. A lot. You'll die in the first five seconds of the game if you're not paying attention (and it's bloody awesome). Some have classified Another World as difficult, but I'm not sure that's exactly correct. It's certainly not akin to other punishingly difficult games of that era, a la Mega Man or Battletoads. I think the important difference might just be that- Another World is not punishing. The only meaningful state in the game is the player's progress. Dying means going back to the last checkpoint, which is usually a loss of 5 or 10 seconds of gameplay.

John Walker of Rock, Paper, Shotgun coincidentally wrote a retrospective on Another World for Eurogamer. He discussed the game's difficulty a lot and while I appreciate his tack, I think he overstates how difficult the game is. I think part of the problem is that, as gamers, the notions of death and failure have been completely conflated. For the vast majority of games, death means we did something wrong and if we had been playing better, we could have avoided such a fate.

But in Another World death is a vital part of the gameplay. Walker classified the game as unfair and reliant on trial and error, but I don't think fairness enters into it at all. Another World may look something like a platformer, but it's really a puzzle game. It's no more unfair than Braid is unfair for not making every puzzle piece immediately accessible or Monkey Island is unfair for not instantly providing every item needed to a solve a puzzle. Aside from the charming vignettes when you die, each death provides new information. Dying is an exploration of the game's possibility space.

It's actually where Another World deviates too far from "death means new information" that it shows some rough edges. There are several instances where you'll clearly figure out what to do, but the game requires some very specific inputs (either twitchy platforming or some very exact timing) to achieve success. Unfortunately, the feedback is nonexistent at times, so you can't be sure if what you're doing is basically correct or completely off track. There are some gunfights that seem un-winnable, but simply require good luck and timing. Others seem un-winnable ... and are, and you need to do something else to get past them. Telling these two things apart is more difficult than it should be. I only went to a walkthrough a few of times for Another World, and each time it was because I suspected I was trying the right thing but didn't want to waste a bunch of time if I was completely on the wrong track. At times, the gap between the player's intent and what they are able to easily accomplish is just a little too wide.

The game's only other real shortcoming is that, similar to the above, it lets you go on for far too long a few times after you've made a failing decision. You done something incorrect and won't be able to progress, but you might not actually know it until you expend a non-trivial amount of effort discovering you're blocked. This contributes to the problem where you're not sure if you're doing the right thing or not.

This is definitely an aspect of game design we've improved upon in the almost twenty years since Another World's release. But there is plenty in Another World that we could still be doing far better. So again, I encourage you to check out the game if you haven't (and it runs with no compatability problems on my Windows 7 install).

Eric Chahi hasn't done much in games since creating Another World, but rumours of him potentially doing something new are exciting. If nothing else, he gave an awesome interview with Jordan Mechner that's definitely worth a read. And if you've played Another World recently, I'd be curious to hear your thoughts.

Labels: ,