Monday, September 27, 2010

First, Do No Harm

Designed correctly, collectables can enrich a world, making it feel larger and more robust. Designed poorly, they exploit some of our the worst tendencies as gamers. Usually games feature one or the other, and it's unusual and interesting when both exist (at times, literally) side-by-side.

Lately, I've been playing longer single-player DLC from some of the bigger releases earlier this year. Along with Minerva's Den for Bioshock 2, I've been playing The Signal for Alan Wake (it came free with the game). It reminded me of the stark contrast Alan Wake presents in its collectables. And as Sande was looking for pieces about collectables, it seemed opportune to put some thoughts together. I wrote about Alan Wake previously, but I wanted to go into more detail about the collectables themselves.

To be clear, Alan Wake has far too many collectables. There are: manuscript pages, coffee thermoses, supply crates, can pyramids, radio clips, TV shows and local history signs. The Signal adds two more, ticking clocks and cardboard standees. And, of course, there's an individual achievement for collecting every one of these. It's absurd. I can only imagine it emerged from group-think that concluded, "People like collectables, and some collectables are good, so more must be better!" And Alan Wake isn't even a sprawling open world with vast environments the player is never required to visit but can explore at their leisure. It's a linear, level-based game whose environments are, if anything, too big.

I'm not trying to pick on Remedy or Alan Wake, because they did some very good things with their collectables. It's just that the good things are sitting right next to some things that are ... less good. And the good collectables are quite good. The two most successful were the radio segments and Twilight Zone-esque TV shorts. They follow the guidelines for good collectables: 1) they're rewarding in their own right, 2) they enhance the game thematically and 3) they're sensibly located. They're rewarding because they are (at least potentially) amusing or provide some backstory. They enhance the game thematically because late night radio feels both lonely and creepy (Mitch called that one) and the TV spots are appropriately absurd. And they're sensibly located because they're both found in man-made structures (that are not ruined/abandoned).

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum are the game's one hundred coffee thermoses. They have no purpose in the game beyond provide an achievement, and beyond a tenuous Twin Peaks joke they're not thematically appropriate and they're scattered from hell to breakfast. You're as likely to find one in someone's kitchen as you are to find one perched on top of a boulder deep in the woods. The can pyramids are just as bad, while the manuscript pages and supply caches fall somewhere in the middle.

But why are "bad" collectables bad? If some people don't like them, they can just ignore them, right? The problem is poorly designed collectables can have subtle but dramatic impact on the game's pacing (again, see Mitch's piece). In Alan Wake, you're often chased or running toward something important. You're supposed to feel rushed and threatened. But as this is a pretty standard game and the world's state cannot actually change until the player is nearby, that's entirely smoke and mirrors. Now that would be okay (a lot of great games are mostly smoke and mirrors) except the presence of the poor collectables encourages the player to take the game very slowly and methodically, scouring an environment entirely before moving onward. Once again, it's that old chestnut where the game's fiction says one thing ("Run! Hurry!") and the game's rules say another ("Slow down and find all those thermoses").

There's no doubt in my mind Alan Wake would be a better, more cohesive game without those thermoses. The danger really is thinking that arbitrary, pointless collectables are good because people like them. It's true that they're effective for many people, but they might be effective for all the wrong reasons. And effective isn't the same thing as good. Alan Wake shows us how seamlessly good collectables can integrate into a game. And in the next breath, it shows how harmful poor ones can be. More isn't always better. Let's not forget that, okay?

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Let's Get Spankier!

DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue has been released!

Just a scant two months after the release of DeathSpank, the second half of our mad tale is available now. You can get the XBLA version (or just download the demo) here and the PSN version from the store directly on your PS3. It's 1200 points and $14.99 USD respectively, same as DeathSpank. But given that Thongs of Virtue is a longer, larger game, that's really like a discount!

Additionally, as a thank you to everyone that's supported DeathSpank and Hothead, for the first week of Thongs of Virtue's release, we'll be giving away not one, but two DLC packs. The first is high-level dungeon that not only raises the level cap, but also features one of the most obscure (yet amazing) visual puns we've done with an enemy. See if you can spot it! The second DLC pack adds a third sidekick Tannko, to go along with Sparkles the Wizard and Steve (who himself is new to Thongs of Virtue). Without question, Tannko was a crazy thing to do, but crazy in a good way, I think.

In unrelated news, Michael Abbott was mind enough to invite me to be on his podcast once again. This time, I was joined by David Carlton and Matthew Burns, where we discussed PAX, GDC and various other "gatherings of the tribe." Great talking to those guys and I'd highly recommend listening to part 1 and part 2 as well, where other guests discuss those events from a journalist/critic perspective.

So if you liked DeathSpank, there's even more to like in Thongs of Virtue. I think I prefer it to the first and my favourite thing in all of DeathSpank is at the very end of the second game (how's that for a tease?). And if you never got around to DeathSpank, there's no better time than now to check out the demo! As always, I'd be delighted to hear what any of you think about DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue. Now go out there and make the downtrodden undowntroddenened!

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Monday, September 20, 2010

DeathSpank Reflections ... of Justice!

I had been playing DeathSpank on and off since it was released, but since DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue comes out next week (!), I wanted to finish it before then. I completed it with a full 100% yesterday and figured I could share some thoughts. Of course, this is all just personal opinion, not official Hothead stance, etc. There's some spoiler-y stuff in here, so if you haven't played/finished the game, consider yourself warned. No particular order for any of this, just as the thoughts fell out of my thinking hole.

Our artists really went all out with the armour sets. Nearly all of them look fantastic and/or hilarious, so it's a little bit of a shame we didn't provide more incentive to collect all five pieces. I only collected one full set throughout the entire time (the Epic Awesomeness set depicted above, actually). I think this is just where the Diablo-esque loot mentality bumps up against our slightly more structured loot distribution. With the armour sets in Diablo II and World of Warcraft, the heavy proceduralism makes getting a full set by yourself unlikely. But by trading with others, a full set isn't out of reach. Even in Torchlight, the treasure chest you share between characters allows you to collect set items through multiple playthroughs. Our loot is distributed more regularly, which works better for the game as a whole, but it means you likely won't get all the pieces of a set unless you're trying quite hard. And it's a shame, because some of those sets do look great when you've got all the pieces together.

I really like Lord Von Prong's Museum, more than I remembered. It's a solid little area, it's dressed really well (courtesy of Matt, one of our artists, I believe), Ick & Badger imply a history with DeathSpank and they're pretty funny, and the little opera clips are great (can't remember who wrote all those names, maybe Deirdra?). The puzzle in here is good, I think, but it's short and then that's it. This area was added a bit later on, so I understand why it doesn't get a lot of screentime, but it really is a cool spot. Wish we could have fleshed it out a little more and been able to give the player more reason to take a look around.

Similarly, the murals telling Lord Von Prong's story on the walk up to his castle are great. They were later additions as well, so their presentation isn't as strong as it maybe could be. I only say that because the player could totally breeze by them, caught up in combat, and not take the time to stop and look. Hopefully most folks did, because I think they're pretty hilarious and look quite good. They help flesh out Von Prong a bit without a bunch of heavy-handed exposition, plus having giant autobiographical murals in your own castle is totally something a megalomaniacal tyrant would do.

The Wretched Man (the one that gives you multiple culinary quests) has a nice arc with his quests. He starts out pathetic and begging for stones and ends up practically demanding rare delicacies. Some other NPCs kind of have this arc too, but his just seemed to work for me (and I really like his voice acting). His quest just sort of ends though, wish it had a little more of a wrap to it.

Heh, the Sword of the Spinning Blade is really good. I don't think it's too good in a dominant strategy kind of way, but I did find myself using it a lot. One thing we could have done is have DeathSpank get a "dizzy" debuff for a few seconds after using it, where your controls would be all crazy. Then you'd want to be careful about using it if you knew there would still be guys standing after it was done. Bit of a risk/reward decision might have made it more interesting.

The distribution of end game enemies is a little odd. There's a lot of level 16-17 guys, and in several pretty distant locations, but not too many above that. We probably could have had that be a little more even. It's tricky though, because the player's level (and therefore, challenge) can differ a lot. Someone doing all the side quests, like me, is much better equipped than someone doing only the vital quests necessary to progress. Yet, the game should be about as fun for both people. And providing that range where it's not too easy for one or impossible for the other is actually quite hard. All things considered, I think we pulled that off well. This is more just an observation that the spreadsheet underneath all RPGs really does make them very challenging games to make. I don't think it's the right solution, but I do appreciate why Oblivion just made everything level up with you.

And I do really like that the only level 20 monsters in the game are the unicorns and Von Prong.

I'm glad we made the Prongenator mandatory. Initially you could defeat Von Prong without it, but those quests are just too good to pass up. Freen has some of the best dialog in the whole game and making it optional just doesn't seem right. And even though I've seen it several times, I still find that Prongenator cutscene hilarious.

In general, Klei did a fantastic job with all the cutscenes. The papercraft/stick puppet look is great. And some of the characterization/humour in the cutscenes works really well. Hats off to those guys for being awesome.

God damn, the Pip Village is hard. And I programmed those guys' bloody AI too, so I've got no one to blame but myself. It's probably just because I went there more or less straight away after getting my gear back in Pluckmuckel, which probably wasn't ideal. It was fun having guys that were seriously big and scary, but maybe we accomplished that goal a little too well.

The Sea of Bones at the entrance to the graveyard is great. Having an area where a *ton* of weak-ish guys spawn provides an interesting challenge and a great frantic feel. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still a pretty serious, "Oh crap, oh crap, oh CRAP!" moment.

The thong stuff is a actually kind of subtle. We all know the story and what's going on behind the scenes, but looking at it through the eyes of someone that doesn't, the reveal of Von Prong's magical thong at the end is kind of a surprise. As we mentioned at PAX, the thongs play a very large part in Thongs of Virtue (hence the name). There's just enough of a tease in DeathSpank that hopefully folks were curious about it. And I also need something to justify the hundreds of pairs of women's underwear I gave away at the show.

All in all, I'm quite happy with the crazy little game we made. Of course, you'll always see the little things you wish you had the time to make better (I'm sure almost all game developers, or creative people in general, feel this way). I think we were able to address quite a few of the things above in Thongs of Virtue as well. But on balance, given all the constraints we had, I'm proud of what we pulled off. For those of you that played it, I hope you agree and are slavering uncontrollably for more DeathSpank in two days. And if you haven't, the demos are up on XBLA and PSN. Either way, I'm always curious to hear from folks about their dispensation of Justice.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Some Accounting on the Cost of Making Games

Sorry about the delay in updating. PAX was fantastic, but exhausting. I was talking to another Hothead at PAX about the cost of the show and the return it actually has. While exhibiting at an event like PAX is certainly expensive, my claim is that it's probably the best investment you can get for your marketing dollar. And getting that attention from a community is very important, especially for a smaller developer.

I like Frictional, and not just because they're one of the few studios left making interesting horror games. For those not aware, they made the Penumbra series of games and just released Amnesia: The Dark Descent. They're also pretty transparent about their process, including a very interesting post Kieron linked in this week's Sunday Papers. It's from January of this year and discusses how much it costs Frictional to make a game. Specifically, how much development $100,000 gets them. Spoiler: it will cover about six month of development time for Frictional's five employees (and contractors).

Games, and software in general, are interesting because there is almost no materials cost for the products created. Maybe a little bit for hardware, but the cost of development is almost entirely labour and overhead. The cost comes from bodies on the project. Which means a project being even a little late can quickly send a viable budget into "maybe we'll break even" territory. Aside from actually producing a quality game, keeping your schedule will determine whether or not a game is profitable.

As an aside, one interesting thing to note from the Frictional post is that it actually costs the company about $2200/month to pay an employee $1500/month. That extra 30% comes from government taxes and vacation pay. Sweden is a pretty socialist country, so I assume that figure is higher than in the US, but it's probably not far off from here in Canada (and with our/Sweden's awesome socialized health care, the employer doesn't have to pay for medical insurance for employees, so the end cost in the US might be about the same anyway). I didn't really consider this before, but I suppose that's part of the reason why hiring contractors (sometimes repeatedly and contiguously, creating perma-contractors) is an increasingly common practice in the industry.

Here's the interesting part the Frictional post didn't really discuss. The cost of making Amnesia is only half of the equation. The other half is how many copies does Frictional need to sell to make that money back? Frictional estimates that $100,000 gets them 1/6 of the way to completion, so Amnesia cost around $600,000 total. The game sells for $20 on Steam, so after Valve's cut (30%), it's $14 per sale for Frictional. If you buy it directly from Frictional's website, they keep all $20. It will take about 43,000 sales just to cover the cost of development. If Frictional wants a comfortable buffer to cover the cost of developing whatever's next, they'll probably need twice that. Just guessing, 90,000 copies seems like a solid success.

That's both enlivening and intimidating. A digital distribution-only indie horror game with next to no marketing could be hard pressed to hit almost 100,000 units. But it almost means if just 4 of every 100 people that bought Dead Space (2.2 million worldwide) also buys Amnesia, Frictional will be doing just fine. That makes it seem like a more attainable goal.

It's also god damn hard to make a game, even as an indie, for less than a million dollars. Another person here, another few months there and a budget can easily hit seven figures. Most people seem unaware of just how expensive even seemingly small independent games are. Frictional's post mentions a conversation with a friend outside the industry who guessed their budget might be $25,000. I imagine even many serious gamers wouldn't be much more accurate. Even an order of magnitude increase to that guess is less than half the actual budget.

To be clear, I don't care about profit for profit's sake. If you're in games to make money, you're probably an idiot, because there are lots of ways to make way more money with way less risk. But profit is important because developers need to eat and pay their rent. Financial success means talent creators can keep doing what they're doing. That's what matters.

The point of looking at this balance sheet is I think it emphasizes just how much influence the community of knowledgeable consumers have over what titles do well. A community getting fired up about some indie title and sending a few hundred more sales their way is actually a big difference. It's a rounding error to EA or Activision, but for Frictional, it's significant.

Part of the reason why I actually like the space I work in so much is that there's room for weirdness. When a big publisher has to move literally millions of copies to just break even, they're not going to take any big risks, creative or otherwise. But if you only need 100,000 sales for a comfortable success, you can make something weird that a lot of people might not like. But if even a small subset do, an indie studio can do just fine.

Every time you recommend some wacky indie title to a friend, you're helping out maybe more than you think. Gamers have far more influence over weird little games than they do tentpole blockbusters that get millions of advertising spend, so wield that influence wisely. Reward developers for doing weird, interesting things. In that spirit (if nothing else that to thank them for the frank discussion of their financials), go check out the demo of Amnesia. If you like it, or know someone who might, spread that word. A little kindness and we might help Frictional hit that comfortable 100,000. I think that would be great for all of us.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Wild PAX Approaches!

Tomorrow, I depart for the Penny Arcade Expo. If you're doing the same, you should come visit me/us at the Hothead booth! We're going to be showing off DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue as well as the first ever public gameplay demo of Swarm. Here's a handy map of the expo hall, but Hothead should be real easy to find. We're right in the middle of the skybridge between the big expo hall and the rest of the convention centre.

Drop by and I'd be elated to talk about more than just the games we're shilling, I swear. Hopefully I'll see some of you there!