Sunday, October 24, 2010

From 'Spank to Shank

If you happened to miss my announcement on Twitter, Friday was my last day at Hothead Games. It was a very amicable parting and I'm definitely going to miss my Hothead comrades. But they've got a tremendous amount of talent (believe me, Swarm is already fantastic and is only going to get better between now and its release early next year), so I think they're going to be alright.

What lured me away from the awesomeness of Hothead? I had accepted a position as Technical Designer at Klei Entertainment! For those unfamiliar, Klei most recently released Shank. If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you've noticed I spend a lot of time thinking about design and creating novel experiences. I accepted the position with Klei because doing that is basically my mandate and I'll be leveraging my technical background to do so effectively.

This isn't the first time I've worked for Klei either. I actually worked for them in late '08 to early '09. But Klei has changed a lot as an organization since I was last there. When I was there initially, they were working on Sugar Rush, a free-to-play brawler for Nexon (the closure of Nexon's Vancouver studio is what precipitated having to leave Klei for Hothead originally). Now they've just released a digitally distributed game based on original IP they created and own. And the plan is to keep doing that. This is exactly the space I want to work in and the kind of organization I want to work with. I'm really excited about coming back to Klei and the kinds of things we'll be able to do together.

Coincidentally, exactly two years ago, I was doing this exact same thing: taking a week off to play the newest Fallout before starting a job at Klei. I think I'll probably make some time to make a game and do some reading, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't going to see much of the Mojave Wasteland this week. I haven't had any proper time off since my honeymoon in August '09, so I'm looking forward to a week of fewer obligations.

Finally, both DeathSpank and Shank are coming out on Steam tomorrow! If you haven't played either, there's a 15% off Steam package deal for both that should still be live if you're reading this early enough. I obviously can't speak for Shank, but we put a *lot* of work (way more than I thought we'd need to, honestly) into making the PC version of DeathSpank feel good. Genuinely native, not like some knock-off port. And the game looks damn good too, in my rather bias opinion. The pallet really pops at PC monitor resolution and the characters/environments scale up real nicely. I'm glad we can finally show off our awesome artist's work at the resolution it deserves. That's enough shilling (although it's not like I get any kickbacks now), but if you haven't had a chance to play DeathSpank yet, this is the version I'd recommend.

Thanks again to anyone who has taken the time to read this and I'm looking forward to putting some of these mad ramblings into action at Klei.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mastery and Dominion

A game's environment and characters can create a place for us to go, but only its rules can allow us to live there.

There's a bit of background on this post. Chronologically, I wrote this, Chris Lepine responded with this and then talked more about it here. I meant to put this post together a while ago, but hey, at least I didn't abandon it completely. Summary is Chris calls out the potential hazard of gaming serving just as a way to relieve stress and be distracted from the day-to-day. He contends gaming should satisfy by its own merits. I actually wholeheartedly agree, but realize that some of my phrasing may have confused things.

I spoke of "mastery," but perhaps that is a misleading phrase. By this, I really mean the player's relationship to the rules that govern any given game. It's understanding a set of rules, observing or creating goals and then utilizing knowledge of the rules to achieve them. Perhaps "fluency" is a better term.

Mastery is really just internalizing those rules to the point where the player can express agency within them. Initially one begins unfamiliar and awkward, but with persistence they will be able to improve and execute on their own desires. That act of improvement is satisfying, and more importantly, relatively unique in media. One can't really "improve" in viewing films or reading novels, or at least not in a way as immediately or to such great effect as games.

A comparable pleasure might be learning to play a musical instrument. For most, they won't be professional musicians, but the mere act of improving within a certain framework of rules is satisfying. When you start out awkwardly plucking a single cord, finally being able to play even something as simple as "Louie, Louie" is immensely satisfying. Making goals and working toward achieving this is simply enjoyable for many people, and this is part of what makes games interesting.

This differs from the experience Chris talked about with Jorge and Scott, which I'll call "domination" for the sake of clarity. Domination is framed in the context of winning, either at the expense of another player or the game itself. One player succeeds because another fails to. This experience can be satisfying as well, but I would say it's not the same as the above. If one improves at playing the guitar or painting or speaking a foreign language, it's not like someone else's talents in the same must then decrease. Mastery simply means getting better, not necessarily at the expense of someone else.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this mindset, but I agree with Chris that too much emphasis on it will, at the very least, occlude the most satisfying pleasures of playing games. Mastery and domination can be aligned, of course. In those Starcraft 2 multiplayer matches I've been spending too much time with lately, the only goal is to defeat someone else and I must improve to do that.

A good deal of discussion from Chris, Scott and Jorge focuses on the satisfaction and joy that comes from the transportive power of games, to create a fictional place and make you feel like you're in it. I too agree, but I'd also contend that mastery of that place's laws is just a different (and possibly more enjoyable) way of being in that world. When I was playing Mirror's Edge, the world didn't consist of alabaster rooftops and towering buildings. The world was two vents close enough to jump between. It was a canvas cover taut enough to absorb the impact of a fall. The world felt real and I felt the most in it when I could express my intent. I felt transported when I could slide under a girder, mantle up a wall and leap with spinning 180 degrees to grab onto a crane. That's the world of Mirror's Edge becoming real.

Rules make a place real and when we can express ourselves using them, that's when we've really been transported. At least, that's the way I've felt most satisfied gaming. I sure do hope this is clear. I realize there's a lot of handwaving and vagueness here. But hopefully not so much that it's nebulous and unclear.

Additionally, I've made a pretty significant decision that I'll be posting about here in a few days. I'm a little nervous but tremendously excited. I won't tease further, just expect something soon. Apologies for being coy ... somewhat, anyway.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Skip Week ... For Pie!

I was hoping to post something this week, but gluttony got in the way. The former was due to Canadian Thanksgiving being this past weekend and much time was spent with family/friends and even more food was consumed.

To make amends, here's a wicked sweet potato pie recipe. I've made it multiple times in the past, doing so again last weekend, and it's always quite a hit. I prefer it to making pumpkin pie as you can make the entire thing from scratch without either a) having to roast a whole bloody pumpkin or b) compromise and use canned pumpkin purée.

And that's enough culinary diversion, soon we'll be back to video games. In the mean time, bon appetit!

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Please Sir, May I Have Some More?

If you like Bioshock at all, you should go download Minerva's Den. Seriously go, you can finish reading this post while it's downloading. If you haven't heard about it, it's the story-based DLC for Bioshock 2 and it is fantastic. The erudite Steve Gaynor helmed it and he really succeeded on the goals intended. This really is the gold standard for single-player DLC and any other games working on something similar just had the bar raised.

Minerva's Den is also exemplary because it does single-player DLC right. And that's no small feat.

DLC for SP offerings like this is tricky. Multiplayer is a whole different beast and honestly, a simpler one. Valve's been doing it with Team Fortress 2 literally for years (although I'm still on the fence about the new in-game item sales), Modern Warfare made fifty kerbillion dollars on its map packs, etc. Ideally you'll have a community that you can feed new content to, and if you're doing it really well, you'll get some new folks in it too. Again, as Valve demonstrates, a free weekend and a temporarily discount price can turn into a truly staggering number of sales.

But single-player story DLC? It's challenging. It's generally been positioned as an epilogue, which seems fundamentally pretty challenging. An epilogue as DLC either means the original game had an incomplete ending (or worse, a cliffhanger) or it ended fine and by definition the epilogue is excessive. Minerva's Den works so well because Steve et al. opted to tell their own story. It's intimate and well scoped to the size of the experience. Of course, it still uses all the same systems of Bioshock (and expands them a little). It's basically all the bits one loves about Bioshock through a new lens.

Fallout 3's best DLC (Point Lookout) basically did the same thing. Rather than trying to continue the story, it provided a similar setup to the original game, with a wide, wanderable space with lots of small interesting things to find. Scoped to the length of the DLC, it worked really well. The other Fallout 3 DLC ranged from alright to quite terrible, but Point Lookout was fantastic for all the same reasons Minerva's Den was.

Now the hard part is how do you actually sell this DLC? Multiplayer (at least good multiplayer) is sticky. People will be playing it for months after it comes out. But at the break-neck pace the conversation about games moves at, many players will likely have move past a single-player title by the time single-player DLC comes out. Maybe someone with an office expects SP DLC like this to move more new copies of the game, but really, that's god damn absurd. It might move a few used copies at GameStop, but almost nobody is going to drop $60 on a new game just to play some DLC.

But what if you didn't need the main game? What if the DLC could be fully played by itself? As Dead Rising: Case 0 demonstrates with its god damn gang-buster numbers, there are people interested in this. Not only was Case 0 making Capcom money, but it was basically serving as a demo for the game too. This is a slightly different circumstance since Case 0 came out before the main game, but I'd be very curious to see how stand-alone DLC for a successful game would do.

Fallout 3 did something different but also smart where they could combine the original game with all the DLC and sell it as a "Game of the Year edition." I think Oblivion (and maybe Fable or Fable 2?) did this as well. It provides that important "discounted" perception for people who might not have bought it before to feel like they're getting a deal now.

Making good single-player DLC is hard and selling it is even harder. Minerva's Den absolutely succeeds on the first (and I hope it does on the second! I just have no idea) and we're starting to see all kinds of interesting experiments with how to actually get people interested in SP DLC. It's one of those avenues afforded by digital distribution that we're only starting to really dig into. I'm definitely looking forward to the fruit of those experiments. Let's just hope the level of quality can match Minerva's Den.

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