Monday, November 22, 2010

Games I Want to Make: Console Based "Tabletop" RPG (Part 1: Concept)

It has been argued that the modern internet exists for one reason: nerds wanted to use their computers to play Dungeons & Dragons. Since message boards and chat rooms have existed, they have been used to play D&D. MMORPGs descended from MUDs which descended from text based adventure games, the last of which also spawned the modern CRPG and allowed the PC to stand as a gaming platform before the era of GUIs.

Yet, for all these attempts at simulating the D&D experience, few have come close. The majority have focused on single-player narratives which, as fun as some of these are, seems to entirely miss the appeal of the tabletop genre. How many of you have played D&D or any other tabletop RPG? How many have played these games alone? Almost none, right? The vast majority of these games' appeal comes from their social nature.

The closest any game has come to capturing this experience, so far, has been the original Neverwinter Nights. Ironically, this essentially D&D game's attempt is imperfect, in my opinion, because it sticks to closely to its pen and paper roots. Instead of taking the experience and adapting it into a digital medium, it makes a literal translation of the source material. There has yet to be a title that utilizes interactive media to its full advantage in creating this style of game.

Neverwinter Nights' Aurora toolset remains somewhat notoriously esoteric. This would be a title designed for simplicity, providing as much depth as possible without necessitating a complicated adventure editor.

Thus, one of the game concepts I've been playing around with for a long time is one of a console based RPG done in a "tabletop" style. That is to say a CRPG that plays like Dungeons & Dragons, WFRP, etc. While I have a prototype of such a title as a work in progress, it's quite far from any publishable state. But what would such a title entail?

Well, for illustrative purposes, let's have a look at a possible menu tree:

Adventurer
  • -Solo Campaign
  • -Load Solo Adventure
  • -Find an Adventure
  • -Find a Campaign
Dungeon Master
  • Adventure Editor
  • Campaign Editor
  • Host an Adventure
  • Host a Campaign
Community Created Content
  • Adventures
  • Campaigns
Options

(edit:  There was some confusion, but the intent here was to imply nested menu options, going from one screen to another. The list has been reformatted to reflect this better. Thanks NINJ4KYL3.)

So, what he have here shows the gist of the game. What we have is a title that allows users to take on one of two active roles, that of an "adventurer" or a "dungeon master." The former's role is that of the traditional player character, while the latter is that of a host, amateur designer, and nemesis to the players. This is the essential element of the tabletop game.

As the adventurer's role is the easiest, we'll take a quick look at that first before getting into more detail in another post. The options under this menu include playing the game's default solo campaign, loading a custom adventure they have downloaded, or seeking out either a short term adventure or long term campaign online. It becomes important, here, to define the terms "adventure" and "campaign." An "adventure" is a relatively short, single session, self contained quest. A level, basically, akin in scale to what one might design for Little Big Planet. A "campaign" is a larger set of linked adventures, with characters and rules that persist across adventurers and game sessions. An adventure is basically a pick up and play scenario, where a campaign will be designed for a single host to run a long term game for a constant group of players, possibly over the course of many game sessions. (More on this later)

The game's built-in solo campaign would be relatively short, simple, and archetypal,  intended primarily to introduce new players to the game's mechanics and to provide a modicum of offline utility to the title. In this, the player would be able to choose a single one of the player classes and play through a rather traditional little RPG storyline on their own.

The "Load Solo Adventure" menu would lead to a menu allowing the player to load any of a number of community created solo adventures made by themselves or others from the Dungeon Master menu.

The "Find Adventure" menu would lead a player to a familiar game lobby browser, wherein they can browse and enter a multiplayer adventure lobby hosted by another player. From the browser, the player may be able to see information such as the adventure and lobby name, host, number of players, number of players requested, and the average rating of the adventure. Essentially, it should appear to be a combination of a multiplayer game browser and a custom content browser. Once in a unique lobby, the players and host will be able to converse via microphone or text chat and choose their characters.

The "Find Campaign" menu would lead a player to a similar lobby, wherein they can browse and enter a multiplayer Campaign lobby hosted by another player. This would be differ from the above in that campaigns would have somewhat differing descriptions, and that campaigns in progress would only become visible to players already involved in those campaigns. Xbox Live functionality (I have no realistic means of publishing on PSN) will likely play a large role in this aspect of the game, as it is both essential for voice communication and likely how most recurring campaign lobbies will be populated.

For Dungeon Mastering, we have a somewhat more varying set of menus.

The "Adventure Editor" is where a great deal of the Game Mastering gameplay will take place. This will function as a traditional grid-based map editor, where the player can design the adventure's terrain, place decor, and NPCs. The game will take place from a top-down perspective, with grid based construction. This will allow the player to construct entirely standalone games, allowing non-hosted play. (More on this in its own post, as this is really the heart of the experience.)

The "Campaign Editor" allows a player to compile multiple adventures into a single campaign and define the properties of that campaign.

The "Host an Adventure" menu allows the player to do just that. The host, or "Dungeon Master," does not remain complacent, however, as he retains the full breadth of his editorial power as the game takes place. He may drop in new enemies in for an ambush; manipulate, even kill, characters and terrain instantly as the narrative demands, rather than the literal on-screen actions of the players; reveal hidden passages, etc. at will. He may even choose to construct the adventure as the players go. If the DM likes, he may save such changes at the end of the game. Think Halo's "Forge." Furthermore, he may choose to fully take on the traditional role of the DM, narrating, roleplaying NPCs, and engaging the players in roleplay. It remains the hosts choice weather he runs a silent hack-n-slash Gauntlet style game, a session of deep role-play, or a little of both.
This classic scene could be recreated in minutes. First, the DM quickly designates the terrain type, caslte, and designates the floor spaces. Next, he places 3 NPCs defined only by their models, 3 chests, a door, and a staircase. He sets each chest, and optionally the door, to be opened by 'key 1' and could choose to either place their contents in ahead of time or drop them in during the game. From this point, there is nothing left to do but handle the role playing encounter during the game and to adjudicate any unexpected actions by the players.
The "Host a Campaign" menu will be largely similar to that of the adventure, save for having the additional functions necessary for longer term games. Key here is that, after the initial run, characters will sustain across sessions. Imagine playing a game of Little Big Planet, when someone gets a call. Rather than ending the game, the players may choose to collectively save and pick up right were they left later on.

And, finally, we have a couple of unspecific menus.

The "Community Created Content" menu will allow players to browse custom adventures, campaigns, and possibly other content created and uploaded by other players.

The "Options" menu is self explanatory.

"Virtual Tabletop" programs, such as MapTool, pictured above, differ in that they are tools intended to facilitate the play of entirely separate games. This, however, would be its own, self contained title.
The game seems perfect for the XBox Live marketplace, and PSN if that were an option, for a few reasons. First, it is an essentially online experience. Without the social interaction, it is all but nonexistent. Thus, 100% of the game's potential audience has access to digital distribution. Second, it is an essentially niche title. It's new territory, and thus few publishers would be willing to risk a large investment on it. While proper execution could bring in a large audience of people who always wanted to try tabletop gaming but never had the opportunity, and a cult following could easily become a phenomenon, this does little to provide resources for the title's development. If anything, such success could lead to a full, disc release of a AAA sequel down the line.

So, thoughts?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Faery: Indie Game Failure

So, I;m sitting in a room full of friends, myself and three others, playing this game I downloaded off of Xbox Live. Faery it's called. Unfortunately, we can't tell head from tails on this thing. It's one of those games that tries to be so original it fails at ever successfully capturing anything playable. What, I ask, is its audience?

That isn't to say that somewhat eschewed mechanics are necessarily bad. Some games are built on the basic concept that figuring out the gameplay IS the gameplay. When done well, this can be quite fun. It is, however, an extremely difficult trick to pull off. A good designer knows not to intentionally confuse their audience without a very good reason. That is not what Faery presents us with. Faery is merely incomprehensible.
Hey,cool! Wish I'd seen this in the demo.
The game does, it seems, present a fairly accurate depiction of faeries via Germanic folklore. The controls and the players goals are incredibly esoteric and strange. We want very badly to break into this game. We want very hard to "get" it. We understand that, behind all of this effort, there is a designer. There is a man. This man has the intent of bringing an enjoyable experience to the end user. However, we simply can not reach this experience. Perhaps there is some fundamental importance to this product. Perhaps this is one of the most breathtaking experiences yet to be visited upon the direct-to-console market. Yet, we can not successfully penetrate it. I see this as a failing upon the designer. Yet, I welcome any commentary he may have.
Romantic subplot? Bow chika bow wow!
This is one of those games that strikes me as some indie films do. They are so completely hard to comprehend, despite my desire to do so, that I am left with nothing more than a dismayed critic's resolve to present a rational opinion. It is a game. That is a fact - no, a possibility. I have yet to confirm this. That, it would seem, is the problem. I can not tell that this is a game. I can not confirm that this is in interactive entertainment experience. This may be a problem.
I cast lens flare!
I don;t know. I like the idea of the Xbox Live Marketplace. I like the idea of indie games. When one shows up that seems so incomprehensible, however,  I sometimes find myself thankful for the draconian policies of software publishers.

This game is a good lesson for indie devs. Do you have something brilliant? Is it amazing?
Is it the most fantastic thing ever to visit the gamescape©? (new word, free for public yet nonprofit use) Awesome! Does it make any sense? Damn. Back to the drawing board I guess. One must always be cautious not to allow vision to outpace ability.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fatal Flaws: Short Instruction Manuals

Going forward, whenever I'm doing an article which highlights a weak design feature, but not a game as a whole, I'll be using the "Fatal Flaws" tag.

In this case, the subject of discussion is Call of Duty: Black Ops's instruction manual. I know, weird thing to be concerned about right? Hear me out though.

Black Ops's manual for the Xbox 360 is a total of 12 pages long. One of those pages is the cover art, the next is your standard seizure warning an ESRB info page, followed by the table of contents, then we have a page about connecting to XBox Live, another is a blank "notes" page, two pages are your standard "software license agreement" begging you not to pirate the game, and finally we have the back page which discusses customer support.That leaves us with a grand total of 4 pages actually providing instructions related to the game.


I was shocked by this lack of content. Then, I pulled out my copy of Modern Warfare 2. It has the same amount of pages, and is almost the same exact text.

While most people wouldn't make a big deal about the manual, as it isn't really part of the game, it seems a shame to me. First, I find that manuals are often indicators of quality in games. Guild Wars's manual is, for example, over a hundred pages, with half of that length discussing the game's setting and cultures. It really emphasizes the effort the design team had put into developing the context of the game and told me right away that this would not be the last title set in the world of Guild Wars. Blizzard tends to take similar steps, with Warcraft 3's containing a piece of short fiction telling the story of the ancient evils which once beset its world. The recent Call of Duty manuals, however, seem like afterthoughts. If so little thought was put into this aspect of the product, the user may think, where else where corners cut?

Second, I am dissapointed in that game manuals have, historically, been a part of the process for me. When I got a new game a kid, I would be absolutely ecstatic about bringing home a new game. I had days of amazing fun and wonder in that box, but it couldn't be released until the car ride was over. This anticipation resulted in me opening the case and reading the manual on the ride home. I would read every word, contemplate the significance of esoteric terms, as these were often JRPGs at this stage of my life, and carefully look over each peace of art. Before the disk ever hit the tray, the game had already started for me.

Recently, I experienced this ritual again with Halo: Reach. The delivery man came to my door right as I was leaving for work, so I didn't have time to pop the title in the Xbox for a quick game. On my way out the door, I stuffed the instruction manual in my pocket. Whenever I had a free moment at work, I would pull it out and tear through it. This was, again, a highly designed product. It had little in the way of fluff, but was covered in Halo flavor graphics and full of information. On the down side, however, I think there may have been a technical problem with this manual. Anywhere I touched smudged the ink. I tried washing and drying my hands, but the problem persisted. It seems that graphics on every inch of the page might have been an overuse of ink in this case - or Bungie simply used a low quality printing service.

I hate that, over time, the trend has become to focus less and less on game manuals. I hate that this ritual may be lost on future generations of eager gamers.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Popular Mechanics: Far Cry 2's Health System

As noted in the previous post, an old top 5 list I did for my college newspaper, I hated Far Cry 2. Now, part of that was due to my high expectations, but the fact remains that the game is inferior to its predecessor. In the video game industry, unlike in film, this is a rarity and an unforgivable one at that. That being said, there were good ideas in the title, good parts that never equaled a satisfactory whole. The most impressive of these, to me, was the health system.

In Far Cry 2, your health bar is similar to those you've seen before. It's a horizontal line that fills from the left. It's divided into segments, but that we have seen before as well. This, however, is what gives us the first notably unique aspect of Far Cry 2's health system. These segments represent a hybridized version of the now standard recharging health system, popularized by Halo, and the old school health pack method. After taking damage and finding a moment to rest, your health will not recharge fully but, rather, fill the current segment. This means the hero is never totally helpless, with at-least some sliver of health, but also provides long term punishment for recklessness. This balance works well, satisfying both the game designer's love for the elegant and self contained recharging health and that segment of the gamer community that feels recharging health too contrived.

What really makes this system, however, is the way in which players begin to regain that health. Rather than damage being treated as if the player is a water balloon, leaking HP through his bullet holes, Far Cry 2 tracks actual injuries. If you get shot, there is now a bullet lodged in you. If you fall, you have a broken leg. These things really improve the immersion felt by the player and seem to make each injury feel more serious, without ever actually changing the risk/reward dynamic.
This little piggy should have stayed home.

In order to regain health, the player must treat these individual injuries. This requires removing foreign projectiles, dislodging terrain on which you have been impaled, stitching up gaping lacerations, resetting bones, etc. This becomes a really pleasing mechanic for two reasons. First, the injuries are very viscerally pleasing. You see the end of your finger come out the opposite side of your arm when you push a through and through out. You see flesh burning as you cauderize an open wound. You hear the crack of bone. It's simultaneously disgusting and spectacular. For the more squeamish players, I can see this being more motivation to keep their heads down than the threat of death. Compounding this, however, is the sheer multitude of animations and variants to these injuries. Quite some time will pass before you see the same animation again, which prevents these injuries from ever seeming trivialized and really adds to the verisimilitude of the whole experience.

Still less painful, however, than the rest of the game.

All in all, this system is a big winner for me more because of its psychological aspects than its objective ones. It provides that super soldier level of endurance necessary for a game in which the protagonist is expected to fend off an army on his lonesome, but never really makes the player feel superhuman. These constant reminders of your mortality and how hard the fight has been go a long way to contextualize the combat.

While I've seen no game sense which has copied this system, I will note a vaguely related piece of design in the Halo franchise. As of Halo: Reach, the players health no longer regenerates along with their shields, recalling the original title. This promotes a bit more caution in the player, as though they have little health it can be the difference between going down in 5 shots or 6. I've often noted situations in which taking the time to grab a health pack has saved my life. While this might not have been directly inspired by Far Cry 2, and was likely done more as an effort to return the series to its roots and maintain chronological canon, it does show an increasing popularity in this hybridized method.

Outdated Game Reviews: The Best (And Worst) Games of 2008

With all of this year’s big releases now on shelves, most gamers have more options than cash. So, to help you out, I’m breaking down the top five games of 2008.

#5: Left 4 Dead
PC, Xbox 360
 You know how horror movies get better with other people around? That’s “Left 4 Dead”. The best horror game of ‘08 is co-op. It’s scarier, and more fun, than “Dead Space” ever was. Plus, when you’re tired of surviving the zombie apocalypse you can play as the zombies.

#4: Gears of War 2
Xbox 360
 Futuristic marines with chainsaws and fully automatic weapons, a tried and true gaming formula. “Gears of
War 2” is the kind of game that makes you want to beat your chest and mark territory. The “Gears of War” series has deeper gameplay and better art direction than “Halo.” Chainsaws are better than gun butts. “Gears 2” is better than “Halo 3.” Deal with it.

#3: Grand Theft Auto IV
PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Let’s not ignore the games that came out earlier this year. “Grand Theft Auto IV” is still the last word on sandbox gameplay. The single player is not only the most enjoyable, but has the most sophisticated narrative in the series. Even without the online play, you’re not likely to wear the fun out of this game. Ever.

#2: Call of Duty: World at War 
PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii
The “Call of Duty” series has become the most cinematic in gaming. The single player campaign is the gaming
equivalent of a “Saving Private Ryan” or “Band of Brothers.” If all games were like this and the acting was just slightly better, there’d be no reason to go to the movies any more. Plus, it’s one of the best online games of the year.

#1: Fallout 3
PC, PS3, Xbox 360
“Fallout 3,” is basically “Oblivion” with guns, better art direction, and infinitely better writing. It really lives up to its pedigree. The depth of this game means that, even without an online element, it’s worth every cent. “Fallout 3” is the best RPG of the year, and the best game of the year. I can only hope the real post-apocalyptic future will be this fun.

The Worst Game of 2008

Far Cry 2
Yep, my least favorite game of the year is one that’s been getting great reviews. I’m sure it will end up in someone else’s top 5, but I hated it. It’s like the second Matrix movie. Something amazing was followed up by something terrible. The technology was there, the gameplay was there, but the designers failed to produce a fun game. Instead, Far Cry 2 felt like a boring, repetitive shadow of what once was.

Outdated Game Reviews: Halo 3

Halo 3 Shines, Even by PC Standards

     Bungie Studios' "Halo 3" came out Dec. 25, and instantly became a must-have game for the XBOX 360. "Halo 3" improves on the formula on many points, and finally matches the kind of shooters seen on the PC.
    The original "Halo," like "Goldeneye" before it, provided an entertaining social outlet in the form of a well-designed multiplayer console shooter. However, repetitive game-play and an unoriginal plot plagued the single player campaign. The single player took a backseat to the multiplayer game, and this trend has continued.
    In the single player campaign of "Halo 3," the player made constant progress through ever changing locals on their way to the final destination. This and the memorable set-piece battles dispersed throughout the campaign put an end to any feelings of repetitiveness and gave the game some epic action sequences that rival anything else on the market.
    The story, however, was still lacking. The player again takes control of a poorly characterized super soldier cliché fighting against alien clichés. Master Chief is Samus Aran, the "Doom" guy the "Quake" guy the "Marathon" guy a Terran or any of a long lineage of space-marines.
    The flood were essentially the "Starcraft" Zerg, right down to their species assimilating nature, hive-mind leader and even their sound effects. The Zerg themselves where derivative of the "Warhammer 40,000" Tyranids, which were derivative of "Alien", and they where all derivative of Robert A. Heinlein's "Starship Troopers."
    Games like "Half-Life 2," "System Shock 2" and "Bioshock" are forcing the market to produce shooters with well-written plots, deep characters, and quality acting to match their gunplay. While Cortana, the Arbiter and Sgt. Johnson receive competent actors, and the plot is definitely complex, it is simply not as well written or emotionally engaging as other titles.
    Halo has, since its original release, been the best deathmatch style game on any console. I qualify that statement because most PC gamers found "Halo" unimpressive. While console gamers had been limited to split-screen play before the previous generation of consoles, PC games were able to take advantage of online-play since 1993, resulting in several series including "Doom," "Quake" "Tribes" and "Unreal Tournament," all of which had done everything Halo had before and, arguably, better.
    "Halo 3" changed this by increasing the scale and depth of the game-play in both the single-player and multiplayer. Bungie added large maps rivaling those of "Unreal Tournament 2004." They also balanced the weapons to near perfection. These improvements, amongst others, made "Halo 3" the best deathmatch style multiplayer game out.
    It may not be the best multiplayer shooter on the market though, as class-based and tactical shooters have had very good releases recently. "Team Fortress 2", and the upcoming "Unreal Tournament 3" and "Call of Duty 4" are going to be tough competition.
    Epic Games'" Unreal Tournament 3" appears to be the greatest threat to "Halo 3". Epic games had great success with "Gears of War" on the XBOX 360, and with "UT3" they seem to want to correct their previous mistakes on the console market. The PC's premier deathmatch-style game is due out on the 19th, and the PS3 and XBOX 360 versions are coming soon after. Look forward to my review of "UT3" to see how the two stack up.

Outdated Game Reviews: No More Heroes

No More Heroes is Half Awesome

    No More Heroes" for the Nintendo Wii has arrived in stores, and due to the critical acclaim of 2005's "Killer7" it is getting a lot of attention. Good news, the game is good, mostly. It is two animals on one disk, one-half "Devil May Cry" and the other a sad "Grand Theft Auto" rip-off. No More Heroes is a shining example of when adding too much detracts from the whole.
    Those expecting more of Goichi Suda's bizarre design will be satisfied. They may be disappointed, however, that this outing has suffered to reach a more mainstream audience. Gone is the psychodrama of "Killer7", and in its place is violent and vulgar brand irreverent humor that will probably offend you slightly less than it entertains you. It's very funny, and intentionally sophomoric.
    The character's main motivations are pride and lust, as well as the other seven deadlies to varying degrees. In "Killer7" we delved into the psyche of a murderer with multiple personalities. In "No More Heroes" Travis kills people to try to get into a blonde's pants. Obviously, Suda slightly lowered the intellectual bar.
    The game play, however, has not. In fact, it's far more fun. The core of the game is a classic beat'em-up, which arms Travis with a copyright infringement safe version of a lightsaber, and professional wrestling moves. Combat is a matter of charging into a group of foes with your laser blade, slicing off a series of vital body parts and finishing off whoever survives with a crossface chickenwing suplex. After a series of mooks, the game treats the player to a fantastic cut-scenes and well-designed boss fights. The game isn't breaking any genre conventions here, but it is excelling at them.
    Unfortunately, between levels you are required to travel around an artistically uninspired and technically flawed town playing a series of boring mini-games in order to earn progression. Watch Tarantino's "Kill Bill", but after the Bride kills each of her targets pause it and work a Dominos delivery shift before continuing. It only serves to artificially lengthen the game. I want to love the game despite this horrible decision, but it's hard. Without this, it would be a quick adrenaline rush completed in one or two sittings.
    The game is certainly outstanding, but not because of revolutionary gameplay or story. The game's style makes it unique. You'll revel in the "Sanjuro" style blood spray and Travis's over the top ego more than anything.
    There is no real reason to buy this game. You can easily complete it within a rental period. I'd advise renting it if you're a Suda51 fan, appreciate off-beat design or a beat'm-up fan. Just be prepared for some frustration. "No More Heroes" gets a 5/10 from me. I'll assign half of a perfect score because half of the game is fun and the other is utter tripe.

Outdated Game Reviews: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Super Smash Bros. Brawl Is a Wii Essential

    The third entry in Nintendo's "Super Smash Bros." series was released this month, and it refines an already well designed fighting system, revolutionizes it's story mode and retains its position as one of the top fighting games on the market.
    Those who've played previous titles in the series, know that they are fighting games starring iconic video game characters in a style similar to "Marvel vs. Capcom," but with completely different gameplay. This time around, the total of playable characters reaches 35, with no roster padding.
    The most obvious improvement is the addition of new characters and levels. There are fourteen new characters, most notably including Solid Snake and Sonic the Hedgehog, meaning that future installations in the series could include just about anyone. I'm hoping for some Megaman on Belmont action.
    All of the clone characters from previous games have unique move sets this time, so they are essentially new characters themselves. Nintendo rebalanced the old characters aswell. Link, for example, is now a more powerful sword fighter rather than a ranged specialist, making him my new favorite character. Nintendo removes only four throwaway characters, and replaces them with similar but more interesting ones.   
    The other major addition to the game is the subspace emissary single player campaign. No longer is it just a string of fights and min-games. The campaign has a simple but effective plot, well made cut-scenes and many levels. While the old single player modes lasted an hour, Brawl's took me three long gaming sessions to finish on medium difficulty.
    My problems with Brawl are minor, and the only ones really worth faulting it for are the technical issues with the map builder and online play.
I am not a pokemon fan, so I would really like to stop seeing new pokemon and have them all consolidated into the new pokemon trainer character.
    The map builder is very weak. I can't even flip objects horizontally. For someone who is used to making maps and mods for games that allow users to add their own textures, models and code it seems extremely restrictive. On the other hand, it is fun and I've made many maps including my own tribute to "Mega Man 2's" Metal Man level.
    The online play is a nice option but, in order to prevent Timmy from ever seeing a curse word, it's neutered. You cannot effectively group with your friends to play online. The network forces the player to wait five minutes for random matching with three other anonymous players for each match. There isn't a skill-based matchmaking system or even text chat. On the bright side though, the net-code is fantastic. I haven't experienced any lag.
    I find it hard to praise this game too much. If you own a Wii, you have no reason not to buy this game. Super Smash Bros. Brawl easily earns a perfect 10/10.

Outdated Game Reviews: GTA IV

GTA IV, This Much Fun Should Be Illegal
(And your senator probably wants it to be.)

    I'm not normally the type to wait in line for a game at midnight, but I wanted to get my hands on GTA IV as soon as I could. Not 30 minutes after its release, I was home and driving through the newly redesigned streets of Liberty City. How has my ride been? Awesome.
    This is a significant improvement over other GTA titles. It is not simply more of the same, but an evolution on the theme that takes you on its own uniquely insane ride.
    The biggest difference may be fully executed online multiplayer. Deathmatch, racing, and good old cops and robbers play out over the entirety of the game's city map with up to 16 players.
    The first thing that impressed me was not the new gameplay but the writing and presentation. Niko is the first GTA protagonist that I would consider a deep character. His supporting cast is similarly so, though most appear as thin caricatures at first glace. You get the sense that the actors were really, oh I don't know, acting. The main characters give a fantastic performance I've rarely seen the kin of in the video game industry. Some scenes fall flat, but overall this story is as much fun to watch as it is to play.
    Then we have the technology. Obviously, it's pretty. Most impressive to me, however, is the Euphoria engine. This software allows the game to dynamically generate many of the characters animations. Gone are ragdoll physics, in favor of intelligent human reaction. The point is that no two instances of similar events, like jumps between buildings, should look the same. This prevents the visual repetitiveness common to video games.
    GTA veterans will notice little touches that fix old realism issues. You can hail taxis, not just steal them. Drivers have stopped leaving cars unlocked with the keys in the ignition. If you steal a car with a passenger in it, he might attempt to take you down. Overturned cars do not necessarily explode. You can call the 911 as easily as anyone else. It feels like they really sat down and addressed every problem they had with San Andreas.
    The only area I've seen gamers overrating the game in is its combat. Both the melee combat and gunplay are far better than they have been in previous titles in the series, and they're quite enjoyable, but it's not quite as fluid as some games designed entirely around firefights.
    GTA normally risks offending people, but discovering the ability to drive drunk was a surprise. You're guaranteed to wreck and get police attention, but you can do it. More interesting is that if you are merely buzzed, you can drive fine. Things are just a little blurry. Like other things in the game though, it's an option and exists in case you'd find it fun.
    I give GTA IV a 100% rating. I wanted to be the guy who saw through the hype, but this is simply one of the best video games ever. If you own a PS3 or 360, buy it. Hell, steal it. Just get it!

Outdated Game Reviews: Braid

Braid, Best Puzzle Game Since Portal

    Braid is a side scrolling puzzle game developed by Jonathan Blow and released earlier this month for the Xbox 360. The game is available for download via the Xbox Live Arcade.
    The gameplay has its roots with Super Mario Brothers. The game even features piranha plants that emerge from pipes in the ground. You run, you jump, and you land on enemy's heads.
    With these familiar elements, Blow proceeds to create something unique. Over seven worlds, Braid presents the player with a number of challenging puzzles solved through a time reversal mechanic. Each successive world adds its own unique twist to this mechanic, but the game never feels confusing. Simplicity is one of Braid's design triumphs.
    Unlike Prince of Persia where time powers basically serve as a limited continue system or Timeshift which becomes a series of press X to win scenarios, Braid's time manipulation is constant and unlimited Through it's use, any mistake can be quickly erased. If you know what to do, then doing it will be no problem. The challenge then lies is your ability to reason, not your twitch skills. The only true platforming challenges in Braid come in its final chapter.
    Visually, the game is quite impressive. The visual designer David Hellman achieves this through good old-fashioned artwork rather than bleeding edge technology. Hellman's style is not only beautiful but also intricate, leaving no part of the screen without its own unique features. Graphical effects convey game concepts such as the passage of time or unique game elements efficiently, never intruding on the overall design.
    Braid's hand-painted aesthetic sets a surrealistic tone. This supports Blow's poetic approach to storytelling from merely appearing vague.
    The story centers on Tim's quest to save a princess. This, again, harkens back to Mario. However, Blow again does something special within a familiar framework. The gameplay itself is metaphorical and in the end, the player will find the story ambiguous but intriguing.
    Braid is one of a very few games which invite me to discuss its storyline with other players as I would a poem. On the other hand, Braid allows the player to ignore the storyline if they choose. Many self-important developers refuse to allow this option, a frustrating trend.
    While Braid is excellent, it is not perfect. The two boss battles seemed to conflict with the game's overall design, and each featured the same foe only under different circumstances. Its use of time travel in a new way, but it is simply not as groundbreaking as Portal was. As a puzzle game, it also lacks much replay value.
    While it is not for the hardcore FPS and action game crowds, I recommend Braid to fans of puzzle games or anyone who enjoys quality game design. It is a fine example of independent game design and it is certainly my favorite Xbox Live Arcade game I give it a 90%.

Outdated Game Reviews: Mercenaries 2

Mercenaries 2 a Giant Disappointment

    "Mercenaries 2: World in Flames", which hit shelves August 31st, is the latest release from Pandemic Studios for the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and Playstation 2.  Highly anticipated due to it's predecessor, the title simply does not live up to the hype.
    As a sandbox game, I have to compare "Mercenaries 2" to "Grand Theft Auto". Unfortunately for Pandemic, that comparison is rarely favorable. There are two kinds of "GTA" fans. Those that enjoy the missions and storyline and those that just turn on cheat codes and go on rampages. "Mercenaries 2" is for the latter group, those who just want to make something explode.
    The storyline of "Mercenaries 2" is laughably simple. Guy pisses off Viking, Viking kills guy, nuclear war occurs incidentally. Pay it no attention to it because Pandemic didn't either. The cut-scenes are at best slightly funny and at-worst awkwardly mechanical.
    While both Mattias Nilsson and Chris Jacobs, voiced by Peter Stormare and Phil LaMarr respectively, feel well characterized and fun to play, I felt that Jennifer Hale phoned in her performance as Jennifer Mui. I began the game as Jennifer, preferring the character's speed, but hated her character enough to restart as Mattias.
    The entirety of Venezuela isn't at your mercy, only the immediate area around Caracas. This is adequate, however, as each part of the world is unique and interesting. The only filler is in the relatively small cities, which have none of the charm of those from the "GTA" series. The only buildings worth noting are those that employ you, all others exist only to be razed.
    Pandemic implemented the cooperative game play well. However, the game has no local multiplayer options. You cannot play co-op unless your friend has another Xbox, Live account, and a copy of the game. I hate this trend.
    The developers have accomplished their goals. The variety of vehicles, air strikes, and weapons available allow you to lay utter waste to a large game world alone or online. However, everything else feels unpolished. The big things are great, but the details are fubar.
    Rarely do I see this many glitches in a major release. There are too many to detail here, but the worst is the NPC chatter. Intended to be informative, it is instead rage inducing. If someone is in my vehicle, for example, he spends his tenure constantly, as in every three seconds, saying "Hello," "Hey," "Yo," and "Hey look, it's Mattias." It's like a world populated by "Ocarina of Time's" Navi, but far less useful. An hour into the game, and you'll wish Pandemic put a shut-the-hell-up bomb in your arsenal.
    Yet, somehow, it remains fun. Any game where my buddy can carry a tank with a helicopter, while I use that tank to sink an oilrig, is going to be fun. "Mercenaries 2" survives on such moments of over the top spectacle.
    I give "Mercenaries 2" a score of 75%. It's fun, and a worthy rental, but there's no reason to buy it.

Outdated Game Reviews : Star Wars, The Force Unleashed

 The Force Is With The Force Unleashed

      LucasArts' "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" was released September 16th 2008 for the Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, Nintendo DS, N-Gage, iPod Touch, and iPhone. The game is the flagship of a LucasArts' multimedia project which also features a novel, comics, toys, and a supplement to Wizards of the Coast's the Star Wars tabletop RPG.
    There are differences between each consoles' versions of the game. I played it on the Xbox 360. This version is essentially identical to the PS3 version, and similar to the Wii, PS2, and PSP versions. The Wii, PS2, and PSP feature levels not seen on the Xbox 360 or PS3. The Wii also features a multiplayer "duel mode." The other systems, however, are likely to be more dramatic departures. So, I can't speak for their quality.
    The game follows the story of Darth Vader's secret apprentice Galen Marek. His mission, to help Vader overthrow the Emperor, is the player's experience. Full of both action and intrigue, the tale will more than satisfy Star Wars fans. However, the short cut scenes occasionally rush the narrative. This is most evident in the underdeveloped love story.
    Fans have no need to fear that "TFU" to dispenses with the Star Wars canon. The game manages to capture the feel of the original trilogy well. While Marek becomes incredibly powerful, the same is true for all other force users in the game. Its not a matter of story, but rather of presentation.
    The gameplay is exiting and full of energy. I was worried at first, as the simplistic lightsaber combat from the demo paled in comparison to the depth of "Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast." After playing through the actual game, however, I see that the two titles are completely different animals. "Jedi Outcast" is a first person shooter, while "TFU's" stylistic combat best fits into the genre of "extreme action" with titles such as "Ninja Gaiden" and "Devil May Cry."
    "TFU" shines when the Apprentice is dealing with throngs of enemies or huge opponents. Marek is one of those characters that, like "God of War's" Kratos, is simply fun to control. The player feels powerful but always challenged.
    The presentation is generally top notch, but the menu system remains a leash that occasionally delays your fun. This and a few bugs occasionally crop up, but never break the experience. Due to LucasArts' commitment to quality, Star Wars remains the exception to the rule that all licensed games suck.
    The game lacks replay value as once you've seen both endings, there's little to call you back. However, its a great rental and a must play for Star Wars fans. It will definitely have you looking forward to a sequel.

Outdated Game Reviews: Spore

    I had a friend request that I post some of my old newspaper game reviews online, so over the next few days you'll be seeing those. I figured I'd preface these as A) They're coming out far after the initial releases of these games and B) They refer to their releases as if they'd been recent. That being said, I figure it's probably best to put them up in their original format.
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Spore's Shallow Gene Pool Lacks Intelligent Design

    On September 7th, Maxis released "Spore," one of the most highly anticipated titles of the year, for the PC. Unfortunately, it's all hype.
    Lead designer Will Wright, famous for "Sim City" and "The Sims," set ambitious goals for the title. Unfortunately, Wright has developed Peter Molyneux syndrome. The entire industry was abuzz with what "Spore" could be. "Spore" is fun, but will never live up to the expectations of its audience.
    In "Spore," the player begins as a cell then guides that cell as it evolves into a land animal, develops society, and eventually develops advanced technology. This process is broken down into five stages, each with different game mechanics.
    While the overall scope is impressive, the individual stages lack depth. Each stage is an oversimplified example of a popular game genre. Because of this, "Spore" actually encouraged me to play other games. Not a good sign.
    The initial cell stage is the simplest, and serves as a tutorial for the rest of the game. While this stage feels the most polished, it is also the least substantial. In about a half hour most players will not only be able to complete the stage but also exhaust all of the stage's available entertainment value. This is not one you'll likely come back to. If you like the cell stage, play "Flow" or even "Pac Man."
    The creature stage is one of the highlights of the game. Here you really get to play with the game's powerful character creation engine. The stage plays like an MMORPG, without other people, as your creature either wipes out or befriends other beasts. Doing so will add their evolutionary traits to your options in a bizarre "Megaman" like system.
    Biology majors beware; this is not a life simulator. "Spore" uses an odd hybrid of evolution and intelligent design, allowing you to completely change your creature within a single generation. Furthermore, it hinges on the outdated assumption that evolution equates progress.
    The tribal and civilization stages each proceed as simplified real time strategy games. Tribal plays a like StarCraft, where what's important is which buildings you develop. Civilization plays like, oddly enough, "Civilization." There's little real strategy here, however. The most engaging part of either is the ability to customize your buildings in the Civilization stage.
    Finally, you gain access to space flight. This stage feels like the game you've been working toward the whole time. It combines aspects of all the previous stages into one. You can alter the ecosystems of planets, create new life, and conquer unknown worlds at a whim. The depth of this mode leaves the other stages in the dust.
    The widespread misconception about this stage is that there is some form of multiplayer component. This is false. What the game does is send your creations into other people's game, and theirs into your. You will never interact with another player.
    "Spore" is a good game; it's just not the game you want it to be.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Envlaved, Uncharted 2, and "Cinematic" Games

Ninja Theory probably hates this, but Enslaved can not be discussed without also mentioning Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2. The thing is, Enslaved is basically a reply to Naughty Dog's title. Naughty Dog says "This is the PS3. This is the kind of title one can only make on the PS3. This is the future of gaming, and every other console exists in the past." Ninja Theory's reply? "What's that? Sounds like bullshit, but I can't hear you with all that Sony dick in your mouth."

Despite this, Enslaved and Uncharted 2 are basically cut from the same cloth. They both come from the school of thought that believes that games are quite akin to movies. Titles like God of War, Call of Duty, and Metal Gear Solid also fall into this mold, but none seem to so exemplify it as these two titles. This school of thought claims that video games are simply movies, with the added element of interactivity. As such, they are less analogous to the "advance" from books to movies than they are to the additions of sound and color to movies. Note, for example, that nobody makes silent black and white films anymore, but more people are reading than have in years. These developers don't see games as alternatives to cinema, they see them as improvements to it, replacements of a bygone relic.

"An interesting crossover of the newspaper and political simulation genres."- IGN.com
This perspective on the industry has manifested itself in two basic strategies, but both have the same basic goal of making games more like movies. The first of these, having had its heyday in the PSX era and still being a perinatal favorite in Japan, is the cut-scene heavy game. What's the easiest way to make your game more like a movie? Put more movie in it. The result is a title like Final Fantasy XIII, where gameplay often feels like a way to break up the videos. You have periods of gameplay and, upon their completion, the player is "rewarded" with a cut scene. Metal Gear Solid 4 may be an even better example, as it's design is simply littered with the tropes of the American action movie. These are the games which brag about the total length of their cut scenes on the back of the box.
Pictured: SquareEnix's vision of streamlined gameplay
The second of theses strategies argues that the first is incredibly flawed. These developers believe, and I agree, that game developers get no credit for cut-scenes. They can be pretty ,well acted, what have you, but they are not actually part of the game. One can not improve a book by packing in a DVD intro sequence. This is compounded by when the protagonist's actions in cut-scenes are more impressive than those the player can actually perform. This only serves to highlight the shortcomings of the the game's actual gameplay.
Cool cut scene, but there's not an actual "roar" button. Unacceptable.
This second strategy aims to make games more like movies, but by having the actions taking place in those movies be fully initiated by players. Gameplay is another element of the whole, like video or audio. These devs would no more take gameplay out of sections of their game than they would audio.

Now, out of the two elements, I personally side with the latter. There is, however, a third argument. This would simply say that games are games. Chess doesn't necessarily need a story or sweeping vistas. They may still believe that games are art, but they don't believe emulating movies produces a superior product. In some ways, this view actually places video games on an even higher pedestal than the other theories.

In my next post, I'll post my reaction to the Enslaved demo, and discuss this concept of "cinematic" games in practice.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Plug and Play: In Places Deep

Okay, so, shameless plug time. One of my old buddies just started up his own blog, over at In Places Deep. Now, I will endeavor against my will to ignore the easy joke his title provides and simply tell you what it is and why you may care. I am, as you no doubt can tell, primarily a video game guy. My buddy Evan is, however, a tabletop guy. He was, in fact, my first DM and taught me the tabletop ropes. I'll cover tabletop on occasion, especially as I tend to think from a more universal perceptive (ie: what sucks and isn't fun on the screen is often the same at the table), but that's what he does 24/7. So, if that's your thing, check it out.

Steel Battalion 2 a Genius Move (Kinect?) by Microsoft

Just heard about Capcom's new Steel Battalion game from Angry Joe. Now, Joe's reaction was less than optimistic, but he was coming from the perspective of a long term fan of what will now be the Steel Battalion franchise. My reaction, having not played the original game and being only familiar with its infamous controller, has been somewhat different. The title itself seems less important here than what it represents in the ongoing struggle between Microsoft and Sony.

It's no secret that we are currently at the beginning of Microsoft and Sony's mounting motion war. The Nintendo let out the opening salvos with the Wii's surprise attack, but the overwhelming retaliations from Microsoft and Sony have left the big N a casualty of this war. Everyone but Nintendo seems to know this. The Move is, after all, essentially a Wiimote ++. That is, however, the recent past. Looking forward, the big question is who will win. It seems inevitable that one of these two very different approaches will eventually conquer the market, forcing the other side to return to the drawing board.

What Steel Battalion represents is a conscious marketing choice by Microsoft. They know why the Wii has begun to fail, and why the Move has thus far not had the phenomenal success that Sony had hoped for. It's all about the "casual" and "hardcore" markets.

While the Wii had a huge initial sales bubble, that was not fueled by the gaming market. While many eager gamers, including myself, did buy the system, the radical numbers where due to a second market. This market, commonly referred to as the "casual" gamer, does not care about video games. They don't self identify as gamers because it's not necessarily a hobby of theirs or even something they would, Wiimote in hand, even consider enjoying. The thing is that the Wii is, to them, not a video game console. It is toy. They don't play games on their Wii, they play Wii - meaning Wii Sports for the vast majority, aswell as Wii Play, Wii Fit, and a handful of other casual party games. The problem presented here is that this market is now dwindling. They bought their Wiis, yet have failed to buy games for them. They have their toy, and are satisfied. Developers have, however, continued to produce shelves full of low quality shovel-ware for the system, aiming at this evaporating market.

Meanwhile, the "hardcore" market, representing long term hobbyists, self identifying gamers, have largely felt ostracized by this practice. They've grown tired of the long waits between games marketed towards them, and the inevitable inferiority of these products to experiences offered on other consoles. After all, The Conduit is "the best shooter, on the Wii," not the best shooter. Many feel like Nintendo left their old friends out in the rain, and are now wary about returning to them as they begin to court old markets again. This has extended to an overall distaste with motion gaming throughout the gaming populace, as this market perceives the trend to have a deleterious effect on the quality of game releases.

For Sony, the problem lies with their release titles. Every one easily fits into that casual market niche which the "hardcore" market has grown so disdainful for. Much like the PS3's original audience, Sony is again seeing that gamers do not buy hardware unless there is software to support it. Gamers do not buy a PS3, then find games for it, they buy a game and whatever they need to play that title. Unfortunately for Sony, much of even their most devoted fanbase sees the Move and Wii as direct analogs.

Steel Battalion 2 is Microsoft's way of not simply shrugging off this casual mantle, but throwing it into the fire. They have taken one of the most "hardcore" titles ever, one that even most of "hardcore" crowd were not invested enough to get into, and made it a near launch title. It would be like casting Mike Tyson, George Carlin, and Bob Saget (warning, links extremely NSFW) because you were worried that people might think you're making a kids movie. It's a nuclear payload of "for gamers" marketing. Suddenly, something which may have been perceived as beneath the "hardcore" is thrown over their heads. Unlike the original Steel Battalion, however, Microsoft hopes that the lower initial investment won't scare away consumers.

Weather or not the title even sells, it should accomplish Microsoft's goals. With titles like this in the pipeline, though not likely at release, Kinect can not be perceived entirely as a casual experience. Microsoft has at least one complex, made for mainstream gamers title they can hold up as proof that Kinect is not a gimmick but a legitimate gaming peripheral. Furthermore, there is no more perfect a title to capitalize on the Kinect's other big selling point, the inherent removal of third party peripherals. Any bundle which could get

So, long story short, I wouldn't be surprised if it was Microsoft, not Capcom, that first approached the other about this project. I wonder if this sequel would have even ever come out if not for its viability as a Kinect proving ground. In this way, at least, Joe and his fellow Steel Battalion fans should be thankful for the Kinect support.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Sequelitis: Fable 2

Sequelitis is another in what will become the regular features of this blog. In these articles, I will examine a game with an implied, likely, or announced sequel, and discuss what changes, improvements, etc. are neccessarry in order for that sequel to be justified and successful.
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With Fable 3 now clearly on everyone's collective radar, and soon approaching. I figured I might give some brief thoughts on my experience with Fable 2, and what improvements to the formula I believe should be made for the sequel.

While designer Peter Molyneux has a reputation for wild exaggerated claims, this title actually lived up to most of them. For those that were fans of the original Fable, there was little to be disappointed in.

 Fable 2 is set in the same world as the original, Albion, with the timeline advanced by 500 years. The game makes only passing references to the original, so one need not have played it to understand the plot of the latest chapter. Then again, this may not necessarily be a good thing. An opportunity was missed here to take the Mass Effect rout and deliver on some of Molyneux's promises about the original Fable. Choices made in the final acts of Fable 1 could have effected the world and player character, such as their lineage (assuming they descend from the original game's hero), the state of Albion (depending on the original player's alignment and influence in the world, and the existence of some NPCs (depending on weather or not you killed your sister and other NPCs.) This would have retroactively given the studio a bit  better favor over the perceived lies surrounded Fable 1, allowing them to spin these as very long term intentions.

The biggest change from the first game lies in the streamlined combat system. Now the player has one button each to control melee, magic and ranged weapons, including guns. This sounds overly simplistic, but the system is build around context. Mashing a button as quickly as possible has one effect, holding it has another, and pressing it rhythmically has yet another. Making a melee attack against an attacking foe executes a riposte, while attacking an enemy near a ledge, wall, or other environmental feature produces another effect. This really works, providing a fun and cinematic game that's quite easy to get into regardless of skill level. It's reminiscent of Assassin's Creed, though less rewarding of your commitment than that somewhat more complex system. For Fable 3, I'm totally on board with these design philosophies. Just layer on more depth and you should be set. More contextual actions, interactive environments, variety in the moveset, etc. Some of what was shown in pre-release media (see screenshot below aswell) implied a bit more depth to the system, but there's no reason that couldn't be 100% accurate and then some for the follow up.

Looks pretty, but fence jumping is in no way integrated into combat. In the actual game, this was  a bad decision.
Molyneux has exaggerated on a few counts however. The world does not shift as dynamically as he suggested and the co-op play is serviceable, but poorly implemented.

At two particular points in the game's storyline, locally limited changes to the geography will occur. These are binary and determined solely by the player's choice of quests. When one of these changes occurs, the game explicitly points them out. Therefore, even if you haven't seen the alternative outcome, you'll know what it would have been. All of the possible outcomes can be seen in only two playthroughs. Nobody will ever be surprised by someone else's game world. I felt more control over my world in GTA: Vice City, buying up properties left and right, than I ever did here. Moloneux needs to go back to the drawing board and found where he hid all those wonderful acorns. For the sequel, I believe they should focus less on these huge overarching shifts and more on the details. Simple economic systems, based not only on what the player buys and sells but on their actions, would go far. If I kill a blacksmith, the town should be out of a blacksmith for a while. The prices of metal items should go up in the absence of a local distributor. His old shop will become devalued, and, though the player may buy the property himself, eventually a new smith will move in to fill the niche. Though this type of thing may be somewhat complex, Fable is quickly becoming outpaced as other RPGs are implementing these kinds of features. Fable will not be able to continue existing as a franchise if it's one shining, unfulfilled promise becomes overshadowed by the realities of the market.

In co-op play, the second player can import the stats of his own character, but not their avatar. Six pre-made avatars are available, none of which are aesthetically pleasing. The game tethers players together with an invisible rope, one that is often smaller than the battles, so you'll constantly bicker over control of your collective direction. The camera doesn't aid much either. I love co-op when it works, but here it feels rather tacked on. The game as a whole is an RPG - but the co-op experience is strictly hack n' slash. In several instances, I intentionally logged off of the game during story-heavy sections in order to make things easier on the primary player. Bad sign. We've already heard plenty of talk about the improvements to this system in the sequel, so I believe I can chalk up the obvious improvements to be made as taken care of.

What makes a Fable game are two things, a relatively simple setup easily acceptable to more casual audiences, and the ability to do many non-combat activities in town. Both are present and improved on here. There are more of these extra curricular activities available, but they remain minor distractions. The money earning mini games are absolute busy work - monotonous and ill-conceived. Those more enjoyable mini-games still feel somewhat tacked on and none of them will bring me back to the title. Contrast this with Red Dead Redemption's mini games which, while merely versions of classic gambling games, are handled with so much finesse and atmosphere that they are my go-to way to play blackjack, poker, and liar's dice when I lack human company. If it doesn't add to the game, it detracts. This was one of the few areas, for me, where the company's commitment to polish really seemed to fail. Hopefully, in Fable 3, everything you can do will be something someone might actually want to.

The other half of the non-combat activity is intended to be your interaction with the world and it's people. This functions almost identically to how it had in the original Fable, with only a few extra bells and whistles to provide token improvement. I've felt far more connected to my character, the world, and the NPCs in games like the Mass Effect series than I ever did in any Fable game. This is largely because Fable's NPCs are a very predictable hoard of simplistic automatons. You know, absolutely, that, if you just keep spamming these three emotes, every identical woman in town will fall in love with you. Visually and emotionally, they are all alike. There is no mystery to it. It is for this reason that the only NPC with which I felt any empathy was my dog. While not perfect, they did get the essential element, to me, of NPC companions. They are not you. You do not control them. You can not ever fully know them. The dog, to some degree, has a mind of his own. He will take actions without orders and, while still rather predictable, is never entirely so. This logic needs to be applied to all NPCs in the Fable world.
All of these women find fart jokes hilarious.
I very much enjoyed Fable 2. There's no real replay value there though. After playing through the full story, which I did twice over my rental period, the remaining open-ended quests are pretty much busywork. It's not a game like "Oblivion" that takes weeks of play to fully experience. It's a great rent for RPG fans, but far from a must buy.

Going forward into Fable 3, what I'd really like to see is an overhaul of the clunky co-op system and some real depth added to the extra curricular activities. The first, which we have already been promised, is really the only objective gameplay problem in the title. The latter is what Moloneux, it seems, has always wanted to make Fable about - but, in my opinion, has yet to succeed in. The minor ways in which the world can be influenced are all very direct, predictable, and functional. It all feels so very sterile. Hopefully the next title will really dig in, get dirty, and provide us with a real playground.

My fear, however, is that Moloneux's wonderful tendency towards experimentation might bight him in the ass again. You see, he's big on new ideas. An important part of what makes Lionhead a unique development house is that they do a lot of experimentation. Mr. Moloneux encourages his team to prototype original ideas. These quick prototypes, however, are uncommon because a prototype that doesn't carry into an actual feature is essentially wasted money on the business level. More common with Moloneux, I think, is that what works ends up being these odd little quirky things which aren't necessarily what the audience was looking for. The dog in Fable 2, for example. I thought it was great, but I would have preferred that the promises about the interactive world to have been fulfilled.

This being said, I am looking forward to Fable 3. Many of the concepts the dev team have mentioned aren't so much based on improvements to the Fable 2 formula as referendums on standard gaming tropes as a whole. As a designer, it's hard not to love listening to the guys as Lionhead and to look forward to their new products.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Outdated Game Reviews: Dead Space

 Dead Space is Fun, But Not Scary

    On October 14, Electronic Arts' Redwood Shores development house released the highly anticipated "Dead Space," now available for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360. This sets off the pre-holiday videogame release season. It's the first real big title in the series of blockbusters that will be hitting shelves over the next few months.
    "Dead Space" is a survival horror game that casts the player as Isaac Clarke, the engineer of a team sent to repair a damaged mining ship. As soon as you arrive, however, you find that there's more wrong on the Ishimura than a few blown fuses.
    What follows is a straightforward structure. You proceed through twelve levels, each requiring you to complete some ship fixing related puzzle. On the way, you will regularly be surprised by several varieties of alien zombie parasite monster.
    I say surprised, as opposed to frightened. Much of the game's horror reminds me of "Doom 3". It spends more time trying to surprise you than frighten you. Occasionally the game will give you a piece of truly unsettling imagery, and what is there is well done, but it never even approaches the psychological torment of "Silent Hill 2."
    Isaac is a big part of the problem. Like many game protagonists, he remains mute throughout the title. This is done so that the player can project emotions onto the character. However, the result is that when the plot requires Isaac to experience heart wrenching loss, he remains a blank canvas.
    Even if the horror aspect is a bit lacking, "Dead Space" is a very good action game. If you enjoyed the gameplay of "Resident Evil 4," then there's nothing not to love here. Most of the weapons are cutting tools designed to dismember your antagonists "Evil Dead" style. Even the most boring weapon in your arsenal is a futuristic flame thrower, a good sign. Add to that the zero gravity gameplay sections, and you've got a solid shooter.
    The user interface is the most innovative thing in the game, and I except to see it pop up in other games. The GUI consists of enhanced reality visualization, as seen in "Shadowrun" or "Minority Report." Holographic windows appear next to your character displaying menus, videos, text messages, etc. The only exceptions are the pause screen, which exists out of necessity, as well as save points and shopping terminals.
    The best part of this system is that it doesn't remove you from the experience. I can be watching a video recording and blasting monsters at the same time. The world never stops because the player needs to check his PDA.
    It boasts an acceptable running time at bout 11 hours, but after the twelfth chapter and final credits there's not much to bring you back for more. It is an enjoyable rental and I recommend playing it, but there's no reason to purchase "Deep Space."

Featured Feature: Player Investment (Part 3)

Part 3: Reward Reduces Enthusiasm

In its simplest form, any player investment reward is simply a commendation. You did well, you get a pat on the back. Weather this takes the form of a new suit of armor, new gun, new ability, some aesthetic option, or simply a smiley face on a menu screen, they are all simply ways of telling the player "good job."

The problem here is that such commendations are not, in fact, a good thing. Picture a young child who gets good grades in math. His parents and teachers encourage him, giving him gold stars and plenty of positive reinforcement. Years go by, and the child continues to get good grades, make honor role, etc. The child graduates college with a wonderful GPA. The child is now an adult, in the real world, where there are no more gold stars. Many studies suggest that this individuals success will likely stop there. The kid has probably long since tired of math and academics, and now has no desire to put these things into actual use. He was originally good at math because the liked math. As the rewards came, however, math became a means to receive rewards. This individual, over time, came to see the thing he once enjoyed as work, an annoying task to be completed in exchange for reward. His motivation has fundamentally changed. Sound illogical? Well, how much do you like your job? How much does it pay? How much does that matter?

Actual market value may vary.

Possibly the most prominent and ubiquitous examples of the player investment reward systems in place today are Microsoft/Sony's Achievement/Trophy systems. Despite some backlash amongst games, the hard fact is that the two companies have made these systems mandatory for all titles because these systems make money. Consider a game that exists on all 3 of today's prominent consoles, the PS3, XBox 360, and Wii, all of which you own. Each version of the game has exactly the same features, capabilities, and graphical fidelity. Which system do you buy the game for? Theoretically, it should be a toss up. However, a huge number of players would prefer one of the systems that tracks achievements. After all, if you could add a pat on the back to everything, why wouldn't you? You woke up this morning, Congratulations! Took a shower? Good show!

Which brings us to the problem. Have you ever played a game, not having any fun, just trying for an achievement? Did you enjoy finally getting it? Was this experience preferable to having spent that time simply playing the game as you would have otherwise done? Or, worse, have you ever noticed yourself not play a game you know you enjoy simply because that system doesn't feature achievements? "Hey, I could actually finish the rest of Mario Galaxy, but I've already "beaten it" and it's not like I'm gonna get any achievements." I don't know about you, but I've been there - and it's scary. It seems that with there short term earnings strategies, Microsoft and Sony might accidentally be training their consumers to hate their products.

Of course, this is an article about how to properly integrate player investment rewards into games and, as I've already established, these aren't inherently bad things. The problem here is that these particular reward systems serve as goals in and of themselves. A large portion of those players that dislike achievements, for example, focus entirely on the existence of online achievements. Some players hate online achievements because they encourage players to prioritize these individual meta-goals before the actual cooperative game. One can not both focus on being the best player possible and getting a double kill with a spartan laser.

This problem extends beyond achievements and trophies and into some of the player investment strategies implemented as features within some prominent games. It is very easy, for example for a player to get so caught up in Modern Warfare's challenge/prestige system - getting in weeks of game time before they ever max out their stats - never have actually focused on winning the games in which they have competed. They were online with other players in what was ostensibly a death-match, but their goals had little to do with the actual game at hand. This is detrimental to the game's online environment in that it creates scenarios in which the minority of a game lobby might actually be attempting to fulfill the game's stated agenda. For the members of that minority, extreme frustration is likely to occur. (see: Modern Warfare's "Sabotage" playlist) This both undermines the design of your game mode and the quality of the online experience your players receive.

And this was the issue with our honor role student. The gold stars and blue ribbons became more important to him than the subject for which he had originally been so passionate. There, then, is our solution. Yes, do reward you players, but reward them for actually playing the game. In this way, a reward system could recognize achievement, rather than set up new, largely artificial, hurdles for players. As a rule of thumb, any time focus is taken off of the actual game, the reward system is imperfect. Any time the player is growing frustrated, wrestling for a reward not due to their skill level within the game but rather due to the design of the reward system, they are becoming disillusioned with the game. This should be avoided at all costs in order to ensure a positive long term relationship with both the individual title and gaming as a whole.

As gamers, however, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you simply should not allow yourself to become disenchanted with your hobby. If you're getting fed up with reaching level X or with attaining some achievement - stop. Take a break from that goal and go do something in the game purely for fun. The teachers can give you as many gold stars as they want, but it's up to you to retain perspective.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Featured Feature: Player Investment (Part 2)

Part 2: The Top Tier Problem

So, we've talked about what exactly "player investment rewards" are. Now, we're going to get into some of the current problems with prominent implementations of the feature. In this case, we're going to focus on rewards that aren't merely commendations, but rather tangible benefits within the game - ie: equipment and abilities.

In short, rewards designed to be the absolute best in their class pit players’ desire for uniqueness against their desire to accomplish and have their accomplishments recognized. This discourages customization for some and achievement for others. A title’s degree of variety and individual expression online is directly proportional to the number of equally valued customization options provided to players.

Prominent examples of this problem include
Halo 3’s "hayabusa" & "recon" helmets, Modern Warfare’s weapon camouflage, and World of Warcraft's equipment.

Halo 3, for example, features 11 online armor variants available to most players. These variants are designed to provide players with a sense of individuality as they mix and match them, color them, and otherwise use them to form a unique persona online. Theoretically, this emphasis on individuality and the wide variety of tastes amongst the player base should result in a fairly even distribution of armor variants throughout the community.

This is, however, not the case. The “recon” and “hayabusa” variants, especially their helmets, seem to be far more common amongst those players who have unlocked them. The same is true of the other armor variants to degrees in direct proportion to the amount of work necessary to unlock them.This presents a problem, as the variety and individuality intended by the developer has been overshadowed by a second well intentioned feature, player investment rewards.


If you can look like this, you won't not.

The same problem can be seen in many other titles, most notably those which make heavy use of such player investment rewards. World of Warcraft, for example, features thousands of weapons, but only a very small fraction of those are actually desired by its most committed players. When new and better items are introduced, they do not increase variety but rather replace others as the now most desirable "top tier" options. Players invest a great deal of time in order to receive these rewards, only to be forced to sacrifice their avatar’s individuality for the ability to display them.


High level mages, or roving Warriors style street gang?

This problem is compounded by the fact that when a large portion of players display the same rewards, desiring recognition for their achievements, they, in fact, become less recognizable amongst the crowd of similarly outfitted characters. Thus, some may choose to forgo such challenges all together, knowing that they will not wish to display their rewards. Allowing the majority of the developer’s efforts to fall into such disuse seems not only to be contrary to the original design intent, but to also be poor financial investment.


These choices soon to be rendered moot by 200lbs of phat purple loot.

Solutions

The simplest solution to this problem might seem to be the elimination of “top tier” rewards all together. This, however, inherently depreciates their value as player investment rewards.

A better solution, it seems, is to eliminate the singular nature of the highest tier options. The Halo 3 armor variants, for example, might have been unlocked via multiple separate but equal progressions. Some armor variants might be unlocked by campaign player progress and achievements, while others would be unlocked by multi-player progress and achievements. This would result in two top tier armor variants, doubling variety while both equally rewarding player investment and providing more opportunities for such investment. A form of this strategy can be seen in World of Warcraft, in which players may gain the game’s highest tier armors either from raids or arena combat. These two alternative paths provide equal statistical reward to players who choose either rout, yet also present aesthetic differences from one another. Thus, players are able to feel as if they are displaying their prowess, while not necessarily becoming identical. Further, the more specific nature of these rewards more accurately portrays the nature of the player’s excellence.

Another option, and one which can be combined with other solutions, is to provide variety within a single reward. Halo 3’s armor system does, for example, allow players to mix and match amongst their armor variants and choose a unique color scheme. Thus, two individuals may have very different character models, despite sharing the same helmet. The problem this raises, however, is that the head, and face more specifically, is a physical feature very closely linked to identity. There is a biological tendency to notice a person’s face before examining them as a whole which extends to online avatars. Even if two character models are different in every other way, similar faces, or helmets in the case of Halo 3, can reduce the sense of variety. Variety could be added to individual helmets, however, by allowing players to further customize the helmet. This could include multiple visor colors, textures, the ability to choose glossy or matte finishes, smaller accessories such as antennae or eye pieces, what have you. In Modern Warfare, players could be rewarded not with “Red Tiger” and “Blue Tiger” camouflage, but with “Tiger” camouflage which they could set the tint of as they wish. Simply put, granularity increases variety.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Featured Feature: Player Investment (Part 1)

Part 1: The what and why of Player Investment Rewards

As the blog goes on, I’ll be establishing various ongoing features. Individual game analysis, developer profiles, etc. in some regular format. We’ll begin with a “Featured Feature,” in each entry of which I will analyze a particular game mechanic, its history, place in the industry, how it works, why it works, what’s wrong with it, how it can be better utilized, etc.
Over the next few days, we’ll be focusing in Player Investment.



Lately players may have noticed a trend towards greater degrees of character customization in their online games. Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, they’re all doing it. In the past it was the standard that all players began games as complete equals, with an even and thus fair footing. Now the emphasis has been placed, instead, on individuality and deep character customization. So deep has this gotten in some games that is borders on being considered an RPG element.
What players might not have discerned, however, is the cause of this trend. While it is easy enough to simply wright it off as stolen ideas, arguing that developers are simply trying to duplicate the success generated by either Halo’s visual customization or Modern Warfare’s tactical customization, this is an oversimplification. In truth, such features are a very wise business decision.

You see, these character customization options almost always have another common feature. Rarely are all of these options available to every player immediately. They are generally unclockables, options requiring the completion of some predetermined qualification before access to them may be granted. This effectively makes these customization options merely a small part of the industry’s larger trend towards rewarding player investment.

Player investment reward systems provide players with benefits in direct proportion to the time and effort they spend with the game. The simplest form of these can be seen in the MMMORPG genre, in which players gain quantified levels of power as they put more time into the game. The term “experience points” was originally intended to reflect an abstract measurement of a character’s life experience and earned knowledge. In this market, however, it could as easily be seen as an absolute measurement of the amount of investment a player has put into a particular title. It is no mistake, then, that even more complex player investment reward systems, such as those seen in Halo 3 and Modern Warfare, still retain the term “levels” and “xp.” They firmly establish a system of progression in terms which gamers know.
This sense of progress lies at the heart of any player investment system. Rewards be they new character model options, abilities, or even simple numerical values are not handed out in bulk. They are evenly distributed over a long trail, always giving the player one more reward to work for. This creates a “carrot on a stick” scenario, compelling the player to continue playing. Progress requires commitment.

Such strategies simply make good business sense. The MMO genre, again, provides the simplest form of this. Due to subscription fees, the longer a player plays, the more money the developer will earn from them. In non-subscription based genres, however, developers still reap great benefits from invested players.

Online games, for example, are particularly dependent player investment. on the existence of an online community to function. Many games with some simple, tacked on multiplayer component soon have this feature rendered essentially non-existent by the fact that there are simply not enough players available to reliably establish game lobbies. By encouraging player investment, however, a developer encourages players to return time and again to the same matchmaking system, populating their multiplayer lobbies.

Beyond simply providing functionality, however, a well executed player investment system has been shown to increase the overall sustained population of online communities. This is desirable as more people playing more regularly is good for the bottom line. It provides a title with a good reputation and a greater likelihood that any given consumer will purchase the title. “Surely thousands of gamers can’t be wrong,” thinks the consumer. Every time your game is ranked on the top X most played online games on console Y during time period Z, that’s free advertisement. Most importantly, every player committed to your title is another mouth to spread the word. If they play your game for a week, you get word of mouth for a week. If they play it for a year, they’ll sell everyone they know on it.

On the marketing side, player investment can help provide a title with market control. It can help you not only be successful, but WIN. It's not secret that Modern Warfare and World of Warcraft are huge right now, enormous market titans with incredible player bases. What you might hear less about, however, is that they've done so well they've hurt other company's bottom lines. Many people are playing these games with such devotion that they simply do not have much time for other games. It is, for more time than is conventional, enough game for them. While this doesn't particularly help a non-subscription based game, it's a tremendous benefit for a series. A large portion Modern Warfare 2's success can be attributed to the fact that there was a large audience of Modern Warfare 1 players who had never stopped regularly playing the previous game, and the same will be true for Black Ops (though I'm skeptical of the series' continued dominance post-Infinity Ward debacle). The series did not leave its competitors any room to scoop up members of its player base, giving the sequel very little competition. It's not the nicest marketing strategy, but it moves units - short term and long.

Player investment works on even the most basic level. These systems actually make games seem more valuable to players. Biologically, human beings are predisposed to an "escalation of commitment," meaning that the more resources you spend on something, the more valuable you think it is. If you've spent several years in your house, for example, thousands of dollars on bills and upkeep and it catches on fire - you will likely be stuck in a conundrum. Even though it may be cheaper to move, buy a new house in a different location with the same features as your old house, your brain may compel you to spend more money on repairing your old house anyway. The $59.99 initial price tag, the hours of invested time, and any associated fees or accessories all build up to make the player value their investment more and more each day.

Don't be confused or frightened though. While all of these issues are from a developers perspective, they are by no means bad for players. The escalation of commitment, for example, contributes to a player's enjoyment of the game. The more they play, the more they like what they're playing. Player investment rewards can really drive a gameplay experience, keeping a game fresh long after it's no longer new.

That being said, however, no current implemented player investment strategies are perfect. Over the next few days I'll be going over some key problems with the most prominent such strategies, and ways in which they could be improved for the benefit of both developers and gamers.
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