Friday, October 30, 2009

Scripting

I'm still playing with Unity, and the scripting has me titillated. It's been a long time since I've done anything like it, and I miss the feeling of power. I'm just scratching the surface again, but it's fuuun. So much so that I missed a hair appointment, rescheduled it for a few hours later, and missed that hair appointment because I was having so much fun. Oi.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Free Unity

Just a quick note today. One of the game engines I started playing with using a 30-day trial is Unity. It seems like a popular choice among indie devs, and I thought it might fit the bill based on my set of needs. If I recall correctly, The "indie" version of their engine was priced at ~$200, which gave limited usage based on number of copies sold. A great price. But yesterday they announced the indie version is now free.

I won't make a judgment call on the software, but this kind of move just makes me happy, and I wanted to share. This news after setting up this blog free, a domain and emails for free, and a private website for free. I know the world isn't made of rainbows but now and then people seem to do their damnedest to make me feel like it. Did the call to arms just get louder?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Awesome-Slash-Boring

I've been playing the new Mario RPG, Bowser's Inside Story, and it gives me an odd sensation I also felt while playing Twilight Princess and Modern Warfare -- awesome boredom. Gameplay actions give great feedback and there are new scenarios around every turn, but I just feel detached.

It bums me out. I was so excited to play the newest Mario RPG. But now I wonder whether playing all of the RPGs leading up to this one makes it now feel like I'm going through the motions. Maybe the problem is that I already know about hammers and whirlwind jumps. That I already know how to watch for subtle cues in enemy animations to learn how to dodge them. In Zelda, it was the same slingshots, boomerangs, arrows, hookshots, bombs, boots... *yawn* I think they even appeared in the exact same order. And how many cinematic shooters have I played? I wait as team members yell at me and then guns ablaze, running forward to stop the game triggers from spawning enemies out of a clown-car-like building. Is it just too familiar?

I love Zelda and want to be excited for the next one. The same is true of Modern Warfare 2, or God of War III feel. But will they also be awesome-slash-boring? I find myself wondering if I can think of any series that's managed to avoid this fate.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Time Flies

Is it 5p already? One of the things I despise about aging is how time seems to fly by faster and faster with each year. Because of the age correlation, it's easy to suspect age / time ratios (e.g., 1 year is 1/8 of an 8-year old's life, and 1/35th my current), but tend to believe it has more to do with being a goal-oriented adult. I think the more goal-oriented you are, the faster time flies.

I've always been curious about events in life that dilate time, and there a few examples that stand out, though all are anecdotal. The first was taking a three-month leave of absence from work in '94 or '95 to return to my homeland, Hawaii, and decide whether to stay there or return to work in Utah. I had no other goals, and it felt like I was there for more like a year. (I decided to come back and try the game-thing, if you were curious.)

I've also noticed that planned vacations go by much faster than vacations with little-to-no planning. As a result, I tend to only like planning options for vacation, and making decisions on the fly on which to pursue. And even that approach goes by more quickly than having no plan whatsoever.

Finally, I've noticed that when I decide to travel to a location (on foot or by wheels) along a route I've never taken before, time also seems to dilate.

I presume the reason is because your mind wanders to details (many things) instead of staying locked on a goal (one, or a few things). And wow did last year fly by. This year has been, too. I described the sensation once as being like "the scroll bar on a browser window," because grabbing the bar and scrolling from top to bottom happens swiftly, but the amount of detail there, if you stop to take a look, is staggering. I wonder if there are any books on the subject, or simply other takes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Indie 3D Engine

Any feedback on 3D Game Engines for an indie dev on a tight budget?

I'm looking into various 3D game engines right now, starting with Unity. It looks interesting; I'd like an engine that lets me best take advantage of a game (not engine) programming skill set to rapidly prototype game controls, AI, and simple game logic using primitives. I see the prospect of moving from prototype to demo as a separate endeavor that needn't necessarily use the same engine, so platform is less of a concern, despite wanting to prototype with a controller in mind.

Any ideas or links would be helpful. Feel free to leave comments or throw some suggestions out to erlanter via gmail. Thanks!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fairy Bottle

I got to have a conversation with a well-known designer today, and I must say, one of the great pleasures in life is talking to someone passionate about design and the future of games. So many of the most interesting game ideas over the years have come from problems that come up in conversation with passionate game enthusiasts, and I love seeing all of the different things that people are trying to solve and sharing ideas. All jobs can be rote at times, but I'm sure that for most creatives, there are certain activities that makes them feel like Link opening a fairy bottle, filling their heart; reinvigorating them, refocusing them, and reminding them of what got them involved in the first place. Happiness.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bakshi

The other day I stumbled upon a Q&A with Bakshi in which he offers some advice to aspiring animators that are trying to survive changes in their industry. I don't know much about Bakshi, but relating his words to the tumultuous games industry, particularly changes going on now, I found myself enjoying his rant.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nerds and Geeks

I've always been comfortable with the term "geek" and uncomfortable with "nerd," but know people who feel oppositely.

When I think of the term geek, I think of it in two types. First, favorably, someone who is unusually enthusiastic about a particular subject; e.g., a carpentry geek, a food geek, or a racing geek. Second, stereotypically, someone who is unusually enthusiastic about fantasy or sci-fi, and is willing to look past all of the implausible elements of their passion and meet a lacking presentation or premise halfway so they enjoy themselves. Neither says anything about the individual's social skills; the most well-spoken attractive person in the world might also have this enthusiasm or passion.

When I think of the term nerd, I think Revenge of the Nerds. Nerd, to me, says less about one's interests and more about their social ability; that they are socially awkward physically, conversationally, or both.

Someone might be a geek, nerd, or both, but when I hear "geek," it comes with little-to-no negative connotation, whereas "nerd" seems negative. Other takes?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

LittleBot Comic

After returning from vacation, I participated in 24-Hour Comic Day, an annual event artists undertake to complete as much of a 24 page comic book as they can in 24 hours. It's absolutely grueling -- not the most pleasant post-vacation activity -- but I managed to finish all 24 pages of a comic that features a prototype LittleBot. My experience, including the comic, is shared on my personal blog.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Today I feel like writing about Batman. I played it awhile ago, and really, really enjoyed it. Much more than most things I play. You can read about the game in detail elsewhere, but the way the combat and stealth blended, and how story presentation blended into the game really worked for me. After playing the demo, I was intrigued; starting the game, I enjoyed it; and by the end of the game, I was a fool slathering for more. I played every challenge to "3 bats," and even played through the game on hard, not to get all of the achievements (first time I've done that) but just because I wanted to play more Batman. But the thing that intrigued me most was that others enjoyed it alright, but just didn't get that into it. I wondered why.

The common theme seemed to be the combat. Others enjoyed the stalking parts, but hated when they were forced into a combat situation. Many described defeating enemies in hand to hand combat as just mashing buttons. I contrasted this to my experience, where I never button mashed, and was genuinely invested in going a step further, trying to kill every thug in one combo without getting hit, and eventually, trying to do it with lots of variety. I always felt a perfect balance of required skill and potential failure, where failure felt like my fault, and something that I could overcome (players blaming themselves is a real boon for design; maybe more on that in a future post)).

Dissecting the combat complaint, it seems safe to say that the feedback (visual feedback, the challenge, experience bonuses) they got from combat wasn't interesting or accessible enough to enjoy. Knowing where the game fell flat would be difficult to dismantle, and could vary greatly from player to player. Visual feedback, challenge, and experience bonuses are all subjective, but to make matters worse, solving combat feedback goes beyond balancing components in combat and into balancing it with stalking feedback because in the players' minds, they compete as tools for disabling opponents. (Even if (if!) the designers saw them as separated since stalking was generally for enemies with guns, and combat for melee enemies.)

So some toolbox (i.e., potentially bad) thoughts:
  • To reduce competition between stalking and combat
    • Make clearer tools for changing combat scenarios to stalking scenarios, and vice versa.
      • For players that enjoy stalking more than combat
        • A clearer device for getting a group of melee thugs to disperse and wander, allowing you to stalk them
        • A flashbang that gives you a cleaner way to get back into stealth mode without getting shot (balance with long timer?)
      • For players that enjoy combat more than stalking create clearer tools for handling guns with thugs
        • Dodging leaves you invulnerable to gunfire (long enough to dodge again)
        • Batarangs disable thugs with guns (they might already do this without my knowing; I noticed Batarangs prioritizing giants over normal thugs)
    • Blend the experience bonus feedback between stalking and combat clearly
      • I somehow was unaware of how stalking experience bonuses worked
      • Make a stalk kill like a strike against an opponent (x2 if upgraded)
      • Being detected between "strikes" ruins a combo
  • If combat feedback needs improvement
    • And the problem is with the challenge...
      • Remove combo ruining...
        • When "blue" thugs hurt you with electricity
        • When "red" thugs blocks your attacks
        • Or make it so you can dodge out of a committed attack (correct your mistake)
      • Give more leeway (if possible, it often isn't) to counter
    • And the problem is experience then separate thug-beating specialty from experience gain
      • Experience gain is flat (stalk or fight, x dead thugs = y experience)
      • Tie high combos and technique challenges to special in-game rewards, such as bonus Riddler content
        • This puts challenge objectives into the main gameplay
        • Challenge gameplay was brilliant because it taught you cool things about the game, but only once you unlocked challenges, and without main-path gameplay relevance
I use the word "clear" because there may be mechanics that already do what I want, but that I didn't understand. And of course, the developers may have tried these things and have great reasons why the above wouldn't work. But that's my free cents. Everyone I know enjoyed the game on some level -- and this was especially true for me -- but it's interesting to note game dynamics that left some wanting, and fun to think of ways that might bridge the gap between my experience and theirs.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Vacation!

I'm out this week for a little trip, but will return to the regularly scheduled program on Monday, 10/19.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Information Age

Writing yesterday's post reminded me of how much the internet has changed and will change the skillsets of upcoming generations. Growing up without the internet, I always felt lucky for having two other artist friends, because we really pushed each other to be better artists, and not everyone had that luxury. I've seen other artists' skills progress slowly because they were "the best [and only] artist in their class," and didn't have a reason to strive for more.

But it blows me away that today, kids in art forums mingle and chat with professionals, and consider them peers. Now I see kids (with peers like these) putting out art that in high school that could land them prestigious concept jobs. That's not to say that that skill never appeared before, but the proliferation is what amazes me. I think future generations of kids that love the same things I do are going to be so much better at it. I mean, my access to information and reference growing up was about the size of a McDonalds (if that). I for one welcome my wet-eared overlords.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Everything Bad is Good for You

I recently had a conversation with someone in the industry that really struggled with the question of what value he was bringing to the society. I'm not sure everyone asks this question of their work -- I presume that most people just follow their nose and enjoy making games because they love games -- but does it add anything to society as a whole? Is it worth all of the toil in that sense? I believe so.

I've struggled over the question over art in general, as a self-described artist. I mean, why not be a scientist instead? I don't mean that cynically. I love science, and there's little question about the benefit science has brought society through technology, medicine, etc. But art? What kind of impact has all art by all artists, over time, done the world?

I'll start with a definition of art. Everyone has a different definition, and mine is broad. Art is something created with the purpose of influencing another's emotions. It could be a movie, a song, a building, a conversation with your friend, a cake, a striptease, and yes, even a game. I like a broad definition because I can comprehend the "artistry" involved in those things.

Quality is not a consideration. Many say, "that's not art" about bad art. But it's still art. Intent is a consideration. I would insist that the Mona Lisa was not art if a lion sat on some paint, and then sat on a canvas, and accidentally crafted it. I'd feel bad for being such a dick about it, but if anything capable of emotionally moving someone is art, regardless of intent, then the term is meaningless. Dirt is art. Sunlight is art. For the sake of a useful definition, I prefer to keep that off the table, even if you believe in a higher power.

And because art is about making you experience something, I tend to think of it as limited parcels of experience. The beauty is in its ability to share experience in complete safety. Movies are good at this. They don't have the same value as experiencing it directly, but I get a limited experience of hunting evil, or commanding citizens, or being hunted by someone. And in the traditional plotting of film, I also get to experience overcoming my flaws as a human being to do the right thing, or not doing it and experiencing a harrowing tragedy. It's these experiences, when they really emotionally hit me, that have the power to grant insights into my fellow man, for the better. That's where I see value in the arts.

That empathy is the thing that positively affects society. Map scientific progress to a timeline of humanity and there's an obvious and pleasant story for science. Map art to that timeline and do those experiences even help us? Do we become better society as a result? A more moral society? I believe so. It's the conversations we have with each other through art that increases empathy for each other, that slowly moves societies away from oppression and violence. Which isn't to say there isn't a lot of room for improvement. But I'm rather sure I would be more comfortable traveling through this world than the same one in say, 1000 A.D.

I have science to thank again. Not just because it improves our ability to police wrongdoing, but because it makes the proliferation of art that much more possible. The art that a single channel can generate to change my mind or opinion might be small -- and artists tend to tell and retell the same human stories ad nauseum -- but the number of channels that a wide variety of artists can use to deliver a more custom way of telling that story, and moving me, is now staggering.

And technology made games possible. Games are in their infancy, but I have high hopes for their ability to put you in the shoes of someone else, because it pricks so many senses at once. (And the term "games" get to cheat because they'll always be attached to an experience wherein you have great control over your actions.) As we learn how to manipulate emotions and bring more emotional experiences to you, our ability to have moral lessons will increase, whether they come from a ham fisted story, an abhorrent tragedy, or just an interesting simulation of how the world reacts to your behavior.

I love games and feel good about what they bring society because I feel like I'm pioneering an artform that has great potential to influence with positive and negative stories alike, in relative safety. In my book, games are a welcome pebble in the container of experiences that have the power to -- even if slowly -- improve the human condition.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Musical Toy

Despite my love of technology, I'm not always an early adapter. But lately I've been fascinated by Lala. It may be garbage and someone will explain why I should feel guilty for posting this, but my first impressions are happy:
  1. I can buy DRM-free MP3s there cheaper than Amazon and iTunes.
  2. I can sample any song or album in its collection (in its entirety), once, for free.
  3. I can "upload" my entire music collection (4000+ songs) and stream it through any connected computer (including, presumably, the iPhone).
  4. I can embed and share most music or music playlists wherever I want, regardless of whether I own it, with anyone.
  5. I have the option of buying a web-only (no MP3, but unlimited online access) version of any song for 10 cents (albums are roughly a dollar), and I can buy the MP3 later for cost minus 10 cents.
I just needed to get some marketing tool out of my system. :P I'm headed for the shower... but first, some music!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Skip It Good

The other day, Kotaku linked to a BBC program called Gameswipe that did a feature describing the history of games and where things are at now, and commended them for presenting a rather good view of the state of games. I haven't finished watching it myself, but I've enjoyed what I've seen thus far. One part in particular stood out to me, where comedian Dara O' Briain rags on games for barring content from unskilled players:



Play How You Want
This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as those who know me from work may attest. On previous games, I've tossed out the idea that from the beginning of the game, the player could go to any part of the game and start playing from there, not unlike picking a chapter in a DVD and hitting play. I always enjoyed sharing the idea, partly because the most common initial reaction was so negative. And not because we would have to figure out under the hood how to equip players with items they may not have otherwise earned, and how we handle optional rewards as players jump through the world (though this turned out to be a somewhat simple design challenge, at least for a narrative game). But rather because of concerns that we would ruin the player's sense of accomplishment or skip past our work.

Ruining Accomplishment
This is a noble but I think misguided concern because I believe that if the player has the ability to excise only the part of the game that limits or frustrates him, he won't choose the option to skip past everything. In Candyland, I could move my piece to the end of the board and say, "I win," but that's not why I play Candyland. But if I land on a chute, and landing on a chute makes me want to quit the game, then making an ad hoc rule to be able to stay on chutes lets me enjoy the game instead of stop playing it. That's a good thing.

At the heart of this is "let the player play how they want." That was a very freeing thought presented to me at a GDC, where the speaker (I wish I remember whom) described a concern the designers had about a cheat code being put into the game, and there was a point where he had to ask himself, "why do I care how they have fun with my game?" He just wanted them to have fun with his game. If they were having fun, then great!

That thought has helped me out of many design traps. A lot of design progress can be solved just by thinking about what's fun for players instead of what seems fun for the designer. I think an example of this exists in the move from coin-ops to consoles. Common wisdom was that death and limited continues were good, and it was a bit mind-busting to imagine that someone could just continue limitlessly and just get through the entire game. But coin-ops were made to get you to feed quarters in it, not let you have free experience with their games. Take out that premise with a $50 game you already bought, and you should be operating on a different paradigm. I feel like not giving the players the ability to get past frustrating content is a relic. If a player is faced with the option of quitting your game forever or skipping that content... good god, give them a way through it.

Presentation
And to be fair, the thought can go awry. Clearly part of this is in presentation. If he has a "skip gun" that he can fire at any obstacle in a shooter to instantly kill it, selectable like any other weapon, he might keep choosing it and decide the game is boring, since "skipping content" was integrated into the game itself. The key part in all this is that players are always able to have fun.

Walkthroughs
The other idea that bore out of this line of thinking was to keep players in their seats by offering them a way not only to skip a section that gave them excruciating trouble, but also giving them help along the way. A lot of times a game makes us willing to get up, walk to our computer, look up an FAQ, print it out (or memorize what you need), go back and execute. And it seemed nice to instead just offer them a video relevant to whatever section they're playing, where they can watch a perfect playthrough and just go back to the game and duplicate it.

Feedback
Interestingly, run all of this past non-game developers got positive feedback. A good friend took the idea back to his dinner table and asked his family how they felt about it and found that they all had a different reason for liking it. His oldest boy, the hardcore completionist, just asked whether he could still play through it normally and collect everything in order. He was content as long as he could. The middle boy, the aspiring gamer, asked if it meant he could get past that part he normally has to ask (swallow his pride and) his brother to help him through, and he was pleased to learn that he could, in fact, do that. The youngest boy, who plays games for the "cool parts," like funny movies, asked if he could just go to those parts over and over and just do the stuff he likes. He was happy to learn he could. Finally, his wife asked if that meant she could kind of browse the game and see what kind of content was in it her kids were playing. Yup. Good stuff.

Skipping Content
The last concern about skipping the blood, sweat, and tears we put into the product is much easier to brush aside. The concern should be about whether people are having fun with the blood, sweat, and tears, we put into it. Two other ways to illustrate how bizarre a thought this: first, do authors care that you can access the last chapter of their book? Do film makers care that you can skip to the last part of their movie? You can do either, but it's more fun to go from the start and make your way through it. If you have trouble reading a boring chapter or viewing a gory scene, you can always skip past it. If your implementation of skipping doesn't ruin the experience (re: Presentation) then you're giving the player tools to enjoy what they bought. Second, how weird is it that designers would rather have you buy their game, take the disc out of its container, and smash it on the curb than play through it the way you please?

Too Late?
A year or so after exploring these ideas, Kotaku broke a news story about a patent Miyamoto filed for essentially the same features. A cool addition, however, was the ability to jump into the "playback" of a section and re-take control. I also learned that other games -- I think Alone in the Dark (and I'm sure, others) -- had the feature to skip to any chapter you want from the beginning of the game. I guess I'm only so cool. I just hope it means more people can I enjoy the experiences we toil away to bring them.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Excited for... Monday??

So last night it was getting late and I was putting the finishing touches on some work I was up to, jotting down thoughts about The Game Concept I want to share someday, and I kept thinking about all the stuff I was excited about working on the next day. That day being... a Monday. Being excited about work is one of the greatest joys in life, and one I don't take for granted. I've had the good fortune to do what I love since starting doing games 15 years ago, and it's a trend I hope to continue as long as I possibly can. The future is as dim as ever, but I'll be damned if hasn't been worth keeping my eye fixed intently on the light, and I count those lucky stars whenever I can.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Logo!

Notice anything... er... different... about the site? Playing with logos was a nice way to get familiar with Painter again. I haven't done anything in that program (other than scan drawings for the other blog) for so long, and messing around in layers, smiling my way through their horrible text options (Photoshop would have been much nicer for that), constantly messing up "protect transparency," and mushing brush sliders around was like meeting an old buddy again. Ahh.

Not wanting to spend forever on the logo (and so things match), I used some of the colors from the blog in it. I could have spent longer adjusting the blog's colors to match some Grand Vision in my head, but why bother? I'm sure Google's blog designers spent enough time thinking about color schemes, already. :P

So what's with the feather?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Phoenix Wright

I know I'm late to the table with this one, but I got the first Phoenix Wright for my birthday and thought it would be fun to share some thoughts about the things I play, especially since designers are notorious for designing the last cool thing we played.

For those unfamiliar (like I was) with the style of game, it's essentially what I call a "feedback game," which means it's heavy on fun feedback and light on play mechanics. There are basically two phases to the game: investigation, and a court battle. In investigations, you talk to NPCs (unlocking search objectives or conversations) and examine various environments searching for evidence you can use in court. In court battles, you sift through witness testimonies, press them for information (re: conversation), and try to match pieces of evidence to contradictions in what the NPCs are saying.

But it's brilliant at times. The writing is really great, and there's a lot of it. I was stunned at how much dialog there was -- maybe enough to fit a light kid's novel -- and the characters will really fun. One of the things I couldn't help but be impressed by is how badly you wanted to pin bad guys in the game. They love making the "actual" culprit (rather than the innocent one you're defending) rather obvious, and always devilishly innocent. They'll show how the courts bend to them, how the jury loves them, and they set a trail of getting away with everything they want to, and it just... makes... you... so... ANGRY. Which means -- as it is with a good movie villain -- you are so HAPPY when they go down in flames. You get to watch as their devious shell starts to fade and they get all twitchy and vulnerable in court, until eventually you "get" them and they become enraged, letting it all out and confessing to the crime. It's incredibly satisfying, despite your gameplay involvement being rather thin. But yep, you feel like you get them, and I remember describing the game to Jen by way of the story like, "Ooh! I'm about to finally nail this son of a bitch!" I was into it!

It only fails and frustrates occasionally because of the mind-reading it has to do with the player, and because of some weird arbitrary conditions it sets for evidence. Sometimes I thought the setup for a piece of evidence was vague and I would stumble around randomly matching evidence to statements, which was frustrating. Other times I had perfectly logical reasons for choosing a piece of evidence but it wasn't the the trail of logic the game wanted me to follow. Finally, other times I had to go through particular dialog trees before the evidence I presented would be "correct," and that was irksome to say the least.

But these frustrations (that appeared more towards the latter-half of the game) were completely worth the journey through a really fun game that very often made me feel fully integrated in a really fun story with great characters, and I look forward to playing the next one.

A few tips: if you decide to play it, make sure you press every statement in court, and go through all dialog trees before presenting evidence. Finally, you can save any time you want, so use it. You can always power down and restart if you aren't happy with how you're fairing in court.