Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Christmas

I'm going on break until New Years rolls around. I hope you've enjoyed my blather as much as I've enjoyed sharing it. Have a good 2010, everyone. Enjoy the loot. :)

Speaking of Emotion...

Every once in awhile some random online clip will knock me off my feet. This time it was by a short (documentary) about a guy's last moments with his dog. Not festive, perhaps, but there's beauty in the pain that binds people together, right? You've been warned!

Modern Warfare 2.3 - Multiplayer & Reviews

This is the sixth and final part of a multi-part Modern Warfare 2 review.

Multiplayer & Reviews
My last comment on Modern Warfare 2 is short: sometimes I wish the multi- and single-player experiences of games were more-commonly separated in reviews because gamers often buy games for one experience over the other. My review is of the single-player experience of Modern Warfare 2 but I have friends who have-played and will-only-play multiplayer.

For gamers that love both play types, I know the game offers a lot of bang for the buck, and that should be represented. There is, at least, a lot of love behind the creation of its single-player campaign. But I've noticed a lot of games that have rather weak single-player experiences get stellar reviews seemingly based on their multiplayer alone. In fact, I've also seen stellar single player experiences get way less credit for having "merely" solid multiplayer. This is a grudge I've been holding for awhile, but I was always disappointed seeing the brilliant Half-Life 2, for example, get critically overshadowed by Halo 2, which almost nothing to the table outside of the multiplayer arena. But I digress.

Perhaps with all the hoopla over Modern Warfare 2, I'm reminded of this dynamic. There's something fantastic going on in the story when death and cinematics don't disconnect you, but these can be serious problems. I mentioned that it was a craps shoot for me, and it made me wonder if Plunkett rolled badly since his comments in 2009's disappointments sounded like my complaints about the original Modern Warfare. Given the extremely high scores of the game, I have to wonder if good multiplayer is a much bigger part of the review equation, which is kind of a bummer to folks like me.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Modern Warfare 2.2 - Novelty & Story

This is the fifth part of a multi-part Modern Warfare 2 review.

Novelty & Story
Infinity Ward puts a lot of energy into the presentation of their games, and MW2's game director, Keith Arem, is even working on a full-fledged film. So what kind of impression did the story leave on me?

It seemed uneven. The cinematics were incoherent, and only sullied the amazing emotion and novelty of its in-game moments. This is your only warning: BIG SPOILERS AHEAD!

It's unfortunate that cinematics are a problem. Where most games do a better job producing cinematics than producing emotionally arresting play, MW2 commendably does the opposite but still leaves me wanting. Because the locations and events of each scenario in the game are so jarringly different, the cinematics become important for gluing together events. But the dialogue and visuals do little to set up the why behind each level scenario. At best, they successfully describe the gist of missions (e.g., you are an inside-man so keep up appearances; or you were betrayed so the Russians have been turned against us) but do little to distinguish the reasons behind my locale and mission (e.g., why am I in an airport gunning down civilians, exactly; or why am I climbing up a snowy cliff into a Russian base, exactly). If these were explained, they slipped by me, and I walked away with the same disjointed experience I did in Modern Warfare (1).

The connection I had in play, however, was often great. I may not have understood why I was in an airport, but watching "allies" I'm supposed to be support for the sake of a disguise gun down civilians, and expect me to do the same for appearances, was powerful, and made the moment of betrayal, when my "allies" kill me, all the more wrenching. And when NPCs help me scale cliffs and invade bases together, and -- when I pay attention to orders -- help me survive difficult scenarios, they become real characters that I am emotionally invested in and wanted to see survive. Like the Uncharted or Half-Life 2 teams, I feel the Infinity Ward team is pushing the bleeding edge of emotional resonant characters in narrative-driven games. As much as you aren't pushed out of it by constant frustration in death, there is powerful emotion behind the Modern Warfare experience.

Novelty is the last thing worth mentioning. I remember Peter Jackson saying that as a director, it was his duty to give audiences something they have never seen before. I think the same thing is true of game designers. Though having a gun pulled on me and getting shot in the face or watching in a Ghillie suit reveal themselves was something I had already seen, there were so many other situations and settings I had not, with such high-fidelity. I loved climbing snowy cliffs, storming ruined capitol buildings, being lifted out of an exploding prison on a zipline, murdering civilians to maintain a secret identity, and just stopping to stare at one of the most beautifully rendered mountains I've seen in a game.

One final comment on multiplayer and reviews in the next and last installment...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Modern Warfare 2.1.2 - D&I Ideas

This is the fourth part of a multi-part Modern Warfare 2 review.

Disclaimer: as in other reviews, I consider design solutions to perceived gameplay problems below. They are shared without knowing whether others experience the same problems or that they would even be feasible during game development, but I greatly enjoy thinking about design in this context and discussing it regardless.

Death & Immersion Ideas
In the last installment, I mentioned how awesome the Modern Warfare experience is when playing the role expected of me, but that I often instead feel like I'm going through the motions, dying repeatedly until I stumbled upon what the designers want me to do.

One problem mentioned was that I have difficulty reading my situation in the chaos, which led me to consider making the actions I'm supposed to take clearer in each scenario. For example, the designers could ensure the voice of my commanding officer is always clear, or paint better markers on the screen to lead me, or give me clearer introductions to combat situations with fly-throughs. But this seems a bad idea since being lost in the chaos of war can be an important part of the combat experience, and it does little to address my other big disruption, which was to follow my gamer habit of "doing my own thing."

Upon further thought, I wondered if a better idea was to simply alter my expectations at game start, giving me the mentality of a soldier. Again, if you have a design pill you know players will have to swallow (e.g., dying muchly) then introduce it early; if the success of your players lies in ignoring their game habits and obeying orders then introduce that up front as well.

The training course at the start of Modern Warfare should not just teach me how to use the controller and manipulate weapons, but how to focus on commands. If it featured an officer whose commands meant life or "training-course death" -- who reinforced, out-loud, with in-game commentary that focusing on commands in the thick of combat will determine your ultimate success or failure -- I think it would help me understand the rules the designers want me to play by and help immerse me in the Modern Warfare experience.

For the following installments, just a quick comment on story, and then on multiplayer and reviews.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Modern Warfare 2.1.1 - Death & Immersion

This is the third part of a multi-part Modern Warfare 2 review.

Death & Immersion
I like that Modern Warfare 2 gets me acclimated to death early, and it's clearly something the designers are okay with having in their experience, but whether I stay in the experience feels like a crapshoot.

A justification the designers may have for constant death (other than funneling me down a predictable path) is that it makes me feels the danger and waste of war that an actual soldier might feel in battle. In the Omaha Beach sequence in Medal of Honor my constant deaths gave me a sense of futility that gave me a stronger emotional connection to films depicting the same scene; that whether you were one of the few that survived or the many that died felt like the most sickeningly random of outcomes. Planned or not, I think there is merit to the idea of death enhancing immersion in this regard.

In Modern Warfare, however, the experience feels different. Typically, I have a difficult time reading the situation in the chaos and find myself trying random acts of progression, almost always met with death, until I can decipher what it was the designers intended for me to do. And being killed as I try random actions until landing on the one designers wanted does not instill the experience of war. Though elements like having to read information in the chaos of a situation might also reflect battle, there are a couple things that act against the experience as intended:

First, I don't have military training. A soldier might go through a lot of training to break that pesky sense of individualism and build the habit of taking orders.

Second and related, in games, I am trained to do the exact opposite. My play experiences assure my ultimate control over situations, and that my out-of-the-box choices will probably be supported and successful. It seems unwise to completely ignore the basic assumptions an average player might make about the game. A particularly bad situation that happens not-infrequently is that my gameplay habits succeed, allowing me to survive in a way the designers never intended, only to be met by artificial constraints in the environment created to safeguard against these breaks in the rules. Breaking understood rules of the game ("play it their way") and having the illusion falter upon doing so is tolerable, but playing under a misunderstanding of the rules ("Play it my way") and having the illusion falter after executing "a good idea" does a lot to ruin your connection.

But I think the experience of combat chaos and the importance of coordination can work. Indeed, when you focus on commands and perform your role within the squad -- the experience is immersive and exhilarating. So assuming you want players to have that, how can design help? Some ideas in the next installment...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Modern Warfare 2.1.0 - Bad News Fast

This is the second part of a multi-part Modern Warfare 2 review.

Dying disconnects me from the Call of Duty experience more than any other thing, and it's interesting to see how and why. I'm always surprised by how much of my death I can take, how it gives and takes from my experience, and how the designers use it to control my behavior. And I like considering ways it might be improved.

Bad News Fast
I learned an interesting lesson about how dying affects immersion when playing Metroid Prime for the GameCube. The game was easy for the most part and -- beyond a few transgressions at game start -- enjoyable. But about 2/3 of the way through the game I died in a difficult boss fight, and was yanked right out of the experience. What just happened? Where am I? What now? I was pissed, and found myself in "chore mode", where I just wanted to get past the serious transgression, and it better not happen again soon.

Why this bothered me so much was of interest because I've played so many games wherein I die over and over again and still enjoy myself. What made death in Metroid Prime so annoying and death in Call of Duty acceptable seemed to be a matter of timing. Introduce death up front and I unconsciously accept it as part of the game experience. If you have a design pill you know is bitter but plan to use anyway, introduce it and let me adjust to it early.

I think it's good that they introduce death early in Call of Duty. But it still messes with me. More on that next...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Modern Warfare 2.0

This is the first part of a multi-part Modern Warfare 2 review.

The Call of Duty series -- or more specifically, the series of games put out by the team behind Infinity Ward -- intrigues me because on the one hand it seems to push the boundaries of game narratives, but on the other always makes choices about game cues and death that either (a) build up to give me an awesome-slash-boring experience, or (b) train me fast enough to have a rather good time. Which one is a coin toss, but I was lucky enough to win the lotto and have a rather good experience in Modern Warfare 2, and I wanted to think and write about it to press out some design insights.

I plan to chew over the following topics in coming parts.
  • Death & Immersion
  • Novelty & Story
  • Multiplayer & Reviews

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thoughts and Stuff

Today is a happy day, so why not reflect? The past few months have felt like a year to me, but it has been amazing. Regarding the blog, writing and sharing on a daily basis can sometimes be taxing but I love trying to share a piece of my mind every day and the feedback I get makes it worth it. Scripting has been impossibly rewarding. The other day I used my new skills to rough in a concept that's skirted my mind lately, and being able to -- in two days, from absolute scratch -- build up a playable representation of presentation and controls (some sophisticated) was incredibly empowering. The slice of game is promising enough that I plan to continue on it. The many things I have yet to learn, like A.I., web-browser functionality, and multiplayer, are all exciting treks I can't wait to bear out. When it's time to share more I will -- I'm still in the learning phase -- but I wanted to gush for a bit, and say thanks for following along.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Brainfeed

I have Critter Crunch and Modern Warfare 2 to write about, but it's as fun to share what my brain is snacking on. Most recently, this BBC special about risks associated with our rising population. It was immensely enjoyable and compelling to me, though I would probably say the same of a two hours tumbleweed if David Attenborough were kind enough to narrate. I dare you to not enjoy it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Me v. Me

As of this post, I have as many posts as my other blog. I need to post some new drawings...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ignite SLC

A drawing buddy, Jason Alderman, turned me on to Ignite, a local event wherein speakers spend 5 minutes discussing a passion with 20 PowerPoint slides that automatically progress each 15 seconds. The format works for me, where uninteresting ideas are over soon enough, and the most interesting encourage further exploration. Jason did a nice presentation of the format, and you can watch more via the Ignite homepage if your curiosity is piqued.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Muramasa, Pt.3

This is the third and final part of my three-part Muramasa review. [Part 1] [Part 2]

Ideas
It saddened me to see all of the nuance and interest in the core design get swept under the rug to make it accessible to a less skillful audience, but what could they have done about it? Below are toolbox thoughts that struck me during play.

I wondered if the game would be interesting for both high and low-level players if having sword choices matter in more gross ways. For example, if enemies had broad elemental weaknesses (acid, fire, ice, wind etc.) that gave you big advantages or disadvantage when pairing certain weapons against them, then you could give the player several interesting choices without requiring new core combat animations or AI. Since the main character can carry three weapons, the player could equip three different weapons advantageous against three different elemental types, or perhaps offer stacked bonuses for equipping three of the same type of weapon. Now each battle could be based around a single weakness or multiple weaknesses, and having a sword break (they recharge when using another sword, FYI) or not break means more to the outcome of play. Having skill to overcome a weakness in your equipment is now still valuable for the high-end player, but a low-end player can still overcome the problem through interesting choice and advancement. Additionally, you can add inherent bonuses rewards for defeating enemies with the element they are strong against to encourage (but not require) high-end play. Tons of options then become available to the designers, including advancement parsed between swords and elements, between purchasable advancement and drops, and with lots of variables added (base swords vs. swords with upgrades, swords with slots for elemental upgrades, food used to raise element levels or grant elemental bonuses, etc.).

Perhaps many of these thoughts may not have worked in practice. Regardless, I applaud the designers for making a high-end game that was deeply enjoyable when limiting yourself (or when the challenges happened to be exceptionally hard). I loved Muramasa, but wished it had more to offer in the "easy to learn" part of "easy to learn and hard to master." I wonder if the game would have been better served by limiting itself to the "hard to master" audience, and truly wish I could recommend the game it as much as I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Muramasa, Pt.2

This is the second part of my three-part Muramasa review. [Part 1] [Part 3]

The Bad
Though actions in Muramasa feel responsive, control is an issue. Since the game offers a full move set with only one attack button, variety exists via subtle differences in button press order, timing, or direction on the left analog thumbstick that frequently overlap and cause you to perform attacks you don't intend. I think of myself as a gamer with stronger-than-average reaction time and precision but even after playing the game for 40 hours, I regularly performed moves I didn't mean to, sometimes at high cost in particularly difficult side challenges.

Advancement exists in the game in the form of purchasing new swords that grant different special attacks, and when you first open the advancement tree, you get a bit frightened because of the wealth of choices that seem to be available to you. Unfortunately, this never works out in practice. You are rather limited in choice at any moment, and generally have more than enough money to buy every sword available to you at each phase of the game.

Story presentation is also problematic. You can see that pride was taken in its presentation, but the story was difficult to follow, with lots of names and places thrown at you to track and very little information about what was driving the heroes. I don't know how much of this came from translation issues or lack of familiarity with Japanese myth, but my enjoyment was affected. Finally and unfortunately, though you get to choose a starting character, the default (Momohime Jinkuro) is less interesting (than Kisuke), and most people will stop fighting after completing her storyline ends. Though Kisuke was mostly a rinse-and-repeat experience, he had a much more interesting story (and boss fights).

But perhaps my biggest beef with Muramasa is that there are no interesting choices to make for less skilled players. And by providing healing and powerups to make the design-as-planned accessible to a wide audience, the game loses the subtlety and interest built into the core mechanics. Bosses can be very rewarding when you restrict yourself (e.g., trying defeat them without using healing potions) and have to master some of the depth in combat, but all subtlety is lost when you can slog through the fight spamming attack and downing healing potions as you get low.

This may be preferable to requiring precision and patience and losing most of your audience (or is it? Didn't Ninja Gaiden do rather well?) but it made me wonder what things could have been done (in hindsight) to add interesting choices for lower-level play that have a gross affect on the game without changing many game assets or removing reward for high-precision skill.

More on that thought in the third and final part...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Muramasa, Pt.1

This is the first part of my three-part Muramasa review. [Part 2] [Part 3]

Last week I capped off Muramasa and ate up Modern Warfare 2, and thought it a good idea to write a few words about the former. I spent 40 hours playing Muramasa, and it was an interesting play experience partly because I had such a good time with it, and partly because I'm so reticent to recommend it to anyone else.

The Good
The first and perhaps most obvious thing to mention about Muramasa is that it is drop-dead gorgeous. I never gave Odin Sphere much patience (something I might want to remedy) but was impressed at how beautiful it was, and Muramasa is really no different. Watching sprites shift around like a moving painting was really a joy, and it's almost unfortunate that -- like most amazing visuals -- once you acclimate to them they blend into the background of your experience. Simply having such a great visual feast gives you the sense that this game was a labor of love, and as most gamers will attest, that's a wonderful thing to have in a game.

The next thing I noticed was how responsive the controls felt. Time between action intent and action is fast and makes you feel very effective and powerful, impacting multiple targets with a single strike. Muramasa's core actions are satisfying. You can perform basic combos, low attacks, dashes (on the ground, and through enemies in the air), popups, sword-breakers, dodges, and double jumps.

And enemies can press hard on these abilities, making practice against them rewarding. Bosses usually have unique attack patterns that can grant you big advantages with careful study, so there's a real sense of expertise that comes with investigating the game, which gives you many scenarios to both press on these skills and reward you for them.

So why so many reservations? Stay tuned...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Something more substantial...

Next week. I'm excited to write up some thoughts on Muramasa, which I just finished, but things have been really, really hazy this week. I feel like my brain is evaporating, with too many things slipping the radar. Am I just getting stir crazy?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lord of the Ants

I finally got around to watching a movie on my list for several months and wanted to mention it, a Nova show about the life of E.O. Wilson. It encouraged me to positively reflect on my life, my field, and the legacy you want to leave as a human being, and was a real inspiration. Give it a look see.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Remember to Eat

Today's post is supah late since I took it easy today. I wasn't balancing myself and the stress and focus got the better of me. It seemed like a time to fill up my happy meter. It's amazing how intense one's focus can be, to the point of having to remind myself to do simple things like keep warm and eat. Else I get a little weird.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Movement is Gud

For no particular reason I was puzzling over Batman again this morning. Its combat was simplistic but really engaging, and one reason is because they nail the basics of action -- thinking about position and pressing different buttons in response to the enemy -- but another is how much movement is incorporated in combat. Over the years, I've come to believe that movement is a real boon to most avatar move set design, and just the simple addition of scooting Batman towards his next target before nailing him (perhaps initially added just to reduce frustration with targeting) really makes you feel more exhilarated.

Nowadays, I consider "movement good" a core design principle. Novel movement, like flying, grappling, gliding, running on walls, grinding on rails, skiing down hills (Tribes!) or curling up into a little ball and rolling through tubes are really fun. Even if you're doing something that doesn't normally require a lot of movement (like attacking someone with a sword swing) is better if it has a slight scoot. And things that slow you down, like blocking, slow climbing, slow ledge-grabbing, slow tight-rope walking, or slow scooting around the edge of a wall can really bother the player.

A lot still needs to be done with any avatar move set to get it feeling great. Just adding movement has little value unless it feels responsive and gives you proper feedback (e.g., the run in Gears of War is not much greater than normal speed, but it feels much greater because of the shaky cam and wider field of view). And like any rule, there are good times to break it (e.g., hiding in the shadows in a stealth or horror game as a guard passes by you). But in my opinion, movement is an extremely useful tool for gauging interesting or uninteresting avatar actions, and a good thought to have in my design toolbox.