Friday, January 29, 2010

Torchlight

I decided to skirt over any Torchlight commentary since there is nearly no commentary. This is because I assume you've already played through, discussed, and enjoyed Diablo II. It's fun in exactly the way Diablo II was; surprisingly, right down to many of the same (similar) sound effects and musical instruments and themes. The tweaks seem minor and generally nice. And it's a pretty. With no multiplayer. And all the other reviews have covered anything else I might say. It's a fun distraction for $20, and I'd recommend it to most, just like I would have Diablo back in the day.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

D'sSs

I just finished Demon's Souls but I'm not sure I feel ready to write about it just yet. It'll probably be a very dense commentary because it pushes to the extreme on nearly every design axis it touches, and it intrigues me that a game with so many game of the year nominations nearly made me quit on more than one occasion. My play experience has simply provoked a lot of thinking, and I spent a chunk of my morning just jotting down notes for later.

But I may do a retro review first. The Angry Video Game Nerd recently reviewed a game I loved as a kid, and that I thought would be fun to write about. If Demon's Souls can get so much attention for its retro design approach, perhaps there are more retro concepts worth consideration.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Short, Feathery, and Sweet

I used to enjoy sending out videos of fascinating animals from our humble planet to help inspire creativity in the design and concept departments on my team. This guy would have been sent for sure. (It's short and sweet.) And have you seen slow starfish in time-lapse before? Awesome.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Impressions?

My good friends (family?) just had a baby boy! A fond welcome to him, and blessings on his eventual quest to help the hobbits escape the Agents to topple the Matrix. :-)

This morning I wondered whether using the label "review" for my rambles gives the wrong impression. Though my purpose is not so much to capture or recommend a play experience as it is to reflect on its construction, there is an element of review in pondering the sum of its parts. I just tend to believe that the oft-lengthy discussion about what knobs and levers I would be tempted to fiddle with that follows makes even the best game seem unenjoyable. Perhaps "impressions" or "breakdowns" are better descriptors.

I'm a little curious if folks enjoy them, too. They take longer to write, but provide some substance until news arrives about my secret doings.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Assassin's Ramble, pt. 4: Odds and Ends

For my final Assassin's Creed 2 post, here are odds and ends that crossed my mind while writing up my previous thoughts:
  • It struck me that Arkham Asylum pulls off the "assassin" vibe better than Assassin's Creed. I feel far more assassin-like when I manage to pick off a thug and get away completely undetected than I ever do chasing a guy through a crowd to stab him. I enjoyed the thought of traveling along the rooftops in a city as in Assassin's Creed, but with Batman's abilities.
  • I hated that NPCs of middling ability were revealed as a group of master assassins by the end of the game. It made me wonder if it would be more interesting to have the Templars very nearly succeeding at wiping out the assassins but in seeking revenge for the death of your father you unravel secrets and rebuild the Creed. In this scenario, you would have been the same rapscallion, but your father is just a kind, non-assassin who ends up being killed as a consequence of association with the Creed. Perhaps the death of your father lures out the assassin (someone else) who is consequently killed. When you seek out meaning and information, you meet the last remaining servant of the Creed who is convinced the order is done for until you carry out a simple mission with starting abilities. This leads to more missions and growth as you eventually accept the mantle of restoring the order.
    • This makes the death of your father more stirring because he can be a purely good man that was a victim of circumstance.
    • It makes your actions less destiny (following your father's footsteps without question) and more choice-driven (like the audience, who must be convinced of this path).
    • Being choice-driven means more incentive for the writers to actually give me meaningful information (to the player and to Desmond) instead of dangling meaningless hints at unanswered conspiracies.
    • Dramatic twists are simpler and more interesting (e.g., you find your family or others at risk by your actions; you are becoming the thing that haunted resulted in your father's death)
    • It makes your actions more meaningful because you are solely responsible for the Creed that you believe is important (at a meta level) but at great risk.
    • Gives simple leverage for a real character arc. The worst thing happens to him (father dying) which causes a moral quandary (anger with those responsible) which is challenged by aspects of revenge (endless cycle), questionable evil (the Templar or myself?), and consequence (danger to family), all of which requires him to accept moral responsibility (for knowledge and ability) to do the right thing in the end.
  • I wondered if combat would be better without a block. Blocking is a very static behavior, and if replaced with a dodge, would have you paying more attention to combat and actively doing something with your controller. If crowds are an issue, I wondered if making dodging possible with character replacing (I dodge at character x, so x and I play an animation where we exchange places) would work.
  • I really don't care about Desmond. I don't understand his stakes, he's not particularly sympathetic, and I don't see how the skills he's learning will have much application unless the enemy keeps carrying stun-batons. I wish they did more to make my actions relevant to his situation. (E.g., perhaps the group that led him to escape didn't know he could pull abilities out of the Animus. He starts to sneak around his building and discovers the "rebels" he is currently with actually have some sinister motives. Perhaps that "other" character in the Animus is someone communicating directly with Desmond to unravel that mystery as opposed to the mystery about Adam & Eve that I think everyone working for the Creed for millennia should already be able to explain to me.)
That wraps it up. Thanks for letting me yap. :-)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Assassin's Ramble, pt.3: Story Immersion

So far, I've described how Assassin's Creed 2 was enjoyable but mostly for its nut-gathering. And that the core mechanic should do more to incentivize being invisible over smashing to immerse you in the roll of an assassin. And that the story, though serviceable, is hardly "game of the year" material, and does quite a bit to hurt immersion.

All leading to this post, which will be about the time AC2 most immersed me, and how more of the same might be the best way to make a transcendent experience.

When Story Worked
There was a section of the game that really worked for me. I'm not sure how best to describe it, but when I first arrived in a "Thieve's Guild" kind of location and was taught how to do high vertical jumps on walls, there was a string of missions that seemed focus on a specific kill target, and where each mission seemed a stage of prep to that kill. This mission-string format was echoed in former and latter sections, but never as well, and were I doing the next AC game, I would find focus on why.

Previously, I described that planning would make me feel more assassin but that building planning gameplay would probably lead to fail-based progression that disrupts immersion. But playing missions with results that build up to an assassination mission makes me feel like I did the preparation and orchestrated its events, even if they play out in a scripted manner; and the last mission should be a final celebration of these actions more than a complicated gameplay task (though one could arise as a twist).

A Proposal
A proposal for a string of missions leading to an assassination might be:
  • Clearly identify the target and obstacle(s) to assassinating it.
  • Have each mission end in overcoming or introducing an obstacle.
  • In the final mission, trigger events that highlight previous mission activities via action or script.
Through the vast majority of play in AC2, I felt disconnected from my assassination target, and did not feel like I was progressing towards it through action rather than completing whatever the game threw in front of me to have the chance for the kill. Some simple rules would help focus on story with few gameplay additions to make you feel like you are orchestrating an assassination. It also follows the structure of the most basic story (protagonist, goal, obstacle to overcome). And to improve the story, you could add more requirements:
  • In each string of missions, require a choice from the assassin (can be scripted; it needn't be the player's choice) needed to overcome his obstacles and near his (assassination) objective, and that highlights (for better or worse) the protagonist's primary internal struggle. (But Desmond's or the assassin's?)
  • In each string of missions, introduce a new obstacle or target in the overall storyline.
Even more requirements -- e.g., that every other assassination be unique -- could also add some nice spice. Having one mission end in poisoning a victim, another driving a carriage to a straightaway towards a cliff, and another in stabbing a cornered villain in an alleyway does more to make me feel like a master assassin than jumping on a guy and stabbing him every time.

Another game I remember pulling off this approach effectively is Sly Cooper 2. The process of implementing story in this way requires planning but the execution is not as costly as re-approaching core gameplay systems; and the result is going a lot further in making me feel like a master assassin.

A few last odds and ends on Monday.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Assassin's Ramble, pt.2: Story Awards

A few disclaimers before I ramble a bit more: the standard one, and a SPOILER ALERT.

A Digression
In my last post, I mentioned that assassination gameplay should do more to incentivize stealthy kills over running and gunning, but that the planning aspect of assassination might be better served in story. I'm going to elaborate, but first I need to ramble about the story in general.

A Rant
Kotaku recently mentioned AC2's story in its own and others' awards now, and it kinda boggles my mind. The raves have me worried that I just don't get it. Maybe it's true, but I have to rant. The writing isn't bad, I like writers, and writing is so critical to the growth of gaming, but its for this last reason that I dislike seeing anything but the best gaming has to offer get an award like this.

So how is it getting so much positive attention?
  • The story seems fundamentally flawed in that it begins and ends as Desmond's story, but the character you play is Ezio (or Altair in AC1). When you jump back to Desmond, it's hard to care and it often ruins the game immersion. This is even with out-of-game characters talking to you and giving you information.
  • Worse yet, none of your in-game actions seem to have anything immediately relevant to do with what is going on in the outside world (see incoherent story, below).
  • Worse yet, Desmond doesn't grow in any emotional way, which I thought was the point of a story.
  • Worse yet, neither did Ezio. And neither did any other character in the story as far as I remember.
  • I appreciate that they tried by having you present at the death of your family, but they don't really set up the father as sympathetic or helpless enough for it to hurt. I think trying to suggest that your father was one of these "master assassins" actually worked against the character. As far as I could tell, he ignored his family to play master assassin and put everyone in danger, and I was never convinced that neither he nor I couldn't foresee or stop the situation somehow.
  • The way Ezio grew circumstantially (instead of emotionally) was also unconvincing. He seemed to become a master assassin with little-to-no effort, and by the end of the game, I had no idea why the other supposed assassins relied on him so.
  • The conspiracy plot was incoherent. Maybe digging through obscure symbology or existing conspiracies (?) counts as fan service but the whole Adam & Eve thing struck me as lazy nonsense. Throwing up historical images like the moon-landing and adding symbols to them to piece together an unrevealing cinematic isn't good storytelling? Is it?
  • The involvement of historical figures seemed like a fanboy wet dream rather than an interesting integration. You meet Leonardo da-frickin Vinci and he cracks codes, upgrades weapons, and builds a one-mission flying machine? Is that really the most interesting thing you can do with him?
  • Characters seemed to jump in and out of the story randomly only to be completely forgotten about later. I actually bothered to be intrigued when I met interesting characters only to have Ezio completely ignore them (or the writers disregard them completely) for the rest of the story. Fewer characters that actually grew would have been more satisfying.
  • The reveal that everyone I worked with was an assassin made me groan. At no point in the story did they seem that competent, and to see them leaping off of towers just like Ezio came across as a non-sequitur. Yeesh.
Despite my complaints, there are good moments to expand on. But I spent too much time on this post, so I'll post some thoughts on improving the experience via story tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Assassin's Ramble, pt.1: Core Gameplay

About three posts ago, I mentioned wanting to ramble a bit more about Assassin's Creed. This is that ramble, and my disclaimer applies.

Improving the Experience
The reason I hesitated to write about improving the experience is because thoughts were not exactly forthcoming. At a glance, AC2 has fundamental flaws working against story immersion and core gameplay, and the game is just so large and complicated.

Gameplay
The problem with gameplay is that the core of the experience is being an assassin, but I put far too little thought into the preparation or act of it.

Arguably, murdering someone should be a simple matter for someone of Ezio's caliber. Making the act of killing simple is not necessarily a mistake given the character, at least once he reaches maturity. (Did anyone else find it weird how quickly he became the de facto master assassin?) So should this have more meat mechanically? Perhaps less so in action and more in the systems that surround it. The truth is, the mystique of the assassin is often not met because there are no systems that motivate stealth gameplay over running-and-gunning. Oddly, the opposite is sometimes true (e.g., you have to spend money to get NPCs to distract guards, while murdering them all in plain sight and robbing a bank is faster and less costly). And this is not necessarily an issue of the combat system. Combat is a bit boring but I disassociate it with assassination, and is probably not a core enough feature to spend a lot more energy on.

So what about preparation? In both Assassin's Creeds, assassination involved little more than starting up the latest mission, going to a location, chasing down my target, and running away recklessly. The issue with this lack of strategy is that I hardly see the reason to be stealthy, subtle, or wait time to assassinate anyone, and it highlights that most of what I'm doing between major plot points is just nonsense. But the problem with planning is that immersion snaps when plans fail and you redo missions, with all of the pieces set right back in place again (and making this dynamic is extremely difficult).

The solution, then, may have less to do with adjusting the core mechanic. More can and probably should be done to motivate actions that embrace the mystique of the assassin (stealthy murder) over the smack-and-go actions that you default to without consequence. But a more effective approach to improve immersion may simply be to improve the reasons behind the busywork leading up to each kill.

This means story. More on that next.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Messing with AI

I apologize for the late post. I've begun playing around with AI and it's hard to tear myself away from it. I finally have something in my environment (other than the avatar) that looks alive, and it's been a little too much fun.

The disclaimer post I wrote yesterday was to in part enable the completion of my Assassin's Creed 2 thoughts. Linking to it in future posts should allow me to spend less time disclaiming and more time making an ass out of myself.

And Torchlight and Bayonetta are finished ready for comments, too. Demon's Souls is in the hopper, and impressions began this morning while I scanned for malware that had my computer mildly horked. Despite having plenty of time to prepare myself for the Demon's Souls experience as described in countless reviews, I've still been blindsided by how aggravating and compelling it is. I sometimes say the more I curse-loudly-but-still-play, the better my experience. We'll see how it plays out.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A Disclaimer

I'm writing this post to reference in reviews and critiques, because I know easy it is to have ideas, and how hard it is to make them work. When I talk about games, my thoughts won't account for hundreds of factors that go on in day-to-day development, and that they may have been tried, and failed. Ideas are cheap, and many of mine are bad, but I try not to let it stop me from sharing. I share because new ideas spawn from discussions, and I never know when one of those, when applied, might be rad.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Silly...

I feel uncomfortable leaving my Assassin's Creed ramblings alone without expanding on them. I want to think out loud but hesitate to write bad ideas. I need a permanent disclaimer to remove self-consciousness. Ugh.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Assassin's Ramble, pt.0: Axe Grinding

I read today that Assassin's Creed 2 sold 6 million copies and the author mentioned how deserving the game was of its fortune. Reading the comments I saw posts like,
"I realized after the ending that. for me, this was the best game I had played all decade. Good combat, great exploration, great subsystems... all serving ambitious storytelling."
and it triggered something in me. It deserves its success and I would be proud to be part of its development, but its 90+ metascore seems misplaced. I think Assassin's Creed 2 is very good, but rather overrated.

There are good things about it. As one of the people that embraced the first flawed game, it was partly because moving around is just so much fun. I rather like the way he connects with his environment, and the tech behind it impresses me. He doesn't get around as fast or as freely as others but for games attempting to match its detail level and sense of traversal competence, few others make movement as enjoyable. And as in Prince of Persia, when you rapidly interpret your surroundings and start to move fast, it feels amazing. But unlike Prince of Persia, AC1 rarely funnels you into movement challenges that highlight these accomplishments; AC2 thankfully adds more opportunities (in crypts and collection) for it.

But the real difference between AC1 and AC2 is simply collection. Movement in AC1 is nuanced but in an open environment, mostly serves to get from point A to B. Kills are enjoyable but more opportunities are needed. But collection sometimes requires painfully-long travel for sparse rewards with little tangible gains. So it was overhauled for AC2: more warps reduce travel, added collectibles (codexes, crypts, buildings, treasures, glyphs, equipment, etc.) give more to do, and increased usefulness (upgrades, income) completely dominated the obsessive compulsive in me.

AC2 was enjoyable, but it bothers me that nut-gathering made it worthy of such fuss. Yes, it means more opportunities to highlight movement and killing, but movement is not the point, and killing remains thin. Collection is powerful, satisfying, and perhaps even necessary, but overrated as a measure of high quality. And the elements that mark the best of the best, like great story immersion and gameplay nuance, were absent from my Assassin's Creed 2 experience.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Blind Spots

I outright spaced my daily update whilst cleaning code in a kind gesture to my Future Self, that he might one day understand what the hell Past Self was doing. This bookkeeping appeals to the realm of mind known as Anal Retentia, a pleasant destination away from the hair-pulling (now not-so) secretly going on as I attempt to grasp the staggering consequences of online game scripting. Should I be concerned that I love my visits to this obsessive place? Indeed.

Speaking of mind realms, I often hear laments about the areas in life where one feels particularly vulnerable to loss of control -- a control "blind spot," if you will -- and was reminded of my own particular vulnerability to "not going to bed."

This is not an issue of insomnia, mind you -- my heart goes out to the insomniacs that justifiably ignore my woes -- but rather an outright dislike of halting pursuits for something as petty as sleep. It never occurs to me that I'm less likely to observe or retain input, and awake more poorly prepared to enjoy it the next day; I just resent not being able to go on forever.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Critter Crunch

I just realized that I plowed through Critter Crunch without saying anything about it. It was fun; a solid, small-to-mid-sized game with strong single-player, steady progression, and tons of heart.

An oddity in play was that so many variants are introduced on the board that it almost makes the game seem thin -- as if the developers felt the base wouldn't hold up. Perhaps if having all the modifiers present at once was an exception rather than rule, and the game focused on game "sets" comprised of base mechanics and one-or-two modifiers that are particularly interesting together then I would feel like I had time to build up one or multiple masteries and enjoy a greater sense expertise.

But even if the game were thin, it plays its cards very well. It has a wondrous heart, there are tons of fun puzzles and challenges to solve, and the multiplayer is quit fun. It was money well-spent.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yesss! (Pt.2)

On Friday evening, I was able to play my recently-constructed game prototype over the internet. Way cool. Lots of kinks to work out, but this is one of those seminal events that deserves its own post; the dramatic sequel to Yesss!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ugh...

One day you're flying high and the next you're getting your ass kicked a la script. I was hoping it would be a simple matter to go from working-on-LAN to working-on-online; oh what a fool. I've been thiiis close for three days now.

Unity has some pretty basic code for finding games via a master server and I've made the simplest test I can think of from example scripts. Everything looks like it should connect -- I can talk to a master server -- I just don't know why it won't take my host registration, or if it is, why I can't acquire the registration list. Maybe ripping more hair out and eating it will help. Poor noob.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Marvelous Critters

On my last game at Disney, it was the responsibility of artists and designers to dream up all kind of fantastic critters and in most cases, the best place to turn to for unfathomably compelling (even rapturous) physiology that challenges our conceptions of reality is nature itself. If I found a video highlighting some breathtaking features of fauna, it was my duty to pass it on, and the habit is still ingrained in me. Last night I was watching videos from a BBC show called Animal Camera. I started with a vid that hitch a ride on some awesome birds, but other animals are featured in other vids in the series. Do see.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Moddage

One of the interesting things about getting out of huge games has been discovering all of the things going on in gaming that I was perhaps willfully ignorant of. In the early days of development, I avidly devoured any morsel of gaming information no matter how large or small, but there must have been a point where the returns on following smaller moves had little bearing on my day-to-day, or when the few exceptions rose to the top and found their way to me anyway.

Now, after grabbing the reins of my fate, kicking income to the curb, and being more strategic in information and entertainment consumption, I find my eyes opening up again and embarrassedly enjoying the proverbial parties people have been throwing without me. The one I stumbled on today was via an article on Kotaku notifying everyone of "The Mod of the Year Awards" hosted at Mod DB. I may have visited but definitely noticed it with new eyes, and it amazes me how many great game-making efforts are going on out there. Now I regret auctioning off so many games to get rid of clutter, as I need to dig up a copy of Deus Ex and Crysis to try some Nameless Mod or Mechwarrior: Living Legends, the former of which, based on the praise, is something I probably already should have know about.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Playthinks

This has been one of the more meager falls I've had in terms of actual game playing, despite putting solid hours into Uncharted 2, Critter Crunch, Modern Warfare 2, and now Assassin's Creed. The list of games I still need to assimilate is long, with a long tail of stuff that only moderately interests me, a few things that demand to be played now, and stuff on the future that are still TBD. Following is my "top" list of play order, through March, with a blurb about expectation (and potential misconceptions).
  1. Bayonetta, the hype is nuts but Kamiya blows me away.
  2. God of War 3, will it be too much of the same?
  3. BioShock 2, does it have more to offer?
  4. Demon's Souls, design nuance and difficulty? Yes, please.
  5. Torchlight, it's been awhile since Diablo.
  6. Machinarium, something beautiful to fill my gaming soul.
  7. Darksiders, the little action game that could.
  8. Dragon Age: Origins, if the story hooks me...
  9. Mass Effect 2, if the story hooks me...
  10. Borderlands, how did FPS + Diablo work out?
Negative buzz could drop games, and positive buzz could add some mental wildcards, like Splinter Cell and Lost Planet 2 onto the list. The list is always changing -- everything below Machinarium seems particularly vulnerable -- and it seems nuts how many things not on there might just fall into the void...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Yesss!

For the past few weeks I've been trying to get the game prototype I've been working on co-op playable over a LAN network via Unity scripts. (Remember, I hadn't scripted a damned thing before October.) Last night it finally worked the way I intended, and my laptop was playing the game with my desktop, and the two players' actions could be seen on each others screens over my wi-fi network at home. I'm dancing around all giddy and excited right now. Next stop? The intarwebz.