Friday, July 30, 2010

OOOooo

Ethan shared a little something that turned out to be, like, one of the coolest things of all month. An experience that trumps many games'. Do look!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Samus Croft

I was reading another article from Kotaku that expressed concerns about the upcoming Metroid, and it reminded me of a long-held sadness regarding the Tomb Raider series. When Tomb Raider and Mario 64 were introducing us to the world of 3D platformers, their approaches were very different. Mario 64 excelled in that Nintendo, breezy-and-addictive way, but Tomb Raider was an experience that immersed and affected me deeply.

It was the loneliness and silence that made Tomb Raider so great. These qualities made me feel like I was exploring untouched parts of the world deep within the earth, and only had my own wits and skill to get out of a situation. And Lara was a vulnerable character, that despite having confidence with guns, still got mauled by bears or wolves, and occasionally misread a jump only to fall horribly to her death, her body twisted at strange angles with no one in the world to see it. The net result made moments like the appearance of the Tyrannosaur or the pounding of your heartbeat in the alien ship that much more unnerving.

But then Tomb Raider 2 came out, and it seemed whichever hand most influenced the title was convinced that it was successful because Lara Croft was a dual-wielding sex bomb that murdered mercenaries by the thousands. The Tomb Raider experience was gone, and I'm not sure it ever came back. Hopefully, the new Metroid avoids this.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Confirmation Bias

On Kotaku, one of their writers wrote up their Starcraft II single-player impressions, and it reminded me enough of my comments yesterday to make a "see?" post. I still look forward to the game, but another friend mentioned to me today that a big part of their interest in the game was the cinematics. I'm not calling out the game; I'm only curious how many others feel the same way I do. Diablo III, however, gets me stupid excited.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

R-T-Esses

I wish I was as excited about StarCraft 2 as the rest of the planet. It's been a long time since I've gotten excited about an RTS. Something about how important build order is, and how long it takes to resolve an inevitable conclusion, whether it be success or failure. I mentioned SF yesterday, and I suppose multiplayer shooters are in a similar boat, in that both feature rapid results based on my skill level as a player. StarCraft takes skill, but I hate the long, drawn-out nature of matches, even "fast" ones.

But it's been a long time, and I look forward to checking it out, particularly the single-player campaign. Oh, and the cinematics. Drool.

Monday, July 26, 2010

So...

Does anyone else play Street Fighter, or just me? I luv it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

P-Day?

I just realized that no update went up on Friday. Here in Utah, the locals celebrate Pioneer Day, and because Jen had the day off, I was in a similar mindset. Anyway, happy P-Day, even if you have no investment innit.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Mario?

I'm not sure why I mentioned reviewing Mario Galaxy 2. Other than an interesting opener that eases you from 2D to 3D gameplay, it's Mario Galaxy with a couple more abilities and a slightly improved (less wandering) hub-world. The first playthrough is fun, and it has varied and interesting level design that benefits from its kitchen sink approach to theme. And if you have few game options and want something that lasts, this one provides via objects the level designers are hiding from you in a second playthrough of the game; not my thing, but yeah. If you've already played a lot of 3D Mario games, it feels awesome-slash-boring.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Heavy Rain, Pt.7: Final Thoughts

I think Heavy Rain is an important game, yet I understand how some may never get into the game, either for the particular story it tells, or because control, especially at the onset of the game, can break your connection to it quite severely.

There were times that the control had me yelling at my TV in frustration, completely yanked out of the deeper experience I had moments before, but the game is important because it shows how simple gameplay mechanics juxtaposed with context-sensitivity can involve you in a character. It shows how high production forks in story can help make moral choices extremely meaningful. And it raises interesting questions about the nature of its story, and how well the illusion of consequence can be pulled off when the range of emotion is much wider, as it is in games like Mass Effect.

If nothing else, limited control and heavy context makes Heavy Rain an intriguing experiment in game narrative. Perhaps liking it says something about me as a gamer. It delivered better than any BioWare game on the promise of emotional connection in storytelling. I thought about Warren Spector while playing it, who still dreams about creating one last, important game that makes you feel genuine emotion but lets you play the way you want. The range of play in Heavy Rain is less flexible than he might ever approve, but there is a branching storyline with a ratio of production value greater, I bet, than many will achieve with a broader range of emotion or mechanics. If the purpose of Warren's goal as stated is meaningful emotion from a game experience, I wonder how he would feel about Heavy Rain.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Heavy Rain, Pt.6: Tweaks

Here are some quick reactions on how control might be improved, without understanding the limitations of the game's development.

Quicktime Icons
The game pastes quicktime events over objects in the game as you near them to show you what you can do, and overall the approach seemed improved from Indigo Prophecy, but it was still often difficult to tell what action an abstract motion was correlated with. Am I drinking orange juice or closing the fridge? I don't know, even though my character would.

Descriptions appear with actions when they are thoughts around my head, so why not "Close," "O.J.," and "Beer" in the fridge interface? If screen real estate with multiple options is a problem, let me use the camera to "focus" on a particular icon and accompany that with text.

Thinking Aloud
A system for hearing your own thoughts was an interesting convention that could have helped my personal knowledge of the world, but the mechanics of the system were occasionally vague when using the system was important. The game never explains that you sometimes need to think something near another character in order to make a branch of action appear. Also, there was a few times in the game where dialogue choices via thoughts appeared wherein either the selection or button was too difficult to read to make the choice I wanted within the timeframe given.

Visibility seems like a matter of tuning alone, but if actions become available after thinking something, then have related icons flash in the screen after you think them. For example, I think about feeding my son, and an icon flashes near him. I go over and talk. After our chat, icons flash in the kitchen near the objects I use to prepare dinner. A brief icon flash is way less of a immersion deal-breaker than playing a character that doesn't know how to feed his son a damned microwave dinner.

Driving Your Human
You are propelled forward in a walk by holding R2, and it sucks. The left analog stick is obviously more intuitive, and the character happened to move around like a tank anyway; very unresponsive controls.

If keeping it on a trigger is absolutely necessary, at least make it so that holding the trigger turns on a "ready-to-walk" mode (instead of "walking" mode) and then move in the direction you want with the stick. In avatar control, the animation really should compensate to player intent. If I want to change directions, make me move in that direction instantly, and let the system interpolate.

It was a shame control ever got in the way of immersion, and I would love to see these things addressed somehow, if another game like Heavy Rain is ever released. (I hope so!)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Sigh

You know when you're working on a game for months and then an extremely similar-looking game is released by a huge name? I hate that.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Heavy Rain, Pt.5: Controls

SPOILERS AHEAD

Perhaps the oddest thing about Heavy Rain was the juxtaposition of moments where immersion was outstanding with those moments where it immersion was utterly broken. When things broke down, it was a combined problem of control abstraction and lack of information about the character you play.

Consider the following examples:
You need to keep track of your son, and suddenly worry as he begins to run off. You are in the middle of purchasing a balloon, however, and need to pull out your wallet quickly to pay the vendor. Four icons appear showing different quicktime-event-styled actions, and you fumble around from pocket to pocket, trying random icons until you succeed. The entire time, you are screaming bloody murder because you want to look after your son but have no idea where you put your own goddamned wallet.
Your wife comes home and asks you to help out. You want to! She says to pull out some dinner plates. You look around and don't notice the plates anywhere. In frustration you start looking around wondering where the hell anything is because it's your own house but you're completely clueless to its contents. After a moment, your wife complains about your performance.
After losing your older son, the younger one is distant and depressed. Your wife has left you. You want to make your life better, and are intent on doing good by your wife and son, so you look at the list of things you must do for him (e.g., feed him dinner, etc.) and at what time, to make sure everything is humming. It's time for him to eat, so you open the fridge. Different icons appear, but all they do is drink orange juice, beer, or close the fridge. Fail. Time is flying by in game-time (i.e., at a minute a second or so) while you accidentally get drunk. No! You try going to the microwave. No icons. The cupboard? No icons. You try using the game's "thought" system for a hint, and think out loud that your son is hungry. Great, thanks. While you fail at this simplest of tasks, you had no idea that you had to talk to your son to initialize the event, and only after the scripted animations from the last event are totally complete (e.g., he finishes walking back to the couch for more TV). It sucks when as a character, you want to be a good father, but you can't, because you can't mechanically figure out how to cook a microwave damned dinner.
It was interesting that even though the Dragon's Lair approach to connecting you with the characters lives was mechanically minimal, having them all be context sensitive and appropriate to each scene made them enough of a connection to absorb me. However, when they became unintuitive obstacles to perfectly reasonable and actionable intent, it was amazing how rapidly my immersion died.

Next, some brainstorming about control fixes.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Heavy Rain, Pt.4: Voyeurism

SPOILERS AHEAD

In the same scene where Madison was introduced, there was a shower scene. The developer's comment about Heavy Rain being an adult game about adults (and so big whoop) is understandable, but I noted a disconnect because as a player, the scene was a bit voyeuristic, but my character just wanted trying to get some relaxation so she could sleep. At first, this made me wonder if the decision of including nudity was misguided, but later, I had second thoughts.

In a much later scene, I was given the option to striptease a creepy club owner as Madison to get information. Story cues push the entire scenario towards unease, but the voyeur component was still a possible consideration. However, because all was revealed in a mundane context earlier, voyeurism was far from my mind, and I went out of my way to get the information some other way. Would I have played differently without that earlier scene, and disrupted my immersion with more important emotional stakes? I wonder.

Next up, why controls sometimes made me hate playing Heavy Rain.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Heavy Rain, Pt.3: Decision, Decisions

SPOILERS AHEAD

The story of Heavy Rain worked because my choices mattered, and because they were constantly being saved. The game had an impressive web of branches based on both choices and execution that greatly altered the course of the story, and the fact that the game autosaved progress gave them genuine consequence. Without autosaving, I believe the sense of risk in choice would have probably been reduced.

Hearing about some of the ranges of success (no one dies) and failure (everyone dies) made me wonder how relevant Heavy Rain's theme was to your choices. If the story were feel-good, would choices ever seem to have as much weight, because failure still led to a happy ending? And if the range went from feel-good to downer, would the narrative seem less consistent? As it is, telling a story with different shades of unease, even in success, was a great way to set up having choices that matter. Heavy, indeed.

As a game fan and designer, I'm interested more in emotion more than agency, but I can't deny how agency heightened the emotion. The production cost of this approach seems high, and the amount of game that must be made and that most players will miss would be difficult for me to swallow, but playing the part of Ethan making a horrible decision to either shoot a man or save the life of my son was more powerful than that the same situation ever could be in a film for me. To some extent, unlike film, it was the life of my child on the line, and not just a character I empathized with, and without a choice, the anguish would certainly be lessened. Up next, a quick comment about the use of nudity.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Heavy Rain, Pt.2: Story

SPOILERS AHEAD

When Heavy Rain shined, it really shined. I can't think of another another game that had me so freaked out during moment-to-moment decisions. What made it so compelling? I was immersed in the story and my decisions mattered.

You begin as Ethan, and the game was a difficult start because of control disconnects, but once those settled down, I enjoyed his arc. Very little connected me to Madison to start, but once she became involved in Ethan's life, I thought the interaction was great. Norman was perhaps the least interesting since his character arc seemed more situational (drug addiction) than emotional but I may have an incomplete view of the character since he died on me. And Scott was a perfectly lovable oaf.

Twists like the identity of the killer were fun, and I enjoyed the notion that Ethan might be torturing himself and kidnapped his own son, even though I couldn't believe it. But perhaps the best part of the story was the ratcheting of my tests as Ethan, going from being willing to hurt myself, to dismember myself, to kill someone else, to kill myself. Forcing me to react emotionally to these situations had me in knots at times. But other games have good stories without stressing me out. Up next, a comment on the real engine behind the emotion.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Heavy Rain, Pt.1: Expectations

After Indigo Prophecy, I was curious how Heavy Rain might improve the "interactive narrative" approach to gaming that the games' creator was after, and I have to admit that my hopes weren't that high. Though I played Indigo Prophecy long ago, I still remember that it it had interesting moments (e.g., I loved the tension in the game opener with the split screen camera showing me, standing over someone I had just murdered in the bathroom, and a cop entering the building to take a leak) but that quicktime events seemed utterly disconnected from what was going on in the screen, killing any real sense of interaction between me and the character, and that the game ending sorta petered out in a weird direction, as though the dev team ran out of production time to complete it. As a result, my hopes weren't that high.

Heavy Rain turned out to be an amazing experience that pushed some boundaries of emotion and immersion in really interesting ways, when it wasn't completely pissing me off with awful controls. Fortunately, that wasn't too often. Stay tuned for more thoughts, starting with some of the things that worked.

Friday, July 9, 2010

And Next

All the E3 commentary was a bit lagged, but hopefully next week will be some fun writing, with some thoughts on Heavy Rain and Super Mario Galaxy 2 incoming.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

E3'10 Rambles: Ubistuff

Of the different things shown in the UbiSoft press conference, the two that caught my eye were Ubi Art Framework and ManiaPlanet, I suppose for the same reasons. I have no idea what either will be capable of, but I seem to get excited about any tools players might get for making their own games, and if the new Rayman game is made from Ubi Art Framework (is it?) then it's all the more impressive. Well, depending on how easy it is to use. Here's a link to the Ubi Art blog.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

E3'10 Rambles: Kirby

Of footage shown in press conferences, I think Kirby's Epic Yarn was the most interesting. I have no expectations of it pushing the boundaries of immersion, but it's hard to get a read on that from any trailer. Comparing it to other Nintendo titles, Kirby had the potential to deliver the strongest Nintendo experience, with novel tech, interesting resulting play, an approachable theme, and (I presume) plenty of collection addiction.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

E3'10 Rambles: Nintendo Press Conf

Nintendo couldn't have started their press conference with a message better-suited to me -- that the experience is most important -- but as a fan of games, I feel trapped by Nintendo's vision. Their success means continuing things the Nintendo way, and in ways important to me, they just aren't that progressive.

Nintendo amazes me for so often mastering a difficult combination of novel technology, strong gameplay, addictive rewards, and accessible themes. When all four elements appear on a new or forgotten property like Kirby, they intrigue me perhaps more than any other game at E3. When all four elements converge on an older property like Zelda, I look forward to the experience, even when updates are awesome-slash-boring. But a big part of the Nintendo experience is addiction. Collect the coins, complete the stage, pass the boss, 100% everything. It's true on Mario, true on Yoshi, true on Metroid, true on Donkey Kong, largely true on Zelda, and probably true on Kirby.

And I long for more. More than I want to have fun and feel compelled to complete a Metroid or Zelda game, I want to have fun and become Samus or Link, and feel what they feel! Immersion before addiction. I wish, selfishly, that the most successful console manufacturer cared more about that.

I was sad when Nintendo equated their "experience" with novel technology. At first blush, I couldn't see how 3D would change that core experience (although friends later described an impressive tech demo that used the camera to put the 3D into the real world). A cynical thought entered my head, that the "Nintendo experience" was now showing off glasses-less tech and taking 3D pictures even though I know better, and look forward to their new product.

Nintendo games -- with accessible themes, fun, and addiction -- feel like family movies, romantic comedies, or action flicks. Microsoft games -- with cutting edge graphics and scripted events -- feel like big, dumb, summer movies that only rarely transcend spectacle and provide powerful emotions beyond "supernatural skill" or "fear." And Sony games -- supporting things like Last Guardian, Heavy Rain, and Uncharted -- feel like pricey art house films (even Uncharted, despite being built like a summer blockbuster). I wish games had something like the Academy Awards that drove sales on critical darlings.

Third parties, indies, and the "other consoles" are the future that interests me; not of sales success but the art form. Unfortunately, Microsoft seems to be fumbling for Nintendo's audience and filling the blanks on summer blockbusters, and I only hope that developers find ways to push the immersive limits of that framework. Unfortunately, though Sony seems to be more invested in immersive experiences, I wonder whether they can keep leveraging these endeavors. Unfortunately, third parties are unsure of themselves, with habits steeped in risky blockbusters instead of the mass market product they forgot how to make. And despite my selfish interests, I deeply admire Nintendo for delivering great games to everyone.

Friday, July 2, 2010

E3'10 Rambles: AssassaCree

I've seen two videos for the new Assassin's Creed, one from the Ubisoft press conference, and the other from the show floor. I was impressed with the opener, and saw a lot of cool things to get me emotionally engaged in the the story, especially if you had played through Assassin's Creed 2, building up your town, and a relationship with your uncle. But the multiplayer demo gave me a "gank quickly" vibe that throws a wrench into the promise of "stalking your prey" in a multiplayer environment, leaving little reason to choose it over a more-visceral shooter. I hope my fears are unwarranted!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

E3'10 Rambles: Golden-Ick

Watching the Goldeneye ad during the Nintendo press conference was absolutely shudder-inducing for someone with experience with focus groups shaping executive decisions. Focus groups aren't un-useful -- there is a lot of good information that can come out of them -- but I think that focus groups like the ones seen in this video hold way too much power over executives and marketers, and seeing a game ad based around a focus test just bolsters this view; as though a bunch of group-think teens getting excited about first-see bragging rights will be as exciting to the world as it was to the marketing team. Ugh.

But this video is a handy example of how flawed focus testing is. Notice the open room, with a group of kids within clear view of each other, talking to a focus test moderator about what each individual thinks. Silly. The first reasonable-sounding answer is almost always echoed around the room, each kid in fear of sticking out, clearly influencing each others' opinions. A kid that dares stick out usually endures ribbing and gets much more quiet, despite the moderator's best intentions. The opinions of the loud kid going "yeah-ha-ha" flavors every other kid in there.

The sad thing is that marketing knows the data is flawed, but the point is less whether the data is accurate than it is, in the eyes of those higher on the totem pole, considered "data." When a marketing team's jobs are on the line for a game's success or failure and the only way to keep your job on failure is to have a nice trail of CYA data points that justify each decision, then they understandably weight decisions based on said data, flawed or not.

So yes, a development team can gather useful information from focus groups, but it won't necessarily match the raw data gathered influenced by group-think. Too often, a development team will have its arm twisted to follow raw data before useful information, because the former will keep the higher-ups employed. Developers aren't always right, but the problems with this approach seem rather obvious to me, so forgive me this pent up rant.