Friday, October 29, 2010

Vanquish, pt.4: Tweaks

Today, some brainstorming about tweaks I would experiment with, were I on the dev team, with my usual disclaimer.

Controls
My first experiment would be trying slide as a subset of dodge, where holding the dodge button initiates a slide after performing the dodge. As I recall, both moves worked on a similar 4-way axis and didn't do much differently with the camera, so assuming I'm not forgetting something, it could even be inexpensive. And since you could activate bullet-time in both dodge and the slide, whereas the current bullet-time slide was significantly harder to initiate (LB+LT, ugh!), I think it would have made the controls easier to grasp and less of an obstacle to mastery.

Cheap Slide
I'm also curious what it would have done to reduce the rate of energy drain on the slide, or remove the drain completely. I never had the impression that the move made you overpowered because I was often hit while sliding, and I'd be fine with making enemies more accurate if it meant I could experience the joy of zipping around more easily. But energy cost is usually so easy such an easy asset to tweak that I suspect the dev team had good reasons for making it expensive.

Bullet Time
Another element I disliked was how it forced you into bullet time. Minimally, I should be allowed to deactivate it as I normally would. I don't always need it or want my energy drained, and if it led to my death anyway, it's the kind of consequence I'd blame myself for, not the designers. That's a good thing.

But I'm also curious what it would have been like to just have the traditional concept of shields in shooters, and just make using things like slides, bullet time, and melee attacks reduce your shields. It's a reckless thought, but if these actions brought you closer to a base vulnerable state, it might be an interesting baseline risk / reward system that keeps the power to reap the rewards of expertise (and pain without it) firmly in player hands. Again, I wonder if something like this was tried during development.

Stealing Advancement
If the designers wanted to penalize you for dying and affecting your weapons, there probably would have been better ways to handle it than taking things from the player. In fact, you could probably have nigh-identical consequence without ever triggering anger by making it an addition-based system instead of a subtraction-based one.

For example, make it so you can achieve rank "9" with each weapon, but if you stay alive long enough, your character gains 1 bonus rank (up to 10). Assuming weapons in the released go to "10", you can see where I'm going with this. Rather than letting players get to "10" and stealing their rank back to "9", let them get to "9" and work to achieve a bonus associated with their skill. Death wipes the bonus, but players don't feel as though something was stolen from them by the designers. The game impact is essentially identical, but the sense of frustration would be greatly reduced.

Conclusion
That's it, off the top of my head. The story was forgettable but I enjoyed Vanquish for its moments of kinesthetic joy, and was interested in its untapped potential.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vanquish, pt.3: Crunch

Today, some thoughts about the controls and systems of Vanquish.

The Handful
When I played the Vanquish demo, I described the controls as almost too responsive -- that they shifted you through the arena so swiftly, and with enough button combinations (try tracking dodging, aiming, firing (LAS+RAS+LB+LT+RT) while monitoring energy drain, at once) that it all felt a bit overwhelming. But I also remember wondering if all of it would feel like a learning curve that you can get better at over the course of the game, bringing some satisfaction to the confusion. I think it does.

Wiggle Room
Not only was the level design a bit more spacious in the final product, giving me a bit more room to breathe, but I found myself getting better and better with my buttons as the game progressed. However, it's really easy to imagine someone else having less patience with such a packed control scheme. If I sense that a solution to my gameplay problems is in the controls, I'll constantly push until I can master what's in my hands, but the game seemed to go out of its way to blame the designers instead of myself, with overheating and nasty death penalties being the worst offenders.

Power Tease
It's exhilarating to slide speedily along the ground and shift into bullet-time to thrash enemies, and the effects surrounding these two ability are where the game really sings. You constantly want to enjoy the thrill of these abilities, but they're limited by a meter that drains way too quickly, and often triggers when you don't want it to (taking too much damage triggers it, and it drains completely). The net result of tasting something so fun and having it so limited is feeling sluggish and vulnerable through large portions of the game. When your overheating siren blares -- especially triggered outside of your control -- you often can't help but feel that the designers are picking on you, and taking away some of the fun.

(As an aside, much of the feeling of combat mastery comes from becoming used to monitoring your energy more closely. It's a challenge because (1) it goes against every instinct you have wanting to be a badass, and (2) it can get hard to focus on energy while moving and aiming.)

Kung Fooled
And the cool mix of shooting and melee you saw in the promo videos? There's nothing to see here. A single punch or kick completely drains your meter, leaving you in the thick of things with no way to get out. Honestly, this was a real disappointment.

Kicking Me While I'm Down
But the worst scenario where design gets on your nerves involves advancement. The game has a uses a simple but fun system where picking up weapons you already have equipped increases your powers with them. At least until I found out that dying strips away some of your advancement. Surprise, surprise, it really sucks to have maxed out weapons drop in rank, and breaks a golden rule of game design: never take anything away from the player. The game might have benefited in tension from my increased desire to avoid death -- it certainly motivated me to get better -- but death occasionally felt difficult to avoid, and I'm not sure it was worth the anger I felt at the game when it landed, and yanked me out of the experience.

But these are critiques. I actually liked the core gameplay, I just wish my enjoyment didn't come with so many restrictions. Last up, some takeaway ideas.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Vanquish, pt.2: Fluff

For part two, some focus on fluff.

Story
Story never really caught my attention while playing Vanquish, but it thankfully never detracted. Nowadays, if a game intros a hardass, it's hard to get me interested in their personality, and the protagonist of Vanquish is barely altered by the events that take place. The whole Russia vs. US thing came across so quickly as a mere backdrop for destruction that I hardly paid attention to storytelling reveals.

Part of the quick tune out might have something to do with playing a game by Shinji Mikami (Vanquish, Resident Evil) or Hideki Kamiya (Devil May Cry, Bayonetta), who collectively remind me of Ed Wood. Their story sensibilities -- assuming their games are good indicators -- are cheesy fun at best. When the story misses, as it did here, I start to wonder if the aim is always epic, and "cheesy-fun" is just a common but accidental salvage.

Setting
That the story is a forgettable is a bit of a shame, too, since I really love that they used a Rama-like vessel as the setting for the game. The visuals were fun, and some of the situations were interesting, but hardly any of the sci-fi potential is explored.

Music
Several articles have recently waxed on about the decline of hardcore gaming in Japan, partly evidenced by the rise of God of War clones, and presumably Vanquish is a deliberate take on Gears of War. Considering this, I felt the game pulled off what it needed to mechanically, and the story didn't seemed that far from par despite being forgettable. It seems strange to declare that in my opinion, the music is what held it back most from feeling like Halo or a Gears of War.

The soundtrack is all blippety bloop techno music that made the story's attempt at consequence that much less effective at reaching me. But when I imagine an orchestral score attached to my game experience, I have to wonder if it would have achieved everything it hoped to for a Western audience. Whether Gears is cheesy or not, I know the music constantly worked overtime to convince me it wasn't.

Next up, kinesthetics and mechanics.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Out of Mind

I lost track of time scouring scripts for a final networking pass and need to head to drawing, so I'm going to throw a vid your way and get back to the review later. The video, Out of Sight, has a lot of views and it reminds me a bit of Miyazaki, so I imagine a lot of you have seen it already, but I was really inspired by some of the ideas in it, even if the overall presentation was uneven. It made me really interested in making a game about being blind, presented similarly to the video.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Vanquish, pt.1: Overview

This weekend I plowed through Vanquish and I wanted to share my thoughts. This should be a short review, however, as they aren't that extensive.

Overall, the game was fun despite story and character being thin because it made me feel like a proper badass. Advancement was weak but effects, kinesthetics, and core mechanics evoked a strong sense of power, technical skill, and challenge mastery; and level design threw enough curve-balls to keep me engaged. I could imagine some players not having the same sense of skill or mastery if the controls were a bit much (they kind of are), or they disconnected in frustration with its obnoxious death penalties instead of trying to improve to avoid them, but I bet most people who would even be interested in the game wouldn't be hindered by it.

Topics that seem worth getting into are:
  • Story and Setting
  • Kinesthetics and Mechanics
  • Death and Challenge
  • Tweaks
I'll probably slam through most of the list in the next part.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Itching to Vanquish

Vanquish arrived in the mail a few days ago and I've been itching to play it, but just haven't been able to muster up enough time. Things have been busy and productive on the game front -- I see the light at the end of the networking tunnel -- so the weekend is my best chance to play, but I also need to prep for my next D&D session, browse the new DM's Kit (if it appears in the mail tomorrow), and scan sketches (I've been prepping an enormous stack so I can turn them into a library of personal paperback volumes. I wish I didn't need sleep, although it always seems like whenever you get the time you want to do something on your list, something altogether else winds up with your attention, instead. Murphy's Law.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Death-Lover

Occasionally, I'll save a news article for later comment, and I decided to dig up an older one today, about how the Grim Reaper appears in Guild War to cut cheaters from the plane of the living with its scythe. I saved the article because it reminded me of public executions in a MUD called BatMUD. As I recall, when BatMUD game caught a cheater and decided it was time to go bye-bye, they put on a helluva show.

I remember the offending cheater literally paraded through town by the game mod. Players would pass by and notice as the victim was escorted to the town square, where a guillotine, noose, or some other execution device waited. On request, the mods would spawn objects like tomatoes that players could throw at the offender (and each other) as a long death sentence was read. Then down comes the guillotine. Maybe you could throw the head around, afterward. I don't remember whether the player could be logged in during the event, but hearing him/her babble or curse would only have made things more fun.

The relative ease (it's all text on a server with say, 200 players online at any given time) with which MUDs could pull off an event like this is one of many reasons it's so easy to wax nostalgic about my time playing them. Seeing an avatar appear and slice someone with a scythe is pretty cool, but parading them through town and letting players toss rotten fruit at them before doing it? Even cooler.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Some Days...

I'm enthralled by science videos and curse my lack of productivity. I only hope you find my distractions as engaging as I did: 1. Is Earth Unique?. 2. The Poetry of Science.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Death-Hater

An article describing Patrice D├ęsilets' new studio caught my eye this morning because even though my response to games like Assassin's Creed is mixed and the sequels to the previous-gen reboot of Prince of Persia seemed to go in weird directions, I've liked some of the philosophy coming from the Ubi Montreal studios.

The first time I noticed was reading that the time mechanic in Prince was inspired in an attempt to reduce the frustration of death in videogames. Maybe Patrice wasn't the individual that came up with the idea, but I gave him the credit, and this is the kind of thinking I wish I saw more of. Challenging basic assumptions is an amazing source of inspiration, that often leads to novel ideas, interesting evolutionary twists, or at least a better grasp of design. In game development, I am surprised at how infrequently people take a step back from what they were doing to dissect it, ask why, and really push those boundaries.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Xenoblerg

Today on Kotaku, I noticed an article about the disappointing sales of Final Fantasy XIII and it made me reflect on my own separation from the JRPG train. Xenogears was the straw that broke the camel's back. I picked it up because I was looking at different turn-based combat systems, assuming that if the gameplay glue was strong enough, my story expectations would be easy to meet. But in Xenogears, after clocking the time between playable sections at 45 minutes long, I started looking at story value differently. I realized that in the 80-or-so hours it might take me to finish the game I could read nearly 8 novels. Stories that were good. Could gameplay ever make up for that 45 minutes lost?

Since Xenogears, its been harder and harder to stomach the mopey, unsympathetic protagonists, lame comedy, inexplicable choices, and unearned beats that would slip by me if a musical cue hadn't announced it. Nothing about the previews of FFXIII made me think it would be different. The article cited linearity and turn-based gameplay as problems but these don't hinder Modern Warfare or Pokemon. Perhaps these systems are implemented poorly but I'm curious whether another aimless, overblown story is also part of the problem. Curious enough to try it? I dunno.

Friday, October 8, 2010

BRB

The days are fun right now. Work is going well and I see the end of the networking tunnel, Jen and I passed us Tomb Raider last night, and I finished The Hunger Games (fuuun book!) in preparation for the D&D game I'm running. And starting tomorrow, my idle chatter fades for a week or so as I head out for some R&R. I'll see you again, two Mondays from now.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What the...

Last night Jen and I were sitting on the couch when she expressed an interest in picking up Tomb Raider where we left off:
"Wanna play some Tomb Raider?"
"You want to go back through levels and collect stuff?"
"Don't we have more stuff to do?"
"Um... we passed it."
"Wait, what? We did?"
"Yeah," I chuckle.
"We did?!?"
"Yeah... Wait, didn't we?"
"I don't think so..."
"Actually, I don't remember killing the main guy with the head dress. Maybe we didn't pass it?"
We hadn't passed it. I have no idea what I was thinking. We went on to play for a good portion of the evening and still have more to go. I can't believe I thought we were done with it. I never would have loaded it up again despite totally enjoying it. My memory is getting scary.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Intarfun

It's been several months since I last tried the game I'm making online with a friend. What I'm working on is very multiplayer focused, for better or worse, and the approach I took was hacking in features for P1 as quickly as possible and worry about getting it working nicely for P2-4 later. In hindsight, I would not do this again.

The first reason is network code can be a bit much for my brain, and I'm a newbie scripter. It's one thing to pour through code and try to remember how the hell I cobbled it together, and quite another to do so while also pouring through each tiny event and make sure the right player called it, that the server knows about it, and updates each player accurately, without problems inherent to throwing data over an internet connection.

The second reason is that network code is just uninteresting. I started in this industry as an artist and then moved into design, and even the most overwhelmingly complex and immaculate Excel files were somehow enjoyable to me. There is something about the communication of ideas that can keep me happy despite how grueling the process is. But so much of network programming is just buried under the hood. No one is seeing the energy I spend. I'm spending energy to not suck. Though incredibly noble, I just don't find it as satisfying.

But today I played the game with a friend, testing some of my recent network fixes over the internet again, and despite my client having no network prediction -- my character was jittering because the game moves it locally and then stomps over that position with the "correct" data from the server -- it just felt so cool. I love exploring randomized environments shooting defeating baddies with a friend, watching his back, etc., etc. It feels great, and makes the remaining network tasks a wee bit more exciting.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Upgrade Complete

Everything now works as intended in the fabulous new Unity 3. Deep breath. Moving along...

Monday, October 4, 2010

Other Mpressions

I started playing Metroid: Other M over the weekend and may not bother to finish it. Metroid has always been fairly standard "unlock the world" fare, occasionally marked by cool gear or an interesting take on her loner character. But Team Ninja massacred anything I appreciate about her loner persona by turning her into a soft, dependent airhead, and surrounding her with some of the most dry characters and dull pacing around. The gameplay is interesting enough, but kind of a mixed bag of controls and camera and so frequently interrupted by inexplicable control swaps and inane dialogue that... ugh. I hate venting, and especially feel guilty about doing it for a game I haven't completed, but I might just get into more detail later. Later.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Casual Friday

I look forward to reading me some Hunger Games over the weekend, partly to prepare for more D&D. I have a few games waiting to be played, like the new Metroid, but I'm not very excited to boot it up. Maybe I should take the hint. Oh, and Limbo! I forgot that I have that now. Hrmm...

And since I mentioned my potty mouth awhile back, I enjoyed this Kotaku article about the Ig Nobels. Perhaps that's how I got past Zeus in God of War II on Titan Difficulty.