Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010

This was an interesting year, both for me at home, working, and as a casual observer of the gaming industry.

Work
At home, I built a new game from scratch and played it online, wrote a pretty design doc, struggled against unexpected difficulties working alone and being focused, and overcame said struggle. Progress on my still-unannounced game is moving forward, and I hope sometime next year I can reveal what's been taking place under the hood. Working on this alone is slow, but I hope the end product is worth it. I suppose we'll see.

Industry
This was also an interesting year for my maturation as a designer. I think my opinion about addiction in games is firming up, it was interesting to see how this reflected on console makers at E3, and it gives me a lot of pause about the future of games.

After this year, I see addiction (i.e. fun) as a necessary pacing tool, and have decided to stop giving so much credit to games that make it the point of gaming. I truly feel like I've wasted my time after chasing down every objective in Assassin's Creed, even if I enjoy myself while doing so, and I want more out of my entertainment. If I want to just be addicted, I can play Farmville, and I have a hunch that as this kind of design invades every aspect of our lives (an inevitability, I think), the masses will pick and choose what their addictions will be more carefully, and hopefully demand more from their entertainment. But designers have to have a mastery of addiction under their belt (do I? I don't know!), and can use this judiciously (too much and it overwhelms the narrative, too little, and it makes the mind wander) and intentionally (maybe removing addiction for a period would help the player connect with an avatar) to great effect. I'm starting to believe that not having this ability is like only being able to make movies with the long camera cuts of old films -- appealing to some, but not many.

Regarding consoles, watching Microsoft and Sony fumble over themselves at E3 for the same market Nintendo has but doesn't seem to know what to do with (SOS in three-deeeee) was revealing and depressing as a game enthusiast. All of my addiction thoughts made me realize that Nintendo, despite all my love for them, does little to bring new emotion to games (not that they need to or should) and suffers for trying to go back to games that once upon a time (perhaps unintentionally) pushed the bounds, like 3D Mario and Zelda. Sticking to the formula of novel tech and addictive tropes (alright, alright... and solid kinesthetics and interesting level design) is great for snagging the casual, even if the love affair is brief. I expect the 3DS to be bananas. This leaves Sony and Microsoft as my game enthusiast saviors, which is sad when Sony, the best supporter of emotional gaming (Uncharted, Flower, Trico) is the widely regarded as the loser in the current war. Perhaps emotional boundaries should be pushed on a smaller budget.

Meanwhile, Apple and Facebook kill in the casual market, and I really don't know how you create something and stick as a content developer in either one. That's not to say you can't, but I have a difficult time believing that Farmville's success isn't a ton of right-place-at-right-time, and it seems to takes a lot of muscle or serendipity to stand out on the iPhone. I'm curious to see how the consoles will deal.

Games
It was also a busy year for game playing. Here's a brief on everything I played, many of which I didn't quite get around to writing about:

Kinect arrived for Christmas, and I did about all I expected to with it: marvel at the neat technology and enjoy some dance mimicry on Dance Central. It might be too bad that I'm expecting no killer games to arrive for it (ever), but it may mean being pleasantly surprised, later.

Red Dead Redemption was fun to plow through, and I was happy I stuck to the main quests. It really did feel like a nice, developed world, and that, combined with some nice storytelling and immersion made it a fun playthrough, but the hype did hurt it: most of the game was just traveling and shooting, and I really felt like I was traveling from one story sequence to the next by the end of the game.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was a massive bag of addiction that I kind of resented in the end. The story should balance it out, but I am never given a good reason to connect with either Desmond or Ezio because neither ever do anything to warrant my sympathy. The result is my desire to meet the game halfway for all of its wacky overwrought sci-fi conspiracy theories is simply not there, and I spend all my time joyfully chasing one map icon to the next in hopes of full completion while my life slips away.

Call of Duty: Black Ops was an interesting experience, like all of the production value was present for the checklist without much of the heart. I can't pinpoint why, off-hand, and may not even have a good reason.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a sloppy (combat, level design, storytelling) experience that jelled in its second half. The combat was serviceable but monsters seemed designed to stuff fun abilities like air combat, I almost got completely stuck in a few environments simply because I couldn't tell where an open passageway was thanks to bad cameras, and the story was so full of mumbo jumbo that I just gave up on it. (As an aside, Patrick Stewart's voiceover script sounded like dear diary entries from an obsessed junior high sweetheart.) Despite all the flaws, the art direction and settings were so interesting and constantly varied that I enjoyed much of the journey, and once I figured out parry timing (it took waaay too long) I had a good time with combat, too. The ending was an I'm-clever designer twist followed by another twist that had no bearing on my game whatsoever, but whatever. Pretty pretty smashy smashy. Not bad.

Limbo was a real artsy, soulful gem, but I was disappointed with the ending because it seemed like a missed opportunity that didn't capitalize on the mood it set. Just a personal thing, I bet.

Halo: Reach may have been my favorite in the series, which isn't saying much, so let me put it another way: Halo: Reach is good. It had a nice pace, the story was easy to follow, I cared about what happened, and the production value was nuts. I was honestly surprised by it.

Halo: ODST was kinda incoherent to me and all of the combat scenarios kinda blended together for me. I did not enjoy.

Enslaved was interesting, but seemed rushed, so I felt sorry for the team more than I felt like criticizing it. Combat seemed influenced by some higher-up insisting that the camera get closer to the expensive avatar polygons and the game suffered for it, and a lot of the controls felt loosey-goosey, but where I really feel the game deserves criticism is in its story. The characters it wants you to empathize with do really unlikeable things, and even when they recover from this, the writers make them do things to ensure that you hate them again. The odd thing is in the case of the NPC tag-along that enslaves you, it's more or less completely unnecessary, since almost no levels require that you and her stick together, and the few that do could have easily been rectified through level design. The end result is almost a textbook case of how to get players to not care about the characters they're with. Finally, you never get a clear sense of who the antagonist in the game is until the very end, where they sloppily try to pass off a non-moral quandary as a moral quandary.

God of War: Ghost of Sparta was a joyful roller coaster ride with some of the most amazing tech I've seen on the PSP. I never quite get into Kratos -- he's needs to calm a bit -- but the novel set pieces and solid kinesthetics always win me over.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks reminded me that even Nintendo's most narrative-driven series still only does narrative with the lightest of touch, and pounds you with relentless addiction tropes. I finished it, but not without getting bored first.

Kirby's Epic Yarn was novel and quick, so it was cotton candy. Unfortunately, it did nothing to diminish my new view of Nintendo charm being largely addiction-driven.

Vanquish was an almost-successful attempt at the gritty, macho, roller coaster rides known as western shooters. I really think a more grandiose western score would have made it a much bigger hit, but it was a satisfying playthrough, and I'd look forward to a sequel.

Metroid: Other M I failed to finish. What little existed to make Samus compelling -- the quiet but competent loner exploring long forgotten ruins -- was pretty much thrown out the window for a gushy, jibbering, baby-hungry, biological clock-driven idiot surrounded by wooden military figures. It was Tomb Raider all over again, and I just couldn't take it.

Amnesia was a an indie gem with clever tension-enhancing design concepts that every survival horror designer should play and study. With almost no (no?) combat and horrors at every turn, it's probably one of the most least-played games that would be a joy for me to recommend. It's not without flaws, but well worth the low cost of entry. Give the demo a whirl on Steam, if nothing else.

Alan Wake was a goofy story with an underdeveloped gameplay mechanic. It was alright, I guess.

Machinarium was another small-team indie gem with a lot of heart and interesting art. It really does nothing new -- it's as classic as adventure games get -- but I'd recommend it the next time you find yourself lamenting a lack of them. It feels good.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 was Super Mario Galaxy streamlined. There's not much else to say, other than the opener, which slowly transitions from 2D to 3D gameplay, was a fantastic idea that I'd love to see repeated in other games. Other than that, it's addiction ahoy. Avoid that part.

Splinter Cell Conviction was fun, and did some clever things with text (like level names or objectives) being projected on the walls of the environment that I thought really worked when they weren't also using it to play videos and such. I thought the takedown mechanics were strong, and that I kept gaining in expertise in a way that reminded me of Batman. I wish I'd been able to try multiplayer because I think playing with a friend would have been a good time. Unfortunately, as the game progressed, more insta-fail conditions were imposed reminding me of my least-favorite thing about the Splinter Cell series. (As an aside, I sometimes wondered if a stealth game, rather than insta-failing you on detection, could simply make you unlock badass mode, insta-killing all the enemies, but leaving a trail of bodies that introduced different long-term consequences. Finding the right balance might be hard, but I think it would be a great alternative to waiting to load after some idiot AI "sees" you. Blerg.)

Heavy Rain was probably my favorite game of the year. It was rife with moments of avatar disconnection due to bad control that were extremely frustrating (and totally avoidable), but when the game clicked, it clicked HARD, and I can honestly say I've never felt as stressed out about a moral choice in a game. It was moments like these that make me believe nothing I played advanced the gaming craft more.

God of War III was more impressive graphics and set pieces, but I was also impressed by some of the pure story-driven game scenarios in its final act. They don't work like gangbusters, but they do the trick, and I was impressed by this "final" chapter and it let me reflect on older games. It's really too bad the original God of War decided to be clever by starting with the cliff jump instead of starting with your family being murdered. I think the whole series would have been much stronger for it. And not pushing to release God of War II on the PS3 has got to be one the worst decisions Sony has ever made; it was the killer app they never should have passed over.

Bioshock 2 surprised me because I didn't expect to enjoy the return as much as I did. I think what makes Bioshock work (and Portal) have much more to do with emotional mirroring between player and avatar and much less to do with gameplay, twists, or humor, so I wasn't surprised that the story didn't grip me like it did in the original. However, it was a good reminder of how strong the gameplay was, and how much a game can be carried on good kinesthetics and set pieces. Bioshock really did have it all. Or lots, at least.

The rest of the games -- Mass Effect 2, Demon's Souls, Borderlands, Bayonetta, and Torchlight all got their due in my reviews. It's surprising, really, how many games I passed over writing about this year; a trend I should buck.

I'm off for the remainder of the year. Have a good one -- I'll see you in 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Nappy Holidays

I'm under the weather and don't expect to have a normal day until post-Christmas, so I thought I'd send out my holiday wishes early. I'll return just before the New Year, I think, with some thoughts about end of year thoughts. Cheers.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Red Dead Damnation

I'm outrageously sick at the moment, and not in the mood to do much of anything. But boredom still comes even when you have no brain, and I decided to start playing Red Dead last night. The game is really beautiful, and I enjoy the characters. It does a lot more than Assassin's Creed to help me empathize with my character and make me interested in playing him, although I begin with a certain disconnect from not knowing my own past. I enjoyed feeling like I could redeem myself by participating on the ranch, and after riding around it, helping my lady-friend look after things, and going on patrol with the ranch's dog, I was feeling quite at home.

The next (in-game) morning, I got up and saw a wagon wandering through the ranch. I had a good feeling and wandered up to check it out. I wanted to hop on the back, so I pressed the Triangle button to do so. No dice. So I run up to the front of the coach and push Triangle, and then freak when I see my Marsden pulling the driver out of the wagon to steal it. No! I want to give it back and say it was a mistake, but everyone is shooting at me. I have to fire back or I'll die. Pretty soon the drivers are dead, the sheriff is dead, and I'm robbing the general store manager for enough money to pay off the bounty on my head. Sometimes I wish my buttons did nicer things.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Late of Late

Do you ever mark an email as "important to respond to" and as a result, put off writing it for too long? Reviews can be like this for me. I want to write about Enslaved because it had some interesting things going on -- so did the new Castlevania -- and I should throw out some impressions of Black Ops and AC: Brotherhood (finished last night).

It's actually been busy-fun gaming fall -- I may even get to Red Dead Redemption -- about time, since it's probably going to win just about every GotY award out there.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Laptop?

The sound card on my very old laptop fizzled awhile ago and I just stopped using the machine. Despite having no income, currently, I find myself in the market for a new one. The only question is which should I get? I always talk about jumping on the Apple train, but I still see it as a good secondary rather than primary option, just to ensure maximum compatibility with my desktop PC. Power is sexy, and would ensure that I can run my game, but I'm guessing that many inexpensive laptops would run it better than my current 2-3 year old desktop. I'm not sure if any readers are experts, but if so, I'd love opinions.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wooow...

If you haven't already seen the facial animation in L.A. Noire, do look. Impressive stuff, but the canned camera angles take a lot of the punch out of the tech. I wonder when and if that changes in the game.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Gameful

Today, a close friend directed me to the About page of Gameful, which is part of an initiative to use the powerful behavior-influencing motivators in games as a tool for good in the world. What do I make of addiction control for the sake of good in the world? I have weird feelings about it.

I downplay the worth of games that push the addiction button over and over again but wind up caught in their grasp over and over again (I'm currently addicted to the carroting in AC: Brotherhood despite getting little else out of it), so the idea of being addicted to world improvement is a deeply compelling one. But I've had a lifelong interest in delivering human experience and emotion through artistry, and advancing art, which I feel has a slow yet positive impact on human morality. It feels weird then, to skip that step and just trick everyone into being good.

What better way, though, when human instinct drives so much else? I should just be happy the two ideas aren't mutually exclusive.

Update: I've been rightfully called out on my Gameful take. See comments for more.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Fall

It seems like fall this year has been pretty tame again. I really don't feel like there's a lot of games to catch up on while I've got the gaming bug. I zipped through the new Castlevania and have begun Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, but the only big omission of the year that I need to get through (and kinda dread, for size reasons) is Red Dead Redemption. What has everyone else been playing? I'm curious if there's anything on others' lists that I should hit, too.

Monday, December 13, 2010

One Second...

Of the various Spike Awards trailers, the only one that made me giddy was the new Batman, but that's because over time I've become a complete drooling sucker for Arkham Asylum. The other one that caught my attention was Mass Effect 3, since Jen occasionally asks when it will come out. We watched it together, and in the trailer's final moments, when the soldier says that if Shepard doesn't come, all of Earth will be destroyed, and then the camera zooms away from Shepard, watching from afar, I thought, "One second Earth, I just have to do a few more side quests and figure out which string of dialogue I need to get with one of my fine crew members."

Friday, December 10, 2010

Tomshare

Tom shared a neat article with me tonight, that considers the role of talking in videogames. I disagree with the premise, but found the article interesting and thoughtful, and got my brain turning about. Enjoy (and thank you, Tom)!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Design Docs

I think design docs are good for three things: giving people an overview-understanding of the game, providing detailed information for someone working on a specific aspect of the game, and making publishers feel loved and comfortable through their sheer volume. Over the years, I've come to quite resent the last of the three uses, and fight tooth and nail to not provide it. Documents are time consuming and inflexible, period, and neither the publisher nor team makes effective use of the giant document, especially when game design needs to be agile and flexible.

My time is best spent on points one and two. I like main design documents that only provide an overview, including detail about intentions and goals and how they inform design systems, and a summary of play mechanics (I prefer in the style of a game manual). Additional design documents are only produced as needed, since detail is costly but sometimes necessary, and should only be provided to head off work that needs it.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

More Ico

Over a conversation at lunch today, the topic of journeying with AI was banging around in my mind in reference to how annoying the babysitter role can be. I found myself wondering whether setting up the right relationship -- featuring a pitiful AI character -- would help to ease the pain. Ico popped into my head to remind me that it did just this, and wonderfully, but I wondered if the protective relationship could be pushed even further -- whether another game with a protective premise but featuring a father and his daughter, or mother and her son, would be even more manipulative. Are there games out there that already do this? The last game I remember hearing in the press about really pushing the parent button was Heavy Rain.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Too Human

Stress has gotten the better of me (maybe it's a December thing) and my subconscious has decided the best course of action is to pulling hair out of my left eyebrow. It started to feel tender a few days ago, and I'm starting to worry (more stress) my left eyebrow will be an endangered species if this keeps up, so I decided to keep a watchful eye on the problem so I could will it away. After a few days of fail, out of desperation, I tried holding a strip of elastic around my head and over my eyebrow with a clothespin. It's moments like these that I really wish I wasn't a human. I don't mean because I want to be a cat, or dolphin, or some other animal, but something else entirely... and more advanced... and that didn't have to tie elastic to their head to keep from removing their own eyebrow. Blerg.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I'm Exhausted

I've been staring at documents too long, and don't know what capacity I have for writing at this very moment. I'm sure some people adore the process, but writing can be incredibly exhausting for me, especially when trying to be clean and concise. How about you? Does anyone out there just adore every minute of it? And design docs. Oi. Not a big fan.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thanksgiving Play

I know Thanksgiving is sooo last week, but I wanted to throw up some quick thoughts on games I played over the Thanksgiving break:

Enslaved
I considered this competition for my last unannounced project at Disney and was interested to see how it turned out. The game felt really rushed and drained of resources to me -- really rough around the edges -- and the combat camera reeked of someone high-up stupidly complaining about not being close enough to see how cool your character looks while it's kicking butt. Most reviews give it a hats-off for its storytelling, and though I appreciated some of the dialogue, I thought they made some serious errors with making characters I would give a crap about.

Halo: ODST
I skipped this when it came out, but a friend loaned it and Reach to me. It was extremely short and extremely confusing. I couldn't make heads or tails of the story until about halfway through, and by then I really didn't care. I should have left it skipped.

Halo Reach
But Reach honestly surprised me, and I'm tempted to call it my favorite in the Halo series. I followed and enjoyed the story enough, the graphics were quite honestly gorgeous, and the kinesthetics were much-improved over the other Halo games. I thought it had a bit more grit than previous games that I appreciated. It might be the only of my Thanksgiving games that I'd actively recommend, but I wonder if my impressions were helped by the very-low bar set in ODST.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Re: Science of Size

Kotaku posted an article that was of interesting to me because it seemed to highlighted a lesson I learned on Van Helsing for VUG way back when. In Van Helsing, the primary villain was Dracula, who -- when not in demon form -- is basically just a guy. On film a man-sized character like Dracula can be deeply impacting via music, camera cuts, context, dialogue, etc. But in play, when camera influence is drastically reduced, and regardless of how much all of those elements are used to establish the character or how huge the special attack effects are, Dracula is simply a puss. It doesn't matter if he can kill you with a hit, he just leaves little impression on you as the player and it does a lot to wipe out narrative immersion. I remember internalizing the lesson as follows: games are an un-subtle medium. There's really no way around it. If you want your enemy to be threatening, make him huge.

I'm sure there are exceptions to the rule but I've found this particular lesson quite handy in a pinch.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Episodic

I was just reading about CrimeCraft in a Kotaku article when something caught my eye: episodic gaming in the form of weekly installments. I really don't know much about the game and whether it's worth a damn, but I feel strongly about is that weekly installments are really is the only way to make episodic gaming work.

Give me an erratic schedule -- say bi-weekly -- and even though the time isn't long, it's too irregular to stick in my brain. Give me monthly and it's regular but I forget what I'm playing and why I care. Do what the Half-Life episodes do and you may as well sell me a new game. (Half-Life 2 episodic content makes me feel like I'm waiting at a 2-year loading screen.) Weekly is the only way to go. Maybe other games do it, but I'd really like to see more games do a straight rip of the television format, where a season of episodes are delivered each week to play through.