Friday, January 28, 2011

If you can't beat em...

Over the years, I've learned to be okay with mimicking features in other games. As a designer, I have a powerful urge to bring something new to the table, but the end user doesn't value originality nearly as much as I do. If something new doesn't feel quite as good as that thing that other game did, the only thing going on in the user's mind is why isn't this as good as that other game?

I love doing something original if I believe I have something special to bring to the table, but I don't believe in originality for originality's sake. And when the thing I try is close but not there, I apply the simple rule of thumb: if you can't beat em, join 'em. The audience is best served when my minimum bar is set at the best there is out there, and there's often a lot to be learned by implementing it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Handheld Ho-hum (PSP2)

I feel like I should have an opinion about the just-announced PSP2 but hate commenting about handhelds because I'm not their target audience. The truth is I spend most of my time where I want to be and little time in transition where a handheld is important, so the vast amount of time I spend gaming (in itself an impressive amount of time) is in the comfort of my own home, where nearly any handheld experience that wins my attention must do so versus a stack of "living room" games, and almost always has me wishing at some point that it was made as one, where I didn't have to squint my eyes and crane my neck to enjoy it. The PSP2 lineup, with its Uncharted's and Resistances, seem to fall into this category.

If I think of game experiences I actually prefer on a handheld, they are things I wouldn't want or can't have on my TV, (a) like brief games (Angry Birds), (b) "low-res" games (Scribblenauts, Phoenix Wright), or (c) games that take advantage of their unique input due to their small size (the first Zelda game for the DS).

Oddly, the games I've noticed for 3DS also fit few of these categories, making me shrug at that system, too. The most interesting things have been the app that makes virtual reality out of what it sees via the camera and lets you shoot at it (a,c), and the 3D camera.

I know I will be tempted by the new handhelds, but both -- especially the PSP2 -- look to deliver experiences I once again compare unfavorably against my living room games. This is the kind of thing, however, that I prefer to be wrong about. Since my data collection is incomplete, I still hold out hope of spotting news that lets me feel like I'm part of the handheld club.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

House Rules

My couples' D&D session was postponed over a month or two, I think, because of sickness and holiday madness, but last weekend there was much role-playing, and despite spending the entire night on one combat scenario, I thought it was a good time. There was mystery, magic, acts of heroism, adventurers on death's edge, and lots of tactics on display. And additional fun for me, because I was able to test a couple of house rules that I thought helped things move along nicely.

My group is new to D&D and I wanted a way to incentivize them to become familiar with their character abilities, so I wrote up an activity each character could accomplish to grant their team bonus XP for the encounter. Each character's achievement involved an action particular to their combat role -- e.g., the cleric heals, the rogue performs a sneak attack, or the wizard hits multiple monsters. I thought the group ate them up, though, looking for opportunities to earn them and helping each other finish combat having accomplished the target, and it seemed a great way to motivate an understanding of their abilities. I can't wait to craft a bunch more.

Fate Points
Nothing sucks more than waiting your turn, maneuvering to make a big attack, rolling, and failing. The enormous deflation that results is, in my opinion, a genuine weakness of D&D, and so I came up with a mechanic to help. Glass beads, referred to as fate points, rest on the table. If every attack roll you make misses in a round, you get a fate point. One fate point can be exchanged for a +1 bonus to your attack roll, two for a +1 bonus to someone else's, and 5 for an action point. Earning fate points doesn't remove the disappointment of missing, but it curbs it, and since you can help others with fate points, there are more incentives to pay attention to the fight. I was elated when one player missed a big attack by three but only had two fate points; another player with two points pitched in, however, and it was just enough to make the attack. I loved that they were able to make it happen through player action, made possible by failure, and it was great.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Can't... Resist...

I felt more resilient to a lot of the carroting mechanics in games in the last year -- that I can control my urge to get every letter, star, contract, and side-quest, and that my overall sense of happiness is improved by not stroking that OCD itch. Otherwise, it typically provokes a sense that I am "wasting time" playing the game. It's interesting, then, that I am struggling to control my desire to "100-percent" Little Big Planet 2, and how my sense of self-control melts away just thinking back on Arkham Asylum, the only game I've unlocked all achievements / trophies in. What is it about these games?

In the case of LBP2, the urge to collect everything is just as frustrating and time-wasting as any other game, but the reason I feel utterly compelled to catch them all is because the feature that really makes the game special -- editing your own content -- is technically incomplete until everything has been collected. Instead of stars or bananas, materials, songs, stickers, and costumes -- all important to editing -- are hidden, and the urge to collect becomes irresistible (and not necessarily amusingly so).

The case of Batman was a polar opposite because I was looking for any excuse I could think of to play the game longer. I really felt like I was gaining not just a mastery over my grasp of the world around me, but my expertise at combat in particular, going through several of its challenges. The more I played the better I got at getting through combat with high scores and enormous combo chains, and that was true from the beginning of the game all the way to the end -- an impressive feat for such a simple combat structure -- though I understand some friends didn't get the same enjoyment out of it.

Exceptions to the rule are interesting.

Monday, January 24, 2011


When I think about the future, I often wonder about my return to big games for big corporations, because I've always been curious about what it takes to make the biggest and best. After doing my own thing, however, I would miss approaching design with so few steps between concept and execution. It really is a beautiful thing.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Claw Grip

Despite my enjoyment of force feedback, for a long time an oddly-shaped mouse -- stubby and wide -- from my early days of computing was the one I remembered the most fondly. I never understood why most mouse devices were so long and seemed to fill up your hand, since I thought it was awkward to move my forearm around to control my mouse, and it wasn't until I read about mouse "grips" that everything clicked, and I understood why I felt this urge to go back to my stubby mouse.

Apparently, I just had a less-common way of holding a mouse. A "palm grip" seems the most popular, where you have all of your hand and all of its fingers resting over the surface of the mouse, and you use your forearm to move it. What I liked (and didn't realize) is what's called a "claw grip," which means only a corner of my palm and my fingertips touch the mouse and I use my fingertips to "pull" the mouse around, occasionally sliding the mouse away from my palm to get more range. There is another, possibly least-common approach called the "fingertip grip," which is like a claw grip, but with no part of the mouse ever touching your palm.

Since I read about these grips a few years ago, its made it much easier to hone in on what I like, which unfortunately seems like a small selection of mice, although there are some good options that have made me a happy mousing camper. If you're curious about these grips, Razer has a nice description up.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Did anyone else own this mouse by Logitech? I bought one in the early part of the decade looking for an optical mouse that was fast enough for a gamer and figuring the force feedback would be a possibly interesting novelty. Tribes 2 was on the list of supported titles, and I was deeply in love with the series, but I never expected to love the mouse as much as I did. I thought the support in T2 was done well, and I loved the sensation of feeling gunfire while playing. It was a simple addition that added more than I expected to my experience, and I was sad when the whole force feedback mouse thing never really garnered much more support in games and seemed to fade into the ether. Honestly, it was something that sounded pretty dumb on paper and probably varied in quality based on how programs supported it, but for my use it was a kinda awesome reality.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Regrets and the PS3

The PS3 not finding itself in so dominant a position in this round of the console wars is interesting to me. Was it because it cost too much? Because Microsoft's marketing was better? Because development was too expensive or complicated? Regardless, there are smaller, interesting targets that I think would have helped, from my biased perspective:

God of War 2 released on the PS3, not the PS2. If the same game that came out for the PS2 were instead released for the PS3 with whatever visual bang they could muster, it would have been a killer app. This might even be true with PS2-quality graphics. It may not have made development sense -- at the time I thought, Sony said they want the PS2 to last awhile, and GOW (I think) sold less than they projected, so maybe this is just a safer dev-cost bet that accomplishes this goal -- but the press around GOW2 was insane, and I don't think the PS3 found a release of that magnitude. If it had, I think the future of the PS3 might look much different now.

Little Big Planet replaced Home. Presumably after the success of Mii's, Microsoft and Sony wanted summadat, spawning Avatars and Home, the former of which seemed strong if derivative, while the latter was different for different's sake (and no other clear reason). About the same Sony decided to aim straight for the Uncanny Valley with Home, LBP was released, and I was flabbergasted by the wasted potential. If all the energy spent on Home were instead spent giving everyone, regardless of LBP ownership a Sackboy to customize and pose and share, and buying LBP still offered the games and editing tools to play with him, as well as more costume options, I think it would have been wildly more successful. Not so much a game-changer as having a killer app would be, but still a much stronger step forward. In fact, I still think Sony should do it: announce the explosion of Home, and make Sackboys a core part of the PS3 experience.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Close to Home

Some of you may be aware that I've had a long love affair with the Street Fighter series, and that I feel a constant urge to play and get better at the game even when not playing at all. A year or two ago I even dabbled with the local scene and participated in a handful of tournaments. I met some really cool players, got my ass handed to me over and over, and held my own on occasion but the amount of energy I knew I'd have to put in to take my game to the next level was simply more than I could afford so I put the game aside, so as not to torture myself.

Or so I always think. The truth is I still look from the outside in, wishing I could just play a few more games despite knowing exactly where that road ends. The other day, however, I visited, the place for all things Street Fighter, and browsed the results of a recent major tournament, where players from all over the nation fly to participate for the top prize. Among the names, 801 Strider stood out. 801? Could this guy be from Utah? Waitaminute, is that Strider from the Utah forums?

Indeed it was. There's something really amazing about watching a player from your tiny scene competing against icons from the West and East coast and beating many of them down, fighting his way through the winner's bracket. In grand finals, 801 Strider lost by one round to Ricky Ortiz, the US finalist last year at EVO, the world's biggest fighting game tournament (Ortiz lost to the legendary Daigo, a Japanese player).

My Street Fighter demon reawakens. There's a good chance I'll stifle it, but watching Gustavo (801 Strider) in Grand Finals at West Coast Warzone 3 sure makes it hard.

Friday, January 14, 2011

January Games

This January doesn't seem as crazy as last for games, but I'm looking forward to Little Big Planet 2 and Dead Space 2. LBP2 is an odd interest, since the real appeal is in creation and though I explored the creation tools in the first LBP, it was only enough to get a feel for it. It was enough, however, to realize I would have loved the game if I were younger (and had lots of spare time on my hands), and the pure joy of its patched-up visuals and Stephen Fry's voiceovers really made me fall in love. I played through it all, 100%-ing every level, and the birthday following, Jen made me a replica doll of my LBP character, and it was one of the coolest gifts I've ever received.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


My vacation ended about a week ago, but a brand new illness swept in to make things lame, and between swollen throats and holidays I've been quite missing from the blog.

Why hello! While I was gone, there were a couple vids I was camping on that I were enjoyable enough to make sure everyone kind enough to visit (that's you) got to watch. The first is one of the most enjoyable game reviews I've seen in awhile, posted on Kotaku a few days back. Second was a heart-warming piece of an indie-game documentary featuring the creator of Aquaria, I think (which is a great game, btw -- recommended).