Category Archives: Game Industry

E3 Greenery

E3 has hit once again and with it we’re seeing a new raft of games punctuated by the return of a favorite series of mine: God of War.  But wait I’m sensing a trend over the past few years in game controls and setting:

So I love free-roaming adventure and I’m a fan of over-the-shoulder third person controls.  I’m also unbelievably thrilled that lush landscapes are possible in modern games and that we are past our “green and brown” stage. Vegetation punctuated by ruined structures can be endlessly fascinating to explore.

However, the first three God of War games were pretty rad in their settings and control scheme.  I’m sure I will play the hell out of the new one.  But I do like it when not every game evokes Sky-Zero-Charted-Cry-Raider when it comes time to make another one.

Ironically, the lush greenery used to be the exception, not the rule…  la différence.  Now I’m totally interested in what never-seen fresh place games will take us next.

Variety is nice!

EQ the Return Part 2: Over-Correction?

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been delving back into the first Everquest after a hiatus of six years.  So far I’m at Level 12 and reliving some good times in Befallen.  As I said, there’s something fun and intense about the experience that I haven’t felt in the long line of succeeding MMO’s.

Certainly one element about it is the sense of danger that exists.  From corpse runs to trains there certainly are a lot of things that keep players on their toes.  Combats were risky…  a few bad misses or fizzled spells and that blue mob suddenly had the upper hand and you were fighting for your life.  Players are flush with stories of how they overcame adversity, or had victory snatched from their hands at the last minute.

So it’s interesting to consider for a moment the fact that all the “problems” that each successor, from Camelot to WOW, have tried to fix were indeed features that made EQ fairly dynamic and more importantly unique.

Consider zone camping.  Due to technology limitations that were less stringent in WOW and DAOC, Everquest was broken into zones or sub-levels that created hard boundaries that initiated a level load for the player…  and of course monsters could not cross.  As such, a common practice was for players to use the zone edge as a safe zone (even if they were deep in a hostile area) because they could exit the level at the first sign of trouble.

This tactic came hand-in-hand with the risks of monster trains, which resulted from the fact that Everquest monsters were vindictive and followed you almost forever once you damaged them.  What’s more, if they happened to pass by another idle monster, that creature would likely join in on the chase.  This resulted in dungeons sometimes being the scene of ridiculous parades of hostile creatures, all chasing a single player balls-out (see inset).  Once a train started, a party had almost no choice but to evacuate to the zone, which of course led all those mobs to the happy zone campers sitting to gain back their health… you can imagine the carnage that erupted.

Zone boundaries (and hence zone camping) were eliminated through the introduction of continuously-streaming levels in games like WOW.  The removal of barriers like this made it also necessary for the monsters to give up any chase for a short distance, more or less stamping out trains…  This is not only because it would be ridiculous for a snow creature to be led all the way to a desert town, but because streaming levels have very stringent rules about the graphic and sound assets loaded for each area, and hence a wolf needs to stay within its expected habitat.  (This is the biggest challenge for us when dealing with open world mechanics of This is Vegas.)

While gamers generally shouted “Hooray!” at the demise of these odd mechanics, ironically these were the same players that were carefully planning around zones and trains…  In the Everquest community, it quickly evolved from capitalizing on quirks of the systems to legitimate tactics.  And these tactics were just as interesting as the “mez/root/tank/heal” manuevers that had developed over EQ’s combat.  They provided an additional layer of experience between “per combat” and “per session” that might be called “per expedition”.

So am I saying that players were having fun and just didn’t realize it?  Well, sort of.  I’ve held for a long time that gamers don’t always understand what makes a game fun, and that penalties, inconveniences and grinds are often a close companion to reward (as opposed to creating a “win game” button).  However, in this case, gamers were complaining more about chaos and unpredictability than against the situation itself.  They just never knew when a train might come in from some other player and ruin their evening. 

Nothing is more frustrating than to spend an evening and not make progress (this was one of my biggest pet peeves about Everquest back in the day), and many players had successful sessions punctuated by devastatingly frustrating sessions.  No doubt, they always remembered the worst ones.  These gamers wanted a more predictable and efficient way of exchanging time for advancement, and they always seek out the easiest path to do so. 

In EQ they found areas where they could spawn camp with the easiest XP and loot.  They located the areas with the biggest reward for the lowest risk.  And when new games came out like Camelot and WOW where these aspects were more predictable, they rejoiced and jumped ship.  They moved to experiences where each encounter was more predictable, where nothing ever went really, really wrong.  They played in games where they could maintain a basic strategy and always end up on top.

Ironically, what they moved towards is al almost perfect definition of a grind.

Spectator Shorts

WCGThis weekend I spent some time at the World Cyber Games at the Qwest Field Event Center. I was manning a booth for Surreal, as part of an special section of the event hosted by local game school Digipen. They were holding a series of presentations, most notably a Symposium for Women in Gaming that included our own Brigitte Samson, who gave a presentation on the growing role of the technical artist in game development. There were booths from other local developers there too, so it was great to get a chance to talk to folks from Zombie, Flying Lab, Monolith and Valve while at the show.

The booth, which we had to whip together sort of last-minute, was purposed as somewhere between education and recruiting. Unfortunately we didn’t have an announced title to talk about or show, so the theme of our booth was more about Midway overall than specifically about the Surreal studio. Luckily, we had some nice materials from Blacksite and Stranglehold… and since we share technology and even assets with those groups (our kick-ass artists and FX group have contributed some great work on those games as well), we consider them to all be part of the same family, so it was cool to represent our peeps nonetheless.

Anyway, this since this was the World Cyber Games, there were of course matches going on all day, so while I was mainly walking around to check out some of the playable games on the floor, I couldn’t help but get a big dose of the craziness that is competitive gaming.

There was a huge screen at one end of the hall, with good-sized audience sitting and watching these matches over the course of the multi-day event. It wasn’t a sold-out standing-room-only type of event, but it was fairly lively. These contests had the trappings of a full-fledged championship-level event, the competitors sitting in soundproof booths, the announcers introducing contestants and calling out the events onscreen…

Honestly, the idea of watching a bunch of people I don’t know play Starcraft really had no appeal to me, so I focused my attention on the kiosks for Left 4 Dead and Crysis. However, while I was waiting for a chance to play, I couldn’t help but catch a dose of what was going on in the competition… and as the announcer excitedly described one competitor’s gutsy push through the enemy’s defensive line, I got a bit hooked.

romeroI’ve always felt that the attempts to legitimize gaming as a “sport” (no doubt to be spoken in the same breath as baseball and football) was something of a joke, much as I wished otherwise… The “gaming pros” are hard to give the same level of respect for people who play videogames as we do sports athletes who achieve so much physically… (C’mon, who can you name besides maybe Thresh? I’ll give you a hint). That’s too bad, because for an pastime that still evoked images of closeted nerds, hyperactive 14-year-olds and bong-hitting college students, we could still use some heroes with more mainstream appeal (like a certain Dallas developer achieved a bit of 10 years ago).

Back at Raven I worked on a lot of games that supported online multiplayer, and during the development of every one I got calls from people who hoped to turn online matches into a spectator sport… but nothing ever really happened. One problem is that these guys were always starting with a game in development and asking for support (such as special camera controls) so that it would be “broadcast-worthy” (a tall order for a dev team working to hit a deadline). What they thought they could do is create the competition and the people would come regardless of the featured game… but the audience didn’t bite.

StarcraftRTSScreenShotPeople want to watch games that they play themselves, or at least games they appreciate and understand. The problem with most online games is that there never are enough players to build a critical mass of people that are familiar enough to understand the strategy and drama behind it. Even fairly successful games like Battlefield 1942 are not as widely-played as something like Starcraft. It seems like every PC gamer on the planet has tried it… While it’s ten years old, it’s certain to be a standby (although perhaps replaced by Starcraft 2) for many years to come. You’d think that the games would update with the times, but you certainly don’t expect football to (significantly) change its ruleset every year the way gamers chew through new titles.

Maybe breakthrough titles like Halo could carry a similar audience, but there are few games out there that can. One thing that might increase the level of competition and get widely-publicized competitions some momentum is the evolution in shooters that we are seeing lately… With competitive games like Call of Duty 4 and Team Fortress 2 evolving to create meta-game elements like rankings, statistics, achievements and character-building, these games are going to be more competitive than ever. A player’s handle will be more than what he logs in as, it will be something that has an identity, complete with bragging rights. The top players will get more exposure as rankings become more prominently featured in these titles. Reputation and glory will become a major factor…

God knows that Korea is ten steps ahead of the rest of us. When the top Korean players appeared during WCG, those guys were rock stars! Perhaps it’s harder to find a charismatic gamer who measures up to a charming athlete, but somewhere down the line, competitive gaming will become accepted by the mainstream, and the industry will get those heroes that they are looking for.

Into The West

`Things have been really crazy lately at Surreal, but in spare moments I’ve been thinking about Rick’s manifesto on Japanese games and what it means to me. Certainly a great deal of the debate is personal taste… The cultural differences in the east that gain us interesting premises and memorable characters also net us irritatingly angst-ridden heroes, preachy monologues, immersion-breaking cutesy sidekicks, and existential, introspective endings. I had a similarly inspired discussion this week with some of the guys on the virtues of stealth games. Some love them, some hate them.

Somewhat coincidentally, I’ve been immersing myself in the work of three different continents lately: Bioshock, Overlord and Persona 3. While perhaps they are not completely iconic of the values of their respective region-coding, they certainly reminded me of some of the cultural differences I’ve seen in their products over the years. Here are some broad, possibly unfair generalizations on the qualities of Japanese and American games:

800px-Flag_of_Japan_svg
Japan:

  • Japanese games tend to mix up settings, so that fantasy is often mixed with sci-fi, psionics, westerns, or whatever. The setting and content often just serve the game creator’s style, creating a certain type of character, or having some sort of visual impact, even if explanations are thin.
  • Content is experienced in a fairly linear fashion, even in open-ended RPG’s. Major events are always presented in order, as there is no expectation of “the player writing their story”. The player is definitely being “spoken for” by the mostly mute main character.
  • Characters are strongly defined, very early in the game. Each has a distinct look and clearly identifiable motivations. Even when the game has customization of equipment, it tends to not interfere with the character’s graphic. Whether he or she is wearing a feathered cap or a robot helmet, they still appear in the stylish outfit the character designer created.
  • VieraAll characters, including NPC’s, tend to wear their heart on their sleeves and spew forth their deepest motivations at the drop of a hat. Cute characters or awkward females are frequently included as tension-relievers.
  • The first hour of the game often comes near to playing itself, with an extremely tightly controlled experience. From Square RPG’s to Mario, the Japanese slowly dole out setting and mechanics, even if it takes several hours.
  • Gameplay tends to be compartmentalized into smaller game areas in the interest of a simpler interface and smooth visuals. Interfaces vary depending on the game mode, with no fear of menus, overmaps, or stopping the action to allow the player to focus on a single decision.
  • Japan has an element of “fantasy” in most games. Suspension of disbelief is not a concern with unusual additions to a fiction. The visual and stylistic impact on these choices seems to take precedent over world consistency. Japanese don’t seem to expend much energy on explaining why the world is normal except for one weird element, or why one member of the party is a giant anteater, and the audience just lets it roll over them.
  • The locations in Japanese games are varied, but very often involve abstract interpretations of public spaces. A busy downtown street will be depicted even if the engine can’t support more than 5 NPC’s to occupy it and the camera must be kept top-down to avoid looking at the horizon. This is sufficient, however, to the gamer.
  • While they may seem to defy typical American genres, Japanese games have their own that get followed with some fairly specific guidelines as well: Turn-based RPG, Action RPG, card battle, screen-based sim (from horse racing to dating), turn-based strategy, and so on.

800px-Flag_of_the_United_States_svg

 

United States:

  • Americans tend to expect more of a consistent feel from their settings, with fantasy, western, or modern day delivered with certain expectations. When settings are mixed, there tends to be more energy spent explaining why when the Japanese seem to accept each new world.
  • Player choice is a highly valued in American games, even if it isn’t delivered all the time. The player’s ability to take an environment and solve it the way he wants to is very important to the public. This usually puts an emphasis on gameplay or mechanics, but this choice is often to the detriment of storytelling.
  • GordonfreemanU.S. games tend to take characters to the extremes… Either the game is about the main character, which forms the nucleus of a game’s style, such as God of War, or the character is pushed into the background, making the environment or the gameplay the “main character”, such as in Bioshock or Half-Life. Character customization is valued so the player can be anyone, which detracts from visual design as well as strong player motivations as portrayed in cutscenes.
  • The first hour of an American game is focused on “netting the player”, with awareness that the audience may have several games vying for his attention. A great deal of choice and ability is thrown at the player in short fashion to make sure that they understand everything the game is about quickly.
  • First-person perspective is also highly valued in American games. These titles universally push the main character into the background, allowing the player to be that individual.
  • American games are strongly focused on presenting a continuous experience for the player, with few menus or load times, and game controls and interface that must serve combat as well as during exploration. Menus are kept to a minimum, and real-time battles are always expected in the game world, leading to a more complicated control scheme. Online is also a strong virtue, which almost requires a continuous experience to be functional.
  • Settings in American games also are frequently pushed to areas that the designer can control without protest from the player. A dense city for example is often avoided because they are hard to deliver without the compartmentalizing practices of Japanese games. This can lead to more freely explorable games with a far lower visual fidelity, such as Grand Theft Auto III.
  • Ironically, however, Americans are influenced by mass media to be more attracted to “realistic” settings and subject matter. Film and TV fall into modern settings even when they explore the fantastic, from Quantum Leap to Bruce Almighty) Unfortunately, while theses settings make it easier for filming TV and movies, they are harder for U.S. gamemakers to place continuous experiences in (in a way that satisfies designers and audiences). Americans are much less interested in suspension of disbelief.
  • American games tend to more readily associate “settings” with “genre” than the Japanese. A fantasy game often has a certain set of gameplay expectations, as does a modern military or crime game.
  • Action in American games almost universally means combat because they are astronomically easier to put into real-time continuous experiences. And since there is so much pressure to set games in the modern day, the conversation usually turns to guns, because Americans can’t imagine a society that guns are not a part of.

cloudvselderI’m not here to simply rebut Rick and say that Western games are superior (maybe someone else will do that!). One common point of contention between those that enjoy Japanese games versus American ones is how stories are told. Japanese games get all that character data out to the audience quickly, and get right to the drama between them. The dialogue will often include long drawn out exposition on a given character’s motives, and generally those motives are not too deep. American developers are influenced by western cinema that places artistic value on subtlety, slow tension-building and multi-layered character depth. Sadly enough, these techniques are hostile to the average game-player’s patterns… Delivering a punchline to a joke that was set up only ten minutes of cinema-time doesn’t take into the account the chance that the player quit, saved, and waited for two weeks before picking up the game again. The player might miss the several subtle cues that told us that the main character is already dead, or whatever. Sometimes it’s frustrating enough during the development process that many developers either cut all the interesting side-plots before ship, or just fall back on summer blockbuster conventions, which leads to more guns and explosions.

As I touched upon in my post on Children of Men, brisk, bold, simple storytelling is probably the best thing for games. For all the posturing and monologues seen in Japanese games, they are getting the information out to the player and reinforcing it multiple times. The player will certainly remember Cloud and Dante more than Garrett or even Gordon Freeman. Ironically, when an American game guns for a memorable character like Kratos in God of War, the game ends up being more linear, with a clear character who is not bashful about his motives… In other words, it creates an experience like the Japanese have been doing for years.

[Ed: Check out Rick’s series of posts here and here.]

Now Playing: Heavenly Sword

Heavenly SwordAt E3 2006 I was surprised by a game that came out of the blue and had interesting, exciting combat, a very cinematic style and a cool-looking character. On the show floor I played through the arena they showed twice, despite the lines and all the other things there were to see. It was Heavenly Sword, and it was the reason I finally broke down and bought a PS3.

I had a brief moment of doubt when the demo came out and I didn’t have as much fun as I did at E3… it seemed to be missing a sense of context, and the frame rate seemed worse. Nonetheless, since I had owned a PS3 for two months and still had no games, I bought it this weekend and cracked it out on Sunday.

I love it. Screw the people that gave it weak reviews. It’s got:

  • Dazzling visuals: The game is beautiful from the character to the carnage, and never really breaks the polish.
  • Great storytelling: Sure, it’s a beat-em-up, but the story is simple but compelling, and contains some awesome moments.
  • Incredible Audio: The voice acting is top-notch, and when I reached one of the bosses and heard her lilting pizzicato theme song, I realized that there was something really inspired going on.
  • HS_KaiMemorable characters: Like a cast from Metal Gear Solid, the villains are over-the-top and tinged with humor. And Kai one of the most enjoyable characters I’ve seen in a game.
  • Entertaining combat: The combat makes a button-masher look cool doing it, but also has some fine tactical decision-making. However, success does not hinge on memorization of crazy move strings… the actions and responses logically fit into the system of blocking and stances.
  • Mass destruction: Anyone that knows me understands how I love Dynasty Warriors and being able to take down thousands. Part of that is the mild strategic decision-making, but the rest is being able to wade into a huge group and mix it up. Heavenly Sword is all about mass carnage, and the ability to ultimately litter the battlefield with corpses.
  • “Aftertouch” ranged attacks: Holding the “throw” button after hurling or shooting an object allows you to steer it with the tilt axis, and it works surprisingly well (although it makes it hard as hell to have a cat on your lap as you play). It never gets old, and is a blast.

Six hours of gameplay you say? Well, I’ve never been one to shy away from a great experience because of play time.

It’s clear that Sony put a tremendous amount of money behind this game. Often such flagrant spectacle can be wasted, but all the production values and great voice acting took a very high-quality brawler and turned it into a fantastic package to own. I’m glad my PS3 is finally getting a workout.

One Last PAX Experience

I hit PAX on Friday and Saturday, so I should post my notes before they become irrelevant…  It was my first PAX, although I’ve been to many similar con-type events in the past.

General show:

  • With its unabashed “nerdcore” attendee list, PAX is better described as a mini-GenCon than a mini-E3. They have an impressive size for being a fairly young show, but it still is very much centered around fandom of the Penny Arcade comic. The sessions with the authors and on the PA game were some of the hottest tickets, as opposed to other sessions talking about more “serious” topics of development.  Not surprising, it’s not supposed to be a GDC or anything, despite heady topics about PR and episodic content.
  • On the upside, it actually had a fairly impressive turnout of games in playable form, including many that I hadn’t seen before in any form. I assume that falling at the same time as Leipzig gave the publishers some ready-made material to show.
  • Aside from what I mention below, there was a great spread of playable games:  Haze, Eye of Judgment, Metroid Prime 2, Conan (console), Heavenly Sword (a new demo), Warhammer Online, a big America’s Army thing, and several dozen more I’m not thinking of here.
  • Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony and EA all made an appearance, which is impressive given recent news that E for All won’t have that sort of backing.
  • Overall PAX surprised me with an air of “legitimacy” as a serious show. It would take a couple more years, but if it ultimately balloons into a notable national event, it’ll be cool for Seattle. Continue reading One Last PAX Experience

E3’s over

Another E3 has come and gone…  This is the first one I haven’t been to in years, and from most reports it’s a very subdued event.  Sounds like I didn’t miss much.

I’m a total game trailer junkie, so when E3 rolls around I completely fill my hard drive with as much footage as possible…  and then spend a week or more getting around to seeing everything.  I also Tivo all the coverage on G4 and zip through it at a rate of probably 10 minutes per hour of footage, which is good since there was like 12 hours of it this year.

After all that watching, however, there weren’t any big reveals, no huge news.  I enjoyed seeing more Super Mario Galaxy, but much of the coverage both on the net and on cable seemed to rehash and revisit the same few titles: Assasin’s Creed, Drake’s Fortune, Ratchet and Clank, Call of Duty 4, Bioshock, and only a handful more.  Perhaps the coverage just skipped over the smaller titles (IGN has a much larger list than GameTrailers), but I hope that despite the size reduction of E3 there will remain to be room for smaller games and smaller publishers. 

One of my professional responsibilities (and something I enjoy) is to scan E3 for existing or emerging trends in games.  Interestingly, while previous years seemed to indicate that open-world games were on the rise, they (thank goodness) didn’t emerge in the everyday GTA mold.  Instead, a number of the new games have a good dose of “player freedom” and “emergent tactics”, which you could call a semantic difference but it feels more meaningful to gameplay.  Bioshock, Burnout, Skate, Mercenaries, Medal of Honor, Turok, Assassin’s Creed, and others are starting to perhaps “get it” in terms of letting the player shape their own gameplay experience…  This is certainly a much more interesting lesson to gain from the success of GTA than to simply attempt to make “yet another thug game in a modern city”. 

Even the games without sprawling cityscapes seemed to have their hands full…  most of these games had some very long development periods.  That sh*t’s hard work, and next-gen is no picnic!