More This is Vegas coverage

This is Spegas!Over the past few weeks there have been a bunch of great references to This is Vegas.  Forgive me while I plug them for a minute. 🙂

Links

Video

One last edit:

My list of coverage can’t even approach this person’s…  Read the very first This Is Vegas blog.

Diablo and X-Men

I just noticed today that during my blogging hiatus, Citizen Parker had stumbled onto my posted Analysis of Diablo 2.  It was a fun write, and a Parker had some really cool things to say about it.  Thanks for the nod!

Thanks to Citizen ParkerA bit of history on this, I wrote it while I was in the midst of a job search.  They had asked for an analysis of this sort for one of several games, including my fave, Diablo 2.  I was uncomfortable revealing this at post time because it would have been unfair to reveal their hiring practices, but this was for the sadly-departed Iron Lore in Maynard, Massachusetts.

At the time they were looking for a lead designer for their ultimately entertaining and polished Diablo-like game Titan Quest.  I visited their studios in a cool old New England building, and met with folks like Brian Sullivan and Jeff Goodsill…  It was a nice operation with what seemed like a great culture and feel, and it saddens me that they weren’t able to keep the money flowing.  The public at large (and many developers) seem to forget how hard it is to have an independent studio these days…  New IP is difficult to get attention for, and the game-buying public tends to pool their money on a few selected hits and ignore the rest.

Anyway, back to Diablo…  It was kismet that they had asked me about that game not too long after I finished X-Men Legends.  As you get done developing a game, you mind is filled with the choices you made, and all the things you could have done to make the game better.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to close the book and move on, and it feels important to keep a log of what you’d do different if there was a next time.

God, my head was filled with stuff like this.  X-Men Legends had an early start conceived as a turn-based RPG ala Final Fantasy before I evolved it into the real-time adventure that got released.  Things get so clear after the fact, but in the midst of it we were struggling to get our new console technology going and iterating on AI.  The XML really wasn’t fully playable (particularly having good companion AI) until pretty near the end of production.  (Although I should say that the unstoppable Simon Parkinson really lived up to the challenge of making that whole package work together well).  But, as even the mighty Penny Arcade has finally begun to understand, sometimes games play like shit until they are fun.  It doesn’t happen with every project, but there are times when you just have to trust your instincts and carry out a plan.

Wolvie and SabertoothIn the case of X-Men, there were a few things that dawned on me too late to really get into the design.  The first was a smaller realization…  For a good chunk of development we were looking for solid gameplay elements that took advantage of the various forms of elemental attacks that the X-Men used…  Typically it was difficult because it was custom-scripted, and generally required one specific hero at the expense of all others in order to enact, which went up against our credo of letting the player choose their favorite X-Men and focus on them.  However, after Harvey and Randy Smith’s excellent talk on emergence at GDC 2004, I came back to work all fired up about the possibilities of the interactions of objects with elemental properties and how they could create some unique gameplay.  Creating more water that could be frozen or barrels that leaked flammable oil would have added a lot of variation to the X-Men’s activities, but the idea really came in too late to really act on.  We were pretty much at alpha at that point and couldn’t take the risk.  Ah well.

The second inspiration I got, however, came nearly at the very end of the game, as we were doing final tuning.  For so long, we had been chasing the dragon of encouraging the player to switch characters.  Ostensibly this was to support the X-Men chestnut of “combo attacks” like the Fastball Special.  These would have, ironically, been a breeze if we had stuck with the turn-based Final Fantasy model, but they were really hard to implement and control in the chaotic environment of a real-time, multiple-enemy brawler.  Anyway, switching characters with the D-Pad was a great combat option that existed, but generally any one character was powerful enough to deal with any challenge.  As it was still a bit disorienting to do a lot in battle (and a bit inconvenient because of the use of the D-pad), the player usually just switched for variety and flavor.

What was apparent to me right at the end of development (not that it was a revelation) is that using powers were always going to be the most exciting thing, because that’s where we lavished the most love and custom effects.  The unique opportunity that existed in X-Men Legends, however, was that there were four characters that were usable most of the time.  So, while in other games you shoot your wad and drain yourself of power, then go off and recharge or drink a potion or something, our players could continually switch characters and use that character’s powers while the drained character was busy recharging.  As such, we could have introduced a mechanic that encouraged the player to keep a power chain going, rewarding them for using power after power, ultimately reinforcing the fun that should exist with all these extravagant powres going off.  I think that would have completely cemented the “team” feel and brought the game beyond just being a multi-character elaboration on Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance (and I make no claims that we don’t owe that game a great debt).

Of course by then the game was nearly out the door, and I was gearing up to move on to new opportunities.  I feel a bit sad that we weren’t able to get that sort of thing in, but since that game has spawned two successful sequels built on the same mechanics, I guess I can’t complain.  It just proves that there is always one more feature, one more bit of polish for every game you work on. You can either kill yourself over it, or just save those ideas for next time…

This is Vegas!

So over the past two and a half years, we’ve been laboring at Surreal over a game that is really a different sort of game than those I’ve worked on in the past.  The cool thing is that we’ve been able to apply all our knowledge from a multitude of past action games into a completely new experience.  Overall it’s been an enriching experience, making me think of new ways to tackle old problems, as well as come up with solutions to entirely new challenges.  If anything it’s a fantastic breather from “shooter of the month”.

But I can’t say that the silence has been easy to endure.  “So Pat, what’re you’re working on?” my industry friends would casually ask as we munched awesome, giant slices of pizza…  The answer used to be so easy…  “Military shooter” or “Star Wars game!”  Those chats were easy, and would elicit a knowing nod…  Little else needed to be discussed.  Maybe talk about a new weapon or multiplayer mode, or gripe about problems with the technology, but not much else.  Lately it’s been a struggle:  “Well, it’s an open-world action game, but it’s got this sort of lifestyle component…” They’d stop, and give me a puzzled stare.  “I can’t really say anything else, but it’s pretty different.  It’ll be announced soon I think.”.  As they turned back to their slice, they mumbled: “Uh, sure, sounds cool.  Can’t wait.”

Well, after an eternity, it’s finally announced.  It’s called This is Vegas.

There’s only a thimble-full of information, so until more gameplay is revealed publicly I’ll have to continue to wave my hands at our monthly pizza ritual, but at least I can point you in the direction of some of the early coverage:

On IGN:

  • Announcement, including our teaser trailer.
  • Full Preview, this is one of the better overviews
  • Entertainment, featuring a tourist map written by the ever-awesome Jay Pinkerton.
  • Gigs, touching on a number of the side missions you’ll undertake throughout Vegas.
  • Suits, providing an overview on the factions and communities that you’ll get to know.

The Teaser Trailer:

Alive and Kickin’

All right enough of this…  I miss the whole blog thing.  SurrealGameDesign was a great chance for me to collect all my various thoughts and collect them into (hopefully) a compelling or at least comprehensible package.  It was healthy as a designer and kept me sharp.  I pretty much starved this blog at the time so that I could maintain SGD, but it was worth it.

While eventually things got complicated enough that I couldn’t keep it going, I consider the blog an overall successful venture.  Last summer, I was growing frustrated with the lack of exposure that Surreal had in the game industry, since it had not been visible to the public since The Suffering: Ties that Bind shipped in September 2005.  I knew also that our new game would not be announced until early this year.  If anything, it made recruitment difficult, which makes it tough to build the best department I possibly could.  In addition, I was encouraging my designers to broaden their horizons by playing and talking about new types of games.  The blog’s mission was to both build outside awareness of the culture at Surreal, but also to build a team spirit and grow the perspectives of the design department at large.

By late fall, SGD was getting some great momentum, with several thousand visits a day and some notice from some cooler mainstream-y places like N’Gai Croal’s Levelup blog and Stephen Totilo’s Multiplayer blog.  Not bad for a studio with no visibility for two years and an unannounced game on its plate.  It might be resurrected in some form in the future, but for now I’ve archived the contents at a site called GamesGoneFeral.

So moving forward, this is the place that I’ll come to talk about my current efforts, and reveal perspectives on my past (and perhaps even my future).  Some of my compatriots have also carved out their own corners of the internet, as can be evidenced in the Surreal Network on the sidebar.  We’ll be responding to each other and encouraging others to join the (loosely organized) fold.  We’ll see where all this leads, but regardless, it’ll be a journey worth taking.

Mario Galaxy: Shine Get!

After recovering from a trip to the Chicago office for a technical design summit, I finally managed to crack open Super Mario Galaxy and give it a whirl. Considering it is apparently proving out to be the greatest game of all time, my expectations were high.

I was an incredibly huge fan of Super Mario 64, which I put up as my favorite game of all time. That game was a pioneer in so many ways, and its gameplay still holds up quite well today. It had an extremely workable camera that was tuned for each area you went through, and along with its controls, they went unmatched for many years after its release. (Maybe Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, another favorite of mine, finally matched it?)

Of course I was waiting for this game because I would love another Mario 64. Unfortunately I went through this same anticipation five years ago for Super Mario Sunshine and was gravely disappointed. I ask around a lot about what was wrong with Sunshine and I get very vague answers. It had all the trappings of Mario 64, but why did it fall flat? Thinking back I think it was an uncompelling package, another “island paradise” with arbitrary block puzzles sprinkled in. More offensive was that damn backpack/watergun thing. Mario is about motion, and that “clean up the gunk” spray nozzle thing required me to keep Mario in place. What were they thinking?!? Seeing that nobody that I know liked it (and even reviewers retroactively dis that game), but it still netted a 92% on GameRankings, I certainly have to take all the hype for Galaxy with a grain of salt.

Shine Get!
So Sunday I cracked Galaxy open and was drawn in. In a couple of good sessions I went through two full galaxies and probably about 25 stars. I’m a completionist so I went for all the secondary objectives first before moving to the next area.

Here are a pile of impressions:

  • The Wii control scheme, for maybe the first time in my experience, isn’t annoying at all. You move Mario with the stick like you always did, but somehow the disconnected nunchuck feels better than a gamepad stick might, because it isn’t a big slab and can be tilted to help orient you to the action.
  • Thank fucking god they ditched the “flip the wiimote to jump” thing that they toyed with a couple years ago. You just press the A button as you’d expect, which doesn’t give you the 1/4 second delay you get with gestural motion in most Wii games. That would have killed Mario.
    • This is hopefully a very good sign for Wii. It seems like when it was introduced, everyone out there was trying to use fancy whirls and flips to do mundane things. Tilt the wiimote to steer? Wow, dude, you just invented the joystick. Shake the wiimote to make Link attack? You just invented the button, asshole.
    • Some of the wiimote point-at-this mechanics are a bit weird, such as the float-stars that pull Mario along, but they do feel pretty unique and perhaps not easily replaceable with a button (there are advanced techniques like gravity slinging that start to emerge later).
    • The sticky slingshot-thing (where you pull back with the wiimote to fling Mario at a target) certainly could have been controlled with a joystick, but in the end it felt like a fairly versatile game tool.
    • The secondary use of the wiimote works pretty well. Picking up crystals by pointing the cursor at them is a nice diversion when you’re being launched this way and that, and the idea that a friend can hang out and play crystal control is pretty cool. They do have the “shake to spin” thing that gives a bit of my above gripe, but it feels fairly responsive and doesn’t get too annoying.
  • Gravity takes you wherever it wants to. Walking upside-down, leftside-right, frontside-back is disorienting, but somehow he controls and camera manage to bring it home and you quickly adapt. As a result, you get a weird sort of topsy-turvy feeling that somehow you continue to keep control. It’s exhilarating, and addicting.
  • The camera can be a bit disorienting, such as when you are in an upside-down overhead view, trying to head stomp something. Only a couple times was I at a loss for control, such as when Mario is walking on some glass spheres and the camera doesn’t move when he’s on the other side, leaving you staring at Mario’s feet through distorted glass, wondering which way was up. The moment was so magical, however, that I hardly minded.
    • The incredible Psychonauts was the only other game that I can think of that did this well (such as the Milkman level, which for me was the moment the game went from curious to sublime).
  • The puzzles use their main mechanics in very interesting ways. Gravity will flip you this way and that, and it’s also localized, so you’ll meet challenges where you leap up into a zone that snares you with reverse gravity so you land on the ceiling. They could have stumped players, but the mechanics are so well communicated that you just feel totally in control.
  • The “collect crystals” mechanic is pretty weird though. First of all, you can “shoot” them, but so far that mechanic hasn’t been very important… You can use it to stun enemies if you don’t want to risk spin-attacking them or hopping on their heads, but I’m not sure that giving Mario a weak “gun” really added to the game. So far it’s been a redundant mechanic other than a couple times that it was shoehorned in as a required action.Tiny Planet
    • Oddly, the crystals you collectare the same ones you use as ammunition when you shoot. I’m not generally a fan of combining two very opposing purposes into single resources (imagine a shooter where your health was your ammo) because you become gun-shy (no pun intended) about using it. I really avoid shooting crystals very much, but so far the “currency” I’ve expended to unlock stars/doors has been pretty minimal, so maybe I’ll loosen up. I’m just worried that I’ll get halfway through the game and some mushroom-headed star mutant will ask me for 5000 in order to get some super-awesome thing.
    • Also, the “aim to collect crystals” is a bit weird since no other pickups like coins and so on work that way. I’m glad that I can hoover up dozens of the little things in seconds, or even grab them while in flight, but it can be a bit of a mental switch when you scoop up all those crystals and then have to walk over to grab the one coin. Of course it makes sense, because coins regain health, and I’m getting used to it.
  • Moving Mario is easy, as it always is (damn those guys can just nail motion). All the Mario 64 moves exist, but some are easier like the wall-jump (Mario “sticks” to a vertical surface for a quarter second before sliding down, giving you a chance to launch again).
    • The moves, however, are more or less undermined by the spin attack, however, which you can use during a jump to go higher and further. This pretty much negates the need for the old standbys of the triple-jump, crouch-backflip and the crouch-longjump. In a sense it feels like those old moves are just there as a nod to the previous game, although it felt nice and comfortable to know they were there.
  • Sending Mario into space is strange but oddly refreshing. After how stale the “island paradise” felt in Sunshine (what, am I suddenly playing Sonic Adventure again?), this suddenly felt like a wild reinvention of classic Mario themes.
    • However, I did lack a sense of place in some cases. I came to “know” these little chunks of rock, but the early part of the game really felt like I was being led by the nose, getting to a launch star and being sent to another planet over and over again. There wasn’t a sense of “planning” to it, nor did I feel in control of my exploration. But, nobody ever accused Mario of being open-world, so the fact that these paths are mostly linear seems appropriate to the series history.
    • The sight range was incredibly long, and it was amazing to be able to see these little chunks of rock far in the distance. I could even wave my wiimote pointer at them and steal distant crystals from the surface. My only regret was that I didn’t feel like an explorer… I wanted to see that piece of rock in the distance and figure out how to get to it. Instead I just went where the game led me next.

Shadow of the Colossus

  • They still have lives. You pick up the mushrooms to get an extra life, and gaining them is easy. Just like in Mario 64, saving and restoring the game will strip you of all but 5, even if you had 60 of them during a play session. People might consider that mechanic a relic, but it seems very Mario to me.
  • Mario still has some of the greatest personality of any game character in existence. Sure, he’s disgustingly cute as he yips and cheers while jumping around, but god damn is he charming. It never gets old to me.

The best moment so far was Megaleg, where you get thrown onto a little planet with this giant robot with big legs towering over you. Once a leg comes down, you climb up the side of it and onto the main body where you finsih him off. It felt like a unique Shadow of the Colossus moment, but even cooler because of the ridiculous exaggeration of the huge robot on a tiny planet.

So overall, I’m really digging Galaxy. Not sure if it is in “greatest game of all time” territory yet, but it’s probably the best game I’ve played this year so far. It adds a completely new angle to platformers in the way that Portal turned the shooter formula on its ear. If anything, it makes me glad to know that new ideas do still exist, waiting out there for us to find them…

Why yes, we DO play Team Fortress 2…

We sit in the aftermath of Surreal’s big TF2 LAN showdown. At the studio we’ve been getting pretty competitive in our matches of Team Fortress 2. Discussions on strategies such as where to place sentry turrets, and how to cap the middle point of Granary are common fare in the offices. However, in the past few weeks it got more and more difficult to squeeze in matches at lunch as we approached last Friday’s big milestone, so we planned a LAN blowout for the day after. Leading up to the big day we had a competition to choose two captains, who each proceeded to forge a team in the fires of Mount Doom. We were destined to meet on the field of battle, and on Saturday, November 10, the milestone was in the can and it was on.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Teams consisted of Laser Jesus, led by Dan Osborn, versus JSM, led by Gameplay Programmer Austin McGee. No, I won’t explain the team names. 🙂

JSMvsLJ

The official matches were played from 4PM to 11PM, with lingering skirmishes continuing into the wee hours. The results had JSM take the win home, with five victories out of six:

  • Well: Laser Jesus 0, JSM 2
  • Granary: Laser Jesus 1, JSM 2
  • Dustbowl: Laser Jesus 1, JSM 1 (Tie)
  • 2Fort: Laser Jesus 0, JSM 2
  • Hydro: Laser Jesus 0, JSM 2
  • Gravel Pit: Laser Jesus 1, JSM 3

Surreal TF2 Steam LogoThis is all a warm-up, though, because across the Seattle area, the TF2 showdown has crossed studio boundaries in the Valve-hosted TF2 Studio Rumble 2007. So far Surreal has defeated two contenders, and unless Zombie pulls out an upset tonight, we’ll be going up against the dreaded forces of Valve itself next week. Wish us luck!

I put up a “Games We Play” page for this sort of thing if you want any details on our teams.

Gallery:

 

Getting Set UpDistributed Power SystemThe MazeGamer FuelNeed beer… Lots and lots of beer.JSM Gearing UpLaser Jesus Gearing UpDeep Strategy SessionLaser Jesus Laying PlansIt’s On!Bring itFinal Score

Semi-Happy Endings

MySimsLately my wife has been playing MySims on the Wii. This game is best described as The Sims without the personal hygiene and a dash of Animal Crossing… Or actually a whole dumptruck load of Animal Crossing, where the truck in question has balloons and hearts and stars painted on the side.

The balance of building stuff instead of managing deep relationships led to lower reviews of MySims, but that’s fine, it’s what my wife always hated about the original. She wanted less of the voyeurism and more opportunities to build her house. (Women seem to dig building stuff, n’est pas?). This game not only let you decorate your pad, but build furniture and decorate them with standard carpentry hardware like anger and puppies.

Anyway, she threw herself headlong into it, playing several hours a day. She can obsess over certain tites (LOTRO being the most recent), so I expected the romance to last a week, at least. Three days later I noticed she wasn’t playing, so I asked why. Apparently, the town she was sprucing up had different sectors in it that needed exploring, like desert and forest and caves (no word on the lava-with-mine-cart sector). Each section had places that you could build houses for once you attracted a character to come to town. The reason she stopped, however, was that the town had a star rating that went up as you progressed through the game. Once you reached five stars, no matter what your plans were, the game “ended”, with credits and the whole deal.

AnimalCrossingWhaaaa? The Sims didn’t have an ending… Animal Crossing didn’t have an ending (did it?) These sandbox titles tend to keep players going for hours and days and months. Was it so important to the dev team to have a credit sequence that only 10-20% of audiences will experience anyway? After the MySims ending credits, my wife could still play and achieve and collect more, but she didn’t feel the motivation and quit afterwards.

Those of us who grew up with early 80’s arcade games and consoles like Atari and Colecovision, games without endings were generally assumed. Players just kept going, trying to get the best score possible. I remember playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time and feeling gypped that it was possible to reach the endpoint and have nothing more to play.

heavy-1Of course these endings gave us something to shoot for, not to mention some tiny semblance of a storyline. I quickly adapted, creating my own (meta) objectives after the in-game goal of “finish the game” was achieved. When I could beat Heavy Barrel on one quarter, I tried to beat it with one life (never quite got there). These days, if I play any game beyond a threshold of a few hours, I’ll push to the ending, as long as I know it’s out there.

But then I’ll stop. Sure, Resident Evil had all sorts of crazy nut-job unlockables for the truly obsessed, but I had other games to play. With few exceptions (such as achieving 120 stars in Mario 64), the conclusion of a game is an excuse for me to stop playing and move on.

I gotta ask myself, however… Do I play more or less of a game on the average because there is an ending? If after 10 hours I am forced to stop and watch a credit sequence accompanied by upbeat J-Pop, does it keep me from what might have been 18 hours of play? Or would I have stopped short at 7 hours, bored with the grind and without something to shoot for? I’m not sure…

I think I would have played less without an ending. I like goals.

The Halo Shields Rock

HaloShieldAh Peter… I see you like making a statement. Awesome, this blog is a mix of all our opinions, and you’ve done a good job of backing up your own point of view. I’m not particularly suprised about your reaction to Halo’s health mechanics though… You’re an old-school online gamer, forged in the searing online fires of Mount Quake.

In contrast, as I’ve stated before, I like to play shooters (starting with Doom and its awesome shotgun) balls-out fearless, working out interesting ways to leap into the fray and rely on guts and skill to get the job done. Sure I like sessions of strategy too, but there are times where I just enjoy acting like a hero and being rewarded as such. I don’t even mind getting mowed down in tragic fashion if it’s due to my bravado. Such an approach does play havoc with my survivability in certain online contests (notably against Mr. Carlson), but I have fun doing it nonetheless.

The classic 100% health model, however, played a bit at odds with my play style. For me, each room or area of Doom is a fairly self-contained challenge, but upon completion I might have lower health than is practical to move onto the next session and still survive… you can’t always rely on the placement of health kits to get you back up to snuff. I’d often load up a save and try to get through that area with more health. This honed my skill and let me practice new ways of clearing a room, but as time went on, I found myself starting to play the game very “safe”… luring enemies around corners, slowly harassing opponents and so on. Doom suddenly became a very slow game to me. I enjoy tactical exercises like Rainbow Six as much as the next guy, but it wasn’t what I was looking for in a classic action shooter.

doomIn 2001, however, that changed with Halo. By introducing shields that recharged once you remove yourself from immediate danger, it made my starting point for each challenge roughly the same. Suddenly, I could be heroic, and as long as I persevered, all was forgiven. Even sudden sneak attacks, where an enemy crammed into some unknowable corner got the drop on me, could be survived without excessive aggravation. I didn’t have to rely on reloads to teach me about each room. I still was “rated” on my progress by how much of my valuable ammo I used up, but by being encouraged to switch weapons on the battlefield quickly, I felt continuously propelled forward, ready to take the next challenge fully replenished.

I would have thought Bungie’s reinvention of the classic health system to be one of the most shrewd, calculated design choices in recent history, but I am told that it was a bit more accidental, borne of the sci-fi setting and the expectations of having a “force field”. This is evidenced by the fact that Halo 1 still had non-regenerating “health” under all those shields, replenished at an incredibly stingy pace. Halo 2 ditched all that and went for a straight regen model, ditching “classic” health altogether and cementing regen as something of an industry-standard model, like WASD and Half-Life’s “directional damage” HUD.

medicOther shooters adopted health regen in the meantime, like Call of Duty 2, Gears of War, and Blacksite: Area 51. Aside from the pacing differences, it was attractive because it eliminated the need to litter a battlefield with artificial constructs like easily-visible health packs (or worse yet, “food”). One would argue (Peter included) that surviving hundreds of bullets without tangible aid is unrealistic, but the regen model moves the issue behind the scenes, making the immersion a little bit stronger. In addition, health regen has invented a way to take a whole meter off the game interface, helping push forward a new generation of minimal-to-no-HUD games.

I certainly don’t consider the regen health model to be a panacea for all games. Multiplayer games have awesomely tense moments when one individual is reduced to low health and must either tough it out (e.g. in Counterstrike) or find a location or teammate to get healed up (e.g. in Team Fortress 2). You might consider it a bold evolution in shooters, but at minimum I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s not a great new tool for game designers to have in their gameplay toolbox.

Well, there’s my opinion. It’s ironic that I’m defending Halo since I’m not a particularly big fan of it… The second half of the first one was a slog for me, and Halo 2 seemed jumbled and punishing. I haven’t picked up the third one yet, so after I finish Bioshock (which will be after I get my poor, broken Xbox back from Microsoft) I’ll check it out. Perhaps we can get a post from a die-hard Halo fan, like Dan O?

[Ed: Check out Peter’s preceding article here.]