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.]

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.

Making the Rules: The Scale of a Game

Lately I’ve been working on both Surreal’s current game as well as concepts for future games, and this issue has come up a few times. As you may have guessed from previous articles, the concept of “more for the sake of more” is not something I subscribe to. Game development is always about the allocation of resources and determining where those resources are best made use of. So when it comes to adding details, sometimes there are tough conversations to have about the scope of a game, along with its sibling, the scale of a game.

Gettin' phat and fat in GTA San AndreasThink of the large, open-world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In this world, the player can travel around 10 miles end-to-end (representing a geographical space around 100 simulated miles long) You can drive along mountain roads, and enter cities and visit a few selected buildings. The game is primarily about getting in a vehicle and driving. When you deal with people at all, it is generally with a group or crowd. Enemies can be dispatched in 1-2 shots and can be destroyed several at a time. Aside from story moments, most of the player’s interaction level is in terms of streets, with objectives that take the player to “that building”. Sure, there are moments inside of buildings such as shootouts, but if we had to give an arbitrary scale to the game, we could say that there is perhaps 20 meters between items of interest in GTA.

Stranglehold-Patch_2Now look at Stranglehold, a game with a much denser environment. Each level is a few hundred meters in length, but the world is much denser. You cannot drive, but you can run from alley to alley and enter more detailed buildings The game is primarily about shooting it out with a half-dozen or less enemies at a time. When you deal with individuals, they take 4-5 shots and sometimes can be dispatched in elaborate ways. The interactive objects, such as pillars that can be destroyed and tables that can be slid across, are much denser in placement. If we had to give an arbitrary scale to the game, we could say that there are about 2 meters between items of interest in Stranglehold.

Now, there is almost no technical reason why Stranglehold could not have had driving, or why GTA couldn’t have had dense, destructible rooms, aside from those teams choosing where to devote their performance, memory and manpower resources. Sometimes gamers looking for the ubiquitous “more” or even aspiring game developers don’t realize that these choices of scale are very real and deliberate. Even the giant team at Rockstar North realizes that if they lavish attention into a single room or cluster of rooms, that can very easily take resources away from making the game better at the scale it was meant to be played… in a car.

Moments where the scale of interaction changes abruptly can often stand out as going against the pace of the game. If the player is cruising through GTA, blowing up entire crowds of people with grenades, when suddenly he has to close in and complete a 2-minute Tekken-style fight with a single bad guy, it’s going to stand out and completely change the feel of the game. Worse yet, to the developers this would probably be an entirely new game mode (and practically a new game), and as a result, be difficult to deliver at the same quality as the main free-roaming game is delivered.

Similarly, if Stranglehold were to suddenly have an area where the player jumps into a car, there would most likely have to be serious sacrifices to the interactivity of that drivable area. That driving sequence would also have difficulty living up to the experience provided in a driving-centric game like GTA.

Sims 2 Changing the type of gameplay can also be jarring when it affects the pace. What if we could walk up to any of the 30 individuals on a GTA sidewalk and start a conversation with him… learn of his likes and dislikes, and perhaps form a friendship or animosity to that individual based on your actions? Cool eh? But is it worth the development time to make that interesting when people are generally cast aside like tissue paper?

However, it is also very valuable to have what Harvey calls “alternation of gameplay”. This can often break the scale rule, such as Blacksite: Area 51 thrusting the player into a helicopter gunner position after a period of time prowling alleys with your squad of three. This is cool, but is often modal, so that detail can be placed at the appropriate scale for the action. Pillars may explode when you shoot them with your rifle from 5 meters away, but when you are firing an emplaced minigun at a building from 200 meters, you’d better see some larger scale destruction.

Games that let you significantly change scale are rare, but often are modal in their own right. The most prominent example of this is Spore, where you start as an amoeba and ultimately represent an entire race as they colonize the entire galaxy. However, it seems clear that as you progress from single-cell life to the actions of an entire civilization that you rather quickly leave the basic activities of feeding and mating behind. This follows, because it is unreasonable to expect the player to care about a single grain of sand once there is an entire beach to explore…