Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Hollywood Wannabes Need Not Apply

Grumpy Gamer (Ron Gilbert) has a nice rumination on the actual numbers behind the "games are bigger than Hollywood" myth. I wish people would stop trying to frame the game industry's success in terms of Hollywood. It's a different medium, a different industry, a different business model, a different (though a bit similar) creative process... So why use twisted and misleading figures to claim some kind of superiority?

Gilbert makes the good point that blockbuster movies cost way more to make and rake in way more than games. There is no way that the game industry is anywhere near as big as the movies. Gilbert guesses that just about every person in the US watches movies in some form or another. Can the same be said of games? Games are still a fledgling medium/business.

We should be focusing on the cultural impact of games, which, though still nowhere near as deep as film, is definitely growing. Deca talks about the mass-market, and he's right to be thinking about them. The trick is to make mass-market games without dilluting the power of the medium. Gilbert alluded to the unspoken fear that games will never be as big as movies. I prefer to err on the side of optimism in this case. I have great hope for the medium as a cultural force.

Mass Market Games

This is the first Christmas season since I've been a full time member of the games industry. As I buy presents for people, the need for mass market games has really stood out to me. I live in a pretty isolated world of gamers. Everyone I hang out with or work with are serious, hardcore players. So when it came time to buy a game for my sister's boyfriend, I was at a loss. Then it occured to me: EA games! I would rarely buy one as a present for any of my hardcore friends, but I know that my mass-market friends wont turn the same sceptical eye towards games like Need For Speed Underground 2 or Goldeneye 2. They dont even know what metacritic is, let alone care what a game scores on it.

This isnt a bad thing. Up till now, like many of my collegues, I've had a slight disdain for the somewhat watered down, over compromised style of EA's non-sports games. But the need for them is there. Not many mass-markets are going to pick up Knights of the Old Republic, World of Warcraft or even Prince of Persia and 'get' those kind of games.

This realization will inform my design from now on. Will my sister's boyfriend get this? Would I buy this game as a present for someone who is not hardcore?

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Half-Life 2 Experience

I'm a little late to this party, but this evening, I began to play Half-Life 2. I'm about an hour into it now, and I just wanted to note a few things. I'll try not to harp too much on points that have been covered ad infinitum by other sources.

First of all, I bought Half-Life 2 and downloaded it over Steam. This process was completely and totally seamless and transparent. It's one thing to say you're going to make an end run around traditional publishing with online distribution, and quite another thing to put together a system as easy and reassuring as Valve's Steam. I'm not a PC gamer; I much prefer consoles for the no-hassle experience. However, Steam took care of pretty much everything involved in getting the game running on my machine even reminding me to update my graphics card drivers, which was the only part where my intervention was required. I love it.

Second, Valve has created an engine capable of spectacular feats of real-time rendering. At the same time, they've created an engine that scales pretty well to less beefy machines. I'm playing on a laptop with a wussy mobile processor (Pentium M 1.5 GHz). Granted, I have a gig of RAM and a 128 MB video card (GeForce FX Go5650), but hardware guides have indicated that the CPU can be a bottleneck. In any case, my laptop seems to be able to run the game pretty well with decent graphical options turned on (no-anti-aliasing though). The game looks amazing, which leads me to my next point.

I've always been in the camp of making games more artistically stylized, moving away from realism. The uncanny valley always bothered me, and I'd much rather see games with distinct art styles (Ico, Windwaker, World of Warcraft) than creepily flawed attempts at photorealism (the close-ups in Halo 2). That said, Half-Life 2 makes a convincing case for the pursuit of realism. The quality of the graphics, combined with the stellar animation, absolutely contributes to the physical and emotional involvement of the player in the world of City 17. I'm not saying Half-Life 2 doesn't have an art style. In fact, I'd say their art director did a fantastic job of making sure the world has an understated style and cohesive look. However, I would say that in terms of graphics, Half-Life 2 has bridged the uncanny valley. Oh yeah, and the physics doesn't hurt.

One little nitpick so far: why don't I have a body? In the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, another first-person game, the player can look down and see Riddick's feet. I find it seriously jarring to look down and see no Freeman feet. It's even freakier when I "pick up" an item and it's just floating in front of me. It breaks the illusion.

Other than that, I'm loving it. The atmosphere is incredible, and the storytelling is incredible. And don't get me started about the indirect control. I'll post more as I progress.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Death of Football games?

There has been alot of talk lately about EA's exclusive deal with the NFL. I don't particularly think its the end of the football genre. I think that on the current hardware there isn't much more that can be done with games like Madden. I don't lament for Sega's sports games because they were not that much better than Madden. They got alot of their rave reviews simply because they were not EA.

While everyone is bemoaning the expected lack of competition in the market, which led the previous incarnations of Madden to stagnate, I'm more curious to see what will happen with other companie's games.

The first part of the answer has already been announced. Midway will take its Blitz franchise and combine it with the ESPN TV drama Playmakers. I loved the show Playmakers because of its gritty behind the scenes depictions of the life of a football player. The on-field action wasnt a big deal.

It begs the question, can you make a game that is more about a dramatic story, but happens to have football action too? People talk about genre combining but can it been done with sports as one of the base parts? Can you make an interesting game of Monday through Saturday and still have a fun Sunday? GTA/Fable meets Madden?

Fear for anyone who plays Halo for the story

Let me start my response by quoting you CJ: "One more gripe before I go back to playing the game...."

That statement proves the point I'm about to make. With Halo, the story is nice, but its just the whipped cream on a great piece of pie. Anyone (re:EvilLiev) who is obsessed with the story of Halo must be desperate for new SciFi or something. It has potential but as a colleague of mind put it, its a "just add water" story. It is the gameplay that made everyone buy it. But its a lot easier for people to discuss the story than it is to compare how great it felt when the risk/reward choices forced them to flush out an elite. Only game designers see that kind of stuff.

Even though I may be disappointed in Halo or Halo 2's story, I still like their storytelling. It is a great example of how to tell one in a game. It is more than happy to recede while the gameplay is king.

That said, I thought that the game itself was flat compared to Halo 1. In the original, the gameplay really ramped up. With the introduction of each new enemy and each new level, you could really feel how you were having to change your strategy and improve as you played. With Halo2, that happened some but instead of one nice steep ramp, you get two smaller, shallower ones. The Arbiter sections were fun but it felt more like playing two short games instead of one, more satisfying one. And it didn't help that the whole heretic section had nothing to do with the greater storyline, it was an unnecessary aside.

And I agree that the end is not satisfying in any way. And I don't say this because we don't find out what happened, I understand its a cliffhanger. Its about the gameplay. They never really setup that the fight with the Grey Brute is the end level, so I played the whole thing thinking at least one more level was coming. I remember thinking "if this is the Arbiters final battle, I cant wait to see Master Chief's final battle." And when you see the end cutscene, you believe that another one is coming. Then it ends. I also hate that I didn't get to finish the game as Master Chief. Its those two factors combined that makes it a very hollow ending.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

WTF. Can someone explain Halo 2 to me?

[Spoiler Alert: I'll be discussing Halo 2 without shying away from story details or plot twists. If you haven't finished the game and plan on doing so, don't read any further.] First of all, let me say that Halo 2 is an amazing game. There is so much content to enjoy when you add up the large levels, the many weapons and vehicles, the AI, the beautiful landscapes, and of course the online multiplayer. Bungie has created something special, and any Xbox owner would be doing themselves a disservice by not playing this game (aside: check out these wonderful movies to get a feel for the world that Bungie has created).

That said, what the hell is up with the story in the single player campaign!?!? I finished the game on normal difficulty this weekend, and I'm still mad that there was essentially no resolution at all. It's one thing to set up a sequel, but Halo 2 feels totally incomplete. A lot of reviews that I've seen say that there's no denoument. That's the understatement of the year. I would argue that there's not even a suitable climax. Even The Empire Strikes Back with its many loose ends had a feeling of climax and denouement.

Ok, let's hit some specifics. The story starts off pretty well with the flipping back and forth between Master Chief and the Arbiter. I found this to be an intriguing technique for giving the player both sides of the story (just as Clive Thompson did). The convoluted politics and machinations of the Covenant hierarchs were a tad confusing, but I was willing to work with that presuming it would all be clear in the end. It didn't help that the different Covenant Prophets all looked the same even though they seemingly ruled different groups of aliens. In addition, focusing on the action (and frustration) kept me from paying strict attention to the story.

Thing really started to get crazy with the introduction of Gravemind. Maybe I didn't listen to the cutscene closely enough, but I didn't quite get what he/it was. Other than a Little Shop of Horrors reject, I couldn't really guess. I later sort of deduced that Gravemind had something to do with the Flood, but again, I'm not positive. Let's assume for the sake of argument that I just wasn't paying close enough attention to the cutscenes and Gravemind makes some kind of dramatic sense. Normally, you'd expect something like Gravemind to be a central part of the rest of the game, but we never see him again until a little snippet after the credits. The major twist of introducing Gravemind is basically never followed up.

After playing different storylines as Master Chief and the Arbiter, having them come together at Gravemind was satisfying. However, the goals set for the new duo are never realized. Not because something stops you, but because the story never gets there. The big crime is that Bungie doesn't come through on a single promise set up by the story. Gravemind is introduced, but never followed up on. The Halo network is activated, but you never have a chance to stop them. The Covenant is heading back to Earth, but you never get a chance to try to thwart their schemes. Can't they give us something? Beating Tartarus does not cut it.

One more gripe before I go back to playing the game: there are parts that I found to be too hard. You might call me a wuss or not hard-core... and I'd be the first to agree with you (when it comes to games), but I want to be able to finish the game. There were times toward the end when I seriously considered putting the controller down and not picking it back up. Couldn't they have put some kind of dynamic difficulty adjustment in? All you've got to do is reduce the number of enemies when you notice that a player has restarted the same checkpoint 20 times. Frustration kills a player's enjoyment. David Thomas has a good comment on this.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Optimism (a late Thanksgiving rumination)

Recently (within the last few years), there's been ongoing murmurs of discontent with the current risk-averse state of the videogame industry. People have been decrying the lack of original IP and gametypes as well as the industry's reliance on sequels, franchises, and licensed IP. While much of that is true, I have a much more optimistic outlook on the immediate future of the artform (and the biz for that matter). In the spirit of the holidays, I'll take a look at the reasons for hope and excitement this fall.

First off, sequels, franchises, and licensed IP aren't bad things if the games are good. I was talking with Deca last night about sequels, and he observed that, if done right, sequels (and spiritual sequels) are really just an extension of the iterative design process. They give developers a chance to improve on a successful formula. As a consumer of games, how can you argue with "Halo, but better" (ie, Halo 2)? The same goes for franchises. Each new game is a chance for developers to add to the stories and worlds of previous outings, while improving or even *gasp* innovating gameplay. How many different kinds of titles has Mario been featured in? Nintendo uses its franchises to sell new innovations. Remember that Super Mario 64 blazed the way for 3D platformers, even though Mario had been around for years. Even licensed IP allows developers to contribute new and different game types. Think about Spiderman 2, with it's web-swinging navigation of a GTA-like New York. More conservative efforts, such as the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, still express high production values and a willingness to experiment (first-person hand-to-hand combat was done very well in Riddick).

The current glut of high quality games this fall is a good sign that the industry is healthy. Even with the majority of games being sequels, franchises, or licensed IP, the overall quality of the games on offer heralds a new era in which high production values are a given and innovation becomes necessary for differentiation. If this many games are this good, then some smart developers are going to realize that innovation can make their game stand out.

In fact, this fall is seeing innovation already starting to hit the mainstream. Nintendo, always pushing the gameplay envelope, has released the DS handheld, and although it isn't universally loved, it has received much praise for its leaps forward in gameplay. Touchscreen interaction and dual displays are putting new tools in the hands of developers, who seem to be responding with quirky and original games. Industrial design issues aside, the DS seems to be garnering solid game reviews across the board. There seems to be genuine excitement at the prospect of something new and different.

Innovation is happening in game delivery as well. November saw the introduction of Valve's Steam content delivery system, designed to bring Valve games straight to consumers, bypassing the traditional publishing and retail middlemen. Again, as with all innovation, there have been rough spots, but the reaction to Steam seems to be positive, and the launch was surprisingly smooth. In addition, BioWare has launched an online store through which they are selling modules for their Neverwinter Nights platform. Both Valve and BioWare seem to be developing platforms (or engines) upon which they can build and distribute multiple games. The Source Engine and the Aurora Engine are also both open for the mod community, from which the developers can hand pick the best to release as premium content. The possibility for episodic content seems quite ripe as well, even on consoles, given the profusion of systems that are now online.

Finally, despite many predictions of the death of the independent developer, there are many indicators that indy game development is sustainable. Valve's Steam and BioWare's efforts point to the potential digital distribution and self-publishing. The Independent Games Festival and other festivals provide a forum for independent games, many of which are highly innovative. Indy devs are also finding alternative ways to fund their work, through creativity and perseverence. The massively multiplayer A Tale in the Desert has been an indy success with community-based gameplay that bigger competitors haven't yet perfected. Cecropia is taking a totally new approach to mass-market "interactive animated films."

So I am thankful and optimistic this holiday season. Though there are a lot of things that can be improved in the industry, there's a lot to be happy about. Here's hoping that the coming year show's even more excitement and creativity.