Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Brett's Footnotes

I recently discovered this interesting blog: Brett's Footnotes. Brett's a developer who worked on Star Wars: Republic Commando (which, BTW, I'm currently enjoying - more on that later). Brett's blog has a specific slant that I find particularly invigorating. He frames his thoughts on game design within discussions of specific works from other media (mainly books and films), much as I have in the past. For instance, he draws a parallel between Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Final Fantasy IX. Good stuff. Also, since he's a dev, his thoughts are very much grounded in the capabilities of the videogame medium. There's very little media envy.

I found Brett's Footnotes via Jamie Fristrom's excellent GameDevBlog.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

New Languages for New Worlds

The New York Times is running an interesting piece on the fictional language Tho Fan, which was invented for BioWare's epic Jade Empire. Creating completely new languages seems to me like a great way to fill in the cultural details of a virtual world, solidifying the experience for players. Tolkien did it. Star Trek did it.

I haven't played Jade Empire, so I can't really comment on the effectiveness. Has anyone noticed this new language? Does anyone have any insight into whether it helps the game at all?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Finally! Real Downloadable Content

Bungie just announced that next Monday will be the day they release four new maps for Halo 2 Multiplayer. Two will be free and two will cost money. After a few months, the for-pay maps will become free as well. I love this model and plan to buy them, if for nothing else but to support Bungie. I'm hoping this will go over so well that more studios will consider a TV model for distribution. It will keep games alive, and fresh longer, rather than the easily disposable content we create now.

For info...

Monday, April 18, 2005

Story and Skill

[Note: I'm going to try to keep this relatively spoiler free, but I will be broadly discussing the last few levels of God of War. You've been warned.]

This weekend I finished God of War. It's a great game, and I highly recommend it (for adults, of course). I'm still amazed at how fresh the whole thing felt. There was never any real repetition of locations; each level offered new and different sights and experiences.

However, there were some interesting design choices in the last few levels that got me thinking about the conflict between story-based play and skill-based play. While I found the combat in God of War to be immensely enjoyable, I have to say that story was the driving factor that kept me playing. I found myself looking forward to each new portion of the adventure, anticipating each new flashback/cutscene. I also derived a lot of enjoyment from the playable story elements, the set pieces and environments.

In light of all that, I find it amusing that, after constant defeat at the hands of Ares in the final showdown, I refused to drop from Normal difficulty to Easy, even when the game prompted me. A little background info [this may contain some minor spoilers]: the final fight with Ares includes three sections. The first two are relatively straightforward and contain some great twists. In the final segment of the fight, pretty much all of the powers that Kratos has developed over the course of the game are taken away. The player is left with no magic, and no blades of chaos. Instead, the player has a single sword and is forced to learn a new style of fighting.

Since much of the fighting style that I had developed over the course of the game relied on magic, this final showdown proved difficult. I played the same segment over and over for hours, literally. I can't remember how many times I told the game that I didn't want to set the difficulty to Easy.

I eventually gave in, and after setting the difficulty to Easy, I finished the game in one go. I don't think that I saw a different ending than anyone who finished the game in Normal mode. In fact, I'm pretty sure that aside from the battle itself there was no difference. If story was my main reason for playing, then why didn't I just downgrade to Easy immediately? I would have gotten to bed earlier, that's for sure.

A similar contradiction in my play style came up in an earlier level. Some devilish plaforming took me longer than it should have because I refused to "just get through it." Instead, I insisted on exploring the entire configuration of platforms, looking for orb chests. My desire to move quickly through the story was temporarily suspended by my need to find all the orbs.

Here's where the design choices of God of War come into conflict. David Jaffe has said multiple times that he wanted the game to be story-driven and cinematic. However, some mechanics seem designed to cater more to standard, skill- and achievement-based play. In videogame tradition, different difficulty levels usually offer different rewards. Thus, by presenting different difficulty levels, God of War implies that finishing it in Easy mode might result in a less satisfying ending. After playing the entire game in Normal mode, I was loathe to finish it in Easy mode and risk missing out on a better (or more complete) ending. Likewise, the leveling up of weapons/magic through the red orbs leads to my obsession with finding all the orb chests in a difficult platforming situation.

Now, I'm not necessarily advocating the elimination of difficulty settings or weapon/magic levels. I just think that marrying classic gameplay with an attempt at greater accessibility is tougher than you might think. God of War did a lot of things to make gameplay more accessible, but it seems to me that it could have gone further.

Or maybe I'm just more obsessive than I need to be (or think I am).

The next part of this train of thought is contemplating ways to overcome the issue of story and skill.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

More, More, More...

The more I think about it, the more I am beginning to think that God of War is fairly significant. I just read this interview over at Ain't It Cool News [link via GGA]. David Jaffe, the creative muscle behind GoW, articulates some pretty interesting things.

To me, the main thing is that he was trying to make a cinematic and casual game in God of War: "This is intentionally supposed to feel more like a movie. We did not want to make a game that was a hardcore game for gamers only. We wanted to make a game that was narrative, that was story-driven. We did things with hidden checkpoints so that if you died, you don’t have to replay very much. It’s really meant to be accessible..."

The great thing is that he didn't have to compromise to acheive the cinematic feel or the accessibility. Playing God of War is intensely enjoyable. The things that make it "cinematic," such as the fixed camera, the story, the epic battles, and the non-repetitive environments, don't get in the way of the "game." In fact, they enhance it.

The things that make the game accessible to non-hardcore gamers are actually common-sense design choices that just haven't been made consciously by many other development teams. Most normal people don't enjoy playing the same 15 minutes of a game over and over, so Jaffe and company sprinkled enough invisible checkpoints throughout the game that dying rarely results in much repetition.

The result of choices such as this is a game that appeals to a larger audience while satisfying a large portion of gamers as well. I think/hope that we will see more such games coming soon.

Also... David Jaffe has a blog.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Misc. Links for Friday

Here's some links just for you:
  1. Microsoft starts another viral marketing game.
  2. IdleThumbs weighs in on said viral marketing game ("And so Microsoft begins its assault, which, following in the footsteps of their I love Bees campaign, is something that will undoubtedly be... confusing.").
  3. Oddworld strikes out on a new path.
  4. Lara Croft gets a makeover.
  5. Peter Molyneux on Project Dimitri. I'm not going to say anything on this... just yet.

God of More

The New York Times gets it [includes coverage of the new Splinter Cell, too]. They get bonus points for only using the word "brutal" once.

Another good review that hits some of the finer points is over at Damned Machines.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

God of War: End of the Honeymoon

Now that I've gotten all the requisite cliches out of the way...
  • ferocious
  • brutal
  • ultra-violence
  • palpable rage
  • savage disregard for life
  • joyfully brutal
  • gleeful decapitations
  • unrelenting gore
  • extremely cathartic
  • and so on
...and gotten a few more hours under my belt, I can say I'm finally through that starry-eyed honeymoon phase with God of War. Don't get me wrong, I still love it and will play it through to the end, but after the umpteenth harpy de-winging, the combat has lost some of its initial "OMFG" factor. I'm no longer impressed when Kratos tears some hapless undead minion in half or shoves flaming blades down a minotaur's throat. The combat's starting to get harder as well. Now, rather than reveling in the chaos of it all, I'm spending more time concentrating on utilizing all of Kratos's powers to get through a fight.

This actually makes me happy. It's indicative of solid gameplay underneath all the bloody trappings. And the really cool thing is that other quality aspects of the game are starting to show through. Many of the puzzles actually continue the violence of combat in sometimes disturbing ways (think human sacrifice). They aren't a breather from the brutality. The story remains intriguing; I still want to learn more about Kratos. The little flashbacks sprinkled throughout the game give just enough information to tantalize my curiosity. The camera still troubles me occasionally, but it also affords some amazing views. In more than one instance, the camera makes the counter-intuitive move of pulling backwards as Kratos moves forwards, emphasizing the vastness of the spaces. All of these things contribute to my sense that God of War is an extremely complete experience. It has clearly been designed well from many perspectives.

So, in short, God of War is still good.