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Saturday - May 11, 2013
Gamasutra - Ignore The Debate On Story Just Make Better Ones
I posted a similar article from Gamasutra earlier, but this time the director of UC Santa Cruz's Center for Games Michael Mateas has a different message. It's quite simple ignore the debate and just make better stories. RPG developers should take notes.
The End of the Debate
He spent time recounting the debates academics and designers have -- on whether games should have stories at all -- with a certain wry humor borne of the fact that he clearly finds the debate tiring, and a distraction from actually doing work.
"We all know that there's this often-discussed fundamental tension between gameplay and story. That story seems the opposite of what games are supposed to do. These quite heated religious battles have haunted the game design community for decades -- around if and whether games should have stories in them," Mateas said.
"Yet against this grim background we're seeing a Renaissance of work in interactive storytelling," Mateas said. "We've seen creators create a lot of interactive stories that work, in the sense that people are playing them."
He took a very broad view of what work is being done (Among other games, he alluded to The Walking Dead, Cart Life, Howling Dogs, and Spec Ops: The Line.)
"Indie and mainstream games are happily and visibly exploring many solutions to interactive storytelling," Rather than continue the debate, look at a game, he said, and evaluate it: "is it functioning as an interesting aesthetic object? Yes, it is! Let's move on."
It's Important to Take What Works
Mateas argued that you must put that debate to the side and accept that "maybe there's this bigger space of playable experiences -- things that you can play with, that afford play, that aren't strictly games, and there's a bigger space outside of that that are interactive experiences."
There's a good reason for this: Even if you argue these narratives aren't strictly games themselves, the "tropes and techniques are being brought into the inner circle of games."
"Wherever boundaries blur you have people wanting to defend the boundaries," he noted. "I'm saying, 'Let it blur!' This is how interesting innovation happens."
This is how you reconcile the "grim philosophical debate" with the "lots of interesting work people are doing."
The problem, he suggested, is that many designers have been trying to come up with One True Definition of what an interactive story is -- "a single definition of what is story, and the magic approach and theoretical framework that would allow us to interactivize that story," Mateas said. "The debate around storytelling has stalled because frankly I don't think this theory exists. There is no such thing as 'what is story and how do you solve it,'" which he described as "a very engineering mindset."
Rather, he said, "What people who are working in interactive story are doing is to turn to specific historically grounded storytelling traditions" that come from other media, and are rich enough to build on.
Gamasutra - Should Games Have Stories?
Gamasutra has a new article written by industry veteran Soren Johnson. He questions whether video games should have stories, and explores various examples. So what do you think is story important or not?
Stories and games have always had an uneasy marriage. From the beginning, designers have written stories into their games, giving the player a fixed beginning, a narrative path to follow, and a preset ending. At the same time, many players flocked to games because of their lack of narrative structure; a game experience is a chance to create a story, not to submit oneself to a designer's unpublished novel.
At the root of this problem is an almost theological dilemma - can a game designer tell a story if the player's choices actually matter? If the most important element of a game is its interactivity, then every static plot point a designer crams into the experience takes away from the centrality of the player. Put another way, if a game has a spoiler, is it really still a game?
To be clear, with the exception of a few abstract game like Tetris, almost all games benefit from story elements - an interesting setting, a distinctive tone, memorable characters, engaging dialogue, dramatic conflict, and so on. The best games have characters and settings that rival those of any other media - consider GLaDOS from Portal or Rapture from BioShock.
However, the actual narrative of a game - meaning the series of events which determines the plot - is the hardest element to reconcile with the essential interactivity of games. For this reason, narrative cannot be handled as it is with books or movies, in which the story is the core element that everything else must support.
Wednesday - April 17, 2013
Gamasutra - 12 Ways To Improve Turn-Based RPG's
In my last opinion piece, I provoked a certain subsection of the world of RPG enthusiasts by slaughtering a particularly sacred cow: the D&D-style combat system. A surprising number of people wrote in agreeing with me. Predictably, however, others responded in one of two ways: (1) “So you think a real-time, action-centered combat system is better?” or (2) “Name an RPG combat system that’s better!”
The answer to (1) is easy. No, I don’t think real-time is better. Just the opposite: I prefer turn-based combat in my RPGs. Of the six games I’ve released since I started designing games, five use turn-based combat, and I’m working on two more with turn-based tactical combat for good measure. That should probably tell you something about my tastes.
The answer to (2) is more complicated. I don’t think that there is just one way to do a turn-based RPG combat system correctly. I’ll avoid naming particular games, since I don’t want to give the impression that all RPGs should employ combat in the style of any one particular game. I will, however, discuss the features that good turn-based tactical combat systems have in common, and cite games that successfully employ them.
The Four Virtues of a good tactical turn-based combat system
If you’ve read my last article, this list is going to look familiar. A good tactical turn-based combat system exemplifies the following Four Virtues:
(1) Emergent complexity. It creates complex gameplay out of a comparatively simple set of rules.
(2) Clarity. The immediate consequences of various tactical decisions are made clear to the player.
(3) Determinism. The system is sufficiently deterministic that skilled play using a proper strategy will nearly always result in victory.
(4) Tactical tools. If there is some randomness in the system (which there will be in most cases), the player has sufficient tactical tools at her disposal so that skilled play will almost always trump bad luck.
Gamasutra - Making Magic
Gamasutra has an editorial on Alex Pantaleev's 2012 paper, In Search of Patterns: Disrupting RPG Classes through Procedural Content Generation.
If you've ever played a role-playing game, from Final Fantasy V to Skyrim, you'll know that the genre loves its tropes. From orcs and goblins to swords and sorcery, the same themes come up time and time again. Sometimes this is exactly what you want, but often - particularly when it comes to the classes players choose to be, and the skills they have available - we want to have something new to challenge us. This week The Saturday Paper is about getting the game itself to come up with new abilities and class ideas for RPGs, with a little guidance from the player.
Where might this research apply to the games industry today? Even just considering its core idea - that there are more RPG classes out there than just Warrior, Mage and Thief - I think there's plenty to be excited about here. Ideas like this could be used in the development of a game - to explore new ideas that you might not have thought of yourself - or even built in as procedural generators to games for players to explore themselves.
It also has promise outside the boundaries of RPGs. What about a roguelike whose item drops were designed based on which ones the player picked up and which ones they threw away? What about an RTS where the tech tree redesigned itself each week based on what skills players were picking most or picking least? Perhaps a game like Minecraft could help players specialise and co-operate better by changing its crafting recipes or inventing new ones as players find things they want to do more of? Player-guided creation of content, that goes beyond the ordinary things that games try to generate, is an exciting prospect.
Friday - January 11, 2013
Gamasutra - Editorial about Economy in Games
He goes through what he sees as the hidden dangers in this and also comes with suggestions on how these can be resolved. Apparently The economy is a ballon:
Over the course of most games, you will very often see the player gain 10 times, 20 times or even 100 times as much money as he/she used to for performing the exact same action, which means the relative value of everything in the game world which ties into the economy has to scale accordingly. Predictably, they very rarely do. Often, this is because developers balance economies around the bare minimum the player needs to do to get through the game. If I stick to the critical path in an RPG, for instance, I may be missing out on over half the available money in the game, especially when you consider the tendency for developers to use money as a generic reward suited to optional activities (side-quests, mini-games). So, while maybe the player who just wants to get through the game and see the ending will wind up having just enough money to get by, the player who puts a bit more time into the game will end up with so much she doesn't even know what to do with it. Thus, problem number one occurs: inflation.
And here's one of his solutions:
Give out monetary rewards that are balanced with game progress. The easiest way to go about this is to simply play through the game as the player might, add up how much money is gained in the process, and then compare it to all the things the player is expected to buy, or can buy, accounting for a deviation of +/-%. This is fairly obvious, but it's quite surprising the number of games I've played where it seems the developers just did not do this.
Thursday - November 22, 2012
Gamasutra - Marketing - a liability for Games?
Gamasutra has an editorial discussing if marketing for games is a bad idea. As an example he uses the marketing for Assasin's Creed 3:
Until Assassin’s Creed 3, that is. The US marketing made it look like all you did was murder British soldiers and even the EU version was so badly skewed toward killing Brits that the special edition was pulled in Europe. Ubisoft, one of the biggest publishers in Europe, couldn’t sell their game in the same continent as their headquarters.The developers argued that the adverts were not representative, that it was not ‘f*** yeah, America’ like the videos suggested and guess what? The developers were right… Who’d have thought it? The people who made the game knew better than the people who were meant to be selling it… As you might know, people don’t like being shown one thing and given another. In fact, the legal system in most of the world doesn’t like consumers being shown one thing and given another.
I still remember Bioware's and EA's markering for Dragon Age: Origins. In no way, shape or form was this campaign representative of the game or the gameplay in DA:O. Some of Bioware's PR and marketing for their games lately have been - sort of weird, I think,
However, the question still remains: Does the author of this editorial have a point?
Wednesday - July 25, 2012
Gamasutra - Steam sales: How deep discounts really affect your games
While not directly RPG-related, the impact of Steam sales has been widely discussed of late. Runic's CEO Max Schaefer tells Gamasutra how successful these sales have been for Torchlight:
Runic Games CEO Max Schaefer, for instance, tells us that while it's been almost three years since his studio launched Torchlight, Valve's Steam promotions have helped the game maintain healthy sales to this very day.
"We find that we get several thousand percent increases in units and revenue on the days of the Steam sales, and unit sales are usually about double the normal for a few weeks after the sales are over," he says.
This year's Summer Sale (which ended July 22) was particularly noteworthy for Runic, as it helped Torchlight hit its second biggest day ever in terms of overall unit sales -- not bad for a game that came out in October 2009.
Sunday - July 01, 2012
Gamasutra - Male Gaze and Video games
Brandon Sheffield from Game Developer Magazine has written a lengthy editorial at Gamasutra about this issue. He uses the Hitman: Absolution trailer as a foundation for his statement about how women are still being used to show...
boobs and butts, not only in games, but within the culture at large, saying this is a natural extension of who we put in charge.
A quote then about the Male Gaze:
Male Gaze, then, has to do with the relationship between a heterosexual male viewer, and a female that is being viewed. The theory poses that in media like film, photography, and I would here add games, when a heterosexual male is in charge of the viewing of a female, the resulting media necessarily reflects that male's gaze. In the case of games, this may be more of a collective gaze.
Source: RPG Codex
Friday - May 04, 2012
Gamasutra - Why I Hate Cooldowns
GameBanshee's Eric Schwarz writes a piece at Gamasutra titled Why I Hate Cooldowns:
If there is one design convention that you can count on being included in almost every modern game (and especially modern RPGs), it's the cooldown. Conceptually, cooldowns sound great - they allow for easy regulation of a player's abilities through the use of a second meta-game resource, time. Perhaps it's no surprise that cooldowns have summarily been worked into just about every single type of game out there, both real-time and turn-based. In fact, cooldowns have become pretty much the de-facto standard for balancing games and designing combat interactions.
I have to be up-front about this: I think cooldowns are, as they are implemented in most titles, bad design. While they allow for a few upsides, not the least of which is quick and relatively easy balancing, they also have some major drawbacks, often which end up hurting the rest of the game mechanics they interact with. In this article, I'll be discussing why I think cooldowns aren't compelling as a mechanic, and why they are in most cases simply unnecessary in the first place.
Tuesday - February 14, 2012
Gamasutra - What RPGs can learn from Diablo Original
Over at Gamasutra writer Joshua McDonald has penned a piece on his blog about what rpgs (action) can learn from the original Diablo. A quote about fighting an enemy type:
You fight an enemy type. Not an enemy level:
In my opinion, one of the worst trends in RPGs is representing power by a little number next to the enemy's health bar. A skeleton that looks and acts just like one from earlier in the game will literally be 100 times as powerful. And it will be the same power as the giant you just fought that happened to be the same level. Sure, Diablo did some reskinning, but it carefully limited how powerful each model could get. The automatic argument most people make against this is that you need too much art to keep changing enemy types, but this isn't true. In fact, it's one place where the limitation actually leads to better game design.
Monday - November 14, 2011
Gamasutra - Brian Fargo on RPG Legacy
Brian Fargo gave a keynote speach at the GDC China event last week, Gamasutra reports.
He talked about what processes a team goes through when creating an rpg game, how to stay true to the game's vision and also on how we would define an rpg. A couple of quotes:
First on what an rpg is:
An RPG also needs deep cause and effect, which helps with immersion. In The Bard's Tale, for example, early on you can be nice to a dog, or be mean to it. If you're nice to the dog, it follows you, and there are scenes that happen 10 or 20 hours in that have to do with the dog. If you were mean to it, you'll never see that content. On a more micro level, you need to make players feel the effect of a new weapon, every time they get one.
And something about how to make an rpg:
Pre-production is especially important. "Once you're writing and designing a product, the best creativity tends to come in waves," he says. "Anybody could create something generic in about five seconds. True creativity tends to come in waves, and you can't do it in a crunch." So to Fargo, pre-production is when you need to come up with most of your story elements. When you're just focusing on implementation and you're operating under time pressure, you can't focus on story or creativity.
Wednesday - October 26, 2011
Gamasutra - Court Upholds Garriott Decision
An Appeals court has upheld the judgement for Richard Garriott against NCSoft. From Gamasutra:
A three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a $32 million judgement against NCSoft in a contract dispute with Ultima creator Richard Garriott that dates back to his departure from the company in 2008.
Garriott filed suit against NCSoft in 2009, saying he had been forced out of the company following a 2008 space flight, contrary to NCSoft's earlier public statements that he had left voluntarily.
Thanks to Alrik for a similar link.
Thursday - September 15, 2011
Gamasutra - Can A Good Game Be A Bad Sequel?
Gamasutra has an "analysis" titled Can A Good Game Be A Bad Sequel? Dragon Age 2 is one of the titles considered, hence our interest. Personally, they missed the mark on the issue but here's a snip after looking at several reviews that suggested DA2 wasn't "epic":
That word, "Epic," is a common feature of these reviews. But what does "epic" even mean? The word has less meaning than ever now that the internet has driven it to become a new synonym for "awesome," but it's safe to assume that these writers are talking about something more precise, a feeling of "epic-ness" that's associated closely with fantasy literature.
Dragon Age 2 zeros in on the rise to power of an individual over the course of many years in a centralized location, which is not an uncommon setup for a fantasy series, or at least its first hundred pages. That is the more or less the route that Dragon Age Origins took with its opening sections.
They're not just talking about an epic feeling, but a very specific kind of epic feeling, that's not measured just by depth or scale but by an adherence to a quest-narrative, a sense of world-saving purpose and scope -- Dragon Age 2 ends just as its scope widens to an acceptably epic breadth.
Dragon Age 2 was still well reviewed, but it seems that this sense of scope was something both critics and fans felt was an integral part of what made Dragon Age what it was, and the gap between the scores of both games. This certainly doesn't make Dragon Age 2 a bad game, but it does make it an inferior sequel. This isn't a gameplay consideration or a writing consideration, but a consideration of theme.
Thursday - August 18, 2011
Gamasutra - Richard Garriott on the Evolution of Games
The "save the kingdom" story of the original games in the series is no longer enough, though it still has traction in the industry, he said. "The first Ultimas were very simple stories... And if you look at most games today they still are. Personally, I don't know about you, after I told that story a few times I was done with it." "That story has no value in the future. It's the antithesis of what I try to do and what we as a development community need to do," said Garriott.
A quote about Ultima Online
When he launched the Ultima Online project, EA's "faith in the team and faith in the project was so low," he said, that "projected sales were 30k lifetime."
"Sales and marketing were not in favor of us working with the game," he said. "It wasn't until we put up a prototype and put up a web page... 50,000 people signed up to be beta testers in the first couple of weeks. When it finally did ship it was the fastest selling PC game in origin and EA history at the time. Within about two years had outsold all of the other previous Ultimas combined."
And here's Garriott's take on the future in games.
The key points of this era, according to Garriott, are:
- Games are free or very cheap to acquire
- Simple to use without instructions
- The people who you meet at first are the people you know really well in the real world
- The ability to engage your friends asynchronously
Wednesday - April 06, 2011
Gamasutra - How Rogue Ended Up On The Sofa
Gamasutra has a piece that discusses the evolution and gameplay of Roguelikes:
Where's the dungeon-crawler in the modern era?
Blizzard's Diablo series is the most obvious heir to the Roguelike. (By which I mean: the solo, third-person, dungeon crawler, distinct from the first-person, party-based crawlers like the Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder, and Bard's Tale franchises.)
Diablo retains Rogue's casual framework: the simple move-to-move, move-to-attack UI is now moved onto the mouse (click-to-move, click-to-attack). There's now artwork that goes beyond "replacing ASCII characters with tiles". We still have the random dungeons underneath an overworld.
Diablo has always been surprisingly casual: a nice, lightweight, mouse-driven game, playable in bursts (and playable with friends: it was the game that launched Battle.net)
But something feels... different. Not quite right.
It's the grind. Diablo throws foes at you, and expects you to be able to defeat them all with relative ease. It showers you in rewards - gold and loot - for the slaughter.
And really, as John Harris points out in his first of series of entries from a Roguelike encylopedia, Rogue was never about grind. Your true enemy wasn't a Kestrel, or a Centaur, or a Dragon.
It was the dungeon itself.
Tuesday - March 01, 2011
Gamasutra - Against the Death Penalty
One of the Gamasutra hosted blogs has a piece on death in games. The author explores different fail states and the potential narrative benefits and clearly likes alternative ideas to the "game over" screen. An RPG related snip:
During Fable 2’s development, Peter Moore similarly removed the death penalty against the player. Instead the player’s character would become more scarred and disfigured the more damage they endured. This produced two curious responses. In the first camp, players willingly let their character suffer in order to produce the most deformed and mutilated badass possible. The second group simply reset their console: they forced their own death penalty. Old habits die never, apparently.
In Fallout 3 certain characters integral to the main story thread cannot be killed only knocked unconscious. Why the game doesn't afford the player this courtesy is a real missed opportunity. The possibilities of regaining consciousness in an unfamiliar location, like one of the many prisoner caravans, or having been looted and taken hostage by super mutants would have presented even more opportunites for interesting and dynamic storytelling.
Monday - February 21, 2011
Gamasutra - Why I Abandoned New Vegas For Rome
Gamasutra has a piece titled Analysis: Why I Abandoned New Vegas For Renaissance Rome in which the author gives up on Fallout: New Vegas to play Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. While it's called an "analysis", it comes down to some personal preferences in my reading. Personally, I could never understand how anyone became emotionally attached from the "gowing up" vault sequence in Fallout 3:
It occurred to me that on top of all this, I didn't care much about my character either. In Fallout 3 you start your character as a baby, you watch them grow up, and you get to define him or her as you do so. You experience your character's childhood, and you develop a relationship with his or her father, so when your dad disappears you really want to find out what happened to him.
In New Vegas, while you do get a variety of options for defining your Courier, s/he is completely undefined at the outset, s/he has no memory and thus no history. You start with zero emotional connection. I know I should appreciate the clean-slate approach, but I don't. It's hard to connect to a character that has no back-story whatsoever.
Wednesday - January 19, 2011
Gamasutra - Interview with Brian Fargo
GamaSutra talked with Brian Fargo, the CEO of InXile. This resulted in a three-page interview. Topics covered are the state of the industry, and of course, their new game, Hunted: The Demon's Forge. They also talk about game developers needing to have both a business sense as well as design sense, social gaming and a bit of talk about the past, too. Here's a lenghty snip:
So to sum it up you think the industry relies too much on focus groups?
BF: Absolutely it's more rare [to rely on instincts]. What stinks about it is that if they have success, then everybody is going to go "That's the way to go. We need more instinctual guys." If it doesn't work, everybody's going to say, "Told you so."
But the truth is that it's just the randomness of the entertainment business. The approach isn't the only reason why a product succeeds. How hard is it to pick a product out in this business? They killed Steven Spielberg's game! We'll kill the Steven Spielberg project. It's just that tough.
It's interesting because you've had this past where you've been involved in these kind of groundbreaking games like Bard's Tale, Wasteland, Baldur's Gate and Fallout. Do you ever feel like that you have to live up to these big titles that you released in the past?
BF: Well, I mean, yes and no. Look, on one hand, I've had recent success, Line Rider and Fantastic Contraption. So, it's not like I'm just focusing on those [previous accomplishments]. On one hand, I'll go on a press tour and I will talk with young guys on the blogs -- they've never heard of Interplay, forget Baldur's Gate. So, on one hand, I had to adjust. I was shipping games before these guys were born.
For those guys, there are no expectations. On the others, I don't know. There's certainly a "it better be good" kind of concept, but I just have to do what I think feels right. I look at the product, I have my own way of looking at things, my own sensibility of things that are important to me. I just keep applying them and hoping they line up with what people are wanting to see.
I think Hunted: The Demon's Forge definitely feels like something that I've been involved with. You'll feel my thumbprint on that game and it's going to have a lot of personality and a lot of depth. And at the same time, I'm recognizing it's the year 2011, so it's not about the feel like something that shipped in the mid-90s.
Some people beat on their own drums better than others, but I gave starts to Treyarch and BioWare and Blizzard and Black Isle. [My publicist] said we should probably get that out a little more at some point [laughs]. I don't really talk about that stuff, but I'm still in the frontlines doing things.
Friday - January 14, 2011
Gamasutra - Top Freeware Roleplaying Games 2010
Gamasutra, courtesy of IndieGames.com, has a list of the Top Freeware Role-playing Games for 2010. Desktop Dungeons is the only one I've played - expect roguelikes and RPGMaker (or similar looking) games.
Tuesday - November 23, 2010
Gamasutra - The Strong's eGameRevolution Exhibit
Gamasutra reports about a museum dedicated to the history of gaming. For anyone interested in the history of games there is a permanent exhibit you can go to at The Strong called eGameRevolution. The interactive exhibit is produced by the International Center for the History of Electronic Games.
The exhibit is 5,000 square feet and features the history of video gaming as well as modern games. There is an "old fashioned" video arcade with more than 120 machines as well as many other unique never seen before items like Will Wrights notebooks on the creation of his many games.
If you are ever in the New York area it might be fun to take a quick trip down there to learn about how this crazy hobby of ours got started:
Oversized figures of Sonic the Hedgehog and Link from The Legend of Zelda greet guests at the exhibit entrance. Once inside, a wide breadth of video games—from pioneer Ralph Baer’s first Brown Box games to today’s high tech Xbox 360 games—are ready to enjoy. From Pong and Pac-Man to today’s hot gamer trends, every generation can enjoy the history and future of electronic games.
* Enter a recreated, old-fashioned video arcade featuring more than two dozen operating historic video games.
* Visit one of several emulator stations around the gallery and challenge yourself to many classic console and PC games like Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario 64, SimCity, and Oregon Trail.
* Play Guitar Hero and Boom Blox for Wii.
* Challenge others to a gigantic game of Tetris.
* Play classic video games on an LED Lightspace dance floor.
* Create artwork with oversized translucent pegs on a gigantic Lite Brite–like pixel wall.
* See how electronic games evolved from other forms of play by examining artifacts from the museum’s collections and their video game counterparts—a dollhouse and The Sims or baseball board games and their computerized equivalents.
* Follow a video game timeline and see how games and game platforms have progressed and increased in sophistication over past decades. eGameRevolution Arcade
The exhibit also tackles some big questions surrounding video games: Do they isolate people? How much time should kids play? What games are appropriate? Do they cause violence? Are they addictive? What are the health effects? How do they change the way we think?
Admission to eGameRevolution is free with general museum admission fees.
Wednesday - February 03, 2010
Gamasutra - Is Hard The New Good?
I don't think it's any secret that many hardcore gamers think the challenge has been removed from games for years but Gamasutra thinks things might be swinging the other way -- although their evidence is pretty weak, I'd suggest:
The evidence is everywhere, even very recently: Compare Bayonetta, with its simple two-button combo system, to the more complex button patterns of the earlier Devil May Cry games. Witness the streamlining of Mass Effect 2 .
It seems counterintuitive that such evolution would evoke much protest. While it's true that the easiest way to lower a game's barrier to entry is to dumb it down, most of these evolutions and innovations are just smarter design. Why frustrate players unnecessarily?
That's why it's so surprising that all of a sudden, it seems there's a movement -- an insurrection, if you will -- of players who want to be frustrated.
The evidence is subtle but compelling. For one example, look to major consumer website GameSpot’s Game of the Year for 2009: Atlus’ PS3 RPG Demon’s Souls, which received widespread critical acclaim – none of which failed to include a mention of the game’s steep challenge. GameSpot called it "ruthlessly, unforgivingly difficult."
Tuesday - January 12, 2010
Gamasutra - Linearity: A Necessary RPG Element?
Gamasutra has a piece called Non-Linearity: A Necessary RPG Element?, which takes a fairly shallow look at linearity vs non-linearity in RPGs:
I have often noticed that game reviews mention that the game X is non-linear as if it deserved kudos for that alone, or that the game is linear as if it were a bad thing. Is it really?
In the end, it boils down to the kind of game the game designer is trying to make. If the designer wants to take the player on an intense emotional roller coaser ride - well then the game has to be linear. You can't control what the player feels until you keep tight control on which places the player visits and in what order, which persons player meets and in what order etc. Even then it won't work for all the players.
Wednesday - December 30, 2009
Gamasutra - Top 12 Games of the Decade
As promised, Gamasutra has released their (reader voted) Top 12 Games of the Decade. As always, these lists are debatable...and particularly this one. The three RPG-ish games that make the list are Mass Effect, Deus Ex and at number one, World of Warcraft. On Mass Effect:
9. Mass Effect (Xbox 360, 2007)
This BioWare-developed spacefaring epic won fans for its complex narrative and nuanced morality system, and many eagerly await its upcoming sequel.
Anonymous: "This game had an engaging story, more-than-just-believable virtual actors, numerous distinctive classes to play as, a good to very good selection of powers/talents to use in game play, a developed and realized science fiction setting, open world elements (i.e., the uncharted planets), a brilliant use of achievements (for both the Xbox and PC) that influenced subsequent playthroughts and exciting FPS/RPG game play.
"While few of these elements were distinctive to Mass Effect, the synergy in the game play experience marks Mass Effect as groundbreaking. Truly, Mass Effect was the first science fiction movie in which I was both 'producer' and player."
Tom Toynton: "This was an incredibly deep and immersive experience beyond anything I had played before. I grew attached to many of the characters and felt like I was personally participating in an epic adventure accross the galaxy.
"The controls were fluid, the game mechanics facilitated play dynamics that supported the premise of the game, and the story and depth of even many ancilliary NPCs brought the game world alive."
Michael Kolb: "It will still be played years to come even as it had a successful launch. BioWare really created a sci-fi universe and the interaction with the consequences, like Fable II, really bring life to games along with the want for multiple playthroughs. The general public are realizing that these 'video games' are more than just shooting and have meaningful stories, characters and
Tuesday - December 29, 2009
Gamasutra - Games of the Decade: Honourable Mentions
They haven't announced the winners yet but Gamasutra has run the Honourable Mentions from their upcoming Games of the Decade feature. Baldur's Gate II and Diablo II get a position, which obviously rules them out of the coming top 12.
Tuesday - December 22, 2009
Gamasutra - The Art of Polish
It doesn't seem the most interesting topic to me but Gamasutra has a feature on the Art of Game Polish and both BioWare and Obsidian add some brief comments, hence the mention here:
"For me, polish has always been fixing multiple small issues and adding tiny features that really smooth off the edges of gameplay," says Dan Rubalcalba, programmer on Obsidian's upcoming Alpha Protocol. "I say 'small' in that each issue on their own might not be noticed, but it is the summation of many of them that turns something interesting into something great.
"Also I say 'small' as I consider polish getting a system from 90 percent to 100 percent. But really, that last 10 percent takes just as long as the first 90. Polish is no small task; it is just about small unseen things." Alpha Protocol's lead programmer Frank Kowalkowski added, "Polish is often adding things nobody will ever notice, comment on, or appreciate, but will notice, comment on and appreciate when they aren't there."
Tuesday - December 08, 2009
Gamasutra - Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer #10
Over at Gamasutra, designer Ernest Abrams does another one of his feature articles reviewing examples of flawed game design, this one being the tenth "No Twinkie" article.
Here's an excerpt on "Psychic AI" from Oblivion:
"In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the guards are so good at their job, they instantly know when you've committed a crime (i.e. killed someone in a building, stolen something), even when they were never in the area. They'll sometimes run all the way across town to try and arrest you.
"Another Oblivion issue is the stolen items thing: merchants will happily accept items you've 'liberated' from the corpses of your enemies, but if you take a candlestick in, you can't even offer it to them, never mind get refused."
The underlying design problems are actually different here. The psychic guards have access to global information when they really should have access only to information about their local region. The other is that the merchants have a peculiar sense of morality: they condone mugging but not burglary. What's that about?
The article goes on to talk about other less than perfect game design elements such as teleporting NPCs in Neverwinter Nights 2, unobtainable essential items, being mocked for failure by the game devs ingame, over-grinding in MMO's and ' magic perfect cover' in shooters.
Thursday - December 03, 2009
Gamasutra - What gamers think about Microtransactions
Gamasutra's Daniel Kromand tackles the controversial topic of the retail sale of additional small packets of post-release game content known as microtransactions in an op-ed featuring interviews with gamers. His point of view is from the provider end, seeing microtransactions as a way to circumvent piracy and make pc game sales more profitable.
From the introduction to the piece:
But first, a brief overview of microtransactions: The PC gaming market is often depicted as either entirely dead, or at least in a dire crisis. A major cause for this crisis is of course not that the PC is finished as a gaming platform, but rather that a high level of piracy is undermining the traditional retail model.
Microtransactions can help to revert this trend and revitalize this market segment, but its implementation is still relatively new -- at least in Western game development. While microtransactions have been tried in single-player games (Oblivion's horse-barding maybe being the most famous), they are most widely used in online, multiplayer games, and for sake of simplicity I will only look at the latter.
Saturday - November 28, 2009
Gamasutra - Interview with Jon Van Caneghem
As a follow up to this newsbit concerning the dissolving of Pandemic Studios and the acquisition of Might & Magic series creator Jon Van Caneghem by Electronic Arts for the Command & Conquer brand, those following Mr. Van Caneghem's career may be interested in this interview that Gamasutra has posted discussing online gaming and social interactivity for the strategy genre.
Monday - November 23, 2009
Gamasutra - Rethinking Player Death
Gamasutra posts an editorial originally published in Game Developer Magazine's November 2009 issue by editor-in-Chief Brandon Sheffield. He asks the question "Why is death even part of the equation?" for games if meaningful consequences aren't built in. While this isn't technically RPG related we have had a few discussions and a poll dealing with this very issue. Here is a snippet:
Rise From Your Grave
This extends in a mild way to the checkpoint systems in modern games. Most triple-A games have rid themselves of the idea of continues, or even the concept of limited lives, but death is still not so much a punishment as it is a setback—you simply lose a few minutes’ playing time, and probably learn some strategies in the meantime.
So why represent this as “death,” rather than in some other way? It could well be because we’ve always done it that way, rather than for any reason anyone spent time thinking about.
Demon’s Souls is going to be a hot topic discussion among alternative journalists and academics for some time, perhaps rightly so. The way that game deals with death is well thought out, and actually has an in-world reason behind it. If you die, your (weaker) soul must go out in search of demon souls with which to reclaim your physical body.
In Assassin’s Creed, “death” is explained as a de-syncing of the player from his host body in history. In Prey, players must fight their way back from the valley of death, to reclaim their place among the living. Even Silicon Knights’ drawn-out resurrection sequences in Too Human are conceptually relevant.
So many games employ outlandish sci-fi or fantasy scenarios that it seems death could be explained away in simple terms -- or, even better, with some entertaining gameplay.
Continues and their progeny are usually not a nuisance. They just seem unnecessary, evidence of the early framework around which games have evolved. When a developer intends it, player deaths can be entertaining, they just need to be given weight.
Saturday - November 07, 2009
Gamasutra - Turn-Based vs Real-Time
Electronic Arts designer Soren johnson discusses in this article the decisions that go into whether or not to make a turn-based or real-time game. It takes a look at the pros and cons of both styles of play:
At their core, turn-based and real-time games play to different strengths. One example is the question of whether an experience should be deterministic or chaotic. With the former, success often depends on knowing exactly what the results of one's actions will be; in Puzzle Quest, for example, the player needs to know that when a row of four skulls disappears, the other pieces will fall in a specific way so that a new column of consecutive red gems might form.
Just because some luck elements are involved - such as the unknown new pieces which fall from the top - doesn't mean that the player isn't mapping out an exact series of events in her head. This sequential gameplay is one of the core strengths of turn-based games. On the other hand, chaotic, unpredictable gameplay is a strength of real-time games.
When players first spot a heavy-medic combo in Team Fortress 2, they know that they are probably in trouble, but the sequence of events to follow is so varied that players know it's impossible to overanalyze the situation. A sniper could kill the medic. An explosion might knock the heavy off a platform. A spy might sneak up behind them. An event on the other side of the map might encourage one side to simply abandon the area.
Real-time games support chaotic gameplay best because, with the added pressure of a shared clock, players are not able to reduce each situation down to a repeatable series of moves and counter-moves.
Wednesday - September 23, 2009
Gamasutra - Clone vs. Genre
This article at Gamasutra looks at the line between games that are simply clones of a seminal classic - or part of a valid genre. While RPGs aren't mentioned at all, I thought the place of "Diablo clones" might be worth discussing:
We often talk about “clones” of games, or copies of ideas -- but at a certain point, if an idea is copied, expanded, and massaged enough times, nobody says "clone" anymore.
When does an idea become large enough to lose its identity and flourish into a full-blown genre? Perhaps it’s better said that the idea gains a new identity, one that’s more generally applicable.
Most recently, we stopped referring to "Tower Defense clones," and began discussing tower defense games as an entire genre, which has since been expanded to include a number of variations by companies as diverse as Square Enix and PopCap.
"Doom clones" stopped appearing around the time Quake came out, and we started to deal with the first-person shooter as a genre.
Friday - September 04, 2009
Gamasutra - First Person Immersion Myth
Here's one that will probably spark debate. This piece at Gamasutra contends a first-person view is actually a barrier to immersion, rather than more immersive than other views:
Are first-person games inherently more immersive? A lot of developers seem to presume that they are, but let’s take a second look. Consider the last time you felt like you actually were the character in a game you played. I’d be willing to guess that most people will say “never.” We don’t generally take on the role of the character we’re playing, except as children in imaginary play.
What most of us do is identify with the character -- and how can you identify with a character you can’t see, a character who usually doesn’t even talk or have any opinions about the horrible things going on around him? This goes back to the “silent hero” dilemma that has existed ever since role-playing made its way into the electronic world, notoriously perpetuated by the Japanese console RPG.
Almost all first-person games have this sort of silent character, one whose only interaction with others is usually taking orders until they turn their backs, and then just shooting and collecting things. That doesn’t seem inherently immersive to me. It can be, but it isn’t necessarily, as is often assumed. Western RPGs like Fallout 3 (or earlier games like Ultima IV) do a somewhat better job by at least allowing the player to make some dialog choices -- but still, the character isn’t you.
Friday - July 03, 2009
Gamasutra - Game Design Essentials: 20 CRPGs
Game Design Essentials: 20 CRPGs is drive-by tour of 10 Western CRPGs and 10 jRPGs. Each entry gets a brief background summary and then some descriptive text and a quick glimpse at key design elements. It's too short to be very detailed, although the entire article is long enough across the 20 games. On the CRPG side, Ultima, Wizardry, M&M, Nethack, Elder Scrolls, Wasteland, Baldur's Gate, Gold Box Series and Quest for Glory are all covered. Here's a snip from M&M:
Might & Magic is a series that's fallen into disuse lately, which is a great shame because, in many ways, it is the most faithful homage to the old-style, exploring-for-its-own-sake D&D campaign ever sold as a computer game.
First off, it is highly non-linear. Each game's dozens -- maybe even hundreds -- of quests and tasks tend to be scattered around the world in a semi-scrambled fashion. Players are left to their own devices as far as figuring out what to do and what level they should be at to do it.
I must remind the reader that this is a style of game that relies on the use of unlimited game reloading, so players can recover when they unpreparedly run into that group of Cuisinarts while less than level 200. Usually the player has no clue an area is out of depth for him until the monsters wipe him out.
Once granted this quirk, the M&M games are marvelously open-ended and wondrous experiences. They remain one of the few games to adequately express one of the most unique joys of the old-school RPG experience: that of unabashed powergaming. Might & Magic II has a magic space in one of its caverns that grants all the characters, one time only, a thousand free max HP.
Friday - June 12, 2009
Gamasutra - Free-to-Play - What Are the Financial Rewards?
Gamasutra looks into the revenue that free-to-play micro-transaction MMOs generate, getting some specific numbers from Puzzle Pirates. It certainly isn't a complete picture but it gives some insight:
As James blogged recently: "People often ask me, with a wary look such as you'd give a lunatic, 'Why do you dish out your numbers like this?' It's a good question. There are possible downsides, but they are limited; if a competitor looks at my numbers and then goes on to execute better than us, I don't think that has much to do with our numbers. They executed better, that's the hard bit. Well done to them.
"The upside," he continued, "is that the more information that circulates the startup and games community, the more people will share their data. This rising tide will raise all boats. If I can shame my fellows into parting with their data, we'll all benefit."
Indeed, James reveals that Three Rings' MMO Puzzle Pirates takes in approximately $50 each month from each paying user (ARPPU) for a total of $230,000 a month, all resulting from microtransactions.
Saturday - May 23, 2009
Gamasutra - Beyond Pacing: Games Aren't Hollywood
This lengthy piece at Gamasutra by Painkiller designer Jacek Wesolowski discusses pacing in games, noting that the structure of media like film doesn't fit with the interactive nature of games. Among examples such as Fallout 3, I was surprised to see Gothic, which is his primary example of pacing controlled by the setting:
Gothic is an old PC game by a small developer who had trouble finding publisher in some countries, which is a shame, because it's also one of very few action-RPG hybrids to ever manage to turn backtracking into fun.
Let's take a look at the map of the game's main area. Note the complex network of roads and rivers. Water is swimmable. Falling from heights is lethal, but many cliffs are climbable. Forests are dangerous, but provide shortcuts. The player spends a lot of time travelling between the three hubs in one of following ways, starting with the slowest:
* take a safe route
* ask a guide to lead the Hero
* take a dangerous shortcut
* polymorph into a faster creature (requires resources)
* swim (takes some skill, works downstream only)
* teleport (not available until later in the game)
The fundamental notion of pacing by setting is that there is literally a landmark around every corner. Locations in Gothic are small and nonuniform: the biggest forest is some 200 meters across, and no two ruins are identical. Every feature plays a unique role in the game's world, as they pose varying challenges and offer different rewards.
Thursday - May 07, 2009
Gamasutra - The History of Rogue
Matt Barton has written another fascinating piece of gaming history at Gamasutra with The History of Rogue. Here's the opening:
Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom (aka Rogue), created in the early 1980s by Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman, is an intriguing game for many reasons. For one, it's still being actively played, ported, enhanced, and forked two decades later -- a fact that challenges its description as just a "vintage" or "retro" game.
It's also among a scant handful of games that have achieved worldwide recognition despite originating on UNIX, a platform better suited for science and industry than computer games.
Thanks, Prime Junta!
Tuesday - May 05, 2009
Gamasutra - The Effect of Reviews on Game Development
Gamasutra posts an op-ed from Lewis Pulsipher, former game designer and current teacher of game design, discussing a panel discussion called "Teaching to the Test" from the Triangle Games Conference on the effect of reviews on development of games:
...To explain the title, K12 teachers tend to teach what is on end-of-grade tests to the exclusion of almost everything else. The panel considered how much game development studios and publishers create games to meet the “test” of reviews...
Their answer to the main question was “definitely not,” though they do pay attention to what individual game fans say on forums and email..Benito saw fan opinion as more "pure from the heart" than the reviews...
On the actual review process:
Panelists clearly did not care for reviews in general, probably because they felt so many were poorly-written and often contained mistakes. One panelist specifically referred to the reviews on IGN and Gamespot as “white noise”, and all panelists clearly felt that reviews are often “subjective” rather than “objective”. Of course, “subjective” can be just as accurate (in fact, more accurate) than objective, depending on the situation, the problem is that reviewers don’t explain their biases and why they feel as they do, so readers have no basis to judge the opinions.
Some reviewers clearly don’t understand how reviews, of any medium, work. They should answer three questions:
- what were the creator(s) trying to do
- how well did they do it
- was it worth doing
To answer these questions they must explain “why”, not merely say “this is a piece of junk” or “I don’t like the graphics” or “what a dumb idea”. But this makes reviewing more difficult, more work.
One panelist suggested reviewers ought to “take a step back” and watch others play the game, in order to acquire more than one point of view. They also need to put themselves in the shoes of a person who’s saved his pocket-money to buy a game, as opposed to reviewers who have piles of freebies to try out.
Reviewers who assign an actual numeric evaluation should provide several scores for different types of players, e.g., hard core, casual, RPG fans, shooter fans, whatever is appropriate to the audience.
Saturday - April 11, 2009
Gamasutra - Lost Dave Arneson Interview
They don't explain the context as far as I can see but Gamasutra has a "lost" interview with Dave Arneson. Apparently written in 2004, it hasn't previously been published:
How did you decide on probabilities and percentage chances of the various things you could do? How did you translate real world probabilities into dice rolls?
Well, I could tell you I had it all planned out, but that wouldn't be true. And I could tell you I faked it all, and that wouldn't be true either. We adapted.
We started out using the Chainmail combat system. They had a fantasy supplement for Chainmail. I think we used that for two games. We quickly discovered it didn't work for what we were doing since they were mass-combat rules, not individual rules.
We were doing role-playing and they weren't role-playing. We started off our monster list, and I think Chainmail had only seven or eight monsters. So we quickly came up with twenty or thirty.
We tried setting them up in a matrix, but that didn't work because it was quickly taking up an entire wall. So, I adopted a combat system I used for Civil War Ironclads because they had armor class, hit points, all that stuff.
And we did that for the monsters, we assigned values to them: giants are big, orcs are little. We tried to make the creature's power similar to what its size was.
We tried to give each monster a special power that wasn't overwhelming, which was harder than I thought. It's easy to come up with incredibly powerful abilities, not so simple to make small ones.
Wednesday - March 25, 2009
Gamasutra - Deathspank, Distribution and Portals
An interesting article at Gamasutra from GDC for those that follow the industry or take an interest in indie games. The piece reports on a talk from Hothead (Penny Arcade Adventures) that discusses their experience selling the game online. They provide some data on the breakdown of Live vs PSN vs computer sales and then Windows vs Mac vs Linux. Ron Gilbert's Deathspank gets a mention - apparently the humorous adventure/RPG/Monkey Island/Diablo mashup is in "full production".
Friday - February 20, 2009
Gamasutra - The Top 20 Game Writers
Another list - but at least one that addresses an overlooked segment in terms of press coverage. Gamasutra has assembled their Top 20 Game Writers, with Chris Avellone the first (or last?) cab off the rank. BioWare's Drew Karpyshyn, Beth's Emil Pagliarulo and 2K's Ken Levine all get nods. On MCA:
When working with such vast and shambling properties as Dungeons & Dragons or Star Wars, an individual writer's voice could easily get lost behind the accumulated lore that has built up over many years of overlapping narratives.
Chris Avellone neatly dodges that trap by always emphasizing his characters' personalities and relationships over back story.
Avellone also understands that dice rolling is the least interesting aspect of role-playing, and in his work, typical "gameplay" activities are often subordinate to character interactions.
While his upcoming Alpha Protocol will undoubtedly have some entertaining action, the real pleasure in the game will come from getting to know the many personalities inhabiting it.
Thursday - February 19, 2009
Gamasutra - GameStop Forecasting 2009 Sales Growth Despite Recession
Gamasutra posts an industry story about international gaming retailer, GameStop:
Specialty retailer GameStop expects total sales to grow by 10-12 percent to $9.68-9.85 billion in fiscal 2009 (ending January 30, 2010), despite the current global recession, according to an official statement to the stock market.
Still, the predicted increase is significantly less than the growth the company saw with its fiscal 2008 full-year sales, up 24 percent to $8.8 billion, compared to 2007's $7.1 billion.
GameStop also revealed in its earnings forecast that it expects comparable store sales to rise 4-6 percent, again much lower compared to 13.3 percent increase it saw with comparable store sales in fiscal 2008 over the previous year.
Though the expected growth is muted in comparison to last year's, GameStop still projects it will outperform the rest of the retail sector, even as it expects the recession to continue into the 2009 holiday season.
Saturday - January 24, 2009
Gamasutra - The New Old Wave of PC Games
Gamasutra posts an op ed from Chris Remo that takes a look at some of the overlooked strengths of the PC gaming platform, using Valve and Stardock as examples of successful business models:
Amidst the neverending talk about how the PC is changing or declining as a market for hardcore games, outside of perennial chart-crusher World of Warcraft, commentators seem to lose sight of the historic strengths of the platform and its place in the gaming world.
Meanwhile, studios like Valve and Stardock -- successful, independent companies comprised of staffers whose memories seem to go back a little further -- understand some key principles that have always defined the PC platform in a positive way.
These include ongoing, direct contact with their audience; agility and responsiveness in development and support; and smaller teams that can afford to take interesting design risks and thus foster a loyal niche (not to mention thrive on sales that are less than astronomical).
On the consoles v. PC comparison:
...PC games have traditionally not had the per-title sales numbers that the most successful console games muster.
This is only a shock if you try to treat the PC as just another console, like so many modern-day publishers do -- loading it up with ports of multiplatform games whose franchises (and sometimes entire genres) have never had a strong base on the PC to begin with, then expressing disappointment when they underperform...
As an open platform in contrast to the manufacturer-controlled consoles, the PC is a place where developers and publishers can be the ultimate gatekeepers of their own games....
On the future:
The lesson seems simple, but it's often overlooked in our NPD-obsessed industry: return on investment is a lot more important than units sold, especially as budgets continue to balloon dangerously.
And making games that can afford to succeed with a smaller audience often means the developers have more creative freedom -- which, in an ostensibly creative industry, means a lot.
It is worth noting that both Valve and Stardock, as entire companies, are smaller than some of the individual teams making competing triple-A games.
These companies show that it is a fallacy that successful modern game development must be bloated and unwieldy, and they know that the PC platform and its audience do not reward offerings that treat the system like an afterthought or a multiplatform port repository.
Friday - January 23, 2009
Gamasutra - Jonathon Blow Interview
You may have heard of Jonathon Blow's Braid, an indie art/platform game that achieved critical success on XBL Arcade. This would normally be way out of our coverage but Gamasutra's new interview includes news that Jonathon is toying with an "RPG-ish" game, as well as several fascinating comments. On Fallout 3:
But I played Fable II, Fallout 3, stuff like that. And in Fallout 3, there's one section of the game that people comment on that feels kind of personal and emotional, and it's not the stuff that's supposed to feel that way. It's not the stuff with your dad at the beginning, or trying to find him. That all feels generic.
It's when you find this abandoned camp that's now got monsters in it, but there are these stories of this nurse trying to hold it together right after the bombing.
And you think, "That was really a touching story that I just found out there." And it wasn't actually the game. [laughs] It was just this little pre-authored story.
...and on a contradiction in game design:
To give a really simple example: almost every game we make now is challenge-based in some way, right? Unless you're talking about Wii Music, there's some goal that you have to meet. The player is here, and wants to go this way. The game's challenge pushes back on him, adding some friction. You want the player to get through the game eventually, but that challenge slows them down or makes them go in a circuitous path.
That's half our game, this challenge element. In story-based games, the other half is the story. And the problem is that story needs to go [the opposite direction challenge does]. Because stories have pacing. They have an order of events that happen.
So the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment. But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going. This structure doesn't actually work, because these two fight each other. You try to balance them, but usually one of these is going to be more strong than the other, and that's the direction you'll feel more of.
Thursday - January 08, 2009
Gamasutra - Iron Lore Vets Form Crate Entertainment
Gamasutra is reporting that ex-Iron Lore vets (Titan Quest) Arthur Bruno and Eric Campanella have formed Crate Entertainment and bought back Black Legion, a console action/RPG that Iron Lore was trying to shop to various publishers:
Crate purchased the rights to two games that were under development at Iron Lore, including a project titled Black Legion. The title is an action RPG for the Xbox 360, and Crate is currently shopping a demo for it to game publishers.
"One of our real goals is to take the solid game play we established in Titan Quest and repackage it to make it sort of grittier and more appealing to the mainstream audience," says Bruno. "We’re trying to evolve the action to something that will bring the RPG to its next level."
Friday - January 02, 2009
Gamasutra - Top 5 PC Games of 2008
Gamasutra posts their 'Best of 2008,' in the midst of which we have their top five games for PC. The number one position goes to Fallout 3:
Bethesda's Fallout 3 not only outshone the studio's previous game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in just about every way, it accomplished the impressive task of satisfying most non-extremist-level fans of Black Isle's venerable Fallout series...
The sheer amount of content in Fallout 3 is extremely impressive, considering what a consistent level of quality it maintains -- and how much of it a player is likely to completely miss, based on the choices made, the NPCs killed, the routes traveled, and any number of other variables. The main storyline pales in comparison to the larger breadth of experiences to be had throughout, and the vast wasteland begs to be lived in.
Honorable mentions go to, amongst others, Hinterland, King's Bounty, and Mass Effect.
Source: Celestial Heavens
Saturday - December 27, 2008
Gamasutra - The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 4
Gamasutra has been doing a series of feature articles by Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell:Chaos Theory) on the most important trends in game design as he sees them, and this one has a variety of observations, from which I'm singling out his views on the aging of the gaming population and how it will affect the games that people want to play. As an older gamer myself I don't agree with all of this, but it does paint an interesting picture:
Megatrend VIII - The aging of players
As economists well know, the consequences of the evolution of demographics are silent, but tremendously powerful. The aging of the gaming population is one such example. This aging is, of course, purely statistical; there will always be as many young gamers as ever, but today's younger players will age just like the rest... and will keep on playing.
The good news is that the gaming population will keep on growing; however, it will have an increasing number of "old" players (i.e. those above 35 years of age).
How are these players different from their younger counterparts?
As slow as this evolution is, it is unavoidable. It will create a new category of players, or at least new needs. We do not approach gaming in the same way if we are 20, 35 or 50 years old. What can we expect?
* Older gamers will increasingly hold a greater interest in themes that are presently uncommon or poorly developed, such as economic or political simulations.
* These players will be less likely to invest themselves in complex games, primarily due to lack of time.
* They will assign a greater importance to game-generated emotions and moral dilemmas.
* It will become increasingly difficult to establish suspension of disbelief for such players. Mature gamers will have a harder time becoming immersed in less believable plots or universes.
* These consumers will not be covered by the traditional video gaming press.
* Lastly, they will possess greater purchasing power for impulse buying.
What can we expect in regards to game design?
To satisfy this new class of player, publishers will either have to adapt their existing products, or will be compelled to develop games specifically for this new target audience.
* Less fantastical characters and situations
Video game characters often possess a marked lack of believability. Yet, it is quite possible to give real depth to game characters, including those of action games. Metal Gear Solid 3 is a good example of this.
The use of real screenplay writers, at least as consultants, should become a more widespread practice. Let us not forget that a professional screenplay writer also knows how to write good dialogue, an important component in the final quality of the work.
Thursday - December 25, 2008
Gamasutra - The 5 Most Significant MMO Trends
Gamasutra explains what they think are the 5 most significant trends in MMOs in 2008. The list contains the following elements:
- The niche positions of AAA fantasy titles (Age of Conan, Warhammer Online)
- The gold rush
- User-made content
The following is a snippet about microtransactions:
More than anything, 2008 signaled a death-knell for the future of subscription-based online gaming. In ten, maybe even five years, paying a monthly subscription for an online game will sound as archaic as paying a play-by-the-hour fee does now.
The microtransaction model has been gaining in popularity here in the West for years now, but 2008 truly highlighted the waning power of the subscription model. From the rollout of Sony Online Entertainment's Station Cash program to the blockbuster success of companies like Three Rings and Nexon, Western players have made it abundantly clear that they're very comfortable paying smaller amounts of money over time to get the services they want.
Wednesday - October 15, 2008
Gamasutra - Ode to Short Dialogue
Big Huge Games' Ben Schneider (formerly Iron Lore) has written Ode to Short Dialogue for Gamasutra. Before you grab a pitchfork to protest dumbing down games, Ben is primarily writing about short sound-bites, such as ambient background comments, and makes some good observations. On BioShock and Assassin's Creed vs Oblivion and Mass Effect:
Compare the overheard speech in these games to that in Oblivion and Mass Effect. In both of these games you can listen in on full-length public conversations. I would argue that this approach is simply less successful.
Those full conversations are, first of all, a bit "uncanny valley," since in reality the speakers would stop talking or turn to you as soon as they noticed you just standing there ... awkwardly listening in. (And Assassin's Creed does in fact feature that sort of reaction!)
Worse yet, they come while you're in the middle of gameplay (exploring, questing, or shopping), and they force an awkward decision on the player -- whether to stop and passively listen for a minute, or walk away feeling like you missed something. Neither option is great. This is verisimilitude versus realism in a nutshell: Full conversation dialog might be more accurate, but carefully tailored sound bites capture the essence of overheard speech far better.
Friday - August 01, 2008
Gamasutra - History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 8 Bit
Gamasutra continues their series profiling the history of gaming platforms with this look at the Atari 8-Bit computer, complete with Atari 's company history, game cartridges and photos that will take you back in time:
When many thirty-something gamers in the U.S. hear the words "8-bit computer," they likely picture a Commodore 64 (C64) or an Apple II. The word "Atari" is forever associated with the arcade and the Atari VCS (aka 2600), the latter of which was covered in an earlier entry in this series.
However, Atari also released a smorgasbord of 8-bit personal computers, collectively known as the Atari 8-bit computer series...
TYPICAL SYSTEM SPECIFICATIONS
Release Year: 1979
Resolution: 80 x 192
On-Screen Colors: 16
Sound: 4 Channels, Mono
Media Format(s): Cartridge, Cassette, 5.25" Floppy Disk
Main Memory: 48KB
Here's a snip on some of the software:
Games such as Datamost's 1983 platformer, Mr. Robot and His Robot Factory, made excellent use of the Atari 8-bit systems' color options. While the Atari 8-bit's colors are noticeably muted in comparison to other contemporary platforms and can be difficult to manipulate, in the hands of skilled programmers, the results could be impressive.
Unlike Apple, Atari was secretive about the inner workings of their systems. Often, no one would know something was even possible until Atari itself used the technique in a game or grudgingly divulged the information.
This "trade secret" approach sometimes left a quality gap between first-party and third-party games. Nevertheless, clever programmers eventually found ways around Atari's corporate policies to make impressive games of their own.
Rampant piracy almost killed Lucasfilm's entry into the software market before it began, but a name change to LucasArts and dozens of games later, the company is still going strong. Titles such as the 1986 classics Rescue on Fractalus (pictured) and Ballblazer got the company off to a great start.
Thursday - July 10, 2008
Gamasutra - Defining Dialogue Systems
Defining Dialogue Systems is a new feature piece at Gamasutra written by Brent Ellison, who is apparently a Master's student finishing up a thesis on NPC interaction. The article does as it says, cataloguing the different types of dialogue and interaction systems across a range of games, from Mass Effect to The Sims to Japanese dating sims. Although it discusses the merits of the different approaches, it provides limited insight into possible advances. Here's a snip:
The recent Mass Effect makes similar attempts at simplifying the presentation of the player's choices, but rather than limit the player's response time, it gives the player his options before the NPC finishes speaking. In this manner, the player makes his decision and the avatar delivers a response with little to no pause in the conversation.
Thus, both Indigo Prophecy and Mass Effect attempt to make conversations more natural by reducing the amount of time and effort the player spends considering their next response.
Although the heavily scripted nature of branching dialogue allows designers and writers to craft natural, flowing conversations, the limited nature of interactivity is very transparent to the player.
It is easy for players to see that they are simply choosing from paths laid out for them, rather than creating their own story. Further, players may be frustrated that they must follow such a straightforward path and cannot choose to inquire about certain topics. The Hub-and-Spokes Dialogue method addresses some of these problems.
Tuesday - July 01, 2008
Gamasutra - The Problem of the Cutscene
Gamasutra has a wordy but interesting feature op ed posted by freelance gameplay designer Martin Herink, entitled The Problem of the Cutscene which deals with the use of cinematics in game narratives:
The cutscene has always been, and will continue to be, a useful aesthetic tool for the expression of the story and of the narrative. The problem of the cutscene as such is not its existence inside the interactive space of the game. Players, in fact, appear to enjoy the additional layers of immersion which it can provide. The problem with its use ought rather to be viewed as the inappropriate sequencing of what is a fundamentally contemplative medium within the context of an inherently kinetic one...
The author goes on to give some examples of successful cinematic cutscene use:
Max Payne 2 is a superb example of the way that episode-based editing can lead to a positive integration of the cutscene. What MP2 did was attach a narrative framework with multiple character perspectives to mission-driven gameplay. Each mission was limited in length and offered in a variety of settings (from hospitals to construction sites). In order for the narrative sequences to be triggered, gameplay goals had to be met...
And touches on cinematic cutscenes as a reward in Diablo II and Final Fantasy:
Interestingly, in the case of Diablo II, the use of the cutscene in relation to the narrative was also further removed from the kinesthetic relationship that develops between the player and the avatar through the use of the parallel storyline (that is, a pre-rendered cutscene which does not concern the player or the avatar immediately, but which instead follows other characters and shadows the events of the game's dramatic progression through an external perspective).
The other and even more popular example of cut-scene use can be seen in the case of Square Enix games, especially the Final Fantasy series...On the aesthetic front, Square Enix games still predominantly follow the same guidelines that have already been set out, and in this way they also respect the player's expectations of the game. As a reward, the cutscene is predominantly a question of of rhythm and pacing, allowing the narrative to move forward on visual and contemplative terms; an episode of gameplay will be rewarded with a cutscene and the expectation is therefore fulfilled.
By following a few simple guidelines regarding rhythm and pacing but above all by respecting the player's experience of the narrative game not as a singularly kinetic experience upon which we must force the narratological semblance of cinematic tact, but rather as an experience that shifts and morphs according to our relationship with each...moment, the long history of narrative cinema can offer us novel new ways of engaging the player not only in play but also the...world of which such play is a part.
Tuesday - June 17, 2008
Gamasutra - Spector on Game Design
Gamasutra has an article up called One Hundred Hour Games Are On The Way Out featuring Warren Spector on current trends in game design. Among other points, he has this to say about game design and games as team projects:
"Building a game is as complex as making as a Hollywood movie. Do we have the right people and how do we harness creativity without crushing it? We are in a business that is both software engineer and entertainment, and we have to balance it. It used to be that you could trade off gameplay for graphics, but you can’t do that anymore."
As he has often done in the past, Spector commented on his frustration with some of the dominant tropes of video games. "I love working with Disney because I'm so tired of making games about guys in black leather carrying guns. I don’t want to make those any more," he said.
"Game costs are going to be $35-40 million, even $100 million, and the expectations are huge. You have to differentiate yourselves. One-hundred hour games are on the way out… How many of you have finished GTA? Two percent, probably. If we're spending $100 million on a game, we want you to see the last level!"
Even on the other end of the economic scale, Spector did not paint a rosy picture. "I heard people say that casual games are where to go as an indie, but you still need to differentiate yourself because that’s a really crowded field," he pointed out. "If you don’t make it on the front page you don’t get your game seen."
Thursday - June 12, 2008
Gamasutra - Adventurer's Guide to Thievery
Gamasutra has a feature article up on what game devs can learn from D&D, in particular the new 4th edition ruleset, called The Adventurer's Guide to Thievery by Tom Smith(THQ):
So what is the 4th Edition? Basically, it takes the D&D ruleset further down the road of standardization and simplification that began with 3rd edition. D&D's first two editions were teeming with different rules and charts and systems, so that no one part of the game integrated easily with any other. The 3rd tried to turn these micro-systems and exceptions into a true systems design, with coherent themes and structures. The 4th continues this trend...
... The D&D designers did a good job of taking ideas from video games that help their game work better without overly diluting the unique feel of their game. Hopefully we can prove as competent at returning those influences as they were.
The article goes in-depth to recommend some ideas of 4th edition that could be implemented well in games, including but not limited to:
One of the bigger mechanical changes in 4E is Saving Throws. Rather than treat it as a unique mechanic onto itself as previous editions did, it's been combined into the standard defense mechanism. So Reflex, Fortitude and Will are just different flavors of Armor Class, providing four different defense stats that all work the same way.
Whenever a character does anything attack-like, whether swinging a sword, breathing fire, or subverting someone's mind, the player rolls an attack against one of these defense stats. And these numbers scale up like everything else.
This is a good example of a standardized system that allows easy adaptability. If the DM wants to invent a new monster attack, or a new trap, or even improvise a new action in the middle of a game, it's fairly easy to determine how to resolve it. Generally, roll an attack or ability and compare it to one of these defenses.
Having four defense stats means it's easy to generate attacks that feel unique and different but operate on the same basis mechanically. And by exposing the underlying math, a good DM knows how to generate unique content for each encounter and to adjudicate when something strange comes up, which it usually does.
This doesn't all translate directly to video games, since we lack a DM at the table to interpret these rules real-time, but it does give some good guidelines for feature and content design. Create systems with enough flexibility to cover a wide range of real situations...Make sure the mechanics emphasize the differences between situations rather than flattening them all out to be the same...
Tuesday - June 10, 2008
Gamasutra - The Impact of Activision Blizzard @ Gamasutra
Article on the merger as it gets close to being finalised with thoughts on the industry as a whole.
"I suspect there will be a bunch of folks displaced in the process," agreed Buscaglia, but from a slightly different angle. "The consolidation of the portfolios of the two companies is likely to make it more difficult for an independent developer to get their games picked up -- for example, say a studio is pitching an FPS war game. Before Activision was a no go due to Call of Duty, but you might get a shot with Sierra Entertainment. Now there's one less publisher to pitch to. And that goes both ways and applies to competing games with every successful title on both portfolios now."
However, there may be opportunity in the "ton of IPs that one or the other company has moth-balled that the other may see some real value in," continued Buscaglia. "I expect to see some cool IPs that we have not seen around for quite a while showing up after this while merger thing settles in."
And though developers might find it harder to pitch new projects, the other publishers may find plenty of space to fit in the new industry landscape.
Saturday - June 07, 2008
Gamasutra - Video Game Scores-Pointless or Pertinent?
Gamasutra brings up the long-running topic of how video game review scores impact sales, marketing and game perception, with the often-used "video games aren't toasters" slant, and a somewhat different than usual conclusion.
So what do people want?
...The average reader (even if they don’t know it) is after a complete objective, scientific comparison between game x and game y with data and statistics and, finally, a numerical point on a linear scale by which they can compare, for example, Mass Effect with Rock Band and see which one is empirically better.
And why do reviews not really give it to them?
Games are experiential and it is impossible to be wholly empirical or objective about them. Game reviewers instead present their experience of the game with, hopefully, lots of reference points and their weight of knowledge behind them. They might make empirical comparisons between game x and game y’s framerates but they will also argue whether they think this in any way effects the experience for better...
...Secondly, games are more than the sum of their parts. You could have a visually astounding videogame with a gut-wrenching soundtrack and astute, nuanced voice acting and it could still be terrible to play and vice versa. Aggregating scores from extrapolated game elements tells you nothing anyone would actually want to know about the game.
All this is not to say that review scores are entirely meaningless or misleading. In fact, they do have a very clearly defined purpose; it’s just that it’s a different purpose to the one that’s widely understood.
Scores have come to represent whether a game over achieves or underachieves on the preview hype that was generated by the publication ahead of its release. As previews in the average video game magazine are so heavily influenced by advertisers (after all, a preview is offering no judgment on the quality of a game, so a magazine/website can print riotously positive spin in it and maintain clear conscience) this weighting of preview coverage sets imbalanced expectations in readers...
...Scores then become a reference to a game’s preceding hype. An 8/10 for a game that was hugely hyped to hobbyist gamers is a punch in the stomach for excited fans...Conversely, an 8/10 for a game nobody cares about is viewed a gross over-generosity.
And that, is why video game review scores are pointless: they often answer a pertinent question that nobody realised they were asking.
Thursday - June 05, 2008
Cancel That Subscription! @ Gamasutra
Gamasutra have a piece where Mark Jacobs of EA Mythic, Daniel James of Three Rings Design and John Smedley of SOE discuss the benefits and drawbacks of different business models for MMOs. Microtransactions vs. Subscriptions and the three interviewed get a page each to express their views:
You know, everyone thinks it's just so cool to say that the subscription model is passé, that it's dead," notes Mark Jacobs, general manager and VP. "They love to talk about their new models and how they are going to revolutionize the MMOG world. But MMOG publishers are spending a lot more on their games than anyone thought they'd be spending five years ago."
"If your game doesn't have the production values of a leading-edge game, if they are two-dimensional and not three, if they have lower system specs, okay."
"But if you're investing as much time and money as we are on our MMOGs, if you need to pay for the servers and the customer support, if you want to make a real profit on your game, subscriptions are the only way to go."
While Jacobs concedes that the micro-transaction model has been extremely successful in Asia where gamers have become accustomed to it, he says there's a reason why most of the MMOGs in the U.S. and Europe are subscription-based.
"The microtransaction guys will say that they are more successful," he argues. "Oh really? I find it very disingenuous when publishers talk about how many people are playing their game but won't talk about how much money they're making."
"Frankly, I would rather have one million customers who are all paying to play than 20 million customers with only one million of them paying to play. I can give them better support, I can give them a better game, I can deal with a better community, I have fewer customer service headaches."
I didn't know Three Rings Design are offering a MMO called Bang! Howdy. Hmm.
Wednesday - May 28, 2008
Gamasutra - PR's Dirty Little Game
Gamasutra's Simon Parkin has penned a piece on PR trickery that resulted in rushed - and therefore potentially underdone - GTA4 reviews:
Judgments cast before they'd been adequately weighed; words sold before they’d been properly valued; shallow opinions that should have been presented as the first word in a conversation but were dropped with the clacking gavel pound of a conclusion. Yeah, every writer has regrets.
Four weeks ago in this publication I referred to Grand Theft Auto IV’s depiction of immigrants as being more nuanced and sympathetic than that demonstrated by the exquisite Baltimore-set television drama, The Wire.
The exact words were: “[Niko Bellic’s] portrayal should do more to warm viewers to illegal immigrants than any of the (nevertheless awesome) characters in, say, the culturally-acclaimed TV series, The Wire.”
While it seems like a harmless enough statement it was an idiotic comparison [...]
Tuesday - May 27, 2008
Gamasutra - Dungeons & Desktops Extract
You may remember Matt Barton's three-part history of CRPGs at Gamasutra some time back. It turns out Matt has extended the material into a full book titled Dungeons & Desktops and Gamasutra has an extract on the Silver Age:
In 1981, the CRPG was still in its infancy. Programmers were refining their techniques and discovering the true capabilities of personal computers. More importantly, standards were emerging that would greatly improve interfaces, making CRPGs much more intuitive and far less cumbersome. So far, most CRPGs had been of interest only to hardcore role-playing fans already intimately familiar with D&D conventions.
These games lacked the sort of user friendliness that would have made them accessible to a larger audience. In any case, many gamers didn't relish the idea of learning one role-playing system just to abandon it when the next game came out.
The solution came in the form of long-running series, such as Ultima, Apshai, and Wizardry. Once gamers had mastered the interface, they could move on to the next game in the series with relative ease. As we'll see, these series had benefits for both developers and gamers, and they mark an important turning point in the history of the CRPG.
Sunday - May 18, 2008
Gamasutra - Difficulty Modes & Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment
Freelance writer and former game developer Ernest Adams examines the concept of player-determined difficulty levels in games in this Designer's Notebook article at Gamasutra. He begins by citing some objections to player-settable difficulty, and gives his responses:
The player has to decide too early. Games usually ask the player to choose a difficulty level right at the beginning, and at that point the player doesn't actually know how hard the game is going to be because he hasn't played it yet.
My response: This isn't really an argument against difficulty settings. A game could easily give the player an optional training level at medium difficulty, and then allow the player to decide if he wants the rest of the game to be easier, harder, or about the same. But even without that, many players can make an educated guess about how well they'll play based on their experience playing similar games (I know I'm lousy at platformers)...
The options are too coarse. What if medium mode is too easy, but hard mode is too hard? The categories are too widely spaced.
My response: There's no reason that player-settable difficulty has to be limited to three or four options; it can be a slider. Actually, any well-designed game varies its pacing so that regardless of its difficulty setting, it has easy periods and hard periods. Even arcade games give the player a breather now and then.
The difficulty setting isn't intended to determine the difficulty of every single challenge, only the maxima and minima at any given point in the game. I don't feel this is sufficient reason for banning them...
They're too persistent, i.e. a difficulty setting doesn't adjust to the player's rate of improving skill, especially if he's not allowed to change the setting later. The difficulty growth curve, at whatever setting, may prove to be too steep or too shallow for the player.
My response: This is undoubtedly a weakness of all games that don't do dynamic difficulty adjustment, but it's not actually an argument against settable difficulty levels. Settable levels don't create this problem; they help ease it little. Easy mode typically provides a very slow rate of growth in perceived difficulty, while hard mode provides a rapid one (sometimes described as a "steep learning curve"). Players know this and choose accordingly...
The rest of the article deals with dynamic difficulty adjustment, or an automatic level of difficulty in-game that's implemented by the game's responsiveness to the player's situation during play. Adams says players hate it, gives a variety of reasons and concludes:
I like the idea of dynamic difficulty adjustment in principle, because it appeals to me as a programmer. It would be very cool to code a game that was smart enough to adjust its challenges to the player's abilities, so as to guarantee him a good time. But...I also recognize that it's not necessarily easy to do.
Friday - May 09, 2008
Gamasutra - PC Gaming Interview
Microsoft's Gaming for Windows director Kevin Unangst has been quizzed at Gamasutra about GfW and PC gaming in general. I don't think it says anything new but here's a snip:
Okay. I was talking to Nolan Bushnell a little while ago. I was asking him if he ever thought that there could only be a single format for games, and he said he's pretty sure it would be the PC that would be the de facto single format on which games are released in the distant future. What do you think about that?
KU: That's interesting. I have a lot of respect for Nolan. I hadn't heard that he'd said that, so that's an interesting view of the future. I think that we're uniquely in both the console business and the PC business, and I think there are certain instances where consumers like playing in their living room for some types of games. I like playing on the biggest screen in the house.
But I think we share the view that the PC will always be at the center of the innovation that is happening for gameplay -- new game types, new business models, new distribution models.
It's lead in the Internet, it's lead in the acceleration of graphics, and I don't see any reason to believe that the PC will change, and that trend will go away any time soon. It is at the forefront, and I believe it will continue to be at the forefront.
And who knows, in that vision of the future, everything may be called a PC, right? Everything's going to get more intelligent and more Internet-connected, and the investments that Microsoft's making in both of those worlds I think will allow us to bring better experiences to consumers, no matter where they come in. They start on the consoles? We're going to make sure that when they add a PC to the mix that that experience gets better, and vice versa.
Wednesday - April 30, 2008
Gamasutra - Opinion: Why Microsoft Loses MMOs (And Why The PS3 Will Win the Genre)
Michael Zenke's opinion piece on Microsoft's missed opportunities.
If you look down the big list of canceled or never-released massively multiplayer games, Microsoft’s name comes up a suspicious number of times. The closure of Asheron's Call 2 is probably the most high-profile of these. Mythica, True Fantasy Online, Vanguard, and now Marvel Universe were all dented by the Redmond giant’s deft touch.
On a fundamental corporate level, I think that the company just doesn’t understand the whole MMO ‘thing’. The Xbox Live service is a known quantity at this point, and it's probably one of the defining elements of this generation of consoles. That said, having the patience to see something like an MMO through to completion is a very different task.
Even more than that, I think Microsoft’s short-sightedness when it comes to this genre has left a huge opening for Sony and the PlayStation 3. Though there are no firm plans in the public eye right now, the tide is rising for MMO experiences on Sony’s console. I think it's possible that Microsoft has ceded this fight without even firing a shot.
Gamasutra - The State of Indie Gaming
This Gamasutra article by Juan Gril of Joju Games and formerly head of Yahoo Games Studio, takes a look at the current status of indie game development from a casual games perspective. He starts out with his definitions of 'indie':
There is a big discrepancy right now in the definition of an indie game. On one hand, you've got those who think that the word "independent" means "independent funding". In other words, the development is financed by the developer. On the other hand, you've got those who think that the word "independent" means "independent thought", which means those games where the design was not dictated by middle managers.
I'm more inclined for the latter definition, as the truth is that in most cases you will need a significant chunk of money to create an independent game, and regardless where you get that money from, what matters is that the game was created following a creative-led game design idea.
Here is then my own definition of an independent game:
An independent game is above all trying to innovate and provide a new experience for the player. It is not just filling a publisher's portfolio need. It has not been invented at a marketing department. And it has not been designed by a committee.
It's a six page article, going into such things as who is the audience, available platforms beginning but not limited to PC, the significance of downloads, browser indies, and concluding with the challenges of producing a profitable indie game:
How many good independent games have you seen that don't make money? I can count dozens every year. Adding more salt to the wound, if there would [be] a "Big Publisher" push towards the channels independent game makers are using today to get their wares out, it's just going to be even harder to compete.
We need to find a way to create an effective ecosystem to make sure that the good talent finds a way to economic success - including more and more public independent games festivals that have wider remits.
Monday - April 28, 2008
Gamasutra - Levine on Integrated VS Parallel Storytelling
Gamasutra has a quick summary of some thoughts from a larger interview with Bioshock's creator, Ken Levine, on the narrative process in games, and how integrated storytelling does a better job than the cut-scene method of parallel presentation:
"The meta-question on narrative is, are we going toward this parallel model, which is "game, cutscene, game, cutscene, game"? Because it's a bit odd, if you think about it. It's an artifact from when our world was simple.
I talked about wheat and chaff [at Levine's recent GDC talk] -- when we could only render the wheat. The cutscenes take up a lot of chaff space, because of storytelling stuff and little details and subtle emotions."
In the full version of the article, Levine talks about factors influencing story in Bioshock, with emphasis on what game narrative can take from film other than the cutscene:
You're talking about how the concept of the unreliable narrator is prevalent in film, but you're talking about how our medium has to have its own forms of storytelling. Rather than taking cinematic techniques from film, do you think that you could take concepts? You're talking about mise en scene as well.
KL: Mise en scene, the unreliable narrator... all these things we take out of film. ... Not direct content, but concepts.
What I'm more saying is, if you don't want to do traditional cinematics, what can you take from film?
KL: Well, storytelling techniques, like the ones I've been describing. The element of mystery. They leverage mystery... games have a very sort of nerdy way of having to explain everything to people. Mystery can be your friend. I've talked about Cloverfield being Godzilla minus information. It reinvented a genre ...
Thursday - April 24, 2008
Gamasutra - On D&D and Video Games
Gamasutra's latest piece is titled Dungeons & Dragons: The Pen & Paper Video Game and forms a tribute to Gary Gygax while arguing D&D is the progenitor of most video games, regardless of genre:
Using Gygax' own miniatures wargame Chainmail as a foundation, D&D had rules for movement, for combat, for injuries and death, but also rules for interacting with characters and a system of morality.
As confusing and unintuitive as the rules sometimes were, the model of the world that emerged was pretty sophisticated; for instance in separating ability scores from skill proficiencies, the model distinguished things one is born with from things one learns. The dichotomy of free will and fate was even represented; players chose their own actions yet were always at the mercy of dice rolls.
In providing these rules and model of the world, D&D offered a powerful framework for running the first interactive simulations of reality, one in which both the everyday and the extraordinary were possible. For the first time in gaming, you could walk around a world, talk to people, explore towns and cities -- and, yes, dungeons.
Saturday - April 19, 2008
Gamasutra - Class Design
Hybrid class design article discussing the value of said roles.
The hybrid issue is exacerbated by the fact that MMOs are both solo and group games. If people only played MMOs in groups, a character able to soak a lot of damage but deal no damage would be viable because the other people in the group could deal damage for them. The individual character could be one dimensional (a pure tank) because the other group members fill out the other two parts of the trinity (DPS and healing).
However, studies have shown that even in group-focused games, players spend a lot of their playing time doing things on their own. Even if a character is the best healer in the world, if they can't take or dish out at least some damage they won't be able to operate outside of a group. Soloing requires that the character be able to deal damage, plus the ability to absorb, avoid, or heal the damage taken.
Therefore, once the design decision has been made that every character should be able to solo -- a decision that has been made practically mandatory by the successful example of World of Warcraft -- it automatically follows that every character must be a hybrid and therefore subject to the paradoxes of hybrid design. This is a universal problem, not just one that affects certain classes within a game.
Wednesday - April 16, 2008
Gamasutra - Fewer Mechanics, Better Game
Fewer Mechanics, Better Game is a piece at Gamasutra written by programmer John Rose (Nihilistic Software) that asserts focus on a small number of in-game features will result in a better game. Some of the examples make immediate sense (games with tacked-on multiplayer modes) and others much less (Bioshock being too complex). Here's the start:
I've heard from many people that the ideal game is the one that has everything. It's a game where players are constrained by nothing. These people believe in a sandbox where their very imagination is the only boundary. They believe in game with no limits.
On the surface, this game sounds great. Who wouldn't want an infinite number of play mechanics? Who wouldn't enjoy the complete freedom of the ultimate kitchen sink game? But ironically, a title with too many avenues of influence becomes less of a game and more like life. This game would be horrible.
Of course, this game isn't feasible. The scope of its game world reaches well beyond what technology can accomplish. But what if we collapsed this game world into one small room, keeping the infinite game mechanics? What if we could do anything we want in this tiny space? Would it be fun? No. Because it's not this theoretical game world's sheer size that dulls it. The huge set of game mechanics is the villain, and its downfall is that there's just too much to do.
Saturday - April 05, 2008
Gamasutra - Game Fandom and The Church of Gamers
Gamasutra has an opinion piece up by Douglas Wilson, exploring the idea that the stereotypical gamer has become over-focused and defensive and suggesting that both gamers and developers need to view gaming from a wider perspective:
...The problem is, the “gaming community” has become a kind of cult. Organized around worship sites like Kotaku, 1UP, and Penny Arcade, the Church of Gamers congregates in Internet forums and online games, rallying against the Great Satan of Jack Thompson. Smitten with near-religious fervor over their hobby, these so-called gamers increasingly treat digital games as a devotional object, a thing morally good in itself.
It’s great to be a passionate about one’s hobbies. But when fans lose touch with reality, they also lose perspective on the more important parts of life. And in doing so, gamers ironically stifle innovation in the medium they so love.
On mixing gaming, politics and real life issues:
...There are many good reasons to both laud and criticize Senators Clinton and Obama. But their views on videogames strike me as irrelevant. In 2008 we face a number of complex problems, including faltering economies, large-scale environmental change, viral epidemics, healthcare policy, genocides, terrorism, war, and souring foreign relations. No matter how you spin it, millions of human lives are at stake.
And yet, some gamers remain acutely concerned with what kind of regulations will be levied on future Grand Theft Auto sequels. This is not just outrageous, it’s altogether absurd.
I don’t mean to suggest that we should all give up games and go join the Peace Corps. After all, I’m not exactly a saint myself. Nor am I saying that we should altogether ignore issues of media policy. A candidate’s view on media usage could be indicative of their more general views on free speech. But I do know that it’s essential that we always keep the larger picture in mind and not fall victim to our overly narrow interests.
Of course, my depiction of the militant gamer is itself a stereotype. For every crazed devotee to the Church of Gamers, there are videogame players who do community service, get involved with their church, or volunteer for their political party. But unfortunately, as the Mass Effect controversy demonstrates, the rabidly protectionist gamer is the public face that [the] gaming community increasingly presents to the larger world.
Thus, this article is a plea to the gaming community - both developers and gamers - to stop talking about Jack Thompson; to hold itself to higher ethical standards than its critics; to stop falling into the victim complex; to resist exclusivity, and embrace players from all walks of life; to demand that gaming blogs stop the hysterical muckraking and misogyny; and most of all, to get more political, and not just about issues of games and media policy.
Tuesday - April 01, 2008
Gamasutra - Online Community Management
Article about online communities at Gamasutra.
In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis, MMO community liaison Wera analyzes the art of game community management, suggesting success comes as much with vibrant social community as gameplay.
Tuesday - March 25, 2008
Gamasutra - Rebuttal: Why Writers Matter
A few days back Gamasutra had a piece called The Case Against Writers in the Games Industry by Auto Assault's Adam Maxwell. Let's start with a sample from that:
When we discuss of the role of the writer, we have to be clear. There is a huge amount of writing in game design -- and good writers tend to make better designers (all else being equal) -- but being a writer doesn’t automatically make one a game designer. Writers do not dictate the way players interact with the world, nor do they dictate the way the player experiences the content that they themselves may create. These are the responsibilities of the game designer.
A writer might create the characters, and a writer certainly architects the plot of a game’s story, but the work a player actually sees and consumes? That is the work of the designer, even when the writer has written the dialogue, decided the plot, created every character and conceptualized every setting. There’s a critical reason for that, a reason that is perhaps the most compelling fact behind avoiding writers:
The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically not.
When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot. Most games certainly have plots, so you might be asking yourself why a writer wouldn’t be useful. After all, an experienced and well-educated writer will know everything there is to building a plot, and games could certainly benefit from better plots, right? I couldn’t agree more, but I’m afraid that it’s something of a leap to go from there to, “the person to architect a game’s plot is a writer.”
Today, Brainstem's Ron Toland rebutts with Why Writers Matter:
“When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot.”
There are two mistakes in that sentence. First, building a story means building characters, the relationships between those characters, the setting around the characters, and the conflicts—plots—that involve the characters. Second, game writers should never sit down alone to build a story. They should meet with the entire team so that the art, sound, game mechanics, and story all work together to craft an interactive experience.
"The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically *not*."
A bold but bogus claim. Has he never played D&D? Read an RPG module that accommodates several different paths to play through? Read a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book? All of the above were created by writers. All use non-linear storytelling.
Conversely, the work of the designer is often very linear. Super Mario Brothers is an incredibly linear game. So are Portal, the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and many others. All of those games were designed to be linear, and are great games.
Games are often linear because of limitations in technology and time. Writers can help make that linear experience feel more free than it really is, by involving the player in an unfolding story.
Wednesday - March 19, 2008
Gamasutra - A JRPG Primer
Wandering far from our normal territory, Gamasutra's A Japanese RPG Primer might be somewhat educational for those of us who know little to nothing about them. But, hey - Ultima and Wizardry are both mentioned so it can't be all bad:
Two of the most popular games back in the day were Ultima and Wizardry. Although all had followings amongst hardcore Japanese gamers, they were a little bit too uninviting for your average console owners, whose ages skewed a bit younger. Yuji Horii, a developer at Enix, decided to take on an interesting experiment.
By combing the overhead exploration aspects of Ultima (the third and fourth games, specifically) and the first person, menu-based battle system of Wizardry, a new game was born: Dragon Quest. Released for the Nintendo Famicom in 1986, the game became a phenomenon, and went on to inspire dozens of clones. Most of these are best left forgotten, but it did inspire two more notable franchises: Square's Final Fantasy and Sega's Phantasy Star.
Tuesday - March 11, 2008
Gamasutra - On 'Completion Anxiety Disorder'
Gamasutra has posted an article exploring some of the reasons why fewer and fewer games may be getting finished these days:
Rising retail costs mean that for most, it's damn near painful to crack the wallet open at the game store, and yet implausibly, despite the larger financial investment, it actually seems like we're finishing fewer games than we once did.
We demand more engaging, immersive and enduring game experiences -- and then we don't finish them. What's wrong with us?
Some reasons given:
It's quite possible that...modern games have outgrown the available free time of the average player in all of these areas. And a core portion of the gaming audience has begun to age, meaning time is even more at a premium.
To be fair, games are now much bigger and larger than they used to be. 16-bit veterans who used to spend months at a time whittling away at a platformer in their clumsier youth can now buy it on Virtual Console and knock out a victory in a handful of hours. Nonetheless, we've demanded deeper experiences for years -- those old games are generally a nostalgic snack, not a long-term project.
If is isn't time, perhaps it's frustration:
Maybe it's more persistence, better problem-solving skills we need. Are today's games too difficult for us?
...How many, of the past several games you left unfinished, were either too hard for you to finish or too easy for you to remain engaged with? If you could have had control over the difficulty level, would you have finished the game?
I'm still not convinced that dynamic difficulty wouldn't result in a few too many hollow victories for my taste -- what's the point, after all, of overcoming a challenge that you've set precisely in your comfort zone? But then, that's assuming that difficulty level is the issue at all. I'd say, in fact, that today's games have gotten much easier.
Now, the tricky one: Maybe it's just that a lot of these games aren't very good. You didn't finish them because you were bored. You weren't frustrated because it was too hard, but because it was too unwieldy, difficult in the wrong way, or you just hated the characters.
We talk a lot about the promise and potential of games as an engaging storytelling medium -- but words like "promise" and "potential" are words we use when something could be there, but isn't there yet. Game design is trying every day to raise that bar, and what "does it" for some players won't do it for others.
Saturday - March 01, 2008
Gamasutra - The Art of Games
Gamasutra posts another entry in the 'games as art' debate with this column from E. Daniel Arey that examines the question of how art in gaming matters. (It's written in response to Jim Preston's (EA) feature article there, The Arty Party and Gamasutra's newsbit on it, Forget Art-Let's Game.)
It wasn’t the overall philosophy of Mr. Preston’s essay per se that upset me...In fact, his final assertion that we are moving toward a promising future is correct.
What did concern me was his overall seemingly static vision for our industry, and the almost jaded approach to the current value of what we call art. You can add to this the Gamasutra editors' choice of title for the related news story, 'Forget Art, Let's Game', which - while serving its purpose as a provocative siren’s call - seemed to once again proudly proclaim games as nothing more than they are, or ever will be, as an entertainment pastime that is limited and unable to evolve or adapt...
...However you fall on the subject, arguments about art’s impact or awareness can be left to the academics, and in my opinion these questions lead to nowhere. We’ve all heard the old phrase “I know it when I see it”, and I believe this litmus test can serve us well as the touchstone for our discussion.
I’ve heard countless calls over the years, often with good and pure intentions, that “Games are games, and we should keep them that way.”
While I fully understand and support that games are a wonderful play pastime, and that gameplay and fun are the beating heart of our business, I find these assertions to keep everything the same as a set of false boundaries that foster cynical limitations by those in power to assure the status quo is comfortable and predictable.
The real truth is, games have always pushed the boundaries and evolved on their own, right from the beginning. First they were a simply a “Novelty.” Then Time Magazine proudly labeled them a passing “Fad.” Then they were a “Quaint Pastime.” Then a “Cultural Phenomenon.” And now a “Mainstream Entertainment” medium.In truth, video games have always grown beyond the bounds we try to impose on them. The people that make games are always pushing back to surprise us and surpass our expectations, and - yes, they will always continue to do so.
Thursday - February 28, 2008
Gamasutra - History of Gaming Platforms: Atari 2600 VCS
Gamasutra posts its latest article on the history of gaming platforms, focusing on the Atari 2600 Video Computer System:
Although not the first video game console and astonishingly primitive by today's standards, the Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS) became a fundamental part of Eighties culture and remains one of the most revered 8-bit gaming platforms ever designed. However, the explosive growth triggered by the 2600 led to The Great Videogame Crash of 1984, which toppled the industry and threatened the future of electronic gaming in America...
The first systems, known today as "heavy sixers," featured dense internal RF shielding (giving the system its weight) and six chrome selector switches for power on/off, color/black and white, player A difficulty, player B difficulty, select, and reset. The design featured sharp angles with black plastic and the famous wood-grain styling.
In 1978, Atari released a revised model with lighter RF shielding and a slightly streamlined case. The last VCS revision, released in 1980, moved two of the six switches to the top of the unit. In 1982, Atari released the Atari 5200 SuperSystem. To standardize the product line, the VCS officially became the Atari 2600 Video Computer System, or simply Atari 2600. This design was streamlined like the previous revision, but with an entirely black exterior...
Atari's success peaked in 1982, after which a glut of poor third-party game titles and bad licensing decisions caused heavy losses throughout the industry. Product dumping, with high volumes of poor-quality games sold at or below cost, caused full-priced, high-quality game sales to suffer.
In 2003, to take advantage of the well-known name, France's Infogrames Entertainment SA, itself a software development and publishing company dating from the 1980s, rebranded its global operations as "Atari." It acquired the rights to the name after purchasing Hasbro Interactive. This new entity established itself as a major software publisher for consoles, portables, and computers.
Tuesday - February 26, 2008
Gamasutra - Nine Paths to Indie Game Greatness
What are the practical differences between commercial and independent developers? When a commercial company starts a new project, more often than not it is asking: "Who will give us the resources we need to make payroll?"...
When an independent developer starts a new project, they usually ask: "How do I make the game I want with the resources readily available?" That is, if they even spend the time to think about the resources they are going to need ahead of time at all.
...But the most successful independent developers work around the set of resources available, without treating it as an obstacle to be overcome -- but rather, a box to operate within.
The author goes on to list the nine elements he feels influence success with indies--Efficiency in Design, Utilizing Free or Inexpensive Technology, Digital Distribution, Open Platform Development and several others. Here's an example from the Alternate Sources of Funding category:
Mount & Blade is a medieval combat simulator/manager/role playing game. Developed by another husband and wife team from Turkey, the game has..an incredibly enthusiastic community following. The game is in a constant state of development, and while there is always a free demo -- players can purchase the full game for a rising cost as the game develops more features. The earliest of adopters might have gotten the game for as low as $6 where as the price of the most recent release is $22.
Once you have purchased a license to the game you always have access to the latest version. Amazingly, these developers have replaced the role traditionally filled by game publishers with the gamers themselves.
Thursday - February 21, 2008
Gamasutra - GDC: Deconstructing the Best Interactive Storytelling
Gamasutra posts a look at a presentation from the currently ongoing Games Developers Conference, where several game designers examine successful storytelling in games they have played.
From the intro:
“Sound familiar?” Richard Rouse (Midway Games) asked, opening the afternoon game design session ... with quotes including “stories are irrelevant to games” and “stories in games can’t compete with other mediums.” He then offered his own “contrarian thesis,” that the best game storytelling can stand up to the storytelling in any other medium.
To attempt to support his point, he invited Marc Laidlaw (Valve Software) Steve Meretzky (Blue Fang) and Ken Rolston (Big Huge Games) to nominate and play a selection of eight games that they considered the best at storytelling, and debate them in front of the audience.
The games include several familiar to RPG players, including Planescape Torment:
Planescape Torment was Ken Rolston’s pick, and he introduced it’s plot humourously: “You are THE NAMELESS ONE, I’m saying it like that so you know it’s all capital letters.”
“This is a long game, whatever it’s virtues are,” he continued, “RPGS are the epics or the novels of gaming. But this a game where you can collect your own intestines -- you can collect body parts and use them as weapons -- they even have stuff written on them! A weapon that’s your own body part that has exposition on it! It’s delicious!”
He concluded, “we will never see it’s like again -- it’s like Moby Dick, you’ve done it once, you don’t need it again. It’s like Chinese literature … certainly in terms of the quality of the commentary on it -- it enriches and becomes part of it.”
Rouse enjoyed the explorable text aspect of it: “I certainly didn’t finish it but I liked how it’s really quite funny, even with some really serious subject matter,” while Laidlaw felt it “joins the racks of great works of literature, like the Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina that I will never finish.”
On Thief: Deadly Shadows:
Marc Laidlaw’s pick, he argued that one could not “overstate the importance of the writing in this game.”
“The thing that they did the best was an amazing job on the atmosphere,” he said, but “another thing they did especially well at the time was understanding the limitation of the cut scenes [at the time] and used silhouettes with limited animation.”
Rolston again couldn’t agree, but in (at least) a more positive way: “I was sucked into the gameplay: I didn’t pay any attention to the story. I was so immediately transported from a common state of mind for winning: to kill, that I was doing something new by knocking people out and hiding their bodies that I paid no attention.”
Rouse found the title “very hard to return to from a visual stand point. It’s supposed to be grounded in reality but it looks like a quake level.”
On Chronicles of Riddick:
[Chronicles of Riddick:]The Fools Errand, Meresky’s second pick, he felt that even 20 years later, the few hours he spent organising the “sun map” in the end game was “some of the most fun hours of gaming he had ever had,” requiring him to pour over the story of the game to unravel the puzzle.
Rolston’s surprising second pick was The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, a game that by his very own admission used conventions he had “always sneered at,”: opening with a flashback, playable dream sequences, but felt that it deserved study as a title with a true “performer” in the form of Vin Diesel’s Riddick.
Meretsky couldn’t have had a more different experience: “I didn’t want to spend time with him and I certainly didn’t want to be him, he quipped.”
Sunday - February 17, 2008
Gamasutra - Stories from the Sandbox
Whether you love or hate sandbox games, this 5 page article at Gamasutra presents some interesting ideas on how developers can enhance the interaction of players with story. It's called Stories from the Sandbox.
[In this in-depth design article, veteran game designer Sorens examines the 'sandbox game' genre, advocating - with plenty of practical examples - that "designers can and should do more to exploit... player-generated stories".]
The Sandbox Conundrum
What makes the stories in sandbox games special is that unlike the stories found in other types of games, these are not told primarily by the game's developer. Instead, they are created and directed largely by the player's decisions.
The large number of decision points and wide range of possible outcomes in a sandbox game, usually augmented with randomization by various game systems, make the variation in experiences from game to game and from player to player -- one of the key selling points of sandbox games -- both highly personalized and effectively limitless.
Naturally, the developer must provide some amount of structure, as well as the tools the player uses to shape the story. There must be boundaries, goals, and games system that provide decision points. However, the degree to which the player personalizes the course of the game -- and therefore, the story -- is, by the nature of a sandbox game, immense...
On some design ideas:
...Use goals to provide dramatic structure
Of particular value in the discussion of story formation is the application of goals to the formation of dramatic structure. If designed with this structure in mind, goals can form the pillars of a sandbox game's dynamically generated stories: incitement, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
I will use the game Slaves to Armok II: Dwarf Fortress to illustrate how a game objective can provide or highlight the skeleton for a story and allow the gameplay to flesh it out. When the player is preparing to launch an expedition to build a new fortress, the game could give the player the stated objective: "Survive the first winter."
The dwarven expedition arrives at the fortress site with nothing but the provisions, equipment, and tools in their cart. How the player accumulates the food necessary to survive the winter can be accomplished through many different means... Along the way, many setbacks can occur...
These game events can provide the rising action and even the climax for the story of the fortress' first year. The climax could be a goblin invasion that kills off the only skilled fisher-dwarves in the fortress, leaving it too short-handed to accumulate the necessary food before the river freezes over. It could be the completion of a complex irrigation system that allows the dwarves to sow a large farm and reap a bountiful harvest before winter sets in. It could even be something as odd as a dwarf going mad and slaughtering his compatriots.
The falling action and denouement would finish the story of the first year at the fortress...
"Collect (or kill) 100 foozles," with no apparent purpose or connection to anything else in the game, does not lend itself particularly well to a story. However, "Collect 100 Philistine foreskins in order to marry the King's daughter" could be more intriguing...
...Give characters human qualities
It is easier to see the game's events as a story when the player has emotional ties to those events. There are many methods of increasing this feeling of attachment...
Robotic and soulless characters disconnect us emotionally from the game and cause us to focus on abstract constructs instead. For example, an encounter with a typical MMO enemy, the epitome of soulless and robotic video game characters, does not even register on the emotional scale, and our thoughts during this encounter focus solely on the gameplay-related characteristics of this enemy -- hit point and experience levels, ability timers, etc. -- instead of caring what part this character plays in a story.
I've snipped just a few parts of this article, so head over to the link above for the complete story.
Sunday - February 10, 2008
Gamasutra - DICE Keynote: EA CEO on The Future of Publishing
John Riccitiello, CEO for publisher Electronic Arts, discussed in his keynote address at the DICE Summit the past mistakes EA has made in the publishing realm, what he sees as a dark future for smaller independent studios and what he hopes for the future of the industry and his company:
"The first thing I want to talk about is the rising cost of development," he said. "It's putting pressure on everyone... It's also leading to industry consolidation. It's leading to developers being bought by publishers and publishers disappearing. It's leading to creative failure. The organizations are not coming together in a good way, and we're getting less creative, less innovative products."...
Riccitiello said he didn't believe it was possible to start up a new studio in your garage anymore, and said "the proliferation of platforms is a problem" -- from PlayStation, Nintendo 64 and PC ten years ago, to 12 now, and mobile platforms.
On EA's past mistakes:
Pulling up a slide with developers Bullfrog, Origin and Westwood listed, Riccitiello admitted "we've had our share of failures with acquisitions."
"These were great studios that created great products and yet these places no longer exist today," he said. "Something broke, it didn't happen as we or they dreamed it. I would state simply that we at EA blew it, and I was involved so I can say I blew it."
"What got us to failure was the fundamental belief at EA that we could be one big happy family, that one culture and management approach fits all," he admitted.
"We had a top down approach to creative development," he explained. "Creative decisions escalated to the top of the company... When I talk to creative leaders who populated these companies at the time they felt like they were buried under bureaucracy and couldn't get heard."
On their current approach:
Riccitiello wrote a white paper about creative success while at Elevation, saying he was "inspired by my conversations with the owners of BioWare and Pandemic."
At EA, he said, there is a "simple concept of a city-state" with its studios -- "they're creatively responsible, they're financially responsible, and if they're taking anyone over it's them taking over us."
"It's a different model than in our company a decade ago," he admitted. "These citystates are more about who they are individually than they are part of EA... The heart and soul of what our company is with the developers who create the products because without that we are absolutely nothing."
Saturday - February 09, 2008
Gamasutra - DICE on Developing Narrative
A panel at the DICE Summit featuring BioWare's Ray Muzyka and 2K's Ken Levine on developing narrative has been covered at Gamasutra. I don't think any new territory was really explored but it might still be worth a read:
Muzyka says that many of the modern gaming narratives lead players, but still allow them the freedom to diverge from the story. "It flows, but it's still directed. Two of my favorite games this year, BioShock and Call of Duty 4 are a more directed experience... a tight, polished experience in a narrative flow."
These kinds of storylines are expressed through observations, gameplay and actions, subtle factors that can shape the narrative. "In BioShock, the narrative is expressed in an observant way that you might miss it... but it's a watercooler talk thing, you can discuss it."
Muzyka also speculated that increasing realism and the use of actors and lifelike digital models make story more about fulfilling emotion.
Gamasutra - Richard Garriot Interview
Gamasutra has a Q & A up with the creator of the Ultimas, Richard Garriot, discussing his views on games as art, consoles, mobile game platforms and his lack of time spent actually gaming:
Many people in the industry feel strongly, like you do, that games are art - but does it really matter in the grand scheme of things?
RG: Well, no. If you think about the purpose of most people in this business, I think most of them are ... here to make money. They're here to find something that becomes popular, and therefore sells well.
However, I think if you look at the measure of what it takes to become popular...I think it takes a combination of things. For example, addictive game mechanics. The kind of "pull the lever on the slot machine and occasionally get a return," which I would not call art, as much as a science.
But another thing that can create popularity in a game is to be attractive -- which could just be nice aesthetics. But another one would be to be compelling. I think what makes this compelling at a more human level is when you can touch people at an emotional or psychological level -- which I would consider art.
On mobile gaming platforms:
You've been able to side-step the console issue, for at least the past ten years.
RG: I have. But what's fun is... even when I was doing work back on the Apple II, there were already the Atari 8-bits, and the Nintendo cartridge machines and things, too. Even back in those days, people were talking about "the death of the PC," and "the rise of the console." And today, people are still talking about the death of the PC and the rise of the console.
But I must say, though, that the line between the two continues to blur, especially now that a lot of consoles are online and now a lot of consoles have pretty sophisticated input devices.
What about mobile games? Do you ever play with cell phone games?
RG: Absolutely. In fact, that's actually the area that, other than PC games, I'm actually most enthusiastic about. The problem is that I'm also a skeptic.
I wish that it would come true, I want it to come true. My favorite Ultima, other than a PC Ultima, was the Runes of Virtue we did for the Game Boy, which was only a shadow of a full-blown Ultima, but was a really good game -- and on a Pocket PC, I [have] it [here] in my bag. I carry a Pocket PC, I've owned pretty much every Pocket PC, looking for the optimal, the ergonomics for me personally, as well as pondering gaming on these devices.
On his own gaming:
... RG: As a gamer, I'm actually surprisingly ignorant of what's going on... many of the popular products I've of course heard of, a few of them maybe even purchased the box, like I have a BioShock box on my desk, that I've never installed for about three months now.
Does that concern you? And this is the story for developers across the board -- they never actually have time to play games, they only have time to make them?
RG: Not really...
When I do play games -- with the exception of the ones I already mentioned like Myst, and Abe's Oddysee, and American McGee's Alice, which I played because I really enjoyed them, and I played them to completion -- most of the time when I play a game, I play it for like two hours.
And I play it to really get the gist of "what is their big advancement," UI theorem, what's their render pipeline operating like, what is their mission cycle organized like. And so I'm studying it. As soon as I think I've got the gist of it, I'm done, I move on.
Monday - February 04, 2008
Gamasutra - History of Gaming Platforms: The Apple II
Gamasutra brings us the next chapter in their ongoing history of gaming platforms, this time taking a detailed look, complete with some classic old games' screens, at the development and use of the Apple II:
The Apple II is one of the most successful, influential and long-lived home computers of all time. Perhaps more than any other machine, it moved the home computer from the worktable of the hobbyist to the living room of the typical American family. The Apple series debuted in 1977 and became a definitive home computer after the introduction of the Disk II drive in 1978. The "Platinum" IIe, the last of the Apple II line, was in production until November 1993. For countless enthusiasts and professionals thriving in the industry today, the adventure began with their first bite of Apple...
... Since the Apple II was a prime platform for over a decade, it's hardly surprising that thousands of games were produced for it. Although a haven for strategy, role-playing, and adventure software, the Apple II's massive game library was hardly limited to these categories. Genre-defining releases came from a full range of famous developers and publishers, including Broderbund, Electronic Arts, Infocom, Interplay, Origin, and SSI.
Mystery House (1980) by On-line Systems (later, Sierra) was the first commercial text adventure with graphics. The company's later Time Zone (1982) was one of the first true epic games, spanning six double-sided disks and featuring 1500 screens to explore. Although Richard Garriott released his Akalabeth: World of Doom (1980) first, his second role-playing game, Ultima (1981), set the stage for one of the most storied franchises in gaming.
Sir-Tech's Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981) set the standard for the role-playing dungeon crawl and still spawns sequels. Castle Wolfenstein (Muse, 1981) was an exciting strategy arcade adventure that featured crude, but effective speech. Broderbund's Choplifter (1982) arcade game featured a unique two-axis control scheme for independent control of the helicopter's direction and vertical movement.
Wednesday - January 23, 2008
Gamasutra - 20 Mysterious Games
Gamasutra contributor John Harris has written several "20 ..." essays for them and this one from last week is a compilation of "mysterious" games - games with hidden elements or where the player solves mysteries. It's not an article on RPGs but several roguelikes are prominent, including Nethack, Dungeon Hack, ADOM and Diablo:
The incentive for playing the Diablo games primarily comes from finding random loot. The games' dungeons are a bit less interesting than loot-hunting because of the lack of consequences for the act of exploration. There are no traps on the floor, there's no food, and there's no randomly-appearing monsters. For a single-player game this is less interesting, but for multiplayer it works better. Perhaps this is why Diablo's system is basically the template upon which most MMORPGs use.
Monday - January 21, 2008
Gamasutra - An Uncertain Future for the Core Gamer
Gamasutra's latest opinion piece, An Uncertain Future for the Core Gamer? talks about demographics, market expansion, microtransactions and the effect it will have on the hardcore gamer:
You see, I keep saying that the rising landscape has a lot more lower-budget, asynchronous, low time investment, web-based games. And the response is usually:
“But the landscape you are describing doesn’t sound like games I would like.”
And that is absolutely right. I don’t know what happens to the core gamer in that scenario....
The author examines some business models using microtansactions and talks about the future of niches:
The thing about niches is that businesses try to monetize them more. Basic math: if you are making a title for a passionate minority who loves their hobby, you charge them more to cover the costs of operating in a smaller market. And, well, because you can...
...But if the offerings from the businesses shift direction overall, then what? Like, there’s not much on Facebook for the core gamer. If stuff like Facebook becomes the dominant model, then what does the core gamer do? Under circumstances like that, you’d expect prices to rise for core games.
In some ways, that’s exactly what is happening, using microtransactions and premiums as the way to do it. Is the fancy metal tin on a collector’s edition actually worth an extra $30? Not to most people — it’s for the niche. The same goes for selling you dashboard themes and gamer pictures on XBLA. You’re paying real money for an icon or a desktop background — and nobody else can even see the latter...
And about the ultimate direection where all this will lead:
Core gamers are almost certainly going to have to adapt to a world in which a lot of developer attention is going towards a much broader array of titles than in the past...
...And the growth here will, to some extent, distract developers from making stuff aimed at the core gamers.
Who will also have to get used to being dinged repeatedly for their love of their hobby, buying ever nicer editions of stuff they already have...
Overall, I think this is a good thing for the core gamer, not a bad thing. But it’s definitely an adjustment.
The flip side that is equally interesting, of course, is that the mainstream will get tugged in the direction of the niche. As the world has become more science-fictional, we have seen the memes of SF appear in everyday life. Stuff from James Bond and Lord of the Rings is now common currency. The boundary lines between niche and mass market are very thin these days, and will likely get thinner. So even the casual stuff is going to have a heavy tinge of the stuff that we the geeks love.
Given the nature of games, I’d expect to see a continuation of the trend to complexify the casual, because that’s what games do: grow more complex as people master the basics. The high-end casual market isn’t very casual anymore (some match-3 games are not only expensive to make, but downright esoteric in their rules)....
... What will the gamers do? Complain, then play on, probably.
Monday - January 14, 2008
Gamasutra - The State of Character Arcs
Gamasutra has put up an opinion piece examining "emergent player character arcs" in depth in such games as Mass Effect, Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Here's the intro:
In this in-depth opinion piece, EALA's Borut Pfeifer takes a look at the state of 'emergent player character arcs', referencing titles from Mass Effect to BioShock in order to analyze how immersion increases when in-game events dynamically affect your character's personality and story arc.
The article goes on to define character arc, slip in a refrence to personality type, and gives some examples:
One topic of interest of late is emergent player character arcs. Most games allow very little expression of the player character's personality. Player-character being the opportune word here - the combination of the existing, predefined main character's personality, as it is interpreted or acted upon by the player.
Meanwhile - a character goes through an arc if they've grown in some capacity, changed, or learned something due to the events that have taken place.
Thankfully, yet sadly (in that it took so long to get to this point), it has become more common for game characters to go through an arc as part of a game's scripted storyline. Kratos, moreso in God of War 1 than God of War 2, is a good example - in the first game, he deals with how he killed his own family.
The Rarity Of Player Agency
It is still somewhat rare for games to allow the player to express their own personality through actions in a game. Even more rare that these actions have some impact on the game itself (going from player expression to player agency).
Games like Deus Ex or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. provide many options for a player to solve the problems in front of them but these options are difficult to describe as expressing ”personality” (unless being sneaky and blowing the shit out of things really are personality classes… INTP and ESFJ, maybe?).
Rarer still are games that explore the interaction between the player and the role they have taken on. This is partly due to two forms of long standing industry bullsh*t: one, the kowtowing to existing, scripted media that completely define the extents of a character's personality, and two, the completely reactionary response - that game characters should be blanks to increase player immersion, by allowing them to completely imprint their own personalities on the character.
More specifically--spoilers omitted:
Mass Effect & The Player Arc
Mass Effect (pictured) explores player character arcs in a few interesting ways. At the beginning of the game, you choose two backstory elements (from two groups of three - your background: Colonist, Earthborn, or Spacer, and your psychological profile: Ruthless, Sole Survivor, or War Hero).
There are specific missions for some of the types, but character dialog (both your options and what NPCs say to you) is affected by all. As a Sole Survivor, I came across one more survivor of the same attack....Dealing with him and the scientists brought a new perspective on my character's past.
By adding a layer of hidden information between player dialog choices and actual dialog & action, Mass Effect also reinforces an element of role playing that can lead to such arcs. Often it has no consequences, but occasionally there are very large ones. A friend of mine and I had drastically different playthroughs because of how we dealt with [a particular] scene...
However the exploration BioWare does into the player-character is still limited - with accordance to their style, it's very choose-your-own-adventure-y, having clearly defined branch points. So how would you create a player character arc, where the player, in the role of this character, learns something from the events they experience, which emerges from a more complex set of ongoing interactions?
The article continues with examinations of Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and concludes:
The only way for us to really know the player has learned anything is if they've changed their actions. So you start with a continued action or set of actions by the player, and over time you can change either its direct effects, or the value of those effects by changing the context they can be used in...
...Direct effects don't just have to be mechanical, they can relate to the story in terms of how characters interact with you, or even be purely presentation/visual in nature. Changing the context doesn't change the what effects the actions have, but makes the exact same effects more or less useful by changing the situation.
One of the problems with the larger arcs is that players want to see all the variants - they don't feel ownership of those arcs. Lacking that feeling means the arc doesn't provide any meaningful closure for them...
...In order for larger arcs to be meaningful, you'd have to combat the player's need for completion by giving them more satisfaction and a feeling of ownership over their own playthrough/arc(s).
Friday - December 28, 2007
Gamasutra - Is the Industry Ready for Its "Game Noir"?
It's a bit quiet out there so we're roaming further from home. Gamasutra has a piece that asks if it is time to break away from the industry's hit reliance and establish a "B" game movement, like Film Noir:
You have to bring millions of dollars to the table just to qualify, which leads to extreme risk aversion by publishers and developers, and a tendency over time to lose players who are tired of the same old thing dressed up in more and more expensive clothes. When your game is backed by tens of millions of dollars, you can't use it as a testing ground for wild new mechanics and dynamics never tried before; however, when you're building a low-budget 2D platformer, even your successful experiments won't make an impact on the medium at large, the "big games" that get everyone talking.
What we've got left is a huge gulf between popular, full-experience 3D action/adventure games that need to be financial blockbusters to survive, and marginalized casual/handheld/movie licensed games that don't register on the mass consciousness radar.
We need our B films. We need that freedom to explore truly meaningful new avenues of interaction, quickly and nimbly, without the pressure of an eight-figure budget and multi-year dev schedule weighing down on the whole enterprise. Noir already scouted this territory for us.
Tuesday - December 18, 2007
Gamasutra - Top 5 Developers of 2007
BioWare and 2K Boston/Australia (Irrational) get knods in Gamasutra's Top 5 Developers of 2007:
While it may verge on the over-complex in some gameplay mechanics, BioWare's masterful Mass Effect feels like a genuine space opera. It has whirling emotions and a genuine story arc - so genuine, in fact, that you start to realize how basic the story in many other games is.
In addition, the character customization using Unreal Engine 3 made players even more acutely aware of their immersion in the action. And with fruits from Dragon Age to the 'mysterious' MMO still due under new taskmaster Electronic Arts, one can't help but think that the golden age of BioWare's story-driven epics has only just begun.
Sunday - December 09, 2007
Gamasutra - Why I Had Sex With The Alien
A little weekend wildness over at Gamasutra, where they've posted an article about Bioware's implementation of alien lesbian sex in Mass Effect:
Count me in the camp of people who was disappointed by Mass Effect. I expected to be lured into a rich, alien world, and seduced by the exotic races and intricate politics that BioWare had crammed into the story.
But what I got was less a classic like Knights of the Old Republic and more like - well, you know when you start a cheap paperback and you just can’t put the damn thing down, and the writing’s sloppy and there are typos and the cover’s cheesy, but you just have to get to the end? And the end still doesn’t knock you out? I could go on about how the incredible hype and AAA-prestige that latches onto titles like this blinds critics and fans to the not-quite-awesome product that finally hits the stores.
But let’s not talk about that. Instead, let’s talk about that girl-girl alien sex scene.
Didn't that soft-core sex scene in the clip – come on, you've seen it - take you back to late-night Cinemax? Did Emmanuelle ever make it into outer space? But that said, how much does it suck that they leaked this early? The gay relationships in Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and that D & D game that nobody played, Temple of Elemental Gay Marriage, were all snookered in under the scenes. I beat KOTOR and didn’t even know that Juhani, one of the female characters, swung that way. (I was too busy trying to mack on Batista.)...
... Anyway, when I got my copy of Mass Effect, I rolled a female character. Hey, stop looking at me like that! Given a choice, I always play women, and the female Commander Shepard is voiced by the inimitable Jennifer Hale. If you don’t play as a woman, and specifically as a kick-ass renegade woman, you’re missing some of the most entertaining dialogue of the year...
...Let me also add that the NPCs in this game are a major step back for BioWare. They never talk with you in the field, aside from a couple generic lines about how “This building is very cold” or “This planet is very hot.” The extended get-to-know-you conversations I’m used to never happen. And as for flirting? Back in the day, when an NPC had a thing for you, they were subtle about it. A hint here, a jealous comment there, a few tests to make sure you would do nothing but agree with their every suggestion – and whammo, the screen went black and you got lucky.
But Mass Effect doesn’t have time for that. Your romance options basically hand themselves up on a platter: the first time you get to talking with them, they start dribbling about how impressive and intriguing you are and, hey, space is lonely and sometimes it’s fun to share a bunk. In fact, they don’t even say anything that romantic. They basically just say, “Keep talking to me and someday we’ll have that sex scene you saw on YouTube.”
Friday - November 30, 2007
Gamasutra - Finding Agility in the Random
Gamasutra has an article up based on a discussion from the 2007 Montreal Games Summit with Flagship Studios(Hellgate:London) director of technology Tyler Thompson, dealing with how to physically provide randomization in games:
Over 10 years ago, Thompson worked with Blizzard North on random level generation, skills, combat, pathing and monster AI in Diablo, and was the project lead for Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction. Using Flagship's Hellgate: London as a case-in-point, Thompson's talk covered the design and programming challenges of using random levels, items, and monsters.
"All RPGs are a little random," Thompson began, explaining, "You can’t imagine a bunch of guys getting together to play D&D without using dice." As almost every RPG uses some basics, such as random damage ranges on items/spells/skills, or random selection of item drops, it's worth asking -- why do players like it?
"First, it kind of fits into a gambling mentality," said Thompson. "Random combat is similar to craps or roulette, where you take your chance and see what happens. Randomness can create excitement -- a weak character could randomly manage to beat a much stronger character, and vice versa."
The downside? Said Thompson, "Too much randomness can be frustrating - if even the lowliest zombie could kill a level 50 character with a critical hit, that’s not fun."...
...Asked Thompson, "If there are all these reasons why randomness is good, why don’t we see it everywhere?" For one thing, he continued, randomness removes an element of control from the designers.
"You’re not scripting the whole level – the whole experience," he explained. "It requires a different strategy for game development, and therefore people think that it is too hard – but it certainly isn’t easy."
Thompson's next topic -- pulled from a hat -- was game grammar. Meaning what? "A set of symbols that are governed by a set of rules," explained Thompson. "And you can apply those rules, one at a time, in any order, for any number of iterations."
He described how developers can use a “grammar” to make a level. Starting with a template – for example, an entrance room, a hallway, and an end room, the next step is to invent some rules. For example, one could extend the hallway, or replace the end room with a treasure room, or change the hallway into a crossroads. Simply applying the rules one at a time, in any order, for any number of iterations, creates a level.
Moreover, continued Thompson, "There are a couple of things you can do to make the algorithm and the method better." One way is to use sets of rules to perform different tasks: One set creates the ‘flow,' one set adds required rooms, and another set replaces generic rooms with specific rooms.
Advised Thompson, "Make it all data-driven so that artists can create templates, rules and replacements. This is how we did it in Hellgate.”
About random monsters:
"The monsters we use in Hellgate and Diablo are random in a lot of ways. They’re random in placement, selection, and in their properties.”
As to monster placement, Thompson said, "It’s a challenging thing to you [as a developer], as you’re saying you’re not going to place your monsters in cupboards or do other interesting things with them – you’re saying that you trust randomness to create enough interesting situations for the players, which we think they do."
He continued, "If you know where they can stand, you know where they can spawn, but don’t simply sprinkle them. Have settings for density, clustering of similar monsters, and a maximum number.Allow specific monsters to be placed when necessary, because designers will want some of that control.”
When it comes to selecting monsters, Thompson advised, “Create some meaning between groups of monsters and the levels that they go in." As an example, he continued, "We put the imps and the imp shaman in the same level as the zombies, as the imp shaman works as a good boss, the imps work as a good middle-level enemy and the zombie a good low-level enemy. You should have the flexibility to decide which levels monsters appear in."
Monday - November 26, 2007
Gamasutra - The Designer's Notebook: Ten Years of Great Games
Gamasutra has a feature article up covering the last ten years in games from a designer's perspective. The article is cross-platform and genre, so it isn't primarily focused on RPGs in the strict sense of the term, but it reprises quite a few of the milestones of games year by year from various genres and in doing so touches on a some of the contributions of the RPG.
From the intro:
This is necessarily a personal view, and I don't expect everyone to agree with me. I'm especially interested in games that I feel showed great imagination, contained important innovations, or left a lasting legacy.
They won't necessarily be the biggest sellers or the ones with the highest critical acclaim, however...I've deliberately avoided discussing sequels, for the most part -- sequels are frequently better games than their predecessor, but mostly because their gameplay has been refined than because their designs have changed dramatically.
I've skipped around and grabbed a few snips of general interest (my bold):
1998 was a huge year. We had StarCraft, Baldur's Gate, and Unreal, among many other excellent games. StarCraft raised the bar so high for RTS games that even now, almost ten years later, it's still the preferred RTS for pro competitions. However, I think each of those three were most notable for their high polish and excellent balance, rather than their design innovations....
The most important thing that happened in 1998 was the inauguration of the Independent Games Festival...The IGF took indie game development out of the bedroom, made it respectable, and gave it media coverage. Indie games are now our most important source of innovation (Narbacular Drop, Darwinia, etc.) and my primary reason for optimism about the future of video games....
...1999 also saw the arrival of EverQuest. EQ was in its day what World of Warcraft is today: the dominant MMORPG bar none. It beat the well-established Ultima Online and saw off Asheron's Call as a competitor...
Like Grim Fandango, Planescape: Torment was a commercial disappointment, and for many of the same reasons: its world was unfamiliar to most players and demanded attention and commitment. The game's art, story, characters, challenges, and even language (based on 19th-century British working-class slang) are all unlike anything seen before in the role-playing genre, or any other genre, for that matter. Planescape now has a cult following, and I consider it one of the greatest games of all time. Among other innovations it managed to create a reasonable in-game explanation for why your avatar is resurrected every time he dies.
Ion Storm published two legendary games in 2000, one legendary for the amount of hype that preceded it and disappointment that followed it (John Romero's Daikatana), and the other for the richness of its story and characterization and its imaginative gameplay, Deus Ex. I'll pass over Daikatana without further comment, but Deus Ex combined shooter, sneaker, RPG, and even a bit of puzzle-solving adventure game into a single unique title. Deus Ex gets my nod for important innovations...
...We got some significant games in 2003, perhaps most notably Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Call of Duty, and WarioWare. KOTOR put all of Bioware's famed skill at RPGs at the service of the Star Wars universe, with highly-lauded results. Since it was based on the d20 system and an existing franchise, I don't feel it broke ground creatively, but was an excellent title all the same...
2004 gave us World of Warcraft, City of Heroes, Katamari Damacy, The Chronicles of Riddick as well as numerous successful sequels... The Chronicles of Riddick broke ground by actually being better than the movie that it's based on. Games based on movies are not reliably good and many are distinctly poor, so this was an improvement of sorts.
...Dungeons & Dragons finally got its own online game in 2006, which really should have happened ten years earlier. It was highly anticipated and of course the brand recognition is excellent, but WoW remains unconquerable. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion came out and corrected many of the errors of its predecessor Morrowind; it was a massive success for a single-player RPG and advanced the open world concept so ably pioneered by the Grand Theft Auto series...
That brings us up to 2007, and of course it's not over yet. One key event this year was the non-existence of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. E3 had been a glorious extravaganza of self-congratulation, but by 2006 it was collapsing under its own weight. The noise, flashing lights, smoke machines, and booth babes turned it into a seizure-inducing monument to tastelessness.... The most important game of 2007 thus far, and I predict overall as well, is BioShock. The game possesses that rare quality of being multilayered, and rewards replay and close attention...
Monday - November 19, 2007
Gamasutra - Series Loyalty and Straying from the Path
An interesting piece at Gamasutra last Friday that RPG Codex picked up titled Series Loyalty and Straying from the Path touches on "the common stand that brings a series together" and fan expectations. It's rather console directed but does raise some interesting questions:
Nintendo’s Metroid series changed more considerably when it finally made its way into the foray of 3D on the Gamecube. While past Metroid games had been 2D action platformers using the same viewpoint as its contemporaries, the new Metroid, dubbed Prime by developers Retro Studios, was presented from a first person view, akin to shooters like Quake and Halo.
When the game was first revealed, many long time Metroid fans demanded and explanation for such a drastic shift in the gameplay. Some even declared that Metroid proper was dead, and this new series was nothing more than a shadow of what 3D Metroid could have been.
Retro and Nintendo fired back with a simple explanation: both companies felt that Metroid was not defined by its viewpoint or its graphics. Such changes were only cursory and did not take away from what really made Metroid: a sense of exploration, and isolation. Thematically, the argument was air tight. The series still featured heroine Samus Aran as well as her long time enemies the Space Pirates, and of course the alien metroids. Many still condemned the series, and some outright ignore its current iterations.
Source: RPG Codex
Monday - November 12, 2007
Gamasutra - 10 Ideas on The Future of Games
Gamasutra has posted this newsbit from the 2007 International Game Developers Association Leadership Forum, giving ten ideas from Don Daglow, president and CEO of Stormfront Studios(Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Neverwinter Nights) on the future of games. Some of these are very personal observations, but the following caught my eye:
Idea 4: Who Controls the Future?
Daglow stated that developers, publishers, the press, and the retailers do not control the future. "The publisher-developer blame game misses the point," he said. "Neither of us are in charge. Since we're polite, we don't blame each other. We blame retailers and the press -- unless they're around -- and it's not their fault, either. Game players control the future. They decide what's fun. And when you accept who controls the future, it liberates you to focus on creativity and fun."
Idea 9: Conglomerates, Conformists, and Consent
How do we find fulfillment if we're in charge of one leaf on the corporate team? Daglow states that creative fulfillment is possible even though big publishers will remain big.
"We are in each in charge of how we feel," he said. "We're in charge of our own dreams... No one controls your creative dreams or your creative commitment except you."
He continued: "There are some things about this company I like and some things I don't like. Should I stay? That's a moment of control. A project is ending. Should I stay here or should I move on? That's a moment of control."
"Even the big guys getting bigger cannot dehumanize your personal commitment to creativity," he concluded.
Thursday - November 01, 2007
Gamasutra - EA CEO Talks Game Pricing,Creativity
Gamasutra has a short article up examining excerpts from a talk Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello gave at Berkeley, CA's Haas School of Business:
As reported by Fortune's Tech Daily blog, Riccitiello -- who returned to EA this February after a stint at Elevation Partners -- spoke on the company's current shift in thinking as it moves towards a more rounded portfolio of games. This strategy is typified by the recent purchase of BioWare and Pandemic Studios by the company.
One contentious point raised by Riccitiello is the need to embrace change -- with the example of the currently common $59.99 price point for next generation games cited as a place where something will have to give.
He compared the stance of the current game industry as comparable to the historic reticence of the big three TV networks to evolve as a counterpoint to EA's recent moves in the industry. “They were extremely arrogant,” Riccitiello said, according to Fortune. “They viewed the rise of cable as being insignificant."
Wednesday - October 24, 2007
Gamasutra - History of Gaming Platforms: The Commodore 64
Gamasutra has begun a monthly series on the history of gaming platforms, kicking it off with an article on the legendary Commodore 64:
The Commodore 64 (C64) is perhaps the best known 8-bit computing platform ever designed, rivaled only by the Apple II in terms of popularity and longevity. Within a few short years after its introduction in 1982, the Commodore 64 dominated the low-end computer market, receiving a steady stream of software and peripheral support that lasted through the decade. In 1985, Commodore followed up with the lesser known Commodore 128 (C128), a technically superior machine that failed to win over the massive base of C64 fans and developers...
... The C64’s unprecedented success demonstrated, once and for all, that there was a strong and viable market for inexpensive personal computers that could run the latest videogames. Today, tens of thousands of avid C64 fans publish websites, populate online forums, run C64 games in emulators, and develop new homebrew software and other products for the system. There are even bands who specialize in arranging old Commodore favorites for the pub and bar crowds. For countless fans of the system, the "Commie" is still the best personal computer ever to grace the living room.
Tuesday - October 09, 2007
Gamasutra - 2008 Indie Games Festival Entries
Gamasutra posts some information about the 2008 Independent Games Festival, along with a link to the main site which gives a list of all 173 games entered. We've covered a few of these here at the Watch, including Depths of Peril, and there are quite a few other interesting entries as well.
The record entry numbers have seen a host of notable independent PC, web-based and even downloadable console games entering the contest - for which almost $50,000 prizes will be given out at GDC 2008 next February.
Tuesday - September 25, 2007
Gamasutra - Violence in Video Games
Gamasutra has an article up titled Violence in Video Games:The Producers View featuring a talk with Sony producer Harvard Bonin, Bizarre Creations' Peter O’Brien, Stainless Games' Ben Gunstone, and Gas Powered Games' Frank Rogan. The discussion concerns the approriateness of legislation and the market perception of mature games and gaming in general:
Is it right for government to ban games? What about freedom of expression? If governments can ban games, shouldn’t they also ban some movies? Are 'Adults Only' ratings enough? Shouldn’t parents watch what their kids play? Who should take responsibility in this matter? When asked these questions, O'Brien replied, "I’m no expert on the subject, but violence is possibly one of the most common themes in modern entertainment."
Nonetheless, he opined: "Only at the moment self-regulatory bodies such as BBFC, ESRB, ELSPA fail to act on the content they review should the governments of the world act. I don’t believe there have been enough serious regulatory malpractices for the government to step in and create an act which unjustly targets our industry."
"Essentially, we’re living with a system created as a response to a threat, that has morphed into a situation where uptight buyers are afraid of an uptight audience."
He elaborated: "The threat was, if Hollywood didn’t start rating itself, Congress would. And nobody wanted that. To Valenti and the MPAA, the threat that Congress or state/local governments might feel obliged to step in and attempt to regulate movies was the sword of Damocles perpetually hanging over everyone’s head."
Likening the ESRB to the MPAA and noting that the games industry is under the same pressure as the film industry, Rogan concluded, "In other words, no one’s stopping you from making the game you want to make. But the customers — the retailers — aren’t always buying what you’re selling. This isn’t censorship. This is merely a commonly accepted business practice."
Thursday - September 13, 2007
Gamasutra - AGDC on Game Writing
Gamasutra has a partial transcript of a speech given by Chris Bateman (Kult: Heretic Kingdoms) at the Austin Game Developers Conference on writing in games. It isn't RPG-centric but this bit caught my eye:
"A linear spine is a very efficient way to make games. It's cost-effective" and, he suggested, much easier to write for. "If you're completely insane, you can approach a branching structure. If you hate your company why don't you suggest a game with a branching structure? Most players are going to play through the game once or twice. It's too much work for what it is." The need for a player to make arbitrary decisions is "just nonsense. It's not entertaining," Bateman claimed.
"A game like Deus Ex," has parallel paths, Bateman put forth, "where the events combine and return to a central path. But it also has side routes. You can draw equal or different attention to the different routes. You've got this option here to point the player in a direction but have little intriguing things off to the side -- which gives the player more of a sense of agency. Again, it's slightly illusory because you're going to combine them back at the end. This is a reasonable compromise."
Tuesday - September 04, 2007
Gamasutra - The Designer's Notebook; No Twinkie Game Design
Gamasutra has an article up by Ernest Stuart concerning some of the more widely seen flaws in game design, or as he says "...a list of things not to do." Here are a couple of examples:
FAILURE TO PROVIDE CLEAR SHORT-TERM GOALS
The first time my wife sat down to the play the original text adventure, Colossal Cave, she saw the opening words:
You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.Then it just sat there, waiting. "What am I supposed to do?" she asked the guy who was showing her the game. "Anything you want!" he said proudly (this was 1979, and games with parsers were brand new). But she didn't know what she wanted to do. The game didn't give her any incentive to do anything in particular, and we've lived with the same...Condition for nearly 30 years -- it still happens, believe it or not.
AMNESIA AT THE GAME'S BEGINNING
Moving on from game balancing to storytelling, Andrew Stuart writes about games that begin:
"You wake up in a strange place. You don't know who you are or how you got here. You have amnesia and your objective is to find out who you are and what you are doing here." It's hard to believe but it seems every second game has me waking up with amnesia. It's okay after a night out on the booze, but in every second computer game? Enough!
The author also has a more comprehensive database of design mistakes unworthy of a twinkie reward on his own website, including:
- Conceptual Non-Sequitars:Birds that Carry Swords
- Bad Gameplay Design: Extreme Rule Changes when Fighting Boss Monsters, Puzzles Requiring Obscure Knowledge from Outside the Game
- Bad Level Design: You Have 30 Seconds to Figure Out This Level Before You Die
And many more.
Sunday - September 02, 2007
Gamasutra - Video Games Not A Factor in VA Tech Tragedy
Gamasutra provides more evidence against the well-worn argument that video games induce violent behaviour in this article discussing the final report of the Virginia governor's investigatory panel on the shootings on campus earlier this year:
Moreover, contrary to accusations made at the time of the tragedy by industry critics like Jack Thompson and TV's Dr. Phil, the report states in Chapter IV, which focuses on Cho's mental health history, that while he enjoyed some video games -- Sonic the Hedgehog is mentioned -- "Cho's roommate never saw him play video games." The report continues on the roommate's observations..
Thursday - August 30, 2007
Gamasutra - PR and the Game Media
Gamasutra has a long but interesting article up about the relationship between the gaming industry and the media that showcases its products, focussing on how PR shapes the perception and success of games:
It's the natural consequence of an undeniable fact: The games press is almost entirely dependent on access to information, people, and products that only game publishers can provide. You want the latest details on a game that's still a year away from release? What you get, when you get it, and who you get it from are ultimately decisions made by that game's marketers.
Think of it as a giant information spigot. The folks with their hands on the valve—the ones who tell games journalists about upcoming games (or don't), set up interviews with the game's developers (or don't), and eventually send out early review copies of that game (or don't)—are the publicists, or in the insider lingo, PR reps (public relations representatives).
You've probably heard the term thrown around, but what, exactly, does a PR rep do? “I work to educate and inform the media about our new product offerings and services,” says Michael Wolf, the PR manager for Games for Windows (the initiative, not the magazine). “The job of the media, in turn, is to carry their opinions about what I’ve told them to the public. The ultimate goal being to get coverage through online outlets, print publications, broadcast media, podcasts, etc.”
Wolf's diplomatic description of PR represents the ideal relationship between game industry journalists and the products they cover. But more often publicists seek not just to drum up press coverage, but to deliver positive coverage, preferably framed by certain points the game's marketers have deemed important to get across to the public (Spore is about evolution. Crysis is pretty, etc.). In short, they try to influence what the game press tell their readers, and how they say it.
As a simple fact of life, game writers and editors work with publicists on a daily basis, gathering the stories that populate their publications. But does PR really influence coverage? Do publicists really affect what you read in gaming publications across the web and on the newsstands? The very existence of the profession would seem to imply so. The real question is: How and to what extent? To find out, we spoke to several current and former game industry publicists—though many representing top-tier publishers refused (or were not allowed) to be interviewed—about their methods.
Sunday - August 26, 2007
Gamasutra - GC 2007: EA's Jeffrey on Moving Forward in Europe
With all the current focus on the GC in Leipzig, this article discussing developer recruitment in Europe with Mathew Jeffrey, EA'S European Head of Recruitment, touches a lot of bases, including the rise of newer development areas and the trends in where and how games are made:
Jeffery started by clearly stating that, "there is no recruitment crisis in Europe. That's just a myth made up by lazy recruiters and companies who don't offer attractive employment propositions." He continued, "Europe has the finest talent pool in the world, so much so that companies like Pixar, Dreamworks and EA recruit talent from Europe for America. That speaks volumes about our talent pool."...
....Jeffery expressed concern at the UK games development community slipping to 4th in the global list of developers, behind Canada. Jeffery said the debate had been focused too much on skills shortages, recruitment issues and proposing Games Academies for Geeks.
"The UK is losing its attractiveness for games companies to invest in comparison to other countries overseas," he said.
...Jeffery pointed to Montreal, whose tax subsidies allow studios to claim 37.5% of creative salaries after 2 years of business plus 40% tax credit for R&D, and to France, who has introduced tax credits. Lastly, Jeffery indicated Asia as a place to build new cost-effective operations with new talent pools in India, China, Russia and South Korea.
"People are geographically mobile and want to work on the best games. The danger is that we will see talent relocate to where the best games are made, Jeffery warned. "The UK, once known as the workshop of the world, [would transition] into the 'training center' of the world'..."
Thursday - August 23, 2007
Gamasutra - Defining "Next Gen"
Turning away from Bioshock for a change, Stormfront CEO (and legendary developer, including the original online NWN for AOL) Don Daglow has spoken to Gamasutra about defining "next gen" and next gen cycles:
Daglow's seen a lot of "Next Generations", dating back to his role as director of game development for Intellivision during the first generation of video game consoles, and shared his opinions in a panel going in-depth on the ubiquitous phrase, what the definition of a "Next Gen" game should be, and how developers can create more unique kinds of player experiences for future generations.
"NextGen Magazine was founded in about 1995, so the idea of next gen was already being used in the 90s," Daglow noted at the session's opening. Reminiscing on the first generation of consoles in the mid-eighties, Daglow touched on some of the limitations that developers have trotted out over the ages -- first, it was the number of colors, then it was the limited hardware.
Wednesday - May 23, 2007
Gamasutra - Building a Better Player Character
Gamasutra continues some of their excellent work with a new article on story and characters titled The Everyman and the Action Hero: Building a Better Player Character. The author examines why some classic literary devices don't work for player-characters in games and looks at ways of creating protagonists that offer both good gameplay and good stories. Some of the points are contentious and there are too many quotes to pull, so here's a bit on Fallout:
To be fair, as a genre RPG’s push the envelope in terms of letting the player interact with the story. If they fail often, it’s because they tried. All the same, the stranger in a strange land trick is not subtle and it’s already become a bad cliché. True, adventuring in exotic locales is a tried and true aspect of all storytelling, but it loses much of its punch if there is no home to provide contrast, and to fill in the Campbellian cycle.
And yet one of my all-time favorite games is the RPG Fallout, which spins its own version of an unknown hero in unfamiliar territory. There are some key differences, however. First, there is a sense of a safe home, and second, in a sense, you know exactly who you are. Home is an underground bunker, which has been sealed away from the world ever since the nuclear holocaust. But the bunker’s water-purification chip has failed, and somebody will have to venture outside and find a replacement. And that someone is you.
The feeling of wide-eyed naiveté as you step into the hot sunlight of the radioactively transformed surface-world feels natural and earned. The game simply and gracefully has given you an everyman character to play, and a plot with the urgency and drama to make it work. You are a messenger on whom lives depend, and, as you learn more about the looming threats lurking in the wasted world above, a potential savior. (The point belongs to some other article, but the familiar Mad Max setting makes your immersion into the world that much easier.)
Sunday - May 20, 2007
Gamasutra - The Cycle of Life
The second game analysis piece today is from Gamasutra and is titled The Circle of Life: An Analysis of the Game Product Lifecycle. The article contends that specific game (sub) genres have a clear life cycle, with the public becoming enamoured with new genres and then eventually becoming bored with it over time, ultimately leaving the genre a small niche with only a small group of hardcore devotees. Seem familiar? The actual example used is the Adventure genre, although clearly it could be applied to CRPGs -- if you accept the premise:
During the niche stage, the audience begins to fragment. Not surprisingly, people have difficulty maintaining nonessential skills at elite levels for long periods of time. Burnout erodes communities from within and many players lose both their skills and their urge to keep buying new games from the genre. The virtuous circle that produced the homogeneous market of gamers falters. Their addiction fades.
Sunday - May 13, 2007
Gamasutra - The Business of Online Gamers
Gamasutra reports on the roundtable discussion held at this year's OGDC regarding the business of online gamers.
Arguably the highlight of the Online Game Development Conference in Seattle was Friday's panel focusing on new payment models for online games. The blue-ribbon panel covered topics ranging from Microsoft’s points and iTunes to secondary markets and farming, as well as the history of payments in the Asian market.
Thursday - April 12, 2007
Gamasutra - History of RPGs, Part 2, 1994-2004
Matt Barton's History of Computer Role-Playing Games at Gamasutra wraps up with 1994-2004 - 12 pages of what he dubs the Platinum and Modern eras:
To my mind, the games that really represent the best of the genre appeared during the period I've termed the "Platinum Age," which begins in 1996 with the publication of three very important games, Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992), Blizzard's Diablo, and Bethesda's Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall (both 1996). Other high points of the age include Interplay's Fallout (1997), Black Isle’s Planescape: Torment (1999), BioWare's Baldur's Gate (1998) and Baldur's Gate II (2000), Troika's Arcanum (2001) and Sir-Tech's Wizardy 8 (2001).
The single-player, standalone CRPG reached its zenith during this period, and I've begun to doubt if Baldur's Gate II will ever be surpassed. Even in many of these games, though, the presence of online, multi-player options signaled the impending doom of the old CRPG we knew and loved. At the end of the platinum age, the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or the MMORPG, dominated the scene, and, at least to this critic, the future of the CRPG is grimmer than anything ever dreamed up by Lord British.
Source: RPG Codex
Monday - March 26, 2007
Gamasutra - Rethinking the MMO
An interesting piece titled Rethinking the MMO is up at Gamasutra. Written by Neil Sorens from Dancing Robot Studios, the article asks why MMOs don't seem to have evolved:
Clearly, the trends show that the future of enthusiast PC gaming lies with games that can hold a player’s interest over long periods of time; at the very least, these games commute PC gaming’s death sentence for a few years, until game consoles can provide the features, depth, flexibility, and convenience that PCs allow.
The thing is…we all expected these games to evolve. We looked at Everquest and its addictiveness and reasoned that surely someone would improve on this formula, creating a breed of entertainment that the entire spectrum of gamers could enjoy. Instead, we have seen a parade of copycats that fails to appeal to a large portion of the potential market, despite far bigger development budgets than any offline games.
Friday - February 23, 2007
Gamasutra - History of RPGs Part 2, 1985-1993
You may recall several weeks ago we ran a History of RPGs, Part 1 story from a site called Armchair Arcade. Apparently Gamasutra bought the second piece, which is now online, covering The Golden Age: 1985 - 1993. Here's a taste:
By 1985, the CRPG would enter what I have chosen to call "The Golden Age," the period from 1985 to 1993, when the very best CRPG makers were steadily releasing masterpieces in an orgiastic frenzy of creative development. Indeed, the triumphs of this period would not be matched until the "Platinum Age" of the mid-90s, when outstanding developers Bioware, Bethesda, and Blizzard arrived on the scene. However, although Baldur's Gate and Diablo may receive far more attention and interest today than Golden Age classics like The Bard's Tale or The Pool of Radiance, we must forever keep in mind that these earlier games were their direct ancestors. Later developers would only refine, not re-define, the genre. Anyone who truly desires to understand the CRPG must turn her attention to the Golden Age, the era in which towering developers like Interplay, SSI, New World Computing, and FTL released games so superbly designed that they are still actively played by tens of thousands of gamers even today. There are few games that can arouse more passion than venerable Golden Age titles like Wasteland, Dungeon Master, and Quest for Glory. But enough of this build-up; it's time to enter the Golden Age of CRPGs!
Sunday - January 14, 2007
Gamasutra - Anatomy of Development Contract
While completely off-topic, Gamasutra has a fascinating -- though dry -- feature that fully reveals the depths of a game development contract. Call of Duty: The Finest Hour developer Spark recently filed suit against Activision for beach of contract and with the contract filed as an exhibit and unsealed by the court, Gamasutra has posted the entire contract, including all terms and the detailed milestone payment breakdown.
While not exactly entertaining reading (and amounting to 15 pages of complex legalise), this is fascinating material for anyone interested in the business side of game making. Gamasutra has provided a page-by-page analysis from three attorneys to assist in understanding the document.
Among the details are that Activision retained all rights to all material including development tools created in the process, that Spark was responsible for all patches for "a reasonable period of time", the full details of their royalty agreement including the extensive costs excluded and, as mentioned, the milestone payments for the $8.5M development. Head here to read the entire document - bring a stiff drink and plenty of time with you.