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And now it's Indiana's Turn
Hoo boy. Seems every day some government official wants to step in and make it the GOVERNMENT'S job to be parents to kids. This time it's Indiana:
Man. Thank you, Rockstar, for being irresponsible and causing the whole "Hot Coffee" debacle thing which was partly responsible for this mess.
Now every friggin' baby-kissing politician in the country who needs to move their "family values" poll numbers up a few percentage points are taking potshots at the videogames industry, because they know the people who do the voting are generally ignorant of the issues anyway. I don't think they really CARE that these bills are getting CONSTANTLY shot down by judges. I don't think they care one bit about the crappy laws they keep trying to pass --- all they care about is getting a photo op and some sound bites to use when they run for re-election. "Look, right here, that proves that I'm all about protecting your kids from smut, SEE?!?!?!"
Open-Ended Gameplay began with GTA?
A nice little piece on destruction in games: http://www.laweekly.com/ink/06/05/pass-bearman.php
I agree with most of the article. But I did take exception to ONE little segment:
"Since Grand Theft Auto pioneered non-linearity and exploration as a new
standard of game play, one mark of distinction for a well-made game is whether
the world is fun without playing the missions, and in Spider-Man 2, the
opportunity for leisurely vertiginous swinging through the vastness of New York
was achievement enough. "
[The Rampant Coyote takes time to don his "Curmudgeony Old Fart" hat]
Grand Theft Auto pioneered WHAT? Maybe it was pioneering in that it more firmly put it on the mainstream gamer's radar (but that was really only GTA3 --- the first two GTA games weren't NEARLY the cultural landmarks of the third in the series). But pioneering non-linearity and exploration???
Exploration is a focus of nearly every RPG out there. And non-linearity? Well, lessee... there's the great-grandaddy of Space Exploration And Trading Games, Elite, originally released on a British computer that few of us in the U.S. ever even SAW, and had to rely on ports to our then-shiny-and-new Commodore 64s and whatnot. Which has been revisited by EVERY space-combat-and-trading game ever since, including the more recent offerings X: Beyond the Frontier, X2, and X3, and Freelancer, and Wing Commander Privateer I and II, and...
And the old Ultima games gave you a plot to follow (like the GTA games do), but pretty much dumped you in the world and let you do your thing. Oh, and how about the Elder Scrolls series? How's THAT for open-ended, non-linear, exploration-based gameplay? Morrowind maybe came out around the same time as GTA3, but it's the THIRD in a series that dates back to the early 90's, fellas.
And while not quite as open-ended as the GTA series, lets not forget Mario 64, with heavily exploration-oriented gameplay. Wander around and find things to do to get stars.
Okay - Credit Where Credit Is Due, GTA did do some pretty cool things and can be credited with introducing non-linear, open-ended, exploration-based gameplay to many of the "mass-market" core console gamers. That sort of gameplay has never been common in consoles (it's a pain in the butt to QA, for one thing!), and they took a risk to embrace it like they did. They definitely deserve some kudos.
But videogaming as a serious consumer industry has been around for longer than some of today's journalists have been ALIVE, and has a rich history behind it. It's okay to laud games that have really stood out, but please remember that almost every time, they have reached such lofty heights because they stood on the shoulders of giants.
[Okay, now the Rampant Coyote can take off his hat again, so he can become a Young Fart]
Game Moments #6 - Ultima 7
Skilled fiction writers know that you should always start your story out with a "bang" - some high point of drama. It could be a literal "bang" in the case of an action or pulp story, or more of a figurative "bang" of mystery, romantic tension, or whatever.
Ultima 7 was one of the first computer RPG games to start with that incredible "bang." And boy did it work. You were thrust onto the scene of a grisley, ritualistic murder, and immediately saddled with the responsibility to solve mystery. The first part of the game involved more Sherlock Holmes style drama than traditional hack-and-slash fantasy combat, but it worked.
Along the way, you'd meet the too-friendly religious leader Batlin, the head priest of a new religion that was sweeping all of Britannia. You'd also come to hear of the exploits of his enigmatic partners, an apparently do-gooder pair named Elizabeth and Abraham, who turned out to be partners in evil schemes to subjugate not only Britannia, but other worlds as well. And perpetrators of the original murder.
(As an aside: Elizabeth and Abraham's initials were a subtle dig at powerful Electronic Arts, which later went on to buy Origin, the makers of Ultima 7. Interestingly enough, none of the the "true" Ultima games which came out after the EA buyout garnered nearly the critical acclaim of Ultima 7 and many of its predecessors. Though Ultima Online sure ushered in the era of Massively Multiplayer Online games. But that's another story.)
At one point in the game, a mysterious Wisp offers to trade information with you. It offers crucial information in exchange for access to a notebook by a reknown sage named Alagnar. Alagnar turns out to be a pretty pleasant guy. Your efforts to win his trust take you to the ruins of an island city peopled by tormented ghosts who need a past wrong righted. That adventure concluded, you return to Alagnar.
Having won his trust, he gives you the notebook. But he also asks that you return it as soon as you are done with it. You continue what seems like a normal "Fed Ex" run, exchanging the information the Wisps desire for game-critical data, and more information about the sinister Guardian - the figure worshipped by Batlin's church.
Returning to Alagnar, expecting the next piece of the puzzle, and stumble across another ritualistic murder scene - and this time Alagnar was the victim. Apparently the Wisps informed the Guardian, who immediately dispatched his agents to silence the sage who had gotten so close to the truth of the matter.
I guess I shouldn't have been taken by surprise as much as I was by this twist. After all, they spent a lot of time giving Alagnar some interesting, friendly dialog, making him a really fun character. I should have KNOWN they wouldn't have put that much time into him without intending to tragically bump him off later... but I didn't. Even though the character was only about thirty pixels high and his dialog consisted of only a few lines in a truly gigantic font, I felt some real emotion with his death. Just like the death of a favorite character in a movie or book series, I felt the loss, and felt something akin to anger at the characters who did it. UNLIKE a book or movie, though, I also felt a weird sense of personal guilt over his death. After all, I hadn't even questioned why the Wisps wanted his notebook.
At that point, the game kicked into high gear for me. I felt a bit of personal investment in the game --- I really, really wanted to see the Guardian and his trio of mortal agents fry. It WORKED for me. The remainder of the game had me spellbound. It remains one of my favorite RPGs of all time - mainly because of that one moment.
Normally, scripted events in games don't do this for me. When I realize that it's a railroaded plot device invented by the designer a long time before the game was even released, something that I can't really avoid, I emit the usual, disgusted "That's Lame!" noises (whadayamean the Princess is in another castle?!?!), shrug, and move on. This was one of the few exceptions. The only other one I can think of right now is Aeris's death in Final Fantasy 7 - a far more universally experienced loss than poor Alagnar.
So let us not forget to mourn poor Alagnar, departed now some fifteen yers (Man, has it been that long? Wow...)
Cage Match: Innovation vs Content vs Technology
A couple of EXCELLENT articles on Gamespot I wanted to point people to.
Bitter Medicine: What Does the Game Industry Have Against Innovation
Innovation: Does Size Matter?
And in a brilliant little bit of parody coincidentally related to the two above articles both in content and authorship (Ron Gilbert is ANOTHER "famous" adventure game designer from the glory days of LucasArts): What the Grumpy Gamer Asked Santa.
I feel a little guilty about not picking up "Beyond Good and Evil" or "Psychonauts" myself. In fact, I recently tried to hunt down those titles from retailers (yes, I KNOW I could find them at Amazon, and may very well do just that soon... but I was curious as to whether or not they'd be available in the bargain bin) for the PC. Nada. It's hard just finding the PC game section in some stores.
In the case of Psychonauts, I was a little leery of the warnings about all the jumping puzzles. I waited for reviews. Even though my favorite adventure game EVER (and one of my favorite games of all time, period) was Tim Schaffer's brilliant "Grim Fandango." Now THERE was an absolutely mind-blowingly original premise wrapped in somewhat more traditional graphic-adventure-game trappings. It worked INCREDIBLY well, garnered tons of critical acclaim, and is considered by some to be a hall-of-famer classic that demonstrates just how cool and artistic and original gaming can be.
It was also, as I understand, a dissapointment sales-wise.
I think publishers are hurting themselves and the industry as a whole by the whole LACK of effort promoting innovation. Face it --- the cash cow is EVENTUALLY gonna run dry, and if you haven't created another before then, you are screwed.
One of the best examples of managed innovation I ever heard of by a publisher was a simple 2x2 grid. One axis was technology, the other was concept. This broke all games down into 4 categories, which they TRIED to produce in equal quantities:
Category 1: Proven Concept, Proven Technology. This is the basket where today's publishers are putting the vast majority of their eggs. The technology is pretty much the same game engine with some new features, maybe better optimization so it still seems shiny and new. The concept is an existing franchise. The concept might be new to the technology --- for example, using the Neverwinter Nights ("Aurora") engine for the Star Wars RPG "Knights of the Old Republic". Really, this is the biggest bang for the buck --- because there's limited technology changes, the costs and risks are kept down (at least they USED to be* ), and because it's a proven, sellable concept, there are practically guaranteed sales.
Examples: Doom 2, Baldur's Gate 2, Unreal Tournament 2004 (Used the UT2003 / Unreal 2 engine), Knights of the Old Republic, Quake 4 (used the Doom 3 engine), Gran Turismo 4, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Battlefield: Vietnam, Dance Dance Revolution Extreme, Age of Empires 3.
Category 2: Proven Concept, New Technology. This isn't necessarily a completely new engine being developed from the ground up, but it does mean a significant technological overhaul is performed to support a game in an existing franchise. This is still usually a pretty safe bet, as the 'nearly guaranteed' sales justify the additional development expense required to not only develop the software, but train the art teams, develop the tools, etc.
Examples: Doom 3, Half-Life 2, Battlefield 2, Age of Mythology, World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, The Sims 2.
Category 3: New Concept, Existing Technology. This is taking a risk on a budget. An existing in-house or licensed engine is used (though if it's an engine that's new to the team, the risk and expense is almost as much as using New Technology). While the concept may be new and risky, the reduced development cost * makes it a safer gamble.
Examples: Half-Life (Used the Quake 2 engine), Orbz, F.E.A.R. (I'm not sure HOW MUCH the LithTech engine had to be changed for this one, so maybe it's a Category 4), Outpost Kaloki, Heavy Weapon.
Category 4: New Concept, New Technology. This is the riskiest venture - all-new technology being built from scratch, and a concept that isn't already a sequel or license which must be marketed and sold to the public. Oftentimes a "safe haven" is found by adhering closely to an established genre, thus theoretically reducing the risk (or at least the effort required to market the thing). This WAS traditional wisdom - but is it a bad idea today? Even with a brand new engine, you have to work pretty hard to "wow" today's audience to make them take notice of your game in a crowded genre.
Examples: Unreal I, Katamari Damacy, Void War, Battlefield 1942, Rise of Nations, The Sims, Grim Fandango, Psychonauts.
I'm not privy to some of the development details with certain games, so I may be wrong in guessing whether or not a game used "new technology" or not. That's partly a judgement call, anyway. And I don't know if this categorization actually WORKED for anybody or not.
* And finally, the BIG MASSIVE HORRIBLE CAVEAT MARKED WITH AN ASTERISK ABOVE: ( * ). This whole categorization is based on a TOTALLY DIFFERENT ERA. An era when the most significant cost of development was technology, not content. A time when programmers ruled the earth. Nowadays, its not the cost of rendering those polygons - it's the cost of creating them in the first place. Will Wright is doing a clever little end-run around this problem with the upcoming game Spore (maybe THAT is why EA gave him the green light...), but by and large that's where costs are today.
So far, content hasn't been something publishers or developers have been able to amortize very well across multiple franchises. If you are doing a sequel, particularly one without a major change in technology, you may be able to get some reuse. But it's hard to re-use models and textures from a WW2 shooter for a medieval fantasy RPG, and vice versa.
Or is it?
I think the whole Concept / Technology graph is still somewhat useful - technology is STILL a significant cost, though for many AAA games its in second place (and part of the cost is its impact on content... "Sorry, you gotta re-do all your levels, man!") But I think that the AAA publishers are going to be painting themselves into a corner halfway into the new generation of consoles if they don't make innovation a real priority, instead of a weak attempt to gain a couple of bulletpoints for marketing copy.
Labels: Game Design
Merry Christmas everyone!
And if you don't celebrate Christmas - well, I'm wishing you a merry one anyway! I hope it's the best ever for ya!
California Video Games Law Struck Down (for now)
First the Illinois law, and now California's. At least there are SOME judges in the United States who have some sanity and a willingness to stop Bad Laws.
The news is on Gamasutra - I'm sure it can be found elsewhere:
The rationale behind the injunction is that the research behind the law did not demonstrate any sort of causality between video-game violence and real-world violence, and it doesn't compare videogames to other forms of media which have NOT been so restricted, even though they've been around for much longer.
Me? Hey, I'm slow to give praise to Wal*Mart, but the last time I bought a rated "M" game from them, they carded me. I'm clearly not seventeen anymore (sadly...), but they still carded me. No big deal. I'm glad they are voluntarily complying with the ESRB rating system and doing their best. That's what the ESRB system is for - it's a voluntary rating system for consumers, and obviously retailers make use of it as well and CAN incorporate it into their policy. So if stores are already doing what the California law is trying to enforce, what's the problem?
The problem is that places like Wal*Mart tend not to screw around much with possibilities of fines. To avoid taking those kinds of hits, there's a good chance they will just pull all rated "M" titles from their shelves completely. That's why almost nobody is producing rated "AO" (Adults Only ... 18 or over) titles - nobody wants to deal with having to sell them, so it's the kiss of death. They've done that kind of thing before.
If that happens, what we'd end up with is videogames getting relegated back to being the "kids toys" that they were back in 1980 (grown-ups were playing them too, but it was mainly kids that were adapting to the new technology). But get real, guys! The "Nintendo Generation" is those people who were 6-16 back in 1990. It's been 15 years. They are 21 - 31 years old now. The 14-year-old kids who played one of my first games, "Twisted Metal" (which was still rated T... barely) are now 24 years old! And they are STILL playing games.
Just because when YOU, the Lawmakers, were young parents you didn't get that newfangled videogame crap doesn't mean that it was something that only 12-year-olds get today! This hasn't EVER been strictly "kid's stuff", and it' hasn't been "mostly" kids stuff since the Gen-X'ers started going to college.
And what about small, indie games that MIGHT be able to make it onto the store shelves of Wal*Mart but we can't afford to have the ESRB rate our game?
PC Gaming Is Far From Dead
A great article in Next Gen this week:
Some key quotes:
Relying on NPD’s number blinds one to the ongoing evolution of PC game
distribution. The key insight, as summarized in a new report from IM Consulting
(the market-intelligence unit at Ignited Minds), is that "the PC game software
market is much more robust than a cursory glance at the data suggests…(our
analysis) becomes a call to publishers to recognize that the PC market can be a
very lucrative and profitable place to publish, if the games are done properly
in the right genres."
According to Lombardi, NPD's retail-sales charts are understating the strength
of PC games sales, and will increasingly understate that strength as the PC
publishing model moves online to alternatives like Steam.
2005 was a
year that proved our industry needs a newer and wiser perception of the PC
gaming market. As IM Consulting put it, "Instead of giving up on the PC game
market because retail sales are lagging, we urge publishers to adapt their
distribution strategies to the changing landscape."
So why does the PC get declared as a "dead" gaming platform every year for the last six years or so? There's a ton of reasons:
- There's no barrier to entry, so the market is flooded with games. Most of them crap. It's hard for the customer to wade through all that to find your game (assuming it's not crap).
- No planned obsolescence like there is for consoles - so you still face competition from older games (a lot of the guys in my office still play & love Starcraft!) Towards the end of their lifecycle, consoles face the same problem, but not nearly as bad.
- Tech support for a nearly infinite array of hardware AND software configurations is a nightmare. It sucks when the player blames YOUR game for crashes caused by some spyware he didn't know was on his system.
- Trying to support not only all the varying configurations but also player preferences (like graphics quality, screensize, etc) makes PC game development more expensive.
- Trying to create a cutting-edge game for the PC is a pain because hardware-wise it's a moving target. Guess wrong, and your game might be unplayable on all but a fraction of suped-up machines when it releases, or it gets dismissed as looking like "last year's games."
- Piracy is easier on PCs than on consoles.
- You don't get to take advantage of free marketing under a console's manufacturer as they convince players to buy their console plus a mess of games.
- Popular game styles between consoles & PCs are traditionally very different, making ports from PC to console and vice versa less viable as game budgets increase.
- The cost of maintaining a "Gaming PC" capable of keeping up with the latest, coolest games is about 3x that of consoles, leaving many gamers to "give up" on the PC market because they can't afford to keep up.
- Several of these factors combine to result in hit games for the PC selling significantly less than an equivalent hit on the consoles. Since ports don't work well, as a publisher you have to choose - do you want to take a risk on a PC game, which can only sell half as many, or on a console? Let's say you can only sell a half-million on the PC, but a million on console? What if you have to sell 600,000 to break even?
- Another factor of the "barrier to entry" is that players don't yet have had to worry about viruses and spyware infecting their consoles from games. This is perhaps the single greatest threat to the growth of online software distribution on PCs
One factor that USED to be a big deal but was changed as soon as the predictions of PC gaming's death started sounding was the larger size of PC game boxes. PC game boxes used to be HUGE. That meant that for the same 5 ft. x 5 ft. bit of wall space, a retailer could only possibly sell about a quarter as many games. The mini-game boxes that have taken over in the last three years or so have helped that.
These factors make things seem less and less interesting for PC game sales, especially with skyrocketing game development budgets. So why bother? For many publishers, it sounds like they are having trouble coming up with reasons. But here's my take:
- PC games have no royalties to the console developers, making each unit sold potentially more profitable.
- The Mouse and Keyboard are way better input devices for many games than the control pad. I'm thinking FPS games (I've yet to ENJOY an FPS with a console controller) and RTS games, in particular.
- PCs are approaching uniquitousness (is that the correct term?) While they aren't all rigged for gaming, people have 'em anyway, so it doesn't hurt 'em to stick a game or ten on there.
- There's no barrier to entry (yes, this is a good and bad thing)
- With online distribution, the Cost Of Goods Sold approaches zero, and thus becomes less risky. (This is also true of the new XBLA, too, so consoles are taking advantage of online distribution).
- HARD DRIVES. While this has regrettably led to a "release now, patch later" mentality in PC games, it also means you can support, improve, and KEEP CURRENT a title for an incremental cost to the consumer (or none at all).
- The fastest growing game consumer demographic right now is the older female population. If you are targeting that group with your games, I believe more of them are on computers than on the XBox 360. At least for now.
Do these offset the negatives? I think it depends upon the type of game you are doing, and the type of market you are going after. But the promises of online distribution. The above article and report suggest that there's not only signs of life, but that PC gaming is going strong and still growing. This is good news both for PC gamers (that's me!) and PC game makers (woah, that's me too!)
Adult Dungeons and Dragons.
Heh - with a title like "Adult Dungeons & Dragons," I wonder what kinda weird scary google hits this will get? But that's not what this is about. This is about the fact that here I am - a thirty-something with a wife, two kids, a demanding job, a mortgage, a very exciting side-venture creating and selling unique "indie" videogames, responsibilites and stuff - and I still play Dungeons and Dragons regularly. A game I got into as a twelve-year-old. We just finished a five-year-long campaign last night - something utterly incomprehensibe to me when I gazed upon those fanciful covers and imagined the adventures contained therein in 1981 - five years was almost half my lifetime back then.
For some reason, when I was in high school and college I kept assuming that when I got married, I'd have to quit playing Dungeons & Dragons (or other role-playing games, also called "RPGs"). It was something I loved but played all to infrequently in junior high school and high school. But back then it was a fad. It gained a lot of negative press (just like videogames are getting now), which only added fuel to the fire and made TSR (the publisher of Dungeons & Dragons) go from a tiny hobbiest shop to the father of an industry. And then the fad ended, and so did TSR's fortune, as it gradually bankrupted itself.
The hobby keeps resurging every few years. In the 90's it was the Storytelling system by White Wolf, which took gaming from the usual action-heavy "beat up the villain of the week" flavor to something a lot more psychological with character-driven drama. And, sure, lots of beating up villains too. But it attracted a lot of female players, something D&D was never good at. (Except in my post-college group, which was started by a couple of fine ladies.)
In 2000, it was the new "Third Edition" of Dungeons and Dragons, which got a ton of marketing (including an absolutely AWFUL movie, which some people still claim they liked). A bunch of old-time players got interested in playing again, and a few new players besides - although unfortunately too many new players can get a similar but more convenient experience playing the latest of a crop of MMORPGs. But ah, well.
Anyway - I met my wife at a dance, but we got to talking because as part of the conversation I committed a social faux pas and admitted that I played Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of brushing me off completely, she said she'd played it a few times as well. So we kept talking the whole night. This was all out-of-state at a conference at the time, so the next day she went back to California, and I went back to Maryland, but we stayed "pen pals" (back before anybody really had email) for a couple of years. Then we ended up at the same college.
I wish I could say the rest was history, but in truth it was a lot more complicated than that. But I digress.
Anyway in college we both ended up playing - both of us did a LOT more gaming in college than we'd ever done in High School. But it was cheap social entertainment, which is pretty dang critical when you are a college student on an almost nonexistant budget. We got married while still in school, and kept playing (the cheap entertainment thing became a LOT more important when we were living on rice, beans, and ramen noodles).
My wife, Julie, told me about her gaming experiences as a teenager. She had a bunch of gamer friends who introduced her to Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, and a few other games. They'd hang out at her friend Sara's house. Sara's parents pretty much gave them free run of the basement. They would provide plenty of munchies for the kids, and except for periodically popping in to see how everyone was doing, left them alone. They all thought that Sara's parents were just AMAZINGLY cool.
Later, as my wife and I discussed this, we realized Sara's parents were AMAZINGLY smart. With all the trouble their peers were getting into, here these kids were having clean, sober fun in a place with (some) parental oversight. WILLINGLY. This was all because of this controversial game that so many misguided religious zealots and parents groups were quick to condemn as "Evil" and a scapegoat for everything from suicide and drug abuse to satanism. Pretty much every youth woe except teen pregnancy - considering the lack of sex appeal of the stereotypical D&D player, this oversight wasn't surprising.
So when my wife and I suddenly realized the method to the madness of Sara's parents, we decided that not only would we not feel guilty about continuing to play, but we'd definitely encourage our kids to adopt the same hobby if they felt remotely inclined. So far, that's kinda working - some of the "next generation" of our gaming group are getting into it.
Now that we both have family members with Alzheimer's disease, Julie and I have talked about the importance of staying mentally, physically, and socially active when we get old and gray and start yelling at kids to stay off of our lawn & stuff. Well, we'd have to find some other source for physical exercise, but socially and mentally Dungeons & Dragons would certainly fill the bill. So we've talked with our friends, and we decided we're all going to live in the same old folk's home where we can sling dice over our strained peas and stuff. We'll be these hardcore gamer octogenerians who say over our false teeth, "Dude, I just rolled a critical hit on the black dragon with my +3 Dragon Slaying Sword! He's going DOWN! What kind of XP do I get?"
Productivity Tip - The List!
One of the hard parts about "being your own boss" as an indie game developer is that ... well, you may have a bad boss. Managing yourself can be a trick. Well, it is for ME. Maybe I'm the only one in this universe who has that problem. But in case anyone else does, too, here's a couple of my tricks. It worked well for me with Void War, and I'm beginning to hit that mode with my current projects (yes, I used the plural --- I'm just begging for trouble).
Makin' a List, and Checkin' It Twice (hey, 'tis the season!)
Ever sit down to begin working on your hobby game project, or writing the Great American Novel, or some other big undertaking, stare blankly for a while, and then knock it off to go watch football or play a videogame instead?
No? It's just me? Okay. So it's just me. It happened last night. I got all excited about having the evening to WORK ON THE GAME. I loaded up the compiler, my copy of "CodeWeaver" (A Torque Script Editor), and opened up a couple of folders. I ran the current build of the game --- played around with it for a bit --- and started dreaming of what I should do next. And then I went off and did something else (something else important, but it wasn't game development). All I have for my evening's effort was a little bit of "chrome" added to some bits I've already been working on.
With Void War, I kept a notebook with me ALL THE TIME. I jotted down lists of things that needed to be done. I crossed out things that were already done, or things that got moved to other lists. My Void War notebook is full of items that have been crossed out and re-written on a later page. Then what I'd do is pull out the tasks for the week... and then pull out the tasks for "tonight" - and make a note of them on another page.
The end result was that I had a master list of tasks that needed to be done SOMETIME, a much smaller (until the end) subset list of "Things to be done REALLY SOON," and then an even smaller subset list of "Things to be done RIGHT NOW." I'd work on the lists during my lunch break at the Day Job, usually. Or the night before (especially when tasks carried over to the next day). The tasks could be prioritized as necessary, so as you are gathering together your list you can focus on the priorities. My priorities were really simple:
A - Other tasks (especially A or B priority) have a dependency on this task getting done.
B - Something that should be in the next milestone.
C - Everything else.
So when I sat down at the computer to begin work for the evening, I already had a list of things to do that I'd already carefully considered. And I could see the progress I'd made by seeing all those tasks crossed off. I could measure my productivity for the week based on how many items I'd crossed off. It was very satisfying, especially as I hit late-development and I couldn't always see all the work I'd done on the screen.
At work (the dreaded "Day Job"), we're on a rapid development cycle, and our project manager has done something similar which he's done at other companies, called "Three Up, Three Down." Every day you assign yourself three tasks, and report on the three tasks you were supposed to accomplish the previous day. And those tasks are reported to the rest of the team.
The other advantage of keeping that list is that things won't get forgotten. It can serve as kind of an evolutionary design document. Forget all the flowery prose and detailed back-story and stuff. Who are you trying to impress? Instead, the "Hit List" (as I like to call it) is for YOU. It shows what you are currently striving for in a compact, highly summarized form. As you decide to cut features, they get scratched out on the list... and new features get added. It's very easy to see where you are, what needs to be done, and where you are going. No, it's not gonna sell anyone on your idea, but it helps you get the job done.
And that is the most important thing.
Fair Game or Drama?
As has been pointed out in the comments of some of the Game Moments blogs, human beings crave drama. A one-sided sports event is BORING. A story where the hero is always successful and makes the best decisions is TEDIOUS. While it pains us to see Indiana Jones take it on the chin, and fail in his attempts to get the Ark of the Covenant back, that just makes it all the more thrilling when Jones, beaten and battered, keeps coming back for one more try.
The same is true in videogames. The common thread in several of my "Game Moments" articles has been the same thing - the drama of coming back from a setback or going up against seemingly impossible odds - and SUCCEEDING. While I have a few fond memories of having my butt handed to me in amusing ways, it's the "amusing ways" part that makes them memorable. Whether I succeeded in spite of being confined to a tiny corner of the galaxy in Master of Orion, or slogging my way out of a deadly dungeon after encountering a particularly nasty random encounter, or going up against a foe that has nukes and stealth fighters when I'm still stuck with horse-drawn cannons and muskets, what made me enjoy myself was the dramatic struggle.
So here's the question as a game designer. Do you give the player a fair game, or a dramatic one? Obviously, players are far more thrilled by your game when it's dramatic. You want player's to love your game, right?
Some games "cheat" to provide this struggle. Several people from SingleTrac enjoyed playing Daytona USA in the arcade. Daytona let you play against another player, which we did often. We noted with amusement that the player in second place - if he was distant enough - could catch up to the leader even when his speedometer read a slower speed. The game "cheated" to keep the race dramatic. Once we figured it out, though, the game became less exciting to play for us. Kinda like watching professional wrestling (which I had to do at ANOTHER game company a few years later, when I was working on ECW2) - while they do their best to make it dramatic and the outcome is unknown to the audience, when you know it's all staged you have a tougher time staying interested.
Part of what made me less interested in Civilization II was this strong suspicion that the AI was cheating - their cities were staying at a parity with mine regardless of the circumstances. When I'd capture them, there'd be hardly any improvements remaining. Granted, maybe I could have destroyed almost everything but a granary and a church on my way in, but it still didn't seem quite right.
So the answer isn't so easy. You want to provide dramatic action, a close fight no matter what. But you MUST maintain the illusion of a fair fight as well, or you run the risk of your players throwing down their controllers in disgust of your cheap tricks. We are providing both entertainment AND a challenge to the player, and so we must succeed at both levels.
The trick - like so much else in game development - is being able to strike a delicate balance. While I grew annoyed at Civilization's "cheating", the success of the franchise means it really wasn't all that bad, or it was just too well hidden. Since I STILL love the game, I am guessing it's more of the former.
At one point, during the development of the first Twisted Metal for the Playstation, we had a really bad problem. Twisted Metal SUCKED! While it was possible for some of us to beat it through very clever fighting (which seemed like good, challenging gameplay for a while), the problem was that all of the opposing cars would converge on the player and just CLOBBER him. Again - you could play carefully to avoid it, but once you were stuck and surrounded, the game ceased to be fun.
We hit on a solution that, to the best of my knowlege, was still being used on Twisted Metal Black for the PS2 (which was made by many of the same guys). I don't remember if Dave Jaffe suggested it, or if we came up with the solution ourselves, but we decided that at any time only TWO cars would be "engaged" with the player at a time. Any car not "engaged" would just putter around in kind of a stand-by pattern on some other part of the map. Who was considered "engaged" could change - if the player was closer to (or especially if he attacked) another car, it would quickly become one of the "engaged" vehicles. Non-engaged cars would still take an attack of opportunity if they got the chance. But really, at any point in the game, the player was really only fighting two cars at a time.
As far as I know, nobody ever noticed. And even if you did know this, the knowledge didn't sufficiently cheapen the experience for most players. That was how we managed to strike a balance between Drama and the Fair Game. Considering the success of the first game and the franchise, I'd say we succeeded.
In Void War, I had a problem in that the AI was too accurate. Because of the Newtonian physics of space, the player couldn't alter his flight path quickly enough to "dodge bullets." The solution was to make the AI "miss believably". It became readily apparent close-up that the AI was deliberately aiming away from the player sometimes, and was sometimes forgetting to pull the trigger when the player was right there in front of it. That was my attempt to balance the game and provide a combination of Drama and the Fair Game.
The first two Wing Commander games had another less balance-affecting trick. When the Kilrathi ships were within the player's view, they'd perform what they called "Flight Choreography." They'd zip around perfoming all kinds of aerobatic maneuvers that were cinematically exciting, but actually not very effective. When they were out of the player's view frustrum, however, they pretty much flew straight and boring to wherever they wanted to go with maximum efficiency. But as far as the player was concerned, they were corkscrewing and cartwheeling all over the sky all the time. It was a minor "cheat," but it worked for hundreds of thousands of fans.
Don't slave yourself to "simulating" the game environment, particularly in a single-player environment. But be careful that you don't forget that above all else, a game must be fun and should entertain and thrill your player. Stray too far in either direction, and you risk losing your audience.
Labels: Game Design
Game Moments #5 - Rise of Nations
Hardcore Enough For the Challenge?
I don't really consider myself a hardcore gamer anymore. I'm somewhere in that never-neverland between hardcore and casual. We came up with a few interesting names a couple of weeks ago, but none of them fit. But I don't think it's the lack of hardcore sensibilities. It's a lack of time, and an abundance of responsibilities. Boring, I know, but that's the way of life. I still make time for games. And the cool thing is, my daughters are getting old enough that I can play games with them. So that responsibility thing isn't without some really awesome benefits.
I usually don't play new games at the hardest difficulty. I never really have, but sometimes now I even play a game on a "sissy" game setting a notch below standard. My objective isn't to make a game "last" by playing it on a harder setting (and thus having to replay sections over and over again). Instead, I really want the game to NOT join my ever-increasing pile of Games That I Hope To Finish Someday. Some of those games have gathered twelve years of dust.
But I still like taking on the occasional brutal challenge - as a lot of the previous Game Moments have been about.
Oh, no! It's an RTS Story!
This time, the game is Rise of Nations (with the Thrones and Patriots expansion). I hadn't played it in a while, so Thursday evening after work I started a game. United States vs. the Aztecs. I was the United States - it's a little weaker in the early game (except for the fast-build of the first wonder, and the free government upgrades). The random map was - I think - British Isles or something like that. Basically two very large land-masses separated by a channel. I had a single opponent this time, with the difficulty set on "Challenging" I think (the highest AI level before it just cheats and gives the AI more resources). A good, clean, fair fight. I win about 90% of the time at this level, but it really depends on which nations are being played. The Aztecs can be brutal with a solid early-game offense, but the separation between the two land masses may save me. The game was set on Conquest objectives - you had to completely wipe out the opposition.
I'm doing pretty well in the early game - I get my navy hopping early on, and I do my usual strategy of sneaking my fourth city onto the opposing player's land mass before he's fully built out. If I can, I then quickly build out my army there so I can avoid having them cross the ocean (where they are vulnerable) to attack later. I also try and build a Terra Cotta Army wonder in this invading city.
I'm not doing so great, and I'm a bit behind the Aztecs in technology. I'm making up for it in wonders, though - I've got the Hanging Gardens, the Colossus, the Coloseum, and the Terra Cotta Army wonder going. Most of our efforts are going into naval combat, but I've just about got the Aztecs on the ropes, destroying their main port. The land battle is going slowly, but I've managed to build one more city and take over one more. I probably possess 65% of the land mass on the map, and I've definitely got naval supremacy.
Been There, Done That.... now what?
And then I'm called away. Dinner, maybe. I can't really remember. Anyway, I thought I paused the game. Later, that little annoying JUSCHED.EXE - the annoying Java Update utility that refuses to be shut down and removed even though I don't use Java that often - decides that I REALLY need to download the latest update, and it's SO FREAKING IMPORTANT it minimizes my game so I can DOWNLOAD THE UPDATES to a virtual machine I seldom use RIGHT FREAKING NOW. (Yeah, I'm not Java's biggest fan, though it's not a bad programming language).
I recently bought a laptop, so I don't use my machine downstairs as much anymore. That night my wife wanted to watch a video, and after that i had some game development stuff to do on the laptop So I didn't get back to my game. The following night, we went to see Narnia. Saturday was super-busy, and I got Age of Empires III and installed it on the laptop. So the poor old (emphasis on old) desktop computer didn't get visited again until Monday night.
And then I saw that Rise of Nations was there, minimized. Fully expecting to see a "You have been defeated" message (or a crash, which happens a little too frequently with that game), I opened it up again, trying to remember how long I must have left it going.
By the Way, While You Were Out...
Much to my surprise, I was still in the game. My naval bases were destroyed (though one ship remained, ignored), and my two offshore mining stations were long gone. Some of my farms and other buildings on my starting island had been torn apart by air attacks, but many were still going and in use by citizens. All of my cities on the Aztec island had been captured EXCEPT for my first one. Everything (including the Terra Cotta Army) had been destroyed, the Aztec navy was shelling it with something like 20 battleships off the coast, and it was being pounded in the air by about a half-dozen fighters. But the AI was stuck in some kind of loop - without my interrupting it with any kind of interactions, it was continuing to pound the city to mash but hadn't bothered to invade it. Concentrating all its force on the one city, it left everything else alone. For FOUR DAYS.
You just can't win the war without infantry.
The battle itself wasn't particularly interesting to me - I'd forgotten about it entirely over the weekend. But now I faced an interesting situation that challenged the hardcore gamer in me. My enemy no doubt had nearly infinite resources at this point. Me, I had probably half as much, but it was still virtually infinite, so we were on parity there - except for oil. I had only about 1700 units of oil. Since every offensive unit at higher tech EXCEPT for infantry required oil, that was a severe disadvantage. I was down to only three functioning cities - plus the nonfunctional one getting pounded, which ironically made it my most important city. I was several ages behind - the Aztecs now had nukes, stealth bombers, missile shields, and AI to allow it to create units INSTANTLY. I still had sailing ships and horse-mounted cavalry. The Aztecs had built nearly every wonder remaining, giving them an advantage there as well.
On the Plus Side, They Won't Be Expecting Us...
My first order of business was to drive up my tech tree. I hoped the opposing force wouldn't interrupt it's bug-caused shelling of my long-dead coastal town to take more deadly action. What I REALLY hoped was that the AI had invested everything into naval and air forces, running into its population limits so it couldn't generate a sizeable force of infantry to feel "comfortable" making an attack on the city. I counted on it.
While my tech was growing, I started creating new cities on my island. More cities meant more places the AI had to conquer when its counter-attack came before wiping me out of the game. With AI and near-infinite food supplies, as long as one city was left standing I could instantly generate lots of citizens to rebuild defenses.
The next trick was oil. There was no land-based oil fields, so I had to go to sea. That meant risking contact with the enemy, which could bring a WHOLE mess of trouble on my head in an instant. I had to build a dock first, which I placed behind my island. There were several oil fields (I was playing on a large map) behind my island, so I sent citizens to build oil platforms there. Fortunately, the Aztec navy was all bunched up trying to take turns shelling that ONE CITY, so nobody was patrolling to see I was getting active again.
I researched everything but missile shield. I started building my forces - a slow, hard slog, since I had to wait for oil production. I also researched nukes. As I began researching Missile Shield for myself - my last technology - I started building up my forces and moving them into position out in the ocean, hoping I didn't accidentally run into some enemy ships on the way. I did end up moving my ships and transports past an Aztec oil rig, but since I didn't attack it, I noticed no effect.
Normally, if I'm fighting an enemy that I've let get to AI technology (I try hard to avoid it), I attack the enemy infrastructure. Since it can build units instantly, the key is to deprive it of resources so it can't afford to build anything. That wasn't going to work this time. So I had two strategies I could attempt. The first was to perform a two-prong attack. The AI in Rise of Nations tends to commit all its forces to one battle at a time, so diversions work really well. In this case, however, I was going for something a little trickier. All I needed was a solid foothold on the other island.
Ready - Set - Blow Yourself Up!
Just moments before my missile shield was researched, I unleashed my assault. I opened up by nuking my own city - the one that had been getting pounded for four days straight. I aimed right on the coastline. The resulting blast took out most of the Aztec navy and several aircraft. My intention was that the Aztecs would immediately begin rebuilding the navy, sending ships back into position. I had a few seconds before the new ships arrived. I immediately created a ton of citizens, and set them to work immediately building a temple (to extend the city's influence), barracks, a couple of SAM sites, a fortress, a dock, an airfield, and factories for artillery and armor.
As soon as I got the build queue going, my navy began attacking cities on the far side of the island. The intent was two-fold - to "soften" the cities for my invading troops that were loaded in transports, and to attract the enemy navy away from my poor beleagered city. The first one worked - the second didn't. The newly recreated Aztec Navy was coming BACK to my coastal city, and began pounding me again. But they focused on the city, not my new construction projects. My SAM batteriest soon wiped out all the enemy fighters, so the AI started sending stealth bombers to pound the city.
On the other side of the island, I brought in my troops. We took the first city easily. Not wanting to lose my momentum, I kept moving to the next city, and hastily started producing citizens to build defenses and more barracks & factories. My coastal city, by this time, was finishing up its construction projects and I started cranking out combat units, and sending them en masse to the nearest Aztec city. By the time the AI got around to launching an effective resistance, I'd already taken a third of the islands.
First the Hammer, Then the Anvil
Part two of my plan was to attack enemy combat unit production centers. While the Aztecs had infinite resource and could build units instantly, building factories, airfields, docks, and barracks still took time. I didn't really bother with the docks - I conceded naval superiority to my opponent. My units would have to be built on the island. My usual strategy was to launch a main attack (or defend against a main attack), but send a group of "skirmishers" along the flank to cause as much damage to production centers as possible. This caused damage, and made a great defense, as the Aztecs would often break off their attack to deal with my "suicide strike." This was particularly effective when the Aztecs would cross the ocean to attack my home cities - I'd immediately launch an all-out assault on a city, and the troops would usually turn back, and make the slow crossing of the ocean the other way.
I was often fighting with just infantry, lacking oil to make enough tanks, missile launchers, or aircraft to make a difference. Cities near the middle of the island changed hands a DOZEN times or more. At one point the Aztecs nearly kicked me off the island completely, taking my original coastal city (I didn't win it back for forty-five minutes). All told, the battle took me nearly three hours from the point where I first discovered the game was still running. It was a brutal, frantic slog where my computer would visibly slow in certain areas because of the sheer number of units and explosions.
It was definitely my longest Rise of Nations battle EVER, even if you disregard the time spent where the game was running without a player. But seeing the score pop-up when I finally took the final Aztec city made it all worthwhile (Note the Game Time - man, what would it have looked like if I'd let it go four more hours - there's no room for an extra digit!):
Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
I saw Narnia Friday night. I took a gamble and took both of my kids to see it with me, which paid off fine - the movie was within my seven-year-old's intensity threshold.
Overall, I really enjoyed the film. I don't think I'd categorize it as a "great" film. It stuck too closely to the book for its own good, and I can't say the book is solidly in my list of all-time favorites either, though I am quite fond of it (I enjoyed it as a kid even before I realized it was a Christ allegory).
But all that aside - it is true to its source material (to a fault), and the visuals are really awesome. If you ever wondered what a huge battle between mythological monsters of legend would really look like - well, watch the movie, and then you'll know. Lord of the Rings was mainly orcs & trolls against humans (with some awesome Oliphants, Ents, and winged riders mixing it up). This movie has griffons, centaurs, harpies, centaurs, fauns, intelligent animals of all kinds, minotaurs, giants, a witch turning things to stone left and right, unicorns, goblins, and all kinds of other monsters just going at it in vivid detail.
I also liked that the movie started with the London bombings. That really helped set the stage and started the show with some drama. I think it lingered overlong on the children's journey to the professor's home and subsequent quest to relieve themselves of boredom, but it did give them a chance to show themselves as characters before Lucy takes her first trip into snow-covered Narnia.
The Queen was appropriately over-the-top evil - I mean, she's supposed to represent Satan, so how do you overplay THAT? I mean, I should know, he's apparently my sole employee... Anyway, she's not long on subtlety, but she's plenty of fun, especially as she attempts to play the "nice lady" to Edmond in her first scene - and her smugness after negotiating with Aslan over Edmond.
I can't imagine anyone other than Liam Neeson for playing Aslan, now. He was perfect. The movie really hinges upon the children, though, and I think they did an excellent job. While Edmond and Susan are pretty secondary to Peter and Lucy, the actors did such a fine job they nearly upstaged the more central characters.
In some ways you could call this movie a "Poor Man's Lord of the Rings," which might not be too far off. I'm sure that's what the producers had in mind. I'm sure they had a smaller budget, and the movie doesn't have quite the epic scale, but it's still delightful. I'm definitely snagging the DVD when it comes out.
Age of Empires III
I got Age of Empires III last night. As a result, I didn't get to sleep until about 3 AM. So far, it seems a gem. I was kinda dissapointed in Age of Mythology - I still regard Age of Empires II (Age of Kings) as the best RTS game of all time.
It looks like truly random, sprawling landscapes are STILL out of AOE3, which is dissapointing. I loved that in the previous games - and in Rise of Nations. On the plus side, they seemed to have taken a hint from Rise of Nations and gotten rid of the villager paths to a storage location. I always felt that those were unnecessary complications. The fact that you don't need to build storage locations and worry about paths to storage depots or town centers make the limited environments a little less annoying. In Age of Mythology, the limitations on where you could place town halls drove me nuts.
The "Home City" idea is really cool. I also like the idea of setting up trade stations along trade routes and at native American villages. There are enough differences from standard RTS games to make it fresh, even though the core gameplay is straightforward traditional real-time strategy.
Besides, I really dig sailing ships with big cannons.
I have doubts that it will surpass Age of Kings as my favorite. But so far I'm liking it a lot.
Labels: Mainstream Games
Game Moments #4 - Daggerfall
Continuing this little series of moments in gaming that just made me stop and say, "Cool!"
I had a lead that someone was looking for me for a job at a nearby tavern. Things just happened that way. Apparently, if you've got a job that no sober person would take, you go a bar and see who'll talk to you. These jobs were usually fill-in-the-blank errand-boy missions. I'd been at it long enough to know the drill. But this time, I was in for a rude surprise.
Anyone who played Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall (or the previous game, which I never played, called "The Elder Scrolls: Arena") will know what I'm talking about. The game was filled with dynamic missions that usually consisted of fill-in-the-blank quests that probably derived from several dozen templates - plus a handful of static, hand-crafted unique quests. These were made more interesting by the fact that they often had impact with one or more of multiple factions in a system more complicated than that found in many more modern games.
This time, my contact turned out not to be the usual patron, but some half-orc guy who identified himself as my arch-nemesis (I didn't even know I had a nemesis of any kind, let alone an arch- version!). He immediately teleported me to some distant dungeon to die.
Normally, I'd react to such an annoying chance occurance with a "load previously saved game" trick. This time, though, I thought it might be amusing to roll with it. Normally, when hitting a dungeon, you come in through the entrance. If the going gets too tough, and you have trouble sleeping there, you can leave and go back to town, healing and whatnot, and come back later. However, my arch-nemesis's spell dropped me somewhere on the bottom, and I had no idea how to escape. So a lot of exploration was required.
During my pitched, anxious battles, I contracted some disease from a giant rat. As my character was a non-magic-using rogue, so I had no magical means at my disposal to cure myself. As I progressed through the dungeon, I became more and more ill. My stats were dropping, and I had no idea what would happen if they dropped to zero - but I had a pretty obvious guess. The disease gave me a deadline to get out of the dungeon alive. And even then, assuming I could make it, I had several hours' worth of trekking to do to get to the nearest city.
I was screwed.
But the tension was great. I decided to keep at it as long as I could, to hang on just to see if I could pull it off. All told, I think I spent about five hours fighting my way through that dungeon over the course of two days. Without spells to rely on, I was using whatever skills and resources my character had - which wasn't much. Towards the end, I relied upon stealth to sneak past monsters, because I was in no state to fight them. My desperation grew - as did the temptation to reload a saved game from earlier in the week. But the longer I stuck with it, the more I had invested into seeing this through to the end, and the less willing I was to simply reload it all and start over.
Finally, unbelievably, I found the exit and emerged into the sunlight. But I wasn't safe yet. One of my characteristics (I forget what it was called... Health? Constitution) was down to the single-digits, dropping by the hour, and I had a long trip to the nearest town --- where I hoped I could find a healer or something to remove the disease.
I made it with a score of "3" remaining. Which probably meant I had a little over 2 hours worth of "game time" left to survive.
My "Arch-Nemesis" - who was really just a random character whipped up in the game's random number generator microseconds before I got that first quest lead - had grown in my mind during my (admittedly self-imposed, or at least self-accepted) desperation over the course of two days. The game had challenged me through the fiction of this new character, a challenge I had accepted and had committed several hours to. Through sheer randomness the challenge grew from a minor in-game inconvenience to an investment of many hours that was threatening to be lost. With a little bit of suspension of disbelief, this random - almost silly - villain had become a real antagonist, and one I was more personally invested in than almost any other game-villain I'd ever encountered.
My very first order of business upon getting healed and rested was to return to the town and hunt down my arch-nemesis. He was still hanging out in the tavern where I'd first encountered him. My biggest dissapointment was that he didn't put up more of a fight. Apparently all his power was put into that one teleport spell. Still, even his canned exclamation of disbelief upon my return - and his lifeless corpse on the floor of the tavern when the fight ended moments later was one of the more satisfying victories I've had playing CRPGs.
XBox 360 Live Arcade Rules!
I went to go visit my friend Brian Saturday (not Bryan the ultimate wingman, but a different Brian), and he showed me his new XBox 360. I don't have one yet. But I expect that someday soon I will (probably as soon as they drop their price - like maybe when the PS3 is released). I had a very interesting conversation with him. He said that he has purchased 3 of the "Live Arcade" titles - the downloadable games that are being created by indies and major studios alike - and he has spent more time playing them and the game demos than the major, expensive launch titles he got for the system. He says he'd talked to another friend (and fellow 360 owner), and he said the same thing.
What does this mean?
It's of course way too early to say. Is this common? If so, is it only because there's a set of poor launch titles available for the XBox 360 right now? Or is it because it's new and cool and everyone's trying it out now before they get bored with it? Or is it people wanting to "beef up" their collection of XBox 360 titles at low cost, trying to get the most out of their investment early on?
I can certainly hope that it means that Microsoft may have just figured out a winning strategy - one that is going to make life much happier for small, independent game developers. I don't expect that all XBox 360 owners are going to be purchasing - or even playing - Live Arcade titles. But I think this may be part of Microsoft's strategy to make the XBox a central entertainment appliance for the entire family. Mom can play Bejewelled 2, kid brother might play some classic arcade favorites, and you play Project Gotham Racing. Although after a while you might be playing Bejewelled 2 and Mom ends up playing Project Gotham. Who knows? The idea is that there's something for everyone, and there'll be a heck of a lot of LOW PRICE, HIGH QUALITY, HIGHLY DIVERSE content available for the 360 to appeal to people of ALL tastes. Not just the hardcore gamer.
This may be the strategy that sends Microsoft to the winner's circle this time around. Well, between that, and releasing earlier than Sony and Nintendo. But that latter strategy never offers any guarantees (just ask Sega - but I still love my Dreamcast).
Shameless Plug: One of the killer downloadable games Brian showed me was Outpost Kaloki X. I'd seen an early version of this game at the Ninjabee offices. It was looking SHARP. I recommend it. If you don't have an XBox 360 and still want to try it out, you can get the PC version of it here.
Labels: Indie Evangelism
Rampant Games are all the work of SATAN!
I subscribe to the Google Alerts, which lets me know whenever "Rampant Games" or "Void War" appear in the online news. I got a GREAT one today. The excerpt - taken out of context - is AWESOME.
"... rampant games are all the work of Satan."
I saw that in my email and thought, "Wow, if they really are talking about me, I musta really hacked someone off. But it didn't look right. The actual quote from ComputerAndVideogames.com is a commentary on the recent ruling by Judge Kennelly that the Illinois videogame ban is unconstitutional. The full quote is:
"Wow some intelligent opinion from an American lawman. This is refreshing in light of the rampant 'games are all the work of Satan' which we see coming out of the US. "
Also germane to this blog. But I thought the partial quote (missing appropriate punctuation) was far more amusing.
Game Moment # 3 - X-Com
So there I was, hunting for aliens at a UFO crash site (crashed because my fighter had shot it down, of course). The scientists back at the base needed a LIVE alien to study. They'd learned all they could from autopsies on the corpses I brought back. But the request was problematic - to take them alive, you had to stun them, and at this point that meant getting close to them with a shock-rod.
When these guys were shooting blasters twice as deadly as our rifles from dozens of yards away, hidden in shadows and orchards and old farm houses, how exactly were we supposed to do that?
The game this time, of course, is X-Com (titled in the UK as "UFO Enemy Unknown" or something like that). Now, modern game design thought would tell you that it's unwise to mix a high-level strategic game with a low-level tactical combat game. Just like mixing action sequences in adventure games - you'll end up annoying everyone but the subset of people who like both kinds of games. But in X-Com, it worked beautifully. The strategic game gave you a chance to breathe and relax a bit from the relentless, methodical pace of the squad-level combat, where one wrong move could kill your "squaddie" - possibly taking his entire squad with him. After all, the aliens seemed to take unholy delight in shooting soldiers who had pulled a pin out of their grenade, but hadn't yet been able to throw it. The grenade would land at the feet of the disabled soldier, blowing up him and everyone who happened to be near him.
The strategic game had you building bases (which could come under alien attack later in the game, allowing you to fight in the bases you built); recruiting soldiers, scientists, and engineers; researching the aliens and their technology; mass-producing the rewards of your research for resale to help fund your operation; and trying to prioritize targets based on your needs for international funding. Oh, yeah, and shooting down UFOs and sending your soldiers out to crash sites - or landing sites - or the dreaded "terror sites" where the UFOs launched an attack against a major city.
When your troops would land, the game would switch to a "tactical" mode, which was really the guts of the game. Your soldiers ("squaddies") moved in a turn-based fashion, though you could always reserve some of your action capability for "opportunity fire" so they could fight back on the alien's turn. Like a roleplaying game, your squaddies improved in skill (and rank) as they had more combats under their belt. Keeping them all alive to use that experience was a trick.
The map gradually appeared as you explored it. Once you'd seen an area, it was no longer blacked out, but you couldn't see enemies unless at least one of your squaddies could currently see them. And if you could see the aliens, it meant the aliens could see you. And shoot you. Which they did with great malice. Oftentimes the aliens shot from cover, so you still couldn't see them - you could only see the path of the blaster shot as it flew towards you. This led to a tactic called "reconnaissance by fire." One of your squaddies with a rocket launcher would open fire in the general vicinity of where the shot originated. If you heard the alien's death scream, it meant you got one. Sometimes you'd get lucky and hear two screams.
So prior to this particular mission, my research from the strategic part of the game was stymied because I hadn't brought in a live alien in for my scientists to study. I had a couple of shock rods carried by my soldiers on each mission, but there was just NO WAY we could get close enough to use them. I had TRIED, but I had lost squaddies each time. I wasn't sure how we'd pull it off. This mission was no different. My squaddies had had a brief firefight just out of the shuttle - as usual - and they were now slowly covering each other moving forward to sweep the area for more aliens (and to find the enemy ship).
A shot came from the nearby farmhouse. It was impossible to tell, but it LOOKED like it came from the bedroom window on the top floor, but it was impossible to tell exactly. I brought a squadie with a rocket-launcher into position and fired a rocket through the window. There was an explosion, and I heard an alien make some kind of noise. It didn't sound like a death-scream, though. More like a sigh. Suspicious that the alien was still alive and capable of killing more squaddies, I slowly had them make their way into the house. And there... on the bottom floor... was an unconscious alien.
Apparently he'd been hiding on the ROOF. The explosion had destroyed part of the roof (where it had been standing) and the floor below. The alien had fallen two stories and been knocked unconscious - purely by accident. My scientists had their live alien to study, and none of my squaddies had died.
It's not a way you were SUPPOSED to accomplish this task, but hey - I'll take what I can get! That's the joy of unscripted games - sometimes things just "happen". It's sometimes called emergent gameplay. It can be a pain in the butt for a developer, because these "open" games can be harder to debug and balance. But boy, do they have payoffs!
Mavlok the Midnightman reminded me of something. Where WERE you when you were playing these games - and what memories do they conjure up?
My first child was born while I was still playing this game (eleven years ago). We were living in a pretty tiny rented home at the time in Provo Utah, and the room that had formerly been "my office" was converted to the baby's room. But we had no other place to move my computer out to, so I just had one corner of the baby's room.
My wife and I had a deal worked out. She's a morning person, I'm a night owl. So my wife would go to bed at something like 8:00 at night, I'd go to bed at sometime around midnight. We both had to be up at around 6:00 or so (but then I had an hour's commute by bus each way, where I got much of my sleep). The rule was that if the baby woke up before 1:00 AM, *I* was the one to get her up, see if she needed changing, bring her in to Mommy if she was hungry, etc. After 1:00, it was my wife's job.
So I found myself in the baby's room late at night, all lights turned out except for the glow of the monitor, playing X-Com (turn-based means not having to hit pause in an emergency). The weird, creepy background music was barely audible. And I'd keep checking behind me to look in awe at the tiny sleeping form, realizing, "Holy COW, I'm a daddy!"
Illinois Video Game Ban Ruled Unconstitutional
Two days ago U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kennelly overturned the Illinois ban on videogames that was supposed to go into effect on the first of the year. The news can be found HERE - well worth reading. I wish Senators Clinton and Lieberman would read it, as they are proposing a very similar FEDERAL law.
One great quote: "In this country, the state lacks the authority to ban protected speech on the ground that it affects the listener's or observer's thoughts and attitudes" - Judge Kennelly
I will once again go on record to say I do not approve of games with heavy violent or sexual content being played by children. Heck, I'm enough of a prude to say that games with excessive sex or violence shouldn't even be played by adults! And while there's no real evidence supporting the claims by lawmakers and delirious ambulance-chasers that playing violent games leads to violent real-life behavior, any more than excessive playing of Super Mario leads to people jumping up and hitting their heads against the ceiling in an obsessive attempt to find coins. But it has been proven over CENTURIES that games are among the most powerful learning tools, and though what people may learn by playing these games may not remotely resemble the obvious, it does lay some tracks down in neural pathways that may run counter to socially positive behavior. If I watch a lot of shows or read books with excessive swearing, I find such words come a bit quicker to my mind when I'm trying to express myself forcefully, which can color my choice of language in a way I'm not particularly proud of (though the day job can cause that without ANY additional stimulation).
Be that as it may, not only is it not the government's job to regulate this, but the government is WAY TOO INCOMPETENT to handle it fairly. It's the book-burning mob mentality at work, that would see copies of Huckleberry Finn in a bonfire, or restrict high-school students from reading that subversive Shakespeare. These blanket regulations would lump Schindler's List (a "morally serious, aesthetically stunning historical epic" - TV Guide) in the same category as Booty Call (a "wall-to-wall exercise in bad taste" - Roger Ebert).
Now, I don't think we yet have the "Schindler's List" of videogames out there yet. Or the Gone With The Wind, or the Casablanca... heck, I haven't seen "Doom" the movie yet, but I'd guess the quality of plot, characters, and dialog are probably still greater that 95% of the videogames out there. But I think even though games are now pretty "mainstream," we are STILL exploring the boundaries of the medium. Right now there are a lot of games out there that are seeing how far they can push the "shock value" without getting smacked down (thank you, GTA team, for screwing up our whole year with your Hot Coffee FUBAR).
But the day will come. I have heard and seen little bits and pieces of attempts to cover serious topics, though they have had little in the way of marketing fanfare behind them. But it's gonna be a lot harder to make it happen if the government steps in and classifies games as children's toys and scares away people from addressing mature topics out of fear of being fined or being unable to find a retail or distribution channel.