Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Games as art or games as consumer good?

So, as promised, and way earlier than promised, I want to say a little bit about games and price and how that effects our perception of them.

Right now there are several levels of price stratification in video games. PS3 and Xbox 360 games are $59.99 when new. PC games are $49.99, often for the same experience as their console counterparts. Wii games, $49.99. Downloadable titles, whether they be WiiWare, PSN, Xbox marketplace or something casual can range from free to the same price as console games. If we are talking about reviews though, does this matter? Should it matter? The answer to the first question is yes, yes it should. Criticism of mediums outside video games may be more advanced in the sense that they can look at art for art's sake and make a judgment, but they still use a grading system of some sort to tell their consumer if they should spend the time to get to know whatever artwork is being reviewed. When the now defunct GFW magazine did away with scores for their reviews, there was a revolt and the scores came back. So, obviously readers expect some sort of quantitative something, whether it be numbers, grades, a buy recommendation, or whatever. That doesn't mean that it should be the sole purpose of a review to decide if people should buy a game or not. Rather it provides a base metric for determining if it is worth the money. A game like Portal was and is worth more than Valve charged for it and I believe that reviews reflected that. It may be short, but it is fantastic. If Valve was charging $300 for Portal, could anyone really say that the price wouldn't affect their view of the quality of the game. We are always making decisions based on how much we will get out of our money. It's no surprise that video games are affected as well.

Wait! You say. Doesn't that make game reviews simply a consumer guide and not a meditation on the artistic value of a game? Well, it certainly makes the consumer angle something to consider. I think we would do ourselves a disservice if we completely disregard the fact that people come to reviewers to see if a game is worth their money. However, that shouldn't be the sole purpose of reviews. When I read reviews, the first thing I look for is a reviewer I know. If I know their likes and dislikes and how those align to my own, I can compare their thoughts to mine. I also tend to look at the score. That colors my reading of the review, possibly a problem I admit. If I am interested in a game, though, the most important thing to me is the review itself. Did the game lose points because it was too easy? I don't care, that's fine by me. Did it lose points because the gameplay gets repetitive and boring? Warning lights. Did it lose points because the story is ridiculous and poorly written? That's not helping it in my book. These things matter more to me than the score itself. I wouldn't buy a well reviewed game that was extremely repetitive or overly difficult. I'm not buying Mega Man 9 and I don't feel bad about it. In that sense, the review can speak to the game as a game and not a consumer product.

I'm not sure I've really solved anything here, but I do feel that examining games in isolation of cost is foolhardy. Cost should never be the primary concern, but I have limited financial resources and a limited amount of time to game. I'll gladly play a flawed but interesting game if it is cheap, but I'll be damned if I'm going to pay $60+ for a fundamentally flawed game. It doesn't make sense to me and I want reviews to reflect that concept.

Also, keep your eyes to Shawn Elliot's blog.

Wonderful man that he is, he's got some good stuff brewing over there. So read it.

Back again.

I suspect it will last approximately as long as last time, but here I am again!

I thought I'd way in on the controversy stirred up by N'gai, Leigh Alexander, and Ben Fritz, among several others.

Basically it boils down to the question of whether video game reviewers are considering innovation when judging and scoring a game. Mirror's Edge is the game of choice for the concerned, who feel it's lower review scores are due to, if not petty then, simplistic gripes about the execution of the game without taking into account the innovation it provides. So is that a realistic concern? And, as a developer, do I worry that innovation is taking a back seat to execution in reviews, and the sales we seem to believe are tied to high scores?

Well, to briefly answer the first question, no. There are a lot of valid points made by all of the commentators who raise the issue and I don't want to dismiss the concern out of hand. It is scary that innovation might be less important to people than execution because we are a hit driven industry, one that only continues to evolve when innovation is rewarded with sales. That is a sad fact and one that isn't easy to get around. However, innovation is, at least on occasion, rewarded by sales. Portal, Little Big Planet, the original Half-Life are all examples of games with some level of innovation and at least good, if not great sales, certainly enough to justify further experimentation with their basic mechanics, etc. The issue arises when one gets to the review stage. If a game is released to be reviewed it is done, as done as any game can be at least, so at that point the reviewer has no choice but to take the game at face value. I've heard many people, Warren Spector among them, say that ideas are a dime a dozen, but execution is golden. So, even if Mirror's Edge has some innovative ideas, and it certainly does, if those ideas aren't executed well, it becomes a muddled mess. I have yet to play through the game beyond the demo so I will refrain from actual comment on the game, but if reviewers felt that the experience wasn't as good as it should be, wasn't fun, they shouldn't give a game high marks for trying.

This leads to what this all means to me as a developer. I like to think that I can be innovative, whether I can or not is yet to be seen, but innovation alone isn't enough to make a good game. If the experience of a game, it's meat, is in the gameplay itself then a fantastic idea doesn't matter if the gameplay isn't tight. Frustrating gameplay, whether it be to controls, level design, difficulty, or whatever, is frustrating. I don't want to be frustrated when I play games. Being challenged is fine, but being frustrated isn't being challenged it is being unnecessarily smacked down by something arbitrary. Having a great idea isn't enough to get you a pass on executing that idea poorly. The real innovation is in doing something well and making it fun. If the level design of Mirror's Edge is annoyingly repetitive, then the game has a problem. Again, I haven't played, so I don't know, but I will not continue to play a game just because it's a cool idea.

As a topic for another post, it is very, very likely that all of this ties into the value of a game. I haven't bought Mirror's Edge and I won't until it is cheaper. It's very possible that what is a flawed $60 purchase is a perfectly good $30 purchase. But I don't want to go into that right now. Hopefully I can come back to it, you know, instead of not blogging for a year or so.

Friday, November 30, 2007

What is it with quitting early?

The first draft of this post was swallowed by the Internets, so hopefully this one will come out a little better.

I've been trying to think of a good topic for a post for the past couple of days and my mind led me to the topic of finishing games, namely why the hell can't I seem to finish anything anymore. I've played many games in my life and hope to play many more, but the list of games I've finished doesn't seem to grow at nearly the same rate as those I've played. The most common offender are RPG's. I love me some Final Fantasy, love it a lot, but I haven't finished Final Fantasy IX and it took me nearly 3 years to beat Final Fantasy X. At some point, possibly once I stopped having summer vacations with nothing to do, I just couldn't slog my way through a 40 hour RPG. Instead I've been enjoying games with shorter play times, your Portal's and what-have-you. It really is usually an issue of attention span, but occasionally, and the impetus for this post has reminded me, sometimes it is all about getting frustrated.

I'm proud to say I've only thrown a controller in anger once in my life. It was long ago when I was playing Street Fighter II: Champion Edition and couldn't for the life of me get past Vega, dirty spanish bastard that he was. In my rage I threw my Sega Genesis controller to the ground after what must have been the millionth attempt, receiving an admonishment from my mother that I was not to do that again. Since, I have held my temper fairly well, never having harmed an innocent piece of plastic, no matter how much it may cheat. Yet, this past week I came as close as I ever have to hurling a controller across to room, hoping to revel in it's destruction. What beastly game could possibly have been the instigator of such fury? Guitar Hero III. That's right, everyone's favorite party game, almost caused me to lose my cool. I play the game on hard, because medium is a touch too easy and expert is a touch to masochistic for my tastes. I've reached the second to last grouping of songs having never had to play more than a few songs multiple times, excepting those maddening boss battles, but all of a sudden I had to practice sections of each song to get through them. I made a rule with myself when it came to guitar hero; if I had to practice a song to get through it, I was done. I play video games to have fun, at least games like this, and if I have to practice it ain't fun. So that's it, I'm done. I've said it before, it has to be the end goal of a designer to have players complete their games. Hell, what would directors think if people never watched the ends of their movies? The game's difficulty hit a particularly hard spike and sent me packing. Can this possibly be considered a good thing by the designers? I understand the desire to have a challenging game, I really do, but I want to be able to finish a game as well. The easiest way to fix it in this situation would be to allow the players to choose the difficulty of individual songs in career mode, which would let me cruise through the songs on medium that I couldn't get through on hard. Then I could complete the game and have the chance to play all the songs there are on it. As it stands, I'm not going back in to play through on medium just to get to a few more songs.

While for some games the problem was length, for Guitar Hero I stopped because it became just too hard for me to keep up and keep enjoying myself. So are these some of the keys to an enjoyable experience? Bite-sized chunks, not overly long main gameplay sections, a difficulty that is challenging yet not too harsh? I think that if you can combine those things you will have a game that is fun and well received. Look at Portal, I finished in 2.5 hours or so and it is still probably my favorite game of the year. So, Neversoft, I beg of you, tone down the difficulty a bit and let us not quite hardcore gamers finish your game!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Assassin's Creed: Impressions.

So, I've been playing Assassin's Creed since Saturday and it is certainly a fun game. Now my last post discussed some of the issues that have popped up around the game regarding reviews. I've played through 7 of the 9 assassinations now, I'm planning on finishing it off tonight. Like I said above the game is fun, quite fun at times. It has some problems though and, to me at least, those problems keep it from being a great game.


I'll start off with the fun. Holy crap do the environments in the game look amazing. The cities of Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre look just wonderful. They aren't necessarily completely distinct from one another, but they seem very real. As for the interactions you have as a player with these environments, those are the games high points. The biggest invention that I think this game pulled of is their introduction of parkour to video gaming, at least in this integral a manner. It is an absolute joy to run around the rooftops leaping from building to building and grabbing onto whatever little thing you can find to pull yourself up.

UPDATE: I started this post yesterday afternoon and I'm going to finish it today after having completed all but the final assassination.

Assassin's Creed has captured the best elements of the movement found in Prince of Persia and nearly perfected it. It allows for a sense of freedom and the willingness to take risks, something that is very encouraging from a design standpoint. One of my favorite moments in gaming is the end section of The Sands of Time, when you are climbing the side of a giant fortress. Most of the combat is gone and it is all about the moving. Assassin's Creed was really able to rekindle that feeling much of the time.

Unfortunately, that leads me to the problems I have with the game. Firstly the game definitely becomes repetitive. That isn't bad, if you enjoy the parts that repeat, but I just can't be bothered to go through all the investigations for each assassination. Once you've saved one citizen, you've saved them all. In nearly always found myself rushing through the investigation phase to get down to the assassination. Too bad even they couldn't always maintain the excellence of other parts of the game. My biggest gripe with the assassinations lies in the "stealth" of the game. I would relish assassinations that were inventive and required lots of sneaking and thinking. That's usually not the case. I think I've only completed one assassination with a stealth kill, the others involved slogging it out with the target. I suppose that would be forgivable if the combat were a little more than simple counter-attacks. Enemies will stand in a circle around you and attack one at a time, which is a somewhat sad state of affairs if you ask me. The part that gets me the saddest about lost opportunity are the assassinations that involve targets that flee. They run through the city to a guard tower that is stationed somewhere and if you don't catch them you have to fight past all the guards. I feel as though you should have failed your assassination at that point, but the game will let you kill tens of guards before you have to kill your target and it is still okay. Doesn't seem nearly as assassiny to me.

Finally there is the story. (Here's where the spoilers be) I was originally very excited to play a game set in the era of the Crusades when I heard about Assassin's Creed. Then all this stuff about Sci-fi nonsense began to surface and I became concerned. Turns out I was right. I love science fiction, good science fiction mind you, but I don't think it's really serving a purpose in this game. Granted, I have yet to finish the story so there is still the chance the game will make me 180 on the story, but I'm doubtful. There is so much that could have been done with just the setting of the crusades that I regret the lost opportunity this game represents. Sure they have set themselves up for sequels, Assassin's Creed 2: Electric Boogaloo, but they haven't created a unique setting that would have been truly original. They do have an explanation for their decision, namely that they wanted the game to be set in a flashback and that it allows them to justify many a gaming cliche. While I applaud their efforts to fight cliches, or at least acknowledge and justify them, I don't think that makes up for the lackluster story. The dialogue doesn't help either. Sigh. I've likely been spoiled by months of slaving over a hot Mass Effect, but I expect better than what Assassin's Creed has to offer.

I'm going to do some ruminations on what would improve the game and what I've learned from playing it and have those up sometime. Overall were I to review the game, I'd give it a solid 7. It's fun, but it isn't great. Don't pay $60 for it, wait until it is cheaper.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Must write or risk death.

So, been far too long since I've been back here. I started a new job and found myself greatly removed from the impulse to blog that had been driving me earlier. However, there is always something to discuss in video games. One of the things I happened upon yesterday that somewhat set me off was Gabe's news post on Penny Arcade. He has some major issues with several reviews of Assassin's Creed, a game that had been advertised on PA in the past. Now, you can certainly object to the opinions of the review itself and disagree with the reviewer. However, Gabe firstly seems to believe that the reviewers are unable to remember that they are playing a game they should be enjoying and not just focus on finishing a game for review. While that is likely true in some cases, it seems unlikely that it happened as many times as there were reviews that called AC repetitive. He also seems to believe that the reviewers didn't like the ending, because they must not have watched all the way past the credits. He did and he thought the story was "teh awesomzors!" Maybe, maybe they just didn't like it. Why would you assume that anything you enjoy is going to be enjoyable to others? Yeah, I don't really agree with him at all. Reviews are subjective and that is the way it will always be. Some reviewers found the game repetitive and that lowered their score. Gabe says they are wrong essentially, which is total crap. Let them review the game and don't complain just because you liked it.

I'll try to update with some more later, but I got work to do.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The internets are afire!

So I wanted to make a quick news post, you know for the me that reads this blog. Seems the internet was right! Once again. Two big news items today. The first Sony is releasing the long-rumored 40GB PS3. Granted it's just in Europe right now, but it will be here soon enough I'd put money on that. Hopefully for Sony it will start to put them over the edge this holiday. An important holiday as far as install base is concerned, maybe not as important from the software side.

On the other side of the next-gen war, Bungie is free again! What does this mean for now? Well... nothing it seems. My guess is that soon enough there will be a more interesting result from this than what is happening right now. Over at Kotaku, they have a QA with Bungie's Community Director that doesn't really answer all the questions I have, but at least speaks to some of them. My thinking is that Microsoft was faced with the prospect of a majority of their favorite studio jumping ship because of the nature of their relationship. So, backed into a corner, they allowed Bungie to leave, while securing some level of exclusivity with them on their future projects. I can think of two possibilities for Bungie from this point. 1) They start work on brand new IPs which might start out with Microsoft but eventually end up elsewhere. 2) They begin to expand, leaving one team to work on whatever ridiculous Halo thing Microsoft wanted in the first place, while another team does that thing from part 1. If the first becomes true, it will be very interesting to see where Microsoft goes with Halo. Stephen Totilo had some interesting, and fun, speculation over at Multiplayer.

Big news for a Friday, it will be interesting to see how all this shakes out.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

What is the deal with crunch time?

So, I'm in the games industry, not hip deep in it like some, but in it nonetheless. And the one thing that always stares me down is the dreaded crunch time. It is de rigeur in the industry to have a period near the end of a project that essentially sucks the souls out of all involved. This is accomplished by hellish workdays, in excess of 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for as long as is necessary to get a project out the door and on to shelves. It isn't always this way, in fact some companies deride crunch time as unnecessary. However, it is pretty damn common in the video game world to experience some level of crunch time on every project. It is so accepted that at this point people don’t question it too much, whether for fear of reprisal or simply because they believe it really is necessary. So, I'm going to examine crunch time, why it happens, and why it shouldn't. Hopefully at least.

I've thought about this topic for quite some time now, but I was spurred towards writing about it by this article about gaming schools written by Lisa Laughy. In it she talks about gaming schools attempts to acclimate students to the rigors of crunch time by putting them through it with their school work. If she's right, and I have no reason to believe she isn't, then this is just an example of how wrongheaded the industry is. Crunch time arises because games have to be made. If we lived in a perfect world of infinite time and resources, it's quite likely that most game developers would be perpetually iterating on their pet projects. Iteration is good, it is what makes games work, however it is also what can lead to feature creep. Feature creep should be the thing that makes a Project Manager wake in a cold sweat. Games have deadlines, some not set in stone, but some more so. It isn't every company that can afford a seven year break between games. What happens in many games is, people want to add new things after they shouldn't be adding anything. Once those changes go in, it creates more work for everyone else. Even though they already are stretched too thin, they now have more to do. So everyone starts showing up everyday for 10 hours. Fortunately, game makers are passionate people and they will do what they have to, in order to release their product. So games get made, sleep is lost, and countless hot pockets are consumed. But what are the consequences?

Well the most noticeable consequence of crunch time is the severe turn over that studios experience. Most of the industry has less than 5 years experience and that is because as people get older, have families, regain sanity, etc. they are unwilling to keep working insane hours without extra compensation. We lose some of the most talented people every year because they want to *gasp* see their children. This is something that many industries face, but it isn't something that needs to be as pervasive as it currently is. One big improvement would be compensated overtime. The developer Free Radical has implemented this system and good for them! I'm currently paid hourly, so the pay for OT is it's own reward, but I don't relish coming in on weekends and would be far less likely to do so uncompensated. So there is the first step towards fixing the problem. Something even more revolutionary is the system that Gas Powered Games uses. Their founder, Chris Taylor, realized after he had his first child that he wanted to put his family first, so he implemented a strict 40 hour work week. Apparently it works, because the company's first game, Supreme Commander, was well received. I've been told by people who work there that the reality of the schedule is that they have to focus on their work, rather than goofing off or wasting time in the way they used to. So at least at GPG it seems to have created tighter focus and eliminated wasted time. As another piece of anecdotal evidence, I've heard stories of people playing other video games for hours at a time, then finally once the afternoon rolls in, starting their actual work.

It all comes down to project management. Effective production schedules as well as producers who can control their teams' energy will not only waste less time but will have a better product at the end of the day. This gamasutra article is a roundtable discussion with several producers about project management at their companies. It gives a little insight into all the thing that one has to do to keep a team on time and scheduled properly. I know producers who have complained about their teams' lack of focus, something that seems pretty prevalent, but nonetheless needs to be eliminated. A good PM or producer is your friend, because they will help you make the game you want and still have time to see the kids. So... after all that, I hope I've made an argument for the death of crunch time, or at least extended crunch times. Not only will you have to work less, but your work will be better. We just can't work as well when we are dead tired and stressed out. Getting the work done on schedule and in the course of a regular work week is so much better. Trust me.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A.I.: Swarms of morons, or one big smart M.Fer?

Halo is a franchise that has always been revered for one thing, if nothing else, and that is intelligent enemies. From all I've read and heard Halo 3 is a shining example of this, a game that features intelligent enemies that will use strategy to take you out. Another game that made its reputation almost entirely off of the A.I., despite somewhat lackluster environments, was F.E.A.R. When I played through the game, I noticed on many occasions how much smarter the enemies were than normal enemies. Constant attempts to pin me down and flank me, lots of intelligence that made the game engaging. So that is one way of designing a game, one that takes a lot of time and energy but can have a great payoff.

Another school of thought is, if we can't outsmart 'em, we'll overwhelm them with numbers. The most recent example of this, or at least highly reported on example, is Heavenly Sword. The reviews for Heavenly sword almost all mentioned two things, the brevity of the game and the fact that rather than fighting intelligent baddies, you fight swarms of idiots. I'll call this the Dynasty Warriors school of A.I. There is something to be said for being the player who holds back a tide of enemies single handedly, something grand. There are other games which use this tactic to varying degrees. So which is better? And why would anyone choose to go one way or the other?

Well as to the first question, I'm not sure there is a simple answer. Obviously better A.I. is a plus, a huge plus even. Something important enough it lead the infamous "two Gamecubes duct-taped together" comment. I lament the lack of good A.I. in a game that needs to have it as much as the next gamer. F.E.A.R. was one of those Ah-ha moments, when I saw just how important good A.I. is to the gameplay of a shooter. The difference between enemies that stand around and wait to die and those actively trying to outsmart you is pretty intense. It also adds a significant element of replayability to a game. You can approach fights in multiple ways, because the enemies always do something different. This idea is one that will become more and more prevelant as "next-gen" systems can power better and better A.I. I for one look forward to it.

However, I've also had some amazing times in the one against a crowd scenarios. In fact one of my absolute favorite moments from Guild Wars involves a structure being invaded by a crowd of enemies. As a single player it was hard as hell to hold them all back and was frantic for the entire fight. By the end though, I felt powerful and had discovered that swarms of enemies have their own appeal. So while I'm not saying Heavenly Sword made a wrong decision or a right one, I haven't played it at all, there is a certain appeal to that whole idea. But is it something that can sustain you through a whole game, even a seven hour one? I don't know, it sounds dicey to me and honestly the appeal of good A.I. is such that I'd almost always prefer that to any other set up. The one area that I reserve the right to change that opinion in is the world of the MMORPG. I do think that there is a perfect time and place in the MMO for swarms of enemies as opposed to super powerful single enemies. I know it makes me feel powerful to destroy swarms of creatures.

As to why use one or the other.... well I think I'm going to cap this post off and see if I can get a little help from my friends to get some opinions on that very issue. Until next time.