A Dime a Dozen

The always ebullient GameSetWatch has another interesting guest article up: 20 Underused Game Mechanics. I don’t disagree with the whole list, but with some I just have to disagree.

3. Design Your Own.
Gah! Besides the absurd technical requirements behind this in most cases, I find it to be a terrible idea. Maybe it is because I am a game designer by day, but if I’m buying a game, I expect to have plenty of intelligently constructed levels waiting for me. This limits your levels to all but the basic building blocks. While this can be a good idea in the sense of mods extending the experience, it shouldn’t ever be a part of the core. People don’t want to work to play a game.

4. Not Re-Using Mini-Bosses.
There are probably few designers that think reusing Mini-bosses is a great idea. What happens is that a team starts running out of time or they decide their game isn’t “long enough” or “challenging enough”, so they artificially extend it. I don’t support the idea, but it’s going to happen from now to time immemorial. If us designers could get away with telling the producers we need to have unique mini-bosses on every level, we probably would.

5. Letting You Fight Fights You Are Intended To Lose
Boy, I sure loved this in the Final Fantasy games where I used all my damn potions and power-ups trying to beat unbeatable bosses. This isn’t to say it can’t be done well (I haven’t played God of War 2 yet), but the idea itself isn’t fun. Players get frustrated when they feel they have to win but cannot.

7. Breaking the Fourth Wall
This one is dicey. While it is clever sometimes, you really have to plan for it. Do you want to throw away all your immersion on this? It is a point of no return. Once Metal Gear Solid‘s Psycho Mantis starts talking to you about your memory card saves, you’ve lost any opportunity (at least within the next few hours) of realistic drawing a player in. In Animal Crossing it is fine because it constantly reminds you that you are in a game. In Ico it wouldn’t be so welcome. So this one is open for discussion.8. Moving the Controller
Hokey.

10. Vengeance is Mine
I don’t even understand this one, honestly. I guess he is saying that he wants more opportunities to “get to higher ground” to swing the odds from against you to against them. Full Spectrum Warrior was completely about this. Splinter Cell is completely about this. So I don’t know how underused it really is.

14. Better Level Themes
This one is sort of substance-less. Besides the Metroid games, I really haven’t seen much of the elemental level theming (with The Simpsons Game‘s ironic use of it aside). Look at the Ratchet and Clank games. Look at Bioshock. There are plenty of games with unique memorable level theming. You have to get out of the paradigm of thinking it’s “The ___ Level”. That’s why ice levels / forest levels /etc. are so boring. The level should boil down to something more than a scenery choice.

17. Economy of Design
This pretty much contradicts #15. Which do you want? More objects to interact with your toys throughout the game or specific instances to use your toys so they don’t wear thin?

19. Telling the End of the Story
This is a narrative device that is overused in movies and I hope it doesn’t catch on in games. The reason it is usually used is because the story doesn’t have a strong enough beginning. That was the case in God of War and is probably why it feels successful. The story is fairly weak until about 2/3 of the way through the game. That’s why the beginning has to act as a teaser. I’d rather the beginning be strong than overuse this device.20. Falling Action / Playable Denouement
He ends on a good note here because I think this is a solid idea. However, it raises the question as to when the player is supposed to quit. You can have this amazing climax to a story and end it after a short denouement or you can have a playable denouement where the “story” extends until the player feels they have done everything, becomes bored and turns the game off. The problem with the latter however, is that everyone who beats the game will end feeling bored. This happened to me in the Shivering Isles expansion to Oblivion. I finished the fantastic adventure and then tried exploring the island more only to find there was nothing else for this demigod. So like Kratos, I went to the highest peak of the Isles, jumped off and turned off the console. I know when you have a great experience you don’t want to leave, but sometimes a well-chosen punctuation really sells the story (and can set up a sequel).

In the interests of being helpful and not just taking an e-dump on someone’s ideas, I offer some of my own:

1. Deeper Narrative Themes
Games don’t have to have deep narrative themes (Mario, Tetris, &c.,) but the ones that purport to replace movies need to have them. Off the top of my head, I have a hard time coming up with the themes of many story-driven games. Silent Hill comes to mind. God of War, too. Half-Life gets good marks. Portal even. But we have a hard time discussing the meaning of game stories because they are generally so shallow. This isn’t a game mechanic per se, but it applies to the game mechanics being implemented.

2.  Infinite Save Points
Let me save anywhere. I know you can do it. I don’t always have the time to make my way back to the bathrooms, I’m looking at you Dead Rising. Allow me to turn off the game whenever I like. You can make it that I can only resume from that save once and then I have to find one of your confounding save points for reasons of challenge if you must, but give me that option. Anywhere I can pause, I should be able to save.

3.  Interesting Loading Screens / Credits Screens
Nobody ever wants to see loading screens or credit screens because they are boring. So make them un-boring. Meteos, Katamari Damacy,and Portal all had excellent credits scrolls. Say what you will about the elevator loading screens in Mass Effect, they are better than watching a loading bar fill up. I think Namco holds a patent of some sort on interactive loading screens, so that may be an issue.

4. Less Walking/ Monotonous Travel
Oblivion nailed this. They had a vast world that could have easily been bogged down by having to walk to every location. Instead, you only had to travel to a place once (which in itself was interesting) and then you could warp there from any point forward. One of the things I am getting sick with in Mass Effect is the amount of slo-ass walking I have to do. The same goes for Assassin’s Creed. Tell me again what makes the Kingdom area worthwhile?

5. Integrated Achievements
Achievements aren’t something to be tacked on because it is a TCR. Orange Box did a great job integrating the achievement experience into the game. There was a non-blade menu for them where you could not only view the achievements, but monitor your progress. Uncharted, which I haven’t played but only read about, despite being on a system that doesn’t support achievements, has a set that also unlocks hidden game content. Yes! Give me another reason to jump through your hoops besides the nerd badge and I’ll sign right up as long as the payout is worthwhile.

Any other ideas?

It All Comes Around

Timely. Apparently, Gamespot’s editor has been fired ostensibly over a negative review of Eidos’ Kane & Lynch. This dovetails nicely with yesterday’s post on why you can’t trust reviewers or the major game review sites. Is this enough evidence for you to throw the validity of IGN/Gamespot/1up/GameInformer/etc. into question? How can you trust a game review from any of these places?

Now, I’m not entirely on Gerstmann’s side. A look at his contributions shows 1048 reviews since 1996. If you do the math, it is 1048 reviews over 4014 days or a period of 3.83 days between reviews without rest for ten years. How much depth could he possibly be gleaning from his products? He is like the fortune teller machine at the carnival that prints you out a fortune when you put a quarter in. I guess it can be informative if you hold it up to the light just so. Gerstmann was part of this reviewer/publisher circle-jerk and he got burned. Does Gamespot have an ombudsman? I don’t know. But these sites aren’t going to survive if they just ignore the conflict of interest problem any longer. Good riddance if they go.

Gamespot serves a purpose in that if you don’t actually want to play a game and judge its merits yourself, you can read the site and have a totally uninformed opinion. Many do. With so many games coming out, especially in November, you need to have some kind of filter that whittles the releases down to something digestible. For some reason, people trust these big media sites to do that for them. That’s like going to the car dealership and saying “I have this much money. Find me a car.” Wise idea.

Edit: Apparently, he’s the guy that gave Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 a perfect score. That is actually the watershed moment where I started distrusting game reviews. Fantastic how it comes together.

This Post is an 8.5

I wish so hard that what Tycho says could be true:

The age of the psychic reviewer shaman is over. You should never allow a meaningless, arbitrary integer promulgated by an arbitrary voice who came to power arbitrarily make decisions for you.

And maybe for them and a select group of extremely individual gamers that is true. But when the correlation between Metacritic and sales is there (sorry, can’t provide a link) and the people who pull the strings make the causal leap that A actually causes B, the unfortunate reality sets in. Metacritic projections lead to sales projections lead to budgets that are set before the game is even alpha. How reviewers will react to a particular feature is a conscious calculus that we have to make. The reviewers hold tremendous disorganized power. Even people here in my studio, who should know better, read Metacritic to make their decisions on what to play.

Reviewers serve a good purpose in that they can clue us in to absolute pap before we plunk down $60. If that actually happened in real life, that is. Too often, an entirely mediocre game will get the star treatment by the early reviewers duping innocents to boredom. If you get burned by this, you learn to distrust reviewers. Most don’t experience this because they don’t know better. If a review reads like a buyer’s guide, I instantly distrust it. If it is a description of a personal experience, I read with less skepticism. This is why I read bloggers far more than IGN/Gamespot. I actually don’t know the last time I read an IGN/Gamespot review that wasn’t of something from my studio because I have no reason to care what they say otherwise. It means as much to me when they say Assassin’s Creed is a 7.0 as it would if they said Assassin’s Creed is rutabaga.

I’ve met reviewers. They’ve all been good people. Their craft is just completely broken by design, even when you take away the arbitrary numeration.

Careful

I normally don’t post YouTube links that are getting shuffled around because… you know… you’ll get it eventually from ten other sources, but here is a Canadian PSA about… um…? being aware, I guess? Anyway, it is definitely not for children or the easily offended/disturbed. Apparently deadspin.com says it was being aired on a hockey recap show in Canada. I just hope the wee ones weren’t watching. I’m not the sheltering type, but I know that would have been nightmare fuel for me up until about puberty (when I became invincible).

On Multiple Endings

Here’s a great article on game writing from Susan O’Connor via Gamasutra. She makes a great point about the focus of games (and television) on the middles of stories. While I don’t agree with her definitions of when the story begins and ends (I don’t think that the primary conflict is the entire story), there are a lot of good gems in there.

For instance, there is this on multiple endings:

“If you have multiple [endings], I think two is the maximum. It either works out or it doesn’t. When it comes to multiple endings — well, you might as well just break your writers knees with a crowbar, as trying to make just the one amazing ending is hard enough.”

I’ve always had problems with multiple endings for a variety of reasons. The primary reason is that you are creating a lot of unresolved detail in most cases. Let’s say a player spends the first 50% working towards the “good” ending and the last 50% working towards the “bad” ending, to simply. He can only get one of those endings, so all that writing work making the character out to be a saint in the first half will never be resolved. Additionally, writers have to make multiple endings that logically follow from the events. Usually when you watch a movie, you have in your mind (at least I do) a number of paths that the story can go down: the hero can win, the hero can beat the bad guys but lose something of himself, the hero could be wiped out (almost never happens), et cetera. As details come to light, some of these endings disappear as incongruent or non-viable. But if your game supports all these endings, you can never include details that shy away from a particular ending (or more importantly towards a particular ending) without creating an incongruence.

Writing, like audio seems to be vastly under appreciated in the industry, which is why I suppose they have a separate GDC to segregate them.

Kongregate

I recently found Kongregate, which is a great way to waste time at work (as if I needed another tool for that? Thanks, Internet). I was impressed by the simplicity of The Timewaster, which does some clever things. Warning: if you plan on playing the last level, it is NSFW. I think I’ll be exploring the site some more today.

I also played some Orcs and Elves on the DS last night. What a fantastic old school dungeon crawler! I doubt I’d enjoy it so much if I didn’t have the pangs of nostalgia that come with it, but what a great market we have where id can make something like this

On Lists

I week without updates is detrimental to a blogger who is starting to get readers, but it was a holiday and I am knee-deep in Assassin’s Creed, Rock Band and Mass Effect. Saying anything substantial about those games, I feel, would be premature.

Via GameSetWatch, (which I should add is becoming one of my first stops on the blogging rounds) I saw this Gamasutra piece from Ernest Adams* about the games of the past decade that he felt “were especially important from a design standpoint”.  The article reads more like a short history on the past decade of games than on innovation. His sort-of lasting game of the year awards go to games that were fun and innovated in their own area, but nothing that truly busted the door down. Battlefield 1942 over Animal Crossing? Myst 4 for giving everything aural feedback? S.T.A.L.K.E.R.? Really? No mention of Prince of Persia? Puzzle Quest? Burnout? Counterstrike?! Who is he even writing the article for?

I keep my own list of Games of The Year and have since college as something I can look back on in a decade or so and go back those formative experiences. I make no allusions of their innovation. These are just the games that touched me in some way that I will most likely remember them a decade hence. Most of them did do something truly innovative and that’s why they stick out. In 2008, I imagine I will update the list.

I imagine this is the time of year where I am going to have to read diatribe after diatribe on how amazingly Important (capital I) Bioshock was. It was a great game. I enjoyed it quite a bit – I even played through it twice. But if we are going to throw a ticker-tape parade for every half-realized great idea implemented in games, then let’s do it equally for Blacksite, et al because there is no real “moral choice” involved anywhere in Bioshock. You can praise the setting as the setting is fantastic (indeed one of the best since the Oddworld games), but the next person that insinuates that the game had a great story when it had a narratively broken third act gets an e-boot to the head.

I digress.

The following is my aforementioned list, starting in 2001:

2001 – Halo, Ico
2002 – Splinter Cell, Jet Set Radio Future
2003 – Disgaea, Beyond Good and Evil
2004 – Katamari Damacy, Burnout 3: Takedown
2005 – Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, Psychonauts, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Meteos
2006 – Oblivion, Dead Rising, Guitar Hero II

Again, it’s a personal list, not meant to as definitive as Adams’ broken list.

*As a full disclaimer, I generally dislike Ernest Adams after picking up his book (won’t link) in college mistakenly thinking it would teach me about game design.

Free Points Inside

This is sort of a follow-up to my “Favorite Achievements” post.  Here’s a game where you can “earn” 1000 Achievement Points in twenty seconds of gameplay. This is easily the worst example of achievements on the 360. It’s easy to think that this was a conspiracy on the part of the designers to create something for achievement whore so they will buy or rent (and then force rental places to buy) the game. But I honestly know it must be less pernicious.

The developers were working on a licensed title awarded to the lowest bidder and had to throw something out there with minimal adjustment and flair. Microsoft requires at least five achievements in each 360, but they don’t require five different achievement hooks. So the producers saw they could fulfill the TCR by implementing one hook and reusing the code five times. It’s not that they are bad designers, they just didn’t or couldn’t care to do anything more. As such those achievements are the most inane and least satisfying achievements on the console. There is no “achievement” involved, per se. Without playing the game, I wonder where else they honored the letter of the law but not the spirit.

I’m three hours or so into Assassin’s Creed (simply excellent so far – GameSpy can eat one) and the specter of Mass Effect and Rock Band are on the horizon. Additionally, the roommate bought Super Mario Galaxy and the co-op waggling isn’t terribly un-fun. I still haven’t finished my time with Orange Box or completed Legendary on Halo 3 or finished Dementium or Prism on the DS. Next March or so, when I am all excited about whatever mediocre delayed game came out that month, I need to look back at this week and realize what a golden time it was.