Sabbatical

I’m heading to the snowy north tomorrow to visit family for Christmas. My posting rate will dip to somewhere in the range of “nonexistant” to “sparse” during this time. I may still post, but not being in front of a pair of monitors for ten hours a day limits my “bored time” which thereby limits my posting. I’ll return on January 2nd, 2008 (The future) with renewed piss and vinegar.

In the meantime, have a fun and (more importantly) safe Christmas and New Years. Be sure to appreciate your friends and family this season. You never know what they mean to you until they are gone. Sorry for the note of somberness, but it is very important. Less somber: It’s my birthday on 1/1. You can buy me a birthday shot on Facebook or something. 😉

Lies Gamers Tell You

There’s a post over at GSW that made me a little nauseous listing the top five developers of 2007. The list doesn’t upset me so much as the reasons for including each. I like Simon’s posts, but this one I just find to be off-base, buying into some of the Big Lies of the year in games. That inspired this post. Here are what I think are the Top Four Lies of the Year. I was going to do five, but every fifth one I came up with paled to the other four. These are sentiments that are reflected in reviews or in the general word-on-the-street that in my opinion do not mesh with reality.

4. “Portal is a lot of fun, but just way too short.”
I kept reading this on message boards that while Portal was entertaining, it was only a four-to-six hour experience. Thank God Valve got to release this in the Orange Box otherwise they would have been pressured to make Portal something satiate gamers who demand an arbitrary number of hours from a genre game instead of letting the game dictate the ebb and flow. Portal didn’t outstay its welcome with one hundred lab levels before the Glados meltdown, which, let’s be honest, is why the game is getting Game of the Year nods. If you want more Portal, there are the advanced levels which are quite challenging. Also, on the PC, there are user-created levels, which show by comparison how sublime Valve’s level design in the original product was. If only more companies would worrying about games overstaying their welcome instead of stretching out an experience for the purpose of “value” (one letter off from Valve!), we’d see a lot more titles finished.

3. Rock Band is a better party game than Guitar Hero 3.
Now, I am whole-heartedly of the opinion that Rock Band is a better designed game than Guitar Hero 3. That’s not what this statement is about. The growing sentiment is that one should just throw out GH3 and play Rock Band exclusively. The problem with this, however, is that one of the ways that Guitar Hero achieved a meteoric rise to mainstream success is that folks could bring it over to parties easily. You can’t port the whole Rock Band experience easily. There’s too much stuff and the drums are cumbersome to assemble and move. One could argue that it is as easy to bring 2 guitars and Rock Band to someone’s house as it is to bring 2 guitars and Guitar Hero, but the real meat of Rock Band is in the four parts working together and everyone knows that. It would have been incredible foresight to ship a carrier inside the box that could easily fit the drums and maybe the guitars somehow. When having people over to your place, Rock Band easily wins, it just isn’t as portable as Guitar Hero. When just playing Guitars, I’d pick Guitar Hero, sloppy charts and all, simply for the song selection.

2.”Mass Effect is a gripping, original space opera.”
Mass Effect is a fun experience overall, but the amount of boundless hype over this game has lead to a tinge of disappointment. The “revolutionary” conversation system is ripped straight from Knights of the Old Republic, with the additions of queuing up answers and voice acting. There is a distinct pause between lines when other audio and animations are presumably loading, and it seems like the characters have a memory no more than two lines deep. Your main dialogue choices are generally “Be a Dick” or “Don’t Be a Dick” with little opportunity to steer a conversation in any particular direction but towards its pre-destined end point. The story’s flow is even similar to Knights. You have a largely linear progression until you open up to a choice of three different missions, and then you go back to linearity. Add a few side quests, an antisocial party member, your own spaceship (Ebon Hawk = Normandy) and viola, you have a Bioware game. It even has the patented Bioware bug of getting stuck in a railing and having to reset.

These are all game design and gameplay issues, I haven’t really touched on the story because I don’t want to cause spoilers. There are two really well-written sections of the game, but other than that you are given flat, one-dimensional characters 100% of the time. (A sadistic recluse? Check. Canderous Ordo in Knights or Wrex in Mass Effect. A somewhat naive spunky girl? Check. Mission Vao in Knights or Liara in Mass Effect. And so on.) The Citadel Council is portrayed expertly as you really feel palpable frustration dealing with the politics of the situations you end up ensnared in, so kudos to the writers team on that. But the overall story is the most generic of space adventures. It makes Star Wars look original. And when you get planet side, you are given the same narrow situations that you already played in Baldur’s Gate, Oblivion and every other RPG since Final Fantasy VII.

There are elements to praise in Mass Effect, but a renegade originality isn’t one of them.

1. “Bioshock has a deep moral system.”

I keep reading this and wondering if I played the same game as everyone else. The entire moral system in Bioshock comes down to a series of singular identical choices: save the Little Sisters or harvest them. But for a moral system to have any depth at all, your choices must have some sort of consequence. The degree of depth of the system is in the subtlety and magnitude of those consequences. In Bioshock, the consequences of rescuing the Little Sisters is that you have to wait for every third sister to get your Eve. Oh, and they will give you additional Plasmids for being such a good guy. What? Why be evil at all? Why be good? There’s very little difference in the game world at all that is a result of this choice. Big Daddys don’t get meaner. Nothing happens to your character. Nobody starts setting traps for you or opening up shortcuts for you if you are bad or good, respectively. There is no reward for being bad. The Little Sisters save you from Fontaine even if you’ve harvested every single one of them up to that point. The only difference between the two paths is some scripted animation at Tennebaum’s hideaway and the end cinematic. Even Mass Effect had a better moral consequence system and their’s was paper-thin: if you are good or bad, more conversation options will open for you for either of those temperaments.

Maybe Bioshock is subversive in this aspect. Somehow they engineered a system that purports to be revolutionary yet is simultaneously morally bankrupt. What an analogue to Ryan’s city under the sea!

To The Nines x Three Sheets = 27 Metaphor Points

This is going to be fairly disjointed because I don’t have much substantial to say on any one thing.

On Rewind. Why don’t games have a rewind feature to cutscenes?  Mark brought this up in a comment to an earlier thread, but I found a need for it this past Friday. I was playing Mass Effect and I am fairly close to the end. There’s a very informative exchange going on when I get a phone call. I assume that I will be reaching a decision point shortly, so I let it run. But as I’m talking on the phone the guy keeps talking. I obviously wasn’t paying close attention because I was on the phone, but I was paying enough attention to realize I was missing stuff before I hit the guide button to pause the game. I know it isn’t terribly immersive to have rewinding, but I’d have to play another 20-something hours to reach that branch of dialogue again – give me a little leeway to replay it if I must.

I am Legend. No spoilers, don’t worry. I went to see this with the Lady and friends on Friday and I was pleasantly surprised at the emotional breadth (not depth) of the flick. I was expecting a shock fest with vampire-zombie thingies and it definitely delivered ther, but it also delivered a solid story, much better than The Omega Man. Why wasn’t there a tie-in video game? It seems so obvious since it foregos one of the least immersive aspects of open-world games, NPCs and New York has natural boundaries in the fiction. I’ll keep it on the back burner.

Gallivanting. We had the company Christmas party over the weekend. The company always takes it to the limit – tre classy. It’s always a blast to see how coworkers go to the nines. I may put a picture or two up at some point, but people will find new ways to surprise you when they put their three sheets to the wind.

iPod. I downloaded two iPod games this morning on a whim – Phase and Brain Challenge. I’ll post some impressions when I get some time in.

A Christmas Story is definitively the greatest Christmas movie of all time. There is no debate here.

Bowl Season

Allow me to sports geek out for a moment.

As a sports game designer, I am aghast every single year with the NCAA football bowl season. Like most fans, (86% on a recent ESPN.com poll – when was the last time 86% of the populace could agree on anything?) I desire a playoff system. Every single excuse has been thrown out there, yet most can be shot down with a simple handling of facts. The BCS is a combination of three systems that don’t work in the hopes that it will make one ϋber-system that does. It doesn’t.

ESPN was showing a simulated playoff system a few days ago when I was at the gym. Basically they came up with the bright idea of creating a ten team playoff system where the ten were the AP Top Ten. Yet this system is only marginally less broken than the BCS because it doesn’t include Hawaii – the only team in the country to be undefeated would still be snubbed of a chance of playing for the championship. This is directly following a year where the WAC again yielded the only unbeaten team in the nation, who beat Big 12 powerhouse Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. So instead of being settled on the field, the championship is settled by individual grudges and biases of AP-voters. A playoff system is designed to fix the problem where humans or computers decide who they feel should be champions instead of actual head-to-head play. ESPN even has a bracket simulator where you can put in your own teams. Better, but it leaves out conference champions because they aren’t in the Top 25.
As a designer, head-to-head play is extremely compelling because any argument that Team A is better than Team B is meaningless and full of wild gesticulations unless the teams actually play each other. You see controversy on Selection Sunday in the NCAA tournament for who gets those last four spots (of 65, around the bottom decile, note) but you never see any argument about who should be champion. You prove that on the court – which is what sports are about.

So my system would be thus: A fourteen team playoff with the following rules:

– All eleven conference champions get an invite.
– The remaining three invites go to the highest ranked team that did not lose their conference championship game. This makes conference championship games de facto part of the playoffs. In this year, for instance, Missouri would be ineligible because they lost their conference championship, but Kansas would be eligible. Tennessee would not, Georgia would. This ups the ante for conferences that have championships.
– Conversely, conferences that do not have championship games cannot get a first round bye. This rewards conferences that have championship games. Also, while this should occur naturally, non-conference champions cannot get a bye unless they are not part of a conference (Notre Dame, Army, Navy).

That’s it. The money, sponsorships, TV rights, etc. can be figured out by the people that do those things, but it would gain so many more viewers than the bowl season does now and would legitimately crown a national champion. Note that teams that are ineligible for the playoffs can still have bowl games, so this doesn’t eliminate them from bowls, just from the National title race.

Here’s what it would look like for 2007:

1 SEC Champions – Louisiana State
Bye

8 Invite – Florida
9 WAC Champions – Hawaii

5 ACC Champions – Virginia Tech
12 Conference USA Champions – Central Florida

4 Invite – Georgia
13 Sun Belt Champions – Florida Atlantic

3 Big Ten Champions – Ohio State
14 Mid-American Champions – Central Michigan

6 Pac 10 Champions – Southern California
11 Mountain West Champions – Brigham Young

7 Invite – Kansas
10 Big East Champions – West Virginia

2 Big Twelve Champions – Oklahoma
Bye

Tell me that wouldn’t provide some compelling sport. Everyone that deserves a shot plays (hello Georgia), the field has its George Masons in the non-BCS conference invite schools, and the first team to bitch about being snubbed this year would be Arizona State and who honestly believes they deserve a shot at the National Championship? And, hey, look – the Rose Bowl can get its coveted Big Ten-Pac 10 match-up in the second round.

The fans want it, I guarantee the “mid-major” schools want it. Find a way to make it happen and you will be rolling in advertising bucks.

Searchers: My name is spelled with a K, not an H

I had a good chuckle at Buttonmashing‘s Tony’s appraisal of weird search strings that lead people to his site. So thanks to those wonderful geniuses at Google, here’s a nice sample of Google strings that people used to get to hiwiller.com in the last month or so:

  • “ascii art coheed and cambria” – Much like nuts and gum, two things that I like but have never put together.
  • “can’t get hands off achievement” – Look pal, what you do with your hands is none of my business.
  • “games that you shoot” – Thankfully, one can use Google to find such a narrow set of games.
  • “how can a man who is poor become a bodybuilder” – I’m pretty sure the only juxtaposition of poor and bodybuilder comes from my RE5 trailer post. But my advise for that searcher: Lift heavy things. It worked for Arnold before he came to the States!
  • “olly brait pic” & “zeeman motors web site” – Huh?

I almost feel like creating nonsensical word pairings in my posts at random intervals just to see if they result in search hits. For instance: “slaying of insignificant cranberries” or “herd-like nondairy seminary”. Also: I’ve had very little sleep over the last three days which is quite helpful in creating nonsense phrases.

Passage, cont.

So yesterday I asked you all to go play Passage (no ‘The’, whoops). Did you?

I get excited about these little game experiences. Passage reminds me of a fun version of The Marriage. Both games are steeped in metaphor, but Passage actually turns it into a fun experience while simultaneously hitting those intellectual strings that make me think about the experience. The creator’s statement explicitly says it is to act as a memento mori and it does quite successfully. At the end of your character’s life, you find it difficult to complete what was the simplest task in the game previously (moving forward). Not only that, but your goal shifts in the five minutes from finding treasure (which requires exploration and planning) to simply trying to move forward to gain points. It’s such a great statement that says “Hey, live for the day because as your time ticks away it is only going to get harder. There’s no better time than now.” When my wife died, I stopped moving, not really knowing what to do. It happened so suddenly. Do I move on? Where do I go from here? Sure it was all metaphor, but it wasn’t jammed down your throat. The game makes you question in a simple gamespace the same philosophical questions that underlay major human life events.

Now if a free indie game can make us ask those questions why are all of our big budget games so vacuous?

Kudos to Jason Rohrer. I’d say he needs to get sucked up by a game development company but I don’t want his spark to be extinguished.