Name The Game

Hint 1: Fanboys go nuts over it. They line up for it on release day.
Hint 2: Nearly incomprehensible to new players. You have to already know how to play it to enjoy it.
Hint 3: Complete monopoly on images involved.
Hint 4: Little change to main mechanics year after year. New features appease hardcore fans.
Hint 5: Polished in some areas, but not others (online, load times, clipping, weird menu quirks).
Hint 6: Day Zero bug issues cause recall.


Do I mean:

or ?

GDC Miscelleny

So I wrote a whole post on how Patrick Redding totally trivialized David Freeman to his face (by accident, I think) after Redding’s awesome Far Cry 2 Narrative Design talk at GDC, but I deleted it after deciding that no one wants to read about my schadenfreude and it’s not the most professional thing to make someone’s embarrassment public, even if they are pompously self-important. So scratch that off of my earlier things-I-promised-to-blog-about-after-GDC list.

Instead, here’s a post about almost everything else I promised to talk about post-GDC.

1.  I met so many fantastic people at GDC.  I’m not much of schmoozer or particularly deft at networking, so I was expecting that the sessions themselves and not the people would be my highlights for GDC, but I was wrong.

At the Game Design Workshop, I got to meet Frank Lantz of area/code. They do a lot of urban multiplayer-type games which I don’t really care about, but they also did my favorite Flash game of all time whose design I am totally going to steal adapt some day. He’s a great guy that had so many poignant insights when we were doing our activities that I’m really super-glad I made that connection. I also met Robin Hunicke there (MySims, Boom Blox) who made me stop feeling like less-of-a-hack-in-a-room-full-of-veterans than I had been and is super-amazing in every regard.

At the sessions themselves,  I got to meet Mark Nelson who wrote for Oblivion, Morrowind, Fallout 3 and wrote one of my favorite comedic characters in all of video games, Sheogorath. So it was a pleasure picking his brain for a little while. And I go to talk with Clint Hocking again, who is always insightful. I got to know that Steve Fawkner (that did Puzzle Quest) doesn’t have any magic design juice, he was just in a corner financially and came out with something crazy that stuck. Nice guy. And I met about two dozen other awesome folks that I’m not going to talk about because it isn’t interesting to anyone but me, but if we talked at GDC, don’t take your omission from the list as a sign I didn’t find you or your ideas fascinating or important.

2. Funny moment at the Microsoft keynote. Schappert is going through the titles that sold more than a million units on the 360 in the holiday season. After each, there is a brief pause while the crowd applauds.

Schappert: “Mass Effect”
Audience goes apeshit.
Schappert: “Assassin’s Creed”
Audience goes mildly apeshit.
Schappert: “Guitar Hero III”
Audience continues going apeshit.
Schappert: “Madden 08”
Six guys clap, including me. Crickets chirp. Tumbleweed rolls across the stage.

I mean, come on guys. I know you think sports games are beneath you and I won’t compel anyone to like them, but give us some respect that we are able to put a title out there that tackles similar problems as those other games every ten months (and does it all online too, cough cough) and sells like gangbusters year after year. Yeah, it’s not a perfect game by any stretch and the corporate heads certainly aren’t perfect angels, but the guys that work on the game deserve as much respect as the others on that list, don’t you think?

3. The Gears of War 2 announcement at the end of the keynote was somewhat surreal. They showed the teaser at the end of the Microsoft keynote and let’s just say it was uninspiring. The center channe, I believe, was off, so we didn’t get any of the dialogue. Then CliffyB comes tearing through a paper wall with one of those chainsaw gun things to announce the game. What are its features Cliff? “It’s gonna be bigger, better and more badass…” That’s a direct quote. It’s like a six year old was telling us about the game. You can get away with that shit with your mouth-breathing diehards, but I expect a little more meat at GDC. After the announcement, he walks off stage and the lights go up. Uhhh…. I guess the talk is done?

Okay, I lied. I’m still no where near caught up with GDC stuff. Sometime soon, I promise.

On Gygax and D&D

There’s not really much one can say here, but Gary Gygax has died.

If you are unaware, Gygax created Dungeons & Dragons in the 1970s. Before scoffing that off as mere nerd sentimentality, realize that without Dungeons and Dragons, we may not have a digital game world as we know it today. Besides the obvious point that a large portion of the game designers out there today whetted their craft by being a dungeon master (this one included), the correlation between the expansion of Dungeons and Dragons and the expansion of electronic gaming is something that cannot be dismissed.

Even today, many popular games take mechanics from D&D. Look at Madden, one of the least I-put-on-my-robe-and-wizard-hat games out there. How does the computer know if a player makes a catch? Well to simplify a ton, if the ball is catchable the game looks at the player’s Catch ability, generates a random number and then looks up that random number in a table for a result that is modified by the ability number. Anyone who has played D&D knows this to be a near identical match to the mechanics of a skill check or at the very least, a saving throw.

This is also completely ignoring the quantum leap D&D made where wargame mechanics could be combined with a form of storytelling to create a synergistic whole different than the sum of its parts. A debt which all action/adevnture/RPG games cannot repay.

Finally, the education aspects of Dungeons & Dragons can’t be ignored. It not only taught legions of maladjusted kids great vocabulary, but it taught strategic thinking, drama, writing, drawing, communication, teamwork skills, and so on and so on. Much ado is made about the learning kids can get from team sports, but not enough is made from the opportunities D&D brings because it is culturally maligned.

When we talk about the industry’s great luminaries: Miyamoto, Wright, Meyer, Molyneux, &c., it always seems to be shame that Gygax was snubbed from the list simply because his output wasn’t confined to the digital. Here’s hoping that in death he can reach that pantheon.

Promised GDC Post #1: Indie Game Inspirations

Now that I have the energy to chew food and stand in the same day, I figure let’s get down to brass tacks and talk about GDC. One of the great unexpected experiences I had was getting to play and talk about some truly innovative, interesting and inspiring independent games (x4 alliteration multiplier). So in the interests of sharing the wealth, here are some names and descriptions of games I heard about or got to play:

#1 – Fez

Fez was a game featured on the IGF show floor that I had read about previously in an interview but forgotten. The premise is that you are a little pixel dude living in a 2d subset of a 3d world. You can rotate the world ninety degrees along a vertical axis and interact with the world as if the depth dimension was completely ignored. I’m doing a horrible job explaining it, so you can check out some of their stuff regarding Fez on their site.It is definitely as fun to play as it looks, but there is bad news. One of the creators that I talked with at the show said that the version of Fez I and everyone else had played was more of a tech demo that wouldn’t be released to the public as they are interested in creating something salable with the tech. So the odds of you actually getting your hands on it are slim.Secondly, while the core game design is rock-solid and the game has the base to turn into something really beautiful, it suffers from some pedagogical issues. It’s very difficult for a new player to sit down with this game and make the abstract leap as to what the world needs to look like to meet one’s goals. This resulted in the creator I was talking with giving me a lot of advice: “Jump up to that ledge and rotate twice”, etc. The Kokoromi folks can really learn volumes from the Portal devs on this issue. There needs to be visual cues to teach the player what is useful information and what is background noise. I assumed that there was some signficance to a patch of grass blowing in the breeze in a particularly hard spot. My game designer mind said “that grass is moving because it is a visual cue that something important is happening here so I’ll let myself be drawn there”. After fiddling about at that patch from every angle, I asked the creator who basically said “No, it’s just there as decoration.” Frustrating. Considering I was shown a number of “hidden” areas in the demo that one simply wouldn’t know existed on the first go, some sort of visual cuing would certainly help.Also, there is no reason to be collecting Fezs (what is the plural of Fez?). If there is no reason to collect them besides high score, I’ll probably just try and take the quickest route to the top and miss a lot of clever level design.So tons of potential for a great game is here as long as someone else doesn’t get there before they release something. Crush and Super Paper Mario already have similar hooks on the retail shelves, so time really is of the essence for these guys.

#2 – Polarity

So here is one I hadn’t heard of before seeing it on the show floor. Polarity is an innovative little 2d platformer from a team at my alma mater. The hook is that you wear a magnetic suit that either attracts or repels you (or other objects) depending on your suit’s color which is hot-swappable. Very simple premise, but the team turned it around into a very satisfying puzzle-platformer. I felt guilty because I was hogging the controller because once I solved a puzzle, I wanted to keep going. Luckily for me (unlucky for the team), the game lacks the theoretic panache of other entries, which meant there wasn’t a huge queue for the game. But if you discarded it because you thought it looked like a standard platformer, you’d be missing out on a fantastic game.I completed the whole thing on the show floor. I couldn’t have spent more than fifteen minutes on the whole thing, but the execution was absolutely flawless. Right before becoming stuck, text pops up on the screen giving you hints on how to use your powers in a new way. There was never a point where I didn’t know what I needed to do. The game gave me the satisfaction of solving puzzles and completing challenges without the rote repetition or scaling of difficulty that most 2d platformer game designers take as given.The bonus is that the game is downloadable and free on the team’s website. So play it and enjoy (use a 360 controller if you have the luxury).


#3 – The Path

The Path totally looks like my kind of game – a horror game that doesn’t need chainsaws or grenade launchers. So I stood at the PC on the show floor and played it for about ten minutes. The note near the console said: “There is only one rule and it must be broken.” Since the game told me to follow the path, I didn’t. This caused me to meander in woods with controls that simply didn’t work. I really wanted to find something as cool as the pictures on the website, but I didn’t. The guy who played before me found a sorta-creepy house, but I wasn’t nearly as lucky.As there were disclaimers all over the place that this was an in-progress build, I cut it some slack. It’s clear that the creators have a keen artistic sense, but whether that artistic sense translates over to game mechanics has yet to be proven. As such though, the game lays out a very creepy sounding aesthetic, so I’ll keep my eye on it with high hopes.


#4 – The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
#5 – Xtor Prime Retribution in the Invisible Wars: Wrath of Transperator: Part II: The Prototype

A time-manipulation game that spoofs Chaplin-era farces? Sign me up! I wish I had some hands-on time with this one, but the designer showed off some great stuff including a mechanic where your main adversary is your actions that led up to your confrontation with your doppelganger. For instance, there is a level where you have to touch a pie and then reach an exit. But once you touch the pie, you start a doppelganger who takes the same exact actions that you did from the start of the level and if you touch him, you break the time-space continuum. So traveling in a straight line isn’t always the best patch to take, especially when you have three sets of stacked doppelgangers. That is fucking innovative stuff. I thought that this would be a student project ripping off the mindspace of Braid (Apparently Blow is one of their external advisors or some such), but this looks so much more interesting than Braid, that I have to give them the utmost kudos and hope that I get to play a full and final version sometime soon.The designer also showed off another student project his team did. The idea was to remake a game in the style of B-grade monster movies of the 50s (complete with UFOs on strings), but with the catch that your monster’s mutant power was that he was invisible. Not that enemies couldn’t see him, but that the player couldn’t either. The player could only judge where his avatar was by the effects he left behind (rubble, footprints, shadows for some reason). This makes for a wonderfully surreal-looking experience that is unique to a smaller student project (simply couldn’t be done in a full-budget game). The capstone of the whole experience is fighting the final boss who is also invisible, having to use the environmental cues to see where you are AND where your foe is.

Others: The following games also look awesome but for some reason or another I didn’t get to play them or see enough about them to provide any reasonable comment: Audiosurf, Gesundheit, Crayon Physics Deluxe, World of Goo, Bernie the Pyromancer, Yin Yang

I also got to meet Cactus on the show floor, author of such games as Clean Asia and the aforeblogged Mondo Medicals and Psychosomnium. He recognized who I was when I introduced myself, but our conversation was kind of awkward. Either he didn’t know what to say, was completely tired from a few days of demoing or both. Seemed like a nice guy though. I read on his blog that he trying to start up a business as an indie game developer and so I wish him the best, but I hope it doesn’t destroy that unique spark of his that I find makes his games so enjoyable. Making games for business is so radically different than making games for yourself that I can’t even begin to compare the two.

When I was a TA in a game design class back in CMU (and funnily enough when I look back on my own designs in my student phase), I wanted to just take people by the shoulders and shake them and say “You don’t have to make something palatable! This is the only chance you will get to do something that breaks all the rules! Don’t saddle yourself with the burden of making the next Warcraft/Grand Theft Auto/Final Fantasy, there are bigger ideas out there that haven’t been explored and you are the ones who can do that!” This is what I mean. These games are largely done by students are a peek into daring new mechanics and maybe even new genres that the industry might actually pick up on in five years if it listens. Some will turn out to be gimmicks, but the spark of originality will always be best cared for by the students.

Followup on “What a Great Year”

This isn’t on the previous post’s list of things I wanted to talk about, but I’ve honed down the best games of 2007 list that I drafted in a previous post. My final list for 2007 is: Portal, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and Passage. Passage wasn’t on my original list, but after really thinking about it, it deserves to be. While I really enjoyed Assassin’s Creed and Skate, they were both flawed games, that I am certain will improve on the inevitable iterations. I’ve lost the buzz I once had for Puzzle Quest, even though I still think it is a great game. And while Peggle is still the ultimate casual game, I probably won’t feel a need to come back to it in five years. Has the well ran dry on it? I’m I tired of being pledged to pay for the game for a third time?

As I grow older or rather as I grow more annoyed by working in the industry, I am less impressed by excellent execution on stale ideas. Madden is still an alright game every year, but I find it hard to care, even though I share studio space with the people who give it life. I’m at the last boss in Eternal Sonata which is essentially Final Fantasy VII/Star Ocean: Second Story with a more interesting coat of paint. And while I’ve put thirty hours into it and enjoyed it, it is a saccharine kind of joy because while the mechanics are extremely sound, they just don’t produce the same aesthetic that they did ten, five or even two years ago. I realize that isn’t a problem with the game, but with me.

Rest assured, I’m not straying to incomprehensible pap in a weak attempt to find something new (For instance, Space Giraffe is still a terrible game), I just think my barometer for fun is becoming a little more sensitive to certain inputs.

I read this thread about whether Portal or Passage is the better game with mild disdain. While Kotaku commentors rank only above Gamespot/IGN board posters and Youtube commentors on the intelligence food chain, I was surprised to see people insisting that Passage wasn’t a game. This is literally the stupidest non-trolling statement I’ve ever read on the Internet. By any reasonable definition, Passage is a game. Unless your definition of a game is “interactive software that I am told I will like by websites if I pay sixty dollars for it”, then maybe it isn’t a game, but I don’t know many people who openly subscribe to that ethos. I’ve seen people comment that Twilight Princess had a great, original story in the same tone that one would say “We’ve always been at war with Eurasia”, but I really think calling Passage a non-game takes the cake if cake was an honorable mention for a kind of ludo-Darwin award.

Sorry for the digression. Back to normal posting soon.

Stay Off My Lawn Post

Sorry to my handful of daily readers that I haven’t posted in a couple weeks. I took a trip out to GDC two weeks ago for the first time, which I might comment was one of the high points of my career thusfar. And I will detail that experience below. But the day after I returned to Orlando, I contracted what I will now call the GDisease after apparently the entire industry is suffering from some form of it. I lost the last week of my life. I really don’t remember much of it, but it involved a 103 fever and a lot of sleeping. Today is the first day I’ve had the energy to sit up and read Interweb.

One of the items I read today was that CMP is considering limiting the media passes sold next year. I met a ton of awesome people at GDC this year, but probably two-thirds of them were either media of some sort (and usually of publications I’ve never heard of) or students. The theme of the event was”Learn. Network. Inspire.” Now, it’s great that I provide advice and guidance for students and I don’t mind doing it (I met a lot of cool students), but the point of me going was to learn, network with and be inspired by other industry folks. I almost think there should be a separate GDC for students and recruiters.

At the end of Friday, I exited a great series of talks on designing for established IPs and designing unique minigames to see a line that snaked around the entire second floor of the Moscone. It was for the Portal Postmortem. As someone looking to introduce more iterative design and prototyping into my studio, it would have been a great talk to attend. But because the talk was open to everyone, there wasn’t a chance that an industry person that could actually apply the knowledge would get to see it without camping out and missing other sessions because there were a thousand people waiting in line simply because they liked Portal. So a sarcastic thanks to all the students and media hacks who took my space so they could write an article for their little website. Luckily that didn’t happen with the Bioshock postmortem, mostly because it wasn’t open to everyone but also because it had a larger auditorium. I was able to ask a question to Ken Levine that had been bugging me since I first played it.

It was a good idea to limit E3 because E3 was supposed to be a retailer event, not a press event. GDC is supposed to be an industry learning/networking event, not an E3 replacement. If you want a fan celebration, go to PAX.

Ok, time to take some more medicine, lay down and watch some hoops. Here’s a list of things I am going to post about soon, mostly as a reminder to me:

– There were some inspiring indie games on the show floor at GDC. I want to share them with you all because some of them are downloadable right now. Post forthcoming on that.

– Got to meet and talk with a lot of awesome people. Frank from area/code, Clint Hocking again, the guy who designed Puzzle Quest, the guy who wrote the dialogue for Sheogorath in Shivering Isles, former Tiburon exec John Schappert, etc. But there was a fantastic story regarding “Emotioneering” hack/author David Freeman that I simply cannot wait to gossip over. But I will, because I am tired.

– The Microsoft keynote at GDC was a bit surreal, especially the Gears 2 teaser. More on that later.

Bioshock director Ken Levine offered up a distinctively contradictory set of advice when compared to the writers from Oblivion that I haven’t seen compared online yet and I’d like to post that for readers to chew on.

– Lastly, I played a lot of Eternal Sonata while sick and I found something that I feel happens with Eastern developers quite often (especially in RPGs), but almost never happens in games from Western devs. More on that this week.

– Wait. That wasn’t last. Have you played Chocolatier 2? Quite possibly the best hardcasual game of all-time. And if you don’t know what that means, I’ll tell you.

Glad to be back. I plan on zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….