I Wonder if There Will Be A Secret Cult

What’s new for “Diablo III” will be random adventures, where scripted bits will appear almost anywhere in the game, prompting new quests. Examples that Wilson gave: players may meet a caravan that needs protecting for a short period of time, or run into an enemy camp with a boss.

Now I’m excited about new Blizzard things that are old Blizzard things just as much as the next guy, but if that’s your big first bullet point – random adventures – and the best you can come up with as examples is protecting a caravan or stumbling upon a camp of bad guys or D&D trope #2023, then I have very little faith in the design of said feature.

Everything else is a two foot putt though.

Locking Down

My parents were in town all last week and so being a nice son, I offered them my bed instead of having them pay for a hotel room. This led to me sleeping on the couch. That’s a lie. This led me to attempting to sleep on the couch. Let’s hope when I get married I don’t get into trouble too often because I think anyone larger than 5’8″ is going to have problems.

If I’m nonsencial, blame the sleep deprevation.

I went to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino on Saturday and was amazed at the variety of slot machines. There must have been hundreds of thematic variations on the exact same play mechanics. Being someone who analyzes games to a fault, slots are a little too simple for me. Even Roulette is more interesting. I eventually gravitated to a Pick ‘Em Poker machine which I destroyed by first doubling up and then, after taking a break, adding another 50%. High on my sense of self, I stroke confidently over to the real poker tables and had my lunch eaten. Turns out I’m pretty good when playing against a stat table, but against real people I’m less effective. Lessons learned.

There’s this article on the Gamasutra network from an EA guy talking about how they are looking at Talent Acquisition. Since it’s from an EA guy, it gets poo-pooed on the other blogs as bullshit. He has a list of “Top Myths” that he wants to debunk:

Top Myths About Working In Gaming

– Work Hard/Play Hard
– Getting Lost In The Crowd
– Jobs, Not Careers
– Old Demographic Paradigms

It’s the first one that irks me so. It’s not that it really is a truth, but it isn’t a myth either. The author says:

More effective time spent in preproduction, especially focused on locking down game design, helps to make scheduling more predictable and manageable throughout the project lifecycle. While the battle to lessen crunch is ongoing, the industry has turned the corner and is improving work/life balance and quality of life.

This is definitely truth. We [as an industry] are working harder to make life more manageable and predictable. I haven’t been forced to work a weekend since 2006. Nice.

But here’s the rub: “locking down game design”. This means an increased investment in the waterfall method – that we must know exactly what we are building before we set out to build it. In non-entertainment software design, sometimes that can be an appropriate approach. But even the best designers in the entertainment industry cannot type out a design on paper and know that it will be fun when it is coded and put into action. It can’t be done.

So in order to deal with the high cost of turning over employees along with the public relations disasters that can go hand in hand with it, management demands predictability. Predictability requires safe, understood designs. Even with the most understood, safe designs you will have incompatibility and unpredictability, however.

The only way to get exciting results is to encourage innovation. But you can’t encourage innovation and encourage predictability simultaneously. Or can you?

Perhaps if you abandon the waterfall method of planning, you can embrace this unpredictability. Perhaps if we are focused, so focused that we may alienate a few customers, then maybe it can be done. I don’t know. My speciality isn’t management. But I do know that right now the industry is trading innovation for work/life balance. That isn’t a value judgement – it is just an observation.

The other three myths I can stand behind. We aren’t at the point where they can be totally debunked, but progress has been made in the short time I’ve been here. Baby steps.

Shooting for the Bronze

I’m troubled by these Beijing 2008 game trailers.

I think anyone old enough to have enjoyed NES remembers Track and Field fondly. Sure, you do. It didn’t matter that the mechanics were stupid – essentially all button-mashing and press-timing minigames because we didn’t know any better. Olympic sports were supposed to be boring tests of genetic superiority anyway. They weren’t supposed to be interesting in and of themselves, right? That’s about all we could handle from a design point of view back then. We were still a few years from Tecmo Bowl and John Madden Football and Baseball Stars. And even those in their first iterations were baby steps forward.

But here we are in 2008 and we are looking at an Olympics game with 2008-era modeling, textures, environments, interface, sound, commentary, online functionality and 1984-era game design. Why?

The Olympic Games are so interesting. There’s the fantasy of being an Olympian that is completely missed: the training, the techniques, the relationships, the travel, the trials, the pressure, the exhilaration of record-breaking. Where is any of that? There’s the aspect of fighting for your country. Is that handled via anything more than a graphic on-screen?

I don’t watch the swimming events because I give a damn about swimming – I can’t swim. I watch because I want to see these people for whom swimming is a full-time job apply their trade. It’s a fantasy game. I want to live the life of an Olympian like I can live the life of an NFL team in Madden‘s Superstar mode or a player in MLB The Show. It’s more than stringing events together.

And I also watch because of national pride. I want to see the Americans win. How does the game handle that? Does it? Beyond playing the national anthem every other minute when you win the minigame?

I’d love to blame the possible lack of design innovation on a short development cycle, but look how pretty everything looks in the trailers! Obviously they had manpower. They just decided to devote said manpower to art. Why are we stuck with just button-mashing and timing minigames?

My guess is that it was designed mechanics-first without any regard to the desired emotional response of the whole product. I imagine the lead producer said: “We need the following bullet points on the back of the box: Thirty-eight events. Bunch of models. Bunch of countries. Online play. You guys figure it out.” And the designers went off and did their tasks in isolation and the collected whole is uninspiring.

Now I could be very wrong. The game could be gangbusters. But Torino wasn’t. And Athens wasn’t. And they haven’t shown anything that is much different from what we’ve seen gameplay-wise in the past. So either design/production has failed or marketing has failed.

I’m sure Sega is filled with very smart designers. I like to give the benefit of the doubt. But use your hype period. Inspire me. Make scary, risky decisions. Otherwise you rest on your license and must be content with mediocre reviews, mediocre sales and the inevitability that your game is forgotten after the closing ceremonies.

Failure, Fear and Navel Gazing

‘Failing Fast’ has become the new buzzterm in game development. It’s popular because it is easy to point at examples of where it succeeded. Game design isn’t a science yet, it still requires a lot of fumbling around in the dark until the team randomly bumps up against a nugget of fun. And so the more dimensions a team is allowed to flail through, the better chances they are to smash into value. It’s like a spelunking trip where the group will only take the one path decided when they were on the surface versus careful exploration. It’s the difference between a safari at Animal Kingdom and a safari on the Serengeti.

Designers like the idea of being able to better harness their creativity. Anyone that says they can design a great game on paper, throw it over the wall to some engineers and watch it blossom is an idiot or a liar. So the idea of getting new ideas running fast to understand them and to prove to other parties things work is very attractive.

The business-side people like the idea of not having to throw resources at a dead-end problem. They don’t have to invest $100 million on a project that may or may not be good. So if the team has to fail, they’d rather it be failing cheaply.

But the problems occur when neither side really wants to fail fast.

Designers don’t want to fail fast because they have impenetrable egos. Their ideas are always great. If they are failing now, it is because it hasn’t been given enough attention. Just give it time. Give it more resources. Don’t fail so fast. It’s a lot more work to take an idea that is 10% there and bring it to 90% there than it is to create a 10% idea from scratch. A 10% idea can be vague, but a 90% idea has to be crystal clear.

Additionally, designers don’t want to be responsible for failed ideas. They’ll get bad looks from engineers. They won’t be trusted with big features or get promotions if their ideas fail. So they’d rather do things the old-fashioned way: fail slowly and then rationalize. “Well, it was more complicated than we hoped. Players just don’t understand the idea. Marketing didn’t sell it right. QA was being lazy.” And so on. Big failures are too complicated to be any one designer’s fault.

But business-side people don’t want to fail either. Failing costs money. Why would you plan to fail? After all, nothing has to fail: “Yeah, that feature isn’t really good, but let’s just ship it anyway since we did all that work.” And failure is very hard to explain to your publisher or your higher-up bosses. Winners get results. Losers fail.

And it’s easy to not fail: simply don’t take risks. Sit around and discuss what your game or feature or idea could possibly be for weeks and months. Talking about doing something risky is much cheaper than actually doing something risky. Sitting on your thumbs until it is too late to take risks is a popular passive-aggressive tactic among those who would love to take risks but balk when they look over the edge of the Abyss. They aren’t bad people. They are just in the wrong business.

So you need to find designers and business people who value succeeding far more than they value not failing for this mantra to work. You also need a team that values learning from their mistakes and humility over avoiding blame. And we are out there. But it only takes one weak link in your decision-making chain for the process to devolve. Everyone has to be on board.

There’s a time and place for both. I don’t think you have to take big risks to succeed. There’s something to be said about risk management and safety. For some groups, the tools simply are not there to do the same kind of prototyping and iteration that other teams find endemic to the design process. But remember safety comes at a cost. You can not truly innovate, you cannot count on growing market share and you cannot expect your creative people to be sustained forever on a policy of risk evasion.

Informed Choice

If you are going to ask the public for a simple ABC input, why are you hiding it behind a registration wall, Ubi? I refer to their “Choose an Achievement” promotion for Prince of Persia.

Beyond that, here’s what I don’t like about it. None of us potential voters have played the game, so we have no context for making this decision. Is finding long grip falls fun? I don’t know, so why would I choose that option? Is it interesting to run across the whole map? I don’t know. Will I master every fight combo anyway? Or conversely, will it take twenty hours of grinding? Me and you are not equipped to make that decision.

None of these achievements sound like that much fun if you assume Prince of Persia to be like every other action game of the last five years. So what is the point of the promotion? Can the design team really not decide between those three? If it is a simple marketing move, you think they could have given us more interesting options. Give us some hints as to why the game will be different than any other action game out there and we will be excited and your marketing spend will be justified.

Seriously, People

Ok, what the hell. What. the. Hell.

Go buy Boom Blox. Don’t say you did. You didn’t. I’ll even provide a link for you so you don’t have to go searching. There. Do you really want a video game market where short, fun, play experiences are proven to be unprofitable? Do you want to be stuck with only the most bland, triangulated blockbusters that marketing teams can put together? If Boom Blox fails, you won’t see reaching for innovative play from EA for years.

I was incredulous when I heard they’d only sold through 60,000 units. To this company 60k is rounding error. I understood with Psychonauts and Shadow of the Colossus as those don’t have the instant visceral appeal of Boom Blox. Those games were meant for us nerds. No excuses with Blox. It is quality. Go get it.