It’s Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

ā— Sometimes things are so strikingly obvious that you don’t realize them until someone hits you in the face and goes “Doy!” in that mid-90s-TGIF sitcom kind of way. Such was the case when I saw this link from the Hollywood Reporter in ex-colleague Dustin Hansen’s twitterings about writing in games and why it is generally God-awful:

“Every writer will tell you that their first draft is terrible,” explains O’Connor. “But a lot of publishers use first-draft writing in their games because their schedules don’t allow for second or third drafts.”

To complete the comparison between film and games, movies and television shows generally aren’t written as they are filmed in the way games most certainly are. By reading a script and seeing some conceptual work, one can generally glean how a story will work on film. But in games, it is often the case that one can’t gauge quality until he/she can see and feel it which just can’t be done with design documents and is why the industry is moving as much as is affordable into prototyping.

Since you know how you need to revise a script long before shooting and you don’t know how you need to revise a game until it is built, one cannot compare the cost of revision during scriptwriting for tv or film to the cost of revision during the pre-production phase (similar order of magnitude). Instead, the true cost in games is proportional to the difference between early rewrites on film and reshooting on film.

Anyway, that might be obvious for a lot of folks, but I thought it was profound. There are a number of ways to cut down that cost by structuring your project differently but that is beyond the scope of the post.

ā— Speaking of ex-colleagues, Gabe Miller has a comic about zombies on Double Fine’s site. I never knew they allowed their artists to create random webcomics and post them on the company site. That would be unthinkable at a company that employs lawyers, so God bless.

I generally disagree with the uncomfortable disdain that seems to be the zeitgeist for Brutal Legend (largely articulated by Penny Arcade) insofar as the RTS elements go. But the game is not an RTS. Pedants will note that the S in RTS means Strategy and there is very little strategy that can be applied to the stage battles – at least no more so than any basic action game.

I imagine that the problem is that they included too many mechanics that unnecessarily triggered the RTS heuristics for people who were familiar with them. There was really no reason to add the ability to control individual squads of guys. To those with RTS leanings, this is a suggestion to undertake the dynamics of an RTS – manage your units, choose to send them here and there and everywhere. The same goes for the upgrading of the stage – unnecessary and triggers the ‘this is how I win in RTS games, therefore this is how I must win in Brutal Legend‘ logic chains.

So what are people complaining about? Are they upset that Brutal Legend isn’t a rote RTS? Is that what they really want? Is that what they really expected out of Double Fine? I find it hard to believe either. Did marketing mess up and make it seem like players should expect an RTS? I’ll admit, I put on a marketing embargo on the game so it wouldn’t be spoiled for me.

Brutal Legend (and I refuse to use umlauts in the title. Look what happens to poor half.com when you are looking for the game!) is a game that is still rough around the edges. While the writing, art and characters clearly got a lot of revision and attention, the basic communication with the players still feels unfinished. (Did you know you can run? I didn’t. Did you know that double-teaming was core to the gameplay? I sure as hell didn’t.)

And I categorically reject that having to explicitly explain gameplay means that you fail at execution. Sometimes it is the only way for people to learn completely new mechanics and tactics. But I hope that this niche uproar won’t affect Double Fine’s future viability. Both Psychonauts and Brutal Legend were shining examples of originality in a sea of Call of Dutys.

ā— And what the hell, while I’m on an ex-colleague plugging rant, Borderlands is great fun and my buddy Trey is an Animation Producer at Gearbox. So go pick up that game if you want to see what Mass Effect would have been like had they made the actual gameplay interesting.

Updates + Dominion Card Randomizer

I updated the Dominion Card Randomizer (original thread here) to include Seaside’s cards. Thanks to the nice folks who posted scans to the BGG gallery.

I also fixed the bug with the “Attack then React” rule, so you should no longer get duplicates in that query.

I spent extremely little time testing the update since I know you are all getting your Seaside boxes and are clamoring for the update. Therefore, you are all my QA. Thanks! šŸ™‚

As always, questions, suggestions, bug reports and comments are welcomed.

Sorry to those expecting more substantial posts. I realize that September and October have been my weakest months regarding posting since starting this blog four years ago (the archives only go back to 7/07 since that is when I moved to WordPress). I’m doing this graduate student thing with three part time jobs and it is really sucking the life out of me. I have lots to say about Canabalt, Brutal Legend and the like – it’s just a matter of putting fingers to keys for purposes other than writing a critique of some dull accounting case. I only did the Dominion update because people were asking for it.

So I promise I am only on hiatus. I hit Twitter more often because I can do it from my phone in twenty seconds, so look me up there. I’ll be forcing myself to output posts of substance and quality once my life settles down, which it should (God willing) in a few months.

In the meantime, go play Canabalt.

Puzzlegeddon

The good folks at HandyGames were kind enough to provide me with a download code for Puzzlegeddon for the iPhone. I had played the demo of the PC game ages back when Puzzle Quest was en vogue and anything that slightly resembled it caught my attention. Now it is ported to the iPhone which is really the appropriate platform for such a game.

The premise is similar to Puzzle Quest in a way: play an action puzzler to gain resources and use those resources to attack foes. Instead of match 3, Puzzlegeddon uses a sliding mechanic akin to Yoshi’s Cookie but easier as you only need to get a block of five of the same type adjacent to clear those blocks.

Puzzlegeddon is polished and presented well. There are a number of bonus challenges and assorted bells and whistles that pack more value than your average Flash game. If you are a fan of the Puzzle Quest esque genre, you will find a lot to love here.

However, I find the game mechanically flawed if it is attempting to be tactical or too slow if it is trying to be a fast-paced twitch puzzler. Tactically, you only need red or green resources for attack and defense. Blue and yellow are generally a waste of time when playing against AI opponents. Thus, you load up on red and then try to clear the board with green until more reds come up. If you want to play as quickly as possible as if the game were an on-your-toes sort of puzzle game a la Tetris Attack, then you burn out because the timed levels are generally five or six minutes long.

While that sounds like a damning criticism, it shouldn’t be taken as such. The real test of any iPhone game is to see how often you play it when you are waiting somewhere (Idle Time Test) and I’ve fired Puzzlegeddon up a number of times in the past few weeks. It isn’t perfect, but it is executed well and brings a unique addition to any app collection.

Fallacy

This article by Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett is pretty much textbook victory by definition.

Under his definition, even the games he listed don’t make the cut. If a game can’t make it for fancy AI or rendering, then certainly Dead Rising doesn’t qualify. Neither can F-Zero when the pseudo-3D sprite morphing (not parallax scrolling, which is entirely different) simply made a 2D game prettier. It didn’t “fundamentally change the way you approach a game”. Why cite Oblivion when nearly all reviews cited it as Morrowind but prettier? And isn’t citing any Wii game cheating? Sure, we could never have had Wii Sports before, but neither could we have Boom Blox or Tiger Woods PGA Tour in any reasonably proximal form.

His definition of innovation is weak and fruitless. It serves a pessimistic view of someone likely overloaded with the vast array of entertainment titles we have today.

The truth is that there is innovation coming from all corners – even some of the big companies. To only focus on a single point, a console launch, and limit your definition of innovations to any creative movement impossible before said point and unique beyond said point is silly.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, to quote Newton. Was the rise of the music genre not innovative even though Guitar Hero cribbed from Guitar Freaks? Is the rise of socially connected games (as on Facebook and such) not innovative even though all the firms seem to steal off each other? Is LittleBigPlanet not innovative because a watered-down version was conceived on PSP? Or is Braid not innovative because… well I don’t know why Plunkett wouldn’t call Braid innovative. Maybe because it feels like a Mario game at first touch?

Is an innovation in Madden insignificant? The PS2 version simply cannot do the gang-tackling or branched animations that the PS3/360 can do. It is still playing football. But so was the leap from the 2D Madden of the early 90s to the 3d Madden of the PS1 era. Go and play Madden 98 then play this year’s release. If there hadn’t been ten releases in between, would you call the leap innovative? Sure, you would. It is absolutely night and day. Why should the ten releases in-between matter?

I could list twenty games that have come out in the past four years that are decidedly innovative and in my opinion, next-gen. Is he not looking hard enough or is he just jaded from his job of reading boilerplate press releases all day?