It’s Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

● 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.

● 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.

● 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.

1 Comment

  1. I totally agree that “mechanics you have to explain” does not mean “bad mechanics”. Just look at Portal.

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