Sunday, December 13, 2009

Blind Gamers and the Spike VGAs

There are (at least) two really insane things about the Spike VGAs this year.

First, they had Stevie Wonder on the goddamn stage, but they let a shitty indie rock band play instead.

Second, in all the discussions of what Stevie Wonder said - that we need to think about how to make games accessible to people with various disabilities - I've seen nothing about AudioGames, a large community doing exactly that.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Argument from Badass.

So, there's this thing called Divine Command Theory.

It states that morality comes from a divine source, basically whatever that divine source says is moral is. As the wikipedia article says, there is a lot wrong with the Divine Command Theory.

There's also a thing called the Rock 'n' Roll Command Theory. No, really. It states that there are no independently existing badass things. Rather, whatever the source of Badassness does is badass. And the source is (obviously) Iggy Pop.

So no, he hasn't sold out by appearing in Lego Rock Band. Hell, it isn't even an unlikely match. Exposing yourself, self mutilation on stage, not wearing shirts, and pioneering new music genres are not more hardcore than Legos or Rock Band. We only view those things as hardcore because of the wonderful Mr. Pop. Had he started out his career reading Little Women to orphaned kittens that is what would be the source of much pearl clutching and censorship and grounding in the modern day.

But what about all the badass things before he was born, you say? Well, I firmly believe that right now Iggy Pop is going out in his Lego time machine teaching the pre-1947 world how to be badass. (Also, interestingly enough, based on his activities shortly after being born it was cool to look at boobs, and puke all over yourself. The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?)

And of course, we've already been told how to be badass in the present. Buy Lego Rock Band and play the crap out of it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Ghostbusters: A Reflection

When I was 8, my friends and I built a Ghostbusting headquarters in my basement. We had a containment unit made out of a desk. Sure, we were participating in the crass commercialism of children's entertainment that would mark that generation and all future ones, but being a Ghostbuster was even cooler than being a Ninja Turtle (and was less likely to get you hurt jumping off playground equipment now often banned).

The new Ghostbusters video game manages, as best it can, to capture that feeling. There are ghosts, and you bust them, and you cause a lot of mayhem in the process, and anything else that goes on is irrelevant. This is the contract you make with the game, and it holds up its end of the bargain. It doesn't matter that it's Gears of War-lite for shooting mechanics, or that the character models are unsettling, or that it's a blatant retread the plot of the first movie. It's just really fucking cool to carry a proton charger on your back and fire it at a giant marshmallow guy throwing cars at you, or stand around in a graveyard yelling at your friends not to cross the streams.

The only design element aside from that I want to call out is the clever use of poltergeisting to block off initially open areas, making the levels feel much larger than they are without using invisible walls.

If as a child you ever pretended to bust ghosts, this is the game for you.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Stabbing My Eardrums

Peripherally related to the last post: There's a lot of work that's been put into 2D sprite filtering algorithms over the years, so you can get extremely good results when scaling 8/16-bit style sprites up to modern resolutions. The ones in Genesis Collection are actually very poor, but other emulators have much better results.

I think we should take that theory and apply it to the audio capabilities of those machines, to at least smooth out some of the noisier and higher-pitched effects of the era. At least then I won't stand there trying to cut the dog in Beyond Oasis in half.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fatal Labyrinth: A Review

As someone who played Nintendo consoles as a kid, my exposure to Sega is pretty much 1) Sonic, and 2) the trainwreck they are now. So Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection - the headlining title being the least interesting - is pretty much designed for me. One thing I was stunned to find on it was Fatal Labyrinth which as far as I can tell was the first console roguelike. In fact, released in 1990, it's contemporary with Angband (and so not too surprisingly, it's much more Hack-like than future Japanese roguelikes - persistent levels and only a cursory town).

Honestly? The game is crap, even if you can fly. But as is usual for roguelikes most reviews complain about the reviewer's dislike of fundamental aspects of the genre, rather than the particular implementation. That is if you handed them Shiren, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, and ADOM, they'd review them all the same.

What Worked
The level generation, including secret doors, was fine. I think it was a little more interesting than the random generation present in later Chunsoft-developed roguelikes. Rogue is meticulously balanced in terms of food vs. exploration and Chunsoft games tended to ignore that by eschewing secret doors. While there's an abundance of food in Fatal Labyrinth you can't actually pick it up and need to eat it on the spot, so starvation is a real threat in the early levels if you explore inefficiently.

The "you've been on the level too long" notification, common in Japanese roguelikes, is found here. Probably for the first time. Between this and the food, the game does a good job of forcing you into progressively harder levels at the right pace.

There were breeders, enemies that spawn copies of themselves.

Statistically, the difficulty curve was good, but I'll get to some particulars of why it was bad at the end.

What Didn't Work
The controls. I don't think I was happy with a set of roguelike controls on a dedicated gaming device until Izuna Ni. Notably, you can't turn without moving.

The UI. There's some excuse here for the same reason as the controls (I won't blame it for attack numbers getting truncated to two digits) but in other cases it's horrible. You can't see what an item is until you pick it up, you can't see how satiating food is until you eat it, and if you cancel out of the second or third stage of the three-level menu you need to start over from the first.

Loot is shallow. There's a lot of things (and the full gamut of types - armor, scrolls, wands, rings, and a couple classes of weapons) including some cursed items, but they don't have +X/-X variants variants.

The key place the game falls over is risk management. The primary goal of the player in a roguelike is to minimize the effect of the random number generator, because unpredictability is always what makes you lose. This problem manifested in two ways. First, damage variance was enormous. Tracking damage per hit looked like 12, 5, 106, 45, 19, 2, 95. Especially when you first encountered enemies I had no idea how much damage they could do, even after they hit me half a dozen times. Even if I knew I was safe I had no idea how long it would take me to kill the enemy.

Second, I had no options to mitigate non-damage risks. It's common for there to be rings or scrolls that will prevent some class of status ailment or raise your resistance to it but this game had no such thing I could find. I probably spent 90% of levels 15 to 25 confused, and all the items to fix that are consumable. None of the rings or armor offered me resistance benefits I could see, and the enemy attacks could be done at range so using a bow or shuriken did not help.

Fatal Labyrinth is a game I'm unlikely to ever play again, but as first efforts go it's an admirable re-imagining of Rogue for a console system.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A little more on Flower

The Flower developer diary is interesting. It could do without the Sony PR push, but then Flower probably couldn't have been made as it is without the Sony PR push, so you take the good with the bad.

I don't think I buy the "video game version of a poem" concept. Passage is a video game poem. Flower is a novella. The problem is that most video games are the equivalent of doorstop fantasy - next to George R. R. Martin, most modern literature will look like a poem. By this I'm not just referring to length, but content and structure - Flower progressively presents a theme and has a beginning, middle, and end, just with minimal filler. Actually so does Passage, so maybe I should consider something like Tori Emaki instead. This is a thing that eschews the literal for the aesthetic, which Flower and Passage do not.

It's interesting to see Penny Arcade claim "there isn't enough "product" here to be satisfied" when their own game came under fire for much the same thing at twice the cost and 2-3 times the play length, but far more filler and recycled game mechanics. That may be the video game equivalent of pulp fiction (it's even serialized).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Games You Missed: Blue Lacuna, Spelunky

I want to advertise two independent games I've been playing recently.
> cry
You feel only the mounting dread of impending loss. The loss itself is not yet real.
Blue Lacuna, by Aaron A. Reed, is the deepest and broadest piece of interactive fiction I've played. Granted, it's not a community I keep up on (regrettably), but I enjoy it more than Jigsaw and Galatea which were my two favorites. There is a prequel, Blueful, which is a bit too pretentious for me.

Spelunky (which really needs a better homepage at this point) is a roguelike platformer. By this I don't just mean the levels are randomly generated (although they are) but that it's difficult but rewarding, its interactions are multifaceted, it's short, and it's score-focused. It is also best played on a gamepad. It's by Derek Yu, who is one of the co-authors of Aquaria.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Flower: A Review

I have nightmares about the first third-person cameras in 3D games, especially in console games. Especially Crash Bandicoot, but even Mario 64 was inaccessible to me at that time. I retreated to a world of arcade and simulation games and eventually stopped playing enough games to be considered a "gamer" until 2003 or so.

Flower recalls the worst of that experience. Loose controls and a poor sense of depth. Entirely new movement aspects to consider like my turning radius. Homogeneous level designs with invisible walls and few landmarks. Undifferentiated paths and points of interest. Am I Mario or Lakitu? Am I the petals or the wind? Why can I turn around here but not there? Why can't I just slow down or turn the camera to get the angle I want to find this item or make that jump?

Despite that association Flower is not painful to play, and I want to identify why. Rewarding the players for exploration instead of punishing them for stagnation. The abstracted subject matter of the game. The pacing and integration of the themes - indeed, having a theme at all. Environments that are peaceful rather than frustrating to get lost in.

When someone asked me to briefly explain Flower's gameplay (ugh) I said "it's a game about making things better." I was referring to the game's environments at the time but after saying it I realized it went further than that. Traditional wisdom says polishing a game involves steps like "tighten up the controls, add more normal maps, and draw something really huge and evil-looking." Certainly that's one (expensive and difficult) development path. Flower shows us at least one way to step back, relax, reevaluate, and try to make it better.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Reward Schedules

One of the fundamental things I expect from a game is that it rewards me in proportion to the amount of time I spend playing it. This is why I can't stand games that are too long, because the rewards tend to come too far apart. But there are other ways that game designers miss the point and fail to reward in proportion with play time.

Wipeout Pulse is a pretty standard racing game. You do events, collect medals (ideally gold); collect enough medals and unlock more events. One of these events is a Tournament, which is a set of several races back to back. The problem is, you only get one medal for the tournament. There isn't any more or less or different skill than a single race, but I'm only rewarded 1/3 or 1/4 as much per unit of time played. This is really annoying, and I've now cleared the first nine (out of 12 and 4 bonus) race grids having played exactly one tournament. I understand the need for tournaments in an online game, to test player performance on a variety of tracks - but in the single player game, you've already done that by making me play all of them against the same AI controlled cars I'll play against in the tournament. [I wrote this paragraph before Wipeout HD came out. It has the same problem.]

There's a fine line between rewarding players for time invested and for skilled play, and I also get no satisfaction from rewards simply for time invested. David Sirlin has already written everything I want to say on this subject:
Here is what World of Warcraft teaches:

1. Investing a lot of time in something is worth more than actual skill.

If you invest more time than someone else, you "deserve" rewards. People who invest less time "do not deserve" rewards. This is an absurd lesson that has no connection to anything I do in the real world.
The problem isn't specific to WoW, though. Too many games, MMO and not, reward time investment over skill improvement. Skill improvement is often the result of time investment, so it's hard to distinguish sometimes. Still, there are clear cases of games that have unmotivating rewards, not because the rewards aren't interesting, but because they're handed out in the wrong ways.

My desire, which I don't think I've seen a designer formulate explicitly before, is that I want to be rewarded a number of times proportional to how long I play, but with a quality of reward proportional to how well I play; additionally I want my reward magnitude to diminish as I play things far below my demonstrated skill level. This is an oversimplification in some ways - varying the reward frequency randomly is much more effective than a reward every hour, for example - but is what I basically want. If I play a level for an hour and get 100 points, playing for two hours should get me about 200 points. If I play a level further in the game, I should get at least as many points, and also a special hat; if I play that level twice, I should get two hats.

To bring this back to Wipeout: Tournaments should reward me proportional to the number of races in them. A gold medal in a tournament should be worth 12 points instead of 3. The game already does a good job of doling out rewards with magnitude proportional to my skill level, by unlocking new harder, faster tracks when I beat the old ones. To balance that, playing levels from grids before my current one cannot unlock future ones, only raise my raw score.

Although the application for Wipeout and other arcade-style games is obvious, the general principle works when analyzing other games. In Sim/Tycoon games for example, it's easy to get a stable supply of money and rake in profits slowly forever. But you can keep building more and more complex parks, taking on more risk to prove your skill at the game and get a bigger reward - manifesting as more money faster, and a chance at an even more complex environment. Design elements like tech trees also make sure that to get the coolest things in the game, you need to task those risks and not just amass money.

In RPGs, I can grind for XP and level up my characters. But superlinear level progression means this stops being effective unless I push myself, and I'll never see new content - plot, environments, items, and so on - unless I move past the area I'm in.

Poor reward handling has hurt a lot of games for me recently - Assassin's Creed was enjoyable except the game's main reward mechanism is making you better in combat, when a key element of the game is avoiding combat. Fallout 3 stopped handing out primary character advancement 20 hours into an 80 hour game (by contrast, my Oblivion character has a dozen stats I could increase after 120 hours, but it stopped giving me exciting equipment, which Fallout managed up to hour 50).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

They Only Met Once

What we found out is that each of us is a bro, and an athlete, and a princess... and an onnagirai, stripper, crossdresser, and... some sort of bear thing? Plus the dude who seems to be an empty shell. I guess that doesn't really answer anything. Sincerely yours,
There's two things I want to point out about Persona 4.

It has the emotional maturity of a John Hughes film. It's pretty obvious in this case because of the similar setting and themes, but we're staring at a bog-standard high school coming of age story; not just standard in its themes but also its structure and presentation. Game designers should be pushing more comfort zone boundaries and offering a deeper analysis, especially in a game like this where the game is going to sell to the same group of people regardless of its content.

However, it has the emotional maturity of a John Hughes film. Standing next to the Porky's standard of the video game world - whether that's the incessant whining of a 15 year old Final Fantasy protagonist, or the precocious and unrealistic maturity of a 16 year old Final Fantasy protagonist - it's a huge leap forward in the same way Hughes's films were. For as little as it pushes, it's much further and harder than its contemporaries. Especially contemporaries in the same genre.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I realize I'm a bit late to the new year's party, but trying to summarize an entire year is hard enough. If I tried to do it before the year actually ended, I'd be doing a disservice to DJ Max Portable: Black Square, which came in the mail December 30th. While one of my favorite games of the year, it's not going to make my "game of the year cut", for reasons I'm not entirely sure of myself. When talking about the best games of the year, how do I measure that? Disregarding that game preference is subjective, what priorities do I give to innovation (successful or otherwise), graphical polish, longevity? At least for me, there's a tendency to consider the ratio of my enjoyment to my expectations, which is why Black Square and others, like Metal Gear Solid 4, don't make the cut. Not unlike information theory, the games that meant the most to me this year are those that surprised me. Even if Black Square is what I'm still playing at the end of 2009, it'll have blurred together into itself and other DJ Max iterations. In reality the games of 2008 are not going to be decided here and now, but sometime in 2011 or 2012 when I say "holy crap, wasn't it awesome when I shot that barrel?" (I hope that never happens.)

There is another tendency which people have noticed, and this list is guilty of. It contains more games released near the end of the year than games from early in it. Pessimists claim it's because these are the games played more recently. I'd like to posit that, just maybe, we're getting better at designing games over time. The alternative is incredibly depressing.

No More Heroes
I cannot praise this game enough. While it's come under fire from many reviewers for its supposedly shallow open world and linear level design, those are exactly what makes it a perfect example of a game's narrative themes being reinforced by its game mechanics (and vice versa). Travis's world is stark and existential. Literally the only things to do in the game are kill, sleep, eat, consume, and (the ultimate goal) fuck. The existential crisis of a Final Fantasy character is shallow, because they will invariably face down their destiny - their purpose - sometime around hour 60. The existential crisis of Travis is very real, and the player faces the same one. Have you found an exit?

And aside from that, or maybe because of it, the game dodges the pretentiousness of MGS2 or Braid and is fun on a visceral level. Whether it's beating down a hundred goons or avoiding a crotch laser, you're enjoying yourself the entire time playing it.

Mega Man 9
For all the handwaving about "nonlinear gameplay", "player-driven narrative", and "immersion", here is a game that does them all with aplomb and no one even realizes it. The choices you make in Mega Man are those that really matter - the ones that affect the game mechanics, not the ones that change some text in a dialogue tree or chance the appearance of an otherwise irrelevant NPC. The Mega Man universe is immediately familiar to anyone over the age of 20 (and many of those under it) and the game leverages that to draw the player in with as much meaning (i.e. none) and far more emotional investment (how many broken contollers?) than most other games this year. As for immersion - do you seriously think about something other than this game while playing it? There's no downtime to rest and no mercy for the distracted.

The marriage of new design ideas to tight and polished old games that we saw in Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Pac-Man: Championship Edition is here as well. Downloadable expansions, time trials and leaderboards, and achievements - many of which acknowledge the game's fundamentally old design (can you imagine Halo 3 having a "beat this game five times in a day" achievement?) - all drive home the fact that we really did have some good ideas back in the 1980s.

Fallout 3
I wrote of the ratio of expectations to reality earlier; my expectations for this game were insanely high. Bethesda overdelivered. The game is deeply flawed, from technical and design views. But there's an equally deep satisfaction to be had crossing the D.C. ruins, seeing familiar landmarks, and exploring areas that feel genuinely undiscovered. In a year where level design took a backseat to flashy graphics and writing in so many RPGs, Fallout 3 shows just how much good level design can carry a game just as last year Mass Effect showed how poor level design can destroy one.

Soul Bubbles
A victim of the recent retailer-exclusivity trend, Soul Bubbles is a puzzle-"platformer" with a focus on a slow pace and accessibility. It should be studied by anyone who wants to know how to make a game with a shallow learning curve appease nearly everyone regardless of gaming preferences.

Honorable Mentions
I'm reserving final judgement on Mirror's Edge until the DLC comes out. I think that's the game this really wanted to be, even if the developers didn't know it until after they wrote such a horrible frame story.

Rock Band 2 per se is only an iterative improvement to last year's version. The key this year was that Harmonix showed they knew how to manage a community that now dwarfs most other online games in players and dollars.

LittleBigPlanet is the tip of an enormous iceberg. I think by the end of 2009 I'll know whether it should've been here or not.

Persona 4, Valkyria Chronicles, and World of Goo are simply games I have not played enough yet. They probably belong here.