Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Winter Blockbusters

With another holiday season upon us, all things gaming are being released in force. This year is a particularly busy one on account of the launch of two new systems. In addition, some of the best games of the current generation are being released. I have already spent many hours playing Okami, Bully, and Final Fantasy 12. On the PC side of things, Company of Heroes, Guild Wars:Nightfall and Neverwinter Nights 2 all sound appealing. On the portable front, I'm playing Contact and looking forward to GTA:Vice City Stories, Lumines 2, Every Extend Extra, and Gunpey. For next-gen systems, I'm eagerly anticipating Gears of War, Zelda:Twilight Princess, and possibly additional Wii games. If I can get my hands on one, I'd also like to try some of the Playstation 3 games. It's certainly an eventful holiday season. It's also one that is sure to be followed by the usual lull in releases, especially since the Wii and PS 3 will be so young.

Not that I'm the first to bring it up, but I have to ask - where are those summer blockbusters? I'll settle for late spring/early fall - basically any season outside of winter. I love those times because they have been ripe for some amazing and occasionally unexpected games such as Eternal Darkness, Diablo 2, and Starcraft. I remember reading once that the window of sales for a hit title was twice as long during the holiday season as for any other time of the year. I also remember the winter of 2004 when Halo 2, Half Life 2, World of Warcraft, GTA:San Andrews, Doom 3, Metal Gear Solid 3, Metroid Prime 2, and the Nintendo DS all came out in close proximity. Why on earth would any other game launch during a time like that? Fortunately for 2005 we received Resident Evil 4 in January and God of War in March. I was still in WoW-land for many months of 2005 and trying to finish or at least play the other holiday releases. When summer rolled around Battlefield 2 was about the only major release to make it out before the 2005 holiday season. Outside of the Xbox 360 and Shadow of the Colossus, it was largely uneventful. And so it goes for many gaming years.

Now granted, I spend a lot of time traveling in the summer (making key portable titles enticing). I still believe I could plug away at two to three 10-20 hour games or one bigger RPG. I suppose the other thing I could do is catch up on all those amazing titles that slipped through the cracks. For some reason a stale air seems to begin gathering around a game the day after it comes out. It's quite hard to fight that. For now, it seems like the buzz is all about a little gem called Halo 3 - coming...wait for it...holiday 2007. At least I can take comfort in the arrival of my Playstation 3, presumably before summer 2007.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Game over, immersion, and the cost of failure

The Game Over screen is long overdue for replacement in many games. Back in the day we all started with 3 lives and got used to the notion that once our last life was up we would be forced to either continue from the beginning of a level or see the dreaded game over screen.

Recently I have been playing Ninety Nine Nights and Halo and the difference between how these games handle player failure is striking. Ninety Nine Nights holds onto a lot of old school game traditions that I believe are due to be phased out, but I want to focus on one particular aspect of the game which involves its complete lack of checkpoints during a level. You can save in between levels and you can replay old missions to build up experience and earn more equipment, but you can lose up to 45 minutes of your time if you die during a mission. Most games nowadays don't throw you back that far but many still show you a game over screen when you die. And every time I see that screen and either get punted to a title screen to reload my game or get treated to a long loading screen, I ask myself the question of whether or not I want to continue playing. If I see that screen several times the answer is almost inevitably yes.

Contrast that experience with Halo, which handles player death far more elegantly. Halo has a number of checkpoints liberally spread throughout the level and when you die you are back at that checkpoint in no less than a couple of seconds. You never see a game over screen or a loading screen. I realize that part of this experience may be due to optimization they did assuming the presence of a hard drive, which is no longer a given. Even so, this is a shining example of keeping the player firmly immersed in the game. When I play Halo, I want to keep playing and only if I die several times during a particularly long checkpoint do I hit the menu and choose to save and quit.

This was also my experience when playing Half Life 2, although to lose the least amount of time you have to quicksave frequently and sometimes this leads to saving when you aren't monitoring your low health often enough. In both of these games, the option to quit is embedded in a menu that you have to manually bring up yourself, and thus you are reminded to leave the game only when you are consciously thinking about it. In Ninety Nine Nights you are presented with the game over screen followed by a short menu asking you to retry, select a different level, or quit. After dying a few times at the end boss of a 30 minute level I often find my eyes fixating on that quit option. As a result, I have broken my game playing into more frequent sessions of about 1-2 hours each. In contrast I tended to play Half Life 2 single player in roughly 2-4 hour sessions or even longer for the sections I really enjoyed.

It seems to me that every time you are shown a menu screen of some kind you are removed from the game experience temporarily, unless that screen is well integrated into the game fiction. The screens depicting the words "Game Over", "Mission Failed", "You died" etc. reinforce the fact that the player failed. It's negative reinforcement. It seems to me that for any story-driven single player adventure part of the goal is keeping the player immersed in the experience and moving forward at a consistent pace. Too many breaks in the action and you stand to bore or frustrate the player.

Given some of my past blog posts about topics such as GameFaqs you may begin to think I dislike difficult games. On the contrary, I've enjoyed playing some of the harder games from this past generation such as Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry 3. I just find myself wanting to finish more games and part of the reason I set aside a game prior to completing it is the unnecessary negative reinforcement that some games toss my way. When I sit down to play a game I want constant immersion and the ability to keep the adventure moving forward. Game Over just isn't doing it for me these days.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

I dreamed of an ideal game store...

One of my favorite activities is browsing the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble. Sometimes I have a specific section I want to check out such as the game magazine rack or the game development book section. Most of the time I come in with no particular agenda and I browse the isles looking for anything that catches my eye. Sometimes I come across particularly fascinating books and I sit down and devour them in one sitting. Other times I make a mental note to pick up the book at a later date. I also make it a point to buy a few books at retail to support these stores for the generosity in browsing that they offer.

For some reason, this particularly satisfying experience does not apply to movies, music, or games. Many music stores offer you the ability to scan a CD and listen to the first 30 seconds of a song if the CD is stored in their database. 30 seconds isn't a really great sample size but at least you can get some idea of what you the CD is about. What I really want is to be able to sit down and browse a magazine or book while letting lots of random music cycle and then being able to get more information about any songs that grab my attention.

The movie watching experience is highly intertwined with visiting the local theater or renting the latest flick. The one area that I have trouble with is tracking down independent or foreign films. These movies usually require extra effort in going to out of the way movie theaters or rental stores to obtain copies. It's a great experience to visit indie theaters or movie stores because you run into other people that are also into more diverse movies. Howeverer, the added effort of reaching these places usually means that I don't get to see as many non-mainstream films as I'd like.

How does this relate to games? Games are in their own world. It's pretty hard to find anything outside of currently popular games at most places. Shelf space is about one-fifth the size of the space allocated to either movies or music. There is also no way to sample the games ahead of time outside of potentially downloading a demo. Demos are not a great representation of the final game and many take an overnight download to complete. Renting is also less than optimal since my local video store doesn't carry about half of the new games that are released.

When I go to specialty game stores I am pressured about trading in or pre-ordering games and buying protection plans. These plans might make sense for some hardware but they have even started to push these policies onto the games themselves. In addition, the selection of new and used games is in a sorrier state than I expect - there are rows of filthy and mismatched games and even some of the new games have no shrink wrap or the original cover. About 50 percent of specialty game store space is devoted to racks and racks of used games and it's often hard to distinguish where the new ones end and the used ones begin.

So what would my ideal game store look like? It would be large - about the size of current specialty music stores. There would be several kiosks for each system and some stations would be dedicated to multiplayer and online games. There would be PCs with reasonable access rates for trying out online games. Perhaps there could even be built in wi-fi access for players to sit down with their laptop or handheld system. It would include retro gaming systems and a large back catalogue of significant games. Everything would be available for rent or purchase. There would be a large selection of gaming magazines that included foreign journalism such as Edge and Famitsu, with accompanying comfy chairs and tables. There would be a section for playing tabletop games. It may even include a few of the latest arcade games. There would also be a section for trying out the latest mobile phone games. Finally, there would be a catalogue of indie games alongside the big budget stuff. The theme of the store would be to bring together different communities of game players along with a large variety of games to play. Think of it as a gaming lifestyle store that celebrates all the forms of gaming and attempts to create a comfortable, stimulating environment to meet like-minded gamers as well as provide a gentle introduction to those that are not as familiar with what's out there. Ideally there would be regulars who may get tapped for purchasing advice every now and then.

How would the store make money? There could be a club that allowed you access to the game library and had different tiers of membership that included things like wi-fi access and rentals. There would be sponsored tournaments and gaming jam sessions. Perhaps there could even be sneak peak events where players could pay a small fee to try out an incomplete version of a hot upcoming game. Maybe game developers would even show up for the release of new games. All of this would feed into selling the games. I believe that if people have the opportunity to sample their entertainment and there is a social incentive to playing they will be more likely to patronize the store. While online gaming is great for playing with your friends it is less than ideal for gaming sessions with strangers. I think gaming face to face is much more attractive in this regard and having a store that encouraged people to play together would generate a lot of interest in games that people may otherwise overlook.

It seems evident to me that people today want to sample their entertainment before they make purchases and we need to develop friendlier ways to capitalize on this trend. I believe that people also want to do this legally and as a society we are simply not providing enough ways to do this. Games also seem to have the unique characteristic about them that they encourage us to be social because it enhances our gaming experience. Even single player games generate a lot of discussion about the various ways players interact with them. I think a great game store would invite, encourage, and reward play and, if done right, the business would easily follow.

Friday, July 28, 2006

What have you achieved this week?

You can see my gamercard on the left side of this blog. I like the idea of gamercards, points, and achievements. I've been a competitive gamer since childhood and I've participated in several gaming competitions. I also used to keep lists of games I had completed along with a tournament resume and personal high score lists. I submitted some of my high scores to GamePro magazine back when they published them.

While much discussion has already taken place around the issue of Xbox Live and its associated gamercards, I've been thinking about them a lot lately and really gotten into the spirit of snatching up as many achievements as I can. When I first heard about the idea of the gamercards I was pretty excited but somewhat skeptical. I figured that they would be a short term gimmick that only a handful of people cared about and that they would be used primarily to drive sales of games and the Xbox Live service. While that may always be true, I'm presently concerned about how achievements and gamercards motivate gameplay choices.

For me personally, the achievements have modified my play patterns. I think about how I am going to play a game ahead of time to optimize my achievements. I do this to minimize the number of times I have to play through the game. For example, Call of Duty 2 gives you the bulk of points for finishing the game on veteran difficulty so I skipped normal and started out on this harder mode. Tomb Raider: Legend also offers a healthy amount of points for finishing the game on hard but I forgot about it at first and played through it a second time to get that achievement. Fortunately the hard mode of both of these games is not insanely difficult and especially for Call of Duty 2 it has an impact on how aggressively you move forward in the game. I think it's more interesting on veteran because it heightens the realism, but there were plenty of times I had to reload after missing the grenade icon and being blown away.

Achievements have also motivated me to play on Xbox Live more frequently. This has been a mixed experience. It reminded me of why I dislike playing on Xbox Live in general. Kids with a foul mouth, lack of players, and insufficient matchmaking all turn me off but I really want those points so I end up playing online anyway. Some players even arrange to trade online achievements at forums such as http://xbox360achievements.org. I don't really see this as being good or bad but I'm certain it goes against the intention of the achievements. To be honest, the online achievements should be the easiest ones to achieve since there are already a lot of barriers to motivating players to hop online.

One of the great benefits of online achievements is that games that don't sell as well have a potentially larger pool of players to match up with. I've managed to find some co-op games of Joust and I enjoyed playing this game with others. The downside of online achievements, and especially the ones that require you to play lots of games, is that it can encourage some annoying behavior. For example, I've played games of Ridge Racer 6 and Burnout Revenge where players sit in matches without actually playing. What this means for those games is that if you are behind them in the race at the beginning and they don't drive you may end up losing because you are unaware they are not actually playing and you madly fumble to get around them after having lost your initial speed burst.

Many achievements also rely on the player finding all of the hidden goodies in a game. While some gamers may not need any motivation for doing this, it will probably encourage others to be more thorough in their exploration. The thing that gets me about achievements like this is that hidden goodies are usually stuffed in obscure places and in order to unlock the achievement you usually need to find 100 percent of all the hidden items. I rarely ever go after all the hidden items in a game, even before achievements existed, because I don't like the idea of being rewarded only in the case of total completion. It seems like 80-90 percent should suffice. Oh well, I guess I could always check GameFaqs.

I guess one could argue that the best strategy is simply to go after achievements you actually care about. It's hard for me personally to check out my gamer profile and see uncollected achievements for games I enjoy. In the end, it means I will either play more overall or simply spend more time playing a single game.

What do these gamer cards mean for developers? In theory, it can give us a better picture of gaming habits and tell us more about what motivates players. I think this is a great benefit. It would be nice if achievements favored different types of gaming choices. I have a friend that plays a lot of the original Ninja Gaiden on the NES. He has set several goals for himself such as finishing the game in under an hour, beating it without getting hit, or trying to beat it using only a specific weapon. I always thought his goals were interesting and it was fun to watch him play. I hope to see achievements that reflect more diverse goals such as the ones my friend sets for himself when playing Ninja Gaiden.

So what would I like to see in the future for gamercards and achievements? For one, it would be nice to customize your gamercard to show off specific achievements rather than defaulting to the last game you played along with the most recent accomplishments for that game. For example, I bow down to players that can get the achievement of reaching wave 100 for games like Joust or Robotron or for anyone that can complete Smash TV without continuing. In addition, it would be cool if the community could "vote" on additional achievements to be added to games. While it would be great if developers came up with a diverse set of achievements, I'm sure players are motivated by some things the developers didn't think of. Every game also has a different community, and some of them may favor different styles of play.

I'm looking forward to the evolution of gamercards and I hope that the other gaming services implement them in some form.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Metagaming: Puzzle design and strategy guides

While recently playing Tomb Raider:Legend I got stuck on a few of the sections in the game because I didn't know what to do next. In times past I would have poked and prodded the environment to find the solution. These days I simply don't have that level of patience anymore. Game solutions should be logical and elegant. I believe many developers are doing the best they can to achieve this but the truth is that sometimes the puzzles and challenges we create don't make sense to others in the same way.

SPOILER ALERT for Tomb Raider: Legend
Here are examples of the puzzles that confused me. They all take place in the England level, King Arthur's tomb. This level made you use a number of objects for the first time without explaining their usage. For example, to get down to the tomb you need to use a forklift to destroy a wall. In previous levels you rarely ever destroyed the environment but if you did it usually involved using your grappling hook or grenades. In addition, your primary reference for thinking about forklifts in real life is for the purpose of picking up heavy objects and moving them to another location. When you first see the forklift in the room you also see many crates stacked on top of each other and notice a potential exit up and above you that you may need to use the crates for. I assumed that I needed to use this mechanic to progress through the level rather than bashing a wall.

This mechanic could have used some type of introduction, such as:
1. Have a worker destroy a wall or other environmental object in a cutscene
2. Use a bulldozer instead. I believe bulldozers make more sense to people as demolition vehicles.
3. Slightly weaker solution - force the player to drive the forklift at high speed and destroy an object. I think the puzzle was initially trying to enforce this on you since I accidentally backed into a tomb and watched it fall apart, but that whole interaction was a little strange to begin with.

A bit later in the level, you enter a room with a statue encased in some sort of glass shell. It seems apparent that you need to break it. When you look around the room you see a bell and a chandelier that you can interact with. There are also lots of tombs about. In a previous part of the level you used a chandelier to break open a part of the environment so your first inclination may be to see if the chandelier can break the glass. Upon grappling it and making it swing you notice it doesn't quite reach the shell. Ok, you think maybe the bell has a role to play in the puzzle. You jump on top of it, hit it, etc. It makes some noise but not much really happens. You decide to explore the room some more. As you walk up to one of the tombs a cutscene ensues and you learn that you can take half of the tomb and push it around like a crate. Previously you had only used crates and boulders to create steps. Once you push the tomb around you notice a broken pillar that you can reach and a rope you can jump to from that pillar. This has the effect of acting as a lever for the bell, effectively moving it upwards. Now you notice that the bell can be struck by the chandelier. The trouble is, you have to walk to a different part of the room, grapple the chandelier, jump on the tomb, jump on the pillar, jump to the rope and hope that the chandelier still has enough momentum to hit the bell. If it works it triggers a crack in the glass and now you can walk outside again.

To keep the puzzle solution similar to the one in game I would have either allowed the chandelier to swing for a longer time, allowed it to be grappled from the pillar, or allowed the bell to hang in the air for a while. My guess as to the reason none of these approaches was taken has to do with the intrinsic physics values assigned to the rope and chandelier. They probably wanted to keep them consistent for all objects in the game, which makes sense.

Soon after, you encounter the boss. Once again, another strange mechanic that had never been introduced before is the key to winning the battle. You have to shoot some pillars over and over to make sounds that attract a water beast to listen, at which point you switch to your grappling hook and latch onto a lever that drops a cage on its head. Up to this point the boss encounters mostly consisted of shooting enemies with your guns. I understand they wanted to use some variety in the battle but this game mechanic was also cited as confusing in the guide that I read to understand the solution. It relied on a new mechanic that is never explained to the player.

This whole level had mechanics that did not adequately tap into knowledge gained from the game or real life and I simply cannot understand why it is assumed the player would figure it out. There is a device you can use to get hints on what you can manipulate in the environment but the comments that Lara or her allies make when using these binoculars give you no indication as to what role it plays in the puzzle. It seems like Metroid Prime's scan visor was the inspiration for this device but the difference is that the scan visor in Metroid Prime gives you very specific clues on what type of weapon you may need to use to destroy something or alludes to the fact that in order to solve the puzzle you may need to use other objects in conjunction with the object being scanned. One final note: this game is actually one of the most enjoyable games I've played in a while, so my criticisms here are only cited to give a more detailed explanation of where I'm coming from.


So I went over to GameFAQs to expedite my journey. This is one of my favorite resources for finding hints on games. I'm not a big retail strategy guide fan. I like the fact that there is a community devoted to making awesome strategy documents for just about every game. For many games I find myself checking out this site at least a few times to either find solutions or track down any hidden Easter eggs that I missed. When searching for hints this time, I was struck with a slightly disturbing thought. Are we, as developers, counting on strategy guides and FAQs to make up for any shortcomings in our puzzle design?

I doubt that any developer intends for this to happen. We'd like to believe that our puzzles make sense to the majority of players. The problem is the ease with which gamers can turn to outside resources for any solution they may need. I certainly get annoyed when I feel like I have to do this, but I have gotten used to it. I don't really think twice about checking a resource unless it's a game I really enjoy and absolutely feel the need to find everything on my own. Metroid: Zero Mission was one such game where I didn't necessarily know the method for acquiring each item but at least I could visibly see them and develop strategies for their acquisition. Some games may stump me but if I really think abut what the game is trying to teach I can generally come to a solution. Zelda games fall in this category. More often than not the solution involves using a recently acquired item, but not always in the way I had originally expected.

What about those games where the solution is not so apparent? I see this problem more often in games with realistic graphics and environments with objects that don't stand out a whole lot from the area around them. In many cases the way you are asked to use the object is not obvious from its appearance. Certainly there are ways to highlight these objects more and to give the player hints as to how to proceed. I imagine that for well polished games what tends to happen is that the designers decide on what they feel is logical and focus test the puzzle to confirm that their groups solve it in a reasonable time span. The trouble with these focus tests is that they represent a small sample size. What about the rest of the potentially millions of gamers that haven't sampled the puzzle?

They either get bored, frustrated, or seek out a solution. I tend to hit the outside resources more often towards the end of the game when I feel close to completing it. Sometimes I even find the right solution but I didn't push a box all the way in or align every aspect of the puzzle just so. Those situations are unfortunate because the solution may be mostly correct but having a binary feedback system makes me question my strategy, verify it from an outside source, then go back to trying to make the game understand what I wanted.

I sincerely hope that someone at each company is tracking which puzzles stump players the most and is sending that feedback to the team. While the sharp, experienced developers may have already learned a lot of these lessons we need to pass on the information to the upcoming designers who may create puzzles they find seemingly logical but don't quite work as well in practice. I also encourage developers to try finishing their own game, even if they are an artist or engineer so that the designers have more feedback on how intuitive the puzzle design is. I've seen situations where game elements needed to be simplified but no one had said anything to the person in charge of that section.

There are several steps I believe we can take to help with puzzles becoming more intuitive. The first step is providing a tiered feedback system. Why force players to run patterns over and over without giving them any advice on the approach they are taking? This feedback could be in the form of sound effects that range from a tone indicating total failure to one indicating total success. Zelda does a fantastic job demonstrating what an iconic success tone sounds like. Another mechanism we can use is including a hint gathering tool. I don't like the ones that force you to drop out of the game into a menu, but the ones that are a natural part of the interface (such as the scan visor in Metroid Prime) provide an elegant immersive solution to providing a hint system. Another important way to highlight puzzle solutions is through the graphical style we use to represent the objects in our games. While we may want to have the sharpest lighting and most realistic textures, we should think carefully about the way we point out objects the player can interact with. Can placing an object in a different part of the room set off a clue as to its utility in a given situation? Absolutely - Tomb Raider: Legend had several cages and blocks placed at just the right spot to force you to see both the object and its intended use in the same screen. These are just a few ways I believe we can make puzzle solutions a bit more natural. Focus testing should also be done on puzzle areas with measurements taken on how long it takes a player to get through a given section. Ideally these tests would be done with several different groups of players of varying skill levels and game knowledge.

Strategy guides and FAQs should serve as guides and not be a near necessity for many players to complete games. As I find myself reaching for these resources more often I take notes and build up my library of thoughts on level design. I propose aiming for the goal of not needing a FAQ to complete a game. Ideally, for me, each game that uses puzzles would stump the player on several occasions but wouldn't push too many players into a FAQ hunt for clues if they are trying to finish the game on a first play through. For hidden goodies and unlockables I'm all for making trickier problems but to reach a broad audience I think it's important to keep players moving through a game at a reasonable pace. Puzzle solutions need not be simple, but shooting for elegant and intuitive seems feasible.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Special editions and making-of features

I love all things "special edition" and "making of" when it comes to DVDs. I go out of my way to watch featurettes but I don't always listen to each individual commentary track. I really enjoy getting behind the scenes glimpses into how things are made and the effort that goes into a large creative endeavor. It's also interesting to contrast how production varies between movies and games. In particular, I was struck by how rigid filming deadlines can be and the necessity of getting a scene shot in the span of 2-3 days. While I know we all develop games under strict deadlines I just can't imagine only having a couple of days to perfect a feature even if we were a year or more away from shipping. Maybe this would be a good thing. Unfortunately I know some companies are forced to sacrifice feature quality for time. It would certainly be nice to develop our technology and expertise to the point where we could develop somewhat accurate predictions on the resources needed for a given feature or scene.

What I'd like to see are more games with making-of features and more interesting methods used for doing so. While I love watching the behind the scenes DVDs for games such as World of Warcraft, God of War, and Halo I was also particularly intrigued by the commentary nodes in Half Life 2: Episode 1. For anyone that hasn't played the Lost Coast demo or Episode 1, the commentary nodes are basically floating bubbles that activate a developer commentary track when you aim at them with your crosshair and press one of the keys. They render you temporarily invincible and any game cinematics continue to play while the commentary track is going. This is pretty cool because you are actively playing the game and hearing about what went into a particular scene or game element. When I started listening to the commentary track it also answered some of my questions about why they made certain design choices. It was insightful because I got to see it in the exact spot that I started thinking those scenes seemed a little out of place. It's also in the nature of keeping games interactive and plays to the strengths of the medium.

While games like God of War let you explore their content in a museum like setting and show you lots of videos demonstrating levels and ideas that got cut, it would be even better if you could actually fight some of the enemies that got cut or run around the levels that didn't make it in. Maybe you could even play an early version of the hero that was replaced. They'd obviously have to put up a large disclaimer stating that the level is an unfinished and unpolished design, but it would be great to try them out first hand. It may also allow the developer to receive feedback about potential features to include in future games or reaffirm the status of those features as being valid for removal.

I think a solid making-of feature would help all developers gain insight into the process that goes into creating each of our games and would help us better understand the reason why a HUD icon works the way it does or why the player cannot respond the way we expect at times. In our quest to make the greatest games possible we sometimes tend to do things a certain way because another commercially successful game handled the problem in that same way. Perhaps the creators of that game wanted a more robust solution but ran out of time or playtested a different method of handling the situation and ended up with what players see in the game. As an industry I think we would all benefit to gain even minor glimpses into the thought process that drives design decisions. Gaming fans would also get a kick out of understanding how games are created. In short, everyone would benefit from insightful commentary and making-of features in games, so when are we going to start seeing more experimentation on this front?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Episodic content done right

Game length and pacing have gotten out of control. While I once maintained a list of all the games I finished and looked forward to overcoming each new game I find myself cutting many games off around the 2-3 hour mark these days. Part of that is because of lack of interest, part is because of lack of time, and part is because I know I have another 20-40+ hours of repetitive tasks left to finish most games. I also consider myself an avid consumer of RPGs so length hasn't traditionally been a problem - I still look forward to great RPGs and enjoyed Final Fantasy X immensely.

Sometimes complexity is the culprit. The tutorial and manual for Civilization 4 scared me from playing it again. Civilization 4 was essentially my introduction to the series and learning all the rules and strategies was pretty mind boggling. The trouble is that if I put the game down for a month or so, I basically have to replay the tutorial or read the manual to get back up to speed on the controls and mechanics. If the game has a story and I return to it I also need to refresh my knowledge of what happened and who the main characters were. Why don't more games feature some sort of abriged diary or chapter highlights feature? RPGs would greatly benefit from a log. Many of them feature a journal and that definitely helps but something like a 5-10 minute overview of past events would engage me even more. Or how about a way to play snippets of the best moments? These could be 2-3 minute bursts that do not encompass whole chapters or sections.

It's pretty much a requirement that if you want to finish the game you are better off doing it when you first acquire the game or you will have lost even more time trying to get back into it. Perhaps I should try more casual games? I play a few of those as well, but many leave me wanting something a little more robust. What I really need are full size games with a more reasonable amount of content. A few games held me enthralled the entire time and ended when my interest had peaked. Metal Gear Solid, Eternal Darkness, and Shadow of the Colossus are examples of such games.

I enjoy playing old school games as well and some of them are particularly vicious in the cheapness of the challenges. Ninja Gaiden on the NES is one such game. You can get hit by an enemy, knocked back, and charge forward again only to have an enemy you killed respawn in right in front of you. Many enemies and bullets in the game move very fast and knock you right off the ledges. The interesting thing is that I play this game today and I can somehow tolerate these cheap tactics but a particularly difficult boss in a modern game can turn away from playing that game altogether. The NES Ninja Gaiden can be beaten in about 1 hour if you are fast. I know that coming in and even though I'm going to get knocked off some ledges I will keep going because I know that there are a finite number of those rough spots and the game length isn't too bad. In a 20+ hour game I'm not sure how the difficulty is going to ramp up and I don't always care to find out. Even with it's tuned difficulty, Devil May Cry 3 Special Edition is still a beating. You end up bottom feeding on level 1 enemies to power up so you can get through the harder sections.

It appears that solutions are on the way. With the release of SiN Episodes and Half Life 2:Episode 1 we are seeing the rise of digitally distributed episodic content. I've wanted to see something like this for a long time and Valve has definitely delivered the goods. While there were parts of Episode 1 that frustrated me and situations that I didn't feel played as well as they could have, the total package more than made up for any shortcomings. The length is good, the price is about right, and the quality is there. When I first played Half Life 2 I enjoyed the game but felt that it was a bit on the long side. Episode 1 took me about 4-5 hours to complete and consisted of many satisfying moments. Since I knew it was a reasonable length from the start I was determined to play through it. Knowing that I would be able to complete it without a huge time investment kept me motivated. There's also replay value in the form of the commentary track.

While I've read the grumblings from the gaming press and forums about game content being breadcrumbed out at a higher cost to consumers, I feel like Episode 1 represents a solid chunk of game and a surmountable challenge for the price being offered. Now the question is whether this model will work on consoles and whether more companies will offer it. I'd still love to see more traditional games with a reasonable length but I feel like episodic content enforces approachability. My fingers remain crossed.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The continued history of me

So what is it that brought me into games? It seems like many other developers have interesting stories about their start in the industry. Mine is probably less accidental than some I have heard but I honestly didn't expect to work in the industry as far back as high school at least. I wasn't even really aware it was a viable career option.

I will point out one thing - I've always been a gamer, big time. My first game system was an Atari 5200 but I also spent a fair bit of time playing the 2600, Intellivision, and Collecovision. I also loved playing things like Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego at school on what I believe were Apple computers. Eventually I got hooked on the NES. I remember playing the system that came with the light gun and R.O.B. at a friend's house. That was it. I had to have one. Sometime in the 6 months after having played that NES for the first time I got one when it was packaged with Super Mario Brothers. Much happiness ensued.

From there I went on to get a Commodore 64 which was the first computer I ever owned. There were some games I really enjoyed on the system and I tried my hand at making a few games during this time. I specifically remember using some type of game making tool that was fairly primitive. You could only rig up some basic objectives and I think you had to have the levels contained on one screen. I also tried programming in BASIC. While I didn't write many of my own games, I ended up spending a lot of time typing in the code for games that came with a magazine I read. This magazine contained several pages of what I believe was the full source to user submitted games. Every month I'd get a new issue with around 3-4 games you could type in and try. They were pretty simple but I got jazzed about the idea of creating a game from what seemed like nothing but air.

The next great saga in my gaming history was the TurboGrafx 16. When I saw some of the games on the TurboGrafx I was fairly excited and I still get warm fuzzies thinking about when I beat Keith Courage and Legendary Axe for the first time. I also got a Turbo Express which was an incredible handheld other than its short battery life. From the TurboGrafx it was on to the Sega Genesis followed by the TurboDuo, Super NES., Atari Jaguar, Neo Geo, PlayStation and then the PC.

I'll take a minute to make a side note here. No I wasn't super spoiled and wealthy. My mom did something that I thank her for to this day. She didn't want to get games for me on birthdays and holidays so she made me think of ways to get them on my own. So I did. I became a young entrepreneur and got into the business of buying and selling used games. I managed to make enough from this little business that I was able to keep a healthy stock of games and systems. I also started playing in video game tournaments and managed to increase my game inventory through those winnings. I'll detail more of that in another post.

Quake and Diablo brought me into PC gaming in a huge way. Quake was amazing for playing at LAN parties and Diablo had me hooked on its fantastic execution of dungeon crawling mixed with lotto style item collection and Battle.net goodness. Even at this time I was not really thinking about working in the industry. I was also getting tired of console gaming which had traditionally been my mainstay. I sold all my console systems and spent a lot of the next several years playing Magic:The Gathering.

I was introduced to Magic through a random role-playing event I attended at a local Barnes and Noble. The funny thing is that I never really spent much time doing role-playing games but I decided to attend this particular one for some reason. At the end of the event someone brought out the cards and we started playing. Sometime the following week I went out and bought a few more cards. Not too long after that I learned about the tournament scene which was bustling in the Chicago area at the time. I also found out about how much the cards had appreciated since their release. Once I knew there was loot to be had, I picked up about 8 more boxes of cards. I came, I traded, I collected, and I won some tournaments. I met many awesome people and went on to become one of the junior Pro Tour champions during the first season. People couldn't believe I was winning big scholarship money for playing a card game.

One aspect of Magic that I really value is the human interaction component. It was fantastic being able to see your opponents face to face and have a real conversation with them while playing. This is so much more satisfying and personal than typical online video gaming. It's also one of my biggest disappointments with the decline of the arcade community and the relative unpopularity of the LAN center in the U.S. There's just something special about being able to meet new people when you can look them in the eye rather than hiding behind a computer. I hope that one day video games in the states become more popular for use in public places. And that a diverse set of people come to play - hopefully outside the traditional gamer crowd. There are a lot of interesting folk out there.

Post-Magic was my college years. I went to a community college to figure out what I wanted to study. I enjoyed literature, business, and computers but couldn't really settle on a particular major until I heard about Digipen Institute of Technology. Get a degree in making games? It didn't take much to convince me that my heart belonged there. I applied and nervously waited to find out if I would be accepted. Once I got in I learned a lot about making games and once again met some amazingly cool people. A job offer from Nintendo followed after my graduation and I was excited to work for a world-class game company.

That pretty much leads me here, in a long-winded kind of way. Not the most serendipitous journey but it's certainly been an entertaining one. My love for games continues. There are just way too many exciting developments that we haven't even been able to scratch the surface of. I want to be right there when it happens, hopefully contributing to them.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In the beginning...

Yet another game development blog begins! So, who am I and what will this site be about? My name is Max Szlagor and I'm a game developer. More specifically, I was most recently employed as an engineer at Nintendo Software Technology Corporation.

I worked on several games there, including The Legend of Zelda collections for the Nintendo GameCube, Mario vs. Donkey Kong for the Gameboy Advance, and Metroid Prime Hunters for the Nintendo DS. I've recently left Nintendo to sort out where to go next in my career.

Prior to working at Nintendo I made games at Digipen Institute of Technology where I received my B.S. in Real-Time Interactive Simulation. That's a fancy title for a Bachelor's in game programming.

I hope to make this blog a lens into the process of making games as well as provide commentary on games and things happening in the industry. More to come soon...

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I guess I should put a disclaimer here - the opinions on this blog represent my opinions only and do not reflect those of any employers past or present. Also, if you have any questions about Nintendo, please direct them to Nintendo itself through their normal email channels.
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