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.