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?