Friday, September 25, 2009

Changing my game consumption habits

The way that I acquire games evolves over time, and more recently I switched to an almost exclusively online model of ordering.  For a long time, I picked everything up at retail.  Then I went through a phase where I ordered games online until I was put off by an incorrectly shipped game that missed my birthday.  Picking games up at the store is now becoming unattractive for several reasons.  For one, retailers aren't stocking many copies of games.  I have left empty handed on several occasions where a shipment was either late or undersupplied.  In addition, the price of gas continues to climb.  Besides the money wasted on gas and the time spent tracking down games, I am trying to be more environmentally conscious across all of my life activities.  My last main gripe with stores is that retailers don't discount games much anymore.  I remember buying PS2 games the week they came out for over 20 percent off.  These days, it seems like I am lucky to pay 5 bucks less than MSRP, which has also increased over last gen.

So what has changed?  For one, I started ordering more games through Amazon, which solves a lot of the problems I have with local stores.  Amazon generally marks games down a few percent, and I have been able to apply discounts on top of the reduced price.  I don't have to worry about whether or not something is in stock before I order and I only need to spend the time it takes to place the order in order to receive the goods.  While I don't get the game on the day it comes out, in most cases I don't have the time to start it anyway.  Ordering from Amazon means that there is no driving involved and it's also fun to receive and open packages, which is a nice side benefit.

Because I go through a fair amount of games, I also needed to find a way to pack new purchases into less space.  In addition to Amazon, I am migrating more of my collection over to digitally distributed games.  At the moment, I buy about 95 percent of my PC games through this method and I have no complaints or regrets about the lack of bulky boxes with flimsy manuals.  On consoles, I have been enjoying XBLA and PSN games for years, but I have yet to make the leap to things like "Games on Demand".  While I considered it more recently, I'm still not convinced that I will have the access I want to those games if another Xbox dies or if the next console doesn't have backwards compatibility and license transfers.

None of this is probably all that interesting of a shift to some people, as I'm sure many out there have been embracing digital for years.  For me it marks a big change because I actually enjoy the process of browsing a store and I like holding that physical product in my hands, especially if it is in a box with a lot of goodies.  In spite of that, I am putting a higher premium these days on my time and space as well as rethinking the impact of my consumption habits.  I'm hoping that this trend continues and that nothing  pushes me back to the brick and mortar method of shopping.  I'd also like to see more digital games incorporate some of the things I like about special edition boxed products (manuals, soundtracks, maps, artbooks, etc.), but I'm sure it will get there.  It's funny how many areas of life fatherhood makes you rethink.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A game with exceptional achievements and progression

At the start of the holiday game pre-season, I find myself most hooked on a portable game, Dissidia: Final Fantasy. While I also recently started the excellent Batman: Arkham Asylum, I continuously fire up the PSP to get battles on Dissidia in. The Final Fantasy name in the title might have roped me in enough to give the game a try but the multiple layers of interesting game systems and rewards are what keep me coming back.

In a nutshell, Dissidia rewards you for almost every minute you spend playing it. Win or lose, you gain experience and one of the multiple forms of currency. You gain items for destroying parts of the stage, experience is awarded depending on how much damage you do per hit, and additional items are dropped for performing specific types of actions.  There are also scheduled rewards for turning the game on each day and checking the calendar. Some days confer additional bonuses in the form of shopping currency multipliers, unlockable currency, experience boosts, or skill boosts.  In addition, you can increase your chances of earning rewards even further by putting on specific pieces of equipment.  Finally, there are multiple game modes that behave very differently but each add additional layers of rewards for completing battles in specific ways or minimizing the number of moves it takes you to reach the end of a map.

There are a total of 151 accomplishments similar in nature to achievements in an Xbox 360 game. One interesting thing about these accomplishments is the fact that almost all of them remain secret until you meet certain criteria. Once the accomplishment is revealed, you are usually only about halfway there but you can see your progress towards the goal down to fractional percentage increases. In addition, when new accomplishments open up, the post battle summary lets you know to check on your progress.

Add to all of this the fact that you have 12 characters with unique storylines along with 10 villains that do not, but which can be powered up and used in other forms of battle, unlockable art, music, movie, and Final Fantasy museum galleries, and a highly polished presentation and you have the formula for a game that will keep me busy for a long time to come.  Normally in a situation like this I will go deep before I finish the game for the first time, but this year I am trying to increase the number of games I play to completion, so I wil be doing a lot of the bonus content after my first full playthrough.

While it might be easy to dismiss all of the rewards as the equivalent of a spigot of neverending candy that keeps you from focusing on the weaker aspects of the game including its somewhat ridiculous story, the unoptimized controls, or the lack of tactical depth in moment to moment combat, this game is very forward thinking in terms of how it keeps player engagement high enough to incentivize at least a single full playthrough.  If you go though achievment completion statistics, even for high quality games like Half-Life 2, what you notice is that the number of people who finish a game is a small fraction of the total people who start it.  One of the challenges we all face as developers is keeping players interested in our games, and I find it encouraging to discover a game that attempts to tackle this challenge head on in an interesting way.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Max at PAX '09

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending PAX all 3 days. I waited a bit too long to get my pass, so I had to buy 3 individual passes rather than a full weekend ticket. I almost missed Saturday completely because it sold out a week ahead of time but I lucked out Friday night and scooped one up when more passes became available at the last minute online.  My wife was out of town with the baby during the week and the convention provided a much needed way to keep my mind focused on something fun.

My activities focused primarily on cruising the expo and catching a number of panels. I took a bit of time out on Friday and Saturday night to watch the concerts as well, which were fun and more varied than the last time I caught the concerts at PAX.  I didn't participate in any tournaments or gaming outside of the expo this year, but I did take some time out one evening to play Magic with a friend.

The panel quality was impressive, with at least one session ranking as good or better than many panels given at GDC. It was about storytelling in games.  Adam Sessler moderated a group consisting of Tim Schafer, Denis Dyack, Dr. Greg Zeshuck, and Joseph Staten. A number of thoughtful questions were asked and the QA afterwards was excellent as well.   One of the other quality panels I attended was focused on issues surrounding independent games with prominent indie folks Derek Yu and James Silva in the panel.  The last educational panel that stuck out to me was the Klei Games company update.  One of the founders outlined the history of the small company and talked about the challenges of building a game studio.  For fun, I also attended my first live viewing of the 1Up Yours podcast with some of the old staff in attendance.  That was a treat.

The expo floor reminded me of a smaller scale version of the E3 booths, with the exception of ridiculously long lines for Left 4 Dead 2 and Dragon Age Origins.  I was pleased to get hands on time with Diablo 3, New Super Mario Brothers Wii, Mass Effect 2, and Dante's Inferno.  Outside the main expo floor I found myself hanging out with my former Nintendo colleague Nick Trahan, who was demonstrating his upcoming WiiWare title Liight in the PAX 10 Indie games spotlight.  I also got to check out Klei's upcoming game Shank, which took me back to the days of arcade beat 'em ups.  Klei has also added on an extra layer of awesome character design, animation, stylized effects, and modern design aesthetics that makes this a game to watch.

In addition to playing a number of games on the expo floor, I took a bit of time to observe people playing each of the games on demo from multiple angles.  While there were no games on display that I worked on,  I find it valuable to see how people respond to the games they play.  New Super Mario Brothers Wii clearly elicited the smiles that Miyamoto is on the look out for.  Diablo 3 invoked intense concentration from players as they perused the skills and loot being constantly updated in front of them.  Several other demos caused players to put down the controller from boredom or mild frustration.  I walked away from this "gaming people watching" with a few notes in my head about demos as well as a rough idea of how I want to see players of my own games look when I present them in the future.

Unfortunately, reports of a swine flu breakout dampened the post convention mood a bit, but I seem to have escaped unscathed.  I had a great time overall and found the show to be both highly entertaining and educational.  It's fun to observe what people want to play, what they talk about, and what they want to know about the industry.  It's also great to have a show where there is no set agenda.  Usually I am scrutinizing my time at conventions to reach important talks, networking, demoing a game, attending parties or dinner events, or a variety of other mostly work related activities.  This year PAX was all about having a good time, catching up with friends, and going with the flow of whatever sounded most interesting at any given time.  I look forward to another fun show next year, whether or not I am participating as an attendee or presenter.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Writing about writing

My present workload involves finalizing a sizable amount of design docs. During my time in the industry, I've found that some companies skew towards the "iterate as soon as possible with basic design direction" philosophy while others insist on having a stack of documents and a game plan well ahead of time. Once upon a time, I think a design bible was meant to be a blueprint for where the game would end up, but nowadays even companies that are design doc heavy tend to use them as springboards rather than destinations. At times, it's a bit of a downer to spend hours upon hours working on docs because, for the most part, relatively few people read them and you may find yourself writing up a bunch of great ideas that never see the light of day.

In spite of the potential for disappointment, I find that there are several benefits to writing design docs. First and foremost, it requires a designer to narrow the focus of their ideas into something that can easily be explained. When it comes down to it, most games can be broken down into a small number of pages with a few supporting diagrams for complex concepts. I find that when you put ideas down on paper, you begin to question the pillars that support that idea as well as the potential consequences for other parts of the game. One thing that has been very helpful to me lately is the encouragement of my lead to continuously evaluate how many words each document needs. He is a fan of being concise, and I can obviously trail off into more words than needed to explain something otherwise. Going through the documents to trim off those words inevitably leads to substituting mock up images instead. By doing this, I get to thinking about the user interface for a feature sooner than I would otherwise. If the UI needed to support an idea starts to become massive, then the original system gets more revision to bring the complexity of the feature set down. This documentation iteration cycle creates confidence and clarity within the person writing the doc and helps to get the brain going about questions that peers may ask. Clarity is good.

Design docs also build team investment into the vision of the game. This happens on several levels. In order to improve the quality of the documents, many design departments have a peer review process. This review process sometimes produces a flurry of tangential ideas, but there is almost always valuable feedback that improves the original drafts. By taking the feedback and integrating comments back into the doc, team members feel more inclined to give the idea a chance even if they disagree with aspects of the premise. Once the peer review process is finished and the doc goes out to the rest of the team, there is additional confidence and trust earned from those who see a polished product that better defines what is generally a nebulous vision. I find that engineers especially appreciate the additional thought a designer put into their system and like to have a reference to check up on when they are building out underlying infrastructure.

The last major benefit I see to documentation is that studio managers and executives generally like to see robust paper plans because it builds confidence that preproduction has yielded a direction that will result in a well executed product. While many game developers groan about "needing to please the executives who don't get games anyway", I think they sometimes undervalue who supports their game and why. Anything that can build more advocates, including those who make funding and resource allocation decisions about the project, is only a good thing in my mind.

I guess I talked my way through this post into being an advocate of documentation. I'm still conflicted about the process of writing them, but in the end I see design documents as a brainstorming, refining, and planning exercise that sets the tone for early iteration on a piece of the game. I don't feel strongly that documents need to be updated, unless they involve details of a process or unless they contain tuning data that needs to be referenced by others down the road. After putting the finishing touches on several documents recently, I'm feeling more confident in the pillars that prop up the game systems that have been a little less defined up until this point. I'm looking forward to taking the next steps into building out these systems in game, and hopefully the fruits of these seeds can alleviate some of my reluctance to write these documents in the first place.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The E3 Wrap Up

Kris McMahan (designer) and I, ready to demo at the SOE booth.

This marks the first year I have attended the E3 Expo in about 5 years. During my last trip to the convention center, E3 was massive, loud, and I was attending strictly as an interested visitor. This year, I was involved with actively doing walkthroughs of The Agency, and the experience was entirely different. Overall, the show floor seemed to be about the right size and noise level for an industry event targeted at press and retailers. Sony Online Entertainment had a very sizable booth, checking in at about half the size of the Playstation and Nintendo booths. Games on display included Everquest, Free Realms, DC Universe Online, Kung Fu Hustle, The Agency, and a number of PSN titles.

I arrived as part of The Agency E3 entourage on Monday night. As is typical when bringing your game to a new environment, there were a number of setup challenges involved. Fortunately for myself and a few of my colleagues, I was one of the team members that was able to get a good night's rest for the first day of the show. We were up and ready to go early Tuesday in order to do prep work and test runs before the show floor opened. Everything was humming along and working fairly well by the time we arrived. The Nintendo and Sony press conferences ran until about 1PM so we didn't have much foot traffic until then. Once 1PM rolled around, there was a steady flow of press coming through the booth until the show closed. During this time, a few of my colleagues performed demonstrations to the foreign press in the private SCEE booth upstairs. The upstairs area was smaller and more intimate, with demonstrations being done on couches rather than standing up like we did in the SOE booth. Once we finished our runthroughs, we headed back to the hotel to change and then out for a nice dinner at a local Italian restaurant.

On Wednesday, I spent most of my time in the upstairs area with fellow designer Clancy Powell and producer Jose Araiza. Jose is fluent in Spanish and his help upstairs was much appreciated by the team as well as the Spanish speaking press. At a few points during the day, I went back downstairs and helped out with the increased flow of traffic coming through the booth. After the show was done for the day, we took a cab down to The Stinking Rose for some amazing garlic inspired dishes.

On Thursday I split my time between downstairs and upstairs. Upstairs proved to be regularly quiet while the downstairs area remained busy up until we had to leave for our flight out. We were happy with the response to The Agency and walked away with Best of Show nominations from both 1Up and GamingExcellence.

I was able to spend a brief amount of time checking out the show floor and got a chance to get hands on with Dark Void, Lost Planet 2, God of War 3, Heavy Rain, Gran Turismo PSP, the new PSP Go, and DC Universe Online. While I would have liked to see more, my breaks were largely spent waiting in line for food at the convention center, where I watched about a hundred pepperoni pizzas being made before a cheese or veggie became available.

Overall I enjoyed my time at E3 quite a bit. Working a convention feels very different from being an attendee, but it's fun to be part of the team that brings the show to life. I've attended other shows where a game I worked on was being played or demoed before, but this was the first time I was fully hands on doing demonstrations and interviews live. Overall I think I'd prefer to do a mix of attending conventions on both sides of the show, but the satisfaction of having a game that people respond to at a major event like E3 while you are presenting is definitely an experience worth seeing first hand.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

As I mature, Final Fantasy will not

Final Fantasy is one of my favorite gaming franchises of all time. I first started playing the series with the original release on the NES, back in 1990, and I have picked up every major release since. Nostalgia is definitely a strong component of my love for the series. The other major reason for my continued interest is SquareEnix's drive to innovate a long running series while concurrently amping up their production values, world density, and storytelling prowess with each release. The short reason for why I love this series is that Final Fantasy and "high quality role playing game" are almost interchangeable terms to me. I'm eagerly looking forward to the next major console release of the series, but I am concerned by recent comments made from the series director.

In a recent piece on Edge Online, Final Fantasy 13 Director Yoshinori Kitase says "'I actually think that it’s a very natural thing for players to grow out of the Final Fantasy series...In terms of the age group we target with each new game, it remains the teens to 20-somethings." He goes on to mention that while members of the team grow older, they feel that it is important to create games for their core demographic. One of their nods to the aging creators and the long running fans is the increasing prevalence with which older characters find their way into new entries in the series.

While adding older characters is a nice gesture, I feel that the series will lose its appeal with both older and younger generations if it does not grow up with its fans. In years past, technology moved so fast that players young and old put up with narratives that didn't resonate because they were excited about the ever increasing fidelity of worlds they were able to explore. As computing and graphics technology in games begins to plateau, players will be looking for a richer palette of characters and stories to define the role playing games they play. Fortunately, with the growing number of formerly PC-centric companies such as Bethesda and Bioware building mature console games now, players will have more options. Nevertheless, I don't want to leave the unique style of SquareEnix behind. I hope that the storytellers in our industry can look to the storytelling techniques of places like Pixar to bridge the gap between young and old. Each Pixar movie amazes me with its rich worlds, interesting characters, and almost universal appeal across gender and age groups. Please, Mr. Kitase, don't leave me behind.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Non competitive multiplayer gaming

Over the last couple of days, I had some interesting experiences while playing with others over Xbox Live. Normally when I play against others online, the competition is tough, the only cooperation occurs between team members, and I usually walk away with several additional losses on my record. My gaming experience recently proved to be almost the exact opposite of that scenario.

While playing Outrun Arcade Online the other night, I decided to engage in a one on one race with a stranger. Outrun has a few different modes of online play, but they are all basically a race to the finish. I played a lot of Outrun single player while trying to earn my achievements the previous week but I was out of practice. My opponent, on the other hand, was experienced and careened through the course with minimal effort. To my surprise, he had stopped just short of the finish line and I ended up winning 1st place. He left after that race and I found myself staring at the screen, pondering what just happened. There are only 3 reasons I can think of that this player may have done this. Outrun doesn't have any ranked leaderboards, so wins don't matter with the exception of 2 achievements - one where you have to win 5 races in a row and one where you have to be in the lead at each race checkpoint. My first theory goes something like this - perhaps this player knew they outskilled me and didn't want me to feel bad after the race. My second theory goes something like this - perhaps I was the player that helped them unlock the lead each checkpoint achievement and they were trying to help me get the win 5 races in a row achievement. My third theory is simply that the player was looking for a tough competitor. Since I didn't prove to be an even match for them, they just didn't care, and perhaps they thought it would be funny to be waiting at the line. In any of those scenarios, the lack on an online leaderboard led to a situation that might not have occurred otherwise, and it kept me playing because I felt that my opponent was being friendly.

Another game I played online recently is Beautiful Katamari. I don't think this game has multiplayer leaderboards either, and it only has 3 online achievements - play 10 games online, play 50 games online, and earn 1,000 cookies. Cookies are always awarded for each match, scaled to your final position, with bonus cookies given out for special awards. When I recently played a match online, the host sent a message to each player telling them not to pick up items so we could all tie in 1st, which meant that the maximum number of cookies was given to each player. In this way, we all earned a substantial number of cookies and someone had a chance to get extras if they could perform more "boost" special moves than the others. While this seemed like an interesting non-competitive way to march toward the achievements, charging into a wall got a bit boring, and I started hosting my own games. Having earned the other awards, I eventually only needed the 50 games played achievement, and I reflected on my situation. It seemed that when I won several games in a row, opponents would drop out and I had to wait a while before another one was available. Eventually, one player noticed I already had 1,000 cookies and asked me to help them get their achievement. I had nothing to gain by winning the matches, so I rolled up goodies for a while then sat back for several matches. We played several games and I received my 50 games played achievement. It was getting late so I intended to go to bed, but I wanted to help this player get their achievement as well, so I stayed online for several more games until they had reached their 1,000 cookie goal.

While some people could construe this behavior as cheating, without a win-loss record and rankings, the consequences for winning and losing are meaningless. I also found it fascinating to engage in what I considered emergent multiplayer rule modification. By simply changing the achievements offered and culling out rankings, a game can change the focus of an online community from competition to socialization and cooperation. As someone who played games professionally for several years, I certainly value the competitive nature of gaming. On the other hand, I also think that one of the failures of online multiplayer in most games is that it can encourage antisocial behavior and scare away players that don't have time to practice for hours a day. I look forward to trying out more games that create a competitive environment without overvaluing the concept of winning.

Monday, April 13, 2009

GDC 2009 Thoughts

Due to the fortunate aligning of several circumstances, I was able to once again attend GDC this year. In a previous post I already expressed my excitement about conferences in general. This year's GDC proved to be solid, and I even got to spend a couple of days exploring San Francisco to boot. I've been telling people that about 70-80 percent of the sessions I attended were either interesting or valuable and I'm pretty happy with that ratio. Either the conference organizers are doing a better job of selecting content or I am getting better at picking my sessions. In either case, it's a win. While I was originally thinking of breaking this post down into 3-4 digestible chunks, the conference has come and gone. Along with it has gone most peoples interest in the details. So here it is in one big batch.

Here's a brief rundown of the sessions I attended:
Keynote - Discovering New Development Opportunities Satoru Iwata
I've always been impressed with Mr. Iwata and once had the pleasure of meeting him during my days at Nintendo. For someone that manages one of the biggest companies in the world, he strikes me as being grounded and down to earth. He clearly understands the challenges developers face and likes to help teams succeed. This keynote was focused on his own journey in turning HAL around as well as a brief overview of Miyamoto's design process. The main takeaway here is that small prototypes are highly valuable, even if they don't turn into games for a long time. Several companies outside of Nintendo see R&D as a valuable process and a few manage to follow this prototyping process. I think this is probably the exception rather than the norm, however, and many companies either find themselves in full production too early or spend too much money figuring out the core mechanics of a game.

Fault Tolerance: From Intentionality to Improvisation - Clint Hocking
An excellent postmortem on Far Cry 2 that detailed the design philosophy behind improvisational gameplay. Sandbox games demand improvisational gameplay, and as a result, are one of the most demanding genres to work in. Clint broke down Far Cry 2 into its core systems and highlighted which ones encouraged the improvisational style of play and presented alternatives to the ones that didn't. I like how thoughtfully dense this talk was as well as the fact that it builds on design ideas that Harvey Smith presented at a prior GDC. On a side note, I think Clint beats himself up too much about Far Cry 2, which, while flawed, is still one of the best games of 2008. I look forward to seeing how he takes these ideas forward into his next game.

Ups, Downs, Mistakes, Successes in the Making of LittleBigPlanet - Alex Evans/Mark Healy
I think the main thing I took away from this talk is the fact that Media Molecule truly is a collection of amazingly talented mad scientists. With a group of 31 people this studio managed to ship an amazing game in line with each of their publisher milestones while being incredibly flexible in changing their game when things weren't working.

Level-5's Techniques to Producing a Hit Game - Akihiro Hino/Usuke Kumagai
I enjoy many of Level-5's games. Unfortunately, this talk didn't really go into much detail about their production or design process. This talk was labeled as a production talk, but I really think it should have been called a marketing session instead. The takeaway is that design hooks can be used to market the game via press and trailers which can grow the buzz for your game. Their approach is largely focused on the Japanese market where they produce very high quality anime trailers that clearly appeal to their target audience. The closest thing I can think of in the western market is the GTA trailers, which are excellent but tend to focus on the characters and world rather than the design hooks.

Halo in the Laboratory - John Hopson
Usability testing is an area that I find incredibly fascinating. The scope of the usability testing for Halo constituted a large part of the pre-release Halo 3 article that Wired wrote and I was curious for even more details. As I thought, the session reinforced my idea that big games need a lot more user research to get the details right and companies like Bungie and Valve are already using this data to constantly improve their games. Some of the interesting takeaways from this session included low cost ways to do usability testing via a webcam or simple UI mockups that mimic the semantics and flow of your UI.

Keynote - Solid Game Design: Making the 'Impossible' Possible - Hideo Kojima
This was essentially a talk focused on the origin and evolution of the Metal Gear franchise. One of the things I find most interesting about this series is that you can trace most of the elements of pre-MGS4 to the original Metal Gear Solid 2 for MSX, included in the Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence discs. What made this talk interesting was learning the origin of the original Metal Gear/Metal Gear 2 game mechanics. One of the finer points that I think must have gotten lost in translation is the idea that Kojima believes western developers use software technology to overcome game design challenges. While I believe he is referring to middleware, I am not convinced that middleware has improved western game quality on the whole.

10 Things Great Designers Exhibit - Gordon Walton
Like any top 10 list, the content of this one will probably be debated by many people in the industry. The short version is: passion for games, breadth and depth of knowledge, problem solving and analytical skills, flexibility, KISS, player empathy, continuous learning, team work, a positive mental attitude, and clear communication. I agree with the bulk of this list as well as the general order of priorities, but there are a couple of "things" that I feel were not on the list. Chief among these are sufficient technical knowledge and persuasive abilities. I find the first to be valuable because of how well my programming background is serving me in my design experience as well as my belief that our work will continue to get more technical as game engines mature. The second seems like a no-brainer to me because designers that can't convince others why an idea might work well will have a hard time with their self-confidence as well as their ability to push an idea to the point of awesomeness. While one could lump this skill under clear communication, I have met plenty of people that can communicate ideas clearly but cannot convince others why they are worth pursuing.

Experimental Gameplay Sessions - Jonathan Blow, moderator
Inspirational and excellent. The EGS panel did a fantastic job selecting interesting indie games that all explored different ways to shake up what we think of tradionally as our game "play space".

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Design Lessons Learned from Rock Band - Dan Teasdale
Harmonix is a company that has come to truly understand cutting edge design by iterating over several games that continuously improve their understanding of the music game genre. One of my favorite talks of GDC 2007 was the Harmonix session on building games from Frequency to Guitar Hero where they shared lessons learned along the way. The 2009 talk was largely focused on the evolution of Rock Band and once again, many valuable lessons were shared. The takeaway is that we really need to understand what it is we are trying design within the constraints of what our audience wants and how much enjoyment they will get out of it. While this may seem obvious, it still seems like a number of features creep into games solely for the purpose of tacking another bullet point onto the back of the box.

Dead Space: How We Launched the Scariest New IP - Chuck Beaver
An excellent post mortem on the development of Dead Space. I salute the team for making it through an 18 month greenlight process. The Dead Space team did a good job of breaking the mechanics down into buckets of conventional, evolutionary, and experimental categories and knowing where to put the right amount of resources behind each of these areas. A number of my colleagues feel that Dead Space is the evolution of the survival horror genre and based on the reviews of Resident Evil 5, I suspect that many others feel this way too. The presentation touched on things like the outdated control scheme behind Resident Evil and how EA did their own usability testing to push the controls into a more modern direction. In addition, the session also did a great job outlining elements that effectively create a believably scary atmosphere and where the best bang for the buck is within this type of game.

Lionhead Experiments Revealed - Peter Molyneux
I thought I had an idea of what to expect for this talk - an series of Lionhead prototypes. I wasn't that excited about it initially but it turned out to be more engaging than expected, primarily because it outlined a way of structuring an ongoing prototyping process within a larger company. One of the most interesting things that Lionhead is trying to do is to create a tool that makes game content and assets easily shareable for prototyping purposes. I think this would be a huge win for many companies because often times team members have a hard time visualising how gameplay might work with placeholder graphics and executives certainly don't like to look at boxes.

The Iterative Level Design Process of Bioware's Mass Effect 2 - Corey Andruko/Dusty Everman
Rigorous, thorough, and highly focused on constant improvement. Those are the main thoughts that came to mind as I listened to the speakers outline the level design process that Bioware uses. I'm not sure how many companies have such a well defined development process, but I think it must help the team understand gameplay objectives and where things are headed. One of the most interesting facts they mentioned is that the game was fully playable in some form as of Christmas break 2008, over a year away from ship. I find this to be mind boggling because the projects I worked on were largely focused on getting a single piece of the game highly polished and then cranking through the rest of the game based on that polished slice. While this approach definitely works and generates a lot of excitement throughout the team, I imagine that having the whole game playable so early tends to get a lot more eyeballs across the entire spectrum of content.

Monday, February 23, 2009

What's Old is New

18 years later, the sequel to one of the most influential games of all time has been released to an enthusiastic audience. Street Fighter 2 witnessed many updates and Street Fighter 3 has been a staple on the tournament circuit for years, but Street Fighter 4 has awoken gamers in a way that has taken me somewhat by surprise. 2 Million copies were shipped to stores, but several local retailers are out of both versions. Arcade joysticks and gamepads tailored for use with the game are selling for 2-4 times their MSRP on Amazon and Ebay. Gamers lined up in droves to play in the GameStop Street Fighter 4 tournament on stock Xbox 360 game controllers with no bonus characters unlocked. Street Fighter 4 is a phenomenon that clearly defies the current economy.

I've gotten to spend a bit of time playing the game recently. Having missed its brief US appearance at arcades, I'm a relative newcomer to this entry in the series. I was an avid Street Fighter player up until Super Street Fighter 2 non-turbo edition, and I managed to win a few tournaments. Over time, I got tired of the constant incremental updates to the series. When Street Fighter 3 came out, arcades had diminished in both scale and foot traffic, along with my enthusiasm for them. I tried getting into other fighting games that have come out since then but without a steady regular group of friends or a place to meet interesting new challengers such as an arcade, my interest has never been lit up. Street Fighter 4 is going to solve those problems by the sheer amount of interest it has sparked in dormant fans who have moved on from fighting games as well as what will hopefully become a vibrant online community. The game has also done a superb job of taking the aesthetics into a modern generation while preserving the best elements of the fighting system and adding interesting new tactical choices, along with a massive cast of characters.

I'm also excited to see a newer, younger generation of gamers becoming interested in Street Fighter. It's hard for me to describe just how influential this game is on many modern game developers. Several members of the God of War team, including combat designers Derek Daniels and Eric Williams, are avid members of the Street Fighter community who have leveraged their deep knowledge of the Street Fighter mechanics into their own work. When people ask me about my favorite games of all time, Street Fighter 2 is frequently mentioned. When I am asked about what makes a robust combat system for a game, I usually will cite the relationships present in Street Fighter 2. This game is the console/arcade equivalent of the Ultima Underworld, System Shock, M.U.L.E., et al that many of the current directors of the game development community frequently attribute as inspirations and influences.

Unlike many gaming icons that are re imagined, I don't think this entry in the series will be a passing fad or a niche product either. The game markets itself. Interactive store displays sitting on the versus mode selection screen with 2 controllers invite people to challenge each other to impromptu matches, much in the way we did many years ago in the local arcades. I'm both excited to see how this new game will hold up in the years to come and eager to observe what sort of influence it will create on the many games that are yet to be made. While I used to be of the opinion that genres such as 2d scrolling shooters and 2d fighters went out of fashion with the main stream, this game reminds me of the retro revival trends that you see in other industries such as movies or clothes. Street Fighter is back in a big way, and I couldn't be happier about it.