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.