Obscured View

A few chosen words on the world of video games

Archive for the 'Design / Theory' Category

Command & Conquer 4: In some ways yes, in some ways no

NOTE: I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, and that’s comment on a game without having finished playing it.  A big heap of “I may be misinformed” has to come with this, since I’m going to call things out by what I’ve seen so far and predict where they go (or don’t go) later in the game.

So let’s get this out of the way — I can see that there’s a game in here that is fun for what it is, but to me, what it is not is a core C&C game.

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Adventures (and maybe just a -few- deaths) in Boletaria

dsouls

A while ago, I read an interview with a Japanese game developer (Kojima, I believe) that talked about the game design philosophy of the Japanese.  Kojima said that the Japanese liked making games around one core activity and allowing the game design to explore the furthest extremes of that activity.  Demon’s Souls is a shining example of that philosophy.  Fantasy melee combat, taken to extremes.  It’s also a great game, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

How can you tell if you’re not right for the game?

  1. You think you need to grok a game (i.e. understand it completely) before you can play it.
  2. You don’t enjoy having to focus on what you’re doing and what’s going on around you when playing a game.
  3. You like to blame your in-game deaths on everything other than what you did to cause it.
  4. You button mash in most games, especially when you get stressed in heated boss battles.
  5. You don’t like the idea that 30+ hours into a game, you may want to restart because you finally “get it”.

I’m not listing this stuff to brag in any way, as if I’m more ub3r for having gotten through it.  It’s honestly just not a game that some people will be able to tolerate at all.  I have friends that will love this game, and I have ones that will hate it with every fiber in their body.

Why is it so polarizing? Demon’s Souls is like Animal Crossing in a way.  Both games force you to play in a way that most gamers aren’t accustomed to doing.  For the latter, you had no choice but to play casually, which drove me completely insane until I got it… promptly stopped playing.  For the former, it’s restraint and patience that you must have, young Jedi.  Without it, you’ll just die, die, die, and die some more.

That’s not to say that you won’t die anyway, because oh you will, you will.  I never got frustrated at my deaths in Demon’s Souls, unlike the end of that horrible Saving Private Ryan inspired level in Conker’s Bad Fur Day.  In the case of Conker, I wanted to destroy my console as every soul-crushing death stacked one atop the other.  I cursed the game, the developers and myself for not giving up on the damn thing.  To this day, I still remember how horrible that level was.  In Demon’s Souls, I didn’t even get close to rage when I died.  Typically my deaths were because I screwed up in some way.  I swung too early.  I was out of stamina.  I forgot to block.  I dodged off a cliff.  I did something dumb or hasty or uneducated and it cost me.

There’s a ton of reviews out there that talk about Demon’s Souls difficulty, but let me be clear – the game isn’t that difficult if you pay attention.  You have to listen, you have to look, you have to learn attack patterns, you have to learn level layouts.  The game is amazingly honest in everything it does.  You hear monsters breathing from around corners waiting to ambush you.  You see enemies assemble themselves from bones before they start charging you.  You hear the “twang!” of a bow as an arrow comes whistling your way.  Almost everything in the game announces itself in one way or another, giving you plenty of time to react… as long as you look and listen.

Level design is very well planned and populated.  Almost every level has shortcuts that can be mastered or unlocked as you progress, allowing you to quickly get back to the boss that’s currently turning you into a soul-splat on the floor.  Monsters are presented in interesting mixes with space to breathe inbetween.  The varied environments provoke all kinds of sense of dread in different ways, from ruined castles on cliffs to poisonous rainy swamps, horrific bogs and rotting jails full of insane prisoners, the game has you covered.  The only level type I would have loved to see included would be a misty forest full of shadowy menace.

One of my friends calls Demon’s Souls the best MMO that you can play alone.  This is a very apt description.  The levels feel like raid dungeons with you running them solo.  You can play with others when you want to (mostly) and within your defined boundaries of interaction.  Multiplayer is unique and interesting, especially with bloodstains and messages left behind for players that don’t know the levels or the monsters they may encounter.  World 3 (The Queen’s Tower) ups the multiplayer aspect to a whole new level of “oh, that’s cool” which I won’t spoil here.

UI-wise, the game could have used a few more iterations.  Reading messages and then recommending them is tedious.  The gesturing system is interesting, but esoteric to the extreme (hold X for an undefined amount of time, then tilt / shake controller in different ways).  From Software could have done with a look at a TiVo’s UI.  Equipment management is sometimes a hassle, and the message pop-ups and dismissal of them can get you killed during a heated fight.  This at first seems like it’s a bug.  Why the hell can’t I just pick things up instantly?  And yet, there’s the game design rearing its head again, reinforcing the idea that you need to focus on the combat.  In the middle of a heated swordfight, is it really the best idea to start rummaging through the pockets of an enemy’s corpse?

What also gets you killed in this game?  Bravado.  In a game like God of War, wading into 10 enemies at once is exciting, fun, and generally the way the game is designed to play.  In Demon’s Souls, it’s not the case. If you have 10 guys on you, you’re dead.  Three guys at once is scary enough, and with certain enemies, two at once is enough to make you soil your pants.

Let’s take a look at the second time you encounter Vanguard, the monster in the image above.  The first time you fight him, you die — you have to.  Now you’ve encountered him yet again, ready to dish out some payback for the previous death that started this whole mess in the first place.  Do you:

    A. Rush in and start swinging wildly?
    B. Patiently engage him in a melee battle?
    C. Sneak around him and continue through the level?
    D. Get to a safe vantage point and and fill his fat ass full of arrows?

Of course, the correct answer is D, but could also be C if allowed, which in many cases is.  A is immediate death, so that’s out.  Sure, you can do B, but considering that one or two mistakes = death, why risk it?  The game wants you to play intelligently, which in some areas flies against all the other training you’ve had as a console gamer for years and years.  You really want to just rush right in and start swinging — most 3rd person action games today encourage that kind of behavior.  If you stop to think about it though, it’s pretty clear what you should do instead — survive.  The time it takes to fill him with arrows is a lot less than the time it would take to fight him, potentially die, and then have to come back and do it (and all the enemies leading up to him) over again.

The first character I played in Demon’s Souls I took to level 73 in about 40 hours played when I decided to start the game over.  I then took the new character and finished the game at level 95 in around 30 hours played.  I’m now level 110 with 39 hours played, and a good deal into the (much harder) second playthrough.  Why did I start over?  I learned what I was doing wrong.  Amazingly, I wasn’t pissed at all.  I was playing the game like just another 3rd person console game.  I was leveling in a way that wasn’t very focused.  I was randomly upgrading weapons here and there without concentrating on a few at a time.  In a nutshell, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the other aspects of the game besides hitting monsters, namely my character’s progression.

So yes, I started over, and had an amazingly smoother time the second time through.  Less death, more levels, better weapons, faster boss kills.  In every way the game got more enjoyable as progress came at a more steady pace.

So what’s not great?  For a game that has a lot of numerical detail to it behind the scenes, almost none of it is exposed to the player in a way that would let them develop strategies without consulting a source outside the game.  You can’t find out that skeletons are weak to fire and blunt weapons otherwise, unless through a lot of trial and error, and likely deaths.  This is flawed.  The game is challenging enough in combat and its manifestations that knowing that piercing does crap against hard scaly lizard creatures would be nice.  Sure it’s all fantasy-logical from the start (so again if you just think about your fantasy expectations…) but it’s also hidden from the player unless they experiment or read up on it.

The lock-on targeting system, essential in some places, is downright mystifying in its logic.  Sometimes it works great and immediately locks targets.  Other times you can’t lock on to anything even if it’s right in front of you.  To this day, I still don’t understand how it picks targets or why it won’t pick some from time to time.  I have a sneaking suspicion it’s designed like that and varies by weapon or by one of your stats.  Maybe high INT makes you lock on faster.  Who knows?

I picked up the collector’s edition, so I fortunately have the strategy guide to enlighten me on the location of ores, the trade-offs for using each spell to gain a weapon or magic, and other important pieces of game-altering knowledge, but even then it falls short on explaining some critical aspects of the game, like how stat bonuses work on weapons.  If you don’t have access to the strat guide, there’s two excellent wikis on-line (found here and here) that contain everything the strat book does and more.

So do I recommend the game?  Oh hell yes… but only if you’re up to the brutal humbling that’s initially in store for you.  I will say that although you may be beaten down at the start, you can walk away from this game with some serious bragging rights once it’s over.

Worth the $60 and then some.  I’d love to see a sequel.

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Counting on the chaos in Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead has a delightful secret to it.

It’s not some crazy conspiracy level secret, but a fun one, a specific one that makes it a great multiplayer cooperative game… and at the same time, just an OK solo player one.

So what’s that secret? Read on for the dirt.

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Man, was I that critical?

I was just reading back through my last several posts on Gears 2 and Resistance 2, and boy, I was really in a mood to criticize.  I can’t say my opinions have changed since I wrote the entries, but I feel like I left some things out that may make me appear to not “get” what the games were going for.

First up, Gears 2.  It’s a highly polished game, just like the first one was.  The audio and weapon feel is great, just like the first game had already.  I still believe the clicking clip sound when you get to a few shots left in the mag is just brilliant.  The environments, when you’re not cutting through sphincters, are wonderful to look at, again much like the first game… except without the sphincters.  When used, the environmental effects (the razor rain level) are great, again much like they were in the first game.  The vehicle sequences are annoying, just like they were in the first game.  I guess that’s the problem I had with it in the end.  It does everything right in terms of presentation, but doesn’t present anything that’s really worth presenting.

As for Resistance 2, this one is more of a head scratcher for me.  Maybe I’d forgotten what R1 really looked like (I’ve not loaded it back up for comparison), but it feels like this one doesn’t look as good, at least in the early levels.  Uncharted and R&C on the PS3 look better, IMO.  Let’s be honest, too.  R2 has no where near the polish level of Gears 2, so perhaps the cruelest comparison was to play Gears 2 and then within a few hours put in R2 and start playing it.  The game can stand on its own in many ways, but that’s a hard comparison to make.  R2’s problems are in how the various dials the devs could spin were finally spun.  I don’t think they were tuned in the most enjoyable way, but maybe I expected too much.

In the end, either game is worth playing, especially if you don’t have access to the opposing system that features the other one.

Perhaps because I’ve been getting back into serious design work that I’m becoming more critical and analytical of games and gameplay, much as I used to be.  Reading my own commentary, man I sound like an ass, elitist and a jerk, sometimes all three at once.  However, I’m now in a position where the next project(s) I do are my chance to eat crow or caw loudly, so it’s put up or shut up.  We’ll see how that all works out.

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Finally, almost!

Yeah, confusing title I know.  I’ve been distracted by the Next Big Thing to have a lot of time, but it’s almost here, so that’s a very good thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about simplification and staying focused, largely inspired by a cooking show, of all things.  If you’ve not seen Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (here on BBCA in the US), I’d highly recommend it.  Here’s a guy that is a very successful chef with nothing to prove and certainly enough clout and success to rest on his laurels if he wanted to, yet he does the complete opposite.  He’ll do anything to get the restaurant in shape.  He’ll scrub the floors (and ovens), get the owners out about town to market their restaurants, give everyone a no-bs opinion of their cooking and management, push for quality and simplicity, and becomes part of the team he’s trying to save.  He never says “they’re screwed” it’s always “we’re screwed”.  He never lets up, and no task is below him.  Of course, editing helps convey this, but it’s a good model to follow for making games, actually.

There’s a difficulty as a game project goes on that sometimes it gets harder and harder to find time to play your own game, namely because you have so much else to do.  This is a horrible mistake, as iteration is the only way to hone a product.  It also becomes easier to let things slide as projects go longer, because you just want them done.  This isn’t because you don’t care about the game, but sometimes egos get in the way and confrontation becomes the norm, making development a battle with others rather than a collaberation.  This too is a huge mistake.  You have to keep fighting for quality and consistency in your titles.  All the way up to the day it ships (OK, well the day you code-freeze it), you should be trying to make it better.  If there are people that aren’t as interested that are bringing the project down, get them interested again.  No team passion = no quality.

About six months ago I had the pleasure of visting a friend that works for Blizzard and meeting a lot of the people there.  If you ever want to point to a company in which everyone just does what it takes to make the game great, it’s them.  You do what needs to be done, not necessarily what your title says you should / should not do.  They are a true collective in how they function, and it really pays off, as evidenced by their success with the ‘craft games, Diablo, and of course WoW.  The impression I got is that they are a very formula based design company, meaning they derive an interesting formula first, then create a game from it.  If the formula is fun to play with by itself, graphics, control, audio, and pizzaz added on top of it just make it that much more fun.  It’s a very solid concept, and obviously successful.  Everyone there is passionate about entertainment and consistency — to the formula and the series itself.

I guess from all of this, what I’m trying to say is that sometimes it’s very hard to be passionate 24/7 about what you do, but giving up at any point because it seems overwhelming, losing your passion along the way, or letting team members not be passionate will lead you down the road to a less than great product.

Keep the faith!

It’s an attitude we’ll certainly try to uphold at that Next Big Thing I’ve been mentioning.

And yes, recognize that some people just do what they do for a paycheck.  Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to overcome in a very creative environment like games.

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Why speak intent?

I recently was watching a video by David Jaffe, in which he pondered why most industry people refer to their intent when publicizing their games, especially in un-established franchises.  Why talk about intent in a title that’s new?

Well, for one thing, how to stand out amongst the glut without doing so?  Screen shots really don’t do much for games any longer, since a 3rd person game is going to look like every other one out there — character, view into the horizon, ground, some enemies, a stripped-down UI — and that’s what everyone shows.  Sure, lighting and style come into play, but really everyone can guess what 90% of the game will play like just from those very similar shots.

So… yeah.  How does that make the game stand out?  It doesn’t.

Videos can do a better job, but when you just show the game without narration, unless you have a very unique and visual mechanic (or an amazing sequence) that’s unique to your game, most people won’t get it.  Now that says a lot for having a very visual mechanics / hooks, since you can sell the game on that alone if people see it and understand why your game is different.  God of War II’s opening level with the Colossus?  Sold.  Highly visual

I think the issue is that many genres now are just too hard to have a very visual novel mechanic these days, simply because gamers are exposed to so much in each genre that they read into a game even as they first see it.  Take Bioshock for example.  A great, ambient, game.  Wonderful art style, but in a video it would look like any other shooter, just with a few novel weapons.  It’s when you get Ken Levine explaining the game’s intent while backing that up with gameplay that demonstrates it, and then it starts being sexy.

So what does intent get you?  Well, if done right, it gets the player a glimpse into why product X will be different, especially when you’re in a very crowded market, like FPS or action games.  Once a series is established, the intent you’re after becomes a desire to know choices in how decisions were reached, but when marketing something new, I think it’s more along the “see why we’re different?” line.

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List of Game No-No's

So, like I said I would,  I’ve started a list of things I’ve found in games over the years that have annoyed me enough to remember them long enough to make this list.

I’ll expand the list as I find more or remember more of them from the years I’ve spent playing games, or any good ones from comments made on the page.

You can find a link to the list up top, or just click here.

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Breaking the reality barrier

There’s always been this “uncanny valley” in trying to make computer generated characters feel real. Although I have no idea why you’d want to make CG characters appear to be real, especially for anything outside of porn, people keep trying to find a way to merge the illusion of computer reality with the “real” reality of daily life. I can’t wait for the day we can play World of World of Warcraft with realistic avatars. Oh wait, my bad. I can totally wait for that. A very long time, actually. Please?

So of course today was a big Apple news day. 3G Phone being the highlight. So unwittingly or not, Apple has opened the door to breaking the reality barrier with games in an entirely different direction. A GPS and camera enabled wireless gaming platform.

OMGWTFBBQ!!!1!

So what am I so excited about? Well, going by the facebook-like application they showed today at the keynote, games can now cross into the real world easily. The app they showed could track your friends that are within 10 miles of your location, updating their own locations in real-time. I can’t wait to see how many cheating spouses this application alone catches…

“Honey, I’m at the office, I’ll be working late…”

“Gee, that’s funny dear, your phone says you’re not anywhere near the office… you’re at… hey that’s a movie theater… and they’re showing… Sex and the City?! Oh god, all those gladiator films you watch — I should have known then! I’m taking the kids!”

So yeah, that’ll be amusing. But what about game application? Ohhh, the mind reels with possibilities. Imagine a territory conquest game in which you have to encircle free space in order to score points, while your opponents try to do the same. Now imagine that you draw your territories by your movements, and all of downtown New York is the game board… yeah you get the idea. You may just get some exercise and whoop up on your friends at the same time.

Since there’s something… wonderful looming on the horizon (hopefully only a few weeks from now!) I can’t get into more cool stuff you could do as a gaming platform with that tech. Suffice it to say there’s some amazing potential that can be tapped with that thing and new types of games.

I love my DS, and almost never touch the PSP. At $199 for an entry price-point with the 3G, does Apple have what it takes for the iPhone to become a legit gaming platform?

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