Obscured View

A few chosen words on the world of video games

Archive for the 'Learnings' Category

On Mac gaming

Over the years, my game playing habits have changed.  I prefer console and hand-held to computer, except when it comes to MMOs or RTS games, which still just work better on computers than anything else.  Every other kind of genre is debatable, IMO.

In my house, we’ve drifted away from Microsoft-based computers.  I have three PCs in the house, only one of which is currently plugged in and operating on a regular basis.  The other computers in the house are all some sort of Mac — an old iMac, a new iMac, and a MacBook.  Almost exclusively, the Macs are used on a daily basis.

When it comes to gaming on a Mac, you’re really kinda screwed.  Or at least, you were.  With the Intel macs at least you can bootcamp your Mac into a Microsoft based OS and run most games.  However, it’s not really ideal.  You want to be able to just run games on the Mac with native support.  Just because I use a mac doesn’t mean I don’t like playing games on it.  I give major Kudos to companies like Blizzard that continue to fully support the Mac.  At least I know (or I hope I know) that I’ll be able to play Diablo III and SC2 on my Mac in the upcoming year.  Or so.  Whenever they actually release.  Someday.

Eventually, I’ll think I know I’ll be able to play them.

Some other major publishers say they support the Mac as well.  They offer versions of their games on the Mac with the little Mac sticker and everything.  However, most of these games aren’t through native support, they’re through emulators.  Many of them use Wine or Cider to create a bubble of PC emulation goodness that encapsulates the game so that it kinda-runs as if it was really running on the Mac… but it’s not.  It’s emulating a PC running within your mac OS, but not as well as Bootcamping would.

Support via emulation is not really true support of that platform.  It’s more of a PR goodwill gesture towards the vocal minority that utilize the platform.  It’s a sticker for a box.  It’s maybe a bullet point.  The publisher can legitimately say “we support gaming on platform X”, but they leave out the * that would normally follow with a multi-paragraph fine-print disclaimer about how the support is via emulation, and that use of said emulated product can cause distress, crashes, mental confusion, intestinal complications, and death.

There’s always death in there, right?

To be honest,  I’d rather be snubbed outright by publishers.

Me: “Hey, do you have a mac version of <game XYZ>?”

Publisher: “Mac?!  You game on a mac?  <laugh>  Are you an idiot?  No, we don’t support the mac.”

That’s at least genuine.  I almost want a sticker on products that says “native mac version” rather than “runs on a mac” because I don’t really know what that means anymore.  It could be a half-truth, which is not what I’m interested in experiencing.

So really publishers, either truly support the Mac… or don’t.  I’m good either way, but when I decide to take the plunge and buy a game specifically for the Mac, I’d like to know it’s been fully tested and built for the native OS.

Too much to ask?  I’d like to hope not.

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idea Paint

So today, I painted two walls of one of the offices at Jet Set with ideaPaint, a paint-on whiteboard solution.  It’s very highly rated, and is supposedly more durable than all but the most expensive whiteboards.  It’s also cheaper per-square foot than a regular whiteboard, so we thought we’d try it in one office to see how we liked it.

Of course, the walls in our offices are drywall with a nice bumpy pattern on them, which meant that before it could be painted, it had to be:

  • Taped off
  • Sanded
  • Primed

The first part was a no-brainer.  Tape off the area.  Duh.

The second turned out to be more work than we’d anticipated.  Rade tried to sand the walls, which aside from making our black fridge turn white from dust blowing into the hall, didn’t help much.  The next attempt was to use drywall compound to smooth out the walls, then sanding that down.  That worked.  But once done, the entire thing then had to be sanded yet again.

So then it had to be primed, so Rade put two coats of primer on it one night after work.  Ok, so all that remained was to paint the idea paint onto the surface, which fell to me to do this weekend.

Of course you know if it went smoothly I’d not bother posting more than a sentence about this.

First off, the stuff comes in two cans, which the instructions tell you to mix together.  Once you do this, they make it very clear you have ONE HOUR to get it all on the walls before it explodes / gains sentience / wants a trust fund / goes after Sarah Connor… whatever.  What’s interesting is they don’t tell you what happens if you wait over an hour.  There’s not even an “or else!” at the end.

Imagine you had to paint turpentine over two entire walls of an office.  That’s how toxic this stuff is in terms of smell.  You have to wear a mask, which barely helps, and your eyes burn, oh do they burn.  They mention that you should do this in a “well ventilated” area, but the potency of this stuff means that the only area you could consider well ventilated would be outside.  If you used this stuff outside, you’d likely make all the birds in a 40 ft. radius fall over dead.

And this stuff is called paint, but that’s a cute marketing term for it.  It’s a semi-thin liquid that laughs and mocks paintbrushes and anything other than the foam roller it comes with.  It eats paintbrushes, actually.  It just makes them shed bristles since that’s the only way they know to cry.  And since this stuff is not meant to have more than one coat put on, every time you lose a bristle into the paint, you’re in this desperate state of trying to get the bristle out and then roll over the area before the stuff reaches the “or else” state, as mentioned previously.

Oh, and did I mention this stuff sticks to everything.  Anything that touches this stuff is corrupted.  Cuthulu would be proud of the corruptive power ideaPaint wields.  The Emperor cries himself to sleep over how much more permanently corrupting ideaPaint is than the dark side of the force.  I didn’t wear gloves (big, big mistake) and I’ve still got specks of the stuff on my hands.  Soap and water didn’t get it off.  Goop? Nope.  Nail polish remover?  No.  Pumice stone? Not even close.  This stuff is on you until the skin layer peels off.

And anything else it touches you may as well just throw out.  It’s that evil.

We’ll see in a week if the stuff was worth it.

Did I mention it takes a week to dry?

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Way past current review: Dark Sector

With the exception of big titles, I usually don’t get to a lot of games when they first come out.  There are a lot that I’ll play the demo of, then earmark for play through later.  Dark Sector is one of those, which I’m going to talk about today.

In discussing this game, I have to start by saying that a Glaive as a main weapon has been cool to me since Krull.  Yes, I saw it in theaters.  I saw it again recently too, and… wow.  I thought Lost Boys didn’t hold up well, but man…

…yet the glaive is still cool.

So here we’ve got a game about this guy with a glaive, a gun and… well, uh…

… well, I still don’t know what this damn game is about.  I finished it, sat through every cinematic, replayed a few of them even, and I still don’t know what the hell was going on.  The intro with the salvage of an old sub?  Cool.  That something was in that sub?  Cool.  Very Leviathan or Deep Star Six of them (I can’t remember which one had the sunken ship / sub with the virus-filled vodka bottle).  After that?  I couldn’t tell you what the game is about.  It doesn’t make any sense anyway.  Transmitters calling things from around the world that couldn’t have spread in the first place, some virus that there’s a cure for… but wait there isn’t… morphing armor that is the “evolution” of something…

Now normally I could care less about a really coherent story in a game, but the problem here is that in 3rd person action games like this one, I need something to drive me forward when the levels are repetitive and instructions are vague.  You go for levels and levels at a time in Dark Sector with absolutely no reason to cross them other than to load the next one.  Talk about a mid-section drag because of a lack of information… wow.  You just kinda go until you get to the end.

So since I can’t comment on the story in a coherent manner, let’s talk about gameplay.  There’s a few other problems that feel like iteration would have solved.  Namely:

  • The doling out of rubles to buy new weapons is feast / famine across the levels of the game and doesn’t have a nice smooth progression.  I’d love to have tried out a lot of the weapons you can potentially buy, but there’s no way to afford more than two of them at best.  I tend to check nooks and crannies (for completion’s sake) so I don’t think I missed too many opportunities for cash.
  • The glaive is fun, but underpowered unless you go into guided mode and get headshots with it.  I have a stupidly high-powered pistol I can use for headshots, and even the basic pistol can headshot easily… and both with better range.  Even in melee, where the glaive should be able to buzzsaw around and just tear things apartm it’s horribly underpowered.  It takes multiple swipes to take down even low-level enemies.  The shotgun does a much better job up close than the glaive ever can.  So you have a weapon that isn’t great close up, isn’t great at long range, and isn’t more powerful at mid-range.  Uh…
  • Some powers that they grant you are absolutely essential (the shield) to survival later in the game, while others are not useful for more than a few fixed places (invisibility) and then forgotten completely towards the end.
  • Finishers (one-hit kills once an enemy is weakened) sound like a good idea, but since 80% of your combat happens at range, they’re nearly invalidated.  Design also invalidates the use of finishers later in the game.  There’s an enemy that will pulsate for a while then explode if you don’t finish them off.  This sounds dangerous at first.  But you quickly realize the explosion hurts other enemies.  And, you can easily get out of the detonation range because the exploder can’t move… so let’s see, if it hurts other enemies AND likely won’t hurt me, so why would I ever want to stop it from exploding?!
  • Elemental power-up for the glave was underused as well.  It’s a neat idea, but fire, electricity and ice essentially do the same thing — you can 1-hit kill things for a limited time (burn, shock or freeze).  Two of the elements have an additional door / lock mechanic associated with them as well, but the delivery and use was identical — element hits item and removes blockage / opens door.  Since there was no real difference in the long run, why bother?
  • Instant-death boss attacks.  Avoidable for most of them, but WTF is up with the instant-death during stage transitions while fighting the final boss?  There’s no telegraphing that you’re about to be killed outright.  No beam, no hit, no nothing.  You just fall over dead.

All that said, this isn’t a bad game.  It certainly has its fun moments.  Enemies try to flank you viciously, and in a few scenarios that makes for some great nasty and intense battles… and likely a few restarts.  Bosses are decent, but get easier as you go on through the game.  Enemies aren’t really that varied, but there’s enough types to barely get you through without feeling like the game is way too repetitive.  Some of the weapon modifications make enough impact that it’s noticeable and therefore enjoyable to work with.

There’s hints of a really good game in here, but it really got lost on the editing floor and through lack of focus and drive in the narrative.

The big takeaway:  You don’t need a good story to drive a player through a game, but at least have one that the player can follow!

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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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A few more thoughts on Gears 2

While my coffee is brewing, I thought I’d finish off my thoughts on Gears 2.

The game feels more like a duck shoot than the previous Gears game did.  I was always worried about getting into melee combat (and my general suck at it) in Gears 1.  The thought of it made me paranoid and kept me on my toes.  Not so in Gears 2.  Gears 2 feels like the design team very purposely made the game more of a ranged game, with melee being an insanely aggressive thing to attempt against most enemies, or even against the players.  Aside from a sequence where monsters just run at you one at a time (hint: just keep holding B and you insta-kill all of them with the chainsaw), melee was about 2% of the overall game activity.

I think this betrays the game’s origins a bit, as the original game had such a nice blend of close-ranged combat and melee, and this one went in an almost strictly ranged direction.  Most combat areas in Gears 2 are constructed such that there’s cover for you, cover for them, and miles of open space in-between.  At least in the first game it felt more like an arena that you constantly moved around in; An area of cover for the enemy becomes your area of cover a few moments later. I’m going to try playing through again on a harder difficulty, and I’ll make it a point to aggressively move against the enemies.  We’ll see how I fare.  I’m guessing not very well.

The split sequences (you go one way, teammates go another) feel like they’ll have a lot of payoff and back-and-forth play, but end up being very short and very unrewarding as a result.  The Brumak sequence was fun, simply because the scale of destruction was vast.  The other vehicle sequences… I really could have done without many, if not all of them.  In a game that’s about close-quarters combat with guns and melee, why betray that gameplay with slow, ponderous sequences on vehicles that don’t share any of the dynamics of your core game play?

Other betrayals of the original game’s focus abound.  Forget about closing emergence holes with grenades to stop enemies from coming at you.  That happens – maybe – three times in the entire game.  It’s also rather telling that later into the game, the enemies start using the COG default rifle rather than their own standard locust weapon. Why? Because your weapon is more effective and versatile.  Theirs kinda sucks, in both fire rate, damage, and ability to melee with.

Overall, I don’t get why this collection of levels and story bits thusly assembled is the sequel they made for Gears.  It doesn’t answer any questions, doesn’t add any new huge twist, and really… didn’t do much of anything new game-play wise.  A few new weapons for the franchise that we’ve seen in other shooters already.  More driving sequences that aren’t exciting or really compelling.  It feels like one of the bad conspiracy filler episodes of the X-files; People say things, and stuff happens, but at the end of it all, you learned nothing, and really are no wiser coming out of it than you were going into it.  The lack of direction generates a feeling that the Gears team didn’t really know if the first game would be a hit, hadn’t thought through their own lore, and didn’t have a good idea of where to take the franchise if it warranted more trips back to that particular well.

I don’t want to get snarky, and certainly wish Cliff B. all the success he can get, but seriously dude — with any new outing in a franchise, you need to tend to that entry as intensely as you did with the first one that garnered you all the success in the first place.  It feels like you’re off in hollywood movie land now and not focusing on making the series that got you there in the first place as great as it deserves to be.

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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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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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Devil May Require Camera

First, let me say that I absolutely hate and love my 360.  I hate it because it’s cheaply made, I’m on my second one already, and this one has the same problem of just out of no where having “disc can not be read” messages pop up, typically when I’m in the middle of enjoying myself.

Or, sometimes, it’s after not enjoying myself that it hurts the most.  Twice now, the little gremlins inside the machine decided that they’re going to make my 360 explode right after I finish a boss battle in DMC4 and a cutscene is playing.  Great reward.

Also, since Capcom decided that saving mid-mission wasn’t cool or something, since it crashed before I could save, I have to do the entire level over again.  Yay.  No, really — let me put more feeling into that…

“yay.”

So the annoying shoddy console aside, the real issue that DMC4 has as a game is that the camera angles make no sense from transition to transition.  There’s a very reasonable rule in film that you learn very early on in any film class, and that’s never, ever cross the line of action from camera angle to the next unless you move onto the line first.

It’s like Capcom wanted to break that rule on every occasion they could.  So you are pushing down on the controller, and when the scene changes, you’re now running “up” on the screen.  This happens in games from time to time, but what most do is that until you let up on any movement, your controls stay relative to how you were moving before the scene change.  Not so in DMC4 — you switch angles, and if you make the slightest adjustment in movement vector, the controls immediately flip to what’s relative to the new screen.  This ends up making you immediately turn around and run back onto the other screen that you just left.  This can chain several times if you’re not completely steady on the controller.

I think I’m going to start a list of things that you just don’t do in 3D games, and that’ll be the first one on it.

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The iPhone apps store needs to take a lesson from XBLA

There’s a lot of crappy games on XBLA.  There’s some good ones, too.

The one tool that allows the consumer to make an educated choice on which games are crap and which aren’t are the demo versions.  Sure, you have to deal with annoying “BUY NOW!!!!1!” screens and such — especially in any Sierra game — but you can check the quality of a title quickly without paying for it.

Apple seems to have completely missed this whole “try before you buy” part.  Sure, they’ll claim within the next few days that they’ve made $$$ from apps already (and that developers have made $$), but the point is that most of that is money people are going to regret spending.  Apple seems to be treating the app store not like they’re making product for a game service — or even a PC / Mac service — but for a phone company that just wants you to buy off of a name rather than sample what’s available.

I can’t help but wonder if this was intentional.  Hell, I can preview songs on iTunes… but I can’t preview apps?  Free apps, sure, but apps you want me to pay $10 for?!

Epic fail, Apple, epic fail.

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