All posts tagged games

The Mass Effect 3 conclusion has been extremely controversial, and much maligned. I’d like to inductively construct better game choices for the ending based on the consistent values of the series. I do not want to comment on silly things like Indoctrination Theory and the numerous logistical plot holes. I believe the deep disappointment fans had with ME3’s conclusion comes from a violation of the values players were taught, which they may feel even if they don’t understand them…

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Wow it's been quite some time, since I've posted, my every day propelled in an endless orbit around the dense cluster of wonder-eyed cartoon pets and treacherous travails of game development that was my universe for the past year. Today our MMO-lite star was borne (not born) to the public, and in some ways the work has only begun. If I'm being overdramatic it's because this project has really felt just that cosmic.

Littlest Pet Shop Online officially launches today although it's been online for the past month in various beta phases. I firmly believe that while there is so much more I know this game can be, it has the best production values of any Light Persistent World out there, and certainly has the foundation for us to build upon it all our production dreams. That is the great game changer about an online game. I remember mulling about how MMOs were services not games before, but now I'm really face-to-face with just how much the capacity for dev-to-customer responsiveness ends up requiring more responsiveness from all.

My personal involvement has ran the gamut from game design to production to mentorship to padawanship to press monkey to DARPA think tank… too much to define. Sometimes I felt like I was part of everything, sometimes like a part of nothing anyone else could recognize. Towards the end of the project my Sr. Producer was removed from the project and that made it even more nebulous for me. It's quite a realization to accept that your project is really a living organism, not the vision of any one (or few) creators but a sentient mass of decisions, tweaks, features, design, and code that you must constantly redefine the vision of for yourself and your customers.

I can't talk about the lessons learned from this project because the lesson is only at the semester midterm exam, you know that one you wake up just before, in a cold sweat, fearful that all the preparation you did was lost in a previous dream? But no, regardless of much dream stuff there is, when I log into the website and see our client waiting there for real kids to make real accounts and meet real friends as we push real content out in real patches… certainly something wonderful was achieved. It sits on a bed, not of passive dreams, but clever threads, being weaved by hands that disregard real or not real, because the endless space of kids out there demand their days fulfilled.

It took the past year to get here. Now, we entertain. :drunk:

While the pseudo-highbrow titles of the Independent Games Festival are announced with aplomb, each year feeling less and less indie (which is wholly different than being independent), the raw creative reactionism just isn’t there. I don’t think I’m jaded, it’s just not exciting when indie game means a game made with less than a half million dollars employing one of the following play mechanics: Flash physics, time/perspective manipulation, or audio visualization. Or worse.

It’s as if each time the Incredible Machine is developed cheaper, somehow the gaming frontier has been challenged. Seriously now, can we get over it? Remember when garage bands did their thing in isolation, before they saturated punk, ska, grunge, and many so-called underground movements with so many novelty acts that the genre was drowned by its own crowd? Instead, the only game from the festival I wanted to run out and make everyone play was You Have To Burn The Rope, which is an interactive fuck-you as brilliant as Malevich’s White on White, and will no doubt be replicated to death as if the art was in the game, not the moment.

Yet that game tells the very opposite message as Malevich’s piece, as did Rod Humble’s The Marriage, which showed how subjective we really are, and how that can be turned into gameplay. There is no supremacy of form in today’s rabidly media-hungry culture… all elemental form, all sensations, all primitives are transformed instantly into subjects of intricate, post-modernized stories. There is no isolation. I fear the internet has made this change in human cognition permanent.

So why not embrace it? That’s why You Have To Burn The Rope is fantastic… for games to become art there must be an awareness and a conversation with its own history. Film, music, and literary critic call this allusion, but for the creators, this isn’t just a word, it’s a dialogue. Which means it should invite participants. For me, I’m far more intrigued by stop-motion artist Patrick Boivin’s attempt at turning a linked sequence of videos into Youtube Street Fighter.

And don’t even get me started on Flower.

Yeah, it’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to post. And boy have there been so many things I’ve wanted to talk about, but now at the cusp of what should be a bright new year, I can’t bring myself to carol about all the devastation our economy is experiencing… it’s just too negative. While Xstine and I have consoled ourselves with the idea that our industry is recession proof, is it really? The official unemployment rate is 7.1% in Silicon Valley, above the national average, but if you used metrics from before the Clinton administration retooled CPI to their pleasure, national unemployment is over 16%.

But like I said, let’s stop talking about it. There will be plenty to decry next month, when the market loses faith in the mythical year-end bounce. Let’s talk fun things, like my new favorite site: It captures the charming, annoying irrational love of the asian mother, steeped in impromptu paranoias and Engrished superstitions.

Ignore the fact that the picture I posted comes from the now defunct Timesplitters developer Free Radical, who sadly along with Factor 5, Midway, EA, et al. are among the many with career casualties this last month. You know what’s fun? RoboKill is darn fun for a simple flash game! Reminds me of shareware classics like Raptor: Call of the Shadows and Zone 66, remember those goodies?

Also, I know this is a bit old, but I finally got to check out Wario Land: Shake It at the store, and it really leverages every bit of the Wii’s potential into a solid, novel platformer… and it has an awesome “trailer” so check this out!

Anyways, it’s tough mustering up much season’s spirit this year, but things are darkest before the light, right? And with so much dark coming, preparing to take advantage of the light is the best way to position ourselves for festive years to come.

So much to be thankful of this year. Having the opportunity of a lifetime staring us in face as the market collapses, having Obama make a brilliant choice in appointing Volcker, having a job of any kind, these are things to be thankful for. Steve showed me a chart where on the bell curve of the market’s annual gains/losses, 2008 is currently at the far left end of the bell, -4 SD into hell. Time to buy.

With that, I wish you all a happy holiday, and when you get a chance play this amazing game Auditorium. So many other games talk the talk about play, but with Auditorium, you really feel like solving puzzles is part of the discovery and creation process. You conduct the visualizaton of sound as a physical stream of liquid, forgetting about interfaces and hit points, for your imaginary audience. Goals are almost subjective, and the visuals are pure player expression. Enjoy!

People have forgotten how tough things used to be. This is true of both the today’s recession and Mega Man 9. The market is in near panic right now, if you go by the put option prices that have hit all time highs. Check out the ^VIX volatility index for an idea how that looks… you’re looking at a spike in FEAR.

But somehow I’m not fazed yet. People in this recession don’t really know how bad the coming depression will be. People in the coming depression won’t know how bad the Great Depression was. And those who lived during the Great Depression just vaguely remember how rough depressions before that had been. Short memories are so divinely human. We think politics today is more corrupt than before, or wars are more pandemic, or racism more intolerable.

Is that why we crave nostalgia? This idealized summary of the good of the past? Mega Man 9 faceplants me in a slab of nostalgia. What was it about the originals that made them stand the test of time and technology to be fun to this day?

I like to think Mega Man was the first game character in tribute to gastronome Brillat-Savarin, who famously said “you are what you eat”. Mega Man begins as weak as the player, and as he culls the weak theme-bots and usurps their collective powers into his own, he evolves at the player’s will. Mega Man was the ultimate predator.

And he was a man of character. His arsenal was fought for, not given. His name implied great size, but he is as dimmunitive as Alexander Pope, yet this mechanical everyman has every bit as much wrath. He’s a blank slate, a surrogate for all our platforming victories, yet a myth for our ignoble deaths to those goddamn spikes.

Boy, do I crave real men to lead us today. How can anyone who remembers the long shadows of men like Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, or Andrew Jackson, bear to vote in this coming election? How did the Republicans become the antithesis to every fiscal stance they claim? How did Democrats become raging hypocrites, hating the very people they propose to help? If video games have gotten too easy today, then life certainly ain’t churnin’ out winners.

“Satan is wiser now than before, and tempts by making rich instead of poor.”

WAR is truly everwhere. At home Xstine and I are havin’ a blast playing Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, and almost every itch we had from leaving WoW has been epicly scratched. And boy were we itchy because the end-game in WoW left some unhappy scabs.

Outside of our world of epic vritual battles, one has already been fought an lost on Wall Street. Some friends have asked for my perspective on the bail-out mess, and I want to use a WAR analogy. In WAR lore, the evolution and advancement of warriors comes from the endless combat between the legions of Order and the minions of Chaos. A great story and its great heroes can only be made with this precarious balance. Too much one way is complacency, too much the other way is anarchy.

You may think it’s far-fetched to compare a fantasy video game to financial crisis in this way, but there’s one thing to consider. In Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel he recounts his finding that over the historic rise of civilizations, what built the greatest ones was a combination of geography and natural resources that promoted an optimal state of controlled competition. To have less was complacency, to have more was anarchy. Sound familiar?

Now look at the bail-outs. Chaos has lost, if you believe the anti-free-market crowd. Order has failed if you know better than to believe the Fed. The problem was that Order assisted Chaos, and vice versa. No one knew their roles. The Fed answers to the market now. The market believed the Fed would save them.

What I’m trying to say is that a healthy distrust between the private and the public was lost, Freddie and Fannie being prime examples. What we face now is an extreme reaction as the Fed and Paulson nationalize the market. Chaos has learned that losing the battle means being saved by Order. Where’s the impetus to fight?

Now, I give the Fed credit for not bailing out Lehman brothers, as they knew the books were probably so toxic nothing could be done. And F&F? Ok, sure, they were a GSE, blah blah. But bailing out AIG? An insurer? Forcing BoA to take on Merrill Lynch? And now hints at extending help to foreign banks? Unlimited Sec. of Treasury power? For those who think cash is safe, I’ll point out that the (maybe) $45 billion left in FDIC divided by the $100,000 insured per account is not a happy number. Plus each of these banks going under have tons of employees; Lehman alone has 26,000+. NY is depressing. I can’t even make a conhesive paragraph out of all of it.

And somehow Bernanke is in the back saying a recession is imminent if there is no bail-out. Hello, the recession has arrived, but the punishment for misdeeds has not. Will not? Well that depends on how many tax-payers realize it’s angry mob time.

I watched Dan beat Braid the other day, a quirky, lovable game that takes all time/space game conventions and weaves them into great, satisfying puzzles that unravel into an allegorical tale about the atom bomb. Atom bomb? You are probably wondering what strain of mary I'm smoking. I orginally wanted to do a story analysis of the game, but I think this article does it perfectly, explaining what each puzzle mechanic stands for, and what the game really means.

And that's great that a game can be such a wholly personal and artistic expression. I'm all for that, really. But it does reek a tiny bit of Jenova Chen syndrome, though. These days what I really want to see is the fun. Pure, delicious fun filtered through the natural aquifers of untamed enthusiasm, with no artificial shame and preservatives added.

This will have to do:

I just read the interview with Bill Roper where he confesses all the mistakes with Hellgate. Now that I'm involved in designing an MMORPG, albeit one aimed at the casual market, I'm particularly sensitive to the violation of what I consider the make-or-break of any MMO:

The first month's experience.

Why is this more important for MMOs than for other genres where a bad first hour means we just buckle down and sweat it out?

What Bill Roper's and his team didn't get was that you can't build an MMO off of great ideas. At least at this stage in the MMO industry, if you want to compete with the big boys, you've got to innovate off of them, not invent a whole new wheel. Indie MMOs of course are a different matter.

The reason that polish trumps brilliance in an MMORPG is because an MMO is a service first, not a game. Gameplay is its function. Think about the way subscription feels compared to a purchase… in the consumer's mind, it buys entitlement because he feels the company is equitably "entitled" to a constant stream of payments that, neuroeconomically speaking, we've already paid into the future for the moment we signed up. The subscriber doesn't expect $15 of service for his first month, he expects some derivative of the whole $180 he'll be paying for the rest of the year that he expects to be playing. This is only compounded by the fact that he's shelled out $60 already for the initial game box.

So while Roper is close in his assessment, he hadn't gone far enough. Sure, the motley features was a design problem. Sure there were bugs. Sure there were play-balance issues. Sure sure sure. But what I had coming out of the beta was the feeling that I wasn't needed in Hellgate. I made no impact, my character was placeholder, the story was a dead cat bounce, and the connection between the two was a corpse twitch.

It wasn't the plot or the play mechanics, it was simply the first two hours of my experience being wholly paint-by-numbers. Maybe feature creep sapped their energy, maybe ambition bought them too large a bite, but the design wasn't as fatal as Roper thinks. Even with a free-to-play model, I felt compelled to subscribe for the full experience, and given my experience was shallow, it was all or nothing. Like everyone else who had already subconsciously done the cost/benefit analysis, the game failed to deliver for the price we wanted to pay, and we had no confidence that would change.

Friday was my last day at Page 44 Studios, and I don't think anything I say in this post can capture the prism of feelings over leaving those awesome people. It was kind of like the last bite of the most delicious hamburger in the world before starting on the sumptuous molten chocolate dessert… yeah like that. I like to think that I did everything I promised to do before I left, and that the last dinner I had their wasn't BBQ ribs on accident 😀 .

The project I worked on there, High School Musical: Senior Year Dance, was almost finished. I like to think I, and of course all hopelessly driven folks at Page 44, gave it our all to prove that a game based off a wildly successful IP didn't have to suck. This is a game that would have sold at least 2 million profit-laden copies without us lifting a finger, but there's no dignity in that for gamers like us. Not everyone gets to work on a triple-A title, but as Henry Heinz (of ketchup fame) once said: "To do a common thing, uncommonly well, that brings success."

Imagine how ecstatic I was when I saw this IGN preview that actually said our game was fun! And I quote:

Now for the scoffers out there that are quickly writing the game off, I'm going to throw this out here. High School Musical 3: Senior Year Dance played better than Samba de Amigo. The game was overall more responsive with the controls (albeit far simpler controls) and there was a bigger connection to what we were doing and what was going on in the game. Granted, all the songs are from HSM, but hey it was Ricky Martin and Lou Bega in the Samba game, so it seems like a lateral move to me.

There's still plenty of months before the release of either of these games, but HSM3:SYD (ugh I'm just calling it Dance from now on) is shaping up to be a fun, active Wii game that fans of the movie can actually have fun with.

Tomorrow I start a new job at EA Redwood Shores, and hope to bring every ripe, tasty ounce of "uncommonly well" I learned at Page 44 to all projects on the table, common and uncommon. That, with luck, brings success.