Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘video game’

OK, not so much “morbid” as… depressed, but that would have killed the alliteration.

For a little bit of context, I was laid off or downsized from the video game company I worked for just about two months ago.  It’s been… stressful.  Really stressful.  It’s part of why I haven’t posted here for a while.

For a bit more context, there’s this fellow’s insanely large video game collection that hit the news:

Guinness World Record video game collection

Anyway, there’s also this article from Kotaku that made the Facebook rounds recently:

Why Game Developers Keep Getting Laid Off

It’s a decent article, but I wanted to chase down a couple of implications that they didn’t get to, and tie a few things together.

As might be noted by the Kotaku article, or by speaking with veterans of the industry, there is a lot of churn in the video game production world.  Staffing woes aren’t uncommon in many industries, so it’s not like we’re super special snowflakes or anything, but it’s worth noting that the industry isn’t a stable one.  It’s a wildly profitable one on the whole, an entertainment medium that isn’t going away, but it’s not financially stable, nor is a career in the industry going to be a stable one.

I read an article a while back (though I can’t find it now), and this thread seems to echo the same thoughts, that careers in the video game industry are short on average.  As in, five years short, or about two big game dev cycles.  It’s true that we don’t live in a world where you get one job right out of college and stay at it until you retire or die, so again, this isn’t all that unusual, but it’s somewhat sobering.  Or it should be.

I’ve worked in the industry for eight years.  I’m an old hand at it, in some ways.  That’s… weird.  (Not as old of a hand as some, but still, it’s weird to think of myself as statistically over the hill, career wise.)

Anyway, this does have effects on the industry beyond what the Kotaku article notes.  Because companies are always fluctuating around, “redistributing assets” and such, there are convenient excuses to drop older, more expensive employees and pick up fresh meat from colleges.  The passion in these younger, unattached employees (mostly male) is exceptionally easy to exploit, as I’ve railed against before, and as the EA Spouse kerfluffle illustrated all too well.  Conditions haven’t improved much since then, though some managers do a good job.  Death marches and crunch might be the backbone of a production schedule, but they aren’t healthy.

Tangentially, this explains a fair bit of the “boys’ club” mentality of the industry, for those of you who are up in arms about Blizzard’s recent public relations black eyes.  People who grow up (and actually mature, unlike the ESRB’s definition of the word) and want stable careers for their families don’t last long in the industry.

This is part of why the indie scene is important, as veteran developers try out new ideas that would never fit into the studio or megaentertainment company mentality.  Games are an important artistic medium, but they are hobbled by the realities of the industry.  Indies are opening up the scope of the medium, but like so many artistic avenues, it’s not really a solid career choice.

I could get bitter about this, but really, I’m just noting the realities of the industry as a voice of… not warning, exactly, since I still see great value in games.  It’s more of a voice of pragmatism.  The industry is not a place for long term stability (relevant to those who wish to make games), it’s not a place for actual maturity (relevant to devs and gamers), and it’s not going away.

I’ve been applying to studios around the world, but have no real leads.  I may well be out of the “official” video game world now, more or less “retired” by circumstance, and left to do indie games with friends on the side as I scramble for other work, whether freelance art or some other art position somewhere.  Again, this isn’t a desirable position to be in, but it’s not too surprising or unique.  I’m disappointed, but then, as I noted in that NBI article, I believe that a job or career is just something you do to pay the bills so you can afford to do what you really want to do in your spare time.  I don’t have anything yet, but even if I pick up a new video games job, I can’t really see myself in the industry for decades, just because of how it works.

I’ll work on indie games because they interest me.  I’ll make my Shapeways, Zazzle, Kickstarter and other projects because I just can’t stop creating.  I may well wind up with a completely irrelevant job, but games, art and creativity are something I will always be involved in.

But… yeah… I’m busier now than I ever have been, working hard on a lot of different things, but making very little money.  This blog, as great as it is to write here, isn’t my priority.  I’ll be here now and then again, still, I’m not closing shop, I’m just busy.  Really busy.  I’m updating my portfolio (seen over here), working on my own projects (novels, games, art, photography, all sorts of things) and looking for freelance opportunities.  If any of you have leads, I’d certainly love to hear about them.

See you around!

Read Full Post »

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, I tend to think the ears are… um… also important.  More for the intake than the output, obviously.  So… doors, maybe?  Anyway…

Good music does good things for people.

No, I’m not talking about sappy hippy gunk like Lennon’s Imagine (can’t stand that song) or celebrities pontificating about Christmas in third world nations and whining about first world problems on their day off, no, I’m talking about music that doesn’t set out to preach.  I’m talking about music that sets out to entertain and maybe uplift.  I see it as something akin to Walt Disney’s famous quote:

I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.

…as in, I’m looking at music that just starts out to entertain, and if it happens to feed the soul or teach something along the way, that’s a bonus.

Anyway, I suppose I blame Syp and Syl for this, somewhat.  They share good music clips here and there, so it gave me the itch to do the same. (Should I change my name to Syh or something to fit the mold better?  Decisions, decisions…)

Most of the music I listen to while working or at home is from video game soundtracks.  Occasionally I’ll splash something like Daft Punk’s TRON Legacy soundtrack in there (really good! …but how is putting the whole soundtrack online legit?), but it’s mostly game music.  Convenient, then, that I work in the game industry, perhaps.  Some of my favorites are as follows:

Mirror’s Edge, a quirky first person Parkour platformer, has a great theme song thisaway, titled Still Alive:

Which, of course, should not be confused with Portal‘s Still Alive song, which is also really good, but very different.

Bastion, a great little game, has a wonderful soundtrack.  It’s different from the laid-back sort of music I usually prefer, but it just hits the spot when I’m looking for something a bit more adventurous.  There’s the great Terminal March

and Spike in a Rail for some sweet, sweet banjo rock,

and the incredible Setting Sail, Coming Home duet

(now in acoustic!)

I don’t play Skyrim, but this makes me want to.  Sorta.  I know, the game won’t let me be a killer violin-wielding bard or a chanting Viking, and it’s M-rated, which I avoid, but… that’s some good, stirring music.

And this definitely makes me want to play a Zelda game or two.

Torchlight 2 has a pretty good soundtrack, as does The Ur-Quan Masters (Star Control 2), especially the fan-made remixed version.  There are a LOT of good pieces of music out there, completely free.  Others I picked up during Humble Bundle promotions, like the Swords & Sorcery soundtrack, which is also good… just not free.  You can listen to pieces of it over at their sales site thisaway, though.  I’m particularly fond of the And Then We Got Older track (track 26).

Oh, and for the next 7 hours or so, the Humble Bundle guys have another great bundle up… and they are including the soundtracks.  This is a fantastic move, and I hope we see more of this in the future.  That’s how I got the Bastion and Swords & Sorcery soundtracks, which were each worth the price of the bundle alone, never mind all the other yummy goodness in each bundle.  Games?  Who has time to play those?  The soundtracks, though, I can listen to while I do something else.

Kingdom Hearts is a favorite series of mine, ever since it was announced and I said “wait, er, what?” to the bizarre but fanboy dream pairing of Disney and SquareSoft.  Y’see, I grew up wanting to be a Disney animator (and I could have worked into a Pixar job, but I won’t work in California), and played a fair dose of SquareSoft (now SquareEnix) games in my teens.  My cultural DNA is infused with Disney and SquareSoft, so the pairing of the two just fit for me.  It helps that the games are pretty fun.  The first piece of music I heard was in the teaser trailer for the game, and I’ve been a fan of Yoko Shimomura’s work since.  It’s a delightful mix of an orchestral score and Disney-flavored whimsy.

The intro for Kingdom Hearts is really good, too.

Utada Hikaru’s work is really good in those games, too, with the theme song for the first (Simple and Clean)…

…and second game (Sanctuary) among my favorites to just listen to.  Sanctuary is a bit odd in that it uses lyrics played backwards to punctuate the piece.  It fits with the theme a bit, and just works as mysterious music.  Sometimes I prefer these game pieces in Japanese, since I don’t understand Japanese.  I can just listen to it as music, and not engage the linguistic part of my brain.  It’s a bit like those Gregorian chants that are good listening sometimes; I don’t understand them, so they are just something delightful to listen to.  I think that’s valuable sometimes, as I wrote about a bit in this old article about hummingbirds (sorta).

I would be remiss not to mention Nobuo Uematsu while we’re talking Squaresoft.  He is brillant, even though he’s turning to the dark side in his old age *coughOtherworldBlackMagescough*.  Dear Friends is an oldie but a goodie, though even better on the N Generation CD.

Terra’s Theme is great,

Roaming Sheep is slightly weird, but good,

and almost every gamer has heard Sephiroth’s One Winged Angel, for better or worse.  (I like it, but it’s overplayed sometimes.)  The whole S Generation CD is really good as well.

Uematsu has such a big body of work that this snipped doesn’t really do it justice, but I’m a big fan of his orchestral work.  My favorite, though, is this lovely little solo piano piece, To Zanarkand.

The orchestral version is good, too, but I love the simple piano version best.

Speaking of SquareSoft, I’m a big fan of Yasunori Mitsuda’s work on Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross.  The OCRemix (a great resource, by the way) fan compilation “Chrono Symphonic” is also really good.  My music appreciation gained a lot of depth staring with this ticking clock.

…and Frog’s Theme still makes me smile.  Repetitive as it is, thanks to the nature of game music, it’s still a rousing theme for one of my favorite game heroes.

… but when I really need something to make my day better almost instantly, I often turn to Radical Dreamers (Chrono Cross OST, Yasunori Mitsuda).  The whole 3-CD soundtrack is excellent, Scars of Time perfectly sets the mood (it plays during the game’s intro cinematic)

Dream of the Shore is great “wandering” music…

and Life, Faraway Promise is a fine culmination of the action,

but Radical Dreamers, that’s just right for me.  It’s just… good.  Food for my soul; sweet, delicious fudge.

It’s telling that I know these Japanese artists’ names as well as I know Johann Sebastian Bach or Wolfgang Mozart.  I love classical music, and in many ways, I think of these modern composers to be just as talented as the old masters.  That idea may be heresy to some, but even the PLAY! folk see some value in this game music, else there would be no efforts to employ it with a full orchestra in sold out concerts world wide.  (But never in nearby Salt Lake City, the meanies.  Always in the bigger cities, for crying out loud.)  Also, there are gems like Sailing to the World, Yasunori Mitsuda’s non-game composition.  I’ve only heard parts of it, but it’s almost as hauntingly beautiful as the Chrono Cross soundtrack.

These artists are more than mere chiptune flunkies.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with chiptunes… DuckTales in the NES days had some great music.)

There’s a lot here in this industry to value.  Even if it sometimes takes a distant back seat to the other trappings of modern gaming.  There’s a lot of eye candy for those windows to the soul… and a lot of ear candy, too, for… um… whatever portal they are.

Read Full Post »

My generous employer, Wahoo Studios/NinjaBee, gave each of us an OnLive miniconsole for Christmas and a coupon for a game.  They are one of those rare workplaces that actually wants its employees to play games… albeit not actually at work (QA crew excepted, of course) for sensible reasons.

I’m on record as being… unimpressed with the concept of OnLive.  I stand by my earlier reticence and my own preferences against online gaming in general.  (Yes, I play online games still.  They aren’t devoid of value, the pros just have to outweigh the cons.)  Still, one should never sniff a gift fish, so it was time to dive in and see how well this OnLive thing works out.

Turns out… well… partially fudge, partially onion, and the two don’t exactly mix.  (Apologies to the fudge-covered onion lovers out there.)

Pros:

  • I got Arkham City for $1 thanks to a promotion for new accounts they were running.  Can’t argue much with that.  Probably a fluke of timing, but hey, maybe they will do that again.
  • A decent selection of older games for the $9.99/month subscription plan.  For that, you can play any game on the list as long as you’re subbed.  If you’re a fan of subscription services and games, it’s probably a pretty good deal.
  • Speaking of the library, A Kingdom for Keflings is part of the library as of very recently, so go check it out!  (I built many of the buildings for that game.)
  • Small footprint.  The games all run on remote servers, so the client is little and fast.
  • Digital library.  All the advantages and downsides of that, as with Steam and its ilk.  In a nutshell, they track and host the data for you, but your data is in their hands.
  • Nice tech crutch.  You really only need a good internet connection and a screen to play on.  The hard parts of staying on the cutting edge of gaming, the expensive hardware rigs, are covered by the OnLive guys.  This is a pretty cool idea.

Cons:

  • You need a really good internet connection.  As in, 3mbps minimum and low ping of 25ms or so.  Those are somewhat pricey beasts, and if you’re in a remote area with third rate ISPs, you’re just out of luck.  If you’re getting one just for gaming, the cost/value ratio changes a bit.
  • You need a HDTV-capable display.  I use my computer monitor since I don’t have a HDTV, and since it’s a plain old 4:3 screen, the widescreen HDTV content is bordered by black on top and bottom.  (The bars don’t actually bother me, but they might bug some players.)  Maybe you already have a spiffy HDTV, but if not, those are pricey beasts, too.
  • Because it really needs another bullet point, you need a really good internet connection.  Lagspikes will kill your gaming.  Low speeds will kill your gaming.  ISPs that are interruptable by phone calls will kill your gaming if anyone uses the phone.
  • Demos only last 30 minutes, but they are time-limited, not content limited, if you’re into that sort of thing.  I’m not, as I’ve noted before, so I list this as a con, tempered by the realization that you can play the demo over and over, it just resets your play.
  • Somewhat underwhelming library.  I suppose this will get better over time, so I can’t count this too harshly, but at the moment, they don’t seem to have a huge selection of games.  It’s decent, but it’s not comprehensive.

Other:

I got Dirt3 with my gift coupon.  It’s a solid, fun rally racing game, but about the only other one on the service that I even partially cared about.  OK, Bastion is on there, and I will get that someday, but I prefer to get it on the XBox, ditto with the LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean.  The library of games they offer isn’t very big at the moment, but I imagine it will get bigger.  Since I don’t buy or play M-rated games, that naturally cut me off from a quarter or so of what they offer, too, but that’s a limitation on my end, not theirs.

…but what about the performance?  How does it play?

Well… it’s geared to make the play more important than the visuals.  As in, if the lagmonster strikes and you lose some speed on your internet connection, the visuals degrade instead of the play response, at least, as much as possible.  You’ll see artifacting that you’d see in a JPG still frame or MPEG videos; blocky, blurry, smudgy visuals.  This will be flatly intolerable for some players, but I actually didn’t mind it as much as I thought I would.  This is partially because of how I play and the two games I have.

Y’see, Batman’s Arkham City is a grungy, dystopic place, beautiful in its decay in a terrible sort of way, not unlike the photos of Detroit’s urban decay that I noted a while back.  It’s great to just look at… but a lot of the gameplay of Arkham City is about moving from place to place and beating up thugs.  A fair chunk of it is played in “Detective Vision” as well.  As such, when I want to take a look at the scenery, I just stop and look.  The system doesn’t need as much processing or communication power when you’re stationary in the world, so the visuals improve when you stop to look around… which is a nice confluence of circumstances.  When I’m fighting, the important part is seeing the motion and UI cues for counters, and those are perfectly serviceable, even if the overall visuals degrade a bit.  When I’m soaring around town looking for stuff, I’m sure I’m missing some details, but for the most part, the sense of motion is key, and that translates pretty well unless there’s a very strong and/or protracted lagspike.

Dirt3 has similar quirks.  As in, the bulk of the play is in the middle third of the screen, and there’s a speed blur effect around the perimeter anyway.  It’s all about control, and as long as that stays tight, the game plays really well.  On the longer Rally races, you have a couple of assists in driving anyway, like automatic gearshifting, a radio caller to tell you what turns are coming up, and a ghostly green “optimal race line” overlaid on the track to follow.  Of course, these are optional, and I’m playing in Easy mode, so I’m not sure how well a purist hardcore gearhead (I use that term affectionately, not derogatorily) would like it.  For me, though, it plays about as smooth as slightly sugary butter, which is a key component of fudge, so I’m happy with it.  When I’ve missed a turn or botched a move, it always feels like my fault, not the game lagging on me.  (I’m still not really good at dirt track racing, and the Gymkhana thing, heavy on the drifting and precision control, is very cool, but beyond me at the moment.  It’s like trying to steer a cinder block on ice with turbo-powered hamster wheels.)

So… color me at least partially impressed with what the OnLive people have been able to do with the tech.  I do still think that the high speed internet requirement will make it a niche product, but with luck, as the tech gets better, it will be more useful to more people.  It’s not a perfect system, but it really is playable, which is more than I expected initially.

And hey, I’m playing a sweet driving game, Dirt3, and the so-far-phenomenal Arkham City, and I’ve only spent $1, not counting the computer or internet costs (I’m not using the miniconsole, though, without a HDTV… maybe I’ll come back and review that someday).  I can’t complain much about that, either.  Yes, there’s still that blasted internet tether, but for the price, I’m pretty happy.

I actually wish MMOs would take a page from the OnLive pipeline, too.  I don’t mind if the visuals compress a little bit as long as the play stays at peak.  I know, the tech is different, but I can’t help but wish that there were a similar on-the-fly tradeoff in MMOs to allow play to stay sharp, even if the data transfer rate isn’t constantly snappy.

… in a late-breaking bit of news, apparently OnLive works on tablets and smartphones.  At least, some of them.  That’s an interesting extension of the technology, though I’m not sure I’d want to play Arkham City with touch controls.  Dirt3 might work fine, and our A Kingdom for Keflings PC port was designed for single click use (so it should translate to touch nicely) but not every game can be converted well to the touch interface.  (Random plug for a pair of great articles that enumerates many reasons I don’t like touch tech… A Brief Rant and Jobs’ Legacy)

Read Full Post »

I’m a gamer.  I define that as “a guy who plays games for fun”.  Some might define it as “I play video games for a living”, or “video games are my hobby” or “I simulate wars with little action figures and dice” or “my life is meaningless without video games” or even “I spend all my welfare check on slot machines”.  It’s a very fluid term.  For me, games are something I play in my few bits of free time, just one option among many ways to spend my time.  There are a lot of different reasons to play, though.

Sometimes I want to be intellectually challenged.  This is when I’ll play a Professor Layton game, Brain Age, Portal, Cogs or Safecracker… something in that vein.  I enjoy a mental workout and the joy that comes with figuring something out.

Sometimes I merely want to be entertained.  This is when I’ll play LEGO Batman with my kids, Arkham Asylum/City, Audiosurf, Rock of Ages, A World of Keflings, or World of Goo (or maybe an Uncharted if I had a PS3).

Sometimes I just want to mindlessly plow through bad guys and collect loot.  This is when I’ll play Torchlight, a DIKU MMO, Kingdom Hearts or even a JRPG like Chrono Trigger or a Final Fantasy.  (The bulk of which really does tend to be “grinding” and killing tons of baddies for cash and experience.)

Sometimes I want to explore and take screenshots.  I love WoW for this, but Allods Online, LOTRO, RIFT, Portal 2 and many others are great, too.  (This is one big problem I have with console gaming; I can’t take screenshots.  Yes, it’s possible, I just don’t have the tech.)

Sometimes I want to smash digital stuff.  This is when I’ll play Burnout Revenge or Boom Blox, TMNT 2: Turtles in Time or Super Dodgeball… or maybe fire up a fighting game like Soul Calibur, Super Smash Brothers or Marvel vs. Capcom 2, or even River City Ransom as a weird sort of hybrid game.

Sometimes I want grand adventure, and only a journey to Hyrule can scratch the itch.

Sometimes I want a great story with simple game elements, so I’ll dig into something quirky like Ghost Trick (a fantastic little game with a very well-wrought story) or a Phoenix Wright game, or fire up an old Sierra or LucasArts adventure game (currently playing through The Dig, then the Indiana Jones games).

Sometimes I really want to get creative and tinker, so The Incredible Machine or Minecraft are the best.

Sometimes I want a good card game, so I’ll play Magic the Gathering, the WoW TCG, Rook, Rage, SET, the Monopoly card game or even UNO.

Sometimes a board game is best, so I’ll play Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Chess, Mancala, or my new favorite, Blokus.

…and with all of these, there are at least dozens of other games that easily come to mind, but I’m trying to keep it somewhat concise.

There is some overlap, to be sure.  The Portal games are both mentally interesting and entertaining.  JRPGs sometimes have great stories too.  RockSteady’s Batman games are great for exploration, story and fun brawler combat.  Blokus is great for flexing puzzle thinking and having fun with my kids.

Still, even with this wide variety, sometimes I just want to play something I’ve played before, that I know I’m good at.  This is the “fuzzy slippers gaming” from the title.  It’s like that old dog-eared worn out copy of I, Jedi that I read every few years because it’s one of my favorite books.  Sometimes, I just want a familiar game to go play for a while, maybe because it’s about revisiting old, cherished memories that are tied to the game.  Maybe it’s because I won’t have to think too much.  Maybe it’s because I want to share the game with my kids.  There’s something valuable about a game that is worth playing again and again.

So, that Star Wars invocation isn’t an accident.  What of Star Wars: The Old Republic and the familiarity that it’s perhaps trying to invoke?  As Brian Green and others have noted, it’s largely “more of the same”, and can fill that niche of “familiar” for a lot of players.  I think there’s value in that, to be sure.  Not enough for me to pay anything more than $10 for an always-online game, and certainly not enough for me to pay a subscription for.  Also, there’s a distinction between gameplay and the game itself.  I’d happily accept a new Miles Edgeworth or Phoenix Wright game because of how they play; that scratches the “familiar” itch while still providing a new story to enjoy.  Ditto for a new Professor Layton.  Still… I’d get them on sale, simply because if I just wanted the nostalgia, I’d play the older game I already own for free.

Of course, sometimes there are other motivations.  I’d buy an English release of Seiken Densetsu 3 because I loved Secret of Mana and want to tell Square that SD3 is a worthy successor.  I’d buy a new Chrono game because they dropped the ball by stopping with Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger is incredible.  (It was the first game I wanted to make a direct sequel to, and even wrote up some design documents for it.)  Sometimes I do want to tell companies that their trendlines are good and to keep up the good work, though with a side order of “keep this trend, but keep experimenting around the edges”.  That can be a hard message to send sometimes.

All in all, though, I value innovation and new experiences.  That’s why I play a lot of different games instead of welding myself to a monogamous MMO.  (Even beside the annoyance I have with the subscription model.)  There’s value in familiarity, but if I have to keep paying for it, well… that’s usually something I’m not interested in doing.  Tangentially, this is a great article on Frozen Synapse and their business model; my favorite “single pay” model.

Ultimately, I have other games to scratch that itch for familiar gaming, so I’m not going to buy into a new game that does the same old things but asks a premium for it.

This is also why I strongly resist games that require me to be online to play.  I don’t trust that they will always be available, or that I’ll always have a usable internet connection.   If the idea is to make me want to go back to play the game, I need to be able to do that on a whim.  Similarly, this is why portable games are so great; the low overhead of the DS version of Chrono Trigger means I’ll play it more than my old SNES version or PS1 version, and I played those a lot.  The easier it is to just get in and play, the better, if you’re trying to get me to put your game in that “familiarity” slot.  Otherwise, I’m going elsewhere.

As for why this is important when I’m not a continuing stream of obvious revenue via a sub, well, I do occasionally buy DLC, and I do talk about and cheerlead for games that I love.  I strongly recommend Chrono Trigger, Minecraft, Frozen Synapse, X-Com, Professor Layton, Recettear, Ghost Trick, World of Goo, Cogs and a whole bunch of other great games.  Other people have purchased games I’ve recommended.  I’ve purchased games other people recommend.  If I didn’t have that positive experience with the games, then that free advertising goes away.  Maybe it’s hard to quantify that, but there’s value there, and trying to mine it with RealID shenanigans or subs will make it evaporate instantly.

The last thing I want when I go for familiar gaming, my mental Fuzzy Slippers of Comfort +5, is to be hit up for money or a need to login to a server.

Read Full Post »

I work in the game industry as a technical artist.  I’m somewhere between a designer and a “real” artist, and my college degree (Bachelor’s of the Fine Arts) was in computer animation, where I specialized in animation and rigging.  I’m sort of a “left and right brain” artist, and I wind up doing a lot of different things in any given production.

In college, I used Autodesk’s Maya for 3D work.  It’s a solid, if expensive, program that is used professionally in the film and TV industries.  My first job in games used it, too… but now I work at a smaller studio that uses 3DS Max.  It’s also a solid, if expensive, program, but three years of using it, and I’m still running into mental and physical tics where I want to use Maya workflow or keyboard/mouse functions that have no parallel in Max or are handled differently.

One particularly egregious dysfunctional keyboard shortcut in Max is the almost omnipresent CTRL-S.  In almost every single Windows program that’s the shortcut for “Save”.  That’s even true in Max… unless you’re editing UV layouts, which is pretty common in my work.  Then, CTRL-S toggles the “Snap” setting.  This tripped me up more than once, as I thought I was saving a file, only to find that I was turning Snap on, which messed up what I was doing with the UVs.  I’ve also lost work when I thought I saved a file before walking away from my machine, only to have it crash while I was away.  My reflexive CTRL-S didn’t save the file, so I was out an hour or so of work.

I consider this to be Bad Design.  When user expectations are based on muscle memory and mental habits, there need to be extremely good reasons for going against that grain.  That’s not to say that changing things up is always a bad thing, just that it needs to be carefully done and actually make a user’s experience better, not worse.

We see this in game design, too, from the FPS glut to MMOs.  So many games look very similar and play very similarly that players come to expect that a new game that fits the mold will offer a similar user experience.  This can run as shallow as pressing the same button to advance dialogue trees (a problem between SNES and Playstation era RPGs, where “cancel” was “accept” on the other controller and vice versa) to camera control (games really should let users flip the X and Y axis controls) to actual moment-to-moment gameplay.

I have an XBox game called PURE, an offroad ATV racing/stunt game made for the SSX mentality.  It’s full of crazy stunts and absurd tracks, but it’s a lot of fun to play.  My wife and I play SSX3 on occasion on our PS2, and we love playing together.  PURE doesn’t offer a single-screen multiplayer game, which is a bit annoying, but much more annoying on a subconscious level is that the default controller setup asks the player to hold down the right trigger button to make the silly vehicle move.  This winds up making sense as the face buttons (A, B, X, Y) are used for stunts, but going from SSX3, which uses the shoulder button (more or less the same thing as the XBox trigger) for a turbo boost which must be used carefully to the trigger that is almost constantly held is a bit of a jarring transition.

This has nothing to do with how the game itself plays or looks, except inasmuch as those taint player expectations.  It’s not a game design issue, it’s a User Interface issue.  Yes, that’s part of the overarching “game production” pipeline, but it’s not a function of the core game design (the game mechanics).  Good UI design is crucial to making a good game playable, but it’s not something you can just toss a game designer or artist at and hope it works.  It requires a bit more thought and study.  That not to say that a designer or artist (or programmer) is incapable of good UI design, just that it’s a specialty in itself that needs attention.

Similarly, the Star Trek Online that I’ve been playing lately plays a lot like World of Warcraft in some crucial ways.  Holding both left and right mouse buttons down makes a character jog in the direction you’re aiming the camera.  Right button dragging moves the camera, left clicking selects targets, right clicking tells your character to attack the target, combat abilities are in a clickable hotbar that can also be activated with the numerical keys on the keyboard.  At the same time, ALT-Z doesn’t turn off the UI visual elements that would allow a nice clean screenshot.  It’s just a stupid little keyboard shortcut, but I find it annoying every time I want to take a screenshot… and that’s pretty often.  STO is a pretty game.  Apparently, the UI is automatically turned off for screenshots… but what then if I *want* the UI in the shot?  There’s a command for it, but the default function is different from what I’m used to.  I’m also not given any sort of feedback to know if hitting the Print Screen button actually takes a screenshot like it does in WoW.  That’s not to say that WoW is perfect, just that there’s a difference.

That’s not a problem by any means, it’s just a little annoyance.  Those tend to add up, though, even if they are subconscious.  Players might find that they aren’t liking a game any more, not because the game itself isn’t good, but because they keep fighting their own reflexes and assumptions about how it’s supposed to work, and that tension is a constant low-level irritation.  Something like Star Wars The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2 might find itself in a bad position between wanting to innovate and being stuck with gamers in a mental rut.  (That rut may not even be a bad place, for that matter… even if it might hold back the potential of the genre.)

Another example is the vestigial jumping of Wizard 101, which has absolutely no function.  It’s purely cosmetic… but because players have come to expect that the space bar makes your character jump in a PC game, by gum, it makes your wizard jump in Wizard 101.  As I noted in my original article on it, I think that’s a smart business move, even if it doesn’t make sense within the game itself.

This can also run deeper and run into game design territory.  STO has a vague (thankfully not strict) combat trinity of tank/healer/damage dealer with a few tricks thrown in, like WoW or any of a dozen other MMOs.  That’s a little odd, but hey, it works for what players are used to, so it makes sense to use it.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the game itself, and almost certainly not for the Star Trek IP, but it makes sense to gamers who might be coming to the game, so it’s a smart move.  SWTOR will almost certainly be a “reskin” of WoW with many of the same core mechanics and UI.  That’s smart business, even if it isn’t actually anything innovative or even evolutionary.  Players don’t want to relearn how to play a game that they are expecting to play like their old favorite.

I’ve also done a bit of web design here and there, and I try to work within the W3 standards.  That’s all well and good for practice, but in reality, Firefox, Opera, Chrome and that idiotic Internet Explorer all handle HTML, CSS and even the supposedly-universal Javascript differently.  Standards are only useful if they are actually used, and it’s a mess when not only individuals ignore them but also the browsers.  Each browser has its strengths and weaknesses, and can be perfectly usable in itself, but when they don’t cooperate on basic usability, it causes users trouble.  Standards are incredibly important to communication in all sorts of venues.

By the way, Firefox, why in the world did you move the “home” button to the other side of the address bar?  It’s one thing for different programs to change UI, it’s more troubling when a given program changes things between versions.  Don’t get me started on Photoshop and its spawn, or the barely-incremental changes we see in other big software packages in an effort to sell a new box each year, not only adding to the cost (since previous versions no longer get sold or supported) but also decreasing usability.  That’s not really a good pairing.

But so what?  Why does any of this matter?

Well, if your audience is likely to have developed expectations, whether mental habits or actual muscle memory, you need to be aware of that and design your product accordingly.  Automobile designers don’t arbitrarily switch the accelerator and brake pedals in an effort to differentiate their cars from the other guys.  DVORAK keyboards still aren’t the dominant model.  Single-button mice are still a dumb idea for Mac users who may be using PCs during the day.  Americans still don’t use the metric system and we drive on the wrong side of the road.

Maybe the alternates are better for those who don’t have expectations, but how often is that truly the case?  Designers don’t always have to cater to expectations, but flaunting them in ignorance or spite is a bad way to do business.  And perhaps sadly, games are still business.  Big business.  We need to understand our customers.  We still might have the courage or bullheadedness to do things our way instead of the “standard” way, but we shouldn’t do it from a position of ignorance.

Read Full Post »

The Play This Thing article on Mythoria questions the value of games, specifically a video game that would work well as a physical game.

The notion of making money by selling real, tangible stuff is one that I’ve toyed with, and it’s interesting to see it noted elsewhere.  I still need to finish Alpha Hex‘s video game iteration, but I’ve long had ideas for making it a physical card game as well.  I printed up some cards to playtest it during design, and it proved to be very helpful… and it plays fairly well in tangible form.  I’d love to use the Game Crafter to sell a base Alpha Hex set and expansions if occasion permits, but leave the digital version free and open source (if they ever support hexagonal cards, I’ll jump on it).  I’ve even made card designs for both formats, and written some story and lore with an eye to making physical card-specific art, not unlike that MTG thing.  It might even be a “wheel within a wheel” for some other game designs I have in mind.

To me, having a physical game, ready to play if the digital world goes offline, is a valuable thing that I’m willing to pay for.  There’s a retro appeal to buying stuff with my money, instead of… digital, ephemeral… nonstuff.  (Especially when draconian DRM means the providers can deny me the privilege of playing at a whim.)

My wife and I have collected many board and card games, and many times, they are more fun to play than popping in another video game.  We don’t need electricity or a connection to the internet, just some light, a level surface and somewhere dry to play.  There are no patches, no permissions, no waiting for the Dungeon Finder to work its magic. That freedom can be good for the soul, even if it’s just a periodic thing, another tool in the toolbox of the larger world of “gaming”.

I’ve designed three board games and two card games in the last year or so, and I’d love to get them out there and make a bit of money from them.  There’s even a place for making one of my board games into a nice hardwood coffee table offering… even if it’s just something I do for Christmas gifts.  (Though it would be great if they were commercially viable.)

These video game things can be good fun, to be sure, but sometimes, it really is great to hold game cards in your hands, to move pieces on a board, and to play with people face to face, rather than through anonymous filters, monitors and cables.  It can even be instructive when trying to design games for the digital realm.  Offline games have been designed and played for thousands of years; there’s a lot of good data there to sift through with an eye to why games work.

Paper Dragon Games has a tangential take on things; their headline offering, Constellation, is a game that is designed to have a “board game” feel, but is entirely digital.  We can certainly automate setup and some mechanics digitally, making some game mechanics easier.  The digital version of Alpha Hex benefits from automated ownership tracking and attack resolution, for instance, and the XBox Live version of Settlers of Catan is far easier to set up than the board game.

It can be very useful to make a game digital… and it can be useful to go the other way, too.  It’s harder to pirate a card game, for one.  Sure, photocopiers work, and I’ve even offered a PDF version of Alpha Hex, but if the cards offered for sale are of sufficient quality and the game is good, there will still be a market for the “real thing”.  I probably won’t ever make a living purely on card game sales, but it’s worth offering the option to anyone interested in the game.

There is certainly room in the “game tent” for both digital and physical games, sometimes even different iterations of the same game, as with MTG.  When I look at monetizing my game design hobby, though, I can’t help but think that it might be a good outlet for me to take some of my game designs that could work in either format (or both!) and offer a physical version.  It’s one more way to break up the demand curve and reach out to different people.

Parallel product lines can also help build a brand, which can be useful for indies.  We even see things like the merchandising efforts of the Blizzard WoW team, what with the card game and the miniatures game.  They didn’t pan out to be as popular as their parent game, but they are solid offerings, and likely at least partially profitable for Blizzard.

Sometimes, it pays to make the game real.

…even if it’s only because you get to use house rules…

Read Full Post »

What is a game, exactly?

There are a lot of different types of games, to be sure, but to my eye, the heart of what makes a game is the possibility of making choices.  Games are differentiated from passive entertainment like TV or film by allowing the end user to have some input that changes the experience.  Exactly how much control devs give to the player can vary wildly, but giving the user choices is important.  Of course, when you give the end user the ability to make choices, they may make mistakes.

I’ve come to believe that mistakes are what make a lot of games tick.  Part of this is the notion that experimentation and punishment-light mistakes are a significant part of how I define “play”.  Mistakes are part of learning, and if learning itself is fun, it’s usually because those mistakes aren’t backbreaking.  Take chances, get dirty, make mistakes!

I’ve been experimenting with board and card game design for a while now.  I’m close to having two more PDF games for download, like I presented Alpha Hex.  (I’d love it if I could make a bit of money on the side with these, but since I’m a rookie designer, I’d be pleased with feedback.)  Card and board games tend to be Player vs. Player, while video games tend to be Player vs. Environment.  Sure, there are the occasional cooperative PvE-like board games like Pandemic or Lord of the Rings, and there are many PvP video games like Street Fighter or Counter Strike, but I’m just talking in generalities.

The PvP in Tic-Tac-Toe is trivial.  The game can always be played to a draw with two sufficiently competent players.  (The level of competency is low, as well.)  PvP in Rock-Paper-Scissors is mechanically trivial, though there is a layer of “yomi” when it comes to the psychological games played between players.  PvP in Othello is a bit more mechanically involved, as well as strategically and tactically varied.  Go and Chess are a step further than that.

In most PvP scenarios, games between equally competent players tend to come down to mistakes.  Perfect execution in Tic-Tac-Toe means you always get a draw.  A player with better mastery of mind games will do better in Rock-Paper-Scissors.  Perfect execution of  a strategy in Go or Chess is a different thing, though, since the opponent has more opportunity to throw a wrench in the works.  More choices for each player tends to provide greater strategic and tactical depth, largely by giving players more opportunities to make mistakes.  Savvy players will capitalize on opponent mistakes while avoiding making any of their own.

In these more complex games, player choices tend to have multiple effects.  A knight in Chess, for example, can be used to “fork” an opponent, forcing them into choosing between two (or more!) pieces threatened by the knight.  If one of those pieces happens to be the king, the other piece must be sacrificed (or the knight captured).  In other words, players can use pieces that have multipronged influence to force decisions on opponents.  Force enough of those decisions without making too many yourself, and you can break an opponent.

To a lesser degree, that’s exactly how you can win Tic-Tac-Toe, by creating a choice for an opponent; block here or there… but if both are winning positions, the opponent cannot win since they don’t get two turns in a row.  Connect Four is a step beyond, extending the grid and allowing for more opportunity to force bad decisions.  Chess and Go do a similar thing, just with much more effective pieces and a tendency to need to think more than one or two moves ahead.  Greater piece and rule complexity allow for increased depth.

OK, so none of this is exactly rocket science.  It’s Game Design 101 kind of stuff.  This is just the sort of thing I find myself thinking about when I try to distill my own game designs.  I want to make games that are relatively simple to play, but with tactical or strategic depth, not unlike Go or Othello.  The game mechanics are simple enough, but thanks to large decision trees and yomi layers of move-countermove, tactics and strategy have plenty of room to breathe and develop.

On one hand, we have “games” like Candyland, where the entire game is decided by the initial state of the shuffled cards.  Players make no significant decisions, they just go through the motions.  The “game” is an exercise in foregone conclusions, and players are just seeing what will happen, their biggest decisions being when to turn over the inevitable card, or when to simply quit.  (OK, they could also choose to cheat, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at here.)

On another hand, we have “games” like Roulette, where the player makes two initial choices (what number to bet on and how much to bet), and random chance does the rest.  Slot machines are even worse.

These really aren’t games in my mind, but I’m not sure what to call them.  Still, people “play” them, and somehow derive fun.  Perhaps, like Avatar‘s popularity despite a weak “story”, the fun is derived from the window dressing and the experience.  Would a 3D holographic Candyland sell?  Perhaps it’s all about the payoff or the achievement, where the ends somehow determine that the means were fun.  Or maybe it’s all about the payoff, and the “game” is just something to suffer through.

On another hand, games like Rock-Paper-Scissors are all about the mind games.  David Sirlin’s Yomi card game digs even deeper into the yomi layers.  The actual conflict resolution is less about the very deterministic mechanics (Paper can never beat Scissors), and more about the player choices, especially since every player can choose rock, paper or scissors at any time.  These games can be very satisfying if you find fun in outguessing another player.

Tangentially, PvP in class-based MMOs tend in this direction, albeit more simplistically.  Rogues beat Mages who beat Warriors who beat Rogues.  There are some ways to alleviate this rigid dynamic (panic buttons like Ice Block for a Mage, Spell Reflection for a Warrior and so on), but for the most part, we’re back in RPS territory.  Pokemon is similar, just with an extended dependency/elemental heirarchy.

I tend to find this sort of rigid design less than satisfactory.  Sure, it might feel great to always beat on the class that you are inherently superior to, but it stinks to lose continually to a class inherently superior to yours.  This is one reason why I keep asking for more flexibility in MMO combat (BBB has a great article up on this philosophy), even allowing every player to shift to their own Rock, Paper or Scissors at any given moment.  To me, that’s more interesting game design, and far more satisfying to pull a victory out of, since it hinges on my choices in the moment, not an irrevocable class choice I made a long time ago.  I don’t like approaching a RPS game if I’m stuck being Scissors.

On yet another hand, there are the relatively simple two player games that tend to give one or the other player an advantage simply by the way they are designed.  Chess gives a slight edge to White, but a game like Y or Hex might have an even stronger advantage for the first player.  (Alpha Hex, strangely, gives a fairly strong advantage to the second player.  That’s the natural result of the capture-countercapture nature of the game.)  There are even games that, given perfect execution of a “determined” winning strategy, do not allow one of the players to win.  Ever.  Sometimes a draw isn’t even possible.

These games are where mistakes are especially important.  Perfect execution of an invincible strategy makes for a tedious “game” for the player who isn’t going to win.  The strategy-stealing argument suggests that the losing player cannot “steal” the winning strategy as long as the winner maintains the strategy.  The best they can hope for is a draw, if the game even allows that.  The game could effectively be declared finished when the initial turn order is decided; it’s all just going through the motions at that point.

Unless the winner-to-be makes a mistake.

This sort of strong bias for one player or the other can be a handicap mechanic for players of widely diverse skill levels, but it’s not much fun for players who both know the strategies and who can execute them perfectly.  That’s where a number of fudge factors come into play.

Increasing the opportunities to make mistakes by increasing the number of decisions to make is one way to fudge this bias.  That’s effectively how Chess evens the playing field.  Some games hide information, like Stratego, forcing players to make decisions with imperfect knowledge, effectively playing the odds and trying to outguess the opponent.  Many games use a random element, whether it’s shuffled cards, dice rolls, variable goals or even just each player holding cards only they can see (until played, anyway).  Whatever the case, these fudge factors allow mistakes (or force them!), thereby disrupting the formation of a perfect strategy.  The lack of perfect information is a benefit to these efforts to make the game more interesting by inviting mistakes.

Alpha Hex does give the second player an advantage (which messes with the psychology of gamers, since it’s usually the first player with an advantage), but the fudge factors of an unknown opponent hand (which cards they are holding, which may be magnified when you’re playing with random cards rather than sticking to a purely monoelemental deck)  and the ability to play any given card in six different orientations (more choices) help alleviate the bias. The optional elemental rule (especially if randomized) throws another variable into the mix.  The also-optional chain rule makes the game very swingy, but gives the opportunity to make up for past mistakes (or even lets players use fake “mistakes” to manipulate the opponent into making their own mistakes… more yomi gaming, there).

Also, the first player can control the pace of the game.  A timid player going first might start in the corner, but that gives the second player an advantage.  An aggressive player starting on an edge or in the middle will start in a cell that has an even number of cells around it, setting up a sort of “game within a game”.  (If the board were only ever 7 cells in a circular pattern, the first player playing in the middle would have a very strong advantage.  If the first player can manage to win this minigame before filling out the board’s other 5 cells, they can come closer to parity.)  Even so, the game tends to be decided in a few key points, rather than at any point in the match.  The first play is crucial, the 7-cell minigame is important (even if it means you build differently from the seven cell circle), and the transition from the 7-cell to the “endgame” can be a backbreaker.

This is why I’ve toyed with different board geometry, with more cells in different shapes.  I want to disrupt the formation of a perfect strategy, in an effort to make player choice crucial to the game.  I want to give the players more chances to make mistakes (and make correct decisions).  Alpha Hex isn’t a perfect game, but it’s been fun to design and to play.  I hope others have fun with it as well, and mistakes are a big part of that.  (So if you’re interested at all in a hex-based card game with shades of Triple Triad, please download the Alpha Hex Paper Beta!  I’d really appreciate some feedback on it, too.)

Mistakes are important in game design, too, which is why testing is such a huge component of polishing a game.  Mistakes can provide critical feedback, whether it’s for the player or the designer.  This is also why it’s important to learn from mistakes, rather than just blithely go on making the same ones over and over.  We are guaranteed to make mistakes, since we’re not omniscient.  We simply have to learn from them as we try to develop our own perfect strategy.  (Interestingly, it’s the designer’s job to prevent perfect strategies, at least with some games.)

That said, I’ll admit that if I do manage to devise a perfect strategy for a game, I almost immediately lose interest in it.  A solved puzzle just isn’t as much fun.  Likewise, “solved” PvP, if dominant or perfect strategies exist, just isn’t all that fun to play, at least not for me.  It’s just going through the motions, convincing myself that I’m having fun doing the same thing over and over.  The interesting part is that I get tired of it whether I’m winning or losing.

Perhaps variety really is the spice of life, and making mistakes is a part of that.  It’s certainly key to making a game interesting in my book.

It should be noted that I’m talking about mistakes that can be learned from, not a Random Number Generator forcing mechanical “mistakes”, thereby destroying any sense of control and progress.  It’s a crucial difference; I don’t mind mistakes that I make and learn from, but I can’t stand mistakes that the game makes then forces me to live with the consequences.  I love game design that makes all mistakes hinge on the player choices… because those are the ones I learn the most from and have the most fun playing.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 138 other followers