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Going through Final Fantasy XII again via this spiffy video reminded me how much I really love the worldbuilding and look of Ivalice. It’s a world that spans multiple games as well, in different RPG subgenres. It has a great sense of place and history. It’s interesting to see a game studio do that sort of thing over the course of several years.
Blizzard has done some similar things with Azeroth, and I think it serves both companies well. A big part of making these games interesting to me is making them believable. Not realistic, not really, but believable as Other Places that are more than just Potemkin Villages.  That’s what I find most unique and appealing about video games; the ability to explore a different world and tinker about within it.  It’s always nice to see thought and craftsmanship involved in the setting rather than just the splashy things like polycount, soft body physics, battle engines, progression schemes and stunt voice casting.
I do have my quibbles with Azeroth and Ivalice, like the character design of Fran and her kin (she’s actually a great character with excellent, memorable voice work, but making her race be literal bunny girls with little modesty is dumb), or the strained two-faction lore of World of Warcraft (OK, maybe I just want a neutral Tauren to play).  FFXII owes a lot to Star Wars, Azeroth leans heavily on Dungeons and Dragons and is unnecessarily goofy at times (pop culture references don’t age well).  They both have somewhat lazy writing at times and weird choices in protagonists (Thrall and Jaina are overplayed, Vaan is a much weaker character than Balthier or Basch), but are endearingly earnest in their devotion to their story.
The thing is, neither game is in my top 10 list of games, but the worlds of Ivalice and Azeroth are high on my list of game worlds that I love to investigate.
I also find that the rather slow, political, story of FFXII is easier for me to follow when it’s all together like this, rather than in cutscenes between hours of grinding in a barely-interactive combat system, all over the space of a year, a few hours here, a few there.  Call it a personal failing, but I found the story much, much more entertaining when I was allowed to get on with it instead of plodding through the game, looking for the next story crumb.  I did actually like the game sometimes, like when I just wanted to zone out and look around, but the story got lost sometimes.

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To make this Operation: Backlog thing work, I’ve decided to put the handful of games I’ve been playing more or less on the shelf, as it were.  Slingshot Braves on my smartphone and Flight Rising in a PC web browser are what I think of as “chore” games, in that they have daily tasks to do, part and parcel of many free-to-play games.  I’ll probably still log into those and do a little bit here and there often, but that’s mostly because I play them with my kids.  Ditto for Minecraft, our family XBox 360 game.  We used to play on the PC, but the local multiplayer on the 360 trumped the PC’s moddability.

Other than that, I’ll be putting Smash Brothers (3DS), Professor Layton and the Last Spectre away for a while.  Batman Arkham City will also have to wait, as will Uncharted 3, Flower and Final Fantasy XII, though I haven’t played them for more than an hour or two each since I was downsized in April of last year.  They are just my “want to finish” games that are already on the back burner.

World of Warcraft will have to wait, but that’s fine, since I don’t want to pay a subscription anyway.  Maybe I’ll qualify for a scroll of resurrection promotion one of these days, or Warlords of Draenor will go on sale for under $10, and I’ll drop back in for a bit.  Yes, yes, I do have a “trial” account I can putter around endlessly and mostly uselessly if I really want a WoW fix, but since I’ve seen most places that I can in the lower levels, and I’m all about Exploring, it’s not really that big of a draw.

…we’ll see how this goes.  I’ll be playing with mouse and keyboard, only reluctantly using my wired XBox 360 controller when it offers significantly better usability.  Perhaps that’s the purist in me, since I didn’t have PC joysticks or controllers when most of these games were new.

This might wind up even more relevant when I dig into my GoG.com library, but that’s way down the list at this point.

I’ve decided I’ll also be giving each of these a rating of sorts, as follows:  Regret (uninstall and forget), Remember (uninstall but wish for more time), Revisit (leave installed for later) and Recommend (wish for more time to play this right now).  This is a squishy continuum of sorts, and deliberately imprecise.  This isn’t an in depth survey-and-review, it’s Spring Cleaning of my video game backlog.

First up on my trek through my Steam library, then?

A.R.E.S. Extinction Agenda

AI War: Fleet Command

Aquanox

A.R.E.S.

On paper, I should love this game.  It’s sort of like MegaMan X, one of my all time favorite games, if the blue bomber could aim in any direction with the mouse instead of charging his shot, and didn’t have a dash or wall slide, but a double jump and shoulder roll instead.  OK, it’s not exactly like that, but that’s the high level impression.

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The art style is all over the place, the camera feels like it’s in a little too tight, the levels are too short, ARES feels clumsy and his grenades aren’t controlled well, but this plucky little game really wants to be a spin of the MegaMan formula, and I give it points for aiming high.  It’s very nice to be able to aim in any direction, though that’s something that I want to use the mouse for.  It’s almost like I wish I could use a SNES controller in my left hand and a mouse in my right to really get it working like I want to.

Level design is somewhere between MegaMan and Metroid, though I think it would have been better to embrace the “Metroidvania” aspect more to really give the game its own identity.  It’s a 2D platformer, gameplay-wise, but with 3D environments and some oddments, though oddly, the player character and enemies are more of a Spine sort of thing, animated from 2D images, perhaps derived from 3D toon renders in some places.

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It’s a fun little game, but it certainly needs polish (and an art style guide!).  I give it a rating of Remember only because I wish I had time to see more bosses and see if the game opens up later, and I think that a MegaManX Metroidvania sort of game could be really cool.  The initial phases of A.R.E.S. were competent but not all that exciting.  It feels more like a proof of concept from a freshman dev team than a finished game.  That’s not a bad thing, it’s just that I’d rather go play MegaMan X again and dream of what this game could be with more work.

AI War

Hoo boy.  This one is nigh impenetrable in 15 minutes.  It’s supposedly a Real Time Strategy game set in outer space, with plucky humans fighting a malevolent AI.  OK, cool.  I like that.  It’s just… there are so many moving parts and tons of little things to learn about.  It’s a game that I probably would have loved playing back in the day, after finishing StarCraft and when I got burned out on Master of Orion’s interminable endgames… but today?  Eh, I don’t have time for this.

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I managed to play the first of 7 tutorials, just getting a hang of navigating the User Interface.  It fought my Maya and Photoshop muscle memory, so I can’t imagine really wanting to master it, but it seems to be designed well enough.  The visuals are good, though the sheer volume of data involved in the game means for some small details in the UI that were just so much static at first glance.

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I get the feeling that this would be a good game for me if I had the time to dig into it.  I give it a Remember rating as well, since I want to check out some other reviews of it to see how the game handles itself beyond the tutorials… but there’s no way it fits into my schedule to actually play it.  That’s a bit of a pity, really, but hey, at least I’m left with a feeling of wanting to know more.  That’s a good sign.

AquaNox

This game really, really wants to be Elite/Privateer/Freelancer, but underwater, with a dash of cyberpunk and social commentary.  That’s not a bad working premise or goal.  It’s just… the first ten minutes of the Story portion of the game were talking (both the video and the dozen or so text-plus-voice bits you have to get through) and a mishmash of mixed up art, from FFVII-like 3D computer graphics to anime-ish portraits to grainy FMV proto-Bioshock underwater city… stuff.

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And talking.  So… much… talking.  I’d give them a pass if the voice actors were even passable, but, well… they are not.  I like watching Star Trek, the one from the 60s, and while all the cool kids rag on that show now for its kitsch and stage-like hamminess, it’s a masterwork compared to this game.  I never want to hear this game again.  (For crying out loud, they pronounce “Succubus”, a key ship in the game, as “Zuko Boose”.  Yes, Zuko was a good character, but that’s just… wrong.)

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That’s not a killer, though, if the play is worth it.  The two missions I had time for once I got through the backstory were a brief “shoot the underwater junk” mission to get a feel for moving a little and firing weapons, and a brief escort mission for a tanker that was trying to just bulldoze through a junk field.  I had to clear the way and shoot a bad guy that popped up.  So, nothing all that exciting, nothing all that bad, though it loses points in my book giving me an escort mission so early.  I hate escort missions.

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That said, I really like the feel of the controls, actually.  The sub drives a bit like what I’d expect, with good WASD controls (A and D sliding/strafing like Minecraft, not turning), augmented by using R and F to go “up” and “down” respectively for the full 3D movement.  Mouse sensitivity is a little high for my taste, but I could probably tweak that.  Shooting feels pretty good, targeting is solid, movement feels right for being underwater, with inertia and drag giving a good impression of actually navigating through something much thicker than the outer space sims I’m fond of.

The “I’m-actually-playing-something-finally” graphics are good, far better than the intro video and talky graphics would hint at.  Explosions underwater seem a bit silly, undermining the look and feel, but all in all, it could be fun.  If only they would… stop… talking… and get on with it.  I just wanted to go blow stuff up and zip around underwater.

I give the game a Regret rating overall, even though I do love the idea of an underwater game in the Privateer mold, one of my other all time favorite games.  This game just isn’t it.  I hear there’s a sequel, so maybe the game gets better, and maybe the sequel is even better… but I won’t be spending any more time to find out.

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So, three games out of… um… more than 100.  There are a few other minor grievances I dealt with, but out of the gate, I have to say that it’s about what I’d expected.  I’m a firm believer in style guides and making a good, quick first impression.  That doesn’t preclude depth, but gamers today have to be intrigued and having fun fast, or they will move on to another game.  These games just aren’t up to par.  They might be worth playing if you don’t mind their shortcomings, as none of them are actually bad, they just are behind the curve a bit.

We’ll see what these titles have in store next time:

AVSEQ

Back To The Future: Ep 1

The Banner Saga

…I’ll admit, I really, really want to like The Banner Saga.  I am not even close to unbiased on that one.  I love the music I’ve heard, and I love tactical and strategic games.  The Eyvind Earle art style is gorgeous.  I sort of want to give it a lot more than 15 minutes, but we’ll see how it fares with a nibble instead of a Viking feast.

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I’ve played video games since Bowling on the Atari 2600 back in 1980.  I’ve played on most major consoles here in the U.S. (the Neo Geo is the one I skipped… that thing was stupidly expensive, though I loved some of its games in the arcades of the day), though I’m still stuck in the PS3/XB360 era due to lack of funding.  I’ve played PC and Mac games, from simple DOS games like Sleuth up through Star Control 2 and The Dig, and later, Batman: Arkham Asylum (I know, it’s a port, but it’s my most graphically intensive PC game) and Minecraft.

I discovered a taste for design in the Dark Castle days, drawing out new levels on graph paper.  I further refined my interest in mechanics when I did some serious work designing a world and game systems for a RPG in the King’s Quest days, though it wound up being more of a Final Fantasy Tactics sort of game.  I really, really wanted to make a good sequel to Chrono Trigger, and made many notes on what I’d do.  Chrono Cross, great game that it is, just didn’t scratch the same itch.

I’ve always enjoyed games, both playing and designing.  In many ways, creating new games is more satisfying, since I’m a creative sort and would rather produce than consume.

My BFA is in Computer Animation, and while some of my classmates have worked for Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, Blue Sky, Dreamworks and Weta, I wound up in the game industry.  I’d have loved working at Pixar making Disney films, like I planned to do as a kid, but circumstances led to other choices.  I still love animating, though I’m most experienced at modeling, texturing and solving weird tech issues, since I’m  a “Technical Artist”, comfortable with tech and art.

I worked for Headgate Studios, largely working on EA’s Tiger Woods games.  Then I worked at Wahoo Studios, making a few Kefling games along with a smattering of other projects both internal and contract work.  I have a list around here somewhere of the 15 or so games I am credited in, which qualifies me as a veteran of sorts. That said, as is so often true, time and economics caught up with me, and I’m now “retired” from the industry after almost a decade working on the art in games, with a bit of dabbling in design.

These days, I design my own games, write about what I’d do if I had pie-in-the-sky budgets to design games, do graphic design, make cool game accessories and try to find ways to make a living in a freelance world since there just aren’t career opportunities at the moment.  Once in a while, I even get to play games (though some of that time is just playtesting my games… I really need to update Chromaround).

Games and I, we have history.

Anyway, I’m in between serious contracts, and while I’m scrambling for something new to pay the bills, I have a few minutes here and there.  So, given that I’ve been collecting games over the years, adding to my Steam collection and assorted game bundles, I have more than a few games to fill that time with.

So, I’m going to be systematic about it and just start plowing through my game backlog.  I’m going to give each game 15 minutes to really grab me, then do a quick writeup of what happened, probably with a screenshot or two, and with some commentary about the design and art.  Pith may be present.  I might revisit the games, but I probably won’t.  Still, I want to do a bit of exploration.  It’s good to see what’s out there, and how other games are designed.

I’ll post those writeups here, though I’m not committing to any regular schedule or format.  Perhaps this is the sort of thing YouTube is for, but I hate being in videos and hearing myself.  Writing, that I can do.  We’ll see how it all settles out.

I know, I know, some games really need more than 15 minutes to get a proper shakedown, but, well, I can’t be the only one who only barely has time to graze games.  I could devote dozens of hours to the latest Final Fantasy when I was in high school, but these are different times.  I think it’s a good game design that has the ability to do something to earn further attention within those 15 minutes.  I simply won’t be doing some games justice, but that’s life in this saturated, cutthroat market.  There are still lessons to be learned, I think.

See you next time with a bit of commentary on what I’ve been playing, then I’ll mostly shelve those games and start trekking through the wilds.

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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 almost ten 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!

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One of the things I do when I have a minute to spare, but can’t do much but think, say, while waiting at a traffic light, is to ponder a fictional setting that I’ve been puttering around with for years.  I think about pieces of that world, characters in it, historical events, magical mechanics, whatever seems most interesting at the moment.  I’ve written some of it down, and I’ve structured some of it into a series of stories I’d like to tell, and a lot of art I’d like to do.

Sometimes I find it helpful to share my creative process, if only because it forces me to think about it, and possibly refine it.  If you all can get something out of my meanderings, hey, that’s a bonus.

This time, I want to write about Geistflies.

Geistflies

These little guys, to be precise, or at least, a fictional variant:

Fireflies

(Photos by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu)

Fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some call them) are mostly harmless, but have a certain visual charm on dark nights where their lights show up.  As with so many other weird phenomena, they are ripe for fictional explanations.  We know today that fireflies glow thanks to chemical reactions, but a less informed populace might invent other reasons for the glow.  Sometimes these reasons are based in evidence and observation, sometimes they are pure whimsy.  Often, there’s a bit of both involved, especially if location is important and patterns show up.

And as is so often the case, reality can be weirder than fiction anyway.  Take, for example, the weird story of the “Angel’s Glow” from the U.S. Civil War.  Some Civil War soldiers had wounds that glowed in the dark.  Weird, crazy stuff.  That article is just outlining a theory still, but a reasonable one.  And yet, to a delirious soldier in the field, would bioluminescent hitchhiker bacteria be the first thought?

Anyway, I designed that Geistfly Swarm card for some friends a couple years back (which actually is why I started digging into card design, which led to the Tinker Decks and Tinker Dice).  I just used a photo from a quick online search and ran with it to mock up graphic design concepts.  The text is really just official looking gibberish I made up so it looked like a card from an actual game, and I did the rest of the graphic design, experimenting with visuals.  The title of the card, “Geistfly Swarm” was just part of this creative tinkering… but it’s a name that has stuck in my mind since then.  It was just an experiment with making an interesting sounding name, sort of like my mild fascination with alliteration, but there’s something interesting happening there.

One, it rolls off the tongue well, with a pair of vowel sounds that echo each other in the two syllables.  There’s a lyrical quality to the term.  This lyricism can inform the genesis of the term, culturally speaking, and how it’s applied in society in the novel setting.  Perhaps the whimsy involved means that it’s largely used as a children’s story term.  Perhaps, though, like the Grimm Brothers stories, there’s a dark secret at its heart, and it’s been candy coated by the pretty sounds over the years.

Two, it’s a mishmash of two languages, German and English.  What sort of culture would use such a mix?  Would anyone try to be more grammatically correct and call them “ghostflies”?  What effect would that have?

Three, what if there are two species involved?  Regular fireflies, where the term is used much as we would today, and then the geistflies?  What would differentiate the species?  Color?  Behavior?  Location?  Mechanics?

…and so I decided that geistflies are an offshoot of normal fireflies.  They live in my world that has magic, sometimes wild and powerful, sometimes regimented and almost baked down to a science.  This particular bug, the geistfly, doesn’t light up for the same reasons as the firefly.  No, these geistflies react to magic and light up purely as a matter of physiology and its reaction and proximity to magic.

That relatively simple idea sparks a new series of questions, then:

Can they be used as detectors?  Do they have different reactions to different “flavors” of magic?  Where do they live?  Can they be domesticated?  What is their life cycle, and are they only sensitive to magic when they are adults?  Do they feed on magic?  How do they interact with magic users or “spells”?

Where does their energy come from to light up?  

That one spawns even more questions, like “if they tap into the surrounding magic, how would that affect their behavior?” or “if lighting up drains their own energy, would that mean they avoid magic instinctively purely as a survival mechanism?”, and answers to those would modify the answers to other questions, like using them as detectors.

Or maybe this one:  Why are they called geistflies?  Have they been linked to ghosts?  Are they most prevalent around battlefields, creepy old buildings or graveyards?  They aren’t exactly pyreflies, but maybe there are echoes in there somewhere?

I haven’t decided on answers to all of these, and really, it’s possible to dive down the rabbit hole and chase a lot of different aspects of these questions and their implications.  To me, that’s one of the great parts of creative writing and worldbuilding.  I love asking and answering those questions, and finding out how different ideas play off of each other.

This is also why I love games, where some of that incredible potential can be given to players, making for all sorts of interesting effects.

I’ll work geistflies into the stories somehow.  Even little things like this, the details that aren’t the spine of adventure, but rather the spice, are sometimes extremely useful and even important.

P.S. I just ran into this today:

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/01/bioluminescent-beach-maldives/

There’s a lot you can pull from real life weirdness for fictional worldbuilding.

bio-beach2

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