Trent Polack's site for cats, games, game development, and undeniably powerful sociological insight all with a healthy dose of narcissism.
mittens's Articles
February 18, 2009 by mittens

What is most astonishing about F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is not its poster-child of horror: that Gothic-looking nine-year-old child look is about as familiar to anyone who has seen any of Hollywood's reinterpretations of certain Japanese Horror flicks. Nor is it astonishing that F.E.A.R. 2 fails, like so many sequels recently, to convey any narrative points of significance. Nor is it astonishing that the prominently-advertised mech segments feel as out-of-place as any player of the original F.E.A.R. would have imagined them to feel. No, what is astonishing about F.E.A.R. 2 is how little of what made F.E.A.R. such an engaging and refreshing first-person shooter is present.

One of the commonly-echoed complaints about the original F.E.A.R. was the "bland" or "repetitive" level design that filled the game's superb single-player campaign. As heavy into the supernatural as the game's narrative got, the gameplay always remained grounded in, more or less, a commonly-understood vision of reality. As such, a large chunk of the game took place in abandoned or decrepit buildings, office buildings, warehouses, garages, corporate atriums, and other such staples of modern life in any large city. Other than the decrepit buildings, though, the environments in F.E.A.R. were all highly representative of everyone's commonly-understood idea of an office, a warehouse, a garage, and so on. The prime example of this are the office levels which make up a decent portion of F.E.A.R.'s campaign: there are a number of cubicles and office floors which are in clean, tidy order when a player enters them. Some of the cubicle phones have messages on them for the former occupant of the cube and, through these, a portion of the game's narrative is told.

What made these areas interesting is not that their surface appeal is intriguing, they're offices after all. These environments are intriguing due to how these offices were put to use when enemies came flooding in though doors, windows, and ceilings. Suddenly cubicles became cover. Glass was shattering from every window or glass panel, sparks were flying from broken computers and monitors, and giant holes filled the walls (example). It was an arena of chaos that was once an everyday environment.

February 16, 2009 by mittens

Flower is a rare video game. For one thing, it has flowers. For another, no one dies. It's a game where the player controls the wind that guides a lonesome flower petal (and its eventual flock of follower petals) through a game world in need of nothing more than some attention, love, and nourishment.

Flower is also a game that is difficult to explain.

In the most simplistic sense, Flower is about guiding a stream of petals from one checkpoint to another where each "checkpoint" is a flower in the landscape. Once the player's petal stream touches a flower, the checkpoint is considered "met" and a petal from that flower flies into the air and joins your petal posse. When all, or enough, of the flowers in a given area have been touched, a scripted sequence is set off and urges the player the progress onward. A new player's actions may feel fairly simplistic or minute, but this is a feeling that will dissipate quickly. As the player fills more and more of these area-by-area conditions, the landscape begins to come alive: dead grass is reborn, new plants spring forth from the ground, trees regain their color and lush leaves, and so on. As a player progresses through the world of Flower and the areas that its made up of, the game is also attaching a sense of gravitas and emotion to its most fundamental game mechanic: touching a flower.

Flower's other main game mechanic comes for the sense of flow that the game encourages a player to maintain. With only a handful of exceptions, it's always possible to stop going from new flower to new flower to unlock new areas and, instead, just fly around the landscape as it exists at any given moment. The ability to just guide a stream of flower petals through the air with no sense of purpose is a near-constant possibility in the game and that lends a great deal of validation to the atmosphere of the game. That said, Flower is at its best when a player can maintain a mildly fast and uninterrupted pace throughout an entire area and the chime that each flower emits when its touched is properly strung-together with the other flowers that make up a given "path" and the player is consistently experiencing rewards for completing the objectives in a given area. This emphasis on flow is especially true of the final three areas, where there is an actual feeling of urgency that motivates players.

The marvel of Flower, though, is its ability to convey emotion to players. Like no video game that I can think of before it, Flower revels in happiness and serenity. As players progress through the six areas in the game, the only possible result for any player that can allow themselves to submit into the game's atmosphere is a feeling of profound, rewarding warmth. The music, the art direction, and the controls all lend themselves to a playing experience where a player is able to minimize the gap between the player, the controller, and the game and buy into the concept that a player's direct actions are the reason these streams of flower petals are flying and sweeping through the gorgeous in-game landscapes.

Flower's developer, thatgamecompany, is doing some very unique work within the realm of video games and it will be interesting to see where they go from Flower. The company's last game, flOw (and the Flash release), is a game that also creates a very unique, strong atmosphere while allowing a player to define his/her own play style. While it bears very little gameplay similarities to Flower, flOw's minimalism and clarity of design are even more pronounced and well-defined in Flower.

When I finished all six of Flower's primary areas (and the exceptionally clever Credits segment), I went to Metacritic to see how the mainstream game reviewing sites handled their treatment of Flower. It was surprising to see how traditional the reviews for the game were; especially Eurogamer's piece which, of all things, criticized the ten dollar price tag of the game. Aside from my issues with the game's imprecise and flow-breaking sixaxis-based control scheme, I find it difficult to find much to gripe about with Flower; least of all its paltry entry fee for a game that lasted me about two-three hours and a game that I will no doubt look to play-through again when the memories of the game have faded a bit or I want to be reminded that games don't have to be about guns, death, and sex.

Flower is the rare kind of video game from which discussions of games as art, entertainment versus experience, and dollars per hour will blossom. Don't listen to that nonsense.

February 12, 2009 by mittens

Over the last few years, Relic has been crafting and evolving their very unique take on the real-time strategy genre with every new title they have released. Their shift in focus from a game like Homeworld to their, now, action/RTS genre blend was most apparent in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War (2004). Dawn of War introduced the concept of cover as an actual game mechanic that players had to think about and plan a strategy around. The game also provided players with a lower unit count than most other strategy games released at the time while also treating infantry units as somewhat customizable squads rather than individual units. Dawn of War also was the first of Relic's games that really attempted to differentiate itself from the conventions of the real-time strategy genre at the time by reducing the gameplay emphasis on resource management.

Unlike games like Warcraft, Starcraft, and Age of Empires, Dawn of War treated one of its two resources as a capturable commodity. The map designers placed several important requisition points at key locations around a game map and these capturable points were the only means of harvesting requisition. Once a resource point is captured the flow of a given resource was dependent on nothing else but time (and maybe an upgraded listening post on the capture point). There were no workers to manage and not supply flow to contend with, simply a group of "hot points" that littered a game map. There were, however, constructable power nodes that players had to build in order to acquire power -- a design mechanic that felt out of place in the scheme of the game. Relic's next game, Company of Heroes, took this design methodology one step further and made the source of all resources a capturable point on the game map that had to be claimed and then, in some cases, enhanced through the construction of a building atop the point.

February 3, 2009 by mittens

Mirror's Edge is a game that was heralded by a marketing campaign that wanted gamers to think of Mirror's Edge as a game that was innovative and, more than that, different. It had a heroine that was markedly different from another well-known leading lady. The scenery is comprised of a bright, pronounced color palette that was primarily composed of white and bright shades red, blue, green, and orange. And, more than those factors, the game was purportedly centered around the escapades of a leading lady whose primary talent was her ability to run fast and execute her Parkour-based maneuvers to navigate through an urban landscape. This marketing campaign, essentially, made Mirror's Edge the closest thing to an "art game" that mega-publisher/developer Electronic Arts is capable of releasing in this turbulent and confusing times within the economy and the games industry.

It's when Mirror's Edge is encouraging a player to run as fast and as smoothly as possible that the game delivers on the hopes that the game's marketing created. When things "work" in Mirror's Edge, they work. The mixture of intensity, fear, and adrenaline that the game manages to create in a player when, in one of the beginning stages, the player must flee from a small band of "blues" (policemen in blue uniforms!) by performing the classical leap of faith from a building to a nearby helicopter is one of my favorite gaming moments of 2008. There were nearby enemies that forced a sense of panic in the player but the designers at DICE managed to contain the danger that the policemen presented to the player perfectly; these enemies made the escape intense, forced the player to focus on running with the flow of the level, and the scene ended just as the game designers anticipated.

At no point in the aforementioned scenario did I, as a player of the game, feel that I was pushed into a corner by the policemen and had to fight my way out. The policemen served their intended purpose of coercing a player to progress at a somewhat specific pace (fast or faster) through the rest of the level and nothing more. DICE's inability to use these "enemies" as a means of pace enforcement throughout much of Mirror's Edge is, in fact, the game's biggest failing. Instead of making a player's trek through a level feel fun and intense the way a Hollywood chase scene would, these enemies constantly limit the options a player has. Sometimes they force a player to run through a certain portion of a level without having any time to properly explore or enjoy the obstacles and scenery. Other times these enemies make a player's run-through end abruptly at an unexpected and undesirable time. More often than not, though, the enemies in Mirror's Edge make a player feel like he/she has to fight his or her way through an encounter. And there is nothing more defeating to the integrity of Mirror's Edge's core design then a player feeling that he was pushed into a corner by the enemy AI and had no choice but to unrealistically annihilate a squad of heavily armed policemen.

Mirror's Edge's own instability is its eventual downfall. Sometimes it wants to make players engage in awkward gunplay. Sometimes it wants to make the level geometry into an uncomfortable Parkour puzzle. But, sometimes, Mirror's Edge gets into a groove when it's this absolutely superb mix of a platformer, racer, and first-person exploration game. DICE was able to implement the controls, the movement, and the general "feel" of being a particularly talented and nimble gymnast who was running, jumping, and sliding her way through a series of "real life" obstacles: the roofs of industrial buildings, construction scaffolding, city plazas, and so on. The real thrill that Mirror's Edge provides is when it exposes players to these sorts of urban obstacle courses and tasks him/her with making it through one of these courses quick, smooth, and in one piece. The amount of trial and error can be frustrating in these cases, but the reward for a smooth execution is unmatched by any other moment in the game. It's like trying to get one lap of a track in a racing game perfect over and over and, finally, getting through an entire lap without a single screw-up. And it's this feeling that Mirror's Edge's combat encounters and puzzle-Parkour don't manage to capitalize on.

I'd be remiss if I failed to mention how excruciatingly poor every aspect of the Mirror's Edge narrative is. Take note players: when you stumble into a story event in an office where you see your sister just keep in mind that you're going to wish the in-game cut scenes persisted. As it is, that's the one of only two in-game cinematics that players will ever see. Mirror's Edge chooses to convey the entirety of the story through communication units (which aren't bad; just poorly written and voice-acted) but what's worse are the 2D animations that tell the game's narrative in between levels. These cinematics are of a shockingly low quality not only in their scripts but in the absolutely awful animation style that created them. The characters lack any sense of depth, proportion, or even the human-like quality they possess when players see their in-game counterparts. The idea that the script which makes up Mirror's Edge made it into a AAA game production is altogether unsurprising but the fact that these 2D animations made it in is amazing.

Mirror's Edge is a sad game. There are a handful nuggets of superb gameplay that litter what is an altogether mediocre single-player gaming experience. I'm not even a fan of platformer games -- save for the occasional excellent title like Super Mario Galaxy -- but Mirror's Edge's early gameplay segments were an utter joy to engage in. If DICE can manage to recapture what made those early levels of the game so captivating then an eventual sequel should have a lot to offer. As it stands now Mirror's Edge is a game to get to see a very unique take on pacing and platforming, just try not to stray too far from the time trial mode.

Then again, the time trial mode requires playing the full game in order to unlock all of the courses. That's just cruel.

January 28, 2009 by mittens

As I indicated in my brief update last week, I did indeed get a Unity Indie license after some time with the free downloadable trial. I've never been good at constraining myself to the feature set found in a given game engine or game development toolset before but just a few hours with Unity made me a very strong believer in the power the engine had. On the Saturday of this past weekend I sat down on a couch while I was away at my parents' house with my MacBook, opened up the Unity trial, and spent some time while I was watching movies with my parents just playing around with the engine. I was so impressed with what I came up with purely through trial-and-error and experimentation (as I had no internet connection for research/help) that I got the Indie license within an hour of getting back to my apartment on Sunday afternoon.

My goal over the next few months is to come up with and develop one game every four-six weeks that I will upload to this site (Unity has a 3D web applet). The first of these projects is Magnetic Butterfly which is, essentially, a game of King of the Hill where the player controls a tiny butterfly who was born with a giant wrecking ball attached to his body. As a result of this, the butterfly will be a bit unwieldy for the player to control, but the player will need to find a way to knock any nearby enemies off a platform before they do the same to him/her. The "catch" is that the player will have the ability to activate his magnetic charge which will lock the butterfly to the ground and allow players to drastically modify the momentum of the wrecking ball and then aim it in the direction of a nearby enemy for increased force. I got a very, very basic prototype of the gameplay up and running on Sunday night and was actually pleasantly surprised with the results.

Since then I have been spending some additional time setting up the PC in my apartment to serve as my content/asset creation machine -- installing Paint Shop Pro, XSI Mod Tools, and Silo for the texture/modeling needs that I figured would arise over the course of the next couple months. I have also been redoing some of the basic aspects the butterfly/wrecking ball; for instance, I am currently in the process of redoing the chain/rope that binds the ball and the butterfly together to not only look better but to be a much more elastic solution. Here are some screenshots of my development environment over the last few hours while I was screwing around with joints to bind various chain links together (I have since decided to create the chain procedurally, which is where I left off for the night):

I can't even properly convey just how much fun I've been having with Unity since I downloaded the trial. Not having to worry about the finer details of programming for a platform and, instead, solely focusing on the game design, gameplay logic, and the player's interactions with the game world has just been a fantastic change of pace for me. The most annoying thing at the moment is the lack of postprocessing shader support in the Unity Indie license (it's a feature reserved for Unity Pro) but that's only a minor aesthetic design annoyance.

I'll try to write some more detailed development entries in the future; though, preferably, I'll write those at some time that is not an hour or so after I meant to go to sleep.

January 21, 2009 by mittens

It's been a while since I've just written a generic sort of site entry, but this seemed like a fantastic time to do just that. First, I want to thank everyone for all the awesome responses I got on the site, IRC, Twitter, and other mediums to my last entry. That was actually intended to be a useful piece to serve as advice to people looking to get into the game industry but I got carried away with my personal history as I started writing it and just rode that inspiration. I'll write up a proper piece on general advice on how to get into the game industry at some point in the future.

I'm still plugging away on my iPhone project on a daily (or near-daily) basis. I'm having a bit of trouble actually getting to work on the game as a result of deficiencies of the engine I'm using. If the engine I'm using doesn't provide an abundance of tools and scripts for game development then I feel compelled to add in some of the features that I'm certain I will need at some point in my game's development so, at this point, that endeavor is occupying the entirety of my development time. One of the things which interested me the most about the Oolong Engine was how it appeared to offer an abundance of features while still allowing a lot of room for a developer to customize his/her use of the engine. At this point I'm convinced that while the engine does have a solid feature set, there is nothing that really ties one aspect of the engine together with the rest; for instance, being that it's an engine for a touch screen-based platform I would have expected somewhat rigorous support for touch-screen input and picking within a 2D/3D scene. But alas, no such thing seems to exist. It does appear to be under heavy development but given the amount of development I do in a given day at work I like the time I spend with my side-projects to be as focused on core game design and game programming as possible.

That said, I do absolutely love not only my MacBook but also OS X and the development environment that the iPhone SDK and xcode provide. While the IDE is nowhere near the level of polish present in Microsoft Visual Studio, it's still a tremendously useful and functional programming environment. I'm also continually impressed by the capabilities and ease of development for the iPhone/iPod Touch as a platform. It's been a fascinating change from PC development and my XNA projects (which, C# aside, is a very PC-like platform).

I'm so impressed by the iPhone/iPod Touch as a gaming platform that I'm seriously considering putting some (or all, depending on the success or lack thereof) of the money from my first game towards an Unity 3D and iPhone license. Granted, I have absolutely no idea when my first game will hit the App Store (or even what that game will be), but I can dream. Everything I've seen from Unity has me endlessly impressed and I'd absolutely love to get a license for it at some point but it is, right now, a bit out of my price range. Especially given the impulse purchase of the MacBook. If anyone has used Unity for either Mac or the iPhone I'd love to hear some impressions. I also noticed that GarageGames has released a SKU of their Torque Game Engine for the iPhone; the license seems to be more expensive than their past engine releases though, which is kind of confusing. I always thought of GarageGames as offering low-priced alternatives to indies and the price point of iTGE is only $100 less than the indie license of Unity 3D along with its iPhone publishing license. And, from what I've seen, Unity seems to be a far more capable and thorough toolset.

Speaking of such things, is anyone doing the Global Game Jam at the end of the month? I'm still figuring out whether I'm going to head to the Detroit chapter of the thing.

Finally, since I don't believe I've thrown out a plug for these guys yet, Idle Thumbs is the best gaming podcast around. It's surprisingly hard to find gaming podcasts whose speakers have the abilities to move beyond the kind of tired, trite rhetoric you'd get from a typical IGN or Gamespot article without coming off as pretentious or, quite simply, boring. Idle Thumbs manages to do that in a way that I've only seen the Games for Windows podcast successfully do back before it ended months ago. Give it a listen.

January 20, 2009 by mittens

Every now and then it's nice to talk about game development; how to get into it, and what it's like to actually be a professional game developer after years of being a part of game development communities on the Internet. This post was inspired by a blog entry by the ever-fantastic Steve Gaynor. The entry is titled "Informative" and he discusses his approach to getting into level and game design from the perspective of someone who had no idea how to get into game development. It's a fantastic read and is a completely different approach to the way I got into game development.

One way to get into the industry is have the general knowledge of what game development consists of and keep this in mind as one progresses with his/her education. Maybe someone looked up a game school like Digipen or a trade school like Full Sail. I know a number of people that have gone this route and gotten good jobs in the game industry (one of whom is a close friend and colleague at Stardock). There are also a number of people who got into the industry in a sort of traditional training/educational manner. These are the people that maybe knew an widely-accepted path of learning a given artistic or programmatic trade through classes in high school and then continued the advancement of these schools through college. Both of these are very viable methods of learning the necessary skills to get a job in a very unique and competitive industry.

But that's not how it worked for me. And I have some of my personal history and some very unfortunate evidence of my past projects to share along the way.

I grew up with video games. Sure, I also had a fondness for basketball and, eventually, cross-country, but video games were always a consistent force throughout my life. I got a copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 from my grandparents for Christmas when I was around five or six. The problem that I remember back then is that I got this game and I didn't even have an NES. I wasn't sure what their angle was. I thought it was either a mean trick or my grandparents had no idea that a game cartridge wasn't a self-contained video game-playing entity. But I clutched that copy of SMB 3 in my hands for a week or two. At some point I accidentally dropped my copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 in a toilet. After that unfortunate event -- still not having an NES of my own to play -- I had an urgent need to visit my friend's house. He had an NES, see, and I had to ensure my holy grail hadn't been corrupted. Thankfully, it wasn't, and shortly thereafter I had an NES of my very own to play it with. It wasn't until I was eleven or twelve that I really ever started wondering how video games were made. But, that did happen, and it was, as is tradition for the small town of Kalkaska, Michigan, during an incredible blizzard that I started screwing around on a computer. Before I go further, I want to ensure we have the same picture of a winter as I do; these are recent pictures but you can't really tell the difference between back-then and now in this context:

January 16, 2009 by mittens

Every year I realize I don't really like writing lists or articles which end up sounding more like game reviews than critical analyses. So, to close out my list of 2008's best games, I offer the best of the rest:

Valkyria Chronicles
Sega's Valkyria Chronicles uses its pseudo-World War II setting to the best of its abilities, presenting everything from the blitzkrieg of an "evil empire" to the concentration camps of a group of humans who are discriminated against for inciting a war thousands of years before the events of the game. The game attempts to encourage players to treat the units in the game as individuals each with their own positives and negatives and, as such, character development is handled through one of five character classes and upgrades to these classes affects every character of that class type. This behavior does diminish the goals of most strategy RPGs but, at the same time, the inventive combination of real-time character movement/action and turn-based unit management makes for a superb tactical experience.

Luminous Arc 2
Unlike Valkyria Chronicles which handles its strategy/RPG gameplay in a very new and innovative way for the genre, Luminous Arc 2 is an SRPG which makes no attempts to hide its Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre-inspired gameplay mechanics. Unlike the sea of other games inspired by this very specific type of character development, Luminous Arc 2 offers an incredibly well-balanced difficulty curve over the course of the game. And through the use of Luminous Arc 2's "engagement" system, the game forces players to treat unnecessarily well-defined witches as a type of battlefield resource for the continued stat progression of the game's protagonist. Gameplay aside, the game has one of the best scripts I have ever seen from a Japanese RPG.

Boom Blox
Boom Blox is the kind of game everyone dreamed of when the Nintendo Wii remote was first announced. It's Jenga, it's throwing baseballs and bowling balls at complex structures to make them fall down, it's a party game, and it's a game where you toss heavy objects at a group of invading bear blox in order to safe a bunch of sheep blox. Yeah.

It's a game where you race through tracks that are procedurally generated based on the music that you choose. So you race your music. You race your music.

January 14, 2009 by mittens

It's easy to be disgusted by a game like Ninja Gaiden 2. Team Ninja's (now former) director, Tomonobu Itagaki, makes no pretense for a fair display of gender differences. The game makes no attempt to convey an intelligent and thought-provoking story through its occasional and concise cut scenes. And the game makes no attempt to further the integrity of video gaming as a medium. Within the first five minutes of the game a player is treated to pints of blood being splattered across the entirety of a given level and inhumanly large and buoyant breasts are barely stuffed behind a skimpy leather top attached to a CIA agent in an equally revealing miniskirt.

Unlike Grasshopper Manufacture's No More Heroes, no aspect of Ninja Gaiden 2 is designed to subvert and exploit the expectations of the medium or the desires of young teenage males. Ninja Gaiden 2 is what it is and, really, not much more. It is, through and through, an action-focused video game.

And as an action game, Ninja Gaiden 2 is the absolute best in its class for one primary reason: the game places the entirety of Ryu Hayabusa's behavior into the hands of the player. There are no quick-time events, there are no platforming segments where a player solely has to keep the joystick pressed forward to successfully progress, and at no point is there an AI-controlled ally character who exists to help the player along. The closest the game comes to taking away direct control from the player is when Ryu is "obliterating" an enemy foe who is in a state of near-death and operating in like a kamikaze fighter. During these segments a five-to-ten second animation players where Ryu will absolutely decimate an enemy's body, thus preventing this enemy from ever troubling the player again throughout a combat encounter. These segments, as automated as they are, serve as the only moments of respite in combat and, on harder difficulties, are used as a strategic period of invulnerability against, say, a group of enemies volleying rockets into the air through their rapid-fire launchers.

January 12, 2009 by mittens

Around the time when I got my Nintendo DS along with Square-Enix's 3D remake of Final Fantasy III -- it's now cool to refer to Final Fantasy games without specifying the use of the Japanese numbering system, right? -- I experienced a gaming phenomenon more clearly than I ever had before. At that point I was already a couple dozen hours into the game and the finer aspects of its mechanics, character classes, and general progression of the game were all as well-known to me as they were ever likely to become. I approached the final dungeon with a feeling that I wasn't having fun anymore but I was close enough to the end of the game where stopping seemed absurd. After all it was the final dungeon and my characters seemed buff enough to handle whatever it contained. And they were.

They were buff enough for the first hour or two of that dungeon, anyway. After that I could sense a feeling of fatigue setting in amongst the entire party. Because what my characters were woefully unprepared for was the marathon of random battles, mid-dungeon bosses, and room-after-room in this dungeon that, all told, would take a player three-to-four hours to complete. And the time commitment wasn't a kind one. There isn't, to my knowledge, a single save point in the final portion of that dungeon. I ended up dying at the hands of one of the mid-dungeon bosses -- not only as a result of a lack of character preparedness for the long-slog, but as a result of sitting in the same couch for two or three successive hours dealing with random battle after random battle and eventually deciding: no.

A scenario like that may have been alright when I was growing up, unable to drive, and living in the middle of a rural nowhere. That kind of gameplay is embraced when it's an early Saturday morning in the middle of a Northern Michigan blizzard and the nearest friend is, at the least, eight-nine miles away. More importantly, though, is when a game like Final Fantasy III is one of a mere handful of games that a budding gamer has in his/her possession then that game will get play no matter how grievous its sins may be. When those young gamers get older and start getting more and more responsibilities and, in some cases, additional funds for acquiring a wider variety of games to occupy their time, the kinds of games which were once lauded for their difficulty and time commitment become the kinds of games that are actively avoided.

After that first attempt at beating the final dungeon in Final Fantasy III failed the game then enters a pile of games that I could play but didn't really feel like dealing with. It's a pile of games that gamers look at and worry more about the amount of time it may take to get to "the good stuff" or, more commonly, whether or not a gamer may have enough time to get from one save point to another.

January 8, 2009 by mittens

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a strange game to discuss. As a long-time fan of the series it is both a superb gaming experience and an absolutely infuriating one. The game presents itself to players as being almost two separate entities: the one the player is engaged in and the one that Hideo Kojima wants the player to watch.

For a game like Metal Gear Solid 4, franchise history is of paramount importance to any discourse regarding the game. Metal Gear Solid is a franchise that got its North American start back in 1998. The Playstation game was released to pretty wide critical acclaim and commercial success (shipping "six million units worldwide. The game made good on its tag line of "Tactical Espionage Action" by merging its action and stealth gameplay better than any game that preceded it -- a feat that went unmatched until the release of Splinter Cell four years later. Metal Gear Solid was, above all else, a game with sublime pacing throughout its duration; the gameplay was the focus, the cut scenes were lengthy for the time, but rarely excessive. The game's sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, was released two and a half year later and, despite critical and commercial success exceeding the original game, is considered a misstep in the series due to the change in protagonist, a pronounced increase in tangential storylines (especially the romance of two main characters), and more and longer cinematics.

When Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released in 2004, the gameplay, characters, overarching story, and level design were all better than they ever were before. And it was with Metal Gear Solid 3 that the franchise's penchant for unnecessarily lengthy storytelling through non-interactive cut scenes was most pronounced. The increased length of the cut scenes (along with an increased number of them) seemed to also go hand-in-hand with a poorly-crafted script that seemed to rely on a pure bulk of dialogue to present information and storylines. The franchise was always fond of its own verbosity, but each game in the series took it one step further.

And in 2008 Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released.

January 4, 2009 by mittens

I've been plugging away on my iPhone project over my vacation and it's been pretty rad. which I'm actually developing using an iPod Touch but shortening it from iPhone/iPod Touch to just iPhone is so much easier. I do want to record just how absurd application deployment to an iPhone/iPod Touch is, though. Once an individual pays the $99 fee for a development license he/she is given access to the iPhone Development Portal. And in order to get a working xcode project from the iPhone Simulator to an actual device is as follows:

  1. Setup the team. For an individual license the only allowed team member is the person who bought the license. The first thing this person will need to do is generate a Certificate Signing Request; this is done through a system application. Once a request for a certificate from a "Certificate Authority" has been made, then a CSR file will be made on the desktop. This CSR file needs to submitted to the Development Portal to allow a team leader to approve it. Once that is done, then the portal will allow team members/admins to download their certificates and install them to their machine. Each certificate is composed of a public key (which is available to the team leader) and a private key (which is available only for the team member).
  2. The next step is to add a list of up to one hundred possible devices that will be used for testing. This is the most straightforward part of the process. Just add in the device name and its unique device ID.
  3. Now an application identifier needs to be created that will serve as a unique identifier for that application and is composed of ten letters/numbers. This key is then followed by a bundle identifier that the developer can create; for instance, mine is
  4. Then it is necessary to create a provisioning profile which ties all of the aforementioned steps together. Mine is "Trent kaboom," and allows to be deployed to either mittens or Stardock's iPod Touch (which I was using before I bought my own) under the use of my developer license, Trent Polack. Once the form is filled out then a file has to be downloaded to the desktop and added as a provisioning profile to xcode's device organizer.
  5. Moving to xcode, a property list file (Info.plist, typically) needs to be filled out since xcode seems to have issues automating its project name/product name/product bundle through the project settings alone. So various information from the previous steps needs to be manually entered here. The main information that needs to be given is the bundle identifier: com.trentpolack.{$PRODUCT_NAME:identifier}. It seems without that ':identifier' modifier deployment to a device will only work once until that installed application has been deleted; adding it, presumably, gives each deployed executable a unique ID that will allow it to overwrite a previous one.
  6. And, finally, a provisioning profile is linked with a given target (executable) through the xcode project settings and serves as a means of signing that executable for use by an attached device. Deployment is impossible without a code-signing profile in place.
January 3, 2009 by mittens

Shortly after I started my first game of Far Cry 2, I was treated to an on-rails taxi ride where my driver pointed out some of the unique sites of Africa. There are groups of civilians wandering in hope of escape from their country, varied wildlife, the spreading of a flash fire spreading from a patch of dry grass to a nearby tree, and more than a few angry-looking mercenaries. Functionally, this segment did nothing for me that Half-Life's tram ride didn't do back in 1998. Though, the tour did allow me time to take in the harrowing beauty intrinsic to Far Cry 2. The game's microcosm of Africa is beautifully realized and serves the game as an entity unto itself; a living, breathing pseudo-ecosystem. More than that, Far Cry 2 provides the player with a robust toolset of destruction that makes each of the game's bountiful combat encounters play out different every time.

When the segment ends, my character blacks out as a result of what I soon discover to be a latent case of malaria finally manifesting itself at the worst imaginable time. Upon waking, I see that I'm recumbent in a shanty hotel room and there is an unfamiliar figure standing at the foot of my bed, reading my confidential mission documents aloud. He quickly makes himself known as The Jackal, the infamous arms dealer that I have been sent to assassinate. This first scene represents the sole objective of Far Cry 2's premise in its entirety: it introduces the player to The Jackal, gives some basic background on who he is, and what his relation to the player is. The scene ends when my character's malaria flares up again and he blacks out.

Next time I wake up it's to the sound of explosions and fire all around me as my hotel (and likely the rest of the village it's in) is being ravaged from a battle outside. I grab a nearby pistol and then learn the basic game maneuvers as I crawl through debris and jump over broken walls until I eventually make it outside the village and, once again, black out.

January 2, 2009 by mittens

It's been a superb year for gamers. There have been such a vast number quality major releases across any number of genres that the idea of a given gamer feeling "left out" is near unthinkable. The major, well-received releases can be categorized as a 4X RTS or simply a great 4X turn-based game. There are open-world shooters in Africa and two types of open-world games in the vein of Grand Theft Auto. Superb cooperative games involving things like zombies, chainsaw-mounted assault rifles, and a throwback to the days of Golden Axe. And then there are major sequels like Grand Theft Auto 4, Fallout 3, and Metal Gear Solid 4. Oh, yes.

The deluge of gaming was good to me this year as well as, for the first time in a few years, I was actually able to play every title that I had any desire to play across all non-Wii platforms (and even then, I'm currently borrowing one of those to play No More Heroes). Not since my 2005 games of the year have I felt well-informed enough to write about some of my top picks for a given year. Granted, I can't objectively write about games like Galactic Civilizations: Twilight of the Arnor or Sins of a Solar Empire -- both of which are games that I, as a gamer, hold in remarkably high esteem.

This year I'm doing something a little bit different. I'm not sure if I can really classify a deviation from a one-time top ten list as something "different" or not but I will continue to think my actions in this matter as such. It's no radical change, but I'm just going to write up three-four articles on games I consider to be the best of 2008's best with no regards to rank or categorization. At this point, I still have yet to figure out what I want to make two of the four games. They will be from the following list of games I'm in the process of choosing from. The following games are all superb and remain in my mind at this point in time as equally superb.

December 23, 2008 by mittens

The iPhone/iPod Touch is a pretty rad little platform. It has vastly more powerful hardware and a far greater ease of development than I would have ever expected going into it. The biggest problem for me at the moment is that I don't actually have a Mac to call my very own. Someone deemed me responsible enough to borrow a Mac for the course of the Christmas break so I could finally make good on my long-desired and very loud-mouthed wish to see what kind of independent development environment Apple provided to the public for the platforms. Turns out that if someone can stomach a bit of Objective-C and a lack of Microsoft Visual Studio (the latter being the biggest dilemma), Apple seems to have done quite well for themselves. Even if one doesn't own an iPhone or an iPod Touch, the iPhone SDK ships with an iPhone Simulator which seems to pretty accurately represent the environment (sans the real-world tactile focus). I haven't had more than two days to really experiment with the setup yet, but thus far I'm impressed and I'd like to hear some thoughts from people who have spent more time with the platform.

Hell, from what I discovered shortly before I left for my brief vacation -- where I am so clearly vacationing at this very moment -- it seems that even the Objective C requirement may be negligible. It seems to allow for simplistic integration of traditional C/C++ code into the whole mix. I don't know what kind of exposure any of you readers have with Objective-C but, my god, as far as I'm concerned the less I see of its demonic syntax the better the world will be for it.

The biggest issue I'm facing with the whole iPhone/iPod Touch development experience thus far is that, for obvious reasons, an Intel-based Mac is required for development. I'd love to pick-up a Mac Book Pro or something at some point but, at least right now, that's way above my feasible price point for such a thing. If my short time with the Mini proves productive (and it has so far) I might try and pick up one of those on the cheap. Much like the sentimentality I have for Microsoft's XNA development environment, I think it's another quality step for independent game developers to have such easy access to a prominent and up-and-coming platforms like the iPhone/Touch (and mobile gaming as a whole).

The iPhone and iPod Touch seem to be an especially viable platform for independent game developers due in large part to the superb App Store accessible through the aforementioned devices and iTunes. In the mere two days I've had my iPod Touch I've already racked up about sixteen games ranging from free downloads to $0.99 titles all the way up to $9.99 (the maximum value I've seen). I'm not sure what kind of success the developers of Fieldrunners, Galcon, Enigmo, and Trism (to name a few) have seen but their titles seem to be very popular on the App Store. Galcon, especially, seems to have had surprising success given the very uniquely-nerd sort of gameplay it represents while being crossed with a more approachable and palatable mobile presentation.

If anything, it would seem that Apple made the accessibility of the App Store to independent developers almost too easy. For every great gem I've found hidden in the gaming sections I have seen three or four more titles which seem to present some meager offerings of something that can only barely resemble careful game development or a sound game design choice.

I am looking forward to getting back to my iPod Touch game experiment in a few days. I haven't had nearly enough time to provide much more than these barest of first impressions so, as I said earlier, I'd love to hear from others. I'll surely write some more on this topic as I get a bit more reacquainted with OpenGL (the ES persuation). I hope my first small game test, lovingly given its ridiculous working name of Asplodestroids!, will at least see a glean of the light of day before I find myself Mac-less again. It's also Christmas so feel free to toss a Macbook Pro into my stocking if you're feeling so inclined.

Because I'm sure that was someone's first instinct after reading this.