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November 22, 2008 by mittens

Esquire's Future of Video Game Design is considered required reading in these parts from today onward. And, given this revelation, Jason Rohrer's Passage is also now considered required playing.

The Esquire piece brings about one of the game industry's favorite set piece discussions (along with digital rights management and booth babes): games as art. It's a topic I've discussed once before but don't relish discussing at length all too often. Discussions that wiggle around the specific semantics of a term as loosely defined as "art" aren't really conducive to any sort of definite conclusions; it's as subjective a viewpoint as the concept of "fun." Everyone knows art/fun when they see it or experience it, but trying to describe it as a definite concept is considerably more difficult. We can all point to examples of games which make us, as the player, feel artistically enlightened such as Braid and Rez just as easily as we can point to games that serve as their antitheses like Madden NFL 2009 or Gears of War 2. The same can be said for music and cinema. It's not about the definition of art, it's about the experience. And an experience isn't a conclusive piece of evidence either way.

I believe that anyone who plays Passage, in particular, will agree that it is an emotional experience. If one allows themselves to enter into the type of mindset when trying out Passage that he/she would when listening to music which conjures up pleasant or enjoyable memories or emotions, it seems a near-certainty that he will come away feeling something after the five-six minute journey. Passage stands out to me as the product of someone that has the ability to channel so singular a vision into a program and the result is, basically, an interactive emotional experience. That said, I'm hesitant to call Passage a game. Sure, it has all the trappings of a typical game: a linear progression composed of love and death and a metric by which progress is measured (the score counter in the upper-right), but these features don't make the title a game so much as they seem like set dressing for a just-interactive-enough movie that uses basic keyboard controls as a way to ensure it has the viewer's attention.

The current search for artistic games within the game industry is a witch hunt. But no witches will be burned in this witch hunt, no. The end goal is to make the witch be our friend. We want to make our witch famous so we can take her by the hand and show our friends in other industries that we have our own witch too -- one that is unique to us. The casualty in this search is the game; videos games are a medium which sacrifices that other stuff, like narrative, for the sake of the player. We all want our games to tell unique stories that could rival that of any book or movie but the concept of the narrative is diametrically opposed to the intrinsic dynamism of video games. The more a writer tells his story, the less the player controls his.

Then again, Jason Rohrer seems to have found a way to maintain gameplay and a dynamic story. But can it be extrapolated to a AAA game?

November 18, 2008 by mittens

I just got another mission from the unnaturally quick-speaking warlord of the African UFL -- one of two warring factions in Far Cry 2 -- when one of my buddies gave me a call on my cell phone telling me to meet them if I wanted to make my mission take twice as long as it would if I simply followed orders at no real additional benefit to me. I guess I could just do it, though. I mean, my buddy Nasreen is, apparently, one of the only two women in all of Africa. It wouldn't hurt to endear my playing character to her a bit more. It's an awfully big safe house, after all.

Wait, why is my screen pulsing and turning yellow? Oh, it's my Malaria. It's flaring up. There's an on-screen pill bottle that's telling me I should press my left shoulder button. But, I'm also in the middle of driving through the jungle since that checkpoint I just cleared out before getting my new mission already is restocked with new people. Maybe they're just meandering civilians? Probably not. They have guns. Do civilians in Africa have guns? All right, I'll just slow down my truck and take my pills. Done. No more yellow screen. I'm also out of pills, but I just got them refilled after I delivered some transit papers to an African family hiding in a broom closet in a veterinary office (under control by the African Underground). Am I really out of pills or do I just need to deliver more transit papers? Africa has a strange exchange rate.

November 16, 2008 by mittens

Short story made shorter: I'm putting my XNA Action/RTS Cubegasm on hold. My framework isn't nearly robust enough to make the kind of game I want to make and, since this is strictly a hobby project, I'd rather not have to put all of the gameplay on hold while I flesh out the necessary backbone in order to get to the "fun stuff." I didn't see this as a reason not to release the current code for the project, though. So I'm doing that. You can get the source package: here.

It's not a very big release. Nor a very done one. It basically doesn't do anything. It'll load up a game map with one fortress firing bullets (that never get destroyed) at the player's five cube-spawning points. That's about it. How exciting!

Replacing Cubegasm is a game that I can actually play alongside development (also using XNA); it's called Brain Snack. I'll post some more information/screenshots when they're not embarrassingly bad.

November 10, 2008 by mittens

Ruff, ruff!

This quote comes from one of the only, if not the only (aside from Half-Life 2's Alyx Vance), video game companion that never becomes annoying or troublesome to gamers. One of the most recurring problems in any video game is that of trying to create a companion in a video game that can tag along with a player character's exploits throughout a game in a fashion that is not only realistic but, more to the point, doesn't require constant babysitting to avoid the common video game companion pitfalls of getting stuck, going the wrong way, or committing suicide in one of any number of possible ways depending on the hazards that fill a game world. It's an understandably difficult game mechanic to have in that, especially in an intimate single-player game experience, to have an AI intelligent enough to act predictably "human" in the same way that the person controlling the main character would act.

Ruff, ruff!

This quote is arguably the most memorable thing that players will experience in all of Lionhead's recently-released Fable 2. It doesn't come from farting to impress women to the point of marrying you. It doesn't come from the manual or various cinematics. It certainly doesn't come from the wooden and awkwardly-presented narrative cutscenes. No, the above quote comes from -- and I'm sure this is a surprise -- the only dog known to the world of Fable 2: the player's dog that can change names as often as it changes collars (no, really). The little furry fella attaches himself to the player's character from an early point in the game and, from then on out, is by his side throughout a majority of the rest of the game. The dog is not the interface but, instead, a helper to the main character; he will point out treasure chests, dig spots, and he will help in combat from time-to-time.

November 5, 2008 by mittens

The game I've been working on since I started at Stardock more than a year and a half ago has finally been announced. The game's official site is at http://www.elementalgame.com/ and it contains several screenshots and pieces of concept art.

Elemental is due out in February 2010.

 

And it's going to be absolutely rad.

November 3, 2008 by mittens

With the development of Fallout 3, Bethesda Softworks faced a dilemma: they had to make a first-person RPG engine that was typically used for high-fantasy RPG/adventure games handle the intensity, gore, and statistical probability of the gunplay in Black Isle's cult-legend Fallout and Fallout 2 in such a way as to not annoy either first-person shooter gamers, fans of the Fallout games, and long-time patrons of the games in The Elder Scrolls series.

The problem with mixing a first-person shooter with a role-playing game is that they are, basically, as diametrically opposed as two genres can get. The cornerstone of an FPS is in the feel of its gunplay and player movement; the questions players subconsciously ask themselves while playing are: how does shooting feel? How accurate are the weapons and are the bullet spray, recoil, and weapon damage consistent with what a player would expect from the weapon? Is weapon behavior relatively reliable? Are the player's skills in targeting his own or is the game modifying them to an unexpected degree? A first-person shooter places the gamer at the helm of the game; the more a player feels like he/she is in charge of his in-game avatar, the better. With this preconception at the forefront of the game experience, players enter into a game world with expected grounded in their reality and expect somewhat realistic or reliable behavior. Shooters that have unrealistically-behaving real-world weapons will seem immediately "off" to any gamer whether he has real-life weapon experience or not; a shotgun which behaves like a sniper rifle will seem strange to anyone while a sniper rifle that has a large box of possible inaccuracy around a gamer's targeting reticule will be a source of future gamer rage-quitting.

October 27, 2008 by mittens

Interfaces of all sorts are one of the most game-specific features of any entertainment medium; there's never an ammo counter on-screen when watching John McClane do Die Hard thing or a health indicator attached to Forrest Gump's forehead in his movie -- that would be ridiculous. Yet throughout the history of the gaming industry UIs or HUDs are featured in just about every game; it's not a question of whether or not to have a HUD in a game so much as it's a question of what kind of graphics should comprise the HUD, what should be featured on-screen, how big should the health bar be, or how translucent should the minimap be? A couple of games released this past month have realized: wait, what?

Ubisoft Montreal's Far Cry 2 is a game that takes great pride in its consistent usage of the first-person perspective to keep the player as immersed in the fictionalized portrayal of an African warzone. With a tap of the heal button the player's in-game character will, if his health is low enough, look down at his body and find a bullet wound; if that's the case, the animation continues by having the player character pry out the bullet with players or, in some cases, with his teeth. If the player's wounds aren't bad enough, a mere injection into the character's forearm will do the trick. Yet, despite such animations the game still reverts to showing an ammo counter or health bar if the player's health is in the process of increasing/decreasing (or alarmingly low), same with the ammo counter. Presumably, this is because Ubisoft Montreal could not figure out a way to properly convey this information in-game, but what they did figure out is how to convey locational information through an in-game map and GPS transmitter. When the Map button is pressed, the game's player character will whip out a map and GPS transmitter (shown below) and the player is tasked with finding his location on the in-game map and swapping between various "zoom levels" (shown in-game as separate pieces of map paper) to determine his position and plot his course of action to an objective.

October 20, 2008 by mittens

Everyone likes candy. Diabetics or people on a strict diet may nay-say such a statement but, for the rest of us, a bit of candy here and there is a little treat composed solely of sugar and happiness. Achievements in video games are similar class to a piece of candy. Players can gain achievements for beating a level in a normal progression of the game, beating a hard boss without using certain items, completing an entire playthrough of a game without dying, or, in the case of the recently released Mega Man 9, beating the entirety of the game five times within twenty-four hours. Once these achievements are earned, gamers can wear them as a nerdy badge of honor for others to gaze in awe upon. Or something. When done correctly, achievements are a source of positive reinforcement that encourage forms of player behavior or, better still, can foster an entire metagame with the potential to drastically increase the amount of time players can get out of a single game.

As far as the nonexistent history books on modern game designs goes, the originator of "achievements" as a term and systematical categorization of gaming accomplishments began with the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, the 360's online system/marketplace. A "gamer score" is displayed prominently for every Xbox Live player profile (see mine below) and points are added to this score whenever an achievement is unlocked during the playthrough of any given game. Microsoft's system allots 1000 gamer points (G) to any retail game and 200 points to any game distributed through the Xbox Live Arcade Marketplace. A typical achievement, then, has anywhere from 5-50G attached to it and when it is unlocked by a player's in-game exploits, a box pops up saying that an achievement has been unlocked. And, in a majority of cases, this elicits a very positive player reaction. Achievements have become such a mainstay of the Xbox 360 that there sites that are dedicated to categorically listing every achievement for games. For some gamers, the concept of having a high gamer score is important enough to some gamers that games are played solely for the purpose of getting easy achievements.

October 19, 2008 by mittens

On paper, Dead Space is a game where a voiceless protagonist fights aliens aboard a gigantic space ship whose crew has been ruthlessly slaughtered. In practice, though, Dead Space's existence is a fresh entry in the action/horror genre that justifies its existence from the introductory sequence to its movie-caliber conclusion. Every chapter is more violent and horrific than its predecessor while, at the same time, it demonstrates a more comfortable new franchise that excels when its vacuum, zero-gravity, limb-severing gameplay mechanics feel comfortable enough to all combine into a single antechamber. It may start off a bit slow, but once it gets going, the team at EA Redwood demonstrates their deep understanding of their own game.

Dead Space has a very deliberate pacing that helps deliver its consistent feeling of impending doom that makes the action within the game have a fairly prescient meaning. It's a horror game whose scares don't rely on cheap startling tactics (or if it attempted them, they don't work), but rather its ability to make players approach every corridor and room as if they were bombs that could explode at any moment. At no point in the twelve hours it took me to play through Dead Space did the laundry list of objectives given to my voiceless character feel like chores.

Dead Space tells its story through a series of audio and text logs and a handful of interactions. It makes its narrative seem as a pretext for violence early on while it grows slowly through each chapter until, suddenly, it becomes a legitimately entertaining and interesting tale that doesn't rely on cheap plot devices or a tangled web of twists until it feels it's earned the right to drop a bombshell or two.

Most importantly, Dead Space carves a niche that only it can fill. It's neither Resident Evil 4, DOOM 3, nor System Shock 2; it takes its influences and makes them its own.

October 13, 2008 by mittens

The Battle of Thermopylae is a battle in ancient history where the Greek forces led by King Leonidas used the pass of Thermopylae to funnel the Persian army, hundreds of thousands of troops deep, led by Xerxes into a small pass where 300 Spartans (and Thespians, Thebans, and Helots for a total of about 2300 troops) were able to inflict a great deal of Persian casualties vastly disproportionate to the number of Greeks over the course of several days. The battle represents a classical example of the strategic use of a geological choke point as a means of gaining a tactical advantage over a number of adversaries. Video games have relied on choke points and other points of interest, such as capturable points and flags, as an integral design mechanic and, as such, have served as the primary influence for a number of popular games and mods over the course of the last decade.

id Software's Quake was a game which started the age of user modifications such as Threewave Capture the Flag (capture the flag! grappling hooks!) and Team Fortress (yes, that Team Fortress). Threewave's level design popularized a very symmetric map design that forced a red and a blue team to compete using speed, power, and intricate knowledge of the maps that matches took place on. Team Fortress popularized the idea of having gamers choose from any number of "classes," all of which had their own benefits and drawbacks, to play a violent capture the flag match across maps designed using the concept of player bases being connected to each other by a very deadly choke point where a good majority of the player-to-player battles took place on. The strangest aspect about both of these mods is not how their game types differed in some basic mechanics but, rather, how each was designed around the same mechanics: capturing another team's flag in a level designed around a series of choke points (the flag room in each base and the middle of the map where the red and blue bases were connected).

October 6, 2008 by mittens

A real-time strategy game is, by definition, a game where players are forced to make strategic and tactical decisions in real time. As the game industry grows, the real-time strategy genre has narrowed its focus to a very specific type of game that does little to force players to consider an over-arching strategy as comprised by numerous tactics. Instead of allowing a player's large- and small-scale decisions to adapt and change as events in a given skirmish unfold, RTSs just make players think of resource usage (I have X, I need Y, and I get Z/minute) and basic army composition. Everything else in the span of a game flows from these two mechanics into what is, typically, one large battle near the end of a game. Relic's Company of Heroes changes this design and, as a result, makes its real-time strategy gameplay into a more dynamic and far less predictable experience that forces a player to make harder decisions more frequently.

It's a commonly-held tenet in real-time strategy games that when an enemy unit is right-clicked upon that death befalls it after it takes a certain amount of damage from units that deal a specific amount of damage every few seconds. Blizzard's Starcraft is practically built around a very definitive combat model that follows a rock-paper-scissors methodology with very consistent unit performance results. The micromanagement that occurs within battles in Starcraft has nothing to do with centering an army around a well-covered/fortified position or ensuring that when your Dragoon attacks that his bullets will hit the right part of the enemy siege tank; instead, cover is just determining if a Protoss melee unit is in range of a bunker filled Space Marines and any hit a Dragoon lands on a Space Tank will do the same amount of damage whether it hits the armor-heavy front or the weakly-covered rear.

September 29, 2008 by mittens

There are, as of my last counting, approximately a gazillion journalistic locales which offer game reviews on the internet or in print. There are not, to my knowledge, any columns which analyze a game mechanic within the context in which it appears along with detailing what is actually fun about the mechanic, and how it could be improved or exploited in the future. This particular edition of Mechanics will do none of that.

Majoring in English in college meant two things: I read a lot and I talked about what I read a lot. There is nothing more self-indulgent and pompous than a bunch of people sitting around a classroom talking about books in the setting of higher education. College students and, more to the point, English majors come up with some of the most absurd talking points based on their interpretations of a given text that it all becomes laughable at some points. I'm talking discussion matter along the lines of absurdity if I was to say that Clifford the Big Red Dog's existence merely served as a metaphor for the presence of communist Russia in the global sociopolitical scene and all of the people he comes in contact with in Norman Bridwell's line of children books are all analogous to various world political figures throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Of course such a theory is absolutely ridiculous, but when intellectuals are asked to find a deeper meaning in a classical text there are instances of such crackpot theories.

September 7, 2008 by mittens

After ending my very first Spore gaming session a few hours after I startedmany hours after I started I sat back and thought about what I just played. Spore isn't an easy game to classify so much as it is five different games to classify all wrapped in an incredibly polished, coherent content creation sandbox. At numerous moments in my session that took me from the very beginning of a new species up through the beginning of the fifth and final Space Stage I sat back and realized that I'm the only gamer in the world who will have taken a blue race that resembles land-sharks called the Asplodians through each stage of the game but, when I was done, I won't be the only gamer who has had the divine pleasure of seeing my little blue carnivores in a game world due to Maxis' endlessly intelligent and well-assembled online distribution of player-created content. If anyone wants to play with my beautiful little blue babies, add "mittense" to your Spore buddy list.

First, to anyone who has yet to play, I'd recommend doing what I did and getting as many friends' spore buddy names as possible before starting and then, optionally, disabling content from anyone outside your list. It's far more enjoyable for me to see a creature in the wild, click it, and see the name of a friend or coworker and silently judge that person based on their creation than it is for me to see a giant walking pair of tits from El337nubPWN3r. And there were a great many times where I was faced with skyscaper-tall "epic" instances of my friends' creations that picked up my baby blue dinosaur-shark hybrid, gnawed on him a bit, and then threw him into the ground and killed him -- such an instance has probably tainted my friendship with that person irrevocably.

The first stage, where you're a tiny little wormthing with chompers swimming about in a primordial ooze, is a surprisingly enjoyable fifteen-to-twenty minute game of lion-and-cat-and-mouse where the lions and mice get bigger with your player-controlled origin of an eventual species. It is during this period that a player can get accustomed to a simplified version of the Creature Creator that will power the stage following this introduction to the game. Going into Spore I assumed this stage would be the game's weak point but that's not even close to true. The cell phase is a rightfully short-lived blast and I'm looking forward to doing it again when I create my next species.

June 28, 2008 by mittens
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June 24, 2008 by mittens

In lieu of actually doing any development tonight I, instead, chose to write a gaming article (still no Metal Gear Story; I'm still thinking about that) and then a particularly-lengthy GameDev.net Daily. Now, since I've given up hope of getting work done tonight and have accepted the idea that Battlefield: Bad Company will dominate my nights for the next few days, I'll write about what I'm actually working on for the moment.

I've never worked on a project that had any sort of physics simulation occurring within it before; when I found out that Havok released their SDK that could be used by hobbyists and by any commercial product that retailed for less than $10, though, I retreated from my previous stay at Hotel XNA and back into C/C++ Direct3D9 Land. I didn't want to spend months writing a framework and a rendering engine, though, since I'm currently in the kind of mood where I want to put out a game every two-three months -- a timespan which is variable based on game release dates, occasional social interests and obligations, and work schedules. It is a direct result of this mindset which led me to using OGRE. I spent a few days configuring my project, the engine (and all of the modules for it which I planned on using), and Havok in Visual Studio and then got about implementing a basic Havok simulation and rendering aesthetic worked out.