So Prince of Persia is tanking in the marketplace -- only $2 million so far -- shades of Ico, which only did $6 million total in North America. Both of these critically acclaimed puzzley jumping games with beautiful art direction and pleasant controls are sailing right over the heads of the America marketplace. Activision has a rule of thumb that console games that get over 80% on gamerankings tend to be hits: well, it ain't always true.
(Mark Nau recently ran a correlation of gamerankings and sales and got an R-squared of .14, which means there is a weak correlation, but he does not think one causes the other, but rather they are both caused by a third factor, namely...hype. I'm not so sure, since hype can sometimes cause negative reviews.)
This is sad. Wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where quality would always reap rewards? Prince of Persia is a good game. It has innovative gameplay mechanics, clear goals, the constant feeling of reward for being clever, the feeling of being a badass when you fight, a good, simple story, and tons of polish. It's short, so you don't have to worry about it being one of those games that you buy and never finish. Playing it raised my quality of life.
We've been batting around a number of theories about why it tanked:
1) It's actually not a very good game, and although reviewers are fooled, the more sophisticated gaming public wants more than a puzzle-game funhouse ride. They want nonlinearity, emergence, freedom. I don't think much of this theory: I think the gaming public is actually less sophisticated than most reviewers, who tend to be hardcore gamers.
2) Your average American teenage boy does not want to play a game where he assumes the role of a Persian prince. They might as well have called the game "Gay Iranian." Kids want to be soldiers, secret agents, spacemen, cops. There was a window this year where kids wanted to be pirates -- you can always count on a summer blockbuster to brainwash your children into deciding what's cool or not. (I'm not complaining. Summer blockbuster hype pays my mortgage.) If Prince of Persia had come out back when Disney's Aladdin was in theatres, it would have sold much better. A friend of mine once said, "I think you can take any intellectual property and make it cool." I agree, but the cost of making it cool is out of the range of videogame publishers. It may cost around a hundred million dollars to make something cool. (There's a corollary here: if you can turn out a Walls Of Troy game in time for next year's blockbuster, do it.)
Theory #2 has that sad-but-true ring to it, doesn't it.
So I ask you: don't succumb to the lack of hype! Go buy Prince of Persia. On principle. Make the world better.
Thanks to Rich Bisso for coining the phrase, "Principle of Persia."
Oh, yeah, and thanks to Tom Henderson for "gay Iranian."
New Manager In A Strange Land. Does anybody remember how we lived before Wiki? One thing we've got in the Wiki lately is our "Kill lists" - these are lists, for every mission in the game, of the things that remain to be done for it to be complete. (Plus a wishlist at the bottom of polish items we'll get to if we can get to.) We could use the bug database to log this stuff, but that's a little too heavy. Much easier to double-click on a Wiki page than report a bug. The things that fall through the cracks will end up on the bug database later.
I only mention this because we did it in the past. You might make a game that has something special about it. For example, it might be the first game with swordfighting where you control the sword. You may have to fight to get this innovation accepted by your publisher. And when your game finally ships, it may not do as well as you hoped. You will be tempted to do a sequel that does not have the special thing.
Don't do it. Either go no sequel at all or keep...nay, push...what makes you different.
"Led Zeppelin didn't try to be liked by everybody; they left that to the Bee-Gees." (Wayne's world.)
I bring this up because they're talking about Gothic 2 in the next office. I haven't played either, so I'm speaking from a position of phenomenal ignorance here, but apparently the realistic AI of the first one has diminished in the second. And I worry about the guys at Timegate; they seem to be making Kohan 2 more like Warcraft. I think I speak for all of us when I say what we like about Kohan is that it isn't Warcraft. (You might argue that Kohan 2 won't be profitable unless it sells a lot more than Kohan...but emulating Warcraft isn't going to make that happen.)
In other words, this is a mistake people still make. Save yourselves.
It's like Lord of the Flies at work. We're beating drums...singing songs...and Mark seems to have contracted Tourette's...Tomo will occasionally just smash something...but he's like that even when we're not crunching...
We want to be gameplay complete before Christmas...it's not gonna happen but we're damn close...and we've got months of buffer before we ship. That reminds me; the GDC brochure says we're giving a talk. We're not. Our final submit date is closer than we thought, so we had to cancel. But I guess they had already printed the brochures.
I'm playing Dvorak typer shark during builds. My wpm has broken 20 but it's still excruciating to try to do anything work related in Dvorak. Kevin bet me a nickel that I'll still be under 60 after two months. He'll probably win. For historical reasons, a nickel is the standard betting amount at Treyarch, dating back to the poker nights when Mark and I used to make nickel side bets on what other players were holding.
I'm typing this with the Microsoft language settings set to Dvorak. See, I was playing Typer Shark on Popcap...and X-Treme mode was a little too easy, so I tried Dvorak. Talk about skill plateaus and local maxima! I type around 100 wpm. With Dvorak, I type about 10. I hit that 100 wpm plateau a decade ago...in theory, I could hit a much higher mark with Dvorak, but how many months or years before I break even?
(Wow, the question mark's in a weird place...)
This feels like recovering from a stroke...
Those local maxima are seductive...
Something we've gone back and forth a couple times on the team is how strict we should be with checkins AKA commits. Much like a society swings back and forth between law and anarchy, the team swings back and forth between a strict checkin policy and a lax one. With the lax policy, everybody complains about the build being broken. With a strict policy, everybody complains about the time they have to spend validating their data, and how they can't check in because the build has been locked.
Our current policy is on the strict side. FWIW:
- when the build is broken we lock the depot - only people who are attempting to fix the build can commit
- the depot is locked an hour before the end of core hours, so people cannot "commit and leave"
- people who break the build and don't manage to fix it immediately are put on the blacklist; for the next week, they can only commit if they have permission
- a few special people are on the "awesome" list - they can commit at any time for any reason.
Despite the strict policy the build is frequently broken on at least one of the consoles for long periods of time, but it hasn't been in effect that long. We've also upgraded our build machines so they can churn faster - it could take an hour for the machine to detect a break, and another hour before the machine would validate the fix.
Okay, I finally got enough time off of work to finish it, and now that it's over, I am inconsolably depressed. I tried playing THUG and Call of Duty, but nothing fills the hole that Prince of Persia has left. To me, these other highly acclaimed and polished games seem like stick figure illustrations compared to the glorious masterpiece that is Prince of Persia. I wish I had been on that team, just to see how they work, because they've got it down.
Now, there are a number of things that are considered "good game design" that are missing here, such as: meaningful choices; emergence; nonlinear narrative. In fact, the whole game is an illusion: it tricks you into thinking that you're clever, by providing puzzles that are just hard enough to not be obvious but easy enough that almost anyone can solve them. It tricks you into thinking that you're a badass, by providing exhilirating combat moves and death defying acrobatics. While playing it, I felt like, "I am the greatest." Never mind that when my non-gamer wife played it, she was almost as great as me. I was suckered in by the illusion.
This is what Mark Barrett calls magicianship. (At least I think it was Mark Barrett.) And it shows that the Sid Meier definition of game doesn't suffice, whereas the Rollings / Adams definition -- a sequence of challenges -- still does. Like Zelda, it's another example of how simple puzzles really can be satisfying.
I'm almost tempted, after playing Prince of Persia, to say that the great, erudite game designers are just wrong, and that puzzles are better than problems, and a single highly polished, highly crafted linear game is better than a not-so-polished nonlinear one. I would almost argue that we should stop thinking of ourselves as game makers but instead think of ourselves as makers of virtual funhouse rides.
But that's silly. Different games appeal to different people. I seem to be more easily taken in by the funhouse ride than the actual meaningful game experience, but plenty of other people are not fooled and prefer the game that they can truly get involved in on a deep level. All I can argue for is that you pick an audience and try to make that one audience happy, which Prince of Persia does.
Another game design rule, one of Noah Falstein's, is "provide parallel challenges with mutual assistance." This one Prince of Persia also breaks. Playing it, I realized that the rule is just a means, not an end. The rule should be: "Don't let your player get stuck." Don't have shelf level events. One way to do that, is with the parallel challenges technique. Another way is to playtest the crap out of your game and make sure that most of your playtesters can make it all the way through without consulting gamefaqs. Prince of Persia does this well. The time-rewinding feature, obviously, is a great mitigator of frustration. Also, at each save checkpoint, you have a vision of the future, where they show you the solution to the next room. (Although I loved the idea that these two 'cheats' were both tied in to the time-travel motif, I started skipping the visions, because they were spoiling it for me. I sometimes went back to them if I got stuck. I never had to consult gamefaqs.)
Let's talk about the wall run. To me, it's the wall run and not the rewind that is the heart of Prince of Persia, because it's the wall run that turns the 3d game into a 2d one. One big problem with 3d platformers is simply aiming your character at the next platform. The arcing wall run allows Prince of Persia to take the old two-dimensional platformer gameplay and wrap it around the walls of a three-dimensional space, and thus, like Viewtiful Joe is able to bring tried-and-true two dimensional gameplay from the old world into the new.
People may say, when Spider-Man 2 comes out, that we stole our wall run from Prince of Persia. We didn't. We stole it from Shinobi.
Speaking of stealing, Prince of Persia steals back everything that Tomb Raider and Ico
and Soul Reaver stole from it, and then some. All the elements from Prince of Persia are here, but we also have Lara's three-dimensional block crawling, Ico's female companion, and Soul Reaver's vampire stake. And Zelda's reflecting mirrors. Was it Picasso who said he didn't borrow, he stole?
One thing that bothers me: the ledges and poles that you jump from and to are at different relative locations when you encounter different challenges, and the Prince always makes the jump. On the one hand, this is wonderful: if I think the Prince can probably make a jump, he probably can, and when I tell him to do it, he does it succesfully. It's like the game is figurative, where other games are literal. The A button means "jump over the chasm" in Prince of Persia, whereas in Mario it means "jump three feet." It's actually hard to make him screw up. On the other hand...this is yet another factor that makes Prince of Persia
feel less like a game and more like a funhouse ride, as the skills of precision and pattern recognition (is that a jump I can make?) are not really required here.
A lot of reviewers have been dissing on the combat. Maybe this is because the combat is an actual game, and they don't feel like it has any place in their funhouse ride. Contrast with Ico, where the combat was simple button-mashing. Maybe I'm experiencing halo effect, here, but I even liked the combat. I liked it a lot. I'll even say it is the best beat-em-up style combat I have seen in a 3d game with a free-floating camera. (Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe are better, but they're fixed-cam. And they're Capcom. Who can compete?) The combat has a number of orthogonal elements that create meaningful choices: attack, tortoiseshell block, dodge, vault-over-opponent, a vampire-stake move that makes sure opponents stay dead, a wall jump attack (that I almost never used), a one-hit-kill counter-attack, the ability to rewind time (of course), the ability to slow down time (which I almost never used in combat but did use on some of the rotating-blade timing puzzles), and some special attacks. There are three resources: life, number of time rewinds you get, and--let's call it 'magic'--which lets you use special attacks, etc. Like you manage your lives, inviso, and smart bombs in Stargate
you manage these three resources in combat. When you kill an opponent, it gives you one more rewind and a little more 'magic', so you're not overly encouraged to hoard.
Many complain that, when fighting, you are assailed by too many enemies. I'd argue that the resource management aspect of combat only comes into play because you're assailed by so many. It takes a while for them to grind you down, and for you to start wishing you'd used a rewind to save some life, or wishing you still had a rewind left.
(BTW, as much as I liked the combat, I think we can take 'em. Time will tell.)
Prince of Persia is, in many ways, GTA's opposite. GTA has freedom; Prince of Persia has none. GTA is outdoors; Prince of Persia is indoors. GTA has a branching storyline; Prince of Persia is linear. GTA you shoot; Prince of Persia you slash. GTA has a lot of real-estate at low detail, with low production values, and bad animation. You get the idea. I hope Prince of Persia didn't differentiate itself right out of the market. They've been on the Yahoo buzz index for seven days now...that's something. Especially since it's the kind of game you don't need to look up on gamefaqs.
1) WAD files are only a half solution. Putting all your individual files into a wad file saves the time of opening a file which might involve a seek to the CDs table of contents but it doesn't save the all the seek time. What you really want and what most of the top console games do is make a system where you can almost load everything you need for a level in one big chuck straight out of the file, designed to be ready to use with a minimum of parsing. Instead of loading one model at a time or one texture at a time from indivudal files or wad files we load a level file (from a wad file) which has all the textures, models, sounds, need for that level or at least all the ones needed to get the level started assuming we are doing a spooling game.
2) 4 months sounds like a long time to get all your files from text to binary but I'm sure I don't know all the facts. My solution since about 1992 has been what I call a datalinker.
it takes a text readable file that has references to other files and builds something ready to be loaded. All my other tools either convert their formats to something this can parse or they convert to binary and those binaries get included in the level specification files that this linker uses to build a level file.
A big advantage is that basically there is only one format at least at a low level so there is only one low-level loading routine, one one pointer fixup routine and only one tool.
This linker was used on Gex 1 for 3DO and is also currently used at Sega of Japan. A similar linker was used for Gex 2 and Crash Team Racing for PSX.
3) Version numbers
I always put version numbers in my binary files. That way the code can check that the versions match and complain "version wrong". If I didn't do this then the game might crash trying to load an old file and it might take hours to figure out that someone just forgot to rebuild the level with the lastest version of some tools
4) Version folders
Since there are many developers working and not everybody is always using the same version of the source code a problem often appears where they are using an older version of the code and someone rebuilds the level they are working on and the version of the data for that level no longer matches the version of their code and they are not at a point that getting the lastest code is good for them
We solved that problem by having different folders for different version of the data. For example if a particular tool would normally store it's data in \\dataserver\gamex\levelbins we would instead have it use the version number of the data as a folder name so if the data was version 1.2 it would store the data in \\dataserver\gamex\levelbins\1.2\ That way, if some programmer changes the data format and changes the version number to 1.3, he can rebuild data knowing that his new data will not overwrite the data that other programmers, designers and artists are using.
I should mention that I suspect #4 may not make sense to some people. If you are making a game were building a level takes seconds or minutes then people generally build the levels on their own machine and version folders is probably not a big deal. If on the other hand you are making a game that takes hours to compute potential visible sets (ie, Jak & Daxter, Jak 2, Ratchet and Clank) then generally you have build machines that have enough memory to process levels that big and the results are stored on the net somewhere for everyone to use when they run the game. It's in that case that version folders are probably more important.
Anyway, I just thought I'd pass on those ideas. I'm sure they don't fit every project but they have worked for me up to now.
I agree with his points #1 & #3, and can only say with regards to #2 that he has no idea how many text file formats we have: patrol path, quad path, AI, entity, weapon, item, extra associated entity data, blah, blah, blah. Another team took the same engine and did a similar retrofit in a different way and it took them a similar amount of time. #4 sounds like a good idea although we aren't even at the stage where we're sharing data off the net. (But we're making steps to get there!)
Ok, I read the comments. 'Skill plateaus' is the winner. Forget 'local minima'.
Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams said that Valve's Cabal system was not the way to manage game development, because Valve had a highly skilled, veteran team that could handle it, and you don't. This is an example of skill plateaus in the game development game. The question: can you make a game the quality of Half-Life if you don't master that higher plateau?
I had another example of skill plataeus in the game development game but it's slipped my mind now. Brain cloud. And I have to go the gym. To be continued.
If you look at the word 'plateau' too long it looks really funny.
Props to Rafael for pointing out that there actually were comments on the last entries. Arg. The lure of typepad gets stronger. Also, he doesn't like 'local minima', for pretty good reasons...the 'local minima' aren't the expert, finesse strategies; they're the lesser, seemingly good strategies you find on the way to the absolute minimum.
BTW, yesterday we were discussing whether to change Spider-Man 2 to eliminate one of our local minima (although we didn't call it that), and James Chao pointed out that the tactic in question was like training wheels on the way to the best tactic. We're leaving it the way it is. Which is good; it's nice when decisions you make early in a project stay made...it should take a landslide of approval from the team to reverse those decisions.
But maybe that's a way in which local minima can appeal to the mass market; as training wheels.
Does nobody have an answer to my questions of the day before? Could this be my opportunity to coin a new vocabulary term for gaming? How about "local minima"? That sounds nice and pretentious. I first heard the term when studying neural nets: when a neural net is learning and reaches equilibrium, it does so because it's found a local minima, but not necessarily the best configuration. When you have strategies only experts know, you create local minima in the game space: some people get stuck in these local minima and never leave. "I've got a strategy that works for me. I tried using this other strategy and got killed. That other strategy must suck." Local minima are great for hardcore games and competitive games; they're like the treasure you discover exploring the game space, trying to find the deepest minimum. But it's possible you want to keep them out of mass market games entirely; if you have them, then by definition you're locking off a part of your game from a part of your audience.
If what I just said was completely murky, here's an example: Prince of Persia's counter-attack and counter-retrieve. I am able to pull one of these off about one out of ten tries. One out of five times, I go too early and get hit. Statistically, I'm able to beat up badguys faster by using the other moves in the Prince's arsenal. Although I could probably practice the counter-retrieve and get to the point where I'm more effective with it than the Prince's other techniques, I don't: I'm content with the other moves. The counter-retrieve is a tool for players who are harder core than I am. That element of the game is lost to me. PoP could go in a few directions at this point:
- make the combat so tough that you have to master the counter-retrieve. If they do this, then they're creating a shelf level event for the non hardcore players. "I couldn't get past the such-and-such and quit." Bad move, unless you playtest to the point where you're sure most of your players will be able to master it.
- once you finish the game, allow the hardcore to play through on higher difficulty levels, or provide bonus combat levels, where the combat is so hard that you have to master the counter-retrieve. Decent move, but then you are spending time working on part of the game that not everybody sees.
- leave the counter-retrieve as a cool extra for players who care. Decent move, but then you're spending time working on a cool move that only the hardcore will appreciate. Also, this bothers me aesthetically. When I play a game where there's moves or units that are hard to use and you don't actually need, it bothers me. I'm not sure why. A sense of waste? A feeling that the whole thing doesn't fit together as a cohesive whole? An example would be the counter in Zelda: I used it, but Chris Busse played the whole game without it. Knowing it wasn't necessary makes it seem like an unsightly vestigial appendage.
I haven't finished PoP yet, so I don't know which way they actually went.
Spider-Man 2 has plenty of local minima, so I'm pretty sure it will appeal to the hardcore. Right now we're leaning towards a variation of option 2: once you've finished the game there will be incredibly difficult bonuses to complete. Things are still in flux, long time before we ship, so--who knows?--some of those harder-to-get-to local minima might become considered part of the standard player's arsenal, and we'll provide more tutorial missions to make sure the player knows them.
"Local minima" is a pretty damn crappy word. I invite you to come up with a better one.
And, finally, a new episode of Manager in A Strange Land is up, aimed primarily at coders. On distributed builds: our build time has gotten a lot slower since I wrote the article, and we actually are in the process of getting a distributed build system up and running here, but we're not using Incredibuild, because we need it to work cross-platform, and it will be nice if it can handle the gameplay scripts as well. As usual, the hardest thing about optimizing your turnaround time is finding the resources to do it, but this does seem like one of those times where the benefits will outweigh the costs, even in the short term.
The latest Penny-Arcade got me thinking. How do the various European front WWII games do in Germany?
On a completely different topic:
What is the name for a strategy or tactic that will win in the hands of the expert but causes a novice to shoot himself in the foot? I'm thinking of flying the Interceptor in Allegience, using the downward slash in Maximo, the counter from Prince of Persia, cavalry in Kohan. When I see these things I want to know what to call them, and I know one of you will help me out. Remember when I didn't know what to call emergence? Now I know it's emergence.
I've already mentioned how I thought True Crime was a marketing failure: it looked to me like development and marketing where not on speaking terms for this project. Maybe now that Kathy Vrabeck has stepped into her new role as overseer of both marketing and development, everybody will stay on the same page. (She supposedly visited the studio today but I missed it because I'm in New York to celebrate Thanksgiving with my wife's family.) But that's not what I came here to talk to you about. I came here to talk to you about the macro game in True Crime.
It only takes two or three missions before you discover the mind-blowing thing about True Crime: when you fail a mission, it gives you an option to continue the story anyway. I was shocked. "Can they do that?" I asked. It gets better: depending on whether you win or lose the missions, you go down different branching storylines. Sometimes the storylines rejoin the main stream, sometimes they branch off permanently. I think it was Greg Costikyan who wrote about the value of abdicating authorship in videogames; True Crime actually does it.
Now, considered as a work of interactive fiction, True Crime is a failure. It can be thought of as a tiny choose-your-own-adventure. Where it gets its power is what this does for the macro game:
- the player never gets stuck; if he gets sick of a mission he can simply continue the story.
- it provides *parallel challenges with mutual assistance* : a player can skip a mission, power-up his character more by completing other missions and earning bonuses, and then go back in time and replay the same mission with the new power-ups. Does it make sense? No. Is it addictive? Yes.
True Crime is like bad drugs. The missions boil down to a half-dozen or so different kinds of mini games, all of which have high production values and crappy gameplay. (The shooting game is probably the best; they manage to bring a sort of House of the Dead feel to a game where you don't have a gun controller, by providing auto-targeting and encouraging trigger-mashing...shallow but pleasing.)
Still, despite the fact that I didn't enjoy most of the missions, I couldn't stop playing. I had to see what the next story point was. I had to complete the missions so I could get the bonus upgrades.
Another element of the macro-game: at one point, the story branches, and goes one direction if you're a bad cop, and the other, longer direction if you're a good cop. This game is NOT GTA. (Somebody should have told marketing.) You are strongly encouraged to be good, something I didn't find out until I got to that point, and I had to make a decision: do I do random missions until I can get my karma back in adjustment, or do I start over and try to keep my karma high the whole time? I went with starting over. I'm a busy guy, I'll usually shelve a videogame rather than starting over, especially when I got it for $15 through the Activision company store, but this time, for some reason, I didn't mind.
This all goes to reinforce something I've believed for a while: if your macro game is good, your micro game can be a shallow, meaningless experience. Diablo proves this (don't forget to click), Animal Crossing proves this (can you take this package to my friend and pull any weeds you see on the way?), Progress Quest proves this (I'm the worst Progress Quest player in the office. I keep resetting my computer and forgetting to turn PQ back on) and now True Crime proves it. I played True Crime all the way up to the final boss before quitting.
That isn't a slam on True Crime. I frequently quit games when I get to the final boss; that last prerendered cutscene does not interest me. Hey, I never beat the final boss in Chrono Trigger, and that's one of the best games ever.
On the "Do Movie Games Suck" thing, Mike Hommel pointed out that my sample was not representative. He did a little more searching, and discovered that movie games do tend to suck. And Jay Woodward pointed out that admitting defeat in the comments section wasn't enough. So here I am, admitting defeat in full view. Something I say to my wife frequently: "I admit it. I was wrong. And I'm okay with that."
Those reading the article may wonder: so, did it work? Is Michael Vance the lead I hoped for? Since I actually wrote the article months ago, I can answer. And the answer is: Yes! Yes, he is! He kicks ass.
Those reading the article may also wonder, what's the first law of bad management? I should make you read Tom DeMarco's book. But I won't. The first law of bad management is: if something doesn't work, do more of it.
Something I didn't mention in the article: promoting people to their level of mediocrity might be a symptom of a company that's growing too fast, and taking on contracts that it shouldn't. Right now the industry is contracting - projects are getting cancelled, studios are getting closed - so we're probably not going to see too much of it. In a couple, few years, however, the cycle will reverse, and we'll start seeing those disaster projects again.
I'm 99% sure that Amazon's support system is automated
They almost had me fooled. I'm not sure if they passed a Turing test or I failed one. At this point, I keep clicking the "No, that didn't help," button and writing e-mails swearing and accusing them of being robots and I continue to get bland e-mails apologizing for any frustration I might be having.
Generally people agree that movie games suck. This is a topic close to my heart, of course, so I stopped and wondered. Do they actually suck statistically more than other games? If we look at various movie titles and their gamerankings scores:
Return of the King: 81-85
The Two Towers: 77-81
The Hulk: 70-72
Enter The Matrix: 65-72
Minority Report: 52-59
Blade 2: 52-57
Did I miss anything? I'm purposely leaving out spinoffs such as Jedi Knight, KOTOR and Trespasser...these weren't tied directly to their movies.
Looking at these, and knowing that a score of 70 on gamerankings is about the mean, I'm thinking that movie titles are more or less distributed on the bell curve as you'd expect. In short, they do not suck statistically more than games in general.
A question you might ask is, with the larger budgets that these titles tend to have, why aren't they *better* than average? And then you can pull out all the reasons people have always pulled out for why movie titles suck: shorter timeframes, constraints of the license, and so on.
You might also say: average games suck. I can't really argue with that.
You can get some management anecdotes from these "final hours" Gamespot articles. This Prince of Persia one is particularly interesting...it all sounds so familiar. Some key points:
- extensive prototyping. They weren't content when they finished prototyping his motion, they wanted to lock down combat as well.
- by E3, they considered what they had "Just a demo". I wish I'd seen their E3 demo...it would be interesting to know how far along they were and how far they got in those few months since E3.
- they rewrote their renderer partway through. I'm beginning to think a renderer rewrite is an essential part of a good project: if you don't rewrite your renderer, your game will look so "two years ago." The key thing is to start development with an old renderer -- buy an engine if you don't have one -- so your production isn't held up while you're waiting for the new one to come online, and make sure you can convert your assets to the new system as painlessly as possible.
I haven't played Prince of Persia yet, but I'm already pretty sure I'm going to like it.
I've been having a couple problems with my blog and I asked myself, "What's the leading provider of blog services?" And I searched on Google for the word "blog". Of course, Blogger came up first. Then I remembered - Google owns Blogger. They'd be stupid not to have their service come up first. Although I'll give them the benefit of the doubt; it's quite likely that Blogger really is the leading blog provider.
This extrapolates out. Any category of product, you want your brand name to come up first on Google. If you could pay Google to make that happen...then they would be even richer.
I think the Psycho Mantis boss fight from Metal Gear Solid, where you have to use controller 2 to beat him, is the stupidest thing ever. Nor do I like it in MGS2, when you have nightmare sequences where alien voices tell you you're just a computer game. Nor did I like it in Max Payne, when you were on Valkyr and a sinister phone call told you you were just a computer game. Hell, I don't even like it when in-game characters tell you, "Use the Circle button to activate sniper mode!" or whatever.
Designers might say: "We're consciously breaking the fourth wall for ironic value or for deconstructive metafictional whatever. We're the Italo Calvino of computer games. We rock." To which I say: cut it out, you pretentious bastards.
Or maybe they would say: "It's just a computer game. Nobody really suspends their disbelief. They don't really feel like Spider-Man, or a skateboarder, or a criminal. The game's a metaphor, not a simulation. So we're just having a little laugh along with the player." And although hearing this depresses me, I can't really argue with it. Some people like games-as-games, they're all about overcoming challenges and solving puzzles and mastering strategies, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I like it too, but it's not my main thing. I see computer games as an opportunity to explore a new frontier - create new worlds - give people experiences that they can't have in real life. That's my main thing.
So I'll say this: when you break the fourth wall you fuck it up for me. Let me have my little fantasy that I really am Solid Snake, okay?
It's easy to not break the fourth wall. It takes almost no extra work. Here's all you have to do:
- resist the urge to tell "It's just a computer game" jokes. You get a laugh, sure, but at the expense of immersion.
- separate what the character knows from what the player knows. The character doesn't know about the user interface widgets, the controller, the pause menu, the targeting reticle. The character doesn't see those huge glowing cylinders that say to the player "Stand Here And Your Mission Is Complete". Characters in the game should not talk about those things. On the other hand, you *can* have text on-screen or a disembodied tutorial voice that tells you what buttons to hit and what things do. An ideal solution: when the voice of command HQ comes over your headset, instead of telling you, "Press the B button to activate sniper mode", it should say, "You're going to have to use your sniper rifle here," and on-screen text can flash, "Press B button to activate sniper mode."
Joe Bob says check it out.
I've gotten some feedback on the column, which I may or may not incorporate into future issues.
On the topic of bug tracking, Andrew Bennett, an Oddworld Inhabitant, passed this on:
"I've found that the curve goes up and up when you first enter test, then eventually peaks and starts down, and hence gives you false hope, but when you get play-thru the graph turns upwards again for a short time, which is always enough to scare you senseless if you're not expecting it!"
I've only seen the double peak once, and that was on Spider-Man, and it did indeed scare me senseless. (We didn't actually graph our bugs for Die By The Sword or Draconus, so there may or may not have been double peaks there.) There were no double peaks on the Tony Hawks I ported, so it may be something limited to games with original content.
What's annoying is you don't know how you're doing until you start coming off that second peak. That's when you know if you're "coming in hot and steep" or not, to quote Mike McShaffry.
And Mark Brockington of Bioware said this: "FYI, Neverwinter Nights was only about 180 man years (I asked Trent). Trent likes to claim it was five years ... there were only two people on it for the first 18 months (the art director and Trent!)."
Ok, so I dusted off MAME and gave Ghosts 'n' Goblins a shot. I don't see what's so great about it. I know people read this blog who think it's the BEST GAME EVAR so let the comments fly.
Now, this may because I wasn't there when it first came out, so I don't know what kind of ground it broke or why it's important.
On the other hand, I pulled out the original Prince Of Persia again and remembered just how delicious an experience it was when it first came out: the game elements are introduced slowly, one-by-one. You can't advance until you figure out the new element. The fencing was one of the first games I can think of where you don't have a tortoiseshell defense: you have to watch the attacker, wait for the tell, and then parry when he attacks. Then riposte quickly. And repeat. Once you're good, it really looks like movie fencing. A skeleton you pass in the halls seems like it's just cosmetic decoration; when you return, it comes to life. It's unkillable - it teaches you the art of forcing an enemy backwards, off a ledge. Secrets off the top or bottom of the screen that you can find by testing for loose panels or letting yourself down into chasms.
And then there's the stupid design decision of the year award: one hour to complete the whole game, or start over from the beginning.
Playing old games makes you realize that game designers for the most part don't know what the hell they're doing. They're trying stuff. Stuff that works makes it into future games. Stuff that doesn't you never see again.
When I think profitable, I forget to include part of the cost of making a game - the publisher overhead. And I don't mean marketing, I mean administrative - I mean producers and CEO's salaries. And testing. Lately I've heard that the cost breakdown for a game tends to be one-third development, one-third marketing, and one-third "administration" - that's publisher overhead, and includes testing. Given this new knowledge, maybe shitcanning Die By The Sword was in fact the way to go.
Rich reminded me today that they're coming out with Ultima X Online. So even Ultima isn't dead. Apparently this new one is an MMO. Sounds like a bad idea, to me: they're just going to pull customers away from UO. I think what the world needs is an Ultima game that brings back the feeling of Ultima IV - VII: single-player (or maybe Diablo / Bioware style multiplayer); multi-party; seamless living world; moral choices; top-down perspective. Ultima freakin' invented that. The ad copy could read: "Ultima: We Freakin' Invented That." (Nobody need know that none of the original creators are involved.)
Word on the street is that Homeworld 2 is performing quite well, thank you. This surprised me because I didn't buy it. I played halfway through Homeworld, got bored, and quit. I had no interest in playing anymore. But hey, I'm not into RTS. I'm not their market. People who want RTS in 3d space - Homeworld is the place they come to. Sequels frequently perform better than their originals. You get the people who loved the original and all their friends who never actually got around to playing the original. So I shouldn't have been surprised.
How many videogames can you think of that were good enough to make sequels of, but not good enough to make three of? How many videogame brands have fizzled, supposedly never to return?
Impossible Mission. Ultima. (Unless you count the fact that Ultima Online is still going.) My own Magic Candle. Aliens Vs. Predator. (But there are rumors of a movie in the works...and then we'll see another installment of the game, I'm sure.) Wizardry is supposedly done, I hear. That's all I can think of, even after a little research. It looks bad for Might and Magic - haven't seen anything in over a year, but 3dO sold it off to somebody... I wish they would stop making Army Men but they probably will keep right on going. (Good thing nobody's holding a gun to my head and making me play them.) Good news for Eidos - a license that was once strong can survive a horrible title and keep going. (Castlevania.) So expect more Tomb Raider. Who knows, maybe one day somebody will make another good one.
Noah Falstein points out the Godfather Paradox: unlike the movies, not only is it possible to have a sequel game that's better, it can sell better. With a movie, your sequel is almost guaranteed to pull in fewer viewers than the original - they haven't seen the original, so why should they see the sequel? And with each iteration, you'll scrape off another layer of viewers. It doesn't happen with videogames. When Max Payne 2 comes out, do people say, "Eh, I never even played Max Payne. How will I be able to follow the plot?" No, they hear it's even better than Max Payne and snap it right up. I know people for whom The Wind Waker was their first Zelda. (And Link to the Past was my first. I've never played the original.) People don't care about continuous narrative in videogames.
So what does that mean to us? One thing it means is, don't freak out and dump your ATVI stock because Tony Hawk 4 dramatically underperformed - it is not necessarily a trend. Rich Bisso points out one possible reason it wasn't as huge a success as its predecessors: the packaging looked nearly identical, meaning a well-nigh-invisible retail presence. (I'd link to Rich's blog entry about this, but I can't find it. Rich, what'd you call your blog again?) Other possible reasons are: the standard slump for a title partway into console lifecycles; because it came out just a year after the previous one, which didn't give us much time to whet our appetite for a new one; and because of the Such-and-such's Pro Whatever branding we tried to do, which may have stolen sales from the core brand. We're fixing most of these problems: it has cool stand-out packaging, a different name, and we've done away with all the Such-and-such's Pro Whatever. But we just can't pass on the opportunity to have a Tony Hawk out for Christmas, can we?
Another thing it means is: if you've got an idea for a new title, you are not launching a single videogame. You are launching a brand. If it succeeds, you are creating a revenue stream for your company that could last a decade or two. Or three. Who knows how far it could go? The value of new IP could be immense. You could own a new category, or you could be Pepsi to someone else's Coke. Don't limp in. Don't freak out at the last minute, say, "people aren't going to buy this," and slash the marketing budget. (If you're good, people will buy what you tell them to buy.) Either win big or leave a smoking crater.
Also, even if that first game in the new brand didn't go AAA, but was still profitable, consider holding onto it: it could be a Homeworld.
Now we get to the "bitter much, Jamie?" part of the lecture: I think Interplay played Die By The Sword wrong. We had a whole new category of game there: sword fighting where you actually feel like you're swinging the sword. And we had limb severing. And we had a good name that tells you right out what the game is. (As Rich puts it, when I told him that Draconus was like Die By The Sword without the manual sword control and without the decapitation: "Dude, you cut off the left nut and the right nut of your game, there.") I can't prove it but I think Interplay spent much less on marketing than development. When a publisher panics, the way they cut their losses on a game is often to see it through to production but not spend any money on marketing--there were some print ads for our game, but when we missed our marketing window the print ads dried up. The next move a publisher does is to keep the team alive with an expansion pack contract while they "enter negotiations" for a sequel and check out how the game sells. Even though Die By The Sword was profitable, it was not a hit, and rather than continue building the brand they dumped it.
Interplay could have owned a whole category of game. We could have taken it to consoles and sold much more. When similar titles like Blades of Darkness came out, people would have called them me-too titles (whether it was justified or not) and no matter how good the games were people would have stayed loyal to the original. And eventually the new generation of controllers that are actually suited to controlling a guy with one stick while controlling the sword with the other stick would come out, and we'd be laughing. Don't get me wrong, it was a small pie to own - 9 out of 10 gamers surveyed prefer guns to swords for patients who kill people. But that 1 out of 10 would have been ours, while a host of other games split the 90% between them. Hey, Kill Bill isn't doing bad, right?
Combat has been done to death. Most videogames are either focused on combat, or combat is one of the predominant elements of the game. It's almost impossible to avoid. Unfortunately, one publisher pretty much owns the category: Capcom. From Final Fight to Viewtiful Joe they've maintained leadership.
I recently asked myself: Capcom's best fighting games have a fixed camera. How do they fare in the nightmare world of the from-behind-free-moving camera - the world I've lived in ever since I worked on Die By The Sword?
The answer is Maximo.
And yes, it's inferior to their fixed-cam and side-scrolling titles, such as Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe. (Don't take my word for it. Check gamerankings.) The from-behind camera brings with it two problems, right off the bat: sometimes you can't see the opponent that's right in front of you, and it's hard to gauge distances, either for attacking or for platform-jumping.
(Side note: Maximo has platform-jumping. Does that make it a platformer? There's this continuum between full beat-em-up (Final Fight) and platformer (Mario) ... if they're nonlinear (which Maximo is) we call them action adventure...but there's no hard line between these genres.)
Still, Maximo may be the leading beat-em-up with a free camera.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: why are Capcom games so freakin' hard? I borrowed the game from the library at work, and returned it after being restarted at the beginning after eight lives. A shelf level event. It's only because I've been studying beat-em-ups that I pulled it out again, to discover that if I'd gone just a little farther I would have found a save point. Even still, I only played six levels before shelving it again. Now, VJ and DMC were this difficult too, but I kept at them. Why did I put down Maximo? I think because if you break Maximo down into its component atoms--the basic interactions between you and the beasties--what you get is not that satisfying. Contrast with Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, and Halo, where the very act of firing a gun, swinging a sword, or dodging a bullet is a delicious polished moment.
Maximo may be counting on its Ghosts & Goblins heritage to save it. After all, killing a single monster wasn't terribly satisfying in G&G either - it's the game taken as a whole that makes it cool. (This is just an assumption. Have to admit I haven't actually played G&G much. I'll have to break out the MAME in a bit and give it another go.) Holistically, Maximo is clever: there's a short, easy introductory level that takes you to a hub, where you can choose. Parallel challenges with mutual assistance: you earn coins as you play which you can spend on game saves, potions, armor, and more. Beat the boss and another short, easy level takes you to another hub. (This is where I quit playing.)
Something I personally really appreciate about Maximo is this: Every move has its use. We're all familiar with games--such as Devil May Cry or Tony Hawk or Spider-Man--where they (or we, if it's Spider-Man...) give you a bunch of different combat moves because they look cool, when really the game relies on a small base set of vanilla moves and that's all you need. If you're just looking at the game-game-type-game, these other moves might as well not exist. You find the dominant tactic and use that and the others fall away. With Maximo - in my opinion - less is more: the slash does less damage but effects a wider arc, and the overhand swing does more damage in a very narrow arc, and there's a double-jump attack which is the only way to hit prone enemies. There are two missile attacks, but one wears out your shield and the other burns up any enchantment you have on your sword. And that was all I discovered, but I did only make it 25% of the way into the game. I appreciate this. But do the masses? There must be a reason these other move-heavy games are successful.
I wrote a lot more about Viewtiful Joe and how Bullet Time is to slow-motion gameplay as Kleenex is to tissue, but somehow screwed it up and lost it. Incorrect use of the 'draft' button. To sum up: it has a simple dominant strategy, which is a shame, but it takes a while to find, which is maybe all you can ask of a game that's only intended to give you a dozen hours of gameplay? And even though it attempts to holistically balance the game by giving you more power-ups the longer you play, it's still freaking hard. Oh, but I have a point to make:
Richard Rouse III talks about how important focus is in his game design book. I actually think he may be underestimating.
In one of these Trout / Reis books I've been reading -- I forget which one -- they pointed out that Volvo used to get mediocre marks across the board before they started marketing themselves as the 'safe' car. When they marketed themselves as the 'safe' car, their ranking for safety skyrocketed, but it pulled up most of their other scores (reliability, etcetera) as well. (I may be mixing up details here. They may have been talking about some other car and attribute entirely. Still, my point remains.)
I think we see this same kind of halo effect in videogames. When a videogame does one thing very well, you either ignore its problems or say to yourself, "The designer must have meant to do that." The first Max Payne: the bullet-time combat is so good that we ignore the fact that the game is too easy, that the bosses are undifferentiated, that the plot is tough to follow. Halo: the controls are so tasty that we blot out our memory of slogging through the flood. GTA3: the crime experience is so visceral that we ignore the blocky hands of the characters, the avatar's ridiculous jump animation, the low detail of the building textures. Tony Hawk: the hyperbolic skateboarding and compelling trick system are so good, we assume that the dinginess of the art direction is part of the intended package. (Which it is. We wanted to punch up the colors some for our ports but we were denied. Keep it gritty, we were told.)
And focus isn't just for game design. It's also for marketing. Your focus should be what differentiates you from your competitors. It's the USP that your marketing team should be driving into the heads of your marks. I mean customers.
Which brings me to a quandry. When working on a game, I like to feel like it isn't the vision of just one person. Everybody on the team contributes. And yet if one person is setting a focus, and all the cool ideas extraneous to that focus are shut down...then it's not everybody's game anymore.
By the way, a focus isn't strictly, absolutely necessary. Does Zelda have a focus? Sometimes a game does a lot, and does it all awesome.
I sent a wanky e-mail about how I was having trouble upgrading to BlogSpot Plus and they set me up free. No more ad banner. And I can look at statistics about who's accessing the blog. Fun fact: twice today, people were referred because they were doing google searches for videogame downloads.
What did I do to deserve this, other than whine? I'm wondering if there's some way they can make money off of keeping me happy but don't see how.
Why I love "bullet time", no matter what you call it
Viewtiful Joe is to beat-em-ups as Halo is to console first-person-shooters. The controls of Halo are delicious; at the game's atomic level, the very act of aiming and firing a weapon has been given meticulous attention. The same goes for VJ, but now the focus is hand-to-hand beating.
I'm not much of a beat-em-up player: in the long history of games that were more or less linear romps with endless streams of badguys that you pummel and kick into submission, originating with Double Dragon and Final Fight, I never really got into it. This may be because Double Dragon, released in 1988, came out when I was in college, and my childhood twitch reflexes were already starting to decay. A lot of what you do, I'm told, is watch the badguys - wait for the 'tell' that lets you know an attack is coming - and then make the appropriate counter.
I suck at that.
Actually, to tell the truth, I'm not much good at first person shooters either.
Enter Bullet Time, courtesy of 3dRealms & Remedy. Bullet Time is what it feels like to have those teenage reflexes again.
Sometimes it's fun to just read the Perforce changelist and see what amusing titles people come up with for their changes.
Changes like "Made combos madly funner" and "Sound check-in of DOOOOOOOM!" and "Whee" and "La, la, la, la, la, la - via allegre I mean, VOICE OVER!" (I admit it, the last one's mine.)
Got lost on the Double Fine web-page today. Doing research. For the column.
Why wait for Psychonauts when you can get the essence of Tim Schafer right there at http://www.doublefine.com/news.htm?
You can't point to a single thing about the N-Gage and say, "This is why it failed." There are so many things wrong with it fixing just one of them won't help. For example, this Halloween discount promotion is not going to sell very many more N-Gage's: although it almost fixes the price problem, there are too many other problems to count.
Discounting is a loser move. It will sell a few more units in the short term, but if they return to their original price they won't sell any. Everybody will wait for it to go on sale again.
And it doesn't fix the price problem: one of Jack Trout's rules of pricing - it has to be in the same ballpark. $200 for an N-Gage when you can spend $75 on a GBA is still not in the ballpark.
But even if they sold the N-Gage for $100 they'd still be fucked by these two things:
1) It does not have a killer app. As you can see, there is only one game for the N-Gage that's even slightly above average. (70 approximately is the mean on Gamerankings.)
2) It's a swiss army knife. People do not want swiss army knives. They want specialty products. They want a game company to make their game machine. They want a cell phone company to make their cell phone. Convergence is a myth. It didn't happen with stereos and it won't happen with PDAs. (Note: right now, you're probably thinking "But I do want a toaster in my car. That would be very convenient." You say that, but you don't want a crappy toaster in a crappy car, and when the toaster car comes out, no matter how good its toaster and how good its engine you're still going to think that it's either a crappy toaster or a crappy car because how good could a toaster made by a car company or a car made by a toaster company possibly be?) Now, if you built a GBA into your phone...then maybe I'd buy it.
Now you know why Microsoft introduced Xbox: so they could require developers to update .NET. 6000 game developers * $1000 = six million dollars! 94 million and they've recouped their costs. BTW, I pulled these figures out my ass.
Going back to Eudora after suffering under Outlook for a while is like going back to my old broken-in Doc Martens after trying Kenneth Cole.
The first article in my column on managing game development went up today. Martin Donlon came up wtih the title: Manager In A Strange Land. (By the way, there should be a name for blogs that have like, two-three entries in them that haven't been updated in months.) I'm nervous. When you put yourself Out There, some percentage of people are going to think you're an idiot. But such is life.
I'm about to take potshots at my own company here, so I should emphasize: the comments and opinions on this website do not reflect the opinions of Treyarch or Activision. I'm a guy in the trenches; I don't get to see the P & L's; I basically don't know jack about the decisions made behind closed doors in Washington.
Anyway, pretty soon Activision is coming out with True Crime: Streets of LA, our attempt at a GTA killer, which will put us in the me-too ranks with other titles like The Getaway, Simpsons: Hit & Run, and Roadkill. Each of these products tries to differentiate itself from GTA a different way, be it "The Simpsons", or "A Post Apocalyptic Future", or "You're In A Movie" or whatever. How is True Crime differentiating? With one simple word: "truth." True Crime is going to be more True, that is, more Real than GTA. The driving, fighting, and shooting are going to be next level immersive stuff.
Sounds decent. GTA but better. I might buy that. I'll give this marketing effort a B.
But still, imagine Joe Sixpack Xbox owner walking into EB and saying, "I heard Grand Theft Auto comes out for the Xbox today." He'll see not only Grand Theft Auto, but also this True Crime game. "True Crime?" he'll say. "Supposedly like GTA but better? Well, how come I never heard of it?" And he buys GTA.
In Differentiate or Die, Jack Trout says if you're not the leading brand with the killer attribute - then you should go "opposite" the leading brand's killer attribute. Pepsi's answer to Coke being the original is "We're for the new generation." McDonalds owns "fast"? Fight back with "We take the time to do it better." (Or - McDonalds is for kids. Be for adults.) Avis's most succesful ad campaign was "We Try Harder"; when they gave that up, they started losing market share. When 3d Realms & Remedy looked at Tomb Raider and asked themselves, "How can we go opposite of this?" They came up with an ugly male cop game, where shooting was emphasized over climbing. They came up with Max Payne. Maybe not as succesful as Lara Croft, but still wildly succesful.
What attribute does GTA own? Crime. It is, hands-down, the leading crime game. How do you go opposite of crime? Law enforcement.
Activision, at some level, knows this. What is really hard to tell from the marketing for True Crime is that it's a law enforcement game! You play a cop who takes the law into his own hands. It really is the opposite of GTA, and it could own the word "Law" in the same way that GTA owns the word "Crime." When True Crime was greenlighted, Activision was taking a play from Trout's playbook. A genius play: imagine walking into EB, and seeing a poster that says, "Sick of being the bad guy?" And the game has some cool law enforcement name, like, Police Procedure or All-Points Bulletin. (Side note: the arcade game All-Points Bulletin, with its top-down mission based policeman-in-the-city gameplay, is the ancestor to GTA. Wouldn't it be fun to bring that title back, and have heritage on your side as well as your good-guy position? "Before there was Grand Theft Auto - there was All Points Bulletin.") And you can keep the "Streets of LA" subtitle, since it's evocative of The Streets of San Francisco. Now people walking into EB aren't making a choice between which is the better crime game. They're making a choice between "Do I want to be a bad-guy or a good-guy?"
I know what you're thinking: "People these days, they all want to be bad." I might be willing to accept that most people want to be bad. I want to be bad. I went the dark side of the force route in Knights of the Old Republic, for example. The thing is, as long as some significant percentage of people would rather be cops than robbers, that's sales for you, almost regardless of which is the "better" or most popular game. Not only that, but you pull in the people who refuse to play GTA because they don't like the moral connotations (I have friends like this. Really.) and you pull in the large segment of mothers who would rather have their kids grow up to be cops than criminals and you get the T-rating instead of the M so you're more likely to get on the shelves at Wal*Mart. Finally, I think a significant percentage do root for the good guy. Consider Bad Boys 2 - by all accounts an atrocious movie, still a box office smash.
Believe me, at it's core, at it's inception, the theme of True Crime - you're a cop who takes law into his own hands - is genius.
But then Activision went and called it True Crime! And buried the law enforcement angle so deep I can barely even tell from the ad copy that's what it's about. All those people who want to play cops, and their mothers, are going to go into EB and they're going to think it's just another GTA. What the hell happened? I'm reminded of the scene in Dr. Strangelove: "Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!"
Here's where I pull theories out of my ass. Theory 1: nobody told the advertising/PR department what the plan was. Although a shrewd marketer came up with the idea for a GTA-like game about law enforcement, he may have been part of development, or an executive, and therefore not actually, technically, part of the department that does our advertising and PR, which we call marketing, although that is somewhat of a euphemism, as they don't actually get to pick what products are greenlighted. So when they got their hands on it, they wrote down a list of its features, ran it by a focus group, which probably told them that crime was cooler than law, but realism sounded good, and there you have it. True Crime.
Theory 2: we lost our nerve. It sure looks like crime pays, doesn't it? Hard to argue with those numbers. Are you sure you want to make a cop game in this climate? It sounds risky. If I push for a cop game, and it doesn't sell well, I might lose my job. But if I go with the flow, hey. At least when the game doesn't sell it won't be my fault. I was just going with the numbers.
I wish there was some way to prove that I'm right, and Activision marketing should have pushed the law enforcement thing. No matter how well True Crime does, I'm going to believe it could have done better if we'd pushed the law enforcement thing.
The only way to prove me right will be if somebody makes a law-enforcement game where the marketing rides that angle, and spends a similar amount on marketing it. If it does better than True Crime, then I win, and I should switch careers from programming to marketing. If it does worse, than I should stay in the trenches and keep my mouth shut.
This is the voice of the Many as you crawl inside them, and it could well be the motto of System Shock 2: unlike Halo and Doom, this is very much an FPS about conserving resources. You start with nothing, and will probably find yourself using melee weapons to conserve your precious ammo. And you save-crawl, doing segments over and over until you get them perfect, because that ammo and health is too valuable to squander. The result is a game that encourages mastery, but I'm guessing it's not for everyone. In fact, the first time I tried to play it, I wasted my resources two hours in, and gave up. This is what Rob Fermier, one of the developers, calls a "Shelf Level Event": it goes back on the shelf, never to be played again.
But one day I ran out of games and did play it again.
In the family tree of video games, System Shock 2 is the mutant love-child of Quake and System Shock. System Shock, in turn, is a descendent of Ultima Underworld. Ultima Underworld sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus. No it didn't. UW is, I believe, the first first-person realtime RPG, and therefore a child of the Ultimas and...I don't know...Wolfenstein 3d?
Excuse me if I ramble. Too much coffee tonight.
Computer role-playing games bring with them, almost by definition, some fundamentally sound game design principles. I mentioned some of them in my Notes on Zelda. These include:
Continous, expanding world: System Shock 2 all takes place on the connected bulkheads of the starship Von Braun and the connected sister ship, The Rickenbacker. Up until the final two levels of the game, you can always backtrack.
"Parallel challenges with mutual assistance": (thank you Noah Falstein) almost all RPGs have side gameplay that allow you to develop your character so that the mainline challenges become easier. System Shock 2 has an exploration element like this: you don't have to thoroughly search the Von Braun, but if you do, you'll be rewarded with powerups that you can use to improve your character. Another side quest is "research": you find certain items that you can bring to chemical storerooms and study. Studying them gives you various advantages.
Token Based Economy: Although you're alone on an effectively deserted space ship, there are vending machines that take the currency of System Shock 2: the nanite. This currency can be used to buy goodies, hack computers, and repair or improve your weapons, and is used by the developers as a small reward. System Shock 2 actually has two economies: the open-ended and ever inflating nanite currency, and the zero-sum (am I using that term right?) Cyber Modules currency, which allow you to improve your character. You can only improve your character so much in System Shock 2, because there's only so many Cyber Modules available. Which leads to:
Meaningful choices with perceivable consequences: there are many axes on which you can improve your character, but once you've chosen which axes to improve on, you're stuck. Also, a very interesting element in System Shock 2 which I don't think I've seen anywhere else is the Surgical Key. Throughout the world there are incomplete surgical beds. You can attach a surgical key to these to become active, at which point they give you close to free healing for the rest of the game. The surgical keys are very rare. I used one on an out-of-the-way surgical bed and regretted it for the rest of the game. The next surgical key I got, I was very careful about where I finally placed it: I made sure to put it near an elevator, so I'd always be able to get to it quickly from wherever I was.
One thing that isn't necessarily an RPG staple, but that System Shock 2 benefits from, is systemic design. They mention this in their post-mortem. ("Use of simple, reusable game-play elements.") The elements include gun turrets, videocameras, a handful of different kinds of enemies, security computers, hackable crates, e-mail logs, ghosts, and not a whole lot more. They are able to get a surprising amount of gameplay and story out of these few elements. System Shock indeed.
I mentioned that I was playing System Shock 2 to a friend at work and he said he thought there weren't enough open spaces in the levels. I think this was by design: the narrow corridors of the Von Braun are purposely claustrophobic, which sets it apart from the wide corridors and spaces of Quake and Halo.
System Shock and Myst pioneered, at roughly the same time, a new kind of interactive storytelling: the kind where you're dropped in a world and you have to piece together the backstory from information in the environment. The reason for doing it this way in System Shock was simple: they were so unhappy with the state of NPC interaction in videogames that they decided to not have any living ones. (http://www.gameslice.com/features/spector/index4.shtml) But it creates an interesting side-game; you're exploring a story. You're piecing together a mystery. In essence, with System Shock 2, there are two stories: the backstory of how things got the way they are, and the current story of trying to cope. This technique was later borrowed for Metroid Prime.
System Shock 2 is well balanced. You're struggling for resources in the beginning, you get to cut loose in the middle, and you struggle again at the end. This is partly due to the tireless efforts of Dorian Hart, but they also have some techniques that make the game self-balance to an extent: during the middle game you discover both healing stations and energy recharging stations. Returning to these stations allow you to fill up your ammo and health. In the second-to-last level, there is no healing and recharging, and you feel it. Another technique is when looting the bodies of dead monsters, they are more likely to have good stuff if you are low on ammo and health. Clever, eh? Finally, parallel challenges with mutual assistance smooths out rough areas: if you're not good enough to take on a challenge, you can research / explore in other directions until you're powerful enough.
Should I dis on the game at all? I can't help it: for me, the game was just too damn long. My save game alone recorded 16 hours of gameplay; that probably represents around 30 hours of actual play. You can play different types of character, so in theory I could go back and try one with Psi powers, something I wanted to do after ten hours of play but couldn't possibly take after twenty.
Also, System Shock 2 feels like a game without a focus. Like Deus Ex, they empower you to play the game the way you want to play, but that was the focus of Deus Ex, and with System Shock 2 it seems like yet another of the many features the game provides. (System Shock 2 even has mini-games: you can find a PDA that plays games like Minesweeper and simple RPG's.) So System Shock 2 is a jack of all trades and master of none. There's better shooting in Quake. Better AI in Half-Life. Better player empowerment in Deus Ex. Better character development in most RPG's. Better hacking in Uplink.
Lately I've come to realize that lacking focus isn't just dangerous from a design perspective; it's also bad marketing. When people ask me, "What's System Shock 2?" I don't know what to tell them. You should be able to say what's special about a game in a short, sticky sentence. "It's *The Sims* for children." "It's John Woo style gunplay." "It's gravity-defying snowboarding." "It's being Spider-Man."
I'm at the source of all game-degree-rumors itself, Full Sail. I'm not asking for some kind of critique of this school in particular, but just your general opinion of video game design/programming being taught.
On the 'outside' you always hear rumblings that many people think it's sad. That anyone who's serious would teach themselves how to program and by creating an 'assembly line' mentality there'll be subpar workers who just thought it would be 'cool'.
I'm one of the folks that think having an area where people can experiment without having to worry about the financial side is great.
Obviously getting a degree doesn't make someone better by default, or vice-versa. But I was curious about your opinion on the topic.
That, and they need a 'search' feature on blogspot. Oh, if you feel strongly enough to bother feel free to make this a part of your blog or whatever.
Well, Jeffool . . . I said consummate v's. Consummate!
I mean, um, once Matt Rhoades and Tomo Moriwaki were having a conversation about "game schools." It went something like this:
Tomo: Game schools? That's silly.
Matt: You're part of the problem, Tomo.
I agree with Matt.
Game schools are just as good an idea as film schools. You'll get your Martin Scorsese types out of Full Sail, and you'll get your Quentin Tarantino types out of Electronics Boutique. Treyarch has hired at least one employee from a game school, so it's not a horrible career choice, although we're definitely more likely to hire someone with a computer science degree from a reputable university.
But check your teachers' credentials before slavishly adhering to their dogmas! Have they made good games? All you have to do is write some shit down and people will think you're more of an authority on games than you really are. Wink.
If they've made good games, slavishly adhere to their dogmas all you want.
And on the search thing, try "yoursearchwordhere site:gamedevleague.blogspot.com" on Google. This works great with Metacritic, too. Much better than their slow-ass search engine.
I've always wondered why The Sims Online wasn't as big a success as I thought it should have been. I was so sure. If I had a pile of money free, I probably would have put it in EA before the launch, and been a little bit poorer for it. Anyway, last night I was reading Positioning by Al Reis and Jack Trout, and the answer is in there.
It's the name.
First you have to accept Reis and Trout's thesis, which is: people are stupid. Once you've accepted that, you can see the problem. The history of the American marketplace is filled with stories of companies that had a succesful product, introduced a similar but different product with the same name, confused the consumer, and then some upstart introduces a nearly identical product with a new name, and that's what everybody buys.
You and I know the difference between The Sims Online and The Sims. But Joe and Mary Sixpack don't. Electronic Arts realizes this, now. If you go to http://www.gamasutra.com/resource_guide/20030916/lewis_01.shtml, you can see this quote:
"Part of the reason for this price drop was that players and potential players told us that they didn't understand the game's value. (That isn't exactly what they said, but that is how we interpreted it.) People were used to seeing Sims products on the shelf for $29.99 to $39.99, without an added monthly fee, so when the apple green TSO box appeared with a $49.99 sticker on it (plus subscription) players probably reached for one of the less expensive Sims expansion packs instead."
Which is one of the things Reis & Trout say about line extension: you don't broaden the market. You just suck away customers from your established product. (At least they're paying subscription fees now, but still.)
Still, EA isn't about to change the name of their product. Which means a company like Mythic, the kind of company that can make an MMORPG in 18 months, could come out with a TSO clone, market it as it's own new thing, and become the market leader. Especially if they marketed it smarter than EA. Your first hit's free and all that. And don't call it "Dark Age of America" or "Modern Day Camelot", for Christ's sake.
Caveats: Al Reis and Jack Trout like to pile a mountain of anecdotes on you and twist the facts. Diet Coke, supposedly a line extension and therefore a bad idea in their book, is still the leading diet soda as far as I know. They tell you that "Vaseline Intensive Care" isn't in fact a line extension, because people supposedly think of it as just "Intensive Care", and that's why it succeeded over Jergen's Dry or whatever. And they predicted that Microsoft would be the next IBM, as more and more people, disappointed with products like Project and Sourcesafe and Outlook and the Xbox, pull away from cash cows like Word and Excel. They'll tell you that we're just seeing "the short-term gain" from using an established name to sell a new product, and eventually Coke and Microsoft will pay.
Also, I don't play MMORPG's. To me, the very idea sounds like an excruciating chore. I gave *Tale in the Desert* a whirl, and when I got to the part where I was supposed to spend twenty minutes watching flax rot I uninstalled it. So how much can I possibly know about the market?
So nothing is certain. This is a risky proposition. I wouldn't use my own money to fund this hypothetical Sims clone. But if I was a CEO at a publisher, I might think that the opportunity justifies the risk.
I'm assuming that games should be marketed like products in a supermarket, rather than like movies. Should they? I'd say it depends on the game. If the selling point of the game is some cool intellectual property - characters or a world that are popular - a Lara Croft or Max Payne or Matrix (is there a world born in videogames that's popular because it's a cool world?) - then cross-marketing is a decent idea, although it has the side effect of turning something that could be a long-lived trend (James Bond) into a passing fad (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) Still...I think most of us would rather milk all the blood out of a fad as quickly as possible than wait for what might be more money to slowly roll in on a trend.
On the other hand, if the selling point of your game is that it's the best in a category, and your characters and world are incidental: don't line extend. Don't make TSO or Command & Conquer: Renegade or a Wing Commander or Final Fantasy movie.
Let me throw out some predictions. In a few years we'll see if I'm right.
StarCraft: Ghost and Worlds of Warcraft are going to weaken Blizzard. "XCraft" used to mean RTS.
Lords of Everquest is going to weaken Everquest. "Everquest" used to mean MMORPG.
The Matrix is a fad. They're going to milk it dry this year, and nobody's going to want Matrix anything for a long time.
Deus Ex, the movie: won't be half as succesful as the first Tomb Raider movie. The point of Deus Ex is player empowerment, not J. C. Denton and his dark future.
It all started when Cathy said, "So why don't you order this Monkey Island game you've been telling me about?" There's one copy left at Amazon: it costs $154. Ok, so it comes with Monkey Island 2 & 3 as well, but still. Sticker shock. Grim Fandango costs $10, so I don't see why I should have to pay more than $20 for the first two Monkeys.
So I decide to break the law, something I normally don't do because downloading ISO files is a huge pain in the ass. (Although I've just discovered that with BitTorrent it's much easier.) I come across an abandonware site. www.freeoldies.com. And it feels like I've struck gold! All those games I've misplaced the CD's...or better yet, the floppies...of. I start downloading like crazy...because who knows when somebody's going to start cracking down on this stuff? I still regret the day I deleted my Bilestoad ROM for Apple II emulation...because I was never able to find it again. I'm probably never going to want to play Alone in the Dark -- the father of survival horror -- again, but it's nice to have it around, just in case.
I'd just read Chris Crawford's book, and wanted to play some of the games he worked on, and here they are.
And here's another great thing: old games I worked on are in there too, listed right alongside the greats (and losers) of yesteryear. Some of them decently regarded: http://www.the-underdogs.org/game.php?id=134. Nifty. I downloaded those too. Now I can play them again without damanging the shrinkwrap on my trophy copies.
When I played Grim Fandango a few years back, I only made it halfway through and then it crashed and I never got around to downloading the patch. I've been playing it -- and watching my wife play it -- again this weekend. Cathy is not a gamer, so every time I find a game she's even somewhat interested in it's a triumph. Grim Fandango was one of those games, joining the ranks of Animal Crossing and You Don't Know Jack. At least, at first. After a while she got to puzzles she didn't find interesting, and she abandoned it. I kept playing, and when I would get past puzzles she'd hear the sound of a prerendered cutscene and she'd come back to watch and advise.
Tomo Moriwaki has a theory that a certain amount of madness is essential to good game development, both because it inspires creativity and because it gives you that feverish drive to press on during crunch time. And by madness he means things like putting a single Prodigy song on infinite repeat, listening to CD's at double speed, engaging in acts of wanton destruction in the office hallways, or simply saying a single annoying word over and over. I have a feeling that Tim Schafer and crew had the madness during Grim Fandango. Where else do you come up with stuff like that? A mixture of Mexican mythology and noir movies? As just as an example, there is a moment where Manny Calvera visits the world of the living -- our world -- but in Manny's eyes the land of the living is a fifties diner with cubist patrons. Again, how do you come up with that stuff? You have to be mad. Good thing madness on game dev teams is usually plentiful.
The puzzles in Grim Fandango almost never fall back on Fed Ex missions. Although we ocassionally fell back on trial & error to solve the puzzles, afterwards I always had the feeling that the solution made sense.
One thing the puzzles frequently rely on is functional fixedness. Some psychologists did an experiment where the subject was asked to use some string to do a task. One group had string given to them; another group didn't, but there was a sign in the office hanging from string. Most of the subjects didn't think to use the string from the sign. (The function of the string was fixated for them.) Duh. Somebody probably got a Ph. D. for that. Anyhow, you see this in Grim Fandango all the time; an item is introduced as part of the current story/environment - later you discover how to use that item for something other than its intended purpose.
I once wrote about how you can (artificially) make a game longer without much additional cost by reusing terrain. Grim Fandango does this in a couple of ways: multiple puzzles in the same area, and returning you to places you've been before later in the story. It doesn't feel totally cheap; it gives the game a feeling of unity.
It doesn't seem like people make adventure games anymore. I guess they weren't profitable enough for LucasArts to keep doing them. I think there's an opportunity here: there's a category of game with no leading brand. You could be number one. Remember when RPG's were dead and Diablo resurrected them? Okay, maybe RPG's were only in a coma. Still, I'd be scared of jumping into the genre, because of this:
The writing in Grim Fandango is excellent. It has to be, for a story-based game. One of the things that drives you on, other than the feeling of accomplishment when you solve puzzles, is to see the story unfold. I laughed my ass off in more than a few places. It's better than most of the movies and television I've seen lately. And where do you find that kind of writing talent, and would you be willing to hang your success on them?
I'm just a dumb developer. Marketing strategy is handled by people much higher on the corporate ladder. I assume they've read the same books I've read, and they have access to the important data that I don't, and they know more than me. Also, the books I've read have all the logical rigor of a collection of anecdotes. For example, in the same book they said MCI was a failure because it was the #3 long distance company, but 7-Up was a success because they started competing in the cola category and earned the position of...#3. Still, from where I stand, it seems like publishers are not doing the right things.
Mistake #3: stupid IP
Greg Costikyan already covered this one, but I wanted to add a few cents:
Currently, a medium marketing effort on a decent game can get your mindshare (using Raph Koster's number of hits on google measurement) to at least 70,000. Check True Crime: Streets of LA, or Battle Realms, or Freedom Force. Don't work on IP that has fewer hits than that. Definitely better to invent your own. Starsky & Hutch is at 80K right now, but that was probably after the videogame announcement.
If you want a game to sell millions regardless of how crappy it is, buy IP that has at least a million hits on Google. And even that isn't a guarantee: Activision's Star Trek titles aren't doing as well as we might like, and they're not even crap, they're good games.
Mistake #2 - diluting your IP
The games industry isn't the only industry that does this, happily. Al Ries & Jack Trout say that 'line extension' usually gives you a short-term gain for a long-term loss: everybody buys your Coca-Cola clothes, or whatever, when it first comes out, but then they stop, and you've weakened your core brand as well. (Although Coke does seem to still be going strong, eh?) I've noticed that Altoids has started doing this. I predict Altoids will no longer be a thing in ten years.
We saw this at Activision with the "so-and-so's Pro X" aka "O2" line. (Opinions on this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Activision, btw.) Not only did nobody buy the less-good "Somebody-Other-Than-Tony-Hawk's Pro Something" games, sales of Tony Hawk have been slowly decreasing as well. Maybe they would have decreased anyway. Who knows.
If you want to grow a brand over the long term, be more like Nintendo: a new title every year or two.
Sony is making mistake #1 and mistake #2 at the same time with Lords of Everquest. Way to go, guys.
I suppose you could think of The Sims Online as being a mistake #1 & #2 combo, but it's sufficiently different from Everquest that it's really not the same category.
And now, the big one:
Mistake #1 - competing in established categories instead of inventing new categories
Ask a typical publisher if they want StarCraft with higher production values or something new, a whole new category of PC strategy game, and they'll tell you StarCraft with higher production values. In a heartbeat. Here's the thing with me-too titles that we all know from experience: 99% of them only do a small fraction of the sales of the market leader. This makes sense if what Al Ries and Jack Trout say about marketing is true: you can't position yourself as the market leader if there already is one. Your mark (they call it 'prospect') isn't going to believe you when you tell them your product is better than StarCraft. They already know that Blizzard is the leader when it comes to making science fiction or fantasy RTS. Are you going to spend Blizzard money only to come in second place with Blizzard?
Except the publishers don't even spend Blizzard money. They spend as little as they can get away with and still get a title out. So not only is the game not going to compete with Blizzard in the mind of the mark, it's not going to compete with Blizzard...at all.
The best time to do a me-too title is actually when the first title didn't sell that well and you know why. When WarCraft, the Dune 2 clone, came out, Blizzard captured a ton of market share from Westwood. What Blizzard knew (or lucked into) was that Dune 2 was a great game that didn't sell as well as it could have...for whatever reason. Because it was tied to a limiting license, or because it wasn't marketed enough, or because it didn't have online play. I don't know.
But that's not how publishers think: they see a title not do that well and they all shy away from that title. I, personally, think there's a great opportunity here with the failure of Sims Online. I thought it should have been a success. Something went wrong. I don't know what. Whoever figures out what went wrong has an opportunity to be huge.
Another good time to do a me-too title is if you can be second place. Even though you'll work harder for less return than the first place guys, there's a good chance you can still be very profitable, and play Pepsi to their Coke or Sprint to their AT&T or whatever. Sony did this with The Getaway. Activision is trying to trump Sony with True Crime. We'll see how it shakes out. My prediction is that GTA will remain the market leader for at least a decade, but True Crime will be profitable, and if GTA falls from that perch, it will be because Take Two screwed up--they're ripe for committing Mistake #2--not because somebody outsmarted them.
You know, I think it would take so little to invent a new category of RTS. My friend Ed Del Castillo at Liquid has ideas for strategy games for your PC that could easily be just as fun, if not more fun, than the current RTS formula but also be marketed as something Completely Different.
Side Note: a publisher might say that there's nothing in the mark's mind to grab onto when marketing a game like this. That's why you don't market the game, you market the category. You do a PR/marketing effort saying "What the world needs right now is a new kind of tactical simulation, one that has X," and then later you mention, in passing, that YourGameHere has X.