Saturday, April 12, 2003

I've written a few reviews on game design/development books here. I covered Erik Bethke, Richard Rouse III, and Roger Pederson.

Don't Be A Hater

Games infuritate me like no other thing in life, except maybe LA traffic and working weekends. Last night I was playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and encountered the sandworm boss at the end of the Wind Temple level. First I screamed. Then I cursed. Then I threw my controller. Then I kicked over my coffee table (new high watermark!). Then I threw the controller a second time, hitting the Gamecube, resetting it, and cracking the case on the controller.

Why do I have these petulant fits when playing? It's not just Zelda. I remember back when we played 100 games at a time of Mortal Kombat 2 on the Sega Genesis 32X. I would bite the controller when losing, leaving nasty teethmarks on my friend's gamepad. I remember punching the TV while playing Tekken 3, bloodying my knuckles.

I'm almost certain the problem occurs when there's a disconnect between what I feel I'm trying to make my character (or whatever) do, and what occurs in the game. I never get upset when I purposefully do something wrong in the game, or can't solve a puzzle because I'm not clever enough. It's when the control degrades, like the awful lock-on camera in Zelda that has it constantly whirling around, clipping through obejcts, changing your frame of reference, etc. Or when fighting the sandworm and the lock-on cam doesn't work because it's targeting the stupid little worms even though they're not in your god-damn field of view GOD DAMNIT.

See what I mean?

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

God damn

Would somebody other than me post to this thing? It's easy. Pretend you're writing e-mail to nobody.

Added some more to the Game Design Wiki. To quote Justin Love, the founder: "Yah! A second person ;^) (I was kind of hearing crickets myself)"

Hey! I fixed the archives! I'm not sure how!

Think I'll play some Kohan.

Monday, April 07, 2003

I asked Noah Falstein how I could contribute to the 400 project and he said to e-mail him. Naturally that was dissatisfying. I wanted to see my contributions, rather than feel like they were sucked up into some void. It occurred to me a wiki was the answer. Maybe I should start one, I thought. I tried starting one at Treyarch, and after a small burst of activity...crickets. Maybe I should start one on the internet, I thought. Maybe there's already one there. I did a search. There was. Coolness. A little rough so far, and intended more for board games than computer games, but with a little love... I've already started contributing.

More notes on Zelda

You know, as frustrating as Mask of Majora was for me, it did what Wind Waker failed to do, which was take gameplay in an innovative new direction. The holistic groundhog day design of it, where you have to keep time-travelling back to the beginning of the cycle, with new knowledge and new abilities, was really quite genius, although it was frustrating as hell when you were only halfway through a dungeon and time ran out.

I was pissed that Mask of Majora only had four dungeons, though. For me, Zelda is all about the dungeons. But I guess it isn't for everyone else. Which may point out a problem with the whole Zelda line: does it have a focus? Could you pin Shigeru Miyamoto down and ask him, "In one paragraph, what is Zelda?" Just a thought.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

Notes on Zelda: The Wind Waker

Normally I try to objectively study game design with these "notes on" articles, but I don't know if I'll be able to pull that off this time. I don't know if it's because I'm getting old, because my expectations are too high, what, but I found the new Zelda to be disappointing. There was a little of the sense of wonder and awe that I got playing Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time (which I took notes on here), but certainly not as much. It was less difficult; I consulted gamefaqs three times, and two of those times I should have figured it out myself; and although I was pleased that it wasn't frustrating I felt a growing sense of dissatisfaction at the ease of the puzzles. The "Zelda moment", those moments where the answer to the puzzle becomes clear, were not giving me the same joy they usually did, I think because most of the puzzles I had either seen before in previous Zeldas, or were too easy. The insanely complex water dungeon of Ocarina required me to go to gamefaqs twice, but I enjoyed myself, damnit. That reminds me of something Meretzky said in Richard Rouse's book: he argued that it's better to be too hard than too easy, because people can always look up hints if it's too hard (which should be even more true now than it was back then, with gamefaqs) but they have no recourse if it's too easy. But it seems like since the beginning of time, game developers have been going the opposite direction, trying to make the games easier and easier to alienate fewer people. They run the risk of alienating the hardcore gamers, which some would say is a bad idea, arguing that the hardcore gamers are the hubs who spread word of mouth, but I don't know what evidence there is that the hardcore (early adopters) tend to be the same people as the hubs (those with lots of friends/acquaintances).

An additional design flaw that jumps out at me immediately: a lot of the game is sailing. This violates Mark Nau's "terrain is important" rule, and despite the various things they put in the water to try to make sailing interesting it was ultimately a failure. Beautiful and breathtaking for a few minutes; dull for the rest of the game. A world of rivers running through canyons with waterfalls, jumps, and caves seems like it would be obviously more fun, to me. The sailing is technologically impressive; a seamless, continuous ocean dotted with islands. This may be an example of the advances in technology creating more opportunities for boring games. A treasure-hunting mode that essentially boiled down to Fed Ex missions did not save it.

The sailing is tied in with the narrative which is the strongest of a Zelda game yet. The island world reminds me of Wizard of Earthsea; the story of Zelda and the Hero of Time returning in successive incarnations reminds me of Moorcock's Eternal Champion. The narrative had a weight to it that I don't think I've seen in another game, giving my actions a certain heroic something; I almost felt as if what I did meant in the game world meant something. (Somewhere I saw an article discussing Joseph Conrad and Link to the Past but I can't find it now. It must be relevant, somehow.)
So what, besides sailing, was added to the new Zelda?

The two game elements that I had not seen in a previous Zelda were the Grappling Hook and the Song-Of-Command. The first was a third person version of the grappling hook from Metroid; the song-of-command allowed you to control an ally in the dungeons, and that was the one thing that really opened up some new puzzle possibilities: your ally had a different set of attributes then you did, and you would have to use your powers and their powers in concert to advance. I just wished there was more of it.

Combat was much more engaging than the previous Zelda. They added a new 'parry' move that you could only use if you weren't blocking; I found myself abandoning my strategy of keeping my shield up, because I wanted to get those tasty double-damage parries in. Some of the enemies were resistant to most attacks except for the parries. Some of their attacks could be parried and some of them couldn't, so I would have to watch closely, guard down, to see what kind of attack was coming and either parry, block, or get out of the way depending on the move. Simple but effective. Not very deep (I didn't get much better at it by the end of the game than I was in the beginning) but engaging. Also, the previous Zelda would rarely have more than one enemy attack you at the same time. The enemies would mob you in this Zelda, and you would have to jockey for position to not get hit. (And sometimes you could encourage them to strike each other. Good fun.) (And the bosses are less silly than the last couple games.)

In my article on Ocarina I wrote that I didn't understand why they actually made you play the Ocarina. That was the intellectual gamer in me talking. I'm reversing myself. Fact is, actually getting to play the instrument (it's a baton in Wind Waker) is toyetic. (Toyetic means "like a toy" and it's a good thing.)

The illusion of nonlinearity: there was a moment in the new Zelda where it seemed like you could choose which of two dungeons you would get to explore next. It was so convincing I saw a note on Gamefaqs say "You can do these in any order." It is not true; a key NPC is not available until you've completed the first dungeon. I felt slightly betrayed; I have no problem with controlling the line which the player takes through the game world, but to open up two dungeons, implying that you can do either, when you can''s like..."psyche! For a second there you thought you weren't on a rail!"

One last thing: since Ocarina had a hold-the-button-down camera lock on and Majora had a toggled camera lock I was really interested in seeing what Nintendo finally went with for Wind Waker. The answer is they didn't: it's configurable in the options menu. That's right, Nintendo caved and for the first time I can think of, let the player decide instead of actually making a choice. For a rant on options menu that may or may not apply to game development, look here.