Saturday, May 10, 2003

Actually feels like we're in good shape for E3. For the first time ever--that I was involved, anyway--we're showing some of the actual game instead of proof-of-concept stuff that we're planning on scrapping later. It runs anywhere from a half hour to three hours before it crashes. We worked a lot of overtime the past couple of months, sure, but it's been 50-60 hour weeks, not 24-7. Which makes me think of something I just read in DeMarco and Lister's *Waltzing With Bears*: they say it's more likely for your deathmarch projects to be low-value projects. The logic being that if your project is of high value to the company, they'll do it right and give you the resources you need, but if they're not into the project, they'll shaft you for resources and tell you to work extra hard.

Thursday, May 08, 2003


Alex Bortoluzzi was telling us about his most touching moment at E3 two years back; we were demoing Spider-Man and a guy in a wheelchair came up and played the demo over and over again. Alex said the guy was a little misty eyed.

I think that's the most important part of what we do; we give people experiences that they cannot have in real life. This is something novels, movies, and television aspire to do but can not. I've believed this ever since I read Richard Powers' Plowing The Dark, a novel about a team of people creating a virtual reality experience. Powers ties it all in with games and narrative, places it in the context of world history, says it's the new frontier and our future. That book is basically what keeps me going at this job.

But this belief has ramifications: if providing simulated experiences is the most important thing we do, then the game-game-type-game aspect of game development - the point systems, the combos, the rules, the levels, the strategies - is secondary. I think we're seeing the industry start to realize this; GTA3 and Halo represent a gaming future where the simulation (being an unstoppable criminal or being a space marine) is considered more important than the game: I don't know how often people compare their GTA strategies looking for a new insight in how to play the game better; and those giant battles from Halo where you're just one marine among many is not so much a challenge you're trying to win but an experience that thrills you. Metroid Prime, on the other hand, is stuck firmly in the past: with its power ups and color-coded monsters and save-game stations instead of feeling like a space marine you feel like you're playing a game about being a space marine. (If you worked on Metroid Prime, don't hate me: I still thought it was good stuff, definitely got my attention's worth out of it. I just liked Halo better.)

Another ramification of this belief is that those people who only seem to care about good graphics and good audio - those people I've typically snobbishly looked down on as not understanding Games - are on the right track. The graphics and audio are what makes the simulation more immersive, makes it easier to suspend our disbelief, forget that it's just a sim.

And it means that VR, although overhyped in the early nineties, will make a comeback. I think the real reason VR failed as a money-making enterprise back then was the technology just sucked. We were promised that we'd be put in these immersive worlds but we weren't. You'd turn your head and the world would update a half a second later. Give it another decade or two or three. Once the tech is there, it'll be what you want, and if we haven't been burned out already, that's where we'll be working.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

Interface or Yummy Candy?

There are some things that we can (almost) all agree belong to the realm of Interface. That is, the experience should be as low-profile as possible because no-one wants to interact with that experience itself. It is just a necessary evil we have to go through in order to get to the thing we actually want (the Yummy Candy).

The process of using the mouse and keyboard in tandem in order to get these words on the web site is a good example. If I could make it so, the process of getting my thoughts to the web site would be instantaneous and invisible to me. The Yummy Candy payoff is having expressed my idea.

If you could perfectly determine on a given project what should be Interface, and what should be Yummy Candy, that would vastly clarify many design decisions. Problem is, people differ even on that most fundamental level.

Playing Age of Empires, I thought that having to micromanage the villagers was Yummy Candy. In my mind, a significant parameter of the game competition was managing one's own attention, and keeping track of everything under pressure. Many others thought this was Interface, and so the sequels featured build cues and more intelligent villager behavior.

An even more extreme case is MOO3, where the design comes close to relegating almost every decision to the Interface category, so that it is possible to win just by clicking the "Next Turn" button over and over. I see what they were trying to do. They wanted people to be able to go after whatever Yummy Candy they each individually wanted to go after, and leave the rest to Interface. Maybe it was just the specifics of implementation that made it fall flat.

Is hitting the piƱata just an Interface to the candy inside? For some, yes, and for some, no. Just try your best to assure that you're not making people bang on your Interface over and over before they get any of your game's Yummy Candy to fall out.

Orthogonal Game Elements

A criteria for good game design which seems obvious but is easy to forget in the heat of brainstorming. Fight games forget this all the time, by adding more attacks instead of coming up with ways to multiply the potential of the game. The reason I mention it was I was browsing Ion Storm's web site yesterday and Harvey Smith gave the subject a thorough going over.

Monday, May 05, 2003

An Apology

I've been thinking about it over the weekend, and despite the fun of having a debate in the comments section, it behooves me to apologize to Derek Smart.

It was both unprofessional and uncalled for to single out Derek and more importantly to make comments about his nature. I certainly don't know him well enough to have made some of the assumptions that I did, and even if I did, it does not excuse my singling him out for commentary.

Derek, I apologize.

I suspect, actually, that you and I are very similar people when it all comes down to it: we don't suffer fools well and both strongly fight for and believe in our convictions.

I hope you can see this as the true olive branch that it is meant to be.

Chris Busse