Saturday, November 08, 2003

I did blog about that before

I mentioned it in passing in my Notes on Zelda. So I repeat myself. So what? Jack Trout and Al Reis have made a career out of repeating themselves.
Psycho Mantis: WTF?

Jurie Horneman's blog reminded me of something.

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."

Deja vu...have I blogged about this before?

Friday, November 07, 2003

New episode of Manager In A Strange Land up

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!)."

Notes On Ghosts 'n' Goblins And Prince Of Persia

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.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Another Addendum

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.

Monday, November 03, 2003


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.)

Sunday, November 02, 2003

A Videogame Franchise Is Forever

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?

Okay, rant over.

Notes on Maximo

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.