Saturday, November 29, 2003

Am I the only one who blogs on Thanksgiving?

Don't tell the in-laws but I'm bored!

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.

Thursday, November 27, 2003


Today I have questions:

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.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Notes on True Crime

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.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Official Retraction

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."

I'm 100% sure

My last e-mail to Amazon support said something like, "If you're an actual human, please let me know."

The response e-mail not only didn't let me know, it was exactly the same as the e-mail I received 3 transactions previously.

You'd think they'd get a human involved once the automated system failed four times in a row, but no human yet.

Does this bother me enough to make me stop using Amazon? Not...quite.