Thank you for waiting (Mass Effect owns me)

Mass Effect ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_Effect ) has consumed my week. I started playing Sunday, and I just finished the game tonight. Aside from playing, I’ve done very little. That certainly means that it was a good game, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The developer is…Bioware, a canadian company known for making high quality "Western" RPGs (as opposed to JRPGs, Japanese Role Playing Games, which have some significant style differences). I’ve played previous products from Bioware, including KOTOR and Jade Empire. So while I can say without reservation that Mass Effect is a good game and Bioware an AAA developer, I feel they didn’t stretch as far as they could have.

For one thing, their vaunted and revolutionary conversation mode isn’t. Instead it’s almost exactly the same as Jade Empire’s. The whole Light Side/Dark Side thing from KOTOR is reused, too. And the Warrior/Mage/Engineer class system. But my biggest gripe is with the parts of the game I liked best.

What did I like best? Tearing across alien worlds in my moon buggy, discovering lost artifacts and ancient mysteries! Man, that just never gets old for me. Every world, from an airless moon, to a frozen blizzard, to a dustball bathed in the harsh red light of its mother planet. They were all beautiful, and I wanted to explore every inch of each one. In fact, after I had investigated every marked point on the map, I’d sometimes just jump back in the buggy and drive, hoping to find another outcrop of Thorium to survey.

I also LOVED the sector view on the galactic map. SO beautiful. The first time I saw the Horsehead Nebula, I almost cried, it was so well done. I would have been happy flying through nebulas and driving around on planets, that’s all I need.

But I could tell that all those planets, and nebulas, and conversations, and missions, and characters, were all hand-made and expensive. And this leads to my gripe. Where’s the Procedurally Generated Content?

Everyone knows that I’m a big proponent of procedurally generated content (PGC). I fully expected that things like the planet surfaces and the tunnels of the side-missions would and could be made with PCG, but NO. Every time I entered a mine, or a building, the layout was exactly the same! Hallway, small room, turn left, hallway, big room and battle, small room and plot resolution. The only differences were the crates stacked in the big arena room. I bet part of Bioware fully intended to make more interior layouts, and just ran out of time. But PGC would have solved that problem.

And the planet surfaces were always bounded by a big square ("You’re going outside the operational area, Commander. Please turn back"), plus there were several terrain features that worked with the story, so that was all hand-crafted too. Sure, I bet the art team had a Maya script to generate the rough draft of the surface, which was then hand-edited. But PGC would have broken out of the box, I could have driven the entire surface of the planet, and they could still have specific terrain features. Oh, and the disk footprint would have been smaller, too.

In 2001, I attended the first PS2 Devcon. The final keynote was from Sony’s chief engineer, who showed a game demo of rolling hills under moving clouds. He told us all that the demo was completely procedurally generated, no pre-made art at all. Then he told us that Sony saw PGC as the wave of the future, and implored us to take this message back to our companies. I certainly did, but to no avail. Everyone whines about the expense of next-gen artwork, but nobody’s embracing PGC, even six years later. 🙁

Aside from PGC, there are a few more gripes to share. First, they had some freaky body self-shadowing, which really looked bad. It used a really small shadow mask, and didn’t update every frame, so it looked shaky and blocky and weird. If I was in charge I’d have simply turned it off. It really detracted from the rest of the beautiful art.

Second, they connected everything with elevators, so they could load new maps while you were traveling in the elevator. This is a cool idea, except that the game was still rife with loading screens and big hitches during disc access, so what was the point. Also, you were stuck in the elevator until the level was loaded, so some elevators were absurdly slow (http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2007/11/16).

Despite its few flaws, Mass Effect is a great game. Possibly the greatest re-make of Star Control 2 ever made. Move over. I’m drivin this buggy.

PS. On one planet, I found the skull of a giant creature. What was it? Where did it come from? What did a living specimen look like? These questions remain unanswered, but my curiosity still burns.

Easter Egg! Check out the shifty looking cow, which follows you and steals your money! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nqdw1FrbA4s
http://en.wikipedia.org…
http://www.penny-arcade…
http://www.youtube.com/…

Mad Gamer Skillz

Tycho of Penny Arcade (http://www.penny-arcade.com) posted this:

"I picked my mom up a copy of Phantom Hourglass when it came out, partly because I hoped she would enjoy it but mostly because I wanted to observe her as a kind of test subject. I think of the new Zelda as almost didactic in its simplicity, but when you lack the basic grammar of interactivity most virtual worlds are overwhelming. She couldn’t quickly tell, as you or I could, which things on a given screen were actually operable. There’s a suite of universal skills we bring to every scenario, survival techniques which are tailored exclusively to simulations."

This rings so…true to me. I’ve seen my own mother having a hard time figuring out whether something is a button to be clicked on, and I know my wife doesn’t understand the FPS user interface. And as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Portal threw me because I’m conditioned to expect scary monsters in that type of game, and Portal didn’t have any.

Games teach, and one of the most obvious things they teach is How To Play Games. We gamers don’t understand just how far we’ve come, just how facile we are with game technology. We marvel about the evolution of the game controller, with progressively more buttons. We don’t understand that *we* evolved along with those controllers, that we had to start with two buttons and a d-pad, and (collectively) work our way up to the current-gen monstrosities.

So it’s no wonder that games with wider appeal seem stupidly simple to us. We’re in college, but others are in kindergarten. And our degree means nothing. And may actively keep us from designing and enjoying truly new games. Either Majicthise or Vroomfondel famously said, "our minds must be too highly trained."http://www.penny-arcade…

NetHack going strong. What does it mean?

Do graphics matter? Are people only serious about "serious" games? DO communities of players only coalese around big, modern MMOGs?

Obviously, no. But for those who need to be reminded, I give you the 2006 NetHack Tourney (the 2007 tourney is happening right now).

http://nethack.devnull.net/tournament/trophies.shtml

Anyone who’s ever played NetHack can see that it is profoundly re-playable, but if you followed that link, you’d find a thousand specialized ways to play NetHack (play vegan; don’t eat meat, don’t wear leather, don’t attack "animal" monsters). What other game even comes close?!?

Sure, most RPGs and adventure games have some re-playability. Many of them actually encourage you to go back and play all the way through again. Silent Hill 2 lets you play through again with a chainsaw. Resident Evil 4 gives you alternate characters and new weapons when you go back through.

And then there’s Diablo (and Diablo 2), which was intentionally a graphically-updated version of NetHack.

So, IF you build a game with loads of procedurally-generated content and an open answer space, are you garanteed to build a large and loyal player community?
http://nethack.devnull….

Night-watch and Daywatch

Digital special effects have gotten dirt cheap in the last 7-10 years, and the result has been locally produced foreign films with modern special effects, throughout the world. There have been many amazing FX films from Korea, Japan, and even some interesting ones from Thailand and Poland.

Nigh*censored*ch (and its sequel, Daywatch) are Russian films that will amaze you with interesting special effects and fresh concepts. They aren’t without flaw, but are still worth seeing.

These films are…VERY Russian. The hero is a shlub who makes bad decisions and regrets them. The city is dreary and snowbound. It’s hard to tell good guys from bad. and the first film ends in disaster for the good guys.

Spoilers follow!

In modern Russia, the forces of Light and Darkness observe a tense and bureaucratic truce. Both sides are humans, though with supernatural powers (and vampires on the dark side), who must freely choose which side they join. The hero, Anton Gorodetsky, starts the film with a profoundly bad act. His pregnant wife has left him for another, so he hires a matronly witch to 1) lure her back, and 2) force a miscarriage. The light side intervenes, and he and the witch are convicted of attempted murder. This awakens his own powers, and he chooses the light side, presumably to work off his guilt.

As the boy grows, Anton becomes a powerful warrior for Light, working at (literally) the Light Company. He helps new "Others" choose the light, arrests those who break the Laws of the Truce, and issues licenses to vampires, who are an oppressed and resentful underclass. Meanwhile Satan (or his head representative, it’s hard to tell) calculates the final battle using a video game that looks a lot like Dead or Alive PS1, but isn’t.

Anton finds his son, realizes the relationship, and falls into Satan’s trap. During the final battle, Satan dodges Anton’s knife, and the boy is almost stabbed, but Satan grabs Anton’s hand at the last moment. Thus the boy (a super-powered Other) chooses the Dark side, and the first film is over.

Daywatch, the second film, starts almost immediately. Anton is involved with a new Light Side recruit, a blonde woman as powerful as Anton’s son. Satan is of course plotting to destroy them both, so Anton is accused of a murder, and most of the film is filled with cat-and-mouse with his pursuers. Anton decides that a mcguffin, the Chalk of Fate, has the power to undo the terrible choice he made in the beginning, and both sides chase after it. After finding it in plain sight, he looses it to his sneaky son, and regains it in the film’s climactic battle. In the end, he succeeds in writing "Nyet" on the wall of the old witch’s original apartment, thus changing everything for the better, instantly. End of film.

So, the overall lesson of the story is this: If you make a terrible mistake in your life, you’ll never get past it or make amends, your only hope is to go back in time and erase it. Dismal, like much of the movies’ settings. For these films, it’s the journey, not the destination.

The fresh take on vampires is a standout for me, although it’s not the focus of the films. In this story, vampires can turn invisible, and can then ONLY be seen in a mirror. Vampires are regulated by the government, and a major sub-story is the poor butcher and his teenage son which live across the hall from Anton. Both are vampires, and while the father loves his son and bows his head to his second-class life, the son rages against it and tries to Fight the Power, while remaining one of the purest spirits in the story (certainly more likable than Anton). Eventually he gets caught up in an affair with Satan’s devilish, devil-may-care wife, to the detriment of all of them.

The light side drives around in large, yellow utility trucks, outfitted with startling (and obviously magical) enhancements. Their headquarters is the city’s power company, as soviet, grimy and bulky as the vehicles. Their leader is old, pragmatic, and world-weary. Their magical powers are always unique and surprising (and wierd, unless you’re Russian, I suppose).

Many of the special FX are set pieces, with a clear focus. I can imagine the writers sitting around, saying "What if a speeding trolley hits the bad guy, and it bounces off?", "What if Satan yanked his own spine out, and it became his sword?" and "What if a magical car drives around on the side of a building?"

So. Unusual vampires? Check. Magically enhanced vehicles? Check. Sympathetic magic? Check. Unsympathetic hero? Check. Deus Ex Machina ending? Check. It’s not everyone’s cup of vodka, but I recommend you rent these movies.

Portal

Late last night, I finished Portal. I started it 5 hours earlier, but you probably already know how short it is.

You’ve also probably heard how the story is great, the closing song by JoCo is wonderful and sticky, the puzzles are challenging, and it’s the best thing in the Orange Box. I agree with all that. So let me share some of my personal feelings about the game.

First, while…there’s no doubt that Portal is a great game, it’s very clear to me that the Orange Box is Valve’s response to the question, "How do we sell two games that are a bit small to sell by themselves, alongside a bigger game we’ve sold before?" This is not Valve’s fault; they are distribution innovators.

The real problem is the retail market. It should be easy to sell full games for $60, half-sized games for $30, and mini-games for $5. But it isn’t, because of the realities and expectations of the retail space. The retail channel has been stifling and crushing developers for decades now, and ubiquitous digital distribution can’t come soon enough for me. And the console makers are aiding and abetting this system.

Nintendo pioneered the system whereby developers are held in thrall to the console maker, they’ve NEVER grokked the internet, and they’re riding high right now, so why should they change?

Sony is a megacorp who needs to sell blu-ray discs. The last thing they need is for digital distribution to make the investment obsolete, so they’re gonna fight the future tooth-and-nail.

Microsoft is just playing their normal embrace and extend game with game consoles right now. Yes, they get the Internet and digital distribution more than anyone, but they aren’t in the market to crush GameStop (not yet, anyway). They are in the market to crush Sony and Nintendo, and the standard way is to undercut their competitors at their own game, not think laterally.

So Valve will have to bow to market demands and bundle small games, and I’ll have to stay on the PC platform, the only real option I have for unfettered development on a device with a wide installed base. Sigh.

My friend Mike said that Portal was an example of a single game nugget polished into a diamond. For years he’s been thinking of my output as "nuggets", and has pushed me to combine multiple such nuggets into a game. I agree with the polish concept, but I want to point out that the game around Portal’s nugget is exactly the core competency of Valve. When you have an emerald grinder, every rock you put inside comes out looking like an emerald.

I myself didn’t find Portal to be a new digital utopia; I had some problems with it. First, the whole FPS system, the empty halls, and the scary environmental background music say one thing to me; Scary Monsters. Nobody told me I didn’t have to worry about something icky and ambulatory waiting in the darkness, so I proceeded as I normally do; cautiously, dashing from dark corner to dark corner, always keeping my back to a wall. This has been programmed into me for over a decade, so I doubt bright colors and a friendly soundtrack would have cured me. But spooky warehouses and realistic art styles are part of Valve’s core competency, so that’s what I got. As a result, it took a while before I was able to take GlaDOS’s comedy at face value.

Second, I still don’t know exactly what happened to the protagonist. I know that Portal is about the antagonist (GlaDOS), not your character (a typical voiceless cipher). But the game gave me only vague notions about what happened to my character at the end, and celebrated the life, death, and continuation of the Antagonist in detail. It was simply confusing (though not artistically invalid).

Finally, I don’t think Valve has created a true crossover hit here. My wife still has no idea how an FPS UI works, nore does she care. She loves the ending song, and enjoyed listening to GlaDOS’s dialog, and was happy to discuss her character in the story, but she has no interest in actually playing the game herself. We game veterans think that Portal has a minimum of controls and UI options, but we forget how revolutionary the whole FPS thing is. there IS a learning curve, especially for adults, and many people still get seasick even watching such a game.

End of ramblings. Portal is a fun game. Play it.

Love and Attention Pt 2

In an earlier post, I wrote about Love and Attention, a new way of looking at developing and selling games. I argued that, like it or not, we put Love and Attention into our games, and the players receive that Love and Attention gratefully, and ask for more. I suggested that, while it’s an emotional commitment we developers have an aversion to, it can make good business sense to sell your Love and Attention, not just your game.

Since then…I haven’t yet heard my peers scoff, but I’ve put some further thought into the subject.

First, there are lots of examples of people who don’t buy this nonsense. For instance, Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) has virtually gone into hiding, and there’s some rumors that while he continues to paint, he then burns his paintings. Clearly Watterson doesn’t want to give any Love and Attention to his fans (other than what he already did, I mean). He, and other artists, feel that what’s important is to clearly and purely express themselves creatively.

Part of the principle of Love and Attention is that your creative output isn’t owned by you alone. Your players or fans take the Love and Attention and make it their own, making creations based on yours, critiquing your work, and begging for more Love and Attention that meets their needs. This means that your creative vision is muddied up with theirs, it’s no longer pure. For some artists, this is unacceptable.

Just yesterday I heard that Prince (the musician, not the mercenary CEO) was suing several fan sites, demanding they remove copyrighted images, lyrics, etc. While everyone agrees that musicians shouldn’t crap on their fans, and it’s possible that this is just an example of lawyers earning their paycheck, I can easily believe that Prince just doesn’t have much Love and Attention to give his fanbase. I think he has a right to demand that his artistic output be pure, not sullied by letting the riffraff "own" part of his creations. It just makes poor business sense.

Back when I was working at Acclaim on the All Star Baseball titles, a marketing guy came to us and asked for marketing ideas. We told him that we should take video of the dev team, and post them to show the fans what we were working on, how it was going, and WHO was making the game. This would create a real connection between the players and the developers.

He didn’t get it, and that can mostly be blamed on the top-down corporate mentality, which has ALWAYS desired to make the individual developers into faceless, nameless cogs. But it’s also true that big companies usually don’t have any idea they are creating Love and Attention, and act accordingly. There are exceptions, like Saturn, Mini-Cooper, and others, but in those cases the marketing department is the group that understands and capitalizes on the principle of Love and Attention.

Here’s another example; Star Wars. Lucasarts can like it or lump it, but Star Wars is owned by millions of people throughout the world, who responded to the Love and Attention Lucas put into his movies. No amount of lawyers are going to stop every fan costume, fan fiction, fan video, and fan convention. Lucasarts can work hard to maintain control of Star Wars, or they can accept the principle of Love and Attention. And until they do, we shouldn’t expect a great Star Wars MMOG.

Slouching towards the Godhead

I was just talking (skyping) to DayDream, my art partner who lives in Australia. I mentioned that (for me) it’s forecasted to sleet and snow tomorrow. He was looking out over the pool at a warm summer day. He apologized for sounding like he was gloating, but I didn’t take it that way.

Instead, I felt the internet fusing us into one entity, simultaneously experiencing weather on opposite sides of the globe. The global mind is here, as predicted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Teilhard_de_Chardin ).

I’m not…trying to freak anybody out, but this *thing* we are becoming has been discussed by several of my friends for a while. Everyone knows that the internet is drawing us closer, making it easier to connect and communicate, and making the world "smaller". But everyone needs to be prepared for something more.

We, as individuals and as a species, are changing. Not physically, not obviously, not yet. But we are changing in some fundamental ways, ways that define what sort of species we are. And the physical changes *will* come, make no mistake.

Daniel James is a smart guy, who created the Puzzle Pirates game. A year ago we were talking, and he opined that the Singularity (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity ) was only 33 years away. That’s easily within my lifetime, and likely within yours.

Vernor Vinge, in a speech at the Austin Game Conference, also spoke about the Singularity, and pointed out that the evolutionary leap we took above the animals was an amazing adaptability. We could start fires and don clothes to adapt to cold winters at speeds that left other species dazed. He suggested that, when we see profound change happen to humanity, it might again express itself as an ability to adapt that takes a profound leap in speed. If your child starts using a different cellphone in a different way every 6 hours, we might have hit a Singularity.

So again, don’t freak out. But steel yourself. Because something’s going to happen. Something wonderful.http://en.wikipedia.org…
http://en.wikipedia.org…

Kart Rider US

Well, Kart Rider, the wildly successful Korean MMOG, has arrived in the USA. The game is usually held up as THE micropayment success story. I don’t have any idea how well it’ll work in the US, but I just played for an hour or so, and there were plenty of opponents with plenty of upgrades.

The game is very simple, and the tutorial has the flattest learning curve I’ve seen in a while, so I’m sure I was playing against 9yo opponents (that kicked my ass, thank you very much).

The racing aspect…is most interesting to me, ’cause I’m working on a racing game of my own right now. Kart Racer’s game is usually about tight, technical racing; the line and the apex win races.

Unless you play an item race. THEN it’s chaos, as rockets, banana peels, and other colorful things continually rearrange the order.

Of course, you can pay real money for boosts, which don’t really count in the chaos of an item race, but totally tip the balance of a "speed race" (no items on the track).

www.kartrider.comwww.kartrider.com