Monday, March 31, 2008

The Unethical Usage of Licenses

The majority of games that come out are based on licenses. Comics, TV, movies, books, and even music all have games based on their intellectual property (IP). More often than not, these games aren't that good. For every GoldenEye 007, there are numerous games like Enter the Matrix and Spider-Man 3, which fail as games and ultimately leave most fans disappointed. Ubisoft just recently released Lost: Via Domus based on the hit ABC series. With an average MetaCritic rating of 55, Lost: Via Domus is an attempt to cash in on the popularity and mystery of the TV show to unsuspecting fans. This is, unequivocally, unethical of Ubisoft and Touchstone Television to release a game with such low quality. Let me repeat that: this is unethical. It violates the sense of honesty and trust that is implicit when playing a licensed product. It spits in the face of the fans who it's marketed to. And it harms us as an industry.

Let's continue to use Lost: Via Domus as an example. I am a huge fan of the TV series Lost. It certainly has its flaws, but I have watched every episode faithfully. Like many fans of the show, I have no idea what is going on that is causing all the events to occur to the characters stranded on the island. The show is a large mystery that slowly unravels each week, posing new layers of complexity along the way. When I watch an episode of Lost, I am expecting a certain level of quality that has been delivered by the show the past four seasons. At its worst, Lost is a well-written, intriguing show and at its best it is the best show on network TV. Never has the show been just mediocre or average.

Since Lost is a mystery, many spend their time engaging in conversation with co-workers about what is going on. People read forums and message boards and post theories. People dissect every frame of the show and post their analysis for the world to see. Everyone wants to know what's going on. So, Ubisoft releases a video game that is considered to be canon to the show. You interact with characters from the show. The executive producers for the show were even responsible for the plot of the game. People will flock to the game hoping it will offer some clue as to what is happening, and make the mystery that much more understandable than just the show alone gives. The game may or may not do this. The fact that it fails as a game, however, means that the concept of trust has been violated.

This is why it is unethical. The game isn't good, according to the reviews (I have personally not played it). In fact, it's downright terrible. It's a lie. The quality that one expects from the TV show Lost is not found in the video game Lost: Via Domus. The cast doesn't even voice their own characters, for the most part. How is a fan of the series supposed to defend themselves from a game such as this? A part of me wants to play this game, just for the canon plot pieces so I can feel like I've experienced the Lost universe wholly. However, I don't want to encourage such unethical usage of licenses in the gaming industry. What am I to do? Do I pirate the game? Do I just merely rent it or borrow it from a friend? Do I break down and buy it at bargain in a number of months? Ubisoft and Touchstone have put me, the fan, in an awful position. All because they couldn't make a halfway decent game that matched the quality of their show. I am lucky enough to be informed and in the video game industry. Think of all the fans who enjoy some video games, but aren't as in-touch with the community as I. Think of how many of them will go out and buy Lost: Via Domus on name and promise alone. Now think of how many of them will be, ultimately, disappointed. Lied to. This is shameful.

This is similar to what happened with Enter the Matrix a few years back. Piggybacking on the success of the original movie, and the upcoming final two movies, Enter the Matrix promised to fill in the gaps of the movies and let you see the parts that happened off-screen. Instead, it delivered an incredible waste of time (of course, the other two Matrix movies were considered by many to be an incredible waste of time as well). I remember picking up Enter the Matrix and proceeding to be pissed off for the next week as I played insipid gameplay and, to top it off, got little insight into the Matrix universe. I felt betrayed by Shiny and the Wachowski Brothers. The game wasn't fun and the universe wasn't expanded enough to my liking. I was doubly lied to!

It is time for this to stop. If you are making a licensed game, you have an obligation to the fans of that license to meet the standards of quality that have been set forth in the other mediums. If you're making a game on a B-movie, the game can be cheesy and average. If you are making a game on a landmark TV show, you damn well better make sure you are holding the game up to the same quality mark as the show is held up to. Doing anything else hurts us as an industry, hurts the value of the license, and hurts the fans of the license. You may get away with pissing off fans once or twice. If you repeatedly piss in the eye of the fan, however, you can expect a revolt at some point. In fact, you deserve it.

I implore any developers making licensed products to take a greater level of ownership over the game and make sure it's matching the level of quality the fans would expect. If you aren't a fan of the license, make sure you understand why others are. This is more than just "make a good game". This is about making sure your game melds with the other aspects of the license. I also implore any license owners to hold developers to a high standard with their IPs. Make sure you understand the advantages and disadvantages of the medium, and utilize it to tie the game into your IP. Do not just accept any game that has your license tacked on. It's helping no one in the long run. Finally, I implore the fans of licenses to act with your dollar. Do not purchase shoddy licensed products. Do not buy the games or support them in any way. Tell the developers and IP holders that you will not support a low level of quality. Tell them that they must do better. Tell them with what they care about most: money.

As an industry, we need to rise to the challenge to use licenses thoughtfully and responsibly and stop with the dishonesty. They say the first step is admitting there is a problem. Well, on behalf of the industry, I'm admitting there is a problem. Now it's up to all of us to solve it.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Design Lesson: If you have a good, solid core gameplay experience, it can translate to many settings.

I am a huge Call of Duty fan (not counting the Treyarch developed Call of Duty 3). When Infinity Ward said the new installment in the series would be set in modern times, not World War II, I had some worries. After all, the series was defined by the feeling of being one man in a big war. How could that possible be translated to modern times, when we haven't seen a war on the scale of WWII since?

The core experience of the Call of Duty series has been the feeling of being a small part of something larger. You don't feel like a superhero. You feel like there is something happening in the world around you, and that you are one small piece of a greater puzzle. This leads to a cinematic experience, with helicopters, planes, and other soldiers at your side the entirety of the game.

In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare the experience is given to the player by making sure there are plenty of ambient events happening at all times. Jets fly overhead. Explosions occur in the distance. You rely on off-screen actions of other AI to complete objectives. You can call in for air support at specific times during the game. In other words, there is always something happening in the world. Infinity Ward is then able to leverage that feeling of there being a larger whole to tie it in with a well executed story and most important, well executed pacing. There are lulls in combat and in the game just when necessary. This pacing supports the experience they have delivered in the past. As a result, we get a game that feels like the other Call of Duty games, but is set in a wholly different setting.

I'm convinced that Infinity Ward knows their series well enough that the next Call of Duty game they develop could be set in the Wild West, and it would still work. To me, this proves if you have a really solid, well designed core of your game, and you know how to execute it well, it can work in almost any setting.

Bonus Design Lesson: Avoid the door problem.

Doors can be a big problem in FPS games, especially games set in historical or modern settings. How does the player know which ones he can open? How does AI handle doors? What happens if something is behind a door when you open it? Do all doors need to be two way, so they always open away from the player? Sci-fi games can have doors that open automatically and don't cause any obstructions. However, many games cannot afford that luxury. What results is a game with obstructions and problems that occur thanks to those doors. Call of Duty 4 has minimal doors that need to be used. The game mostly has open archways to navigate and unusable doors for dressing. When there is a door that can be used, the player is never the one to open the door. There are friendly AI units who breach doors instead. It's a good solution to a hard problem. Don't try to solve the door problem. Just avoid it!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Second Skin

I just found this link to a documentary called Second Skin over at Level Up. Check out the trailer. It documents the lives of MMORPG players and the good and the bad that comes out of their interactions with games. There are people who are in-love and want to meet in the real world, a man who seems ready to kill himself, and all in between. I hadn't heard of this film before, but it looks like it could be a very good look at the positives and negatives from gaming, especially the kind that stems from MMORPGs. We could use more critical looks at gaming, and the negatives are included in that. I'm very interested as to what this film will show anecdotally, and what a book like Grand Theft Childhood will show empirically. I have a feeling that some gamers may be in for a shock. I just hope the film can treat the subject matter as unbiased as possible. King of Kong was a documentary for gamers; I hope Second Skin is a documentary for the masses.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Design Lesson Challenge

I have a fairly large number of games that I have yet to play or beat that I want to. When I say large, I mean over 50 games, going back as far as the mid 90s. This isn't even counting the list of 100 or so games that I'd like to buy, but haven't. So, I've decided to issue a challenge to myself. Every week, I am going to play to completion one game (at least). Once the game is completed, I will make a post about a lesson I learned from the game's design. This could be a positive lesson or a negative lesson, but I hope this will help me more critically analyze games. I am guessing this is going to be a tough challenge and I am worried about how it will go along when the inevitable crunch starts on the project I am working on. However, for now, I feel comfortable giving it a good shot. Since I am goal oriented, I am going to try to make it to 10 straight weeks of finishing a game. If I can meet that, I will lengthen the challenge for as long as I can.

This will also help me keep a more regular posting schedule. There are some other topics I wish to discuss, but I haven't had time to write my ideas down, as they require a large amount of text to discuss. I just beat Mass Effect today in fact and I have some things about that game I want to talk about. Don't worry, I'm not cheating and getting a free week - think of it as a bonus installment.

I encourage anyone else out there, especially those of you in the gaming industry or who want to be in the gaming industry, to take up the same challenge with me. Let's discuss games analytically together.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Facebook Game

Internet growth is feeding the world of social networking on an amazing level. Recently, thanks to the constant postings on the topic from Brenda Brathwaite and the Halo vs. Facebook talk from Nicole Lazzaro at GDC, I decided to join the world of Facebook. I found numerous friends, looked at pictures, and left messages for people that I don't normally talk to.

I started to notice something during the last few weeks, however. I've started getting friend requests from people I don't consider friends. I received a friend request from someone I went to high school with, but rarely talked to for the entirety of the four years I was there. Another friend request came a friend of that friend, who I think I've met maybe once or twice in my entire life. Another friend request comes from someone who I generally did not get along with when I knew him. Even my own mother submitted a friend request.

In my world, none of these people are my friends. I would presume none of them consider me actual friends either. However, in the world of Facebook, we are friends (if I accept the request, and I normally do). As far as I can tell, there isn't a real way to discern between real friends, best friends, and people you just know; they are all the same. By doing this, Facebook creates a meta-game. It's the "How many friends do you have?" game. This is a powerful game, and it is what I suspect drives people who I barely know to add me as friends (I assume my mom's request was more about her showing me that she keeps with the times from a technology perspective).

The benefits of winning said game do not tangibly exist. Much like the Xbox 360 achievement point quest, the end result isn't meaningful. Its only benefit lies in bragging rights. Why people engage in such behavior isn't necessarily the right question. The fact that they do is all that matters. Knowing that people enjoy engaging in meta-games, how can we build social systems that encourage that sort of behavior into our games? How can we make our games more like Facebook?

Microsoft's achievement point system is certainly a first step. There are numerous accounts of people just playing games to get points. Many of us scoff at this notion, but it exists and is something to truly consider.

Something that I feel isn't used often enough is allowing more character customization, even if it's just aesthetics and not actually changing the gameplay. There could be an in-game economy to purchase these new items. This allows players to express themselves in-game, by having a fairly unique character, and gives them something to work for. More shooters need to include options past the choice of character model in multiplayer. Army of Two allows the user to purchase masks, which can give you a greater sense of identity. This lets players work towards something long term. If the ability existed to leave messages for your friends to show them your new items, even better. This means that even if you aren't online when I log in, I can see exactly what your new character model and texture look like, what extra features you have on that I don't have, and then work towards getting them myself.

Another idea is to provide an auction and barter system. Forza Motorsport has done an excellent job of creating a micro-economy within the game. This keeps people playing, so they can buy that awesome new custom car, that no one else has. Even if the differences in the cars were just the texture on the car, this would be still be a wildly popular feature. Having a car that no one else has really sets you apart. Socialization of this auction system drives people to find other unique cars, in their quest to be noticed in the game community.

Honestly, this is just scratching the surface of how to integrate more social elements into games. I'm very new to the social networking game and am just beginning to understand it, so I don't have too many in-depth ideas on exact ways to integrate more elements into our games. However, I am certain they do exist. By adding the elements of social networking into our own games, we can expand the audience and keep that audience playing for longer. What other elements could we add to our games that promote more socialization and resemble the Facebook game?

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Great Art Debate

Initially, I was going to make this a post a response to Theory Fighter's claim that art can inspire violence, therefore if our community makes the claim that games are art, but then says games don't cause violence, we are being hypocritical. It's a powerful claim, and one I mostly agree with. My counter to the claim, however, was to be that not all games are art. Just as all movies are not art. No one would say Semi-Pro is art, just as no one would say Madden 2008 is art.

However, after typing that up, I realized I don't know if I fully believe that. Is it that all movies are indeed art, but they aren't all "good" or "high" art? Does the same stand for video games then? Or, is art only art if it is "good" or "high" art? I suspect this is something art theorists have debated for a long time. So I ask you, what is your opinion? Please post what you think in the comments, even if it's a simple "Yes, I think all games are art" or "No, only some games are art". You don't even have to back up your claims. I just want to know what other people think, because right now, I don't even know what I believe. I thought I did. Thank you Theory Fighter - you've now confused me more than I already was.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Brainy Gamer Podcast

I recently came across a blog called The Brainy Gamer, dedicated to thoughtful conversation about video games. The blog is written by Michael Abbott, who is a member of academia. Michael delves into topics such as immersion in games, the role of the critic in the video game industry, and other looks at games from an intellectual point of view. His writing comes off as genuine and thoughtful, rather than snobbish (which is always a danger when intellectually discussing any topic). Michael was kind enough on his most recent podcast to give this blog a plug. For that, I am truly grateful. The podcast contained a very interesting interview with another blogger, where narrative and story in games were discussed in good detail. If you have enjoyed the beginnings of this blog, I highly recommend you check his blog out.

If you are a visitor from Michael's blog, I would like to welcome you to Design Rampage. I hope you enjoy the few topics I've written on so far, and please bookmark or subscribe to the page using your favorite RSS reader if you like what you read. I'm just getting started here and I hope to continue to have regular updates and thoughtful discussion on both practical game design topics as well as theoretical concepts and even the occasional rant.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Mass Effect and Choice - Opportunity Missed

I have been playing Mass Effect quite a bit as of late, and have enjoyed the experience quite a bit. Growing up as an RPG fan, I enjoy exploring large, expansive games at my own pace (however plodding that may be). Only ten hours into the game, I was given a choice that stopped me in my tracks and made me actually think about what I wanted to do. The choice was to make an entire species extinct, single-handedly, or allow the species to live. If I let them live, they may attack again. I can prevent future harm to my people. If I let them die, I am responsible for the genocide of an entire race. Should my character, Zap Shepard, be responsible for the fate of an entire race?

This was a tough decision. I decided since my character was a Renegade (gets things done by any means necessary) not a Paragon (noble), that I should exterminate the species. I was chastised by my superiors for my decision, but I played the part of a Renegade so I was happy with my choice in the end. I speculated about how the game would change down the road since I made this choice. About how the story would branch or have a plot device that included my previous actions.

Except, apparently, it doesn't. I have not played through the entire game, however I was talking with a friend earlier who has completed the entire game twice. I asked him, "So how significant is the difference in plot depending on your choice?". His response was "There is no difference". There is no difference in the game long-term from making an entire species of alien extinct. The only difference the choice makes is in giving you Renegade or Paragon points, which aligns you to one side (which, I am assuming, does have story ramifications, but not nearly as direct).

I feel that BioWare missed a fantastic opportunity to make more interactive story within their game. Yes, I still have a choice and that choice matters in the immediacy. However, it seems that the choice in the long run won't have any great benefit. What if, later I had to fight the natural enemies of the species I killed off, and as a result they don't come and help me and make the battle easier? Or if I saved the species, they betray my trust later and open up a world inaccessible to those who killed them all off. Mass Effect has given me the illusion of choice that matters, but the end result is that the choice doesn't significantly matter. I sat there for a minute thinking about what I should do, thinking about all the possibilities that my actions will cause down the road. Except, the possibilities aren't endless - they are virtually nonexistent.

This doesn't make Mass Effect a bad game by any means. However, it is a missed opportunity for something more than traditional game storytelling. Mass Effect does a fantastic job with its dialog system and wealth of information available for the player. I just wish the game had upped the ante on the story more. Maybe, as I play the game more, I will realize that they have upped the ante in other ways. I hope that is the case. Right now, I'm disappointed that my decision will not bite me in the ass later in the game.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Audiosurf – Building Community Through Information Pushing

Recently, I have been playing Audiosurf quite a bit in my spare time. A crazy concoction of both match-3 and rhythm gameplay, Audiosurf won both the Excellence in Audio and Audience Award at the Independent Games Festival. The reason the game works so well is that it can take any MP3 and create a track out of it. The player is then able to race down that track, collecting gems and matching them along the way, to earn a high score. While I am fully aware that there is a high score list for every single song in Audiosurf, I was quite surprised when I found the following e-mail in my inbox this morning:

Audiosurf scoreboard alert - Dethroned!

You used to have the worldwide best score for: house in the woods by tom petty

Now the Audiosurf player 'duopollex' has beaten you. Get back in the game and reclaim the top spot!

This got me thinking on the subject of pushing information onto the user, instead of requiring the user to pull the information to themselves, and how leveraging that information can help build a stronger community.

The traditional high score mechanic requires the player to look up high score listing, usually in-game, to see where he/she ranks on it – the user has to pull the information to themselves by looking up the high score list. This takes effort. By sending me an automatic e-mail when my score was beaten, Audiosurf has pushed key information onto me that I wasn't even trying to find out. As a result, it has gotten me to play a game I had no plans on playing tonight, just so I can reclaim my top spot.

What if Guitar Hero or Rock Band e-mailed you or left a message in your Xbox Live account every time your high score was bested? Wouldn't you want to play more? Those of us who are competitive would, and that in and of itself creates community. A more active community means a healthier game, one that is enjoyed longer, and potentially by more players (Active community members often talk about the game they are active in, thereby serving as a living advertisement for a game). Players who don't care about high scores, except for personal bests, can turn off such alerts (In fact, Audiosurf includes an opt-out link in the e-mail alert itself). I know Audiosurf isn't the first game to include such alerts, but I can't think of any major games with scoring mechanisms recently that have pushed information to the player in such a way.

Audiosurf does not take the concept of information pushing far enough, however. First off, there is no way to opt-in or opt-out via the game interface itself. I accidentally opted-out of the alerts after receiving the one above, and I see no way to opt back in. This is a mistake in usability. If you want players to use a feature, make it easily accessible and transparent how it works. Secondly, there is no customization of alerts. I honestly don't care too much about my record being broken by anyone in the world – I'm not good enough at rhythm games to be one of the best. However, I do care about my personal friends beating my scores. None of my friends on Steam have beaten my personal scores yet (probably because none of them own the game), so I don't know if you get another e-mail if a friend beats your score. The larger point is that I have no way of knowing what alerts are going to come and under what conditions. Maybe I only want alerts when certain friends beat my scores. Maybe I want to know when any friend has come within 1,000 points of my high score on any song. Maybe I want to know what score any of my friends gets on 'House in the Woods' no matter what the score, so I can mock them as they fall short continuously. Audiosurf should allow me to customize my alerts so I can get whatever information I deem to be important as soon as possible. Finally, the alert does not give me the direct ability to counter that score easily. What if, in that e-mail, there was a link that launched the game with that song automatically, and I could immediately start playing? It seems clear to me that it would give extra incentive for players to respond to being ousted by giving easy accessibility to respond to.

By allowing customization on this level, Audiosurf could build an even bigger and more vibrant community. Groups would form together for competitions, friends would stay up all night trying to best each other, and players who couldn't care less about high scores could continue to play the game as they play it now. You can already see the push for community in games with upcoming releases like LittleBigPlanet and Spore, and for a good reason. Community creates relevance for a game within that community. Discussion within that community can help it grow to new players. Growth often leads to more sales. With a game with a low barrier of entry, such as Audiosurf, it seems like a good idea to continuously push information on players, instead of requiring them to pull it toward themselves, to help build this community and grow. I hope that they are able to implement some of the features I listed above in a future release. Until then, I'm going to try to get back my high score.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

GDC: Game Design Workshop

I attended the Game Design Workshop on Monday and Tuesday of the GDC this year. It was a fantastic experience, where the participants did lots of hands-on creation of games in limited amounts of time. Highlights included making a SiSSYFIGHT variant (using custom cards) based on viral evolution, tweaking a boss battle AI to create the maximum amount of drama, being given a set of unknown items and creating a game out of those items only (Think Iron Chef meets game design), taking apart Mario Kart 64 into a card game that gets at the core of the Mario Kart experience, and creating a card game based on one of the Seven Deadly Sins (Pride for the group I was in).

That final exercise was run by Clint Hocking, and he's written up his thoughts on his blog on how his elective went. You should read it to see how the team who had the sin of gluttony created a card game that really gave the player the sense of what it meant to be glutenous. They did a phenomenal job. What you may not realize is that literally the groups had less than an hour to make a game, test it, re-design and come up with something that worked.

The Game Design Workshop was, without a doubt, the most inspiring and mentally draining experience I had at GDC. Everyone involved in the workshop, from the organizers to the participants, did a fantastic job. There were few, if any, bad seeds who were letting their egos or personalities get in the way of the task at hand. It was true collaboration by groups of strangers. I hope to attend the workshop again regularly, and encourage any of you who may get a chance to go to the GDC to go to this workshop at least once.

For anyone interested in some of the workshop course materials, Marc LeBlanc has previous course materials up on his website. They are pretty similar to the materials used in this years course, and honestly 14 of the 16 hours were spent in groups working together on problems, instead of listening to the organizers lecture. This interactivity is what made the workshop work so well.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Gravitation and Stars Over Half Moon Bay

Many of you enjoyed Passage, which is great to hear. It looks like the creator of that game, Jason Rohrer, has put up his latest game called Gravitation. This game has the same pixel art style of Passage and lasts eight minutes. Check it out - I'll write up my thoughts on the game in a future post.

Also, those of you who are into these more meaningful games, should check out Rod Humble's work. Rod works at EA in his spare time and has put up two fantastic games so far. The Marriage was the first one. It simply was a representation of what he felt it was like to be in his marriage. He's also just released Stars Over Half Moon Bay. Rod's games are much more symbolic and difficult to decipher, which can be frustrating to some, but I encourage you to check them out and try to solve what you think they mean and how they affect you.

Check out these games and see how they affect or don't affect you. Spotted on Jonathan Blow's blog.