Friday, August 22, 2008

An Open Letter To Mark Jacobs

This is an open-letter to Mark Jacobs, Vice President of EA Mythic, working on the upcoming MMO Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, who's remarks about giving developers credits for the game has sparked debate and controversy.

Dear Mr. Jacobs,

EA Mythic is certainly not the first company to have controversy concerning their credits and you won't be the last. Credits are a tough thing. Development costs and scope have skyrocketed. People go on and off of the team and perform so many roles that it can be tough to track all of it. Credits are not easy.

However, it is still the responsibility of an organization to correctly credit people who worked on the development of the game. You are quoted as saying "I’ll worry more about the people who are with me right now, then those who decided that they didn’t like the company or they wanted to take a better job somewhere else." No one is asking you not to worry about the people that are with you right now. Your allegiance absolutely should be to your current team. You can, however, have allegiance to the current team and still credit those who worked hard to get the game to where it is today.

I'm sure not everyone who has left during development has left for the same reasons. Some were probably fired, others quit in anger, others may have decided MMO games weren't the right thing for them, others may have had personal issues. No matter why they left, at the end of the day they worked on the game and helped you get to where you are now. To not give these people credit seems petty and filled with spite. It is to say "It doesn't matter what you did for us then, you're not here now, so you're dead to us".

You state "If all the game companies agree on [a standard for credits] — on that day, I’ll be thrilled." You're right, all the companies have not agreed. However, the IGDA is trying to make a standard and many companies are starting to test out their credits standard. Why not be part of the solution and try that? What harm comes to you from giving credit to people who worked on the game that are no longer there? How does that possible damage the image of EA Mythic? 20-page credits in the manual is not the issue; it's an excuse. Credits aren't even printed in manuals half the time anymore.

"No one else does it" isn't a good reason either. Just because others are in the wrong, doesn't mean you should be too. "Credits are to reflect the role served, not the condition in which the role was served." according to the IGDA.

Give credit where it is due, and I can guarantee your organization will be held in a much higher regard with developers, including ones you will try to employ some day. In the end, it's a win for you, developers, and the industry as a whole. So why not do it?

Be proactive. Be a leader in this industry. I challenge you to step up and "always do the right thing", as Da Mayor said. Give credit where it is due, now and in the future.

Manveer Heir

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Braid

braid.jpgIn 1977, the Atari 2600 was launched with a joystick that had a grand total of one button to use. Today, the Xbox 360 has sixteen buttons on their controller. In other words, about every two years we get another button on our controllers.

This increase in interface complexity is the result of increased game complexity. Games have added features such as fully 3D environments, complex dialog trees, and crouch-jumping in recent years. Often in these games, the mechanics are layered on top of each other to create a greater challenge. Moving in a first-person game is simple. Shooting in a first-person game is simple. Moving and shooting at the same time, at a target that is also moving and shooting, is not.

So, it's refreshing when a game comes along that not only goes back to a classic genre that is under-represented in current games, but also keeps its unique game mechanics separate, rather than running them together until the game can only be controlled by an interface as obtuse as the Xbox 360 controller.

Braid is such a game.

Design Lesson: Braid uses the inherent complexity of individual mechanics, rather than the combination of those mechanics, to create interesting and unique gameplay that never feels unfair to the player

Braid looks like a 2D platformer at first glance, but it quickly becomes apparent that it is a puzzle game. The player has the ability to rewind time at any moment, making death impossible and mistakes easily fixable. If only life were this easy!
This simple manipulation of time is present for the entire game and is the basis for the rest of the game. The game takes place across six different worlds, each with a unique take on time manipulation.

In one world, items with a green glow on them are not affected by the rewinding of time. This allows players to interact with objects, such as keys to locked gates, that are not affected by the rewinding of time. The player can ultimately affect the world to be able to use the key to solve the puzzle.

One of my favorite worlds has time move forward as the player moves to the right, and rewind as the player moves left; Time is being controlled spatially. Another world has the player make a recording of themselves that can interact with certain objects, similar to Cursor*10.

What is interesting is how easy it would be to combine these mechanics together to create challenging puzzles. Having a puzzle that would require the player to move to manipulate time, while recording a copy of himself, would be an easy design trap to fall into. Layering mechanics would make the puzzles more difficult, and somewhat difficult puzzles are part of the point of a puzzle game right?

Luckily, Braid doesn't do this. Each world has a specific mechanic and overlapping rarely occurs between world mechanics. Instead, the player is given just enough objects on the screen to solve the puzzle with the limited tools available. By being able to concentrate on one mindset of solving the puzzle, eventually the solutions make themselves apparent.

What is amazing is how complex and devilish some of the puzzles can still be, even though they revolve around the single mechanic for that world. By finding more interesting and intriguing ways to make puzzles complex, Braid is able to make players feel like geniuses by solving them.

There were a couple puzzles that took me well over a half-hour to finish, and when I stumbled across their solutions it was a true “Aha!” moment instead of an “Are you kidding me?” moment. Feeling like you have to guess what the designer was thinking is how many old adventure games played out, and it was rarely fun. Feeling like you just made a discovery on your own is what makes this game and games like Portal work so well.

Making more complex puzzles with multiple mechanics would have the opposite effect. Thinking about a game with time manipulation is difficult enough as it is. It's not the way we linearly progress through the real world. Trying to figure out multiple mechanics at once would probably become an exercise in futility for many players. It would be frustrating and unfair. The game would become “Guess when the designer was thinking” rather than “explore the rules of the world”.

Instead, by using intuitive puzzles and concentrating on one mechanic at a time, Braid finds complexity within each given mechanic. It's the ability to find this inherent complexity that makes Braid one of the best games I've played this year. It's also proof that complex game mechanics that require sixteen buttons on a controller are not necessary to make an amazing game.

Monday, August 11, 2008

No Design Lesson 101 This Week

There will be no Design Lesson 101 posted on Gamasutra or this blog this week. I was in LA over the weekend at Sandbox and haven't had the time to play anything recently. There will be a new column next week. Thank you for your patience during this slower period on this blog.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Sandbox '08

This Friday, August 8th, I will be flying to Los Angeles for the Sandbox Symposium. Sandbox is "an emerging conference that focuses on innovations in video game theory and practice" that runs the weekend before SIGGRAPH starts. If anyone is going to the conference or lives in the L.A. area and wants to get together, send me an e-mail. I will be in L.A. Friday through Sunday.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Grimm Outlook For 64-Bit OSes

Today, GameTap and Spicy Horse launched the new episodic series American McGee's Grimm, with the first episode A Boy Learns What Fear Is. There are weekly episodes coming out, with 24 episodes planned total I believe. Currently, Telltale Games is the only major company succeeding with episodic gaming in my opinion (Sorry Valve, I don't count you). Sam & Max are amazing, and I can't wait for Strong Bad and Wallace & Gromit to come out.

Telltale employs the once a month release schedule with the Sam & Max series, with each game lasting three to four hours. Grimm is weekly and supposedly around an hour an episode. I was really curious if an hour is long enough for a game and how it would play. Does a game that short of length really impact the enjoyability of it? How does playing a new episode once a week feel, compared to watching weekly TV series? These are all questions I want to find the answer to first-hand.

Unfortunately, you can only get the game through GameTap and apparently they don't even let you download the thing if you have a 64-bit OS. Ugh. I have Vista 64 only at this point (Go ahead and make fun of me, I deserve it probably). This is so pathetic that a service as big as GameTap doesn't support 64-bit. As far as I can tell, there is no way to download the game and try to get it to run in emulation mode on your own either, which is frustrating. I don't need them to officially support it, but let me try to figure the problem out on my own. I do realize they are probably trying to avoid customer service issues and cost.

If anyone has any ideas on how to solve this issue, let me know in the comments. I still want to check the game out.