Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On My Mind: Journey through Debug land

This post is one that hits very close, and it won't seem that interesting or relevant, but it's a fun story, at least I think it is. At the very least, you get a peek into how I do debug (or basically how designers and testers would do debugging for a game).

One of the new things I get to do with my new state of employed-ness is to actually finish games. It's not really a "plus", but I'll take whatever I can get. My next victim, Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. Well, it was, until a game breaking glitch early in the game has rendered the game unplayable on my profile now. So, where do I start.

The issue point:

At a fairly early part of the game (within first hour of play), you unlock the rewind magic. Right after, as you walk, you will fall, and trigger an in-game cutscene, where you are taught how to use rewind.

What happened:
When rewind happened, the game and system became unresponsive, for over half a minute, you can still hear sound, and pressing the XBox guide brought up the sound too. Then it got weird. I then suddenly unlocked "Ding! Level Up!" (For purchasing an item), followed by "Not how it Happened" (use rewind 20 times). Well, this was interesting. The game, by this point, has locked up, and wasn't going anywhere, so time for me to restart.

The next time (and every time since then if I get this far), the game resumes with the previous checkpoint, plays cutscenes, and either a) locks up right away or b) insta-kill me as if the rewind didn't count.
This is what it looks like when it locks up (99%) of the time, it's right after he finishes talking and the game is about to resume.

The Test Cases:

So, at this point, the possible causes are:
a) Hardware/System issues
b) Disk
c) Save Data
d) Game Bug

So, to test the easy things first, I did the following:

1) Test the game on a different 360 (nope)
2) Test the game without using HDD install data (nope)
3) Test the game with my profile and save data in different locations (HDD, USB, MU) (nope)
4) Test the game with bout title update and no-update (nope)
5) Recovered my gamertag from MS.

This pretty much ruled out Hardware issues (and the fact that it still play other games kinda proves it)

Next worry is the disk being scratched/damaged. However, since I have no way of getting a second disk, I had to assume it's not the disk, and try something else to get to that part. The idea is, if a different save data gets me past there, then it's not a disk issue right?

Since I didn't want to delete my current save, I got a new profile, and a new save data, and ran the game. Played for almost an hour and got to the offending point, and...

...it got past it.

Well, this removes the whole disk damaged theory. So, let's delete my save game on my profile, and start over (it's only an hour, right).


In starting a new game using my profile and no saved game, the game crashed at the first loading screen.

Well, this is bad.

Interestingly, my intuition suggested to try a cleaver trick: Load a new profile and start a new game; while the game is running, sign in to my own profile, and see if it works. (Why I did this? Pure intuition. Signing in/out seems to be one of those edge cases that programmers should test for, right?)...

... and it did work. And I managed to start a new game on my own profile, only to be halted back at the same point again. One interesting thing to note, at this point, was that I was still earning new "cumulative achievements", such as break 100 pots. This tipped me off to something...

I started looking around for things that are saved other than game progress, and guess what, it seems that options aren't tied to saves either. I had disabled tutorial one time, removed the save data, and started again, tutorial stayed disabled. Most troubling find, was this screen and how I stumbled upon it:

This screen was accessed at the start of new game with no save data on my profile, it's the upgrade menu. This menu (confirmed by Ivan, a friend) isn't accessible via back button at the start of the game. So a) why can I access this, and b) why is it filled with stuff? Testing with my new profile and new save, this screen becomes unlocked after where my old game has crashed, and is an empty grid.

And this is where my search ends, and most likely me playing this game.

The Theory

In my mind, given all the facts and what I know about how the save system works, I have a few ideas of what the issue is.

1) The "unearned achievements" is a simple one to explain: when the game was unresponsive, it was incrementing something internal, and blew up some data storage/variables as it was looping. This would explain how I got "Not how it happened (rewind 20 times" even though I've done 1 rewind.

2) If that was being incremented, and as the magic screen as indicated along with the achievement, who knows what other values that were stored blew up. (Since these save data is suppose to be small, it's entirely possible that the game wasn't careful and saved it as a NaN, a large negative number, or other corrupted data.

3) Deleting the save file and starting new causing the game to lock up at the start screen, combined with loading the game with that magic screen, points to three things:

a) The game is saving achievements and other data within the profile, and is retrieving them for use. (This can be verified with other games, some games don't even have a save data, and it's saved within the profile) It's the only explaination for how the magic window is still open.
b) When game does a check at the start of the new game and , it checks for this data in the profile (since my profile already has some of the potentially bad data saved in, it fails a check, crashes)
c) My fun cleaver trick to bypass it and starting a new game on my profile? Someone was lazy, and didn't check for profile data if I sign in in-between the game. I think this would have been a pretty major bug.

How would this be fixed? Well, at this point, I don't know if Ubisoft would be willing to issue a patch for a game this old, the patch would be pretty simple: it's entirely around the whole magic system being unlocked, and when unlocking it, set to 0. All the issues seems to point to values not be checked for out of bounds cases.

The other, probably easier one, is letting me removed PoP from my profile (and in theory, remove all internal data stored with that game in the profile), which would let me start anew and hope not to run into the same bug.

The Fixes:
Throughout today I've been in contact with XBox Support on twitter and Ubisoft Technical Support. The XBox team was pretty helpful, and actually went through pretty much all the test cases I went for. In the end, they've said to contact the publisher's side as it seems to be a game thing. I've asked whether it's possible to delete game titles off the profile (which they did allow a few years ago with 0 achievement games), but they've stopped short of suggesting that.

Ubisoft's side, as of this writing, was less than hopeful. I had written a brief summary of the issue (noting the crash, where it happened, etc.), and their generic reply was that it was a gameplay issues, and I should look up a guide to get past that section of the game.

I guess this means it's the end of my Prince of Persia Playthrough.

Monday, May 30, 2011

On My Mind: The Chinese Dim Sum/Yum Cha Barometer

Someone had mentioned this to me earlier (hi Brian, if you're reading this), and it's a fascinating observation about Dim Sum (Yum Cha) and video games.

I'm going to assume you're lazy and didn't click on the link above, so a quick description of what Yum Cha is: basically it's a chinese meal that's the equivalent of anywhere from a brunch to a late lunch. Usually it's a decent size of family/friends gathering where families bring their kids along, where the adults would talk, and the kids would entertain themselves with whatever way they like, which usually means video games.

When I was growing up, it always had my Game Boy along with me, and it's definitely not an uncommon sight to see kids everywhere do that. As systems got more advance, the kids all upgraded with them. It's interesting to observe that this was probably a really good barometer on where the market is in the portable space. It's not perfect (it's probably a lagging indicator, and targeted more towards kids), but in hindsight, fairly accurate.

There are two general observations I want to share: one as a retrospective, and another as a current trend:

1. Back in 2004/2005, when no one was exactly sure how the DS/PSP race was going to fold, the Dim Sum vote was: PSP. While the younger kids were still on their DSes' with Pokemon, the slightly older kids all upgraded to PSPs. However, within a year's time, all the kids did upgrade, to DS. It's not hard to see a restaurant where every table has at least one kid that is on the DS.

2. If you go to a weekend Dim Sum lunch, you'll still find plenty of DS. But more interesting is seeing kids with their own (or their parent's) iPhone/iPods. PSPs are definitely nowhere to be found anymore, but also interesting to observe is that the 3DS hasn't quite taken hold yet. Maybe it's too early to make a gut call on this, but somewhere deep at Nintendo HQ, they should be worried.

Friday, May 27, 2011

GameDevStories: Another iOS app

Hello again for another special interruption:

Like most things in life, you don't get from point A to point B without a few in-between stops. This is especially true with learning new things. As some of you may know, I've started learning about the iOS, and have been trying out writing some apps, before moving onto games. My second app just got published (so go download it):

It's a simple menu driven app that allows you to store Nintendo Friends Codes for the Wii, 3DS and DS games. And the key point, it's FREE.

Now I know that
a) The app probably is a bit late to the whole DS craze
b) Limited appeal in usage
c) Doesn't quite hook up anywhere (like a website) to be useful
but I figured since I was going to use it, it'd be nice to make (yes, for an app who's sales target is me, I figured Free is the way to go), and I'm sure someone out there might look into things like this.

More importantly, this is merely a step for me to learn about the iOS dev environment process. It's a pretty interesting study case to see how core data is used, and how to append to it and such.

Normal game talk post will resume Monday. See you then!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On My Mind: Digital Distribution for import games

Import games have always been a grey area that game companies don't want you to know about. It's a way for them to resolve licensing issues (songs, in game content), price discriminate (release at full price when game is at budget price elsewhere), delayed or even cancelled releases. Sometimes, it makes sense for certain games to not be released outside of particular regions (text heavy japanese dating sims, for example, would have 0 marketability outside of Japan), but other's have much less excuse.

Importing from other regions is usually an expensive preposition: Import sites like Play-Asia and YesAsia often charges double the price of the game to cover the cost of transportation and commission; eBay can be cheaper, but the quality of the seller may be questionable. I've had bought my share of import games, such as the Ouendan series, the DJ Max Portable series, the Donkey Konga series (music license/taste issue), Jump SuperStar series (license in North America split amount numerous companies), and the bit Generation series (experimental games, GBA was dead in NA, sidenote: the Wikipedia photo is from me :P ). With the advent of digital distribution, I was hoping this expensive habit could come to an end. Both Nintendo and Sony have been dabbling with releasing previously Japanese only releases for "older games" (games like Cho Aniki on the PSN, and Sin and Punishment on the Wii Virtual Console) but it's not the same.

Well Microsoft finally threw their hat in the ring, bringing DeathSmiles IIX to North America (after some delay for Canada and Mexico), IIRC, this marks the first current gen release of an "import" game. Cave has thrown most of it's support on the 360 in Japan, but have always had an issue with bringing their games to North America because of it's relatively niche titles and smaller sales base. A digital-only release for such titles is possibly the best outcome for Cave, but only until recently Microsoft required all "Games on Demand" (their digital distribution banner for retail games) requires a disk release. With this restriction out of the way, everyone benefits: Gamers are happy they can get the game without jumping absurd import loopholes; Cave can sell directly to the userbase with minimal distribution cost; Microsoft gets some extra money that they wouldn't have; Import compa... oh, right, they don't gain from this.

Long post short:
  1. Go get DeathSmiles IIX!
  2. Fans of niche companies and niche games? Go convince them to bring their titles over through digital distribution!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Quick Impressions: LA Noire (PS3)

LA Noire has been a long time coming. First announced around 2007 as a PS3 exclusive title, this groundbreaking game has very little in common with most games from Rockstar or popular blockbuster titles. Thematically and gameplay-wise, LA Noire has much more in common with a cult favourite, Capcom's Ace Attorney series. With it's impressive facial motion capture tech and Rockstar's track record, how does the game stand up?

Spoiler alert - As a detective mystery game, there might be some spoilers. I've only covered the first few cases. However, I'll also touch briefly on Phoenix Wright, Heavy Rain and GTA4 (not in major spoiler sense, but you should be aware of these games and what they're about.

One of the big features of LA Noire has been their motion capturing technology, and it only partially succeed. True to their claim, facial expressions are absolutely fantastic, capturing every minuet detail. However, the game also suffers because of this feature: Other animations such as body movements don't match up to facial expressions, often leaving a feeling of heads pasted on body effect; hair doesn't animate (which is probably why everyone wears hats); camera angle and focus isn't done in a way to suggest depth, often leaving the game feel like it's green-screened badly; texture details on faces also feel lacking, giving all characters a "cel-shaded" look that doesn't quite feel right. The game occasionally jumps across the uncanny valley, especially with concentrated close up shots of character faces, but more often than not, scenes falls back into a creepy, weird, animatronic feel. LA Noire is probably the best attempt yet, and while it falls short, you have to feel impressed by the tech. (Yes, there are drawbacks, but I guess that's not that important, especially in this game)

Perhaps more interesting with LA Noire's game design is it's take on gameplay. Let's start with the con: Team Bondi and Rockstar probably knew that no matter how they try, there will be fans of games like GTA and Red Dead that will come over and expect another open world romp, so it wasn't a surprise to see that the open world in LA Noire, nor was it a surprise to see the side missions feel directly lifted from a GTA game. However, the open world feels somewhat tacked on and pointless, and more importantly, the side missions has a "been there, done that" feel. While the open world is huge, the fact that you're playing a cop immediately translates to a minimal sandbox experience: any negative interactions with the world, and you're immediately punished; even thought this is realistic, it's not necessary the same type of fun people would have expected in an open world. The side missions, on the other hand, suffers from the clunky controls (running and shooting is mapped to the same button? MADNESS) that gets the job done most of the time. While it's merely competent, I was often asking myself, "why aren't I playing GTA instead if I wanted this gameplay?"

However, the investigative/detective part of LA Noire makes up for all it's shortcomings. While the puzzles and item searches will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played any Phoenix Wright or older adventure games, it's the interrogation that sets the game apart. Observing the witness/suspect's reaction, facial animation and tone of voice goes a long way in selling the drama (and a much better, more feasible way than Phoenix Wright's text based word hunt) The decisions and choices seems to be much more deliberate here too, unlike Heavy Rain, where you can possibly sit there and agonize for the right answer forever, flip flopping back and forth between two choices. You'll feel like you messed up because of reflex in Heavy Rain, you'll feel like an idiot who wasn't thinking when you mess up in LA Noire.

One interesting observation about the game though, is that on paper, there is no "fail". (I'm going to ignore the side missions where you die, or chase scenes where you mess upon). In this sense, this game plays very much like most adventure games, but even then most still have a failure condition once you mess up too many times. (In Phoenix Wright, raising the wrong objection too many times in a trial would be fail) In here, it seems that you can be the worse detective and still proceed in the story: the only meaningful result is your case score. Maybe in later chapters I won't get promoted, but that isn't the case just yet.

I'll probably check in later once I'm "done" with the game.

Friday, May 20, 2011

In The News/On My Mind: Modern Warfare 3

By now I assume you've all seen parts of Kotaku's story on Modern Warfare 3(Don't click if you don't want it spoiled), so what's there to talk about with Modern Warfare 3? Lots, of course, anywhere from the Infinity Ward's implosion, to the way games are marketed, over saturation of yearly sequels, or even the holiday glut of title releases.

For me though, one key design item stands out: where do you go, thematically and scale wise? Modern Warfare was notable for it's over the top set pieces, and Modern Warfare 2 raises the bar by further cranking up the scale of action and complexity. Most have complemented Modern Warfare as a "Michael Bay" like experience, with over the top action that borderlines believability. However, is relying on this increase in set pieces viable in the long run? From the escalation of threats (MW1), to actual invasion and attack on the US (MW2), it's hard to see how to ramp up the excitement without becoming absurd in the next game. It's interesting to note that even though Black Ops wasn't a direct sequel to Modern Warfare 2, it still inherited the almost absurd game sequences to drive the narrative forward.

More importantly, the reliance on set pieces can be engaging and special at first, but if the entire game is made of a series of set pieces, then it robs the power of any particular set piece. A roller coaster is only exciting with the right pacing of intensity with areas of calmness, and the same can be said about game pacing. In addition, the cost of building such complex series of set pieces cannot be cost effective, can it?

I do hope they can surprise people with something, and I hope it's not just "bigger, badder, bolder".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Let's Talk Achievements: Average Single Play Through Expectations

One of the interesting and self indulgent topics about achievements is the question of "How much/many rewards should the average player encounter in a single playthrough?" For most players, this isn't an important factor, but since optimizing this isn't going to affect their experience negatively, why not study and analyze it?

(For simplicity sake, and having a wider base of games to compare to, I'm only going to look at retail games, and I'm also going to ignore add-ons. Similarly, since Microsoft does have a numeric system I can manipulate and better demonstrate my point, I'll use that as my basis.)

While researching and categorizing my own experiences with games, I've noticed four general patterns, which was backed up by the now defunct MyGamerCard.net(I wish I have a better site to show some of the observed statistics), they are as follows:

  • Low end (~100-150 achievement points, ~10 achievements): Examples include Lost Planet 2, Ninety Nine Nights, Rainbow Six Vegas, and Perfect Dark Zero
  • Middle ground (~200-350 achievement points, ~15-20 achievements): Lots of examples including Halo Reach, Bioshock (1 & 2), Call of Duty (all of them post Modern Warfare), DJ Hero (1&2) and Resident Evil 5
  • High end (~400-600 achievement points, ~30-35 achievements): Examples including Gears of War (1&2), Assassin's Creed (All), Forza Motorsports 3, Halo 3 and Halo ODST.
  • Maximum (1000 achievement points, all achievements): Examples include King Kong, Terminator Salvation, and the infamous Avatar: The last airbender
For me, these were general observations, and I don't think there's any specific reasons for or against fitting into any of those categories. I have noticed though that the extremes are usually not well received, where people complain that the game was stingy/the game was too generous, but even thing this still highly depends the context of the achievement and the game. However, two interesting observations:
  1. In general, games have started moving away from the extremes, and in general, have been rewarding players more in recent titles. In the list above, the bulk of the games at the extremes were released relatively early in this generation, where developers were trying to figure out what best to do with achievements. Recent games have mostly stayed away from such extremes, and also started giving more away for general playthrough. Rock Band, as a franchise, is perhaps the greatest example: Rock Band 1, for completely the Band World Tour, is approximately 150 points without any specific challenges; Rock Band 2 increased the number of normal challenges that the players will encounter on a typical playthrough, to approximately 250 points. Rock Band 3 goes even further and rewards players more for even less playtime.
  2. In multiplayer games, there's a great divide on whether the multiplayer warrants any rewards as part of an "average playthrough": Most games devote anywhere from 30-50% for online components, such as trying out a mode, to ranking up and fully play them. However, there are a few games, such as the Call of Duty series, and games like Dead Space 2, where online does not have any achievements. There's been an argument that sometimes you need to bait people into trying things by achievements, but Call of Duty's online popularity negates that argument easily.
If I had a larger pool of data, I can probably draw more interesting facts out of them, but I found this stuff fascinating and thought it would be interesting for people to take a look at.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

GameDevStories: Now I'm officially an iOS developer

It's been a solid month since my new "in between job" state, and outside of catching up on old games, updating this blog, I've also started learning about iOS stuff. I'm not sure if this is a step for me to look into indie games, or making iOS games, but I figured I might as well learn something (and yes, my coding skills are rusty as hell).

As a joke (and a "basic learning app"), I've created a "Single Serving App", the Slow Clap Initiative (Download it now). As the app implies, it does nothing but clap, slowly (Yes, it's a bad Portal 2 joke, turned into an app). Basically when I started working on the iPhone, I realized that this was a pretty funny joke, for like 20 minutes. Then it became agonizing as I was finishing it.

...yeah, it's not much of an app, I know, I promise I'll do something more useful later. My plan is to slowly build up a series of apps that builds upon the tools that I'm learning. It'll get there, someday...

...with this out of the way, I've pushed the normally scheduled Wednesday post to tomorrow. See you tomorrow!

Monday, May 16, 2011

On My Mind: Radical Directions

Over the recent months, two publishers announced and showcased two sequels to successful franchises that have garnered less than favourable reception: SSX (EA) and Ridge Racer (Namco). In both cases, the franchises are well established with a core group of fans, but the game may have fallen into obscurity for numerous reasons: lack of release (SSX) and shrinking market (Ridge Racer). So why are the fans up in arms? Should they matter?

This isn't a rant post with a series of donotwant.gif pics, but let's get out of the way.

Let's look at each game individually.


With SSX, the easiest way to explain it is visually. This is a screenshot of SSX Tricky on the PS2.

And this is a screenshot of SSX Deadly Descent that was announced coming January 2012

In the first released trailer, SSX Deadly Descents has dark and gritty visual look, with the unknown snowboarding jumping out of a military like helicopter, sliding away at a dangerous mountain, losing control, pulling out a pickaxe to regain control, then falling off the cliff and opening the squirrel suit.

You know what games recently also had a pickaxe in an icy area, jumping off a cliff, and squirrel suits? Call of Duty.

So why make this change? EA knows that the franchise is still good, but how big is that market? When the first SSX came out, it ushered in a new era of extreme sports games. In 2011, these extreme sports games are dead: Tony Hawk is irrelevant, Shaun White didn't sell on PS3/360, the market has moved on. EA needs a new audience to pitch this game to, so the "dudebro" segment it is. In later interviews and discussions, the developers claim that they are still sticking to the core of what the SSX franchise means, I guess in this case, maybe the developers and fans don't agree with what the franchise is to begin with.

Is it a good change? Don't know. Will this new audience find this interesting? Maybe. Will it piss off the existing fans? Yes. Will those fans come back to the game anyways? Maybe. It's interesting to note that recent dev diaries have not mentioned the dark and gritty feel, and has pointed the direction of the game closer to something between SSX3 and Tricky. Maybe the developer did listen.


Ridge Racer Unbounded, on the other hand, should be shown via video:

and compare that to this

Many have gone and compared this new Ridge Racer to the likes of Burnout, Split Second, or even BugBear (the new developer)'s previous title FlatOut, and I don't blame them. At the surface, this game seems to take nothing from Ridge Racer franchise, instead it chooses to be closer to what the market has been getting. The worry here is why be a "me-too" product? Why fight against Split Second, Burnout, or even Motorstorm, which are all doing destructible environments and races? Bringing your design closer to the competition means you need to work that much harder to differentiate yourself and sell to your audience.

The more interesting observation here is "why not?" I believe Ridge Racer is one of those franchises that can actually withstand flops because of it's development and sales target/cycle. Consider that every Ridge Racer game since Ridge Racer Type 4 (save for a few exception, like RR64 and Ridge Racers 2 PSP) have been launch titles, it's obvious that Namco uses this franchises as a testing ground for a platform. Even if Unbounded does bad in sales, when the next generation system comes, we'll see another Ridge Racer back in it's old form anyways. In the best case, this Ridge Racer title could become what happened to the Need For Speed series. "Ridge Racer" becomes the nameholder for Namco's racing games, and racing titles within the same universe sits under it, even if they don't relate to each other.


Understand that I'm advocating for no change. Looking at both games, I understand what the thought process and the reasoning was. Sometimes, franchises do get stale, and needs a refreshing kick in the face for things to get better (I can name a few, but I won't do it here). Some franchises have made that jump: Metroid Prime was a great example of changing both gameplay and even genre. However, developers, publishers, and even the game audience needs to understand and expect that changes may not be well received by everyone, and sometimes to gain a new audience, you need to be ready to lose all your existing fans.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Post Play Analysis: Dead Rising: Case Zero/Case West (XBox 360)

When Dead Rising was first announced, there was a strong sense of deja vu. Capcom and a zombie games again? By the time the game was released, those comparisons were gone: people loved the simplicity of hacking at brain dead zombies, but absolutely hated the cumbersome save system. Four years and a new developer later, Dead Rising 2 fixed up most of the problems and received much better praises. More interestingly was Capcom's decision to spin-off a short story prequel/sequel with Dead Rising: Case Zero/West. Many have claimed that the bite size format of releasing Case Zero as a "paid demo" was a brilliant financial move at the expense of community goodwill. While these games serves as great bookends and creates a richer story, I believe they may have done more harm than good to the franchise by showing how much better Dead Rising is as a bite-size game experience.

Dead Rising: Case Zero / Dead Rising: Case West (Played on XBox 360, single player completed for both games, ~ 12 hours)

When the original Dead Rising launched in 2006, it was hailed as the true arrival of the hack and slash genre: finally, a game that isn't limited by the number of opponents drawn on screen, and the variety and customizable gameplay allows for players to beat up mindless zombies to their hearts content (best of all, brain dead zombies is the best explanation of the hack and slash genre's issue of bad AI). However, the dreaded continuous timer and cumbersome save system held the game back in my mind. It's one of those games that I'd argue was great for it's experience, not necessary by it's story (I would argue that you'll get what the game is without finishing it, like my previous blog post on "completionists"), and the achievement rate backs me up on this (TrueAchievement pegs this game's completion rate at a mere 3%, with the bulk of players not past 20% of the game).

Dead Rising's core mechanics of resource management (health and weapons in same slots), weapon management (degrading weapons, merging weapons), mission driving events (escort, reach point X, photography) were all pretty sound. In fact, most of it were carried over to the Dead Rising 2 Suite (Core game, Case Zero and Case West) without major changes. Sure, photography was no longer the core of the game, but I don't think anyone will miss it much. What did change though, was the mission structure: In all three games, key missions were no longer dependent on the timer (Dead Rising 1 was on a 72 hour clock, when you miss out on a certain hour, the event disappears). Instead, many events became the main triggers for the actual time change. Players have less chance to be stuck on one mission which forces them to miss out on other missions that are happening co-currently. AI allies being competent characters also help out.

As mentioned before, Case Zero/West are bite size Downloadable games that serves as bookends to Dead Rising 2. Both games were much shorter in length and play area (no larger than any given wing of the mall). In addition to being a shorter game, both Zero/West takes a significant departure into changing the mission structure, but each in their own direction, so let's talk about them separately.

With the prequel Case Zero, players are given one clear mission: find 5 motorcycle parts, and get out. Outside of the introductionary mission(s), there were no other "required" objectives. In my first run, I was able to find all the parts within 2 hours, ~1/5 of the allotted time before the entire game ends. While this serves to remove the sense of urgency in the mission, it does allow for players to freely explore and toy with the environments: Rescuing survivors were completely optional, along with finding key combination of weapons and exploring abandoned locales. By the second playthrough, it was obvious that I had exhausted all actual game events, and was just wandering aimlessly around to see how many zombies I can mow down with weapon combinations (which was just as satisfying). Even thought the AI escorts couldn't defend themselves, they were significantly better than the first game at avoiding getting caught by zombies in general.

Case West, on the other hand, takes a much different approach to handling mission structure by guiding the player constantly from one key event to the other with ample time in between for players to explore. As an example, one key mission is takes the player to the processing room, normally an event that only takes 5 minutes, but players are given almost 2+ hours (a full day in-game time) to get there. Players are encouraged to wander off and look for other things to do (like rescuing survivors), and triggering the key mission events actually shorten the game length. In one instance, players were told to "keep busy" while the next key mission is in waiting ("the informant is looking for stuff, come back later" is a pretty good trick that worked). Another tweak is that AI survivors don't need to be escorted anymore, as all of them are capable of defending for themselves. This change further removes the tedium that many have complained about Dead Rising's AI.

So, why are these changes good, yet damaging to the core Dead Rising brand? By creating a smaller, bite size experience game, it shows that not much is lost when it comes to the "feel" of the game. Players can still enjoy hacking away and brainless zombies with absurd weapon combinations without being bogged down by a story, time limits, bothersome requirements and structure. Players have always described most hack and slash games (like Koei's Dynasty Warriors) as a cathartic experience, and cutting out the "unnecessary" content allows players to get the "experience" most people are looking for in the first place. In my experience, I felt so tied down by critical points in Dead Rising 1/2's story that I can't further my progress without restarting; with Zero/West, I got a small, digestible game that I was able to start and finish in a day, and I was compelled to come back and play again because it was so satisfying. At this point, I don't know if I can ever go back to 1/2, or play any sequel that doesn't address the issues of story missions as it relates to gameplay.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Let's Talk Achievements: Some Basic Guidelines

As mentioned before, the entirety of this category was inspired by the countless thought experiments (similar to this one) that asks: What if old games had achievements? How would they work, what would they look like? OK, that topic may borderline on weird game fandom. Let's take a step back and look at how we got here.

At the launch of the XBox 360, Microsoft ushered in a new "feature", achievements, which were meta game tokens that "reward" players for certain goals and completion. However, the concept of achievements though go much much further back with simple tokens of rewards such as unlockable rewards such as videos, concept art and other bonus content that were popular with the advent of CD based media systems. With the XBox, MS has placed an interesting meta-game on top of all it's games, by drawing a level playing field for all titles regarding "goals", and basically telling players that competition and goals within each game contribute to the greater identity of the player (I'm not going to talk about the ramification of this idea, but it's interesting to think about it).

Within this group I think I'll have two separate themes of discussion:
  1. Let's analyze games with existing achievements.
  2. Let's give new achievements to games that didn't have any.
The former is relatively simple to explain: For games that have existing achievements, let's look at what works and what doesn't work, and figure out who things were designed in particular way.

The latter is more interesting: For games that didn't have achievements, let's make up new ones.

So, let's talk details (I've seen more via confidential documentation, but I'm going to dig up publicly available articles to show that I'm using publicly known facts). On the XBox, according to MS's own website explaining achievements and XBox360Achievements's own explanation, each retail game can have 5 - 50 achievements, totalling 1000 points; any additional DLC can total upto an additional 750 points, with 30 more achievements. Arcade titles feature a similar structure: 12 achievements, totalling 200 points; additional DLC adds another 3 achievements with 50 points. On the Playstation 3, Sony has been much less forthcoming with facts, with GiantBomb's article and AVForums agreeing on a few basic facts (Bronze = 15 points, Silver = 30, Gold = 90, Platinum = 180; retail games = max of 1230 points, downloads = max of 315 points), but details are scarce at best. Looking at cross platform games, most titles have similar if not identical achievements (sans Platinum trophy). For simplicity sake, I'll use the XBox one as the basis of creating new achievements in future articles. Outside of these hard rules, a few other obvious ones:
  • Achievements needs to be obtainable (without absurd rules, like wiping out save data)
  • No making up new features for the game (can't add an online component for a SNES game)
  • For simplicity, let's assume all games are full games, and not categorize what's a "full title" and a "arcade size" title
So, why the interest in achievements, especially in light of counter-arguments that achievements are not that good of an idea? I'm hooked (probably not a good reasoning)? More legitimately, I point to games like Geometry Wars 2 on why achievements can be a way to create new play experiences for the player. Rather than merely becoming just checkpoints or absurd goals, achievements can become something that suggest new play mechanics or ideas for players to play around.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Administrative Stuff: New Section - Let's Talk Achievements

One of the things I've really enjoyed with this generation of games is the arrival of trophies and achievements. Yes, there's definitely strong debates on whether achievements are a good idea at all (Chris Hecker makes a very strong point on "achievements considered harmful?")Link, but since they're here, and they won't go away, why not embrace it and make them better?

I'm going to start up a new section: Lets Talk Achievements, which I guess will do two things; a) Look at games out there with achievements and talk about it, and b) Make up new achievements for games that didn't have any (sort of inspired by this and countless other sources).

We'll see how that goes...

Friday, May 6, 2011

In The News: PSN issues

I'm sure by now the whole Sony PSN/Privacy issue has been beaten to death. I'm not here to talk about that. Yes, private info went missing, you can rage all you want about it. Go blame Sony, blame Anon, or anyone else that's not you. Sadly, it's the new reality that this kind of stuff will happen. Life goes on.

More interestingly, was the amount of people who were bitching and whining about where PSN was when it's down. My stance on PSN has always been "sure it's there, but what's the point". It was a half-assed implementation (which makes Nintendo's a "full-ass" implementation), with incomplete features that just doesn't match up with MS' XBox Live. Sure, there's a friends list, but it's awkward to use; yes, Trophies are nice, but nowhere as standardized as Achievements; Online gaming works, but it's per game and matchmaking is inconsistent.

Interestingly, the week that PSN went down came with the arrival of the two significant multi platform games with PS3 the better value choice: Portal 2's inclusion of Steam integration/Cross Platform Play/Free Portal 2 on PC and Mortal Kombat's exclusive Kratos. Many others and I all jumped on to the PS3, expecting things to go great...

Well then. I guess the PS3's online service does have some merit. People do miss the feature, no matter how lacklustre they were. Sure, they weren't the best, but then again, MS has been working on XBox Live since the early days of XBox 1. Network infrastructure doesn't happen overnight; and good, user friendly infrastructure is even harder to come by.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On My Mind: (Non)Completionist Syndrome

A Kotaku's Article last week about Portal 2's completion got me thinking about completing games. It reminded of a topic I've always want to talk about: "The (Non) Completionist Syndrome".

The short version of the article goes like this: From the Portal 2 Completion Page, apparently 10% of players miss out on the first achievement in the single player game (which is obtained within 10 minutes of starting the game) and 50% have gotten the first achievement in the co-op game. The completion number drops to 50% and 25% for the end game achievements, respectively. Let's suppose that single player and co-op play is mutually exclusive (which they aren't), this still means that at least 25% of players gave up on finishing the game. (For the record, I've finished single player; haven't started multiplayer).

If you know me, you know that I've been terrible with completing games. If you check my Backloggery, you'll noticed that at best I've finished 15% of my games. My TrueAchievement listing shows a much worse pattern: I rarely get the game started (and this pattern holds true for all other platforms as well). Sure, I'm a terrible person, but maybe I'm not the only one?

I've attended and read a few GDC talks that says otherwise: Bruce Phillips' of Microsoft Research and Jesse Divnich of EEDAR both arrived at a similar conclusion: Most people don't finish their games. Bigger, shorter, and more popular AAA titles have a slightly better chance of being finished, but an overwhelming majority don't. Obviously there's no clear answer why this is the case, but knowing this fact should give designers ways to re-examine what they do: Are people abandoning the games because the difficulty spikes are too high? Is the game getting too repetitive? Maybe the game became uninteresting? Or perhaps the player has "already experienced it all" and feels no desire to play anymore? Whatever the symptom is, it's an interesting fact, and it's something I hope designers and developers take a hard look at and try to address.

Or perhaps there's a simpler, easier explanation: we've becoming a society with ultra-short attention spans, and frankly, something as well done as Portal 2 still isn't good enough to hold our attention span to the end.

Oh well, their loss...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In The News: Wii 2/HD/Stream/Cafe

I don't have anything spectacularly meaningful to say about the recently announced new Nintendo Wii successor, but I think it's always an interesting thing to talk about new hardware. There's quite a bit of "well why would they need that, it sounds like a stupid gimmick" vibe going on with the rumoured features, just as there was with the Wii and the DS. Think of it as the hopes and dreams of unrealized hardware, and what better way to think about it by looking at what happened with the Wii and DS.

Honestly, I can probably be labeled as a closet Nintendo fanboy. I try to keep bias opinions out of most things, but I probably give more leeway to Nintendo when they announce completely insane ideas. (No, I wasn't on board with the Virtual Boy, everyone saw that as a train wreck from a mile away) I was there day 1 for both the Wii and the DS, not necessary because of the launch games, but rather the prospect of the new devices can bring. Both devices have had successes and failures when it comes to living up to promises of the new features, but it's undeniable that there was some really interesting experiments for them. The idea of these "ideas" exist always gets me excited about new hardware.

Let's start with the DS: Yes, the microphone was almost a waste of a time (save Nintendog's use), but the stylus touch screen gameplay has lead to some of the fresher, more original ideas in the last 10 years (Trauma Center's use of pointer for "Operation" like gameplay; Ouendan/Elite Beat Agent's button tapping music mechanic; Brain Training via the "natural input" method, just to name a few). More importantly, over time, developers who have these devices came up with more original uses that was never designed in the first place (Book like holding position for countless games; Tag mode for wi-fi data transmission while system is in sleep mode in games like The World Ends With You). It's fascinating what happens when you have a mature hardware and allow developers and designers to come up with new ideas.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Wii: filled with just as many, if not more potential ideas, but completely squandered because the lack of investment and focus on the platform. The initial rush of content was only followed up by countless cash-ins, party games, and other wasted titles with weak usage of the system's potentials. WiiConnect24 was barely used, motion control was dumped usually in favour of pointless waggle, other accessories were relegated to single game usage with no follow up support. As we reach the end of the Wii's life cycle, we can only say that the hardware never got a proper chance with developers. What happened to using the Balance board in games, or the Wii wheel? Anyone who remember Lucky n Wild should realize that the Wii already has all the parts (light gun, foot pedal, steering via wheel), so why not? What about a dual handed light gun shooter? How about something that uses 4 wiimotes as speakers?

In both cases, the possibilities were there. I'm glad that these rumours of this new Nintendo system is as crazy as they seem, as it gets people thinking about what's possible with new hardware. The Nintendo 3DS, in some ways, was too safe of a system, and I feel that developers just aren't creative with new ideas for it. I hope whatever crazy ideas this new system comes with will inspire people to come up with new and exciting ways to think about the games that we play.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Administrative Stuff: Pages!

New feature: Pages.

Some pages don't quite fit in the blog, so I've created some pages on the right side so that you can read them. Think of them as tabs, or something.

...oh, and some of them may be re-posts of other "admin stuff", like the about me pages, skip them if you find it boring.