Friday, June 24, 2011

Administrative Stuff: Taking A Break

My approach to this blog has been write post as they come into mind, and it's worked well for a while. Before the E3 posts, I actually had a few backlog of posts that I can hold back and time their release, which lifts the pressure of coming up with something to talk about right away.

I'm kind of in a lull right now, so it's been hard to come up with something right away. I've also been kinda busy with other stuff, so I'm going to declare a "one week break" and hopefully come back with some new material. Some of the other articles (post play, specifically) seem to take a bit longer for me to write, so I'm wondering if I should reduce from 3 post a week to two posts a week.

Post your feedback, and I'll see you next week.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Let's Talk Achievements: Geometry Wars 2: Retro Evolved (XBLA)

As the first official post for "Let's Talk Achievements", I think it's appropriate to talk about what I feel was the first game that really "gets it": Geometry Wars 2: Retro Evolved. It's also interesting to note that while GeoWars 2 "gets it", it also breaks quite a few conventions and rules that I believe most game have followed, with mixed results.

Since this is the first post, I'm basically trying out some structure of formatting, please send feedback if you think I can fix any part of this post.

Geometry Wars 2: Retro Evolved (XBLA)

Game Over (15)
Reach the end of sequence.
Magpie (15)Collect 500 geoms in a single game.
Millionaire (15)
Score at least 1,000,000 points in all single player modes.
Phobia (15)
Score 1,000 points in Waves without collecting any geoms.
Rebound (15)
Destroy 75 enemies in a game of Deadline using bullets bounced off of gates.
Slalom (15)
Chain together 5 gates in 5 seconds. Crossing at least one gate every second.
Smile (25)
2, 4, 11, 15, 17, 18 and 19.
Surf (15)
Dodge 8 lines of enemies in Waves without firing a shot, or destroying any enemies.
Treaty (15)
Activate 30 zones in King without firing a shot, or destroying any enemies.
Unlocked All Modes (25)
Unlock all game modes.
Wax On (15)
Rub your ship along all four arena walls in Pacifism.
Wax Off (15)
Perform the Wax On achievement twice in a single game, don't forget to breathe.

Geometry Wars 2: Retro Evolved is a basic twin stick shooter released initially on XBox Live Arcade (it's since then made the jump to other platforms), new to this game is the 6 different "remix" modes, each featuring unique rules that make the game feel significantly different from each other. You can find more details here.

One of the first things you will notice with this achievement list is that if a typical player does not look at the list, a typical first playthrough (I'd define it in this game as "seeing all the modes") will yield only 1-3 achievements:

Unlocked All Modes (25)

Unlock all game modes.

Magpie (15)Collect 500 geoms in a single game.
Millionaire (15)
Score at least 1,000,000 points in all single player modes.

The latter two based on player skill (both seemed to be set low enough that most competent players should be able to get it within the first time, if not within 5 or 6 repeated replays of the same stage).

I consider this group of achievement "completion based", and GeoWars 2 is fairly typical of most games in the final score range (~25% of all achievements). It is interesting to note that players are highly unlikely to earn anything within their first initial play (within the first 10 minutes), which is something many games have strived for (some going as far as a freebie at the start of the first opening cinematic).

Where Geometry Wars 2 shines is the remainder of the achievements, where instead of the traditional sets of "multiplayer", "challenges", "grind" based achievements, the developers decided to add a whole new set of challenges based on the rules of the game, targeting specifically the new modes within the game. These challenges are different from typical "challenge achievements" in that they aren't based on the high score/difficult section of the game (which most games, even Geometry Wars 1 did), but rather new "goals" based on the rules of each mode. Let's look at each mode and the accompanying achievements:


Rebound (15)

Destroy 75 enemies in a game of Deadline using bullets bounced off of gates.

Deadline's achievement is an interesting mix of "tutorial" and "challenge". It's highly unlikely players will obtain this achievement (in fact, the ways to obtain the achievement are more likely to result in a lower score), and what's brilliant about it is that they teach about some of the new rules in this game (rebound shows of reflective bullets).


Treaty (15)

Activate 30 zones in King without firing a shot, or destroying any enemies.

King's only achievement is an interesting twist on the original Pacifism by adding it with the new restriction of capturing the zones. It's a brilliant way to force players to rethink their play strategy in this mode, and potential give players new ideas how to build a higher score in their normal play.

No specific achievement were in Evolved, which I guess is fitting as they want to highlight the different modes.


Slalom (15)
Chain together 5 gates in 5 seconds. Crossing at least one gate every second.

Wax On (15)
Rub your ship along all four arena walls in Pacifism.
Wax Off (15)
Perform the Wax On achievement twice in a single game, don't forget to breathe.

Pacifism's three

achievements shows a great deal of insight into how to make memorable and interesting achievements.

1) Take the existing rules of the game, and challenge the players with a slightly different way of playing the game using said mechanic. In Slalom, your goal is to run through the gates as fast as possible (in contrast to the normal gameplay progression of saving them for high score); In Wax On/Off, it's placing an additional constraint in addition to just avoiding ships (notice it's similar to Treaty.

2)(In the case of Wax On/Off) It's got a catch-y name based on popular sayings (Cliff B
leszinski, creator of Gears of War have said that during their design process, finding cool sounding and joke worthy achievement name is the start of their process). The pun-y name also explains the objective and the end result of the goal, which is always a plus.


Phobia (15)
Score 1,000 points in Waves without collecting any geoms.

Surf (15)
Dodge 8 lines of enemies in Waves without firing a shot, or destroying any enemies.

Waves first debuted in Project Gothem Racing 4

as a minigame bonus, where the gameplay was entirely based around a new type of enemy that form and move in a "wave" pattern. The two achievements, like all the other ones before, are minor tweaks on the rules that greatly changes the play mechanices: Surf is obvious, dodge the waves without shooting (which is extremely hard as each additional wave adds more obstacles); Phobia is partially related to Waves, as most players would relate "collecting geoms" to shooting enemies, and again, it's an achievement that says "here's a mechanic we have in this game, instead of using it, the new gameplay is to avoid it".


Game Over (15)
Reach the end of sequence.

Smile (25)
2, 4, 11, 15, 17, 18 and 19.

Sequence, the last remix mode, is by far the hardest mode in the game, and the achievements show it. Reaching the end of sequence's 20 stages is no small feat, and it feels right to have an achievement attached to it. Smile, on the other hand, is an even more interesting twist on Game Over, as the numbers indicate the specific stages that the player has to do... something.

Players who've played enough of sequence will eventually notice that there are three states for each stage of sequence: Pass (Checkmark), Fail (X) and Timeout (o), and then it became obvious that players need to pass, fail and timeout specific stages in the specific order. This, unlike Game Over, is even more difficult to achieve, and is a brilliant cap-off as the last achievement of the game.

A few things to note in general about all the achievements:

a) All of them are based on interesting variants based on the original mechanics of the game. The goal of the achievement was to make players play differently from the "normal" and forcing them to rethink their strategy.
a) Interesting to note that all the achievements have the same value except for Game Over and Unlock All Modes, which acts as goalposts for "completion".
b) By having no "grind" and "multiplayer" focused achievements, the challenges retain the same feeling of panic inducing anxiety that is consistent throughout the whole game. While all the achievements are based on variants, they aren't so removed from the core experience that you end up feeling like you're playing something else.

Monday, June 20, 2011

On My Mind: Zelda: Ocarina of Time remake's little details

Over the weekend Nintendo released the the Zelda Ocarina of Time on the 3DS. As mentioned before, I've been pretty disappointed with the trend of ports and remakes in recent years, but I feel that this game may be the proper exception to the rule:

1) The original N64 game is now is now approaching 14 years old. To put that into perspective, Duke Nukem was in production for that entire time! Kids born then might have never experienced such a game, so it make sense to bring it back. More specifically, consider how dated the game looks back then:

Never mind the 3D effects, the fact that the 3DS is a more powerful hardware finally gives the game a proper tribute that stands up to today's visual expectations. Transparency textures, depth of field effect, distance fog, high polygon count and texture detail give this game some life before it's forgotten by time.

2) The 3D feels right. Unlike most of the launch 3DS titles, the 3D effects actually do feel like they enhance the experience. One of the often mentioned issues with "3D games" (games where characters moves in a 3D space) is that players would typically have issues judging with the depth of characters and enemies in the world. Games making the jump to 3D often created other design solutions to avoid such issues (and in Zelda, the Z-Targetting lock-on and Auto-jump). The 3D effect here makes judging attack distance more manageable, and makes the game feel "right".

3) The most important thing about this remake is the incredible attention to detail that's been applied. With the increase in texture detail, Grezzo, the developer of this iteration has been able to fill in details that makes sense within the world. Issues such as item swapping that were in the original game have been smoothed out, and camera control feels so natural that it feels the game was designed for the system from the start.

Do I mind more remakes if they paid as much attention to detail? Probably, for now.

Bonus: Another note for how much attention they paid to this project, see this original N64 commercial:
and compare this to the new 3DS commercial:

It's an awesome shot-by-shot commercial remake.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Designer Notebook: Let's face it, We Are Doomed.

I often read Cracked like I read The Onion: Merely edited and slightly refined version of bad forum-posts and fan-fiction. These sites thrive on the idea of being absurd, and that they parody real life in impossible ways.

Then there was this article:

Just in time for E3, the author's intent was probably to satirize what's going on, yet I get the feeling that by the end of the article it's become apparent:

The Video Game Industry as it is, is fucking doomed.

The first five points: Going backwards with technology, DRM, Turning games into a service, Sequel-itis, Lack of vision for the future, I totally agree with. It's pretty obvious that in general, companies have become more risk adverse with new IPs, dumbing down the experience to chase down a casual audience, and trying to squeeze as much money out of as little work as possible. While I appreciate some of the fan favourite sequels, the total lack of innovation from all parties, the bombardment of "HD Remakes", and the new coat of paint over well-worn ideas is doing one hell of a job in pushing me away from caring.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On My Mind: Asynchronous Gameplay (More thoughts on Wii U, from 2003)

Nintendo is a a very interesting company, no matter how bad an idea seemed in the past, they always find a way to revive it, with variating degrees of successes:

(Image source courtesy of Ivan)

It's not just their consoles or technology either, it's also in their games (ok, I don't mean rehashing franchises). Case and point, the Chase Mii demo for the Wii U:

Nintendo calls it "Asynchronous Gameplay", which is a pretty good description of what it really is: there are two classes of players, one type that gets different information from the other, and the game is not just interacting within the game world, but rather with the different classes of players.

In Chase Mii, players with the normal Wii Remotes have a much more limited over the shoulder view, and they need to chase down the player with the Wii U controller, who can see the entire playfield in their personal screen. Players who are playing with the Wii Remotes needs to work together by relaying information about what they see to be successful. Sounds ingenious, right? Something that's brand new, and completely original...

... or is it?

In E3 2003, Shigeru Miyamoto unveiled a new twist on a classic game. The presentation itself was a disaster (You can watch the trainwreak here), and there's a specific reason for that (and Nintendo has managed to avoid it in the Wii U presentation). That game in question: Pac Man Vs:
Just by the title screen, can you guess what's the similarity?

In Pac Man Vs, players with the Gamecube controllers have a much more limited over the top view, and they need to chase down the player with the Game Boy Advance Controller, who can see the entire playfield in their personal screen. Players who are playing with the Gamecube controllers needs to work together by relaying information about what they see to be successful.

You see what I did there? I replaced 4 phrases (in italics), and managed to describe Pac Man Vs in a nutshell!

Sure, the game is more defined in mechanics (ghosts chase Pac Man; Pac Man needs to find the power pill, and the chase is reversed; the fruit is a powerup for everyone, etc), but essentially, this was Chase Mii, from 2003.

Recently I had fired up the game again with a few friends (HI!!!), and the game still holds up well (as far as gameplay is concerned). The game is still all about outsmarting the other "group" of player(s), and it was entertaining for all of us, until the physical boundaries of wires came into play. Unfortunately, the lack of wireless controllers meant that within 10 minutes, the cables were all in a tangled mess, and we had secondary meta game of untangling wires.

I think my point of this post wasn't to show that Nintendo isn't original (well, it's debatable), but rather I think the general public might have brushed off the potential of asynchronous gameplay much too early without trying it out. Off the top of my head, I can come up with quite a few variation of new gameplay with this setup (especially within the online realm):
  • In a team based online sports game, two teams of four play on the field, with normal movement (think baseketball or soccer), whereas the players with the Wii U controller can be the coach, drawing and highlighting sections of the playfield to the players (think of TV broadcast tele-prompts)
  • Team based capture the flag FPS, where the player with the Wii U controller is in charge of base management (perhaps a tower defense like resource gathering), and can communicate with their team
  • In a racing game where cars and helicopters are involve (Split/Second's air raid mode comes to mind), the Wii U controller is the helicopter player, shooting at the opposing team's cars. Cars can fire back at the helicopter.
It's not hard to see that there's quite a bit of potential in just this one usage case of the controller. If you can hunt down a copy of Pac Man Vs, and the necessary hardware, I would wholeheartedly recommend experiencing the future for yourself.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Designer Notebook: Price Discrimination

(Note: This was writing a while ago... E3 sorta delayed all this... :P)

Speaking of Digital Distribution, one thing that is really weird to see is the public assumption that digital releases should be under X amount of dollars. I do agree with the general consensus that they should be somewhat cheaper because the cost of manufacturing, packaging and delivery is gone, but that doesn't mean that everything released on services like PSN or XBL should be under $20. I blame Nintendo, MS and Sony for not able to "separate" retail releases to "tiers" of pricing levels: not all games are made equal, and not all of them should be priced the same at the start.

Price Discrimination is a practice that most industries employ on their products, but games have largely stayed away from this for some odd reason. Platform holders had perceived this flexible pricing as "signs of weakness" to the games on the platform, but I'd argue that charging full price on a shorter game is more damaging to the brand and platform. For example, the recent release of Steel Diver on the 3DS was often argued to be lacking in substance, so why release at the same price as all other retail games? By putting it at a slightly lower price, it could have be better received. While most reviews (and reviewers) claim that they don't judge a product based on price, this factor still comes into play for most consumers: evaluating the dollar value of any given product. Hopefully companies will soon realize that not all games are made equally, and shouldn't be priced as such.

Friday, June 10, 2011

In The News/On My Mind: E3 2011 Part 4 (Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U)

Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U.

OK, I got that out of my system.

So, yeah. Nintendo. First thing first, let me clarify two things that weren't too obvious from their press conference.

a) The Wii is dead.
b) The DS/DSi is dead.

For the Wii, there are only a handful of interesting titles left: Sure, Zelda: Skyward Swords is going to be all sorts of awesome, but outside of the hardcore, will anyone even know what Rhythm Heaven, Kirby Wii or even more obscure titles like Fortune Street (I highly recommend Rhythm Heaven if it comes remotely close to it's handheld counterparts). With no new big titles announced (Kirby is a old project from 2005, and Fortune Street is an existing Japanese localization title), it's safe to say that the Wii is done as far as new titles are concerned. The DS is in a similar boat, with few new titles left to be released. While this doesn't mean these systems aren't worth keeping (still tons of great games out there), if you're looking for something new, it's time to look elsewhere.

The 3DS is now in a very interesting place, given PS Vita's price announcement. The system hasn't sold the way people expected it to sell, and the lack of compelling or breakout software should be cause for concern right about now. What is the 3DS's Nintendogs (and Nintendogs + Cats didn't do the trick either)? Nintendo's finally shown more of Mario Kart 3DS and new Super Mario, yet there's still no sign of Pokemon either. While Nintendo's been able to show some more new third party games on the system, it seems like they still can't answer for whether the system will be as successful as the Nintendo DS. It also seems infinitely harder to gauge whether that DS audience have left for the iOS platform already. (Hey, maybe they need angry birds 3D! :P)

Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U Wii U.

So yeah, Wii U. Let's get a few things straight:
This is the new system, and the new screen controller. Yes, there is actually a new system.

While the actual hardware is interesting, I honestly think this was the worst thing I saw this entire E3 because of how Nintendo unveiled it. I understand that the controller is the focal point of the package, but when I had to second guess myself on whether it's a new system halfway through your presentation, then it's gone terribly. Having your system support older controllers and accessories is a great point, but when the video shows all the older accessories in use, with existing game images, it makes people question what's new. In fact, the only hint of it being a new, powerful system was when a Twilight Princess-esque Zelda HD demo was shown on screen. The lack of any other concrete info, like online infrastructure, actual game demos, etc, also puts a damper into what could have been an interesting hardware.

Putting aside the absolutely terrible showing of an announcement, the actual hardware can bring some interesting possibilities (I won't get into the whole hardware specs thing, I think that's irrelevant to me as a designer outside of it being comparable to today's standards). The Chase Mii demo is a fantastic showing of what's possible with this controller setup (in ways similar to the old Pac Man Vs game). Having the second screen being capable of showing alternative views, in a way, is another form of the "augmented reality" experience, and I can see pretty new and interesting ways that could change how we see games. Some have mentioned how games like Batman Arkham City could take advantage of the tablet screen as a detective mode filter, and with at least another year before launch, I can't wait to see what other people can come up with.

But yes, the name is terrible. Just like "Wii", but we'll get over it. I hope.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In The News/On My Mind: E3 2011 Part 3 (3D and Vita)

If the Microsoft Press conference was "Get A Kinect", then the Sony Press conference can be summed up with "Get a 3DTV and a Move Bundle". Well, I'm selling the PS Vita short (and definitely the highlight of their show), but it makes for a nice intro.

The Playstation 3's software showing, while impressive (Uncharted 3 looks jaw-dropping from start to finish), is just as mediocre as the Microsoft showing: filled with sequels, HD remakes (God of War PSP and Ico/Shadow of Colossus), and, oddly enough, Infamous 2, a game that was released this week. The only real surprise was CCP's Dust 514, and even then, the FPS fatigue has set in so much that I'm not sure if I can bring myself to care. However, Bioshock Infinite looks just as interesting as before, and Sly Cooper Thieves in Time do look fresh and interesting. The heavy emphasis on 3D was so central to the presentation that at one point, Sony unveiled a 24" Playstation branded 3DTV for this. Frankly, the way Sony has behaved in the last year or so has made me feel very uncomfortable about not having a 3DTV, and not in a good way that makes me want to get one, but rather feeling like a second class citizen (which I guess is about the same for any XBox owners without a Kinect).

Playstation Move seems to be getting a big push, but I think even Sony realize they aren't too sure what to do with it. Shooters are obvious, and creating a bundle for Resistance 3 is a smart move (haha, get it), but telling us it's simple to play by dragging out Kobe Bryant (and having it fail on him) wasn't the best showcase of it. Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest looks just as awkward as Fable: The Journey on Kinect, and it's becoming painfully obvious that despite both Sony and Microsoft saying that their technical solution is better (and on paper, they should be), their attempts of motion controls still leaves lots to be desired.

The NGP, or now known as the PS Vita, is the true star of the show. The price ($249/$299) is absolutely fantastic, and should make Nintendo worry about the 3DS's future right about now. Uncharted, Little Big Planet and Wipeout looks fantastic on it, as with the surprise announcement with Street Fighter X Tekken on the system. What's more interesting is the cross compatibility that seems to be a heavy component of all Vita games, essentially letter people take their PS3 games on the go (and vice versa).

For me though, one of the issues I think the Vita will face is still the same problem that the PSP had: Does this matter to your core audience? Is your Playstation home console fan likely to buy a portable system for the same game experience? It was a solid "no" on the PSP, and I have a hard time seeing it happen with the Vita. Sure, Uncharted Golden Abyss is a new title and comes with new story and gameplay, but outside of almost gimmicky touch based controls, is it any different than the home experience? One of the strong points of portable games have always been about pick up and play, and the best handheld titles are always designed with that in mind. While some have been betting on transferring the home console experience over, I'm not sure the market has wanted or needed such types of games.

Handheld systems have always been defined by a breakout title that highlights the system and it's difference to other platforms: the DS has Nintendogs; and the iOS devices have Angry Birds. I hope Sony can find something quickly before this system turns into another "downport machine".

GameDevStories: iOS App, Round 3

Hello again for yet another special interruption:

As with last time's special interruption, I have a new iOS app out, so please check it out.

For me, this was the next logical step in the learning process of making stuff, it's adding a bunch of stuff I will need to learn, so here it is.

From a usability standpoint, it's a tool that I thought seemed obvious yet missing. Too often I find myself forgetting who's screen-name is who on different platforms, and I'd randomly guess who I'm talking to. I'm sure there's lots of improvements to be made, and if you can think of anything, please do contact me so that I can integrate/add it in to make the tool work for you.

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

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In The News/On My Mind: E3 2011 Part 2 (The Kinect Experience)

(Note: A slight delay in posting, I'm pretty tired and beat up from watching everything over the last two days, apologies for the wasted time)

So, E3 Conferences, always fun and entertaining, right? Well, sort of. In the recent years, it's been more about watching and reading reactions of others, because as the gaming market expands to a more mainstream audience, it's become obvious that these press conferences aren't targeted strictly for the core audience anymore, and Microsoft's conference is a very good example of this. Let's get this out of the way, unlike most of the internets and game analysis, I'm still pretty excited about some of the possibilities of Kinect. Emphasis on SOME.

To start, yes, core games were there, and they serve the existing fanbase just fine. Call of Duty MW3, Tomb Raider, Gears of War 3, Halo remake and Halo 4 IS what the core audience would have asked for anyways. It is definitely disappointing to see that investment of new IP for core games seems to be nowhere to be found, but this doesn't, and shouldn'tmatter for that core audience anyways. (Halo 1 remake, as I had sort of predicted, is disappointing and lazy, but will sell)

The Kinect integration into core games is where it gets interesting (and where my feelings diverge from the mainstream): While Mass Effect 3 employ Kinect for voice command controls, and Forza 4 using it for Head Tracking display, it's also safe to say that these games are still very much for the core audience. They're completely optional experiences, and in the case for Forza 4, the added function can actually help the in-car experience.

Ghost Recon Gunsmith with Kinect support is the most interesting case, as the UI manipulation seems to be the most stable, and the most satisfying interaction that evokes memories scenes in Minority Report.

Sure, I'm going gaga over a interface for a game, but I think that's the most solid demo of what a well done and potentially well tested interface can work in a game, it gives me hope that there are ways to make kinect work for games...

...then there's the actual shooting section, which looked imprecise, choppy, and terrible to control. Sure, the reloading looks cool, along with zooming, but the "open palm to fire"? This is the same thing everyone was concerned about with motion based gaming, pretending to fire a gun. I want no part of it, and thankfully, it's optional.

Now to the bad stuff, the Kinect based games: Disney Adventure looks terrible; Kinect Star Wars looks sluggish and not in the way anyone picture how Jedi's should move; Fable The Journey seems impractical as a rail shooter; even Ryse seemed like a "been there, done that" experience from the Wii (even if it's done better here). Kinect Fun Labs is interesting, but no more than a minor 5 minute diversion that finally completes their vision statement from the Project Natal days. Dance Central makes a nice return, but it's not going to find a new audience outside of people who liked the first one.

I can go on and on about why some of the Kinect stuff didn't seem to work, but does it really matter? To Microsoft, this press conference is about showing stuff to the mainstream. Youtube channel and UFC channel is a huge win to the general public (according to MS, 40% of time on the XBox is spent on non-game application), and Kinect Disney Adventure and Kinect Star Wars will be big hit with kids whether they work or not (Just like Just Dance, which is now on their third iteration).

It is interesting to note that slowly but surely, Microsoft is making it clear that the XBox experience will be "get a Kinect or get left behind". I honestly thought Microsoft played the conference as well as they could: Emphasize that core games are still there, show that core games can have good Kinect usage, show that they have lots of Kinect games for the new audience that just got it for the Kinect (Fruit Ninja Kinect will sell boatloads). Sure, it's disappointing that not much new is coming out for the core audience (except for Halo 4), but does it matter? The same core audience will get the third party games shown by other devs on the system anyways, it didn't hurt them last year when they showed nothing but Kinect, and it won't hurt them this year when the core fans snap up games like Arkham City and Skyrim over the Kinect titles.

Monday, June 6, 2011

In The News/On My Mind: E3 2011 Part 1 (Remade in HD)

While the real E3 conference hasn't started yet, we got a taste of things to come on Thursday with Konami's pre-recorded conference. Highlights: Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, Zone of Enders HD Collection, Silent Hill HD Collection. I'm sure there were new and exciting stuff that was said (I believe someone mentioned Contra, but nope, didn't see anything), but who cares, we're getting this:

However, as much as I'm excited to play MGS:PW with people online, and revisiting MGS3, I'm somewhat disappointed by this new trend of "HD Remakes", especially coming from Japanese developers and publishers as a whole. Remakes and upgrades of "classic"/"cult" titles is nothing new, especially to this generation, with games like the God of War Collection and The Sly Collection, and the much anticipated Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection, but this new recent batch of announced remakes should make anyone who enjoy games worry about what's going on.

Sure, other companies like Eidos and Ubisoft has done similar HD Remakes (Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell, Prince of Persia), but with the recently announced Resident Evil 4/Code Veronica remakes, the Monster Hunter 3rd "PSP Remaster", and now with Konami announcing Metal Gear, Zone of Enders and Silent Hill HD Remakes, one has to wonder where original game development is heading. If companies are devoting resources and budget to these remakes, then we're going to see less new/original content. It feels like a short-sighted way of padding your bottom end, which completely sacrificing the long term success. If this is a sign of things to come for the next few days, I truly worry about where games will be heading soon.

Friday, June 3, 2011

On My Mind: Visibility Affordance in an Open World Game

I've just finished the main story in LA Noire. I'm not about to call it over just yet (probably wait for some of the DLC, and maybe redo some of the cases and see how it holds up). However, playing through the game, I now have an axe to grind:

The God Damn Fences.

In computer terms, specifically in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), affordance is usually defined how people interact with software/hardware, and the experience and expectation within that interaction. In games and interactive media, affordance would boil down to a much more simpler explanation: "Do things behave like how I expect them to". Notice I stayed away from saying "Do things behave like I expect in the real world": a game can be consistent with itself while still be completely abstract and away from reality. For example, in Gears of War, the commonly joked "chest high walls" is an absolutely fantastic object: you can always attach to it for cover, it's always a solid cover that can't be shot through, and the game is littered with them that is always going to behave the same. This isn't an accurate portrayal of how the real world works, but players can rely on their knowledge that every piece of cover is always the same.

So why is affordance important? People like consistency, or more specifically, people like it when their world views are consistent. In the real world, gravity works exactly the same, everyday, and that's very comforting for everyday routines. You know that if you jump, you know exactly where you should land. Games are interesting because it allows for an entirely new/different wold view to be constructed without violating real life, and that becomes an interesting mechanic/puzzle for players to solve: Do Portal's portals make sense in real life? No, but the way velocity is conserved is consistent throughout the game that it makes sense. Do "chest high walls" make sense? Definitely not, but since everything in the world behaves with the same rules, then it's correct, within that game context.

So, what does this have to do with fences?

I'm using LA Noire as a recent and prime example, but this issue with visibility affordance applies to almost all open world sandbox games like GTA and Saints Row. In fact, the only game I can think of that dodged this issue successfully is Red Faction: Guerrilla (which I'll explain later on). Affordance in an open world sandbox game usually much simpler to define, but hard to replicate: Do what real life does. In all of these games, running into people, and you'll knock them down; hit them hard enough, and they'll ragdoll "realistically"; drive into a wall, and you'll crash (or worse, the car blows up) The problem then arises when something feels off: like driving into fences.

In LA Noire, there are certain sequences where you're taught to drive through gated fence. This is then carried over in other sequences where you have to chase suspects down. However, this "crash-able fence" is only on the gated ones, whereas others are completely solid, affordance halting your progress. Visually when driving, both types of fences look identical, hence, the affordance problem. This problem extends to other objects in the game too: benches, newspaper box are perfectly destructible, but fences that are even shorter than such objects in areas like parks aren't; some lightposts are destructible, unless they had a police phone attached to it, then it's not. The worst offender was during one sequence where the player is chasing the suspect, where they crash through a light post right next to a temporary metal tent: if you happen to drive slightly off and hit the tent, you crash. Visually the light post is 4-5 times thicker, and you know for a fact that a light post is bolted to the ground, and a temporary metal tent isn't. Other open world sandbox games like GTA and Saints Row suffers from similar issues too: trees that are indestructible, compared to street lights; bigger vehicles at higher speeds not translating to real momentum/cause bigger impact.

Why it happens? Laziness? Unwilling to work design around gameplay? Technical issues? These are all very possible causes, but the players won't care, because once it goes wrong, it will forever feel wrong for them. Instead of offering a solution (without knowing why it happens in other games), I point to Red Faction Guerrilla as a game that did it right and avoiding these affordance issues.

Red Faction's first key design key point that allows it to avoid affordance pitfalls was it's setting: by placing the setting on Mars, it allowed the physics to be different. This is important, as it allows all sorts of logical design changes, such as the way characters move around, how vehicles handle and react to physics and crashes, and even cosmetic things like how players are fenced and blocked off in the world. Players who look at games like LA Noire or GTA always ask: well why am I on this island/why do all the roads wrap into themselves. Having the game set on a distant planet, you can easily explain via the environment. The setting also lets them explain behaviours that players would find odd in other games: Floaty jumping? Low Gravity!

The other major design/tech factor that really helps sell the affordance in the world? Their destruction tech. Since everything "man made" is destroyable, it avoid the issue of wonky, unexplained physics that most other games suffer: get a bigger car would allow you to smash further into a building. It basically eliminates the "here's a tree/fence that cannot be smashed through" issue, replaced with "everything can be destroyed, just as long as you're fast enough". While it's not the most realistic model, it's ironically more familiar to everyone who understands how physics works in real life.

In the end, affordance isn't about realism. The casual observer may think that it is, and would say "just copy how things work in real life", but in reality, it's far more accurate to do what people "think" might happen than to do what is real. What is perceived as real is far more accurate and convincing than any simulation, and game designers should understand and work with this in all their games.