Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Games That Won’t Let You Die
Awesome or Bad Design?
From Kohyunu

Kohyunu was wondering something about the latest Prince of Persia game.

“One of the biggest thing I noticed was that you cannot die. Even if you deliberately try and fall off a cliff, Elika is there to save you. She even saved me when she was trapped and couldn’t move herself!

What’s your take on it? What was your initial reaction to the ‘No death’ design choice, and how did you feel when you played it? (If you played it that is 😛 )”

Well, to be quite honest I haven’t played the latest Prince of Persia so consider my opinion highly academic, but I have discussed the game with people who have played it and I’ve come to some conclusions about it.

First of all, not being able to die in games isn’t that uncommon. Some of my favorite games don’t always have a death condition. Particularly adventure games and puzzle games of a story nature (like Professor Layton, Myst and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) don’t ever allow you to die unless it’s a story ending possibility (though those three examples don’t have that). Dying in those games doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as it just causes you some frustration and you never pick that option again. They’re like choose your own adventure books (my guilty pleasure as a child) where you would pick the option you thought was best, mark the page, peek ahead and if it abruptly ended the story you would pick the other option.

In fact, my favorite game of 2008 did not allow you to die. A game called Braid which was about time travel (and apparently nuclear weapons), and every time you died you would simply rewind time to a point before your death was imminent. Given that the game was about time travel and that rewinding time allowed you to try and retry the gameplay puzzles to your heart’s content, it worked perfectly for that game (and when gameplay also expresses ideas, it’s a true joy to behold). The Prince of Persia Sands of Time had a somewhat similar ability to rewind time, but it had a limitation on it to prevent the game from being too easy. It seems the latest PoP has done away with that limitation.

The first problem with an action game that doesn’t allow you to die, is that there is no challenge to the game anymore. The point of an action game is to develop your twitch gaming skills to allow you to advance through obstacles that may have been too tough only a moment ago. With an NPC basically dragging your ass through everything, you don’t really develop your abilities and as the game progresses in difficulty, you will continue to suck at it so you will spend more and more of your time being rescued by the secondary character. Not exactly heroic…

The second problem with an action game that doesn’t allow you to die, is that the primary reason to play has been done away with. If there is no risk of death in combat or skill challenges (because everytime you fall you are rescued), why are you playing? If the story is good, that’s great, but that’s a reason to watch a movie, not play a game. If you don’t have to work to get the next tidbit of story, what are you really achieving by playing? How can you take pride in your victory if you didn’t really accomplish anything to get it?

Well apparently the solution to this is to make the boss encounters reset everytime you would normally have died but are saved. What are the boss encounters? Well they’re sequences of button presses that are displayed on the screen. Probably the worst style of gameplay ever invented. This stuff came from the original Dragon’s Lair and is the subject of my rant on Quicktime Events in games.

To reiterate my points on that though, you’re basically forced to push a sequence of buttons which cover the screen and interrupt your view of the gameplay, and if you fail you have to try to push the same sequence of buttons again exactly. “But Commander, isn’t that in essence what every game is,” you ask?

NO!

In most games you get to choose how you solve a problem as well as exactly how you do it. There are margins for error in many directions in those situations. If the button presses are exactly the same everytime then there is no element of discovery, you’re just playing Simon Says, but not even a fun version of it. You’re told a button to push and you push it. It’s more a reaction time test than anything else, which can be fun for a few minutes but should never ever ever ever ever be the basis of an ENTIRE FRACKIN GAME!

Yes, I know, you Dragon’s Lair diehards are totally pissed at me now. I’m sorry but Dragon’s Lair at least he had the good taste to hide the button pressing gameplay within the game itself. It’s still a reaction test but at the very least you can still see the whole sequence play out without some stupid button appearing on the screen. Though to be honest, Dragon’s Lair was more a memorization test, because I don’t know anyone who had a fast enough reaction time to play that game without having done it at least 100 times before.

So, not being able to die in games is not inherently bad. I just don’t think it was the right solution for an action game like Prince of Persia. Between the latest Prince of Persia and Mirror’s Edge (in which you die constantly and must frustratingly start over and over and over) I think there’s a happy medium. Perhaps Prince of Persia Sands of Time got it right with their limited time rewind?

No, I take that back.

I think the correct answer for Prince of Persia is to come up with a more compelling reason to play. From what I’m hearing, continuing through the story is the only satisfaction you get, and the rest of the gameplay is the annoyance that’s in your way to that. You trudge through constantly being saved by your companion, but there’s no fun in mastery because there’s no chance of defeat. Perhaps what Prince of Persia needs is some actual thought provoking decisions to make during gameplay that aren’t just jumping puzzles or Quicktime Event boss fights.

I think most action games are missing that “something new” that will escalate their gameplay to the next level. We need a mixing of genres that will make all games more compelling. Right now, Braid is the only game to have truly impressed me as far as that goes, but I can’t help but think that if all these game companies would try to actually innovate in the area of gameplay instead of slightly improving what they already have, we might have a wonderful revolution in games.

Time will reveal all I suppose.

posted by CommanderHate at 7:46 pm  

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dear MMORPG Makers
I Am Sick of Fucking Grinding XP

Dear MMORPG Developers,

I have played many of your games. I grinded to level 60 in Everquest just before they raised the cap. Then I quit because I’d rather gouge out my own eyes than continue grinding xp in a game that takes it away when you die. Then I hit 50 in Dark Age of Camelot, and that was quite a feat. I got to 30 in City of Heroes and 30 in Age of Conan. I also hit 70 in World of Warcraft (60 with two other characters).

So then I picked up Warhammer Online, and I started grinding xp and questing. I think I got up to level 6 or 7 when I just got inexplicably pissed off. Now let me be clear. Nothing at all bad had happened on my screen. It was simply that I turned in a quest and my experience bar increased a bit. THAT is what set me off. That fucking experience bar. It’s followed me in every MMORPG I have ever played, and I fucking hate it.

I am so glad that Blizzard showed everyone that you don’t have to horribly punish everyone when they die by fucking with their hard earned experience, but when is a MMORPG going to show us that you don’t have to sit there for 4 hours a day for 2 months grinding and questing fucking experience points out of brain dead monsters in order to compete at the end level game in PVP? Look Mythic (the Warhmmer online creators btw), I understand that RVR (realm versus realm) is the big deal of your game. But no one wants to compete in RVR until they’ve achieved a level where they can effectively compete. So I say, cut the grinding right the fuck out of your MMORPG and concentrate on your strength.

We’ve done questing! We’ve grinded xp by killing shitty mobs in one area for hours at a time until we level and need to find a new place to grind out xp. It’s stupid! And while I can appreciate earning xp for killing other players, the sad truth is that if you aren’t already max level, you’re not going to effectively do shit out there on the battlefield except cycle die and fuck the game up for your team mates who all had the good sense to level to max before going to bat for your side.

Recently Wrath of the Lich King came out, and I must admit, they’ve got questing down. Leveling from 55 to 58 doing the Death Knight quests was hella fun. It was a new experience and thoroughly enjoyable. They make you feel epic. I want to feel epic! But now I’ve burned through that content and I’m back to Burning Crusade content. Content I’ve already done. I don’t want to do it again, but here I am grinding experience points out of stupid collection and kill quests that I fucking hate. Every level is like a slow death for me, and each one seems to take FOREVER. But I can’t pvp in the battlegrounds yet because I’d be a burden to the team and very few people play in the BGs for the lower levels (other than 19) and those that do have RIDICULOUS equipment that they’ve min/maxxed for months so that they’re nigh-unbeatable.

My point is, unless you are doing custom amazing content that has never been done before in an MMORPG to get you from level 1 to whatever the cap is, don’t fucking do it. Let me get to whatever level I need to in order to compete and have fun. If I have to spend more than 10 minutes killing random mobs to get xp, you have failed to entertain me. This is supposed to be a fun game, not my second fucking job.

So get over yourselves. You are not special or unique. Every fucking MMORPG out there has done kill quests and collection quests. They were fun once, in the first MMO we played, but only the first 2-3 times we did them. Then they sucked and they always will suck. Grinding xp is not new in a MMORPG and if you want to separate yourself from the rest of the pack, don’t put it in your fucking game. Find something new and different, because I am not going to fucking grind out another 40-80 levels in a god damn MMORPG ever again.

With Love,
-Commander Hate

posted by CommanderHate at 11:36 am  

Monday, November 10, 2008

Are LittleBigPlanet’s Public Tools a Good Thing for Design
From Eduardo

Hi all, the election is over so I will return to non-political stuff. Sorry if I annoyed anyone with my views. I didn’t intend to be a political forum, but the election and what’s going to come from it was too critical to not attempt to inform the public in some way. But, let’s get back to what this place is supposed to be about, the game industry. What better way to do that, than with a question?


Full Question: “LittleBigPlanet is out. Do you think it’s a viable platform for wannabe level designers or all the tools Media Molecule managed to include are gonna go unnoticed to most gamers? What are the pros and cons of handing out powerful tools such as those to the gamer community and how does that affect game design? And, on a different note, is Sony going to be held responsible for all the agressive/racist/offensive/copyrighted content gamers eventually share over their servers?” -Eduardo


An interesting question (I expect no less from Eduardo). Let me first say that this is not the first time that a developer has included the toolset with which to make levels for a game. You can already make games using the Unreal tools, or Blizzard’s Starcraft and Warcraft 2 or 3 tools. What’s unique about LittleBigPlanet is that the tools are on a console. Something that has only been able to be done recently because consoles started having hard drives. We have several previous games to look at though to determine what might come out of LittleBigPlanet’s public toolset, so let’s start there.


Many people have made Quake or Half-Life maps and mods. In fact, the market is pretty much flooded with such things. In the case of Half-Life, there have been some critical mods made by hard core gamers that totally changed the world of first person shooters. Counter Strike was just a mod at first, but it became such a phenomenon that Valve went ahead and hired the creators to continue their work within the company. Though such success stories are pretty few and far between, many level designers have gotten their start in the industry by demonstrating their skills at map making for games already on the market.


Warcraft 2 had a very simple map making program that many people used to make multiplayer maps. However, it wasn’t until Starcraft that people were able to get their hands on an actual proprietary scripting system that would allow them to do… Pretty much anything. From Starcraft maps I have seen versions of Tetris, full blown movies, and a variety of game types that are far removed from the original concept of the game. From Warcraft III there has been quite a few mods that have become just as popular as the normal game (if not more so). Many people have “Defense of the Ancients” (DOTA) parties where everyone works cooperatively to stop the oncoming hordes of bad guys that the AI will spawn and send at their bases. Of course, while there are shining examples of taking the tools and making wonderful things, there is also a massive truck of shit that is dumped daily into the game world.


I don’t want to say that the people who make some of these things are mentally disturbed, but it’s hard to think of how a normal person would come up with the idea for a game they lovingly termed “virgin rape” that also comes with equivalent sound effects that they packed in for our pleasure… Warcraft 3 also had the benefit of distribution via hosting games on Battle.net, during my time at Blizzard after Warcraft 3 shipped I would often go onto battle.net to see what the community was making and playing as far as custom maps go. Let me tell you, there are some horrible things out there. Things no person should ever have to play through.


That being said, we also found that DOTA was one of the most popular custom map types on battle.net, and as such we included it in the Frozen Throne expansion for War3. We did not, however, hire the people who made it. Nevertheless, DOTA is still one of the most popular Warcraft 3 custom maps ever made. Not to mention that maps like Tower Defense which started as really silly but fun custom maps in Starcraft and Warcraft 3, are now full blown games with entire development teams behind them. Pretty cool…


I should point out that I think having these kinds of design tools (easy to use, intuitive and fully functional) are the best thing a game developer can do for a game. Long after the initial hype of your game has worn thin and long after the campaigns have been played through multiple times and after the allure of playing multiplayer of the standard game type over and over and over again has worn out, you will find that there is a plethora of new game types that will keep players coming back to your game for many years to come. Half Life 1 would have been long forgotten if things like Counter Strike hadn’t kept the fires burning. Would anyone but the hardcore multiplayer Warcraft 3 nuts still be playing if not for maps like DOTA? Probably not.


So, let’s get to Little Big Planet. Are the tools they made for it a good idea? Absolutely. The amount of content that will come from that will keep people playing the game for ages. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, someone will make something that wows everyone and it will start the itch to play all over again.


How does having the design tools affect the game design? Well, honestly, you have to spend a lot of design time perfecting the tools for public consumption. On Warcraft 3 we spent much of our development time upgrading and enhancing the Warcraft 3 trigger system so that it would be one of the most powerful and easy to use scripting systems out there. How many players decide to make content for your game is directly proportional to how easy the tools are to use. It does take some time away from design working on the game directly, however, the benefit the design team gets from having really amazing tools FAR outweighs the cost of spending time making those tools (unless you make them stupid, don’t do that).


If you’re a developer and the team is putting no consideration towards updating and making your design tools easier to use, beware, for there will likely be a very difficult crunch cycle towards the end of your project, and a very steep learning curve for any new designers at the beginning. Also, the company is likely run by idiotic morons who don’t care about making great games and just want to crap something into a box and get it onto store shelves. Just saying… Tools are important.


As to Sony being held responsible for bad content that players put out there… Well, they will have to police things to a certain extent. No doubt someone will make a level that will crash the PS3 at some point. They’ll have to ban people who pass that around and make it. There will be some questionable content ones like the infamous “Virgin Rape” that I saw in Warcraft 3. However there’s likely an EULA that says they’re not responsible for your dumb ass downloading shit like that and being offended. No doubt they will yank maps like that from public consumption when they eventually see it, and they may or may not punish the creators at that time.


Overall though, I expect to see a great many things come out of Little Big Planet. I personally think their tools are more limited than Warcraft 3, but they do have an ease of use that is unmatched in any other toolset I’ve seen out there (so far). Hopefully many other developers will jump on this bandwagon and we’ll soon see a plethora of custom new game types within all the games we enjoy playing. It’s almost like an infinite content generation engine. Powered by the hard labor of fans.


It’s a beautiful and occasionally horrifying thing.
posted by CommanderHate at 5:24 pm  

Monday, September 22, 2008

What Is My (CommanderHate’s) Opinion of Denis Dyack’s One Console Future?
From Eduardo

Full Question: “What is your (as in, a developer) vision of the whole one game console future of gaming as envisioned by Denis Dyack? Is it a viable market model or you think that eventually some other manufacturer would step into the market? What would be your pros and cons? And finally, if this prevision ever comes true, which companies could make a joint effort to build it and why?”

-Eduardo

Well, first everyone should read his full statement to get an idea of exactly why he thinks that a one console future is inevitable. To summarize, he believes that the current market is unsustainable and that it is for the good of developers and gamers alike if we all migrate to one console. He mentions things like 100% market penetration, everyone understanding how to develop for that one console, drop in pricing, higher quality, etc.

Now, Denis Dyack seems like a smart guy, but like all smart people he’s able to fully construct thoughts that sound like well thought out ideas when he’s really pulling them straight out of his ass. I believe this to be one of those cases. The fact of the matter is, whenever one company or console or anything has a monopoly on the entire market, you end up with corruption, cut corners and crappy decisions. Yes, in a Utopian world, the one console future seems like a grand idea. If every console developer got together and shared all their information, they might make an amazing machine. However, they would not make a machine that everyone wants.

You see, consumers want choice. That is how multiple types of machines are able to survive. Some people want amazing graphics and the absolute latest hardware. They buy a PS3 because it has blu-ray player and a “Cell” processor. Some want to play fun games with their friends over a well maintained network, they buy a XBox 360. Some just want to have fun playing wacky games and they don’t care too much about the graphics. They buy a Wii. Let’s analyze each console real quick (and yes, I realize I’m ignoring hand helds, I’ll mention them a bit later).

The PS3 model is semi-unsustainable. They lose a lot of money on every machine sold, and in order to keep up with the other cheaper consoles, they will need to drop the price at some point or risk being booted out of the big boy’s club. Apparently making and selling the PS3 has cost them all of the profits they made on the PS2, which puts Sony in a real bad spot. Would Sony have benefited from a one console future? Possibly, but almost none of the technologies that make the PS3 shine would be present in it (due to cost), and those who are hardware junkies would lose out on their blu-ray player and likely become disinterested.

The XBox 360 model is doing just fine. They now make money on their consoles and the price of production becomes cheaper by the minute (hence the latest price drops). Their on-line network generates a constant stream of revenue and they’ve been able to use all the money from this to secure exclusive games to attract new audiences in other countries (Tales of Vesperia and Japan for instance). Would the 360 benefit from a unified console plan? Well, they would certainly benefit from the experience that the other console developers would bring to the table, however Microsoft is a company that is in this business to dominate. They would not be a big fan of sharing technologies and working together to make something bigger because they want to own that something bigger. What can I say, it’s the American way…

The Wii is doing amazingly well. They actually make a profit on every Wii sold, and they continue to sell Wiis at breakneck speeds compared to their competitors. Nintendo is essentially the winner at this point in the console war. Their only issue is that while people buy their consoles, many don’t buy their games. The only games that sell well on the Wii are Nintendo’s first party titles. Something that the other developers are becoming wary of. What good is a console if no one will buy the games you make for it? Nintendo is clearly doing a lot of things right on the hardware side. Low cost, innovative peripherals, a new fun way to play games. However, they’re doing something dreadfully wrong if other developers can’t sell their games on it. Would Nintendo benefit from a one console future? Not in the slightest. They’re winning the console war and their games are the ones that sell best on their console. They have no reason to share their success with anyone else.

Do consumers benefit from a one console future? In short, no. Here’s why.

Whenever there is a monopoly, the people who buy the product are always the ones to suffer. With only one console to buy, there will be no choice for the end user. You either buy that console or you find a new hobby. If the technophile can’t get their latest and greatest hardware fix from the PS3 side of things, they won’t buy it. If the multiplayer fan discovers that the one console has decided to focus on single player as opposed to multiplayer games then they won’t buy it. If the Wii fan discovers that the one console doesn’t have an innovative and intuitive interface, they won’t buy it.

So let’s say that they’re somehow able to put ALL those things into this one amazing console. Let’s assume that somehow, all these different technologies are able to come together and form the Voltron of consoles and that everyone is happy with it. Well, chances are, no one would be able to afford it, and more likely than not, they would have to sell at such a ridiculous loss that no company could sustain itself while selling it. What you would eventually see is all the features and expensive hardware stripped out, the innovative stuff worn down to classic old stuff that they can sell for pennies on the dollar, and what you would be left with is one of those imitation piece of crap consoles that China spews out by the boat full.

Much like God, you would need a united console developer to be all powerful, all knowing and benevolent. As we all know, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and no human being can know everything. To have both those powers and in addition be benevolent is a veritable impossibility. A one console future will not exist because it cannot exist. At least not in a free market society like the one we have. Now, if we ever end up in City 17, I’m sure we could have a one console future, but trust me. You wouldn’t like it, and neither would any developer.

As a developer, we want the choice to be able to make games for the console that suits our taste best. Maybe we’re feeling like innovating and want to use the motion controls on the Wii. Maybe we want to make a blockbuster new tech game on the PS3. Maybe we just want to relax for a year and make a cool low-budget game for the iPhone. We have choices because of these different consoles. More importantly, we get business because of these consoles. If they want a port of a game from the Playstation 3 to the PSP, that’s a whole new job that can keep a game developer afloat for months. If a company wants to simultaneously release a game to all the consoles but they don’t have tech for the XBox 360, another game developer is able to keep 10 of its employees in a job because they do have that tech and would be happy to help them port the game. Developers need these competing consoles because it provides a lot of job opportunities that wouldn’t exist without them. Many of these development studios will go on to create amazing games in the future, games that wouldn’t exist if they weren’t able to stay afloat by doing ports and other minor things for other game companies.

Denis makes a grave error when he says: Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have put tremendous resources into trying to make the best hardware, including spending significant amounts of money trying to get exclusive mega-titles like Grand Theft Auto on their system first. Despite all this, it’s still not enough. The economics of the proprietary models seem to point toward spending more money and receving fewer returns with each generation, with no clear winner.”

Where is the error? Well, it’s in the assumption that there is no clear winner. There is a huge winner in this battle for the hearts and souls of gamers. That winner is you. When they compete, you win. You get choices (great and grand choices). Some of you will buy all the consoles, some will only buy one. A few have yet to be reached and have chosen none of them (or you prefer handhelds, which also have great selections). When large corporations compete, we all win, because they have to try and innovate in order to make money. There will never be a clear winner in the console wars, and that should make us all smile.

If there ever is a clear winner in the console war, it may take years for a new developer to be able to dethrone them. When they are dethroned, they will attempt a comeback and it just might be as glorious as Nintendo’s comeback with the Wii.

Well, we can hope.

A one-console future is a future we can hopefully avoid, because it’s clearly a future in which we would all lose.

posted by CommanderHate at 11:00 am  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why can’t other companies do what Blizzard does?
From Mike

Full question: “Why isn’t the Blizzard business model applicable to other parts of the industry? Why is this the only exception?”

An excellent question with a sad and unfortunate answer.

First let me explain a little bit about Blizzard’s business model. Let me stipulate that I am not a business person and I never had a lot of access to the nitty gritty details of the business side of things, but I could infer a lot from talking to various people in the company and while I worked there they had a general policy of explaining everything in plain terms to their employees (which as I understand is no longer the case).

Blizzard began with 3 young men deciding to form a game company called Silicon and Synapse. Mike Morhaime, Frank Pearce and Allen Adham created this company and basically funded it with credit cards. Like most small studios they started by doing ports of games for other larger studios before they were able to craft their own games, the first two of which were Rock ‘N Roll Racing, and The Lost Vikings. Those they published through Interplay. They then briefly changed their name to Chaos studios before switching over to Blizzard Entertainment, and then they sold out to Davidson & Associates. That’s when they started their string of hits beginning with Warcraft (1).

I should note that Warcraft originally started as an electronic real time version of Warhammer (which was primarily a miniatures on map fantasy battle game similar to the popular military ones but with a distinct Tolkien twist). But the Warhammer folks turned down Blizzard and thus Warcraft was born (much to Games Workshop‘s later chagrin). Warcraft’s success was largely luck and timing, but it and its sequel earned Blizzard a golden reputation and a windfall of cash.

Since then they changed hands a bunch of times but they were always able to keep their autonomy. By the time I joined, Starcraft had been out for a while and they were working on the Broodwar expansion for it. The entire time that I worked there I never saw people in suits come from the mother company (whichever one it happened to be, Davidson and then Cendant who then sold their entire games division, including Blizzard, to Vivendi which started as a French sewage company in 1853, I shit you not) and I never got the sense that the overlord company was pushing for things to happen at Blizzard. This was either due to Mike Morhaime being amazingly good at keeping the political bullshit away from the studio itself (likely), or because the overlord company knew it was best to leave Blizzard to do its thing (also likely).

Blizzard’s general policy about releasing games was that they would not ship until they considered it completely polished. This typically resulted in a 3-6 year development cycle. No other company can get away with this long of a development cycle, it’s simply unprecedented. So what allows Blizzard to do this?

Well, they generally had a lot of luck, but they also had the benefit of never having released a flop (other than The Death and Return of Superman in their early days). Once they were owned by a big company though, they released hit after hit and built up their franchises to epic proportions. When something works, most companies are reluctant to start tinkering with its inner workings. Well, most smart companies. Blizzard has had the good fortune to always be owned by fairly smart larger companies. Companies with lots of money that know a good thing when they see it.

So why can’t another company copy the success of Blizzard?

Well, it’s not impossible, but it’s largely a situation of luck and timing. First, you need the opportunity to make your killer hit. That usually means being purchased by a larger company that can fund you for the 2-3 years necessary to make something really polished and good.

The trouble with that particular scenario these days is that the cost of development for next gen titles has gone significantly up. Making a name for yourself on lesser titles is not impossible, but definitely difficult and also has the possibility of making a name for your company as a small title developer rather than an epic blockbuster one (like Blizzard). If you’re known for small titles you’re unlikely to get the funding and time necessary to do an epic blockbuster, and if you’ve never made an epic blockbuster you’re not going to get that funding either. You basically need a company that either doesn’t understand the game industry or is willing to take a HUGE chance to fund a company for an epic blockbuster and give them the time necessary to polish it as much as is necessary.

Second, assuming you somehow find the miraculous company willing to fund a blockbuster possible title, you need for the blockbuster title you’re making to actually become a blockbuster hit. So many factors can destroy a title that for all intents and purposes should be an epic selling title. Psychonauts and Beyond Good and Evil should both have sold like hotcakes, but they were largely ignored by the gaming masses. That sort of failure only makes large companies more gun shy about funding a smaller developer through a giant project, because even if they succeed and make a great game, there is still the possibility of dismal failure.

That doesn’t mean it never happens though. In fact, it has. Bungie largely went through the same process as Blizzard. Funding and producing their own small games, only to be bought by a large corporation (Microsoft) and then crafting Halo. Of course, Bungie has found that they don’t like the corporate atmosphere of Microsoft and so they’ve essentially gone back to being their own company, but they did pull off what Blizzard did.

That leaves us with one other type of company, or rather development team. Why aren’t the big development teams at large companies like EA allowed to take the time to polish their products like Blizzard does? Well, they generally speaking are allowed to keep a project until it’s polished. These days EA is making a large effort to keep games until they’re ready for release. This is not always the case, and in the past they have been complete jackasses, kicking games out long before they should be, but they’re trying to turn this around now. How much time a product is allowed to stay for polish is largely a factor of who is on the development team. Anything by Wil Wright is allowed to go through infinite polish phases, such as Spore. Anything that’s being done by a newer development team will likely have a set schedule of 1-2 years and the game will have features cut and stripped bare until it makes that release date.

Most corporations that fund games have investors to take care of, so most of them, only care about the bottom line. If a game doesn’t ship on time then it can’t make money for that fiscal year and if the company doesn’t have a certain level of profitability, then the company is going to be raked over the coals and their stock value will plummet. Look at the recent Lucas Arts firings and you’ll see that they’re just trying to make their company seem more profitable by cutting costs. In that case, the cost of funding a development team.

So while there are other companies that have done what Blizzard has done, they are very few and far between. The unfortunate truth is that it takes a series of lucky incidents and a lot of hard work to get to where Blizzard has. Are they happy where they’re at? Judging by the Lamborghinis and other cars they buy with their disgustingly huge World of Warcraft bonus checks, I imagine the very top of the company is very happy.

However, Blizzard’s success is not for everyone. The corporate atmosphere that becomes a necessity when you have as many employees as they do can often crush the soul out of a creative individual. Many of their employees don’t even play games anymore, something that was a requirement in order to be hired there when I first applied. Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 as well as Wrath of the Lich King will be some of the first titles that have been done completely by this new corporate atmosphere Blizzard. I’m curious to see if they’re still able to make the right decisions for fun gameplay.

posted by CommanderHate at 3:25 pm  

Monday, September 8, 2008

Do Developers Leave Out Features For Sequels?
From Eduardo (again)

The full question is: “Do developers, due to the publisher’s pressure, or even intentionally, leave full working features out of games to save it for the inevitable sequel? Not because of time constraints, budget or lack of play testing, but full fledged, working, maybe even already implemented, features/items/characters/chapter/vehicles? Does the publisher ever think that the developer is offering too much content for mere 60 dollars?”

Well, that’s rather detailed as far as questions go. I do usually give detailed answers though so it’s all fair.

So, do developers leave out full working features from games? I have seen this a few times. Primarily this is done when the focus of the game shifts away from a particular feature. As an example, in Warcraft III there were a whole slew of features involving rotating cameras that followed your hero that we didn’t use in the end game. Why? Because the focus of the game shifted away from a single hero that you follow around, back towards the standard RTS paradigm of an overhead camera. Of course, that’s Blizzard Entertainment. They can do whatever they want and take as much time as they want to do whatever it is that they want to do. Other companies are not so fortunate.

At most companies, when a feature is going to be cut, it’s the one that hasn’t been worked on at all yet. There might be design ideas for it, and there might even be some hope that it makes it into the final game, but when it comes down to it, not shipping on time will utterly destroy most companies (i.e. not Blizzard). Thus they will always cut unrealized features and will keep anything they’ve got working within the game.

Do some companies intentionally pull a fully functional feature to save for a sequel? I personally have never seen this, not even at Blizzard. I have seen them hold off a fully functional but buggy feature for later implementation in a patch, but generally speaking, no company (that I know of) holds features off that they have fully realized within the game with the intent of introducing it in a sequel.

As to publishers applying pressure to hold off a feature for an inevitable sequel… I have never seen this happen or heard of it happening. To be perfectly honest, publishers tend to be fairly disconnected from the actual content and features of a game. Some don’t even play the game, relying instead on videos of Quality Assurance tester play throughs to give feedback to the developer. Other than the bullet points on the box, a publisher could care less what features go in or are held back from the game, primarily because so few of them have any concept of what the game is really about.

In the Da Vinci Code game, there was a feature that any publisher with half a brain would have asked to have removed. If you are unfamiliar with the book, the Da Vinci Code is primarily about a professor/grail historian who gets sucked into a murder mystery involving the Priory of Sion, the hidden sect of religious folks who happen to be hiding the true Holy Grail (according to shaky historical evidence). As you can imagine, there would be very little fist to fist fighting in a book like that. The movie went out of its way to work up an action sequence involving a car chase.

One of the game’s bullet pointed features was “combat.” Something that really doesn’t make any sense for this particular game. This is clearly the sort of game where you could revitalize the point and click adventures of old, with really intricate puzzles using the various types shown within the Da Vinci Code book (cryptography, anagrams, etc). Well, we made a bunch of intricate puzzles and had a plot line that mostly followed the course of the book, but despite it flying in the face of everything that would be wise to do in a Da Vinci Code game, combat was forced in there. While this had more to do with Richard Hare being a self-absorbed idiot who lost whatever sense of game design he had a long loooooong time ago, any publisher worth their salt would have noticed the incongruity of having combat in a game that should be focused on puzzles and would have had it removed.

So as to the last part of the question, does a publisher ever think they’re offering too much content for their money? No, I’ve never seen that, and in cases where it might be wise to pull content (as in the Da Vinci Code game), they do not. Publishers tend to be very disconnected from the content of a game, primarily because they are full of business minded people, not creative types. There’s a good reason for this though, and that is because if a publisher starts telling the developer what they can and can’t do when it comes to creativity, the relationship will quickly become strained and fall apart.

The reason that Blizzard has never published another company’s game, is because they themselves are creative people and get caught up in the minutae of the project. It will never be good enough unless they have direct creative control, and no company (other than Blizzard) can afford to wait for the level of perfection that Blizzard requires. Which is why they originally rejected Nihilistic’s attempts to make Ghost until they had to give it up (or go out of business), and then bought Swingin’ Ape after they took over making Ghost.

posted by CommanderHate at 5:22 pm  

Thursday, September 4, 2008

“Do Publishers Request Games Based on Other Successful Games?”
From Eduardo

Here’s the full question.
“Do publishers ever request a certain type of game similar to one that’s a huge success right now? What’s the reaction of the developer?”

Well the first part is easy to answer. Yes, they do. They do it frequently and they do it in a large variety of ways, sometimes without understanding exactly what they’re asking.

There are the blatant ones: “Can you make it like God of War, but cooler?”

There are the sly ones: “Well, this is neat, but maybe you could incorporate some aspects of God of War.”

There are the ones who think they’re telling you to do something totally new and different without realizing they’re copying something: “Well, what if he were some sort of deity, and there was an epic battle?”

There’s the commandment: “Make it like God of War, we need it to be marketable.”

And there’s the mix and match: “So you’re this God of War, but you have a robot companion named Clank and you’re trying to save City 17 from being oppressed by the Lich King!”

Of course the most obvious, and to me the most insidious, is the sequel. They want the same game, but with improved graphics, features and a slightly different story. Sequelitis is one of those things that has always plagued the game industry and will continue to do so for as long as people choose to cling to the familiar rather than take a chance on the new (see also, politics). Nothing kills innovation more than being forced to make the same game over and over again.

So how do developers react to this?

When being asked to imitate another game, most developers will use the basis of the request as the groundwork for what they will make. A good developer with a nice publisher is usually able to stray far from the source material and make something altogether different with only a few identifiable strands leftover from the original. A good example of this is Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath which had its initial inspiration from Halo but ultimately ended up being an entirely different game.

I’m currently working on a title which started with the publisher requesting a Harry Potter meets Pokemon universe. That sounds like a losing proposition but where we’ve taken things has ultimately left both source materials as practically unidentifiable. Hopefully to such a degree that no one will even bother to make the comparison, seeing as how I find both franchises utterly detestable.

If you’ve played Heavenly Sword or the recently released demo of The Force Unleashed, you’ve felt the heavy influence of God of War’s profitability on those games. A lot of games borrow from GoW, but some are blatantly trying to capitalize on their success (particularly Heavenly Sword, but also there was a Conan game that miserably failed). Force Unleashed pretends to be a Star Wars game, but really it’s God of War with a few mods and new art. Oh and less polish… I’d say there might be more polish by the time it’s released but when you fire your development team, there’s little hope of that.

Anyways, a lot of companies that are asked to do sequels are usually more than happy to. Particularly when it’s a successful franchise. Most game designers however, are not so happy. I think in almost every case, the lead design for the original moves on to another project or forms their own company when asked to do a sequel. There are very few game designers who like to do a sequel to their games unless it’s almost an entirely new game each and every time (for example Wil Wright and Sim City, The Sims, Spore, as another example Kojima and Metal Gear, Metal Gear Solid 1, 3 and 4).

Companies like Bungie and Bioware who enjoy innovating, generally do not like doing sequels. In Bioware’s case they want to tell completely new stories so they try to move into different universes with each game. In Bungie’s case they just want to make a totally different and new game every time (Minotaur, Marathon 2, Myth). Of course they made the mistake of making too popular a franchise with the Halo series, and Microsoft didn’t allow them to hand the game off to another developer like Bioware was able to do with KOTOR 2 (Obsidian). I wonder if that has something to do with Bungies recent departure from their Microsoft Overlords.

That isn’t to say that no companies like doing sequels. Some more than happily do so of their own free will. Blizzard has made their entire business about three franchises that they will likely repeat for eternity. Sony’s God of War will always be able to find a new lead designer to expand the game. For some companies, sequels are their bread and butter. Sports games in particular seem to be cranked out every year in conveyor like fashion (as if being able to recognize the name of a player would add some appeal to a game you should go out doors and play in real life).

So, do publishers request games based on other games? Of course they do, though more often than not someone is already trying to steal the thunder of a successful franchise before they even mention it. How do developers react? Well, that depends upon what type of developer they are. If they just want money, they’ll jump at the chance to have a franchise with a built-in sales guarantee (read fanatical franchise followers). If they want to prove themselves, they’ll certainly take the opportunity to try and expand upon a known game world. If they want to innovate, they might try to take the franchise in a whole new direction. Developers are just people at the end of the day, as varied as snowflakes (unless you’re talking about people at a Republican convention, because then they’re just old and white).

posted by CommanderHate at 2:16 am  

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

“What is a Game Designer?”
From Kohyunu

This is a two-parter, but the longer part is defining what a game designer is. The second part involves Bill Roper and Blizzard, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

First off, I must admit that each company defines a game designer a little bit differently. Some companies think of them purely in the level design sense, while others consider them the creative thinker of the entirety of the game. As such there are really three titles for game designers that everyone abides by. I’ll start with what most people consider the lowest on the totem pole and move to the top.

Level Designers – Level designers are the designers that are the closest to the end result of a game. They create the documentation that tells you what specific gameplay elements will take place in an area of the game. Then they craft the initial blockout of the physical space the gameplay will take place in. Then they script in the actual gameplay. Sometimes they handle some of the cinematics and it is often their responsibility to make the game “fun.” The amount of trust that a company has in its level designers can greatly impact whether the end result of a game will be fun. If the level designers feel micromanaged or that they can’t get what they need for their levels, the end product will often suck, no matter how good any previous stage of development might have been. This is why it’s critical to give level designers all the tools necessary to make a complete game.

At some companies, level designers have near complete control over the level they are crafting. For instance at Blizzard and Oddworld, the level designers could do pretty much anything they wanted as long as they hit the major story points that were handed down from the creative director. Having that sort of creative freedom will typically result in a very fun end game experience for the player, see Warcraft III or Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath for examples. If the Level Designers are micromanaged or if bosses come in and nitpick gameplay elements that they don’t understand or attempt to force gameplay into the game that doesn’t make sense for it, what you end up with is The Da Vinci Code or The Golden Compass style games (i.e. crap).

Level Designers are the heartbeat of a game. A game lives or dies by the polish and attention they give to the levels. If a level designer is concerned with the level of fun of the game, you had best listen, or you are pretty much guaranteeing the release of a turd in a box (though level designers also have a tendency to be a little too close to the product, unless of course you’ve beaten them with poor decisions to the point where they do not give a fuck anymore).

Game Designers – Believe it or not, the game designers are actually a semi-new thing in the game industry. Most designers were typically level designers or the lead designer up until a few years ago when lead designers either became less competent or the scope of games became too large for one designer to handle every aspect of the background design. What do game designers do?

They handle game balance, the design of gameplay systems and the fine-tuning of control schemes, including the documentation of all such features. Usually their job is to stay on top of things that the lead designer is too busy to handle. That is to say, at a good game company, they handle the aspects of design that the lead is too busy to undertake. At a bad game company, they deal with everything because the lead designer is likely incompetent.

Being a game designer can either be a lot of fun or a hellish nightmare vortex from which there is no escape.
This primarily has to do with the lead designer’s competence. The more competent they are, the easier and more obvious the game designer’s job becomes. The less competent the lead designer, the more difficult and hard to define the game designer’s job becomes. The reason being that a game designer without direction will often make attempts to design all of the needed gameplay systems for the game, which the bad lead designer will then see as an attempt to usurp power from them. Power struggles over core gameplay systems always end badly, and good work will be thrown out by the lead designer in an attempt to show everyone “who’s in charge.”

Within the game designer arena, there are typically a few specializations that different game companies will hire depending upon the needs of their game.

Balance DesignerThese guys deal with balancing aspects of the game. For instance in World of Warcraft, a balance designer might take all the base weapon damages for the warrior class and make sure they progress at an appropriate rate compared to paladin weapon damages.

Writer DesignerThese folks are associated with writing for video games. Some companies do not hire them at all and rely on level designers or lead designers to handle the job on the side. Other companies hire a bunch of writer designers to handle the majority of the content for the game (Bioware for instance is HUGE on hiring writer designer types).

Scripter Designer or Technical Designer – Scripting is a limited form of programming that allows designers to create gameplay experiences without getting specially made code. Scripters typically have some background in programming though if the company is making their game properly, the level designers can handle almost all aspects of scripting. It is my opinion that any game company that has more than one Scripter Designer (or more appropriately, Technical Designer) is doing it wrong and will fail. Level designers should be able to script all aspects of their level.

Other Specific Job Designer – Many game companies make specialized design positions for their particular game niches. In an MMORPG game, you might see them hire a Spawner Designer who handles the placement of creatures within the world, or an Item Designer who only deals with creating items. As MMORPGs become more and more common, you’ll see a lot of these more specific design areas open up.

Senior Designer – Senior can be appended to any design title in order to recognize someone as being particularly veteran at their job. Being a senior designer sometimesleads to the most coveted design position, the lead designer.

Lead Designer – This is usually where the initial direction and feel of the game comes from. In combination with a good artist and programmer, this is the third leg of the footstool that keeps a game fun and moving forward. That is to say, if you have a good lead designer, the game is probably going to come together nicely. The lead designer is often responsible for the initial direction of the game, the story, the gameplay, and the feel of the world. The lead designer is almost always responsible for keeping their game designers and level designers busy and more importantly, happy. A lead designer will also document the core features of a game and typically present the game idea as a whole to the rest of the company.

You can typically tell whether a game is going to be good or not simply by talking to the lead designer. If they seem to have a good design sense and really interesting ideas about what the game is going to be, the whole game is probably going to come together quite well. If they can’t make up their mind about any of the features or they don’t seem to have a solid foundation of what is good versus bad design, you are proper fucked.

A good lead designer will delegate to hungry designers areas that the lead is weak in. Most designers that make it to the lead position are well rounded and know their weak points. So where they are weak, they let others cover for them. A bad lead designer will not recognize their own areas of weakness and will try to cover every aspect themselves out of fear of being shown up. Proper delegation is key to being a good lead.

What is a Game Designer?
A game designer is an individual that deals with creating, documenting, and implementing the ideas for making a fun game.

As such, there’s a little bit of design in every field. Programmers and artists can come up with game ideas just as much as a pure game designer. However, it’s the game designer’s responsibility to make those ideas fun. If the game isn’t fun, the designer will be the one who is blamed, and rightfully so. They are responsible for all the little tweaks and polish that goes into making the game perfect.

There are some who argue that game designers are unnecessary and that programmers and artists are all you need to make a game. To a certain extent, I agree. However, if you want a fun game, you need to have a good game designer or the end product is going to be lackluster in quite a few areas. See the original Dungeon Siege as an example, or any of the early Ready at Dawn games. They’re not bad, but they just lack that certain fun factor that makes a game great.

Incompetent designers can also cause a game to lose its fun factor. The Golden Compass is the best example of this, as the gameplay and game systems in that game just seem hacked together by a simpering moron or a retarded monkey.

The point being, good ideas can come from anywhere, and it is a game designers job to recognize the good ideas and make them a reality. Coming up with ideas is definitely part of the job, but designers have to recognize when their own ideas are bad or if there is a better idea that comes to the table. It can be rough to kill your own idea (or kill your own baby as we sometimes say) but it is probably the most critical design skill you can have. If you can’t recognize good or bad gameplay from the initial idea, you fail at design.

Anyways, I did mention this was a two parter, so let’s get on to the next part of the question.

What was Bill Roper like, and was/is he a good designer/producer?

Bill Roper is a great person. He’s amicable, easy to get along with, pretty much a laugh riot. I remember seeing him at the Renaissance Fair singing lusty songs about wenches and ale and that sort of epitomizes how I see him as an individual. He’s a really cool guy on a personal level.

As a producer, he did a good job of keeping things moving. I don’t think anyone had a bad thing to say about Bill as a producer. However, Bill didn’t want to be a producer, he wanted to be a designer and that’s when things started to go wrong. Not because Bill was bad at design, but because of who he had to deal with in order to work in design.

Bill Roper had as much to do with the design of Diablo and Starcraft as any valued member of the Blizzard team did. Though he was often the face of Blizzard and the perception was that he did a lot for Blizzard games (he did the voice of the Footsoldier in Warcraft II), any single level designer contributed as much or more to those games. That’s just how it is at Blizzard. It’s a largely collaborative effort with a couple of people who usurp credit for others work either because they want it to be that way, or because they happen to be likable and in the spotlight so it ends up being perceived that way. Bill was definitely the latter.

So then Bill went to Blizzard North to work on design for the next Diablo game. The only issue was, he didn’t want to do another Diablo and neither did the rest of Blizzard North. With that in mind they showed us something they called Starblo, a product named to fail. It was basically a science fiction Diablo with all the same perspectives of Diablo II. No one was impressed. It was about then that I realized Bill had a bit of a rebellious streak in him.

I believe it was only 3-6 months after seeing Starblo that we heard about a big score of scary changes that might come down from Vivendi Games onto Blizzard. The scare revolved around how much control Blizzard would have over distribution and such, and ultimately it ended up being a big fuss over nothing. However, it was Bill Roper and the gang at Blizzard North that demanded that Blizzard North have more say over how Vivendi Games was to be run. To back up their defiance, they offered letters of resignation if their demands were not met.

Their letters of resignation were accepted and thus Blizzard North began to fall apart quite rapidly. With all of the primary leadership gone, the few who were left scrambled to piece together something to show that they weren’t a hollow shell. Their efforts produced a PVP oriented version of Diablo 2 that was not very impressive. I believe it was a year or so later that Blizzard told everyone at Blizzard North that they could move to Irvine (where Blizzard is located) and reapply for their old jobs, and that they might just get rehired. In other words, they were all fired.

Meanwhile, Bill Roper and crew formed Flagship studios and quickly strip mined the remnants of Blizzard North to assemble a team (which also contributed to the ultimate firing of everyone left at Blizzard North). They already had a new game in mind and Hellgate London quickly began to take shape. What the contributions of the individuals were at Flagship, I cannot say. I did not work there, but I imagine (given Bill’s past desire to move into design) that Bill contributed a lot.

Now, making a new studio and funding a game are not easy tasks. Not by a long shot. To make it sustainable they needed a lot more funding then their own pockets and eventually it was Hanbitsoft that came along and decided to sustain them until Hellgate London could come out. Now, again, knowing nothing of the details, this is entirely speculation, but…

Without the code base from their past games to fall back on, they now had to craft a new 3D engine, an entire massively multiplayer networking system, and almost every tool that they would have to create the game with from scratch. This is no easy task… In fact, most game companies take crappy small jobs like porting Tetris to the N64 in order to work on that sort of infrastructure on the side for several years. Flagship was having none of that and went full bore on trying to create it all at the same time.

Sadly, when a publisher is involved (like Hanbitsoft), there’s a time table you need to be concerned with. One that they would ultimately meet, but at a tremendous cost. You see without an infrastructure already established they were having to develop the tools to make the game at the same time as they would have to generate content. What you usually get is a lot of content you either have to throw away or redo.

Let me put this in perspective for you. Diablo 2 from start to finish took about 3 years. Hellgate London from start to finish was done in about 2 years. Is it any wonder it was plagued by a horde of problems? Not to me. I imagine, were it given another 2 years of development (with 1 year being entirely devoted to tools and infrastructure) it would have been a far superior product (and let’s keep in mind it still got a 71 on Metacritic, no easy feat).

So whatever Bill Roper’s contribution to the game, do I think that it’s somehow his fault that Hellgate London has not lived up to its expectations? Not in the slightest. I’d be willing to bet he put his heart and soul into that game, but without the proper time for those efforts to be allowed to flourish, there was little hope that Hellgate could be the blockbuster it might have been. How much of Hellgate’s lackluster appearance is Bill’s fault? No more than any member of the team that contributed to the game.

Games are the effort of many people working together. No one individual can be said to matter more than another. Without a tools programmer, a level designer’s job becomes extremely difficult. Without a good artist, a brilliant game idea may never work out. In the case of Hellgate London, Bill Roper just happens to be the most charismatic and well known person on the team. You can’t blame him for Hellgate’s problems just because he makes the most public appearances.

As to his design skills, I honestly don’t know. =)

posted by CommanderHate at 1:21 am  

Monday, July 14, 2008

“Why do game save systems suck?”
From Alex

Alex has taken issue with a perceived trend of poor save systems in modern games. Particularly he points out that Mass Effect had a miserable save system. However, I disagree with that assessment. Mass Effect actually has what every game should have. Both an auto-save system and a user enabled save system.

There are really only a few types of save systems. So let’s briefly (as much as I can be brief) discuss each one so we’re all clear on what they are. Oh, and as to what I mean by a save system, it’s a system that saves the state of your game, so that when you return to it, you can continue playing from where you left off.

Lives – Or No Real Save System

Classic games have no save system. If you go back and play the original Super Mario Brothers or most arcade classics, you instead have lives. Lives allow you to restart at the level you died in without having to start the whole game over. However, if you restart the system, the power goes out or you lose all your lives, you have to start the game from the very beginning. As I recall from my youth, that usually coincided with a great resounding “FUUUUUUUUCK” along with the sound of a controller being hucked across the room and slamming into a wall. No save systems = true frustration.

On the flip side though, you truly had to master a game back in those days. You couldn’t fat finger your way through every encounter because if you died anywhere within a level you would have to do that level over again (often a dozen times in a row if you really sucked). This forced you to memorize patterns and improve your reflexes. Of course, the real reason they did this was to make you feed more quarters into a machine. The home console made it necessary to find a less stressful way for the player to get through a game they just paid 20-40 bucks for.

Secret Code Saves

When Metroid came out for the Nintendo, they had something I had never seen before. A way to start the game with all your hard-earned gear, even after you’ve died or turned the system off. Whenever you would die, it would give you a code. When you entered the code you got to start the game in the same area that you died in with all the goodies you’d already collected. Of course, if you wrote down the 24 alpha-numeric password wrong, you were totally screwed. Definitely not a perfect system, especially when there was already a better save methodology out there.

Limited User Saves

When RPGs became all the rage, they shifted to a limited user save functionality. That is, the user can choose to save the game in one of a X slots as long as they’re either on a save point area (like the globes in FFVII) or if they’re on the overland map (like in early Final Fantasy games). Of course, this system relied on the user remembering to save the game. So the potential was there (and this happened to me on more than one occasion) to play for many many hours, never save, then die and lose all your progress. Literally hours of gameplay could be lost. Many gamers wouldn’t even bother trying again after that. Luckily that was in my youth or else Phantasy Star II, Final Fantasy 3 (u.s. release) and several others might have gone unplayed.

Checkpoints or Automagic Saves

As games became more complex and developers realized that losing progress was no fun and that relying on the user to save the game at important points was probably not going to happen (primarily because a user can’t predict a ridiculously hard gameplay moment coming up), they decided to start saving the game for the player. Traditionally this is known as checkpoints, because as you reach a certain point in the game where the developer thinks things might get hairy or after you’ve achieved a milestone point within the game, the game will automatically save so you don’t have to worry about it. This system really worked well whenever it came into existence, though it did rely heavily on the developer understanding what would be frustrating for a player.

Quite honestly, it’s hard to think of when checkpoints came into being exactly, because I can’t imagine how frustrating a game that doesn’t use them would be. Any game worth its salt should have some sort of Checkpoint system in it.

Unlimited User Saves or Save Anywhere

This is my personal favorite save system. You can save anywhere in the game at any time you like for any reason what-so-ever. This has been (in the past) a primarily PC only save system due to the practically limitless space of a PC hard drive. However, with the recent consoles having hard drives themselves, this has become a lot more common in games. Bioshock, Portal and many other games have unlimited save functionality. In the past this type of system has been used, but you were limited in space so you often had to save over an old save in order to keep your progress. Not bad, but not as good as completely unlimited saves.

Modern Day Saving Systems

So let’s take a look at Mass Effect’s save system. They have 2 systems working here, a checkpoint save system and a user save anywhere system. That’s pretty damn good in my book, but it seems that people got frustrated with the game. Let’s take a look at one user’s complaint to see what’s going on.

"Almost at the end of Ilos and I reload the save I've been using,
unfortunately it spawns the Mako underneath the damn level, hanging
from one wheel that's stuck in the geometry. 
Ah
well, I'll just go back to an autosave. Surely there must be one
somewhere, like at the hologram. What's that? The only autosave was all
the way at the freaking beginning when I first land on the planet? 

You could've at least put an autosave midway through. Did that not occur to anyone while playtesting this?"
-Confidence Man Sunday, 02 December 2007 10:50PM

So what happened to this poor guy? Well, he was the unfortunate victim of a bug. A bug whereby one of his saves had the vehicle he needed for the level spawn under the world. This is a bug within the code that we will never be able to figure out on our own, but for the sake of our argument about save systems sucking, let’s say that it has something to do with the save code.

Yeah, that sucks, a bug got through to the end product. It happens though, and there’s little that can be done. The fault here has little to do with the design of the save system however. The game has unlimited saving potential whenever the user wants, AND it has checkpoints whenever you land on a planet. While it’s not perfect, it’s not bad. What was bad was some errant line of code that screwed up what the save system wanted to do. That’s unfortunate, but no matter how much Quality Assurance you put a game through, you’ll never find every bug. It’s simply impossible. Particularly in a save anywhere system. You can never predict what fucked up shit the end user is going to do.

So what is the perfect save system? Does it even exist? Mass Effect actually isn’t far off, if it weren’t for a related bug I’m sure there wouldn’t have been as much anger as there was surrounding its save feature. However, Mass Effect was not perfect, they needed more checkpoints or something like that. What save system is better?

Automagic Saves Before a Death Point

If you have not played Portal, you are remiss in your duties as a gamer. Portal has so many extremely good things going for it, that to not play it from beginning to end is a travesty. One of its most amazing and helpful features are its automagic saves. I can’t quite figure out how they’ve done it, but no matter where I die in the game, I am restarted no less than 10 seconds from where I ganked myself or blew a jump. It’s quite amazing because the frustration that a loss of progress would have caused is almost entirely gone in that game. There was only one or two segments where I had to repeat more than 30 seconds of gameplay in order to beat the section I was having trouble with, and it’s almost entirely because of their automagic saves.

But if you wanted to save midjump, they had another ingenious system overlayed on top of that.

Quicksave

So far I’ve only seen this in FPS games and their ilk, but Half Life is the first one I noticed it in. You can save your exact point in the game with the push of a single button. Then if you want to reload it, you push another button. You can save right in the middle of a fall without panicking as you try to navigate menus or removing yourself from the gameplay. There’s a slight hiccup as it saves, but as this system is perfected, I bet that will go away.

Other Ideas

However, my favorite game’s save feature is not a save feature at all. Braid‘s time travelling mechanic obsoleted the need for saving anywhere within a level. If you screw up and die, you rewind time. It’s so elegant I nearly wept when I first experienced it. True this won’t work for all games, in fact it probably won’t work for any game except Braid and possibly its sequels (assuming there are any), but it’s exactly the type of thinking that can save games from having to use the same tired save systems again and again.

I think that Portal is pretty much the closest thing to the pinnacle of save systems we’ll ever see for games. It can only be improved a tiny bit more before there’s nothing left to do with it except copy it exactly for every game thereafter. It will take a whole new line of thinking to obsolete saves entirely and create a new way of experiencing a game. Braid during its actual gameplay is a good example of this in action (perhaps the only example).

So, why do game save systems suck? Because they’re preventing game designers from thinking in new directions. They’re too easy to just copy and paste into your game. We need to start thinking in a new way if we really want to advance game design as a whole instead of just improving on what’s already there. As far as saving systems go, we’ve got it down. Let’s try something else. =)

posted by CommanderHate at 5:42 pm  

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Braid is Now on XBLA for Developers

As I’ve mentioned previously, Braid is a side scrolling puzzle game reminiscent of Super Mario Bros that I really enjoyed playing an early version of. I can only imagine that after several months of polish, it’s an even better experience. If you are a game developer with a 360 dev kit, you can grab it off XBLA right now. I can assume this means it will be available to the public fairly soon…

posted by CommanderHate at 10:51 am  
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