Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Graphics Versus Gameplay?
I Hate Quick Time Events

It’s been something of a nuisance lately that 90% of the “casual” market games have decided that all players are insipid morons and must be stopped from doing anything remotely different from what the game designer intended. Sure, you might have a jump button, but good luck finding anything to jump off of, everything is covered by invisible walls. That lava in the background looks amazing, but you’ll never get to touch it. It seems like every really epic looking thing you find in a game, you can’t actually touch or interact with in any way, and when you can, you have to do it through Quick Time Events (the lamest invention in video game history, thanks Dragon’s Lair, you doddering old bastard). I swear, every time they put a quicktime event into a game, Gary Gygax dies a little inside (oh fuck, you’ve killed him… too soon?).

For those not in the know, a Quick Time Event (QTE) is when the game basically plays a branching cinematic. You choose the branches of the cinematic (which is pretty much always Win or DIE) by tapping or mashing buttons in the exact sequence that they ask for them. God of War did it, Heavenly Sword copied them, Resident Evil 4 had it, and they’re all copying Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace. Two games that no one wants to play anymore unless they’re waxing incredibly nostalgic to the point where they think they actually are reliving the 80s or have somehow traveled back through time to when the only place you could play games was the arcade and most of them looked like pixelated pieces of shit with the one exception being the laser disc run Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace kiosks. Those looked awesome! But they played about a thousand times worse than the pixelated pieces of shit…

These days the dichotomy between the graphics and gameplay has all but disappeared. You can make a game look as good or as bad as you want, and the gameplay can be as good or as bad as you like. The problem that arose from the increase in graphical quality (and this primarily concerns the rise of 3D graphics) is that things that LOOK really cool, are REALLY hard to program the ability to navigate on or around in a way that isn’t completely frustrating for the player. The intricacies of the artwork on a level can create all sorts of nooks and crannies that the character can fall or get stuck in that you could never possibly anticipate. So instead of relying on the geometry of the art to interact with the programming, we have to make blocky outlines of all the art that are much safer for the collision code to check and bounce against. That way all those nooks and crannies just look like nooks and crannies, they’re actually a flat plane that you will slide off or flatly stand on.

It almost seems like a step backwards. Why can’t the programmer make something that will deal with the art’s collision in a smart way and still be fun. Well, because it’s really freakin’ hard. Look at robots for example. They have a lot of trouble dealing with the flat surfaces of the real world. Programming simulations of that stuff is incredibly difficult to the point where millions of dollars of government cash has been sunk into the problem and only recently have we started seeing solutions. So instead the game industry takes the shortcut of ignoring the intricate 3d art that you’re navigating and puts collision boxes beneath it.

Which of course causes them to simplify all of their navigation areas. Sometimes to the point of absurdity. I’ve never been more frustrated in a game then when I try to make some simple jumps and I hit all sorts of invisible collision blocks. Of course, the worst sin is to remove jump from the game altogether. As though some inexorable God-like force is pushing down on everyone in the game and melding their feet into the surface of the earth. Honestly, if your game is 3d and you don’t have a jump button… Switch to 2D and make an adventure game.

Of course games can look too simple. Going back to play any game from 4 or more years ago will tell you that. I have fond memories of Super Mario Brothers, but when I play it… Well I don’t want to play it anymore. The same goes for Street Fighter II and any number of iconic games that I loved (and used to be cutting edge graphics wise) but are now just sort of sloppy looking messes. Only the very first games seem to hold up because they’re so pixelated that you have to forgive them for not looking super cool.

In fact, attempts to update the graphics on games like Galaga, Moon Runner and Asteroids just makes the game feel worse to play. Missile Command and games like it worked so well because of the simplicity of their design and their melding with the simple graphics. New graphics on those games just doesn’t feel… right.

Design has style just as art and music has style. When you are creating a game, it’s just as important to determine what your design style will be as it is anything else that’s going into the game. In fact, it’s more important, because design sets the tone for everything else. The reason Quick Time Events are a miserable failure in games, is because the design style is trying to fit the intended graphical effect. Sure, it’s pretty, but it’s also the worst of both worlds. You have an unfun game dynamic that requires you to look for button queues which means you can’t watch the fucking cinematic that you painstakingly made so cool and wanted them to watch in the first place.

And that’s just stupid…

posted by CommanderHate at 2:59 pm  

Monday, March 24, 2008

Professional Writers in Games
Why They Should Be Killed

It seems that there’s a bit of controversy over the use of writers in the game industry. Having done writing for several games and having dealt with “professional” writers on several occasions I thought I might have something interesting to add to the dialogue (though I’ve been wrong before). While I mostly agree with Mr.Maxwell’s post, I do think that writers can be incredibly useful for making a game in certain situations, however it’s always more fun to lay down the hate first so I will start with why they absolutely suck and are miserable on game projects.

First and foremost I want to say that I am specifically talking about “Professional” Hollywood-esque writers who typically have never touched a game in their lives and even the few who have are not really gamers in any sense of the word (as you or I would use it). These guys write pilots for tv shows, novels and screenplays for movies. Sometimes they write for reality shows or sitcoms. In all cases, their presence on a game is typically distracting if not outright disastrous.

The reason that I find them to be miserable to work with is primarily because they don’t know anything about games. Very few have any extensive experience even PLAYING the damn things, let alone knowing the subtleties of level design or various game mechanics. What you end up with in these cases is a writer who can’t figure out how they’re going to tell the story. They’re stuck thinking in terms of cinematics where there is no player input. They can’t comprehend how to introduce a character without them being in front of the player and interacting with them. Most of the time, they don’t know enough about the game to even figure out how the story SHOULD be told. In an RTS for instance you’re typically looking at tiny units on a battlefield. That’s not a conducive environment for a touching love scene between two characters, so you have to keep that stuff light or action oriented (see the original Starcraft for the scene where Kerrigan is overrun by the Zerg as Raynor is unable to act to save her). Most “Professional” writers won’t pick up on those subtleties when writing for games.

Can they learn? Yes, if you go over all the subtleties involved in writing for games, a “Professional” writer will start to pick up on certain things. However, they will also obsess over useless plot points and details. Game design is a fluid process and even the best laid plans can sometimes go to hell and require vast changes in the direction of the game. Boss encounters can be tossed, entire levels might get cut, replaced, or moved. The problem is, the “Professional” writers are still stuck in a very linear way of thinking. Attempting to explain to them why their epic intro is suddenly in the middle of the game and needs to be rewritten to accommodate for that will often end you up in a week long series of discussions and meetings. This is the true failing of “Professional” writers. They don’t understand game flow.

Now I mentioned all that to say this. A “Professional” writer CAN contribute to a game in a very positive way on certain occasions. If the game is 95% done and the writer can then overlay a story on top of it, they’ll probably do a good job. They can think linearly and don’t have to worry about sudden dramatic changes. That’s why in the case of “Professional” writers I recommend they be brought on to a project relatively late in development (maybe the month before Alpha) and for them to be directed to write within the confines of the gameplay and/or rewrite all the “temp” dialogue that may be in already.

While I don’t know the specifics of how Portal was written, I do know that all of the dialogue occurs between you and a computer which you don’t interact with directly for 95% of the game. A “Professional” writer can do very well in that sort of situation because none of the dialogue can interfere with or be screwed up by the gameplay (except in the case of explanatory dialogue, but that’s relatively easy to change and doesn’t screw up the overarching narrative of Portal). However, each individual game has its own nuances and ways to tell stories. A “Professional” writer is definitely NOT the expert on how to make story from gameplay and express plot points through the game world.

The best person to showcase the story through gameplay, is the game designers (be they level or otherwise). If you want to show the player that two characters care about each other, give them spells or abilities that work around helping the other character. If you want to show the impact of loss in a relationship and how it is viewed over time… Well, go play Braid (when you can), which btw, to my knowledge, does not have a “Professional” writer but still has a great narrative told via gameplay.

There are many types of game designers and some of them are extremely proficient and prolific writers (I count myself among that group, so grain of salt all this). It is this group of game designers that should be writing for games because they’ve not only done it before, but they understand the gameplay elements to such a degree that they can incorporate the flavor of the story in almost every section of the game. A good game designer/writer is able to put the flavor of the story into every bit of the game so that instead of being told what’s going on in the plot, you feel it in every action you take and every puzzle you interact with.

You see, there are good designer/writers and there are bad designer/writers. The bad ones ruin it for everyone and the sad truth is there are a lot of people who THINK they can write who make games, but are honestly absolute shit. That is often why a “Professional” Hollywood writer is brought in. The company feels they can’t trust the in-house writer so they want a “Pro” doing it. Sadly, what you end up with is often worse than what the bad designer/writer would have done who at least has an idea of how to ingrain the story into the gameplay. In many cases the game ends up being “written” by a committee of people, and the term “too many cooks in the kitchen” is a bloody understatement when you start reading the shit that comes out of those meetings.

That’s why I believe the game industry needs on staff writers on a permanent basis. Designer/writers are the perfect people for that job because they understand both writing and gameplay mechanics and can marry the two into an excellent story told through the game instead of on top of the game. When they aren’t writing, there are definitely plenty of other things that they can do with their design background so it’s definitely not a waste of time. In fact, if they were put in charge only of the story, they could be playing other designer’s levels to give feedback on how to tell the narrative better through the gameplay. Not only can they anticipate changes that will happen during the course of design and write to accommodate it, but they can anticipate required story changes due to gameplay changes LONG before a “Professional” writer would pick up on it. Of course, no game company will ever hire a designer/writer to just handle story…

The truth is that designer/writers are never respected within the game industry or outside of it until they have written and published a novel or screenplay or two. Unfortunately, as soon as that happens they get the hell out of the game industry because they can now make a TON more cash. $30,000 for the OPTION to use my script? Fuck games, I wrote that screenplay in a week. What? You get a TON more money if they actually DO use the script??! Why would I ever work for salary again?

So, if you are in charge of a game company and you have a designer/writer on your staff that is really good at writing. It’s time to look at seriously upgrading their salary to make sure they stick around. At the very least, don’t disrespect them by hiring a “Professional” writer to come in and take over what they were doing. We really don’t like that, and the game will be much worse off for it in the end…

posted by CommanderHate at 12:49 pm  

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pen and Paper?
When Game Designers Fail at Design

When I was growing up I used to play a lot of Pen and Paper RPGs. Shadowrun, Gurps, TMNT, Robotech, and of course, the ever present and always awesome, Dungeons & Dragons. I think that’s when my love of game design started because I would continually add on (crap) to the preset worlds, races and character classes of the game. Had I a mind for it, I probably could have published the hundreds of pages of backstory and history I made for fun. Of course, I was 12 years old so it was probably garbage, but it’s the thought that counts.

So when I finally got into the game industry, I was very excited to be able to do what I enjoyed most for a living. Creating worlds, writing stories and making game mechanics that were fun. Well, I started in Quality Assurance, so that was almost 2 years off, but the thought of it was constant in my mind. Then I learned that video game design and the purely written design I remembered from my youth were two entirely different beasts.

To become a video game designer you must learn a little bit about three separate disciplines. The first is what I had always wanted to do and that was fundamental Game Design. Game Design is typically the written portion of design. You’ll be writing out game mechanics in document form and sending them off to programmers later on. Writing storyline and characters is often included in this part, as the artists often need descriptive starting points in order to know what direction to take the artistic style of the game. The Game Design phase is often the first big push when creating a game. 90% of the documentation for the game is created in the first 1-6 months of a project and after that, the Game Design stuff is usually relegated to problem solving or fixing things that sounded good during documentation but actually ended up being miserable for actual gameplay.

What’s interesting to me is that Dungeons & Dragons pretty much consists entirely of the Game Design phase. After you’ve written out all the mechanics and play-tested them, you’re pretty much done. The only part that differs from video game design is that the polish phase begins here and all of the mechanics are thoroughly tested until it’s all deemed good.

Sadly, most video games could probably use a good layer of polish at the Game Design phase. What usually ends up happening is that due to time constraints or due to stupidity on the part of the design team, they decide that they need to see things running in game before they can determine whether or not the mechanics will work. While this might be true if they were doing cutting edge pie in the sky things that have never been seen before, 9 times out of 10 they’re doing the same fucking thing that not only every other company in the damn world has done before, they’ve already done it too, and the real reason they don’t do any testing of the game mechanics before committing to getting it into the game is because they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. They’ve never done pen and paper design. They can’t envision things from paper to what it would feel like playing in the final game.

Of course, the truth is, those people aren’t really designers. They’re monkeys wearing hats that have “DEZINER” scribbled on them in crooked crayon. If they had any design sense at all, they’d know what a tried and true feature would feel like in the end game, and more importantly, they’d be able to document the design of it in such a way that the programmer’s flawless implementation of it would feel perfect in the game on the first try. Alright, that last bit is slight exaggeration, but it’s not too far off.

A designer has to know what something is going to feel like when it’s put into play before actually seeing it in the game. Tweaking the gameplay later is a whole other beast, but if you can’t tell whether a feature you’re designing is going to feel good by playing it out in your head, you need to reconsider your career as a designer.

posted by CommanderHate at 1:18 am  

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

“My Boss is an Idiot!”
The Prevalence of Morons in the Game Industry

It seems that almost anywhere you go in the game industry, there’s that one moron who has no business being there. They gum up the works, their abilities are way below sub-par and yet no one seems to have the sense to fire them. Someone somewhere must have thought this person had the chops to do game development, but whoever thought that was wrong. Maybe a friend got them in, maybe their dad is one of the owners. You have no idea what series of sick stupid events caused it, but there they are. So you go about your work and avoid them as much as possible, when suddenly you find that they’ve been promoted… Above you… And your annual review will now be under them.

It’s not as though their incompetence is a mystery. It simply is… and everyone (including their former boss) acknowledges it, while simultaneously bringing up other “qualities” like loyalty and stick-with-it-ness and… loyalty… Basically that fucker was never going to be able to find a job anywhere else so they promoted him simply because he was a permanent fixture, and despite his incompetence, your former boss knows he can micromanage the crap out of him so it’s as if they can maintain power over their previous position while simultaneously moving forward and managing a larger portion of the company. Damn Powersnakes

Yet now you have an incompetent boss who interprets ideas poorly, and then goes to your former boss to poorly present these bad interpretations of your idea, who will then give feedback on these extremely poorly presented and interpreted ideas, which said feedback will then be poorly interpreted and poorly presented to you. Thus the company steadily degrades into a morass of shit flinging: the top guys blame the “monkeys” at the bottom who point directly at the idiots who were put in charge of them while those monosyllabic spewing morons wring their hands wondering how they’re going to keep their job when everything is going to shit. Well as it turns out a shittily run company can’t keep making games forever, and that’s when the real lunacy begins.

These festering fucktards who caused the company to crumble in the first place are now let loose on the job market with their years of “Lead” experience prominently displayed on their resumes. Anyone who doesn’t have the inside info on them (and most won’t) are going to think these people know what they’re doing. After all, they’ve been leading game projects for many years. Never successfully, but they’re not going to put that part on the resume. Thus, the moron who was your boss at the last job will now be boss over another group of likely talented individuals who are in for a hellish experience that may very well drive them out of the game industry. What’s worse, even if this person proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they are the greatest fucktard to ever live and breathe thus earning them a pink slip, they now have TWO companies on their resume showing extensive “Lead” experience and are on the fast track to becoming a director at their next game company.

After years of “experience” (mis) directing entire companys into the shitter, they then “retire.” Well, in actuality they’ve burned every bridge in the industry by that point, so they’ve nowhere left to go until a group of publishers who’ve never heard of what a colossal idiot that person is decides they want to fund a new project and see the myriad of “Lead” and “Director” titles on that person’s work background. They give that moron millions of dollars and they fund a Retard Rodeo that ends in disaster, blame everyone under them for its failure and then re-retire with another stockpile of cash. Hopefully forever…

posted by CommanderHate at 7:03 pm  

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

MMOGs and the Douche Bags Who Play Them

When I jump into a MMOG and want to have some fun, there are basically two types of people that I will run into. Cool people who want to have fun, and complete douche bags whose only purpose in life is to make other people’s play experiences as miserable as humanly possible. Sadly the latter out numbers the former by about 1000 to 1.Perhaps it’s the disconnect of having a machine do all the interaction with the other person for you. Text and even voice communication don’t seem to be enough to stop one human being from being a complete ass to another (although voice communication does seem to lessen it). It probably relates to Penny-Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, which I personally believe should be elevated to a Law (despite it occasionally proving false). Yet there’s more to it than just that.

You see, anonymity plus the disconnect of an interface between you and the other human beings involved also allows for people to be themselves without fear of reprisal. Though some people do play for the community aspects of these games, those are few and far between. Instead, what I think you run into quite often is people being how they would normally be in society if there weren’t any rules or socialization stigma. It might not help that most of these games encourage you to shoot someone in the face, but if these people had real guns and knew that they could shoot someone in the face without reprisal, wouldn’t they?

I honestly believe they would, and this has nothing to do with video games encouraging those behaviors. I think video games alert us to our true base natures. I myself have done some less than kind things in MMOGs (MMORPGS in particular, like WoW) but typically I have my own rules for when to stop being a douche bag. For instance, when someone is more than 10 levels below me, I don’t find it very sporting to hunt them… Unless they’ve been ganking people 10 levels below themselves, in which case I do it out of a sense of justice. Though thinking on it now, am I not just imitating the same behavior I looked at so despicably before? Wouldn’t the mere threat of my presence have been enough to get them to go away?

However, those sorts of cases are within the rules of the games played. It’s when an exploit is found that the real douchebaggery comes out. People using head shot scripts and other debauchery in a COD4 or Counterstrike game, or in the very easily hacked Diablo 1, warriors with 999,999 hit points launching 999,999 damage fireballs. Diablo is a great example of how, when it’s easy to hack the game, people will take it to the extreme, and then torture others using that new found power. Once it was done to a person, that person would seek out those hacks so they could then wreak havok on someone else who didn’t have them. I remember blasting someone repeatedly until they left the game in Diablo. Whenever they’d die, I’d pick up their ear. I had mules filled with player ears, and I would actively try to find them in battle.net games. When I did, I would jump into the town and drop their ears all over the place to mock them. Hate breeds hate…

But interactivity is the new gold standard in games. Everyone is working towards adding multiplayer components, and while the shrill cry of a 12 year old kid telling me he just kicked my ass in Gears of War is about as appealing as eating sand, I think I can tolerate one for the other because when I turn the tables and rub it in with an “In your face, little bitch,” I know they’re probably scarred for life whereas I can just shrug it off.

I’m such a douche bag…

posted by CommanderHate at 6:35 pm  

Friday, March 7, 2008

I Just Completed Braid

The end level is fucking ingenious. Well done, Mr.Blow. Damn well done. For that gem, you’ll have my money when Braid goes up for sale.

Gah, I’m gonna be late for work. Damn you, Jonathan Blow… Damn you… 😉

________________________________________
Since this page seems to get a ridiculous amount of traffic (even now), I thought I would link to my first impressions and formal review on Braid so that my cussing about how good Braid is isn’t the only thing people see. =P

posted by CommanderHate at 4:44 am  

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Diablo 3
Ancient Design Document

After receiving feedback I did a second pass on my documentation for Diablo 3. Here is what I came up with. Again, consider it fan fiction because it very likely is just that at this point (even though I’m not a fan of the Diablo series). I warn you, this is long and covers the three acts of the game that there… Would have been. Who knows what Blizzard is doing with the Diablo series now. Possibly a MMORPG?

Diablo III : The Nephalem

Intro Cin:

The World Stone lies shattered with Tyrael cowering under its powerful blast. As the debris clears, Talis rises from the darkness beneath where the Worldstone once floated. He is a powerfully built human, but with dark hair and eyes that indicate a dark nature. His features are chiseled and stern, but not unkind.

            He turns to where Tyrael still lies.

            “I am awakened Angel, but I see that your hand was forced. Did you really believe that I would be so easily corrupted by the likes of them?”

            Images of Diablo and his brothers flash across the screen for a brief instant.

            “They are insects to me, as are you.”

            Tyrael rises to one knee. He looks as though he were in pain, but eventually rises nonetheless.

            “What will you do, Talis? Have you slept so long that you no longer know the difference between good and evil?”

            Talis turns angrily upon Tyrael, he holds a hand up and a light flashes that knocks Tyrael to the ground.

            “Those petty distinctions are what made us leave in the first place. It is not me that you need to worry about. It is the other Nephalem who will be angered by their awakening and will seek to destroy.”

An image of the world being destroyed fades across the screen. A building collapses on some nearby people. The image fades back to Talis’ stern face, looking angrily down upon Tyrael.

“We were content to be apart from the world, but you have fouled that plan. As for me, if you must know, I will live among the people of this world and determine for myself if they have any reasons left to live. You could learn from my example, Tyrael. Your constant meddling in their affairs leaves them with little ability to think for themselves.”

            Talis turns away triumphantly, with another wave of his hand a portal opens to a lovely blue sky and a town in the distance bustling with activity (the same town the player will first see in Act I). He steps towards it, and then pauses. Without turning he speaks to Tyrael again.

            “The only thing that can stop the Nephalem, is another Worldstone, which is beyond anyone’s ability to create, save my own. You may… pray (said distastefully), that I find the inhabitants of this world more intelligent than the bowing, whining sheep I knew from before, when I sought escape from you and your more violent cousins.”

            Talis steps through the portal as Tyrael leaps towards him. The portal closes and Tyrael falls through the nothing left behind. He clenches his fists in frustration, and then flies straight up into the darkness, back towards heaven.

 

Fade to black.

 

*Technology note: Since this is a fully 3D game, we will be able to (and should) do in-game cinematics to go with the long story dialogues we usually have in the Diablo series of games.

 

Background for the Order: The Order is what the Paladins, Amazons and other seekers of justice turned into once the prime evils had fallen. They are very structured and constantly creating new laws that they impose upon others. They are swift in dealing with law-breakers and swifter in meting out punishment. Many people believe in the Order, and hold it as the ideal that everyone should strive for.

 

The Renegades: The Renegades is what the Assassins, Druids, and Necromancers became when they refused to take part in the Order. There were no stipulations in the Order’s laws for those who could make the dead rise, or who killed for profit, so despite their participation in the destruction of Evil they are generally looked down upon by the Order. Due to this, and other disagreements, the Renegades tend to stay away from the Order and their highly structured cities. Choosing instead to live in the wilds, or amongst people who think similarly to them (often in caravans, or tent cities).

 

Act I: The camera pans down into the midst of a bustling city. Though the sky is dark, people rush about their daily business as the rain begins to pour. As we move through the streets we get the distinct feeling that not all is well in this town. Armed guards are stationed at every corner, and people seem in a hurry to get on with their business. Though perhaps it’s just the rain, we soon learn that it is not as the camera moves through a doorway and settles on a town hall meeting. The man we saw from the cinematic stands upon a stage as he listens to people in the audience (townsfolk) state their complaints.

Old Townsman: “… but we cannot afford to lose another caravan to these marauding demons. Our supplies are thin as it is, something must be done to clear them out and find out why they have returned.”

Talis: “They are from Azmodan, though Diablo and his brothers are dead, there is no end to the demon lords that will rise to take his place.”

 

The crowd seems a bit skeptical having only recently celebrated the fall of Baal, a cry is heard of “But their numbers dwindle” amongst other crowd ramblings. Talis takes another step towards the end of the stage.

 

Talis: “Have I ever led you astray? For 4 months I have lived here, defending you from demonic invaders, pushing forward with your caravans to make sure you wares could be sold at market. There is little that I have not done for this town, and I have done it without any help from the Order. It is true, the demon hordes come ever closer to breaching the city walls, but I have good news. It can all end, very soon.”

 

*We see images of Talis leading charges against horrific creatures and defending caravans while he speaks.

 

The crowd is murmuring with approval, but in the back we hear the question we all know is on everyone’s mind: “But how?” Talis clears his throat.

 

Talis: “Three of you will step forward onto this stage, swear allegiance to me, and fight the demons back into the depths of hell itself.”

 

The crowd is skeptical, and some laughing is heard from the back. Another question is put forth: “Who will do such a thing? Who could?”

 

Talis: “That, I leave for you to decide. Many strangers have been passing through the town, seeking safety from the demonic presence outside its walls. Perhaps they will feel the need to return something to this community of people. However, who will step forward, if anyone, is not for me to decide. It is your lives that depend upon the people who have the courage to step on this stage.”

 

There is a moment of hesitation and a quiet hush fills the room. Finally, someone steps forward. One of the characters the player did not choose steps onto the stage and stands next to Talis. Talis says something insightful about the character (depending upon which class it is). The crowd cheers, and then another person steps onto the stage. Another character that the player did not choose. Talis again says something of interest relating to that class. Finally, the player’s character steps onto the stage.

 

Talis: “So it is done. You three will come with me and show me the bravery of your people. Your will to survive and do what is right shall be an inspiration to all. Meet me here, tomorrow morning at sunrise. I know you have much to do in the meantime, be quick about gathering your belongings and talking to family, friends, guildmasters, teachers, whoever. But be here tomorrow morning, ready to move and fight.”

 

Talis steps down and disappears into a backroom. The camera moves to gameplay position and the interface fades in.

 

*Design note: Time can be an integral part of gameplay. A clock somewhere in the UI could inform the player what time it is. This can impact stuff like the strength of the undead, or whether or not a crypt is deserted. Perhaps the only time you can kill the vampire is by defeating him in his lair near dawn and exposing him to sunlight.

 

Gameplay: The player can talk with the citizens of the town. Talking to the other two recruits will reveal that the player should talk to their own guild trainer. The town itself is large and has buildings that you can enter and explore, talk to people, and even kill a few monsters or clear out infestations.

The player is free to roam about the town and there are even a few minor quests that interact with the townsfolk. There are some demons trying to sneak into various parts of the town leading to small encounters, but nothing too life threatening. Eventually they will speak with their guild trainer.

 

*Design note: Guild trainers can be an important aspect of single-player, they can be your in-game manual. They can provide you with special quests, cool upgrades, specific information about how skills interact and what certain skills do, and information on people, like who to trust and who to betray. Perhaps they can be used in multiplayer to display information like the top player killers currently in the game, or give basic information about the type of template you are playing (if we were to have capture the flag, or Storm the Castle type scenarios).

 

The Guild Trainer will provide you with information about Talis and the town. He will also inform you (depending upon your class) whether or not Talis is someone you can trust, or someone you need to watch your back around. He will also give you a little information about the other two characters you will be adventuring with and whether or not you can trust them (this depends upon whether or not they share your allegiance to the Order, or the Renegades).

 

Eventually the player will head back to the town hall meeting area. Talis tells the three characters that they will be marching out of the town shortly, and that they must hold back a particularly nasty demon from crossing the bridge across the river near the town. If he should get across, he will destroy the town and everyone inside it. He must not pass the bridge. It will be several hours still until he arrives at noon, but in the meantime, the characters should kill any lesser demons they find snooping around the town, for they are surely a precursor to the beast to come.

 

At this point the town gate opens and Talis strides out, the other two characters follow suit, and the player is free to move in and out of the town as he pleases, killing monsters etc. The player can choose to assist the other characters or Talis himself (who hacks through monsters with ease, and may heal the player if they are wounded). Talis also guards the bridge and will not let the player pass (“It will arrive soon enough, continue seeking the lesser demons until then”). We can also stage events where if the player gets near, something special will happen, like one of the characters is wounded and needs a healing potion. These are essentially mini-quests that can earn xp, or perhaps give positive faction with the character you’re helping.

 

When the clock strikes noon you hear a mighty shout from Talis.

“It is here! Hurry to my side!”

When the player arrives on the scene he sees a mighty and nasty looking creature (A Necromos Demon, massive creature made of dragon bones vaguely resembling a bi-pedal man with a dragon head and tail) slowly crossing the bridge. Talis steps back: “This is your first test, do well, or die.”

 

During the battle with the Necromos Demon, the 2ndary characters will fight (mostly ineffectually, being batted off the bridge by the Demon, or pushed to the ground, but never slain) while the player does most of the main damage. The two other characters will assist in their own ways. If the player dies they can run back to the bridge from the nearby town.

 

After defeating the beast, Talis will tell you that you’ve done well but that this is the first of many trials. By tomorrow you will leave the town behind and move onto the deep wilderness, so they should say their goodbyes soon.

 

The gameplay then becomes much more open-ended. Talis and his crew move through the dusty roads on their way to his mysterious goal. He drops clues about what they are going to accomplish, but is purposefully vague. They occasionally stop in towns where the player can sell items, buy new items, and follow small quest paths. The overall feeling should be of a sprawling world with many towns and encampments. We can reveal a lot of information and history about the world in this way.

 

*Gameplay Note: Talis seems to move at a set speed, however, if the player runs too far ahead (say into the next town or encampment where Talis might initiate a new quest), it looks to the player as though Talis has just arrived there behind him. If the player is lagging behind and taking his time, Talis patiently waits at the next story node. When the player arrives we can initiate mini-cinematics to inform the player about the quest (these should be escapable). Players who are impatient can rush all the way to the final town and initiate all the important quests, then turn around and complete the ones they wish to.

 

Some quest paths to follow:

         The player learns about angels who left heaven of their own accord but did not end up in hell. They gathered some of the fallen from hell, and formed their own group, called the Nephalem. No one has heard from them in thousands of years. It is said they sleep peacefully beneath the earth, waiting for a time when balance is disrupted.

 

         There is a band of people called The Renegades who have nomadic camps all over the world. Talis points them out to the player saying that they are branded renegades because they refuse to be a part of the Order.

“You will meet the Order and learn all about them at some point in your life. As I have learned recently, there is nothing that they do not seek to control. You will know what I mean soon enough, I’m sure.”

The player can do some quests to help The Renegades gather food and fight off beasts of the wilderness that harass them, establishing friendships here and there for later.

 

     Talis reveals that they are ultimately heading to Arreat Crater where they must first defeat Azmodan’s guardian in order to gain access to hell. The guardian is a three-headed serpent and Azmodan’s favorite pet.

 

          Eventually, Talis leads them all the way to Arreat Crater, where Tyrael awaits them.

 

In Game Cut-scene: Tyrael hovers above Arreat Crater, he flies closer to the ground as Talis and the others approach.

 

Tyrael: “I knew you would turn to the forces of evil as soon as you were freed from the World Stone.”

 

Talis: “I don’t know what you mean.”

 

Tyrael: “Do not attempt to lie to me, you know who you are. You had full grasp of your senses when you walked through that portal of your own creation. The humans beside you obviously have no idea what power you possess, but I will not let you keep up this charade.”

 

Talis (in anger): “You fool! Can you not believe for even a moment, that one can walk the line between good and evil? Are there no shades of grey for you, Tyrael?”

 

Tyrael: “The only shades of grey I know of, are those you pass on your way to darkness. This has been long in coming, Talis. For your betrayal of the Seraphim and the Order, I sentence you to death!”

 

Gameplay: Tyrael flies at Talis and knocks him off the screen. The ground rumbles and we hear a hissing voice emerge:

“Who disturbs my master’s lair?”
The three-headed serpent, Rasazel, emerges from Arreat Crater’s opening. The serpent wraps one of the two non-player characters up in its tail, and swallows the other whole. The player must fight Rasazel alone. Once the creature is defeated, his friends are released from the serpent’s grasp.

Swallowed NPC: “Looked bad? You should see it from the inside!”

One of them asks the question: “Are you ready to move on?” To which the player can answer yes or no. This allows them to pick up weapons and armor, etc. Once they answer “yes,” the npc responds: “But what of Talis?” Weapons are heard in the distance, the screen fades to black.

 

Cinematic: Talis grits his teeth as he calls forth a weapon from thin air. A massive crescent axe with a long haft materializes in his hands and he gives it an effortless twirl showing his amazing skill with the weapon.

 

The camera pans behind Talis and looks up at Tyrael. Tyrael brings forth a fiery blue sword in his right hand, and a shorter red blade in his left. He crosses them against his breast as his wings block out the rays of the sun just before diving at Talis.

 

Talis blocks the blow from the blue and red blade with a double parry using the haft of his long axe. As Tyrael streaks away, Talis holds up one of his hands. A beam of light fires forth and barely misses Tyrael’s shoulder.

 

Tyrael: “I was weakened from my efforts when we last fought, Lord of the Nephalem. You will not find me such easy prey this time.”

 

Talis: “The outcome of this battle is inevitable, Arch-angel. You know my skills far surpass yours. I will never succumb to the will of the Seraphim, nor the Demons. I shall fight for…”

 

Talis is cut-off as Tyrael streaks by again, his twin swords striking three times as Talis parries again. We now see Talis is a little taken aback by the power of Tyrael’s attack. Talis again fires a beam, only to see it blocked by Tyrael’s blade.

 

Tyrael: “For the Order!”

 

Tyrael comes flying in again, but Talis is ready this time. As Tyrael thrusts with his red sword, Talis strikes it with a powerful blow from his axe. He quickly follows through with a mighty kick that stops Tyrael cold. As the Arch-angel slams to the ground, the blade of the axe cuts through the top of his right wing. Blue blood pours from the severed wing’s artery as Tyrael cries out in pain.

 

Talis (coldly): “The Nephalem will not rejoin your Order, your laws and justice will be your undoing. Perhaps the world needs to be thrown to the winds of chaos so that you can understand that your destiny should not be to enslave man with an overabundance of rules and…”

 

As Talis speaks, he foolishly turns his back to Tyrael, believing that the angel will hear him out. A loud “shunk” is heard, and we see Tyrael’s red sword burst from Talis’ chest. Tyrael moves his head near Talis’ ear.

 

Tyrael (stern): “A warm blade, for a cold dead heart.”

 

Tyrael plunges the blue blade into his lower abdomen. The axe drops from his hand, but disappears with a flash of light before it can hit the ground. Red blood pours from his wounds, and we see it fall to the ground in rivulets. As Talis begins to go limp, he starts laughing, very meekly to himself.

 

Talis (sickly): “You will be the end of us all.”

 

With that, Talis’ body turns to sand and falls to the ground. Tyrael grabs at a pile of it, but it runs through his fingers and is gone. The angel slowly stands, blood still oozing from his wounded wing. He turns towards the darkness and there are three shadowed figures standing there, watching in awe.

 

Fade to black.

 

Act II:

In Game Cut-Scene: The camera moves into a stunningly white room that is reminiscent of Sanctuary. Within it are many men and women, most in dazzling arrays of gold and silver armor. At an elegant looking massive curved table sit three people in the most stunning armor ever seen. The player should instantly recognize them as the Paladin, the Amazon, and the Sorceress from Diablo II. They sit like judges, high above the crowd. Below their table stands Tyrael, his damaged wing looking slightly better. Behind him stand the player’s character and his two friends. There is a conversation already in progress.

 

Thanistar (the Paladin): “But if it is true that this… Talis was attempting to consort with Demons and lead an uprising, why did you not come to the Order sooner?”

 

Tyrael: “I believed that I could handle Talis alone. His freedom was due to my actions. According to the laws, it was my right to pursue him myself.”

 

Serena (the Sorceress): “According to 317-A, yes, you could pursue him yourself, but only after receiving permission from the Order.”

 

Azonia (the Amazon): “Even Arch-angels are not above the law.”

 

Thanistar: “And as for you three. Aiding and abetting a criminal is punishable by death.”

 

Tyrael: “They had no idea who they were dealing with. When I spoke to the townsfolk that Talis stayed with, they were all under some sort of spell. They believed he had done nothing but good for them.”

Serena: “I detected no spell upon them…”

 

Azonia: “But they did slay Azmodan’s pet, Rasazel…”

 

Thanistar: “This is true, and there is the matter of Arreat Crater. Demons pour out from within it now… Very well, you three are hereby ordered to investigate the crater. Be warned that we will likely be watching you at all times. If you should turn to the side of evil, your deaths will be merciless. This meeting of the Order is adjourned.”

 

Several people leave and the player gains control.

 

Gameplay: The two characters who were the player’s companions in Act I are now his followers. In the absence of Talis, the player character has become the strongest leader of the three. To introduce the concept of followers, the player is allowed to choose one of his two companions. The other one will go off to “investigate” what has happened and learn more about the laws of the Order.

 

Design: It might be cool to have an interface for choosing the skill path that the secondary characters will take as they progress. They can also have all the equipment slots of a regular character, allowing for a lot of customization. Perhaps we can even have behavior patterns that the player can choose (aggressive, defensive, hold position, etc).

 

Gameplay: The game is now very open ended and the player has a large overhead map showing the Act I areas on one side of the map, and his current location on the opposite side. Though the player can venture all the way back to their very first town (we can hide some cool story elements and easter eggs there), it is clear that their primary goal is going into Arreat Crater.

 

Story Elements:  Some threads that the player can choose to investigate or ignore.

 

-Within the Order’s town, the player can learn about the history of the Order. Who is in charge and how they faced Diablo in the final battle. Etc.

 

-Talking with Tyrael reveals that he is concerned about Talis’ death. He believes others who are like him will rise to take his place. He warns you against joining forces with them and urges you to destroy any demons you find in Arreat Crater. He also reveals that he has been cast out from heaven for destroying the World Stone. Fearing a life of chaos, he subjugated himself to the power of the Order.

 

-There is an undead invasion that Thanistar would like for you to put an end to. Skeletons, zombies, ghouls, and other nefarious undead are striking close to the Order’s home. The player trails them back to a nearby tomb where a vampire-like boss babbles about Azmodan rising to power and destroying heaven itself.

 

-In the wilderness there is said to be a man who brings dead animals back to life and keeps them as pets. After defeating his cave filled with skeletal beasts, the player finds the man is old and senile, and mumbles about being one of the Nephalem. He vaguely knows Talis, but seems to fear him more than anything. He rewards with a wand that he says has caused him nothing but trouble. Everytime he uses it, one of Talis’ spies pops up from the ground to follow him wherever he goes. The wand allows you to raise dead enemies as pets.

 

-There are side quests for each of the secondary characters that are now attached to the player. They give some background about the class of the character and lead the player to small guilds or towns (or whatever is appropriate for the class) where you can buy cool weapons and upgrades for that class.

 

-There is a story told in the town of the Order about an angel who could not decide between heaven and hell. He argued with himself and tore at his own body and grew to hate his own indecision. He was cast from heaven into the pits of hell, but could not find acceptance there and was cast out again. Though he killed many people in frustration and anger in the world, he finally relented his own self-hatred and went to sleep with others of his kind where he could no longer harm people, or himself.

 

-The Renegades live nearby in the wilderness here as well. The player can get some quests from them and learn about their history against the Order and some interesting tidbits about what happened after Diablo had fallen, that the people in the town of the Order left out.

 

-Many stories about heaven and the society of angels that live there are told in the city of the Order. The people of this city are obsessed with angelic creatures and their way of life. Tyrael is feared as a suspected fallen angel, for the only angels the people know of who were cast out from heaven, are the demons of hell.

 

Main Story: The player eventually makes their way into Arreat Crater where they find hordes of demons in a frenzy. Though a difficult battle, they eventually make their way to the bottom areas of hell, where they find Azmodan sitting upon a throne made of Diablo’s bones.

 

In Game Cut-Scene: Azmodan looks like a normal man, but massive, and wears snake-like armor. Azmodan rises from his horrific throne and points at the player character and his two friends. Serpents rip from the ground and bind the three characters in place. Azmodan sounds highly intelligent, if not smug.

 

Azmodan: “Is this the best the Order has to offer? I wonder, what is it that made them send you instead of coming down here themselves?”

 

From the shadows, Talis steps forward. There are gasps from the player’s character and his side-kicks.

 

One of the characters: “Talis?!”

 

Talis: “Because they have more to hide than any man, or even demon.”

 

Azmodan: “This is true, I know every sin that is committed, and their list of hellacious acts could fill their precious heaven to every corner. Though soon, there will be little left of heaven in which to put it. Talis, open the portal!”

 

A massive portal opens, through which we can see shining beams of light and a city in the clouds. From the sides of the room hordes of demons in every shape and size begin to rush into the portal. They are seemingly endless.

Azmodan: “My greatest creations are not meant for mortal eyes. I leave the fate of these fools in your hands, Talis.”

 

A massive wall rises that blocks off the portal, Azmodan, and the lines of demonic creatures from the players view. At the same time, the serpents holding the characters crumble and they are set free.

 

Character (accusingly): “Why, Talis? What will this accomplish?”

 

Talis: “You would not understand my final goal. Nor could you appreciate it until you understood what I am. If you should survive, learn about the Nephalem. You must know your enemy to defeat it.”

 

Character: “But, who are you?”

 

Talis: “I am the Nephalem Lord, but I can no more control them than I can you. I merely made them sleep, but ironically they even grow tired of that. I could make them sleep once again, but that makes them the pawns of this war. One side seeks to corrupt them, the other to make them pay for imaginary crimes against the heavens. I would rather they choose their own fate… Just as you can choose yours.”

 

The walls begin sliding back down with a loud rumbling (The screen shakes). The portal, Azmodan, and the horde of demons are gone, but in their place is a massive horrific monster. It looks like a red skinned demon, but has Tyrael style angel wings on one side (glowing white) and a massive leathery dragon wing on the other. Its form is twisted and gnarled, but deadly.

 

Talis: “Choose life, my friends.”

 

Talis turns to sand and disappears while the monster attacks with searing beams of holy light and the rising flames of hellfire. When defeated he splits in to two forms, an angel and a demon. The demon drops a red tome before burrowing through the ground into the deep earth, the angel drops a white tome before flying straight up into the sky.

 

Clicking the Red Tome:

            The screen goes dark, words flash across the screen (Terror, Destruction, Sin, Chaos, Blood, Fear, Death). Flames lick across the screen. We hear a guttural voice speak the following:

“We wish the destruction of heaven, the humans are tools towards our ultimate goal; the razing of that which we were cast out from. The annihilation of heaven and all of its angels.”

 

Clicking the White Tome:

            The screen brightens, words flash across the screen (Law, Creation, Justice, Power, Order, Courage, Life). Rays from the sun slowly sparkle across the screen. We hear an enlightened voice speak the following:

“Those who oppose our will must be destroyed. The humans may serve our will on earth, and be our allies against hell’s demons. Ultimately, the demons must be slain and any who take part in their vile dealings shall share their fate.”

 

Upon reading the two tomes, they shimmer and light bursts from them. A portal appears between them as they vanish. Upon entering, the screen fades to black.

 

Cinematic: We see a dark tunnel beginning and are moving through it very rapidly. Streams of white begin to appear, and we slow in ascent as we see brilliant white clouds in the distance. As we get closer, we see that all is not well. Fires burn brightly upon some of the clouds and tendrils of smoke are seen in the distance. As we finally exit the portal, we see that demons and angels are fighting fiercely nearby. A horned demon smashes an angel with a massive cudgel, only to be suddenly pierced on each side by long silvered spears from several other angels.

            Nearby a demonic looking creature is chanting in an unknown language, it then points at the cluster of angels nearby. A ball of fire erupts from his fingertip and explodes upon the angels, 3 leap out of the way and take to the sky, but the fourth is burned alive.

            Other scenes of horrific combat take place as the screen goes dark.

 

Act III

 

Gameplay: The player joins the fray and fights demons that are in mortal combat with the angels. The fighting leads the player to the nearby cloud city of Arinaelle. They kill some creatures here and learn about Azmodan’s unholy creations. Apparently these new creatures have been able to push this war quite easily to the three gates of heaven. Heaven sprawls across many miles of clouds and there are several angelic cities in which the player can rest and learn about the events happening around him/her. Much of the story and plot can be revealed through angels that the player saves from death.

Each of Azmodan’s creations were born to slay the Keeper Angels (they maintain the secrets of heaven’s doctrine, and if Diablo and his brothers are the prime evils, these would be the prime saints). Each gate’s guardian gets slain just as the player arrives, the player must then defeat Azmodan’s creations, each one is a different element and can be defeated more easily by its opposite. One is of shadow, and can be fought with weapons and powers of light. Another is flame, and must be fought with weapons and powers of frost. The third is pure evil, and must be fought with the weapons and powers of good. As each beast dies it drops a key of the Three Gates. These keys can be combined to open the door to the Crown of Heaven.

Ultimately, the player finds Azmodan, who is at the Crown of Heaven, awaiting his creations’ return with the information he needs to unlock the crown itself. If evil wears the crown, heaven will be undone (or so the legends go). An epic battle is fought between the player and Azmodan. Angels fly in to assist, but are pushed back by demons summoned from nearby portals. The battle is ultimately swayed by the player’s attacks and the task of killing Azmodan himself is completely up to the player. Finally, Azmodan is destroyed and the portals fail with his demise. As the ash settles, another portal opens and Talis steps through while it closes behind him. Clicking on him poses the question: “Are you finished here, have you accomplished all that you wished?” To which the player can respond yes or no.

 

In Game Cinematic:

            Tyrael flies in to confront Talis.

Tyrael: “You fiend, you allowed this to happen. You brought Azmodan to the pinnacle of his power and unleashed him on heaven. How dare you step foot here when we cast you out so long ago.”

 

Talis: “I was not cast out, I left of my own accord, and as to helping Azmodan… My agreement was that I would not hinder his path, and I did not. I did know that our young friends here would step forward and fight for that which they believed, and it is to them you owe your gratitude for saving your… kingdom.”

 

Tyrael: “What is the meaning of this? Whose side do you choose? You raise heroes to fight demons you will not fight yourself though you have the power. What silent idiocy is this that you can step aside and let the whim of mortals decide our fate?”

 

Talis: “It is no whim, it is their right to choose, and in the absence of the Keeper’s of the Three Gates, and the Prime Evils, the choices they now make are more important than any they have ever made before. For as we speak, a war rages below.”

 

Fade to black.

 

Cinematic:

            The voice of Talis flows over the following scenes.

We see members of the Order in flowing white robes (paladins and sorcerers) stalking through the wilderness where some of the Renegades make their home. They see an encampment and spring upon it, only to find that no one is in it. Suddenly, druids and barbarians attack them from all sides.

 

Talis: “The right to choose has been absent from this world for many centuries. Though the powers of good and evil vie for supremacy, always, man is caught between them. They are forced to sway and bend to the awe-inspiring powers that lie in the clouds above, and in the fires below.”

 

We see assassins sneaking into the Order’s towers, slaying sleeping Paladins and other guardians. A sorcerer wakes up and unleashes a mighty bolt of frost that pierces two of the would-be killers.

 

Talis: “Man fought against the evils of Diablo and his brothers, and slew them all. Yet, when the fire and ash finally settles, a new order formed over them, filled with ideals that were not in the hearts and minds of every individual who fought for freedom. Beset on all sides by the tyranny of angels who believed they knew what was best for mankind, some chose not to be part of this Order.”

 

Skeletons and golems of blood pour over a misty hillside and down a valley, in the distance we see a city that can only be of the Order. The tall white towers glisten in the moonlight, and we can see knights in the distance already preparing for a long war. A necromancer in full armor points down at the city and the undead break into a run.

 

Talis: “Now, without fear of reprisal from angels, without demons to corrupt and destroy them, the people of this world shall fight for themselves. They will take up sword and wield arcane spells for what they believe in. This war is only the beginning, but you and I will no longer dominate over it. Let man claim the Crown of Heaven, or bury his heart in the depths of hell’s corruption. I have crippled our power over them and they are no longer victims of our will.”

 

We see Talis’ face for a brief moment, a wicked smile upon it as the screen goes dark.

 

The battle continues… on battle.net.

posted by CommanderHate at 11:46 am  

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Why I Love Braid
And Why It Might Fail

Jonathan Blow gave me the opportunity to play Braid recently, and I have been enthralled by it for a few hours each night before I go to bed (sadly, that’s my only play time, but I’d be playing it a lot more if I could). As a game, I haven’t had this much fun being challenged to think outside the box since the advanced levels of Portal. I’d even go so far as to say that Braid ups the challenge rating a notch or two and I’ve only played worlds 1 through 4 (though I’ve unlocked 5 and 6, I’m a bit obsessive about collecting things before moving on, but apparently it’s your choice whether or not you want to do that).

Part of what makes Braid so enjoyable is the knock on the door of nostalgia for Super Mario Brothers. Were you to go back and play Super Mario Brothers, you probably wouldn’t have much fun. Braid evokes the fun of the remembrance of that classic but brings the gameplay to a new level. So what is it that has drawn me into Braid?

The premise of Braid seems to have much to do with time travel. If you make a mistake you don’t die, you simply rewind time to before the mistake. Or you can rewind all the way to the beginning of the level you started. If you’ve gone too far back, you can fast forward to get closer to where you wanted to be in your timeline, but when you let go of the time shift key you give up the possibility of traveling forward in time. You would think that this would make the game too easy, but that’s because you haven’t seen the myriad of layers that go on top of this element.

Without giving away any of the actual puzzles, I can tell you that there are gameplay pieces that are not affected by your time travel (and they are marked distinctly). Now when you rewind you have to consider what those gameplay pieces will be doing since they will not rewind along with you and the rest of the world. There are also sections of the world where your characters movement will actually manipulate the time stream of everything around you. Braid is a 2d side-scroller, so you’re usually moving from left to right or right to left. If you move to the right of the screen, everything else moves forward in time, but if you move left, everything will rewind. This presents a lot of complexities and things that are seemingly impossible require you to re-examine how movement and your rewind ability will affect the game objects around you.

The artwork is entirely breathtaking and unlike anything I’ve seen before in a game. I’m no artist, but it has the feel of an oil or watercolor painting brought to life. It’s simply refreshing to see such a completely different style of artistry in a game. Particularly since I’m so used to the 3D photo-realistic crap which has begun to grate on my nerves. While some may not like the style of Warcraft’s artwork, at least it’s different (and I enjoy it, so meh). Braid has succeeded in differentiating itself from the vast majority of its competition as well with its own artistic style. From the opening screen you’ll feel it soaking into your brain.

The puzzles honestly challenge you to think in a whole new way. It’s not unlike the feeling that Portal gave me when I first had to figure out how to portal loop jump. You can feel your brain grinding away at the problem trying to come up with a solution, trying to understand these new concepts and somehow piece these incongruous things together. It’s true beauty for me.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Games that have challenged me in new ways and failed to succeed. It was called Psychonauts, and although it was a completely different genre, feel and play style, it did have a lot of the core elements that I think make Braid great but will ultimately fail in the marketplace. How can such great games fail? I’ve wondered myself for a while and here is what I’ve come up with.

People don’t get it.
Some people just don’t understand the core of what the game is about. In Psychonauts you’re basically plowing into the inner-most thoughts and psyches of the people around you. It’s a platformer with puzzle solving, but for some reason people didn’t seem to gravitate towards the world. I think Braid may suffer from the same issue. It’s an ethereal feeling environment. The story is told through little books you read on your way to level selection (done by opening doors). The very intro screen is part of the gameplay (I actually sat there staring at it for a good 2 minutes before I realized I needed to do something). Most people are confused by such things, and generally don’t like to read (he said contemptuously).

Portal (the success story) on the other hand was very familiar territory to players. Anyone who had played through Half Life or any FPS could easily grasp what was going on there. The science labs were not much different than the labs you start off exploring in Half Life 1. Photo-realistic real world-esque environments. People got it, and that allowed them to try the game long enough to realize they actually enjoyed it.

Where Braid might have a leg up is in the nostalgia department. Everyone remembers Super Mario Brothers and its various incarnations. I’m hoping that people can latch onto that nostalgia long enough to give Braid the chance it deserves. However, people are generally loathe to try new things. They like their ruts, and they’ll continue to strut along them until they’ve dug their own grave. Can Braid get them out of that rut?

They’ll get frustrated.
This is where Psychonauts gave me pause. Some of the jumping puzzles were a little silly and would make me want to quit the game in frustration. On top of that, their save system wasn’t the greatest thing ever, so it left you to do things repeatedly. Things you hated doing.

Portal had a similar problem, in that once you figured out a solution (or thought you had), you could still die repeatedly while trying to complete that solution. Fortunately, their save anywhere functionality (as well as constant automatic quicksaves) stopped this from becoming a big pain in the ass. In addition, they did a LOT of focus testing to make sure that those sorts of frustrations were few and far between (something Psychonauts might have benefited from).

Braid seemingly has the perfect solution to this. If you miss a jump or run into a bad guy, you rewind time and try again. In this way, even the hardest set of jumping puzzles can become much easier to handle (although I do wish there were a way to slow down forward progressing time so I could time the jumps a little better without having to do them 10 times in a row). In fact the frustration of death is pretty much removed entirely. You cannot die, ever (that I’ve seen).

Yet Braid has another problem entirely. Some of the puzzles are incredibly difficult to figure out and understand. Even when you think you know what you must do, you can spend several minutes doing one jump over and over again, or in a more complicated test, end up rewinding a full minute of game play and repeatedly retrying a sequence. The fact that some of these puzzles require you to really think in order to understand them might also be a huge turn off for a major audience. People really don’t like to think (sad but true).

They Won’t See It.
This is a very real problem for games that don’t lie within the normal boundaries that most games fall in (FPS, Action Adventure Sci-Fi, RPG). While Psychonauts was a platformer, its core concept of psychokinetic powers is pretty rare in games. That probably got the advertisers worried. Yet, I do remember there being a lot of ads for Psychonauts in magazines. Perhaps people glossed over it thinking it was just another platformer. Maybe they don’t know who Tim Schafer is so they thought it was some crappy clueless company producing garbage and spewing it on the market (like Shiny or The Collective). I don’t really know, but both Psychonauts and Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath had a severe PR problem. Despite countless positive reviews, both games pretty much faded before they even got a chance. I’m sure there are others like them, but I never heard about them…

Portal had two huge advantages towards achieving its popularity. The first was that it was packaged in a bright orange box that was crammed full of other goodies that any FPS person who had played Half Life was going to get. With Half Life 2, Half Life 2 episodes 1 and 2, Team Fortress 2, and a small bag of cocaine in the box, how could Portal not be seen? Anyone who enjoyed any of the other games were going to try Portal because it was in essence free.

I don’t know what Braid’s visibility is going to be like, but judging from the news coverage I’ve seen so far, I doubt it will be getting any real ad space. I suspect it will do very well in reviews, but as Psychonauts showed us, game review coverage does not equate to sales. The real trouble will be communicating the feel of the game without scaring away the people who don’t want to think (sadly, pretty much everyone). The first few worlds of Braid are quite accessible so maybe positive word of mouth will spread and make it into a success. It’s honestly hard to say, but my biggest concern for the success of Braid is Jonathan Blow himself.

The Creator Won’t Make it Accessible
I don’t doubt that the creators of Psychonauts and Portal both tried to make their games accessible. What Portal was able to do though was test every little bit of its game constantly and consistently to find exactly where people had trouble. They would then go in and make it easier or more obvious how to complete that area of the game. Where I think Mr.Blow’s Braid will come into trouble is his seeming unwillingness to remove the areas of the game that might cause confusion, or to “dumb down” the puzzles that may be too difficult for your average citizen. I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m being too presumptuous.

People are really simple creatures. They don’t want to think too hard in order to solve a problem. What made Portal work so well was that they removed anything from the narrative story that was too hard for the vast majority of people to understand after a bit of probing. I know that Mr.Blow is trying to push that boundary of understanding in people with Braid, but perhaps he’s more optimistic about humanity than I am. Ultimately I think that his goal of making people think, though noble (and I respect it whole heartedly), will ultimately fail. I fear that Braid may fail (in sales) along with it.

Optimism?
I honestly want Braid to succeed. I think there are a few minor things that could be changed to make it a little more accessible, and there are some other minor things that could turn it into a more consumable product. Accessibility wise for instance, the intro screen doesn’t give any clue that you’re playing the game already. After 10 seconds it should probably bring up some subtle text at the bottom that tells you how movement works. Just a few bits of explanation here and there could get rid of some of the confusion that I had while I was playing. Those are relatively minor points.

The more consumable aspects I don’t want to get into because they are puzzle related and I don’t want to ruin anything. I will say that there were a few instances that completely befuddled me and I will probably need more time to contemplate and then go back and try again. What’s interesting is that you can bypass a lot of them entirely if you get frustrated. It’s the collector in me that forces me to keep trying them over and over again. If this were the case in Portal, Valve would likely remove or decrease the difficulty of the puzzle in question that had the player base stumped (I’m assuming I’m above average at puzzle solving, maybe that’s just my ego talking though). Can Jonathan Blow do the same? I think so. I hope so.

Braid is a great game, and I do want it to succeed. So much so that I’ll be advertising it for free when it does publicly release. I’ll even offer up some bandwidth for on-line sales and create a store if they’ll let me (hell I want a cut if I’m wrong and it does reach commercial success, and if I’m right at least I tried to help).

So, here’s the deal. If you didn’t buy Psychonauts when it came out, shame on you. Braid is your chance to make it up and even perhaps, evolve a little as a game player. I guarantee you something beyond what you’ve experienced from your game library thus far. I know, I know, you want to grind out some more experience in WoW or gank someone in CoD4. Who gives a fuck about those games? You’re going to see another one just like it within the next year or two. Try something that actually pushes video games forward for a change. Maybe it won’t be for you, but at least you tried and supported something that wasn’t part of the stagnation/sequelitis problem that plagues our industry.

posted by CommanderHate at 7:19 pm  

Monday, March 3, 2008

Computer Upgrades
The joy of being a developer.

I just got a computer upgrade at work. It loads windows in about 3 seconds. That in and of itself isn’t so amazing, but what is amazing about working in the game industry, is that I can expect another upgrade like this within the next 2 years.

Technology just flies by when it comes to games, because everyone wants their game to look amazing. To look amazing you have to use the latest technology and to use the latest tech in your end product means the people making the game need that technology in order to play and test what they’re making. That’s why I have to wonder how cutting edge tech games like Farcry are able to keep up. Their games really aren’t that great (Farcry was pretty much a failure in my book), yet the technology was amazing. What went wrong?

I don’t know for certain, but I imagine that using such cutting edge technology (far in advance of what consumers really had at the time of release) meant that their development team (who had been working on it for a few years) were probably unable to really test their gameplay to the extent they should have been able. That would explain the lackluster gameplay and why some areas of the game looked like mashed dog food (particularly the interiors) and played similarly. The other possibility is that they added all the technological goodness at the end, which means that however cool their gameplay might have been before, this sudden dumping of new technological features would suddenly dramatically change the entire game. Thus rendering what might have been fun, suddenly unfun. No doubt the machines of the entire team weren’t upgraded at the same time. I wonder how many developers were unable to continue to work on their own levels due to the dramatic upscaling of the tech (or at the very least, they probably had to play them at around 15 FPS judging by my experience playing Farcry on its lowest settings when it came out).

Of course, all of that is only really related to PC development. If you’re making games for the consoles, your tech requirements are greatly lessened (particularly if you’re making games for the Wii). The beauty of console development is that you don’t have to keep up on the latest technology trends in order to compete. Would Doom 3 have sold as well as it did were it not the latest and greatest video card overheating technology to hit the market? Let’s face it, the gameplay wasn’t that great. Spawning monsters directly behind you with no warning is pretty much a huge no-no in the game design world (sadly some developers don’t pay much attention to game design world). So what made it sell? Getting to see the latest game engine boosts that Carmack could come up with.

Truth be told, one of the best parts of being a game developer is getting to play with the latest and greatest technology on the market. It helps me figure out how I’m going to upgrade my home computer.

posted by CommanderHate at 3:51 pm  

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