Why the game industry sucks

(Part 1 in an infinitely–long series.)

Hot off the presses is the sadly unsurprising news that Mirror’s Edge, the daring (and dashing!) new first–person platformer from the developers Dice and the studio EA has yet to soar at store counters.

Ignore that the post is based off conjecture and some solid rumors from the back alleys and let’s assume the premise is true. Mirror’s Edge for a variety of reasons has failed to make an impact. So let’s go analyze this presumed failure (and remember, you can still change! I’m the Ghost of Christmas Shopping Future so go out and buy Mirror’s Edge on Black Friday).

Gamers constantly complain that the industry lacks new IPs, new characters, new brands, and new gameplay ideas. Mirror’s Edge delivers all these in spades so it certainly doesn’t fail on those demands. Again, the caveat here is that gamers like most customers at times hardly know what exactly they want themselves, but lets assume these demands are true and actually desired.

Where Mirror’s Edge supposedly fails is its length. Or rather, the length of the game as compared to the price of the game. Mirror’s Edge is a full–fledged release priced at 60 dollars like most major titles released for the HD consoles (the 360 and PS3). However, Mirror’s Edge rests on the short end of game length for most typical major releases. The first run of the single–player story in Mirror’s Edge will typically last around 5–6 hours which compared to what’s normal (a 10–12 hour single player campaign or so). What this translate to is that Mirror’s Edge is now considered a short game in the eyes of many players — there’s little bang for the buck.

Ignore that this characterization ignores concepts like replayability for the main story mode in multiple difficulties or the various speed run modes of each level or even the time trial sections that allow you to run through specially–designed race courses built from the game’s environments. Mirror’s Edge has been branded with the dreaded stigma of being a short title, a rental title, a non–buy. Gamers who seek to derive the most playtime from their dollar will move on to other titles.

And this is where the game industry sucks. Modern games and the industry in general has become less about enjoying games thoroughly and more about churning through content. Modern single–player games in particular are guilty of this crime as the devolve further and further into interactive rollercoaster rides. Gamers love the twists, the turns, the epic scripted action sequences and the narrative–driven events that push the player forward in the Gears of Wars and Halos and Metal Gear Solids of the world. Gamers are addicted to the adrenaline rush of the tightly–paced sequence. And once they’re done with that rush there’s no urge to replay it. You dump it, resell it to Gamestop, and move on. It’s a rush to complete at the moment of release so you can move on to the latest rollercoaster.

It’s a demand that has transformed games into gigantic content munchers. Heaps of content delicately modeled and scripted that can’t be reused, expensive to make and even more time–consuming to produce. As the fidelity required in games rises so does the effort in creating this churnable content and so does the price of the game itself. So developers and publishers find themselves having to trim games in every way they can, cut the excess, but pad it enough that gamers don’t create a backlash to cries of being shorted valuable hours. Shorter games should theoretically lead to less expensive games, but as long as gamers enforce some arbitrary requirement of time and demand the same amount of carefully crafted content, game prices will remain high if not higher.

In this industry, brevity is a sin. It’s a ridiculous standard, like declaring a movie better because it runs 20 minutes longer. Games like Portal should have been the start of the short revolution, games that don’t sacrifice playability for any arbitrary length of time. Games like Mirror’s Edge should be praised for not containing fat in its story, for avoiding useless filler to deliver a compact experience. Instead they are denigrated for being thrifty in its content despite that Mirror’s Edge would not have been a better game at eight hours instead of six.

So that’s where we are. Let’s step back from the ledge and start concentrating on delivering the right experience rather than the longest one. Otherwise the industry will just continue to suck.

Design lessons from Chrono Trigger

This week sees the release of Chrono Trigger for the DS, an expanded port of the classic SNES RPG. For a game that has garnered a huge amount of critical and fan praise in recent years, outside of the misunderstood Chrono Cross (and a Japanese–only visual novel game) Square has avoided its usual tendencies to run the series into the ground.

As a relative youngster, Chrono Trigger was one of my favorite games growing up. And even now, despite its age, Chrono Trigger holds up remarkably well as a game. More as a whole than a sum of its part, there are still elements of Chrono Trigger that deserve attention.

  1. Seamless design. One of the few major changes with Chrono Trigger was how battles were both non-random and occurred in the same environment with exploration. Most RPGs then and now still utilize some form of random combat encounters and just about all RPGs still transition to a battle screen during combat. Chrono Trigger discarded both of these tropes for the better.
  2. Simple enough. Chrono Trigger didn’t have a whole lot of complexity or innovation in its battle system. Characters have three basic commands, attack, magic, and items. The battle system itself is basically the same active battle system used in games like Final Fantasy VI, a compromise between turn-based and real-time games. The only significant new battle feature were the tag team abilities of dual and triple techs where characters could combine their attacks into a more powerful one. Yet despite the lack of newness to the system it remains a joy to play. Battles are fast and simple, but rarely boring. There’s always action and just enough strategy to keep players interested.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Chrono Trigger still stands out as one of the few genuinely funny RPGs available. It’s not a comedy, but Chrono Trigger is always aware of the sometimes ridiculous nature of its own story and characters. Moments like the trial of Crono, the ineptitude of Magus’s henchmen, and even its secret ultimate programmer ending show a level of self-awareness that provides much needed levity in the game. The story still reaches for the dramatic at times, but you’re never too far away from some slapstick or witty dialogue to bring it all back.
  4. Polish is essential. Chrono Trigger more than anything shows how much effect polish can have on the game as a whole. There’s not a single part of Chrono Trigger that doesn’t show a high level of love and care. The sprite work, the musical score, the dialogue (and excellent translation), even the tried-and-true story all demonstrate an obscene level of polish that would make most games envious. Chrono Trigger is a game where you can feel the love everyone had working on it.

These aren’t groundbreaking design rules here. But rarely do they all come together in a single product like Chrono Trigger. Be sure to pick up Chrono Trigger on the DS and maybe with good sales we can see Square–Enix give us the forever-rumored Chrono Break someday.

Falling off the Mirror’s Edge

Mirror’s Edge is a wonderful game. It’s unique, visually stunning, and at moments provides some of the best gameplay on any gaming system this year. If you want to read paragraphs of flowery prose singing its praises there are plenty of other websites out there that will satiate that need.

To the point, its more interesting to discuss the game’s flaws. And Mirror’s Edge is by no means a perfect game. And one of the most interesting failures of the game is how badly the story is delivered to the player. Mirror’s Edge’s strengths lie in its gameplay and its story is not exactly Philip K. Dick levels of sci-fi dystopian intrigue, but the game’s weak story is made even worse by the poor execution.

Games have generally always had a hard time figuring out effective methods of delivering narrative to the players. As game stories have gotten lengthier and more involved (if not better scripted and more interesting) games have had a tough time figuring out how to insert these relevant plot points into the thick of the game. Cutscenes delivering these necessary narratives inbetween portions of the game have long been the preferred method of delivery.

But starting with older games like System Shock and Half-Life continued on in recent games like Bioshock and Portal games have gotten more ambitious in attempting to tell the story during the midst of gameplay — or even better — through the gameplay itself. Whether they be audio logs left behind that can be listened to fill in exposition or actually making the player execute certain plot important actions games have gotten more sophisticated in providing this (warning! bullshit marketing term ahead) immersive experience.

Portal in particular seems to be one of the more recent high watermarks in this mode. The story of you and GLaDOS is not one filled with a ton of action. In fact, most of the actual story has occurred in the past with the sad history of Apeture Science. Yet through its clever techniques of constant narration and chatter from GLaDOS and punctuated by some memorable environmental storytelling, the telling of the story of Portal is particularly compelling. Combine that with some clever writing and plenty of raves have been written about the narrative elements of Portal in the past year.

Unfortunately, Mirror’s Edge seems to ignore these methods for the standard cutscene-gameplay-cutscene-gameplay method. The cutscenes themselves are of relative poor quality, the 2d Flash animated sequences contrast far too greatly with the rest of the game and the animation itself isn’t anything to write home about. Mirror’s Edge in particular is disappointing because outside of these sequences there’s nary a moment where you’re not viewing the world from your character Faith’s eyes. The game has a few moments where events will occur within the actual game world, but even these are strictly camera controlled, as if the developers (or EA) feared that players might shift their attention elsewhere.

It’s a complaint that hopefully will be rectified in any upcoming sequels to Mirror’s Edge. Until then, gamers will need to be satisfied solely with the (mostly excellent) gameplay of Mirror’s Edge and have to get their narrative chops elsewhere.

(Full apologies for my inability to resist puns in titles)

The amazing generic avatar

Yesterday, Microsoft’s big Xbox 360 update, dubbed the New Xbox Experience (or informally the NXE) was released to the wide public after being hyped up for the better part of the second half of the year. It brings a host of improvements and new features that don’t need to be discussed here.

One of the biggest new features in the introduction of avatars, lovable cute little representations of ourselves. No longer the sole domain of Nintendo and their Miis, Microsoft saw fit to jump on that bandwagon with their own flavor of avatars. And its non-optional, one of the first things you’re prompted to do after you install NXE on your 360 is create at least one avatar representing yourself.

For the most part, the 360 avatars follow the fairly standard script created by Nintendo. Curiously enough, you’re not asked to choose a gender when representing your avatar, but you can choose from a small range of templates (evenly divided into male and female virtual representations) and then modify from there. The typical facial features like eyes, nose, hair, and ears can be altered. Going even farther then what Nintendo provides, you can play dress up with your avatar and choose from a fairly limited selection of clothing.

But that’s about as interesting as it gets. Even though Microsoft has had a full 2 years to copy Nintendo’s Mii interface and process, the NXE avatars don’t come anywhere near as close to the variety of things you can create with the Miis. Forget doing something like Zoidberg or Vulcans here, you’ll be lucky enough to get something that moderately resembles you. The facials features are relatively limited, there’s not a large number of different body parts to use and even more curiously you have no control over their placement and size. So if you have a huge forehead or big nose, good luck accurately trying to replicate that with your avatars. In the end they all resemble people who vaguely look like you which is a far cry from some of the more creative Miis out there.

The other design decision that hurts avatars is that their key differentiating factor, clothing, is severly hampered by Microsoft’s decision to make clothing purchasable on the Xbox Live stores. Clothing right now can’t be modified in any meaningful fashion, no choosing a t-shirt and then choosing the color or anything like that. It screams of “buy more clothes when they’re on sale!”.

But really, all this fuss may be over nothing. Avatars right now are almost entirely superfluous. A large part of the success of Miis comes from how tightly integrated they are into just about all of Nintendo’s casual and expanded audience lineup. Even in games where Miis aren’t necessarily used like Mario Kart you’ll find them littering the grandstands and roadsides. Right now, only a few games use avatars (most of them casual Xbox Live Arcade games). While we can expect Microsoft to heavily push avatar use in future titles, right now there’s not much need for them at all.