Think small is thinking big

At the DICE recently many videogame companies both big and small have talked about recent economic times and how they relate to the recent troubles of both publishers and and developers. Most people like EA CEO John Riccitiello have viewed the layoffs and disappointing sales of some big-budget titles as a temporary setback to the era of blockbusters and enormous games. And once these tough economic times are over normalcy will return to players and consumers and the trends of gaming will continue on as usual.

However, Nintendo despite the enormous success it has found with both its DS and Wii gave a more pessimistic view of the industry. Games, they argue, are not a recession-proof industry as so many others have claimed. And their answer for developers and publishers is simple: make smaller games.

It’s a claim that I’ve been championing for quite some time as some of the best recent game experiences have been through shorter games that knew exactly what they wanted to do and accomplished that in their shorter length. Games have naturally been gravitating towards shorter lengths just due to the practical realities of modern development. Few developers no matter how rich they are can make 50-hour epics nowadays. So rather than sell an epic game short, the better answer is to sell a small game big. Turn your small game into a Portal or a Gravity Bone and gamers will flock.

The final note from Nintendo’s talk is how they’re looking to bring indie developers onboard with DSiware. DSiware is the new downloadable service that will launch with the DSi and has a number of good games already come out for the service in Japan. Yet this is the first time I’ve heard of Nintendo actively pushing for indie developers to develop for the fledging platform. While it remains to be seen how many DS owners will feel compelled to upgrade to the DSi, it seems like another avenue worth exploring for the indie developer.

The style of thatgamecompany

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One of the unfortunate drawbacks of the modern game creation process is the loss of stylistic lineage that can be traced directly back to a company or even a single person. Directorial influence can be difficult to discern when there are dozens if not hundreds of people involved in the creation of a game.

Of course it didn’t use to always be this way. One only needs to go back two decades or so, when games were created by small teams or even a single person to see how influences could be attributed. It was not unusual for publishers on these older systems to directly tell gamers who was responsible for the game on the box much like movies with their “directed by” bylines.

Recent indie games harken back to those days. It’s easy to tell the difference between Edmund McMillen game and a Nifflas game. And no person or company for that matters best displays this singleminded adherence to a particular style then Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany.

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Last week’s release of Flower for the PSN is the 2nd official release for thatgamecompany and the 3rd in a line of games that clearly demonstrate the similar design principles and concepts. These games (Cloud, flOw, and now Flower) in one way or another derive influence from Chen’s thesis on flow in games.

The thesis is mainly concerned with how to optimize changes in game difficulty to accommodate the best experience for players. But I feel the particular style that thatgamecompany’s games have adhered to this point have expanded beyond just that. Game difficulty still is largely in the player’s control, but these games have also minimized the chance of failure or outright done away with the idea. Players can do better or worse in these games based on their own metrics, but the game doesn’t consider or punish or reward players for better or worse play other than an increasing the visual and audio stimulus. The end result is a relaxing environment where players are free to explore, experiment, and do nearly whatever they please at their own accord.

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Cloud, flOw, and Flower also focus heavily on the audio and visual components to entice players into this state of ease. The graphics tend to favor the bright and well-lit, there’s a softness to their images that takes the edge off. The audio is similar, the music and sound effects are warm and inviting, stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in a New Age album. In some moments there are even hints of a bit of procedural music as the sound effects are chimes and notes that tie into the main melodies in a soothing way.

Styles are useful and important. Useful because they allow players to implicitly follow and trust release to release from a company or person. Companies like EA or Ubisoft are too large to have a company-wide style. Even the individual dev teams from these companies have to many cooks in the kitchen to effectively parse, at best you hope that certain directors or designs you know and trust can keep the soup from turning out bad. But when there’s a new release from thatgamecompany people already know a lot of what they’re going to get. And fans of previous games can take comfort in trying out newer or older releases with that knowledge in hand.

And these game styles I feel are important for the maturation of games as art. It becomes important for us as consumers of games, as observers of games, and critics of games to see such direct descendants from game to game. Going from Cloud to flOw to Flower you can see the changes, the lessons learned, and the subtle nuances each new game adds or subtracts as the company, the development team, and the creator grow into their own. These personal styles for a company or specific developer/designer aid in this analysis.

It’s a wonderful aesthetic and style that thatgamecompany has found for itself and its a wonder that they’ve taken such a contrary position to just about all the norms established in the game industry and managed to find themselves Sony’s poster boy for the PSN network and their own indie contingent. Here’s to more “flow”-ful games in the future.

Over the precipice with Killzone 2

Killzone 2 is coming out soon for the Playstation 3. This much-hyped tentpole release from Sony and Guerilla is aiming to set the standard for technical excellence and polish for the HD-generation of consoles. I have yet to play either demo or game, but judging by the numerous reviews it’s definitely no slouch. And by in large most critics have agreed with near-unanimous acclaim and good reviews.

Let me repeat that before we continue. Killzone 2 has gotten good reviews everywhere. It’s current MetaCritic score (for what it’s worth) is a 92. Many publications has bestowed upon it their highest possible rating. There are no negative reviews out there. No one has yet to say anything poor about Killzone 2.

So you think with all this good press no one would be complaining right? A good game for people to enjoy might create a lot of discussion, but shouldn’t create rancorous debate. Well, you would be wrong. Killzone 2 perversely has become one of the hottest topics in games.

Apparently a series of perfect scores and universal praise is not enough to satiate the Sony fanboys out there. One only needs to look at their responses to Edge Magazine’s review which game Killzone 2 a 7 out of 10 (which is still a “good game”). Or the complaints about IGN’s 9.4 review for the game. Even Adam Sessler has been under siege over X-Play’s 5/5 review of the game.

Fans are attacking a show because their perfect score wasn’t good enough for them. A perfect score was not nearly enough adoration for Killzone 2.

Console fanboyism is par for course in games. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo fanboys have been duking it out for as long as each respective company has been invested in games (and Sega fanboys before them and so on and so forth). But the level of vitriol is so high for Killzone 2 that even observers normally immune to such outbursts are taking notice on the sheer insanity of the rants.

Killzone 2 is the recipe for the perfect storm of fanboyism. It’s a huge blockbuster title for a languishing console whose fans have had little to cheer about in recent months. The game has been on a rollercoaster of hype for over a year. The quality of the title is high enough that fanboys feel justified in belching out their raves. So the fanboy pride wasn’t unexpected entirely. What was unexpected is the way they’ve turned on the people who are supposedly on their side. The Edge review was low enough that the backlash could have been anticipated. But arguing IGN or GameTrailers or X-Play’s overwhelmingly positive reviews?

These people shouldn’t be taken seriously regardless and there’s no doubt they represent a small, but very vocal minority of actual readers and viewers of these various publications. But reactions like this don’t exist within a vacuum. Too many sites and publications foster this sense of separation within the games community. PS3 gamers are separate from 360 gamers are separate from Wii gamers are separate from PC gamers. These divisions are not built on similar interests, but just ownership of a particular piece of hardware as if that fact had some meaningful distinction. Implicitly they shift the debate within games. If I had my way, I would be arguing that Killzone 2 for all its polish and technical excellence doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything new or original. The actual debate should be focused on whether we as an industry reward canned polish too much. But because of the brouhaha over these reviews hardly anyone can mention such issues without being branded as biased due to singling out Killzone 2 as if he or she had some vendetta against the Playstation 3.

I don’t know if we’ve reached a tipping point when it comes to hyperbolic overreaction amongst fanboys. That’s something we’ll need to judge after the Killzone 2 wave has passed. And while the PS3 has a couple of heavy-hitters left in their lineup this year (Heavy Rain, Uncharted 2) I wonder if anything can get the fanboys as rabid as Killzone 2 has. And thankfully for the most part the reaction has been shock and indignation from various observers, the responses from the fanboys are pretty much self-parody.

And thankfully, my blog is inconsequential enough that I should be immune from fanboy criticism.

Battlefield 1943 and the copy-cat game

Last week, EA and DICE announced a new entry into the Battlefield franchise, Battlefield 1943. On first glance, BF1943 looks like a return to the classic origins of this franchise. A return to the massive battles where large teams would coordinate on a single map with a variety of different player classes using an assortment of vehicles to capture flags and obtain victory wrapped in a shiny new graphical engine. And while this would have been nothing groundbreaking the original Battlefield 1942 remains a classic multiplayer game with its own unique sensibilities and the controlled chaos present in every game of Battlefield 1942 was a fond experience for many online players.

And originally this post was going to be one reminiscing about some of the better aspects of the original BF1942. But each new detail that emerges about Battlefield 1943 seems to sap my original enthusiasm about the game. Forget that there are only three maps on release and a hard cap of 24 players per map. The reduction of the Battlefield class system to three classes that are all variants of soldier, the removal of a lot of player control concerning transports like ships, and the additional of regenerating health and infinite ammo are all major causes for concern at this point. And with all those changes, its the simplification of classes that gives me the greatest concern.

The stated reason from New York Comic-Con about the changes to the original class system was so that “every class [would] be able to fight in every situation.” And on a certain level, that makes sense. It is frustrating to end up in an in-game situation where your character is completely helpless and the only end result is death. After all, if you’re playing alone there’s very little you could do.

But that’s frustrating in a single-player experience. And Battlefield is by design a team game. Conflicts are between groups of players that should be diversified to provide the best chance for victory. In order to win in the previous Battlefield games you couldn’t just have your scouts and gunners, you needed your engineers to repair vehicles, you needed your antitanks to protect your encampments from enemies, and you needed medics to keep everyone else alive. All these classes played vital non-combative roles that were necessary for victory. So if you were a soldier and you came running into a tank it was not a death sentence because you could count on a teammate to bail you out (assuming you had a good team).

If the problem was that these classes weren’t deemed “fun enough” to play without the gun-fighting, that’s a problem with making these classes more rewarding. Valve has tackled this situation admirably in Team Fortress 2 as the various secondary/support classes have had a lot of attention paid to their mechanics in order to making them rewarding to play even when the player isn’t fighting. This is even more true in TF2 than in Battlefield, medics for example must always be firing their heal beam in TF2, an ideal medic will never have to fight! Battlefield’s medics by contrast were still an important class that could hold their own in a pinch, you just wouldn’t want to do that all game.

Really, it almost feels like EA and DICE were afraid that lone wolf players would be constantly punished for running into situations they wouldn’t be able to deal with. But team games should punish lone wolf players. It makes good sense in a game where everyone is organized into teams to reward players who help teammates and punish those who go out on their own. Yes, it is frustrating when you end up with a bad team, but that would be true with or without these changes to the class system. Call of Duty’s multiplayer allows for lone wolf gameplay consistently yet the frustration remains when you lose because the rest of your team performs poorly. Bad teams will exist regardless of these alterations.

The last thing is that it’ll be argued that these changes were implemented to allow casual players a game with less complexity and less frustration. But I actually think the opposite would be true. Now players with the most experience and skills as related to the traditional gamer skillset (point-and-shoot FPS mechanics) will be the most rewarded. By removing the non-combat classes you essentially force everyone to play roughly the same way. This means that the casual player, who might not be the best shooter in the world, will now have to play the game primarily as a shooting game. No longer can you hope to be a medic and be valuable by keeping other teammates alive, no longer can you hope to be an engineer and score your points by fixing vehicles, now in order to succeed you need to win by the pistol.

What’s most disappointing about all of this is that a game like Battlefield 1942 is still a unique multiplayer game in this day and age. Increasingly FPS multiplayer games are variations of the Call of Duty model for multiplayer. Battlefield 1943 could have carved a nice little niche for itself in this crowded multiplayer environment by taking the core mechanics and systems of the original, smooth out some of the rough edges a little, and transplanting that into today’s games. Instead, it seems like they decided to smooth Battlefield until it was indistinguishable from every other WWII game out there.

Thoughts from the Global Game Jam

This past weekend as you may have noticed was the 1st Global Game Jam. The Global Game Jam is a worldwide game jam that was hosted at over 50 different sites this year and had over 1500 participants. By the end of the weekend hundreds of games have been made and those games are now in the process of being submitted. Everyone is encouraged to go to the online game browser and check out the submissions. With so many games its hard to get through them all, but I definitely encourage everyone to check out anything that’s remotely interesting to them. Students, developers, and just about everyone in between worked extremely hard over the 48 hours to create something original and interesting.

The requirements for this first game jam came in three parts. First, all games needed to be 5 minutes or less. Second, each game needed to be themed according to this quote, “As long as we’re together we’ll always have problems.” Finally, and this was different for each time zone, the game needed to demonstrate one of the following attributes: pointed, persistent, or illusionary. It was a semi-difficult theme that seems to be heavily influenced by Jason Rohrer’s The Passage.

That being said, I’d love to recommend some games from the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area (the Triangle). I may be slightly biased due to being the lead organizer for this site, but I think the games made here were all incredible for the time created and they all are unique entrants for the Global Game Jam.

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Breeder by Team Minions
An interesting click-and-destroy game by Team Minions. You click to kill enemies and the goal is to survive for as long as you can. Enemies have a life cycle of sorts and will start mating and reproducing if left alone too long. Wait long enough and new enemy types will emerge that make your life even more complicated. A solid effort that shows how you can pack a lot of interesting ideas into even a small game.

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Robot Love by Robot Love
Robot Love is a game lovingly inspired by The Behemoth’s Castle Crashers. The gorgeous artwork and surprisingly addictive music coupled with tried-and-true gameplay creates a pretty solid little side-scrolling shoot-em-up that shows with a little grit and two talented artists you can create a great demonstration in just 48 hours.

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SpaceFish by Carbonated Bacon
SpaceFish is an entry that vaguely reminds me of Geometry Wars in its design. The original game title was “Buttons and Mindy” like the old Animaniacs characters where the black hole is Mindy and you play the orbiting globe Buttons. Feed the Space Fish (or Mindy) the bad red energy balls and avoid feeding the blue energy balls to win. The grab and slingshot mechanic makes for an interesting dynamic as you avoid trying to bump into other balls while maneuvering close enough to grab them.

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Space Defenders of the 23rd Century by Team Tether
The fourth and final game on the list, Space Defenders (formerly just called Tether) has you or a friend control two equally powered ships that are tethered together. You need to navigate your environment while destroying enemies and avoiding asteroids. What’s even more cool than the initial first level (and hopefully something we’ll see soon) is the versus soccer level where players can use their tether to bounce an indestructible asteroid back-and-forth as a loose “ball” to score goals.

I need to stress again that all four of these games were made in just under 48 hours. It’s an impressive amount of work accomplished in such a short time and even though these games are a tad unpolished and a tad unfinished, you don’t need to look very hard to see the potential in all of these games. So enjoy them and all the other games made from around the world this weekend. And that’s all until the 2010 Global Game Jam!