Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

As I wandered around the web, I found some stuff of interest (yes, I know, I really dug hard to find those), more or less related to some material I already published on this blog.

The Good

The first article I’ll point to is Edge’s argumentation in favour of greater menu design, be they at the beginning of your game or during the game. I already voiced my opinion about the terrible PC menu of Bioshock, and I’ll gladly add that Rogue Galaxy’s in game menu system is a nightmare of navigation, a formidable collection of all the mistakes one could think about, professionally crammed into one game for great terror. Unclear and time consuming as hell, this is a good example of what you want to avoid at all costs.

The quality of a menu is important. It cannot be allowed to be wrong, counter intuitive and inefficient. This doesn’t mean you have to spend a good fraction of the budget in it, no, but a greater presentation, a great flow in between the menu’s tabs, appropriate and themed transitions relative to the tone and setting of your game matter a lot, and so does the attention to detail, from music, sounds, alpha masks, glow bits and style.
My main complaint would be how Sony had so many games share the same basic template for saving menus. A bit more diversity would have been appreciated.

The Bad … well, not so much but I needed a neat title…

The second article has Rob Fahey ( talk about the new challenger which Apple is, and how winning the multimedia battle on multiple fronts becomes a necessary strategy in order to implant a console in a living room, to push sideways the giants already in place. Are we so sure of that? Well, there are interesting points he makes.

I’ll add my own stone there.

First, this race for greater multimedia functionalities mirrors Sony’s politic since the first Playstation. Now we are talking about channels to download films, shows and music, and some games. Years ago, the revolution was to be able to play your DVDs and enjoy them on your console.
It’s most unfortunate for Sony not to seem to be successful with their own mantra as they were before, although they managed to sell the PS3 by presenting it as a Blu-ray player, unwittingly admitting they were failing selling it as what it was meant to be, a video games console. Oops, sorry, a computer for entertainment.

Secondly, Fahey cites the great advantages of the iPhone and other Apple products with similar abilities, but as I said before, we shouldn’t forget that ergonomics play a large part in the success of a gaming machine, and we have never seen any single shred of evidence that a machine, not primarily focusing on games and not being made to play them in the best possible way, could beat a console which was solely, or at least largely built with this goal in mind.

One could think the DS and Wii are a bit odd here, but they’re essentially very efficient as far as playing games is concerned, regardless of horsepower or your tastes for the controllers. That said, while the Wiimote remains an easy target for jokes and concerns, touch screens are not, they are respected and allow new ways of gaming, although not very gamey in spirit if you carry like more than two decades of gaming behind you.
Still, Apple has the touch screen, and a damn good one.

The Ugly

Well, not so much again. I suppose it’s time to admit that my choice for a title really does fall apart, doesn’t it?
So, the final article, six pages long, is St├ęphane Bura’s own take on what game design means, its purpose and how it can be made easier if a standardized science of some sort could emerge from that boiling puddle of styles, methods and opinions, in order to write down the magic scroll that would make a good game. He calls this article “Emotion Engineering”, much likely in reference to the Playstation 2’s core.
An appealing title, but I’m not totally sure about the rest though.

At some point, Bura quotes Sid Meier:

A [good] game is a series of interesting choices.

Even if you find gaming in the most unorthodox or mundane activities, like ordering files, catching trains, going for the valley instead of the forest hill, cleaning the plates or whatever, this one feels limited. I’m sure, however, that this line alone wouldn’t represent Meier’s full meditation on the subject.
Adding emotions and synesthesia somewhere in the mix are also necessary. But this is not the real problem there.

Here it is: There are recurring themes present in the article and the subsequently related comments, which are all used in negative fashions to highlight the flaws of our current systems:

- No universally accepted truths, just opinions.

It solely depends of the truth’s level, how much ground it’s supposed to cover, what it tries to firmly put into place.
One can always paste Wright’s tables, still informative among a vast set of studies, the truth can only be held as far as they concern mechanisms which we know will always lead to small results, on limited scale.
For example, knowing that loosing on and on makes a nice truth about how a player’s self esteem will plummet, it doesn’t tell you how to balance your game’s difficulty. At best, it tells you what you may want to avoid.

- Lack of common set of tools and language.

The vast topic we have here. One would be quick to point out that the language is already there, even if you don’t find it deeply entrenched in literature. Some civilizations have been going for ages without much traces of archived scripting of any sort. The secrets of some great inventions have been lost because no blueprint were left behind, no methodologies, nothing. It would be foolish, however, to believe that the talent, mastery, knowledge and excellence didn’t exist then. They simply went into a dead end, never transmitted.
The goal is probably to share the knowledge, to destroy the elites.
Still, you can always put ten people in front of Game Design 101, only a limited number of people will make it through. You won’t create good game designers simply by putting down some arcane rules of game design. However, you'll probably widen the scope of revealed talents.

- Lack of standardized descriptive scientific model.

The kind of system which could be translated into code for machines, so that next time, I’ll ask my calculator to make me a fantastic game, while I’ll fly to the Tau system to meet a friend of mine for his wedding, but only after being sure that my geneids shall be in line with all the slightly anal retentive prerequisites to enter the Consortium of Broca. I’d hate being stuck in the security office at the Karanga station for sure!

I consider we’ve already been through that, and some chosen analogies in the article in question, notably considering the botanist Mendel, really have you ponder the ideology behind such work.
Here was my reply at Gamasutra:

Interesting article, many pros and cons to think about. I'm still stuck on a particular analogy though.

"But Mendel had an advantage over us: being a botanist, he had a fairly good idea of what to observe and measure: colors, shapes, textures, size, growth rates, etc. (Furthermore, he didn't care if his peas looked or tasted great, while game designers are trying to understand what make games good while making good games.)"

A game designer cares if his peas look or/and taste great.

EDIT: the point may not be clear, as my reply was being a tad redundant, but Bura's example was one more argument about what designers were doing wrong somehow, or incompletely, in a kind of blinded way, and needed to change for better design. You know, understand the core and put it into machine code. It was part of a reasonning which followed citing Daniel Cook and his book, wherein it is argued that there are "benefits game designers would draw from a standardized quasi-scientific descriptive model."
Do you need a scientific model to know why people wouldn't like their ice creams if they had a taste of shit?
The will to systemize things, although enabling people to wiggle in their pants and present ordered tables for mystic illumination, is something that might be good for people who want to talk about design.

This way, in a decade, we may end with schools which will bore the shit out of you with pseudo science and annoying complicated schematics, while there is just one reality, that of passion, of experience, of practice. The terrain reality. Fucking pointless chatter.
Why insist that there's a need for a better scientific understanding, which would allow us comparing games objectively? Has someone not paid attention to the fact that both press and consumers could already do it since decades?? See: This level sucks because difficulty rises too fast, the pace is erratic and has boring plateaus, there's a bug there, the camera doesn't help, I loved collecting these tools, etc.

If anything, you could say that the standards of comparison are understood by all players subconsciously, but I think they're just that obvious and many players could clearly tell you what are a game's failures and successes.

Sometimes, I really can’t tell if I hate or love that kind of stuff. Certain ideas seem to be reaching out so far in time that we’ll probably all be dead before anything remotely close to what is advocated comes to fruition (assuming it wouldn’t be considered obsolete by then).

In a way, I just so get full of those pseudo enlightenment speeches, telling us how we’ve been living in the Dark Ages and fiddling with crack pot sciences to obtain “results” which were all the more placebos, completely woven in tissues of great ignorance.
I’m equally fed up of those who think they’re being original in preaching a thousand truths which all unwittingly point to the same old story: they want to play in the Matrix, and code for it.
More emotion and interactions with AI, increased complexity in environments and better physics, more science, more mathematics behind the feelings, more replication and duplication, more standardization and faster techniques through electronic tools, yadda yadda yadda… man, the end of this is just so obvious.

Add a couple of evidences, like how too many cooks spoil the broth (no, really?) and you’re done.

The most amusing part is that no matter the periodic tables and laws of thermodynamics, what has been driving science and its theories is gut feeling and imagination.

Besides, Bura’s been through Kalisto and 10tacle. Yet, when I check their track records, I fail to see anything looking like a truly engaging, complete and successful “emotion engineered” game. (That’s the kick in the balls & nasty bit, but I’d rather be honest about it.)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Archiving on Ico & Shadow of the Colossus

You cannot count the number of interesting webpages you bookmark and link to, thinking they'd stay up there like stuck in time, forever, only to realize that months later, when you return to read them again, they're gone, and you go oh sh*t.

So there, from a translation of another Fumito Ueda interview found on The Rabbit Snare, originally published at the Game Yarouze! 2006 website. Considering that Rabbit's last blog post dates back to 2006 (!), I was actually amazed that this one remained available today, but I have the atrocious feeling that this won't last that long.

Enjoy! ^-^

Sorry to start off with such an abstract question, but what was it that made you conscious of the fun of “playing,” not just games, but the act of playing itself?

I was attracted, not by the idea of playing within a well constructed set of rules, but by the idea of playing, experiencing, and adventuring within a real world. As a child, what appealed to me more than “the fun of playing games,” was the emotion conveyed by the works I experienced, and the way these works brought their worlds to life.

When did you decide to become a “creator?” And if there was a particular piece of work or event that inspired to do so, please tell us.

I guess if we’re talking about inspiration, it’d be the anime and manga that I saw and read as a young child. It was probably when I first thought about how wonderful it might be to be someone who touches others through his creations that I found my inspiration. Also, I’d always loved making things, and I wanted to become a craftsman of some sort from an early age.

With there being so many different forms of media, what was it that lead you to become a maker of video games?

There were several reasons, but the largest was that, as a new form of entertainment media, it was a new frontier. It was a media with less routine and more opportunity to make a difference through individual ability.

Once you decided to work in the game industry, what studies or preparations did you undertake?

Of course I’d loved games since I was little, but, to be honest, I didn’t have a particular desire to work in this industry at first. It just happened that more than anything else, it was an industry that suited the knowledge, abilities and techinical skills I already had. Video games are where the joy of planning and coming up with concepts, both of which I learned form creating modern art, and the purely techincal skills required for art and CG, are fully utilized.

What was your field of study when you were a student? What elements of your education have you found useful as a game creator?

In college, I majored in abstract art. My seminars didn’t require us to focus on paintings or drawings, so my interest moved towards creating installations and interactive art. To me, modern art is less about expressing things through technique, and more about planning, ideas, and concepts. So the ability to “think” has been useful to me in making games. Another thing I learned in college was to question existing conventions. By the way, as far as techinical skills, I think I’ve learned the majority of mine after leaving college.

In the process of game making, do you refer to any other media, outside of games?

When in production, I try to fill my thoughts completely with video games. I guess you could say that I turn to movies and music for reference as other forms of entertainment media which, compared to video games, have been established in regards to their production techniques, forms of expression, and marketing methods.

I imagine that making CG animations and making games are rather different things, but are there any particularly large differences between the two?

It goes without saying, but the need to involve the player, and the necessity of adaptability within a game are the largest differences. Also, the techniques for the production of games and “game theory” are not yet fully established, unlike CG movies, or movies in general.

What does it mean to “design a game?” Using ICO and Shadow of the Colossus as examples, tell us about game design.

Project planning, level design, adjustments, and so on — there’re many stages within game design, but to put it in plain terms, it’s a job that requires coming up with a theme or concept with a hook. ICO is a game about holding a girl’s hand and escaping from a castle. Shadow of the Colossus is a game about climbing and defeating giants.

In a game production requiring a large staff, just what sort of talented individual would be your ideal staff member?

Certainly having good artistic sense and strong techinical skills are important, but more than anything else being supportive and attentive is important to me. Of course that means being attentive and sensitive to the needs of players, but being attentive to the rest of the staff is also critical. Aside from that, someone who enjoys gathering information and someone who can work quickly is ideal.

What does it take from a director to lead a large staff and work towards making a game?

It takes someone who knows exactly what he or she is aiming for.

What is the attraction for you to this form of expression we call “games?”

Its incompleteness. It’s a wild, undeveloped media with so much possibility.

Tell us your three favorite games, and your reasons for choosing each.

There are so many that it’d be hard to narrow it down to just three, but one game that I’ve liked for a long time is Lemmings. I typically don’t like “management” style games, but Lemmings is different.

What do you think about an experiment like “Game Yarouze! 2006??

I think that an influx of people with new and unique sensibilities will provide a good stimulus to many people in the games industry. Also, I think it will act as an opportunity for people with similar intentions to gather, so I’ll be looking forward to seeing some truly fine works born from it some day.

Any advice for those considering participating in “Game Yarouze! 2006??

Once your idea becomes a product, if it isn’t something that wouldn’t absolutely want to have, if you wouldn’t buy it without a moment’s hesitation, then it won’t be enough.

Thank you for your time.

You can read more interviews on Open Senses and Game Informer (which also includes words from Kenji Kaido about the design choices regarding the boss battles in Shadows of the Colossus).

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Some fantastic game and tools

First, now I remember what hype remotely felt like. Well, it's not really hype, but it's certainly far better than what I was getting used to during these sour days.
I could find games I'd really enjoy, but never get the kind of feeling that would have me want to buy them "right now!"
Well, it did happen from time to time these last two years, but I must say it's been very scarce and still tame compared to what I'd call t3h hype I could experience when I was younger. Now there's something that really looks ace, and makes me feel old, cause it's a 2D platformer. :/
This one teases me because I did love the gameplay of former Warios, and the graphics are absolutely gorgeous in that one:

Secondly, although it's clearly not fresh news, we have some awesome texturing utility set to look at, which is part of id Tech 5, used for the game Rage. If only id Software could forward a fully wrapped package, so you wouldn't have to swap between different expensive tools to edit terrain, detail, textures and what have you, maybe they'd start selling their engines like hot cakes again.
So... there:

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Puppetting Mankind / Eye Nerve Trojan_

Lie back… make yourself comfortable.
Empty your mind…
Breathe deeply and slowly…
Observe the screen, and let the colourful dot rain flow through your optic sensory…
Let it impregnate you…

The game starts. The new reality forms, the circle closes and engulfs your mind.
Enigmatic patterns dance within microseconds, primitive shapes assemble into more complex creatures, delivering a message to your subconscious at a rate your body manages automatically.

Okay am I on crack or what? :)
If you want to know what this is all about (and no, that’s some mystic voodoo stuff or fancy yoga), read this.

The possibilities are vast. Video games would be wonderful virtual labs: offer a relatively wide range of gameplay abilities to subjects, then feed them with animations, and see what they do with your game.
Now that would be amusing.

Coca Cola.

Then comes the moment when you wonder if your own logo puts your customer into the most optimum mood to fully enjoy the game he or she is about to play.
You also wonder if you could mould the mind of your customer into a more flexible state, notably for those ads… eye-compliant-mind-sodoma.

Creatively bankrupt Japanese game industry?

Hear! Hear!
While the video game industry seems to be particularly well efficient at catching up with the worst aspects of the stagnating Hollywood industry which is now littered with uninspired prequels, sequels, adaptations, remakes and other doodads, we could notice, earlier this year, the distant cries of some people who voiced their concerns about Japan’s video game industry getting rather dry on the imaginative front.

Which genres are we talking about? Oh yes, you could say a lot about the JRPGs, which for many of them, are actually extremely bland and meaningless, but still represent games which lots of people can play while openly falling into a drone–like state of mind.
Of course, it’s not like the great western world is devoid of such horrors. :)
After all, the Diablo series is in its essence a JRPG series without the J, but Random Levels instead. You’ve got the same mindless hacking, whacking, slashing and looting which Bizzard is fairly at ease to provide in spades in its games, past, present and future ones all accounted.

Yes, you could say that the Japanese market is saturated with mindless, crazy and almost non-games where you collect fishes, drive trains and push beetles, whatever.
Or you could say that what we get outside of Japan is what has been deemed to be good enough to be shipped overseas.

But claim that Japan is creatively bankrupt?
That’s only going to get you cited in the newspaper, at best.
While I kinda agreed with Miyazaki's rant regarding Japanese animation, voiced years ago, the picture is quite different as far as games are concerned.

You just have to compare the best of what you got from Japan and the best you got from nearly the rest of the world, to see that whoever made such a claim had an immense bias to further some agenda or whatever.
Ah, oops. It was Hideo Kojima. A paradox at hand!
Japan has always been very isolated anyway, using their own tech, their own tools. You don’t have major Japanese studios selling their next-gen engines to other studios, do you? But they’re not in that business, and we couldn’t call that creativity in the proper sense. Not in the game sense anyway.

It would be a red herring in light of what was initially postulated, which addressed the creativity within games.

If again, we look at the big titles, say the best sales worldwide, in September 2007, what could we see?
Your run of the mill sports games, racing games, FPS, RPG, plus the staples of shovelware ought to be found on the DS and the Wii, aside from a plethora (what?) of games from Nintendo.
Arguably, while you can’t spot truly creative Japanese games in that list, you can’t find any creative game from other countries or continents either.

Now, I don’t know what the kind of games you play is, but I have to say that most of those I found diverging from the usual paths of design did come from Japan. Many crazy ones came from there. The ones that make me dream more than anything else came from there.
Let’s try to pull a very small list, quickly.

Rez, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Mojib Ribbon, Okami, Phoenix Wright, Metal Gear Solid (yes, with a very singular gameplay seen in no other game thus far), Panzer Dragoon, Devil May Cry, Elebits, Katamari Damacy, Fatal Frame, LocoRoco, Patapon, Echochrome, Lumines, Killer 7 and No More Heroes, putting a good spin on used genres (but I'm not saying only Japan does it).
The likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band are nothing more than variants of games you already found in game centres years ago in Japan (though more of them are closing now, how sad).

Besides, if your standards of novelty include the expansion of the video game market into new areas, then how could one ignore the Wii & DS Blitzkrieg exactly?
Finally, if you consider the more hardcore scenes (which still sell a lot), or the nerdier and underground stuff, the doujin scene is well alive, and old genres like shmups and beat’em ups are well supported.

Besides, as a whole, I have a lot of respect for the way Japanese treat video games. They always were ahead of the rest of the planet in how they incorporated the video gaming elements into their everyday culture. Just think about how long you actually had to wait to be able to go listen to bands playing original sound tracks live. Check out the poetry that flows through Ico.

The Japanese industry does have ups and downs, but let’s get real for a moment, the reality is not that bleak picture some are quick to paint. Those annoying alarmist claims need to be put to rest.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

iGame - Rolando & ng:moco

First, I just want to say that the series of "iGame" posts has nothing to do with the company of the same name (which I wonder if they didn't grab it and register that iSpot in case Apple would require it later on).

Secondly, we learned by the 30th of June, that Neil Young, ex head of EA’s Blueprint studio, started his own mobile game publishing business, mainly for the iPhone at the moment, called ng:moco.
Doesn’t it make sense? Well, I think it does. Now, we still have to consider that it’s ill advised to make hasty bets on the success of games on Apple’s pocket machines... yet.

However, to get an informed idea of how well it can bode, maybe we could look at the game Rolando, from Hand Circus. Is that about Futebol? Huh no.
Aside from being a heavily LocoRoco inspired game on about all levels (cheerful kiddie music, 2d vectored visuals – albeit uglier - and physics based gameplay of a company of small smiling primitive shapes), it also demonstrates what you can actually do on the iPhone.
It could be possible that people still miss that what made the success of Nintendo’s DS was, for a large part, the introduction of the touch screen on a cheaper device. It’s like the old days of the Gameboy versus GameGear. The second one had better graphics, but lacked efficiency and autonomy. It largely missed out important factors.

These factors today, relative to games, are new and intuitive ways to play them, and the iPhone is riff with those.
So I’m not saying that it’s a dream coming true, and the price could still be a barrier to an hypothetic large success, but the primordial soup is there. Now, of course, it has to deliver more than rehashes and sort of rip-offs.
But it’s only the beginning.

Besides, consider the price of Rolando, 9.99 dollars. How much did you pay for LocoRoco again?

Thirdly, count the new official and unofficial engines incorporating a wide ranges of physics, and other studios porting their respected franchises onto the iPhone, this device might be able to get Apple finally build up a segment in gaming which it never achieved with its other products. If proved successful, maybe they’d seriously consider the production a real hand held console.

EDIT: Level Up published some yatting with Young about his new venture.
Todd Hollenshead affirms that Apple has renewed his interest in games (in a more appropriate and serious manner than in the past), while we learn than Square Enix has developed an exclusive game for the iPod, a sort of RPG game using stored tracks to define in-game abilities and stats. Good stuff, eh?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Sick, Sick, Sick

Here we go. Every two weeks, we have some nutjob on this planet complaining about violence in games. Oh God, why this torment?
Oooh, that's for the shooting party! We’ve got our favourite scapegoat there!


So what is it now?
Well, no, it’s not Jack Thompson. I’m very sorry.
It’s Winda Benedetti, from the MNSNCBSCflehbehdeh, who declares that The Torture Game 2 is “a computer game in which you, the player, are asked to do horrible, unspeakable things”, which are, as she so convincingly put it, “sick, sick, sick”…
She moans that the player has full control over the body of a “defenseless man-like person tied up in some dark room from which he has absolutely no hope of escape.”

Poor doll.
Ah… these sensitive people. Let's organize a march right now in defense of... defenseless dolls?
Reminds me that I have to go to mojo to check out Hostel’s and Saw’s box office numbers…

Until then, let’s enjoy something truly sick, sick, sick.