Saturday, June 25, 2011

Different Diffculties

When game reviewers talk about how hard a game is they're more often than not talking about Nintendo Hard. For you young readers not familiar with the 8-bit era of gaming overcoming challenges back then meant having incredible hand-eye coordination mixed with superb timing and a sizable helping of luck. Didn't really matter if it was Bullet Hell, Platform Hell or something else these kind of games usually had players frantically gripping their controllers with sweaty palms in a desperate attempt to keep their onscreen character alive. It was a theme for the times and worked well with arcade games where they needed to have a way to keep those quarters coming. On home systems, as well, it helped pad out games that had short play times. But what about games in the age we live in now?

There's definitely been a easing of difficulty. Partly it's because we can choose how hard we want it to be (A.K.A. easy-normal-hard). Sometimes this can fundamentally alter how the game presents itself. The Thief series changes mission objectives, Mickey Mouse's Castle of Illusion significantly alters level layout. A lot of Halo fans swear that playing Combat Evolved on the "legendary" setting requires a radical shift in how you take on enemies. In particular survival becomes dependent on a mastery of tactics and an understanding of how to make the most out of every available weapon. Some even argue that it's the only way the game should be played. I'm inclined to agree. Demon's Souls and Witcher 2 are much the same except they pretty much require the player to learn the in's and out's of gameplay.

Ever played Alone in the Dark? No, I don't mean by yourself with the lights off...I'm talking about the game where you start off in the attic of a haunted house. Chances are you'll die there the first time you play since a vicious dog monster breaks through the window minutes after you start. Followed up in short order with a zombie rising out of a hatch in the floor. Now if your clever you get a gun stashed in an old trunk which is a lot better than using punches and kicks, or better still block off the window and hatch by pushing furniture in the way. I fully endorse this kind of gameplay since it reward careful observation, common sense and most importantly creativity. Gamers who complain about these kind of titles being too hard are either mentally lazy or simply don't like the concept of multiple paths to victory. Either way I recommend they stick to press "x" to win stuff since all they're really looking for is an ego massage, I think.

On the flip side Cheating A.I. is part of the reason I never liked playing a Total War game above normal difficulty. Vita Chambers are also the reason I never played much Bioshock. In case you don't know what the hell I'm talking about Vita Chambers made it so anyone could simply button-mash their way to the end without learning how to play (regardless of the difficulty setting) simply because player death would result in an instant re-spawn from a nearby location at no penalty. I've heard that they patched it though so you can turn those things off. I guess I should consider revisiting Rapture. Items that you need to win, but can accidentally skip or render usless is another kick in the nuts challenge that I dislike. Then there are games like Dwarf Fortress that have no way to win really, but I could write a whole blog post on that one design concept alone.

I should mention the difficult that I like the most is the self-imposed kind. Just check out this "iron man" playthorugh of Crysis to see how cool this idea can be.

After all what better way customize the game to your own liking than with rules of your own design?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

All Duke'd Out?

A common problem with Japanese games (particularly jRPGs) is domination of the design process by big wigs who insist it being their way or the highway. Hence basic innovations often get left by the wayside in lieu of the director's singular vision resulting in a title that has badly outdated gameplay filled with self-indulgent story elements. But the truth is the opposite extreme, design by committee, has it's own share of pitfalls. No more apparent than in Duke Nuke'em: Forever.

The Duke has always been a womanizing, narcissistic, dick waver so I will ignore all the criticisms labeled against him with regards to misogynistic undertones and cheesy referential humor. People who criticize those aspects of Duke either grew up (good for them) or failed to take off their nostalgia goggles (not so good). Those points aside Duke Nuke'em: Forever has problems. Most notably the game play is lackluster, and not simply because it's dated. Rather the odd mix of new and old is what makes the big blonde's return mediocre.

Circle strafing, non-linear level design, and platforming bits are hallmarks of old-school shooters which is okay. But then we have these newer design elements mixed in like the limitation of only being able to carry two weapons at a time. Why? It not like they were going for realism here. Then there's the "Ego" life bar which has a surprisingly bland presentation. Couldn't they have made a nuclear symbol graphic or something more thematic than a simple green bar in the upper corner of the screen? Also, what's with the recharging mechanic? Duke running and hiding so his ego can recover doesn't really jive with the character. On the other hand lifting weights, drinking beer, admiring himself in the mirror, and collecting Duke memorabilia is. Why not take the concept a bit further and have Duke's Ego bar go up every time he wastes a bad guy? After all what could be a bigger ego boost than crushing your enemies?

Ken Levine (the director of Bioshock) once said that he hated focus groups because the end result of trying to please everyone is you end up pleasing no one and sadly Duke got himself trapped in this pothole. Will he get a chance to try and drive himself out? That depends on Gearbox software. I for one hope that if they bet on Duke again though they decide on a vision and go all in on the concept rather than watering down the experience with a "neither here nor there" design philosophy.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gun Fatigue

Robot Jox is one film that really needs a kinect game adaptation

Indie Guy: Too many shooters this year at E3.
FPS Guy: Well...that's what sells so that's the kind of games that get made.
Indie Guy: Sure, but why does it always have to be guns?
FPS Guy: No guns....? Ah! I got'cha swords, right?
Indie Guy: Nope, no stabbing and hacking dues either.
FPS Guy: you mean sword-guns like Final Fantasy X? 'cause that would be cool.
Indie Guy: Grrrr....

At this point in time a lot of developers are suffering from a serious case of "Me Too" syndrome. So much so all the Call of Duty clones coming out are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from one another. Producers are thinking block bluster formula; grey/brown environments, near future/past setting, lots of guns (knives too), throw in some heavily meta game influenced online multiplayer and Boom Headshot! instant cash cow, right? I'll answer that question later.

You'd think that Kinect at least would bring some much needed variety. Nope even Kinect has shooter support, get ready to hold out a clenched fist and making jazz hands. Sure kid's games are machine-gun-less, unsurprisingly. Teens and up titles though inevitably fall back on shooting and stabbing. Seems like a waste of Kinect potential. You ever seen an obscure sci-fi movie called Robot Jox? Why not go with this kind of concept in a Kinect game? The sluggish gigantic robots would ironically reflect accurately considering lag issues that some times occur with the Kinect camera reading movement. Plus you got lasers, missiles, a variety of hand-to-hand weapons and best of all no guns. Actually, Steel Battalion 2 might be doing something like what I've mentioned, but until more details are released it's any one's guess.

Napoleon once said "Men are lead by trifles" and while pinning medals on his soldiers he mentioned "with such baubles, men are led." Well it's Bobby Kotick in this day and age and instead of conquering counties it's selling games. Call them achievements, trophies, or a high score on a leader board it's the same pieces of brass with a different name. By the way if you have no idea what I'm talking about go read an excellent book called Sneetches on Beaches by Dr. Seus.

Going back to the question I asked in the first paragraph - Yes, the block buster formula makes money...for a few. However the vast majority flop simply because there are way too many military themed shooters. So to all game developers out there please go make something other than a generic FPS. It might sound risky, but trust me the danger is no greater carving your own path than it is being a copy-cat. Or if you have be a follower then walk in the path of true masters like the guys who made Portal or Ken Levine and his excellent Bioshock series.

A least this shooter is trying something new

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


The Electronic Entertainment Expo (or E3 for short) is the single largest event in the video game industry and as such is also the battleground for big dogs like Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft. As one prominent video game journalist put it “[E3] is a giant machine run by crazy people.” Journalists get their scoops and coverage while the PR guys get to promote and generate buzz, but generally speaking it’s a huge pain for everyone involved. Not to mention that a hot, crowded, noisy and sometimes smelly convention hall isn’t exactly an ideal environment to experience a new game. Because of this and a variety of other factors small titles often get lost in the shuffle or simply buried under they hype of far bigger (but not necessarily better) announcements.

I also find myself wondering what E3 is really supposed to be all about. Unlike say GDC which serves as a chance for developers and enthusiasts from all over the world to meet face-to-face, hang out and tell stories E3 is a lot of flash-and-trash advertising mixed with shady backroom business deals. There’s also a fair amount of politicking and favoritism which can lead to a lot of bad blood and prissiness all around. I’m not even sure if it’s so beneficial for your average gamer either considering the costs involved to attend the event mixed with the fact that anything of even remote interest is going to have massive crowd or long line to contend with unless you’re an insider.

Sufficed to say I think you can see a lot more of E3 from the convenience of your home than the people who go through all the effort to be there in person, which finally brings me to the main point of this particular blog post. We live in an age where digit conferencing is common place and the transmission of large amounts of detailed information can be done with the simple push of a button. So, do we really need this antiquated E3 anymore? And if so then why?