Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Jovian Program

The Jovian Program, simply put, was a series of four long range 59 ton nuclear powered spacecraft with a maximum fuel capacity of 8,200 liters (70% of their total mass).  True to their namesake, they were the first vessel designed to travel to Jool and its moons. It sounded impressive on paper and looked even more so on the launchpad, but you know what they say, "the bigger they are..."

Jovian Jammer, first of her class, proved both space-worthy and landing capable by rescuing Bill and Bob Kerman.  Both Kerbonauts had been stranded since Lunar Lion made its (in)famous touchdown nearly three months prior.  After being refueled by three separate tanker vessels while docked to Sky Hydra, this new model of spacecraft was the first to be sent to Jool.  The expedition was perfectly timed.  After one week Jovian Jammer broke free of Kerbin's SOI.  Only three days following that, the burn to Jool began.  A promising beginning, but the journey turned sour at about eight months out.

Badly miscalculating the approach for aerobraking resulted in Jovian Jammer being both the first vessel ever reach Jool, as well as the first to escape from the Kerbol system entirely.  Perhaps her crew of brave Kerbonauts will one day explore the planets and moons around a distant star, but to the folks back home, they are lost.

Jovian II succeeded where her predecessor failed, aerobraking into a perfect encounter with Vall.  In hindsight the maneuver was perhaps a bit too "on target."  Lacking the necessary resources to adjust her trajectory in time, Jovian II slammed into the north pole of Vall at a speed of 400 meters per second.  Incidentally, this was the opposite side of where the mission profile called for a landing to take place.

After the failures of the first two Jovian spacecraft there was a lot of talk among mission designers to scrap the program entirely.  However, Jovian III and IV were already partly constructed so it was eventually decided that the next two spacecraft would be completed, but used to explore closer points of interest.

The first of these was, the as of yet unexplored, Gilly.  This little ball of rock proved to be surprisingly elusive with its eccentric orbit and tiny SOI.  Luckily, Jovian III proved up to the task and made a successful landing near the north polar region.

Encouraged by this accomplishment, Jovian IV was given the slightly more challenging target of Dres.  In order to better improve performance, the spacecraft received modifications to its solar array, mono-propellant tanks and lighting systems.  Much like the previous mission, orbital eccentricity pushed the spacecraft to its limits.  However, the crew were determined and after a lengthy voyage they were able to land near a deep canyon with impressive precision.

Back on Kerbin this second success was hailed as a triumph for Kermans everywhere.  Sadly, both the achievements of Jovian III and IV were tainted by the fact that these spacecraft had been taxed to their uttermost levels of endurance.  Neither vessel had enough fuel to return to Kerbin.  Though both were more than capable of returning to a parking orbit over their respective targets.

Eventually long range refueling missions would have to be planned.  Because of this, and other budgetary concerns, Jovian V was abandoned before the first components rolled off the production line.  The program was ended and all personnel attached to it were either transferred to other projects or else quietly retired.

Sometimes, I (the director of the Jovian Program) wonder if we will ever try to return to the moons of Jool.  If so, I wonder what kind of spacecraft we will use to get there. Regardless , I think it would be best to adopt the name "Terrestrial Program" since it sure seems like a more fortuitous name than the one we went with.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Death to Death!

As the rather gruesome saying goes "there's more than one way to skin a cat." I'm not sure why you would ever want to skin a cat, but metaphorically speaking the proverb applies to video games and violence rather well. Before I go any further let me make it clear that this is not some pacifistic rant against all the killing and destruction in video games. Rather this is a follow up to this youtube video:

Before reading any further, I suggest watching the video in its entirety. And by all means checkout this guy"s other stuff. Although sometimes flawed, he has some great observations and insights. Getting back to the specifics of the video linked above, he mentions that developers tend to make the mistake of assuming "gameplay" equates to "gunplay". I agree whole heartily with this observation. As for solutions, I also agree, it will be difficult to steer people away from ever greater and more bloody spectacles. One way I think it might be possible though is by looking to historical applications of violence and how it could be used as a stepping stone in game design to ween players off overused mechanics.

While most people tend to associate war in the Middle-Ages with sieges, pillaging and general havoc, there was also an often unmentioned practice, especially between knights, to take each other prisoner rather than outright kill one another. The basic motivating factor here being a captured enemy could be ransomed for money, while a murdered one would require a weregild (compensation gift) from the killer to the victim's next of kin. failure to due so could result in an even more costly blood feud.   In essence, capturing foes earned money while killing them spent it. You can see an extreme example of this phenomenon at the Battle of Zagonara (1424) in which around 20,000 men fighting for several hours resulted in the destruction of a castle and 5000 captives, but only one death (apparently triggered by horse riding accident).

While this might sound silly to our modern sensibilities it could make for an interesting game mechanic. If nothing else I've always had a fondness for playing the Thief series on the expert setting because the mission objective list often says things like "A true professional doesn't leave a mess. Don't kill anyone!" Makes sense when you consider that second degree murder tends to carry a much heavier stigma than grand larceny.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Digital Doping

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It seems like there has been a lot of conflicting messages in the video game industry as of late.  Over on the Epic Battle Cry podcast, Daniel Kayser made an interesting observation regarding the PS4 press conference.   Specifically, he pointed out that Sony telling its audience about the benefits of connected gameplay, motion sensing cameras and dedicated hardware that does things online without your input, doesn't really jive with games like Infamous: Second Son, in which the entire premise revolves around fighting a "big brother" society.
Another aspect of gaming that is developing a similar conflict of interest is the notion of online play and micro-transactions.  Of course, the most obvious example is competitive multiplayer games where players can pay extra for perks over their fellow players, or at least bypass the time needed to earn upgrades.  It looks great from a business perspective, but has a souring effect on the player base.  Generally speaking, people who play video games want success to come to those who put in the effort, merit over money and skill over hacks.  Then again if we're talking offline gaming then who cares, right?  Well, recently there's been a big shift in the industry to make always online, always connected and always social key features.  The thing about that is I don't think the industry has really considered the way this might work against their revenue models.  Not many people want to play a game were the top dog is ultimately the one who spends the most real world cash.
To me, it feels like the end result of pushing for more and more micro-transactions is the creation of a system that offers a false sense of status.  Do we really want various video game companies to go the route of BMW, Bose, De Beer, Gap and a bunch of other trendy junk manufacturers, targeting the over-privileged and extremely gullible?  At the very least we're going to have to put up with a lot of unwanted design choices.  I don't know about you, but I'm not looking forward to seeing a bunch of Farmville hybrids, nor am I excited by the prospect of  sports games that let players artificially enhance their athletes' performance for the small fee of $X.XX in real world cash made payable to EA and their ilk.  Video game companies want to be a service-based industry, but the question a have to ask is "Who do they really want to serve here?"

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bad Blood

Antagonism is nothing new in to the world of video games. There's been plenty of rivalries over the years. Not just between leader board high scores or companies like Sega and Nintendo, but also between fanboys. Even iconic talking heads go at it from time to time. Most recently Annoyed Gamer (GT) and HipHop Gamer (EGM) have been doing a bit of tit-for-tat. What I haven't really seen though in the last couple decades is the level hostility we're experiencing now between the people who buy games and the people who sell them.

Sure, there has always been some degree of conflict when it comes to internet piracy. What's really getting out of control is the antagonistic nature of publishers. Granted gamers can bitch about anything and everything, but that doesn't mean all complaints are equally (in)valid. Word spreads fast now via twitter, youtube, facebook and various forums allowing a greater degree of communication that ever before. Gamers, if they really want, can put pressure on companies that rub them the wrong way. So to counter this publishers have been engaging in a number of tactics.

For one they have tried to cozy up to media outlets as well as restricting their voices by way of NDAs. At the same time they push for pre-orders which is a great way to ensure bad games still sell well out of the gate. Another trick is to take a beloved franchise "hostage", claiming that if it sells bellow a certain target no sequels will be made. Thus putting boycotting prone gamers in a major imposition. Speaking with the wallet is a gamers best voice, but "hostage taking" tends to misdirect that voice.

DLC sales also drop off the longer a game is out, but rather than making better DLC many companies deiced to simply make it day one.  Or else have a "season pass" which allow them to pre-sell content. That way they get gamer dollars regardless of the quality of the final product. Marketing deception is an issue too. How many games came out last year that were trying to copy Call of Duty? I guarantee it was a double (if not triple) digit figure. Ads also have increasingly focused on the lowest common denominator, obfuscating genres and aiming for the least industry savvy demographics.

Lastly, and this is the one that irks me the most, is front-loading. Supposedly there are statistics out there that show only a small percent of games sold are actually played to their finish. So, somebody got the bright idea that the solution is to cram all the good stuff in the beginning and pad out the end. Dead Space 3 is probably the most recent example, but even games I personally like (such as the Witcher 2) suffer from this. It's nothing new. Dark Forces had this problem at it came out in 1995, not to mention a myriad of JRPGs. That said, it still sucks that we haven't moved beyond this.

So, where are we headed? I'm not sure, but the ball is in Sony and Microsoft's court.  For everyone's sake let's hope they make it a good serve.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Fear Done Right

I'm a big fan horror in video games. Especially when it's mixed in with a bit of space sci-fi. Sadly, I've been disappointed by all the media that has recently carried this particular theme.

Prometheus (the film) was poorly thought out. Dead Space 3 had way too much action. Aliens: Colonial Marines was simply dull. The reason for these failures can be traced to one key point. Escapist Columnist, Shamus Young, thinks Aliens is really about Ellen Ripley.  I disagree.  Don't get me wrong, she's a great character and gives the audience someone to root for...but as I mentioned before in this blog post, it really comes down to primal instincts and anxieties.  So, to make what I'm getting at explicitly clear, let me show you a way to make an Aliens game done right.

Horror co-op might actually work here (link)
You wake up from hypersleep alone and disoriented. Your in the belly of an old starship. Outside the cryo-chamber it's dark claustrophobic corridors lined with cold metal. From here the player can explore three decks. A-deck is astrogation and consoles for various ship systems. Here you can figure out what the hell is going on and get a map. B-deck is the living quarters. Medical, the galley, airlocks and space suits are all here. You can also find a motion tracker. C-deck in engineering. You can rig up an incinerator unit, set the self destruct and prep the escape pod. The nest is also here. Including crew who woke before you...or what's left of them. You see...there is an alien on board. It isn't aware of you at first, but after a short time it takes notice. It's smart and might stalk, it might lay an ambush or it might simply avoid the player for awhile to create a false sense of security. A flamer will keep it at bay, a motion tracker will warn you when it's close. Beyond that though your pretty much defenseless.  What do you do? Zap it out into space? Set the self-destruct sequence and bail? Program the ship to fly into a sun?  What about sending out a distress signal?

It's up to you. Things are open ended and there are multiple ways to finish with some endings better than others.  There's also a number of side objectives you could try to complete. Rescue cocooned shipmates, figure out what happened from "Mother" or use an auto-doc to remove the alien egg sitting in your chest - Surprise! Meanwhile, doing anything requires you to navigate using a flickering flashlight hearing the ping of your tracker. Is that a bulkhead or the alien holding perfectly still? maybe you could send some fire that way but your flame thrower is already sputtering. Maybe you should make a refueling run or weld some doors shut and barricade a few air-ducts. Maybe don a spacesuit and go EVA to reach another part of the ship with worrying about the xenomorph...that is assuming you have the oxygen.

Would this game draw critical praise for being terrifying?  I think so. Would it sell like crazy?  Probably not.  I think it could be done well in nine months (unlike the game we ended up with), but it would be short and have to be sold as a $20 downloadable game (DLG?) possibly on Steam.  So for that reason alone, the above is pretty much ensured to never happen.  Gearbox might have tarnished their reputation a bit with Aliens: Colonial Marines, but they made a lot of money, and most gamers don't have any clue who Randy Pitchford is.  Still and idea is an idea.