Archive for September, 2008

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Motion Sickness: Wipeout HD

September 28, 2008

Whew! What a massive update for the Playstation Network with Burnout Paradise put on sale plus the trophy packs, Wipeout HD, and the charming Mega Man 9 it was a good week to be a gamer. Enough with my corporate shilling let’s get to this post! Unsurprisingly, there is a plethora of topics to talk about with Jack Thompson being disbarred, the massive release of Little Big Planet beta codes, and the unexpected release of Mega Man 9 in 8-bit! But I am going to bring your attention toe Wipeout HD. Specifically, the motion controls.

For those of you who don’t know, Wipeout HD is basically a high definition release of Wipeout: Pulse and Wipeout: Pure with some very nice screen shot capabilities, custom track options, and a few other very welcome updates . One update in particular is the option for motion controls using the Sixaxis controller. Having heard some very positive feedback about the motion controls in Wipeout HD I thought I would bust it out. The game gives the option to both steer and tilt your vehicle on the track.

Gamers are known to fear change–as do many people in general–but in this console generation where the Wii is garnering such acclaim for its motion controls, it is surprising that Sony has yet to assist developers in mastering the Sixaxis. The only game I know to have come close is Grand Theft Auto 4‘s helicopter skew. After playing about two hours of Wipeout HD with the motion controls I had barely past the first grid of tracks. Immediately I switched to analog as well as the direction pad and my skill with the game increased exponentially.

This is absurd. One infuriating aspect of the motion controls is that it the game references the horizontal axis to the position of the controller horizontally. That is, the player must hold the controller flat and horizontally for the vehicle to not tilt upward. It is painfully unnatural and most importantly unintuitive.

Videogames lay on a foundation of intuitiveness for game design and especially controls. This is definitely the biggest failure of the Sixaxis since its conception. The genius of WiiSports is that the controller scheme is intuitive and references motion points that the public can associate it. Wipeout HD, a racing game no less, lacks this intuitiveness in its steering. This is unforgivable. At least reference the horizontal plane to the positioning of the controller in the player’s hand. It is unfathomable and the fact that the Playstation 3 which has been out over a year has yet to master a core function of its control scheme reveals the laziness, uninspired, and complete blunder of the system.

But more importantly, the inability to utilize the motion controls in an unobtrusive and nonperipheral manner is a poetic analogy to high-end consoles this generation. Where the majority of AAA titles are reitterating that of which has come before with a sleaker look, little innovation has been done outside of realm of independent developers and a handful of studio houses.

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Industry Cannibalism

September 25, 2008

So it has finally come to this. I am finally posting on NPD numbers. For those that do not know what NPD is, it stands for the National Product Diary. The NPD group is a global market research company that basically is a retail sales traffic service. So, to begin this post let me report the PC sale NPD numbers.

1. Spore
2. Spore Galactic Edition
3. The Sims 2 Apartment Life
4. Spore Creature Creator
5. WoW: Battle Chest
6. The Sims 2 Double Deluxe
7. World of Warcraft
8. WoW: The Burning Crusade
9. Warcraft III Battle Chest
10. Crysis

I have repeatedly heard the claim that Maxis/EA’s Sims series and, hopefully for a company standpoint, the Spore series as well has World of Warcraft have cannibalized the PC market. These franchises have such a firm grip over PC sales and PC players that is difficult for any developer to make any enroachments into PC gaming. This, along with the ever pervasive issue of piracy is “killing” PC gaming.

Now, before we even touch on the factor that the PC market is a haven for digitial distribution and question the accuracy of these sales charts, I have an interesting post from the Kotaku forum from user mva5580. Here are the NPD numbers for consoles.

1. Wii Sports
2. Wii Fit
3. Mercenaries 2 (360)
4. Wii Play
5. NHL 09 (360)
6. Mario Kart Wii
7. Madden 09 (360)
8. Spore Creatures
9. NHL 09 (PS3)
10. Mercenaries 2 (PS3)

So on the flip side one can say that the Wii is cannibalizing the console market. If it were not for Madden and multiple skews of the same game it is clear the Wii games are the dominant product for the market. And currently, we see an outcry from the “hardcore” to the “casual” gamer over the future direction of the gaming industry.

My prognosis, there is no cannibalism occuring as a by-product from these franchises in either the PC or console spectrum of video games. Simply, it is merely changing the landscape of the gamer demographic and increasing the number of gamers for these platforms. The hardcore–and I hate using this term–has not changed their gaming habits. People need to remember that from a design point-of-view WoW is a fairly casual MMO. But it is its addictiveness that makes its community seem hardcore. What we have is an explosion of new gamers that are increasing the number of units and profitability of specific franchises. So while these new avenues of gaming are expanding exponentially, the current or previous landscape for games has not penetrated this demographic. And believe me, eventually all of the so-called hardcore games will return to the top and casual games will reach its platou.

What it all comes down to is capitalism and business. Videogames are just a market that has yet to be saturated. I am sure that the Guitar Hero series will take a similar mantle in the console space just as the many Sims expansion packs inhabit the PC space. Not to mention the huge change digital distribution is creating in acurrately reflecting the PC market and the huge change it will create in the next generation of consoles where digital distribution will very well be the primary purchasing resource to filling your gaming habit. That is not to say that retail will disappear. Business enjoy money won’t give it up no matter where its coming from. But this notion of cannibalization within facets of the industry as certain franchises enroach on gamers is absurb. Gamers have eclectic tastes and as much of an addiction WoW is, with every new MMO that comes up there is always a vocal community willing to back it up. It can be Age of Conan or Warhammer Online. But it is these new gamers that are entering the market that are changing the way games are bought, played, and viewed in the public eye. And I am positive that this new generation of gamers will become just as hardcore in the future. And who knows, they may even pick up a Halo or GTA along with a copy of Animal Crossing one day.

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Invisible interface is the new compelling

September 23, 2008

The title of this blog post is paraphrased from 1UP.com Senior Reviews Editor Garnett Lee when he discussed upon the current trend of games designed with an invisible interface. One of my earliest memories of this instance was the release of Doom 3. For an example of this idea of invisible interface refer to the images below, specifically the number tracker for ammo for the weapon shown.

Now, I would not call this new trend “invisible interface” but instead I would coin the term “transparent interface.” The interface is not invisible but more so transparent to the player for the sake of immersion. It is still present but integrated into the game’s aesthetic that is becomes innoticeable and transparent. More recently, this technique has been used in a more technical manner for connecting to online multiplayer. Instances include Burnout Paradise‘s simple means of opening up the menu overlay to get online or Grand Theft Auto 4‘s cellphone overlay to jump into the game’s online contact. These means of connecting to online play are not invisible, but transparent. They are integrated into the aesthetic of the game universe in that these are inherent aspects of player control to navigate the technical aspects of the game apart from it’s immersive game design. It is the fear of intrusion on the player toward the game universe that has prompted designers and programmers toward this artistic direction.

And it is an art form, no doubt about it. Dead Space, which is a science fiction horror-game, makes use of holograms to open up the game’s technical interface. The life bar of the player is also indicted by a glowing spine on his space suit. Pictured to the right is the upcoming Ghostbusters Game where the stats of the player is indicated on the proton pack of the avatar. These ways of integrating user interface into the avatar aesthetic of the game is genius. And to a degree to what Lee says, it is compelling in the sense of the level of transparency and immersiveness of the game that is portrayed to the player.

But it isn’t this transparent interface that is compelling but what it says about the direction of game design this generation. It is really a simplication of game mechanics that allows this kind of interface to begin. For instance, there is noticeably an absence of a life bar in this Ghostbusters Game screenshot. No doubt it will follow the Halo trend of disregarding the life bar in favor or regenative life in relation the the frequency of damage. This same thing goes for integrating instant online play completely subverting the multiplayer-match hub in favor of the “Friend’s list.” Both of these examples of taking out elements of game and interface design traditions.

Now, it is dubious to believe that the interface will disappear forever or that life bars are a thing of the past. And we should not deride designers that stay true to classical interface design. But this recent trend is making interface transparent to the player is a new direction for designers. It shows them placing constraints and even disregarding traditional means of game design in order to evolve it both technically and aesthetically–and that is what is compelling about transparent interface.

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False Perspective: Auteur Poster Boys – Part 4

September 20, 2008

So we finally reach the conclusion of this brief four part series about game narrative and design from Jonathan Blow’s Braid and Ken Levine’s Bioshock. If you notice in this blog I have chosen probably the most cult endearing pictures of these two designers for this post because over the past months these two designers have been catapulted forcefully into auteur status by the gaming community. This should come to no surprise as we are in a media generation where the auteur label is placed on everyone whether it’s mediocre film director Brett Ratner to single film director Richard Kelly. Especially in the gaming community, there is a need for auteurs to legitimize the form of the medium placing the responsibility on Sid Meier, Will Wright, or Peter Molneux.

Jonathan Blow has quickly become a poster boy because of his passion and encompassing role on Braid. When Blow discusses game design and player response he is talking about games on an extremely high level of thought. Blow is a very eccentric and intelligent designer and even before Braid was released he had garnered this sort of maverick status. Blow independently financed Braid costing about 180 thousand dollars and has refined the game to guide the player not toward the themes of Braid but more so the discussion of Braid and the medium it resides in.

Ken Levine is almost the opposite personality in that he is extremely humble when it comes to the development of Bioshock often placing much of the honor to his development team. But this is a game that has been a pet project for years. And if anyone has played the design and narrative structure of System Shock 2, the two games are almost identical. There is no doubt in the artistic merit that Levin has in Bioshock. Still, Blow has placed the honor of Braid‘s artistic aesthetic to artist David Hellman and Levin keeps reminding gamers of the efforts the 2K Boston team that worked with him on Bioshock.

Yet the majority of the acclaimed press for these games has gone toward these two designers. The reason I believe for this is because the designer and the developer has become synonymous with each other and thus eclipsing the role of the development team. This occurs with film as well and marks the first steps of providing authorship with the game. We want visionaries and authorship to place blame on the game’s successes and failures.

1UP Specials: RSVP 05/30/08

There is a wonderful special called RSVP on the 1UP Show were Mark MacDonald interviewed Erik Wolpaw (writer on Portal), Dylan Cuthbert (president, Q Games), Jonathan Mak (designer, Everyday Shooter). Wolpaw and Mak have a wonderful discussion about the role of the designer and the developer and the philosophy of game design. While the philosophy Valve (the developer of Portal) is to release the utmost professional product by repeated game testing and refinement, Mak, on the otherhand, follows a very Japanese route presenting the player with the game that he wants the player the experience-faults and all. I will return to this debate about the auteur’s role in games in future posts, but concluding this series on “False Perspective” whether Levine or Blow deserve this auteur label is inconsequential. The video game is a medium that yearns for intelligent authors and whether is comes from a developer or singular designer is growth that is more than welcome.

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Isolationist Architectural Design in Sim City

September 18, 2008

With all the hubbub about Spore and it’s supposed agenda against Creationist theory and support over intelligent design, I began to ponder to back to my Sim City days. Primarily the role of the various disasters and how little this aspect of Sim City has evolved in the series. Though I adore the Sim City series, I have a huge problem with the sort of isolationist architectural design philosophy in the game.

It is well known that Will Wright had taken inspiration from Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Way which deals in city planning and its sociological effects on maintaining and building communities and wellness– which influenced the premise more so in the Sim City: Societies — this series seems to have widely ignored the ecological factors in city planning. This is where my issues with the disasters in Sim City emerge. The disasters in the series are not implemented in any logical fashion, tornadoes are highly unlikely to appear in metropolitan areas–not that UFOs are any more realistic. I feel that location and terrain should have a larger impact to the city. If a city is build in a valley there should be consequences of drought and if a city is built on top of a swamp consequences of a possible flood dangers should arise.

And this is what many of the Sim Series games inadvertently do, which is provide a very aggressive skew towards society. The Sims series was well known for it’s extremely materialistic view of human wellness where a person’s happiness would be determined through the things owned. This is not more apparent from the new IKEA expansion pack for The Sims. Even Spore is simplified as herbivores progress slowly through the game and eventually are forced to become religious zealots whereas carnivores breeze through the evolutionary stages and are forced to be vicious war mongering creatures. It is a problem of simplication without consideration to consequence that is a overarching theme in many of the games in this series.

Coming back to Sim City these valid ecological circumstances need to be considered in city planning. Though pollution has appeared in the Sim City series, this aspect of ecological effect has yet to be fully explored. And in terms of city planning, this should be a large factor to be considered. It is a very isolationist view of city building where the city itself is not part of the world it inhabits. However, on the plus side it does show that there is ample growth for the series and unexplored territory that reveals a bright future for these games and still the wide scope of responses and impressions that can be be provide to the player.

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The Hype Machine – 7th Generation

September 15, 2008

The rumor mill has stuck again with an insider source from Blizzard Entertainment stating that the development of Starcraft 2 will be postponed until the release of Diablo 3. Blizzard had announced Diablo 3 a year after Starcraft 2, which was speculated to have come out some time in 2009. Knowing Blizzard’s track record, I would put money that these games may not even be out until 2010 though I am sure the final produce well be worth it. This isn’t new for developers to postpone release dates, but seeing the latest models of Nintendo and EA announcing games within a shorter release window I am wondering what effect these press models will have to the gaming-world Hype Machine.

Hype can be a wonderful thing enticing the gaming community for products that they know doubt yearn. Showing the game early can help developers present material for the press to spread the word and also gain feedback on improvement towards the game and public response. Of course it is also a great marketing tool. This week, The Force Unleashed is released and I can already tell that this will be a divisive game. It has all the geekdom of the Star Wars universe and has drawn criticisms over its monotonous combat system and uninspired level design–this was gathered from the current reviews I’ve read. But the game will sell like gangbusters because it has just enough of that arcade playability and “wow factor” to pander to the masses. This was exactly the case with Assassin’s Creed which proved to be one of the biggest hits of 2007.

This past year, EA and Nintendo seem to be taking the Apple route by announcing a game only months prior to its release. Being a long time PC fan where games are announced years before release, this is a welcome change. It also shows the amount of faith EA has placed on new franchises such as Dead Space. Of course, both these games are a huge risk as the foundation of the product is already set in stone and there is little a developer can really do by game test and tweak as much as possible. Too Human, which had a arguably poor early showing probably benefiting from being previewed early in terms of the game’s development. I believe the controversy has more to do with the vocalic Dennis Dyack, god love him. The game’s success is a whole other story.

The problem with this new Hype Machine press model is that it is basically finding success for this model is grasping straws. It is a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg? But it will be interesting to see long time developers and distributors decide which model works best for the product. It is clear that no one wants a Duke Nukem Forever, but I don’t believe companies want to reveal their hand too early. Personally, I can wait for products such as Alan Wake or Half-Life Ep. 3, but the convenience of having Mirror’s Edge right around the corner is a major step in the ways companies advertise and push their new games.

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False Perspective: Limitations of the player – Part 3

September 13, 2008

Looking at Braid the biggest gripe I have with the game is its narrative design in relation to the game’s level sequence. Through out the game the player is required to collect puzzle pieces which will invariably open up new levels for the player. This is aa acceptance of video game design which basically rewards for completion. However, for a game that plays with time and individual perspective, I don’t believe that with holding certain levels against the player is necessary. Mainly because each level appears to be isolated an episodic because the player can only use one aspect of time manipulation for each level.

What this creates is a linear structure in Braid which takes pride in non-linearity in it’s narrative. On the one hand the game promotes the subjectivity of time and space, while on the other sends the player down a fairly singular path. Yes, players are not required to solve puzzles in order but in order to unlock levels a pre-determined number of stages must be completed. For a game that attempts to break the mold of player response in games, it is odd that designer Jonathan Blow does not take more chances in this aspect. It’s a very schizophrenic design philosophy and truthfully I would rather had the Alone in the Dark 5 model of choose any stage from the very beginning of the game for Braid than withholding the player’s option on which levels he can play.

Bioshock does not have this problem because the story is meant to be told in a linear fashion. However, there are conflicting design philosophies in relation to the game’s RPG elements and the level design of its world: Rapture. Bioshock was highly toted for the ability to play through levels in multiple ways. And it succeeds to an extent. Though players may overcome obstacles through numerous approached, the novelty of this aspect wears thin near the end of the game.

As the player progresses he will be able to gain more ADAM to spend for plasmids, various powers that the player can give himself to adapt his play approach. However, as the player progresses, all of these upgrades will become so stacked that virtually the end game will become the same experience for all players. Though there may be slight variation, it is clear that certain upgrades are more powerful than others or offer superficial differences to player approach toward obstacles. Just as the ending, the choices made in the game have little baring to ultimate results of player.

In my next installment I will conclude my discussion on Braid and Bioshock and the impact respective designers Jonathan Blow and Ken Levine has on the industry and medium.