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Due to the Age of this Title

So here I am, about to shell out $5 for a game I bought 14 years ago in the hopes the code would have been updated to run properly inside DosBOX. I had tried reinstalling Dark Forces last winter to much frustration. I could never get the whole thing to run correctly inside DosBOX. The sound would cut in and out, the whole thing would crash, etc. depending on what settings I had on. The only way it would run was without sound. So basically I said “forget it” since the game’s sound is superb.

Jump forward several months to the entire Dark Forces Collection (not Jedi Knight Collection, like they so proudly proclaim. Katarn was NOT a Jedi in the original Dark Forces, just a Han Solo wannabe) being released on Steam. “Hooray!” I shouted. “I get to toss thermal detonators at Ree Yees!” Then I see the following warning:

Due to the age of the title, users may run into a few compatibility issues from use of current hardware. Please see the forums for more information.

Back up. Do you mean to tell me that if I drop $5 on this that it might not even work because nobody went through whatever amount of effort it takes to get this awesome first person shooter running on Windows XP/Vista systems? And it even says the same for Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight, which was a Windows 95/98 game. What confuses me is that if you know your game is old and you know you are releasing it on Steam, why not go back to the source code and make it, I dunno, work? What happens when I drop my $5-$10 only to find out that the game you sold me will not work with my system? How is that supposed to make me feel? This game won’t work because my computer is TOO good, as opposed to the Crysis style of “not good enough.”

I thought these problems were alleviated ages ago, what with being able to manually control turning CPUs on and off, adjusting video card settings, etc. These could all be done in game to make sure anyone can play it. But, just in case, how about letting us test the game for 5 minutes to see if it runs before we shell out money for an obsolete game that could end up playing like something 20 years old instead of something just 10?

I’ve had no problems getting my Steam purchased version of Ultimate DOOM to run, but such a disclaimer as the one with Dark Forces and DF2 should not even be necessary. And what with the bad experience I had trying to get it to run off my CD version, I just want to know that this will be $5 well spent.


Final Boss Battles

In days of yore, boss battles boiled down to one major pattern: hit it in its weak spot, usually the head. This could also be varied up with hitting it with its weakness (like Mega Man master robots) or just straight up hitting it until it dies. As awesome as Shadow of the Colossus was, once you managed to climb up the boss it all boiled down to this one simple pattern.

The question has been posed on Adam Sessler’s Soapbox podcast, “What is a way of approaching an interactive resolution to a game that is not ways that are being accomplished now?” I believe the best way to approach the ending of a game is to focus on the mechanics that your game has presented to its players and not on game design patterns that have already been established.

The best example I can think of for this is Portal. All you have is a gun that shoots portals, and you are facing a robotic mastermind that is shooting missiles at you. That is a battle that is more about ingenuity than about knocking off hit points. Sometimes using the game environment to your advantage can also make for a more dynamic final boss battle. Take Max Payne, for example. The first one had kind of a downer final boss battle, you only lost if you took too long and overall it wasn’t very challenging. Max Payne 2 may have rehashed that final boss battle, but it added in the fact that object physics was already an integral part of the game and you had Vlad tossing molotov cocktails your way the whole time. It was more about pure survival than figuring out the final boss’s patterns, especially because you didn’t see the boss for most of the battle.

The lamest boss battles are ones that introduce some kind of “ultimate weapon” that can only destroy the final boss. The games that come to mind are Unreal 2 and DOOM 3, both of which introduce, oddly enough, a cube which, when thrown at the final boss, destroys it. Whoop dee freaking doo. You mean to tell me that I’ve built up this huge arsenal of rocket launchers, laser cannons, and machine guns during the course of your 6-12 hour game, and your final boss’s weakness is a box? When you are establishing gameplay for a 6-12 hour period of time, players expect to use what they have learned during those 6-12 hours in order to overcome the final challenge, not some half-assed final mechanic you threw in at the last minute because you ran out of ideas. For example, Unreal 2 had a great system of setting up barriers and turrets in order to take down invading armies, similar to the Team Fortress engineer. These setups were used twice during the entire game, and the parts that used them really added some flavor to the gameplay. These were not used during the final boss section, yet could have made for a much more dynamic and player-choice friendly final level, instead of expending all my ammo on a single gigantic alien only to be given a cube which destroys them in one hit.

Simply put, use what you’ve already got. But more than that, make the player be resourceful with what they’ve got and use the mechanics you have introduced to them in new but recognizable ways. Give your players a final challenge that, based on consistent reality logic, are able to understand how it works in the game-world. The best games open the experience up to player choice, and allow the player to try new things based on the game world’s rules and mechanics. If you make that your starting point instead of “you must do this to beat the final boss” then chances are your final boss will be that much more awesome.

A Game Designer’s Review of 5W!TS “Tomb” in Boston

I made this post back on my old NightRise Development Blog, and enjoyed it so much that I thought I’d bring it back since it very much has to do with game design and what to AVOID in game design. So if you didn’t read it back at the old blog, now’s your chance. Enjoy!

I think the people who run 5W!TS have met their mortal enemy: someone who can identify every game cliche in the book. And “Tomb” has them all. Let me start from the beginning.

After paying $20 per ticket and wasting half an hour at Best Buy for your time slot to come up, you are introduced to some lame-ass story about a professor who has gone missing inside some random Egyptian Tomb deep within Kenmore Square. The original explorer of the Tomb has gone missing and it is up to you, your incompetent group, your incompetent guide, and a British Person to guide you through the deep, dark, twisted lair of three rooms which will take you half an hour to 45 minutes to get through and leave you feeling like you would have been better off seeing a bad movie that is 2-3 times as long and costs only half as much.

The first room presents you a long, contrived monologue from the voice of the Pharaoh which starts with the words, “MUAHAHAHA!” (and no spacebar to skip it) followed by three puzzles, which could be easily described as a Pixel Hunt, a round of Simon Says, and a block puzzle. Granted, the pixel hunt was probably the best puzzle of the lot. Five tiny little discs are hidden around the room that you have to press and make glow red. Once that’s done, you must play a five larger discs in the correct order. So far s’okay, not that I didn’t do these puzzles back in Myst fourteen years ago.

Then comes the glory of all glorious game cliches: the block puzzle. Move a giant, stone statue four inches back to the wall. FOUR INCHES! Ya know, some games are made up entirely of block puzzles. Soul Reaver, Tomb Raider… I was hoping that for something that calls itself an, “Interactive Video Game” (facepalm), they’d manage to avoid the kinds of puzzles that make gamers bored. Unfortunately, that’s all they had. All I was thinking was, “Christ get me out of here now. What’s next? Spiked walls?”

I won’t even bother mentioning how the room ends as it’s so phoned in that it’s pathetic.

The next room has two puzzles: readjust tiles on the floor to match a disc on the wall, and rebuild a pyramid one brick at a time without carrying two bricks or stacking a bigger brick on top of a smaller brick. It’s in this room that I guarantee no cooperation will be found in your group. While I closely studied the disc on the wall and began to readjust the tiles accordingly, others proceeded to think that I was wrong and began readjusting the tiles at their whim, taking us five minutes to get through a thirty second puzzle. At this point I began thinking, “Why bother?” When the floor puzzle was finally solved, the ceiling started crushing down on us very, very slowly. So I wasn’t far off from the spiked walls, but they would have been MUCH more interesting and would have given me a way out of my waste of $20. As the rest of the group did the pyramid puzzle, I stood by and looked at my imaginary watch, waiting for the ceiling to end my misery as if it would. The puzzle was solved and the voiceover of the Pharaoh went into a second, long, contrived monologue.

Third room, spin some columns randomly until the hieroglyphics line up properly. Supposedly there were clues on the walls but they really didn’t do any good. Then we had to spin discs on the far wall to line up tubes to prevent the room from filling with chlorinated water (the whole place smelled like a unairconditioned indoor pool). Obviously there was no way to tell when you had the tubes lined up correctly, and the final disc I had to spin wouldn’t even stay in its correct position, so I had to hold it there to wait for the Pharaoh to give yet ANOTHER long, boring monologue and tell us to illuminate his face… with blocks of clay. Yeah. That’ll work. Mirrors? Sure. But no. Unreflective stone blocks to reflect light onto the face of the sarcophagus. Spoiler: If you are inside this joke of a Tomb and find yourself stuck at the final puzzle, have everyone shine their cellphones on the face. Even the guides know this final puzzle just flat out doesn’t work.

And what’s your reward for getting through the Tomb? Being led out to the gift shop where you’re encouraged to spend… gasp! MORE MONEY! As if. Just grab your coat and leave, unless you feel ballsy and demand your money back. I highly doubt you’ll get it, though, since you’ve received the full product and there was no way out beforehand.

So now that I have totally spoiled the experience for you, let’s recap all the clihes, gaming or otherwise:

  1. Long periods of voiceover with no way to skip them.
  2. Pixel hunt.
  3. Simon says.
  4. Block puzzle.
  6. Tile matching (and did I mention that you have to flip the tiles to find the correct picture?!)
  7. Basic middle school math class worksheet problem.
  8. Puzzle with a random, unpredictable solution designed only to irritate the player.
  9. Another puzzle with a random, unpredictable solution designed only to irritate the player.
  10. Puzzle designer thinking, “They’ll never solve this.”
  11. Puzzle designer thinking, “Well, in case they do solve it, I’ll make the last puzzle literally impossible to do with what I give them inside the game.”
  12. No reward for winning.

Please, please, PLEASE save your money. A group of eight people, just eight people, could instead all pool their money and buy a copy of Rock Band for the same price it would cost them to waste 45 minutes of their life. And I guarantee they would have a MUCH better time playing that Boston-made game then the one currently located at 5W!TS.

The interesting part is the fact that people keep going. No one has warned them not to go, and all the major reviews have been highly positive. I can’t even begin to fathom why. The place is packed every day, and has been for the last three years. They were supposed to have a new exhibit by now, but these scam artists have realized that their three rooms of boredom have brought in so much dough that they’d be better off never changing it, never moving it, never even bothering to patch it to make improvements. Now I will admit, something like this would be much better if it were at, say, The Museum of Science, where it could actually be like exploring a real tomb and not just three, barely decorated rooms lit to look like an ancient Egyptian tomb (if ancient Egyptian tombs were lit green). I guarantee the Museum would do a great job with it and actually give it some historical context, not to mention you might get some form of a free trinket on your way out (no such luck at 5W!TS), and then you have the whole rest of the museum to explore. As it stands,Tomb has no benefits to going. It’s hot, it’s smelly, it’s boring… heck, it’s not even funny.

Oh, and the worst part is, if your group happens to have a kid who has already gone three or four times and knows all the answers, he will ruin the entire experience for you, much like going to a performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show where only person in the audience doesn’t have a V on their forehead, only said person happens to be eight years old. Yeah.

So unless you are a child, or are WAY too easily scared or amused, or have some kind of cerebral palsy, or all of the above, save your money and don’t go to Tomb. The only benefit? No load times.

Videogame Innovation Day

Let it be known that on this day, September 9, in the 2009th year of our Lord, the Governor of Massachusetts Deval L. Patrick declared it to be Videogame Innovation Day.

And the people did widen their eyes and say “What the fuck?” and accepted the day for what it was: AWESOME!

And the people did dust off their Dreamcasts, released on this same day 10 years ago, and did play Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Soul Calibur, and Power Stone, and Fur Fighters, and Jet Grind Radio, and all manner of awesome games released on the best console evar.

And then the people did then load up all manner of Unreal Tournaments (Classic, 2K4, and 3) and blow the everloving shit out of each other in a glorious orgy of death, destruction, gibs, and happiness.

And as the day wore on, more games were played and more consoles were unveiled – even The Guy Game, despite it having been banned for underage nudity.

And soon the people did wail on Rock Band, beating drums off beat and singing songs off key, but it did matter for it was Videogame Innovation Day, and there are only two difficulties: Expert and LOSER!

And is it approached the night that is mid,  all manner of drinks and legal intoxicants were unveiled for the grand finale of the day: Rainbow Road Drinking Game in Mario Kart Wii, upon which a drink was taken each time a player should plummet to his or her doom!

And upon arriving home to sleep off the holiday of gaming festivities, the men and women of Earth did partake in one last game of their choice, even Solitaire or Minesweeper, before passing out like a log.

And goddammit, it was GOOD!

Thoughts on the Indie Games Channel

A few weeks ago I was checking out what XBox Live has to offer in terms of downloadable games, as I was getting sick of the same old routine of Super Smash Bros./Mario Kart/Magic the Gathering with my friends. I felt it was time to mix it up. Castle Crashers was downloaded and enjoyed by all. Then I discovered the Community Games section, and immediately thought “Ah, budgetware,” and went back to the Arcade.

Recently, Microsoft has decided to revamp the Community Games section and rename it Indie Games. Then, instead of being able to charge $10, $5, or $2.50 for your game, you may now only charge $5, $3, or $1. What this essentially means is that the Indie Games section of XBox Live is looking to cash in on the iPhone’s flood of apps. I have heard it said that the worse but cheaper your game is on the iPhone, the better it will sell. That seems to be the direction Microsoft is taking.

When the Arcade was first unveiled, it became a haven for professional indie developers to release games like Braid, Castle Crashers, Lode Runner, N+, and more high caliber games geared more toward artistic expression and risk-taking than a lot of big budget games. I won’t call out any of the games on the Indie Games channel by name, but let’s just say they don’t push the envelope.

I see a correlation between the recent release of Kodu and the name change for Community Games. With a very cheap alternative for game development, Microsoft may be looking to get game developers started at an early age. That’s fine, and I encourage it. Heck I started designing games when I was 5 and a half. With “hundreds of new games coming every week,” though, how will we know what’s bad and what’s good? I don’t doubt Kodu is capable of making good games. A game is only as good as the effort put into it. However, Kodu is geared toward kids, as is the Indie Games section in general. So where do the adults fit in?

It comes down to us being given a sad choice: either push the envelope beyond our financial capabilities and still risk having the game thrown into the Indie Games channel, or just make games for the Indie Games channel. There is, of course, the choice of abandoning the 360 as an indie development platform altogether, which I hope does not happen. If Microsoft wants to keep serious indie developers on the XBox, they’re going to need to make some hefty promises, the most important being that high caliber XNA-developed games will not be included in the insultingly named Indie Games channel. With the direction they are heading, however, it seems like very soon we too will be mixed in with the Kodu crowd.

I truly feel Community Games was a more fitting name, and that the channel under that name was not given a chance. The premise was games made on the cheap, sold for cheap. That fits Kodu to a tee. By renaming it Indie Games, it unwillingly places Professional Indie Developers at risk of having their games mixed in. I shouldn’t even have to use the word risk. The iPhone has shown that there is a difference between an “app” and a “game.” An app is a $1 program that’s fun for 10 minutes and then it’s over. A game is a $5-$60 program that lasts anywhere from 3 to 80 hours.

What the Indie Games channel is, really, is an App Store. As an indie developer, I’m a bit insulted by the Indie Games Channel. I don’t make budgetware or apps. I don’t make games for them to go straight to the bargain bin. Microsoft, please call the Indie Games Channel what it is: The App Channel. Or leave it as Community Games. It has a purpose. Braid is an indie game, but you’ve claimed it’s not for Braid. So either Braid is an indie game and belongs in the Indie Games Channel, or Jonathan Blow is not an Indie Developer. What does that make him then? Do indie developers need a new name to separate ourselves out from the Indie Games channel? Or maybe Microsoft could just leave the name as Community Games and end the confusion altogether. Indie Developers take game development seriously. The Indie Games channel does not.

Letting the Game Tell the Story

A post up at Click Nothing got me thinking about my old Narrative Systems post, as well as my recently released game, The Longest Night (it’s free, so if you haven’t played it, click the link, download it, play it. No excuses. It runs in Windows 98 for crying out loud). My first forray into integrating narrative into gameplay was pretty much just about defining mechanics in terms of the narrative, not about having the mechanics themselves define the narrative. This is where Far Cry 2 and The Longest Night come in. Currently, there is a game of FC2 being played where the player is denying himself the chance to reload a save game, basically playing the game with the constant threat of permadeath looming. This essentially makes every major choice in the game permanent, including whether or not to euthanize buddies when they are dying (and apparently if you just leave them to die they’ll come back to get their revenge. Never made it that far. Killed the guy who gave me story missions and the game came to a standstill. WHOOPS! But it just goes to show how open the game is to player choice).

Then there’s The Longest Night, something that I’ve realized I haven’t talked much about, even on here. It’s gotten its praises and its criticisms, one of the more interesting ones being, “It’s a bad game, but an amazing art-piece.” My goal for the game was for it to tell a story without actually saying anything, to make a game where actions speak louder than words. Since all actions are up to the player, it is up to you to create your own narrative. This is why the game makes no distinctions between any of the NPCs. If the game played favorites, there would be an obvious way to play and way to make the most money. Instead, everyone is worth a random amount of money, between $100 and $500. If you want, you can play the game like an arcade game and collect as much money as possible (a specific design choice), and the challenge comes simply from beating the clock. On the surface it’s an arcade game. Its depth comes from the player’s morality, not just making black and white decisions. You are not a superhero in this game, you can’t save everybody, so who do you save? For how long do you save them? Are beds reserved for the first six for the entire night? Is everybody only allowed an hour nap and that’s it? Is this a woman’s shelter and you don’t allow men or children any sleep at all? It’s all up to you.

In terms of mechanics, the game is nearly as simple as you can get. You move around with the arrow keys, interact with NPCs using the space bar, and walk over money to pick it up. After the instructions, there’s no text, dialogue, or anything else that would interrupt your story. Some people don’t even see a story, and that’s fine. Everyone interprets this game differently, and it’s excited me to no end to hear people talk about it, whether they have good or bad things to say. However, when the game gives people a moral impact, and they start asking questions like “Why can’t I save them?” I feel like I accomplished my goal of letting the player interpret a story strictly through the gameplay.

Some may think it is a daunting prospect to write a story without words, but really, many stories have been told this way since the beginning of time. It’s a matter of taking many, many steps back and thinking about when stories were told through action only, before language even existed. A designer may immediately be compelled to tell the story traditionally through dialogue and cutscenes. It’s a safe way to go and there is nothing wrong with it. The traditional approach has led to many fantastic stories in game worlds. However, that follows the setup of [Gameplay] – [Story] where, for a game designer, the ideal structure is [Gameplay]. Story should be seamlessly integrated into gameplay, told through actions instead of words. Take, for example, Mission Objectives. Let’s say your mission is get from Point A to Point B while collecting a bunch of orbs along the way. That’s a story. It has a beginning (Point A) a middle (Orbs) and an end (Point B). Granted, it’s not compelling, so you can do things within the game-space to make it more interesting. Say the path between Points A and B gets caught on fire and you can’t leave until the fire is out. Now the player needs to find a way to put out the fire. This is a basic gameplay twist, but there is no reason why the same approach cannot be taken to other situations. In The Longest Night, I have a snowstorm brewing up throughout the night, which leads to more people showing up at the shelter, and thus more chances for the player to play out his or her story. A story is a series of events, and a story that is told through the game is much more compelling than just watching it play out in small chunks instead of as a whole.

In Prototype, your story could involve you climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and then pile-driving a tank off the top of it. When it’s done, you did it. It wasn’t prerendered. You did it, and it was awesome. Contrary to that, a game that holds your hand the whole time to lead you through its story is not nearly as interesting. I am currently playing through Call of Juarez – Bound in Blood, and as awesome as the game is, I do wish it let me mess around more than it does. Its story is set up in a traditional [Gameplay] – [Story] fashion, and I can immediately tell, thanks to innovations in storytelling being intertwined with gameplay in both independent and mainstream games, that this is a dying setup.

We ignore what a game means under the traditional setup. We see the story, we do what we have to do to get more story, the game ends, and it’s on to the next one. Meanwhile, Passage narrows down a 50 year relationship into five minutes and shows you just how far love can take you. That’s a power that neither showing nor telling can achieve. That’s the power of doing. It’s a subject I’ve touched on much in the past and it’s one I will continue to touch on until someone can prove me wrong. The storytelling powers of games are far greater than that of a traditional narrator-based medium (books, movies, etc.). When games narrate the story to you, sure, they can be fun, but games are the only medium where the audience has the potential to be the narrator for the whole thing. Have we reached that point yet? No. Will we though? Absolutely. We are in an age of endless technological possibility, and if you can make your own story in D&D, it’s only a matter of time before video games are just as open-ended.

Of course such a game would also be newbie-ambition incarnate. So pick your poison: solid gameplay or completely open storytelling.

(And to anyone who wants to argue that point, I say this: Why must I go kill these guys when all I really want to do is find true love?)

All Aboard

Brenda Brathwaite’s Train is receiving more publicity than I could have imagined while I was watching its development down at SCAD. Many people have now seen the game, played the game, and talked about the game. Talking about it is something I have put off for a while, and now that it is in the public eye, I think it’s time to do so.

The first time I saw the game in its full form was during a class of Design Patterns. The class was cut short as Train was being photographed (which is where the picture to the left comes from) and the class was going to go see it. As we watched it being photographed, Brenda told us some stories about its development and about the symbolism, specifically the broken glass, which had been blessed by a rabbi beforehand. I had realized long before that the kind of power a game could have on a person because of its interactive properties, but this was the most powerful game I had ever seen because of the abstracted forms of the symbolism – like how you stuff the pawns into the trains just as the Jews were in the holocaust – and the surprise ending which, to the uninitiated in this game, causes a great deal of shock and disgust.

After the photo shoot was over, the glass shards on the table were swept up and put into a box, which Brenda then handed to me. I took the box and was immediately unable to think about anything other than what I had in my hands. These shards were blessed under my religion. I don’t consider myself much of a religious man, but Train actually had me thinking twice about that. Nothing has ever made me question whether I want to take my religion more seriously. Train did.

This game put me in a very strange mood, one that I’m not sure anyone else in the class could fully appreciate. All I could say at the time was, “I’ll talk to you about it later,” to which the response from Brenda was, and I’ll never forget this, “Dan never has nothing to say!”

A couple months later, I was sitting in the cafeteria at Montgomery Hall with my friend Thomas, when he received a text from Brenda to come upstairs alone as she had something to show him. I figured, “Okay this must be a thing for grads only.” As it turns out, she wanted to show him the Nazi S.S. typewriter which the ruleset for Train had been written on. I really wish I’d gotten to see it just so I’d have more to say here. Sure I’ve seen photos of it, but just as with Train itself, sometimes photos don’t do a thing justice.

As much as people are praising this game, no amount of praise I could give would do it justice. Not just because it is a great game – it is. I give this game praise because I got to see it in development, and I love seeing games come together, be them my own or anybody else’s. I’ll never forget how speechless I was at seeing the end product.

I want people from all over the nation to take a pilgrimage to see this game, even if they don’t get to play it. You must see it in person to fully understand it. Photographs and videos are no substitute for what this game proves: that games themselves are art, not just through their artwork but through being played, and though this is a concept new to a species trained to just look at art instead of interacting with and experiencing it (not to mention a species that thinks all games are for children), Train is more than a step in the right direction. She may not have realized this when she named it Train, but Brenda Brathwaite has started taking us on a ride down a whole new track of game design.

All aboard!