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08/26/2007 - 09/01/2007

Why Great Game Ideas Sometimes Don't Pan Out

August 31, 2007

Can not wait for TF2. CAN NOT WAIT. There's a fun thread raging in the GameSpy Forums about Great Game Ideas that Just Didn't Cut the Mustard. It started in July and people are still actively tossing opinions into it. What's fun is that one man's masterpiece is another man's failure, depending on what you wanted to get out of the game. It's a great read. I love the bitterness:

"RAINBOW F---ING SIX! You know, instead of planning out the most strategically advantageous route for your team to follow, you end up planning out the best route that your retarded AI teammates will take without f---ing everything up." -Pfhor-Chan
Hup! hup! hup! hup! hup!
I loved Rainbow Six, but I admit... A lot of times I played it this way.

It's tough to be a game designer these days. Twenty-five years ago, if you had a crazy novel new game idea, it took about a month of work to fill up the 64K of system memory computers had available, then you could shove your idea into a zip-lock baggie and start selling it. Who cares if the idea didn't work? Hell, after tinkering with it for a couple of weeks, you could bail on the idea if it wasn't coming together and who cared? Nobody.

Nowadays, game development is like trying to steer the Titanic. You come up with a game design ("Hey guys, let's try sailing to New York!") and then you try to make it happen. Building a modern triple-a game takes about 50 people, contributing about 2-3 years. Budgets are in the tens of millions of dollars. What if the design just isn't working? It's iceberg time. That's why publishers are eager to greenlight games that are clones of existing games -- hey, at least you know it'll be fun.

Peter Molyneux, for better or for worse, is always steaming full speed ahead with inventive game ideas, even if they may or may not ultimately work out. Fable 2 is nowhere near finished, according to Kotaku, and it's already a couple of years into development. Will it dazzle? I'd be freaked out if I had invested millions into the development, but since I'm just Joe Gamer, I can't wait to see what comes out of it.

Game developers are wrestling with how to still be innovative given how complex it is to build modern games. Frequent and rapid prototyping is one answer. That's how Will Wright's team is building Spore. There's also a great lecture on prototyping by indie game experimental artist Jon Blow, which is interesting to watch if you're into the indie gaming scene. (That's where all the innovative game ideas are these days... although Nintendo deserves some credit for shaking game designs up with the Wii controller.)

Along those lines, there's a development process called 'SCRUM,' which is basically a software design philosophy that's been rippling through the game development community for a while now. Gamasutra just posted a piece explaining SCRUM. It works like this: Instead of defining a goal and then reaching it in a series of milestones, you begin with a rough outline of what you want to build, get a prototype up quickly, and then frequently review and reevaluate the product throughout the process. Your final design might be very different than what you set out to build, but it'll probably be a much better product. Whether or not this approach actually results in great games ... well, that hasn't really been proven yet. And it's hard to implement Scrum across a whole developer and publisher and have everyone agree on how it should work. Here's a fun party trick: if you ever meet a game developer at a party, say the word "Scrum" and see if he or she bursts into tears.

If you're like most gamers, you don't care how a game is made ... so long as it's cool. You've probably noticed that certain developers -- like Valve or Blizzard -- consistently come out with games that are beyond awesome. Why is that? Is there some secret mojo stored in vats below their building? Personally, I think what separates these developers from the rest is a willingness to outright terminate projects that just aren't making the grade. Look at Valve Software: TeamFortress 2 has been cancelled and resurrected at least once, and the result looks spectacular. Blizzard, meanwhile, has cancelled games (WarCraft Adventures), delayed them (StarCraft Ghost), or rebuilt them from scratch (The original StarCraft was scrapped and reinvented before release.) There's an article in the Orange County Register about it. Of course, cancelling projects requires both brass balls and deep pockets, so developers with the resources to do it are few and far between.

Keep that in mind as you enjoy the GameSpy thread and reminisce about game designs that were almost great.

Posted by at 11:19 AM PDT
Edited on: August 31, 2007 11:21 AM PDT

Great Horror Games: Your Take!

August 30, 2007

Can not wait for TF2. CAN NOT WAIT. Earlier this week I waxed romantically about games that freaked me out, and why videogames are such an excellent vehicle for horror. (See yesterday's blog if you missed it.) BioShock [Play the demo!] continues to live large in my nightmares, and I hesitate to think of what it's done to my wife, who last night fell asleep on the couch next to me with the sounds of Big Daddies and grenade launchers echoing loudly through my surround sound.

I presented a short list of what makes for great horror in games, and asked what I missed. Here's a sampling from my overstuffed inbox:

"I think one thing that can make a game scary is a vanishing enemy. You're walking down a corridor, something pops up. "eep"! But then it goes away. You know it's watching you, The AI knows you're there and you don't have a clue if it's following you or if it's going to do the same thing around the corner." -Tylersill
"Blood, don't forget the blood all over the place. Even at the age of 66 (yes that's right) I still have an innate and abiding fear of evisceration. I think the fear is caused by an archaic suppressed memory (a Freudian term) of some event in my childhood. I thought I liked Silent Hill Restless Dreams but this game puts that one in the shade. I spent nearly $100 on BioShock and a strategy guide and I have to say it was worth every penny. Thank God I have an ample supply of Nitro pills (just kidding)." -George Robinson
"You forgot some really big ones. First off, AI. FEAR is absolutely frightening because your enemies are actually intelligent and adapt to you. No matter how good you are, if your enemies are learning how you do things, it's not normal. Secondly, the enemies themselves. BioShock has the huge Big Daddies. No one wants to fight them, they're huge... And don't forget ambushes. No one wants to turn a corner, and see nothing, turn their head and have a dozen enemies with guns attacking them. Thirdly, level design. If you're in some small room, and you hear enemies outside, you better hope you have a spare grenade. And just extra little things like blood on the walls, or dripping water. Pictures, objects, just level decorators add to the horror of the game..." -Tyler Kirkham
"In my humble opinion you are forgetting something that makes a good horror story either for a Game, a Movie or a Book (ok I know you are mostly referring to videogames, but it is shown in good games). Contrast... They show you the normal and placid world around you (or maybe not so placid if we remember Doom 3 or The Suffering) before throwing hell into the world. Sometimes is maddening to watch the normal world as it dissolves around the character's eyes (and yours) and once into that there is no coming back..." -Montalve
You guys are masters of horror and suspense. Hitchcock would be proud. Of course, of all the techniques you and I described, there are proper ways to use each. "Ambushes" are awesome for building the scare factor, for instance, but they can easily be overdone (DOOM 3's 'Monster Closets' spring to mind. But that's another story.)

Enjoy the games, and keep sleeping with the lights on.

Posted by at 11:22 AM PDT
Edited on: August 30, 2007 11:25 AM PDT

What Makes a Great Horror Game?

August 29, 2007

Can not wait for TF2. CAN NOT WAIT. This week on Wired, author Clive Thompson asserts that videogames make better horror than Hollywood. I'm inclined to agree; I'm not a big fan of horror movies but I eat horror games like candy. What is it about games that make them so effective at making terror entertaining? The simple act of inserting YOU into the action is a big part of it. Thompson also has some other thoughts:
"Games already seem like dream states. You're wandering around a strange new world, where you simultaneously are and aren't yourself. This is already an inherently uncanny experience. That's why a well-made horror game feels so claustrophobically like being locked inside a really bad -- by which I mean a really good -- nightmare." -Clive Thompson, Wired

There's something fascinating that goes on when you play a horror game. You dread what's around the corner but at the same time you're dying to see it. (Hopefully not literally.) I'm waist-deep in BioShock this week and I still jump out of my skin whenever I hear a noise. One time a neighbor knocked at the door and I jerked my head up. My first instinct: They're coming to get me. Play the BioShock Demo to get a taste for yourself.

Not all horror games are created equal. The real secret is creating tension and dread. What are the key ingredients? Here's a quick rundown of what I think makes a horror game stick out. Am I missing any? Mail me!

  • Use of Sound: Many games forget how important sounds can be, but they can't be overlooked in a horror game. The tension of hearing something scuttling in the dark is so much more terrible than seeing it. And horror is all about tension.

  • Limited Resources: In an action game, I expect to tear through a dozen enemies with my machinegun blaring away on autofire. But that would take away the tension of a horror game -- by tightly constraining things like heath and ammo, horror games force you to creep along more cautiously, and to genuinely fear what's up ahead.

  • A mystery to plunge you forward: Sure, things are trying to kill you. But WHAT are they, and why are they trying to finish you off? The mystery makes your enemies seem more terrible and also drives you to keep on playing.

  • Use of Lighting: It's not about horror games being dark -- it's about the mix between light and shadow. The dark isn't scary if that's all there is. It's all about forcing you, the player, to make the decision to leave a well-lit place and descend into something uncertain that creates such great tension. Besides, enemies lit in the half-light or silhouetted against a backdrop are more mysterious or terrifying -- that's true of both movies and games.

  • A Theme You Can Identify With: Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a statement about the Communist threat. Dawn of the Dead was a veiled statement on consumerism. Similarly, BioShock explores our fears about genetic modification or technology being applied without morals. The citizens of Rapture just wanted to make themselves more beautiful or powerful -- who wouldn't? But you the player get to witness the consequences of their actions. No matter how unreal the horror is, if it's something we can relate to, it makes it more gripping.

  • BioShock succeeds on all fronts, which is probably among the many reasons it's getting such rave reviews. If you play it, make sure you have clean underwear handy.

    Posted by at 12:09 PM PDT
    Edited on: August 29, 2007 12:11 PM PDT

    Gabe Newell and the Advantages of Buying Digital

    August 28, 2007

    Can not wait for TF2. CAN NOT WAIT. You have to have a lot of respect for Valve -- for its debut game the company unleashed Half-Life, a title continually referenced in the history of computer games. How do you follow that? Valve stepped up and wrote a top-tier game engine from scratch (Source) and built a digital commerce system aiming to change the way games are bought and sold (Steam).

    In this Game Informer interview, Valve founder Gabe Newell talks about the advantages of doing business digitally. Here at GameSpy/IGN, of course, we've got our own digital solution at Direct2Drive, where you can buy full retail games and download them to play immediately. Have you bought any games for direct download yet? Here's why going direct is a good deal for gamers and for game makers alike:

    1. The Long Tail: The reality of videogame retail is that there isn't a lot of shelf space. A Barnes & Noble bookstore might be as large as four stories, but your typical game retailer is jammed into a space smaller than a studio apartment. As a result, games that don't move fast have to be bumped off of the shelves to make room. That hurts the whole industry -- it forces a "hit game" culture where something has to either be a big-budget blockbuster or it's pulled from the shelf a week later. That ain't right. What about niche games, indie games, or experimental titles? When you shop online, there's no restrictions -- small, old, or niche games all have their place. As soon as publishers realize this and discover how much money they're leaving on the table, you're going to see a huge rush to make back-catalog games online (you're already seeing this with classic games coming back as downloadables on the next-gen consoles). It's going to be a beautiful thing. If you're a serious gamer, get used to buying online! As Newell says, "There are no shelf space issues on Steam."

    The Soldier Trailer is a Must-See
    Click to see the TeamFortress 2 Soldier Trailer.
    This guy makes The Heavy Weapons Guy look like Socrates.

    2. Buy Only What You Want: This October, The Orange Box will be available at retail. This package contains Half-Life 2 Episode 2, Portal, and TeamFortress 2. But what if you only want TeamFortress 2? You're out of luck if you want to buy from the stores -- "[There was] resistance from the retailers. They didn't want more than one SKU," Newell explained to GameInformer. Again, it's a shelf-space issue. There are no such problems with Steam, where Newell promises "a bunch of different offerings. All the multiplayer products, all the single player products ... we'll just try to figure out the most popular ways that people will want to buy it." Buying direct gives you the ability to buy content in smaller chunks. You can buy individual expansions or even levels if you want, instead of big bundles. Episodic games like Sam & Max (download the demo!) are possible online, but tough to do in physical stores. It's like a whole new world is opening up.

    3. Free Trials and Other Experiments: There's a third advantage to digital sales, and while it's mostly a benefit for publishers and developers, it also has some perks for us gamers. With digital sales, products can be unlocked for 'free trials,' as Valve does with multiplayer Day of Defeat on occasion. Companies can look at buying behavior. Who downloads it? Who plays it? Do they go on to buy the full version? (The answer is: a lot of gamers do.) Game developers can use this information to target products, find an audience, and release new stuff. As for gamers, we'll have the option of trying lots of new things and buying only what we want -- all from the comfort of our easy chair.

    So for a lot of reasons, digital sales are it. Most of you reading this are already taking advantage, either through Xbox Live Arcade, the Wii virtual console, Steam or Direct2Drive. If you haven't bought any games this way, maybe you should start poking around. You might find something you like, and along the way you'll support the development of games that'll pull the industry out of the hit-driven rut it's created for itself.

    Posted by at 10:53 AM PDT
    Edited on: August 28, 2007 10:55 AM PDT

    Holiday 2007: Battle of the Jamz!

    August 27, 2007

    I had cheezeburger, and heartily recommend it. The drums are booming from horizon to horizon... and there, can you hear it? The distortion-filled wail of a million guitars, thrashing their way to platinum-record glory. This Holiday season the Gods of Rock are about to go to war, and I for one raise my pointer and pinky high to throw them the horns of welcome.

    From the West, begin your salutary bass riff for Activision, Neversoft, and Red Octane, the terrible trio who look to continue the glory of the Guitar Hero franchise with Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Check out the GameSpy Preview). Red Octane built the original Guitar Hero guitar controller -- a very nice piece of work -- and looks to follow up with an incredible wireless Gibson Les Paul. Meanwhile, although Neversoft is a newcomer to the franchise, the Tony Hawk developer has a reputation for badassery that can't be denied. Then there's the set list: killer classics like "Slow Ride" by Foghat, "Rock N Roll All Night" by KISS, "School's Out" by Alice Cooper, "Suck my Kiss" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers or "Paint it Black" from the Rolling Stones. Personally I think "My Name is Jonas" by Weezer is reason enough to buy the game. Finally? Name recognition! The Guitar Hero franchise has become the de-facto standard for videogame partying. But this year, Activision's got some competition...

    Jimi Hendrix Wails on Guitar Hero
    Were Hendrix alive today, he could totally hit the orange button.

    Now turn your eyes to the East, friends, and open your ears to the piercing meedly-meedly solos of Electronic Arts, Harmonix, and MTV. This trilogy of terror includes the original Guitar Hero developer, also known for Karaoke Revolution, combined with the immense musical and financial resources of industry behemoths MTV and EA. (Check out my FileBlog on the Inside Story of Harmonix and Guitar Hero). Together they're unleashing the most ambitious home music game in development today: Rock Band. Rock Band will have players jamming on both guitar and bass while a singer belts out lyrics into a microphone and a drummer pounds away on a drum set. See GameSpy's Latest Preview. You'll be able to form your own 'band' with your friends, post your triumphs on Xbox Live, download new tracks (and even whole albums!) and more. This thing is going to be huge.

    BUT WHO WILL TRIUMPH? When Rock Band was announced, using the original developer as well as the musical resources of MTV, it was a foregone conclusion here at GameSpy that it would roll over Guitar Hero III. But now that we know more about both games, it's hard to say. First up, the controllers: Red Octane's new wireless Gibson Les Paul looks like the best guitar controller available, at least in terms of playability. That gives Guitar Hero III the edge for shredders. Even though the Rock Band Fender Stratocaster looks amazing, the buttons on the prototypes we played were still 'mushy.' Will it be fixed in time?

    Then you have the musical selections. Rock Band aims for a wider appeal, with a lot of tracks emphasizing the vocals for karaoke fans. Songs like "We Won't Get Fooled Again" or "Suffragette City" are more fun to sing than play on the guitar. So instead of facing off in a head-to-head competition, the two games each have a very different focus -- Guitar Hero III is all about seriously hardcore guitar licks and Rock Band is about pop tunes and finding a group of players who can back up a really good vocalist. The games will likely appeal to different people.

    Of course, they both appeal to me. Which is a raw deal. I'll be spending almost as much on fake instruments this holiday season as you'd expect to spend on real ones. Rock hurts.

    Posted by at 12:08 PM PDT

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