Premeditated Conversations Through Interaction

I just read this fascinating interview on VICE.  It’s a very dated piece, back from 2010, but what’s talked about is still very relevant to games and the way in which we make them—mainly because games still haven’t figured out what a good story is.  This man managed to create a city with a population of 6 million in SimCity 3000, the maximum possible.  I remember playing the game as a kid and not knowing what the heck was going on.  Regardless, it was still fun poking at the system.  However, what happened in this densely packed city, Magnasanti, is out of this world.  It’s much more than just poking around and is instead an intense conversation, or even debate, between player and designer.  I keep saying it but I’ll say it again: this is what the best game stories are, it’s these conversations that speak in the language of systems interaction.

More after the jump…

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Game/Show Response: Game Reviews


Since I’m doing this anyway, I’ll report any responses I make on PBS Game/Show episodes.  Here’s my latest on their video on game reviews:

Great stuff, Jamin.  I really did like your passionate yelling, though.  It kind of became the feel for the show.  I’d yell because I’m passionate about this stuff too.  If you ever get back to yelling, you have my support!

I think you’re right on many levels with reviews, that its methodology is broken, but also that they are still important on a few levels.  Here are some ways I think can improve the process:

1) Since games are experiences, why not have multiple reviewers take a stab at reviewing the game?  Journalists become a trusted voice, a personality with their own likes and dislikes.  Bob, Jane, and John all review the same game and share their thoughts.  Bob likes RPGs, Jane hates RTS, and John loves casual.  How will each person react to the game they were just assigned to review.  In a sense, it is sort of like user reviews… but this time you build a relationship with each journalist and understand their thought process.  I like to review restaurants on Yelp a lot (and get Elite perks) but I always start off with what I tend to look for and the expectations I have before writing.  E.g. I will always bash NYC restaurants for trying to cram way too many tables in a way too small of a space.  A restaurant that has ample room to walk around and no butts in my face immediately gets more stars.

2) While games are experiences, those experiences are created from a static system.  Reviews could go the academic route and try to examine the systems themselves.  As a game designer, I do this on my own blog and try to reverse engineer the experiences I have and see what caused them.  This kind of writing seems to be much more objective.  The system is then compared to the current trends and historic systems.  It’s a much harder review to write since you’ll need to be extremely knowledgeable in many game development related fields from programming, design, to art.

On a closing note, I really need to call out MetaCritic for being terrible.  Their review system is completely opaque (the non-user side).  Some sites are arbitrarily weighted higher than others.  They even accept reviews during beta.  And as you said Jamin, at what stage of the game should a review be done?  However, MetaCritic’s user reviews seems pretty honest.  Although the x/100 rating is fairly arbitrary still.  Like/Dislike ratio seems to make a lot more sense.

The Cost of Innovation

The mastermind behind it all, Ken Levine.
The mastermind behind it all, Ken Levine.

So Irrational Games is essentially shutting down. It’s finally time to say goodbye to the Bioshock franchise. The franchise heralded a new way to design first person shooters and taught us how to take advantage of next gen hardware like no other series. With the creative mind of Ken Levine behind the helm, the series accomplished a fair amount. Levine is now moving forward and leaving Irrational behind him. He and about 15 employees will continue on in a new adventure (still backed by Take Two) that he claims will be more entrepreneurial. What does this mean?

Even a few months ago, Levine stated that he wanted to work on narrative games that were highly replayable and that’s exactly what he’s doing with his significantly smaller team. We all know that mainstream games these days, especially narrative ones, have highly limited replay value. Sure, you can try romancing different characters in Mass Effect or join the opposite faction in Skyrim but I’d a argue that at these points replay is for the completionist—the systems that these narrative games have are ultimately predictable and don’t provide significantly new experiences for players. While the system is too big for you to have explore it all in one go, you kind of get an idea what would happen if you were to go down other branches even if you didn’t decide to pick up the controller again. Things are oftentimes too black and white, which is the reality of making these kinds of branching games since the labor involved is always so great.  I think true replay only exists in the, mostly online, competitive space, or with a pure mechanic focused games (rogues may fall into this area). When you play another round of Counter Strike or League of Legends, it’s not about discovering uncharted areas of the system but instead about mastering the system.  A system that has built a good kind of mastery is being able to express yourself in infinite ways through its mechanics.  Playing Dragon Age: Origins multiple times to romance different characters, to me, is not replay—although choosing different classes and origins did a good job at shuffling the order of the story arcs, so that kind of thing is a good start.  The good kind of mastery from DA:O might be its combat mechanics.  Again, infinitely expressing yourself.  Minecraft rings a similar bell.

One of the biggest gripes for Levine is that he’d spend several years crafting this perfect experience for a player and after 12 hours the player would be done with that experience.  That’s pretty soul crushing.  Thing is, almost every other medium suffers the same exact problem.  You watch the film, you read the book, you do it once and you can’t do it again for a long time otherwise it feels stale—no mastery, no infinite expression.  Sometimes revisiting the same story when you’re older allows you to understand it differently, but these kinds of narrative games are so young and the technology so outdated that it’s hard for us to reach.  Games are the first medium to make narratives infinitely consumable and this is just the beginning.  Wait, let me rephrase.  Games are the first medium to allow its audience to express themselves.  Now it’s a matter of finding out how we can allow them to do it continually with a narrative context.  We’re still grasping to see how to produce these kinds of things.  AAA has always known what their strengths were and it’s in the labor.  Just the amount of people to make something look great, to even create a Bioshock experience, is unfathomable.  Teams of hundreds of people.  Millions of dollars.  But it seems like they’ve been throwing their cash to fight an uphill battle now that the indies have begun take chunks of the industry as their own.

Levine is moving towards this indie model with a dramatically smaller team.  Entrepreneurial, he says.  Come on!  Be straight with us, Ken.  You meant to say ‘indie’.  Thing is, he’s probably still got the cash since Irrational is still going to be backed by Take Two.  Major plus.  But with smaller team means being able to move quickly and spend more time refining and iterating on systems.  It’s the kind of systems like in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, where enemies remember what you do to them and therefore react differently, that get me excited.  I said in a previous post that that kind of system was possible due to AAA labor and cash, so what will this kind of game look like on an indie scale?  It could very well be the same kind of game with simpler graphics and tightened gameplay experience.

In fact, I’d argue that Levine’s new Irrational will succeed in this because it’s the tight and fast gameplay experiences of these competitive games that makes them so attractive to play over and over again.  Again, the faster and more varied the feedback loops can be the greater degree and more opportunities for the user to express him or herself.  If you win, you play again to win by a slightly different strategy—a different expression.  If you lose, you’ll play again so you can successfully express yourself.  So in a narrative game you’d play to learn something different?  Play to tell a different story?  This is sounding like playing Wiki-roulette or a good ol’ fashioned game of Dungeons & Dragons (or Jason Rohrer’s Sleep is Death).  Those are exceedingly complex systems.  This is good, though.  Someone who gained their wings in the trenches of AAA, with the suits throwing cash at you, doing something insane like this is the best thing for the games industry.  Any designer that’s on their 3rd sequel needs to quit their jobs and start an indie studio with their core team to do something new and tackle questions like these.  God, I hate sequels so much.

Let’s talk about those people who won’t be a part of Irrational’s second chapter.  It’s terrible that they lost their jobs and it’ll hurt the Boston games scene for a little bit but there’s a silver lining here.  Another studio in Boston opened their doors to those laid off and provided free office space to allow fellow developers get back on their feet while finding other jobs or starting their own indie studios.  Not only do we get Levine freed from his seawater rusted shackles but now we potentially get a swath of other small ventures sprouting too.  Think about the the kind of innovation that can happen with that.  In the next few years, Boston might explode with incredible indie talent.

So, what is the cost of innovation?  It can cost a lot.  It can cost you a lot of broken hearts, broken dreams, sweat, tears, and wads of AAA cash shoved down your pockets but it’s AAA’s belief that these risks are worthy of pursuing to allow Irrational to do what it did that’s exciting.  The cost of innovation is great, but it’s very much worth it.

I am truly excited to hear more about what Levine is doing.  If it’s anyone, it’s probably him that will be able to take us into the next era of narrative experiences.

How far do we go to create art?

Jason Rohrer, at it again.
Jason Rohrer, at it again.

Another one of Jason Rohrer’s mind-blasting games, Castle Doctrine, was recently released.  I love what Rohrer does.  Oftentimes, he’s credited with being the person who took games and put them in the limelight as far as “games as art” goes with his most famous title, Passage.  All of his games are very meta.  Everything about them subverts our normal understanding of what a video game is.  Save the princess?  Nope, she just dies.  Experience a story?  No, tell one yourself.  Exposing the nefarious trade of blood diamonds on the Nintendo DS?  Yes, please.  Make a game that’ll be playable in thousands of years… to aliens!  Yup, he did that too.  Jason Rohrer is a nutjob in all the good ways.

There’s a saying that no one will recognize you as an artist, your talents, or know who the hell you are until you’re dead.  This clearly isn’t true because plenty of people know who Jason Rohrer is.  There’s another saying where artists will always be poor.  Now this is the biggest question as far as creating something that is marketable to the mainstream while still trying to support yourself.  Of course, this can be done.  Heck, Rohrer has a family to support (albeit they live in some crazy self-sustaining tall grass growing hippy property, it’s nuts).

I was checking out Castle Doctrine on Steam when I came across a really hilarious review that prompted the idea for this post.  But first, let me explain to you what this game is about.

More after the jump.

Continue reading How far do we go to create art?

When will you know that I’m the fucking Arch-mage?


I always like to keep in touch with the new releases and one of the properties I always have a pulse on is the Lord of the Rings related stuff.  For the most part, those hack ‘n slash games were decent!  I enjoyed the early ones that came out around the time of the original movie trilogy.  Not really sure what’s happening now with The Hobbit nonsense but I’m glad I caught Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.  I rail on AAA a ton in my blog posts but here’s one thing that I really appreciate about what they do.  Because of their ridiculous budgets, huge teams, and oftentimes familiar properties to work within, they have a safe space to do some crazy things.

In SoM, you play as a ranger named Talion who has a badass wraith helping him out.  The combat looks cool in that it follows the Batman Arkham series of timed attacked and counters against many enemies at once.  Sure, you get some really cool wraith abilities to scare the shit and influence your enemies or spy on them.  None of this is as interesting as what they’re doing with enemy encounters… completely dynamic enemy personalities that tie into the story.

Holy what?  More after the jump…

Continue reading When will you know that I’m the fucking Arch-mage?

Never Lose Touch

Patents and trademarks can be a very good thing because they can protect innovation.  We can’t patent game designs just yet (although I’m told you can definitely patent processes) so developers are always potentially going to fight off clones like poor Vlambeer.  On the other hand, I’m glad you can’t patent game mechanics otherwise you’ll get stupid shit like’s troll crusade on Banner Saga for the usage of the word ‘saga’.  All I have to say to is just a diarrhea spew of expletives.  The same thing happened when Bethesda’s parent company, Zenimax, sued Mojang for his new game ‘Scrolls’ because you know Elder Scrolls.

These are all trademark issues and protecting a brand.  I guess ridiculous stuff happens here all the time.  OMG you’re using the word ‘zombie’!  SUE YOUR ASS.  Okay, I’ll concede that if I use the word ‘coke’ in my product’s name I”ll get in deep trouble, but ultimately that’s just the wrong thing to do.  I’m being stupid by thinking I can use ‘coke’ and that’s okay.  But just innocuous words like ‘saga’ and ‘scrolls’?  WTF.

I call this quick post “Never Lose Touch” because I ultimately think that most people will find all these lawsuits stupid.  I bet most the people at Bethesda thought suing Mojang would be the wrong thing to do.  As an indie developer, the dream is to get larger and have multiple teams working on multiple projects.  As the company gets larger, lots of things can go unnoticed.  You’ll suddenly have a marketing arm and a law leg.  Who knows what the leg is doing!  This is why you can’t ever lose touch with what’s going on in every aspect of your company, especially if you started small.  This is just one of the advantages indie developers have over larger studios.  Everything gets noticed.

Don’t lose sight of what’s right.  Don’t let the wrong slip out.

Cross Cultural Norms

I like to preserve cultural references and views but these are changes I'm more than happy to agree with.
I like to preserve cultural references and views but these are changes I’m more than happy to agree with.

In a previous post, I mused about how cultural differences could influence narrative and game mechanics.  I mean, they obviously can and do influence a lot of different things.  Another example popped up with the upcoming release of Bravely Default‘s North American release.

The above image depicts the costumes in the original Japanese release on the right and the NA counterparts on the left.  The most gratuitous is the top-left—I think that costume change is pretty reasonable.  Seriously, who the hell goes out and fights in their underwear?  Come on, guys.  The BDSM outfit, borderline for me although I do like the covered up one more… it’s doesn’t bash me over the head as much.

More after the jump…

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Retrospective: The Line Between Business and Growing the Audience and Industry

The year is closing so I’d like to take a step back and look at some of my own writings more closely.  In particular, I’d like to look at my response to Spec Ops: The Line.

What I wrote earlier this year about The Line was very angry, but it was truthful.  I felt betrayed at what was being held as an example of what great games could be and how the barrier to more meaningful games were being broken.  Maybe The Line did indeed do some of that.  However, to me, even now, it didn’t do enough.

I slowly came to the realization that the main problem is that the main audience that consumes games are oftentimes children.  Not to say that gamers are young but the mindsets of gamers are young—gamers act like children.  This is a very broad statement here and it doesn’t mean that all gamers suffer from this generalization.  However, it accurately describes how corporate marketing sees their audience and how this group of people may react to things happening in games and in the business of games.

In fact, I’d go as far as to call the entire medium of games and game making child-like when compared to more seasoned mediums like books or film.  We have so much more to understand about what games can be and how to use them to convey completely unique messages that no other medium could.  At the same time, games and game designers face a difficult obstacle to overcome in that the player has agency.  The player has the ability to control, to some degree, how they interact with the world that designers create.

There are opposing forces at work in the traditional game industry.  The business side wants to sell a product to as many people as possible.  However, it’s up the designers to hold the golden standard of what games are and should be.  It’s a constant war between the cold coin of finance and the creative endeavors of auteurs.  There has been some success with independent development that breaks away from the traditional publisher-developer relationship but it sacrifices a great deal at the same time.  Reach and influence is drastically reduced.

The audience consuming games have not grown greatly because the products that are sold to them are still catering to a child-like mentality.  The overt sexism, hyper violence, the list can go on.  It’s what sells because it’s been selling for so long.  The only way to solve this is to produce games that elevate above the muck.  Spec Ops: The Line tried to elevate and did so respectfully but at the same time lost the fight, probably, against their publisher’s marketing arm.

The Heart of Darkness is classic high school literature.  If not, it should be.  Maybe I place high expectations on those around me because I place the same on myself.  How hard do we have to fight to rise up above all else?  What can a designer do against the pressures of financial stability?  What can an independent developer do to be seen as not just an indie title?

I don’t think games and gamers have found the secret to eternal youth.  Growth and maturity will inevitably happen along with society as a whole.  Games, and what sells, is but a reflection of our own society and its never-ending cycle of over-advertised products for our consumptive desires.

Every opportunity we have as developers and designers, we should try to improve and do right in some way.  As an indie developer, I think we’ve made strides in combating toxic behavior with strict social policies and also created an image that you can actually talk to developers by being open and accessible to the community.  Was there more we could do?  Of course.   Would it have been feasible?  Maybe not.  In light of bringing my game to consoles, that means greater visibility, reach, and influence.  As a developer and designer, I have the duty to ensure that my product is raising the stakes and helping the audience and industry grow.

Everyone should ask themselves those questions: what are they doing to grow the audience and industry, and if they fully took advantage of the resources at their disposal.

I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure, but I wonder how  much the developers behind The Line really fought publishers, if they did, or how much was their original intention.  Was there more on the cutting room floor?  Or did this game simply have have shoes too big to fill?  It seemed to me that there was a lot of opportunity that was missed and instead stayed too conservative.

Are there any other games out there you felt betrayed by?  Felt that they could have done more?  Thought that it was held back by an external force?

Quickfire: One Month in The Novelist

Part stealth, part haunting, part family drama.
Part stealth, part haunting, part family drama.

Kent Hudon’s new game, The Novelist, came out today.  I met Kent some years ago at GDC when I rage quit David Cage of Quantic Dream (Heavy Rain).  I liked Heavy Rain a lot but when it came to Cage’s talk, I couldn’t disagree more.  Across the hall was Hudson speaking about player generated stories.  I believe that talk was the impetus behind many of the ideas in The Novelist as well as many other games in the past year (Gone HomeDear Esther, and even my own MFA thesis game). I’ve been waiting for Hudson to show us what he wanted to do.  He was with LucasArts at the time, and now that’s gone.

But now we have The Novelist.  So far, it’s pretty awesome.

I just finished the first arc of the story, the first month of a summer long getaway for the Kaplan family.  Needless to say, everything after the jump is a huge spoiler.

Hit the jump for more…

Continue reading Quickfire: One Month in The Novelist

Remembering to Finish Remember Me

So much good in this game.  So why haven't I finished it yet?
So much good in this game. So why haven’t I finished it yet?

I was very excited to get this game when it was released.  The potential to have Batman Arkham Series-like fighting mechanics outside of the Arkham universe was mouth watering to me.  Gladly to say, Remember Me did an awesome job with it and solves a lot of problems that came with the fight mechanic design in the Arkham series.  However, for whatever reason I haven’t finished it and is therefore an indication for some problems with the game.  Here are some critical thoughts on just a few aspects of the game.

The first thing I’ll talk about is, of course, the fighting.

Hit the jump for more…

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Eric Chung's game design blog and portfolio.