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Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t either love or hate Heavy Rain.

Disregarding the discussion about whether or not it’s a game (it’s not) people seem divided on whether it’s actually a compelling experience. While I believe Heavy Rain was a very compelling experience, I can see where others might disagree because of the thin line the “interactive drama” walks. In order to succeed, Heavy Rain must balance both mechanics and narrative even more so than most because it lacks the force games have that propel the player towards the end state. Should the mechanics or the narrative fail, the experience is lost.

Games can get away with failing at either mechanics or narrative because it can rely on fun to keep the player coming back. Players can ignore bad stories if they get wade through waves of bad guys flailing swords on chains or overlook terrible mechanics if they are invested in getting a cop out of a zombie infested town. Heavy Rain doesn’t have that option because,well, it’s not a game. The creator, David Cage, calls Heavy Rain an interactive drama and as pretentious as that might sound, I think the moniker fits well. I was engaged with the experience, but I think that just like watching a drama on television, I did not really have what I would call fun during the experience.

This means that the viewer is relying on the narrative and mechanics to keep them engaged. Should either of them fail, the player no longer has an impetus to continue further. I encountered just such, where the controls of the game failed to react how I expected them to which in turn kept me from complete the action I wanted to. The failure occurred during the first trial where Ethan needs to drive against oncoming traffic. At the end of the sequence, the car Ethan is driving flips over and catches on fire. I now find myself playing Ethan who is hanging upside down trying to grab a GPS unit off his dashboard. I was prompted like normal to use the right control stick, but no matter how hard a tried Ethan simply would not reach out to grab the unit. As the flames rose higher I became increasingly agitated at my inability to perform a task as simple as reaching out and grabbing an object (which I had done a number of times before with the same motion command).

It turns out, that the game wanted me to flip the controller upside down (or perform the action backwards) to simulate the state Ethan was in. This was not a wise design choice because there was nothing indicating this was a special case. The icon appeared right side up and nothing (at least that I noticed) told me to act differently otherwise. I also never experienced this again during the rest of my Heavy Rain experience. Had this been a majority of my experience I think I would feel differently about Heavy Rain.

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We all commit design sins while making games. Whether it’s because of producers, time constraints or just plain ignorance, things get put into games that should not be. It’s time to take a look at our transgressions so we may cleanse ourselves and become better.

The first sin I would like to look at is something that has always irked me as a mobile developer: the on-screen game controls. I’m talking about the archaic controls pads we are using to interact with our new technology. It boggles me why we are making games for touchscreen devices that use part of the screen for a control indicator that usually doesn’t even give the player feed back.

I know what some people are probably thinking, and I agree with you, the control pad is a good way to control a game, but not for a touch pad game. The reason: thumbs. Considering something like the iPhone (which has one of the larger touch screens) is roughly 3 inches by 2 inches this means my thumbs are blocking a third of the screen (bottom left and bottom right sixth) to accommodate the controls. By the time you add in all the user interface pieces that usually come with a game that needs a control pad you are lucky if you have a third of the screen left to actually play on.

More than anything it feels like developers are trying to force certain types of games where they don’t belong. In my mind, mobile gaming should not be something that you sit down for a few hours to play. It should be quick burst of ten to fifteen minutes max with a focus on casual play. Things like hack and slashes, role playing games and first person shooters just don’t feel right on a phone.

So designers, please. Do us all a favor and stop committing this sin. Use the touch screen as an opportunity to explore new ways to interact with games instead of sticking with what’s safe. Who knows, we just might learn something.

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The Short List

Late last year designer and artist Edmund McMillen posted a manifesto of Do’s and Dont’s to the indie community. The list of 24 tips is great (I keep a copy close wherever I work) and I encourage everyone to take a look at it. It is rather intimidating to look at 24 tips, however, so I have distilled McMillen’s list down into what I consider are the 5 best tips for designers and posted them below. Keep in mind this is a list that McMillen admits, “isn’t advice on how to monetize your Flash game or survive financially by copying existing trends and juicing the public for their cash. This is a list for artists who are driven by the desire for creative freedom and/or to just make some cool shit people will love,” so some tips might not ring true with you.

Design from the heart.
Write / design around things you’re passionate about. Put yourself into your work and show the world who you are. What do you love? What do you hate? Why? All notable film makers have a stamp, something that appears in their work and speaks to who they are. These themes will always come through to your audience, giving your work a sense of your self.

Practice (make lots of small games).
Make lots of small ideas quickly; build on the ones that work. If you look at any successful or “fully realized” game in the indie scene you’ll note that it began as a simple prototype. If you get an idea that feels right, simplify it. Strip it to its core element; this element will become the glue that holds your work together. The stronger the glue the more you can add. On the opposite end, if the glue isn’t holding, move on. Don’t waste your time trying to fix something that won’t work. If it’s not interesting or fun in its primitive form, it’s not going to be when it’s finished.

Grow up.
Chances are you’re not a fucking kid anymore, so if you feel like making a more adult game, do so. When you’re indie you don’t have to answer to anyone, so stop designing games like you have to have to pass ESRB. I’m not saying everyone should make porn games, but why do all video games seem to have immature themes? People aren’t stupid: stop treating them like they are. Speak through your work like you would to your friends, design for yourself and don’t censor your ideas.

Go outside.
The world outside your room is important. It can also be very inspiring. Go take an adventure, then come home and write a game about it. That’s what Miyamoto did. I believe that you can’t be inspired without living. Life is what every artist pulls from; how could you pull from something that wasn’t there? We all strive to be great, and most of us tend to obsess over our work, but it’s important to have balance. Go do things that don’t involve video games and computers. Don’t become stagnant.

Be open to feedback.
If a bunch of people say your game is lacking in some area, but you insist it’s perfect, chances are you’re wrong. It’s hard to take critical feedback, especially when it’s right. Loosen up, stay humble, remember you’re not as great as you think you are. If players agree that something’s wrong, you should probably take a step back to reconsider what you’re doing. But don’t make the mistake of just doing what your audience expects. If they have an issue with something, figure out why. If people don’t like how your game controls, this could mean one of hundreds of things, from how things move in the game to what buttons it uses. When responding to feedback, ask specific questions and try to find the root of the problem. Don’t attempt a quick fix by just cutting out the problem.

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I love pixel art. There’s something about the way a couple of squares of color can represent so much that astounds and delights me. An art that was once a necessity because of limited pallets and processing power has taken root in the minds of young and old gamers alike.

I grew up on pixels starting with my cousin’s NES playing Super Mario and their old computer stuggling to understand MULE. As I grew, so did technology which paved the way to bigger and better graphics. Yet, as the world slowly became more and more obsessed with poly counts and screen resolutions I still felt a connection pixels.

Don’t get me wrong, I can admire a beautifully rendered game as much as the next gamer, but it doesn’t get me going the way a good pixel game can. There’s just something about pixels that I (and hopefully you too) love. Ars Technica posted an article a few weeks ago which interviewed three different game artists who work with pixels to try and tease out why we love pixels so much.

Gary Luken (better known as Army of Trolls) pegs it as nostalgia stating, “A lot of the people commissioning this type of art grew up playing 2D games so it’s in their hearts, a love for pixels.” He also thinks pixel art is timeless, in the sense that pixel art hasn’t really changed much since it started, “what looks great in pixels now looked great back in the ’80s arcades.”

Atom Saltsman (better known as Adam Atomic) disagrees. Saltsman believes that pixel art’s attraction comes from its abstraction. “Pixel art is the king of communication and abstraction, which are the twin hearts of game art.” Saltsman’s game Canabalt is a perfect example of this belief combining simple mechanics (jump to avoid obstacles) while still being abstract enough that players can create their own story about the bizarre world Saltsman has created.

Richard Grillotti and Miles Tilmann (of Pixeljam Games) offer a third opinion on the subject. In their experience making games the two creatives discovered that young kids are also attracted to pixel art. The two say kids like pixel art because it, “is somehow inherently cool looking and the 8-bit sounds are also quite fun to listen to.” They don’t deny that nostalgia has played a roll in bringing the pixel back to mainstream culture, but say there’s more to it than that.

While I think its hard to pinpoint exactly why we like pixels one thing is for certain: pixels might be old, but it they are here to stay.

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Indie developer Cliff Harris recently wrote a post on his blog explaining why he thinks hardcore gamers are the best customers to develop for. The more I read the post and his eight bullet points listing off his reasons, the more I think Harris missed the mark on this one.

The oddest of his points strikes me as rather peculiar coming from a one man developer like Cliff Harris.

Hardcore gamers have hardware that will run something more demanding than Tetris, meaning you can flex your graphical coding muscles.

As an indie developer myself  (primarily an artist) it seems rather silly to be spending your time “flexing the graphical muscle” when that time could be spent making other games. Maybe I misunderstand what Harris means, but I’ve seen casual games with just as much flair (and more character) than some of the AAA titles out these days. Hardcore gamers don’t need amazing graphics, they want challenging mechanics and complex systems they can get lost in. Dwarf Fortress is a perfect example of this. It has the graphical power of a AMC Gremlin with a V-8 Hemi of a game mechanics system running in the background. And hardcore gamers love it.

Maybe Harris is onto something when he says that hardcore gamers are a niche that is being tailored to less these days with the explosion of casual games, but focusing your business on a small slice of the market (especially one as tech savvy as Harris makes hardcore gamers out to be) seems like huge risk. This seem like the group that would be more apt to pirate a game (something Harris feels rather strongly about) they do not think is worth the price point or simply for the convenience.

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Luke Pluckett wrote an article yesterday on Kotaku entitled Why Can’t Video Games Make You Remember the Dead? where he attempts to discuss how video games “treat death as anything more than a hindrance or a multiplier.” He then goes on to discuss games like X-Com and other games that use mechanics that allow you create and upgrade teammates are the closest thing we have to experiencing the loss of life in war.

I disagree with his assumption that gamers grieve at the loss of a friend when they lose the squad mate they have spent time leveling up. Instead, I think gamers see it more as a loss of time and resources. If the loss is great enough they might even reach for the reset button which real life does not have. I have spent countless hours redoing missions in games like Fire Emblem or X-Com because one of my characters that I spent an equal amount of time raising stats and acquiring equipment for died because of something I did. No matter how much Pluckett wants us to think that the reset button doesn’t exist it does and gamers use it all the time when things go wrong.

There has only been one time where I have experienced the feeling Pluckett is referring to (the kind brought on by game play and not by story) and it did not come from a squad based first-person-shooter or tactical RPG, but from an action game, Shadow of the Colossus. As I played further and further into the game I began struggle with the idea that I was the stranger in a strange land. I was intruding upon these creatures, the colossi, and inevitably conquering them by killing them.

At first it was kind of fun. There was the thrill of approaching something so massive and clambering up its hairy body to find the “weak spots” and then the rather violent sprays of black blood that gushed from the colossi every time I thrust my sword into their heads. Around the fourth or fifth fight however, as Wander began to grow visibly tainted by his deeds, I began to wonder what I was doing here in this uninhabited land of giants. I started to think back upon the colossi I had killed and even became  somewhat remorseful of my actions.

The real zinger, however, came at the end of the game when Wander assumes the form of a colossi to fight off the soldiers bent on stopping him. At first, I had a moment of elation as I realized I now had the chance to stomp around swatting at the flies pelting me with arrows. This elation quickly faded as moved about slowly trying to rid myself of the nuances that were slowly killing me. This moment made me realize how the colossi must have felt as I clambered my way up their bodies in my quest to end their lives and made me very mournful of my actions.

Having that final moment gave me that link to the colossi that Pluckett is referring to when he talks about squad based mechanics. Without it, I was regretful for my actions. With it, I was regretful for the lost colossi.

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