April 30, 2008

A Gamer's Duty

Over the past few weeks, I've primarily been playing Rock Band and SSBB, and I am ashamed. A while ago I drew up a list of all the games that I felt like I ought to play. These are the games that everyone agrees is underrated or overlooked: Psychonaughts, Beyond Good & Evil, and Ico for example. The immediate appeal of another Brawl has kept me from expanding my gaming horizons.

But today I finally got some discipline and loaded up Shadow of the Colossus. I rode out on my horse, took down a giant, and turned off the console. I had fun, but not enough fun to keep me playing. The puzzle design is great, but maybe this game isn't for me?

I had a similar experience with Psychonaughts. I appreciated it, but couldn't play it for long. It never drew me in. I felt like I was a spectator of the game, watching the wonderful levels play out while trying to clear out the boring platforming in my way.

I worry about this; how can I not love the games that everyone agrees are works of genius? I suspect and hope that it's a matter of genre. I've never been a huge fan of platformers or third person action-adventure games. I'm a game design tourist, showing up to appreciate and understand the elements behind the game, even though I don't stay to play 'til the end.

As long as I'm learning, it's worth it, of course, and playing these games is not a significant sacrifice. I just bought Ico and Katamari Damacy. Down the hatch!

April 22, 2008

Good to Great

So Asp still isn't complete. I've been working on it pretty regularly, too. I wrote the basic underlying system in one marathon week, so I had assumed that it wouldn't take much longer to finish it. What I'm discovering is that moving from good to great (or in my case, bad to competent) can be a lot more complex.

This stage of "polish" is often cited as the most important part of game development, and there are plenty of examples of the best games taking their time on it. Valve has spoken about how Half Life was started from scratch mid-development (so that Half Life is arguably the real Half Life 2) so that they could get it right. Blizzard is famous for taking as much time as they need to get a game right.

With Asp, I was re-coding an older, flawed game, Valve-style. I was hoping, then, that everything would fall nicely into place. But what was missing in the older version was all of this polish. Re-implementing the basic systems was, as expected, easy. But adding a menu system, improving the GUI, making the different game modes, proper balancing, and a whole load of little features that give the game its color and proper functionality have become the main challenge of making this game.

I'm hoping that if I don't skimp on the polish, I'll end up with a competent game. Maybe even good. And maybe, if I dare suggest, great.

April 15, 2008

Game Personality

I was reading through some of Tom Chick's old :60 Reviews, and I came across this one on Supreme Commander. As a previous post has made clear, I adore the game, but one critical line from the review struck me deeply: "Why... is there no personality here? This is as aggressively bland a game as you’ll ever play."

SupCom brought the RTS genre back to strategy for me. After games like C&C and Warcraft 3 that rewarded micromanagement more than anything else, SupCom's emphasis on high-level strategy was a breath of fresh air. Epic battles of high strategy: this was what I had signed up for.

But Chick is right in calling the game out on its lack of personality. As pretty much every review acknowledged, all three factions play almost exactly the same. The powerful "experimental" units differ somewhat, but generally, the only distinguishing factor is the art. It's great art, too, but without corresponding differences in gameplay potential, it almost feels deceptive.

The problems extend beyond just this lack of distinction. The entire game is about fighting robots, in an environment in which resources are as plentiful as you can gather them. The result is that, even in the game world, the battles are just high-tech games. Nothing ever seems to be at stake. Even the original Command and Conquer made an effort to put you in character and give you reason to care about the outcome of the battles. The campaign stories in SupCom try to pull this off, and they give fine justifications for why each side is fighting, but you can never see (or even imagine) the effect of any given battle. Two robots fight until one dies... Why do we care? Where's the ultimate human element?

As I write this, my criticisms seem a little unfair. It's a high burden that I'm demanding. But perhaps that's the difference between a good, well-crafted game and a great masterpiece. Or maybe this aspect of being sucked in to a level of deep involvement in the game world is just another facet of the game to be judged, separate from gameplay or aesthetics. I'm not sure. But Chick hit a nerve; something is missing in SupCom, and I acutely feel its absence.

April 8, 2008

Taking Immersion All The Way

When I was in the 8th grade, I had to present an "invention" as part of a BS homework project. Mine, naturally, had to do with games. I drew a sketch of VR goggles, an omnidirectional treadmill, and sensor-laden gloves and called it a next-next-gen console. I was pretty sure that I was pulling it all out of my ass, but it turns out to be surprisingly feasible, if not cost effective or satisfying in implementation.

Are we moving towards this sort of total immersion? Is the Holodeck our ultimate destination? The popularity of the Wii, the availability of affordable VR technology, and the ever-increasing realism of game graphics suggests so. And most gamers can't wait.

But this stuff has a way of being a lot lamer than we imagine it. Personally, the Wii controls were a letdown. I do like the final product, but the sensing would require mind-reading to be accurate enough to satisfy me. And earlier attempts (read: Virtual Boy, every other early VR system) were generally awful.

Plus, I worry that we misunderstand a lot of the fun in games. It's not all about realism. I play Wii Sports sometimes when a tennis court is within a short walk. I play Rock Band even though I have no interest in learning to play drums. And I really don't think that Call of Duty 4 needed to be any more intense than it was (in 20 years this will be embarrassing to read, I'm sure).

Total I/O immersion will probably be a ton of fun, but I find myself doubting that it can make everything better. Maybe the gamepad really is the best way to experience Super Smash Bros., or Halo 3, or Madden, eh?