Thursday, December 31, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
The plot, at its best, has this epic Lord of the Ringsy feel, in a good way. The voice acting and the writing are marvelous, and the game is frequently hilarious. The side chatter from your group when you take all of the evil characters out with you is worth the price of admission.
But the thing that struck me most is the role-playing aspect. (I'll have some very gentle spoilers in this bit.)
Attempts at having role-playing in computer games are frequently and justifiably mocked for giving facile choices between "Angelically Good" and "Absolutely Evil". When you find a hungry puppy, you can either crush it with a cinderblock or buy it a house of its own. There is no middle ground. And yes, Dragon Age has some of that.
But what impressed me is the number of situations where there are a lot of options, none of them are very good, and you just have to muddle through. For example, in one part of Dragon Age, a young, magically skilled boy has been taken over by a demon. He's been merrily trashing the countryside. It's a crappy situation, and you have to help them out of it. You can off the boy. Or let the mother sacrifice herself to enable you to challenge the demon. Or travel to the wizards' tower to maybe get a way to expel the demon, losing valuable time. And, should you challenge the demon, you can kill it or, in return for one of several lavish rewards, let it stay in the kid, hidden.
When I reached this point, I didn't see a perfect option. I had my own, "OhgodohgodwhatdoIdo?" moment. And my choice was, in retrospect, not a great one. But there is little I love more in an RPG then when I'm forced to stop, gobsmacked, and go, "Wow. I'm really on my own here. I'd better think about this ..."
Similarly, late in the game, the country is without a leader and you have to figure out who will end up king (or queen). This leads to a brief, marvelous series of conversations, full of power politics, ugly compromises, and the constant awareness that there is no "right" choice. That you can maneuver things so that you end up on the throne only adds to the awesomeness.
And, just before the endgame, when it seems that horrible sacrifices will happen, one of the characters approaches you and makes an offer that ... well ... I wish I had the audacity to put something so spectacularly bizarre and twisted into one of my games. (I really don't want to spoil it. And yes, I did take her offer.)
I tried to play the game as a goody-two-shoes. But Dragon Age has a way of making sure no good deed goes unpunished. By the end of the game, I was acting a whole lot more evil. Sometimes, evil just works better. And I think, more than anything, the way the game got me to smoothly and naturally make a shift like that says a lot about how subtle the "good" and "evil" choices within can be.
So I recommend it very strongly to anyone who likes computer RPGs. Just one warning. Normal difficulty can be pretty darn tricky, especially on a console. I love my XBox, but it's not really made for precisely controlling a group of four characters.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
I have long been in love with the concept of Vegas. I love games. I love theatre. I love math. And Las Vegas is a city that is built on games and theatre (of a sort).
And, even better, it is an outpost in the middle of a desert that is built entirely on the concept of punishing people for being bad at math. How could anyone not be thrilled by this?
And yet, my love has always been from a distance. I studied probability for too many years to be able to kid myself even the slightest about the end result of most any gambling endeavor. I learned to count cards while playing blackjack and started to get the hang of it, but that felt too much like work for me to want to keep at it. I already have a job.
So I stayed away from Vegas for over a decade. However, since my wife had never seen it, in all of its gaudy splendor. It really is something every American should experience before death, so we went for a few days. We didn't gamble (much). We just took in the experience. These are a few observations about my stay, which might aid and amuse those who aren't so familiar with the place and are planning to go.
Vegas Is Fun
Las Vegas, as it exists now, was constructed by some of the smartest, savviest people in the world, using many billions of dollars, in order to be the most fun experience possible for the largest number of adults possible. They have succeeded. I don't care how superior to it you think you are. If you have a few hundred bucks to burn, Vegas will provide you with two or three days of enjoyment, crass or sophisticated. There are some really smart, funny shows and some restaurants that are fantastic by even the most picky standards. You don't have to gamble a cent.
However, Vegas is a money town. If you have no money to spend, it hates you and you suck. There are free entertainments, but not many of them. It's not New York City or Paris. Even a city as legendarily expensive as London has awesome things to do for free. In Vegas, nothing is cheap except the escort ads they pass out on the Strip.
Some Things Are Cheap
It is possible to get hotel rooms for very cheap, as long as you avoid the luxury joints. For example, as of this writing, you can stay at the Hooters Casino Hotel for $29 a night. Oh, and the Hooters Casino Hotel is a thing that exists.
Valet parking at casinos and hotels is always free. Since most of the tourism in Vegas involves driving to various hotels, this is awesome.
You can occasionally still find dollar shrimp cocktails, if you enjoy frozen shrimp and vomiting. If you are determined to pay bottom dollar for seafood in the middle of a desert, you deserve what you get.
Vegas Is a Hotel-Based Ecosystem
For most tourists, the Vegas experience involves going from one enormous, mind-bogglingly expensive hotel to another. Most of these are on Las Vegas Boulevard South, also known as The Strip. It is also where restraint and moderation went to die.
The warrenlike reputation of the hotels is accurate. Once inside, it is impossible to find anything without walking through the casino eight times. There are no windows and no clocks. There will be shiny things and people carrying open drinks and lit cigarettes. Coming from Seattle, which is basically Communist Russia with more salmon, seeing people actually smoking indoors without shame is marvelously exotic.
When touring the Strip, I strongly recommend visiting The Venetian. It is very nice, with murals, marble, and a shopping mall with an indoor canal. It is also the only hotel on the strip that is actually less touristy than the real-life location it is based on.
The Planet Hollywood Resort, also on the Strip, features a Pleasure Pit. Basically, it's like every other set of gaming tables, except that all of the dealers are young women in lingerie. So, if you ever dreamed of visiting a place called the Pleasure Pit, I regret to inform you that it contains far less pleasure than you hoped for. Though it is wonderful to find any place that makes Hooters look classy.
Oh, Yeah. Some People There Will Sleep With You For Money
One feature of walking up and down the Strip is that guys will constantly be trying to stuff thick packs of cards into your hand. Each card bears clip art of an attractive young woman, an improbably low price, and a phone number. Dial the number on the card and a woman who looks nothing like the picture will come to your hotel room and charge an amount nothing like the listed price to give you an experience nothing like what you were hoping for. Alternately, you can collect several handfuls of these cards, stack them up, and pretend you're about to play the most awesome game of Pokemon evar.
You can also find thick magazines full of escort ads. These work just like the cards, only there's many more pictures of women that look nothing like the women you will get. Also, the descriptions of the escorts within are frequently awesome. Actual example:
"I'm half Japanese and half American. People call me an Amerasian. I am independent and an Amerasian. I am independent and available to entertain you."
In other words, Rain Man is now a Vegas prostitute. Please try to be done quickly. She gets really upset if she's not out of there before Wheel of Fortune is on.
You Can See Shows
There are many shows in Vegas. There are shows that feature magicians, ventriloquists, singers your grandmother loves, and, of course, boobies. All shows in Vegas are 90 minutes, on the dot. Because why would anyone ever have a show last for more or less than that? It would be unthinkable! A 92 minute show? An 88 minute show? Pure anarchy, I tell you!
Happily, you can always go see Cirque de Soliel. They have six shows on the Strip as of this writing, soon to be seven, and only a few of them suck. I saw Mystere and Ka, and both were great (the former far more than the latter). They also feature isolated moments of quiet subtlety, and elegance, because someone in Vegas has to.
We also saw Penn & Teller, which was a great show. A lot of remarkable bits and well worth the large cost. My general opinion of magic shows is the same as my view of improv comedy: Neither should be performed by anyone under any circumstances whatsoever. But I'll make an exception for Penn & Teller, bless their cynical, arrogant, atheistic hearts.
One More Thing, Which I Think Says a Lot About the Whole Tenor of the Experience
I saw one bar (in Mandalay Bay) which featured a 100 oz. daiquiri for $35. What sort of person sells that? And, my God, who would buy it?
Friday, December 4, 2009
The following is a perennial complaint that I have had with these kinds of games since the beginning of time; Here I am, going around killing monsters, rescuing people and finding desperately needed stuff. I keep running into fellow government employees, who need my services, who will not teach me important skills unless I massively overpay them. Their excuse? "I have expenses". F*** that. At the very least you need a better story, or a sub-plot dealing with the massive corruption within the system. Just saying.
(I have added *'s to swear words to maintain my blog's family qualities. Show it to your kids!)
Now, this was a friend, not a beta tester. If it was one of my friendly, volunteer beta testers who was bitching me out, I would have come up with a very calm, polite, non-profane response. Since this was a friend, I felt no such limitations. I thought the answer was simultaneously amusing and enlightening enough to be included here.
This is awesome! Of all the things that are completely unrealistic in the system (Like that you can't climb a ten foot wall, or that you can use MAGIC), you get angry at the one thing that basically corresponds to how things work in the Actual World.
For example, suppose you work in some government agency. Say the Department of the Interior. And you need to mail out a thousand letters for some reason or another. So you put them all in a big box and you take them to the post office and are, like, "Please mail these." And the guy behind the counter will say, "You have to buy stamps." And you'll say, "But we both work for the government! It's all the same money! So help me out!" And he'll be, like, "You have a budget. And we have a budget. You can't use our resources without sharing your resources. So f*** you! Pay me!"
Or, more to the point, look back at your military history. When our big, fat, rich country goes to war, in the chaos of the thing it's inevitable that some soldiers get too much of one thing and others don't get near enough. Thus, bartering occurs. (To see a lot of this, I highly recommend Generation Kill by Evan Wright.) Say you're a marine and your night vision goggles ain't working because you never got batteries. And you see someone from the next battalion over carrying a crate of the batteries. And you're, like, "Hey! I need batteries! Give me a few of yours!" And he's, like, "Cool! Our machines guns don't work because we don't have enough grease. Give me a can of grease." And you're, like, "But we're both fighting together! On the same side! Semper fi! Ooo-Rah!" And he'll be, like, "Yeah. Ooo-Rah. F*** you! Pay me!"
Or you're a guy in a fantasy world, and you see some archer training her troops, and you're, like, "I see you're all busy and stuff, and you don't know me from a hole in the ground, and you have work you need to be doing and defenses that need shoring up and maybe you want to sleep sometimes, but you should drop everything now in order to give Bow and Arrow Lessons 101 to my sorry ass. OK?" I'm sure you can see where this is going.
"F*** you! Pay me!"
I hope that this brings some clarity to this perplexing issue.
Also, game balance, need to give you something to do with money, blah, blah, blah. This is my main justification, and I'm sticking with it.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Thursday, November 19, 2009
But 15% of my original instincts were not good. In fact, they were terrible, and it has taken many years for me to realize that. Even now, I have to fight those bad instincts with all of my heart, and I lose as often as I win.
My worst instinct has to do with game difficulty. I'm a hardcore nerd of the old school, and I'm not truly satisfied unless a game is really difficult. Other people, also known as "regular humans," do not, in fact, want this.
I used to succinctly describe my views about game difficulty thus:
People will forgive a game for being too hard. They will never forgive it for being too easy.
No. This is, in fact, completely, 100% opposite from the truth. A better summary of reality would be:
People will happily forgive a game for being too easy, because it makes them feel badass. If a game is too hard, they will get angry, ragequit, hold a grudge, and never buy your games again.
Video games are leisure time expressions of adolescent power fantasies. They should only be hard if players specifically request that they be hard.
I tend to like hard games. I am perfectly happy if any given title has 3 or 4 fights that requires 3 or 4 tries each to beat. But I am increasingly recognizing that this makes me a bit of a mutant. I am also realizing that while I like (or at least don't mind) the occasional repeated failure, I don't require it. I blasted through Brutal Legend with ease and I still had a great time. Plants vs. Zombies is easy, and it is also terrific. On the other hand, a game like Ninja Gaiden 2, which would happily make me refight bosses ten times on the easiest difficulty level ... Well, that was just stupid. Never again.
After long reflection, here is my new rule for RPGs I write:
When a player is on the default difficult level, has built his or her characters poorly, and is playing straight through the main storyline with mediocre tactics, that player should almost never be killed.
I can almost hear the heads of hardcore gamers imploding with impotent nerdrage. But seriously. If you have a problem with this, I think you're getting a lot of your fun from making other people have less fun.
Of course, a game should have harder difficulty levels. And, if a player chooses to opt-in on higher difficulty, they should be seriously nasty. But, when played on the default difficulty, the game should be accessible to your mom or average eight-year old.
I'm about to release my next game, Avernum 6. And it doesn't live up to what I have learned. In fact, in parts, it gets downright tricky. But then I'm going to write an all-new game series, and I promise that it will be pretty easy on Normal difficulty.
And if you turn the difficulty up to Torment, well, I'll be gunning for you.
Oh, and one parting thought.
If your game is actually fun, killing the player won't make it more fun. But nothing sucks all of the fun out of a good game faster than repeated failure.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
I really, really enjoyed the game. It's one of the very few games I've ever played where, at the end, I wished it had gone on longer. (Though, admittedly, this might mean it's too short). The main storyline is a mix of mindless battle, driving, and strategy game, and they all totally worked for me. It was also balanced to be, on Normal difficulty, pretty easy, which I appreciated. The storyline is pleasant, the writing is truly funny, and the voice acting is top notch.
And yet, the game has been lambasted by some sources I really thought would appreciate it, like Penny Arcade and Zero Punctuation. For exactly the reasons I liked it. Which bothers me in several ways.
(Well, Yahtzee, the guy who does Zero Punctuation, should be expected to hate it. That's just what he does. I have actually seen people consider Zero Punctuation to provide a serious and worthwhile critical judgment. Do Not Do This. Yahtzee makes his living saying bad things about games. That's his right. That also means he has a strong financial motive to not like games. Yahtzee is either a person who pretends to hate games to provide material for his videos or a guy who really does hate all games but still feels compelled to play them. Let us all hope, for his sake, that it is the former.)
The main source of contention is the strategy missions of the game. In these, you are still a warrior on the ground, doing battle and kicking ass. But the game then sucks in elements of real-time strategy games so that you can summon units to fight alongside you. What's more, you can combine with the units you make to use special badass attacks. For example, you can make tanks to fight beside you, but you can also jump in those tanks, drive them around, and shoot stuff. Or summon your armored car and screech around the battlefield and run people over. Or dive into the middle of attacking hordes and lay waste. Or just fly high up in the sky and pretend you're playing Starcraft. It's very open-ended.
I love this, because it means that the boss fights aren't all just tedious hackfests where you have to find out the enemy's oh-so-clever weak point. They are epic battles, and they should be. And it feels unique to me and (well, here comes the word) innovative.
But that's the problem.
People say they want innovation. But actually give them something different that they have to adjust to and they get all angry and full of nerdrage.
And, since he made something that plays in a new and different way and this threw some people off, Tim Schafer wrote a public letter giving some strategy advice. He received some mockery for this, but he is in the right. If unfamiliar gameplay makes some people freak out, some gentle tips for how to get back on the right track are all to the good. And he isn't at fault here, because the game has excellent tutorials and tips for how to play. And the thing really is balanced to be easy. And there is a huge amount of freedom in how you play the boss battles. You can try a lot of different things and win. You just have to, you know, try.
Now, the game isn't perfect. I think that the main quest is still a bit underfed to justify a full $60 price tag. I rented it. Though I've heard the online multiplayer is pretty good, which would goose the value a bit. But, in terms of fun, Brutal Legend is aces with me.
Now back to Dragon Age and Torchlight. My world is full of stat-building, horrifying brutality, and trying to unlock the lesbian sex scene.
Friday, October 30, 2009
But come on. I'm no happier about this that you. But. Of course they will do this, and it's hardly a terrible idea, for two reasons:
Advertising Is Not An Infinite Pool of Money From Which We Can Drink Without Limit - If the net should have taught us anything over the last few decade, it's that, "Hey, let's give things away for free and make money from adventising" only works if you're Google. Hulu is an awesome, awesome deal. It's just too beautiful to live.
People Pay For TV Shows! - Look at iTunes. People will happily give a buck for a TV show they like if it's really easy and convenient. To say that nobody will pay hulu is ludicrous. Some people will turn back to torrents. People like me, whose time has value, will just pay the dollar.
People hate to hear this, but it's true. Making TV shows is difficult and expensive. If ads don't make enough money (and I really doubt that the handful of ads hulu shows pay the bills), they will have no choice but to start charging. It's just the math of the thing.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
And what can we conclude about this? Well, if you have a really popular and good game that's been out for a while, you can goose sales a lot by having a big sale. Of course. (My company is taking advantage of this basic truth by having a big sale right now.)
Some people have suggested that these results are proof that Indie games are too expensive and that these results show that games should be five bucks. Or cheaper. Do not believe this! You can't make a living in the long term selling your game for $4.99. When the PR boost fades away, you will find yourself making no money. Don't price your games based on what the customer wants to pay. He or she does not have your best interests at heart.
On the other hand, the huge number of people buying the game for a penny might make you think a lot of people are horrible cheapskates. But 2D Boy put up a poll to figure out why people paid what they did. A lot of buyers had already bought the game on one platform and just wanted it for another. And, in this case, yeah, I can see paying a penny. When someone buys one of our games for the Mac, we give the Windows version for free (and vice versa).
So the only real moral of the story is that people like sales. Not a shock. And World of Goo is still worth buying at the regular price.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
I've spent a lot of time lately with The Beatles: Rock Band and Guitar Hero 5. I am not proud of it, but it keeps me from playing with my children, so it's time well spent.
REVIEW OF THE BEATLES: ROCK BAND!
It's like a Rock Band game, but it's all Beatles songs. Therefore, it is awesome.
(That's pretty much it. But there is one interesting thing. Rock Band has totally changed the way I listened to music. Instead of hearing the song with all the instruments mushed together, I find I now often listen to individual tracks. I'll listen to the bass for a while, then the drums, and so on. It's a side-effect of listening to the songs and paying attention to individual notes, and it's pretty cool.
Thanks to the game, I find that my Beatles albums sound fresh and different. And, considering that I've heard these songs so many times they're part of my DNA, that alone makes the game worth my sixty bucks.)
REVIEW OF GUITAR HERO 5
I've always had the subtle feeling that Guitar Hero games hate me. Guitar Hero 5 is a huge step forward. It hates me, but only a little bit.
It has a million songs. Two of them I was desperate to have in a music game. (Smells Like Teen Spirit. Bullet With Butterfly Wings. Both awesome.) And 999,998 that make me go, "Whuh? Who?" 29 of the games 85 tracks are from the last three years, and none of them make me feel that there is any point in humanity producing more music from this point on.
The party modes are totally excellent. Anyone can play any instrument. The harsh tyranny of ever having the "Who's gonna' have to play bass?" conversation is gone forever. The campaign is really relaxed ... you can play each song on any instrument at any difficulty. The individual songs in the campaign mode each have a special challenge attached to them (hit all the notes in a certain section, play a bass song with only upstrums, etc), and these are surprisingly fun. Everything is much more polished.
Also, you can play as Kurt Cobain. My current basic line-up is my XBox Live avatar and three Kurt Cobains. This is just as awesome and appalling as it sounds. Especially when I play Jessie's Girl. Which is daily.
Also, the ability to play Cobain or Johnny Cash keeps you from having to look at the default musician models, which are just as unpleasant as ever.
But then, there is the hate. The guitar songs always seems to be a little bit unnecessarily complicated and overcharted, as if the designers wanted to make my hand hurt. The Guitar Hero people also haven't picked up Rock Band's knack of only picking songs that are fun on all instruments. Sure, having Sympathy For the Devil on your music game sounds awesome. Then you realize that the song is basically piano and conga drums. It's as awful to play as it sounds.
And sometimes, the hate is just mischievous. You know. Playful hate. For example, they boldly answered the call of the multitudes and put in a song by 70s rock sensation Peter Frampton. And, of course, the only reasonable option was to go to a live album and pick out a song FIFTEEN MINUTES LONG. Thinking about teenage boys going head to head online and randomly getting this song make's me giggle.
But, overall, it's fun. I've played it a lot, something I can't say for Guitar Hero: World Tour. Plus, buying Guitar Hero V early netted me a free copy of Guitar Hero: Van Halen, which I got in the mail last week. It's an awesome game ... If I place the disc on my new coffee table and then set my drink on it, it does an excellent job of keeping the moisture from damaging the wood.
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
When I was growing up a misunderstood little nerd in a small town, I had lavish daydreams in which I obtained joyous revenge on those kids (and teachers) who tormented me. I fantasized that, when they picked on me, I could summon a swarm of killer bees to terrify them.
Yes, that's right. Killer bees. Can you imagine anything so lame? So faceless and uninteresting? It makes me wish I could travel back in time to beat up my younger self and take my lunch money.
Happily, 21st century children are spared such indignity. When they feel put upon and need an imaginary friend to fight for them, they are provided with an assortment of AWESOME creatures. Whether you want your spirit animal to be a dragon, a yellow rat that can shoot lightning out of its ass, or a pink, orb-shaped pop singer, it's there for you. And you can get a card with a picture of it. And a stuffed version. And watch TV shows about it.
Do you think anyone would watch a half hour series about a swarm of killer bees that wandered around and learned valuable life lessons and made honey and occasionally totally stung some farmer? No. I don't either.
Remember, we live in the 21st century now. We don't grind our own wheat or make our own clothes or lance our own boils. Why should we make our own imaginary monsters? Especially when the Japanese will do it for us for entirely reasonable prices.
Pokemon provides both the awesomeness of loyal monster slaves and plenty of food for the child mind's odd desire to memorize long, meaningless strings of information. (Pokemon are the baseball statistics of the new millennium.) This odd world is the best thing we have provided for children since vaccination. If you don't understand the appeal of Pokemon, you don't understand childhood.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
But now I am, if the calendar is to be believed, an adult. And I am raising two small daughters (one 3, one 7) who are showing their own gamer instincts. Though, these days, their Pokemon and Nintendo obsessions only make them "normal."
However, as a gamer parent of gamers, I am finding that the rules of our household are different from what I grew up with.
For example, there is a sacred, almost sacrosanct right to be able to save one's game. When I need a daughter to put down her DS and do something, she always gets one or two minutes to save her progress first. It is only in the cases of extreme lateness or severe punishment that she is forced to shut off the game with her progress lost. It is the Ultimate Sanction.
(Also, when you quit Animal Crossing without saving and start up the game again later, a cute animal comes out and severely lectures you for your carelessness. It is in this way that I outsource my disciplinary duties to Nintendo.)
Also, my children are allowed to play educational games almost without limit. However, my ideas of what makes a game "educational" might differ from those of the stick-in-ass types that normally determine these things. My seven-year old girl is allowed to sing on Rock Band as much as she wants because it forces her to read the lyrics. Also, her cultural education will be incomplete without at least some exposure to Elvis Costello.
And I have long felt that high-end raiding in World of Warcraft has a strong educational component. It requires strong organizational and teamwork skills, not to mention people management. At least, that is the justification I am going to give when I pull her out of bed on a school night to tank an instance for daddy.
I strongly encourage both girls' fascination with Pokemon. Pokemon provide fulfillment to every human being's basic desire to have an army of monsters. Also, Pokemon spend all their time fighting each other, which is good. For what other reason would one want to have an army of monsters?
Yes, we have truly created a new world. An exciting, technological, shut-in, pasty world. Now, if you will excuse me, my daughter is old enough to realize that there is something called Dungeons & Dragons, and she wants in. And you think I'm going to trust some wormy, unseasoned, prepubescent Dungeon Master to run her first campaign? Not likely.
Friday, September 11, 2009
When Half-Life 2 came out, around eight hundred years ago, I vented to everyone who would listen about how angry its new rights management scheme made me. You had to sign in through a Steam account (which, at the time, did scary things to my computer). And, to me far worse, your game was attached to your account, keeping you from loaning or selling it. This new game future seemed to strip too many rights away from users, and I wanted no part of it.
Lately, though, I've been finding that this is exactly the future I am living in, and I've been extremely happy. I'm having a great time, buying fun games for fair prices. I'm just doing it on the XBox.
The rights management in PC games is still generally hostile, punitive, and self-defeating. Requiring an internet connection to play a single player game or limiting the number of installations does nothing to prevent piracy (as hacked copies are always easily available from BitTorrent) but plenty to hurt legitimate customers. And piracy is rampant, no matter what. So the PC world is still screwed. (And there is increasing evidence that these problems are spreading to the iPhone.)
But on XBox live, over the last month, I'm played Shadow Complex ($15), Defense Grid: The Awakening ($10), and I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 (a ludicrously low $1). These games are all seriously fun. They also have impenetrable DRM. I don't have to be online to play, but I can't sell or give away my copy. There's no piracy on XBox Live.
When the inability to share (or pirate) a product comes with a low price, I don't mind anymore. Defense Grid is ten bucks, and it's giving me more than ten bucks worth of fun. Sure, I'm at Microsoft's mercy, and I don't "own" the product, but hey. Ten bucks. And the manufactures can still make a nice profit at that low price (though probably not much lower) because ninety percent of its users aren't stealing it.
Compare that to the games I sell. I charge $28 for a new game. I would LOVE to charge ten bucks. But, to stay in business, I'd have to triple my sales, and that won't happen. Would sales go up? Sure. Would they TRIPLE? Almost impossible.
I have minimal DRM. People can transfer their registration to someone else if they want. I even have a one year money back guarantee if someone is unhappy. I've tried to be ethical in all the ways I want as a consumer. The result? My games get pirated like crazy, and I have to charge a lot to stay in business. I have a situation where honest people have to pay lots of money to subsidize the people who rip me off. The good people pay to buy games for the bad.
This, of course, infuriates me.
I'm not going to be writing games for the XBox, sadly enough. My sort of games just work better on PC and Macs. But if I could snap my fingers and give myself the same absolute control over my games XBox Live has over theirs (in return for lower prices), I would. The freedom of the current system is nice, but it comes at too high a cost. The unfairness is just this side of intolerable, and it's only getting worse.
DRM is fair if, for what the corporations take, we get something in return. One of the problems with eBooks is they take away the ability to loan or sell the books you buy online, not to mention the lack of a satisfying physical object, and they still charge the same price for the book. What nonsense! Make the price of the books low enough to make people not mind what they are costing and I promise you the eBook business will improve.
DRM has developed a terrible reputation. Heck, it's earned it. But remember, the purpose of DRM is to prevent free riders (aka self-justifying weasels and morally damaged scumbags). None of us like being told that we don't deserve free things, but it's still true. If DRM enables products to be sold for a price that is cheap to users and fair to developers, it is something we should all grab with both hands.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Which is why it pains me so much to be the turd in the punchbowl. The fad is dying. Fast.
We all know it. We've all seen the glut. (What? Eight rhythm games out this year? Yikes!) It's the sure sign of trying to cash in on the installed base as much as possible before the fall. Sales for new Guitar Hero titles are, well, not encouraging.
But, here's the thing. It's easy to blame the glut for the death of the fad, but, even if music games had been released at a reasonable pace, the thing was doomed to collapse. It wasn't sustainable, ever. I think it's interesting to look at why.
i. The Magic Wore Off
Now, most of this is based on my own personal observations and thus should be taken with a grain of salt. But isn't the magic gone? When Rock Band was new, I and two other friends frequently threw Rock Band parties, and they were well attended. Getting four people to pick up the plastic instruments was easy. Two years later? Not so much. I stopped throwing Rock Band parties after my last one, when I looked around during one song and realized I was the only one left playing. Everyone else had migrated to the next room. It was pathetic.
There is a certain sort of brain that has a compelling, all-consuming urge to hit those little colored spots as they come down the track. I have such a brain. But for everyone else, well, let's face it. Pressing the red button to hit the red light and the green button to hit the green light does not compelling gameplay make. It was a kick to do it a few evenings. Now it's done. Even a game for the Casual Market (tm) has to have SOMETHING to it.
ii. It Is An Expensive Activity ...
$249 for the full Beatles: Rock Band set. Again, yikes.
iii. ... and Not Just In Cash
I'm talking about cost in resources. And my liberal leanings are going to show a little in the next paragraph, so be warned.
It takes a lot of resources to make these bulky instruments (especially drums), pack them up, ship them over the sea, get them to you, and, from there, dump them in landfills. A lot of plastic and oil in our new oil-short, global-warming reality. And, if this recession should have taught us anything, it's that we're going too much in debt buying too much useless crap from the Chinese. Something has got to go. And I think shoddy plastic Fisher Price drum kits will be first in line.
And, perhaps most significantly, these games consume a lot of space in stores. You want to know when there will be serious blood on the walls in the music game business? It'll be when some executive at Best Buy looks at the enormous amount of precious floor space taken up by big, bulky Rock Band and Guitar Hero boxes, remembers the sloping sales, and says, "Enough."
What Is the Future?
Of course, music games will remain a profitable little niche in this huge industry. Nothing that generates as many sales as Guitar Hero 3 had can ever disappear. But how will it evolve in a sustainable form?
First, games with vocals will always do all right. Microphones are small and easy to make. People love singing drunken karaoke. SingStar fans have nothing to worry about.
Guitar games will always survive. Fake plastic guitars are relatively small, flat, and easy to pack. Stores will always have a small section with two or three brands of plastic geetar. Borderline Asperger's cases like me will always have little, bright lights to hit.
Which brings us to my beloved drums. Harmonix did an amazing job of creating a mode of gameplay which sits interestingly in the shadow zone between video games and real instruments. Fake plastic drums are awesome. But let's face it. They're big. They're bulky. They don't last long under heavy use. (No cheap plastic toy will withstand being hit with a stick thousands of times.) And they aren't popular. The current mode of fake drum playing is just too tricky for the casual types these games need to live.
The drums will have to go. And when they do, band games will have to go too. Music games will fragment into singing games (for the many who love that) and guitar games (which two people can play, instead of four). Rock Band, if it survives, will still provide drum charts for the installed base. But in a few years, when we go to the next generation of consoles? Forget it.
And, someday, we will look back on the Great Music Game Fad and remember the glut of titles and the mountains of instruments at Best Buy and the $299 video game controller and go, "Wow, what was that all about?" and laugh and laugh and laugh.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
But, as much as anything else, I owe my ability to stay in business to a group of skilled, dedicated, hard-working volunteer beta testers.
There is a huge chasm between the rough, quivering lump of code you just wrote and a solid product you can distribute to actual people. To make your game/mod/level/adventure publicly available without melting someone's computer, you will need testers. And, if you are a lone individual or running a little company like mine, you won't be able to afford to pay QA people. Thus, you will need to go out and find testers.
I've been doing this for a long time. Here is some advice for how to find the people you need to test your game (or other sort of application) and how to deal with them when you have them.
1. How To Get Testing Volunteers
I am established and have a fan base, so this part is easy for me. I write that I need testers on my web site, take the beta testing application page live, and winnow through a huge pile of applications. If you're just getting started, you will have a harder time.
Make a web page and put up some info and screenshots, so that people can drop by and see what you are making. Then go to online forums where gamers hang out. Write a short, respectful post saying "Hey, I'm making this and I need testers. Drop by my web site and take a look. Send such and such information here." While forums justifiably hate advertisements, offering an opportunity like this is generally tolerated. (And even sometimes appreciated.)
Ask potential testers to send you information about themselves. What sort of computer do you have? What sort of hardware? What sort of games do you like? What have you tested before?
Hopefully, you will get applicants. However, I'll warn you now. You will get very few decent testers. People who can play a game, analyze it, spot bugs, report them in a coherent manner, and come back for more are very rare. They are precious jewels. You'll have to sort through a lot of, well, people who aren't jewels, to find them.
Also, don't be afraid to use your friends, but don't get your hopes up. Very few people have the mental skills and dedication it takes to be a good tester. The odds of any given friend having those characteristics are low. But give it a shot.
2. How To Screen Your Testers
When you get a pile of testers, you'll need to pick out the ones who are potentially useful. One advantage of asking them to write about themselves is that you will be able to scratch out a bunch of incoherent, confused, and crazy folks right away. If they can't answer a few simple questions, they will not be able to report bugs well. We all know how dangerous the incoherent can be in positions of importance.
Once I've picked out a few applications, I make them provide a signed Non-Disclosure Agreement (I let them fax the form, mail it, or e-mail me a .pdf signature). Google "non-disclosure agreement template" to find a few boilerplate versions.
Now, to be honest, if someone leaks your beta, there isn't much you can do about it. But make people sign an NDA anyway. It's legal protection. It stresses to them how important secrecy is. And making them send an NDA in is great for weeding out flakes. If they aren't together enough to send a signature, they probably won't be able to test well.
OK. Hopefully you have a few testers. Some of them might even be decent. If not, you'll be back to begging on the forums again.
3. How To Instruct Your Testers
You will need to give your testers clear instructions. How should they report bugs? Where should they report bugs to? Any particular format you want bug reports in? The exact details will vary depending on the sort of product you are trying to test. However, you will need to tell the testers something.
This is also a good chance to explain to them important basics. Things like how to take a screenshot or how to compress large files before sending them. And make sure to stress that, in any given report, they need to say the exact version of the beta they found the problem in. (So you don't go chasing down bugs you have already fixed.)
4. How To Interact With Your Testers
First off, always be nice. Always take constructive criticism well. These people are volunteers. They are spending their priceless and irreplaceable time helping you for free. Be polite. Be professional. Never lose your temper. If you find yourself writing a snide e-mail, get up. Take a walk. Count to ten. Then delete it. I have lost my temper with a tester only two or three times, and I always felt terrible about it afterwards.
This is a good chance to work on developing a thick skin. Nothing the testers subject you to will compare to the abuse you'll take online after your project has been released.
Don't hesitate to ask for more information about a report when you need it. Ask for exact steps to reproduce the problem. Screenshots. Saved games. Stress to testers that they need to provide lots of details. You never know what tiny scrap of information will help you to find a bug. Vague reports are useless reports. And, if a tester never answers your follow-up questions, that tester should probably be fired.
Yes, you will sometimes need to fire your volunteers. If they don't use the product. If they don't send helpful reports. If they don't treat you in a polite and professional manner. (The way you are treating them. Right?) Just because they aren't being paid doesn't mean that they should always be kept around. They are taking up your time and they are eating up a precious beta tester slot. Also, being able to beta test is valuable, even if no cash is paid. It is professional experience (more on that later) and a chance to actually take part in the creative process. These are valuable things.
5. How To Reward Your Testers
You must treat your testers with the respect and gratitude they deserve. Thank them. List them in the credits. Give them a free copy of your game.
Some testers will help you in order to get experience, in the hopes of getting a real QA job. If a helpful tester asks you for a reference, give one, and make it good. I have had people ask me for references before, and my success rate for getting people their desired positions is 100%.
And Good Luck.
Don't be ashamed to ask for help. For a certain, rare, marvelous breed of person, the ability to take part in the creative process is a great opportunity. Find those people and let them help you. Be nice. Be professional. Figure out what works for your particular product and go with it. After all, without testers, all software would suck.
Friday, August 7, 2009
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Wow. I was a dope.
It hurts me deeply to say it. But. Is there a genre of computer game that suffered a faster, harsher, and more deserved downfall than the adventure game, with its obscure, illogical puzzles and its total lack of hesitation about stopping you stone cold because you didn't notice some 2x2 pixel detail on the screen?
I don't want to spend too much time kicking a genre when it's down. It has already been taken to pieces better than I ever could here and here.
But adventure games are not dead. Now the flame is kept alive almost solely by Telltale Games, makers of the Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit, Tales of Monkey Island games, not to mention Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People. Good for them. It's a lonely vigil. (By the way, I've played Seasons One and Two of Sam & Max. Good games. Lots of fun, as long as you grab a hint any time you're stuck for more than fifteen minutes.)
Although my feeble old brain lacks the patience to bang away at adventure games like I used to, I do get the occasional nostalgic urge to play one for old times sake. And since The Secret Of Monkey Island is a classic which I managed to avoid playing, I jumped at the chance to play the Special Edition on XBox Live.
My review: If you hold down the 'X' button for a few seconds, the game gives you a hint. Do this every time you're stuck for more than fifteen minutes, and you'll have a fantastic time.
Longer version: It's extremely funny. It comes with an awesome feature where you can press a button to toggle between the original version of the game and the new spiffy version, which never stops being cool. Some of the puzzles are really ingenious. And, if you go too long without pressing 'X', it will remind you of everything that was horrible about adventure games.
An Example. (Warning! I am about to reveal the answer to a puzzle!)
So there's a fish on a dock. There is a seagull next to it. You need the fish, but you are afraid that, if you reach for it, the seagull will peck you. So you have to scare the seagull away.
This seems like it should be easy. You see, at this point in the game, you are carrying around a shovel and a sword. And I personally may be no pirate hero, but I assure you that I could use either of those items to scare away a seagull. Because, you know. Sword.
But that isn't the answer. You see, the board the seagull is standing on is loose. Note that there is no visual cue that the board is different from any other board. You need to walk around the dock until you hit the sweet spot and lift the board and knock the seagull away. Of course. The puzzle is solved by wandering around randomly. And hoping you step on the correct spot.
Getting stuck and needing to beg for help on something like this makes me feel angry and stupid. In any game, any bottleneck along the lines of "Be clever or be stuck here forever." is iffy design, at best. So now I mainly play games where the puzzle is how to get past the monster at the end of the hall and the only thing I have in my inventory is a big, big gun.
How Smart I Am ...
I needed about six hints to finish the game. Usually the hint just drew my attention to the door or little screen speck I missed. Playing the game in my TV instead of a monitor and moving the cursor around with a joystick instead of the mouse only makes it harder to find that vitally important hotspot that's about the size of an ant's booger. So be warned. You're gonna spend a lot of time staring.
But I shouldn't let this just be some big rant about adventure games. Monkey Island is really funny, most of the puzzles are neat, and it's a chance to sample gaming history.
But if you stop having fun, even for a moment, lean on that 'X' button and don't be ashamed. Every adventure game should have that feature. What do the developers care if I finish the game quickly? They already have my money!
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Thursday, July 16, 2009
A little over fifteen years ago, I started writing my first game, Exile: Escape From the Pit. (I am old.) This is quite a milestone for me. Since then, I have found that life as a self-employed Indie has many advantages, some small, some large. As I work on Avernum 6, the last game in my longest-running and most successful series, one of them has been very much on my mind.
I own my own intellectual property (or, as the cool kids call it, IP).
Why is this so awesome? Because then I get to rewrite and rerelease my older games, letting me make a bunch of money for a small amount of work. For example, Exile: Escape From the Pit came out in 1995. Its first rewrite, Avernum, came out in 2000. So, in 2011, over a decade after its previous iteration, I plan to release a super flashy new version of Avernum, with really sharp new graphics and sounds, a new dungeon or three, and some nice new features added. It won't be a huge amount of work. It'll be a great new product. I will clean up.
I once wrote a game called Nethergate, which developed quite a cult following. Then, as time passed, it became very shaky and outdated. So, two years ago, I released Nethergate: Resurrection. It took two months to do it. I really liked this game, and putting out a newer, nicer version was very rewarding, both emotionally and financially.
A lot of people have complained to me over the years about doing this. I don't understand it. It's good for me and its good for players. There are several good reasons to exploit your old IP:
Good Games Deserve To Exist
One of the most frustrating things for me about video games as an art is that individual titles die out. The older a game gets, the better the chance it will stop working on new machines. There was this awesome old Mac game called System's Twilight. It was a lot of fun, but it won't run at all on any new mac. The machines that will run it grow ever older and dustier. I think this is HUGELY wasteful.
Someday, people won't be able to play Baldur's Gate 2 or Planescape: Torment anymore. This really sucks. I want to delay my games going the same way as long as possible.
Avernum is starting to get wonky on new machines. The tech support complaints are growing steadily. Until I get some sort of universal language I can use to make games that run well forever, all I can do is freshen them up with new versions myself.
It Doesn't Keep Me From Making New Games
Sometimes, people say to me, "You should use the time to make something new." Hey, I'll still make new stuff. But if one old game dies off so I can make one new game, I haven't increased the number of games in the universe.
Releasing a nicer new Avernum will introduce it to a whole new audience. And hey, it's new to them.
It Makes Lots Of Money
A carefully done and marketed rewrite takes a fraction of the time to develop of a whole new game, and it can sell almost as much. A week hasn't gone by in the last fifteen or so years that I haven't made money off of Exile (in one form of it or another), and I have every intention of eating out on that game until I die. That is the reward of being brave, starting your own business, and making your own IP.
So Indie developers, if you put out a game and it gets some traction, and a decade passes, freshen it up, expand it a little, and kick it out there again! If it's good in year X, it'll still be good in year X + 10.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Thursday, July 2, 2009
Here's what I decided. I don't mind if a game like Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto gives me a fixed character and tells me my story without letting me choose anything important about it. I'm cool with that. I can still have a lot of fun. But ...
This first started getting on my nerves with Grand Theft Auto 4. In this series, you're supposed to be this crazy criminal dude running around and doing wild, crazy things, right? Total adolescent power fantasy stuff, right? Well, instead, you play Niko Bellic, a tormented Serb with a dark past whose issues have issues. He's a grim guy. He hangs out with his cousin Roman, who is obsessed with drinking, gambling and strip clubs. And trying to not get too bogged down in his cousin's freaky drama.
After about 20 hours, I realized that I wished I was playing Roman. He had more fun.
Then the first downloadable content for GTA 4 came out. The Lost and the Damned. It's about biker gangs, so that's gonna get crazy, right? Well, your character is the responsible, business-oriented, goal-focused member of the gang, constantly berating your wild, devil-may-care superior. I instantly loathed myself.
Last week, I tried out Lost Odyssey, a huge RPG for the XBox. It's a gorgeous game, really pretty and high budget. But you play this (wait for it) grim, tormented immortal who never smiles or has fun or does anything to lighten up his joyless trudge through eternity. And, early on, you meet this immortal girl, and she's really hot and she wears shirts with no backs and flirts with you. And what's just about the first thing you try to do?
Seriously. She pokes fun at you and you take a swing at her and she jumps away. And what the hell? I want to spend 40 hours maneuvering this douchebag? It seemed like a neat game, but I'm sick of playing games where I hate the dude who's always in the middle of the screen.
Know what game I loved? Final Fantasy X. (Warning. Spoilers for a 75 year old game ahead.) In it, you play Tidus, who is a SPORTS STAR who gets to make time with HOT, MYSTICAL BABES, and who loves to laugh. And sure, you eventually turn out to not exist and dissolve, but sometimes that's the price you gotta' pay to have a good time, amirite?
(If you watch the video I linked to above, the awesomeness starts at 2:00.)
So there. That's my pet peeve. I have enough self-loathing in my regular life, without loathing my imaginary self too. I have two small kids. Jesus, let me have fun SOMEWHERE.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Uh, Magic, Wut?
For those who never tried it, Magic: The Gathering is a very ingenious card game that has made about 3 batrillion dollars. You are, like, totally a wizard, and you wield a deck of cards that summon monsters and fire lightning bolts and other awesome stuff. The cool thing about the game is that you buy packs of cards, but the cards you get are random. You then pick the cards you like and build your own custom deck from that. And then you fight other people, who have their own nifty personal decks.
This is really cool because you can make a deck that best represents how you like to play games. You can make a deck with lots of fast nasty creatures and rush the opponent in a banzai rush, or a you can make a slower, more cerebral deck with powerful defensive cards to wear the opponent down before you fire back with one overwhelming blow. This customization aspect is easily the best part of the game.
So How's the Video Game?
Well, it's ten bucks. You play it, and they hand you a premade deck and you play with that. You battle against either AI opponents or other humans online. You do well, and you get a different fixed deck to play with. Some of the premade decks are OK. Others of them will teach you the joy of pure, undiluted frustration.
The game's production values are amazing. The AI is pretty darn good. The rules of Magic have been adapted to make a lively, fast-paced online version. The title is definitely fun enough to be worth ten bucks.
But it doesn't have the deck-building. You can only play with premade decks (which you can modify, but only very slightly, and usually for the worse). Sadly, playing with these decks is a pretty dry experience. If everyone was only able to play with premade decks, Magic: The Gathering would never have been any sort of success in the first place.
And thus, the horrible, horrible error.
Wizards of the Coast, the creators of Magic, didn't make this game to get your ten bucks. It was clearly very expensive to develop, and they're never going to earn it from cruddy XBox Live purchases. They made this game to make Magic players, to get you to go to the store (or Magic Online) and plop down folding money to buy the actual cards. My guess is that they left deck-building out because they were, like, "We don't want to give those cheapskates out there the ability to actually play the game for a mere ten dollars? Who do they think they are? Lowly cretins."
That's the only reason I can think of for this decision. Compared to all of the production values they were pumping into the thing, adding deck-building to the game would be no trouble at all.
But, and this is the part all developers can learn from, they forget the first rule of making the demo for a game:
You don't want the demo to be fun. You want the demo to make people freaking fall in love with the game. You want to use the demo to fill customers with hot passion for your product. Believe me, if Duels of the Planeswalkers really gets someone interested in Magic, that person won't be sated by the rinky-dink assortment of cards and options available in the video game. They's gonna' go spend money. But, to make Magic into a video game, for whatever reason, they ripped its heart out. What is left might attract some players, but nowhere near as many as it would.
And Magic is expensive. They want players to drop a hundred bucks or more. This is a huge hurdle to jump over. You want people to make this sort of commitment? Then your demo has to pull out all of the stops. Not half of them.
When you make your demo, don't be grasping. Approach the player with glad heart and open arms. Show them your best stuff. Addict them. Enthrall them. And then, before they have time to tire of you, cut them off and ask for the money. That's how you do it.
My Personal Experience.
By the way, I was sucked into the Magic thing by the 1997 PC version of the game. It had, as much as possible, the full Magic experience, including deck-building. It was really made with passion for sharing the game. I played it. I saw what the game was really about. Then I went out and, over the next few years, spent tons of money on Magic cards. Just my personal experience, for what it's worth. Using a video game to suck people in to the paper game can work.
Of course, then again, I shouldn't criticize them for doing less to get people addicted to Magic. That's like being angry at dealers for selling less addictive heroin.