Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Resident Evil 5 and Racism!!!

First off, how's that for a article title? Doesn't that just get the blood flowing? (And also get this article to pop out nicely in a list of blog posts, thus generating more hits.) This is how sausage is made.

I got through about three quarters of Resident Evil 5 before my XBox died. I just got my replacement system, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to work up the energy to finish the game. This is a real disappointment to me.

I was really looking forward to Resident Evil 5, since Resident Evil 4 is one of my favorite shooters, like, ever. It was the first Resident Evil game I'd played, and man, I loved it. It's out for pretty much every system in existence. You really should play it, though the Intellivision and Vectrex ports are, frankly, subpar.

And Resident Evil 5 definitely has it's good points. It's very pretty. The battles are paced nicely. It gives you a period of exploration to catch your breath, and then it hits you with a horde of zombies. I'd prefer the hordes were bigger, but still, it rarely irritates you with enemies constantly coming in dribs and drabs. And the boss fights are very cool. I liked them a lot.

But there are several elements I found super-disappointing.

1. The Plot Is Dull. This simply amazes me. The game is about a zombie outbreak. In Africa. Zombies. In Africa. HOW CAN THAT NOT BE AWESOME!?!? Packed cities. Desperately poor people with automatic weapons. Incompetent and corrupt governments. Plus, you know, the relentless assault of the living dead.

And yet, the plot is just sludge. Most of it involves finding out what happened to the former partners of the two main characters (about which I could not care less) and chasing some terrorist for reasons that are never explained. (We're supposed to hate him as part of some Pavlovian response to him being called a terrorist. Didn't work.) And, while the city settings are cool and creepy, you're soon wandering around solving puzzles in some generic ancient tomb, losing all of the awesomeness of being in Africa.

What a waste.

2. The Inventory System Constantly Spoils Your Fun. Fighting the inventory system is a constant distraction. The inventory system in Resident Evil 4 was cool and realistic, and I actually had fun shifting the items around in my briefcase to solve the puzzle of making things fit. In comparison, the new system is an aggravation and trading gear back and forth with your partner is doubly so.

Now, I know I wrote a few months ago how you shouldn't be afraid to make changes to your game. But that doesn't mean every change is good. You must be merciless about improving the worst elements of your design, but you also should be determined to leave alone the parts that are actually good.

3. About the Racism Thing. I didn't have any problem with this for most of the game. You have to fight zombies somewhere. And, wherever they are, you're gonna' shoot a bunch of former people. Having that take place in Africa is no more racist then setting the action in Dubuque. The early levels, in the city, are very foreign and cool, and I think you'd have to be pretty oversensitive to have a problem with them.

Then you go out into the back hills. You enter villages of straw huts and fight zombies wearing straw skirts and wielding spears. And the bosses are ooga booga witch doctors with big masks.

I'm not going to call this racist. Throwing that accusation around cheapens it. It's not racist. It's just dumb. I may be wrong, but I suspect, if you go to an African village today, the young men won't have grass skirts and spears. They will be wearing ratty t-shirts and wielding AK-47s. And they will mess you up.

This is like setting the game in modern-day Japan and having the villages be full of sumo wrestlers, samurais, and J-pop stars. Although, of course, if this was the case, I would never stop playing that game.

Also, since every pot in the villages was full of either gold coins or bullets, I think they could afford something a little deadlier than spears.

4. Oh. One more race comment. About your hot, sexy, hot girl sidekick. She's an amazing bit of art direction. It's amazing how they were able to make her as white-looking as a human being could possibly be and still be plausibly identified as not white. I'm just sayin'.

This is all not so much a review as a bunch of impressions. And a bit of public mourning. I suppose it was foolish to expect more, but after the pure game goodness of Resident Evil 4, I wish I could say more than, "Meh. It's worth a rental."

Oh, and to pre-empt any criticism. I'm not politically correct. I'm just plain correct.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Early Information About My Next Game

I have put out some early, early information about Spiderweb's next game, Avernum 6, here.

I've been procrastinating about that forever, but I finally bit my lip and wrote something out. I suck at PR.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Thoughts On Plants vs Zombies

I just spent a bunch of time playing almost all of Plants vs Zombies. Then I watched my seven-year old daughter play it. She loves it. A fairly fun game, and, from an Indie gaming perspective, very, very interesting. If you haven't yet, first watch the viral video that's been selling the game like mad. After that, trying the demo (at the very least) is really worthwhile.

Some observations ...

1. You Could Have Written This Game. - Two or three dedicated people, in two years, could make this game. It'd take hard work and skill, of course, but that is always true. Even in the age of the blockbuster, a small, good team can still make a title that gets a lot of attention.

2. You Can Do Something New With An Old Genre. - If someone had e-mailed me a year ago and asked my opinion about whether it would be worthwhile to write a tower defense game, I would have been, like, "Are you crazy? The secret is to find an underserved market you can really rock, not an insanely saturated one." Shows how little I know. If a genre is popular, it's always possible for a really smart designer to find a new angle on it and gain some serious traction.

3. The Game Is EASY. - Wow, is it easy. Tower defense games are general about being ground down by stronger and stronger waves of implacable foes until your inevitable defeat. Not your cheery, casual-friendly sort of thing. Plants vs. Zombies starts easy and stays easy. Anyone with much gamer experience is going to chew it up and spit out the bones. Only the final survival mode levels (which you have to play most of everything to unlock) require any real thought.

This is GENIUS. I think, if the game is a real success, resisting the urge to make it hard will account for most of the victory. It made it a potential buy for a whole new universe of fans, and, to keep the hardcore around, it has a clever strategy ...

4. A Thousand New Things Is a Thousand New Things - There are dozens of plants you can buy and dozens of types of zombies to fend off. Even when the game is so easy as to be a bit tedious (as I found), the new stuff really helps to maintain interest.

The thing is, most of the new stuff is fairly shallow. "Here's a zombie with a special sort of shield." "Here's a plant that can shoot around that shield." Only a few of the plants and zombie types are really unique, but the constant barrage of pretty new stuff is enough to maintain interest.

In sum, interesting stuff. And the game is a bit on the casual side for me, but I did enjoy it. And it helped to pass the time until my XBox gets fixed.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

So Someone Has To Dislike the Star Trek Movie

God, I was looking forward to the Star Trek movie. I really, really did. But I ended up being the living embodiment of that awesome Onion sketch about nerds hating Star Trek. It just seemed like a mediocre action movie with the names of some characters from a TV show I like spackled on top.

Why do they make movies with this enormous special effects budgets and edit them so spastically I can't ever just sit back and go "Oooh!" Why did they have to take the already brain-churningly lame science of Trek and double down on that? (As much as I'd like a tiny vial of black hole making goo for myself.) And why couldn't Kirk win the Kobayashi Maru without being such a fratboy douchebag about it?

There were high points, of course. It was thrilling to know that, when Kirk listens to the Beastie Boys, he only does it on his Nokia. So there is that.

So, as much as I fought it, I've ended up being That Guy. Oh, Lord. Please don't let Up suck. Please, please, please.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Guessing What Is Going To Kill Me, Pt. 2

Last week, I started to ponder what could put Spiderweb Software (and, by extension, any small Indie like us) out of business. Pretty fun recession chit-chat, huh? This week, I continue my litany of pessimism.

What could grievously wound, or even kill, our business?

The Rise of the Netbook - Netbooks, those cheapo little laptops for web browsing and other undemanding activities, are taking off like crazy. Every one of those that sells removes a possible customer, who likely would have otherwise bought a more expensive (but not actually expensive) machine that could run my games. This wouldn't be fatal, but it is a constant shrinking of the possible customer base.

And that's not even addressing the fact that many of those machines run Linux. Supporting three platforms would overtax my feeble brain.

Likelihood - It's already happened. When I released Geneforge 5: Overthrow for Windows, I received constant cries of woe from Netbook owners who couldn't handle its extremely low system requirements.

But I'll swallow it. People who like games generally still buy machines that can play games, and there are no Netbooks on the Mac side. Also, a lot of Netbooks can run my games. So I doubt it'll be a real problem, but only because my hardware needs are still very low.

It is still frustrating to get chewed out by someone who is ticked because his $250 machine can't run games. Well, yeah!

Piracy Becomes So Trivially Easy and the Recession Becomes So Intense That Hardly Anybody Buys Games Anymore - Pretty self-explanatory.

Likelihood - Again, this has already happened. Recent estimates put the PC piracy rate at around 80-90%. Even I am not cynical enough to believe that the percentage of honest people around here will drop below ten percent. And yet, that tiny minority of virtuous people is enough to keep me in business.

Once, I actually worried about something like this would happen. And then it did. And yet, business is strong. I think this shows that even nightmare scenarios can be surprisingly survivable. In other words, predict and prepare, but don't panic.

I Go Insane Or Burn Out - When you work alone creating for a very long time, you can get awfully eccentric. Or even crazy. Or you can just burn out or get terminal writer's block. It happens all the time. I have dreaded it every day that I've run this business.

Likelihood - Sadly, high. It's only a matter of time. The Internet is robust. The software industry is robust. That couple pounds of fat and electrical impulses I carry around in my skull? Sometimes, it feels very fragile indeed. I never know when I'm going to come downstairs, sit down, stare at the blank screen, and go, "I got nothin'." And that is the end.

But that's not the thing that really keeps me awake at night. This is ...

I Write a Bad Game - Next year, I'm going to make a whole new series, with a new game engine and IP. This is always risky. I might sink a bunch of money and time in it, and it will fail. Remember, anything new will make you lose a chunk of that reliable customer base that keeps you alive. If I don't replace what we lose? We have a pretty good cash and sales cushion here, but it will never be enough to survive one big flop.

Likelihood - Inevitable.

I've had a pretty good record with my games. None of them have set the world on fire, but they have almost always at least broke even. I've only ever written one game that didn't sell enough to make it worth the time. And, when I followed it with a game with mediocre sales, we almost went under. It happened once, and it will happen again, and worse. Everybody produces a real stinker eventually. And, when that happens, it will very likely be the end. It's something that every small developer has to face. Either get absorbed by someone bigger, a company that can survive some shocks, or face the fact that the wolves will catch you eventually.

Everyone and everything ends. Might as well make your peace with it now.

And that is the litany of doom, from paranoid delusions to an honest assessment of my own mortality. I hope this has been a vaguely interesting peek into small-business world.

Oh, and I just finished Plants vs. Zombies. I have a lot to say about that, next week.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

My Dead XBox Makes Me Feel Less Lonely

My XBox 360 Elite died tonight, making me feel that I have finally truly joined the community of gamers. It was the E74 error, which basically means that my beloved XBox had finally and irrevocably gone beyond the vale of tears.

At least now I can finally catch up on my PC gaming. For example, I got to play Today I Die. It's a cute flash puzzle game. There really is a puzzle there. It takes about three minutes to play. It's one of those artsy Indie games, the ones that are trying to expand the field and make a statement, but it stands out among that dour lot by actually being a little fun.

You have to watch out for these Games Are Art people. I agree with them, in theory, but they tend to be the sworn enemy of, you know, games. Like this guy. His post, "Braid is not a game," really brings out the forum troll l2pn00b side of me. God, buddy. Find a new field of interest. Just because you suck at games, don't try to spoil them for the rest of us.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Guessing What Is Going To Kill Me

I think it's a good idea for anyone in the software business to try to predict the thing that's going to bankrupt them. Of course, that's a good practice in any field, but it's especially important with computer stuff, since the industry moves so fast.

So what will put Spiderweb Software out of business? Or deal us a serious blow, one that won't kill us alone but, in combination with other hits, could knock us down for the count?

The Destruction of the Internet - The Internet was not made to be this mega-global network used by everybody. As time goes on, more flaws show. When e-mail was new and exciting, we didn't see what a horrible mess spam would make of it. Maybe a series of viruses or other new hacker trickery might make the network unusable. And then I am screwed.

Likelihood - Very, very low. It's hard to imagine a hacker trick that could defeat everyone else on the Net. But it is very helpful to remember that the health of my business is inextricably tied with that of the Internet.

The Internet Being Remade By All-Powerful Corporate Interests - They're working on Internet 2.0. Maybe they will make it, and it will take over and only let giant businesses with tons of money function on it. Or Internet Explorer will decide to stop working with all websites and mine won't make the cut, or Windows will stop running demos not specifically cleared by Microsoft and I won't make the cut, or ... or ...

Likelihood - Sorry. I can't stay to answer that. I have to go make my new tinfoil hat.

I know, this stuff sounds crazy. But, years ago, when someone downloaded a demo of my games, Internet Explorer didn't try to scare them into not running it. Now it does. And I am not the only one who worries about these sorts of issues. It's very important to look at the programs your business absolutely needs to function and consider how they could be used to cut off your air supply.

Banzai Lawsuit From Hell! - Someone's son goes crazy and shoots up his school. The parents find a bunch of computer games on the kid's system, one of which is mine. They start suing, and I get caught up in it. From there, there's all kinds of ways for things to go real bad.

Likelihood - I want to think it's low, but ... Liability insurance for computer game makers is CRAZY expensive right now. I pay a LOT. When insurance companies are scared of taking your money, don't get too cocky.

People Stop Playing Games On the PC - The PC game industry has seen hard times in the last decade. If you aren't making money through monthly subscriptions, the world doesn't look pretty. You could probably be making a lot more money developing for consoles.

Look at it this way. I used to play tons of PC games. Now I play console games almost exclusively. You see, I can play console games on my couch, upstairs, where it's nice and warm. To play PC games, I have to be down in the basement with the cold and the spiders. And when you look at the sort of product you create and go, "Well, yeah, I don't really like that sort of thing anymore," it's time for a reality check. Now.

PC single-player gaming is dwindling. Maybe it'll dwindle too much.

Likelihood - I wonder. If this happens, it'll take quite a while, but the trend with PC gaming is unmistakable. But hey, I'll be one of the last people left writing PC games, so there'll be no competition and I'll make tons of money, amirite?

The Macintosh Dies - People have been predicting this for years and years. And the Mac is half my business. If it goes away, I probably will too.

Likelihood - Once high. Now low. Whatever I might think of Steve Jobs, his revitalization of the Macintosh brand has been crazy good for my business.

Hmmm ... This game is kind of fun. I think I will continue the litany of impending doom next week. Some of the threats get mighty plausible.

And this is a game you can play along with at home. What do YOU think will put me out of business? Tell me in the comments.