Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Snarky Review: L.A. Noire

(This review contains a few L.A. Noire spoilers and slightly more adult humor than normal. If you are below the age of forty, do not read it. Instead, go to a more family-friendly web site.)

I played a lot of L.A. Noire recently. I got about twenty hours in, had a decent amount of fun, and realized that my parental, old-person life doesn't really encourage playing long games any more. Which is worrying, as that is the sort of game I write. Whenever I look at my work and go, "I have no interest in playing games like this," I get to worry. But that's another story.

L.A. Noire is a fairly fun and reasonably innovative game, published by Rockstar Games and developed by Team Bondi, a bunch of Australians. It's a combination of investigation and interrogation mechanics that have appeared in adventure games in the past, combined with the gigantic open world setting of Rockstar games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead: Redemption. It's seemed like Rock Star has been trying to see in recent years how much you can stretch this format and still make a good game (e.g. Bully, Red Dead: Redemption). L.A. Noire may be on the outside edge of how far you can push this.

There was a bunch of things I liked and a bunch of places that were rough. I always feel bad mocking those who tried to push the envelope, but hey, they're huge and sell millions of copies, so they can survive my little blog.

You play a detective in late forties Los Angeles, who, if I recall correctly, has a name. Something virile, like Blake Manfulness. His voice and motion capture were done by Ken Cosgrove, Accounts.

You are told to investigate crimes. You go places and search for clues. Then you interrogate subjects and persons of interest. You have to pay very close attention to what these people say, how they say it, and what facial expressions they show (the facial animation software being the big breakout feature of this game), and, when they lie or hedge the truth, confront them. Then, when the case is solved and someone is arrested, you get a star rating to determine how well you did. So that's the game.

I'm a natural target for this sort of thing. I am a huge sucker for a police procedural. Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets is one of my all-time favorite books, and, in the manner of all fans of The Wire, I am really annoying when talking about The Wire.

So, for me, the clue-hunting and interrogation were very much the fun of the game. When I was interrogating people, I found I was really concentrating and thinking. When I put a few clues together and caught some rat bastard in a lie, I really felt that my brain power enabled me to do something cool, and that's something that I rarely experience in games these days. So that part of the game was awesome. I didn't even really mind the fact that you can't ever actually lose a mission or let the suspect get away.

But, alas, there are also lots of driving, chasing, shooting, and sneaking sequences straight out of Grand Theft Auto. They are, you know, fine. But very rote and familiar, not the sort of thing I want to spent tens of hours doing anymore. Also, while their enormous rendition of Los Angeles is lavish and awesome, there are very few things you can actually do in it. When playing Red Dead: Redemption, I was constantly being distracted by cool stuff to do. But here, apart from a fixed set of side quests, L.A. seemed a little dry. And if you can't let off steam by going on a rampaging, horrifying kill spree before being gunned down in the street by tanks like the rabid dog you are, what's the point of playing a Rockstar game?

And, double alas, the farther you get into the game, the less important the questioning becomes. The game ends not with an awesome Prime Suspect-style battle of wits between detective and suspect, but just another gunfight. In a sewer. I've been a gamer for a long time. I'm tired of gunfights in sewers.

So there is ambivalence here. I admire Rockstar greatly for spending a ton of money to make a big game that's not a sequel and actually tries to do new things. That is hugely to their credit, and there's plenty of good stuff here. I just wish they'd taken the cool stuff that works and concentrated it into a much shorter game.

A few other thoughts ...

This game is really for adults. Even by Rockstar standards. After working on the murder cases, all I wanted was for one of the dead women to have some clothes on, for God's sake. Though their pubic hair rendering engine is first rate.

Along these lines, L.A. Noire contains more checking for semen than any video game I have ever played. This is entirely to their credit. Also, the game played much faster once I went into settings and mapped Check For Semen to the right trigger.

We should take a moment to remember the lost. After L.A. Noire came out, there were allegations that Team Bondi pushed its employees to long stretches of hundred-hour weeks to make this game. Based on the standards of the industry and the obvious amount of work in this game, I entirely believe it. This sort of crap is why I am determined to stay an indie developer as long as possible. I have children. I'd like to, you know, see them.

L.A. Noire is guilty of my current least-favorite writing flaw: Having one mission completely nullify all of the story elements of the several missions before it. You see, int he part of the game where you are a homicide detective, you have six cases. In the first five, you investigate murdered women and arrest a perpetrator. In the sixth case, following a series of tedious puzzle-solving and climbing sequences, you learn that the previous five men you arrested are all innocent and the murders were committed by some crazy guy that you shoot in a tunnel or something.

If there is any flaw that really bugs me about this game, it's that it says, "You can be a badass detective and investigate crimes and outwit criminals." And then it makes you spend a huge swath of the middle game arresting the wrong guys for crime after crime. What a waste. It shows a lack of respect for the player and the premise.

But still. It's something different. It's ambitious. It's had decent sales. Everyone involved deserves applause for making this thing, and I'm really glad it didn't tank. At this point, we gamers have to take all the innovation we can get.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

I Don't Finish Games Because I Am Old

This article is getting a lot of play today. Short version: Very few people finish really long games.

Duh. I've pretty much given up on playing any long game (say, over 20 hours) that I'm not sure is completely awesome. I just quit L.A. Noire a good eight cases from the end, and I feel like I played it for too long.

I mean, a game that takes 40 hours? A whole workweek? In this day and age? Who can do that? People don't leave games unfinished because they're weak or dumb or lazy or bad people. It's because, unless the game is really awesomesauce, playing it for 40 hours just isn't a worthwhile use of one's time.

Which puts me in a weird position, because I write long games. I try to put a lot of work into the endings, even though I know most people won't see them. Maybe this is a warning that I should start doing something else, but I don't know what. I tried to make Avadon: The Black Fortress a shorter game but a higher quality experience. Dunno if I succeeded, but that's the direction I wanted to go.

It's one of the reasons the industry is moving towards shorter, cheaper games. And I'm moving along with the trend, a tiny bit. But I'll be writing longish games as long as there is a market for them. The main strength of my games is the sprawling, epic stories. I can't really do that in a ten hour game. So I'll keep doing basically what I do, even though I hear the distant rumbling of impending doom.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Avadon Is Out On Steam!

Today, Avadon: The Black Fortress goes live on Steam.

Unsurprisingly, I'm pretty excited about it. After 16 years of being a tiny, invisible, basement-dwelling bottom feeder, for a few precious weeks, I get to act like I'm a real developer. With a real distributor, a nice trailer video, and everything. Yes, there will be money, and that's always nice, but it's the recognition I'm sort of focused on now.

Writing Indie games has provided me with a very good living, and I don't have the right to complain about anything. I wrote games. I sold 8-10 thousand games a year. (Having a big back catalog is awesome.) I was content.

But then the Indie boom took off. Indie devs were getting famous. Many could make a living, and some got rich. Amazingly, people stopped acting like I wasn't a total loser for doing what I do. (This change happened about the time the word 'shareware' disappeared.) After all these years, it was impossible to watch all of this excitement and not want to be a part of it.

And now, thanks to Valve, I'm going to be visible. I'm getting a shot at the spotlight. Avadon: The Black Fortress is a very good game. It's got a great story, interesting, epic battles, and a lot of cool stuff. It's simply a fun game. Will its retro old-school action take the world by storm? Maybe a lot. Maybe a little. And I'll do all I can to be content with what comes.

The Steam Thing does mean that we are embarking on a great experiment, something that we never planning on doing. But, the way the online games market is moving, something that seems like the right choice.

Avadon: The Black Fortress Is $9.99 On Steam

I've written a lot about how I think it's important to not price niche games too cheaply, and I stand by that. However, at the same time, Avadon will be only ten bucks on Steam, the cheapest we've ever made our newest game for PC/Mac. Why?

1. Steam felt it was the best price. I went into this trusting their judgment, because they know a lot more about selling Indie games than I do. When you're an Indie and Steam comes knocking, you don't say no.

2. The whole game industry is shifting. These days, a huge proportion of games online are sold for a low price without demos. People buy games on impulse, sight unseen. That way, if they don't like it they aren't out a lot of money.

In these markets, charging $15 or $20 for games, like I want to, isn't feasible. It's too much money to pay for a game you aren't sure about. If someone buys my game for $10 and hates it, I'm a little unhappy. But $20? I don't want to take kids' allowance money that way.

So I'm charging $10 on Steam and for the iPad. By the standards of that market, it's a hefty price, enough for me to earn my living. It's cheap enough to work as an impluse buy. It isn't the $1 or $2 price that I'm still sure would put me out of business.

This means I need to adjust the prices I charge on my own web site. I have changed the price of Avadon to $20, and in the future we will very likely reduce the prices of our earlier games as well. Our next game, Avernum: Escape From the Pit will start out at $20. If this grand experiment works well, we may make future games cheaper still, though I doubt any new game on our own web site will ever go below $15.

I'm expecting that some of our users who paid $25 on our site will be angry. I can totally understand this. However, all computer games get cheaper as they get older, even games that have only been to a few months. (Check out Best Buy of any other decently sized electronics store if you don't believe me.) Also, until we had access to mass-market outlets like iTunes, we were never going to generate enough sales to survive at a lower price.

I don't like making my fans angry, but, again, when Steam comes knocking, you don't say no. And our future games will be cheaper, so everyone is getting something out of it.

Now I'll sit on my edge of chair and wait to see how Avadon does. Fortunately, there's not much suspense. We're being released opposite Bastion, so hope may not be warranted at this point.

A Question a Lot of People Asked Below:

Why is the game still $20 on our web site?

Short answer: Charging this little is an experiment. I believe that Indie devs who write niche products need to charge more for their work than the more mass market, casual, $0.99 app market. The question is whether a $10 price works. If going onto Steam for ten bucks turns out to not be a good idea (or if they don't want any more of our games), we need to maintain a higher baseline price on our site.

I know this seems odd, but I assure you that it makes sense from where I sit. And, by the way, we are FAR from the only developer who does this. For example, World of Goo is $20 on their site but $10 on Steam. And they are far smarter than we are.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I Love Being In the Future

I feel very fortunate to live in a time (or lasted long enough for this time to arrive) when Indie developers are actually valued and endeavors like iTunes and Steam and The Humble Indie Bundle exist to let some of us wet our toes in enormous, churning rivers of cash. It kind of blows me away, especially when I think about how thrilled I was (in a previous century) to earn a teeny trickle of money hawking my shareware on CompuServe.

But I feel even more lucky, when it comes down to it, to live in a time when I can read articles like this one.

Here is one choice sentence:

Meeroos, an extremely popular species of virtual, breedable animal in Second Life, are now starving, because griefers have been selling their owners unauthorized food, and Linden Lab accidentally shut them down *and* their legitimate food supplier.

It's stuff like this that, truly, puts a song in my heart and a skip in my step.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Don't Ask Questions Until the Player Can Answer

When I started writing fantasy role-playing games for a living, I did a lot of dumb things. Since then, it's been a painfully slow process figuring out how to be less dumb. Every time I start a new game, there is a point where I go, "Wait. Why don't I do this thing this new way? In fact, why haven't I always done it that way?" And then I slap my forehead. Hopefully, it hurts.

One of my new, hard-earned rules of design has to do with training your characters. And, since it seems like every game and its cousin has some sort of level-gaining and stat-building these days, I think the rule is getting more relevant every day:

The number of decisions you have to make to build your character should be proportional to the amount of time you've spent playing the game. The more you play, the more you should decide.

Or, to put it another way ...

Whenever you make a decision about your character at the very beginning of the game, you are answering a question that hasn't even been asked yet.

So design wonks, get ready. Here is an example from my game Avernum, released in 1999. I will compare it to the rewritten version, Avernum: Escape From the Pit, out later this year. (And this will also double as a little taste of a preview of the new game, for those who care.)

The Bad Way I Did It Before

Avernum is an old school role-playing game. There are a lot of skills you can train to make your character stronger. There are the base attributes (Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity, Endurance) and regular skills (Swords, Spells, Lore, etc). You start out with a bunch of skill points, and you get more with each level. You should spend these on skills.

You start out with a ton of skill points, so that you can majorly customize your character from the beginning. You can use skill points to increase base attributes or regular skills, but the base attributes are expensive. However, it could break the system if a player put a huge amount of skill points in certain skills. To limit this, I made increasing a skill cost more skill points the higher you trained it. At high levels, you might have to save up for two or three levels to get enough skill points to raise a major skill one point.

Think about this. It's a system where the more you play and learn about the challenges facing you, the less you can do to customize your characters. You have to make most of the big changes at low level, when skills are cheap. Worse, it was necessary to increase the base attributes to survive (especially Endurance, which increases health), but they were so expensive that doing so required careful planning. As a result of this mess, many players had problems with getting halfway through the game and finding that they were not strong enough to proceed. These players got angry at me, and justifiably so.

There was also a traits system. Traits are special character qualities, some positive, some negative, that affected your characters. They could make you better at spells, more vulnerable to disease, and so on. Good traits came with a penalty to experience earned. Bad traits gave you a bonus. You could have at most two traits.

And here's the awesome part. You could only pick these traits at the beginning of the game, and you couldn't change them. Major decisions that affect how you play the entire game, and you make them before you've even fought one monster. It's very hardcore and old school. By which I mean that it's mean-spirited and unnecessarily punitive.

The Better Way I Do It Now

There are still base attributes (unchanged), skills (mostly unchanged), and traits (an all-new, very long list).

When you make your characters, you can increase five skills and pick one trait from the long list. This is far, FAR less customization at the beginning than was allowed in Avernum. Because of this, many gamers will try to make a party, think I have completely dumbed down the system, and ragequit. Price of doing business.

But then, when you gain a level, a base attribute goes up by one point. It's different each level, so every four levels each attribute has gone up by one. In addition, each level you can choose one attribute to increase by one. This allows a lot of character customization while making sure all skills go up gradually so that you won't be hamstrung by completely neglecting an attribute.

Each level, you can also increase two different skills by one point. Thus, you never stop being able to shape your characters. As you get a better idea of the challenges you are facing, you can mold your characters to enable them to proceed.

Finally, every other level, you can pick one trait from the long list. The number of available choices starts out small (to keep from confusing new players) and grows dramatically as you proceed. You will eventually have a lot of traits. Some of them give simple bonuses to your spells or attacks, while others (like Backstab or Swordmage) will affect how you actually play your character.

I plan to take a lot of heat because I allow fewer choices early on, but overall you make more decisions to mold your character in the new system than in the old system, and there are more ways to customize a character. The change means that you make a larger percentage of the decisions later on. As it should be.

Of Course, There Is No Way To Win

I have often observed that people hate change. I have tried to make a more friendly system that provides more customization, but a lot of people will be angry about the loss of the old system (which has been in place for a very long time). I can totally understand this, but I still need to always strive to make things better.

Also, while the old system made it very possible to build a party that would find itself stuck and unable to proceed. Some players actually like that. To them, the challenge of avoiding that fate is part of the game, and the threat of a failed party adds excitement to the game. For them, I can only suggest playing on Torment difficulty. It will provide ample possibility of horrible failure.

But I'm very happy with the new system. I think it allows players to answer the questions the game poses when they understand what those questions truly are. And now I enter beta testing and the actual balancing of the new system. And that, of course, is when the suffering truly begins.