Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review - Super Meat Boy

I recently played Super Meat Boy on XBox Live. It is a really fun game, and it manages innovation in a genre that I would have thought had passed innovation by decades ago.  It's an impressive feat, and very much worth some attention.

Super Meat Boy is a 2-D platformer. Like all other successful indie games. Ninety percent of all indie games have to be 2-D platformers now, by federal law. Penalties for violation start at being forced to watch all of the Wandering Around In the Forest Being Emo scenes from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and rapidly get worse from there.

The plot is simple, elemental, and timeless. You play Meat Boy, a small, sentient wad of bloody meat. Your girlfriend, Bandage Girl, has been kidnapped by the evil Dr. Fetus. You have to rescue her. You do so by moving left and right and jumping, hopefully evading all obstacles on your way to get to Bandage Girl. That's it. That's the game. It's a bloodier (MUCH bloodier) version of Donkey Kong, which itself came out about the time Napoleon was getting bogged down in Russia.

And yet, it is insanely fun and amazingly innovative. And the innovation comes from the developers' attempt to answer this simple question:

How do you make a computer game that is extremely hardcore and difficult but, at the same time, light and fun and not frustrating?

Tough problem. And they come up with a great solution. Super Meat Boy has two innovations that make it unique:

1. Short, short levels. No death penalty.

Super Meat Boy is a tough platformer, one of the toughest you will ever play. However, the levels are short. Very short. A lot of them can be completed in less than five seconds. Practically all of them can be done in less than thirty. For all regular gameplay, you don't have "lives". There is no long, annoying death animation. When you die, you are instantly back at the start of the level and able to play again. In other words, you come back to life so fast you will be playing again before you fully realize that you died.

Super Meat Boy requires amazingly difficult jumps, dodges, maneuvers, etc. It can easily take fifty tries to finish a level. And yet, you will often have all of those deaths less than five seconds into a level. So fifty deaths sounds like a lot, but they take place in less that 250 seconds (four minutes or so), which is an entirely reasonable amount of time to spend completing a level.

And when, by some unholy combination of skill and luck, you reach that fifth minute and maneuver through a tough level, you feel like a gaming god.

2. The Awesome Replays

When you finish a level, you see a replay of your attempts. Sounds dull, yes? The difference here is that you see a replay of ALL your attempts, shown at once. You die fifty times before you win? Then the replay shows fifty-one Meat Boys running through the level simultaneously. Fifty of them die in explosions of gore, and one of them gets through. It looks really cool and funny, and you can save the replays and show them to your friends.

The really amazing thing about this feature is subtle but powerful. What the all-attempts replays mean is that every time you die you didn't just waste your time. You added one more Meat Boy to the final replay, making it look cooler. Die fifty times? Then the replay looks spectacular. You aren't just failing. You're creating a bit of video game art. This feature sometimes made me keep trying a level again and again even after my sore fingers begged me to stop, just because I knew that, when I won, the replay would be awesome.

Video game death as personal expression. How cool is that?

There's More

There's many levels in the game. Finish a level quickly enough and it unlocks a much more difficult "dark world" version of the level. Plus there are boss fights. Hidden characters. Secret bonus levels. It's one of the best examples I've ever seen of obsessed developers going the extra mile to add craftsmanship and polish to their labor of love. The controls are really tight. The cutscenes are hilarious. Seriously, play this game.

I am on the record as saying that indie game development is overrated from the perspective of innovation. There are plenty of indie developers making hackwork, genre pieces, and clones of more successful games, and EA has published plenty of innovative titles over the last few years. But this is definitely one game that argues for the specialness of indies, and it's definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review - Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty

This is pretty late, but I've taken some time off from writing my games to produce a quick review of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. I'm only reviewing the single-player portion, as playing the game on multiplayer for more than 15 seconds makes me feel like I'm going to have a stroke. I'm still trying to remember which button makes me build a barracks, and when fifty laser ninjas are crashing through my perimeter. It makes me hate myself.

TL;DR Summary: Really fun game. Really dopey story, but it doesn't matter, because in games like this all the story has to be is a placeholder, a floppy useless thing that hangs off the side and is ignored by everyone. Also, computer games can be art, but, secretly, nobody really wants them to be.

So. The Starcraft 2 campaign. Very interesting stuff. There's really two parts of it. The story and the missions.

1. The Story

But, you might ask, why bother to review a story in a game like this? I mean, sure, games like this and Halo and Gears of War have goofy storylines. Everyone knows they're goofy. They will always be goofy. So why bother saying it?

Well, to answer your hypothetical question, imaginary reader, whenever a game makes you spend time experiencing something, it is fair to evaluate that experience. If you take my time up with something, it's worthwhile to ask whether said time was worth spending. Also, Blizzard spent a ton of money making that story, with the cutscenes and the voice acting and whatnot, so it's fun to ask whether they got their money's worth. A few comments are entirely justified.

The story to Starcraft 2 is what you would get if the stories of Firefly and Gears of War had a drunken hookup. I swear, the writers of Starcraft 2 wanted to be making a lost episode of Firefly so bad that it was almost poignant. The western theme, the mood, the accents, the train-robbery mission, even the dang music cues.

But the story itself is pretty painful. Cheesy dialogue. Bland characters. Aimless storytelling where very little interesting happens. And, considering that this is the story of how an endless horde of bug-creatures eats nine-tenths of humanity, making it kind of dull is a real achievement.

There are two things I would do to fix a storyline like this. If one real game writer working for a real company reads what I write and thinks, "Hmmm. He might have a point," I can die happily knowing I made the world a better place.

War Is Interesting. Don't Neglect the War.

The whole game is basically about a war between people and bug creatures. War is one of the most fascinating things you can tell a story about. The cunning generals. The terrified soldiers. The major battles. The tactics and turnabouts. There is limitless drama in the story of a war.

But, in the story of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, the war itself is usually only seen in cutscenes or on the news show you can watch on the TV in the bar. Most of the stuff you do in the game has nothing to do with the war. You're learning about some Protoss prophecy. You're gathering parts of some crystal artifacts. You are gathering supplies for some crazy guy so he can do some thing. You don't engage the bug creatures in a big, meaningful way until like 90% of the way into the game.

It's like if I was telling the story of World War 2 and never mentioned anything about D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. Instead, it's the story of how a bunch of guys went to Madagascar to find the three parts of a magic laser that would win the war by killing Hitler. I'm sorry, but this is not the best use of your dramatic material.

Make What You Do Have a Point

So this is what happened. In the story, some crazy guy has me spend two missions gathering materials for some super space gun or something. Then a pretty space girl with psychic space powers comes to me and tells me I need to kill him. I choose to believe her, so I spend a whole mission laboriously destroying the supplies I spend the earlier missions gathering.

So that was four whole missions (two to gather supplies, two potential missions for what happens to them), a whole seventh of the game, getting stuff and then destroying it, achieving exactly nothing. What a waste of precious storytelling space.

One of the best things to do with the story in a video game is to make the player feel all badass. Killing fifty space mans with your space gun is already awesome. Knowing you are doing this to save the space princess from the space bugs gives the power fantasy a nice little kick. Players like knowing that their actions are making a difference. Maybe completing the mission has a good effect. Maybe a bad effect. But you should make sure that the mission the player just spent time and effort completing makes a difference. Doing otherwise is unwise. Never invite the player to think his or her actions in the game are meaningless.

2. The Level Design

There was some angst online when it was announced that the storyline for Starcraft 2 was going to be split into three full games, of which Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty was the first. Understandably, there were complaints about having to pay for three games instead of one for the same story. Now that I've played the first game, I can say this. If the superb level design of the first game continues through the next two, splitting the thing into three games is great news. The story is a bit blah, but the game itself is a huge amount of fun.

First off, the designers saw that the core gameplay of Starcraft 2 is really fun. You build a base, make it stronger, make badass troops, and send them out to kill things. So that is the main structure of most of the missions, but with the added kindness of usually making sure the core elements of your base have been built, to save you the tedium of mining a bunch of unobtanium and building a barracks for the eighty thousandth time.

However, while the spine of the gameplay is the same, every mission is different, with the variety coming in what you fight or what your goals are. One mission requires you to blow up trains as they speed quickly across the level. Another mission takes place on a planet being scoured by fire, so you need to quickly leapfrog your base to the right, fighting foes as you go.

There are several defense missions and a handful of "Tiny number of units sneaking through a big fort" missions, enough to add variety but not enough to distract from the main mode gameplay. Also, there are a million different units you can build, most of which you will forget and never use again. However, each unit has one mission designed to use its particular strengths, so all of that work making new graphics models won't go to waste.

So, yeah, once I figured out that the Escape key would bump me past most of the plot, I had lots and lots of fun playing Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty.

So What Does This Mean?

That all the time they spent making the story and all of the time I spent writing about it and all of the time you spent reading it was kind of a waste. The story didn't matter. The game was a lot of fun, and it would have been even if all of the cutscenes depicted my protagonist sitting on the couch or yelling at space elves.

Games in stories are usually a vestigial limb. Every once in a while, I play a game that is improved by its story. (Most of these titles are by Bioware.) A story can provide excellent context. On the other hand, who cares about context? Most of the time, people just want to melt faces. While it can be nice to know whose faces they are and for what reason said melting is occurring, it's not necessary.

While I do believe that games can sometimes be art, they really, really don't need to be. It gives me a lot of sympathy for the people who say they can't be art. The "artistic content" part usually has nothing to do with the "fun" part, and the "fun" part was really all I cared about. Zap! Zap! Pew! Pew!

It's like I've said for quite a while, "Players will forgive you for making a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it." It's a weird thing for someone like me to say, since the stories in my games are one of the main selling points. But, at some point, I can't ignore what people actually go out and play. Myself included.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Avadon Developer Diary #4 - The Character Classes

Avadon: The Black Fortress, our next game and the beginning of an all-new series, has been in beta-testing for a while. It's been a grueling process. Testing a new game with a new engine is a lot of work, because basically everything in the game is broken. Happily, we've worked through the worst of it, and Spiderweb Software is still on track to release the game for the Mac in February.

For this developer diary (the others are here, here, and here), I wanted to write about the four character classes in Avadon. What they are, what they are like, and why I made them the way I did. Since this is the very first time I've written a class-based system, I put an awful lot of thought into the classes. I wanted each to have a distinct feel, but I want you to be able to complete the game with any mix of them.

Since I don't want the game to have too much healing, all classes needed to be able to protect themselves in some way. Since any combination of them needed to be able to win, I wanted them all to be able to produce a bunch of damage when necessary. And since I wanted them to be distinct, each of them needed to be able to do something unique and, hopefully, interesting.

So here they are. I will give the name of each class, the official, in-game description, and what I was thinking when I put it in.

"A blademaster is a true warrior. He is most comfortable in a massive suit of plate armor, wielding a sword and shield or a huge halberd, striding boldly into a crowd of foes and sending them flying with mighty blows. Blademasters are not subtle."
I've tried to stay away from some elements of the standard RPG archetypal class roles: the healer, the crowd control guy, the DPS, etc. But I do like tanks. I like the feeling of having big beefy warriors who stand tall and bear the brunt of the enemy attacks while the other characters stay back and do awesome things. It's not necessary to have a tank in Avadon, but it is a cool option for those who want it.

Blademasters can also stun foes if you get overwhelmed, and they do have the ability to heal themselves. Though they are tanks, I gave them the ability to stun and fling around foes as well to give playing them some variety.

"The shadowwalkers are warriors of the shadows. They count on cunning and evasion, slipping through the guards of their enemies and delivering lethal blows. They can attack with blades, thrown razor disks, and pots of noxious and deadly alchemical substances. And then vanish into thin air."
OK, I'm not going to deny or hide the perfectly obvious. Shadowwalkers are suspiciously similar to ninjas. I wanted a character type that was fragile but could inflict a ton of damage in melee and had all sorts of cool tricks. That narrowed it down to ninjas and pirates, and I though ninjas fit better. This is, in come ways, a real pandering, fan-service sort of move, but it has its reasons.

This is my favorite class because of the cool tricks it can do. My favorite are the abilities that let you teleport and stun enemies with smoke or leave a decoy of yourself behind to trick foes. Introducing teleportation into my games has caused some tricky programming issues to deal with, but it's worth it.

And, to be honest, whenever I need to design something in one of my games, my first instinct is to do the thing I would most enjoy if I was playing. That is a compass that has almost never led me astray. And so, when I had the idea of fitting a ninja-type into the world, I was, like, "Yeah! Cool!" It's neat, and it adds a little bit of silliness to a world that sometimes threatened to be dark and serious.

Also, when I write a game, I try to include some elements that appeal to young, energetic fans. For example, the Geneforge series had a lot of in-depth politics and difficult, wrenching, role-playing choices. However, a lot of people bought the games because they liked the idea of having an army of fire-breathing dinosaurs. Avadon does not have fire-breathing dinosaurs, but it has elements of similar, simple fun.

"The shaman has dedicated her life to nature, and nature, in return, has rewarded her with great power. She can use her connection to the wilds to heal and bless her allies. And, when angered, she can call wind, lightning, and fire to devastate those who challenge her. A shaman is rarely alone. She can call wolves or, eventually, drakes to serve and protect her. Also, she has the unique ability to heal wounded allies."
I wanted a character who could summon pets, and I wanted a character who had a few healing spells. Those two abilities fit very naturally with the shaman idea, especially since I'd already decided that a large swath of the land of Lynaeus was still settled with fierce, tribal barbarians. The shaman is a class that can do a lot of useful things. Produce damage. Make a pet that can bite or hold off foes. Heal and bless allies. Curse foes. They definitely have the most unique flavor of the classes in the game.

It is worth pointing out, once again, that I am leavening the occasional grimness of the setting and seriousness of the drama with a lot of standard fantasy trappings. Ninjas AND barbarians? What? I've always enjoyed writing games that mix the high-minded and the silly.

"The sorceress has dedicated her life to the mastery of the arcane arts. Fragile in battle, she makes up for it with the ability to summon forth clouds of fire, lightning, or ice, obliterating her foes."
Nothing innovative here. It's not an RPG without a cannon, someone who can summon big ol' tornadoes of fire to wipe everyone out. Fragile, unarmored, but able to blast large areas of the battlefield with raw power. Plus, daze or charm foes, give powerful blessings, and so on. Just keep her a safe distance from the monsters.

I don't feel guilty about having some of the classes be very straightforward and what people are used to in RPGs. I want players to have the option to stay with what they are familiar and comfortable with. The fireball-flinging magic user became a fantasy archetype for a reason.

So Those Are the Classes

Your party will usually have three characters: Your main character, and two others selected from the four helpers available to you, one from each class. (And each with his or her own personality, opinions, and goals.) I've tried to make a good mix of familiar and unusual, combat and melee, with a bit of blatant (but fun) fan service thrown in. I still have months of balance work ahead of me to make sure each class is distinct, useful, and fun, but so far, in practice, the system seems to be working very well in practice.

One Final Note On Gender

I have already received complaints because the two melee fighters are male and the two spellcasters are female. Some want female warriors and some want male casters, and they are unhappy. I can understand their irritation.

The sad truth is that this came about due to limited time and resources. Making the art for the four sorts of PCs already consumed a huge amount of time, even just making one gender per class. When we start work on Avadon 2, one of the first things we hope to do is to make female blademasters and shadowwalkers and male shamans and sorceresses. Until then, certain sacrifices had to be made in the hope of a timely release.