So far in the Monthly Game Club, we've discussed Braid and two short games by Jason Rohrer. I've got a couple of ideas for what to do next, but I thought I might ask you readers what you've liked/disliked about the Game Club in the past, and what you might like to play next.
So how often would you like this to take place? Do you want to discuss every week, or spread it out more? Do you want the games to be retail games, downloadable games, or free games? While we're at it, what types of consoles or computers do you all have? And last but not least, what should we play next? Feel free to mention if a game club doesn't really interest you as well. I promise not to take it personally.
Monday, August 31, 2009
So far in the Monthly Game Club, we've discussed Braid and two short games by Jason Rohrer. I've got a couple of ideas for what to do next, but I thought I might ask you readers what you've liked/disliked about the Game Club in the past, and what you might like to play next.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
I found an open table away from the main knot of players and set up the board, then sat back to wait for an opponent. It didn’t take long before one showed up. It was one of the new faces, but not an unemployed businessman. No, I would describe this character as more of a pulsating cluster of flesh and nerves then person. It looked more or less like the stuff of nightmares and broken dreamscapes and I wasn’t the only person who thought so; many of the other players in the park ran away screaming at its presence.
“Uh, you new here? I don’t think I’ve seen you before.” I said, trying to be friendly.
“I am Cerebrate, I live for the swarm.” It projected into my mind with a thousand disembodied whispers.
“Yeah, okay. Let’s play.” I said.
Rather than playing with a traditional Staunton chess set it dropped a handful of skittering insects onto the board, and they quickly arranged themselves on the playfield. I would have protested of course, but it was clear from their position and appearance what value each bug had. I didn’t have a great deal of time before I had to be back in the office so I opened with the Queen’s Gambit to ensure a fast paced game.
“A bold move. We shall add your genetic distinctiveness to our own.” Its mind spoke to me.
“Don’t get so fussy, it’s a legitimate move.” I said.
Trash talking has been a part of the game since the Indians invented it back in the 6th century. Still, I didn’t like this thing’s tone so I resolved to wipe the smile off wherever it kept its mouth. One of the front runner bugs, a “zergling” he called it, shredded my pawn on c4 giving it the advantage, but letting me take the center early on. It was pretty good. It threw its first wave at me like it meant nothing; I barely managed to absorb the assault. When the dust settled on the initial exchange its forces were badly depleted, but it had spread some kind of living sludge over most of the board. Thankfully, the late game is where I shine. My remaining pieces broke its right flank forcing it to abandon the offensive entirely. Before long we were dancing rooks and ultralisks. I got one of my pawns to the other end and exchanged it for a queen. It shrieked something unintelligible about “the metamorphosis” as I went to town on what was left of its forces. In the end I pushed it into a corner and brought the game to a close.
“No! I have failed the Overmind. You have sullied the glory of my birthright.” the creature wailed.
“Nobody likes a sore loser, buddy.” I said.
The globular mass shuffled off in defeat, retreating to a nearby Starbucks. With no other players around and only a few minutes before I was due back at the office I started clearing up what was left of my pieces. While picking little bug parts off one of my knights I took a moment to reflect on the game itself.
I learned chess from my grandfather, who I imagine learned from one of his forebears and so on back through the ages. I don’t know the full history of the game, but I can imagine that if one felt so inclined they could trace the line of teachers and students all the way back to India where it originated. Back then, very few of the pieces were what we would recognize today and I imagine the rules would seem strange to us. Still, as long as there has been free time, there have been games, and as long as there have been games there has been competition. What a strange and exciting time to be alive, I thought, when the parameters of those competitions have gone beyond the chess table and pushed to the very limits of our imagination.
Monday, August 24, 2009
by Daniel Bullard-Bates
Last week, I discussed Shadow Complex, a derivative action/platformer based on classic games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It’s a very well-designed, fun little game, and an incredible value at fifteen dollars. If you like the “metroidvania” style of games, you’ll probably like it. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that if you buy it, some small amount of money is going into the pocket of Orson Scott Card, who is an anti-gay activist. The storyline of the game is loosely based on one of his books, Empire, which chronicles the rise of a group called the “Progressive Restoration,” a far-left liberal organization which attempts to take over the government of the United States.
Now if the game itself were clearly a propaganda piece, purchasing it would be far more questionable. But, having finished the game, I can confidently state that the dialogue and story present is entirely apolitical. The villains are classic, rote evil: they think something’s wrong with the country, though they don’t say what, and they are going to take over and fix it, their way. Card’s anti-gay speech and political agenda don’t figure into the scenario at all.
So the remaining question is just one of financially supporting homophobia. Even though Orson Scott Card did no actual work on this game (the dialogue and story is only based on his book, and written by Peter David), some of the money from each sale is going to him. Since a great deal of Card’s time and money goes into groups like the National Organization for Marriage, where he is on the board of directors, that money may be directly contributing to an anti-gay agenda.
The question of a boycott has been raised on the forums at NeoGAF. A very thoughtful discussion of the idea has been posted by Christian Nutt at Gamasutra. Both the discussion thread and Nutt’s article make one thing evident: the issue is a complicated one. Yes, one anti-gay rights activist will be receiving money from the sale of this game. The people who actively worked on the game, however, are also reliant on the sales of this game to continue to do the work they love. And apart from someone making the decision to work with a controversial figure like Card (and I can’t help but wonder who made that call), they’ve done an excellent job.
Personally, I’ve decided to take the advice of Dawdle over at gaygamer.net. I paid fifteen dollars for Shadow Complex and donated fifteen dollars to the Human Rights Campaign, a group that works for gay rights. This is considerably more than Orson Scott Card will make off of my purchase, so hopefully this tips the scales in the other direction. Sort of like a carbon footprint, I’m hoping that this keeps my homophobia footprint low.
Friday, August 21, 2009
by Daniel Bullard-Bates
I just attended a short talk with Jason Rohrer on the website community Metaplace, which shed some more light on his upcoming DS game, among other topics. Highlights below (edited for spelling and punctuation, and to make a chat window more readable):
On his goals when making games:
I'm not looking for answers. I'm trying to make games that explore these interesting questions. Now I'm thinking about how we know what we know about what other people know (and what they know about us and what we know). E.g., the classic philosophy puzzle of the "cheating wives" or "muddy children."
On whether the controversial subject matter of his DS game worries him:
Yeah, it is a bit strange to make a DS game like that... but I think the DS audience is growing up a bit. Also, I anticipate that the game will get an E rating... so it's not going to be filled with little kids carrying AKs or anything. But the backdrop is a little.... disturbing. Other than that, you might not realize that the game is controversial if you just sit down and play it. Diamonds are good, right? Everyone wants em! Get as many as you can!
I guess it's a bit like Defcon, which was a strategy game about nuclear war. So it gives you a bit of a creepy feeling when you play, but that doesn't stop you from getting into the strategy, which makes it even creepier. Anyway, the art in my game is not some ham-handed preaching about blood diamonds... it's in the exploration of the "know that you know that he knows that you know" stuff that I mentioned before. The diamond trade just happens to be a perfect setting for that exploration.
On clearing the DS game’s subject matter with his publisher:
In fact, they "red lighted" my first idea (about cheating spouses on the verge of divorce) because they thought it would be too controversial. So I came up with another idea that explored the same philosophical issues of knowledge chains, and surprisingly, they green-lighted that. No sex, I guess...
On the maturity of the DS audience:
As for the DS audience, what about Chinatown Wars? There are more and more M-rated games, when a few years ago, there were no M-rated games. So if the DS is ready for "mature" stuff like blood and boobs... well... maybe it's ready for intellectually mature stuff too! That's the hope.
On programming for the DS:
It's also a matter of scope and scale. On the DS, I can make an entire game by myself (small screen, low-res graphics) in 6 months or so. I couldn't possibly do that on an HD system like the Xbox 360... too many pixels to paint.
It all started when a publisher approached me. I would have never gotten into it without that. Later on, I learned that you can't get a DS dev kit without renting an office space... so I'm doing that now. I've been working from home for 6 years, so having an office is a big change.
And... I can't say too much about the DS platform (secret), but, it's weird! An embedded system, with all the stuff that goes along with that. Even the iPhone acts mostly like a "real computer" by comparison.
On why his game is going to retail and not DSiWare:
That is a little weird, isn't it? If I was making DSiWare, I wouldn't need a publisher. So, it's because the whole thing started with a publisher that it's going the cart route. I may make a DSiWare game too at some point, though.
Advice on starting to make games:
Two words: Game Maker. Get Windows, get Game Maker ($20), and start making games. It's an amazing tool... I've been calling it "the photoshop for games"... it's really that powerful. You can pretty much make anything... multiplayer too. 3D might be more of a challenge, though some people have done it. But the core of game design has nothing to do with 3D, so it's just a distraction anyway.
So, learn how to make games with Game Maker. Before you know it, you'll know how to program, too... and then you can start learning to make games on other platforms.
The full chat log is available here.
by Daniel Bullard-Bates
Some say that there is nothing new under the sun. Sometimes that’s not such a bad thing.
As we have discussed in the past, video games are a very young art form. But in just over thirty-five years, the medium has established its own pillars of design and gameplay, held up as examples worthy of tribute. While it is always exciting to see new ideas being developed by the creative minds in the industry, it is sometimes just as rewarding to see great games that are clearly mindful of their sources of inspiration.
This week saw the release of Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade, a side-scrolling action/platforming game firmly in the style of titles like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Unlike developers that attempt to pass off their derivative work as something new and innovative, Chair Entertainment have used terms like “metroidvania” to describe their game since it was announced. This is a refreshing bit of honesty from the publisher, since the game is clearly a tribute: the large two-dimensional map is almost identical in style, the gameplay elements of exploration and advancement are clear derivations, and the game provides the same sense of satisfaction when a previously impassable barrier is overcome by newly acquired weapons and powers. The game is a love letter to the classics which inspired it.
Most works of art are influenced by or pay homage to the artists and works that came before. The Sopranos overflowed with references to The Godfather. Salvador Dali was influenced by Picasso, Cubism, and Dada. Bob Dylan’s biggest early influence was Woody Guthrie. Video games don’t have the storied history of music, painting, or film, but there are already revered classics typed into the lexicon of video game lore.
It seems that developers often don’t want to acknowledge just how derivative their games can be. Dante’s Inferno, for example, is clearly another God of War clone, this time with a very loose basis on the epic poem of the same name. The developers try to explain how their game relates to the poem, what it will bring to the action genre and so forth, but there is always the lurking specter of God of War over their heads. How much more honest did the staff at Visceral Games sound when they discussed Dead Space's clear influences, like Resident Evil and the Alien movies? As honest as apple pie.
I salute developers who don’t shy away from telling us what games inspire their craft. I look forward to games with new and exciting ideas, but sometimes a game with a well-known concept in a new skin is just as exciting. Look at Borderlands: a Diablo-style leveling and loot system, in a world reminiscent of Mad Max and Firefly? Sign me up.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
by Daniel Bullard-Bates
While the terms “casual” and “hardcore” have served some purpose in the past, dividing groups like soccer moms from LAN partiers, browser games from console titles, and socially acceptable games from nerdy pastimes, the lines between casual and hardcore have become increasingly jagged. World of Warcraft, a roleplaying game full of orcs, elves, and magic, now boasts over eleven million monthly subscribers, making it a more popular place to live than Belgium. On the other side of the gaming spectrum, PopCap, makers of Peggle and Bejeweled, recently released a “casual” game in the tower defense genre, a genre that gained popularity in user-created maps for notable “hardcore” real-time strategy games like Starcraft and Age of Empires II. It is clear that the current situation requires more intricate language: it is no longer sufficient to classify games as either casual or hardcore, since few are exclusively one or the other.
“[Video games] do not represent two discrete populations, [casual] and [hardcore]. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. It is a fundamental of taxonomy that [the world] rarely deals with discrete categories... The [entertainment] world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.
While emphasizing the continuity of the gradations between exclusively [casual] and exclusively [hardcore video games], it has seemed desirable to develop some sort of classification which could be based on the relative amounts of [casual] and [hardcore subjects and qualities] in each product... An individual [game] may be assigned a position on this scale, for each [facet of its design]... A seven-point scale comes nearer to showing the many gradations that actually exist."
- Kinsey, Alfred, et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). pp. 639, 656
(Modifications to original text by the author.)
There is a concern in the more traditional video gaming circles that the rise of so-called casual gaming is diluting the more proper, traditional games that we have come to know and love. The next Mario-branded title from Nintendo, for example, is adding a feature that allows the game to play itself if a section becomes too difficult. The latest Prince of Persia introduced a mechanic which removed player death from the game entirely. It seems like everywhere we look some beloved franchise is getting simplified or modified to appeal to a wider, more casual market. But the amalgamation works both ways: the aforementioned PopCap title Plants vs. Zombies shows how more nominally hardcore qualities like collection, strategy and zombies can make for a wildly entertaining title that appeals to a casual audience.
Obviously, we need a better way of talking about the differences in the audiences, subject matter, controls and content of the modern video game. Flower developers thatgamecompany attempt to solve the problem of classifying their own games, designed to appeal to any group of people, by calling them simply “core games.” If we accept this as more than a marketing ploy, this raises our classification options to three: casual, core, and hardcore. I’d like to take this just one step further. I present to you the Bullard-Bates Scale:
Obviously this system is far from ideal. Any system is, in fact: as soon as we attempt to quantify an experience, to reduce it to its component parts and judge them numerically instead of experientially and intellectually, we infantilize it. The Kinsey Scale, which dealt with heterosexual and homosexual self-identification and activity on a scale much like this one, is also a gross simplification of a very complicated issue. But while it does oversimplify, it also illustrates that there is more complexity to the situation than a mere binary state.
So let’s blur the lines and mix things up a bit. There isn’t just one big group of hardcore gamers whose interests are pitted against a huge group of casual ones. There are just people, who like different things and are attracted to different themes and styles of play.
So if casual and hardcore are insufficient terms, if even the Bullard-Bates Scale doesn’t quite cut the mustard, what’s the solution? Simply put, video game reviewers and journalists should be clearer about the qualities of the games they are covering. Instead of reviewing a game as either casual or hardcore, elaborate on the accessible elements and the complicated systems. Instead of assigning a numerical score to a game, tell the viewers and readers how well it succeeds both intellectually and mechanically. As the Joker famously said: “This [industry] deserves a better class of [reviewer]. And [who’s] gonna give it to [us?]”
Friday, August 14, 2009
PopCap, who brought the casual gaming world such free-time-devouring releases as Bejeweled, Peggle, and Bejeweled 2: Jewelers Revenge recently came out with a little title called Plants vs. Zombies. Like most of the thumb candy that they have brought us in the past, PopCap continued its tradition of taking a well-worn idea, in this case the tower defense game, and putting a sugary coating on it. As the player, you must defend your home by planting a variety of animated flora between you and advancing waves of undead. The graphics are cute, the sound effects are cheery, and there is enough humor thrown in the mix to keep you grinning at your screen like an imbecile for hours on end.
Generally, I would say that this type of entertainment is best marketed to children ages 6 to 6.5. Here’s the rub: it’s just a grand old time. Watching the hordes of shambling corpse folk hurl themselves at your fortifications is immensely satisfying. But why?
As a young gamer I spent many a lazy summer afternoon in my mother’s office at the psychology department of the University of Southern Maine. She was a professor there and had her digs set up right next to the psychology lab, which was populated with lab rats and their pet graduate students. The basics of their experiments went like this: every time a test rat would touch a bar, or stand in a certain area of the cage, the student in charge of the experiment would give it a bit of food. Touch the bar, get food, touch the bar, get food, eat the dots, get points, wakka wakka wakka. I think you see where I am going with this. The concept is called positive reinforcement; it’s nothing new to video games. If we play by the rules, something good happens whether it is a reward in points, plot progression, or in the case of Plants vs. Zombies a series of pleasant noises, bright colors, and happy looking flowers.
The central aim of this aptly named journal is to explore the social and artistic merits of video games. So, when enjoying a title like Plants vs. Zombies, I ask myself if a game designed solely to stimulate a Pavlovian response in the gamer has such merits. I am afraid the best answer I can come up with is this: socially, no. Artistically, maybe. Unless I am missing something, I don’t think there are any moral or philosophical lessons to take away from such products, but I do believe their creators displayed some respectable guile and ingenuity in crafting them. Our minds are fickle machines and creating a product that can mesmerize them into submission, even for a little while, is an impressive feat. It may not be art, but it is artfully done.
Rather than think of PopCap’s products as iconic works on par with the Mona Lisa or the Iliad I think it is better to consider them toys, very clever toys. I realize this brings to the fore one of the most significant criticisms of the video game medium; because of their broad appeal and interactive qualities, they are nothing more than childish distractions. I would put forward that if this argument applies to video games as a whole then one is forced to write off music, painting, sculpture, cinema, and creative writing as equally invalid forms of expression. All artistic mediums are used to create some products which don’t necessarily warrant the title “artwork”; that doesn’t devalue the given medium nor the product it created. Just because the Berenstain Bears are not Shakespeare doesn’t mean that all theatre is for children. It also doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the Berenstain Bears. To say that all video games are mind pellets for our cerebral rat just because PopCap makes an addictive puzzle game is logically invalid and an unfair standard to the rest of the medium.
Looking back on this article I may have painted developers like PopCap as manipulative tricksters, and perhaps they are, but no more so than the pioneer who first designed the cup and ball. While Plants vs. Zombies and so many products like it do not challenge our way of thinking or push the limits of our imaginations they do help us to find joy in the simple act of play, and there is certainly value in that.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
When Six Days in Fallujah was announced, the controversy over depicting war in a documentary-like, realistic manner was so intense that the project was dropped by its publisher, Konami. After losing that support, the developers were forced to lay off employees, and may now face complete financial failure. All this was the result of trying to portray war in a realistic way, while franchises like Call of Duty continue to make unrealistic, over-simplified war games at incredible profits.
Other games that attempt to confront real social issues are greeted with little to no attention. Games for Change is a group devoted to making socially relevant games with an activist bent, but it is a struggle to find an audience for their kind of material. This is partly because most of the games made with a specific activist goal in mind are overly focused on the message, allowing the gameplay to fall by the wayside. The other problem facing Games for Change and similar endeavors is the mentality of the video gaming audience: many gamers say that they just want their games to be fun. Video games are an escapist pastime for many, and social messages are not something they wish to grapple with in their leisure time. It is clear that games with social messages need to offer more than a moral imperative. The gameplay, controls, visuals and so on are as important in these games as they are in any other, if not more so due to the potentially smaller audience and the desire to express a particular point.
Flower is an example of a game that is beautiful to behold and fun to play, while managing to successfully pack a social message into the mix. It works because the actual playing of the game does not force the player to confront any social or political issues. Even if the conflict between nature and technology holds no interest to you, and replacing dirty energy sources like coal and oil with wind power strikes no chords, Flower’s controls and level design are simple, fun and intuitive. And if those other things do interest you, if you want more relevance and thought from your games, then Flower delivers an experience almost unheard of in the world of interactive entertainment. This additional level to Flower is so well integrated into the concept and gameplay that it enhances the experience instead of distracting from it.
A game that successfully balances gameplay and social relevance offers something more than entertainment; it improves the artistic medium as a whole. It is by no means necessary that every game published tackles complex and controversial issues, but when they do so successfully it has the potential to make video games more relevant and important than they have been in the past. More than that, a well-done game with a positive social message could improve the world: if just a few people have decided to support wind power initiatives as a result of playing Flower, that is a testament to the social power of video games. If just a few people become more discerning in their jewelry purchases as a result of Jason Rohrer’s upcoming game about conflict diamonds, that will be a great success for the game and for the medium.
This raises a larger question, frequently recurring in the realm of artistic creation: does the artist have a social responsibility in what he creates? Does the creation of art that appeals to prurient or violent interests harm society and the artist? Is difficult, morally challenging art essentially more valuable and important?
There is certainly great value in making art that can change minds and educate people on the troubles and triumphs of the world around them. And every time the world of video games expands in new directions, it becomes a more legitimate and exciting form of art.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
by Daniel Bullard-Bates
This month in the game club, we played Passage and Gravitation, two short games by Jason Rohrer. He was also kind enough to answer a few questions for us on his creative process, artistic exploration in games, digital distribution, and his exciting new project.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of making games by yourself, without the aid or supervision of a publisher?
I don't find any disadvantages, because I'm simply not interested in making "big" games, which is what you usually need a team for. Most big games are big in terms of consumable content, not in terms of gameplay or interactivity, and I don't think that games are fundamentally about consumable content.
The advantages of working alone are complete creative control and maintenance of a singular vision. It's very easy to make a work that is coherent and self-consistent when you're the only one working on it. Also, working alone is much cheaper (free!) than hiring a team, so that allows me to take big creative risks and not worry about financial pressures and deadlines. I can finish a game when it is really finished, not just because I run out of money.
What aspects of your games do you typically spend the most time on (visuals, themes, gameplay, etc.)?
The design process happens on paper ahead of time, and it usually spills out pretty quickly, so I'd say that I spend the least amount of time on design. However, design is by far the hardest step in my process. Programming the game, and polishing the resulting implementation until it is perfect, takes up the most time in my process.
Do video games open up new themes for artistic exploration? Are they particularly unsuited to certain tasks?
Games allow you to explore aspects of the human condition that are fundamentally interactive in ways that non-interactive mediums cannot. The most obvious examples are themes that involve choices. Other mediums can explore the same themes, but they must present a single branch in the possibility tree---what happens when one character makes a specific choice in a given situation. Non-linear uses of these mediums---like the film Run Lola Run---can present a handful of specific branches at most. Games, on the other hand, can present you with the entire possibility tree and let you explore it for yourself. Instead of depicting a character and showing you that character's choices, a game can put you directly into the situation and let you make your own choices.
Games are weaker than non-interactive mediums when dealing with parts of the human condition that are not fundamentally interactive. Consider a very basic theme like "the loss of a loved one." Games try to explore this theme a lot, but they usually fall flat, because they must turn off interactivity---at least momentarily---to deliver the theme. When a game takes control away from you during a major thematic turning point, it immediately feels "unfair." The interactivity of the game and the non-interactivity of the theme fight each other.
All of your games have been released for free download on the internet. What are your beliefs on digital distribution and cost?
I believe that control over the distribution of a given work is impossible. Once you release something into the world, there's no way to prevent people from doing whatever they want with it in the privacy of their own homes. One thing they might want to do with it is make copies for their friends. That's a very natural thing to want to do, and it does not feel "wrong" to most people. We can shout "NO!" all we want, but people are going to continue making copies.
On the other hand, it's also very natural to charge people for a service. You come to this convenient website and download a copy quickly and easily---that service is something that cannot be copied for your friends.
The iPhone app store is one example of a service-based model---at least I use it that way. You can download my game from a central location and have it automatically installed on your iPhone for a small fee. If you want to download the iPhone source code yourself and build your own copy for your iPhone, you can do that too, for free. You can even sell the version that you build in the AppStore yourself---there's nothing to stop you, since my games are in the public domain.
You recently released a game, Primrose, on the iPhone store. What role do you think that the iPhone plays in the world of independent game development? Does it have any advantages or disadvantages when compared to Xbox Live, WiiWare and the Playstation Network?
The iPhone AppStore has extraordinarily low barriers to entry compared to those other download services. All you need is a compatible Mac and a $100 developer membership. I was able to find a used Mac Mini on Craig's List for only $250. That's a mighty cheap dev kit.
Dev kits for the other platforms cost thousands of dollars. On top of that, Nintendo *requires* that you lease a business office space before they will even let you buy a dev kit.
The downside to the AppStore is the extraordinarily low barrier to entry. Every programmer in the world has an app in the AppStore. Dozens of new apps are released there every day. It's very hard to compete. Making a good living from AppStore sales is like winning the lottery. The other platforms hand-pick the games that get distributed, so there is much less competition. A really good game on one of those other platforms is pretty much guaranteed to bring in a large amount of revenue for the developer. Even an excellent game on the iPhone is a crap shoot.
Beyond entertainment, what other qualities give value to a video game?
If we believe Koster's theory about fun, then games are primarily about learning and thinking. That thinking may be at a very low level (learning a new reflex skill) or at a very high, conscious level (planning out a many-step strategy). Regardless, games make you think. Furthermore, because they cannot be experienced passively, they *require* that you think. So, right out of the gate, games don't feel much like leisurely entertainment---more like hard work! Still, we tend to use games---especially video games---as a form of escape entertainment. By "working" on something with no real-world consequence, we can take our minds away from our worldly concerns.
However, I think we can leverage the thinking induced by games for all kinds of purposes in addition to entertainment. We can make people think about the world in new ways, for example.
Would you like to share with us what you're working on now?
I'm working on a game for the Nintendo DS that will be published by Majesco sometime in 2010. It's a two-player strategy game about diamond trading in Angola on the eve of the passage of the Kimberly Process.
This is my first game that will be sold in a real box in real stores, so it's an exciting project for me.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Non-Player Characters make up the entire population of the worlds we visit as gamers. These non-sentient beings (for now at least) are the shop-keepers, zombies, companions, covering fire, and nemeses of the video gaming world. Their behavior is moderated by their programming; they are only ever as smart, helpful, or sinister as the developers choose to make them. In some cases their programming is exceptionally rich: the shopkeepers in Bethesda’s 2006 release Oblivion would return to their homes at the end of the business day and even trade small talk with each other. In most cases they are very simple; the door guards in BioWare’s Mass Effect stand in the same place and do nothing at all until the player character walks up and says hello. It is not the complexity or simplicity of a given NPC’s programming that makes them a valuable addition to a game; it is their suitability to their environment and role. I expect a wolf to act like a wolf, a sniper to be able to hit something, and a military squad to work together to bring me down. Whether they are working with me or against me, I expect an artificial intelligence to at least give me an excuse to believe in it.
Clive Barker has been one of a select few well-known writers who has come out in support of the video game medium, and as a writer and gamer I am glad the medium has his support. As a younger man, Hellraiser scared the pants off me and left me with a lifelong phobia of Rubik’s cubes. Looking back at those old films I still have to tip my hat to the originality of the series. Imagine my excitement when I discovered that Barker teamed up with the developers at MercurySteam to create the first person shooter/ horror release Jericho.
This being a Clive Barker joint, gamers find themselves tossed into a hellacious suburb of purgatory populated by fleshy abominations who want to eat their faces. In Jericho, gamers take control of an elite squad of special forces, each one with phenomenal powers and a fairly well rounded back-story. This is an especially impressive touch given the size of the Jericho Squad: seven characters in total. Gamers make their way through the twisted level designs by possessing each member of the squad as their particular skills become needed.
The back story is interesting, the characters are over the top, but very cool, and the level designs would make H.P. Lovecraft queasy. All the ingredients are there for a blockbuster game, but Jericho was poorly received, both critically and financially. I believe that the responsibility rests mostly on the shoulders of bad AI. When not under the direct control of the player, the other six members of the Jericho Squad just can’t seem to get themselves killed fast enough. They walk into explosions, shoot into the sky, and even casually saunter up to spear-wielding centurions to be harpooned. I don’t pretend to be an expert in military tactics, but I think they would have gone over those things in wizard/commando boot camp. The squad’s AI is so bad that gamers spent most of the experience simply trying to keep them alive. This detracted significantly from the game, so much so that it made an otherwise playable title into a footnote in the medium’s history.
Sloppy AI is a problem for allies and enemies alike. Oblivion, as I mentioned before, had excellent programming for most friendly NPC’s, but every enemy in the game seemed to use the exact same pattern. A stealthy assassin would charge directly at you and attack. A powerful wizard would charge directly at you and attack. A hulking ogre would – you get the point. Since Oblivion was a combat heavy game this resulted in a great deal of employing the time honored tactic of running in a circle and shooting. Now, I recognize that a game as large and complicated as Oblivion, and later Fallout 3, will have some implicit programming limitations. That being said, it’s 2009 Bethesda! I shouldn’t be able to defeat my enemies with the same strategy I used to kill baddies in the 1993 release Doom. The days of my digital enemies repeating patterns and performing predictable responses to my actions should be over. There is no glory in winning a fight against an idiot, no matter how well rendered they are.
While NPC programming has had a bumpy road there have been some notable victories in the last few years. Alyx Vance of the much-lauded Half-Life 2 broke the mold of the traditional video game heroine and provided excellent covering fire for the protagonist rather than just waiting in a castle to be rescued. Enemies have gotten better too. Despite my many problems with the Gears of War series it did an excellent job of simulating a firefight. Enemies spread out over the terrain, took cover, and even performed flanking moves to take you out. That’s the kind of AI I want to see; I want to match wits against the next incarnation of Deep Blue, not the EDSAC vacuum-tube computer.
NPC programming should challenge us, it should adapt to us, but most of all it should make us believe in it. When this facet of a game is overlooked it takes away from the entire experience, it reminds us that we are playing with a computer, and it breaks the immersive aspect of gaming that we value so highly. Thankfully, the future of this aspect of video gaming looks very bright. We aren’t far from the day when developers will start hiring psychology professors to help design NPC’s; just look what Microsoft has in the pipes with characters like Milo. It seems that soon enough it may be hard to determine the difference between video game characters and real people. For the time being, however, I will be satisfied if NPCs at least display the survival instincts of carpenter ants and don’t actively detract from the gaming experience.