Thursday, 15 September 2011

Haunt Preview on Kotaku

Nice to see Haunt press starting. It's been a while since I saw it, but it was shaping up to be something really cool when I left Zoe Mode.
Who's the voice actor? WHO KNOWS? Spooky.

This is the last thing I made at Zoe. I worked on Haunt for around 10 months as Lead Designer from pre-production to Alpha submission.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Justifying Games to the world.

I loved Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Loved it. According to Naomi Alderman's guardian article ahead of the this year's BAFTAs, she loved it too. In fact, the headline tells us that it's the "best game ever". Is it?

No. AC: Brotherhood is definitely not the best game ever, but that's not really what made me want to write this. What I'm writing about is how in her article, Ms Alderman tells us that AC: Brotherhood is the best game ever because it makes some points about the world, about government, and (for a large part of her article) because it's historically accurate enough to make young people interested in Renaissance Rome.

Ok, well, let me explain why I don't believe AC: Brotherhood is the best game ever. It's because after ten hours and a ton of side-quests, it's obviously pretty repetitive; because there were quite a few too many situations where the game assumed I wanted to jump off of an enormous castle to my death when really I just thought I could make that sideways leap to that ledge on the left; because I got so frustrated with its controls that I had to stop playing and go to bed seething with anger; because, addictive as it was, grinding collection isn't a substitute for gameplay; because it suffered from many of the control and camera issues that any third-person 3D games suffer from, because... well, as great as it is, it's still a flawed game, like any other game.

Well, not every other game.

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX came out last year, and while there's no way I'm going to make any 'best game ever' claims, I will say that for my money, it's the best game I played all year. I think it's flawless, and if it isn't, then at the very least it's as close to flawless as I've found in a game recently.

Everything works. Everything controls exactly how you want it to all the time, it never has to second-guess what a player expects to happen; there's a clean, symbiotic relationship between what you're thinking and what is happening on the game. Your hands, the controller? They're not invited. It's like there's a USB cable plugged into your head and wired straight to the controller input.

Thousands of tiny little design decisions all contribute perfectly towards Pac-Man CE DX's extremely elegant but utterly thrilling whole. It's maddening at times sure, but a joy all the same, and dangerously addictive.

It's just a very good game, honed to its upper limit. Design-wise there is nothing I could think of improving in it, no remaining problem that needs to be solved. So why would the Guardian think that AC: Brotherhood is that much better? 

One of the things I love about a game like Pac-Man CE DX, is that it isn't a game that needs to justify its quality to the world outside of video games. It exists for itself and its player and it delivers on that promise of a thrill 100% of the time. Games don't have to reference the world outside of the console, they don't have to provide social commentary, they don't have to get kids interested in their subject matter, they don't have to educate, they don't have to make you brush your teeth more, they don't have to be more than games. If games do these things, then perhaps that's admirable, but it does not make them better games than the games which don't. It might make them more interesting, sure, it might even help with immersion, but that's not enough to make me ignore what are pretty obvious flaws in a game.

Video games still do get pretty bad press outside of our 'gamer sphere', and of course we can manage how much by being responsible with our content (or not, if we like), but we shouldn't be beholden to that world, we shouldn't feel like we need to make games right-on for the naysayers in order to be perceived as good.

I catch myself qualifying games to non-gamers in the same way I used to qualify comics to outsiders when I was a kid; "it's a big business", comparing the maturity of some of the content with film/ tv. I regret it. We don't have to do that. A game is a game, and while these angles might appeal to the layman or even the games audience, they are never really what makes a game a good one.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Landing back on the difficulty curve.

It's pretty easy to finish a video game today, it's just a matter of putting the right amount of time in, the game keeping your interest for long enough to allow you to finish it. What happens if you don't though? Should the meticulous design of something like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow support a play style other than 'play every night or every other night, start to finish in a week or two'?

I was a victim of this over the holidays this year - I was playing a few games in the run up to christmas (Castlevania one of them - and I think it's great by the way), then... it's the holidays. Back to Scotland for two and a half weeks. When I picked up Castlevania again in mid-January, I was useless at it. Fair enough - I'd be noticeably worse at a lot of things if I didn't do them for a couple of weeks, but in the case of some games, this can leave me in a difficult position where I can't engage with the game at all. It's a barrier.

I'm not proposing that games are too difficult. Like I said, it's pretty likely that people complete games nowadays. What's a problem for me (and according to the 30-something-as-average-gamer stats, I am the norm), is that I'll follow the difficulty curve of a game, building on what I learned yesterday; perhaps delving slightly deeper into a more complex control system, only to put the game down for a week (because us 30-somethings have things to do, ok?), and be faced with the nightmare challenge of being inserted back into the game at a point way above my skill level. Actually, I'm not just talking about the difficulty curve, it's the story, orientation, familiarity with the sheer availability of options open to me, and even more on a game-by-game basis.

This is exactly why Ninja Gaiden II has sat gathering dust on my shelf for 2 years. I loved it. I worked late for a week, or there were a few gigs on or I went on holiday or something. I can't go back - I hit a spike and didn't play for a while, now I'm still at that spike and unable to backtrack to get good at the game again. I feel like I'll have to actually start again if I'm going to progress. So, there are now 2 obstacles between me and the enjoyment I was getting from Ninja Gaiden II while I was playing it regularly; my inability to play the game (and I've tried to pick it up again, but at that point there's nowhere to go, nowhere to re-learn) and the time I've already spent that I'll need to spend again.

You could say that films share that same trait, but a film is 2 hours out of your life. It's really no big deal to watch it again. Going back to the start of Ninja Gaiden II is a lot more work than watching a film from the start again because the phone rang halfway through and you got caught up in something.

Books? Yeah, books are a better analogy - you'll spend 8 hours reading a book, which is about how long I can expect to play a game for unless it's special. But in reading a book, you're only really concerned with story, characters, setting. After a week away from the book you were reading, if you've re-familiarised yourself with those elements, then you're free to continue. There's no muscle memory, there's no skill element. I still know how to read, I still know the language.

Games really are something else. We're at the point in the life of video games as an entertainment where many people from many demographics can be considered 'gamers', but generally speaking, we still make games for the dedicated, those who can learn with the game and stay in it. We rarely welcome back lapsed players.

I don't know how this gets solved or if it ought to be (maybe it's just part of what makes games a unique experience), but it is a reason why I feel I can't go back to a  lot of games with expansive stories, controls and abilities evolve and deepen with the time line.

If only a small percentage of players will finish a game, then perhaps that's because we don't support this kind of situation (which I imagine is fairly common). We're determined to encourage people to start playing our games but perhaps we don't do enough to encourage them to come back.