Gone Home

August 21st, 2013 in Thoughts

It’s been a fair while since I posted here, and I’ve been looking for something that’d inspire me to get back to writing again. Gone Home is that inspiration. It’s also the prefect counter to my last post because it is worthy of the praise and accolades it’s getting in a way that Bioshock Infinite wasn’t.

Like Infinite, Gone Home’s main draw is its story. The biggest difference to me is how that story is revealed. Bioshock is a completely linear affair, complete with cut scenes (albeit from first person), lock in areas and huge scale. It was a compelling story and well told, but I never felt that I had any influence over it – I was simply battling my way through to the next trigger point.

While Gone Home doesn’t give you any opportunity to change events, what it gives you instead is a voyage of discovery. There are a few forced bottlenecks to ensure you’ve heard or done certain things that count towards the main narrative, but you’re free to discover the clues at your own pace. The thing I like most about it is how subtle it is, not just how small scale and personal the main story is, but in that so many things are there just for you to interpret how you want.

The way you’re guided through the world is very well executed, using established tricks skilfully. The misdirection at the start is really well done – I know not everyone agrees and is disappointed in a lack of payoff (Oli Welsh’s review over at Eurogamer highlights this), but I thought it was really well done. It also has parallels with the story’s main theme, when you stop and look back at it.

And that’s the greatest thing. Rarely does a story in a game ever give me pause for thought. Even more rarely do I find myself thinking about the characters in a game after I’ve finished it. There are a few flaws and some bits are contrived, but overall it’s a wonderful experience and, as I mentioned above, very personal and open to your interpretation. It’s the game closest to being like a good book rather than a summer blockbuster, and for that it should be highly commended.

As I did on Twitter, I also want to mention the similarity between Gone Home and Fragments of Him, a small game developed by a friend for Ludum Dare 26. If you’re on the fence regarding buying Gone Home, have a play of Fragments first. If it intrigues you then I think you won’t regret spending your money.


On Bioshock Infinite

April 26th, 2013 in Thoughts

There’s been a lot of stuff written about Bioshock Infinite over the past few weeks, and I’ve recently finished it and wanted to write something myself. Overall, I enjoyed it and the story and environment visuals are, without doubt, what holds it together. Normally that’d be it: I’d accept it for what it is and move on to the next game. But this is Bioshock Infinite – still riding high at 95% on Metacritic, with a whole host of reviewers throwing 10/10′s at it, saying it’s a game changer and that it redefines shooters and storytelling. I don’t know which game they’re playing, but it doesn’t feel like the same one I’ve recently completed.

It’s good entertainment but it isn’t doing anything that Bioshock 1 didn’t do back in 2007. Initially I thought I was the only one that thought this, that it was me that was missing something, but now the dust has started to settle quite a few people are starting to voice similar thoughts.

This post isn’t an attack on Bioshock Infinite, but done more as an analysis of why I don’t believe it’s a 10/10 game. This is me, as a games designer, asking the question: does gameplay not matter as much when it comes to reviewing anymore? I ask this because, while parts of the story telling have been refined, the gameplay feels to have taken a step back.

The combat

The biggest thing wrong, which has been very covered excellently here by Kirk Hamilton on Kotaku, is that it doesn’t actually feel that Bioshock Infinite should even have combat in it. The world, the main characters and the overarching concept are really interesting, and have the potential to make an amazing exploration / voyage of discovery / mind bending puzzle game.

The violence

The violence is brutal – the first time you kill someone is, without doubt, the most horrifying experience I’ve had in a video game. Not because I haven’t done that sort of stuff in games before, but because it’s so out of context: I had absolutely no desire to kill an NPC, and I didn’t sign up for a gore fest. The reviews and trailers sold me on the world and story, but the game undermines them with endless violence.

It’s a real shame: Irrational Games are in the Elite of AAA game developers, and had an opportunity here to make an amazing statement on how big budget games can be made. It really does feel like they had a chance to create something truly game changing, but ultimately delivered just another shooter.

The shooting isn’t much fun

This might be ok if the shooting itself was good but, in my opinion, it’s average at best. It all stems from the basic fact that the tempo of the combat is out of sync with the rest of the world. You’re given so many options – guns, vigors, tears, sky hooks, suit items – yet rarely given any time to actually consider what you want to do next. I remember constantly pressing the wrong select button in Bioshock 1 – it was annoying but not too detrimental, because the game paused when you were cycling weapons or plasmids. It gave you time to think. The encounters in Infinite don’t allow this – from the very first fight the number of enemies is turned right up to max. There’s a few that buck the trend, and these ones stand out in my mind as being the only places where the combat actually shines.

It feels like Irrational went down this road to try and force the player into using everything they have at their disposal, yet in actuality it produces almost the complete opposite. I’d often stick with a single vigor and only changing it to Possession if something big was about. We had a similar issue early on when making Rogue Trooper, and solved it (to a point) by stripping the features down right back to basics. I wish someone had done that with Infinite.

The design of the combat areas doesn’t help, because most start you off in a choke point and say ‘here ya go!’ as 10 enemies start charging towards you. Sky hooks sometimes raise you to a better position to see from, but rarely better to actually fight from. They should have been akin to the hook points in Batman, where you could get some breathing time or survey the scene from relative safety. But their effectiveness is diminished by the fact that the normal AI can use them too, and biggest of the biggest flaw in the game as a whole:

The boss design

I could dissect the combat for hours, but I’ll simply ask a question: did you honestly enjoy any fight where a Patriot or Handyman was involved? These enemies are so bad they strip a couple of points off the score on their own in my book. Their concepts are fine: both have very well choreographed weak spots. The issue is the implementation, as it’s practically impossible to actually flaunt said weak spots. No matter what I throw at him, the Handymen won’t stay still and the Patriots can turn far faster than the player can circle strafe them. Any attempts to get some distance on a Handyman usually proves futile, and Patriots don’t appear to have a line of sight check; they just blunder round corners already aiming and shooting straight at you. Let alone the fact that there’s nearly always another 10 AI trying to shoot me too.

There is one other boss fight in the game towards the end, split over 3 phases. By the time the 3rd phase came along I was ready to give up. Please take note Irrational: Boss fights should let you actually get to the boss, not hoards of standard AI draining your ammo and getting in your way.

Suspension of disbelief

This is the key to success in any work of fiction, and it is another area where Bioshock Infinite falls down on. Which is, possibly, the biggest puzzle of all; especially given how much the reviews have waxed lyrical about the immersion in the world.

The problem is: the player character doesn’t feel connected to the world, and nothing is consistent. For example, I don’t have a shadow or a reflection, except for every now and again. I, occasionally, have hands. I can reload my gun while hanging onto a sky rail. I can steal purses and loot from people and they ignore me. Of the characters that do actually acknowledge I exist, most can’t be bothered to look at me. I can eat an infinite amount of food and never get full. I can take apples and oranges from almost anywhere, except the fruit stalls. The list of inconsistencies goes on, and while each one is quite minor, they quickly stack up and pull me out of the world.

To sum it up though, I think the biggest problem is how static and linear the world feels. It’s like it’s a museum, frozen in time, that I can only go through in one specific way. Which should be fine; after all: lots of video game worlds are the same. But the reviews made me expect more.

The delivery of the story

The core of the story is delivered by Elizabeth, who is very well executed. Primarily though, her dialogue is incredibly well written and her voice acting is probably one of the best performances in a game to date. She is also, without doubt, very useful in a fight.

But the actual delivery of the story is nothing new at all. Anything important requires you to be locked in a small box, usually a lift or a control room, and to be looking in roughly the right direction. Or it’s blasted at you via a PA system from an unseen character, quite often while you wait for a wave of enemies to pour in over the nearest wall. Occasionally, control is taken completely away from you – you grow arms and watch a cinematic play out from first person. Essentially, it uses all the same methods that most games use.

The story itself is intriguing, and definitely better paced than Bioshock 1. There are still too many false endings, but they weren’t as bad as the one in their previous game. I’m not sure I feel entirely satisfied at the end of it though, and I certainly don’t understand why I had to kill quite so many people to get there.

In summary the, yes: Bioshock Infinite is good, and worth playing. But I don’t understand why it’s been been awarded so many 10/10′s. If you can explain, I’m all ears.


Why is it so hard to make a good Aliens game?

February 17th, 2013 in Thoughts

This week Aliens: Colonial Marines was finally released and, unfortunately, the reviews of it don’t seem to rate it very highly. Worse still: some review sites have gone so far as to post videos of glitches, which I think is the first time I’ve seen that happen. People on forums are saying pretty much the same things, and with all the disappointment questions get asked. Specifically: why is it so hard to make a good Aliens game?

It could be argued that I don’t know the answer to that, having being involved with Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem on PSP (49% average on metatcritic) and the lead designer of AVP2010 (64% on xbox360, 68% on PC). The first of those games was tied into the launch of the film, whereas the second was the flagship title for Rebellion that year, and we had a good sized team working on it for a decent amount of time. We knew Colonial Marines was in development – Gearbox had announced as such in December 2006, and it had been on the cover of Game Informer in February 2008. And we had a very broad overview of what the story would be, because we had been told not to go anywhere near LV-426, Space Jockeys or the Sulaco. The latter was a bit of a blow for me personally, as early story concepts had revolved around Predators using the Sulaco as bait to lure Marines in.

Instead, we set AvP about 30 years after the story events of the Aliens film. By this point it seemed reasonable to assume that word of the Xenomorphs had spread, and that Marines would have a rough idea how to go up against them.

Kane

This is the first difficulty faced with making an Aliens game: the audience knows what to expect, and it’s reached the point now where it’s pretty much impossible to create a storyline that would surprise players. We all know that Aliens burst out of chests, hide in shadows, crawl on walls and are devastating at close range.

This leads to the second problem: Aliens themselves are the complete opposite of the kind of enemy you need if you’re making a shooting game. They’re fast, they’re hard to hit, if you don’t kill it before it’s within 10 metres of you then you’re going to get doused in acid and die anyway, and if it does get close you’re instantly dead. A player would put up with them as an occasional boss fight, but as the main enemy it just gets annoying.

This wouldn’t be too bad, if not for the third problem: audiences expect a game with a lot of shooting. You’re playing a bad ass Marine and are have access to some of the most iconic weapons from cinema: you want the excuse let rock and use them.

Drake

Lots of shooting requires a lot of enemies though, which is the complete opposite of how you create tension. People also expect that an Aliens game is going to be scary, because the first film was terrifying (Aliens has its moments, but it’s more tense than downright horror). The Marine campaign in AvP’99 got this almost perfect, and regularly scared the day lights out of players. Since then, we’ve struggled to replicate that because of a belief that shooting games have to be fair, brightly lit and well sign posted.

Are there alternatives?

Yes, I think there are a few options available to whoever gets the next go at developing an Aliens game.

The first is to make it much more horror based – akin to the Alien title on Spectrum that Eurogamer did a retrospective on a few days ago. Having the player character be more fragile – more Ripley like – and only having a few enemies to, effectively, avoid, could make for an interesting game.

The second potential is to just make it plain hard. In 2010 I don’t think we could have gotten away with this, but since then the Indie scene has exploded and gamers have shown that they’re eager for games that present a big challenge (FTL springs to mind). Taking a cue from a game like Infinity Blade on iOS, the player could play a continual stream of Marines that are sent into a situation. The environment would be the same each time, but the Alien AI allows for random encounters, different spawn places and so on. The ultimate aim is to get through  to the Queen, and the first few times you do that you’d die horribly. Each Marine is plugged in to the other’s feeds, either via a video comm system or a dream machine like the one seen in Prometheus. When it’s their turn, they’ve got a good idea of what to expect.

Sending 4 people at a time in could tie nicely into the Left4Dead style multiplayer game, which we started to make a good version of in AVP2010 with Survival mode but could have benefited from larger environments to make your way through.

Either way, I think the world is ready for a game where the Xenomorphs aren’t dumbed down to make the game fairer, but instead are as lethal as they are in the films. It’s got to be worth a go, right?

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Rebellion any more, and don’t have any contact with anyone from Sega or Fox. This article is purely my take on how to potentially move forward with the licence.


Happy New Year, welcome to the future

January 9th, 2013 in Thoughts

It’s quite something to be in 2013 already, let alone already well into the second week. Just before Christmas I did a talk at Social Media Cafe, based loosely on what I think might happen in the future of videogames. It wasn’t really aimed at this year, but more several years into the future.

I’ve now tidied that talk up into an article, which I’ve posed on here on the site and also over at AltDevBlog. It’s taken quite a while to get into a neat package of a single article, though even more shocking is that it’s nearly a year since I posted anything to this site. I’m not entirely sure where 2012 went, but it’s good that we’ve made it out the other side!


Thoughts on Apple

November 15th, 2012 in Thoughts

The iMac shown above is the model that I’ve been using for nearly 4 years now, and am looking to upgrade. In fact, I’ve been looking to upgrade for almost a year now but have held off for two reasons:

  1. Unlike the current laptops, the model in the shops doesn’t have the latest Intel CPUs which, in benchmarks, prove to be a significant speed increase.
  2. Heavy rumours that an updated model is on the way.

I’ve got a fair amount of Apple hardware and, more importantly, I’ve bought a lot of software that only runs on OS-X. In my spare time I’m a keen photographer, and have a very extensive library of processed RAW images inside Aperture that I don’t want to have to migrate over to another system. I’m not locked in – there’s always a way out. But I don’t want a way out: I just want a faster iMac.

Which, currently, Apple aren’t delivering. Rumours are circulating today that there’s been a delay to the new model, which puts them down as being out early next year now. By which point there’ll only be a few months before Intel’s next round of CPU updates. Why is this a problem? Because Apple charge premium prices.

There’s another concern lurking too, and that’s that the ‘thinner is better’ ethos that’s seems to be taking over every product Apple do. Now, for portable devices I completely agree – my 13″ MacBook Air has been envied by many people over the last two years, and it’s easily the best laptop I’ve ever had. The iPad Mini is fantastic – I think it was John Gruber that said it feels like “what the iPad was always meant to be” (I can’t find the quote). And so on. But is thinner better for a desktop? I think not.

My 24″ iMac is almost a perfect form factor – it’s not much bigger than a monitor yet it’s an entire computer. It’s, near as damn it, silent, and everything on it just works. I think by continuing their obsession to make things smaller though, Apple have missed the point of what their users want. I knew that they were going to remove the DVD drive: that was obvious from the laptops. I think it’s a mistake*, but I’ll probably roll with it. My biggest concern though is the position of the SD slot. It’s always been a pain getting to the USB slots on the back of the iMac, but I have a wired keyboard which gives me two accessible slots. I take a lot of photographs though, and I’m constantly putting my SD card into its reader. Having the SD slot round the back, instead of on the side as it has been, is going to lead to it never being used. Design aesthetics have beaten usability, and that’s a real shame.

You could argue that’s always been Apple’s way. I too hate their obsession with proprietary connectors, and I wish they’d stop using iTunes for everything. With these examples though, and many more, there’s often a valid design call behind the decision. While it might take power away from the user, it’s often done to allow for a better overall experience.

This doesn’t feel to be the case with the new iMac. The money has gone into a new form factor and miniaturisation, which isn’t what’s important on a desktop. The current form factor, but with a fusion drive as standard and a better-than-midrange GPU**, is what I was hoping for and I’m now in a strange place. I feel I want to upgrade, and I don’t want to leave OS-X, but I don’t want to buy the new iMac.

I don’t appear to be the only one feeling a little confused towards Apple right now. This lengthy article on The Guardian is overblown for sure, but mirrors concerns as to how Apple are moving forward. Their share price recently took a 20% drop, and iTunes 11 has been delayed. There’s plenty more such stories out at the minute, if you go searching. I don’t think there’s much chance of Apple returning to the dark days of the nineties, but there are a few things that are starting to show that there are a few cracks emerging.

The two that, from a consumer perspective, are concerning are: fragmentation of the product range and out of date hardware. By fragmentation I refer in part to the new aspect ratio that was introduced with the iPhone 5, and the wide range of choice of laptops now available. Choice can be very healthy for a market, but it can also be bad: if both choices have obvious trade offs then it can lead to not making a purchase at all. If I wanted to buy a replacement for my MacBook Air I’d probably just buy a straight swap. Or would I? Given the iMac range is currently unavailable for purchase, maybe it makes more sense to buy a MacPro and a monitor instead? But that’s a lot of money – too much money in fact, so instead I buy nothing. For someone coming new to macs, the choice is even greater.

Charging a premium for out of date hardware is one of the reasons why Apple struggled so much in the nineties: while the Macintosh line did save on space back then, the hardware was often out of date before it even came out. It’s well documented that Tim Cook solved a lot of that by sorting out the supply chain. He’s now faced with a different issue that his designers have brought upon him: sorting out the production chain to get the products into people’s hands.

The question is: should this problem have arisen in the first place?


* I don’t use my DVD drive for any purchases these days, that much is true. But I do still use it for backing up personal data and burning CDs to listen to in my car.


** The GPU listed in the standard 27″ iMac is the nVidia GT 650M (benchmark). The higher spec has a GTX 650 MX, which doesn’t appear on benchmarks fully yet but the M version does here, and seems much faster and, I think, should be the default.


10000000

September 4th, 2012 in Thoughts

It’s difficult to stand out on the App store, especially when you’ve put out a paid game. Micro-transactions are all the rage, mostly because people are now unwilling to take the plunge and spend a bit of money on something when they could get something else for free.

10000000 was recommended on Twitter by a few people I follow, so I decided to take the plunge and give it a go. I usually play card games, scrabble and the like on my iPod touch – I never even really got into Angry Birds. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy gaming on the device, and it’s certainly not to say that there aren’t some brilliant games on iOS – there are.

Ten million has surprised me though. It’s very retro, from it’s graphics through to its music. Its progression system is pretty simple and there’s a few design niggles (you don’t really know when you’re about to run out of time / health, though you do develop a sixth sense for it down the line).

The second-to-second gameplay is totally nailed by virtue that at its core is a very simple mechanic, which is very well executed and highly satisfying use. It’s got ‘just one more go’ written all over it, and I found myself thoroughly hooked.

It took about 6 hours to beat it, according to the stats on the end of game screen, though I’m sure it was more like 8. Either way, well worth £1.49 in my book and I highly recommend you give it a look.

Update

Following completing the game I decided to go back to the start and, unless I somehow missed it the first time round, the latest version of the game has a more extensive tutorial that better explains certain elements – especially how the timer works. I still seem to die fairly randomly, but my original writeup was incorrect in saying that there wasn’t an indication of time left on screen.


D-Box… the 3rd dimension?

August 27th, 2012 in News, Thoughts


I hadn’t heard of D-Box until recently, when it came up as a seating option at our local cinema when we were booking tickets for The Expendables 2. Being fairly geeky and willing to try everything at least once, we paid the extra money and went for it. We watched the above video before going, so had a rough idea what to expect – something of a cross between a simulator ride and a rumble pad from a console controller.

Initial feelings during the trailers were mixed: very comfy chair, much nicer than the standard Odeon seats, and plenty of legroom. But miles away from each other – not only did it make sharing the popcorn trickier but also those little whispers to one another.

Then the film started. Having watched the video above we had a rough idea what to expect, and having worked on consoles for over ten years I’ve got experience of how to control rumble motors so I was expecting something like that, but on a bigger scale. We were under no illusions that The Expendables 2 was going to be an all out action-fest, but the opening 10 minutes is nothing short of continuous gunfights, explosions, zip-wires and aeroplanes. A better demonstration piece for the D-Box chair couldn’t have been made: it was truly an additional dimension to get you involved with the film. I think everyone sat in one was laughing loudly at how it felt, but this was purely happiness at the fact that it did work, and did indeed make the action feel more immersive. In fact, in my opinion it was far more enjoyable, and far more pleasant, than watching a film in 3D. Mixed with IMAX this could be exactly what cinemas have been aiming for: an experience that you really can’t get at home without spending thousands of pounds.

It’ll be interesting to see how this develops going forward. D-Box offer a gaming chair as well, though I’d like to know how loud the mechanisms are when not disguised by the audio systems and specialist flooring provided by a cinema. I’d be very intrigued to experiment with one, and see what sort of effects you can get out of it, and how responsive it really is.

It’s certainly tailored towards a specific style of film, but if you get the chance to see an action movie in one then I highly recommend you give it a go. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that an action film at the cinema isn’t going to feel as immersive now unless I’m sat in one of these chairs, and that’s not something I’d ever say about 3D…


Another one bites the dust…

August 22nd, 2012 in News, Thoughts

In what can only be described as a shock, news has hit today that Sony Liverpool is being closed. While its output hasn’t been huge of late they were rumoured to be heavily involved in PS Vita projects and, as witnessed from the posting of the Psygnosis logo around the internet, they have retained a lot of their original identity and goodwill.

Industry forums are very sympathetic as always, but it is yet another huge blow for videogame development in the North-West of England: once regarded as the jewel in the crown of the industry in this country. It’s nice to see companies around the globe offering their services and extending help if they can, but it brings back the fact that if you’re determined to develop AAA games then you have to be able to move. A fair few of the team from Bizarre Creations don’t live in the UK anymore, and some of the ones that stayed in the UK have moved away from Merseyside. It’s great if you can do it, but many of us can’t at the drop of a hat.

The industry as a whole is changing very fast: faster than we can keep up. Taking two years or more to develop a game really isn’t a great business model anymore – the costs are simply too high for the risk of no return. We have to find ways to improve productivity, to make it faster to make content so we can focus on making the games or we risk losing more big studios.

I hope that something will rise from the ashes from Sony Liverpool, there are many developers here and it would be a shame if Liverpool lost another chunk of its creative talent pool. Maybe this is the opportunity someone has been waiting for, to start a new studio to take on the world?