March 12, 2014

I Should Have Finished... Red Dead Redemption

I picked up Red Dead Redemption when it came out, and only played about an hour or so before I put it down again -- not for any reason that I can remember, only a recognition that it was probably going to take more time than I really had. As I recall, it came out in the Spring, which is always a super-busy time for me, with two kids playing baseball.

I picked it up again this January and finished it in a couple of weeks -- and by finished, I mean finished, achieving every goal and earning myself the "Legend of the West" costume for 100% completion. So, yeah, I liked it. I can see why it was on so many GOTY lists. And I do love me a Western game.

The story was decent; I spent a lot of time chasing after other things, so it wasn't always completely coherent to me, but that's always a danger with these sorts of games. I liked the Fistful of Dollars quality of playing both sides of the street in Mexico, and assembling a Wild Bunch for the first section of the game. I thought the final section had its own kind of poignancy; the game has you finally engaging in the more prosaic sorts of activities that Marston had been craving all along, with some story notes that reminded me of Unforgiven. The transition to the younger Marston was maybe a little too abrupt; although I probably would have enjoyed some more of the hardship and hardening of that character, I imagine most players would not have.

I particularly enjoyed the various chains of goals the game provided, which they called ambient challenges -- hunting, sharpshooting, treasure hunting, and survival (finding plants)¹. They engaged my favorite part of virtual worlds like these, the pleasure of developing an understanding of the game's ecosystems or even being able to see from a good distance a little flash of color and know it's a sort of plant you're looking for. That's a kind of immersion I really treasure when I play this sort of game.

The other lists of goals you could chase after were outfits, by which you could dress Marston in different ways whenever you went to one of his safe houses. I didn't really care about changing his outfit too much, but I did like having a list of six things to try out to earn each one.

The visuals were fantastic. I felt like I was in a John Ford movie, and that was just great. I admit, I was a little surprised to find a section with snow (and apparently all year round), and that still doesn't feel like it fits all that well, but that's a quibble. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see such a rich ecology, and to watch dozens of beautiful sunsets. It's a wonderfully and aesthetically realized environment. I think that Deadly Premonition gave me a much stronger sense of place, of being in a real place, due to the activities of its inhabitants, but Red Dead Redemption was a close second -- had its NPCs been more likely to roam and have their own schedules, it would have felt less like a series of movie sets and more like a real place.

That's a real tension in open world games; NPCs are basically functions of the game, either as quest givers or vendors or what-have-you, and it's frustrating for players to have a hard time finding a particular person so that they can check off some goal that they have in their head. In Red Dead, there are certain schedules of these things -- bounties get posted at a particular time, stores open and close, that sort of thing, but you don't feel like any of these characters are all that well drawn or fully embedded in the world. Deadly Premonition did this fabulously well -- but it was a cast of dozens, not hundreds.

I didn't have a lot of things I didn't care for -- I wasn't a big fan of the mini-games, with the exception of Liar's Dice, which I played again and again. I did have to win at each mini-game in a particular location to earn many of the outfits, and typically I only played those games just the amount I needed to complete those goals. Liar's Dice, though, really captivated me in a way that seems silly. It's a game of probability and bluff and pushing your luck and judging when other characters are doing those same things. I could play it again right now.

I also might have liked a little more depth to the side quests; these were almost always simple affairs with a single step (deliver a thing, go investigate a place to learn about a thing), and a little more depth to them would have been welcome -- that's a thing I think we did quite well with in Skyrim. Often, these tended to simply be examples of Rockstar humor or what they often call satire, such as a young woman who you had seen in the game's earliest scene talking to a preacher on the train who needs your help. She's a bit obnoxious as a character, always describing as God's work that which was clearly achieved by men (or in this case, the player). That sort of thing just doesn't work for me, I guess; it's all surface, no depth, a mocking tone that doesn't speak to me. There was one set of quests with a guy who was apparently trying to make his way to California but didn't really know how to get there and was slowly being driven crazy by the elements, and encountering him a few times was interesting and a little bit deeper, and that resonated a lot better.

In any case, the game was fantastic. I'm glad to have played it. Going through my back catalog is particularly rewarding when I come across a few games of such caliber.

Hoping to come back in a couple of days and write about a short PC game I played this week, Serena.

¹Give me a series of goals to chase after and I'll always be happy, and if you also tell me I'm leveling up in those skills so much the better.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:52 AM | Comments (0)

February 02, 2014

#1GAM Wrap-Up for January

I decided to do the "one game a month" challenge this year as a way to keep my main efforts going strong. And over the course of January I managed to finish a rudimentary game on my iPad that I may in fact release some day. So while at the moment, this post serves as my only "check-in" with the challenge site, I might cut it over to the Mac and add some modes and further refine the play.

I haven't come up with a name for the game yet, but it's a sort of dexterity game for the tablet -- there are several rings with colored arcs in them, each of which is spinning at different speeds, either clockwise or counter-clockwise, and you have to tap on or between adjoining colors to gain points, matching a color in the center. The failure condition for a "level" is to run out of time (currently 60 seconds) before you exhaust the colors that are given to you, and the number of colors to match increases with each subsequent level. At a certain point, the rings simply rotate faster each level.

It's pretty basic, and that's okay. The idea for me behind the #1GAM challenge isn't to try to come up with a really fully-featured game every month, but to finish a thing that could be handed to someone to play. I'll probably keep tinkering with this game¹ over the coming weeks and months just for fun. At some point I may even put it up somewhere for purchase/download/whatever. At the moment, it only has about a dozen hours or so of work in it, but there's already a kind of interesting attention/speed/dexterity thing going on -- but it'd do with a ton of tuning.

This month I wrote my game with Codea, a pretty nice iPad Lua implementation that gives you some simple hooks for touch and various canvas graphics on the device, with a really nice editor and some good in-game controls for fiddling with variables that govern your game. Terrific stuff and something I often recommend for people who have a decent iPad keyboard and want to develop little things like this on the go. It seems like all the documentation is included, though it does assume some familiarity with Lua and for me, it has been some years since I fiddled with that language. Still, there's tons of sample code, so even if you're for some reason not able to browse the Internet, you can probably find what you need in the existing stuff. It has a fantastic little editor, too, which is still actively being extended in lots of novel ways. Really highly recommended for programmer types who want to muck about on an iOS device without dragging a MacBook around.

It's worth noting that while I probably spent under 20 hours on this game, I did spend a bit of time on a dead-end, which was trying to get Pythonista to do what I wanted. That has been my go-to environment on the go for a while, but recent improvements to Codea have really turned me around on that.

I haven't decided what this month's game will be. My process as far as themed stuff is to think a little bit about the themes for a couple of days, and then if nothing comes to mind, I just go ahead and grab one of the dozens of small ideas I jot in my notebook I carry around with me wherever I go. I'll probably leaf through that later today and see if there's anything that applies to this month's #1GAM challenge, which is "Loops".

Anyway, don't know if anyone's reading, but hope any of that helps.

Still planning on writing up Red Dead Redemption, but spent a bit of time this week on finishing up this little game. I'll get to it soon, I promise.

¹Which I suppose I really ought to name... hmmm...

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:34 AM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2014

Trademark Bullshit™

Little story.

Back in 2001, I shipped my first game on the PS2 for LucasArts, Star Wars: Starfighter. It did well enough, getting into the Greatest Hits collection on that platform and the original Xbox, but that's not the point of the little story.

Whenever you put out a product, there's someone out there who's going to come in and want a cut. In this case, it was 3DO.

You see, 3DO put out a product called Star Fighter on their system, based on an earlier product called Starfighter 3000. It's a fairly generic space shooter, haven't played it. However, it was trademarked, and to 3DO that meant we owed them a little money.

We heard about it shortly before the game came out. We were busy with development and management really didn't do much more than let us know, just so we knew in case it showed up on a website or something. It was important to the company that we weren't distracted, I guess, because we really had to make the fiscal year. So we heard about it, and I pretty much promptly forgot about it, figuring that the term was super generic and therefore the trademark was probably indefensible, and besides, George had a phalanx of lawyers.

Turns out, we paid 3DO off for the privilege of using the term "Starfighter," based on their trademark from a game that was at that point over 5 years old and on systems that basically no longer existed¹. The game couldn't be purchased anywhere, except used.

All of this to say that when the trademark system isn't bothered with by George Lucas, who at that point had some of the deepest pockets in the universe, because it's an annoyance, but still manages to screw the little guy... well, something's pretty damned broken.

My heart goes out to the guys behind The Banner Saga. Because basically this amounts to a really big company dicking over a really tiny company.

There are a lot of different ways this could have gone. They could have sent a registered letter to arrive the same day as they filed their opposition suit, letting Stoic know that they would settle for $1 of licensing fees, for example. This wouldn't mean that they wouldn't be evil in the future, but at least some bad publicity would be avoided and the little guy wouldn't get screwed. They could have publicly set a low price for companies of a certain size or revenue or whatever. Or they could have not construed their trademark as being on individual words (which, come on).

Instead they took the low road, which was easy for them... like taking Candy™ from a baby.

Back later, maybe even today, with some thoughts about Red Dead Redemption, which I finally got around to finishing.

¹I learned from a co-worker that the highest revenue earner at 3DO was in fact their chief counsel².
²Turns out, this was largely on the strength of a licensing or purchase deal he had done a few years before by selling off the 3DO hardware technology to Matsushita, as I recall, for something north of $300 million. Which was funny, because in 1995 or so, an acquaintance (Drew Something-or-Other³) had called me and asked my opinion of the quality of the 3DO hardware, because I think the firm he worked for was issuing a bond for Matsushita to raise the funds. I told him that it was expensive but good. But I digress.
³Why yes, of the New York Something-or-Others.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:04 AM | Comments (0)