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August 24, 2008

That One Time It's Different

Spoilers ahead, including in the footnotes.

Over the last several months I've been occasionally dipping into No More Heroes, Grasshopper Manufacture's first title for this generation of machines. I had played Killer 7 while between contracts a year and a half ago and had enjoyed both the gameplay and the bat-shit craziness of the storyline, elements of which are still pretty memorable. I had also seen Suda51 last year at GDC and found him really interesting¹. I was curious to see whether his latest game lived up to the title of his talk, "Punk's Not Dead." By and large, I'm happy to say it did.

The game is interesting in its punk aspect -- it knows it's a game for hardcore players, and characters constantly deride the hero for being an otaku and play up stereotypes associated with gamers. So right off the bat, it's snubbing its audience. If the game had a face, it would be a sneer.

But at the same time, in little ways it entirely embraces its audience. It knows it's not going to be mass market, and so it does things that might not fly in a mass-market game. In particular, there are several "one-offs", little things that are different here and there, and which tell me that someone at Grasshopper was passionate about something. There are other things about it that both mock and embrace their audience, but the one-offs are what have survived in thinking about this article.

Now, I confess, one-offs are something teams I've always worked on have tried to avoid. They're the special cases that games that are intended for the mass-market try to avoid, for at least a couple reasons:

  • They can be confusing, or at least, we as developers think they might be. Usability studies give us some belief in this: players want clarity in how their expectations are met. We strive to give them this by a consistent interface (and perhaps an interface which is consistent with other games in our genre). They know that Y means jump always. They know how the jeep is going to behave, because we played Halo and it works just like that. So we attempt to lower the bar to entry by working within the constraints that seem to apply to the mass-market. I'm sure we're not always right, but with millions of dollars on the line, we're trying both to provide a particular wish-fulfillment fantasy and not alienate a large segment of the audience.
  • They can be expensive, or perceived as so. Once you hit your stride in developing a game, it turns out that you have almost no time left to actually finish it. And at that point, adding in features that are going to be used in exactly one place seem expensive (in terms of cost per gamer-minute playing it vs. the rest of your game) or frivolous (Joe's doing what again? he could be supporting three animators for the same amount of tech!). They get cut in proportion to how much work they seem to be -- we cut a major enemy in Republic Commando a full year before ship because the work just didn't justify the one-off, as the rest of the game would have suffered. We would have used the enemy maybe twice, and that would really have been once too many, since the environments would have had to be highly constrained.

Now, you might say that this is all foolish, that the market's really hungry for something different and wacky, with lots of individual one-offs. But as I write this, No More Heroes shows 200K sold in the US, Zack and Wiki shows 250K in the US. Both of those have been out for months (8 for NMH, 10 for Z&W), and yet Madden NFL 2009 has been out about a week and sold 1.33 million.

Anyway, so it's a bit of a pleasure to find a game that in little ways does things a little different from time to time. Here are a few examples:

  • Scorpion Extermination: In the game, there are lots of "odd jobs"... these are part of the filler material that happens in the open-world game between the boss battles². Now, each odd job could be considered a sort of special case, I suppose. But really, as a coder, I can see how I would have coded them to make them all the same. Basically, they tie together a location, an animation, and the way you have to wiggle the Wii-mote to achieve the goal. The content is different every time, from picking up coconuts to cleaning graffiti, but it's basically the same gameplay, much like God of War's door opening animations. I've digressed. The Scorpion Extermination one is different in that it's the only one where the title of the mission is displayed on screen, up in the top-left, in one of those "monster" style fonts.
    How did this happen? I'll tell you exactly how it happened. Someone passionate on the team, someone like my buddy Nathan ³, liked something about the idea of this mission. I can just hear him coming into my cubicle now and saying, "Dude, we need to put the mission name on the screen for this one." "Why?" "Because it's (cue emphatic voice and dramatic hand gestures) Scorpion Extermination". And that night that guy would stay late and code it in somehow, maybe as a horrible special case, and a year later I'll still be remembering that silly little mini-game that was different from all the others, because someone's passion showed through.
  • Leaving my apartment, and Jeane the cat: So, your apartment has a few functional things in it. You can save your game, replenish your health, look at your collection of Lucha Libre masks, learn a new wrestling move, etc. And, to no apparent benefit or interest whatsoever, you can play with your cat, Jeane. Playing with your cat involves watching an animation of you playing with your cat -- feeding it, petting it, teasing it with a toy, lots of little stuff with no real interaction (though I think you can press the A button to advance it in some way). It's totally minimal, and yet I did it every now and again just because hey, why not?
    When you leave your apartment, every time, the game stops at a particular frame of the "walk through door" animation, does their specialized render frame buffer effect for load transitions, and plays a guitar chord. Well, every single time except exactly once. One time (one time!), they don't stop it there. The main character exits, and the door stays open, and his cat wanders around near the door and then slips out, only to appear in the boss battle (as a totally minimal element) that comes up not long after.
    A year from now, I am going to forget many details about this game, but I am going to remember the one time that the cat got out.
  • My shorted lightsaber: Okay, they're not called lightsabers, they're called something else, but to me, if it walks like a duck... Anyway. Nearly every mission in the game is fundamentally the same. You walk into an area, turn on your lightsaber, and carve up a bunch of low-level baddies until you get to the boss. There are a couple variations on this, and those are interesting, but they don't stick in my mind as much, mostly because they're not as fun. The one that really sticks with me is the level where Travis walks in with his lightsaber, and then someone turns on the sprinklers, which causes it to short out. However, it doesn't just short out, it shorts out and starts hitting Travis with zaps of electricity, so he walks as if he's being electrocuted at each step until he can find the sprinkler controls and shut them off. He goes through the whole level this way, and then has to fight his way back because progressing to the next level happens where he started. It's brilliant, and a year from now, I'll still chuckle about it.

I don't know, maybe this stuff just sprung from the mind of Suda51, but it didn't feel like it, or perhaps it's just not how I imagine it based on teams I've worked with. Cheers to the special cases: as a manager responsible for hitting dates, I hate them. As a player... yeah, they're what I remember. I like Suda51's games precisely because they show exuberance and passion -- their gameplay is decent, but their passion shows through in a lot of little ways.

Believe it or not, I have a couple other posts brewing, so the few of you who still check back here now and again, make sure you comment so that I know you're still reading ;)

And yes, that's two in one night. Hell, that's two in one month. Wow, I think I sprained something.

¹Also super interesting from Japan that year were the Ouendan guys -- their characterization of Japanese culture as "hot" vs the West's "cool" was almost revelatory. (back)

²I know what you're thinking: "Brett, you're talking about a game with little inconsistencies and special cases, and it has bosses? Aren't those all special cases?" In this case, they're really not. The boss battles, while they have varying art, are actually fairly similar in play to one another. Each boss may have a slightly different special attack, but the battles basically boil down to a strategy of waiting for a special move, making sure you're not in front of it, and stepping up to whack the boss a few times. If not for the completely crazy situations in which they're set, they would be thoroughly uninteresting. This makes them entirely different from Zelda, where each boss has you using a new trick, or Shadow of the Colossus, where each boss is a different navigation puzzle using a very small set of skills. (back)

³I specifically mention Nathan here because of Wookiees. In Star Wars Republic Commando, Nathan came to me and said that he felt like the Wookiees were lacking -- and they were, their weapons didn't feel sufficiently cool and as an occasional companion, they didn't really differentiate from the squad except for being, well, less cool. But here they were, modeled to be bigger and bulkier and generally meaner-looking than Chewie, but undersold by their animations, AI, and accoutrements. (How's that for alliteration?) Anyway, he suggested we give them killer melee attacks, which sent my lead engineer worries abuzz -- too frivolous and expensive! But we found a way to data-drive it so it felt like a relatively small amount of tech for a large amount of variability, a clear win. And to date, they remain some of my favorite animations in the game, including the one that I told Dave Bogan we couldn't include both because of being worried about memory late in the project and our ESRB rating. Damn, Dave, that was cool. It was the right decision, but I wish I could have made it differently. Still have it somewhere? I'd love an AVI :) (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at August 24, 2008 10:54 PM


[ Commenting so you keep writing :) ]

I was surprised that I liked the special cases so much in Zack & Wiki. I apparently missed them.
However, I found the illogical uses of objects that required countless tries-and-deaths all the more frustrating.

As for production, it seems to me that the paucity of special cases is linked to the following dictum: programmers should only provide script "engine hooks" to the content designers so that they can implement the bare minimum of the game features. Clean high-level script commands are often cheap to produce and do wonder to your development process if you can get them early - even if you agree to restrict yourself to a subset of those most of the time.

Posted by: Stephane at August 25, 2008 10:23 AM

Yes, I'm still reading. I haven't a clue what you're talking about, but I'm still reading.

Now: tag, you're it. Go to my blog to find out in what sense.

Posted by: Anne at August 25, 2008 02:59 PM

Stephane, I also had frustrations with Zack & Wiki, but overall I found the title charming, even to the point of recommending it to my father, for whom I bought a Wii last year -- I keep trying to find stuff that he and my mother will enjoy on it.

I kind of meant Zack & Wiki as an example of something that was quite different from other stuff on the market, not so much that it was full of special cases.

I mean, often when I see something in the market being pointed out in the hardcore blogs as "innovative", I'll scoop it up to see what's what. I started Persona 3 on Saturday and I doubt that I'll be playing much more of it -- the "innovations" seem to involve characters shooting themselves in the head to summon Personas, and this act doesn't actually harm them, I guess, or else it'd be a pretty short game. So, basically, they're summoning Personas instead of Eidolons and I'm supposed to get all excited about that? Looks like a pretty standard JRPG to me. I'll play a little bit further to see if there's anything else that holds my interest, but it might end up gathering dust next to Dark Cloud 2.

I totally agree that the way to provide for special cases is to expose the right stuff via script. I worked on an adventure game a while back, and wrote the scripting language for it (regrettably, it was canceled, and so a great scripting language never saw the light of day). The adventure game stuff worked pretty well because a fully-featured language with the right hooks was available.

But, on the other hand, I've heard a little bit about how Japanese game development works, and I wouldn't be entirely surprised to find out that the stuff I mention here wasn't all special cases.

Thanks for commenting! Always nice to know someone out there is getting these bits ;)

Anne, I'll take a look at your blog shortly.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 25, 2008 09:43 PM

Hi, I stumbled accross your blog when I googled "Fallout 3" and "Dupont Circle." I can't wait to see what my work building (at 1330 connecticut nw, right at the circle) looks like when it goes post-apocolyptic... I assume you're not at liberty to discuss until release though, are you?

Anyway, I also took a look at this 2 days old post, and I definitely share some similar thoughts. I've been playing NMH the same way (off and on since February) whenever I have the time.

Suda51 is certainly original, and NMH is no different. I can see what you mean when you say he alienates certain players with his presentation, but I for one am on the other side so it's great. I've only made it to the No. 5 assassin thusfar, but I love how the game is so self-referential and plays homage to the industry in so many ways. The old school leaderboard that displays when you beat a boss comes to mind.

Suda's level of execution and polish in the game kind of bothers me though. You mentioned playing with the cat, for example. Sure its relatively original to have this kind of break for this kind of game, but why the hell didnt he add waggle here at all? Playing with your cat with that little feather seems perfect for it. It seems like the dev's spent all their energy on creating a certain pretentious atmosphere and didn't spend enough time on actual gameplay. The open world is another example of this problem: it has such an expansive landscape (for wii), but there's nothing to do in it at all. Really though Yatzee always says it the best... you can't not reccomend this game because there's no where else you can experience anything like it.


Have you heard of Suda's new game deal with EA? Sounds like it could be interesting..


One last thing. Its kind of unfair for you to compare the Madden numbers with the Z&W and NMH Numbers the way you did... Madden is multiconsole (and it appears you were refferring to all iterations in your numbers quote--do you use vgchartz?), after all, while the other two only appear for wii. This is not to say you're wrong though. NMH and Z&W definitely fall into the same unfortunate vein as Okami and Psychonauts... wonderful artistic games that just didn't sell.

Posted by: Adam at August 26, 2008 04:04 PM

I'm definitely not still reading. In fact, I'm just posting this randomly, and it has nothing to do with you saying "make sure you comment so that I know you're still reading." Hell, I don't even know that you said it... Wait a- d'oh!

Also, the EA deal is just more reason for throwing praise upon John Riccitiello, of whom I'm quickly becoming a fan of.

Posted by: Jeffool at August 27, 2008 05:02 PM

Working late again and stuff is compiling... so a few free cycles to comment on the comments.

Adam, you're right and caught me in an apples-vs-oranges comparison. It was a throw-away line, and I knew as I was writing it that it was weak. Perhaps I should have used the Madden '08 numbers? I was just trying to indicate that the quirky doesn't sell. I would guess that NMH hasn't yet broken even, but it's hard to say, it does have the feel of something that could be done with a small team, open world or not.

I am not at liberty to discuss the disposition of 1330 Connecticut NW. I just hope you weren't there when... when it happened.


Yeah, I was also a little annoyed that the cat minigames weren't actual interactions. But they were bone-simple: hit A to play a different anim. So, yeah, they might have spent money on more interaction there, but at that point, speaking as a developer, I know it becomes more about being on someone's task list, and it's low priority (and it gets cut). More interaction there may have been something they wanted all the time but only had time for what we ended up with. (<- Total speculation, but I can see how it would happen.)

I agree -- a deal with EA may be good for Grasshopper. It's really hard to say; in my opinion, EA is not good at marketing games that have a smaller target audience. But I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

Posted by: Brett Douville at August 28, 2008 08:58 AM