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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 10:54 PM | Comments (6)

A Moment in the Life

I was up tonight working on a (gasp!) post¹ when I heard some talking going on upstairs. It's nearly ten o'clock, and since my kids are generally in bed by 8:30, I knew this to be sleep-talking.

Sleep-talking, in Luc's case, is often followed by sleep-walking, so I went upstairs to keep an eye out for anyone risking life and limb on a closed-eyes descent. I got up there and heard further tossing, turning, and mumbling.

Wait for it... wait for it..., I'm telling myself.

I hear him get out of bed, and wait patiently in the hall until he appears. He comes to the door, and mumbles something, even though he's clearly not actually awake. So I hesitate, but he's waiting, and so I say, "What?"

He says, "What happens now?"²

I say, "You go back to bed." And wonder of wonders, he does. Not a peep since.

¹It's true! I was also reading a book and considering some other moment-in-the-life stuff from today, but really, a real post is coming! Like soon! Maybe even tonight! Even though having two posts on my blog in one day courts some sort of enormous chaos, like dogs and cats living together, I might be ready. I've started so many posts in the last six months that didn't materialize, though, so don't hold your breath. Still, it could happen, dear Reader. (back)

²I am tempted to attribute this to this afternoon's bit of fun: introducing my kids to Dungeons and Dragons. Luc is hooked, I can tell, and Jordan is hooked mostly because his brother is (he hates to miss out). We had fun, they started to get the hang of it, and managed to kill an NPC put entirely in the adventure to be of help to them. :) They want to play again tomorrow night, so we must have done something right. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:52 PM | Comments (1)