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September 16, 2010

Wasted Features

One of the last things I wanted to briefly discuss regarding "my divorce" was a wasted feature I included.

What makes a feature a waste? To me, a wasted feature is one in which there is an unfavorable ratio of "number of people using that feature" against "time taken to implement that feature".

Wasted features might also represent features that weren't fully explored or exploited (which was more or less the subject of Chris Hecker's rant this year at GDC). Keeping that in mind, it might be better to reframe that ratio with "enjoyment hours" as the numerator. Measuring the amount of enjoyment from a particular feature would be extremely difficult, but that's often what we're trying to deliver. Features that are more fully explored are more likely to give people pleasure, or give people more pleasure, so it’s worth exploring your mechanics in depth as far as you can think to take them in the time you have.

This is a highly utilitarian measure - we pursue those things that give a decent bang for buck. After all, developer time spent on something few people enjoy is a lost opportunity; that time would have been more wisely spent elsewhere¹.

In any case, the feature that I feel was a real failure in the case of "my divorce" is the "copy-and-paste-to-share" feature. The game supports the ability to hit the standard Windows copy key combo, and will put a compressed version of the game's data in the clipboard. The thinking behind the feature was to enable a Spore-like sharing of data via a lightweight format (a few hundred bytes, say).

It's a silly feature for an art-game to have, but I was trying to allow users to specify their own views of their own divorces, real or imagined. The simulation is highly configurable via an XML file -- you can make any number of statements through the data in combination with the rules. You could make different events impact the “children” in different ways, you could represent divorces with same gender parents, or say that gender doesn’t matter. A lot is possible, and so I wanted a simply way to allow people to share their own data, and an XML file just seems so inelegant.

I doubt the feature has gotten much use, if any, and so from that perspective it scores very low on our utility function. On the other hand, I really only built “my divorce” out of my own need to do so. In that sense it only needed to satisfy me, and it was a fun little bit of code to write. On the third hand, the code is very generic, so it would be very easy to repurpose in a future game -- perhaps as a means of sharing level data. So some day its utility may be better realized.

The underlying assumption -- that time spent on this was time not spent on other more beneficial features also doesn’t really hold. The game is exactly what I intended, and I released it only when I felt it was completely finished.

So, this feature was wasted in my art-game, since I suspect the amount of enjoyment it gave to others (other than myself) was effectively zero, but hopefully it will find other use in the future.

¹It's possible to get very meta about this. For example, I really like the sense that I can take many paths through Deus Ex, but the fact is I've taken only one. But I recognize its depth of simulation as a major contributor to my enjoyment of the game.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:42 PM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2010

Narrative Accommodation and Gameplay Growth

This article partly touches on themes I've been discussing in my series "On Being a Thug" about GTA IV, you may want to read articles one and two.

Note: this article contains spoilers both about GTA IV and Metroid: Other M. The spoilers are from relatively early in each game, I'm a long way from finishing them. Fair warning given, though.

Recently I’ve been playing both GTA IV and Metroid: Other M ¹, two games which have asked me to re-examine my identification with their protagonists. In one case, it was a little unsettling and in the other, downright disturbing.

From the opening moments of GTA IV, I identified Niko as a striving immigrant who was looking for a new life, running from a violent, war-torn past. I suspected he had done and seen things which left him damaged, and I looked forward to negotiating a storyline which threatened this humanity by dragging him back through that past. His relationship with his cousin appeared to provide a likely catalyst to the action.

Here was a character I felt I could identify with, and through this lens of seeking a better, nobler life had a historical resonance and genuine appeal. Perhaps it was a recent viewing of The Godfather Part II that made me see parallels with immigrants from nearly a century ago.

Before long, however, Niko was killing a low-life boss who had put the moves on his cousin’s girl. This was extreme but could maybe, with a little squinting, be made to fit with my existing thoughts on the character. But then came the confession -- Niko was in Liberty City not for a shot at redemption, but instead a shot at revenge.

Now, having only put a dozen to twenty hours into the game at that point, I didn’t have a lot invested, but it was still enough to be a little off-putting. I played a little bit beyond that, and haven’t been racing back to the game. It’s not even that I don’t enjoy a good revenge fantasy; I love pulp fiction novels, Kill Bill, kung fu and Hong Kong films, those sorts of things. They could have started with the revenge story and it would have made sense to have Niko laying low, learning the ropes, getting to know the city and making contacts before he made a run at whomever. This way, I’m left wondering what else he’s hiding from me, this character with whom I’m supposed to spend so much time.

But the bigger narrative problem has by far been Metroid: Other M; others have pointed out its narrative flaws. I haven’t finished the game by a long stretch yet, having put in only a handful of hours (three or four), but already I find myself chafing at the character strictures they’re putting on heroine Samus Aran.

The problem here, as far as I can tell though, is purely narrative. I’ve come to identify with a certain set of traits in Samus -- independence, stoicism, fierceness among them -- and this storyline simply strips those away entirely. I’m no enormous fan, having come to the series starting with the Metroid Prime trilogy and also playing through Metroid Fusion on the GBA, but with the number of hours I had put in, I had definitely formed a fairly strong attachment to a certain type of character. Certainly, this character was largely in my mind; the discovery elements that I had to interpret narratively in the Prime series were almost entirely about the departed civilizations on the worlds I was visiting. But she was no less firmly placed there for all of that; indeed, she was perhaps more firmly placed there because I had identified with her characteristics through hours of repeated action and life behind the visor.

Formally speaking, the game isn’t much changed from earlier games, at least thus far. Samus arrives with few powers and gains them over time. But what doesn’t work is that exploration and discovery aren’t part of this process -- always before it was finding different suits, beams, and missile upgrades, and it reinforced the spatial exploration with constant rewards that allowed you to explore even more.

I had viewed Samus as independent; now she is subservient, owing to a former relationship with a former commander. I had viewed Samus as stoically accepting the battles she had to face, in a militaristic, Marcus Aurelius sort of way, the warrior heroic in the face of death; now she mewls and remembers pasts in which she was emotional about her relationship with him and with a Metroid³. I had viewed Samus as fierce, adjusting her combat style and approach to an area based on the arsenal we had built up together over time, missiles aplenty from finding nearly every power-up.

The accommodation here is simply too much -- I am asked to cede my own independence, stoicism and fierceness. The role of the General might as well be called “Game Designer,” and Samus instead called “Player”, so direct is the dealing out of rewarding abilities. I am asked to cede my stoicism, and instead become emotionally involved in an anime-like storyline. I am asked to cede my own fierceness, and not use weapons I know Samus to have, only using what I am allowed.

I wonder what newcomers to the series will have to say, though I don’t know that I know of any. I do think that the game plays fairly well -- I’m still getting used to switching between different configurations of using the Wiimote, but it doesn’t feel terribly awkward. Visually I think it really looks like a 3D incarnation of something like Fusion (though much higher res, obviously); I think it looks really, really good.

But it’s really nagging at me, feeling as if the Game Designer has come along and told me I can’t play that character I liked to play, just as the General tells Samus when she can use what weapons. We’re still in synch, Samus and me. Just not with the character in Metroid: Other M. It might better have been called, Metroid: Other Samus.

Still planning on blogging once more about my first art game (and maybe a little about prototyping my second), as well as a few other things I've been working on. Subscribe to the feeds or check back; cheers.

¹As well as Little King’s Story, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and some PC indie titles. I do not have this kind of time. I don’t know how I am finding it.
²1UP and Destructoid also gave the game poor ratings, and Mitch Krpata mentions his story concerns on his blog.
³I know, WTF, right? Granted, I didn’t play *that* Metroid. Still, it doesn’t fit even remotely with my idea of the character.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:58 PM | Comments (4)

September 12, 2010

Murder in Iambic Pentameter

A reader sent mail yesterday asking whether I'd be willing to sell any of my old mystery dinner games (that I described in a short series of posts earlier this year).

I actually wasn't even sure I could lay hands on them, but as it turned out, I had most of them still around on an old back-up drive. It appears that the one in particular he was looking for was Murder in Iambic Pentameter; of the six, that's the one that's in the best shape from an archival standpoint. Because they were one-off games, I didn't take a lot of care in preserving the digital matter, and many of them aren't fully available -- in some cases, I don't even have all the printed matter, or the mysteries are incomplete because I finished them at my folks' house.

However, Iambic Pentameter was basically completely there, so I've gone ahead and converted those from Publisher to PDF, and thrown them up in a zip file.

It was written for 13 players,

Men (8)

  • Shakespeare's ghost (typically the host)
  • MacBeth (of the Scottish Play)
  • Rosencrantz (of Hamlet)
  • Guildenstern (likewise)
  • Hamlet (yet again)
  • Romeo (of Romeo and Juliet)
  • Puck (of A Midsummer Night's Dream)
  • Othello

Women (5)

  • Ophelia (of Hamlet)
  • Desdemona (of Othello)
  • Katherine (of The Taming of the Shrew)
  • Lady MacBeth (of the Scottish Play)
  • Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet)

I noticed while flipping through the texts that Puck is perhaps optional -- I think that guest was not 100% certain he could be there. There are instructions to other guests about how to instead tackle his accusations. I have no idea how well that will work, since I really don't remember. You could have one of your other actors play both parts as well (we had Hamlet portraying three different parts due to a sudden sickness which wiped out two guests).

If you prefer a more balanced cast in terms of gender, I remind you that performing against one's sex was a well-known and respected tradition in the time of the Globe ;)

A Readme.txt file is included in the zip archive to give some instructions as to how to print these and otherwise prepare them. It is fairly spoiler free, except that a few of the pieces of evidence require preparation, and so those clues will be available to the preparer. Not enough is disclosed, however, to piece together the particulars of the crime.

If you choose to download and put it on, go crazy, I'd love to hear back from you about how it went. Drink lots of wine, that'll help smooth over any rough bits -- I'm not a professional writer. I couldn't take money for these for myself, but if you feel like it's something you'd be willing to pay for, please take your loved one out to an evening of local theater instead. The theaters need the money more than I.

If there's sufficient interest, I'll try and put the others up online at some point, maybe one a month or so. I'm not going to put a ton of effort into restoring those that are partial, but I'm happy to provide them if I can find the materials.

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:29 AM | Comments (0)

September 09, 2010

It's Good to Be the King

On the advice of The Brainy Gamer’s podcasts and articles, I decided to pick up Little King’s Story from Amazon last week, and I’m really quite glad I did. The game is such a delight, and that’s really the only term for it, it’s really just delightful. It’s full of charm and quirky big-headed art and a cast of characters that draws on different elements¹.

The gameplay is a mix of something like a lighter version of Dark Cloud² and Pikmin. You don’t directly engage in combat as you try to take over the world, instead gathering a Royal Guard about your person and sending them into battle one at a time. You can only gather up a certain number of followers to take around the world with you, and your direct actions while in the field are largely strategic -- choosing a set of followers, such as a mix of soldiers and carpenters if you expect to go out and find a staircase to build. While followed, you can throw these followers out ahead of you to engage enemies, build staircases, and open up holes and things.

I’m coming to this game very late, and only through learning of it via the Brainy Gamer podcast³ back episodes; I don’t want to add much to what Michael Abbott and others have said. It’s such a lovely, quaint little game with charm oozing out of every byte. It's worth playing, and owing to relatively few titles breaking conventional molds on consoles, I think it's also worth picking up and supporting.

However, I’m always impressed when game designers find a little spot of what we who read Clint Hocking’s blog might call ludo-narrative resonance4, which to me often means finding room within your game’s fiction to reinforce constraints. In this case, the constraints were likely budget -- no one would look at this title and think it had a chance against something like a Halo in terms of sales. So, rather than providing the player with an easily accessible menu at any time to save the game or manage the kingdom’s assets, or even participate in the tutorial, the Little King has three Ministers who serve these functions.

Naturally, as they are important personages and not the hoi polloi the King trains into different functions from the idle riff-raff who are drawn to the Kingdom as you build homes and such, these Ministers are only available to the King when he sits upon his throne, which is situated in a closed, limited-rendering environment inside of the castle -- further, it’s a limited simulation, since none of the positions or current activities of those hoi polloi are currently visible, and thus needn’t be saved (for example) for the next session. The menus also only need to be rendered here, though admittedly they aren’t sufficiently complicated to be of real concern, and the tutorials are presented here in what is always (apparently) a safe environment. All narrative steps of importance seem also to take place in the throne room, so cutscenes can be managed in a single scene as interactions between the Ministers and the King himself.

All of that adds up to a nice bit of working within constraints, and doing so in such a way that the player hardly even notices, owing to its logic.

I’m really enjoying the game, and find myself returning to it again and again despite having a few games still in their packaging sitting on the shelf, and GTA IV to return to. Thanks again to Brainy Gamer for bringing it to my attention.

I should be back in the next few days with further thoughts about GTA IV, some more commentary on replaying Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and a final post about my art game (and maybe a little about the prototyping I’m doing on my next little indie game).

¹Your War Minister is a clear parody of the Man of La Mancha, Don Quixote himself, and there is a cow who hangs about in your castle named Pancho, which contains echoes of Sancho Panza.

²The first one, with all the charm (and the terribly boring dungeons), not the sequel with so much more repetition (and terribly boring dungeons). While you don’t have to lay out your kingdom, you have the option of what “upgrades” you will purchase first, whether homes (which generate more citizens) or different training centers (which increase your abilities and unlock different areas on the map) or what-have-you (I paid for a florist... I have no idea what that will do for me).

³Highly recommended, by the way. I’ve only recently been listening to any podcasts, and I think that the Brainy Gamer one is my absolute favorite amongst gaming podcasts, which puts it in rarefied company, as my favorite podcast overall is This American Life.

4Strictly speaking, the better term would likely be consonance to play off of dissonance more directly, but I think the reinforcing they do makes resonance a reasonable term...

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:15 PM | Comments (0)

September 02, 2010

Vintage Game Club: First Thoughts

PoP: SoT

Earlier this week I was thrilled to receive Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for the Xbox from friends in the mail. I had bought the game for GameCube on release day, and at some point¹ loaned it out never to see it again. I’ve since played through the second “save point”, so I have played only 5 percent of the game; I have acquired the Dagger and learned about the rewind mechanic.

Immediately I was welcomed back with something about the game that I had intensely loved, and which was made more pertinent by the game’s ending -- the idea that you are listening to a story told by the protagonist, but that mistakes in playing the game are actually simply errors in the retelling of the story. This aesthetic also makes its way into the user interface (particularly the save system, where he’ll say things like “Next time I’ll resume from here”) and the idle animation, where he’ll occasionally say things like, “Shall I continue?”

The combat is still far from the star of the show -- I enjoy the acrobatic leaps over my enemies’ heads, but it’s definitely repetitive. It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy the combat, it just seems out of place with what I want from the game. I know that Ubisoft amped up the combat in the sequels, which is largely why I didn’t play them, and so it was a long drought between this game and the current-gen title, simply called Prince of Persia.

Even though I played this game only eight years ago, there were surprises when I returned to it. One very nice surprise was the addition of 5:1 surround -- when I had played it before, I had no surround set-up, and so the audio experience replaying it is significantly different and wonderful. The environment really comes alive; I’ve had one of those moments when a sound seemed to come from the left and behind me in my house, but turned out to be simply coming from the left rear speaker.

But the biggest surprise is how quaint some of the aesthetic choices seem now. For example, the camera changes that occur when you’re wall-running will often make fairly dramatic changes in the position of the camera, such as to watch the Prince from below, or from a very high angle apparently to accentuate the difficulty of parkour. It’s almost as if the developers are saying, “You get this, right? We’re running on a wall. A wall! That’s just crazy!” It takes me out of the moment-to-moment experience a bit when cameras are moved purely to accentuate the acrobatic nature of the Prince, rather than staying close and maintaining my flow.

Similarly, the post-combat animation where the Prince sheathes his sword on his back breaks both a potential aesthetic tension, in that one now knows that there aren’t further immediate threats, and flow, since it involves a camera change and a bit of time. It’s viewed from the front; the Prince adopts a slightly strange posture and keyframes into a sword-sheathed pose. While from a dynamics perspective it’s nice to know that the next threat will be of a platforming/parkour nature, it’s still disconcerting how it slows the pacing.

Those couple of “quaint” items really remind me of watching old television shows or old films, even from as late as the 1980s. We’ve moved to entertainments that move much more quickly to establish themselves -- whereas “going to the store” in an early film might involve a character exiting his apartment, getting in the car, jump-cutting to driving the car, and parking in the store parking lot, we’ve moved to putting that mental work on the audience by inference or implication -- nowadays we’ll simply jump to that character at the store, browsing for the meaningful thing that will show up later in the storyline.

These elements in PoP:TSoT feel unnecessary now, though I can’t remember finding fault with them before; indeed, I particularly remember certain camera jumps as accentuating the experience. But then, I hadn’t had the experience before, and so a little accentuation perhaps was warranted, to increase my game literacy, to be able to understand just how far the Prince could wall-run, for example, or to teach me what the distance looks like from below, so that when I encounter puzzles where I’m climbing up the walls in a sort of spiral pattern, I can have a sufficient mental model to be able to plan that navigation in advance.

In any case, it’s really terrific to visit with an old friend, and I’m really thankful to The Brainy Gamer for a framework that makes me want to join in and play it again. I look forward to the next several weeks of play.

¹This would have been in the last days of LucasArts, reboot #1, at the end of 2004 -- by my count they have downsized thrice more since then. My heart goes out to any who have been caught up in that this week.

Posted by Brett Douville at 07:42 AM | Comments (0)