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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)

January 09, 2014

I Should Have Finished... Deadly Premonition

While I was finishing up my holiday break, I also finished up Deadly Premonition, a game that completely had me gripped from start to finish.

Deadly Premonition is a game about a serial killer loose in a small Pacific Northwest town -- it has a lot in common with Twin Peaks in terms of setting and general aesthetic¹. It starts with the player-controlled FBI profiler arriving in town to investigate a murder and promptly having a car crash that brings him face-to-face with twisted human ghouls from another world. Throughout the drive and indeed, throughout the game, Agent York converses with "Zach", addressing asides constantly to Zach and you sort of feel like it's you, the player, he's talking to.

It's difficult to encapsulate this game in a few sentences, other than to say it plays out in many ways like a season of Twin Peaks in video game form. There are lots of little mysteries -- we don't really know, as players, whether or not York is really experiencing these other-worldly phenomena where all the combat takes place or whether they are simply a representation of the difficult art of profiling. After all, York is a little off-kilter, talking to Zach frequently and having kind of an odd view on the world. His name isn't really even York -- that's his middle name, and he always introduces himself that way, "Hi, I'm Francis York Morgan, please call me York, everybody does." The way he says it is so earnest, you almost feel like no one at the FBI actually does, and he's trying to assert a role for himself.

It's among the strangest games I've ever played, which is funny because it's more-or-less set in a realistic place and more-or-less right now. York drives around town, talking about his favorite movies (through hitting the "A" button when prompted to allow him to Talk to himself/Zach). In addition to the main storyline, which quickly ties into a bunch of other murders York has investigated over the years, there are lots of side missions that you can undertake, many of which grow your understanding of the various players in the mystery. The game's concerns are so strange here -- there's a hunger meter for York and a health meter and a sleepiness meter, and there's even an adrenaline meter which I need to attend to when I'm in combat or running or driving fast. And there's a lot of driving -- you're covering the real space of this game as if it were GTA, but it feels eerily slow.

Early on, I was driving in the first significant player-controlled event where you have to get to the murder scene, clear across the map of Greenvale, and I'm going along, talking to the characters in the car with me about movies, and I'm just thinking "What the hell is going on here? What is this game doing?" It took forever. I started noticing that I didn't have tons and tons of gas left -- who ever worries about how much gas is in a video game car? -- and I wondered if I'd even be able to get back. Why this? Why this dead space?

Ultimately, fundamentally, what makes the game work so well is that it's very, very well realized; the sense of proportion and place directly contribute to the experience and draw you in. Each of these drives is an opportunity to get to know characters better, or York better. And there are perhaps a little over 30 characters, and all of them seem fully fleshed out, or at least memorably written. They have schedules of places they'll be, and they'll drive back and forth in the town to them or whatever. Everything plays out in close to real time - at one point I went to time it and forgot, but it feels like at best it's a little faster than real time. Certain main story events have to be attended to on the schedule the game sets, typically within a window, but otherwise you're free to drive around and talk to whomever, attend to side missions, etc.

There's some other weird stuff. The main story mostly surrounds going to locations, entering this "other world" creepy environment with combat and the finding of clues which turn into snippets of grainy video explaining what happened at the location. This is handled better, in my opinion, than the much more slick L. A. Noire, by gating progress on finding the important stuff and not having lots of superfluous dialogue about beer bottles and such. (Playing on easy, there was even highlighting in different colors indicating what was critical path and what was merely useful; I'm not certain that these little fountain particle effects appear in harder difficulties.) But even while I'm in the midst of doing that, I can walk into a little safe room and find myself able to shave, or change my outfit (and pay for the other suit to be cleaned!), or save the game at a pay phone. It's crazy and great.

It's a very rich experience and one I'd totally recommend. My quibbles are mostly with the combat and how it interacts with the controls (which are survival horror, character relative style) -- feels a bit like playing RE4, but not nearly as smooth, much more like an early iteration. I played it on easy and would recommend that, since it's rare that you'll die as a result. I would have been thoroughly annoyed had I been replaying the combat over and over due to dying in this game; the character mostly controls like he's a Mack truck, and I just am not interested in that kind of control-fighting anymore. If it doesn't cost me anything... I can live with it.

There are also... quick time events. I don't mind them so much here, as they're very sparing, not terribly difficult, and only used in connection with certain encounters. They do tend to really focus you, since you know that they're going to be coming and you really have to stay focused so as not to be defeated by them. The few times when I'd die in a scenario were typically because I let my attention wander to Twitter or whatever³.

Finally, it took me a while to understand the side mission cards -- they basically have a bunch of numbers at the top, which I thought related them to other side missions (which are numbered), but instead those referred to what "Chapters" of the game the side missions were available in. As a result, I missed quite a few early ones, which is too bad, because a lot of them seem to tie into the main storyline and enrich the experience even further. The ones I did do added an even greater sense that I was in this complicated town with all these different people; even if the main storyline itself is linear, the attendance to these side issues really made it feel as if it opened up and was more personal to me.

These quibbles are really minor. The whole game is a little bit janky -- I'm sure they knew that this wasn't going to be a big seller4, so they budgeted accordingly. The sensation of place is amazing, and the revelations of what's going on with York and Zach and the murders and everything at the end of the game are simply fantastic. In the end, I came away feeling that this was one of the greatest games this generation, certainly an overlooked gem, and perhaps my favorite that I've played from 20105. I believe they've recently released an updated HD or Director's Cut version of the game, and I imagine I'd recommend that too.

OK, as mentioned in the footnotes, I'm currently into Red Dead Redemption, so it may be a while before I have any game stuff to post, though I have a few from last year which I thought were fantastic and may get to soon (particularly Gone Home, which I was waiting to blog about until I had played again with my girlfriend, but that still hasn't happened, and The Novelist, which came out in December but which I playtested and therefore have played a couple times since September). Cheers!

¹I.e. something along the lines of "Small towns are weird," or, as with Blue Velvet, "There is a dark core underneath the American small town experience." Speaking of which, I really wonder what happened to David Lynch as a kid. Also speaking of which, did you hear they're making a little more content for Twin Peaks for the Blu-Ray anniversary edition? That's crazy. End footnote digression.
²The speed of traversing the environment changes over the course of the game, if you pursue certain side missions that increase the speed and gasoline tank capacity of your car, which translates into "any car you drive," since all police cars and SUVs share the same underlying data. It's weird.
³It's a situation which would compound itself, too. Having played a bit and been in a period of mild waiting around, I'd grow complacent and my mind would wander, so I'd end up dying and having to play that section over. Which meant that not only was I waiting again, but I was waiting in a situation I had already seen and which therefore even less held my attention. These sections almost encouraged a sort of meditative focus or presence. Not what I expect with a controller in my hand, and as a result, kind of interesting!
4And indeed it wasn't, with around 320K units sold, according to VGChartz, though that's not entirely accurate, it's probably within 10-20%.
5 Admittedly I have a few to go, notably Red Dead Redemption, which I started last week and which I also quite enjoy.

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:22 AM

January 07, 2014

I Should Have Finished... Brütal Legend

It's embarrassing to me that I never finished Brütal Legend, the second title from one of my favorite studios, Double Fine. I buy all DF titles on or about the first day they come out, and if I have time I'll dive in playing those games right then -- in fact, I held off buying the original Xbox until Psychonauts came out, and then went and bought the game and console together, and I also bought Brütal Legend on the day it was released, though I had bought an Xbox 360 when a good bundle came along a few months earlier.

And, in fact, I played a ton of it when it came out -- playing through it again last week, I realized that I had made it to the penultimate RTS-style battle; I probably had about an hour to go in the main quest before I set it aside due to being busy. I also remember that battle to cross the bridge over the Sea of Black Tears was really difficult for me, so it's possible I set it aside out of a little frustration.

Brütal Legend is an open world game set in the grand old ancient times, when Metal shaped the very earth -- it's the world of heavy metal album covers, mostly from the seventies, bold and kitschily amazing. And the world building, really, is the most fantastic part of the game; everything that you encounter has been viewed through that lens and the variety of environments channels all the various aspects of that culture. It's fantastic. It's another one of those games where I can just pop it in and enjoy just moving around in the world¹, loving the care with which it was all constructed. As someone who develops games, I can just feel the early preproduction meetings on this one, where people were spitballing all the various ways in which they could represent heavy metal's themes in the game, and then knowing that they executed on just about every darn one of those ideas. The world just astounds with its attention to detail.

You gradually uncover the map of this fantastic land by playing through the story, which tells of humanity reclaiming the world with the help of your roadie-from-the-future Eddie Riggs. As you do, you uncover more side missions you can do, which have a fair degree of fun variability, and you also discover various old statues that increase your powers and more critically, your music list. Songs play from the speakers of your Druid Plow hot rod as you drive around the world, gathering up fan tributes for various excellent feats and customizing the powers of your weapons -- an axe which is used for melee, an electric guitar² used for ranged spell-casting and bigger "solo" effects -- and the car and its own weapons, plus some features in the world. This stuff is grand fun, and I spent hours and hours on end just driving around trying to find and free all sorts of Bound Serpents and discovering Relics and the mythology behind the land. I haven't found everything, though I have freed all 120 of the Bound Serpents, and I kind of find myself itching to go back and get an online map to find the rest.

Playing through the major story beats engages the player in RTS-style battles, where you can command your growing-in-variety army to defeat enemy stages. The conceit is that you're throwing a concert and gaining fans to power your performance and defeat the other guys in a Battle of the Bands. And early on, these are really great because the open area of the map is still small and your memory of the controls is constantly fresh and you're gathering a little bit of skill at a time.

As time goes on, however, when you have a lot of the map uncovered and you want to drive around and have fun with the side missions and the open world stuff, you end up spacing these battles quite a bit... and the controls start to feel unfamiliar and clunky, even as the difficulty and complexity of these battles starts to grow. By the end of the game, when I had spent easily a dozen hours driving around doing side missions between battles, trying to use the controls to direct my forces in battle felt a lot like trying to speak in a foreign language that I knew really well in high school. The vocabulary was there, but my command of it was stilted, halting, and fraught with lots of stupid little errors. In a way, the generosity of the world-building and how much fun all of that is works directly against the main story and its separate gameplay³. To a degree, there's also some unit management issues that come from being on a controller -- having a mouse to select all of a single unit type and give it orders with a bunch of buttons is a superior solution for an RTS with much complexity.

Most open world games don't give you this much controller complexity; keep the various control schemes constantly fresh in your mind; or abstract infrequent interactions to a much higher degree. In Skyrim, you're never far from a fight and the puzzles are extremely simple from a controller perspective4; in a GTA game you're going back and forth from on foot to driving very frequently, and much of the additional control schemes are brief and optional mini-games.

That said, although I originally played this game on the middle difficulty mode, for this return to it I played on the lowest difficulty setting and found that really best for me. It made the big battles mostly fairly trivial, let me feel like the bad-ass I wanted to be, and kept the story moving along without a lot of needless replay. I'd fumble through those big battles, constantly issuing a mistaken command, but it was very forgiving. I'd recommend this approach to anyone, and especially those who like to spend a lot of time on the side stuff in games like these.

On a personal note, I totally understand why Double Fine backed away from AAA and drove into their own smaller games more frequently5, and indeed, I love the approach and still buy every single one of their games the day it comes out. But I miss what this team does when it has masses of time and money. Brütal Legend is enormous and encompasses so much craft that it's hard not to wish they had projects this size in the works alongside the smaller projects that make up their bread-and-butter these days. I miss the diversity of voice, vision, and pure personality they brought to AAA scale.

Back in a few days to talk about another game I thoroughly enjoyed over break, Deadly Premonition.

¹Like Spider-Man 2, which I love just because of the flow of the navigation of the environment. Looking forward to Jamie Fristrom's Energy Hook follow-up.

²So, yeah, also an axe.

³Probably a fixable problem. Without going into too much detail, I think it's safe to say that the really big battles make the most sense from a story/narrative perspective where they are, but I think using Eddie's command-and-control set would have been possible in side missions if only on a lesser scale, perhaps with Eddie helping other, smaller bands battle in the same spaces where the major story took place.

4E.g. press 'x' to do a puzzle-contextual move, but you always press the same buttons to execute the logical moves in a puzzle.

5And funded in all sorts of ways, especially crowdfunding of late, but also the Indie Fund and traditional publisher routes.

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:40 AM

January 06, 2014

Closing Comments

Kind of done spending hours of my life clearing out spam from the comment filter; it's dozens upon dozens every time I post now.

There are many opportunities for discussion on the Internet, feel free to use one of them either to speak with me or others. You can hit me up on Twitter or Facebook or send me mail. Use whatever other communities you have.

Posted by Brett Douville at 06:02 AM

January 05, 2014

2013 Round-Up

In the past I've occasionally done write-ups on the sorts and quantity of media I've consumed over the past year or so. I'm not going to go into much detail with this this year except to note a few trends and maybe make something akin to a resolution.

I read less. Early in the year I set myself a task to read the 100 Notable Books from the New York Times list of 2012.

I failed miserably.

In the end, I read fewer books this year than I have in any year since 2010, only 54¹. I set out strong and, well, the nonfiction list killed me. It took me a month to read one of them, early on --Far from the Tree, which I read in March, and which I really really enjoyed and found fascinating. The truth is, though, I find nonfiction generally a slog. It doesn't compel me, and the fact that I'm reading new facts and indexing them into my brain as I go tends to slow me down considerably. The prose is often less flowing and as a result, I don't flow along with it. It took me a month to read that; as a point of comparison, I read six novels while on vacation in Italy, which was all achieved in sort of dead time (the plane, waiting for others to ready themselves for outings, whatever).

The other thing that set me back, though, was that a couple of books I was really looking forward to in the fiction list just didn't gel with me, and so even those were a bit of a slog².

This year, I'm going to give another stab at just reading the Fiction Notables, but I'm not going to put too much behind it. I've read a couple so far, and I'll read more of them, but I won't let it put me out if I don't get through them all.

I watched more. I watched fewer movies, but a few more television series. I also watched a ton of baseball, as many as 100 Red Sox games. Probably won't change much here, except that I still feel like I watch too many television series.

I finished a lot of video games. I gamed way out of proportion to prior years -- typically, if I finish a dozen games in a year it's a bit of a surprise and I wonder how I got through so many.

This year I finished 29 games, which is very, very uncharacteristic of me. More than double what I normally get through in a given year³.

Some of this was as a result of not working, and having a generally lackadaisical approach to the game I'm working on. A lot of it was being generally drawn into those games that I was playing. Almost all of them were from my back catalog, with a few exceptions.

By contrast, I blogged not nearly enough. Especially in the latter half of the year, I didn't blog about the things I was playing, even having ample time to do so, and sometimes with plenty to say.

Not only did I not blog all that much -- only seven games appeared in the blog this year -- but only three of those games were finished this year. The others were holdovers from 2012, taken from notes. It's probably better just to go a little more freshly from memory, as long as a little time has gone by to allow insight to occur.

It's funny, too, because I have a small group of friends I send email to when I finish a game, and I usually give at least a brief write-up at that point. It wouldn't take much to turn those into blog posts, and I haven't. I can do better.

So, then, the "resolutions"5:

  • Blog about the games more. I'm going to write up two games I finished in the last couple of weeks as a kick-off: Deadly Premonition and Brütal Legend. But I'll try to keep on top of these.
  • Read the fiction Notables, but don't sweat it. I've put all these in an Amazon wishlist, mostly for Kindle. I probably won't read the poetry collections and I may not even get to them all, but I will give them a go. No telling whether I'll blog about them. I'll do more genre reading for pleasure this year, too. A programming book or two would not be amiss, either.
  • Ease up on the TV. It's so easy to blaze through an entire series on Netflix in a few evenings that I often find myself doing it. (Still going to watch a ton of baseball.)
  • Include board games on the blog. I play a ton of board games with my kids, and I never write that stuff up. Time to do that.

I'll also probably address my color scheme some day soon -- I know this site is ugly.

Oh, and hey, I've decided to join the #1GAM challenge -- finishing a game every month over the next year. I've got tons of ideas for games, many of them manageably small or which can have only small parts of them implemented. It's a good way to practice finishing/shipping solo-built games. Who knows what may come of them? I'll probably blog about those things, too, either as postmortems or in-progress, what-have-you.

Happy New Year, all.

¹Actual number is usually a couple higher, as sometimes things don't get copied over, but certainly under 60.
²Telegraph Avenue, especially looking at you here.
³By platform, these were: 5 PS3, 3 360, 2 iOS, 3 Gamecube, 8 PS2, 1 Vita, and 6 PC. This doesn't count the IGF, but I'm not even sure how to count them. They aren't always finished games, etc4.
4Ah, what the hell. Here's the full list, in no particular order: Little Big Planet, Resistance 2, Device 6, Beat Sneak Bandit, Pikmin, Super Monkey Ball, The Last of Us, Metal Gear Solid 3, RTX Red Rock, Thomas Was Alone (Vita), Max Payne 3, BioShock Infinite, Papo y Yo, Tomb Raider, The Unfinished Swan, Spider-Man 2, Final Fantasy X-2, Dark Cloud 2, Final Fantasy XII, Rygar, Katamari Damacy, Halo 3, Super Mario Sunshine, Crackdown, Demon's Souls, Gone Home, The Novelist, The Stanley Parable, Brütal Legend. Still possible I missed one or two.
5"Resolutions" is too strong a word. They are four things I'd like to address over the next year as pertains to content stuff.

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:55 AM