It’s easy to see with a couple of weeks like this, that gaming has a problem. I don’t blame my associates or fellow professionals, journalists, developers, et al from being outraged by it. In fact, I’m outraged by it myself. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately, I’m not sure) it’s not gaming’s problem. It’s a much larger issue, and it has everything to do with how we are treating women as a culture, as a society at large.
The problem, is that we as an American culture are treating women as, at best, the weaker sex, and at worst, nothing more than sex objects.
But not you! Surely, not you! You’re not the problem! I’m sure you’re not, honest, but you know who is? I am. I’ll admit it: I’m not helping. We don’t realize it, but we’ve allowed ourselves to become so saturated with everyone else’s messages that we don’t realize that when we want to insult someone for being a wuss we call them a “pussy.” Just last week, I realized, to my own horror, I was telling my wife that someone was being “such a pussy” (I don’t even remember about what). I only realized what I had done when her eyes betrayed how shocked she was at my brazen stupidity. I’ve even jokingly said “Oh so and so has sand in his va-jay-jay” as another round-about way of calling them a whiner. Point is, I’ve marginalized women and not even realized it. I bet you don’t even realize you’re marginalizing women in your day-to-day life. You don’t even have to be a guy to do it.
But hey, don’t take my word for it. Watch “Killing Us Softly” for the first ten minutes, and tell me that you don’t recognize the sexualization of women in the ads portrayed. This documentary was from 10 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since. Maybe you can find a screening of Miss Representation, a documentary which highlights “The media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions and for the average woman to feel powerful herself.”
The point is, we are not going to fix gaming. At least, not by focusing on just gaming. This seriously shitty gender bias has been around for 4000 years. We are certainly not going to solve it overnight. We’re not going to fix it by banning Booth Babes (but I agree that we could at least start there).
I like to call issues like these “Generational Problems,” because you are lucky if you can fix them in a single Generation (roughly 25-35 years). Typically you’re lucky if you can even improve them by a degree or margin every Generation. My Grandparents lived in an era with attitudes like these about women. I’m not saying these were specifically their attitudes, but that was the nature of America at the time: a woman’s place was in the kitchen. My parents grew up in that era; were raised by the people who thought that was an acceptable attitude to have about women: that you could treat them like that about something as trivial as coffee. My Mom at least was able to escape the kitchen, and work in a corporate environment for awhile. For a time, she was a single parent and I was an only child, so that’s all I knew: Mom was the breadwinner in the family. But, while my parents taught me to treat women better than what’s pictured in the video, I was raised in an era that began to sexualize women in new and interesting ways (The 80’s, thanks for asking Link can be NSFW at times) while claiming it was empowerment. So, I’m trying to do better by my daughters and raise them in an environment that lets them know they can be anything they want. To not take “you’re a girl” for an acceptable denial. I want them to know they have more to offer this world than just reproductive organs and some curves and a pretty face. I want my daughters to know that they have value and are worthy of respect.
So how do we fix the current gender inequality and bias? Well, “we” don’t. It won’t happen this generation. Racial equality in America started with the Civil War in 1861. Raise your hand if you think racism is over.
What we can do this generation is to treat our wives and our sisters and friends better. Stop using gender based insults to debase our friends or enemies (women: you’re not exempt here), even as a joke. Start treating our daughters like we treat our sons. If that makes you uncomfortable, consider how you’re treating your son, and ask why your daughters should be treated any differently. Start rejecting media, advertising, and products that objectify women or try and put them in a box. The best I feel we can realistically hope for is to raise our children to treat women better than we as a society treat women now.
The first step in any recovery is to recognize that you have a problem. We’ve done that, at least. Where we go from here, as an industry, as a society, is up to us.
Had an AMAZING time demo-ing Paint the Line with all of the people who came out to Beta test with us out at PAX EAST this weekend! Kiko and I are eternally grateful for all of the support everyone showed for the game we’ve both been working on now for the better part of, well, a lot of time.
The Paint the Line: Making the Game panel seemed to be a pretty big hit with the attendees, and I promised that I’d finally unveil what The Case looked like when I brought it up to Seattle for the very first time I pitched the game to them, so here’s the case video (and then a long and hopefully interesting explanation on how I made it):
First, a little background history on the pitch itself. I knew I had a fairly fun game on my hands, and figured it could stand on its own, but I wanted to make sure that my friends at Penny Arcade understood that I get it. So I set out making the most epic game pitch in the history of game pitches.
I started by recruiting the help of two of my best friends: Rocky and Gregg. They were already huge supporters of the project and wanted to help out however they could, so I asked them to come up to Seattle with me and bring their best black suit, white shirt, and I’d buy them both matching black ties. That’s right. They were going to be my flanking CIA agents.
I then began work on The Case. I wanted to carry the game into the Penny Arcade offices in what appeared to be the Nuclear Football Case made famous by Ronald Reagan. I purchased a nice camera case that already had the foam pre-cut (for easier removal), and started working on making custom card cases out of hard plastic cases. I had a problem fitting the clear sleeved cards in them and had to improvise by doing some plastic cutting, and wound up having to superglue some metal hinges on to hold the cases together when they were closed, which only added to the “military” theming I was going for.
The logo was probably the most involved and difficult part. I wanted the flags on the paddles to look absolutely amazing, and after finding out that ping pong rubber only comes in black and red sheets (the blue/green stuff is purely basement grade recreational ping pong and nobody sells it individually), I had to go with plan B. I found a website that makes custom mousepads which lets you upload an image to print out on them, and had to recreate Kiko’s flags in Photoshop, with a template for the size of a ping pong paddle (so I knew to cut it out properly). Let me tell you something: stripping ping pong foam and rubber off of a store grade paddle is a pain in the ass (I’ve since learned that pro grade equipment makes this super easy, but they’re way too expensive to sacrifice to a logo project like this). I glued the mousepads on the stripped paddles and then cut them to fit, but only after figuring out how to cross-cut the paddle handles so that they would dove-tail together (I had to do this because the lid they would be suspended in isn’t deep enough to have two handles stacked together; they had to be inset into each other so they were only one handle thick).
The music was the final touch. I had tried a Radio Shack solution, but their speaker and switch were just WAY too thick and wouldn’t slip behind the foam in the case very elegantly. I scoured the net for a bit, and found a greeting card company that would take an .mp3 you sent in and create three custom card inserts for you for a handfull of cash, and I was in business (thanks to Rocky for sending me an .mp3 from The Theme from the Hunt for Red October! What, he owns the soundtrack!). I had to superglue in a special L-bar (and covered it in black electrical tape so you wouldn’t see it against the black foam) to assist in the operation of the switch, since opening the case isn’t quite the right angle a card switch wants to be at when it’s opened, and after re-cutting the plastic in the switch to be a bit looser (and even installing some plastic sleeves so that the switch wouldn’t get hooked on the foam), it FINALLY came together.
When I showed up at the pitch meeting, I came in by myself, and asked everyone to gather in the conference room. Once everyone was in place, I called my CIA agents, and used our pre-arranged codephrase: “The Rooster is in the Henhouse,” which already got the meeting started with lots of laughs, and questions asking if Penny Arcade were hens.
My agents came upstairs, and Rocky began asking for Mr Holkins’ and Krahulik’s finger scans on their iPad Finger Scanning Devices (there’s an app for that) while I unlocked the Nuclear Football Case from Gregg’s wrist, where it was handcuffed to.
At this point, I did a relatively quick pitch speech which was intended to sound like I was a CIA spook myself, attempting to recruit Penny Arcade to join their own fictional universe of American Ping Pong Agents. While I forget most of what I said, I do remember my favorite line, which was “Many reverse penholders died to bring us the information in this case.”
My CIA agents then handed Mike and Jerry two keys that had special “REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT” flags on them (Gregg grabbed them from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. which look just like the same flags that come on missiles attached to Air Force fighter jets), so they could unlock the case together, in true 80’s nuclear missile style.
Their faces were priceless when I opened it. I wish I had a photo of the moment. I don’t even think they heard the music until maybe a good five seconds in; it was drowned out from all of the ooohs and ahhhhs.
I’m told it’s still the most amazing pitch they’ve ever seen.
Last month, while I was crunching my butt off a friend alerted me that Tim Rogers wrote a lengthy retrospective on the Quick Time Event in Game Developer Magazine, and he was praising something I contributed directly to the design of: the Standoff mode in Stranglehold.
The Standoff in Stranglehold is one of the things about the game I’m most proud of (besides maybe some of my motion capture performances*). From a design perspective, it was one of the most difficult aspects of the game we tackled. For at least half of the game, we knew we had to take on the Woo “standoff” signature moment seen in all of his Hong Kong cop movies, but we had a lot of different (and often very bad) ideas about how to attempt it. All we knew was:
It had to be cinematic in nature.
It should result in some sort of amazing gun battle that was different from the game’s typical gun battles.
We never seriously considered the whole “Shenmue” or “God of War” style QTE that Rogers discusses in depth in his article. I think the whole team was pretty against that idea; that it really didn’t mesh well for Stranglehold’s style. At one point, Ty Primosch, one of the cinematics guys prototyped out a cool looking Standoff scenario action scene (seen below), but we had to punt on it because we realized that the only way to make something like that work was to do it God of War style, and as I mentioned, we wanted to shy away from the typical QTE.
One of the ideas that I do still remember being kicked around (I don’t remember many of them) was the concept of maybe having two different kinds of timer wheels, and each wheel had different pie shapes on them, one for “action” and one that was “null.” You would have one wheel that was for shooting, and one that was for dodging. When your desired wheel’s pie wedge came across the active arrow over the wheel, you could push the appropriate button and you’d do that action. It didn’t last long before it was axed. I don’t even think we prototyped it. We would keep bouncing ideas like this off of each other for weeks (was it months?) until one day we all just forced ourselves to sit in the conference room and hash out why one worked or didn’t work.
The meeting went south pretty fast, and every idea that was thrown out was hacked and slashed to pieces and just didn’t cut it. I sort of mentally checked out of that meeting, because for the record, I was not the biggest fan of the Standoff mode. Simply put, I didn’t want it to be a gameplay mechanic. In nearly every film where Woo was using his Standoff, it served to advance the (super ultra thin) plot. Maybe two enemies would realize they’re not enemies. Maybe one would try and shoot the other but realize he is out of ammo and the other one would smile and back away (giving away both characters’ motives). Maybe both would realize they’re really looking into a mirror reflection of themselves and realizing they see their enemy within themselves. They rarely wind up actually shooting at each other. And yet there we were, trying to find a mechanic that would let us express two people shooting at each other at point blank range and making it feel fun and interesting.
So instead of only offering negative criticism about everyone else’s ideas at this meeting (because that’s all I had to offer at the time, along with everyone else at the meeting), I decided instead to try and look at what we were already doing with the game, and how we could apply it to the Standoff mode in some way. We knew we wanted you to stand in place, for the most part, and decide how you would shoot at enemy AIs. And for the hell of it, I just asked myself the question “why can’t we just use the sticks the way the player expects to use them?”
We were talking a lot about making the Standoff a puzzle, but all of the suggestions made them overtly a puzzle. I guessed that we could make it a covert puzzle, by making it not look like a puzzle at all and disguising it with realtime controls the player already knew how to use.
The idea was that the player would use the left stick to dodge, and the right stick to aim the reticule. This is ostensibly how the player uses the sticks in game. Left stick moves, and right stick aims. Kudos to Tim for picking up on this in his piece. This was pretty much exactly how I pitched it to the Lead and Sr. Designers on the design team after the meeting was over. Why change what the player already knows? Let’s just change how we present that and change how the player can use it.
The other aspect of the Standoff “puzzle” was that it would be created, or driven by the player. It’s just that the player wouldn’t realize it. Originally I just threw out that the AI would fire bullets in a “pattern,” but what wound up happening is that we realized that all the AI would need was a set timer, which stated something like “I shoot bullets on the 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 8th seconds of my standoff.” That’s all he does. If the player doesn’t succeed in killing him before the 2nd second, he spawns a bullet that travels at wherever the player is currently standing, which is almost always at the “neutral” position. This forces the player to dodge, or face the consequences of eating a bullet.
By being forced to dodge, the player is no longer just in an “aiming” mindset. Now they have to rub their bellies while they pat their heads, so to speak. The challenge of dodging left while trying to meticulously aim a slow reticule has the delicious side effect of dividing their attention span and making aiming even harder. Now, if they take too long to kill the AI, he spawns another bullet, and the player is forced to dodge yet again. This goes on until the player either succeeds in killing the AI before his timer runs out, or the timer expires, and the AI is left alive to shoot at the player when he exits the Standoff mode.
Selling it With Reference
It turns out that the idea, while well received, wasn’t a slam dunk. To help convince the powers that be that we needed to prototype this, I wound up digging up some references in other games to similar dodge mechanics, specifically ones where you felt like you had a high level of control of your dodge, the dodging changed the core mechanic of the game everyone was used to, but it didn’t feel disconnected from the game.
The first example I gave was Steve from Tekken 4. Steve is one of the most interesting Tekken characters because he doesn’t kick; he only punches (I take that back I think he has like three very special case kicks?). The buttons which would normally control a character’s kicks become a sway and weave move on Steve. Skilled players can time the sway and weave to dodge incoming attacks, or use them to start even more powerful attacks. But what I really liked about him was that he could dodge (with style), left and right when the player prompted it. This really helped sell the idea that you could use a dodge move even when rooted in place to avoid incoming attacks, and it was not only fun but also could be pulled off with some style and flair.
The Steve example (along with some Fight Night Round 3 footage) was convincing enough to give it a try, and we got the green light to prototype it.
The Standoff mode itself just in its raw form was pretty fun, but took a surprising turn for the entertaining when the level designers on the team batted it out of the park by placing all of the environmental hazards around the AIs, to make it so super thrilling to kill them in slow motion. Propane tanks, signs, the habitually overused air-conditioner unit dropped on their head. I think after awhile it became a challenge to out-do each other.
My personal favorite, though, was the 20 man Standoff that appears in Wong’s Estate just before the final battle. It is insanely entertaining in its absurdity. It’s the ultimate extension of the “puzzle” idea, in that each AI you need to shoot has less and less time on camera before the camera switches to the next guy, and if you don’t kill him, he’s there waiting to shoot you at the end of the Standoff. If you leave 5-6 guys by the end, and you’re at low health (from having 20 people shooting at you in slow-motion), you could be in bad shape.
No Need for a Tutorial
One of the happier accidents that came out of Standoff mode was that we forgot we had put it in the game. No, seriously. We were running our very first official playtests on the game one night by having some focus testers come in and give the game a spin. We just wanted them to play through the first level or two and watch them play to see what their reactions were to all of the different elements of the game.
We were also looking for anything else that might come up when you have someone play a game for the first time. It sounds ambiguous, but that’s what focus testing can be sometimes. Game teams know where all of the bad guys spawn in. We know where we’re supposed to go at every point of the game. When you bring a fresh player in, who doesn’t know where any of these things are or how they’re supposed to unfold when they play the game, you get a really fresh perspective on what you forgot to do as a designer/developer to help them have the least frustrating (and hopefully very enjoyable) experience with your title.
For instance, sometimes they (unknowingly) point out that you completely forgot that you put a Standoff moment in the game. Everyone on the team let out a collective “oh noooooo” groan when a handful of playtesters all reached it at almost the exact same point. We never made a tutorial for it yet, because we hadn’t really planned for it to come up in this playtest; we had forgotten to remove it from the level. But there it was, rearing its ugly head in front of us, with every player in the room (eventually) having to get through it.
Just when we were trying to figure out what to do (do we just say nothing and let them play it? Do we ask people to pause so we can quick explain it to them?) the sequences started and they began getting shot at. And the players began dodging bullets and shooting back. They even realized that they could aim for the gleaming objects in the background for even more explosively entertaining killshots. There were audible cheers coming from the testers.
The mode, we were shockingly surprised to find, didn’t require a tutorial. It was intuitively playable by default.
We all collectively breathed a loud sigh of relief, and shared some pretty incredulous “can you believe that?!?!?” type of jawdropped stares.
From Initial Idea to Final Completion
After that playtest, we were pretty convinced that the mode was a hit, and we could leave it as-is while we finished the rest of the game. Unfortunately, we seemed to have forgotten that it was just sort of stubbed in and prototyped, and not really cleaned up and finished.
The Standoff in its prototype phase worked exactly the same as what you saw when we shipped, only it was much simpler. We didn’t have a lot of time to prototype it, so I remember we just had the animators give us one set of aimgrids, copied and tweaked to be two additional dodge poses. Basically, we used a single pistol stance of Tequila standing with just one gun out (his right one), and when he dodged left he’d just lean forward, still aiming with his right gun, and when he dodged right he’d just lean back, still aiming with the right gun.
Functionally, that was great. It totally worked.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look anything like a John Woo movie.
I remember playing it again (we’d usually skip the Standoffs if we weren’t testing them specifically when playing/testing levels or mechanics in editor), intentionally not skipping it this time, maybe a week or two before art lock, and had that sinking feeling when I realized that “oh god we’re about to ship a game with prototype stubbed in animation for the signature mode.” I think I grabbed Brian, the EP and Team Lead, and Neill (the Lead Designer), Patrick (the Sr. Designer on the team) and A-Rod (the head gameplay programmer who built the Standoff in the first place), and begged them to let me fix/finish it.
I knew what I had to do to fix it (namely introducing 3 new proper looking aimgrids), but the problem was that it required tech we didn’t have which would have to be created. The problem, was that I needed Tequila to start in a dual-pistol stance, and if he dodged left, he needed to lean to his left, and only use his left pistol, and if he dodged right, to lean to his right and only use his right pistol.
We had code for the leans; that just used existing AnimTree/Finite State Machine tech. We already had “just shoot with your right pistol” for when Tequila or an AI only has a single pistol to shoot at you, and we even had “shoot with two pistols” code that allowed for alternating between your left and right pistols, and even for those two to work in conjunciton with each other (say you picked up a 2nd pistol while shooting with just the one). But what we didn’t have, was code that knew that you only wanted to shoot with your left pistol, or at this moment wanted to shoot with alternating left and right pistols, or in another moment only wanted to shoot with your right pistol. And we sorta had to have this feature. The mode just wasn’t shippable without it.
Dead Akimbo to the Rescue
What saved it, code-wise anyway, was a failed special “Tequila Bomb” that we never got working, which was just simply called “Akimbo.” We were trying to emulate moments in the Woo films where the hero just starts shooting everything in the room with crap-tons of style. Maybe he’s aiming at guys on the left side of the room with his right gun, and vice versa. Maybe he’s running through he room with his arms spread-eagle. We wanted it to be dynamic (it had to be; there was no way you’d ever encounter the exact same position of enemy AI twice), in that the player just sort of had to aim Tequila in the general direction of the bad guys, and Tequila’s arms would intelligently just know where to aim, and it would look super sexy and sleek.
But we could never really make it work. The arms would work for awhile, and then BAM they’d freak out and go all gangly and go through each other. The right arm would be aiming high left, and the left arm would be aiming low right, and suddenly they’d decide to switch heights (because they’d both re-acquire new bad guys), and just go straight through each other. Or worse, an arm might try and go through Tequila’s body because that was the shortest distance between two targets. The mode was pretty much a disaster no matter how we tried to help his arms.
What the mode did have was the ability for the guns to fire intelligently. Maybe at one moment only the left gun had a target. A moment later, the right gun had a target. And another moment later both guns had a target. It had the code we needed for Standoff already built. While it still wasn’t a trivial thing to merge with Standoff, it was still in a better place than having to write it all from scratch. Failed Akimbo saved Standoff. It sort of became an organ donor on its deathbed so another mode could live.
Wrapping it Up
In the end I think Standoff turned out pretty great. Everyone involved was pretty happy with how it played out. Rogers’ article isn’t the first I’ve heard praise for it; whenever people found out I worked on Stranglehold, the Standoffs were usually the next topic of conversation. People just seem to like it. It was intuitive, and I think it captured what a Woo movie feels like while still giving the player the ability to control what’s going on in the scene. I’m pretty proud that something I originally thought couldn’t possibly be done well in a video-game was executed in a way that became one of the highlights of the game. Most of all, though, I like that it doesn’t come off feeling like a Quick Time Event. But don’t take my word for it.
This is as exciting as QTEs can possibly get: the action fits story context, character context, and game control context, and the payoff is visceral and instant. Much as Half-Life phased out the cutscene by making the narrative “happen” in the world as the player plays, Stranglehold shows that QTEs can be part of a game and not be sudden, intrusive, demanding situations. — Tim Rogers.
I think in the end we succeeded with these modes (especially Standoff) so well because the team approached these not as a QTE, but really just as another part of the game. Apparently it shows.
* when you shoot someone in Stranglehold, especially in the nuts, there’s about an 8-out-of-10 chance you’re seeing one of my hit reacts. I do my own stunts.
Where do I begin? I’ve been hiding behind Spitfire for so long, it feels a bit weird going back to being public now.
I suppose I should introduce myself.
Hi. I’m Steve Bowler. It’s nice to finally be me, again.
(First off, I’d apologize for the scarf, but my awesome sister made it for me because she knows I’m a Harry Potter fan, and hey, it’s fucking cold here. It’s also the most recent picture I have of myself. I don’t do a ton of self-portraiture.)
I’ve been Spitfire on here for what, three years now (okay if we even get to count last year when I hardly wrote anything at all), but you’re all familiar with that already if you’re here, so let me show you who I was before I had to be Spitfire.
The professional story of how I got to what I do now is probably best summed up here, from when I did a guest spot for Jerry at Penny-Arcade when he was on vacation ages and ages ago. I suppose if you want the “full Monty” on what I did when I got to Midway (Lead Animator/Game Designer), you can look at my Linked In page. I’ve left what I’ve been doing the past two years intentionally blank, for my own reasons. I know there’s plenty of Internet Detectives out there who would love to figure it out and post it, but I politely ask you not to. They’re trying to put a disk in a box right now and I’ll update everything later after the game has shipped.
But there is a small surprise on the Linked In page that I’ve updated which might be of interest to you now that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak.
At any rate, let’s just get right to it: I know the big question on everyone’s minds that they want answered is “why were you anonymous?”
I used to write for my friend Jane’s website Game Girl Advance under my real name while I was at Midway. Jane gave me my first “break” in game blogging and I’m still eternally grateful for it. While there, I had a couple of huge firsts (for me, anyway).
Halo, Original Game, or Sequel? from 2002 went mad viral almost immediately. I want to say it was my first piece to ever be Slashdotted, but I can’t find it on the Slashdot archives.
City of Copies: Marvel vs. NCSoft It seems very old hat by now, but I had a lot of fun making this thing back in 2005. First time I ever bought a game just to write a piece about it. I had heard at one point that the article was used by the legal teams involved. Don’t know how accurate that claim is.
There’s a ton more there. Humor pieces, serious pieces, investigative pieces; I wrote there for quite awhile. Loved every minute of it. Eventually, I saw that Next-Gen magazine had decided to re-invent themselves online, and were looking for freelance writers. I sent their editor a bunch of my samples from GGA, and he loved them (especially the Halo piece, which he termed “Game DNA” type pieces), and asked for more.
So I wrote Doom3d, How id Lost the Crown. It was a little piece that focused on how id had lost the game engine market with Doom3. The original piece title and comments are lost in the ether (Next-Gen still has an email reply piece they threw together on it though). It is by far the most rabidly responded to article I’ve ever written. The editor I was working with told me it generated the most email responses to anything they’d ever written at Next-Gen. It was Slashdotted. Twice. With 500 comments in each (and for whatever reason I can’t find it in the Slashdot archives now). It taught me that shock value pieces get you either “amen” comments or hate-mail. Either way, it had Next-Gen clamoring for more pieces, and that’s when the wheels came off the bus.
I followed that one up with something about Battlefield 2. It was a pretty weak piece, but what happened was that Next-Gen put it on their front page (because of the success of Doom3d), which meant it got emailed out to all of their subscribers in their newsletter. This landed it in the in-box of Midway’s head of PR, who was shocked, SHOCKED, to see someone from Midway writing about a game that another company made! We could be sued! He didn’t authorize this! How DARE this employee write about other company’s games while using his title at Midway to show he’s experienced enough to talk about such things! So the head of PR emailed the VP of Production, demanding anything I write online from there on out be sent past him first. The VP conceded this was a “good idea.” Shocked, I decided to ask if I needed permission to write about video-games on GGA, or my personal blog/website/journal/whatever. The answer was still a resounding “yes.” I had been slapped with a gag order.
I sunk into a funk for awhile. For a lot of people in the industry, risking being fired isn’t a big deal. I, however, have a family to think about and just can’t afford to lose my job. It would be a wonderful ideal to have bucked the system and continued to write as myself unabated, “sticking it to the man” as it were. But I just had too much to lose.
I realized a couple of months later as the urge to write about game design was killing to get out, that I could just start a new website, and write there anonymously, and game-ism.com was born. The past three years of my thoughts are readily available to you, so get reading if you’re unfamiliar with the work.
Fast forward to this week, and I was made an offer I couldn’t possibly pass up. I’m back to doing Design full time for my friends over at Phosphor Games. The guys over at Phosphor aren’t worried about what I say online, because I think they understand that my opinions don’t represent the corporate opinion of an entire company.
So, the good news is that now that I’m “public” again I can write about some of the things I’ve worked on in the past that came up in gaming news recently, so hopefully I’ll have the time to work on some of that this weekend (and, y’know, post again).
Oh, and by the way, thanks for taking an interest in what I do here and who I am. It sincerely means a lot to me that my writing here had created an interest in others as to who I am “in real life.” Hopefully I can get back to doing a bit more interesting writing now.
(Warning, this post contains spoilers. If you haven’t played Batman: Arkham Asylum, stop reading now).
A year late to the party, I grabbed Arkham Asylum GOTY edition a month or two ago on the recommendation of pretty much everyone, and started a playthrough of it for what I anticipated was going to be combat design research.
While I could write an entire paper on the combat mechanics in AA (don’t count on it; I’m stupid busy lately), I found that as the game progressed, I was much more interested in something else, and it kinda came at me by surprise.
Full disclosure: I’ve never been much for collecting items in games, besides the basic “get coin” mechanic first realized in Mario and Sonic games, which basically force you to get coins by allowing you to do little else besides survive environment and enemy obstacles (not to mention get extra lives for coin collecting). I think maybe GTA III did it best first in an open world game, giving you a variety of crap to pick up for really nothing more than the satisfaction of picking it up. Sure, there were pickup items, like health and weapons or a few useful collectibles like spraying tags in San Andreas, but the “big” ones were just “get 100 of X” type collectibles which didn’t really reward you with anything more than an achievement (if that!). Those sort of things always just seemed like fairly transparent “here’s how we add X hours of gameplay on the cheap” type of game-isms to me, and I’ve never found them compelling in any way.
Until I played Arkham.
At first I thought the Riddler pickups would be just that: pickups. Collectibles. At best maybe they’d allow me to buy some better gear (and they did do at least that by way of giving you XP for each pickup). I set out to grab a few of them, just to see what they were like, and see what they’d “buy” me for the effort.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that Edward Nigma (the Riddler’s adopted name) had hacked into your Bat-comm system and would taunt you every time you found a pickup. In that regard, the guys at Rocksteady had added some much needed character to a previously boring game pickup/collectable mechanic. I found I was enjoying hearing Nigma’s voice get more and more scared as I found more and more of his hidden items. I suppose it should also be said that the riddles for finding some of the pickups were downright ingenious. Finding/completing hidden question marks, solving cleverly worded riddles by finding the object which best described them, I realized that my focus in the game was shifting.
Instead of playing the game in order to progress to the next room or trap or fight, or even progress the narrative, I was attempting to progress the game so that I could accomplish and find more of Nigma’s Riddles.
While this is a big shift for a collectible hater like myself, it made me start thinking about the big picture the game was offering me, and I realized that, intentional or no, it revealed something new and interesting about the narrative of the game itself.
If you ask anyone who the boss/villain is in Arkham, they’ll all probably just answer “Joker, duh.” I think that’s plainly obvious from just about all of the game/narrative/marketing messages the game throws at you. Sure, yes, there are a lot of villains in Arkham, from Scarecrow to Bane, Killer Croc to Ivy, you are going to see a ton of boss level villains. They all have a varying degree of knowledge of Joker’s master plan, but I think we can agree that Joker is the big boss, right? He’s the one in control, pulling all of the strings, no?
Consider Nigma’s collectibles. They’re quite literally everywhere. They’re in every building. Every space. He’s put crap for you to find in places that are impossible for just about anyone else in Arkham to even find. Hell, sometimes you have to go back to the Batcave and pick up devices that let Batman get up to that ledge or behind that wall to find them. Let’s be honest here: Joker doesn’t even have a clue that this shit is hidden there. We could speculate it’s because he doesn’t care, but I’m pretty sure it’s simply because he doesn’t know. Riddler doesn’t work for the Joker.
This throws the knowledge/control base of the villains into an entirely different light. The Joker isn’t the final boss of Arkham.
It’s the Riddler. He knows more than what The Joker knows, proven by the collectible mechanic.
For the entire game you (as Batman) are constantly playing catch-up to Joker’s plot to take over Arkahm and eventually Gotham city. Hell, you even step right into Joker’s trap and deliver him to Arkahm Asylum to get the ball rolling. It’s a brilliant plan: go to where the supervillains are, strike a deal with them, and have them all work to kill Batman, who you’ve conveniently tricked into delivering you to that very location!
But Riddler’s one step ahead of Joker’s plan. He’s not only already figured out Joker’s entire plan, correctly assumed you’d also eventually figure it out, but he figured it out so far in advance he had time to seed the entire plot with his collectibles, and then taunts you to come find them, while you’re fighting Joker and his henchmen.**
This is where the game became extra enjoyable for me to play, and why it became the greatest Batman game of all time for me: Joker’s narrative became the side-quest. Joker’s men (and even Joker himself) were truly nothing more than a nuisance, something for me to backfist while I wasn’t even looking in their direction while I had my Bat-Visor turned on looking for Nigma’s riddles to solve. That sensati0n felt like Batman. There’s always something else going on in Batman’s head; he’s a cerebral detective, not just a pugilist who breaks bones but doesn’t kill. I was enjoying this feeling of empowerment so much that it was with a touch of sadness that I nervously activated what I feared was the final mission/encounter of the game, knowing that it would probably (and did) change the dynamic of my Nigma relationship.
I imagine that this hidden shift in villain power wasn’t Rocksteady’s intent. I don’t think they set out to make Riddler the Big Boss of Arkham Asylum, but I really don’t care. I’m sure what they did was set out to make Riddler’s collectibles compelling in that the player would be provided with some reward (Nigma’s ever straining/worried voice and taunts) as they found them. It was a happy accident, to be sure, but it’s also a level up in mechanics/narrative development for those of us in game dev who care enough to pay attention.
What makes me so excited is that they (probably inadvertently) discovered a way for a game mechanic to overthrow and subvert a linear narrative in a game. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of mechanic out-weighting narrative in games for a while now, and I hadn’t found a game that had found a way to make that happen to this level of success yet. This takes Ken Levine’s “passive uptake” of story in Bioshock 1 to a whole new level. In Bioshock, if you collect the data tapes, you experience more story. In Arkham, it can change your perspective on the story entirely. Players who ignore the riddles will get an enjoyable game of Batman vs. The Joker, but players who engage in the collectible mechanic will discover a whole new narrative lying just beneath the surface.
I’m a little bit in awe of that, and I hope I’m not the first/only person to stand up and notice it.
**If you honestly say to yourself “it’s just a game” here I implore you to go back to reading mainstream game rumor websites all day long and don’t come back.
Making a game that stands the test of time and can endure for multiple generations is a challenge. The rules you use to create the game define how it is played. Sometimes they’re good enough to last, and sometimes you need to update them as the game and the players evolve.
In the case of sports, sometimes the equipment gets better, and sometimes the players get better. International Football is no exception, and as many people have noted during this past World Cup, something needs to change. The rules are no longer adequate for the way the teams have been playing. Two teams were outright eliminated due to bad calls, and team USA had its share of egregious and ridiculous calls against them as well. A lot of people blame bad officiating (and I’m in no way saying there wasn’t), but if we take the time to examine how the game is being played, I think we’ll see that the rules in place now are outdated, and are actually encouraging the type of play which creates an environment for biased or bad calls.
The game is plagued by bad acting on the part of players trying to draw fouls from the referees, because free kicks (especially direct free kicks) mean a chance for a set play or a good percentage shot on goal. There is a secondary reason for acting injured, and that’s to delay the game and burn up the clock, because the clock isn’t stopped in FIFA football. Two rule changes and a feature update would completely clean up the game and encourage better play and more aggressive goal scoring.
Stop the Clock.
There’s absolutely no reason not to. Every other international professional level sport which has a league will stop the clock when necessary. Sure, there’s “extra time” awarded at the end of a match; I guess the referee has a stopwatch or keeps track in his head about how much time was wasted on the pitch, and then awards an even number of minutes at the end of the match. This is a horrible implementation and creates an unfair environment for everyone to play in. The amount of time wasted during the match never matches the amount of time the referee awards, and then there’s the problem of stoppage time during Extra Time, and you wind up with five minutes on the Extra Time clock when only three minutes were awarded. Players have no idea how much time is really left in the match, and when the whistle finally blows to end the match, it’s the most anticlimactic ending in all of sports.
With no reasonable expectation for how much time is left (when the clock says 35 in the 2nd period, does that mean there are ten or fifteen minutes left in a match?), players don’t know how hard to push themselves. They don’t know if they should risk pushing the ball forward one last time because there’s only twenty seconds left to play, or if they should use an outlet pass out to a midfielder to guarantee posession and regroup for another strike, because hey, maybe there’s still a minute or three left. Moreover, the ref might actually be giving one team preferential treatment by thinkin “well it’s time but I’ll just blow the whistle after this last chance on goal here.” Who would want to play in a system like that?
Stop the clock, and you’ll see the level of play go up, and you’ll see the drama of trying to run the clock out go way down. You can’t run out a clock that stops for an injury or a downed player on the field. The technology has been in place for over forty years to stop the clock. It’s about time football leapt into the modern era and adopted it.
Change how Penalties are Given
The acting has gotten so bad that players are now giving up valid scoring opportunities in a desperate attempt to draw a foul in the penalty box. This is just stupid. They only do it because a penalty kick has a high percentage of going in as opposed to taking a shot during regular play. There’s a very simple way to fix this; to encourage shots on goal and playing through a foul instead of taking a dive.
Start using a Delayed Penalty.
You can see delayed penalties in sports like Basketball or Hockey. The idea is that you notate that a foul has occurred, but you don’t stop play. If the player who was fouled was in possession of the ball, and he retains possession despite the foul, then play continues until:
He loses possession, or
If he loses possession, take the ball back to the point of the infraction, and spot the ball where you would have by the old rules, and allow the free kick/penalty kick to happen.
This encourages play, not acting. With a delayed penalty, you’d be an idiot for not playing through the foul and taking a dive. You get two chances to score instead of one, and the game and the fans are rewarded with better play. Imagine how much more exciting it would be to see a player who is tripped while entering the penalty box run through the foul and take a shot on goal anyway instead of going down to the turf hoping to guarantee drawing the foul.
After a year of this kind of rule in place, players who are almost fouled would stop taking a dive to the pitch, because they’d have mentally trained themselves to play through a foul in order to gain the double opportunity. I’d think you’d see the drama drop off dramatically.
Unfortunately, I doubt FIFA would ever adopt either of these rule changes. Hell, we’ll be lucky if they start using instant replay to validate offsides or fouls on goals being scored.
So HP recently developed a smart web cam that will track your face as you move around a room (I don’t know, don’t ask me, maybe some people do web conferencing/skype/nudie cam while standing up). It works really really great!
If you’re not black.
I guess the HP techs designed it to look for contrasts between your nose, cheek bones, and eyes, but the camera lacks the ability/resolution to detect that on a black person.
So how does this apply to video games, you ask? Because as game developers, we’ve learned that you don’t make a product/game/application for yourself. You make it for the demographic you’re designing it for (kids, Moms, hardcore gamers, casual web development, etc.). You need to test it using your core demographic, because if you don’t, you’re only designing it for yourself. I’m working on a longer post regarding this design philosophy, so hopefully we’ll see that go up later this week. But in the meantime, let’s enjoy the HP engineering fail, shall we? How much do you want to bet that the entire HP design/engineering/tech team that worked on this didn’t have a single black guy on it?
Awhile ago Justin Keverne wrote a piece, the Taxonomy of Left 4 Dead, which compared the characters in L4D to the MUD definitions of online game players set forth by Richard A. Bartle. It’s a pretty insightful piece, pointing out that the characters emulate the four different type of players (Bill is the Achiever, Zoey the Socializer, Francis the Killer, and Louis the Explorer). Go read it, then come back here. You’ll be glad you did.
One of the things that struck me about the piece after reading it, is that there’s a bit of disconnect in the idea that I can be a Bill player (Achiever), but 3/4 of the time, I can’t play as Bill. Someone else has already logged on and “stole” him before I could get there and pick “my guy.” (For the record I like playing Louis just because he cracks me up). So the majority of the time I’m playing, there’s a disconnect between my personality and the character I’m forced to play. I’m playing against type.
So, I wondered if I couldn’t fix that.
Using Keverne’s character definitions (which were based on Bartle’s) as a starting point, and projecting them onto the characters of Left4Dead, I wondered if I couldn’t create a Personality Mod for L4D. How could we reward the multiplayer personalities of Achiever, Killer, Socializer, and Explorer, or in the worst case, force players to play with these goals in mind?
First, I’d need to make it so that there were 4 alts of each of the four main characters. This way, if four people wanted to play as Francis, they could. This at least alleviates the “identity” issue I raised earlier with Left4Dead, where I never can play with the character I want to. If we wanted to make it more “real” (so we didn’t have some alternate reality with four identical Francis’s walking around with different clothing), we could easily make four characters who are very similar iconically to Francis. Be they Black, or Asian, or whatever, you’d have the equivalent of a Biker Gang of Francises, a VFW of Bills, a chatty social clique of Zoeys, and a nervous office pool of Louises.
Second, for this mod to work, there needs to be a new rule implemented regarding weapon pickups, and that is that there can now only be one of each weapon, bottle of pills, or health packs in the world. If someone picks a shotgun up off of a table, the shotgun is now gone from the table. All objects will work this way (I think health packs already work this way), for reasons that you will see later. Ammunition will still be an infinite spawn pile where they’re found currently in levels.
Next, I’d explore giving each of the character social classes actual character traits which would reward (or force) the player’s natural social gaming traits. This was the heart of the challenge; can we create a class based system based on personality behaviors, rather than just pure Strength/Health/Damage stats?
Starting with Francis, we must reward The Killer. He gains his largest bonuses to accuracy and damage with the Shotgun. He also gains smaller bonuses to the assault rifle. However, this comes at a price. As we all know, Francis hates everything (and presumably everyone). For this reason, he’s a bit of a loner. He cannot be healed refuses to be healed by anyone in the party, and refuses all offers of pills and weapons, choosing to go it alone. He can heal himself, however, and as he is The Killer, he’s tougher than the rest of the group, and gets a boost in health to 125.
Zoey is The Socializer. She gains a 25% boost to healing others (but not herself), and can choose how much health to give others from any given health pack (stopping the healing animation at 50% does not revert healing; it instead gives the target player 50% of that health pack). As Zoey is smaller than everyone else, she has less total health, coming in at 75 hit points. However, as she is The Socializer, if she is within 10 feet of any other survivor, she gains 1% of her health back per second. Big weapons are a problem for Zoey due to her size, so she has less accuracy with anything larger than the SMG. But to make up for this, she is proficient with her favorite pistols and gains an accuracy and damage boost when using them.
Louis, being The Explorer, needs to be rewarded for his adventurous and curious nature. Louis starts with 88 hit points, and he gains 1% of his health back per second if he is more than 10 feet away from any other survivor. His other Explorer trait is that if he is completely alone (i.e. can’t be seen by any other survivor), he gains a 10% chance to find a small item that wasn’t available to the other survivors (such as pills or pipe bombs or a pistol). He likes pills more than any other survivor, and so he starts with an effectiveness bonus the first time he uses them. On first use, the pills last 25% longer than usual. Every subsequent use, they lose 5% of their duration, until he reaches -25% of their useful duration, for the life of the campaign.
The Achiever is probably the most problematic one to think of as a personality. Bill‘s pretty cut and dry. I was originally tempted just to leave him alone, as a sort of control group, but there’s no fun in that. So to reward an achiever, Bill will gain objects and item bonuses whenever the party accomplishes the impossible. Did the party kill a Witch? Bill suddenly has an extra health pack to hand out or use that he forgot about. Did a Tank just die? Hey, check it out, Bill found some more Molotov cocktails! Or possibly whenever these obstacles are overcome, or if a checkpoint is reached in a level (you know them when you hit them) if a player comes within 5 feet of Bill they gain a 10% immediate boost to their health. And maybe we balance that out with Bill not being able to use a sniper rifle, or he only has 90 hit points, or better still, he takes twice as long to pick up when he’s down because he’s an old man!
It’s certainly not a perfect mod, hell, it won’t ever even be built*. But it accomplishes (or at the very least attempts) to do two things:
1). It rewards and enforces the Taxonomy of Multiplayer Games theory through new “Personality” classes.
2). It removes the irrelevancy of character choice from Left4Dead.
One of the reasons why I stopped playing L4D was because every game was the same, despite the AI Director and brilliance of the gameplay. Character choices became arbitrary, and they all played exactly the same. I’d love to try and win with four Francises. Or four Zoeys, or really any combination thereof, and have those choices actually mean something other than “I’m the chick in the red jogging jacket,” and maybe even be a reflection of the player themselves. I can just imagine four Francises, all trying to get to the Shotgun first (since only one of them can pick it up and get the bonus for using it), or four Zoeys, all hanging close and healing each other like crazy. Hell, even three Zoeys and a Louis, who constantly darts out into the darkness bringing back small treasures, with the girls healing him like crazy to reward his adventurous forays into the night. It just works.
In the end, I suppose it could be argued that I’m really not doing anything more than creating a Fighter , or Medic, or Ranger, or Paladin here, but the fiction and the expectation of how the game is played funnels it down into more of a personality than just a fantasy class.
If anyone knows how to mod L4D to make this work, I’m all ears.
* As it turns out, you can’t really mod Left 4 Dead, probably due to the EA publishing agreement. It’s the only game that Valve makes which doesn’t use the default Source engine, so as a modder all you’re left with is the ability to make new levels, for the most part.
Now more than ever, I find myself with even less time to actually play games, and so I’m looking for experiences that involve smaller bites of gameplay that don’t ask me to spend hours and hours at a time on the stick.
I normally shy away from XBLA type titles because previously, for me, the value just hasn’t been there to justify the purchase. Aways back that changed when Capcom released the Bionic Commando: Rearmed title. At the time I bought it because I was a Bionic Commando fanboy, but it really clicked with me because of the “smaller bites” type of gameplay my schedule dictates; I no longer have four hours a night to dedicate to gaming. I’m lucky if I have an hour to call my own, and even then I feel like I’m neglecting my parental/professional duties.
So fast forward to this past week, when I read on my Twitter feed everyone talking about the games Trials HD and Shadow Complex. I’m in serious need of some “new game” experiences, but I don’t have the time to dedicate to say Batman: Arkham like I would like to, so I grab the demos, and am so impressed that I wind up making the purchases.
I’m not going to review these titles or anything, but it’s important to look at their roots to see what holds the keys to their successes. Despite being very disparate titles in gameplay, they have a few things that are in common:
Their gameplay is based off of “tried and true” old school game mechanics and game-isms.
They both exist in a 2D level design but are rendered in 3D/contemporary graphics.
They incorporate analog mechanics which replace the original digital/binary mechanics.
TrialsHD, the third in the Trials series (if you missed the $2 sale for Trials2 on Steam you really missed out), is a professional rendering of the now tired Flash Motorcycle/Bike Game that just about every free shockwave or flash game website has on it. It takes those roots and runs with them, taking the on/off commands of a keyboard and replacing them all with analog triggers and joysticks. Even playing TrialsHD on my 360 after playing Trials2 on my PC (without a controller) is a striking experience, and I’m finding I’m much much better at the game because of the analog input. I no longer have to rapidly tap the gas to get the “inbetween” throttle position I desired. They also added a ton of new mini-game types to it and a level editor that pack way more value than the free flash game which preceeded it could even hope to pretend to have.
Shadow Complex, as you may have heard by now, is basically a nice re-skin of Super Metroid, and thrown a new fiction/setting. Sure, the Metroid comparison is a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s appropriate in that Shadow Complex borrows very heavily from its predecessor, and if you’re familiar with Metroid, you’ll be at home playing Shadow Complex. Where the analog comes in is in its aiming mechanic, allowing you to select any individual angle you want (unlike in Super Metroid, where you’re stuck with one of 8 aiming positions, if memory serves).
It’s interesting to me, how new and exciting these old concepts become (Flash Bike Game/Super Metroid) when their old binary mechanics are replaced with some higher fidelity analog controls, and a heaping of more “relevant” 3D graphics. I’m wondering if I would have enjoyed Bionic Commando: Rearmed even more if there was a bit less of a literal reskinning and a more liberal use of analog control? I didenjoy Rearmed, but there might be something to the idea of taking that core gameplay and allowing it some breathing room with some analog control.
Knowing how this industry works, I would put money down on the fact that we’ll be seeing a lot more of this kind of idea: old 2D gameplay plus new analog mechanics and 3D aesthetics. It would be hilarious but sad to see someone attempt to improve perfection by adding an analog component to Super Mario Bros (but still maintain the 2D gameplay), so maybe that one is off limits, but let’s have some fun with this concept.
Elevator Action with a jump button added and a prone position (not just crouch), to give the player more positions to dodge bullets from, and aiming on an analog stick so that they can shoot out of the elevators on angles instead of forcing the elevators to move up and down to dodge.
Sonic with run on an analog trigger, so that players must choose just how fast they need to run across different hazards/hills (instead of full speed all the time).
Shinobi with an analog aim component for throwing stars from any angle to any angle (down while jumping, up while running, etc.)
These were actually tougher to come up with than I thought. Anyone else have any to add? Throw your ideas out in the comments.
Hey, guess what? I didn’t know I was going to take a (looks over at date on previous post) THREE MONTH HIATUS?~??!!!? Jeeeeebus who do I think I am, anyway?
Wow, looking back previously, I’ve realized that I’ve really fallen off the writing/design/critiquing wagon, and usually put a small apology at the beginning of each post, but figured I’d throw one massive one up as its own post.
Things have been pretty crazy in Chez Game-Ism the past nine months or so. The economy and the company I worked for went into a tailspin, I’m in a new job currently, the CCG I was working on as a side project became a reality, I attempted to heal an old injury and wound up making something else worse (not a fan of doctors at the moment), and my wife delivered our second baby just last week! People usually say “pick three” when I wonder why I have an ulcer.
At any rate, I just wanted to let you know not to remove me from your RSS feed just yet (unless you have already, in which case, why are you using an RSS reader, and more importantly, how are you reading this then?). I’ve got a handful of pieces in mind, and I’d write one tonight but I want to get a touch more gaming in before I have to succumb to another night of attempting to get a five day old baby to sleep for more than five hours while the sun is down.