Monday, 19 December 2011

CD Projekt & Piracy

This one's probably a bit more business-y than usual, first posted as it was over at GAMESbrief.

CD Projekt's been in the news of late over its judicious mailshotting of thousands of members of the German public with demands for settlements to the tune of €911.80 for alleged copyright infringement of The Witcher 2. You can get the details just about anywhere else: basically having removed DRM from the game post-launch as a move to placate honest customers (and much  inline with the outfit's indie facade), CD Projekt have gotten onboard with a law firm, tracked torrent IPs, and demanded retribution.

Naturally enough there's been a backlash. There are a bunch of tacks here, but the basic thing is this: torrent trolling is bad, innocent people get done. It's true enough. Certainly an IP is not a one hundred percent guarentee you've landed yourself a pirate; certainly there will be innocent people who unthinkingly pay up.

At the same time, though, I want to argue in support of CD Projekt; or at least against those reasons. It seems to me that every game company is put in a position where they have to consider their approach to piracy and how they can profit despite or even because of it. CD Projekt is doing its best in that regard. The people there identified that DRM wasn't working: the games were cracked on release, everyone was complaining, and it was probably costing them more money than it was saving. So they jacked it in.

The company's new approach means legitimate customers can enjoy their game without the hoops. It also allows the company to focus attention on the people they actually want (and are legally entitled) to prosecute. Clearly there will be mistakes (unsecured LANs, false IPs etc); but there always are, and there are always processes in place to handle them. CD Projekt is working according to the law and to the demands of its customers. I think it's marginally better than the previous system.

Now, if that all sounds a bit too square, let me add a caveat. I don't think this is the right way about it. Personally, I don't take issue with the handful of innocent IPs that get lettered, and I don't try to pretend that just because piracy isn't stealing that it isn't illegal. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a lot of the people complaining along those lines didn't either. What I take issue with is the attempt to secure the rights to our internet activity by the government. I take issue with approaches that try to control or fight the freedom the net grants people, and with piracy moves that try to plug the dam after the town's flooded. And yes, I take issue with someone telling me I can't stream an episode of South Park without getting an angry letter. A lot of people get a lot of crap for free now. Ask the Humble Indie Bundle if that's a problem for their bottom line.

My issue isn't with CD Projekt using the law to their best interest. My issue is with the law that allows it.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Christmas Looms, Work Pervades, Sega Game is Awesome

Things have been slow around here (the blog, not the studio) over the last couple of months, and that's something I hope to correct in the new year. The reason for it is that Sept - Jan has been just about the busiest period of my career. There are good I've-had-lots-of-jobs-come-in reasons for that, but I've also been teaching the story design module at Southbank uni again, as well as taking the first step towards my PhD in the form of a Philosophy MA at King's College. I actually have to be out of bed by 8am four days a week.

Of most interest, though, is probably the secret project that's taking up most of my time. I'm currently narrative designer for a major new Sega IP for Playstation Vita being developed up at Sega's new 'boutique' studio outside of Birmingham. Boutique, for once, is actually being applied quite fairly - this is a bunch of around 15 highly talented chaps and chapesses producing what Sega sorely needs: new, ambitious, home-grown intellectual property. The studio's creative team is headed by Simon Woodroffe of Simon the Sorceror and Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth fame, and we're working on what is probably only the second game I've worked on which I felt might really do something great with its writing. (The first was the ill-fated Hydravision zombie game.)

The game's being designed from the ground up with narrative as its focus, and right now myself and another designer are knee deep in fleshing out the gameplay scenarios and producing a vertical slice. We're hoping to be able to announce details Q1 next year. Story development is actually in large part being informed by the aesthetics and philosophy of mind that I'm researching at King's, and I'll probably bore you to tears with some details on the latter some time soon.

In the meantime don't give up, stay chirpy, and we'll talk again very soon.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Stories in Ulikely Places: SWAT 4

Why is SWAT 4 the singleplayer game I've replayed more than any other (ie three times)? Why does it still give me the warm sense that something somewhere is right in the world (or at least was back in 2005)? Why this despite the fact my men are unable to equip anything more lethal than a paintball gun?

At the core of SWAT 4 is as rigorously designed a gameloop as you'll ever come across. Enter a plausibly detailed, open layout environment (anywhere from a petrol station to a halfway house to someone's house) with your four AI squaddies. Find a door, check what's on the other side with the look-under-the-door / magic wand gizmo, choose an appropriate tactic and storm in. Kill/arrest baddies, secure civvies and weapons, report status, rinse repeat.

The game gets a few key things really right.

Sense of Place
I enter the dining room in the halfway house. It's a large, open hall designed to feed people en masse; I have good visibility compared to the segregated cubicles of the office building I've come from, but the size of the room means a single grenade won't cut it. I order Blue team to breach from the other entry point to cover more ground.

I love games that make me feel like I'm in a real place that affects the way I play, rather than just a series of room and corridors with different body paint to run through. Think Hitman, think Thief, think Project IGI. SWAT 4 gets half of this right - while an office block doesn't make gas grenades any less effective, we are at least encouraged to take the context onboard and appreciate the bubble narrative of each level. From mission briefings and 911 calls to believable level geometry and visual detail, Irrational did their utmost to bring you into the gameworld in a way far more effective (for me) than a Half-Life 2 or Deux Ex 3. These are all locations we're familiar with and - to a degree - predict; they feel like part of a larger world rather than a themed rollercoaster, and for SWAT that's all important.

Sense of Role
The team bursts into the dining room, the pointman reporting one armed suspect and one civilian. The suspect stares at us in shock, his weapon resting uneasily by his side. I scream at him to drop the weapon, knowing I'm the only one with an itchy enough trigger finger to pop him before he poses a threat. He drops the gun, goes to kneel down, then draws a sidearm. I shoot him in the face, which spooks the hostage, and I'm forced to have my team subdue her. Situation under control I have them both arrested and report the outcome to TOC.

SWAT 4 is, I can only assume, not very realistic in any sense but the aesthetic. This being said, it remains more realistic-feeling than just about any military shooter bar some of the older OpFlashes and Rainbow Sixes. The challenge in SWAT (at difficulties beyond normal) is not to kill all the baddies - that's easy - it's to follow procedure without letting procedure get in the way of killing the baddies. It's not quite the way it's presented, but effectively you start out with 100 points, and they're detracted for every red tape slip up.

Kill a guy when you could have arrested him: -2 points
Fail to secure a weapon or report a kill/arrest/casualty: -2 points
Shoot a guy who didn't point his gun at you: -5 points
Execute an arrested criminal: -10 points
Execute one of your teammates (even by accident): death by impromptu firing squad

It sounds petty, and it can be, particularly when the game's age (and that period's lesser focus on accessibility) sees your final objective being to rescour an empty level looking for the one handgun you forgot to collect. For the most part, though, it's a stern reminder that you're not a lawless one man army. You're a guy (a faceless, characterless guy, but a guy nonetheless) with a boss, and a job, and the expectations that come with. It feels like I'm part of a system rather than the one guy allowed to break it. That's a good thing, even if it means I have to arm my chaps with paintball guns to stop them killing dudes.

Sense of Tactical Play
I stack my men up on the next door and order a breach, bang & clear. Red One opens the door and Red Two slings a flashbang. I call up the Blue One camera and watch from first person as he makes entry and scans the room, Blue Two passing his peripheral as he heads in deeper.

SWAT 4's gameloop is, ultimately, about assessing your situation, selecting tactics, breaching a room and then making a series of quick-fire decisions. This is all supported by a remarkably intuitive order system that allows quick and (when the AI isn't getting all 2005 on your arse) effective coordination of your team that's further strengthened by the animation. It's indescribably satisfying to watch the fluid machine of your squad in motion.

Truth is, tactics are more limited than they appear. The differences between the flash, gas and pellet grenades is rarely vital (are the threats wearing gas masks? is there clear line of sight?), pincer moves are often more dangerous than single attacks, and additional flavours like pre-mission loadouts and entry points similarly cursory. The combination, though, is palpable. Just like the original, top down Rainbow Six, there's the sense of a well-ordered plan that could go wrong at any moment, and an excruciating tension. The latter is, if anything, only added to by the knowledge that hearing your guys yelling to "Get down!" means there's a 50:50 chance their overly steady trigger fingers will be slower than the suspects'; unless, that is, you can get there in time. In fact, unless grenades are wisely used in incapacitating your foes your four-strong team is easily matched by a single aggressive crim.

All Told
I stack my team up on the door and loop around to the connecting room; anyone in this second room could easily avoid a grenade blast and flank my chaps. I signal them to go, hear the bang, and make entry myself. I blast open the door and come face to face with a perp. In my panic I shoot him in the face, as I am prone to do. Oh spacial awareness, you've bitten me again: there's one fewer room between me and my guys than I figured. As the perp falls I consider how strangely well equipped he is. By the time he lands I realise it's Red One. I eyeball the rest of my team and hammer the 'F' key to report a man down, and then hammer it some more in the hope its contextual function can also handle "Guys, it was a mistake, I'm sorry!" Someone, that uppity bastard Blue Two, I think, yells, "We've got a traitor!" and everyone shoots me. As the screen fades I hear Blue Two report to TOC that the "Situation is under control."

SWAT 4 is a game that tells engaging stories without the schoolboy reliance on a grand overarching narrative. Who says games should be about a ten hour story and not ten one hour ones? It's a game that intelligently combines scripted narrative (in the mission briefings and level layouts) with procedural content (in the random enemy positions and emergent scenarios), and presents it all through gameplay that reflects the both.

SWAT 4 is my favourite Irrational game. I can think of few higher complements than that.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Battlefield 3: Worth Writing Home About?

Was it always this hard? Were there always so many hiding places? Did it always take so long to go prone and take aim? I don't know the objective answers to these questions, but subjectively I'd suggest it's 'no', 'no' and 'Chuckpow! Solider down!'.

The BF series has long been dear to my heart in a way few online shooters ever have been - say hello Action Quake 2, Planetside, Enemy Territory and L4D - so I was intrigued by the third full entry, albeit less so than most of my narrative design students (half of whom didn't make last week's lecture, busy as they were consuming EA's marketing hype and review fixing).

Hit & miss respect for the consumer aside, what's always sold me on the formula is the same thing that made Tribes and the original 1942 so spectacular - the sheer volume of variables. I go on a lot about procedural narrative and Battlefield is a key, if one note point of reference. The tales of heroism and emergent play styles the game promotes will always be of far greater value than the scale of the 'splodes or the faux-realistic setting (and the less said about the me-too singleplayer the better).

So does BF3 deliver? It's honestly hard for me to say. Something's changed in a big way, either in me or in DICE: I cannot play Battlefield 3.

First off, all the movement feels wonky. My rig is a solid yet unspectacular Intel i5, GeForce GTX275, 4GB RAM (or is that 8GB?), and I'm sure that at the least the screen judder when I both move and look around is specific to my machine. This aside, though, I feel half the time like I'm playing a bad RPG.

IF [player is using prone ability] THEN [+50 Accuracy]
IF [player activates prone ability] AND [player is standing] THEN [+10 attack delay]

In essence, I remember a time when spotting someone first or implementing a smart strategy meant you had a decent chance of a kill; nowadays it seems to revolve more around who's got the bigger gun.

Which rather brings up the next usual gripe, and one I can't possibly ignore. It's sad that so many devs take it to be impossible to market and maintain interest in a shooter that doesn't have persistent upgrades, and while I grant it would not take forever to level up one particular class in BF3, the advantages gained are nothing less than significant game winners. Bottom line I find it genuinely disturbing that the two pillars of competitive FPS (you can guess which the other is) are comfortable not only allowing but encouraging unfair competition. We wouldn't take the IRB seriously if next world cup they banned France from kicking the ball until enough tickets had been sold to French supporters, and we shouldn't condone it any more here.

There are other things that bother me about BF3, but it seems reasonable to suggest most of them come down to my lack of integration with the game systems (or, in alternative parlance, how shit I am). I remember being able to jump into a jeep, play chicken with a tank, bail out just before the two go up in flames, then go prone and pick off the remaining defenders you've caught off guard. Maybe these things are still possible for the elite, but I can't help but feel the jeep wouldn't explode and that I'd get picked off before I even had a chance to bail. In short Battlefield Free4Play seems altogether more true to the series' heritage.

I find myself, while playing, genuinely wanting to say "Why is there so much stuff on my screen?" "How is it I can't actually see anyone that's shooting at me?" "What's with all this realistic foliage and destructible scenery?" BF2 was just so much simpler. You could actually distinguish between an enemy and a rock at distance. With that in mind, it seems the truth is that some of this is a genuine gripe, and much of it is an admission that, perhaps, I'm not as young as I used to be. For me, taking a 1:1 kill death ratio isn't really a satisfying experience. Likewise hitting a bottleneck where 20 players from each team trade covering fire for ten minutes may be a valid experience for many, but it's just not fun for me; it's just not Battlefield.

Battlefield 3 is an explosive war game with a huge marketing budget and a browser-based server interface. It is not, at heart, a Battlefield game. It is, however, modern warfare in every sense of the word. That makes me somewhat sad.

Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 0 out of 2

Monday, 17 October 2011

Interview: Splash Damage's Ed Stern on Multiplayer Narrative, Baeckeoffe, and Living a Real GameDev Story

For the last 8 years Ed Stern has belonged to Splash Damage, the London-based developer that started out producing maps for 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein and wound up epitomising the genre it helped to create with 2007's Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. The closed in level design of this year's Brink has rattled some cages, but the free-running gameplay and world design have been singled out across the board. Ed would have it that his job title covers everything ever, so it's safe to say narrative design is right up there.

Hi Ed. What the hell do you do?
I’m very well, thanks. And yourself?

Oh what do I do? Ah. Well. You are by no means the only person to wonder that. I write game settings and backstory and concept documents for environment artists, character artists and level designers. I work with Creative Director Richard Ham and Lead Game Designer Neil Alphonso and Art Director Olivier Leonardi and many other people-persons on the narrative design and lean, pull, push and puff heavily upon the greasy tiller that is narrative direction. Occasionally I get to, you know, write dialogue and work with actors. Those are good days. Days spent in Excel trying to compare objective name-change localisation typos between three languages I don’t speak, THOSE ARE EVEN MORE BETTER GOOD DAYS. So I’m basically an embedded full-time narrative designer/director/writer monkey.

Since this is a reply-by-email thing I'll assume what you just said had something to do with writing.
Actually I just wrote in a recipe for Baeckeoffe. But now, stricken by a long-dormant voice I’m choosing to call a conscience, I have gone back and typed something else in. I’m sorry, I was interrupting you. What’s your next question?

For a long time writing had nothing to do with –

Sorry I was just attacked by a bin. Spirited brute, but I eventually o’ercame it. Threw me right off my stride, though. Please forgive me, do go on.

For a long time…

For a long time writing had nothing to do with shooting real internet people in the face, so how much narrative thought and work goes into the objectives and level layouts in Quake Wars or Brink, and how much of it is a case of, "Hey, we should have a bomb in a crashed spaceship!"?
An awful lot of thought goes into the levels and objectives, but the priority is always gameplay. If it’s not fun to play, it doesn’t matter if it makes neat narrative sense. Ink is cheaper than gameplay geometry, so inevitably it’s the story stuff that gets changed to match the gameplay. Alas, there’s still a basic tension between what we as writers would like the game to be about, and what players spend all their time doing in it. The plot isn’t the story of the game, the story of the game is the sum of the player’s experiences playing the game. And some of that you can shape and colour and influence in artful, craftful ways. And some of it you just can’t. Occasionally I mutter and grumble when I feel as if something’s strayed from my own PERFECT AND INVIOLABLE VISION OF WHAT IT MUST SIMPLY MUST BE. And then I’ll calm down, get over myself and get on with getting the game made. 

Splash Damage has always had a very community feel to it. The company started out, like a lot of the talent in the industry, producing maps for online shooters, and has continued to hire from the modding scene. Is that garage vibe still present, or have you sold your souls?
We got 10p each for ‘em. We certainly started out in the approved British amateur passionate and rather slapdash manner. But you can’t just keep throwing yourself at projects in a “let’s sleep under our desks until it’s done” sort of way, however endearingly shambolic it seems from the outside. You just break yourself that way, and perhaps more importantly, you don’t do good work.  And although it took a while to realise it, this is our Job now. People depend on us. We’ve had to grow up and learn about alien notions like “scheduling” and “pacing yourself”.

Certainly in terms of hiring we realised we couldn’t just restrict ourselves to the talent pool of the mod community, ingenious and brilliant though they are. Increasingly we need people who aren’t just bright and passionate, but also know how to get a game made, on time, on budget, on schedule. We’ve hired a bunch of very very good senior people, all of whom have previously shipped several AAA titles. So if we held ourselves to this standard, we original-ish members of SD, if we applied for our own jobs, we wouldn’t be sufficiently qualified to get ‘em. It’s all far too much like Game Dev Story. I fear I’m the first Writer guy you hire, with no Program stats, low dozens Scenario stats, zero Graphics, zero Sound and a pitifully short Stamina bar. I’ve certainly been tempted at times to mutter “You want me to write the proposal for another game? I’m not sure I can give it my best”…

I’ve started affecting a suit jacket, and the occasional ironed shirt. If ye have not maturity or virtue, then at least copy their outward signs. Also, if you’re of the plump persuasion, it gives your body the illusion of shape/corners etc.

It’s odd, when I started studying screenwriting more seriously, I thought it would make me more critical, that from then on whenever I saw anything I’d say to myself “Ah, well they got THAT wrong, and THAT wrong, and should have done THIS instead”. And the absolute opposite has happened. I’m now the least critical audience possible, all my sympathy is with people producing stuff. Anyone who gets anything finished, and to market, they’re a hero. If it’s any good at all in any way, they’re a genius. If I didn’t enjoy it, well, probably it just wasn’t for me, or more likely, a bunch of very talented people worked long and hard and did the best possible job they could with the resources they had available. Making games is hard. Everything’s in the way of you telling a good story with good characters and good dialogue. It makes me look enviously at radio drama, comics and prose: there’s so little to get in the way, it’s such a straight line between the heads of the writer and the reader. Thankfully my superpower-strength Inertia and Sloth prevent me from exploring those too closely.

Now I'm going to try to get you in trouble. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was Nerve Software and id in the original Return to Castle Wolfenstein multiplayer who established a lot of what we now recognise as a Splash Damage game: asynchronous maps, the medic and character classes, the objective-based gameplay... How did Splash Damage come to figurehead these values in the first place?
I’m oddly inspired you call them values. I had no notion ET-style gameplay had such an ethical component. Well, a lot of that actually stemmed from Splash Damage’s work on the Q3F mod, which featured classes and a heavy focus on teamwork way back in the early 2000s. The other ingredient – asynchronous map design – came from Return to Castle Wolfenstein which was in turn heavily inspired by id’s Kevin Cloud’s experiences of board games.

So when it came to developing Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, we took our own Q3F ideas combined with RtCW’s approach to map design as a starting point, and added several new twists of our own, including experience points and command posts. I suppose Splash Damage gets associated with that objective mode stuff because we’ve kept plugging ahead with it in Q3F, Wolf: ET, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Brink. I can see why many other devs don’t, though. It’s so much harder to balance and devise objectives for.

As games go, online shooters are the polar opposite of what we tend to talk about on this blog - the artsy fartsy indie games - and yet the Enemy Territory games are some of my favourites. I think that's down to the tactical (rather than run & gun) gameplay philosophy, and the drama that's generated by an open playfield, narratively contextualised objectives, and other people. How do you see multiplayer and narrative (procedural or pre-scripted) coming together in the future? Woo, long question.
Hrm, it’s a tough ‘un. There’s a fundamental incompatibility between simultaneous narrative and interactivity in games. It’s possibly an even bigger challenge for writers than the problems of simultaneous action and dialogue in non-interactive drama. Even though the Portal games have been rightly praised sky-high, I still don’t think people quite appreciate what Valve pulled off there: what other possible setting would allow the story to consist solely of player interactivity? And be so funny? And involve no uncanny-valley-dwelling NPCs? And this from the chaps who gave us Alyx Vance in HL2, one of the most companionable companions in games. Portal 2 in particular was such a splendid union of gameplay, narrative and setting, where the story absolutely consists of the sum of the player’s inputs.

Partly, it’s down to the fact that we still describe a really enormous number of very different things as all being “games”. There are different kinds, different keys and genres and forms of gameplay, and they’re each only compatible with certain shapes and sizes and styles of story. Linear scripted SP shooters allow you to control the pacing and experiential density of the game, slow the action, block off routes, insist that players witness certain events, follow a familiar cast of characters and so on. But it’s not particularly repeatable. Or at least, unless it’s very dense, the experience of replaying it won’t be meaningfully different. MultiPlayer, with its constant chaotic player interactions, seems too busy to tell story in unless you’ve puffed and panted to set up the objectives and make the player feel like they’re Meaningful and About Something. But that’s just one kind of story: the story the writer writes.  The story of the game is not the game’s story, it’s the sum of the player’s experiences playing the game. The MP game is a toolkit, ruleset and sandpit to let players author their own unique experiences. It’s a forge for them to forge their own watercooler moments. That’s why it’s worth going back to and replaying, because it’ll never play out quite the same way twice. And that procedural narrative unpredictability, as you say, can be very satisfying, even though (especially though?) it’s completely different from the narrative immersion of (generally SP) indie interactive installations. Speaking of which, aren’t Limbo and Project Zomboid great? Some of the best bits of storytelling I’ve seen in games. Very different in tone and feel and pace of action. But aren’t they both at least partly dependent on their pacing? Wouldn’t their meaning change if you set a busy MP game in those universes? Wouldn’t you lose a lot? Why I am asking you questions? What’s the year? Who’s the baby? Where do Prime Ministers come from?

Pure MP I think is going to remain a hard nut to crack, at least when it comes to linear narrative (whether “written” or procedural). Co-Op, Player(s) v Environment, traditional SP, those are all easier forms to tell a story in. Left4Dead (Valve again, I know, I know) did a great job furnishing players with a replayable game that told a beautifully detailed and compelling story, albeit one narrated by the environment rather than the characters. People just approach MP with a particular set of expectations, and narrative isn’t necessarily one of them. The danger you run trying to make MP meaningful is that it can seem like unnecessary clutter that’s in the way of you playing the game the way you want to play it rather than a welcome, added, delightful bonus. Genre is tough. Mainstream player audiences are conservative. For many gamers, story in MP is like anchovies in their ice cream: two great flavours that really don’t go together.

Finally, what's next for you and Splash Damage?
Fire alarm! Can’t talk! Bye!

Thanks for your time.
No thank you.

No thank YOU.

OK, I’m stopping typing now.

No you hang up.
No YOU hang up.

@EdStern often tweets things, while Splash Damage often makes games. These things should interest you.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Driver: San Francisco - Post Mortem & Script Samples

So it's 18 months since I completed work, a month since release (to console, at any rate), and 48 hours since I finally got my hands on Driver: San Francisco. I have some thoughts on that topic.

First, it's my biggest and most polished release, so congratulations and thanks to the guys who did the real work over at Ubi Reflections. Thanks also to my agent, Sidelines, who put together the incidental dialogue team that I was a part of.

Despite being a big-bombast driving experience (ie the other end of the spectrum from my usual interests), Driver has my heart. I say this with what I hope to be a reasonable degree of independence - I never played the game before it's PC release, and I had nothing to do with game design or the central narrative thread - but Driver: San Francisco is that rarest of things: a game with a defined tone. I'm not the first person to say that the black humour, campy cop show theming and absurdist premise combine to deliver a world that works by its own rules and is a joy to inhabit.

But what exactly did I have to do with all this, and what did I learn? I produced a pretty significant portion of the Act 2 NPC dialogues - the flavour conversations (or barks) that occur when you shift into a car with a passenger. They were actually the topic of their very own bit of marketing, being as there are more lines in Driver than in Mass Effect 2. I'm not in a position to comment on that one, but I know I produced about 50,000 words across 30 characters and that others were doing similar. At any rate, RPS had some nice things to say about these dialogues in particular, so I hope they're worth discussing.

If the experience has reminded me of anything, it's that playing a game is essential to writing one. Stupid thing to say, I know, but it's amazing how often that principle is disregarded. In the case of Driver it was very much a priority job (which is a nice way of saying a rushed one), and though I asked for playable code I rolled over pretty quickly because sometimes a client just wants you to do the job you've been assigned, and are paying good money for freelancers so they have less to worry about, not more. I can't say I blame them, but I can't say I'd roll over so easily next time either.

The stuff I produced for Driver works, for the most part. If you're interested, a cursory play suggests to me that about half the in-car stuff around chapters 3-6 is mine, and you can find a full list here. A bit like putting a novel in a cupboard for six months, such a big gap between writing and playing lent me some objectivity, even to the extent that I was struggling to pick out my own characters. The darker ones work the best for me: the kid whose one day with his estranged father is ruined by Tanner's interference ("I think you broke my arm again, dad."); the hospital director who's terrified of winding up in her own intensive care unit ("You do understand our surgical staff are barely trained chimps?").

Where things falter a little is in the gameplay, or at least my lack of knowledge of it at the time. These scripts are supposed to be quick fire, simple to grasp scenarios that pack a funny / dark / atmospheric punch. Sometimes playing the game almost feels like a formality - after all, a scene is a scene, and a line entry marked 'Jump Land' or 'Scrape' seems pretty self-explanatory; but context is everything. How long is the delay between timed lines? How much more violent is a crash compared with a scrape? Does the dialogue reset if the player leaves the car?

The result is not that the good lines aren't good: the material still works; but a lot of it is lost in the mix. The ends are cut off of the wipeout lines; the story flow breaks in certain scenarios; lines you expect to be the mainstay are rarely heard.

I'm very happy with the work we did on Driver, and proud to have been involved in its development. Most of all, though, the experience cements for me what I've always suggested: that a games writer's job is still (and may be for some time) not so much to do what they're told, but to do what they ought. I failed to uphold that principle and at times, and perhaps only to me, it shows in the game.

If you're interested in the practicalities of writing for games you can check out a sample from the Driver: San Francisco script over at the Narrative Design Resource.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Ride the Wild Rumpus!

New London indie party game night, Wild Rumpus, is just what we need.

Gaming isn't cool. I'm as surprised as you are. Even the name, 'gaming' - sounds kinda seedy, no? Almost like the games are playing us. Sad fact is that the games we really hold up as meaningful still carry teenage baggage (yes, Planescape tells a smart, inventive and evocative story; yes the girls mostly still have big tits and can be talked into bed after you've slain a few hundred goblins), and our mode of enjoyment still tends to be cooped up in a bedroom or lounge, alone, giggling to ourselves. We don't have the same mass participation and discussion that cinema promotes, or the same celebrity culture that marks the upper echelons of literature and drama. Hell, I went to watch a girlfriend at a L'Oreal hair colouring (not dressing, colouring) competition half a decade ago and I remember sitting in the audience watching all these passionate people and wondering how haircolouring could be cooler than the newest artistic medium on the block.

Before you say it, I know we have equivalent stuff. Starcraft tournaments, this week's Eurogamer Expo etc. But they're just not cool. I wouldn't do that on a night out. Sorry.

The Wild Rumpus is cool. Not cool in an exclusive way, but cool in a cool way, in the universal way.

The debut night consisted of one of my fave Brick lane bars filled with indie party games and music and a mix of local devs, gamers and lost ravers from the gig next door. Game of the night was undoubtedly Johann Sebatian Joust, a Playstation Move game that doesn't use a display at all, and asks players to keep their controllers still while jabbing and pushing their opponents. It's all supposed to be timed to the Bach music in the background, though that was way drowned out by the party. Anyway, I'd be surprised if they couldn't box this one as a standalone party game for £40.

It was excellent. The night is run (I found out by chance on the night - see, no bias) by my mate Ricky and his chums, and apparently the best way to keep up is on twitter. The next night is up in Nottingham next month, and they'll doubtless by back to East London shortly after that.

Oh, also, 2-player Super Crate Box in an arcade cabinet.

All photos copyright Natalie Seery

Friday, 16 September 2011

Some Arty Stuff From My Girlfriend

I have two tags for when I'm doing some shameless plugging - one I use for when I'm plugging my stuff, and another for everything else. I've been trying to work out, when I plug my girlfriend's new blog, which one I should use.

At any rate, Rox Herve is a French artist and film-maker, and you can tell she's good because whenever she takes a photo of me she does so in black & white. This is an artist's euphemism for "you're not pretty enough for full colour".

She also writes screwed up things about screwed up films, makes marginally less screwed up films at the parties we're not supposed to have, and paints things that I find entirely incomprehensible. I ask her what the point is, she tells me that that's exactly why I've missed it, then I screw up my face in confusion and she takes another B&W snap. (Incidentally she hates having the camera turned on her, so by all means desecrate her anonymity by visiting her Facebook page.)

More importantly, though, judge her stuff for yourself.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Interview: Jenova Chen on Bondai-gate, Cultural Boundaries & Journey

Jenova Chen first came to public attention with Cloud - a free download in 2005 following a soaring child interacting with a the clouds in a surreal dreamscape. Jumping on that success and founding thatgamecompany, Jenova's team moved into a three game deal with Sony which has seen similarly inventive and zen-like offerings fl0w and Flower released on PSN, and which will culminate with this year's Journey.

Hi Jenova. There's not a lot of writing in your games, and yet you clearly put a lot of stead in expressing drama and - to my mind most successfully - evoking emotion in more fundamental and perhaps less immediate fashion. Is the absence of words a conscious decision, and if so why?

I decided to do that mainly because I had a hard time at my screen writing class in the USC film school. While I did manage to earn an A in the end of the semester through some ridiculous amount of work, I realized that I can’t really write solid dialogs considering I didn’t grow up in the western culture and English is my second language. I can only write fictions, things that’s not heavily rooted in the local culture. So as a way of avoiding this problem, I figured it’s best for me to focus on things that is more universal, things that can cross the boundary of culture and language.

I remember playing Cloud on release. It seems to me the sort of time that the indie community was really starting to flourish on the PC. How has the community / market changed since you started out, and do you miss the PC?

It’s a time where online download-able game is only accessible through PC. And all console games have to be sold through retail, which adds a huge budget to the cost of a video games. At that time PC is the only way a small budget indie game can be distributed. Now the world has changed so much that every device seems to have an online access to games. And the distribution cost is so low now that anybody in a garage can make an iOS or Android games. I don’t believe the personal computer will exist in 10 years. We are in a post PC device era. So I don’t miss PC :)

Journey was well entrenched in my most anticipated last year, and it seems we're finally being drip fed some details. One thing I'm still slightly in the dark on is what sort of interactions two players will be having. Are they puzzle solving together? Are they simply there?

Journey is not a co-op game in which player has to work together to solve a puzzle. The other player is there more about sharing the experience. With that said, there is subtle benefits being close to the other player. In Journey player can recharge their energy by touching things made of cloth, so is the remote player. Veteran players probably would show you secret areas and short cuts they’ve discovered in the past.

Auteur theory. I know you've been asked about it before, but particularly in light of the recent LA Noire scandal (in which Team Bondi Boss Brendan McNamara uses his self-professed auteur status to justify appalling working conditions) I wanted to ask how responsible you feel for thatgamecompany's output, and whether you think the auteur has a place in our industry?

I certainly would support auteur theory, since that’s how Cinema evolved so rapidly from limited content controlled by big production studio into an indie film movement supported by a wide range of content and memorable names. While Mr.McNamara used that status to make everyone else work extra hours for him. At thatgamecompany we don’t encourage crunch time on our team members. Any extra hours are completely volunteered. As the director for the game, I felt obligated to putting the extra hours to make the game perfect. While I believe I work just as hard as Mr.McNamara, I don’t want to enforce others into a crunch without their own will.

For all the energy I expend on topics like emotion and drama I still let loose in APB Reloaded or Left4Dead 2 every once in a while. Which games are your guilty pleasures?

I still need a daily dose of games like Street Fighter 4, DOTA, League of Legend for my male competitive satisfaction. Recently I’ve been trying to follow up with the social games, I played Smurf Ville, Tiny Tower and Zombie Farm for quite a while.

Thanks for your time.

You can keep up with thatgamecompany very easily.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The End - A Philosophical Game About Death: Worth Writing Home About?

Preloaded and Channel 4 have finally gotten around to releasing their much anticipated (by me, at least) edutainment (groan) game, The End. It's a platformer that asks the player to consider, better understand and (arguably) question their beliefs around death.

The game itself - like The Curfew and Privates before it - is the product of C4's educational budget being thrown at interactive endeavours and, like those games, proves an ambitious, valuable, yet somewhat flawed offering.

The platforming is just god-awful. The framerate stutters, the level design is pedestrian and sometimes downright obscure, and there is simply nothing of import to do in the world beyond bagging a few collectables and reaching the philosophical query at the end. It's ironic that player death is treated so simplistically in a game which takes that topic as its muse, and it becomes very clear very quickly that all this running about is filler, unrelated to what lies at the heart of the experience: that promise of existential exploration.

I first became aware that Preloaded were shooting for something interesting when I met them at World of Love, and that ambition shines through in the metagame and community hub they've provided as part of the experience. Each level explicitly asks the player something about their beliefs: 'Is there a soul?', 'Should we have the right to choose when we die?' etc. Each answer helps to plot your position on a chart as compared to other players / friends / famous thinkers, and place you into one of four categories. I got the Truth-teller, which basically means I'm a cold-hearted rationalist who doesn't give a damn if no-one agrees with him. Which is largely bang-on; although given the very broad strokes used to categorise (essentially are you rational or spiritual, and are you empathetic or an anti-social tosser like me?) perhaps this shouldn't be too much of a surprise.

Where the educational angle comes in is that for every question answered a brief discussion of the topic is displayed, along with links to further reading and philosophers who thought similarly. It's somewhat telling of where Preloaded's real passion lies that they actually allow you to participate in this part of the game without completing more than one level: the questions can all be answered in the profile tab.

While this side of the game clearly isn't aimed at Philosophy grads, there is one immediate criticism I can see being brought to bear, which is that this method of feedback seems like it may instigate a loop. Let's say I'm a 13 year old with a faintly Christian upbringing (which I was, once) and by default I tell the game that I believe in the soul and an afterlife. The game then validates my unreasoned faith by categorising me as something romantic like 'The Mystic', and seals the deal by referring me to a bunch of philosophers who think the same way. Have my beliefs been brought into question, or simply given a new kind of legitimacy? While the game goes someway towards addressing this by providing a neutral discussion of each topic and telling players in no uncertain terms whether their beliefs are predicated on reason or blind faith, there's a pervading sense that encouraging the audience to think about the validity of their beliefs (as is done successfully here) is a lesser priority than simply encouraging them to start thinking.

This, of course, is arguably no great criticism. Most great thinkers began (and many continued) by searching for legitimate reasons to believe whatever they wanted to believe; the very best often failed and started again from scratch. Preloaded's modus operandi here has been to provide support to a British teenage audience that has grown up in a largely secular society where neither spirituality nor philosophy has been readily available to help them understand topics like mortality.

In this respect - as a gateway to a way of thinking far more powerful than anything taught in schools - The End is a success. I hope next time Preloaded will succeed in integrating their ambitions into a more appealing game.

Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2

Sunday, 28 August 2011

'GAMESbrief: Traditional Games, Transition and the Power of the Free' is a Book I Helped Write

One of many differences between Plot is Gameplay's Bitch and GAMESbrief is that GAMESbrief sells books with intelligent, marketing-led headers like:

"Buy GAMESbrief Unplugged Volume 2 for 40% off"

GAMESbrief also doesn't having swearing in its name.

At any rate, GAMESbrief is an industry analyst blog run by industry analyst, Nicholas Lovell. We used to work together for GameShadow, and I sometimes write stuff for his blog. Sometimes that stuff gets polished, supplemented and printed up in a lovely coffee table book called GAMESbrief Unplugged.

In the words of its author, Vol.2 features 'lots of insight from you', where 'you' is referring to me. Also:

  • If you want to know what really happened at Realtime Worlds, and how to avoid the same thing happening to you, you need to read this book.
  • If you want to understand what role publishers and retailers will play in the future of the games industry, you need to read this book.
  • If you want to be prepared for the next decade in a fast-changing games industry, you need to read this book.

So, that's enough shameless plugging for one month. Go buy for anywhere from £8.97 - £60.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Most Anticipated 2011 Part 3

03. Monaco
Andy Schatz
PC, "at least one console"

Damn do I like the look of Monaco. A top-down indie co-op stealth game, it's all the things I love: indie, co-op, stealth. And top-down. It's Thief meets L4D, if we're going there, or as the developer puts it, 'Gauntlet meets Hitman', which also at least 50% floats my boat.

Much like Nidhog, Monaco offers new way to play with friends, but it's the purity of its stealth that entices me. For such a well-loved genre and - at least as subsystem in actions games - omnipresent genre stealth seems to have been suffering a dearth of content for some time. Hitman's on hiatus, Thief 4's still hush hush, and the linear simplicity of the Splinter Cells and Manhunts knows where the itch is but can't fully reach around to scratch it.

Monaco looks fantastic. The perspective complements the gameplay. My only fear is that it may prove too quick fire: too much online tomfoolery and not enough quality dramatic content. Obviously there's a massive market for that, and fair play to it. For me, though, the core joy of a stealth game is the exploration - the sense that through our own guile we're accessing a living world that we have no right to. I hope Andy Schatz shares that perspective.

02. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Eidos Montreal
23 August 2011
PC, PS3, 360

Another sequel, another beloved franchise handed over to a new team. Why should we be excited about Human Revolution? Well for starters everyone that's played it says it's Deux Ex. As in it's a first-person action RPG with branching story, multiple solutions and intelligent cyber-punk writing. These are good things.

While trying to make X-wing work the other day I stumbled accross this RPS list of the most important PC games ever. Funnily enough Deus Ex wasn't on there, but what struck me was what they had to say about a much more personal favourite: Vampire The Masquerade Bloodlines (too many colons to bother).
Bloodlines is important because it signposts a direction to a future of games that we were denied. It is a lament, and a warning. It’s also brilliant.
At first I wanted to to scoff, but when you do get to thinking about Vampire's lineage, what's out there? The Witchers and Dragon Ages follow a much more traditional high-content, low-detail path, and really when I'm pushed to name a single RPG with the fidelity of world and narrative that Vampire hosted all I can come up with is Mass Effect 2.

Here's hoping we can add Deus Ex: Human Revolution to that list very shortly.

01. Hitman: Absolution
IO Interactive
PC, PS3, 360

Oh yes. I've expressed my Hitman-love in the past, so it's natural this five-years-in-the-making follow up should top my list. Above all else, Hitman is a dynamic, open ended and detailed world simulator that just so happens to let you murder people in it. I wouldn't really care if you were just there to fix the plumbing, provided I had to navigate pool parties, arsey security guards and drunk women to do so.

Somewhat akin to Bioshock Infinite, the guys at IO are talking up the technology and experience that's finally allowing them to deliver the depth of AI that the genre demands. It's an incredible challenge in balancing - how do you make people smart enough to seem real yet dumb enough to provide freedom within the gameplay? It's also one that can't really be demonstrated fairly in a trailer.

Will IO manage it? Well, the series has a reputation for pushing the bar with each successive entry - see Blood Money's crowd scenes and flexible solution design - while somehow honing and polishing the formula simultaneously. It's also done when it's done. 2012 could be the year Hitman finally realises its extraordinary potential.

A few lessons learnt from Kane & Lynch in the story department wouldn't go amiss, though.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Most Anticipated 2011 Part 2

06. Prey 2
Human Head Studios
March 2012
PC, PS3, 360

You'd think this was The Times' sudoku page there are so sequential numbers in this year's list. Prey 2 completely revamps what was a solid and occasionally inventive sci-fi shooter, by removing the perfunctory portals, central character and setting and using Blade Runner's instead. This is, probably, a good thing.

It's hard to describe why I'm excited about Prey 2. It's probably not a good reason: it's probably that all those free running, bounty hunting trailers promise an open, fleshed out world that I'm mentally populating with my personal wishlist.

Original or not, I want to explore a Blade Runner type alien city. I want to inhabit the shoes of an Eastwood-style bounty hunter in a world that reacts to my actions. I want a kind of a cross between Anachronox and Bioshock, only better than both and with more shoulder mounted rockets.

That'll be the day.

05. Bioshock Infinite
Q2 2012
PC, PS3, 360

Obligatory really. The Bioshock's didn't live up to my expectations, largely because they weren't really the spiritual follow up to the System Shocks we were initially promised. Infinite finally introduces live human characters, and I'm interested to see if Levine and his team know how to do that - by their own admission it's only now that they feel prepared to tackle that.

This said, there are some games on this list I'm endlessly excited about for no particular reason, and then there's Bioshock Infinite, which I'm told I should be more excited about than I am. Perhaps it's the legacy of the series and the crowd-pleaser expectation the team and the publisher naturally have to pursue. Perhaps it's all the explosions and falling in those gameplay videos.

I'm staying quiet on this one.

04. Arkham City
18 October 2011
PC, PS3, 360

And yet I've got so much to shout about Arkham City. Funny, huh?  This is a game delivering exactly what a sequel delivers: the same good stuff, only bigger, prettier and more polished. Why should that be so enthralling?

Arkham Asylum was, simply put, one of the best games I've ever played, albeit emphasis on game. At a time when the Bioshocks and Bayonettas leave me cold, Arkham Asylum grabbed me through its every breath: one of the most satisfying, beautiful and tactical combat systems of any game ever; a world that felt consistent and engaging in a way reminiscent of an N64 Zelda game; a character and associated set of abilities and bad guys to use them on that were powerful and steeped in lore.

Arkham City isn't going to be the best written game of the year. It isn't going to change how we do things or how we look at the world. It is going to be one of the best and perhaps even one of the smarter AAAs we have to look forward to. If you're going to do AAA bombast, you do it with the care, respect and invention that UK devs Rocksteady are guaranteed to apply.

Watch this space for part 3, coming soon.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Most Anticipated 2011 Part 1

Last year I did a great big preview of the 15 games I was looking forward to. Six of them are out, and a couple of predictions from the time ring true:
"That Team Bondi expects us to be able to tell whether or not we're being deceived at all is a unique and crucial step forward; that we're expected to do so not from what characters say but from how they say it renders this an exciting experiment indeed."
"For all the brilliance of writing Portal displayed, in terms of delivery it was rarely a game that introduced anything new. But then, when the content is this good I guess that can be forgiven."
Anyway, it got some good clicks, and I even got to work on one of the games in the list, so I'm doing it again. This is, really, a very subjective 'E3 Made Me Want This' list, expect E3 was ages ago.

09. Max Payne 3
Rockstar Vancouver
December 2011
PC, PS3, 360

When I think of Max Payne I think of a guilty pleasure - ridiculous noire posturing and a central mechanic designed entirely around making the player look cool for minimal effort on his part. To say that that's Max's legacy would be to underplay him, though. For all the tongue that's in his cheek it's a wonder he can narrate at all, but the writing style remains a key strength in a game released at a time when 'style' tended to focus on how much of the screen the word 'HEADSHOT' took up.

That the dev rights now fall to Rockstar's in-house stable rather than creators Remedy shouldn't concern too much. These guys know the franchise thanks to their involvement throughout the series, and they also know entertaining writing.

The Brazilian setting seems all kinds of wrong; so does the newly heavy set star. There's little doubt Max Payne 3 will deliver pretty, satisfying gunplay - but it's always been about more than that. Max Payne is about a linear game world that offers surprising depth through intelligent detail like the Pink Flamingo TV serial or the interactive funhouse. It's  about poignancy through the ludicrous, and even style (or at least structure) over substance.

Suddenly getting the bullet time right seems like the easy part.

08. SSX: Deadly Descents
EA Canada
PS3, 360

God I love SSX. Sure, that's in part because it makes me feel a bit like the mainstream - I can't beat my housemates at Pro Evo or GT, but strap a pair of planks to my virtual feet and I'm off.

SSX On Tour - the last non-Wii iteration from 2005 - stands up as the highlight of the series. Aside from having excellent manly dress-up options its presentation, its accessibility and above all its sound design stand out. From the intro sequence cut to Iron Maiden's Run To The Hills, to the dynamic system that layers the assorted indie rock and electro tracks to reflect your speed and creativity, On Tour was a beautiful, polished experience that to this day reminds me that games can be important to me without bothering to be important.

There's no team on the planet with snowboarding experience like EA Canada, and Deadly Descents is exactly the adrenaline shot this under-supported genre needs.

07. Nidhog

Everyone seems to be talking about Nidhog. Everyone seems to have played Nidhog, even though there's no official release date in sight. I particularly enjoy this faux interview discussing the high end performance capture the game doesn't have. It almost had me going.

Nidhog allows two players to compete in an unending adventure of combat and abstract visualisation. Drawing unashamed notes from Prince of Persia one player's goal is to move unerringly right, the other the inverse; simple arcade swordplay occurs when the two meet. It's fast, frantic, yet retains the promise of tactical play and immense pay off with each successive victory - albeit a pay off that only lasts as long as your opponent's spawn delay.

I like Nidhog because it's pretty, because it's social, and because it threatens to redefine how we interact with one another. Naturally it does so in a very humble way, but nonetheless it feels like something fresh.

Part 2 coming soon.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

What Games Would You Recommend a Non-Gamer?

I was contacted recently by a professional writer from outside the industry who was interested in exploring interactive narrative for the first time. She asked for my professional opinion on a few games I could recommend as a good starting point. Rather than actually, you know, do that, I thought I'd open up the discussion because it's an interesting one.

What games would actually hold up on a narrative level to someone who isn't so accustomed to the sort of suspension of disbelief that's unique to games? We're all very used to ignoring things like repeated lines, dodgy voice, inexpressive animation, objective exposition and finding interesting features in space marine stories; but compared to film these features must appear very stilted and amateur (with which I don't have a problem).

So a game to recommend would have to deliver a story which ideally minimises these issues, and gameplay which is comprehensible to someone not already fluent in WASD and stick-to-cover. Most importantly it would have to demonstrate our relative unique strengths (ie interaction).

My temptation, of course, is to approach this with a kind of gaming cannon - Elite, Thief, Planescape etc - but of course the antiquity of these games would deter many modern gamers, let alone an outsider.

Here's Talaya's request in her own words:
"I wondered, if you had a minute, if you could suggest two
or three (or even four) games to introduce the world of gaming to a
non-gamer -- (new games, old games, anything.)  It'd be great to have
a starting point from a professional game writer."
Here are some starting points from my end.

Braid - Explore your past experiences and relationships a-chronologically. Braid's a platformer that draws on Mario's ubiquity but marries that formula with inventive time manipulation gameplay mechanics that reflect on the somewhat obscure, but certainly ambitiously poetic narrative.

Echo Bazaar - Enter a twisted, alternate version of Victorian London. This is a web MMORPG (a game based around character progression in a persistent online world) which doesn't particularly innovate on a mechanical level, but which does employ engaging, inventive fantasy writing as an absolutely central selling point in its world design.

Dinner Date or Dear Esther - Strange bedfellows, I know. Both are short narrative experiences in which the player's actions simply shape his experience of the same broadly linear narrative. Dinner Date is dialogue heavy and sees your character sink into his own psychoses as he awaits the girl who's never coming round. Dear Esther sees you exploring a deserted island where the environment is the greatest dramatic force in play.

Portal 1 - Explore a largely abandoned research facility run by a psychotic robot lady. Yep, this one's a mainstream game. This is the most polished, most complete and most traditional offering here. It's a character study and dark comedy before anything else; but it's also one of the best and most accessible puzzle games ever made. It's also, however, the most game-y game here: you'll need to learn some basic gamer skills like 3D aiming and quick reactions to get a handle on it. Incidentally, Portal 2 is probably more accessible and more polished, but for my money Portal 1's minimal / isolationist narrative is far more interesting.

Heavy Rain - Heavy Rain is very much a made for TV movie, a cliche murder mystery. What it lacks in dramatic quality, though, it makes up for in accessibility, polish and interactive narrative involvement. I almost didn't list it because much of it is somewhat embarrassing: the write-by-numbers structure and the (arguable) misogyny. However, as an accessible experience that puts interactive drama at its centre there are few alternatives that seem more likely to engage a non-gamer.

Everyday The Same Dream - A simply presented 2D adventure expressing a common theme: the monotony and meaninglessness of life. This game uses all the tools at its disposal expertly: its simple score, monotone graphics, faceless avatars and intelligent use of colour all work towards the game's central trick: the use of video game objectives and the requirement they be unlearnt in order to reach the end. It's a simple example of how a familiar theme can be expressed in an entirely new way to provide engagement with the material impossible in any other medium.

But this post isn't about what I think. What would you recommend Talaya or anyone else looking to get involved with our medium?

Monday, 18 July 2011

Say Hello At Develop

As ever I'll be at Develop Conference again this year. I'll be down from Wednesday evening to Thursday evening, checking out the indie track on the last day, along with all the usual afterparties.

Whether you're a budding games writer, a journo looking for a quote, a potential client or just a long-time lurker I'd love to have a natter - as well as catch up with some old faces. My contact details are here, and the best way to get in touch is via email or on the phone on the day.

We'll also be continuing the fine tradition of the journo/indie doss house at the excellent Grapevine Seafront - if you're at a loss for a bed you could do a lot worse.

See you by the sea.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Tom in Wonderland: A Free, Crap, 1 Min Platformer

While trying to have breakfast this morning I found myself on the receiving end of my housemates' artistic 'talents' (apologies, guys, for the quotes - I know at least one of you is actually on an art degree). Toast wolfed down, what was I to do with the assorted doodles and insulting caricatures?

I made a game.

It has a wicked and entirely unlicensed soundtrack, and is a collaborative effort. These are probably the only good things about it, save for the length.

Play it at your peril. Needless to say I am the butt of many jokes.

Here's what the developers of the game are already saying about it:
"It's a massive orgy corroborating existentialist tangents delivering a cathartic experience."

"It's art."

Play 'Tom in Wonderland' and find out whether or not I'll ever be a rockstar.

Monday, 11 July 2011

ir/rational Redux Almost Ready

A while ago I put out a call to an artist who wanted to help me remake my indie logic game, ir/rational, in Flash. æclipse µattaru was kind enough to offer his services, and after a couple of months' work, on and off, we've got a game that's close to being launched and a bunch of lessons under our belt:

a) The Games Factory 2's image compression sucks
b) æclipse µattaru is excellent
c) It's hard to think of things to depict in a game that's mostly about a guy in an empty room

The game itself is a visually overhauled version of the original, based around the same set of puzzles, that we can deliver via Newgrounds to reach a much broader audience.

It looks like this.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Interview: Zachtronics Industries on Dynamic Puzzle Solving & Trout

Zach Barth operates under the name Zachtronics Industries. He's responsible for the outstanding puzzle game with the so-so name, SpaceChem, which is probably the best puzzle game I have ever played. It's a molecular programming game whose solutions are dynamic, that never fails to respect your intelligence, and is impossibly challenging without ever turning you off. It tests logical problem solving in a far more immediate and mature fashion than my own attempt. On top of this he's infamous for developing Minecraft precursor, Infiniminer (which we're not going to talk about today because no doubt he's bored). Anyway, grab the demo and be in awe.

Hi Zach. I realised as I planned this interview that you're the first person I've talked to for Plot is Gameplay's Bitch who might not list 'writer' as their first job. On top of this, I can't claim puzzle games are regularly at the top of my play list. Why do you think SpaceChem has captured me - and other players - so thoroughly?

I think that the allure of SpaceChem for many players is the way that it approaches puzzle / problem solving. Instead of requiring you to reconstruct my contrived solution, every puzzle allows for a very large number of possible solutions, each acceptable but with different performance characteristics. This gives players a clear goal, but an unprecedented amount of room to be creative, innovative, and iterative in creating their solutions.

I usually found that I could come in above average in play cycles (time efficiency of the solution), but way over the top on symbols (the complexity of the solution). Maybe I'm trying to be too clever for my own good, or maybe I'm just not as smart as I think. I'm fascinated by the metrics you collect on players - any interesting insights? Are there traits certain types of players share?

One of my favourite experiments we’ve run is SpaceChem: An Average Solution, where we used some clever visual post processing to average out hundreds of solutions for the “research” puzzles in SpaceChem. It allows you to see how solutions for different kinds of levels (tutorials versus simple levels versus hard levels) converge and diverge based on the constraints of the puzzle, which I think is very neat.

With regard to how players respond to the graphs, I think that many take to them the same way that you do. The first time you beat a level you’re almost certainly not at the top, but the graphs invite you to find a dimension of optimization that interests you and improve it in that aspect. The fact that the dimensions are mutually exclusive helps to make players who choose to optimize feel awesome, as graphs are filled both with people who wanted to optimize that aspect and people who chose not to optimize that aspect to optimize another.

You've been working on this basic programming play through a series of games, but SpaceChem displayed an unprecedented level of polish in its visuals, soundtrack and narrative. Do you want to shout out to your contributors?

Without a doubt!

I had two programmers, Collin Arnold and Keith Holman, who handled a majority of the coding tasks and freed me up to focus on tasks related to design and production. The remaining tasks were outsourced to talented individuals: Ryan Sumo for the majority of the artwork, Ken Bowen for sound effects, Evan Le Ny for the soundtrack, and Hillary Field for the narrative. Without them, there would be no SpaceChem!

You've spoken previously about how the emergent nature of the solutions is a strong point of engagement, and I think that's what interests me here where point & clicks or LA Noire (for example) fail: in building a solution within the game logic, rather than just discovering the pre-authored one. Is that an approach you'd consider expanding to subjects other than molecules and engineering systems? Narrative linearity seems jarring by comparison.

Yes, definitely, although I think it’s far easier to apply the principle to games like SpaceChem that are highly mechanics-driven. If I had to explain why this was the case, I would guess that it’s because this kind of system fundamentally expects and requires the player to design something as a solution, which translates into a strong sense of agency, which in turn drives engagement. I’m not sure how it would work in an interactive story like LA Noire, but I certainly don’t think it’s the only route to take.

Finally, what's next for you? Can you spill any details that I can spin into a headline? "SpaceChem dev turns hand to Facebook trout farming sim" would be ideal.

I wish I could tell you something that exciting! We’re focused right now on the transition to being a full-time studio and wrapping up SpaceChem development. Trout farming does sound kind of interesting, though…

Thanks for your time.

You can check out all Zach's games at

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

LA Noire: Worth Writing Home About?

This is the first Worth Writing Home About?. It's a review series focusing on innovation and subjectivity, and you can read more on the scoring here.

Granted, my crime scene investigation technique is somewhat esoteric. It's not like you see Jessica Fletcher doing a lap of the room before zigzagging back tot he door, all the while ignoring the witnesses while she frantically hammers X just in case that one innocuous looking book is in some way relevant to the case. (I kid, of course: books are never important in LA Noire. You know, apart from that one time). Anyway, it works for me.

It turns out LA Noire is not the game I was expecting it to be when I placed it No.1 in last year's Most Anticipated (really should get the new one of those sorted). In every respect it is far worse than I could have imagined - save for the important one.

My overwhelming impression of LA Noire is that a bunch of indies got to make their dream adventure game with a GTA budget, half of which they threw at facial animation, the rest of which they turned into a delicious though nutritionally bereft soufflé. Truth is, of course, that Team Bondai was founded by ex-The Getaway guy, Brendan McNamara, and that in all likelihood the adventure game trappings came some time after the 'GTA: 1940s' blueprint was in place. Thank god they did.

This game is amazingly shoddy
I'm shocked too. We've all heard that the shooting and driving are rubbish. It amazes me that studios still believe providing a successful open world means literally that: drawing a city and leaving the player to his devices. Truth is that GTA or Baldur's Gate succeed by populating their worlds with interesting, dynamic and believable elements. LA Noire joins the likes of Thief: Deadly Shadows in developing a large and expensive open world that merely functions as a pretty yet long-winded loading screen.

The rest of the problems include: tedious crime scene investigation that harks back to the pixel-hunting of early Point & Clicks, rough animation and general presentation, and the belief that the best way to reward players for 15 hours of painstaking interrogation and puzzle solving is with a sewer level and a flamethrower. Seriously. Of course, the fact that there are so many borderline-insulting, school-boy mistakes would perhaps be less apparent if not for the GTA comparisons, and the groundbreaking semi-success of the game's all-important interrogations.

Interrogations & MotionScan
MotionScan is incredible.

That deserved its own paragraph. It's rare technology in games excites me that much, but truly delivering expressive facial performances is something that stands to turn interactive story telling on its head.

By comparison to the tech, Team Bondi's interrogation gameplay around it seems - like the rest of the game - somewhat flawed; and that's difficult to say because LA Noire's interrogations have been some of the most engaging, thought-provoking and audience-pleasing moments I've had with games in some time. When it works - when you're not relying on evidence and when the character isn't entirely hamming it up - it works.

But then the still-learning-the-ropes design slips back in. Doubting someone is used for when you have no evidence but you think they're lying; but it's also used for when someone's telling the truth but not the whole truth. And it can't be used for when someone's lying and you've got evidence to prove it. But then using evidence at all is trial and error in the worst point & click tradition: logical combinations don't make sense, and the right answer is sometimes bizarre. The only difference between this and 20 years ago is that now we're punished for trying something that's wrong.

In an upcoming interview with SpaceChem's Zach Barth we discuss why his dynamic puzzle solving is so much more engaging than challenges with prescribed solutions. LA Noire exposes the problem no less.

The story doesn't help
The over-arching one, that is. So often in games I'm enjoying the setting and the character, happy inhabiting his life believably; and then someone asks me to go save the world and things spiral into the extraordinary, and therefore the plain familiar. LA Noire's strongest cases are early on, where you're dealing with beaten wives, framings and hit & runs, without any of the city-wide corruption plotting the team thought was necessary for it to be considered a 'story'. This emphasis actively damages the gameplay throughout in a bunch of ways. I don't think it spoils anything to say that it's made very clear early on that many of the people you're arresting have been framed by a bigger villain, and that your naming the perpetrator is meaningless. Towards the final quarter of the game this becomes a bigger issue when that interrogation mechanic - frankly the only system still holding its head above the water - is entirely thrown out in favour of shoot ups and more pixel-hunting.

There's also the open homage to traditional film noire and - more explicitly - LA Confidential. Playing in B&W is a (sensibly) rare experience that works well here should you choose to turn it on, and it's certainly this that adds more atmosphere than the blank-faced world and the almost-blank-slate-if-he-wasn't-such-a-twat central character, Phelps.

Making the case
So this has been a largely negative write up for a game that's engaged me more than most. I find it bizarre and almost satisfying that - while by no means bad - such an overall average game, with so little of the familiar AAA bombast, can sell so well. I'm happy it has, because it's not so much this game that excites me as it is the DLC and the sequel.

The current iteration of the series does nothing more than steal focus from the real dramatic centre piece: the individual tales of love, adultery and jealousy that have been sourced from genuine period records; the ways in which you can interact with and manipulate these stories and characters; and the thrill of being a 1940s detective whose last resort is his sidearm. That this element holds so much promise is why it's so hard to stomach the mistakes that hold it back.

The production values, the uncomfortable interrogation logic, the narrative balance - these are things that will be fixed in time.

La Noire is a bizarrely pedestrian experience, but its radical facial animation technology and interrogation gameplay make it an essential and engaging interactive drama whose ripples we'll be seeing for some time.

Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 2 out of 2