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Klarden's blog

10:03 AM on 04.15.2013

Two simple hints about Greenlight from a concerned gamer

I'm one of those people, who check all the games on Steam Greenlight when they can. There's always a chance to stumble upon some really cool game you might like or a project which you might not like and would probably not buy, but still support by saying "yes" just because it looks cool. And while the service itself is far from perfect, a fact acknowledged by Valve themselves, it makes it easier for a lot of independent developers to get on Steam, the service which tends to help the game sales immeasurably. So let's leave the imperfections of the service itself to Valve to fix, while I want to name two big things developers themselves should consider, while trying to Greenlight a game, from the viewpoint of a person who's making the votes.

Don't go there too early. I've seen numerous games on Greenlight which are in a very-very early stage of development or even the concept stage. There is a special section for Concepts on Greenlight now, but even with it you should always understand a simple thing - even on Kickstarter projects with big names attached to them failed, most likely due to them being in early concept stage. And Greenlight puts the question as "will you buy this game?" When there's no game to see, the most likely answer you get is "not interested". Sure, there is an "Ask me later" option, but with more than 1,200 and growing projects, do you think a lot of people are going to choose "Ask me later" over "Not interested"? When I see a game on Greenlight with a demo or at least a tech demo, or a game already released on other channels, I'm instantly more interested in a project and willing to check more of it. Especially, if it grabs my attention, which leads into the second point...

Promote your game well. Recently Jim Sterling wrote a nice piece on Indie games, which fail to understand the need in promoting themselves and a lot of similar things can be said about games on Greenlight (which are part of the discussion there anyway). I can understand why amazing La-Mulana had a difficult time with promotion, due to a language barrier and difference in how indie game development is now in Japan versus the other parts of the world - unsurprisingly even NIGORO's Naramura-san speech from recent GDC 2013 is hard to find being discussed on the English-speaking parts of the internet. Yet, it's strange to see a lot of potentially amazing games without language or other barriers fail to understand that almost instant Greenlight success of games like Black Mesa or The Stanley Parable HD was mainly due to how they were supported by both community-sites and "game journalism"-sites. Having a "Support us on Greenlight" banner on your site, a lot of people might not even know of, is not enough. Making a Greenlight page which screams "we love the game we're making and you might love it too!", talking to people, trying to get attention of blogs and sites, acting through social media - doing all kinds of PR, helps. Obviously, it works better when done right, and done wrong might even hurt the perception of the game. But it's a risk worth taking, if you truly want people to notice your game and get Greenlit.   read

7:01 AM on 03.26.2013

Use more lube and stop whining

Recently Resident Evil 6 got released on PC, and I, with my undying (or probably, currently, undead) love for the series since 1996, couldn't pass it, despite the mixed, at best, reactions to the game from most sites and people i trust opinions of, including dtoid's own Jim Sterling, who hated the game. I spent three days straight playing the game and managed to actually get quite a lot of enjoyment out of it, even though it may have been dangerously close to masochistic at times. Yet, I felt that the game's potential, it's great ideas, no matter how shitty implemented, and it's first ever since Zero and CVX true feel of Resident Evil in terms of the characters and the story, were good enough for the game to be enjoyed, at least by fans. For that, however, i felt that some smaller and much easier to fix things could be changed considerably improving the gameplay experience. So I've made a list and posted it on Steam game discussion and Capcom Unity forums in naive hope that Capcom, while providing the post-launch support, may sometimes visit those places and might read and consider some of the things I've suggested, or ignore it, but "at least I tried". Obviously, it got quite a lot of comments i like to call "use more lube and stop whining" or, even more often "i didn't read what you said, but use more lube and stop whining".

It has been talked about many times, yet it still amazes me every time someone postes constructive criticism to something, because he/she cares and loves the game, but it gets negative reactions from userbase, and in 90% only userbase, not the developers themselves. In fact, developers, escpecially small indie developers, seem to love this kind of feedback as they realise, that this can make their game better, which, in turn, makes it a win for everyone. I've had examples of it on my experience, in fact, with one really cool puzzle platformer game Vessel (which is on sale now on Steam, btw). I've posted a similar post, less refined and not as good argumented then the RE6 one, i might add, on Steam forms for the game, which, expectedly, first got the reaction from people who thought that tl;dr is a great argument for discussion, but then got attention of the developers, with whom i had a nice dialogue about things which could've been changed in the game to make it better, but without compromising anything, things that have been released later as a patch. As an added bonus, people replied in that thread, that the reaction from developers motivated them to buy the game during the sale, when they decided to check the forums about the game first. Win for everyone - we got a better game, developers got a good reputation and sold the game. (And, as i said, it is a fun game, so check it out).

I don't know why consumers tend to be so defensive about so many wrong things, while they are so eager to "defend" content producers from things those content producers actually benefit from and care about. Don't understand, why people can't understand that the point of argumented criticism is to make something better, something the one who makes the criticism actually cares about, that this kind of criticism comes out of love, not hate. And i really truly have no idea, why anyone who doesn't bother to read the post feels that it's his/her duty to tell the entire world in the comment section, that he/she didn't read the post.

P.S. tl;dr version - people make me sad.

P.P.S. Of course, there are always people who do read and do provide good arguments, it's sad, that they tend to be in the minority.   read

7:51 AM on 12.19.2012

Gamedesign through gamer’s eyes: Fuck Earth

(also on my blog)

How many times have we saved planets, worlds, universes and all of their inhabitants, or watched them die, when something goes wrong? You’d think, we will get so used to it, we shouldn’t even care and just go through motions with every storyline like that. Yet still there’s a game from time to time which has familiar character personalities and storylines but makes us care about them, live with them, believe in them and love them. A game which understands, that it needs to motivate the player to do all that. Which knows, that it’s not enough to just assume that the player will just start caring on his/her own.

One of the biggest recent examples of a game, which completely confuses these priorities, was Mass Effect 3. A game which managed to both understand how to make you care, and completely miss the point, as if it’s parts were created by different people (which may be the case, actually). This game starts with the meeting of some «important people» in Earth, Reapers attack (a strange AI race, which seemingly wants to destroy all living things in the universe or at least Milky Way galaxy), death of some kid and Shepard (who is the main character) going to save everyone and everything. Already I have questions and problems with this — developers assumed that the player will care about new locations and characters, with whom and which we don’t even get properly acquainted, and which appear for a really short while in the start of the last part of the trilogy. My first reaction to all that was: «Fuck Earth! Let’s gather our forces in some other system, while most Reapers are in the Solar System!»

Now, don’t get me wrong — i care about real world Earth, real world people, countries and all the other real world stuff. This is «my» world — i was born here, i live here, i know it and i care about it. But in the Mass Effect world? I don’t give a shit about your Earth — i wasn’t even there at any point before, there’s not a single character i care about there, who can’t relocate if the Earth or even the entire Solar System get’s destroyed. Hell, i even know that humanity itself is not going to suffer that great, because a lot of humans live away from Earth or Sol. Sure, the destruction of «homeland» is going to be a tragic thing, but it’s less important when you know that the entire galaxy is in danger. And, what’s even more interesting, it seems that developers understand that too as about 80% of the game is about characters and places the player will definitely care about. You can save the Citadel again, the true home for the player, who has saved it before, knows it’s the center of the entire galactic union, and helped it’s people many times before and most characters you care about are there. So the game is about all that for the most part… but then just forgets about it, says that the Earth is important, then just turns Citadel into a lifeless plot device, disregarding everyone on it, and completely missing the point. Oh and yeah — i somehow should care about the only kid shown in the entire trilogy, who has been shown for a few moments and acted like an idiot. No thanks.

Of course, ME3 is far from being the only example. Most recent «cinematic» action games love to show mass destruction of the world famous places, expecting that mere view of that destruction will impress you, but usually they just make you yawn. For example, Modern Warfare 3 decided to drop the Eiffel Tower in one mission, but despite the pretty good audio and visuals it’s hard to care about that happening — you don’t care about the character you control, about that virtual Eiffel Tower of that virtual world of Modern Warfare. And even if i would live in Paris i doubt that moment would make me care much more, because it’s just a visual thing that has no implications for the player. Even if, for example, captain Price was in the Tower at that moment you could expect player show any emotion at the situation — it wouldn’t be just a visual cool thing, but would be something that may influence the fate of one of the most known and loved characters in the game universe. Instead, most «cinematic» shooters just expect you to care about their virtual worlds, because they’re «just like the real one!»

Or the Dishonored starting point of the story? I criticized the emptiness of the player character a lot, but even with such empty vessel, the game could make you care much more about what’s going on with a stronger start. Show Corvo’s life with the empress and her daughter, show how important these characters are to each other, how they care about one another. After this introduction, be it a short one or even not placed at the very beginning of the story, and the murder of the empress and kidnapping of lady Emily would’ve become a personal insult for the player, the personal problem he/she would want to solve. But instead the game just tells you that Corvo cared about empress and he is very upset that she’s dead, it would be enough for the player to care. It’s no surprise that Emily is the character you care more about, because you have a small interaction with her at the start of the game, which establishes her character and her relationship with Corvo quite well in just few minutes. And she becomes a more important character than her mother in player’s eyes. And, while this was probably the intent anyway, it makes the opening murder to seem completely mundane and hard to care about. Which is not a good start for a revenge story.

Obviously, the points i make here only apply to those games, which try to emphasize the story and make it the key element to motivate the player to keep playing. Although, ironically, some games with close to no story and no emphasis on it whatsoever may make you care more than those, where the story is the key, if the player has enough active imagination. And, for example, Knuckles story in Sonic games might come off as a better revenge story, than Dishonored. Mostly because, Knuckles is a memorable character. And if you have a unmemorable character in a unmemorable world it’s hard to care. Even if the unmemorable world is Earth.

P.S. Jim Sterling had a good video on a similar topic, about the importance of happy moments in sad stories, because it’s hard to care about constantly grim and depressed characters and worlds.   read

6:40 AM on 10.10.2012

Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 4

(original photo here)

And original post on my blog here.

It’s time for the final part of the super long and exciting talk with Dan Pinchbeck. As promised, we talk about CryEngine, pros and cons of making two games at once, my dream design idea, «meaningless» assets in games, Dan gives advices on Surviva— grr…Survarium and then goes all out with his love and admiration for STALKER series. But we start with an awkward pause from the last part.

Klarden: *awkward pause* Riiiight… I had this question in my head there and forgot it -_-. Oh well, until I remember it, a rather random question instead. Why did you decide to go with CryEngine for Rapture? Was it your decision or somebody else’s on the team?

Dan Pinchbeck: No, it was a decision made by me before we employed anyone. I remember when FarCry first came out and I was playing with modding in CryEngine, I just felt that it was such a fantastic tool. So it always kinda marked as a probable engine, that if we were going to start from scratch and could choose any engine, then CryEngine would be the most likely choice. And the indie terms arrived so it seemed pretty easy to do. And I was at GDC last year and did a couple of presentations on it, and even though I’m not an artist or a coder, the way in which you can link programs up and speed you can iterate change in it, it’s just phenomenally powerful. And when you want to make an open world and decide on the engine… We looked at different engines and I knew that I wanted the visual quality to be at kinda Esther level. But there aren’t many engines out there where you can have that kind of fidelity in graphics and that kind of scale of open world. So we asked a lot of programmers using different engines, like Unity, UDK, Source… And they didn’t have the power to handle that kind of environment, all the things we wanted to do.

So we ended with the engine I wanted to work with, but it wasn’t because I just wanted to work in it, but because it was the only engine that could do it. And I’m really pleased. Crytek is very supportive, really helpful, it’s great working with them. But there are many engines for an open world. But I didn’t want it to look like it was something built with an open world engine. I wouldn’t want to build it in a Fallout engine, because it would’ve looked too much like Fallout.

So how is it… Well, Amnesia and Rapture are rather different games, and they run on different engines, so… How is it, working on two different games at once?

Oh, it’s a bit of a head trip :). So, there are two teams, which are completely separate, and I’m working on both games, Jess is writing music for both games, Samuel, the audio designer, is working on both games, programmer Maarten is doing coding for both games. Then, for Rapture we have Andrew, a great designer who is leading on the design, so I’m more of a creative director on that, and he’s actually doing the design, and then there’s a lead artist and an artist. And in Pigs I’m much more involved in the level design side, and then I’ve got another designer, who’s doing the scripting, and then we’ve got another lead artist and artist on that. So there are two separate build teams, and then the soft asset content management is shared across both games. There’s no way we could have the same art team working on both games. But the core of thechineseroom, that don’t have to be working on incredibly deep specifically technological level with the engines, can switch across both.

And I think it’s good for us. Although really really intense as it is a very hard work. It kind of stops you from getting too locked in to any of the games, you’re always being jolted back out of the game, which means that you have to get back to the game, and you’re kinda seeing it slightly differently. And there’s a rather good cross-fertilization of ideas. And you can look and go: no, we want to push it in this direction and not in this direction, because we’re doing it with this game. And I think for Rapture it’s… The good thing about doing Pigs is that between Esther and Rapture we get a game which is unequivocally a game. And we can make Pigs, cause I love the IP, and I like making a game. And then with Rapture people won’t go «oh, you just make Dear Esther-kind of stuff». We can say: no, we’re making completely different kinds of games. And we might make a much more traditional game after Rapture comes out and we chose to explore this, cause it’s an interesting thing.

So it’s good. The diversity is good… But it’s so fucking hard :). Particularly when you get to milestones, which arrive for both games at the same month…

You’re planning to release Amnesia before Rapture, right?

Yeah, the idea is that… Frictional is looking at Halloween. It’s the target date. So we will hopefully release Pigs on Halloween, if we can. And Rapture, at the moment, is going to be in 2013. But exactly when, we don’t know. We’re talking to some extra investors at the moment. Because we need more time on it.

Oh, I remembered the question. Did you try The Stanley Parable?

I actually have a new build of it… I spoke to Davey Wreden the other day and… He sent me the version of the latest build. They’re working on a new version. And I planned to play it yesterday, but then I realised I had no Portal 2 installed on PC, I had it on console. And I started downloading it and it said that the download will be ready in 14 hours… So it’s there, and I’m hoping to play it this weekend. I’ve seen bits of it and I’m really intrigued. I feel very guilty that I haven’t played it yet. It’s my weekend’s job :).

[b]Yeah, I love how he made it. You are a part of the story in a very interesting way. And while it doesn’t feel like it has an agenda, of criticising games or anything, it is a kind of a satire at the same time… And at the same time it’s also a very enjoyable game. Something that not a lot of developers can do right.

Right, so there was an idea I had I wanted to ask you about. Have you played oldschool jRPGs with all the pixel characters which often looked quite the same?[/b]

No, I could never get into them. I remember when I bought the first Playstation, I thought: I’ve got to buy Final Fantasy, I’ve gotta do this. So I bought it, got about an hour in it and just… I’m just no getting it. I can see how great it is, but it just doesn’t work for me.

So I was dreaming once and… You know how you can usually explain to yourself everything you have in the dream, while you’re dreaming. Like: yeah, I’m swimming with sharks in soup, that’s completely logical, I always do it on Sundays. And I wondered why not many games, if any, explored the concept of slightly but constantly changing, in a very subtle way, the game world and characters? So the players might not even notice it until it becomes too apparent. And to have s completely simple and mundane story at the same time, without any reality-bending or time and space manipulation stuff. So you come into the town and some NPC goes the usual: find me my ring. And you do some questing and monster slaying or whatever, return to the NPC and he’s a completely different character, but he goes like» yeah, thanks for finding my ring» as if he is the same character. And I wondered, if it is even possible to do this subtle thing right, especially without some text parser, so the player can actually write like «what the hell is going on», when he notices that something is wrong?

Hmm… Some elements of that are done in some games, yeah. Even in Esther, Rob’s put some things in it, where you have different objects in the environment. So you’re just going «did I just see that? Was that here a minute ago?» I really like this kind of concept. Oh, and Amnesia does this in some places. I think that it’s because of the model… Well, the model is: if you make and expensive game, and you make an asset, you want to get everything you can out of that asset, cause it costs too much. So the idea of chucking stuff away, that might not be noticed, becomes really really problematic.

And, again, it goes to things like what GSC did with STALKER. You can find the entire building complexes, and there’s nothing in them, no gameplay. And in traditional game design, it’s just ridiculous. It’s a laughable way of building levels, because you go: this asset costs money, what is its functional work in the game? But it’s a brilliant game because it has this extra stuff in it. And if you build something extra it kinda goes, that if you’re building something that we should make sure that enough players notice it. And for that we’re going to make it more obvious. And then suddenly the entire point of doing it in the first place is gone.

But I think people should do more things like that. Cause it unsettles you. Because the idea of feeling that something’s wrong, but not quite getting why you feel like that creates a really fantastic emotional state for the player. And if the player is in that state… It’s like why Amnesia is such a good game, cause you constantly don’t know what’s going on. So everything becomes significant. And you start scrutinizing the environment and going: «That was something! What does it mean? What does that mean? What’s this gonna do? What is that?» But no, they’re all static objects, yet you’re doing so much more work as a player. So I think that’s something to explore more in design, definitely.

And the fun thing with games like STALKER is that, it was so long in development and maybe one of those unused buildings was going to have a purpose, but it never happened. And other games, that had more planned, like Soul Reaver, and, probably, Silent Hill also have this stuff. Like in Silent Hill you have this huge town, and most of it is actually empty. There are some small easter eggs, like «REDRUM» written somewhere on the wall, but it’s mostly nothing. And, as a player, you’re always thinking that it does have some purpose. You’re going: well, maybe if I play it like 50 times, something will change on the level, something new will appear? And the player tries that. He plays the game more and every time explores those places. And nothing changes. But he still wants to find something.

You want to, yes, I think that’s the point. And it kinda rewards that investment. Cause if the environment is great, it’s atmospheric and everything else, it’s kind of its own reward. And i find those locations, even if they don’t have gameplay in them, rewarding to go in. Because you feel so sucked in the atmosphere, in the game world, that you’re just enjoying it.

Skyrim does this really well too. The best bits of Skyrim for me are outside quests and outside dungeons, where just being in the world is rewarding. It’s that idea in the game design, that if there’s a situation in the game it has to be exploited to the max, it has to stimulate the player constantly and you get only one type of emotional experience if you do that. But if you have the space, just time to stop and take in the world, being in the world… Red Dead Redemption does it brilliantly. My favourite moment in Red Dead Redemption is you sitting on horse, on a hill, watching the sun go down. And you’re so engaged in the game. And it’s why I far prefer Red Dead Redemption to Grand Theft Auto. Because you don’t get those moments of: I’m here, I feel like I’m here, I feel, like this is a real space.

Ok, so since we’re almost running out of time to talk… (We planned this a bit better than the last time — Klarden) You’re really excited about Surv— Survivar— Survarium… Ugh, the Vostok Games’ game.

Haha, yeah.

So what you, as a fan of STALKER, a fan of STALKER from another country, would like to see in that game?

I think, the thing which STALKER could never do was that you could never get those social hubs. Cause it was AI. And it wasn’t the fault of the STALKER design team or the engine, it’s just AI, it’s always going to be just AI. But I remember playing Call of Pripyat and thinking: but if these were players, and it wasn’t like the bandits are gonna get together and wipe out the stalkers, but you’re actually there with someone around, who’s going to say: «Hey, see that guy? He’s been trading a lot of artefacts. Let’s follow him, knock him off and shove him in a boiler and take what he’s got.» Those things will kinda emerge, and i think, if they pull it off, that’s where it’s got its real potential, where you have this human side of it. You know, like: «we’re probably gonna be dead tomorrow, so let’s just go and do this».

The issue they’re gonna have, I think, that if they overpopulate this kind of world it loses its power. So it’s how you manage enough social complexity in multiplayer, while having the space around. And not turning into faction wars, which, I think, was why Clear Skies is least liked. But I think, what they’ve clearly got as a team is a way of looking at the world, which is still really unique. So if they can get that sense, that vision in the world, provide they keep it sparse, so when you see another player, it’s like «oh, I’ve seen someone!» And it may stop being a bulletfest, because it may be the first time you see the player in two hours.

I haven’t still played it, but just installed it, this new mod called DayZ, which is kinda a zombie apocalypse game, but it looked a lot of, what I hoped Survivar— Survarium would do. That you don’t see other people too often, but when you see them there’s a really weird edge in «it’s a person, and actual person! But they might kill me.» And how you manage that. But if you shoot them, if there’s a lot of zombies around, or other dangerous stuff around, by shooting them, you’ve probably killed yourself. Because you need to team up and work together. And if they get that thing of forcing players to work together because the environment is so dangerous, then it can be a really interesting game.

And I really want them to make a great game. Cause I think they’re a really good studio, who got… From what information is publicly available here, that they’re completely screwed. But I think they deserve to make good games, cause they’ve made good games so far. So, I hope it’s not multiplayer in a kinda classic way, with deathmatch and everything and there’s not much of the factions going, and it’s not a highly populated space. But it’s difficult in terms of server costs. If you try and take a lot of players, you’ll have a limited number of players in each game. You need kinda Left 4 Dead kind of recourses. But imagine Left 4 Dead with only 10% of all the creatures in it. And each creature is 100% more dangerous. It would be a great experience. No ammo cache, you start with 6 bullets, you manage the bullets you’ve got left, there might or might not be some things that can kill you by just looking at you. And you’re absolutely relying on other people you have in the squad. That’s a really cool model for a game.

Yeah, and if it has stuff like Demon’s/Dark Souls thing of seeing other players, but maybe not interacting with them, or people who just get in your game world unexpectedly.

Oh and things like in Roadside Picnic, where you have all the things in the Zone and no one actually knows if they exist or not. People say that they’ve seen or heard about them, but you kinda know that half of it is bullshit. And if they have those social hubs, one of the things I would do is employing people to go into the space… So, you never actually hardcode the story, you just bring people in, who just say: hey, guys, I’ve just got back from this space and there’s a lot of cool stuff there. And it’s a complete lie. If you go in, rather than relying on Ai or a hardscript, set up this space, have random drops and spawns and everything else, some keyset environments, but then create the story by dropping in people into the game pretending to be just other players, and see the story build this way and develop the mythology, develop those kind of things, like items and other stuff. Has someone, who goes in and says: «There’s a new type of creature we’ve seen, and he’s based in that part of a city. And we’ve lost three people.» And no one’s seen it before, developers didn’t announce any new creatures, is it actually there or not? So players flood in and try to find it. And it doesn’t matter if they find it or not.

And it’s kind of world they were really good at making with STALKER. It felt like there was a lot of unknown stuff. And the thing like they did with the Heart of the Oasis — you hear the thing referenced a few times and you guess that you probably would end up being there at some point, but you don’t know for sure. Because there was stuff in the game, that wasn’t actually as told. One of the coolest things that you could do with STALKER games, is just take all the environments from all three games, batch them together into one big open world and just dump players in it. And that would probably be enough for most players, without any singleplayer campaign. Like that… oh, what’s his name… The Oblivion Lost mod… Kanyhalos! So, yeah, where you could cook artefacts in anomalies. So you finish the singleplayer campaign and you’re released back in the world and it get constantly respawned. So you can take an artefact and through it in the anomaly, then you have to sleep and… It was just a really cool and I got hours and hours out of that. Because it’s just a great world to spend time in. So that’s what they’re good at. That’s what they should focus at.

Yeah, and let the community to make stories for them.

Right, so I think, it’s time up?

Hmm, well, I still have about 10 minutes, if you wanted to ask about something else.

Well… Do you know how big STALKER was for Ukraine?

I can guess :). It was the first game of that scale.

[b]Yeah, we have this joke… I don’t know if it’s a translation or an original joke that «every novice game developer wants to create his own Fallout.» And STALKER was kinda like that. Like: «Wow, we’re going to have Ukrainian Fallout! That’s so amazing!» And GSC did some good stuff before, like, they did the Cossacks games, which were good and popular. And they did some stupid stuff, like there was an unauthorized StarCraft translation supposedly made by them which was completely broken and awful. But Cossacks were great, so people were really excited.

And… I was personally disappointed with STALKER, because I just had so much expectations for it. I still admire the stuff it did, but… I haven’t even played Call of Pripyat yet. I remember, i pre-ordered Clear Skies and I’ve installed it and start playing… And there are people walking on air, and game crashes constantly and… I’m just: «What the hell?! I paid money for it and the previous game, how could you do that?» So I wasn’t really that excited for Call of Pripyat. And the joke’s on me, as from what I’ve heard it’s the best game in the series.[/b]

Yeah, but I still prefer Shadow of Chernobyl. Cause it’s kinda like BioShock, it’s never going to be as BioShock 1, cause BioShock tells the best story there is to tell in that space. (I stay silent -_- — Klarden) But what I love about Call of Pripyat is that they didn’t bother to try and make it a big epic thing, it’s a really small story. A bunch of helicopters have crashed, you’ve gotta find them, you’ve gotta find the survivors and get out. And that’s it. And that’s what it does, it doesn’t build up to some world shattering thing, just «that’s it». And I really admire that. And this is all about the Zone and being in the Zone. You don’t want to destroy the Zone, you don’t want to make it different from what it is, the drama is that how you get from one side to the other in one piece. So yeah, it’s really good.

Clear skies are a bit… yeah. *we laugh* But you know, what I think? I think, the problem with Clear Skies is that the Shadow of Chernobyl was the hit in the west. And they went «we gotta make the game which is more western-friendly. We gotta try to make it a bit more like western shooters.» And the reason why Shadow of Chernobyl is so good in a similar way to why Metro is so good, is cause it doesn’t feel like an American studio made it. It feels like it comes from a different place, with a different worldview and it’s tapped into all of that stuff. And it saturates the game and gives it a really unique feel. And I like making my students play STALKER (yes, it’s an actual requirement for Dan’s students to play STALKER among the classic games, like Tetris — Klarden), cause most of them are console players. So, you know, if they’re playing shooters, they play Call of Duty. And, probably, a bit of Half-Life. And you put them in STALKER and they come back in a week and go: «It’s just so ridiculously difficult! I’m getting killed constantly!» And I’m like: «Yeah, you can’t play it like that. You will bleed to death. You’ll starve. You will run out of bread. You’ll kill for bread in this game.» And that’s deeply cool. It makes Fallout look like a comedy life of the Simpsons. And I love how bleak it is.

I also remember that when the Shadow of Chernobyl was developed, there wasn’t a very epic story in it. There was a Monolith. And you were going to get there eventually. Probably. Because, there was this concept, that the game could finish even if you don’t get there. Like, when they played with that A-Life AI thing, there was an idea, that AI stalkers could actually get to the end of the game before you do.

Haha, I love this idea.

Yeah, it’s sad they cut it out. I mean, I get why they did it. Because people would go: oh, I was playing it for 15 hours and the game finished without me being there.

But they still did that thing with the Monolith endings. Where if you don’t follow the subquest, you would reach the end of the game but then die horribly. And it’s so brilliant. No big budget western developer will ever have the balls to do something like that. Just going: «You know that little thing you picked up 14 hours ago? yeah, well, you probably should’ve followed that subquest. Sorry, try again!» And you couldn’t just replay the last level to get a better ending, you have to go back to halfway through the game. And I loved it. «We’re going to make no concessions to you.» I was really surprised, given that it was THQ that they got away with that. And kudos to THQ for either missing it or just letting them do it.

[youtube]<iframe width="640" height="360" src="" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe>[/youtube]

Oh and I remember when Half-Life 2 came out in 2004, and there’s this moment when you’re given your trusty crowbar and there’s a train yard, and some music plays… And we’re sitting in front of my PC with my friend and we just go: «Oh my god, this feels and sounds exactly like that STALKER trailer. Valve were influenced by STALKER!»

Oh, it wouldn’t surprise me :).

[b]Yeah, we were just… Mind blown. And that trailer for STALKER was amazing, by the way. I kinda like it more than the game itself, it was so amazing. And I really wanted the game to be something like that.
But yeah, it was really big. People started live action role-playing before it got released.[/b]

Oh, it started before? Cause I’ve seen some of the footage. And it’s just so crazy. Live action role-play over here is just, you know, a couple of people going to the pub wearing fur and carrying some foam maces and going: buy me some ale, barmen! And I’m like: no-no, hardcore live action role-playing is huddle down in sub-zero temperatures with replica or decommissioned AK-47s pretending you’re in the Zone in the middle of Ukraine- that’s live action role-playing.

People started writing fan fiction and doing stuff like that almost instantly after STALKER was announced. We had the amazing movie and Roadside Picnic, so people knew what it’s going to be pretty much about. And the game itself was probably influenced by this fan fiction, live action role-playing and other community-made things. We had those «diggers», or how you call them (according to wikipedia, they’re part of «urban exploration» — Klarden), in the subway tunnels or some abandoned shafts or whatever, role-playing, pretending to be stalkers. So it’s not that surprising that people here got a bit more disappointed with the games, because they were not what most people expected them to be. I guess, it was more of a surprise hit for anyone outside Ukraine or Russia, but here people just went: this is not what you’ve promised!

I’m amazed that they even finished the games. I played with 2004 build of the game and you just kinda go: «Pfft. Yeah, about 20 years more, and you’ll get the game done.» It was… slightly ambitious :).

And with that Dan had to go continue his hard work of managing two projects at once. Hopefully, we’re going to see some more info on Everybody’s Gone to Rapture and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs very soon. And there is a probability, that there is new info available, when you’re reading this. And also hopefully, this is not the last time I had a chance to have a talk with Dan.[youtube]   read

8:17 AM on 09.28.2012

How Gearbox knows Jack (and forgets Duke)

(Also on my blog)

This may sound strange at first, but Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2 and Duke Nukem from his latest Forever game have much more in common, than it first seems. However, Jack has something, that Duke lacks - charisma. And i find it very strange, since Duke is supposed to be the hero.

Both Handsome Jack and Duke Nukem (in Forever) are "I'm rich, I'm famous, I'm vain, I'm glitz, I'm the story" Mister Hollywood kind of characters. Both are arrogant, quite antisocial, do very brutal and murderous things, make very inappropriate jokes, have very grim sense of humor, think of themselves very highly and consider themselves to be the main heroes in their stories. However, while it is actually true in Duke's case, Jack manages to steal the show, at least for the first half of the game, while Duke constantly struggles to be interesting to the player.

Throught the entire first half of Borderlands 2, Handsome Jack comes off as a mysterious Heath Ledger's Joker-type character - the one you can't help but want to see and hear more of, while being scared and disgusted of him at the same time and wanting to murder him when the chance presents itself. And even in the second half of the game, when Jack is given much more backstory and he becomes more of a disgustingly pathetic and cowardly person, you can't help but want to hear more of him. You love to hate him - the perfect formula for a treacherous and shifty villain.

Duke Nukem, however, is supposed to be the character you actually like in Forever. He is the hero, he is the person you control in the game. You have to laugh with him and, at times, at him. Yet, it's hard to do so. Now, part of that may come from the fact, that Duke Nukem Forever is just not a good game itself, and that may be a pretty important part. But even so, the character himself feels forced, not fun or funny. Even without going into "that infamous rape joke" discussion.

It's interesting to see this huge difference in seemingly similar characters. And while some people might rightfully argue, that Duke Nukem Forever was made by 3D Realms, and Gearbox just "finished" it, i can't help but feel, that a lot of Duke's characterization came from the people in Gearbox. I mean, it's not like it's the first time we see them doing some pretty creepy main characters - I still remember E3 2011 trailer of Brothers in Arms: Furious 4 where I actually felt sorry for the nazis being mercilessly and brutally slaughtered by a band of crazies, who were supposed to be main heroes. So, while i really wish to see more Duke in the future (and get those XBLA version features of Duke Nukem 3D on PC), I'd like to see more "Handsome Jacks" in videogames. Because he was cool, you know? Kay, bye.   read

3:20 PM on 07.29.2012

Hitman Emotion

(Also on my blog)

So, IO decided to do a huge spoiler on one story point of Hitman Absolution. Something, that i didn't get was the reasoning behind the thing that happens int hat spoiler - it was necessary "to bring emotion to a character like 47". Now, i still hope Absolution turns out to be a good game and everything, but... Why would 47 NEED emotion?

That may sound strange, especially from a huge fan of a good story in a game like me, but Hitman is fine without "emotion". hell, it's fine without a story, apart from the background one. 47 has a background we know, Agency has a background we know, there may be some "bad guys" or "conspiracies", who want 47 dead. With that out of the way, can i play the missions now?

Hitman series work fine with thought out gameplay-wise missions, each of them containing a mini-story of some sort to give it some background, to give us a reason to go on the mission and play it the way we want. An important part, but very small and forgettable, as it's only a tool to get us a bit more involved with the main course - gameplay. Contacts had no coherit story or noticable connection between missions and who cared - it played amazing, we loved it. Hell, the infamous Saints trailer for Absolution would be fine, if only it was not so retarded in it's setup, even by the already silly Hitman standards.

It surprises me how some indie games, like Super Meat Boy, give us what we want from it - gameplay, and don't give a damn about "emotions", while Hitman, loved for the very same reason, the gameplay, suddenly needs those "emotions brought to the character of 47". What emotion did you have while playing batman: Arkham Asylum? Probably the one called "I'm Batman!" You play as a bald guy with a barcode on his head who is supposed to be the ultimate killer in his fictional world and can decide who lives and who dies. You are, effectively, a superhero. Add great gameplay and what else do you need?   read

3:22 PM on 07.25.2012

Gamedesign through gamer's eyes: Forced "cinematic" experience

(original post in russian)
(also on my blog)

I have noticed this thing a lot, but recent Max Payne 3 became the last straw and I can't stay silent about this issue anymore. I don't understand, why exactly so many developers force their "great cinematic moments" in our mouth, completely ignoring the magic the player creates while simply playing the game. Why do they doubt the power of the medium they create in?

"Max Payne is hanging under the helicopter. There are enemies on the landing pad shooting at him. Suddenly, one of the enemies brings a rocket launcher and shoots. Time slows and Max has to shoot down the rocket in the air." It certainly looked good on paper. In practice? I rolled my eyes and sighed. 5 seconds later it happened again and i my eyes were looking iside my head. Later, this "shooting down a rocket/grenade/molotov cocktail in dangerous situation in slow-mo" happened about 15 times more and i had a palm tree growing on my face (it's gone now - i got better).

Max Payne 3 was criticised a lot for "cutscenes". But that's not the problem, not in the concept of the "cutscene" itself, when the game shows you something while you're not in control. Problem lied in the fact, that each shooting down the rocket, each "cool moment", the chain ride or water tower falling, developers were emphasizing the "cinematic" moment, which could've been created during the gameplay. Maybe not in the exact same way, maybe worse, maybe better. Rockstar have this incredible (albeit sometimes glitchy) ragdoll physics enginein the game, made every shoot, every jump, every kill at least a bit unique and gave the tools for creating "cool cinematic moments" in the player's hands. And you can create them yourself, easily, by just playing. And you could in older Max Payne games, which lacked the cool ragdoll physics and look dated today. And then Rockstar seem to have started doubting the tools they have created themselves, and started forcing the player to experience the pre-scripted, akmost always same "cool moments", taking away from the player something, that made the game fun and interesting in the first place. And made their own game worse.

But Max Payne 3 is just a recent example. I noticed this issue before and, it seems, will see it again. But i'm noticing the issue just because of what i can do in the game, and what the game lets you do. I was annoyed at some things in Mass Effect 3 (apart from the ending), or even the second one, when you were forced to replicate specific actions developers want you to do, in order to see something "awesome", which is often necessary to progress. But in fact, i felt awesome each time i did a headshot with my Sentinel's sniper rifle, during a heated and hard battle. I created those awesome moments, i still remember, by using the tools the game gave me. Slow-mo during the aiming, something that made the moments looking good, was a simple gameplay mechanic, used in every single battle. My squad members and my enemies just did their AI scripts, just as they did in every other battle. Those were tools to create a "cinematic moment" and i used those tools and created those moments. When i wanted and how i wanted. And i felt truly good. And i never feel good when the game forces me to blow up that thing or we die (because enemies will spawn infinitely until you do that and see a cool BOOM)". Your cool BOOM is just an visual effect, i see and can create myself, when i decide to blow something up. It does not become cool if you force me to do it, even if i destroy all the enemy troops with it in a cool way - it just becomes a simple mechanical motion i need to do to progress further.

This doubt of game developers in the abilities of the games they create is also surprising, when you look at multiplayer games. Games, which are not know for scripted moments, and yet they constantly prove that players can create "cinematic moments" using the game as a tool. Every developer may understand that by just going to youtube. Ignoring all the wubwubwub NO SCOPE 720 1337 PRO videos, you can start with some classic example, like LoopZook. And move from there, looking how people make amazing tricks in some Quake or Unreal Tournament 2004. How cleverly they play Spy in TF2, or juggle the turrets' rockets back as a Pyro. As they gotta go fast grab the flag, kill the chasers with precise blue-plate specials, kill the enemy with the flag, return the flag and finally score the point in Tribes: Ascend. These are multiplayer games, created to play good and look good at it. But Mass Effect, Max Payne, some Battlefield 3 or CoD-games in singleplayer are also created to look good while people play them. And they do look good. So why the doubt?

I'm playing games for many years now, and i go "wow" during playing rather often. I created "cinematic awesome moments" in games a million times, be it a tricky jump in a platformer, be it a hard won battle in an RPG, be it a difficult situation in an arcade racing game, or a multiplayer battle. If the game looks great while it's being played, you don't have to force the player to do "awesome things". You shouldn't take away the ability to chose or control from the player just to show him/her something, that can be done while just playing this game, in this engine, with these animations and sounds. Because if i can do something awesome, i want the choice - i want to choose if i want to do it or not. When i make that choice, when i get a "cool cinematic" thing, as a result of my choice, i go "wow". Shooting rockets down in Max Payne 3? Boring.

P.S. And if someone thinks that the problem lies just with the cutscenes - it doesn't. Cutscenes can (and in some game designs should) be used, just used right. They are a simple tools - developer decides how to use them.   read

6:01 AM on 06.02.2012

Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 3

(original photo here)

And original post on my blog here.

And a week after, here’s a new part of my talk with Dan Pinchbeck, the creative director of thechineseroom. This time, we’re going to talk a bit more about the two new projects of the studio, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, but not without talking about his influences and his undying love for STALKER and Metro.

In the third part of the talk specifically, we discuss the importance of music, sound design and voice acting for games, the importance of narrative and characters over the plot, the reasons why Amnesia was a scary game and why Daniel’s character was the best part of Amnesia story.

Klarden: Right, so before I start with other things, have you seen this topic on the steam forum?

Dan Pinchbeck: Hmm, no… Wow, I have no idea, actually. :D There’s stuff in the game, which Rob’s put in, and I don’t know about it. When I was looking at the betas and stuff like that, I was just constantly: I didn’t know that was there, it’s really cool! So, I’ll ask Rob.

I guess this is the illustration of some philosophical questions asked in Dear Esther.

Yeah, there’s definitely a deep significance in that Cthulhu and ice cream cones. It relates to the story of Dear Esther, yeah.

A bit of a general question, but something really important to me personally: how important is music to you in your life? Does it influence your ideas, including the game design?

Massively. I used to work in a music venue, promote some bands and stuff like that. It’s completely central. And Jess and I are married, and she’s a composer… And it definitely influences the choices we make professionally. And we worked on a few things before we started making games. And I’ve always felt that what she aims at musically, type of music she does and type of writing I do… They just fit really naturally.

And I think that music in games… Audio in general, but music in particular, is incredibly underexplored in terms of how powerful it is in user experience. And it’s so cheap, compared to the other aspects of the game development. I remember playing Mass Effect and the music is really big and cinematic, but I think they did synth strings on it. On a game that big they didn’t use the real strings. And it makes such a big difference, to the warmth of the sound, to how human it sounds. It really grounds you in the world. And I was really shocked they didn’t break from synthesizer for that.

So I think it’s central. Every bit as important as visuals. But maybe it’s kinda harder to talk about music, unless you’re someone who knows music really well, if you’re a musician or a composer. And a lot of people I know, who work in sound with games, do get this frustration, like: this stuff is so important, but it’s difficult to… explain. Like you can say: there is this number of polygons. But with music it’s different.

I think it was last year that I interviewed Bobby Prince, the Doom composer, and he was talking about doing the game composition during the early 90s, where they’d have to write the software first of all. And because the file sizes were supposed to be small, they were going through a track and literally lifting out a note at a time. Cause each note would be worth like 5k, and they were trying to crunch it down within.
But in modern games it’s so important. But it also has to be working below the radar, I think. In terms of steering an emotional response for the player. This is what I liked in STALKER — most of the ambient tracks are brilliantly put together. Because they’re not necessarily in your face, but constantly adjusting the mood. So yeah, it’s central to everything we do. And central for me personally.

I remember first understanding the importance of music to the game atmosphere, when I played the first Silent Hill. Yamaoka created something that was completely unexpected. That music was constantly… «grinding» your nerves.

And we watched on the original Amnesia, when working on Pigs. And the sound design there is just so… I mean, they’re doing so much with audio. If you put a weaker soundtrack on the game, and you’ll completely rip the spine out of it in terms of experience, and particularly in terms of fear. It’s just so really well put together. I think it’s conceived of as not something which is there because music’s ought to be there. But it’s an integral game design tool. And, I think, that’s why it worked really really well. It’s the same kind of attitude that we have to writing, we have to music. No, this is a game design tool, it’s not something that’s just there because it’s ought to be there. It has to earn its place, have a functional effect on a player. And that’s how, I think, you create a good soundtrack. By thinking in these terms.

[b]Like in LIMBO there was almost no soundtrack, but those industrial sounds were creating something like a soundtrack which added something to the experience.

Did you have something playing in your head, when you were writing Esther, before Jessica wrote the soundtrack?[/b]

Yeah, I had some of earlier work of hers. There was a piece that she had written which was about… about 30 minutes long. And when the environments were getting built I felt, that the tone was there for the game, long before we knew anything about the story or anything like that. We not only built with the music playing, but also laced that music in the environment quite early on. I was kinda going: I think this music here, or section here that she had prewritten would fit and that’s the kind of emotion we want here. We used that as a build tool all the way. And one of the pieces which we used, when we started building the cave section was a very very very early version of Always, which is in game anyway. And it’s been prewritten, but then she rewrote and remastered it for the actual in-game piece. But when it was in the caves, it felt like the caves and that piece of music… there was no way of pulling them apart. So, it’s one part of the soundtrack which pre-existed the game.

And we’re doing it with Pigs now, where she’s been writing pieces based on some concepts we’ve written, then we’re using it in the early builds of the levels, and then readjust those as we go through. And Sam Justice, the audio designer… his ambient loops and lot of the noises and effects go in there incredibly early. And I think it really helps us in terms of… the art and design teams just can go: yes, that’s the mood, that’s the feel we want the player to go through at this point. Rather than going: well, we have an area, now we have to sculpt the soundtrack around it.

How important, do you think, was Nigel’s work for the success of Dear Esther?

Completely essential. The story with the voiceovers is that originally we used… Well, when the environment was just being built and wasn’t ready… This is on a mod level, so you can imagine how crude it was :). So we brought a guy to do a kind of a placeholder. And he came into the studio, and did what seemed like a really good performance. Like a radio drama, it was really really good. And then we put it in the game and it was just terrible. Because, he’d kinda put an emotional intensity into it that would’ve worked really well on radio, but seemed completely melodramatic when it was in game. And I was really gutted because of it, cause I really liked it at first, but then it was just: …it doesn’t work. So we knew that we had to find a different voice. And it was apparent, that the tone of the voice would make a really big difference. Not just the ability to act, but also the quality of the voice. And Jess and I spent about 3 days on the casting websites, listening to different actor voice reels. And then we hit Nigel’s, played it for about 30 seconds, then looked at each other and just said: that’s him, that’s who’s doing the game! And he was fantastic. I think, he’s seen the script only the day before, and he walked into the studio, did the entire script at the run and then we went back through and did two alternate versions of the voice cues, raising the emotional intensity, lowering the emotional intensity. And I think we actually ended up using his first take on pretty much all the voiceovers in the entire game. He just completely nailed it straight off. And when we brought him back for the new bits in the commercial version, there were things which were written in there, which, I think… Once he really brought that character to life and I had to get back to writing, I almost though that I know the character better now, when he made the voiceover for him. And i think, Dear Esther is, in a way, four people’s work: Rob’s amazing work, Jess’ amazing work, i guess, my writing, and Nigel’s voiceover. I think, if any one of those things would be falling below in quality it wouldn’t have worked. His voice is what pulls players through most of the time. And players really invest in him. And he was amazing at communicating the emotions in a very subdued way. Even though the script is quite emotional, particularly in the end. And, I think, it is what makes it work on the emotional end of it.

Yeah, he sounds natural. Like he is the character.

And we’ve been working with other voice actors since, and I’ve never had to do as little work as I had to do with Nigel. He just got it. A total professional. I hope he does more games, I think, he’s really good at it. His voice sounds good in games.

But you’re not working with him on Pigs or Rapture?

No, I think we need a space before we work with him again. Because, it was so central, what he does to Esther, so if we used him in either of these games, people would just be: it’s the Dear Esther voice man.

Yeah, kind of typecasting.

But without a doubt, I would want to work with him on another game. Just got to wait a bit of time before we do it again. Because, he’s fantastic.

I recently noticed that with most games I love, it’s more about the narration, the characters and the setting, then the story. If you look at the story itself of most games, it’s not very good. Even the Silent Hill 2, which is usually getting the «bestest story evar» kind of thing, is not that good as a story. The topics and themes are great, the setting is unforgettable, and characters are amazing, but the story itself — not so much. And it was similar with Amnesia — i don’t really remember all the bits of the story there. I remember the characters, their voices and how the story was presented to me. So, how do you think, is the narrative, the characters and other tools which present the story for the player are more important than the story itself in videogames?

Jess’ mom used to write for soap operas and dramas for television and radio. And she always said that, if you start from the plot, you end up with a weaker story. You need to start with characters and have good memorable characters, characters that feel real. And then, you place them in situations and the story naturally emerges from that. And it’s far more important to have that, than it is to say «this is what’s happening in the world». And I think that really holds true to games as well. Because you’ve got player in the middle and the player is thinking about what he’s doing, and they’re more likely to remember their path than the plot particularly.

But I think the problem in videogames is, that quite often to justify the length of the singleplayer campaign, which has reduced and it’s a good thing, developers try to constantly reinvent and twist the plot. And it ends up with the plot that is more difficult to remember and much weaker, because you’re going: I didn’t need that extra twists, I didn’t need those things to make sense. And the best videogame stories are the ones which have very simple plot structures. Because you’re concentrating so much on what you’re doing, what it means to you, that if they start saying: and than this, and then this, and then this… You’ll just go: enough story, it’s just too much. And you wouldn’t accept it in a film. Like those films where it keeps twisting, than twisting back on itself, and then twisting back on itself again and by the end of it, you’re just like: ugh, just tell the fucking story!

I think we should just chill out about what story is, and just say — story is there as a functional gameplay device. To conduct and steer and manipulate the player’s experience. And if it’s not doing that, there’s no point in it being there. Unless you’re writing some kind of an MMO and players expect a ton of lore and backstory, or in Skyrim, where people want huge chunks of information. But in games like, say, Crysis 2 — it has far too much story than it needed. Because it was basically: you’re running around ruinedNew Yorkshooting squid-aliens. And that’s what I really like about Doom, and what id did with RAGE as well is that it goes: yeah, you’re driving around, it’s Mad Max, you’re shooting things in the face with a shotgun. If you don’t need a story — don’t have a story. If that’s enough, then you’re fine.

And this is what I loved about Silent Hill, is that it made no sense at all. And they went like: oh, you don’t want to understand it, it’s so weird, you’re mad. And it was really inspirational to me. Like that worst ending I mentioned last time. You just have absolutely no idea what happened, but it’s really powerful and it stays with you. And you remember it because of that. So I don’t think that you have to have a plot, that makes absolute sense, and lots of complexity in it. That often makes the game weaker, rather than stronger.

I think the only series, which could pull this off right, was Legacy of Kain series.

Oh, I love Legacy of Kain.

But I think that was partially because of what an amazing job Amy Hennig did with the script. Which also shows now, when she’s working on Uncharted series. But most games with very complex stories and lots of characters and time manipulation or whatever become boring eventually. Even Rockstar made games, like GTA series… halfway through the game i don’t remember most characters. I’m just driving around in a car and suddenly someone calls mu character to go and hang out somewhere, and I’m just: who the fuck are you?

Yeah, we kinda went from the crisis of story in the games, to like: we must have the story it’s really important! Yes, it is important and can be a powerful tool. But saying «it’s critically important»? It’s as critically important as having 3D in the movies. It doesn’t make a good movie great and doesn’t make a shit movie good. It’s just there, because someone thought it’s ought to be there, and someone invested in it. If you can’t pinpoint a proper functional reason why this should be here at this point — it shouldn’t be there. I find Skyrim a bit like that. I’m just: I don’t care about any of you.

And it’s what i loved in the original Half-Life. It has, pretty much, no characters in it. Just Freeman, just you, and you concentrate on that. And in HL2 they just went: we’ve got Alyx, we’ve got Kleiner, we’ve got Breen and we’ve got Eli, and that’s pretty much it. And it’s a small amount of characters, but enough for people to invest in them. And Valve made, so you spent time with them and start caring about them. And they’re very well written. They’ve invested in characters much more than in plot. The plot in Half-Life 2 is the same old shit, but the reason why it works is because you really care about the characters, which’re in it. And it means something. Because it’s people’s reactions to a plot.

I also loved how they constantly try to subtly remind you of who the character is, and what his purpose is in the game. If you haven’t played Half-Life for a bit, you see those characters doing their things or placed in environments, which constantly remind you of who they are.

Yeah, Valve always invest in characters. They understand that the characters are far more important than the plot in games. And usually the games with weaker stories don’t have memorable characters in them. And that’s why it’s hard to remember them. In films as well, you’re kinda experience the plot through the characters. And if they have a good characterization in films, you forgive them a lot of other stuff. Because you’re invested in it.

You just want to see cool characters do cool stuff, most of the time.


Right, so… it’s been a month, I forgot what I wanted to ask… -_- Oh, right! Last time we were talking about one of the reasons why Amnesia was so powerful, that Frictional used the lack of information about the game to play with the players. But, what do you think was the most important reason Amnesia is considered so scary?

Well, one of the reasons Amnesia is terrifying… because you can’t kill anything. I think you can’t underplay that. If you see something and it sees you — you’re dead. And once you establish that, it’s just inherently very very frightening. Also there’s the thing that they didn’t have repeat gameplay. So apart from knowing that you can hide in the cupboard, and that they can see your light, every time you get in a situation, you can’t fall back on the same skills and tricks. And you don’t know how to get through each situation. In most shooters, including survival horrors, things go like this: I’m going into a space, things are going to come at me, I will shot them, and then it will be safe for me to move on. And because you couldn’t fall back on that idea in Amnesia, every time you’re going into a situation, you’re going: I don’t know what’s gonna happen here. And that’s inherently frightening.

And it’s very irregular in terms of the design. When you’re looking at the levels in the engine, and when you look at the original design documents, there’s no big deal about continuity, about how big the levels are, and what kind of rooms there are. Some of them are hubs, some of them are linear. And if you look at it from a kinda academic viewpoint, it’s a real mess. But it’s not a mess, it’s very clever, because it means that you don’t fall into predicting what’s going to be around the next corner, what’s gonna be in the next level. So it constantly undermines the player’s knowledge about what’s happening. You feel constantly on edge, because you can never know what’s going on. The light mechanic is very clever, but it’s obvious for the player to get.

And I think, the game’s just designed well. For a lot of games, you might have a good concept behind them, but most great games have it implemented really well. Like Metro. Metro is a great game, because of how it’s made, and the care and attention and balance. It’s a brilliant concept. But not that different from other post-apocalyptic concepts. But it’s done really really well. That’s much harder to quantify and pin down on a single good idea. And with Amnesia it’s the same. They had a lot of focus, a lot of attention on sculpting the player experience. And making sure that player never gets too comfortable. I think the torture rooms level was really well. It shows all the limitations of the engine, and the fog looks a bit crappy… But suddenly you’re in a massive open space, and you kinda go: ok, everything I’ve learned up to this point is useless, there’s no way to hide. And it’s terrifying. And it’s like you’re starting the game all over again. Which is just crazy.

*Dan suddenly has to answer one of his team members. Apparently, one of their software licenses for Everybody’s gone to the Rapture didn’t arrive in time, so they have to make up for the time lost.*

Alright, let’s carry on :).

Not going into too much detail to not spoil surprises, are you using some of these and other concepts from the original Amnesia in A Machine for Pigs, or are you going for something completely different?

No, it’s definitely an Amnesia game. And I think, what we’re trying to preserve is the type of the experience the player has. So, while we’re changing some of the mechanics and doing stuff that is very different in terms of the design, the really important thing about it is that people… will recognize it as an Amnesia game. And it’s really important to protect that. Because Amnesia is done so well. There’s no point in going: we’re doing a sequel, so we have to evolve and change everything. There’s no point in changing things that are brilliant and work really really well. It’s about finding different ways of doing those things. Making a different experience, but retaining the essence of what the original game is.

For me the priority… It’s kinda thinking: how can we make a slightly deeper and more complex story going on. There are bits of Amnesia, of the original story I kinda don’t like. That it descends into a kinda more Lovecraftian thing, which is not as interesting as the stuff that’s going on in the first part of the game. And we’re trying to focus on… What in my opinion is the strongest part of Amnesia story is Daniel’s character. And the idea that you have this person, who has done those awful awful things and why has he done it. And for me that «why has he done it» and him coming to terms of why has he done it is the most interesting part of Amnesia story. And I’m much less interested in Alexander, than I’m in Daniel. So, trying to find those kind of iconic characters and those kinds of relationships so people really care and really invest in the characters and the world is really important. And having that kind of emotional journey all the way through, so you’re never just playing the game. And I think that is staying true to Amnesia but trying to do it in a slightly different way.

What I really loved about Daniel in Amnesia is that… In Penumbra series, you were playing a different character, who also was not just your avatar but was also kinda you. Yet in the end of the second game he does something, which you probably wouldn’t do yourself and it completely breaks your connection to the character. And in Amnesia, Daniel still is a different character, but you decide how he comes in terms of his discoveries about his past, and, kinda, shape him. And they did different endings for this concept too. Are you also doing something like this? Like… giving the player the ability to shape the character story?

Yeah, I really liked what Amnesia did with Daniel story and I think it’s one of those story design things, that haven’t been used as often as they should be. Amnesia works in a very similar thing as BioShock in your relationship with your avatar. (good thing, Dan doesn’t know I think BioShock is a boring game and does this concept really bad -_- — Klarden) Which goes back to kinda similar but different thing in System Shock. But in both BioShock and Amnesia your character is not your character Daniel is a separate person, which you uncover and then comes the realisation that he is you. And in BioShock Jack is a separate character to the one you are playing. And it’s so powerful as a design tool. Because you can control the personality of the player avatar but they still have the freedom to imagine who they are.

And that core idea of you discovering who you are and discovering what this world is — it’s essential to Amnesia. And, again, Pigs has got that. You are Mandus, but who Mandus is lost to you in the beginning and you’re uncovering that. And it is about how the player responds to who Mandus actually is and what he has done, and what he wants to do, and the choices they make around that. How this manifests in the game and how the story goes is, obviously, a closely guarded secret :). But it is that central idea of going: who are you?

When I first got to know Thomas and Jens from Frictional it was around the time we were making Korsakovia and they just started working on Amnesia. I think with Dear Esther and Korsakovia and Penumbra and Amnesia, we share that kind of interest in that kind of psychology of who you are and how powerful it is for players to try and figure it out. And it’s weird, cause there’re so many games with an amnesiac player character. And it’s really important to game design. A really central thing if you have… Trying to figure out the way for your avatar to not have to much local knowledge about the world. Because if you did, you’ll be able to use that. Your character would just go: well, I would’ve gone there, as if I live in this tower block, why wouldn’t I know where the exit is? And a lot of games do that. Like with Halo — Master Chief is literally chipped out of a freezer in the beginning of it and has no idea of what’s going on. System Shock — you wake up after a coma and you have no idea of what’s going on. And it’s a design tool, not a story tool. It’s like: how do we manage players’ expectations about the character… And the Gordon Freeman thing. Valve just about got away with Freeman. He’s a world class theoretical physicist and he’s kinda crowbaring down doors and things like that. And you think: wouldn’t the first thing he’d do to go to the central computer complex and do some programming to resolve the situation?

Loved how Planescape: Torment played with the idea of amnesiac character. Like, you wake up from the dead in the morgue. You don’t know anything and can be whomever you want. But, you can see or hear about what your past incarnations did. And if, for example, you’d want to go the Lawful Good character, you later learn of your past Lawful Good incarnation and see that he was kinda of an asshole. And you’re like: no, I don’t want to be like that.

By the way, are you playing with the concept in Rapture too?

Yeah… And… The difference between the Rapture and Esther is… The main one, I think, is there are six characters in Rapture, which are actually represented in world. So it’s not like inside your head. There is always that sense in Esther, that nothing of what’s happening is real, it’s just in your head. And in Rapture, the world is absolutely real and you’re in it. And you need to be really embodied. And even though the world is strange and you still have that sense of it being unreal, it’s important for Rapture to feel, that you really are in a real place where real things happen. So it’s quite different to Esther in that way.

But it’s still, yeah… I think, in everything we do, in everything… I think it’s just the problem that I can’t write differently, rather than a particular skill for it :). But, «what’s missing» is what makes things interesting for me. What you don’t know, what you can’t find out, what’s really ambiguous, what’s lost. So I guess this… obsession will be in Rapture as well.

And this parts will end on an awkward pause, I made, because I forgot the question. But next time I decide to fix it by asking a random question about the choice of CryEngine for Rapture, we will talk about the difficulties and benefits of making two games at once, Dan will say that he plans to play The Stanley Parable (oops, spoiler), I will tell about a game design idea I’d love to see in games and we’ll talk about the awesomeness of «meaningless» assets and spaces in games, then Dan will have some things to say to Vostok Games on the recently announced Survarium, mention DayZ, and then go all out with admiration for STALKER.   read

5:47 AM on 05.27.2012

Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 2

(original photo here)

And original post on my blog here.

And now, the second part of my talk with Dan Pinchbeck. We talk about the game pricing, strange «price per hour» concept in game pricing, influence of indie bundles and steam on game sales, popularity of Kickstarter, greatness of Indie Fund and wish for there to be something «in the middle», the concept of franchises made by several small indie companies as a level up from modding scene, Dan’s fondness of soviet and post-soviet science-fiction and videogames and difficulties of going from a mod or a free game to the commercial release.

Klarden: Anyway… hmm… oh right, you talked a lot about game prices lately. I heard you talked about it on GDC. Unfortunately there’s no way to watch that, so… Do you think the games are underpriced today? Or people just don’t understand the value of games?

Dan Pinchbeck: I certainly don’t think they’re underpriced. I’m sure some games are worth a dollar. And some games are worth more than a dollar. And I think because of those prices, some people are going to get undercut. It’s competition, so people cut their prices down. And bigger companies will always be able to drive their prices lower than the development costs. And I get very frustrated with people always going «games are too expensive».

And the one that really annoys me is when people say: «the game has to have a price per hour, and that’s what really counts.» So the game that’s 50$ and lasts for 50 hours is a better value than a game that costs 50$ and lasts for 10 hours. And it seems to me as lunacy. It’s like saying a longer film is a better film. That just because the films lasts for 6 hours it makes it a better value going to the cinema, than on the film that lasts an hour and a half. But it’s about quality, isn’t it? An awful lot of games have very long singleplayer campaigns. And a significant portion of that campaign is padding. It doesn’t really contribute much to the game, it’s not setpieces, it’s not a good design, it’s just there to make it a longer singleplayer campaign. To appease to this idea that games can only be good if they’re 20+ hours. And it seems crazy to me. I would always prefer to have… Like it the original Silent Hill, old survivor horrors — you’d have 5-6 hours…

Even less.

Yeah, even less. But it was all good. There was no padding in it. And they would cost as much as games like Tomb Raider which takes you 6 months to complete. Because it was a different game. You didn’t think that all games had to go by the same model of value per hour. You knew that if you picked up Resident Evil than it was a much shorter game than Tomb Raider. Because it was a different game, it was a more intense experience, it was a faster paced experience. And that was ok.
You could put 50$ in the slot machine… over the course of several hours :). And you’d have exactly the same 3 minutes of gameplay again and again. But it didn’t mean that it was less value for money, because if you got 50$ worth of enjoyment out of it, you got 50$ worth of experience out of it. And if you played it and actually thought: «you know, those mid-twenty minutes of me playing Defender were kinda boring». Then you’d not have 50$ worth of experience. So the quality of the experience is what defines the cost of it. But that idea, like… if you get 100+ hours of experience out of Skyrim and it costs 50$, than any game that doesn’t give you these 100+ hours for the same price is less good value — it’s completely insane.

And when you look at the forums… We went through this with Esther, where people where «10$ for 2 hours?» And we were going: «well, that’s like a packet of cigarettes, like a cup of drink. You pay more to get a round for your friends in a bar, and that’s 20 minutes worth of entertainment. It’s the same price as the cinema ticket.» How did we get to the point where we said that games are worth so much less than other media forms? That they are worth less than books, less than music… They’re worthless.

And that’s the model like… the App model, where you say: «it’s a dollar and it’s probably awful, but hey it’s just a dollar and you can play it while you’re having a crap.» And I don’t want to make games that are reduced to something to do when you’re on a toilet. And I don’t think many game developers do. It’s a hard work — making games. It’s a lot of thought, and a lot of craft, and a lot of talent. And I’ve been looking at the teams I worked with, and I think it’s just insulting to say that it’s worth less than… than something that’s going to take 30 seconds to play and forget. And I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice, as an industry, if we allow that price model to be.

There are those people who go: this game comes out, and I’m going to wait 6 months until it’s about a pound and then buy it. And you go: well, fine, that’s your choice, but you shouldn’t say that if you want to wait 6 months, it should be a pound when it comes out. And I know that I can go and get myself a pre-owned game from a store. But I know that developers get no money from that sale. And if you demand the games to be stripped of all value, the only people you’re hurting are the game developers. And game developers are going to eventually say: well, I’m not going to invest into something that’s going to take a lot of work to do and will result in several hours of gameplay, because I’ll never be able to justify the price point and pay to my staff. And you won’t have those games anymore, because they will be not worth making.

And it tends to get aimed at indies as well, which annoys the hell out of me. You’re hurting the small businesses with this argument. People who try to build up innovation, do new stuff or in a different way. Like, I mean Esther went on Pirate Bay 45 minutes from release. It was fascinating. We went: Yay, people think our game’s worth stealing! But at the same time people were openly going «well, I don’t like this game, I’m going to wait and pirate it.» And you’re thinking: that’s like stealing from a small business. Do you feel good about yourself? If you want to pirate the game, go pirate of EA, if you have to — they can take the hit :). But this idea, that indies have to give their products away… it’s just completely bizarre. And it’s really hard to look at, like, a freemium market. You can understand it, but part of me goes: you can only afford it if you either have a game that didn’t cost much to make, or you’re big enough business.

It was a big rant, wasn’t it? I do feel quite passionate about it :).

Well, I can understand if someone waits for sales. I mean, I’m an unemployed guy from Ukraine, where we have a slightly different market, different salary. I’m also often waiting for the game prices to go lower. But at the same time, I understand that I’m kind of a «special case», my word and my way of buying games is in no way something that means more than what developers think about pricing their games.

Yeah, it’s about what you value. I’ve been unemployed for several years, for about 3 I think. And I had to save up to get games. And the market is overflooded with games today. And there are so many cheap ones. And you get kinda lost in them. It’s so different from when I was… god, I’m so old :). From when I was in that point.

I think it’s the reduction. Because for some games the model works, because you can sell some games very cheap, or if for some games the model works and you can get hours and hours of… Like, say, Left 4 Dead. You have an enormous amount of gameplay and much less assets in it. Much more than if it was just a singleplayer. So for some games the model works, but for some it doesn’t. And trying to jam some model on a different kind of development just doesn’t work. And I think, for most indies, and I think quite a lot of studios as well, most people are not in the «get rich quick» business. They’re trying to look out for their staff and make games they wanna make. And the price of the games they sell is usually based around those things. How do we stay in business and stay fair to the player and fair to us.

And when we were thinking of pricing the first time, I think Rob and I and Jess all were: we don’t want to go over 10$, because we don’t feel… We want to bring this in line with night out, which it kinda is. But we also thought that we don’t want to drop it below 5$ initially, because for us it would feel like saying: this is just disposable thing. It was three years of blood, sweat and tears and we felt like it should be in there. But it’s hard. It’s not a lack of sympathy for people who can’t really afford games. And especially mainstream AAA games, as it’s a helluva lot of money to lay out — $50 at a time. And they’re probably going to get more expensive. But there has to be another pricing way, like it’s not an app, it’s not an AAA. Kinda like middle point, which feels fair to both fans and developers. And it feels like it’s that point that’s getting squeezed from both sides.

It’s something I don’t understand — when people complain about indie game prices. As indies are usually pricing the games as they feel fair. It’s the mainstream model what I think is broken. Where you have these $60, $50, $40 and other price points and you have to fit your game in one of those. Indies usually do it in a different way. If you like it, you pay for it, and if you don’t, you don’t pay and don’t play.

Yeah, it’s not like someone is forcing you to. And it kinda makes me laugh… People who don’t like Esther usually really don’t like Esther. And it usually makes people who like it really angry too. But, there’s been more than one thing going on forums where people are going like: «this game is a total rip-off, and I haven’t played it and won’t play it!» And I’m thinking: «what? How can you be saying it’s not worth it, if you haven’t played it?» When you’re going to the cinema you never know if the movie is going to be brilliant and you’re definitely gonna like it. When you buy an album or a book, you don’t do that.

It kinda goes like the recent debacle with Mass Effect 3 ending. It has never occurred to me when I’m reading a book, that if I don’t like the ending I’m going to write to the author and demand they change the ending. So, you don’t like the ending of Mass Effect 3, so what? It was their choice and they made it. I’m rather ambivalent for the whole idea of them changing it. And… See, back in the days if something like this would’ve happened and the game came out, and people didn’t like the ending, someone would’ve modded a different one. And it would’ve gone round the community. It wouldn’t have gone back to the developer, going: you have got to do what we say. You won’t always get what you like. And that’s part of risk of doing it. But you’re also sometimes gonna get something that you weren’t expecting to be as amazing as it was.

Well, I think the ending of Mass Effect 3 was stupid.

I didn’t like it either, and I think it was stupid and a mistake they made…

Yeah, but demanding the ending to be changed is kinda silly, isn’t it? Going: «well, guys, this was a mistake. You really shouldn’t have done it.» And hoping that they learn from this experience, and never do the same mistakes in the future is one thing. But outright demanding a new ending is kinda stupid. If they feel like this reaction changes their own perception of the ending, if they should really go and change it — fine. But demanding it…

Yeah, i mean, it’s not crowdsourced. They put a product out there, and you made a decision to buy it. And it’s kinda fun of what the big deal the end, effectively the last cutscene, being not what people wanted. And people would play the game and say: there are some problems with the mechanics, but we’re going to accept that mechanics are a bit wonky. But it was really interesting to see just how much people were invested in the story of Mass Effect. They weren’t saying: you have to get back on the game and tighten up physics, because they don’t work good enough. And there was no outcry for that. But the final cutscene…

Yeah, I heard they’re doing something more of epilogues, like they did for previous games, like Baldur’s Gate. Maybe it will be more of a middle ground and people will like that. But sure, they should go and fix gameplay stuff first.

I remember playing the first game and thinking: I wish there was a «skip combat» button. It was a great story, had amazing characters good animation and everything else, but then the gameplay wasn’t really that inspiring. It was more of a struggle going through the game and thinking: I really wanna see what happens next, so I have to play another level of corridors again. 2 was much better, and 3 is good.

[b]I kinda liked the first one, actually. The gameplay, i mean. And it did have a lot of stupid mistakes in it. But sure, the second one fixed a lot of them. And i would really like to see them going and fixing stuff in the first game, even though i know that nobody’s going to do that.

Back to the topic of game prices. Do you think that things like Humble Indie Bundles can affect people opinion on game pricing? Because I recently heard a lot of people just going: there’s a new indie coming out, but I’m going to wait till it’s in the indie bundle and buy it for a dollar.[/b]

It depends on how you gonna do it. Humble are smart that they don’t announce very far in advance what’s going to be in a bundle. So if you’re doing that, you risk that the game might never appear in a bundle. It’s the same kind of risk as waiting for a steam sale. And it’s your choice as a player to do or not do that. And every experience I’ve had with Humble… and we talked with them on GDC quite a lot, is that they treat developers really well. And fair, and their terms are really good and transparent. And they’re very flexible. And they talk with developers just going: this is the sale we think you should go in, how much you might get out of it…

There’s this Botanicula bundle, and the game’s just went out. And maybe that works for them, because they figured they’re not going to have a massive initial spike of sales so they’re not gonna lose that much. And when I was talking to the guys from bundle, they said they haven’t actually seen sales being damaged. And a lot of developers reported that sales increase after bundles. Because it gets the word out about the game and people give it a shot.

That’s what I heard about Steam as well. That it usually works as a kind of a free marketing tool. People see their friends playing a game and even if it’s not on sale anymore, they will still buy it.

And it’s one of the reasons why Steam is such a wonderful platforms for games. It’s just so there. And Valve did a lot for indies. And they were great with us, I have to say. We didn’t know we were going to be on the front page of Steam. And we were on the front page before the game started selling as well. And they don’t really need to put any indies on steam. They don’t need to do any of this stuff. They don’t need to get indies the same billing as for AAAs, but they do. And I don’t know where its about them loving the games, and where it’s being a great marketing tool. But I don’t particularly care, as it works for small studios. Steam has been a brilliant idea and they executed it really well. So if they made a lot of money of it — it’s fair, really. It’s really hard to run steam service, as everyone who tried to run a service like this found out. You know, compare it to something like Origin…

Oh, and I don’t even want to mention Games for Windows — LIVE. I don’t even know why it exists. I mean, it exists because Microsoft, sure, but still.

And it’s weird. I mean, companies like EA have… In terms of recourses, they’re huge. But they can’t get it right. There’s just the attitude in Valve that does… I think it’s because they’re developers. Not publishers, not a software company, and they know what works for players and what works for developers. That’s why Steam works. Because they’re not far from the two most important things in the chain.

By the way, have you played Botanicula or any other Amanita Design game?

I played Machinarium. But, again, it hits that I stink at puzzle games. But I haven’t played the new one yet. I was at IGF, and they were there too. And there are a lot of amazing games you want to play. But I ended up standing and talking for 12 hours to people and didn’t get the chance to play any of the games that were there. But it’s on my «I still haven’t played anything from IGF» list. Cause I just don’t have time to play at the moment — making two games is just… yeah.

Well, I’ve played it and completed it already, and in my opinion it’s the best game they’ve made. And what is interesting is that, their approach for Botanicula reminded me of what you did for Dear Esther, the commercial release. In that, they threw out some stuff from the game, to get a better experience. Made less do more. I really loved that in Dear Esther you’d crouch automatically and flashlight would turn on and off automatically, because thinking of this stuff could detract from the experience. How hard it was to figure stuff like this out?

Oh it was really hard. Rob actually put loads of gameplay in. He was thinking that we’re going to need some puzzles and stuff like that. So he put it in, and then just took it back out. And I didn’t even know he did that. I just asked later like: was there any temptation to add something? And he was: well, yeah I put some stuff in and then got it out. Because it did detract from experience. Same thing was with crouching and jumping. Well, the jumping went because… If you allowed people to jump in the game, they will bunny hop, and you can’t do anything about it. And crouching went because… yeah, it made you focus more on the mechanical solutions. And the moment you start thinking about that, you’re not thinking of other stuff.

And the interesting thing is, when we’re working now on Rapture, we’re thinking: well, how you have the great presence in the world, you can do those things and there is a kind of dynamic interactive thing going on, but it’s not something you have to think about mechanically. And it’s somewhere between… if you draw a three points path, between Dear Esther on one point, maybe, Tale of Tales’ The Path on the other… The problem with Path is, for me, that it made you think mechanically. Because it deliberately, almost aggressively wouldn’t let you play the way you wanted to play it. And Dear Esther doesn’t have anything like this. And somewhere there’s another point where we say: we can have something that feel like mechanics, feels like playing a game, but it’s never so structural and obvious that you concentrate on trying to beat the mechanic as opposed to being in the world. And it’s really hard. We’ve been working on this for a long time. How do we make a game that’s a game, feels like a game, but you’re not thinking you’re playing the game, when you’re doing it? Trying to make the whole thing more dynamic is what we’re trying to do. Making it so it responds to you, the world is constantly responding to your actions. But you don’t have that: I have to do X plus Y in order to get Z. Like The Path just turned into a flower hunt for me.

Same here :).

So I didn’t pay any attention to anything else. And than you could just ditch the entire point of the game and put me in the forest collecting flowers, cause I just focused on that. And I really loved The Graveyard. And I really like Tale of Tales, they’re really nice. But I didn’t like The Path really much. I felt like it was… it had an agenda that I don’t think Esther or Graveyard had. I think Path was really about going to «say something about videogames». And I don’t really think it was needed to be said, really. And I don’t think we did anything like that with our stuff. And it really annoys me that there’s criticism like: they were clearly saying something with Esther. But we’re huge gamers, we wanted to make a game that was good.

Have you played Fatale?

Yeah, I did. I think it’s really… broken up. It’s really interesting when you get to the main part. But the beginning part…. I didn’t exactly see the point of it. I heard they went back to The Endless Forest recently. I think it’s, in the way, what they do best. They were recently kicking around the process for the game called Concentric. And they showed a bit of it at GDC last year, and I really loved it. I thought it was one of the best games they ever made. And it was much more abstract and symbolic. And I don’t think they’re carrying on with, I hope they do (they actually do, according to their twitter — Klarden). I think they’re really strong visually and less strong with narrative. So I hope they’d play more to their strength. The Path was more on the narrative side and it was… not very good.

[b]That beginning in Fatale is cool visually, the words appearing in the air. So yeah, I also think they’re very strong visually.

Anyway, did you have had any experience with different digital distribution services? Like Desura?[/b]

No, we hadn’t time to do that. We’re signing up with several of them at the moment. But Desura, not yet. And on my side it’s really… basically, without them, the Moddb, we wouldn’t even be in the business. But I’m on a Mac most of the time. And I can’t login there, it won’t work.

It’s Windows and Linux, right?

Yeah. I have the development PC, but every time I’m on it, I work in CryENGINE and don’t have time for anything else.

How, do you think, this whole thing with digital distribution changed the game development for indies or the mainstream developers?

Oh, it’s huge. I think we’re still scratching the surface of it’s impact. There are those big games… and models, which hasn’t even been explored yet. Like franchising out aspects of content, where you have a central hub and franchise out content to smaller studios. And other things like that. And you couldn’t do it with the physical release model.

What it has shown already is that you can spend less on a smaller game and make… not as much money, but a better percentage return. And without digital distribution there would be no way of proving that was obvious to publishers. And with companies like, thatgamecompany — Journey wouldn’t just exist without digital distribution. You can get a niche product globally out. And if you’re releasing a niche product globally you’re getting a lot of audience. All because of digital… But it’s kinda also weird how it goes back to the early 90s and late 80s, to the shareware stuff of sticking a cassette in the post and mailing it to people. I think… it’s very democratic.

What was funny, a week after the Esther was out… it’s kind of our highlight :)… I kept going on steam and looking on the top sellers list and going: I know that it’s been out for months and everyone who wanted bought it already, but we’re outselling it — Skyrim! And no matter how you look at it, it’s just a really cool situation to be in. And you can only have this with digital. You know that you won’t be able to beat Skyrim if it was just released, it shouldn’t be that of a big deal. But when you look at it on Steam, you see that this tiny no-budget game is outselling one of the biggest AAAs on the planet, you see it with your own eyes, that sends out a signal that small independent studios can have significant projects.

Yeah, it definitely motivates people to do even more interesting stuff. What about the recent trend of kickstartering projects? What’s your take on it?

I think, if you can do it — do it. Someone said it recently… hm.. who was it… Well, he said that the problem with Kickstarters is that it’s hard to administrate them. And… Oh, I think it was Thomas Grip from Frictional! And he said that… or was that Jon Blow, who said that -_-. Well, Jon or Thomas. Anyway, he said that Tim Schafer paid someone to administrate his Kickstarter promises. But if you’re a small studio than actually you can be making more work for yourself, cause you’ll end up being a t-shirt printer rather than the game developer. But I think it can really work. Although, I think, to raise a significant amount of money on Kickstarter you have to have a name, a reputation already. The reason Tim Schafer could raise billion dollars for Kickstarter is because he’s Tim Schaefer, his games are wonderful and were for a long time. But, I think, it’s a helluva risk if you’re going to kickstart a start-up. You’ll have to invest a lot as a studio in it and not know if you’ll get any returns.

So it’s not something we’d use at the moment. I don’t think our products have got enough reach to justify it. And because the types of money we need to make the game, to pay to staff and everything, we’d have to raise a really really significant amount on Kickstarter. And I don’t think we can do it. With smaller projects — maybe. But it’s a bit like the Appstore problem. There’s a success like Tim Schafer’s Kickstarter and everyone’s going: «KICKSTARTER! PILE ON IT!» And everyone goes to Kickstarter and then you have like four billion games there and you can’t tell what’s good and what’s bad anymore. So you can get saturated. If you can do it — great. But it’s kinda like the price problem with developers trying to just follow some… «This is how all games should go». You should just look at your game and think if it’s really the best way for it.

What do you think about things like Indie Fund? I know Dear Esther was funded by it. And do you think it’s possible to create something like Indie Fund, but funded by players?

There’s definitely a model in there. The advantage of Indie Fund is the knowledge of the people, who run Indie Fund. So… I mean, the money were really nice, we wouldn’t be able to make Esther without it :). But as well as the money, having people like Ron Carmel, Nathan Vella, Jon Blow, Kellee Santiago, Aaron Isaksen… and you can just email them and go: «we really don’t know this and that, what do you think, what’s your experience?» And they would reply and say: «well, this is what happened to us, this is how it works.» It was worth its weight in gold. And I think for us, and for Toxic, the guys who made Q.U.B.E., when those kind of people tell you that your game’s got legs and it’s worth getting behind it — it’s a huge confidence building. And you think: yeah, we can do this!

So I hope there’s always something like Indie Fund. Cause their investment in you, them saying that you are interesting as people and make good games, is meaningful. But yeah, I’d be interested to see if there’s something in the middle. Frictional did something like that with Amnesia. They had those pre-sells and if they get enough pre-sells, the game gets something extra. It’s an interesting model. It would be interesting to try something like that. To say: «How big this game is depends on how much are you want it. So we’re not gonna make a huge chunk of money after the game comes out, necessarily, but we can put another six months into this.» But again, it depends on what you’re in the business for. If you wanna make a ton of money, then making games like Dear Esther or Amnesia is probably not the way to do it :). Although, Amnesia sold like 650,000 units or something like that? It’s an insane amount of copies sold. Enough to bankroll the sequel. And the game they’re working on as well.

You’re a fan of Silent Hill, right?


I had this idea for some time… I don’t think it’s even possible, as Konami would probably never go for something like this, but… Well, you know there are things like some indie film festivals, where people create different short films with one similar topic or theme. So, I was thinking that it would’ve been awesome if there was something like this for Silent Hill. Where completely different developers would make shorter «Silent Hill-themed» games. Do you think it would be interesting to see this? (and, to be fair, it’s nice to see Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs doing something similar — Klarden)

I’m amazed this hasn’t been done yet. Going to a smaller studio and giving them the tools… Not modding, but like the next level of the concept. Or bringing the small studio and saying that: we’re going to commission you to make an hour long DLC or add-on for a game, or going to take a cut of whatever you produce, but we have a quality threshold. You have the concept, you have the software, the engine, the tools… You can say: we have the IP, but we don’t necessarily have to do all of it ourselves. So yeah, I’m amazed it hasn’t been done yet.

It feels a bit like a next level from the modding scene. Mods go full conversion, mod teams turn into studios. You may say: we’ll have Doom 4 in, well, let’s be optimistic :), in 2014. And what we need to have is Doom 4 add-ons, which would be made by separate companies. And we’d start those a year before Doom 4 ships. And you have those companies breaking your engine everywhere it could be broken, finding a lot of bugs, doing a lot of QA for you and, potentially, doing some interesting stuff you haven’t even thought about. If I were a big studio, and was working on a major title, it would be something I’d consider. You can have twice the content for your game without the same amount of resources. And the risk isn’t that big with it as well.

Valve is experimenting with it on a smaller scale with Steam Workshop and items and maps for TF2, I guess. I named Silent Hill because there’s a definite feel of what Silent Hill game is and it would be interesting to see different studios, from different countries, with a different take on horror to make a game that feels like Silent Hill, but is different. Like Frictionl going for a more Lovecraftian style, or some Ukrainian or Russian studio going for a totalitarian or post-soviet feel…

Absolutely. I have dreams of taking STALKER or Metro to different places in the world. Like, take the Roadside Picnic, the novel the game was based on, there are seven Zones across the world. How would people respond to the situation in other parts of the world? It’s such a brilliant concept. And it’s the same with Metro. You can put it in any iconic underground system in the world. And you have a fantastic core world, you can just spin it in different directions. I think it would be great to play that kind of stuff.

The central feel of Silent Hill is so strong, it would be interesting to see an eastern take on it… I think, a lot of western games which are going to get released… I’m looking at and just thinking: «Yeah, you know what? If this game would be made in Kyiv it would be a better game.» There’s such a special world view that saturates… and, in my opinion, is more interesting than the kinda American worldview used in a lot of AAAs. There’s some darkness, for me, I can engage with.

And it’s why I was thinking of Silent Hill — I thought the series could benefit from a different perspective. I mean, I really love the first two games in the series and mainly because they had similar concepts, but were completely different. And, I think, this was lost after the third one, where the overall story was canonised.

Yeah, Silent Hill as a series just got to the point when… I probably shouldn’t say it, but… Well, the studio which made Shattered Memories is a bit of a bucket shop company. I mean, they’re down the road from us, we know them. They just churn the games out. There’s usually no huge amount of depth to what they do. And they did… hmm… it wasn’t Shattered Memories, it was the other one… And you look at it and just think that this studio is not really passionate about their products. «We’re just a studio for hire and we churn games out.» I’ll see what the Downpour would be, but both Origins and Shattered Memories just felt like: let’s milk this IP.

Well, I honestly loved Shattered memories, and how it made similar things like the first games did — did something different. But Homecoming and Origins…

Yeah! (i guess, Dan meant Homecoming and Origins at first — Klarden)

You have said and shown a lot of love to the… kinda «post-soviet vibe». You like soviet sci-fi. Where did it come from?

Well, an awful lot of it came from Shadow of Chernobyl. I haven’t read a lot of stuff particularly. But I remember playing Shadow of Chernobyl and being completely and utterly blown away by it. I just loved it so much. And I found out that it was based on Roadside Picnic and decided to give it a shot, since it was quite short. And I loved it. And so I went and read everything Strugatsky have written after that. I have a compilation of the short stories they did. And it has a story called Six Matches, which is so fantastic. It’s about the guy who burns his brain to a cinder while trying to lift a match from the ground with the power of his mind. He trained himself for six months to lift five matches and then adds a sixth match and goes completely insane while trying to lift them. And it’s a tiny little story, but it’s amazing.
And it went from there, and I read more stuff. But it was driven by games mostly, I think. So when the Metro hit, I was just: oooh, this is so fantastic! There’s such a clear vision in them, which I find really powerful. And I loved the novel of Metro 2033. I think it’s really flawed, but it’s got such an incredible vision in it. And they won’t bloody publish 2034 in English! It’s done in German, but no one’s doing an English translation, which is enormously frustrating. So, I guess, I’ll have to learn Russian now :). But I’ve never really been inEastern Europe. Really want to visit, but don’t know it firsthand.

You should come and visit, yeah :).

One thing I almost forgot to ask: I really liked how Dear Esther went from a mod to a commercial release. Do you think that if a studio decides, that they want to turn their mod into a commercial release there should be some quality concepts, they should understand? Things they should do?

There’s a very big, survival of the fittest kind process there. There is a very big gap between a mod and a commercial product. And people like Steam won’t just come to you, you need to be showing them something and telling that it’s something they should put on their platform. You have to make sure you have a good engine. We went from Source to Source, and Source is not a good engine to commercialise a mod on. Because you don’t have any standard indie terms, like you have with, like, UDK or Unity.

Most mods are variations on a theme. And most mod teams are working on slight variations of a subject. And it’s very difficult to sell. They are, essentially, variations on AAAs. Which means, it’s incredibly hard to get the same quality standard as an AAA. And have something that is individual, that stands out. And I think it’s the reason why most indies don’t look like an AAA, because the moment you start looking like an AAA, you’re competing with an AAA. And it’s probably why Esther is unusual, we staked on unusual. But if you’re making a commercial shooter IP from a mod, you’re going to really struggle to make money from it. You’re gonna have to pay back engine percentages, and then the distribution fees, and you’re, probably, gonna loose, 50% minimum. Which means you have to shift a fair number of units to make it worth it. So you’re gonna make a really low price point, or make PR for it… And if it’s a shooter — there are so many shooters on a market. And a lot of very well funded shooters, which are really mediocre. So you’re going to drown in terms of PR.

Nathan Vella was talking at GDC and he made a very good point. He said: it’s less risky to take risks in indie development. Because if you do something completely insane, at least you’ll stand out. And if you’ll sell it to 1% of a market — well, it’s a big market. As opposed to trying and competing with products, which take up 75% of the market — you won’t stand a chance. So something like Esther was a much lower risk product, than if we’d make some variation on a shooter.

And what about games, which are free at first, but later, go commercial? Should these games add or change something significant before asking money?

We got a small but noisy percentage of people, who went absolutely loopy when we said we were going commercial. It was a small amount of people, but they were really noisy and it was unpleasant.They were saying that we were ripping people off by charging for this game. It wasn’t if it damaged us as a company, but it was pretty nasty being on the other side of it. I really believe we were up front and honest with people. But I would like to be our example as a cautionary tale for all the modders who want to go commercial. Be prepared for a reaction like this.

But I think it takes not less amount of time and work in making a mod, if you’re really investing in it, not much less than if you’re making a game. And I don’t think you’re duty bound to do stuff like this for free. Any more than people working behind the bar, fixing cars or whatever else. Everyone is making something for living, everyone’s got a rent to pay. So if you can make money from your mod, make money from your mod, absolutely. If people are passionate and talented enough to be modding, they’re passionate and talented enough to make games. And the more passion and talent in the industry — the better.

By the way, did you decide to add more stuff to Dear Esther before this reaction to you going commercial, or after that?

It was going to be a reskin up until… late 2010. We decided with Rob, that we could do something a bit more with this. We started talking to Valve in late 2010. We’ve already shown them the game earlier and they were interested in the project. And we got the Valve license in 2011, and until we got the license we weren’t planning to redo the soundtrack, cause we didn’t have any money for that. So, when we started talking to Valve — that was part of the budget that we needed to raise. And we also knew that if we’re going commercial, we’re going to need a coder, and we couldn’t afford it.

So it was when we started talking to them in about September 2010… And we couldn’t go and say we were thinking of going commercial before that. It was a pipedream until Valve came and said: okay, you can do this. It would’ve been pointless and stupid to say it to people. So, as soon as we knew it’s going to be a viability, we told people. But, you know, it’s the internet, there’s always gonna be someone who thinks that you’re an evil person, for doing anything, frankly. Maybe we should’ve said earlier… But, again, it would’ve been stupid. Like six months before we actually signed the deal with Valve: hey, we’re thinking of going commercial. It’s like saying: I’m thinking of making the game. Well, make the game!

Dear Esther trailer

Well, now I know why you were a bit unsure about my offer of translation of the new version, the first time I asked you about it. It was about October 2010.

Yeah, we didn’t know how closely, if at all, Valve were checking us out. So you can’t just go: hey, we’re doing this with this company. And the company’s going: well, no actually. It’d seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

And then Dan remembered that he had a meeting. Making two games at once is hard -_-.
We decided to continue this conversation a week later, but, that week turned into a month. And a month later we could continue with our talk. The talk, I’m planning to post next weekends.   read

6:52 AM on 05.26.2012

Dear Dan. Talking with Dan Pinchbeck. Part 1

(original photo here)

And original post on my blog here.

After wondering for a bit on why won’t a finally buy a webcam and start trying to interview different game developers I made the only right decision — bought a webcam and tried to interview a game developer. The first «victim» of my complete lack of knowledge on Skype talks was Dan Pinchbeck, creative director of thechineseroom, who has recently released their first commercial game — Dear Esther. Originally released as a source mod in 2008, it changed perceptions of lots of people about what can be done with a videogame medium. And recent commercial release, done in collaboration with incredibly talented level designer and environment artist Robert Briscoe, allowed Dear Esther to be known to a bigger audience.

Given my admiration for the game (and work on the Russian translation for it), it’s not surprising that I was interested in knowing one of the key people behind the project better. And while video quality, and my embarrassingly nervous talk and unexpectedly bad accent (because of long inexperience period, I’m a good translator otherwise, honest -_-) prevent you from seeing the recording of our talk, you can still read it.

In this first part, we talk about the unexpected success of Dear Esther, other early experiments, what makes horror games great and why Amnesia was an amazing game, the importance of interface and health counters and what we both love and hate with game hints and tutorials.

Klarden: Still don’t know how this thing should work, so… whatever -_-. First things first: both the mod and the commercial release of Dear Esther…erm… «murdered» expectations of a lot of people. Was it part of the design, to surprise people with the game, or was it unexpected?

Dan Pinchbeck: When we made the mod my expectations were kinda quite low. I think, we just wanted to see whenever or not it would work. And it was just as simple as going: if you do this, if you rip the gameplay and leave just the story, is it going to work? Are people going to respond to that or not? And to be completely honest with you, I thought it would probably get, maybe, a few hundred downloads and, hopefully, people would write enough about why they didn’t like it, why it didn’t work and we’ll be able to use that. It was kind of a shock how it happened. I was never expecting nearly the levels of response we got. So when we did the remake… We wouldn’t have made the remake, or certainly wouldn’t have gone commercial with the remake, if the mod hadn’t taken off the way it did. So, I think, when we went into that, when we actually said that we’re actually going to do a commercial release, I don’t think we were going into: «this is gonna completely «murder» people expectations or anything»:).

I think we were more like: enough people out there have already shown that a significant amount of people will play this, and like it, and get it and it’s not completely frying their minds or anything. It made making the commercial version worthwhile. And I think if it would’ve more contentious as a mod, we wouldn’t have made it. I think it has been since it came out, quite a few people have tried to liken it to a kind of a new poster game, like a new way of doing gameplay, or this is all about «not games», or this is all about problems with current games. And it wasn’t ever supposed to be doing that. I never had any kind of agenda for going like «FPS games need fixing».

And the weird thing with Esther is that it was the last game we made of the first 3 and we weren’t going to make it originally. The original idea was to do something that was planned around with AI. Where you had help from the AI where it was really annoying but you kind of relied on them. So the idea was to make a blind AI with a panic scale as the primary AI scale. You take it into the environment and it gets scared and panics and does stupid stuff. So you had to work out how to calm them down and look after them. But we didn’t know enough and we couldn’t afford agents. So that went. And it was kind of: «oh we had that idea of doing something that was just pure story, let’s get that back off the shelf.» There wasn’t any kind of ground plan, really. It was as much driven by pragmatism as anything else.

I haven’t played your first mod, for Doom 3. But from what I’ve read it was also kinda about making players sometimes frustrated about what’s going on. And from what I’ve heard, Korsakovia, which I hasn’t played as well, since I tried playing it after the update for Half-Life 2…

It’s so broken. Completely broken.

I heard that you tried, basically, lying to the player about what’s going on.

Yeah, Korsakovia was kinda going about «horror games are not scary anymore.» And we were making it before Amnesia came out. And when we did it… I think that they did in Amnesia a lot of stuff we did, but more successfully. Which is fine:). So, for Korsakovia I basically went: the horror isn’t scary. And it isn’t scary because people know what to expect. It’s kind of a formularized form of game design. So we went to try and systematically break every single golden rule, every single design thing. Some of this is gonna work, some of this isn’t gonna work, some of it will just really really annoy players. And some of it may make them have a different kind of experience. With Korsakovia we tried to systematically break everything. Do stuff like doors that lock and unlock themselves without any warning, sort of stuff that made absolutely no sense at all. Invisible creatures, so you couldn’t predict what they were doing.

I think it’s about 50/50 with Korsakovia. Some of it worked, and when it worked it worked incredibly well. And players just went absolutely bananas with fear, cause they just had no idea of what was going on. But problem was that I also made some really really bad design calls. There were parts of it which were just horribly designed. So we lost a lot of people who just looked at some things and said: these guys just can’t design games. Because we’ve done some really bad things. So when it was deliberate, the effect was lost on some people, because people just thought that it wasn’t deliberate and it was just us being incompetent. But it kinda worked and we use stuff that worked in Pigs. And there were things which we did badly which then Frictional did really well in Amnesia. Like the water monster. They had an invisible monster which was actually genuinely scary as opposed to people thinking it was just broken.

And the Doom one… The idea behind that one came from looking at the structure of FPS games. The core of an FPS game is — you’re in environment, and there’s lots of stuff in it and you get rid of the stuff in it by shooting it:). And when there’s nothing else left, you go to somewhere else that’s got lots of stuff in it and get rid of it too. And we decided going: what happens when you can’t get rid of stuff, and it actually gets more complicated when you go, not less? And the most obvious way of doing it is to say: you can’t kill anything. But it had to be just as intense, as mental as Doom 3.

So the way we did it is we wrote story that you’re a prisoner and since everything that happens in Doom, there’s still lots of stuff there The Company wants to steal, lots of information to seize. So they send down prisoners as it doesn’t matter if they get killed. But you don’t want to give them real guns, because they might want to use them when they get out. So we hacked the shotgun so it shoots rubber bullets. You can shoot as many zombies as you like, so they fall over, but after 3 or 5 seconds they’re back up again and keep coming after you. So you eventually have this crowd of zombies following you around the level.

And on top of that we thought, NPCs in first person games are always really nice to you. They’re always telling you you’re great, you’re a hero. It’s like Cortana in Halo. It’s more of «wow, you’re wonderful». And we thought, why don’t we have an NPC who hates you and tells you you’re rubbish all the time? So we wrote that NPC and I coded him so, if you shot a zombie and missed he’d say: you’re complete shithead, you’ve just missed a zombie, you deserve to die. And if you shot one he’d say: well, that was no good, what’re you going to do next? And he’d just pour derision and hatred at you. He’s still guiding you around the world, he’s still telling you what to do next…

He just hates you.

Yeah, he just hates you. And people liked it, it was really good. It was just as intense as Doom 3. But it was completely different in the way of gameplay. But when we did it we just were: «this is really funny. This is hilarious, I love this idea! This guy is just so foul all the time. And everything you do is useless, this is really amusing.» And people were playing and were like «it’s really dark, really bleak». And we were like «no, it’s really funny!» But the thing that went with it is that we figured out that there wasn’t enough modding scene around Doom 3 to have any particular reach. But it still got about 18000 downloads which, for a research project, is pretty good.

So in… erm… Korsakovia, how do you pronounce that?

Korsakovia (yes, you can’t hear him saying that, sorry -_- — Klarden). It’s from the syndrome of.. it’s called korsakoff’s syndrome, when you can’t make new memories and you lose all your existing memories. So you don’t know who you are or where you are and you can’t remember anything that happened since you got korsakoff’s. And then people tend to retreat into kind of a fantasy life and then those fantasy lives get reinvented constantly so people can’t remember all the fantasy lives they created.

Oh, that explains a lot.

Oh, it’s really messed up. Could you have a character in game that had that? It would be completely insane. If you take that premise you can make anything you want with the game world and it will not make any sense whatsoever. Cause every time anyone says «but it doesn’t make any sense» you can go, «well, yeah well it’s not real, it’s a constantly invented fantasy». So yeah, it was a really nice concept and it worked really well.

By the way, do you think that… mostly horror games, obviously, should play more with what reality is?


You know, like the expectations of the player as to what reality is, of what is actually happening. And what is real, what’s not. It was played with in Silent Hill a lot, it was played around beautifully in Penumbra Black Plague, where you had these constant deja vu moments. And Amnesia played with it a bit. I’m surprised that not a lot of games actually play with this. Do you think it’s more of a risky thing, or there are some technological limitations, so people don’t use it more often?

I think it’s not a technology thing, it’s a design thing. I think it’s pretty easy to do… kind of appearing and disappearing objects, so you have placed an object that is visible for only a fraction of a second. And only if the player’s look target is moving away. And you’re only gonna catch it in the corner of your eye. And it takes tweaking to do that, but it’s not hard to do. I think it’s got more to do with where the survival horror market went. That it sold more if you turned horror into gunfests. And it’s a shame. It’s interesting that Silent Hill tried to kinda go back to that.

Shattered Memories.

Was it?.. Cause that was the thing with the first Silent Hill. I remember playing it the first time around and getting the worst possible ending. Like you’ve finally found your daughter, than she turns into a sort of demon thing (Dan, actually, mixed things up a bit, as Cheryl turns into demon only in «good» endings — Silent Hill fanboyish Klarden), and then you shoot her and then it casts you being dead behind the wheel of your car. And I remember just sitting there in front of my Playstation and going: Whaaat?! I don’t know why it never took off in the same way, cause people really like it.

But I think it’s similar to how the horror movies have gone. Going: it’s better to have this pattern when you’re walking in a horror film, you can predict everything. It’s kinda the Wes Craven’s Scream thing. When it became ironic that the fan of horror can predict what can happen in horror. And it seems really weird, cause for hundreds of years the horror was not about that, it was about staring into the dark side. And one of the big reasons why I love STALKER so much is that you can have this sense in there. It really got the thing from the film and the book that the stuff would happen and you’d have no idea why it’d happen. And it made it really really creepy and scary. And it wasn’t about trying to trick player with trying to break reality or anything. It was mostly about putting player in a situation where they’d go «we don’t have to tell you that, we won’t tell you that».

And… oh, i really love to talk about these games :). So, in Metro you defeat this big biomass and it’s like a big boss fight, and it’s all over and the only thing you get as a pay-off is the stalker going «well, i don’t know what that was, let’s not go there again». And this is kind of the reaction you’d have, really. And it was really cool, very human. And in classic literature, like Lovecraft… the whole point Lovecraft is scary is that you can never figure out what’s going on. You always get the chance to feel that there’s logic, but you can never understand that logic. And you’re always quite powerless.

And I don’t know if it kinda doesn’t fit with the received wisdom of what you’re supposed to feel in the game — you’re supposed to feel increasingly powerful until you win. And that’s why I love the bad endings in STALKER: if you didn’t follow a little subquest that they didn’t signpost massively, then no matter how powerful you are, when you get to the end something horrible happens to you. And what was genius is that they hid the conditions of the horrible ending you got. So unless you read stuff on forums to get this, you go back and replay the game and get a different horrible ending. But you’ll be able to work out what you did differently to get a different horrible ending, which, to me, seems much more fun than going: ok we’re getting towards the end of the game, we’re 75% through, now we have to explain everything, because players need to have everything explained. And I’m like: why?

And that’s the kind of thing we did with Esther. People want to know, they love it, but they don’t necessary want to be told. And I think a lot of horror is like that — you don’t know, but you can see the shape in the dark. Yet can’t tell what it is. And it’s much more frightening. The noise in the dark is much more scary than seeing a monster. But yeah, I guess since the games are still about manipulating the integers, it’s hard to think on how to create spaces for things to be really ambiguous and unanswered. And there is kinda jar between these philosophical things and technical systems. But it’s not exactly difficult to do. I think :).

I consider the first Silent Hill to be, probably, the scariest in the series because with the technical limitations the studio had, with all the murky visuals, you had to use your own imagination to explain to yourself what you see and what’s going on. And your imagination always made things even scarier than they actually were.

Yeah, absolutely.

And… i didn’t really like what happened after SH4: The Room, where the newer games looked better, and beautiful in a scary way, but very clear. And you didn’t have to use your imagination as much.

The mist in Silent Hill was genius. Those shapes coming out of the mist… It’s terrifying. You can’t work out what’s behind the next corner. And it’s one of the things we talk about when designing Pigs. Where you have players create gameplay for you. When you put them in a such psychological state, that they start imagining things, predicting stuff is going to be there, when it’s not. And you don’t even have to do anything. And I had so much respect for Frictional when they released Amnesia and were like: «Oh, don’t look at the monsters, cause they’ll see you!» And it wasn’t true. And yet players were edging sideways along corridors. It’s a massive thing to show that you can make the players to create their own gameplay in their heads. And behave differently in response to the system. And the system doesn’t have to do all that stuff, you just tell the player it will happen and they do it for you. But I think it’s hard to pull off. Frictional completely nailed it with Amnesia, they got into player psychology in a really deep way.

I think, if Frictional were better known, people would’ve had other expectations from Amnesia. And they would think «I want to know how the system works» and go to GameFAQs or a different site and read strategy guides. But Amnesia was more of an underground hit at first and there wasn’t enough information about it. And Frictional used this and «leaked» some of their own information about the game and part of it, as you pointed out, was actually a lie.

Yeah, if you don’t have enough money to do PR campaigns, people are going to come a lot colder to your game. If you give a lot of money on PR, to cover your sales, you have to give away a lot of information about the game. Because you have to hammer it on people until they buy it. Kind of a Call of Duty method, so if we wake you up in the middle of the night and shine a torch in your face and scream «Call of Duty!», eventually you’re going to buy it :). You’re pretty sure about what the game is going to be about.

Amnesia trailer

And with Amnesia it was interesting that they released a trailer and the trailer was: you’re hiding in the cupboard from a monster. And it kinda sums up the game, it was a really clever way of doing it. But it doesn’t tell you anything about what’s going on otherwise. And you’re basically going into this knowing that you’ll have to hide from monsters in cupboards. And it meant that they could do 20-30 minutes of gameplay in the beginning without a single agent in it. Because as long as there is a cupboard in the room, you’re looking out for a monster, cause it’s the only thing you knew about the game. It was a really clever design.

I’m a fan of Frictional games and played them since the first Penumbra demo. And they even played with expectations of people like me. The first time I realised that monsters disappear after some time (it doesn’t happen all the time — Klarden), I was hiding in some dark corner for like 10 minutes.

Yeah, and when we started looking at it in the level editor… When we started working on Pigs we decided to study the Amnesia levels. So we opened them, and they’re really small spaces. And it’s amazing how long the game takes, given how tiny the maps are. And it’s about that: you just spend so much time sitting and waiting. And I think it’s a really underused thing in game design.

Again, the first moment when I realised that I loved playing STALKER like I haven’t loved playing games for years, was when I was crouched behind the rock waiting for it to go dark. Just sitting there in real time with my fingers on keyboard and thinking «please go dark, please go dark!» And I realised that… I’m doing nothing. Nothing, but don’t dare to look away from the screen as well. I don’t want to pause it, I’m sitting there in real time. And if you get people in this kind of state, they’re going to get a deeper experience than if they’re playing… you know, off hand.

That is something we’re going to see more in game design. I hope we do. Just, let nothing happen for a bit, let things flow. Dead Space 2 did it really well. When you get to the wreck of Ishimura, there’s like 10-15 minutes of the game where there are no creatures. And it’s the most frightening part of the game. Because you’re just imagining things that aren’t there. And the moment the first necromorph appears, that tension just goes and they don’t get it back again. And for me Dead Space 2 kinda went down after this point. Because you’re just returning to the things you do. And they kinda compensate this by making the story increasingly… weird.

Yeah, I really loved Dead Space 2, but it did go into something I call «Alien to Aliens transition». People tend to want more… stuff happening in sequels of horror movies or games. And it usually means more action.

It would be cool if they then did Dead Space 3 like Alien 3.

Yeah, would be amazing.

It’s my favourite Alien movie. It just goes: «no, let’s have just one alien, but then make sure that people have no means of defending themselves.» And it so much tenser than 50 grunts with laser rifles in space.

[b]I wish they’d make a true Directors Cut, let Fincher make the movie the way he wanted. Assemble cut is great, but…

Anyway, returning to the idea of making players becoming immersed in the game and sitting and waiting… Do you think the interface is vital for creating such immersion? The lack or subtlety of it?[/b]

Hmm… It’s a hard question… It depends on the game. Because, I think you can be really immersed into something that is really frantic and has a complex HUD and action stopping to go into inventory and that kind of stuff. We really care when you’re going to jolt a player in or out of space. Because you’re going to distract their attention. And I think there is a real challenge in removing the HUD these days. They contain information that is just vital.

Oh, and making the inventory systems in games is really hard. There is so much in design you can’t do without it. When you remove the ability to pick an object, put it in your inventory and apply it somewhere else on the level, you have to completely rethink the design. And removing that stuff makes it harder to make a logically consistent level or experience. Because you have to work around what’s basically a really useful shortcut.

For me the most immersive games are the first person games, because you don’t have an avatar. You have this direct… what the avatar sees — you see, you have the spatial awareness. So it always throws you into the game more, than if you have an avatar. That always removes you from the game a bit. But there are ways of not using the HUD which are simply overused. Like the discoloration of the screen while your health recharges is so established, that it doesn’t have any impact on you. You’re just going «oh, that means I’m 50% health down.» And it doesn’t really immerse you into the game. It doesn’t have that effect it had when it was first used. A lot of those things have become so formulised that you just go «that’s the structural device». And it’s not actually less immersion breaking than a health counter.

Yeah, and i never understood the point of using these things just because they are popular. I mean, for example when the regenerating health (well shields first) were used in Halo, they made sense. They were actually explained — you were wearing a special suit that did it. And now you may be a normal guy in a usual suit and still have regenerating health, which just makes no sense at all.

Yeah, and for many shooters I think it doesn’t really do good. It’s one of those things where they’re trying to make the game more accessible for causal players and make things the way… a lot of more experienced players might not want to play. In the games with the health counter — it means something. You watch that health counter and it adds tension. You have that number and if it goes to like 34, you get a lot more tense, than if it’s on 75. And you can’t get that tension if you can just think «I will duck behind this crate for 3 seconds and will than regenerate and carry on.» So you play the levels completely differently, the whole game differently. And it usually feels like it was applied wholesale, like: this is how we do health in shooters now! And I think it’s different rather than better. And some shooters definitely suffer. Because sometimes you want that tension going: I’m gonna have to play this like an arcade game and play to the end of the level 5 or 6 times, because I arrived at this quicksave with 24 health. And I’m not going to load an earlier save to redo it, I’m going to try and do it like this. And you concentrate harder and engage further, so… I like health counters.

Oh, I had a moment in the first Max Payne, where I’ve quicksaved like a second before receiving a lethal shot from the shotgun in the back. And I decided to reload that quicksave about 15 times before finally successfully dodging the shot and killing the enemies. It was amazing — I made a mistake and had to fix it. I really liked that feeling.

Yeah we got to the moment where…. You know, going «I don’t want to make the game too broken» is not the same as «I’ll make the game impossible to lose». I was playing Fable 3. And I’ve been playing it for an hour and a half, and I was still in the tutorial. And I was like: by the time this tutorial ends, by the time you stop holding my hand the game will be over. And it kinda was. It was so disappointing.

I really liked in the original Deus Ex, and Half-life and… where was it… Anyway, you had this separate tutorial level, and it wasn’t connected to the main story, and you’d play it, learn how to play, and just load the main game. And when you’re in the game it just goes: «well, you know how to play and if you don’t, well, tough, because you had an opportunity to learn.» Again, sometimes it works, this integrating training into the game. But other times I quite like the idea that the game starts, you fall from the sky right in the middle of battlefield and you’re off. The game’s not gonna do you any favours at all. So I think, it’s not always a good idea to start helping the player. Punishing the player and challenging them are pretty similar things. And if there’s no challenge it’s very easy to slip away, I think.

I loved how Valve did hints in Left 4 Dead. You were in the game, there was no tutorial, but those small hints helped you to understand the game. And yet you learned by playing the game. And they adapted to you and went away when you learned the lessons. They didn’t just go «the games stops and you have to press this to continue». And you’re just «no thank you, I know this, I did these actions five times already».

Yeah, absolutely. And that’s why Valve games are so amazing. They just think of all those small things while designing the game. They just have time and money and go deeper in the design of the game. And it was weird that I didn’t really like Portal 2 that much. I felt like… I got to it from Portal 1 and I knew that some people will go in Portal 2 without playing Portal 1 and the game would have to account that. And when I started playing Portal 2… if I played Portal 1 i don’t want to be taught to play Portal. I stink at puzzle games anyway, and kinda lost cause for games like Portal. But Portal 1 kept me all the way to the end. And I put about an hour into portal 2 and it just didn’t…. they’re clever puzzles, but I have to find the right surface to shoot the portal onto and that’s it. And the world didn’t really pay off for me to make that investment. It’s a personal taste, of course.

Well, while I loved Portal 2, I really love Portal 1 more. It was more about playing and «thinking with portals» as it was advertised. The second one was more of a listening to a very funny dialogue, listening to the story, then just finding two tiles to shoot portals at and then going forward and listening to more story and dialogue. It was fun, but not fun gameplay-wise.

In the next part we will talk about the game pricing, the models and influence of digital distribution, the concept of franchises made by several small indie companies, Dan’s fondness of soviet and post-soviet science-fiction and videogames and difficulties of going from a mod or a free game to the commercial release.   read

12:43 PM on 04.11.2012

Once again enter the world of survival horror

Survival horror is dead. As a Capcom invented moniker, as a Capcom influenced control scheme and game structure. Probably, even as a major mainstream game genre (well, action-adventure subgenre, actually). Some argue, that it's concepts, it's mechanics are outdated. That you can't get more of it. Capcom says similar things. And you know what? To hell with Capcom. And i mean it in a very broad sense.

Richard Cobbett wrote a very nice editorial about "saving adventure games" last year. And i think a lot of points said about adventure games in that editorial hold true for survival horror games. Once a subgenre that pushed boundaries, influenced developers and players alike, that tried new things and experimented in storytelling and gameplay, it became nothing more than a self-parody. Always trying to be survival horror in tired mechanics, controls and story devices and not in the concept of survival horror. And it can only blame itself for that.

Itchy. Tasty.

Well, itself and the fans, obviously. Our constant desire to see "more of the same, but better" is a good enough motivation for developers and publishers to do exactly that - same things over and over again, though, unfortunately, sometimes missing out the "but better" part. And survival horror suffered the same fate. Resident Evil become so successful, everyone started using the same formula. And, after a while, formula became a gold standard, a template synonymous with "survival horror" itself.

But while the formula stayed the same, the game industry and player expectations changed. Something, which was great in 96, good in 00, became rather frustrating in 02. REmake and Resident Evil 0 are good examples of how older concepts in gamplay and controls worked bad with newer concepts. Old "tank" controls, inventory management, and action mechanics felt wrong in tighter spaces, deadlier and more resistant enemies, with characters moving and reacting in a more realistic slow and heavy way. Silent Hill could get away with older mechanics because: 1) the mechanics were more refined than RE ones from the start 2) there was still less emphasis on action and, if action was necessary, melee was still more important 3) in Silent Hill series gameplay was always the least important element. But Resident Evil games, as some other survival horror games, relied to much on gameplay mechanics to ignore the problems old formula presented.

Daddy, help me daddy!

The revolution, unsurprisingly, came from Capcom again. Survival Action. Survival horror's younger sibling with the same action-adventure roots, but more emphasis on action, where survival horror preferred adventure. Resident Evil 4 used lots of similar concepts REmake and Zero had, but complemented them with the overall gameplay structure. Where deadlier enemies, slower characters and the increasing need for action instead of avoiding enemies frustrated in Zero, they felt at home in RE4. But more importantly, RE4 felt fresh and innovative. Sure, it was a third person shooter mechanic, coupled with the old survival horror, coupled with some RPG elements not unlike those in Parasite Eve II. But the mixture was (while very far from perfect) really good and exciting. And it was what everyone wanted and needed.

Obviously, "survival action" has become a formula everyone tries to copy. And the once new subgenre also gradually becomes stale. Especially since, i might argue, that the original survival action formula was perfected in Dead Space and it's nigh impossible to top that today.

But more importantly, people started to perceive survival action as an evolution and a new version of survival horror, not as a sibling and complimenting subgenre. This, along with the state of survival horror was in, created a misconception that the once loved subgenre should be buried and forgotten. This is the situation we're still in, despite the more recent critical and commercial success of games, which can be characterized as survival horror. So, what exactly did these games do?

Are the faint sounds of footsteps those of survivors?

While survival horror subgenre is "officially" dead ever since 2004-2005, several survival horror games got released since then to critical acclaim. To name a few, Frictional games made Penumbra and Amnesia, Climax studios gave us Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, Eden Games brought us, while hardly successful and more action-y, intriguing Alone in the Dark (2008) and i cannot ignore the recent success of Lone Survivor by Superflat games.

All of the mentioned games can be called survival horror, yet they are all different. Penumbra and Amnesia took the idea of a first-person adventure, added horror story and survival elements. They are, especially Amnesia, more story driven and as such, force survival on player much less, than one might expect, but still are survival horror games. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories works like a mix of third person adventure game and "cinematic platformer" games like Another World or Oddworld. Yet, it's a psychological horror story and you do try to survive. Alone in the Dark (2008) uses the overall template of survival action, but it's open world, platforming and even driving sections make it stand out, while the combat is something player can (and should) avoid most of the time, like in older survival horror games. And Lone Survivor uses the classic survival horror formula, but with a twist - the game is completely 2D, creating a very different experience.

Kill Yr Idols

And i feel there is a lesson to be learned from these games. A very simple lesson - the survival horror idea, which is an action-adventure game with focus on exploration, puzzles and item collection mixed with a horror scenario and the need to survive, can still work. But for it to work, one must learn from older games, not repeat the old formula. Which is the same problem the adventure games are now facing, as i've mentioned at the start. Everyone knows how to do a simple point-and-click game mechanic and think of some basic puzzles and item uses. Not everyone knows, that it's not what adventure games are about. You don't necessarily need "tank" controls or fixed camera angles for your character to feel vulnerable. You don't necessarily need manual aiming, just because it's a popular thing - autoaim worked perfect because action was less important, because it complimented the game feel, not just the controls. And, in fact, you don't even necessarily need any fighting or shooting mechanic in your game for it to be survival, or an action-adventure. It's not what survival horror is about.

And it was always the case. The very first Silent Hill was successful because it was completely different from Resident Evil. Influenced in lots of ways, sure. But very different and amazing on its own. Fatal Frame wasn't simply Resident Evil with camera. It wasn't the shower scene that made Parasite Eve II so amazing. Nor the scissors were the reason of Clock Tower success. And even in the decline of the genre mainstream popularity, it's not the dog or the girl clothes, why Haunting Ground is still remembered. Hardly, but not forgotten entirely, like dozens of "RE clones".

This is my last chance, my last escape.

Survival horror may never return to its past popularity. I even think, it shouldn't. But it can and should evolve, learning new tricks, while not forgetting old ones. Never using gameplay mechanics just for "the sake of the genre". Innovating and setting new highs once again. There are people who want to once again enter the world of survival horror. Good luck!

also on my blog   read

10:02 AM on 03.28.2012

Bioshock is an OK FPS

So, BioShock was, apparently, a very big thing. And i still don't get why exactly was that. Now, don't get me wrong, BioShock was a rather good, if frustrating at times, FPS "with a twist". It was nicely made, had several really good things about it but... That's about it. And the entire situation of BioShock's popularity really reminds me of Halo popularity - it seems that people consider BioShock is big simply because they were continuously told that it is big. But let me explain myself in detail.

When somebody's praising BioShock, more often than not, the biggest praise is given to the "clever story". But what's so clever or even good about it? It's yet another "failed utopia" setting (like there can be a successful one). yes, it does use concepts of objectivist philosophy in it and... i'm sorry, but so what? Is it the first game to reference or even base itself on some philosophical tenants? No. Is it the first game that uses real historical events as a reference for the in-game story? No. Is it the first game about utopia? Like i said, no. In fact, i don't even know how can anyone be surprised at the utopia-like story after the rather recent fall of Soviet Union - a symbol of the communist utopia (which also failed miserably, of course). There's nothing fresh in the story or it's presentation. Nothing really bad, yes. But it's bland and boring and hardly interesting to follow. And has no interesting twists or moments.

Yes, it doesn't. "Oh, what about that thing about that Atlas guy and the "would you--". No, it's not an interesting twist. The "you've been played" twist is so overused in... well, pretty much any storytelling art, that it's really hard to pull of in the interesting way. BioSHock fails to do that at least because it fails to establish any motivation for the player to be interested and invested in the story or characters. Really, can you remember any of the characters from the game? Ryan, obviously - he's always *there*. And it's, pretty much, the only reason to remember him - because we're constantly reminded of his existence. Is he interesting? No. Yet another idealistic and dickish stereotype of a guy with lots of money and\or power who thought he can do better than somebody else. Oh, hello Stalin, how's it going? You're totally unlike this guy, right? Oh, and Hitler's here too? And Napoleon? And Alexander the Great? Those are real life examples, you say? Okay, should i name most of the baddies in the Final Fantasy games, or you get the idea? Ryan is so two-dimensional, so bland, stereotypical and boring, i fail to understand how he can be considered a good character. Atlas/Fontaine - yet another stereotype, with examples from other stories and even game stories, and real life. Nothing really intriguing about him. His true nature reveal is not as predictable as it is simply "oh, so it's that guy after all. okay. cool." for the very same reasons, you don't care about Ryan - you're not motivated to care about any of this. Probably you also remember Tenenbaum, but i don't think it goes farther than "oh it's that science chick, who did the gene experiments and cares about little sisters". Which is, again, a rather bland stereotype of the "scientist with a change of heart and desire to make everything right".

Oh yeah, and the "twist" itself - what's so cool about it? I heard lots of "well, they explained a game mechanic through the story! that's so cool!" I'm sorry, they didn't. You, as a player, do all the stuff you're "kindly asked" to do because it's the *only* way to progress in the game. It's an old linear game design feature - restricting player game progress until he does something to progress the story. It gets an in game story explanation in "would you kindly". So what? Is it better than any other way of restricting the player, like some "hack the console", "talk to the character, so he opens the door", "find the new ability to progress further" thing? I don't think so. Is it using any game mechanic? No. It's a plot device explaining the plot device. Want some examples of using the gameplay to blow your mind? Use the usual player interaction, which he does by choice or because it's a common gamepleay mechanic, and then make a reveal about it. "Do they look like monsters to you" line in Silent Hill 3 makes you suddenly afraid of being a murderer. God of War 2 (of all games) pulls a similar thing with the "dark room fight" (hope you get, what i mean). Both Portals do similar twists to smaller degrees. Hell, even Braid's "metaphor for an atomic bomb" does that. Getting an explanation as to why you couldn't progress further in a linear FPS is "okay, whatever, like i care". Even the Ryan death scene is not interesting to watch - the game already used non interactive cutscenes, it's not the first time you're not in control of your character. There's nothing shocking, surprising or even new in that experience.

And the entire game is filled with that. Not bad, but ultimately forgettable moments. The message in the glass is the only truly amazing, inspired and unforgettable moment in the entire game. All the other stuff is similarly boring as the story and the characters. Game occasionally tries to be scary, and fails. Tries to amaze you with the wonders of the city itself, but only the art style can be interesting to look at, as the city locations themselves don't seem neither logical, nor very interesting. Most people's hobby seems to be running around and throwing around parts of their huge dictophones all over the place.

But i must agree that it's not a very bad shooter. Not very good either, as it tries to hard to pretend it's a survival horror like thing. And does it by making the playable character, his abilities frustrating to use. I know that the game was originally designed to be more of the System Shock kind of survival horror FPS game. But the final release was a streamlined shooter with magic/biotic/psy-powers. So why is the action still clunky? And, i'm sorry, even the sequel understood it and fixed it, making the game a much better FPS (with better story and characters. less pretentious and more interesting). Yes, there are some good moments in the game and, probably, the only interesting gameplay moments were in making traps for Big Daddies or other enemies. It wasn't new at all, but was actually exciting.

And there you have it. What's so big and good about BioShock again?

Also on my blog.   read

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