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12:52 PM on 02.24.2013

Aliens and the Industry

I've been following the whole Aliens: Colonial Marines controversy, and honestly it just seems like a bunch of industry BS got dragged out into the spotlight.

I mean, it's my understanding that hiring a smaller independent studio is not uncommon, although I could be mistaken. But on paper, there's nothing wrong with that arrangement: a smaller company gets some experience under the oversight of a bigger (and presumably more well-seasoned) company (no different from hiring freelance devs except that you get a team used to working together, which is a plus for everyone). The firm employing them gets to manage their own resources more freely. The publisher requesting the project doesn't care how the game is made, only that it is made.

Of course, that assumes that there's some management involved to make sure whatever team doing the work is actually meeting their milestones. In the case of Aliens, that clearly didn't happen.

Secondly, of course previews are utter nonsense. They must be built separately for several reasons, including but not limited to how it's really hard/impossible to find a 10-minute chunk of game that accurately captures what a game is all about (cf movie trailers have the same problem) and how the polish comes at the end of the project, not when conventions are (a work in progress doesn't look terribly impressive, which is the whole point of a preview). It's been this way forever. I don't know what the solution could be, but we need to get away from the focus of launch day events if we don't want to be lied to by previews. (I personally try to stay away from previews as much as possible for this very reason, and have for years now.)

And of course contracts don't specify that a game has to be "good" in order for the contract to be fulfilled. I mean, think about this: in what way can you measure how "good" something is in order for it to be specific enough to be in a contract? That's right, it would be tied to Metacritic. And think of how awful that would be, if the game doesn't at least get a certain Metacritic score, then the development team gets sued for breach of contract. Yeah, that's not better. (Instead, Metacritic scores are tied to bonuses: c.f. the Fallout: New Vegas Metacritic controversy.)

All in all, I don't think Sega has much of a case against Gearbox (although that means pretty much nothing, since it's pure speculation from an armchair lawyer). The thing Sega wanted from Gearbox was a game, and Gearbox not only made good on their promise (after official, approved extensions allowed by Sega), but their hiring of a contractor to do the work will be seen as taking good-faith steps to see their contract to completion. Think of it this way: Sega could have denied an extension at any time, and dictated an absolute, final date, and started to enforce their milestone deadlines. Instead, they fostered an expectation that they would allow indefinite extensions. In all honesty, that's probably what Sega eventually did, at which point they had a crappy game, at which point they could throw it away or make some money by releasing it. (Although, it's odd that the word from Timegate is that they expected another delay, but that just may be disbelief that the game would ship in the condition that it was in. Still, that's more poor management, if the fact that time was up was not communicated effectively.)

So, in order for Sega to sue for breach they basically would have to prove that Gearbox knowingly and deliberately delayed the game in order to pocket the funds from the change orders. This is something that's incredibly easy to check (just look at a financial report), so the fact that Sega hasn't sued yet either means they don't care enough to jeopardize their relationship with Gearbox (which is doubtful: they most certainly would want millions of dollars rather than a relationship with a company who gleefully steals from them), or that isn't the case and Gearbox actually spent the money they got from Sega on developing the game. I doubt this as well, because I get the feeling that Gearbox would have been much happier had Timegate actually done an adequate job in the first place.

Although, one thing Gearbox may have done, which is touched upon by the latest whistleblower is if they took the money to make Borderlands and then took an equivalent amount of money made from Borderlands and put that into Aliens, which wold be questionably legal at best. That's an incredibly risky and stupid move if Gearbox did that, though.

All-in-all, the real failure here is management, and that's a delicate dance, because you don't want to be too overbearing as that could mess up the project as much as being too lax about meeting deadlines. Still, the bottom line was that things were going wrong, and no one did anything about it.   read

7:41 PM on 11.07.2010

The Limitations of Kinect

The problem with Kinect - and pure motion control in general - is that such control must be within the following limitations:

1. The only control is movement.
2. The movement control is supposed to be intuitive and therefore must mirror real life or else be some sort of signal extraneous to the experience of control within the game, such as, "Let's take a break from playing" or "Select this menu item, please." This is due to the fact that there is no real life analogue (such as when selecting an item off of a menu, where in real life we use rather complicated speech to accomplish this), or, ironically, the real life analogue to these actions is pushing buttons (such as pausing a video).
3. All of this control must be done within the range of the camera.

The critical flaw with Kinect is this third limitation because there is one thing that is absolutely crucial to many video games but the natural way to do it (in accordance with the second limitation, above) cannot be done within the third limitation: movement through space. Or, in other words, walking.

One with a keen eye may notice that in every single Kinect launch title and indeed every upcoming title, not one has controlled movement through 2D, let alone 3D space because of this functional limitation. Games either put the player "on rails" or present an experience whereupon the player mills about in an area (a la Dance Central).

The reason for this is simple. It's just not possible. If one's walking was tied to walking in the game, it wouldn't be long before you walk out of frame and are no longer playing the game (or rather, no longer in control of the game). This is especially problematic because there isn't a whole lot else we do with feet besides walk.

Now, "on-rails" games rarely to never produce quality game experiences. A quick look at reviews shows that it is solely games that come from the "milling about" camp that are the critically acclaimed launch titles. Suddenly, the future doesn't look quite so promising.

That said, this problem is not specific to Kinect, but it is aggravated by Microsoft trying to show the world that they hold the future of gaming, and that it lies with pure motion controls. But even they are gracefully acceding their limitations with the promise of "hybrid" games.

This isn't to say that Kinect is terrible, however. It is quite an impressive piece of technology that has yet to realize full potential. That said, even if it were a one-inch cube that perfectly captures your motions and instantly transforms whatever room you're in into a holodeck, this problem with movement through space will still persist. Pure motion controls are not the future of gaming, at least not what is a thought of as games right now.

What is the future, then? Well, it still might lie with Kinect: voice commands. Get that on everything and perfect it. If it proves to be reliable, it will add a new definition of immersion in gaming. Besides that, the aforementioned hybrid games do open up a lot of avenues as well.

(Original images: 1 2 3)   read

12:17 AM on 06.17.2010

Software Moves Hardware

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it's the software that moves hardware, not the other way around. Sure, software has to be built on hardware and is limited by the hardware, but as a consumer I can care less about what is possible - I want to see what is done with it.

So when Microsoft reveals the lineup of games for Kinect I can't help but feel that they're missing the point. It's pretty clear that they're aiming for a more "casual" and less "hardcore" crowd than their current customers, but they really have to work on "wowing" their audience, elephants and ponchos aside.

Meanwhile Sony has, um...Sports Champions for the Move? A lot of their coverage was about non-Move stuff (although to be honest I can't remember much beyond "Portal 2 with Steamworks on PS3" and "premium paid online services"). Still, much like Microsoft, their lineup of games for the Move just doesn't inspire (and the more interesting ones don't require the Move, which makes it an even tougher sell).

Seriously, Children of Eden is doing a better job at selling Kinect than Microsoft. (And yes, it's on PS3 as well, but the trailer implies Kinect.)

What those guys need to do is take a page from Nintendo's playbook. In the same E3 Nintendo just announced the 3DS and already it's generating huge amounts of positive buzz, and while some part of that is due to the tech, most - if not nearly all of it - of it is due to their massive lineup of games. Donkey Kong, Paper Mario, Mario Kart, Star Fox, Kid Icarus, Ocarina of Time! And that's not even all of it. They may not even be playable, but it gets the crowds excited, and it gets people talking.   read

4:55 PM on 06.15.2010

The Emptiness of Red Dead Redemption

I have come to the conclusion that I don't like Red Dead Redemption.

That isn't to say I hate it per se. I did spend a good ~30 hours wandering around doing stuff, and I enjoyed the story twists and all. But, I dunno, it didn't feel like anything special. I should note that I didn't play the multiplayer at all, because my internet went down for a bit when I finished it, and by the time it got back up, I couldn't bring myself to try it. I was done with the game at that point.

Maybe I just don't like sandbox games. I've never really gotten into any GTA past 2 (and I must've been like 15 at the time). It all just seems devoid of meaning. Sure, I can go into a bar, get drunk, and wipe the floor with the (incredibly easy to manipulate) AI. I make a little progress towards an achievement, maybe pick up an outfit piece. But it doesn't really amount to much.

Maybe it was because it doesn't feel like me running around, but John Marsten, with his own code of ethics, personality, and so forth. This isn't my story, it's his, his mistakes and his hardships, and many times I felt detached from him. I don't want to help the people who are obviously betraying me, but there's only one way forward, and that's to get betrayed. And now that it's done, I don't feel compelled to go back and even pick up whatever achievements I may have missed. Maybe if I jumped into Free Roam from the start it would be different, but it feels like I'm not even there.

Maybe I don't care for the stories that Rockstar weaves. Sure, it has an interesting cast of varied characters, but they are of no consequence to Marsten and his quest, only a means to an end and left alone when all is said and done. Worse yet, I didn't feel for any of the amoral scumbags whose fun is the events surrounding them, with the exception of a couple of characters who simply aren't given closure. Even the ending just feels empty - lacking in all meaning, just consequences arisen from events, like watching something fall to the ground. It was devoid of emotion, and had no impact.

Maybe it's the third-person action gameplay. The action is too mindless: aim and shoot, that's all. You don't really worry about positioning because enemies will hit you if you aren't positioned just right (and there's no way to tell), and you will hit them regardless (except when the cursor doesn't line up with the shot, which happens occasionally). There isn't any way to interact with the world and the enemies aside from the various types of guns, either (excepting the lasso, which is a very specific non-battle tool). Occasionally they conveniently litter around explosive containers to shoot too, but those are less effective than regular gunfire, which makes them pretty useless. Even grenades have limited utility (and are less effective than gunfire). In fact, gunfire is the single easiest way to kill someone, and because I never had to worry about running out of bullets, ever, there was no reason to use much of anything else - beyond the desire to do something different.

Maybe because it's just so sterile when compared to the last few third-person shooter games I've played: Alan Wake and Mass Effect 2. I derive a lot of pleasure out of efficient use of limited resources, and Alan Wake has that in spades - 42 revolver shots disappear very quickly on Hard. Both of these games have a variety of different enemy types and situations that need different strategies to conquer as well. With a Krogan bearing down on you, you have to make a split decision on whether you can take down his armor fast enough to disable him with biotics or move from your position and into potentially lethal gunfire. Does this situation merit Cryo Ammo, or would that hinder me? There is no such intricacies in Red Dead, it alternates between shooting people behind rocks and shooting people on horseback, and everyone dies to the same bullets. There is something to be said about simplicity, but Red Dead isn't timeless, and it stopped being fun at some point.

All I know is I don't feel compelled to go back in the least. I've got unfinished business, too: I still have to skin some critters to level up my hunting challenge. And yet that sense of self-satisfaction I usually get for doing such mundane tasks isn't there. It just feels like my time is better spent elsewhere.

Red Dead was fun while it lasted, but it still wore out its welcome before the end credits. More than that, though, it just feels...empty. Like there was nothing I left out there in the desert, and nothing I took away from it - there was nothing of myself, no emotional impact, no memorable action sequences, no memorable events, no memorable decisions. Just emptiness.   read

3:54 PM on 06.15.2010

Kinect, Move, and Console Add-on Failures

Call me a pessimist if you want, but I don't think these console additions will be successful. Sure, there's a lot of hype surrounding them right now, but even still I remain dubious of its success. (Well, Microsoft is going all out - read: batshit crazy - even if Sony hasn't been pushing nearly as hard as it ought to.) So I've decided to muse a bit on why I'm not feeling it for Move and Kinect.

(Note: this is meant to be separate from my own personal feelings, measuring success in monetary terms. Meaning, I know right now that Kinect and Move are not for me. But I can muse about how well Call of Duty: Black Ops will do, even if I'm not interested in the game itself, can't I?)

Now, no console add-ons have worked in the past. Sega CD and the 32X are the poster childs for this (mainly because very few people have had the guts to try again, and for good reason), but more to the point it's not because the hardware or even software "sucked". It's because they're dividing their marketbase.

So let's look at, say, the 360 right now. We can divide them into two groups, "people who own a 360" and "people who don't own a 360". Who do you sell Kinect to? Well, among people who own a 360, assuming the price points are accurate, Microsoft is pretty much trying to sell them a whole new system for $150 - that's three-fourths of the price of the Wii, and not exactly a small number. And that's for a fraction of the market - among people who don't have a 360, you're trying to sell them this new system for $300 to $400, and most of that cost is a product they've already decided not to get for one reason or another. The difficulty to overcome is much more difficult than just trying to convince people to buy a 360 in the first place, because they're appealing to people who already chose not to buy the system sans-Kinect at a lower price point.

Speaking of price point, Move is going to be annoying to the consumer because you get it piecemeal. Sure, if you have the PS3 and the PS Eye, then you can get into Move for the very nice price of $50 (plus games), but for a full set of nunchuck-analogue plus a second wand (since some games will use two wands for one person), that's $130. Without the PS Eye, it'll cost $180 and even that is assuming you own a PS3. It's $400 (or two Wiis!) otherwise.

Furthermore, price is a huge deal. If Microsoft and Sony weren't competing directly with Nintendo, they sure are now. And Nintendo is the king of the price right now at $200, which is beat by the already-invested prices of $150 and $180 for a full one-player set, but that's incredibly close to where the Wii is at. And then for people who aren't already invested, it's pretty clear where to get motion-control gaming from, and it ain't Sony or Microsoft.

This is assuming, of course, that the average "casual gamer" knows about Move and Kinect and their above prices. It is my experience that the average person hasn't heard of the PS Move, and when described to them they immediately liken it to the Wii (which right now is a household name, like Xbox and Playstation); and if people haven't heard of Natal (now Kinect), they liken it to the "Eye Toy" when described to them. This is real bad. No one is going to pay twice as much for a Wii-analogue or about four times as much for a next-gen PS Eye. Microsoft at least has been bending over backwards in clown shoes to get peoples' attention. Right now, there's as much excitement surrounding the Move as there was when the PS Eye came out with Eye of Judgement, and we all know how that turned out. (The two situations are also disturbingly close since Sony was awkwardly trying to take a piece of the incredibly lucrative CCG pie.)

So right now I'm not expecting either Kinect nor Move to do well. That isn't to say that some people won't get excited about them (or that others will declare them a detriment to humanity), or even that they will make a profit in the long run, but right now neither is poised to tackle the admittedly difficult challenges ahead of them.

Microsoft and Sony, prove me wrong.   read

5:16 PM on 05.19.2010

About Competitive Online Gaming

Response to this article.

(I was writing up a comment but it was too long. So I decided to blog a blog blog, I mean response.)

This article hit the nail on the head as to (one reason) why I dislike Halo, as well as that little browser game Travian.

For Halo, scattering weapons about the map basically makes knowledge of the map a prerequisite to doing well. Contrast that to say, Team Fortress 2 or even Bioshock 2 multi and while knowledge of the map helps (namely with health kits/EVE hypos/ammo and possible ambushes), those who know the map don't simply dominate over those who don't.

I also highly, highly dislike miscellaneous spawn points sprinkled across the map. It's super disorienting to begin with (which makes it harder to learn maps), and then if everyone else is wandering around there's a fair chance you'll be attacked immediately or soon after you spawn - and from anywhere. Moreover, you're vulnerable to attack from any which way pretty much all the time - this does not add a whole lot of "tactical" to shooters. This is why I VASTLY prefer Rush to Conquest in Battlefield: Bad Company 2: you know which way the enemy's going to come from, and spawn campers are rare and discouraged (both by map and squad design and by the fact that spawn camping rarely ever assists the team objectives). Of course, flank attacks are possible and devastating, they're due to error - i.e. lack of vigilance or a tactical mishap - rather than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The second point is what bothers me about "persistent" strategy games. It's simple enough, it's a growth curve (typically exponential, which only aggravates the problem), so those who have been there longer have more resources, more stuff, and so forth. I mean, it makes no sense; you wouldn't join a Starcraft game 15 (hell, 5) minutes into a match with just the basic units and expect to win. Games like that basically have to adopt a board game-esque structure and start over with everyone on the same playing field, change the objectives or give mid-joining gamers a handicap, something to level the playing field.

(Side note: I haven't played EVE, but from what I've heard of that game, that game IS either climbing the corporate ladder or skirmishing about Firefly-style. Simply put, building a sizable army from scratch - what most tactical strategy games are about - takes a backseat to the community. It's a very natural progression, actually - the development of society, people working together for a common benefit, and such. And while it would be curious to see what would happen if EVE started over from scratch today, whatever would happen would be very different game than it is now.)

However, while I hesitate to disagree with regard to unlocks, I believe that they are handled with tact nowadays - at least for the most part. BFBC2's unlocks, for example, are hardly mandatory upgrades. The many people who play the Recon class in particular say that the default level-zero gun is one of the better ones. And while there are some kinks, there's no "BFG9000" that simply trumps all the previous ones. Not to mention TF2's fabulous unlocks which really change how the classes interact with other classes rather than merely giving a boost to damage or something. Even Bioshock 2's unlocks are pretty well-done, and while the imbalance is there and it hurts at times, it's hardly overwhelming. I've killed plenty of splicers much higher level than I, without breaking a sweat.

Really, developers are choosing to tread a very thin line between limiting access to specific strategies without limiting power. Why isn't just accomplishing "trials" or secondary objectives (e.g. "Headshot 100 people", "Kill someone in mid-air with a rocket") enough? That way you don't have to entice by restricting tools, you entice by encouraging their use.

I should note that TF2 does a little bit of both, actually. Ideally, the TF2 achievements will entice players to learn to use a particular weapon, allowing them to get acquainted with it, before giving them another (i.e. letting them switch) and repeating the process. This actually might be preferable since it limits the info-dump on new players who from the beginning have to learn how to defend against everything. (Although, I'd personally rather know beforehand various tricks, such as how recently killed can drop grenades or continue shooting while prone in COD4, rather than finding out in the field. Your first death against things like that is always a cheap death because the game restricts knowledge of it - that is, there's no way you can see it coming. But I'm digressing.)

That said, at the end of the day I'm glad all of the above exist, even if I don't find it all fun. Variety is a good thing, after all.

(All of this is making me wonder how Red Dead Redemption will handle multiplayer leveling.)   read

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