Friday, July 10, 2009

Penn and Teller

So, this month, AT&T - via their UVerse Service - is giving subscribers access to Showtime, Flix and Starz channels. I don't normally get access to these premium channels, as its not worth the expense and, frankly, I'm not home enough to make it worth the expense.

That said, I can occasionally tune in, and last night was one of those nights. I am a huge fan of the Penn and Teller 'Bull$#!@' series, but no more so than last night, when they took on the myth of the adverse affects of video game violence.

While their argument was abrieviated, the most telling portion of the episode was surrounding a mother of a pair of children, one of them a 9-year old boy. Because the argument about playing violent video games is often cast as protecting children from violence, or that violent video games are 'murder simulators' that train kids to perform orgys of violence, it was interesting to hear the Mom say:

"I know my son, he knows the difference between reality and fantasy."

That statement, alone, speaks volumes against the argument that I hear most often about banning violent video games which states that Children do not know the difference between reality and fantasy.

So, what will I do with my son? Good question. He's pretty savy on the computer right now - can navigate the websites he enjoys with a few clicks of the mouse and can play the simple flash games contained within, so he likes games. I know that I grew up without a content filter by my parents - I saw Aliens when I was 7, I played with toy guns, etc. Should a child play a game with gratuitous dismemberments? Does your child understand the difference between fantasy and reality?

That's the real question, and one that the government should not be answering.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

I may have to buy Guitar Hero: World Tour after all... that they have announced that this total geek song will be a free download.

I'm such a geek.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Six Days in Fallujah

Like many others with their fingers on the pulse of the gaming industry, I was appropriately intrigued by the recently announced game, Six Days in Fallujah, but for reasons different than the average gamer or developer.

From the screenshots, the graphics looked surprisingly pedestrian.

When described as a survival/horror style game, I didn't think that I'd really enjoy the gameplay all that much.

What did intrigue me about the game was its subject matter. It was a pretty bold move to chose to use a very specific engagement in the Second Iraq War as the basis of your game, particularly when the Second Iraq War draws such heated responses from both sides of the political spectrum. But it wasn't just the subject matter that got my attention, rather, it was the response to the fact that this was a game, about a real and recent event, that got my attention.

A great majority of the feedback was wholly negative. The event was "too recent" and that the game would "do a disservice to the men who fought and died there."

The first point is debatable, and the second is the real crux of the complaint. Clearly, games are more than childish playthings at this point: the Nintendo Generation is now over 30 years of age. The Playstation 1 generation of kids has graduated college and entering the workforce, and the PS2 generation is nearly there.

Gaming, as a medium of artistic expression, is here and holds relevance for those that have grown up with it. It is more than a child's play thing, though, there is much of gaming that fills that role.

The general response of "disservice to those that died" is clearly made under the false assumption that games are not art. But if we are to be considered art, like film, cinema and literature, developers need to be able to take on controversial topics - like the War in Iraq - and do so without worrying about publishers pulling the plug.

To put it another way: if "Six Days in Fallujah" had been a movie, would we even be having this discussion? Obviously not. Atomic is making a serious game, on a serious subject matter, using a significant and recent event as the backdrop. That alone, for those like me that enjoy serious games and see games as an art form, is enough to pique my interest and hope to see the game on the shelf.

Will the game be any good? I don't know. I hope it is. More importantly, I hope it does treat the subject matter seriously and not put it into any sort of political context. You can tell the story of Fallujah without any NeoCon or Liberal spin - simply putting the player into the battle, and tell the stories of the men around them (ala Brothers in Arms) should be compelling and engrossing enough.

Friday, April 24, 2009


Lord of the Rings: Online was only my fourth EmEmOhArPeGuh, and, only the second I took really seriously.

To give an idea of how serious, I played LOTRO in:
  1. Closed Beta 2
  2. Open Beta
  3. Preorder
  4. Launch
Unfortunately, in that time, I committed one of the major blunders that most EmEmOhArPeGuh run into: burnout. By the time of launch, I'd been just about everywhere, and seen just about everything.

The game is gorgeous, and, more to the point, it always felt like Turbine really got Middle Earth, with all of its rich history and diverse cultures. From walking into Bree and the Inn of the Prancing Pony to viewing the Hobbits in Hobbington, Turbine's loving treatment of the universe made the game that much more enjoyable.

Not to say that the game is flawless, but it is a clean, easy to get into game that isn't quite as newbie friendly as WoW, but it certainly provides a more engrossing PvE experience.

So, when I saw that the Mines of Moria expansion was dropped, I was intrigued, but, I really couldn't afford the time or money to play. Don't get me wrong, the idea of putting together a longsword Adaneth Bario (look up the Sindarin) and exploring the Delve known as Moria would be a treat, but with the work hours I was keeping, and being a devoted father, spending the time needed to get that far into the game just wasn't an option.

Well, now that I spend most evenings home alone once Max is down to bed, I've got a couple of hours to kill most evenings.

So, I broke down and purchased the expansion, and once again, LOTR:O has sucked me in. All it does now is make me want to make an MMO...

What's wrong with me?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

So...I'm playing Left4Dead again...

I was an early adopter of the game, and much like TF2, I'd gotten myself burned out on it.

I had purchased both with the understanding that Valve would release sufficient content drops to make the purchases worthwhile. In TF2, that was certainly the case.

Left4Dead, not so much. The game consisted of approx. 10 multiplayer maps, and 20 cooperative & single player maps. That sounds like a lot, but, in multiplayer, a full 'campaign' takes about an hour or so to play. Further, because the campaign is pretty linear, it didn't take long for experienced players to quickly realize what you should and shouldn't do, and where you should and shouldn't go as both Survivor and Undead.

Ultimately, it got repetitive. Not to say that wiping out the survivors didn't get less sweet, rather, it got more so - you knew the strategy for survival, it was always a question of breaking the survivors out of their plan.

So, two things happened:
1) I started playing the game again with former co-workers (to which I'm called 'The Lucky One') and it is a hoot when you are playing the game with people you know. The enjoyment factor is much much higher.
2) The release date for the new content was announced, which caused Point 1.

So, I've been enjoying Left4Dead again. Now, if they finally get the SDK released, like they said they would, the possibilities for awesomeness will only increase.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hello, Old Friend...

Let me put on my Internet Nerd Hat for the moment and make a confession:

Yes, I play in a PBeM RPG. I've played in one, off and on, since the mid to late 1990's.

And in that time and within those games, I've had the opportunity to work with a variety of different people. Sadly enough, I find that with my participation in these games, I've found my writing ability and, more importantly, writing discipline has greatly benefited from my participation over the years.

I write for myself, by and large, to keep my creative writing skills up - and since I am trying to focus now more on content design and game writing than system design, I find the process a really fun way to keep my skills up.

Friends have come and gone through these games, and most I have lost contact with while I continue to write.

However, of late, I've been able to work again with an old friend. We'd lost contact, or, at least, extremely inconsistent contact for the last few years. We'd worked together for...six or seven years. We have had a strong friendship, and definitely have a kindred intellect and creativity.

So, it's been wonderful to work together again, even if it is for our own benefit and enjoyment.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thoughts on the Wii

Alright, so, there's this large elephant in the video game room. It has sold like crazy, so, as a result, all of the publishers need to address it. We're talking about the Nintendo Wii, of course, and with it, all of the baggage associated with it.

In the spirit of that large elephant, I have the sneaking suspicion that the gaming press are hoping that the system will be something that it isn't: a mainstream gaming machine that appeals to the broader hardcore market.

We're all aware at how grossly underpowered the Wii is when compared to her current generation siblings. We're also well aware that there have been some games that have come out on the Wii (Resident Evil 4, the Metroid and Zelda games, and the latest, MadWorld) that purport to cater to the hardcore gamer. While RE4 and the latest Zelda were clearly developed on or for the previous platform (Gamecube/PS2), and Metroid was created by an internal development team, we only have MadWorld as the one, true, independent, hardcore targeted title for the Wii until The Conduit drops.

Which leaves me wondering: what part of the Wii audience are really hardcore gamers? I ask this as a serious question, because when I look at the vast majority of games out there, it reads like an inverse bell curve: you've got casual, older gamers on one side, and you've got kids on the other, with the hardcore, early-adopters stuck squarely in a blackhole of suck in the middle.

So, why make hardcore games for the Wii? They are already going to be at a pretty severe disadvantage in terms of graphical and even technical (memory) capabilities. The base control scheme, reliant upon a somewhat foggy, and typically requires a great deal of flailing about like an idiot. While that might fly in party games where laughing at your friends is required, trying to get into a game like...dunno...Mass Effect if I have to waggle that Wii-mote to perform combat...

...ugh...what makes the Wii so special? Can someone explain it? Please?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Narrative Has Its Place

As a Game Designer, the use of narrative in games always intrigues me, and after reading some of Steve Gaynor's articles on immersion and invisibility, and it has got me thinking...

Alright, I suppose I am a bit of a maverick - I don't really have a problem with a forced narrative that creates a memorable experience, because that creates a very important bridge between the three very important groups that plays games: the hardcore gamer, the hip gamer, and the casual gamer.

Now, let me quantify those terms:

The Hardcore Gamer
: is what you expect what you hear the term "Gamer" - these are the men, women, and children who are early adopters of technology, who want the cutting edge, and who demand a lot out of their entertainment dollar. They read all of the reviews, and tell all of their friends which games are fun, and which are not. The vast majority of Game Designers definitely fall into this category.

The Hip Gamer: is a nebulous description, but this is a group of gamers that is influenced heavily by the Hardcore Gamers in terms of game purchases. They read the reviews, but tend to be more circumspect about what they purchase, relying on friends, blogs, reviews, and the like to drive their game purchases.

The Casual Gamer: is the largest market of gaming. Casual Gamers play everything from simple card games that come preloaded on PCs (Solitaire anyone?), to party Games. This is the market most difficult to target a game toward, and not just because it is the largest, most diverse market. Casual Gamers don't purchase many games per year, and really don't keep up with the industry unless it makes mainstream news outlets, yet represent the largest potential market in gaming.

Now, looking at some of Steve's concerns on immersion, these are all outstanding and very valid points that are reasoned out extremely well. But, and I'm sure we could have a spirited discussion on it, I don't believe that completely abdicating authorial control is a positive thing, and that memorable moments in games can be highly scripted, narrow and focused.

A narrow, tightly focused experience - a great example being Call of Duty 4 or Half Life 2 (along with its episodic content) - may be passe for Game Design Theorists, but it is at the heart of bridging the gap between the Hardcore, the Hip and the Casual gamers. These focused games, the very antithesis of open-worlds and letting the player create their own moments rather than sharing in the moments authored by design, give one very important tool to those that don't always play games: direction.

Hip Gamers and Casual Gamers, those that maybe purchase one or two games per month, look for a guided experience and crave direction. My Wife, the antithesis of a gamer, loved Half Life and Half Life 2 because of their level structure and episodic feel of the story and, more importantly, always knew that there was a path - somewhere - leading her to the next encounter. The game was a line, from A to B, and she knew that if she worked hard enough, that she could reach the end.

Conversely, when she watched my play GTA IV (the only one in the series I actually enjoyed, but explaining that would take up a whole post in and of itself), she kept asking me: "Where are you going?" Followed up with "Why?"

That is something very important that I think a lot of theorists (myself included, for what it is worth), being a part of the industry and therefore on the cutting edge, need to understand: We need to make games for them as much, if not more, than we make games for us. What has made game narrative so...bad, by and as much a function of the game development process as it is who has been entrusted to write the games.

The games with the best narrative, open or focused, have had writers work on them during preproduction, production and right up until content lock. The best companies treat the Narrative and Story as another system that must be planned, created, trimmed, polished and refined along with everything else in the game, and also appreciate that the more a Game Designer has to spend working on everything but the story, the weaker and less engaging the story becomes.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I had a review of Empire:Total War...

...but the dodgy power here in the building caused my rig to reset.

As a result, I lost it all, and am loathe to retype it all again, lets the power strike it down.


So, here is the quick, quick summary:

+ Awesome Introduction Campaign
+ Grand Campaign is Challenging and Diverse
+ Musket-based combat is horrifying and challenging

- Massive Naval Battles are a pain in the ass to control
-- AI doesn't appear to have a good handle on how fleet actions occurred in that age
- Requires a fairly beefy system to run

So, in all, I highly recommend it if you need a strategy fix. Pick it up, you won't be disappointed!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Games and Game Stories: Part 2

How should designers get more serious about story?

This sounds painfully simple, but, believe me
  1. Commit to story early on
  2. Develop and modify the story with the technology
  3. The story is never done as long as technology is still being developed
Now, having been hired to help develop a game story and universe from the ground up, I know firsthand that programming trends toward giving story a short shrift. The technology needs to be done first, and then the story can be molded around it. Art and Design tend to look at it the other way, the story needs to be nailed down first, so that systems and content can be developed early on.

In the end, if you want a narrative-based game - regardless of format - there needs to be commitment to the story from the very beginning. The first point is absolutely critical. If you expect a game designer to also design systems and the like, that is fine, and given budget constraints, typically inevitable. But if you commit to a narrative early on, that - as much as platform - helps determine system requirements. I know that the programmers that read this may raise an eyebrow, but when you know the story, you know what sort of AI infrastructure you need, what sort of animation and facial systems required.

Story can help you list what technological innovations you need to work on, and what fanciful systems that the game will need.

Hurm...let me ponder more...I may come back to this...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I'm back, and should have a followup post to my story post tonight.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


I'll be in Houston tomorrow and through the weekend.

I promise, I'll get point two of my post on story and episodic content posted early next week.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Games and Game Stories: Part 1

Or, why can't more video game studios make a good episodic game series?

In this day and age of rising development costs and digital distribution, episodic gaming seems like a natural choice for small, independent developers as well as larger, more established development studios.

I'm of the opinion that it isn't about the technology, or the team size, it's about the story. Game writing is - as much as it pains me to say this - largely laughably bad.

I can count on two hands the number of really good game stories, with well-rounded characters, etc. that have been released and have also been fun games to play. Game Writing, as others have lamented, seems to be in this push and pull between good narrative development in the dramatic tradition and interactivity.

In other words, you can't tell a good story in an environment where the player has a say in the outcome of the story. So, most game developers bail because:
  1. It costs too much money to work on something that few players will appreciate
  2. Gameplay always trumps narrative
  3. The average gamer doesn't really care about the story

In response, I say:
  1. The gamers that appreciate great stories are the ones that tell their friends that they should purchase the game.
  2. Got me there; this is the biggest challenge for writing in games, but it IS possible to integrate the two (see "Bioshock", "Mass Effect","Fallout 3" and "Max Payne 1 & 2") without failing either the gameplay test or the story test. The studios that set out to write good games and make fun games to play requires a integration of purpose and cooperation that seems to be lacking in most mainstream game studios. Even big studios, like Epic, have failed tremendously to great compelling stories that fully embrace their outstanding gameplay. Sure, Gears of War 1 & 2 are fun games to play, but I tuned out the story because it was laughably bad - in premise, dialog and characters.
  3. There is some truth in that, but do they not care because the story is bad, or they just don't care about a story at all.
Point 3 is perhaps the most intriguing, and it seems to me that the the logic behind the argument is circular. People don't care about story in games, because the story is bad, so we will put in a bad story.

One of the reasons why games in story are so bad is that the person often writing the story, characters, dialog, is also tasked with working on so much else. From designing systems (from the most basic UI to the most advanced AI), to tuning gameplay, to mocking up art, interface, sounds, and whatever else needs doing, Game Designers are also typically tasked to write the story, concieve the characters, write the dialog, and generally concieve the universe in general.

Designing systems is no small feat, and considering much of it consists of going back and forth between all of the departments to ensure that everyone has their say in what the system should do. All of this, I assure you constant reader, takes a great deal of time.

It's no wonder that Games get lambasted for their stories, the people entrusted to write them are overwhelmed with designing everything else for the game! Of course the stories come off as bad!

Well, I'm of the opinion that most games simply aren't planned to be that enduring and aren't built to be as such. Part of it is the ephemeral nature of the industry: if the next contract doesn't come, the next game isn't made and the company closes. The other part is that most Game Designers are not writers. We are responsible for so much...stuff...that every other department looks at the story, which should be the corner stone of the single player campaign, as an afterthought - a context through which their technical and artistic wizardry.

For Part II: how game designers should get more serious about narrative.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Not even remotely game related...

Dear Max,

You are strong and you will do well in life. I love you and Mommy deeply.

Today and tomorrow and for the rest of your life, let each day grow and grow.

Keep smiling, laughing, and loving life. Most of all, never give up, even when things get you down.

So, in closing, my Son... tonight, before you get snuggled under your covers, tell Mommy I love her. Then hug her for me and give her a kiss good night for me.



Saturday, January 17, 2009

Thoughts on Failure

There are two excellent blog posts out there regarding the failed MMO 'Tabula Rasa'. The posts, by a designer on another project at the same studio, and a programmer pretty high up in another internal studio in Europe.

Frankly, both blogs - after reading them both, and reading them again - are pretty scary. You see, much of what they talk about, in terms of management and morale on the Tabula Rasa team I have experienced first hand.

Now, I know that the last project I worked on is (more than likely), going to ship. It is oddly comforting and disturbing that other studios suffer the same sort of internal issues I experienced.

I'm going to take some time and digest it before I post more. I really suggest that you read those posts if you are a developer, are curious about game development, and more to the point, have been on the business end of some bad project and project development

I Love My Job

I didn't think that this would be the case, but I'm enjoying working at a much smaller company than I did at the larger companies I've worked at so far.

I'm enjoying it for one reason: everyone in management, top to bottom, has been around long enough and have worked at enough other studios that they know what works and what doesn't work.

They are open and expect collaboration. Sitting in silence is frowned upon. When your idea is used, you are praised. When you idea isn't used, you're praised for at least suggesting something. Everyone understands that morale is more than free goodies, it is about open communication and ensuring everyone is working toward a common goal without regret.

I'm sure that this has something to do with the fact that the team is so much smaller than any other team I've worked on, and certainly much more professional.

In the end, they are all great people, and not a day goes by that I don't count myself lucky that my last job's door closed when it did, because I wouldn't have been so open to this opportunity had I still been gainfully employed.

I promise, my next entry will be something a little more relevant in terms of game design and development.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

No Man Is Just a Number

The creative mind and lead actor behind one of the most subversive, brilliant and layered bit of television died today. Patrick McGoohan was the first to really push the boundaries of Television as an artistic medium, and not merely as an entertainment artifice.

His seminal series, to which twisted, layered episodic TV such as Lost and Battlestar Galactica owes much to, was called The Prisoner. The series, ostensibly about a secret agent who is kidnapped because of his mysterious resignation, is one of the most complex stories ever written for television. The symbolism present, the subtle anti-conformist, anti-establisment and anti-government themes, and the fact that it is all timeless in its presentation is where the brilliance of the series really shines through.

The hero of the series, Number 6, was one of England's top spies. Out of the blue, he storms into his superiors office and in a thundering display, resigns his position and leaves the spy business forever. Followed as he returns home, he is gassed and falls unconscious, waking up in an anonymous little town called 'The Village'. Over the next 17 episodes, Number 6 defiantly stands up against his nemesis, Number 2, as he or she attempts to find out why Number 6 resigned.

The Prisoner is ultimately one man's fight for identity, principal and individuality in a society that seeks conformity to social norms, that a loner is dangerous, and that principals are a myth.

AMC is showing the entire series online right now, for free, and I highly recommend you check it out, it will change your life - it did mine.

You see, my father introduced me to The Prisoner. The irony in that is that my father is about as hardcore right wing conservative as they come, and here he is, introducing me to a TV Series that is absolutely brilliant, and is also absolutely some of the most libertarian and anarchistic
entertainment that has ever been aired on any major broadcast network.

It was this sinister yet sweet world of "The Village", with its terrifying (at least, to an 8 year old) Rover, and its defiantly independent hero who will go to great lengths to ensure that the principles that he so lustily defended are never compromised, that he is never broken, and that the individual is paramount in a world of sameness and conformity, that really began to shape my identity and political philosophy.

More importantly, it has become a guidepost for me in terms of writing and enjoying fiction. Some talk about how the includion of Ayn Rand's objectivist philosophy into Bioshock was such a ground breaking piece of entertainment, but The Prisoner adheres so incredibly close to Objectivism that it took over 30 years for another work of art to even come close.

For those gamers that loved Bioshock, watch The Prisoner.
For those science fiction fans that love Lost, watch The Prisoner.

Enjoy and, be seeing you.