Monthly Archives: December 2012
I am initiating this seasonal tradition here at the Gameshelf -- which may turn out to be a singleton tradition, that's always a danger, like New Year's resolutions, but we'll give it a shot, right?
Frequently I play a game and think "Hey, that was a well-designed game." It's not so often that I play a game and think "Wow, that one design element really stands out -- and I've never seen it before! Clever." So I wanted to pick out a few of my favorites from this year.
I'm not talking about featured gimmicks here. I'm talking about ideas that other games might reasonably think about adopting. Yes, Portal has a core game mechanic, it's very clever. If you use it, you're writing Portal 2. (Or Darksiders, but let's not get into that here.) There have been a spate of these core-puzzle-mechanic games -- Quantum Conundrum and Unfinished Swan were two fine examples I played in 2012. But I want to talk about the mechanics that quietly make your game better.
Behold, my choices for 2012. No doubt I'll think of another favorite tomorrow morning.
Sad to report that television pioneer Gerry Anderson passed away today. I’d like to briefly recognize an interesting and surprising connection between one of his works — perhaps one lesser-known outside of Europe — and the modern videogame landscape.
The startlingly outlandish 1970 TV series UFO, co-created by Anderson with wife Sylvia Anderson and Reg Hill, described an oddly low-intensity invasion of Earth by small teams of silent extraterrestrials. Their motives were unknown, but their methods were unmistakably hostile; they had a particular penchant for kidnapping earthlings and borrowing their internal organs. Neither slavering Xenomorphs nor chatty Klaatus, the puzzle the enigmatic aliens posed in their highly objectionable but weirdly small-scale incursions provided the show’s unique hook. The show’s protagonists worked for an international defense force tasked not just with tracking and confronting the UFO-riding, laser-wielding aliens through a network of specialized satellites and aircraft, but attempting to work out the invaders’ motivations and secrets in their futuristic science lab.
Why, yes, this does sound rather a bit like the plot of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a game which has recently captured my attention and imagination. Julian Gollop, lead designer of UFO: Enemy Unknown, the 1994 computer game upon which XCOM is based, has said in interviews that the TV show played a key role in inspiring the design (to say nothing of the title) of his game. Even through at least two layers of abstraction and twice as many decades of intervening influence, one can still trace the unlikely lineage between this best-case blockbuster videogame and this quirky lo-fi TV show.
Isn’t cross-media pollination wonderful?
Here’s the show’s brassy and compelling opening sequence. This could almost be an alternate teaser trailer for XCOM, as-is.
I encountered this conversation a couple of months ago while idly thumbing through my list of saved Twitter searches, of which “warbler’s nest” is one. The first poster is Mark Sample, a humanities professor at George Mason University.
Introducing students to interactive fiction today with Jason McIntosh’s The Warbler’s Nest. bit.ly/WjjooK— Mark Sample (@samplereality) October 3, 2012
@samplereality So here’s a question: Why teach IF? Isn’t it a tech w/o a readership (beyond academics and other IF authors)?— Garrison LeMasters (@glemasters) October 3, 2012
I am delighted to announce that my interactive fiction work The Warbler’s Nest will lead the Spring 2013 Purple Blurb events at MIT. Purple Blurb is Nick Montfort’s long-running series of guest lectures and presentations from a wide variety of digital-writing creators. Past talks have included play and discussion of IF I greatly admire, and I’m honored to have Warbler follow them.
We’re currently working out exactly how the presentation will work, but it will definitely involve a spectator-friendly playthrough and reading of the game, followed by a discussion period.
The presentation will happen on Feb. 11 at 5:30pm in MIT’s room 14E-310. Like all Purple Blurb events, it will be free and open to the public. If you’re around Boston in February, please visit!
In what I hope is a pleasant Sunday surprise, Play of the Light, the podcast I produce with Matthew Weise, returns after an overlong hiatus with a new episode, this time focusing on developments in multi-player games:
Topics include Jason’s history with MUDs and current obsession with Hero Academy, how Matt’s dislike of Settlers of Catan led to lost job opportunities, that time we played Johann Sebastian Joust on the subway, what Glitch Tank teaches us about how machines play games, and more.
Listen, download, subscribe, and browse show notes at the episode page.
Much as Fallout: New Vegas felt like an entire season or two of a solid TV series (as Matt Weise and I discussed in Play of the Light), XCOM: Enemy Unknown feels like an epic movie or miniseries. New Vegas begins with a single motivating frame, but delivers many episodic stories while the protagonist pursues it; XCOM has only one story, but it’s a war story told across a handful of discrete acts, driven forward by a course of high and low points. That alone might have been enough to have me play through the whole thing, but I find XCOM uniquely compelling in how it makes me feel like I’m playing a sizable role in creating the story, despite its necessarily pre-scripted underpinnings.
Solitaire video games have been using well-established filmic story techniques for some time now, of course; screenwriter Todd Alcott described how Half-Life adheres satisfyingly to a modern three-act story structure. But where games like Half-Life or Bioshock speak to you through a linear series of obstacle courses, XCOM gives you a wider structure of non-predetermined procedural events, with scripted plot points acting more as targets to aim for than paths to maneuver through. I haven’t quite seen this since Star Control 2, and I believe that XCOM’s design proves even more effective in providing a real sense of agency — and therefore complicity — to its player.
This happened to me yesterday:
At the top of this year, the Code Hero project launched its Kickstarter drive, quickly attracting positive attention ranging from highly visible blog write-ups to TV news interviews. Code Hero promised to teach anyone how to make video games by way of a videogame, an undeniably attractive proposition to many.
The team’s own enthusiasm for the concept effectively counteracted the fact that the extremely ambitious project was in the earliest stages of development, and they blew past their initial $100,000 funding goal. Their page remains frozen at the moment the drive ended, so you can still see their admirably bold appeals to US senators to plug their states’ educational budgets into the project, and their giddy promise that the game would transform from a single-user experience into an MMO if they could raise just a few more thousand dollars.
As winter settles in, however, the comments page for Code Hero paints a dire portrait of the project’s status: a cascade of unhappy, empty-handed backers asking for refunds, which has more recently evolved into community investigation of where their money might have gone. Clicking around the project’s Kickstarter page and the official website, one gets the picture that the project’s team went completely quiet after missing its self-imposed early-September deadline. (Though you can continue to order $13 copies of the game on its apparently still-functional order form, if you wish.)
Perhaps the team has chosen to take a hard-line approach to completing their development with no further promises or teasers, even to the point of allowing a dissatisfied-customer backlash to flourish unchecked on their Kickstarter page. I would be delighted to see the team resurface a year from now with a polished 1.0 release. But today, I do not foresee this happening.
I surprised myself by feeling a little bit angry about this development as I revisited it recently. Not simply because the project may likely fail — I have been in the software business for long enough to let Failure just keep one of my guest parking passes in its car. It happens, and we move on. But from my perspective, this particular failure helps me better see what sounded a little off-key to me about this project when I first heard during its higher-energy days. The problem, to my ear, lies right in the title: I very much doubt that an effort to teach game design or development that leads with code, or with any other technical aspect of the art, can truly succeed.
As I write this, the Sportsfriends Kickstarter drive has just 14 hours to go and and still hasn’t quite met its goal. I encourage Gameshelf readers to go have a look and consider dropping in a pledge if there’s time left; for $15 you’ll preporder a copy of the finished work, a cross-platform collection of four indie games which all stress group-play.
The headliner is Johann Sebastian Joust, which isn’t a videogame but an ingenious computer-aided party-sport that is a pure joy to witness, let alone actually play. I couldn’t shut up about it after taking part in several J.S. Joust melees at last spring’s PAX East, and I would love to be able to play it with friends (as opposed to friendly strangers at game cons, as much fun as that is). You can see videos of the game in action on the project’s Kicstarter page.
Plan for the month: get all the shortcutting code finished, before the end of the month. Result: it's 11:59 pm on November 30th. Drat! But it is finished. Pretty much finished.
Sometimes code is painful. Sometimes code don't want to be written. That is to say, sometimes you just don't wanna write it. I am no more immune to this than the next hacker. Maybe the next hacker has a better strategy, but I try to get some progress made every day, and not think about the looming mass of progress I haven't made. Eventually the looming mass shrinks, and that's what's happened this month.
Why was this painful? Just an annoying collection of cases, all of which have to be handled differently, with guards against infinite loops and other such game-creating failures. See, there are shortcuts for going places, finding objects, and creating objects. Sometimes finding an object means creating it; sometimes it means going to where it is. And then there's the distinction between checking if a goal is possible, and actually carrying out the goal. None of this is conceptually difficult, but I have to get the code structure right, which means some false starts and then rewriting once I have a clearer idea of all the requirements.