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Jul 16

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E3 is underway and Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all presented their keynotes. Microsoft left the whole gaming community in shock by anouncing Final Fantasy XIII would be available on Xbox 360. Sony couldn’t match Microsoft’s anouncement, but did alright with a few interesting titles coming up — nothing earth shattering. And then there’s Nintendo.

It seems Nintendo has entirely abandonned their core fans. The two biggest titles at their keynote? WiiSports 2 (including awesome mini-games like throwing a frisbee to a dog) and Wii Music.

I don’t get Wii Music at all. As far as I can see, you just waggle your wiimote randomly while pressing buttons when you feel like it (no rythm necessary) to play bad Midi versions of hit songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Yankee Doodle”. I wish I was kidding.

When asked if core gamers would feel left out of Nintendo’s line-up, Regie Fils-Aime (president of Nintendo of America) had this to say:

“How could you feel left out?” Fils-Aime said. “The Animal Crossing that we’ve been hearing about that people wanted. Fully connected to the Internet, go to other people’s towns. Plus, as I said, Grand Theft Auto on the DS. How do you feel left out with those types of announcements?”

So their best anouncements for core gamers is Animal Crossing — a game more casual than The Sims — and GTA on DS. Now GTA for DS would be cool if it were presented as anything more than a logo at this point. They didn’t even go as far as showing concept art for the game. Take 2 — GTA’s publisher — had nothing to say about GTA DS at their own press conference.

If Nintendo’s E3 keynote is representative of their current priorities, then it’s obvious they do not care anymore about gamers looking for deep gameplay. They now focus entirely on the casual cash-cow. Will third party developers bring what core gamers want? One can hope, but so far third party Wii games have been lackluster.

Mar 27

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Once in a while, I read someone saying that Portal shows what can be done with a small budget nowadays. Yet, a lot of developers only dream of getting Portal’s “low budget”.

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love Portal and yes, it did have a smaller budget than other inferior games, but it wasn’t a low budget game.

Just take a look at the game’s credits — there’s way more than 100 names in there. Most of those probably didn’t work directly on the game, but that’s still a lot of people.

Let’s say the core team consisted of 15 people. According to Wikipedia, the game is based on an independent game released in 2005 — so that’s 2.5 years working on the game after a fully working prototype was made. Moreover, since the team was at Valve, they had complete access to the Source Engine — most low-budget games can’t even afford to license that engine for their game, much less afford the level of access to the engine coders the Portal team had.

Portal is a brilliant game, one of the best of 2007, but it’s not a low-budget game. The team took an established game with a gigantic budget, Half-Life 2, and added a single, but very clever, feature: the portal gun. They took 2 and a half year to make a game that uses that one feature at its best. That’s quite a margin with a real low-budget game, made from scratch in 8 months isn’t it?

Mar 10

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Once in a while, I read about an experienced game designer wondering about his career choice. “If only I’d become a policeman or a doctor” he muses “I could have made a real difference in the world.” Another variations on this theme is people complaining that John Carmack should have spent his spectacular intelligence trying to find a cure for cancer rather than programming video games. You hear the same thing all the time, about how entertainers are not really important (even outside games), it’s the people who extend life that really matter: policemen, firefighters, doctors, etc.

I’m tired of these arguments. I believe entertainers are just as important as doctors and firemen to our society.

It’s a quality vs. quantity thing. Yes, a cure for cancer might extend your life for a few years, but it’s not going to make your life better, it won’t make it more enjoyable. We could all live in white, featureless and perfectly safe buildings that would keep us alive longer, but how fun would that be?

Living a long life is important, but so is living a good life. Doctors help you with the former, entertainers help you with the latter. Both matter.

Mar 4

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In the Grand Theft Auto games, you shoot enemies from an over-the-shoulder point of view, drive cars and helicopters and upgrade various stats and abilities as you play. In Mass Effect, you shoot enemies from an over-the-shoulder point of view, drive a truck and upgrade various stats and abilities as you play. In Assassin’s Creed, you hack at enemies from an over-the-shoulder point of view, ride a horse and upgrade various stats and abilities as you play…

Is it just me or are major games all converging into this bland action-adventure über-genre? What’s wrong with doing just one thing, but doing it really well?

Feb 25

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When I start a single-player game, almost all of the time all I want to do is get to the point where I can start a new game or where I can continue my previously staved game. Why do most games put so many obstacles in the way of doing that?

First you’ve got a bunch of splash screens — the publisher, the licensor, the developer, the engine developer, the legalese, the sound technology and what have you — then you’re faced with the utterly pointless “Press Start” screen, then the main menu where you choose “Load”, then the menu to select where you want to load (in the case of the Xbox 360) and then the menu to select the save game you want to load (even if there’s a single one). After a minute or two of this pointlessness, you can finally play.

Is all of this really needed? Can’t a single initial splash screen show all the appropriate logos while the game is loading, only to jump directly into the game afterward? Maybe the “Press Start” screen would actually be useful if the action started immediately after pressing start. It’s a small thing, but it would put fewer obstacles between the player and his entertainment.

Feb 14

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While I have to live under the iron-fisted rule of the ESRB, I have to say I hate this secretive order of censors. Here’s why.

  • The ESRB is a censorship body.
    There’s no way around it, their whole reason to be is to censor games. I’m against censorship in all forms and so I can’t support an organization that’s fundamentally against freedom of expression. Don’t kid yourself: games do get changed because of the ESRB and not just to avoid an AO rating — if a publisher wants an E rating, everything that could put the game anywhere near T territory is cut.
  • The ESRB doesn’t prevent laws against games to be passed.
    That’s the whole job of the ESRB, isn’t it? It exists so the government doesn’t create laws to regulate gaming. Yet the American government does create such laws. It’s not the ESRB that stops them, it’s the constitution. The UK, Australia, Germany and other countries have their own rating laws. The ESRB does diddly-squat to stop anti-games laws to be created, they just add another layer of bureaucracy.
  • The ESRB ratings don’t inform parents, they make decisions for them.
    It’s not hard to know if a game is for a mature audience — publishers don’t exactly hide this fact. Take Grand Theft Auto — how could you not know it’s for mature audiences? Just Google the name, ask the store clerk, read the box, or, hell, just read the name of the game. Parents who buy games based on ESRB ratings just let some anonymous moral authority make decisions for them instead of thinking for themselves what would be appropriate for their kids. That can’t be good.
  • The ESRB is secretive.
    Who actually rates the games? Nobody outside the ESRB knows. They won’t tell us. Are they biased? Do they have conflicts of interest with the games they rate? Are they qualified to make decisions that affect millions of gamers? You’re not allowed to know — the identity of the censors is kept in strict secrecy.
  • The rules for the ESRB ratings are vague at best.
    Do you know the difference between an E10+ rating and a T rating? I don’t, and no one can answer me clearly. Can a E10+ game show blood at all? Can a character smoke a single cigarette in a T game? If a character says “damn”, “shit” or “fuck” in a game, what rating does the game get? I’ve tried to get answers to those questions, but nobody can answer me. I’m supposed to make games that fit within a strict moral code, but no one will tell me what the code is.
  • The ESRB makes stupid decisions.
    Dead or Alive 3 was rated T. It features sexy girls throwing each other off tall buildings among much violence and fighting. Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball features the same girls playing volleyball in bikinis. It was rated M. It seems Guitar Hero, a game featuring music that plays every day on the radio, isn’t suitable for players less than 13 years old. Neither are The New York Times Crosswords for that matter.

Books have existed for centuries and they work great without any kind of ratings. Why can’t games?

Jan 24

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Every once in a while I hear someone say something like “If only software development was as well done as house building, it would always be done on time and on budget” or “If software engineering was as good as bridge building, programs would never crash!” Those arguments are pure bullshit.

First for the house thing: anybody who has had anything built of any size knows there are delays and cost overruns. Really big projects are worse — I’ve never heard of a major governmental construction project being done on time. Construction is just as bad as software engineering when it comes to schedules and budgets.

As for the bridge thing, it’s true that bridges tend to be very reliable (although they do sometimes fall), but bridges have more room for small mistakes than software does. If a bolt isn’t tight enough in a bridge’s beam, nothing is likely to happen even though the bridge is theoretically less solid. If a single instruction is slightly wrong in a piece of software, the program will crash. Computers demand perfection, reality is a bit more forgiving.

Moreover, bridges aren’t attacked daily by people trying to make them fall. Popular software has hundreds of hackers trying to find every possible way of making it fail.

So please, if you’re one of those who compare software development to real world construction, please stop. Really, construction work isn’t nearly as perfect as you’d like to think it is. The two fields are completely different anyway — I’m sure bridge building has plenty of challenges that are entirely different from those of software development.

Jun 23

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Why are games reviewed like school grades? The whole percentile score baffles me — is a game rated 82% really noticeably better than a game rated 81%? And there seems to be a passing grade: anything rated below 60% is really bad, just like in school. In fact it’s of a 25 points system — from 75 to 95 — because that’s where the vast majority of games lie.

Wouldn’t a 5 stars rating system work better? You don’t really need much more information than whether the reviewer liked the game or not anyway.

I’m guessing the precision of reviews comes from a desire to seem objective and exact. Some magazines and websites even add rating sub-categories, like “graphics” and “sound”, to sound even smarter. Not that their rating in those categories ever varies much, a bad game with great music will still get worse music rating than a great game with bad music.

Games are being rated like word processors, really. They’re evaluated in different categories, then a list of features is made and compared to other similar games to see which are missing. They get bonus points for longer gameplay, but lose some because they’ve got fewer multiplayer modes than the competition. Very few reviewers seem to look at the big picture, they only make a features checklist and then compare to other games.

Can you imagine if movies were reviewed like that? “This movie is 3 hours long, so that’s a plus, but the movie from 3 months ago had 2 more car chases and 3 more explosions, so I rate this movie only 77%.” Everybody would think that this movie critic completely missed the point, yet game reviewers all read like that.

Also, when was the last time you saw game reviewers disagree on the quality of a game? It’s like they all like the same things or something. Movie and book critics vary wildly in opinions, some like titles others dislike, yet all game reviewers rate games the same way…

And that way is to always rate the hyped game well. Spider-man 3 is a highly hyped movie that got panned by critics, but you’d never see that in games. Can you see the next Zelda get a rating lower than 80%? 90% even? I can’t think of an eagerly anticipated game that got panned by critics when it released — at best they get an 85%. Review scores seem to correlate a lot with marketing budget, funny that.
But maybe things have changed lately. For all those reasons I don’t read many reviews these days. I purchase most games through word-of-mouth and by trying the demo — much more reliable than reviews.

Sep 24

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So, I’m playing Zelda Minish Cap on GBA these days. It’s standard Zelda fare — indeed, there’s barely anything important that’s new. The presentation is good, but if you’ve played recent Zelda games, you’ve pretty much played this one. It’s also one of the most frustrating Zelda because of cheap design decisions: health is incredibly rare and you have to find areas that would be secrets in other games to go on. I would have given up the game early if it weren’t for FAQs, because some important elements are incredibly hard to notice.

Much to my surprise, this game got very good reviews, with an average of 91% on GameRankings. Mind you, it’s not a terrible game — it’s pretty decent, but it’s certainly not a 91% game. If this game didn’t have “Zelda” in its name, I’m pretty sure its score would be at least 10% lower. This kind of preferential reviewing really annoys me…

It’s not the only game that’s like that. You rarely see sequels of successful games get a low rating — it basically doesn’t happen. I’ve never seen any review score a game badly because it’s just more of the same. Game reviewers seem to believe that being formulaic is a strength, not a weakness.

Why is that? Is it because reviewers don’t consider originality as important, so if the sequel is a glorified expansion pack they find it worthy of as high a score as original creations? Is it because they let their nostalgia overcome them? (”Oh! I love Zelda! This will be great!”) Is it because reviewers are fanboys at heart who can’t rate hyped titles low? (It’s amazingly rare that highly anticipated titles get bad reviews, especially sequels — they can’t possibly be all good, now can they?) Or is it simply because reviewers almost only care about production value, and successful games have bigger budgets?

It’s even stranger because the opposite phenomenon happens in movie reviews. It’s very rare that movie sequels get rated as high as the original, even if they’re very good. It seems movie critics put a lot of emphasis on originality wheras game reviewers don’t.

Take this review of Just Cause by Gamespy. The reviewer didn’t like the game. Why? Mainly because it’s not a straight clone of Grand Theft Auto. Being different doesn’t seem to have any value for this reviewer: he spends a whole 7 lines talking about what’s different from GTA, then the rest of the review talking about how it would be better if it was identical (It should be in a city! The music should be licensed! There should be more GTA-like side-missions!)

Now, I’m not arguing about the actual quality of the game. I’ve played the demo and liked it, but I haven’t played the full version. My issue isn’t that the reviewer didn’t like the game, but rather that the main reason he disliked it is because it’s not a simple clone. That review sounds like a word processor review, where the tester goes through a list of features of the competitor and verify if this title has it. This isn’t a productivity app, it’s a new game — the reviewer should evaluate the game as it is, rather than as what the genre dictates.

Shouldn’t reviewers value difference more highly in the game they review? If game reviewers don’t go above base fanboyism and ask for more creativity, who will? I have a hard time taking the gaming press seriously, game reviews in particular, if the reviewer’s standard are lower than mine. I can get the opinion of a Zelda or GTA fan by going to any web forum — reviews should go beyond that.