Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Archive for September, 2008

Warhammer Online: Basically Pretty Good?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 30, 2008

I now have a level 12 Goblin Squig Herder in Warhammer Online. The interesting thing is that I can’t decide if I particularly want a level 13 Goblin Squig Herder. I’m in a unique situation because I got him to level 12 on the pre-release head start code, and my physical copy didn’t arrive until Saturday. So, that left me with having to make the choice to open up my copy of warhammer, enter the retail cd key, and set up my credit card for monthly payments. This is NOT the kind of decision you want your players to have to make, and if I hadn’t been in the pre-release headstart I’d just be playing on my first month, and would play until that ran out. I can’t decide rather I want to keep playing the game, and here’s why:

  1. The game is the opposite of visceral. One of the things I actually did like about Age of Conan was that it was inherently fun to kill things, with all the fatalities and action-oriented combat. Warhammer goes very far the other way, and combat generally feels very floaty and out of sync. For instance, the damage numbers NEVER seem to sync up with the animation. There are also a bunch of client-server sync issues, and it’s obvious they don’t really get the whole client-side prediction thing. Of course, either does WoW, but the combat interactions are far more polished there, so it doesn’t bother me as much. WAR is a much more indirect, detached experience and I don’t think I like it.
  2. The player population feels very small. I was playing Destruction on one of the most popular servers (Volkmar) and I had to wait in line for up to an hour to play during prime time. However, when I actually made it in to the server, it felt pretty empty. I was the only person defending an RvR keep, and many of the public quests were entirely empty. Most of the players were standing still by the shops waiting for an RvR scenario to queue, or grinding one public quest over and over. The design is not doing a very good job of encouraging diversifying, so much of the game world feels very lifeless and barren.
  3. It runs really poorly on my computer. I have a Athlon 64×2 and an 8800GT, so I should certainly be able to run a game that looks worse than WoW (okay, it SOMETIMES looks better). However, my fps often drops down to 10 or 15, especially in RvR. I think a big part of the problem is disk-loading stalls, as my framerate is perfectly fine when standing still. However, roaming around the world is not at all a smooth experience. It reminds me a lot of CoH before we put in a lot of the multi-threaded data loading enhancements. 4 years ago.

It may just be that I’m becoming more critical as I’m a game developer longer, but the good ideas in the game (The scenario RvR combat is really fun, and I like the exploration-based tome mechanic) don’t seem to be enough. Warhammer Online brings together a bunch of things I generally like in a generally well-constructed package, but I think I like some of those elements seperate. I prefer to get my PvP from Team Fortress 2, and I prefer to get my action roleplaying from other games (Tales of Vesperia currently). Warhammer does a bunch of things well, but it’s not doing it for me personally. Maybe I’ll come back in a few months, if the population issues aren’t as bad as I fear.

Anyone want to buy an unopened copy of Warhammer Online?

Posted in MMO Design | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Goodbye, Brodeo

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 18, 2008

The GFW Radio podcast is no more, 6 months after the magazine closed. A few months ago, Sean Malloy left 1UP for game development. Last week, Jeff Green left 1UP to go work for EA, and this week Shawn Elliott left 1UP for 2K Boston. What was my favorite podcast is no more, and the main 3 people all left for development (Ryan’s great, but doesn’t talk enough to hold the show by himself). The podcast was the perfect mix of sophmoric humor and semi-pretentious deep insight into the theory of games. This mix worked WAY better than it sounds like, and it’s worth listening to some of the highlights, even if you’re not already a fan.

Shawn leaving means I don’t really care that much about 1UP any more, to be frank. My interests and viewpoints matched up very closely with his, and Jeff was always a good counterpoint to that. Also, from listening to this weeks podcast, it seems like Robert Ashley should probably leave soon, before he gets more depressed… Traditional games journalism is in a tight spot, and I feel like the changes will keep coming.

As for Jeff, and Shawn, good luck here in the world of development!

Posted in Game Culture | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

EA Still Not Doing Things Right

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 11, 2008

I posted earlier this year about EA’s DRM schemes for Mass Effect and Spore. Originally, it featured a limit of 3 activations and constant online checks. Later, the constant online checks were removed, but the 3 activation limit was left in. At the time, I thought EA was doing a good job of responding to customer/press demands, and that the issue would die down.

I was apparently completely wrong. A lot of PC gamers are apparently still very upset about the 3 activation limit, and have made themselves clear on the Amazon page. Many people have skeptically said that this is a campaign by software pirates, or some sort of stunt started by SA goons or 4chan. I haven’t been able to find any evidence of this (please post if you know what started the protest), and it’s clearly taken on a life of it’s own. The last time I looked there were about 500 1 star reviews, but there are now around 2000 one-star reviews on Amazon that are complaining about the DRM, and 5000 people have positively voted on the highest-ranked one-star review. This is a lot of customers and potential customers that care about the issue, and I don’t think EA should really be ignoring them. This is also a fairly effective method of online protest, and must be having some sort of effect on Spore’s Amazon sales (although it is still selling well).

I can see why the DRM in Spore is getting more of a public outcry than the DRM in Mass Effect was. Mass Effect is a single player, linear experience, with a max of 20-30 hours of gameplay. Once you finish it, there’s no really compelling reason to go back to it a few years later. On the other hand, Spore is designed as a very replayable experience with deep customization. It’s exactly the kind of game you may want to break out in a few years to play through again. With a 3-activation limit, you basically won’t be able to without begging EA. Many players, including me, don’t like the thought of begging a company to let them play a game they paid $50 for. EA’s recent reaction hasn’t been too heartening, but we’ll see if this public protest makes them rethink things.

Posted in Game Culture, Game Development | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Braid, Aesthetics, and Ethics

Posted by Ben Zeigler on September 4, 2008

This week’s 1UP FM is a fascinating round table/interview with Jonathan Blow (Designer/Programmer of Braid), David Hellman (Artist of Braid), Rod Humble (Executive Producer at EA/Experimental Game Designer), and Sean Elliott (possibly NSFW links there) and Nick Suttner from 1UP. The talk kind of goes all over the place, but I found it fascinating throughout. If you’re at all interested in Braid, experimental game design, or the ethics of games you should go listen now. I thought I would provide a possibly useful service by annotating some of the more interesting things from the podcast, with times. Anyone know a better way to link to and discuss podcast content?

NOTE: Braid (and BioShock and Deus Ex) spoilers to follow.

2:00: Metareactions to Braid – Jonathan spends way too much time reading reactions to Braid, which doesn’t really surprise me. Apparently the title screen was NOT intended to be a city on fire, but Jonathan is okay with that interpretation of it, because it fits with some other themes. Jonathan says he would cut things that contrast with the overall ideas in the game, but is fine with letting it evolve somewhat.

7:00: Iterative Design of Braid’s Puzzles – Rod jumps in and says that he thinks the puzzles of Braid could only have been made by a designer/programmer, and not created on paper or in some really abstract way. John confirms this, and illustrates the iterative process for crafting Braid’s puzzles: “How do I make a puzzle with the minimum number of elements that still contains the core of this idea”.

10:00: Single Artistic Vision – Sean Elliott jumps in and brings up a comparison between comics that are written and drawn by the same person, and a small-team game like Braid. It’s kind of long-winded and seems to confuse Jonathan a bit. I generally love Sean, but sometimes he needs to learn how to ask shorter question.

13:00: Ambiguity – Jonathan makes it clear that the story of Braid is not trying to lead people to anywhere in particular, but is trying to create a “space of mental existence”, instead of a linear experience. Jonathan says he took some cues from authors such as Milorad Pavic, who created essentially “hypertext” novels. This is not a form natural to books, but games are inherently nonlinear so he felt it would make sense to push it as far as possible that way.

16:00: Braid Is Not a Puzzle – Rod Humble gives his view on Braid, which is that although it CONTAINS puzzles, it is not actually a puzzle. It is not a work in the form of Memento and similar works, where there is a specific, literal interpretation. Instead, it is more about there being several defensible interpretations of it. One of the reasons Jonathan isn’t talking much about the story is because he doesn’t want to steer people towards a specific interpretation. The concrete footnoted text is dominating the discussion more than Jonathan would like. But, he’s still happy that at least there is a discussion, he was worried people wouldn’t care.

20:00: Things Don’t Need To Fit Together – Both Jonathan and David talk about how there is no need to bring together the disparate elements of Braid. For instance, the end-of-zone paintings are ruminations on themes, and were not built with the intention of fitting into a whole. This discussion makes it pretty clear to me what the title Braid actually means: A bringing together of disparate artistic, narrative, and game play elements into a functional, but not fully synchronous whole, much like a braid of hair. Braid was designed from the start as a joining of disparate elements.

28:00: Explaining Art Games – The discussion shifts to Rod Humble and some of his experimental games. Rod discusses the choice of providing explanatory text for his game The Marriage. He says he provided the text because he felt there is a perception of modern artists not being able to “back up” their work with some meaning, so felt he had to explicitly lay it out.

30:00: Artistic Expression of Game Rules – Rod Humble feels games are the most important, exciting art form in the world now, because there is no established body of critics who have “figured it all out” the way they have for other art forms. David Hellman says there isn’t a developed literacy about game rules being expressive, and lays out how The Marriage expresses deep ideas entirely through game rules. This is a good summary of Art Games, by the way. Expressing ideas entirely through the elements unique to the medium of games.

36:00: Gamers Have Trouble with Art in Games – Rod points out that non-gamers got the ideas behind The Marriage much easier than gamers. Gamers come in with the baggage of trying to win the game, and aren’t able to step back and analyze the interactions for their own sake. David Hellman says that there was a similar problem with Braid, where a lot of gamers complained about the lack of integration between narrative and gameplay, when that’s actually one of the explicit goals of the game. Jonathan replies to that by saying that the gameplay and story ARE related, but at a deeper level. I’m not really getting him here.

41:00: The Stars – Nick brings up how Jonathan is strongly against walkthroughs and such, but the Stars are so difficult to acquire that they almost demand cooperative effort. Jonathan seems vaguely evasive and doesn’t say anything about the purpose behind the stars.

47:00: Huh? – Apparently at some point in Braid, Rod decided that he needed to solve it without destroying the enemies, because they were kind of cute. He felt guilty for killing them, and he felt an obligation to save them. David mocks him mildly.

49:00: EA vs The Marriage – Rod discusses how he sort of splits himself into the half that works on the Sims team, and the half that does selfish art games, that a large audience would hate. He seems to be pretty happy with it, and says it’s better for him then trying to meld it the way Braid does. Jonathan says that Braid did compromise, and took several steps that limited the audience while (in his opinion) increasing the depth and impact. Jonathan is unapologetic about leaving people out. He then insults EA games.

57:00: WoW is Unethical – Discussion moves to Jonathan’s comments on how WoW is unethical. Jonathan tries to argue that MMO designers design in way to exploit players, and not benefit them. He says it probably isn’t explicit, but that MMO designers don’t sit back and question if they’re making the right choice. I totally disagree with him here, and need to right up my thoughts more fully eventually. His general point of stepping back and thinking is good, but I don’t think most MMOS are much worse than any other game.

1:04:00: MMO Design is About Control – Jonathan makes the point that many of the things that make MMOs fun are considered “broken”, and game designers spend a lot of time trying to strip out all the fun so they can control the players. There is definitely truth to this, and this is something holding back a lot of MMO design. We all need to unclench.

1:09:00: The Pope – The Pope gave a statement about how game designers should think about what they’re making, and many gamers reacted poorly to it. Rod thinks it was a well written, valid statement, and thought the backlash was immature.

1:11:00: Sean’s Take – Sean asks a rambling question that results in him saying how he feels the Tim character in Braid is an overly logical character that represents much of the audience, and that the references to nuclear physicists are mostly there to make this parralel more explicit (who were overly logical and destroyed things while trying to solve a puzzle). Jonathan doesn’t confirm it, but this reading seems VERY strong to me.

1:15:00: BioShock’s Conflicts – Jonathan discusses some of his comments about how BioShock has a story/game conflict. He brings up the conflict between the altruism/greed choice and the rest of the game. “You just shot 27 people in the head, that you didn’t even know” and then you have to apply normal human emotions to the Little Sisters. My personal complaint about BioShock is that after the big reveal of why you didn’t have control over things before, you still don’t have control over things. Argh, that pissed me off.

1:20:00: Baby Steps – Nick argues that we need to make small steps like adding Little Sisters to shooters, because people are too used to killing random dudes. Jonathan argues that The Sims involves no shooting, and is the most successful franchise. He says we don’t need baby steps, and that people are holding back too much. He makes the point that Wii games suck, but people play them because they provide different types of experiences.

1:24:00: Controversy? – Sean brings up the idea of making Call of Duty about shoot/not shoot, and discusses reasons why that would be difficult. Jonathan brings up that movies do that, and it’s not controversial. Sean brings up the fact that some people feel it would be “you” that is doing it, but Jonathan says we need to cross that hump. At this point I was remembering that we’d already CROSSED that hump, and wasn’t the only one…

1:31:00: Deus Ex – Jonathan brings up the fact that Deus Ex, 10 years ago, did all the stuff Sean was saying was too hard for games to do, but it didn’t get followed up on. There are multiple shoot/no shoot choices in that game, and they have actual gameplay consequences. That game features empathetic terrorists, the US Government faking a terrorist strike on the Statue of Liberty, and launching a Nuke on US soil.

1:35:00: Developers, Not Politicians – Rod brings up that in basically all cases it’s the development team that decides to not do something controversial, and not the higher ups. People just clone their favorite game, and that’s how the game development idea of what is “controversial” is divorced from reality.

1:39:00: PoMo – There is a discussion of how games are a medium created after postmodernism, and many of it’s best and most interesting games have a strong sense of meta. Rod expands on this and says that games are the best way (except for improv theater) to discuss many issues because there is a dialogue. Various people question the strength of the dialogue. Then, as discussions of postmodernism tend to, it drifts off into tangents (mostly about MGS4) and I fall asleep.

Posted in Game Design | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »