Double Buffered

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

Archive for January, 2009

Valkyria Chronicles: My Favorite PS3 Game

Posted by Ben Zeigler on January 28, 2009

I bought my PS3 because I was afraid I would never be able to get one with PS2 compatibility (and so far I’m right, the MGS4 bundle was the last one with PS2) but it hasn’t gotten much use yet. MGs4 didn’t do it for me, and Little Big Planet was a bit of a disappointment (and I rented a few other games). However, I recently finished a game that justifies the system: Valkyria Chronicles. It is clearly my favorite PS3 game, and is possibly my favorite game of last year. It’s hard to sum up Valkyria Chronicles (VC) quickly, but I would call it a Military Graphic Novel Action Strategy RPG set in a metaphorical World War 2. There are 3 specifically awesome components about it, presentation, gameplay, and story.

I’m not someone who normally cares a lot about graphics and presentation in my video games, but it’s a key component of what is special in Valkyria Chronicles. It is one of very few current-generation games that really stretch the limits of the hardware, and do it in pursuit of a truly unique aesthetic. Basically, it takes character designs in the style of Japanese Anime and renders them with a much higher level of detail and in the style of handpainted illustrations. It’s somewhat difficult to describe, so you should look at some screenshots. Technically, the coolest thing they do is in the shadows. They put a cross hatching filter on the shadows that really gives it a hand-drawn look. The visual style also ties directly into the overall presentation of the game, which is literally as a graphic/illustrated novel. The game is organized into Chapters, which are either battles, full cut scenes, or comic-book style dialogue sequences. My only complaint about the visuals is that they’re not anti-aliased, which seems to be a PS3 thing. Otherwise, it is the most attractive game I have yet played.

The gameplay is actually fairly innovative. It doesn’t play like a traditional console Strategy-RPG (ie, Final Fantasy Tactics). Instead, the game I’ve played that it’s the most similar to is Jagged Alliance 2, but in 3D. You are first presented with a strategic map and a set of action points. You use your action points to activate a specific unit, who you then control from a 3rd-person over-the-shoulder perspective, in real time. You then move them around using 3D shooter controls, and can fire at any point in your movement, one time per activation. While you (or the enemy) are moving around, the enemy will fire back at you with suppressive fire, and cover is vitally important. Anyway, it works really well, despite sounding complicated.

On top of the Tactical/Action layer, the missions themselves are structured much like a traditional strategy game, and run the gamut from open point-capture maps, to scripted event-trigger maps. My biggest gameplay complaint is that 2-3 of the missions are TWO scripted, and it gets frustrating when invincible enemies show up and destroy your entire team. But, in the other 30 or so missions, the mission design is really excellent, and hit just the right difficulty. In addition to the strategic choice of deciding who to activate when, you can also issue a variety of effective orders (using command points) that effectively mix it up. There are a lot of ways to approach most missions, and figuring out different strategies is a blast.

Then on top of the Strategy layer, the RPG layer is compelling in it’s own right. The key part of the RPG layer is your squad. You get to pick your squad from a variety of unique characters, and they all have unique personalities and abilities. For instance, my squad always included the homosexual anti-tank character, because he really liked being around my most effective anti-tank character (who himself really liked being around vegetables for some reason). In addition to having abilities and personalities, your squad members can permanently die. It’s harder to die then in say Fire Emblem, but I lost two valuable squad members during my campaign and I definitely felt their loss. The RPG elements do a great job of linking together the Strategy gameplay and the Story.

Finally, the story is worth talking about. The setting is very clearly analogous to World War 2, and the main character is a conscripted nature researcher who lives in the equivalent of Switzerland when they are invaded by the equivalent of Germany. It starts out a bit preposterous, with you piloting a tank to battle success while a friend of the family gives birth inside. It doesn’t really gel together until chapter 8  or so, but from them on it actually starts to go in some very interesting directions. What I look for most in stories is when well-developed characters are presented with interesting decisions and then realistically develop. This happens VERY rarely in game plots, but I totally bought into the character development, and the game totally hit me emotionally. A key reason that it works emotionally is the work the artists put into facial expressions and body language. I almost always skip through dialogue in games, but the combination of fairly-good voice acting and great animation meant that I listened to everything, and really started to care about the characters. The best part of the story is that after putting that much effort into making me care about the soldiers in my squad, the game ends in a satisfying and non-cliched way. Heck, even the “party on the beach” scene that seems to be required in all Japanese media sort of made sense. Sort of.

The mark of a great game is that I’m sad to complete it. There’s a full New Game + mode, but without the story hooks the game loses a bit of it’s draw. There’s supposedly some DLC coming (already released in Japan), but the game did not sell very well, so who knows. By the way, I’ve read various reports about the game being VERY hard to find (especially outside of the US) so if you think you MIGHT be interested in Valkyria Chronicles, you should probably buy it now. Because it was released at a horrible time with sort of bad PR (I hadn’t really heard of it until a month after it came out in November) the game had a low print run. If you don’t get it now there’s a good chance you’ll have to pay double price for it on eBay in a year. But, it’s probably worth it even at that price.

Posted in Game Culture | 2 Comments »

What Happened to Tabula Rasa?

Posted by Ben Zeigler on January 19, 2009

Two interesting blog posts went up on Friday, both from the perspective of ex-NCSoft employees discussing the failure of Tabula Rasa. The first one is from Adam Martin, who was the CTO of NCSoft Europe, and says that NCSoft employees “let” Tabula Rasa fail. Scott Jennings (aka Lum the Mad) posted a response as well. If you’re curious about how the rest of NCSoft felt about Tabula Rasa, go give both of them a read. I’ll wait.

I never actually played Tabula Rasa (I knew enough about the development indirectly to not want to get anywhere near it), so I don’t have much useful to add about the specific merits of that project. What I’m interested is the set of organizational and psychological factors that allows various failed MMOs to be produced, when seemingly everyone KNOWS they’re going to fail. Adam claims that many people internally, including himself, loudly proclaimed that Tabula Rasa was not ready for Beta, and needed some small but fundamental design changes. So, why did it come out when it did?

Tabula Rasa took 7 years to develop. I’ve heard stories about the early prototypes that have NOTHING in common with the end result. It was also the flagship product of NCSoft Austin, and there was a lot of political pressure for that studio to justify it’s existence. Being peripherally involved (NCSoft was publishing CoH at this time) I can certainly confirm that Tabula Rasa was a huge focus of attention at NCSoft, and there was a lot of pressure on the team. Eventually their reached a point where the corporate masters had enough, and they basically wanted the team to put up or shut up, and just get something out of the door. Many individual employees disagreed with this decision, but they were not able to get it changed. The list of things NCSoft employees did is pretty universal, in my opinion:

  1. Ineffectually bash your head into the wall. This happens more often if you’ve lost your political clout by failing to pick your battles. If you’ve been complaining about the same thing for 2 years, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been right all along, no one is going to ever listen to you.
  2. Go into auto-pilot mode where you work just to keep your job, but don’t try to solve the problems of the project.
  3. Plan out how to personally triumph from a large scale failure. Set things up so everyone knows that if they did it YOUR way, it would have worked. Don’t put a lot of effort into actually encouraging people to do it your way.
  4. Work as hard as possible at making your own part of the game as good as possible, in the hopes that others will as well and it will somehow work out.

It ends up being an interesting game theoretical problem. If your project is going poorly, but you think it is both salvageable AND your teammates are motivated and competent, you want to go into heads down mode and push as hard as possible. If you think it is theoretically salvageable, but your teammates are incompetent or unmotivated, it makes some sense to try to and set yourself politically to come out ahead (well, assuming you’re an asshole). However, if it’s going to fail badly enough that the whole company goes down then you’re probably better off disengaging from the project and looking into other opportunities, because your internal political position won’t matter any more.

As my description makes clear, there are a lot of ways you can end up in a state where everyone on a team is working hard at various things (not necessarily the project), but no one is minding the health of the project as a whole. Also, breakdowns like this are encouraged by various interpersonal issues on a team, which Tabula Rasa certainly had plenty of over it’s 7-year history. Groups of creative people can only work together for so long before everything starts to explode (witness every rock band ever), and normal games development is pushing that time limit as it is, and TR went on for so long that there was even more time to self-destruct.

As Adam points out, NCSoft has never really acknowledged the failure of Tabula Rasa internally, instead using various codes. This makes a lot of sense, because it’s not really in the best interest of the stakeholders to point out that failure. Everyone who went heads down and crunched know that THEIR part of the game succeeded, and don’t really care about the project as a whole. The workers who disengaged are already working somewhere else. The political types who were already in charge want to hide the failure, and those working their way up the ladder want to be subtle about it. The serial complainers ARE saying that it failed, but no one is listening to them.

Do I think Tabula Rasa could have succeeded after 7 years in development? Not really. It’s amazing that a game named Clean Slate had so much baggage. I really think that after the project failed the first 2 times, it would have been a MUCH better idea to kill the entire project and team, and start over from scratch, with a new name and concept.  No game that has that much pressure on it’s shoulders is ever going to be great. Competent (which TR was eventually) is as good as it was ever going to get.

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

UGO Kills 1UP.com

Posted by Ben Zeigler on January 7, 2009

I’ve expressed my love of various 1UP podcasts previously, so I was slightly concerned when I read the news this morning about UGO buying 1UP.com. From reading various official releases, the news didn’t sound that bad. They’re killing EGM, but I haven’t read that in about 10 year so I didn’t care much. They talked about preserving the culture and feel of 1UP, so that was promising. At first glance, it looked like this was just a reorganization to seperate 1UP from Ziff-Davis’s various failing publications, which was a move that needed to happen eventually.

Then I started to read troubling details, first on QuarterToThree (where I’ve been hanging out a lot lately) and eventually confimed on joystiq. It turns out that as part of the deal, around 30 people on the (probably around 45-50 person) staff were laid off. Notably the entire staff behind the excellent video podcast The 1UP Show were let go, as were most of the people responsible for podcasts. So, in summary UGO bought 1UP from Ziff-Davis, and then promptly laid off all employees that were responsible for generating interest in 1UP in the FIRST place. As far as I (and much of internet gaming community) care, 1UP is now totally dead.

The odd part is that I feel very sad personally about this. Realistically the only thing I lose is a few hours of audio programming a week, but listening to the same people have frank conversations for several months makes you feel oddly close to them. I wonder if there is some sort of sustainable business model for podcasts? I would pay a subscription fee for some sort of premium access (forums? right to ask questions? some sort of community membership) to podcasts, but I’m not sure how scalable that business model is. I’m sure many of the people laid off will show up somewhere else, but overall this is a very sad day for the gaming community.

Posted in Game Culture | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »