Tuesday, March 5, 2013

TED Talk - How a Boy Became An Artist

Jarrett J. Krosoczka is an artist with a fascinating story. One of hardship and adversity. He's also so humble and unassuming, that it's hard not to root for the guy. This talk is a tear-jerker and incredibly inspiring.

About 20 mins:

Monday, January 28, 2013

TED Talk - How Movies Teach Manhood

Colin Stokes gives a very thought-provoking TED talk about how movies teach us womanhood and manhood.

It's about 12 minutes:

This talk, despite its short length, has several powerful points that any storyteller should hear out. Beyond the focus of generating a compelling plot and interesting characters, there is another layer of quality that doesn't get much attention, and that is the one that Stokes talks about. It's that social layer that is cognizant of it's story's greater societal impact.

Beyond just creating a great story, Stokes asks us--storytellers and audiences alike--to really think about what our stories are really teaching us about the world. And while it's been proven time and again that entertainment doesn't make people more violent, stories still do teach us a great deal about our world.

In fact, that's the whole evolutionary purpose of story: to teach us hard-learned truths vicariously through fictional or real heroes without us having to survive the heroes' perilous adventures ourselves.

So, as storytellers it is incumbent upon us to engage this layer and be mindful of the social messages we are sending with our stories. Whether it be more female heroes, or boys whose quests aren't simply to fight, or even just stories that can pass the Bechdel Test, it's our job to ensure that our stories are sending the messages we truly mean to get across.

I for one want my stories to not only inspire and entertain, but to enrich the lives of my audience members and to challenge them to grow as human beings in meaningful, positive ways.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Controlled Pontification

I've been putting off this post for the better part of a week now. Figured it was time to get off my keister and write the damn thing. Brace yourself, this is a long one.

This post is all about controllers. I've been fascinated with controllers since I was a kid. TV remotes, garage door openers, keyboards, and, most of all, video game controllers. I get transfixed by their design, function, composition, quality and user response.

Sony PlayStation Controller

Sony PlayStation Controller
Taking these things into account, one of the most intriguing controllers has been the standard PlayStation controller. I hate this controller.

It's got an awkward shape when I hold it, the face buttons are all shallow and don't give me a feeling of stark contrast between their pressed and release states, the d-pad--with its distinct drawn-and-quartered style--is the least efficient of all d-pads (both Nintendo and Microsoft's d-pad designs allow you to input ordinal directions without having to straddle your thumb across two separate buttons and a gap), the shoulder buttons (until the recent trigger upgrade) are loose and feel cheap to me, AND the analog sticks are too close together, too loose, and too short. I almost forgot to mention the squishy 'Start' and 'Select' buttons. Yuck.

Really, I detest the PlayStation controller. In fact, it is one of the primary reasons I do not own a PlayStation. I've got nothing against Sony. I actually think they have a hell of a lot more class when it comes to supporting indie developers and providing great consumer services than say Microsoft. BUT, I think their controller really leaves something to be desired.

If I could plug my Xbox 360 controller into a PS3, I'd own one.

However, none of that is remarkable. What is remarkable to me is that I am in the minority. Overwhelmingly so. Not only do very few gamers share my viewpoint, but most actually feel the exact opposite. Most people LOVE the PlayStation controller.

PlayStation 3 Boomerang Controller
I wonder if this affection is borne out of an age when a lot of people got their feet wet in the gaming scene for the first time with the PlayStation and much more so with the PlayStation 2. In which case, the love of the controller is due to the fact that the PlayStation controller was simply the first controller these gamers ever played with, so it's just what they're used to--even if it is relatively inferior in terms of design and composition to other controllers on the market, in my opinion.

But, again that's just my two cents and my best guess at understanding the perplexing, stalwart adoration for the PlayStation controller. Remember when they changed it for the PS3? When Sony tried to introduce that boomerang thing? And all the PlayStation fans went ballistic, demanding Sony change it back...and then Sony changed it back? Wow!

Now, before I get electronically assaulted by PlayStation fans, please know that neither Wii nor Xbox 360 have perfect controllers. They have their issues, too. Read on and you'll see they get their share of bashing, too.

Microsoft Xbox 360 Controller
Xbox 360 Controller
Far and away, my favorite video game controller. But it took Microsoft a while to get to their current version of this piece of hardware.

The Duke.
Right out of the gate, Microsoft whiffed it--hard--with the now infamous "Duke" controller for the original Xbox. Seriously. That thing was so big and awkward only grizzly bears could hold it comfortably. What a wild world it is we live in when something like that can get through so many channels of design, engineering, QA and focus-testing without somebody saying, "my god, what kind of monster have we created?"

Xbox Controller S
But, realizing their error, Microsoft quickly released the S-type controller which supplanted the Duke as the standard for the original Xbox. And that S-type was a great controller. I had next to no complaints about the S-type. That controller is largely responsible for the excellent design of today's Xbox 360 controller--which is essentially a fine-tuned version of the Xbox Controller S.

Back to the Xbox 360 controller; the smooth, sinusoid contour of the controller's main grips are comfortable and ergonomic (especially in comparison to the straight and sharp-angled edges of the PlayStation controller), and the button layout and composition leaves next to nothing to be desired in terms of bi-directional communication between the user and the controller interface.

I love the way this controller feels in my hands. The buttons are elevated high enough to provide the kind of differentiation not possible with the PlayStation's shallow buttons, AND they have a really solid, but smooth 'click' at the bottom of the press. The analog sticks are better-positioned, taller and they don't swim as loosely as the PlayStation controller, allowing for greater degree of incremental accuracy--in my opinion.

Xbox 360 Controller (reverse)
But enough of the 360 controller love-fest. Let's talk about what sucks: the battery pack.

If there is one thing that the PlayStation controller does right, it's the battery. 100% internal and remarkably light-weight. Probably the lightest controller out of the three current-gen systems. The 360 controller on the other hand...oof.

Not only is the battery heavy as hell (seriously, pick up a WIRED Xbox 360 controller if you don't believe me), but it resides on the outside of the controller in a terribly uncomfortable spot on the bottom of the controller where my middle fingers rest; thus cramping up said fingers against the sides of the massive external battery pack. This is so uncomfortable, that I still use a wired version of the 360 controller just to avoid this issue. It's not that I'm old-fashioned, it's simply that the level of discomfort that results from the battery back isn't worth being wireless for me.

Friends laugh when they hear that I'm still wired...until they hold the wired controller and they realize how dramatically lighter it is and how much more comfortable it is sans that annoying-ass battery pack on the underbelly.

So, looking forward, the only thing I'd really change on the controller for the Durango would be the battery-pack. Internalize that thing and make it a hell of a lot lighter.

Nintendo Controllers
Nintendo has a much larger collection of controllers--each with their own unique pros and cons--so much so that I'd like to save them for a separate, follow-up post at a future date. As a quick note though, generally, I'm pretty fond of the Nintendo controllers.

To be continued...

Monday, November 12, 2012

1P v MP

There's a very interesting dichotomy that has developed in games: the division of campaign and multiplayer. And I almost wonder if this is the wrong way to approach game development.

I think it's perfectly OK to separate the two completely. If you want to make a well-balanced, ultra-fun multiplayer game without much story aside from a thematic backdrop upon which the core mechanics are placed, that's great! I don't think we should have to also include a solo or co-op campaign. Or worse, split our development dollars and manpower into two factions: one for the campaign and one for the multiplayer.

When it works well, it's actually a pretty sweet deal and a great value for those gamers who equally enjoy playing both the single-player mode and the multiplayer. But that's a strikingly small group. Most people, I'd bet, have a preference one way or the other and likely a strong preference.

So why are we forcing consumers to pay for half of a game they might not buy if it wasn't forcibly bundled with the part they want?

For a lot of reasons I'm sure. I can think of a few off the top of my head. From a business perspective, adding multiplayer to a solo game (like Mass Effect) adds a bullet point to the box art that ensures a certain percentage point gain in sales. It also, hopefully, extends the replay enough to discourage (or at least delay) the consumer from trading or selling the game on the used-game market. There's also some historical grounds for bundled multiplayer since games have had multiplayer modes for ages now.

THQ is just one of many struggling right now.
But I wonder if it's time to split them up. AAA titles are crazy expensive to make and seem riskier every year. Too many big publishers and developers have fallen on hard times in the past few years for us not to take a good hard look at the design of the product we're selling in this industry.

I for one, would like to see multi-player-focused games come out annually or bi-annually and fine-tune or innovate on the competitive gameplay with each new edition. And I'd like to see more, strongly story-driven games that aren't shackled to a multiplayer experience.

The person who pays for NFL Sunday Ticket (do they still sell that thing?) isn't necessarily the same person who never misses an episode of Dexter.

Great multiplayer. Bland, boring single-player.
I guess my dialogue here is borne out of my recent experience with Halo 4. That was a game I had very mixed feelings about. The multiplayer is excellent, but the single-player sucks--and it didn't have to. If it was possible to release two different Halo games, one for the hardcore competitive players (about whose feelings I wonder regarding how Call of Duty-esque Halo has become...), and one for the story-minded campaign gamers, maybe it would have been possible for 343 to develop a much more immersive, compelling and story-driven game.

Then again, I recall how many times I've thought, "if we could just take the air-tight controls of a pure fighting game and put them in a game with a great story..."

Some games do pull that miracle off (Modern Warfare 2 comes to mind), but I still wonder how relevant it is to bundle together these two somewhat oppositional schools of thought. One where the gameplay is the entertainment (multiplayer), and one where the gameplay serves as the delivery system for the entertainment (campaign).

There are plenty of examples of games that fall exclusively into one camp or the other. So this isn't a revolutionary new concept or anything. But it does strike me as unusual that some games--some really big games--are still hybrids.

Did you throw in the towel after beating the campaign?
StarCraft II is an excellent game through and through. Both the multiplayer and single-player are incredible. However, I think those two parts of the game are by and large for to disparate audiences.

Either you played through the campaign, possibly dabbling with the multiplayer a little bit afterwards, and then moved on for good--fondly remembering what a great experience you had. Or you came for the world-class competitive multiplayer which you may or may not have augmented with a run through the campaign.

The point being that the breakdown by player of hours spent in campaign versus hours spent in competitive multiplayer for StarCraft II is probably a strongly bimodal distribution. You probably spent 90% of your time in campaign or 90% of your time in multiplayer. Not 50/50.

Which is precisely what makes me question how much value a consumer gets from paying $60 for a game where half of the content they briefly sample or ignore completely. Is it a value-added bundle package? Or is it an obligatory combo purchase featuring something unneeded / unwanted?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Indie Game Development in 2012

This year, I had the good fortune of attending the annual video game festival known as IndieCade. It was a blast. Seriously, if you have the means to be in or around Culver City, CA in early autumn, do find a way to check it out.

However, this year I walked away from the show with a dilemma: I felt bad that what I perceived to be some of the coolest "indie" games of the show weren't really "indie" games at all. (Or so they seemed...)

When I first attended IndieCade back in 2009, it was a much smaller show than it is now. Most of the stations demoing games were in quaint coffee shops and bohemian boutiques generous enough to lend their space to the festival's developers. These stations were usually manned by the one guy who made the game and sans anything remotely equivalent to a crowd, so I was able to walk right up to the game and start playing without waiting in line.

Nowadays, there are hundreds of people crowding into large, enclosed spaces politely clamoring around monitors and computers for a chance to see and play some stunningly great-looking games.

And then there was the Sony PlayStation booth.

Wait a minute, Sony? IndieCade seemed to be a completely inappropriate venue for a commercial juggernaut like that.  I thought this show was supposed to be for those fly-by-night guys working feverishly in their parents' garages, and living off of top ramen and minimum-wage jobs whilst they pursued their passion to its meritorious conclusion: a home-brewed video game.

So what gives? How'd Sony get in here?

But after seeing the games Sony had on display, I realized that what Sony brought to the show was just as much in the spirit of IndieCade as any of the other "genuinely" indie games. What Sony had on hand were actual independently developed games--though the definition of "indie game" has become nebulous and contentious, so you may disagree, but hear me out.

It was hard for me to wrap my head around this idea. The Unfinished Swan exemplifies this conundrum.

Originating at the hands of one or two students in 2008, this game started off as Indie as a game can get. But after some public exposure in a festival and student contest, The Unfinished Swan caught Sony's attention and, it is my understanding, that Sony then provided resources for the developers to grow the team from two dudes to about a dozen developers in order to turn the game into a properly published title--which is about to be released at the end of this month (October 23rd exclusively on PS3).

Retro City Rampage
Similar story with Retro City Rampage, which started off as a one-man, hobby project in 2002, and is now getting a formal release on all the major platforms this holiday season backed by a publisher.

It wouldn't be novel or original to say that the landscape of indie game development has changed or that being an indie developer now is probably better than it ever has been. And it's not even really news that big publishers are picking up indie titles and giving them official releases (just look at Minecraft on Xbox). But it IS a paradigm shift in the way games are being developed compared to just 5 or 10 years ago.

And I personally find it quite inspiring.

I admire and applaud big publishers in general for getting out there to support independent game development and Sony in particular for such a classy showing at IndieCade this year. Well played Sony. Well played.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Storytelling Strengths of the 2D Platformer

It’s easy to assume that the 2D platformer isn’t the ideal genre to tell a story. It may also seem apparent that as long as you have a fun obstacle course that players can run through starting at the left side of the screen and ending up on the right, you don’t even need a story. But that would be grossly underestimating the genre's potential.

There is a wealth of opportunity for telling compelling stories. Games like Shadow Complex and the original Metroid games are good examples with decent stories. However, its possible to get even more mileage out of a 2D platformer as a narrative vehicle and tell the tale of an epic adventure where the player takes the lead role as the hero. In fact, the strengths of the platformer give it storytelling tools that are in some ways superior to other genres.

Cinematics are always an area of contention when trying to tell a story in a game. Developers slave over cinematics in hopes of discouraging players from hitting the dreaded “skip cutscene” prompt. Some games counter this with in-cinematic quick-time events or through scripted in-game events. The latter is the more popular choice, but is often tricky to execute well since there is no guarantee that the player will have the camera pointed in the right direction to actually see the scripted event.

Donkey Kong vs Pirate Ship
In a 2D platformer, the camera maintains a fixed, constant position. This makes for a powerful tool: a frame within which you can show scripted, cinematic events or sequences during gameplay that you know the player will see. Donkey Kong Country Returns does this particularly well with the myriad antics that happen in the background (e.g. a pirate ship  assailing the play-space with canon balls). Using this technique, it is possible to reveal plot turns during gameplay, ensuring the player sees what’s happening and advancing the plot in a meaningful way.

Another great advantage is that of art style. Take a game like LIMBO for example. That game does a brilliant job of setting up an unforgettable aesthetic and telling a story purely visually--there is no dialogue and no text. LIMBO exclusively uses its artistic style and scripted in game events to tell its story. There are incredible reveals and very iconic moments, all done in-game without cinematics (who can forget that first spider encounter? Or the nail-biting Hotel sign sequence?).

This doesn’t mean the use of a cutscene is a failure. Cutscenes are still arguably the best tool for telling a story visually (as perfected by the motion picture industry). But this is to say that the platformer genre has a unique advantage for in-game storytelling through it’s fixed-perspective camera and latitude in artistic style.

If you have a desire to tell a great story in a game, don’t discount the viability of the 2D platformer. It has unique advantages not found elsewhere and can be an excellent medium through which to tell a rich narrative.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Building a Better Platformer

There are at least 3 (and likely more) design choices that can address some of the negative feedback from consumers regarding platformers that are just too difficult for most casual gamers.

First, smarter checkpoints. One of the things that allows even a really difficult 2D platformer like Trials Evolution to become so popular is its very forgiving checkpoint system. Players are not required to replay huge portions of the level (or, even worse, the entire level) when they err. Instead, after successfully overcoming an obstacle they get a checkpoint and are no longer required to surmount that obstacle if they err later in the level. This makes sense and rewards the player. Why make the player redo the obstacles they already successfully overcame instead of restarting them at the obstacle where they erred?

Second, cooperative Parkour. One of the best things Mario brought over to 2D from his 3D adventures was his free-running skill-set. Mario in general and Rayman Origins in particular really empower the player with potent agility; they can run, wall-jump, backflip, etc. However, the usefulness of these abilities dies if multiple players can bump and slam into each other. Funny at first, trying to successfully navigate the precarious precipices of a level in New Super Mario Bros with 4 players quickly becomes annoyingly frustrating as the players continuously and inadvertently knock each other off ledges to their deaths. The game then becomes less about platforming and more about the logistics of which players are going to jump to which platform and in which order as well as berating uncooperative players for racing ahead and dragging the other players at the rear to their deaths when the screen shifts too far out of range. If the goal is to reach the end of the level, why is the design such that multiple players are more of a hindrance to each other than they are a help?

Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong
Third and last, second chance lives. Making an appearance way back in 1994 with the original Donkey Kong Country, but still regularly absent in many modern day platformers is the idea of each life having at least one second chance for a player to correct an err. In DKC it took the form of having the player control BOTH Donkey Kong and Diddy Kong--if the player erred, one of the characters would die and the player could continue using the second character, without having to restart at a checkpoint . In Rayman Origins, the player can grab a heart-piece which will absorb one error, allowing the player to avoid restarting at a checkpoint. This is extremely rewarding for players. This feature helps avoid the frustration of restarting at checkpoints AND makes the player feel more empowered. It’s also a great way to incorporate multiplayer, since player two can play as the second chance character.

Platformers are just as relevant today as they were in their heyday at the nascence of console gaming. However, in spite of being about 30 years old, this genre still has plenty of room to grow if we can employ a few pertinent design choices and engage our target audiences with more fulfilling gameplay.

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This article was featured on The #gamedesign Daily!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Market Analysis for 2D Platformers - Room to Grow

2D platforming games have come a long way since they debuted in the 1980’s. However, they still have room to grow from a design perspective and have potential to grow their share of the market for video games in general.

About a year or two ago, my family of non-gamers wanted to start a weekly video game night. As the resident expert gamer, it was up to me to find a collection of titles we could all play and enjoy. Yet, after sampling the library of current titles, I found the selection of 2D platformers decidedly out of touch with their core audience.

Specifically, New Super Mario Bros Wii (25.4M) and Donkey Kong Country Returns (5.48M), while great-looking, high-quality games, they are simply too hardcore for their target audience. These titles are targeted and marketed as games for the whole family, but they are really difficult games. Even hardcore gamers find these games challenging. The first few levels are appropriately easy enough, but the difficulty ramps up sharply.

In the case of my family, most members enjoyed the first couple levels but soon became frustrated and stopped playing altogether, admitting “this game is too hard for me.”
This is a fundamental failure to live up to the promise these games make to their intended consumer audience. Nintendo is not the only one to publish titles with this issue, but these two examples exemplify how even excellent games can miss out on potential market share.

Rayman Origins (1.36M) does an excellent job of tailoring the gameplay experience to its target audience. Rayman is targeted towards the “E for Everyone” category and is expectantly approachable for casual and hardcore gamers alike. It has a welcome, slow ramp up in difficulty that gives gamers of varying skill levels plenty to play. I propose Rayman’s poor sales are the result of a lack of marketing and brand power.

Super Mario Bros and Donkey Kong surpass the skill level of most casual players by about the 5th level, which means most casual players never even get to see any of the game past that point. In Rayman however, the first 20 or so levels are reasonably within the abilities of most casual players. Which means that there is a lot more game for them to play versus the other two titles.

I posit that New Super Mario’s success was borne more out of Mario’s iconic clout and less out of how successfully it tailored the gameplay experience to its target market. Further, I think Donkey Kong Country Returns could have moved a lot more copies if the game wasn’t so punishingly difficult, as evidenced by some less favorable Amazon reviews: “I found this game to be extremely hard (at times I wanted to break my controller in frustration)”. And re: Mario: “it's far too challenging to be considered "fun for the whole family", unless your whole family are expert gamers.”