Tuesday, January 27, 2009

They said "Captain", I said "What?"

Just a quick update to recommend an interesting article. Eurogamer has posted a postmortem by Jon Hare (ex-Sensible Software boss) on Sex 'n' Drugs 'n' Rock 'n' Roll.

It's a good read, mainly because you don't often get this kind of article on totally dead titles, and the postmortems I have read tend to be a little too much on the "there were a few minor issues, but it was generally all rosey and we pulled it off because are great" side for my liking.

Since I can't think of a developer I know who doesn't have at least one canned title in their past, there really should be more of this sort of thing, though I can understand that currently operating studios might not want to draw attention to their failures.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I forgot to put an update in my last post about how I got on with wading through the mass of things I wanted to consume while on holiday. I know it's not terribly interesting for most people, but what is a blog good for if not me writing about things that I like? And if you're not that bothered you probably wouldn't be reading my half-arsed ramblings anyway.

I got through most of the books in was intending to read: Bye Bye Balham, which is a collection of a few months' worth of Richard Herring's Warming Up, and is very funny, and also strangely reassuring (the book contains notes made during its compilation, so with five years' worth of hindsight); The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories. The works of Lovecraft are one of those things that I've heard referenced a lot in design circles, but never got around to dipping in to, and I'm glad that I have now, because it was very good; Instructions for Living Someone Else's Life, which is probably now my second favourite Mil Millington book, and though it was funny it also made me think about people's perspectives on life.

I also re-started Design of Everything Things. I find the book very dry, and combined with the dated nature of a number of examples, it becomes a slog. In the end I think I have given up, again. At around the same point I did the first time, judging by the overturned corners. I guess a beachy paradise island just isn't the place to read about how doors are stupidly designed.

What I did find funny was that afterwards I was playing PicPic on the DS (sorry, I've just noticed that this simple puzzle game is selling for £47 on Play.com's marketplace. Professor Layton - the first one, for any inter-continental readers, since someone's dragging their feet at releasing them over here - was in a similar situation just before Christmas, are companies vastly under-rating now many carts they need to burn?) and it's clear the designers haven't thought about the interface much at all.

For example, in the Magipix game (sort of like Minesweeper in that you mark squares one of two colours depending on the value of an adjacent tile), there is no way of telling which face button will turn a tile each colour, you have to use trial and error. This is down to the colours being laid out horizontally on the touch screen (when using the stylus controls, you tap the colour you want to change your pen to), which don't map to the control pad at all. Would it really have been hard to find the space to lay out the colours in a cross formation? Probably not, it just wasn't thought about. Even after a few hours of playing, I was still finding that I had to pause and think about which button mapped to which colour, due entirely to this poor design.

Another interface problem that struck me was that the three games contained in PicPic use different controls for similar features - to delete a placed link in one game you have to place the cursor over the number, and hold the 'paint' button down. Whereas in another game to empty a square you press a 'clear' face button. And the controls for moving your cursor to a different point in the maze game seem entirely random.

Oh yes, it uses a horrible font for the numbers in the games, too.

Since getting back from holiday I've been thoroughly immersing myself in the grey bleakness of the non-tropical world by watching Saw and Saw 2. I am truly ahead of the curve when it comes to movies (though, and sorry to keep banging on about my holiday, but ... actually I'm not, on the plane home the Jason Statham "Death Race" remake was on the in flight entertainment. I was going to atch it, but it was preceded by a message saying that it had been edited for content, and I figured that in a movie called Death Race, the only bits I would really be interested in watching are going to be the ones that would be cut. So I almost watched a fairly recent movie).

Back to Saw... I'd seen the 3rd one which made very little sense to me, and thought I should catch up on the first two, which were meant to be better. The first one was, but the second has a bit too much of the psychic serial killer thing going on, where the actions of half a dozen unstable individuals would have to have been predicated accuractely for the outcome to turn out how Jigsaw wanted.

Anyway, after watching them I was thinking that the series would fit pretty well into a video game. A torture porn version of Professor Layton, where you have to solve puzzles and work out solutions to traps within a time limit or people die. I think it would have legs (unlike probably half of the people in the game by the time it was over). And they're clearly willing to bend and whore the IP a little bit - I mean, who doesn't watch a horror movie and think "wow, what I'd really like to do is ride a roller coaster based entirely around this?".

PS - I just saw the trailer video for Section 8, which looks incredibly generic, but this line did make me laugh "Section 8 are elite shock troops, top-grade insertion specialists". I mean, if you're going to specialise in insertion, I guess focussing on top-grade makes sense.

PPS - It was my birthday recently and amongst the presents, I got pretty much the entire new Lego Pirate range. That's where the banner picture comes from. Lego is ace, and anyone who says a grown man shouldn't be playing with it is just a stinkyface who should bum right off. Sorry if the post title and picture led you to think this was going to be another fascinating industry rant about piracy.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fallout over Battlefront

Bah, why is it so cold and grey and miserable in the UK, when it is so warm and sunny and happy in other bits of the world?

Just before I went on holiday I completed Fallout 3, I just didn't have time to scrawl down some of my thoughts about it. Be aware that the next three paragraphs have some fairly major spoilers, if you've not got that far yourself...

I felt that the story had and ending that was pretty much a cop out, which tried hard to be dramatic and meaningful but didn't really turn out that way. The build up in the Citadel was good, and watching the robot being activated felt like something big was happening. The problem with the next section was that, although following the robot as it effortlessly carved its way towards the water purifier was cool, it gave me nothing to do but tag along. I had spent the game amassing a collection of decent guns, including fully repairing a nuclear missile launcher, but the robot had it all covered, leaving me to use my arsenal only when I got inside, and had to take on a handful of grunts, of the type I had obliterated many times before. It felt kind of pointless.

I also think the game let itself down once I reached the final dialogue section, and had to make "the choice". Stood there, I had a companion with me who could survive major levels of radiation radiation (in fact, this had been a major point in a quest earlier), but who suddenly got all philosophical about destinies - to the point that they were willing to force one of two people to die. Given that the companion had gone to great lengths to help me, and also prove how human they still were inside, this didn't fit right at all. And also made them come across as a completely petty arsehole.

Anyway, my character didn't die in the end. Which sort of highlights another problem with forcing life or death choices on a player in big sandbox story games - trying to force the player to interact with one specific character for enough play time proportionally so that the character feels important enough to save. My choice was either I die (me, who I had spent 80 hours in the company of at this point), or some woman who I had barely ever spoken to (I had maybe scraped an hour's interaction with her, since I found her to be a bit aloof) died. Which is no choice at all in the dog-eat-dog world of Fallout. I would have had more internal conflict if I'd been forced to pick between myself and the chirpy supply woman from Megaton (though I guess depending on your choices she could have been immune to radiation too). So it was quite nnoying that I couldn't keep playing. I guess they would have needed too much extra dialogue - pretty much everyone in the game world would have been affected by the change brought about by the end of the story. Though I seem to remember reading somewhere that one of the downloadable content packs will change the end of game story, to allow players to continue.

End of major story spoilers, if you've bothered to scan over them.

Overall, my favourite bits of Fallout were the non-story scenarios I stumbled on. For example, finding a village with three houses. The first two had very chipper families living there. Their chirpiness was suspicious, as was the nagging feeling that in a world of mutants, raiders and other beasties, these wholesome guys shouldn't have survived so long. An old man resided in the third house, who warned me to get out of town as fast as I could, and to look in the shed behind one of the other houses if I wanted more information. It turns out the town is populated by inbred cannibals who kill and eat everyone who ever visits. I managed to talk them out of killing me by pretending to have the same tastes as they did, but accidentally let slip that the old man had warned me. The families say they're going to have to stop him from meddling, and then start to walk towards his house. I spring into action and at point blank range pump shotgun shells into the backs of their heads. It seemed like the right thing to do to save the old man.

Though thinking back, I've now left two children and a defenseless old man living out there in the wilderness, so they're probably pretty fucked anyway.

The situation at Free Radical has led to some footage being leaked of their version of Star Wars Battlefront 3 (which has now been moved by Lucasarts to Rebellion, who did the PSP versions of the previous Battlefront titles). I'm not going to link to the footage here for fear of upsetting someone, but a Google search should probably do you right, it seems to have been posted in a few places now.

I found it interesting, not because it showed anything spectacular, but because it looked exactly how I would expect a next-gen (current gen? I get so confused) version of the Battlefront games to look. Which makes me wonder how it has taken so long to develop? Now, I have no idea how long FRD were working on it, maybe Lucasarts dragged their heels in commissioning the game, but this would seem strange to me too. The previous Battlefront games were hugely popular titles on Live (looking at the most recent figures posted by Major Nelson, it's the second most played original Xbox title, even now), so I would have expected the third version to be green lit pretty much as soon as 360 and PS3 kits were available, to give a couple of years development, and have the sure-fire hit title on shelves just as the consoles are maturing a little.

But apparently not. Anyway, if a decent Battlefront game gets released at some point, I'll buy it. I did love the first two on my Xbox.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Little Big Planet

Sorry, I mean LittleBigPlanet of course. A game that Sony wants to be cool, so it isn't allowed to have a normal name.

I haven't spent a huge amount of time with LBP. Unfortunately for it, or me, it came out when I was still very much obsessed with Fable 2. And like that game, I think "charming" is the key djective - I really can't imagine describing LBP without using that word. Everything about the game drips character, and the whole thing is incredibly well polished.

My short time with it was not long after release, and the user created levels were still a little ropey for the most part, with a few gems. I'm hoping that by the time I get around to spending more time with it the community will have had enough experience with the tool set to have created more worlds that match the pre-packaged ones.

Still, any game where you can stick a horse's tail to your friend's forehead can't be all bad, right?

Monday, January 12, 2009

On holiday

I'll make no attempt to hide that this post has been written in advance and then scheduled to publish today. The reason for this pre-record (as I'm told they call it in radio and TV circles, and I figured that if I start comparing the games industry to radio - instead of movies - I might be at the forefront of some exciting new stupid internet arguments this year) is because I'm on holiday.

Which means that as you're reading this I should be spending some proper time with the DS games I've bought but haven't got around to looking at beyond the tutorial levels - in particular PicPic and Soul Bubbles. Though it all kind of depends on whether my DS manages to survive the beach, since about six months go the little plastic ratchet things that keep the lid open at certain angles snapped off. Now I have a floppy DS.

So I might not be playing much DS. Being away from the gaming comforts of home (if you imagine that I won't have my iPod Touch with me either, though I'm not sure what the score is with chargers where we're going, and playing games on that eats the battery faster than a PSP) will be good in other ways though. I will hopefully get around to reading some books I've had on a pile next to my bed for ages (the Design of Everyday Things, Richard Herrin's Bye Bye Balham, and Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb).

And finally I can try out a new gadget, which is always good. I bought myself a waterproof digital camera. So hopefully I should come back with some ace pictures of fish from my snorkelling.

Non-holiday stuff I have been up to recently...

I finished Gears of War 2. Even at the end it left me with the feeling that yes, it was all very exciting, but it was still very bitty, with each section having its own special new rule or element that you have to pay attention to. It also seemed to focus quite a bit on vehicle sections that I thought were rubbish for the most part, and downright confusing in sections. It wouldn't surprise me if, even though it feels like a longer game than the first Gears, it turned out that measured section for section, there is less time spent doing the core "in cover, shooting enemies" gameplay that I bought it for. Really nice blood effects at the end of the second act, though.

And finally, for this update, I watched the Hitman movie (based off the IO Interactive game series, if you didn't know). Timothy Olyphant wasn't vey good at all in the lead role, he looked far too young and his voice was just odd - for half of his "menacing" lines he sounded like his voice would crack and he was about to cry. The love interest angle seemed very out of place too.

47's bodycount in the movie is also surprisingly high, which doesn't really fit with the intention of the games that you should be able to finish each level by only killing the target and leaving other people with a headache at worst. But after thinking about it I realised that the film matched what tends to happen when I play Hitman - a disguise eventually fails, and from that point on I have to shoot my way in and out. Usually about five minutes into a level.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Falling out

Fallout 3
(To give a bit of background, this is a post I made to a message board when I was asked how I was finding Fallout 3. For something that's been pretty much roundly given the game of the year award, I thought it was interesting to look back on my early game experience - I think at this point I was around level 8, had just found Rivet City in the main quest, and had done a couple of side quests with my character, who was generally leaning towards good karma and small guns for combat. I've edited it to add more detail where I thought I was being too brief.)

I seem to spend a lot of time not managing to shoot things even in VATS (in fact, that seems to make my accuracy even worse a lot of the time, and I can't move while I'm shooting, so I often get mauled if there's more than one enemy), and running low on ammo and health (though I just got a perk that gives me more ammo, and I've started getting better weapons more reliably).

Having to carry around 5 of the same weapon so you can repair yours when it turns to dust in your hands is great fun. (At this stage I wasn't finding assault rifles regularly, so my hoarding instinct was kicking in.)

It's incredibly brown and grey. The entire main city bit is build like a fucking maze linked together by dull subways, so you can't just look at the map at a place you want to go, fast travel to the nearest place, and head straight there, because chances are the place you're heading to is in some stupid isolated pocket surrounded by unclimbable wrecked road.

Super mutants are shit. I wish it would fuck off with them. If you wanted to put orcs in your sci-fi game, just call them space orcs and be done with it. Same point can be made with the zombies, I'm feeling very let down by their reliance on staple fantasy enemies.

That perky bitch in Megaton who's writing a book is the only funny thing I've encountered so far. Megaton itself is a horrible maze of a place that I can get lost in, which might be atmospheric, but I find deeply annoying when I just want to find a specific person or building.

When VATS does let me make a good shot and I take a raider's head off with one bullet, that feels ace. Some of the dynamic camera stuff the targetting thing does is nice too.

The core of the whole thing is a very outdated RPG with pages of numbers that it never really explains to you (and I know I should expect to have to read the manual for a role playing game, but urgh I just, like, can't be bothered, you know?), and daft experience / levelling up that has no relation to what you've done in the game. I need "lockpicking" 50 before I can even attempt to pick some locks, and "science" 50 before I can attempt to crack the code of some computers (even though they both use the same mechanics as lower versions). Oblivion wasn't nearly as backwards thinking as this - I can only guess they did it to stop Fallout fans from killing them for making it more FPSish.

The main inventory / HUD thing uses a horrible font and colour and cramps everything into the middle of the screen for no good reason other than to fit with their explanation of the gadet in the game world. Although it doesn't fit because it makes no sense that a thing on my arm knows how many assault rifles I'm carrying, what "perks" I have, or how many luck points I have. So it would have just been nicer to use well designed and laid out menus that I could read more easily.

It will let you give things away to shop keepers for free without properly warning you that they can't afford to pay. When you do that, the shopkeeper doesn't even call you a sucker or make any comment afterwards.

So yeah, basically I'm not entirely sure how much fun I'm having with it, despite having logged around 13 hours (at least, since that doesn't count the reloaded save from when I started doing a side question then halfway through realised I was nowhere near leveled up enough for it, but was too low on health and ammo to fight my way back out past the giant scorpions again). I keep expecting for it to break into its stride and really wow me with something cool.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

iTouch myself

Why is it so hard to find a stock image of an iPod Touch without Macy Gray on it?
If you own an iPhone or an iPod Touch, you might be fooled into thinking there aren't many good games for it. The decent to crap ratio of games on the app store is frightenly low, and when adverts are heavily pushing the frame-rate impaired Crash Bandicoot Kart Racing (or whatever it's called, research has never been high on my list of editing priorities), it would be easy to think everything is rubbish.

To help you out, here are some that I like (with the store links, if I can work out how on earth to make that work).

TanZen (link is to the free Lite version). A simple puzzle game based around placing geometric shapes to fill in an outline. I had a non-computer version of this as a kid, which is probably why it appeals to me. The author keep spublishing updates with new puzzles in too, which is nice.

Enigmo Another puzzle game, in this one you have to direct the flow of liquids using a limited set of pieces.

Solebon (link is to the free version). Solitaire.Not a lot else to say really, though the presentation and controls are nice and slick. It would have been easy to go a bit mad and royally cock this up.

SPiN A fast paced puzzle game. You're given a 3d object, and an outline of that shape in a certain rotation. By using the intuitive touch screen controls, you have to rotate the shape to fit the outline before the timer runs out. Another game with really excellent presentation.

Hero of Sparta The simplest way of describing this is "God of War lite, on the iPhone". A great example of how the gadget is capable of more than just quick hit casual games.

Snail Mail Like the bonus stages from Sonic 2, only with tilt controls that actually work.