Montreal Games Summit

Some good stuff coming from there, but from all the coverage I have had access to, this talk by Jonathan Blow is the most interesting (and complete – audio and slides included). A bit incomplete in the sense that it doesn’t address the need for commercial games to work as commercial products, but commercial viability is not his point anyway.

For some time I have held the belief that games have a hard time as meaningful forms of expression, because the kind of activity and instant-to-instant attention they require tends to overwhelm the mind and distract from what could be meaningful in them. Cutscenes and narrative are hailed by some as the answer, since they are aspects of the game experience where the player is not (necessarily) bombarded with that level of activity, and is more receptive to messages and ideas. However, these tend to be times where the game stops being a game and becomes something else, a purely narrative experience where the player is turned into a spectator, one anxiously deprived of interactive capabilities.

Portal, Bioshock or Half Life (and other games before them) break the mold a bit by rarely coming to a full stop. You can listen to the audio recordings, computer speech or feel the chaos around you while you are moving, exploring or figuring out what’s coming next. In Shadow of the Colossus, you have long periods of riding where your mind is free to think about the land and what happened to leave it so barren. But these moments are still not using the power of interaction and player agency.

I think he does a great disservice to World of Warcraft by focusing on a limited set of aspects of that game, and completely ignoring the amount of player-to-player interaction, player-created goals, and encouragement of exploration. If you play WoW as a single-player game and see other people simply as means to achieve your own goals, then yeah, all you have is a very addictive but unfulfilling experience. But if you don’t restrict yourself like that, you have access many aspects of human nature: greed, friendship, despair, organization, envy, curiosity, and even conscious self-expression through role-playing. You could say that those are the same experiences you can get with real-life social activities. But, as he says of poetry vs movies vs music, they are all capable of providing interestingly different flavours of the same thing.

I loved his description of games development being poorer as a result of being done as series of problems to solve or squash. It’s all too true, especially for a problem-solver kind of developer like myself. 🙂

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XNA 2.0 Beta

The beta is out, so I dusted off my test project and checked it out.

The transition was fairly painless, and the great news is that it works with Visual Studio 2005. No more of that Express crap! (to be fair, VC# Express is quite good for the price)

I was curious about the Content Pipeline stuff since I had never touched it before, so I set out to prepare a custom Model processor that would extract more detailed material parameters from the source art, including a property to specify a specific fx shader / effect. There are better ways to do that if your 3D package has HLSL integration and a good .X exporter, but that was not the point.

All was well until I figured I needed to debug my custom processor. Hm… how do I do that? Read the comments for the gory details.

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Here’s to old times

It’s been 20 years since my brother Juan Carlos and I developed our first commercial game, Stardust. It was a fairly straightforward vertical shoot’em up game, where you flew your ship over massive space stations.

The original idea from Jose Manuel Muñoz was quite different. When he saw our Uridium-inspired graphics concepts, he envisioned a game where battleships would duel in space. The player would be in control of one of them, and was able to configure the weapons and shield to optimize the performance of the spaceship in combat.

Back then we had no idea what he was talking about. 🙂 What he described sounded nothing like the kind of games we were playing, so we simply pushed our more mainstream design and used his ideas to build and tune the station’s weapons and moving platform defenses.

A few years ago, Hikoza T Ohkubo released a fantastic freeware arena shooter called Warning Forever. The idea is to destroy progressively tougher boss spaceships with evolving weapon and hull configurations. Earlier this year, another boss-based shooter called Fraxy came out and became a cult success. Sean Chan just released the Warning Forever-inspired RTS game Battleships Forever. It is a really great game and deserves the best of lucks in the IGF competition next year.

I imagine Jose Manuel seeing these games and thinking "We should have been making these games back in 1987!". If so, then yeah man, we should have; I’m not sure how the poor ZX Spectrum would have handled, but hey. 🙂 Another idea I remember him and Javier Cano discussing was about a game where you would have to save dozens of little guys from buildings on fire… again, I couldn’t even imagine how to make a game out of that, but a few years later, some bedroom coder in the UK came up with Lemmings.

So, in the 20th anniversary of Stardust’s release, I want to say a big THANK YOU to Jose Manuel Muñoz and Javier Cano. You guys took Juan Carlos and I, a couple of aspiring programmers, and created two game developers for life.

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Mario Galaxy

It is absolutely incredible. So much charm, creativity, humor, polish and attention to detail. After playing this, you will never again wonder why you bought a Wii.

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Thank you GPG and some PS3 impressions

Gas Powered Games have released a patch that removes the SecuROM copy protection crap from Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance. The game was released this week, so the patch has taken less than 4 days to arrive. Another game to add to the neverending pile!

I also bought a PS3. I knew I would get one sooner or later, and with the recent price discounts and Ratchet & Clank now out, there just wasn’t any reason to delay the inevitable. R&C is fantastic: smooth, beautiful, fun, varied and uncomplicated. In a way it’s disappointing, because it feels pretty much the same as the PS2 original when it came out. This once again confirms Jason Rubin’s idea that graphics are going to get better but not really add anything new to games.

After the XBox Live experience, the PS Store seems incredibly limited and amateurish in comparison. A crisp but ugly interface, very few demos available, the installation process for these demos can take between 5 and 10 minutes, and it has already crashed once.

I checked out the Heavenly Sword demo, and now think that Zero Punctuation’s review was way too positive. Which might explain why the PS3 built-in web browser is unable to play it.

Another let down was the demo for Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. This game sounds great on paper: Tomb Raider-style gameplay, great production and graphics, state of the art animation technology, well written story and characters. I didn’t see any of that in the demo. Animation in particular looked extremely poor to me, with things like very visible (and I mean VERY) skidding. A nice touch was the way the t-shirt wrinkles as the character moves, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay $70 for THAT.

At least I can fill a coupon and get 5 free Blue-Ray movies. Edit: or install Yellow Dog Linux on it. In fact I’m typing this from there.

One final note: why do so many recent console games have such bad tearing? I’ve been looking forward to Switchball (now available on XBox Live) since I saw it at the IGF (2 years ago?), and I was ready to pay the 800 MS points, but the tearing in the demo turned me off instantly.

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At last the chaps at Mercury Steam have released their baby. Gore, guts, twisted demons and tortured souls, the kind of stuff you would expect from Clive Barker. NOT subtle. 🙂

Reviews and fan response so far are quite spread, with a few reviews totally panning the game, a few loving it, and pretty much everything in between. Why? Well, because the game really IS a lot of different things. I’ll tell you what I think.

Some aspects of it are quite unpolished: some enemies are annoying and overused, the balance of powers and weapons is a bit off, a number of levels have too generic design, and you will spot all sorts of flaws and cliches in the storyline (no spoilers). The production value is not up to par with other AAA games like Call of Duty, Half Life and the like, but despite having maybe 1/5th of the resources those other games had, I think it’s quite commendable that the game can at least compete in that league.

For all its flaws, Jericho has a few redeeming qualities. Chief among them, in my eyes, is the fact that combat is more intense than in any other shooter game since Gears of War. This is a game where you will shoot, melee and move a lot during combat. And you will die a lot, too. When I am being pounded from several directions, trying to shoot back, find good cover, think of a power to use that could save the day, and trying to heal your fallen comrades, well, it’s a great adrenaline rush.

The team dynamics work quite well; switching to a different team member, and healing the dead ones becomes second nature fairly quickly. I found two problems though: I can’t remember consistently who has which power, and many spaces are too small for so many characters.

Powers are a mixed blessing. There’s a lot of variety, but some are way too situational (read: scripted). In practice, with such intense and fast combat, it tends to take too long to figure out which power would work best, remember who has it, switch to that character, and activate it. The end result is not too different from Bioshock: I only use the powers when it’s obvious or when it’s necessary, and even then I always use one or two of the lot.

The AI is fairly basic. Most enemies either simply run at you, or take cover and advance slowly. Jericho relies on variety and combinations here: in many encounters, you will fight groups with mixed melee and ranged attackers. While not exactly sophisticated, enemies take a lot of bullets to kill, so you need to choose which ones you will leave for your team to kill, and which ones you will concentrate on. And you need to choose the most appropriate character for that task.

Your teammates also rely more on brute force than anything else. They use their powers sparingly and often not at the right time, but with five of them fighting in close quarters, there’s enough going on to be satisfied. After all, the player must have the biggest impact, and too good AI might lessen that. In addition, the game does a great job of communicating you what your mates are doing. Seasoned developers will agree that feedback is one of the secrets of making an AI feel smarter than it actually is.

Some flaws could have been corrected with more time and focus testing. Many areas are excessively dark. Most materials have that overused glossy / wet / plastic appearance. The scripted sequences (which are otherwise really cool) give so little time to press the buttons, that they become an annoyance. They could have just removed the ammo rather than have it magically replenish. Music is good but way underused.

Despite the flaws, the game gets many things right, and I’m having a blast with it.

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