Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Au Revoir!

Well, the time has finally come for me to bid farewell to this blog. I humbly thank anyone who ever read my posts during the four years I maintained this blog, and especially through some of the dry spells. Writing The Paradigm-Shifting Blog was a tremendous learning experience for me and I am ever thankful I decided to launch it.

For the foreseeable future, I will continue to write about video games over at Nerds on the Rocks as I have for awhile now, so this isn't really the end. The real reason for shutting down PSB is to focus my attention on my brand-new personal website, In the coming months I will be launching a Design Blog on my website that will focus on some out-of-reach ideas I have for games or my general thoughts and comments about various aspects of game design and development.

This blog will remain active as a catalog of the past, but this is likely the last post I will ever make on it. Once again, I thank those who gave my writing an audience, and I hope you continue to follow my writing in the future as I continue through new outlets for it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Review-- Battlefield 3 (console version)

DICE and its Battlefield series of first-person shooters have been heralded by PC gamers for its deep, engaging multiplayer that tries to simulate all aspects of a true battlefield, complete with medics, various classes of vehicles, and a map that evolves based on the flow of battle. The Swedish studio dipped its toes into both single-player storytelling and console development with its Bad Company sub-series, but with Battlefield 3 DICE aims to provide a complete package that can take down the console FPS juggernaut that is Call of Duty—or at least put a significant chink in its armor.

[This review was originally posted at Nerds on the Rocks. To continue reading the full review, please click here]

Friday, May 27, 2011

Star Wars: A New Hope: Facebook Edition

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a social network newsfeed became an epic saga....

Darth Vader invited Stormtrooper to the event “Capture Rebel Alliance Cruiser

Stormtrooper wrote on the wall for the event “Capture Rebel Alliance Cruiser”: “The Death Star plans are not in the main computer”
^Darth Vader commented on Stormtrooper’s post: “Tear this ship apart until you find the passengers, I want them alive!”

R2-D2 wrote on C-3PO’s wall: “beep beep wooooot”
^C-3PO commented on R2-D2’s wall post: “Secret mission? What plans? What are you talking about?”

R2-D2 is on Tatooine with C-3PO

Darth Vader wrote on Princess Leia’s wall: “Don’t act so surprised, Your Highness. Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they sent you.”
^Princess Leia commented on his post: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderan.”
^Darth Vader commented on his post: “You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor. Take her away!”

Darth Vader she must’ve hidden the plans in the escape pod. There will be no one to stop us this time!

C-3PO I’ve got to rest before I fall apart, my joints are almost frozen!

Jawa posted C-3PO and R2-D2 in the Marketplace!

Luke Skywalker just got two new droids for the farm… Biggs is right, I’m never gonna get out of here!

C-3PO wrote on Luke Skywalker’s wall: “I’m C-3PO, human-cyborg relations”

Luke Skywalker is now friends with C-3PO and R2-D2

R2-D2 posted a picture. “help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope”
                ^Luke Skywalker commented: “What’s this?”
                ^C-3PO commented: “Oh, he says it’s nothing sir.”
                ^Luke Skywalker commented: “She’s beautiful”
                ^Luke Skywalker commented: “I wonder if he means Old Ben Kenobi?”

Luke Skywalker wrote on Ben Kenobi’s wall: “Do you know an Obi-Wan Kenobi?”
                ^Ben Kenobi commented: “Of course I know him! He’s me!”

Ben Kenobi changed his name to Obi-Wan Kenobi

Obi-Wan Kenobi sent Luke Skywalker a gift: lightsaber

Obi-Wan Kenobi is at Mos Eisley Spaceport with Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, and R2-D2

Stormtrooper wrote on Obi-Wan Kenobi’s wall: “We need to see your identification”
                ^Obi-Wan Kenobi commented: “You don’t need to see our identification”
                ^Stormtrooper commented: “We don’t need to see your identification”
                ^Obi-Wan Kenobi commented: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”
                ^Stormtrooper commented: “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for”
                                ^Luke Skywalker likes this.

Luke Skywalker is now friends with Han Solo and Chewbacca

Obi-Wan Kenobi I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if a million voices cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.

Han Solo we’re caught in a tractor beam it’s pulling us in!

Han Solo is at The Death Star with Luke Skywalker and 4 others.

Darth Vader I sense something. A presence I’ve not felt in a long time…

Han Solo this sucks. Even if I could take off, I’d never get past the tractor beam
                ^Obi-Wan Kenobi commented: “leave that to me”

Obi-Wan Kenobi wrote on Luke Skywalker’s wall: “May the Force be with you. Always.”

R2-D2 beep beep woot beep wooooooot!!
                ^Luke Skywalker commented: “What’d he say?”
                ^C-3PO commented: “The Princess is here! Detention block AA23.”
                ^Han Solo commented: “Forget it, I’ve gotten more than I bargained for already”
                ^Luke Skywalker commented: “She’s rich”
                                ^Han Solo likes this

Han Solo wrote on Luke Skywalker’s wall: “Luke, we’re gonna have company!”

Luke Skywalker is now friends with Princess Leia

Princess Leia wrote on Luke Skywalker’s wall: “Aren’t you a little short to be a Stormtrooper?”
^Luke Skywalker commented: “I’m Luke Skywalker I’m here to rescue you! I’m with Ben Kenobi!”

Luke Skywalker wrote on C-3PO’s wall: “turn off all the garbage smashers on the detention level!”

Obi-Wan Kenobi just shut down the tractor beam. Come get me Darth

Princess Leia wrote on Han Solo’s wall: “Listen I don’t know who you are, but from now on do as I tell you.”
                ^Han Solo commented: “Listen, your worshipfulness, I take orders from only one person, me!”
                ^Princess Leia commented: “It’s a wonder you’re still alive”
                ^Han Solo commented: “No reward is worth this”
                                ^Chewbacca likes this

Darth Vader wrote on Obi-Wan Kenobi’s wall: “I knew I felt your presence. Now the circuit is complete, now I am the mast.”
^Obi-Wan Kenobi commented: “if you strike me down I shall become more powerful than you
could ever imagine”

Princess Leia is on Yavin IV with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and 3 others

Princess Leia that was too easy…they must be tracking us…
                ^Darth Vader likes this

Darth Vader this will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of Kenobi, and it will soon see the end of the Rebellion

Luke Skywalker Red 5 standing by

Luke Skywalker entering the trench. this’ll be just like Beggar’s Canyon back home

Obi-Wan Kenobi wrote on Luke Skywalker’s wall: “use the Force, Luke. Trust me”

Darth Vader the Force is strong with this one

Luke Skywalker turned off his targeting computer

Darth Vader wrote on Luke Skywalker’s wall: “I have you now”
                ^Han Solo commented: “not so fast! YEEEHOOOOOO!!!”
                                ^Luke Skywalker likes this

Han Solo wrote on Luke Skywalker’s wall: “You’re all clear kid let’s blow this thing and go home!”
                ^Princess Leia likes this

Princess Leia invited Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca to the event “Awards Ceremony

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bite-Size Review-- Mass Effect 2: "The Arrival"

With the Mass Effect trilogy's final chapter already on the horizon, BioWare has returned to last year's Game of the Year for one last mission in "The Arrival". While providing an interesting hook in the story that gives insight into the beginning of Mass Effect 3, one critical design error almost breaks the whole experience.

"The Arrival" starts off like the previous DLC, where someone contacts Commander Shepard on the Normandy, leading into a new mission for Shepard to deal with. In this case, the conditions of the mission require Shepard to go at it alone without the aide of his compatriots. While this decision to keep combat a solo affair enables a fun stealth segment, it later comes at the cost of almost ruining the fun and strategy of combat entirely. In all other Mass Effect 2 missions, the combination and balancing of you and your squads specialties and powers allowed for combat to be dynamic, fresh, and exhilirating. This new mission feels like a neutered version of the original game and it becomes frustrating as you cannot establish a flow to combat like you normally do. While there are a few cool settings for key fights, overall the removal of your squad makes the game much more monotonous.

Where "The Arrival" does succeed is its strong ending, which provides an epic encounter and a key lead up into the final chapter. Furthermore, there is a major decision that appears will have big consequences in ME3 as well.  However, with these two notable exceptions, the rest of the story leaves much to be desired. Dialogue sections are uncharacteristically sparse, that the ones that are present are fairly dry and uninteresting. An attempted "twist" comes off as way too obvious and even borderlines on the unbelievable.

At the end of the day, "The Arrival" is only recommendable to those who absolutely cannot wait for Mass Effect 3 and need to feed that thirst with more Mass Effect 2. Otherwise, it falls well short of the towering standards set by its predecessors.

($7 / 560 Microsoft Points)


Monday, March 14, 2011

How Interactivity Opens New Storytelling Possibilities

I made this video for a class project, in which I had to analyze an aspect of new media. Obviously, I chose games, and equally unsurprisingly if you follow my true passion in the medium, I took a look at what the element of interaction means from a narrative perspective. While my original vision was actually grander in scope and content, time limitations forced me to cut a lot out of the video and summarize even more. Here's the description from my YouTube page and the embedded video itself.

"Advances in technology have been changing the we create and consume stories for over a hundred years. More recently, video games have achieved a level of detail that allows for entirely new ways to tell and experience stories. The medium's inherent interactive qualities have opened up new doors, and some skilled developers are already laying the foundation."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

REVIEW-- Bulletstorm

With Bulletstorm, developer People Can Fly, along with parent company Epic Games and publishing partner Electronic Arts, have brought us one of the freshest, funniest, and  most flat-out entertaining first person shooters we have seen in a long, long time. The entire game is based on a simple concept: kill your enemies in as many different ways as you can come up with. The execution of that idea, however, is phenomenal. People Can Fly have packed this game full of unique, powerful weapons each complete with a creative secondary function, while also giving you a leash to pull enemies and items toward you, a kick move to knock them away, and a megaton of environmental hazards and goodies to mix in. Each firefight plays out like a sandbox of mayhem that dares you to find yet another way to put down one of the dangerous denizens of the planet Stygia. The unrelenting originality of this game is without a doubt its finest point and the biggest reason why any and all shooter and action game fans need to take it for a spin.

Aside from the all unadulterated fun to be had, Bulletstorm has plenty of other merits that it uses to set an early benchmark for 2011's Game of the Year (let me stress the words "early" and "benchmark"; not declaring any winners just yet). While the game is certainly filled with all kinds of foul talk, vulgar references, and other varieties of toilet humor, the jokes and pokes actually come out as genuinely funny, clever, and well-written. Some lines will make some players groan in embarrassment, but for the most part, what could've come across as the unimaginative humor of an adolescent male actually turns out to be thoroughly amusing. Even better, the game never takes itself too seriously and the characters themselves make references to the absurdity of their own banter. Much of this banter comes out as organic dialogue while running through levels rather than just in cutscenes, a technique that gives life to the downtime between gunfights and allows the developers to keep a tight pace that never leaves you feeling like the game is slow or overwhelming.

The introductory section of the game in particular does a fantastic job of establish the setting, the characters, and even the canonical viability of the game's combat system. While the pace is notably slower in this first hour or so, Bulletstorm does a good job of feeding you information and new abilities one by one, and despite some of the ridiculous stunts you'll be pulling later in the game, it always feels grounded in a certain tangible sense of reality. As the game progresses, new weapons unlock to give you new tricks, and new enemy types force you to shake up your approach to combat. The litany of environmental hazards ready to lethally assist you never feel like they are out of place, and People Can Fly throws a bone to old-school game design with the inclusion of a few well-designed and tightly-scripted boss battles.

A gorgeous setting and layered backstory give an added weight to the game's campaign, and for most of the game the characters are well-nuanced and cleverly-written, with real, believable motivations. However, the way the writers convey some of these motivations is very much clunky, and in particular Trishka--who's a sharp-tongued, bad-ass female soldier that is refreshingly not proportioned like a stripper--falls flat as a character later in the game with cliched daddy issues. The protagonist, Grayson Hunt, is also generally a dynamic character with a complex past and well-defined motives and attitudes, but in some crucial scenes it would have benefited him to show his frustration in a more subtle way rather than stating his opinions matter-of-factly in a goody-goody tone that clashes with the rest of his mannerisms. The main antagonist, General Sarrano, also comes across as a little too over the top; he would give Hitler a run for his money on the evil meter.

While the narrative and characters come off as hit and miss over the course of the adventure, on a technical level Bulletstorm absolutely shines. There was never a single frame drop, a single late environmental draw-in, a ridiculous lack of hit detection--nada. This is about as well-polished a game as it comes these days (a rare feat), which is especially impressed given the sheer amount of stuff going on at various points throughout the game, often on a large scale. The graphics and art design are flat-out gorgeous, all the guns feel and sound real, and the music compliments the frenetic action perfectly. The only notable detraction on a technical level isn't even the fault of Bulletstorm at all: Unreal Engine 3's age is starting to show a little bit when it comes to facial animation and hair, which is most notable in the game's sparing cutscenes.

Despite some narrative missteps down the stretch, Bulletstorm is without a doubt the most original game--and especially shooter--that we've seen in a good while. It's fun, fresh, funny, and provocative; it's a great roller coaster ride that never lets up, and from a design standpoint is incredibly well-executed. While ending is somewhat plagued by an unsavory blatant set up for a sequel, People Can Fly has nonetheless built an exciting new world that will be fun to come back to over and over again, and I can't wait to see where the studio goes from here.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Is This What Next-Gen Games Will Look Like?

At the 2011 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week, Epic Games unveiled a tech demo for what they are saying is what next-generation console hardware should look like. As you can see, despite the hyper-realistic visuals already achievable by the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Epic is determined to prove that console hardware has yet to reach a graphical peak. Epic's President, Mark Rein, stressed that the tech unveiled today is not Unreal Engine 4.0, which has been under development for years, but rather what he would call "Unreal 3.975"--despite his claim that this jump is greater than that from Unreal 2 to Unreal 3.

Though only images are currently available, all accounts claim that the in-motion footage looks even better and is comparable to a carefully-orchestrated CGI scene. According to VG247, the tech demo was running in real time on three Nvidia GeForce GTX 580s; if you aren't up to date on PC graphics cards, the GTX 580 is currently the top dog in Nvidia's lineup. In other words, it takes 3 of the most powerful graphics card currently available to power this thing. Next-gen indeed. Though this new tech is obviously designed with an eye toward the future, Rein claims that Epic has made it scalable to work on devices as "weak" as the iPhone 3GS, which is already currently capable of handling scaled-down version of the current Unreal Engine 3.

While its likely that it will still be several years before Microsoft and Sony are ready to bring out new high-end machines, Epic has shown us that there is indeed something to look forward to. With a new benchmark now set, its up to other developers to create some advanced middleware tools, otherwise all that power is only going to mean a lot more work (read: higher costs).

Check out the full gallery of images from the GDC presentation here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Next Console Generation? Don't Hold Your Beath

Throughout the history of video games and video game consoles, one rule has held steadfast--every 5 or so years, the industry refreshes with what's referred to as a new "generation" of consoles, where each of the major console manufacturers trumpets out new, more powerful devices while slowly phasing out the old ones. 2011 marks the fifth year since the 2006 launch of the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3--and the sixth year since the Xbox 360's launch in 2005--yet not only have we yet to hear of any new machines, it does not appear likely that new systems will be entering the market until 2015. The reality is that nobody involved in the industry--from the manufacturers to the developers to the publishers to even the consumers--even want a new console generation anytime soon. And for good reason.

PS2: The First 10-year Console (and counting)
When Sony first launched the PlayStation 3, the Japanese tech giant defended the system's initially astronomical price tag by claiming that the PS3 was designed for a ten-year life cycle. While there were plenty of critics doubting Sony's lofty ambitions, in hindsight the goal was not so unrealistic given the ongoing success of the PlayStation 2. By the time the PS2 reached its 10th anniversary in 2010, sales had declined significantly from its heydey, but it was far from dead in the water (games continue to be published for the system to this day). In other words, a system planned to have a 10-year life cycle surely could achieve that goal with little trouble given the PS2's already-established lasting power (then again, the PS2 is the most successful console ever made).

However, the PS2 achieved this feat 4-5 years after the start of the current console generation, so it's not like it can really be regarded as the catalyst for the elongation of the life cycle. Instead, we must answer a fundamental question: why would Sony, Microsoft, or (to a lesser extent) Nintendo even want to release a new console right now? The PS3 and Xbox 360 are still growing and have yet to hit critical mass. Further, the cost of actually releasing a new console is tremendous, and the manufacturers often launch new consoles at a loss and make up the difference over time in game licensing fees, accessory sales, and (down the road) cheaper and/or more efficient components. There's no reason for these companies to go back into the red when the current generation is still in its prime and still growing. The economic turmoil that has tightened up budgets around the world--and that played a role in slowing growth in the generation's early years--has only reaffirmed this position.

The PS3 Slim makes the unit cheaper for Sony to
(Note: the Nintendo Wii may be an exemption to this logic and will be excluded for the rest of the article. The Wii experienced its first sales decline in 2010 and--while still strong and still the overall market leader--there is no doubt that the system will reach its demise first of the three, especially considering that it was a far weaker console to begin with. However, still don't expect a successor until at least next year; the Wii still retails for $200, meaning there's plenty of room for sales-invigorating price drops).

To further strengthen the console manufacturers' position, the developers and publishers are more than happy to keep the current consoles around for as long as possible. The installed bases (number of people who own the current consoles) are still growing. A new set of consoles would mean higher development costs and a need for developers to learn how to develop for entirely new computer architectures when they are only just now tapping the full potential of the PS3 and 360. The publishers would also not want to combine these higher costs with installed bases that would inherently be only a fraction of what's available right now, which would severely limit the sales potential of any next-generation game, no matter how good. The increasing installed bases of the current consoles also decreases the risk of developing middle-ranged niche titles that can sell to just a small segment of the market rather than needing to achieve AAA blockbuster success.

Because of Xbox Live's heavy integration to the 360 dashboard,
Microsoft was able to completely overhaul the dash to
accommodate changing times.

Any rational consumer doesn't want a new console either. With the developers finally getting a firm grasp on development for this generation, gamers are able to play increasingly higher-quality games. The aforementioned benefits of growing installed bases also means that developers and publishers will be willing to take more risks, which opens up the door to new, more radical gameplay ideas. Consumers also get the advantage of sequels and entire trilogies that can actually build off previous titles in the same generation; it would be almost impossible for BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy to maintain the sense of continuity from game-to-game if the generation were cut short as currently these games import previous games' save data directly off the hard drive (of course, a cloud-based memory solution like what Sony's launching with PlayStation Plus could alleviate this hurdle). Perhaps most importantly, these consoles still cost about $300, or the traditional launching price of a new console (though that has already been thrown out the window). Should sales start declining like what the Wii's beginning to see, there's plenty of room for price drops, which trigger a massive increase in sales. With the abundance of quality games still being released for the current consoles, the last thing a consumer wants to do is shell out hundreds of dollars to start over again.

Kinect and the Xbox 360 S: a recipe for longevity.
There are several other factors in this generation's elongation. For one, the primary driving force in the launch of previous generations was technological advancements that allowed for a significant increase in pure graphical power. Let's face it: no matter how much more realistic future consoles may get, any improvements would only be incremental to the strikingly realistic visuals already achieved by today's consoles. Another game-changer is the current consoles' integration with online connectivity. The PS3 and Xbox 360 as they exist today are far more advanced than the machines that launched, even with with the slimmer redesigns aside. Having the Internet so thoroughly integrated into the experience means that the consoles are able to evolve as time goes on--something that previously necessitated an entirely new hardware product. Already we've seen things like Netflix, Hulu, ESPN,, NHL GameCenter,, Facebook, Twitter, Zune, IPTV, and a whole bunch of other applications get added to the consoles' stable of features.

Finally, 2010 saw the launch of major peripherals for both the PS3 and 360 that provide a new method of interaction that could easily be associated with a new console, but instead are simply additions to the current hardware. Sony and Microsoft certainly hope that the PlayStation Move and Kinect Sensor for Xbox 360 can carry their respective hardware for the equivalent of a new generation, but as we've been over this whole time, even if they flop (which they aren't), these consoles are plenty capable of continuing growth on their own.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Marketing Departments Have It All Wrong

Successful marketing is an incredibly useful tool to get consumers to buy your product, and the world of entertainment media is no exception to that rule. There are countless examples across all forms of media of just how important marketing (or lack thereof) can be to a product's ultimate financial success. While video games have proven to be an incredible gold mine, often generating more income than Hollywood movies, the industry as it exists now is far from sustainable. Publishers need to pour tons of money into development for today's consoles, meaning that there is an extremely high risk if the product fails--which is why we see fewer original IPs and a market that is dominated by big-budget sequels. And therein lies the biggest problem of the games industry: the publishers don't understand how to market their product. "But I see Call of Duty and Halo ads all the time!" one might retort. It's true; publishers do a pretty good job of pushing their biggest brands and creating financial juggernauts. Unfortunately, that means a select few games are basically driving the entire industry, a situation that doesn't need an insightful analyst to realize that it's not exactly a formula for long-term survival, let alone growth. The problem is exacerbated when companies insist on pumping out new titles for these brands year in and year out, which not only burns out the developers and creativity, but dramatically accelerates what is known as "franchise fatigue" for the consumers. Just look at what happened to Guitar Hero and Rock Band: what were once the financial gems of the industry for their ability to not only move millions of units of games, but also high-return plastic instruments, are now a toxic asset that has become dead in the water just as fast as it rose to glory. (In case you're wondering, Activision published a whopping 25 Guitar Hero SKUs in 2009 alone--a year that also saw revenue in the overall genre drop 50% to $700 million from $1.4 billion the year before).
Once a breakout hit, Guitar Hero is now
only a shadow of its former glory

Now, one could easily argue that the music game genre's catastrophic collapse had more to do with Activision's greedy higher-ups than with a marketing department failing to successfully handle so many similar products. But this argument only circles back to the underlying trend that is the fault of the marketing departments: they are not marketing the right product. We've already gone over how publishers focus on select franchises and try to pump out as much money as they can from these names. The fact of the matter is, they are promoting the wrong names, period. Rather than promoting the game brand itself, the publishers should be promoting the "brand" that is the talent behind these games. A bit altruistic, you might say, but let's take a closer look by peeking over at the much-compared medium of movies. Certainly there are cases where movie studios are able to push a brand to sell a movie (Star Wars, James Bond, pretty much any movie based on a comic book come to mind). But if you think about the way most movies are promoted and hyped up, it's usually one of two things (or a combination): the director and the actors. These studios often bank on big-name talent to bring consumers to their product. People already know they are probably in for a good movie if Steven Spielberg is the director or if Russel Crowe is the lead actor. These kinds of "stars" do not exist in the games industry--which is entirely the fault of the people who promote the games. Of course, game development is inherently more team-oriented and less based on individual talent, but that is why the industry should start focusing on promoting its specific studios as its stars.

If you don't know Bungie, you certainly know
 its most successful creation.
To some extent, this has already happened. Sort of. People who follow the industry closely know the name "Bungie" carries a whole lot more weight than "Saber Interactive" because they already know what Bungie's accomplished and know what they bring to the table. Bungie hasn't announced so much as a title or even genre for their next game, but gamers are already salivating for it. The real money, however, is not in the people that already know what games they are going to buy, but rather the mainstream market that pretty much bought their Xbox for Call of Duty, Halo, and Madden... because that's all they know. You're average Joe probably doesn't know the difference between an Infinity Ward Call of Duty game and a Treyarch Call of Duty game. The existing practice obviously devalues the developer, but that's not as important to the publisher's bottom line as the eventual sales, so they promote the game brand--which they have more control over--instead. However, incentives exist for publishers as well. If publishers start promoting their studios rather than just the game brands, they'll be able to create completely new IPs (and to them, potential new series/franchises) on the backs of those developer names alone (i.e., without the high financial risk usually associated with a new IP). They don't have to waste money explaining why Game X is the next big thing while not-so-subtley hinting that its sequel is already in the works and will be even bigger. Instead, they can simply say, "this is the newest game from Bungie." Boom, millions of copies sold, done deal (the studio has to actually make a good game of course, but a studio that is able to consistently feed its creativity is far more likely to be working as hard as it can).

This is a bold proclamation that might seem like a too big of a step for the industry's tepid publishers. Luckily, there is already an example of this practice achieving mainstream success. For years, Rockstar was known for one game franchise and one game franchise only: Grand Theft Auto. Anybody who's reading this knows that those games don't need any introduction. It's a game brand that practically prints money. Or is it? Last year, Rockstar unleashed their latest project, and it wasn't a game about urban crime. Rather, it was a brand-new game set in the Old West. It was called Red Dead Redemption and went on to sell millions upon millions of copies and is heralded as one of the best games of last year. While the game is technically a sequel, it shares no ties to its under-the-radar predecessor, which wasn't even originally developed by Rockstar (the former Capcom game was dumped and Rockstar swooped up the rights, pushed it out, then geared up for the project it really wanted to do). How could what is essentially a new IP make such a splash right out of the gate? Because Rockstar was able to promote the Rockstar brand instead of the game's brand. Very clearly above the title, and before every trailer and commercial, reads a line that says, "Rockstar Games Presents." As in, "Rockstar Games Presents Red Dead Redemption." At the very least, pushing their name on the front of the box puts their name out for the future, so even if you didn't know they made GTA, you'll know they made RDR when they ship their next game (which, by the way, is L.A. Noire, which will also carry the "Rockstar Games Presents" tag on its box).

By doing this, Rockstar has taken steps to promote the Rockstar brand. Suddenly, the company has two mega-blockbusters, yet its next two games (L.A. Noire and Max Payne 3) are not from either of those franchises. They have been able to succesfully promote the Rockstar name, which allows them to explore game ideas in all sorts of stories and settings, rather than endlessly iterating on GTA until consumers finally get sick of it. Not only that, but when Grand Theft Auto V eventually does drop, it will come to additional applause and fanfare for returning from a long absence, which generates all sorts of hype on its own. And in the meantime, Rockstar is still making a pretty penny on other, brand new titles, because people know that it's not just that GTA is a good game, it's that Rockstar is good at making good games. Being able to say "from the studio behind Grand Theft Auto" is an incredibly powerful marketing tool, and one that is scarcely used in the game industry--somewhat baffling considering how often you hear similar phrases in movie trailers. Promoting the talent will allow developers to create all sorts of new games, which will stave off franchise fatigue, foster creativity (which is good for the entire industry), and reduce the dependence on big-budget sequels. This process means more creative freedom for developers, a wider portfolio for the publishers, and a whole wealth of different experiences for the consumers. It's a win, win, win. Us "hardcore gamers" already know the great studios. It's time the rest of the world finds out as well.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Copying vs. Learning

Learn from the best. It's a simple concept and one that has pervaded throughout all varieties of industries in any capitalistic society. Apple's iPhone was the first smartphone for the masses, not just the businessmen, and three years later we have all varities of smartphones, many taking important cues from Apple (like multi-touch displays) or trying to improve their design. Kobe Bryant frequently states how he studies and learns from the NBA's most legendary players to improve his own game. In debating new bills, lawmakers frequently make references to how the core elements have already played out in certain states or foreign nations. Citizen Kane is often credited as being the greatest film of all time, not because it was so jaw-droppingly entertaining, but because of the myriad technical and cinematic tricks that it first introduced and are now standard in any Hollywood production. It is an important part of any competitive practice to study the best that's been done, emulate it as best you can, and then build on those key traits in an original way. When it comes to game design, however, many developers shy away from borrowing ideas laid out in other games, and for those that do, many are derided for being copycats.
Darksiders' protagonist, War (center).

In January 2010, an upstart studio called Virgil Games partnered with publisher THQ to release an original game called Darksiders. The game was an original take on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with a comic book-inspired art design and a semi-open world with linear objectives. When Darksiders hit shelves, it arrived to mixed reviews. The game was heralded as being fun and well-designed, but took several knocks for being a copycat of God of War or The Legend of Zelda. These criticisms weren't directed at specific shortcomings, but merely by the fact that Virgil Games didn't reinvent the wheel with entirely new mechanics from the top down. Nevermind that there has never been a game to bear any sort of resemblance to the critically-acclaimed Zelda series before this. Nevermind that the elements Virgil borrowed were just that--elements, not entire gameplay ideas or concepts. From the game's announcement, Virgil had stated that they were attempting to make a game in the Zelda mold, with an emphasis in combat that would bring it close to God of War, yet featuring an entirely new, well thought out, and imaginative universe. But to some reviewers, that meant little; Darksiders was just a copycat of Zelda or God of War that was simply not as good.

Trucks and Skulls: look familiar?
My question for these "critics," to which I cannot fathom an answer, is why? Surely there are more egregious copycats out there that are deliberately trying to steal someone else's idea and make a quick buck off it. Just head to the App Store and look at Trucks and Skulls, a total facsimile of the breakout hit Angry Birds, albeit with a thin layer of fresh paint. But Darksiders was no Trucks and Skulls. It borrowed gameplay elements, sure, but not only did they do it from multiple, entirely different games, but they meshed them in new ways in an entirely new and compelling presentation. Virgil Games was pretty upfront that Zelda and God of War were serving as inspirations for their game--and there is nothing wrong with that. At all. Especially when you consider that these are two of the most heralded franchises in all of gaming. Virgil--a new studio headed by a guy named Joe Madureira who was completely new to the medium--was simply learning tricks from the best in the business and applying them to an entirely original concept and idea. To criticize Virgil for this is completely missing the point.

That is not to say there aren't "real" copycats out there. Dante's Inferno and the recent Medal of Honor reboot bear some pretty uncanny resemblances to God of War and Call of Duty, respectively, and it's pretty likely that these games were cases of trying to get in on the cash cow. But even in these examples, its unfair to write these games off as simple copycats. While the gameplay in Dante's Inferno feels like it was literally pulled straight out of the God of War games, it does bring a unique element to the table in that its story and level design are actually interpretations of a famous literary work (Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy). So, in that sense, Dante's Inferno is only a half copycat. But in this case, given the incredible similarities in the gameplay alone (really, you need to play both and you'll see its almost exactly the same combat mechanics, buttons, moves, etc), it would be fair to criticize DI's gameplay as been a less glorious rip-off of GoW's. In the case of Medal of Honor, the similarities to Call of Duty's Modern Warfare sub-series are even more egregious--and fair for criticism--but the development team at Danger Close did try their own spin on the formula by using a real conflict in Afghanistan as a setting rather than an entirely fictional one. So, while examples of "copying" do exist, Darksiders is nowhere near what these two games did, and should not be criticized in the same way.
Heavy Rain's innovative control scheme allows for more cinematic
experiences--and needs to be applied by other developers.

In fact, it's almost as if game developers doesn't do enough copying. Sure, there are the examples listed above, and there have been other attempts at straight-up copying an idea. But few developers try to do what Virgil Games actually did, which is to set out to to copy or one-up, but rather to study, learn, and apply in a new and interesting way. There are some pretty well-established gameplay models that would absolutely flourish in other settings, other stories, etc. We saw a glimpse of this potential last year when Rockstar took its own award-winning Grand Theft Auto mechanics and applied them to a Wild West setting in Red Dead Redemption. They obviously tweaked various aspects to fit the setting, timeline, and story, but the hallmarks of GTA were clearly evident. In many ways this is similar to what Virgil was doing with Darksiders, and, frankly, is a practice that more developers should be looking into. After all, how many gamers heralded the innovative gameplay of last year's Heavy Rain, but hated its core story? That game's developer, Quantic Dream, have already stated they are moving on to the next innovative idea and technology, so in their place, who wouldn't want to see a new game take Heavy Rain's mechanics and apply them in wholly original ways? Or, why not take elements from those mechanics and use them to enhance certain parts of other games? The industry holds a wealth of great gameplay mechanics, great ideas, great interactive elements and ways of engaging the player... developers just need to do a better job of learning from each other. And the so-called "critics" need to back off on their jaded criticism and allow new minds to tackle old ideas.