Archive for October, 2007

Super Mario Galaxy Developer Roundtable

I’m always interested to read what developers have to say about their own games. Compared to other entertainment industries, the gaming media is very much controlled by publishers and PR firms. In this type of environment, developer commentaries are the most enlightening form of communication, as this is the only time when they can really discuss the intricacies of a game’s development process.

With that in mind, you can understand how I would really enjoy developer roundtables (free form interviews/discussions). Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo, has been running such a feature called Iwata Asks where he interviews key members of his various development teams.

In anticipation of Super Mario Galaxy’s upcoming release, Iwata recently sat down with the game’s producer and director.

Much like previous Iwata Asks features, this interview is very informative. Nintendo is one of my favorite developers, and it’s interesting to see how they approach various design challenges. I’ve always contended that Zelda, Mario, and Nintendo’s other games have always set the bar in respect to pure “enjoyablity,” and a number of quotes from this interview really illustrate that “fun”damental (haha) gameplay is a real priority. For instance:

Koizumi: Fundamentally, I think a Mario game is the type of game that’s really not about completing the game, but rather about having fun just playing. So, I made sure there were lots of areas in the game that could be enjoyed, even by little children, just by moving Mario around. In these places, you don’t have to think about what you have to accomplish, so you can play around freely. I hope people who will play this game will find a special place of their own in the game, and discover their own way of enjoying the game.

This dedication to well designed core gameplay mechanics is readily apparent in all of Nintendo’s games – there’s no denying that it really is a joy to simply move Mario around the screen. And further, I’m consistently amazed that games like Mario and Zelda can appeal to all types of gamers. For instance, my girlfriend and I both had a lot of fun with New Super Mario Bros. (for DS). That a single game can be enjoyed by both a huge nerd and a casual gamer is really quite astounding, and it goes to show that, for all Nintendo’s faults, its game design remains unparalleled.

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The Orange Box Rocks My Socks (off)

(For those who aren’t aware, The Orange Box is a compilation of 5 games: Half-Life 2, HL2: Episode 1, HL2: Episode 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. Half-Life 2 and Episode 1 have both been previously released, but Episode 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2 are all new)

I’m a big fan of Valve. They’ve created my favorite first person shooter franchise in Half Life, their various multiplayer offerings (Counter Strike, Day of Defeat, Team Fortress) are the best in the business, and Steam, their PC digital distribution service, is completely awesome.

But for some reason I wasn’t very excited for The Orange Box’s release last week.

Part of the problem might have been the bad taste that Halo 3 left in my mouth. The reason for my ultimate disappointment in that game was probably due to the fact that I had managed to hype myself up before release. Halo 3 was fun enough, but it didn’t live up to my stupidly high expectations – I wasn’t in love with Halo 1 or Halo 2, so there was no reason for me to expect Halo 3 to be any better.

Maybe my brain was protecting me from further disappointment by tempering my excitement for Orange Box. Who knows?

But good gracious is Orange Box a treat to play. I had already played HL2 and Episode 1 (they’re awesome), but the other 3 games are amazingly fun and polished.

Portal

Portal is a platforming/puzzler hybrid that’s really unlike anything I’ve ever played.

The point of the game is to figure your way through a series of challenges. Your tool is a portal gun: Aim at the wall/ceiling/floor and press the left trigger button for an orange portal or right trigger for a blue portal. Walk through the orange portal and you will come out the blue portal (and vice versa).

Portal

Sound stupid? It’s not.

To make things interesting, your momentum/speed is conserved as you travel through the portals – if you jump from a high distance into, say, the blue portal, you will fly out of the orange portal at the speed with which you entered the blue portal. The trick is to place your portals in such a way that you can build up the proper momentum to cross large chasms, defense turrets, hazardous sludge, and other obstacles.

Portal 2

And as if the gameplay concept wasn’t cool enough, Valve has created a story/scenario that is engaging and completely hilarious (I won’t spoil it for you). It only takes a few hours to get through the game, but the experience is so fresh and fun that the short length is forgivable. I literally giggled more than once throughout my playtime, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s that awesome.

Half-Life 2: Episode 2

You know, it’s funny – Half-Life’s gameplay is similar to Halo’s in a lot of ways. Gordon Freeman, the game’s silent protagonist, doesn’t find any new weapons throughout the games. He doesn’t attain any new abilities. And most of the enemies he faces are exactly the same (though a few new foes do shake up the formula a bit in Episode 2). But while Halo ultimately feels stagnant and boring, Half-Life is all at once accessible and engaging.

Despite the similarities in general gameplay mechanics, Valve always does a great job keeping the whole experience feeling fresh. Within each Half-Life game, every scenario is unique, and yet the level design is so natural that instead of feeling disjointed, the situations come together to create a cohesive yet constantly surprising world. And the gravity gun is always good for some variety.

Further, it seems like each game has a different gameplay theme/style. Half-Life 2 is all about creating a sense of unease – you are on the run from enemy soldiers for most of the adventure. Episode 1 features mostly close range combat in indoor corridors. And Episode 2 opens everything up – almost all of the enemy encounters are large scale affairs in outdoor areas. It makes for some exciting scenarios that really get the adrenaline pumping.

Episode 2

It’s this constant adrenaline rush that makes Episode 2 the best Half-Life yet. And to top it all off, the graphics are great, the pacing is excellent, and the Half-Life story continues to get more exciting. The pure momentum that this game maintains is unparalleled – I don’t think I’ve ever been as engrossed in a game’s world as I was in Episode 2’s.

But like all of the Half-Life games, Episode 2’s most impressive aspect is its presentation. Though this is the most narrative-heavy game in the series, the way that Valve has managed to cultivate my attachment to the characters in a realistic way is remarkable. Instead of using static cutscenes to propel the story, Valve relies on interactive experiences to heighten the player’s sense of involvement. I am honestly emotionally invested in the fate of my (Gordon’s) companions, and that’s a notable accomplishment.

Team Fortress 2

Like Portal and Episode 2, Team Fortress 2 is the marriage of a great idea and spot-on execution. The game is an online-only first person shooter, but it is unique in that it provides only objective based modes instead of the standard deathmatch. That is, none of the modes revolve around simply chalking up kills. Instead, teams are expected to work together towards common goals (capturing the other team’s briefcase, holding certain sections of the map, etc).

To make things even more interesting, there are 9 different classes of characters, each with unique weapons and skills. For instance, the Scout is very fast and can double jump, but his weapons are weak. The Engineer can set up turrets and defenses. The Spy can dress up as enemy units (allies can easily tell who is a friendly spy). Usually, multiplayer games with numerous class-types are too ambitious and end up being unbalanced, but Valve has done a great job (notice the trend?) of making sure that every character is not only fun to play but useful as well.

Team Fortress 2

Also worth noting is that this game just oozes style. Instead of going for a realistic theme like most other online shooters, Team Fortress 2 looks like a cartoon, and if it weren’t for the blood splatters and scattered body parts, you might think you’ve stepped into a Saturday morning TV show. And to make things even better, each of the 9 characters has a unique and hilarious personality.

Team Fortress 2 is both a joy to watch and a joy to play. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Conclusion

The Orange Box is probably the best value in gaming history, especially if you haven’t played Half-Life 2 or HL2: Episode 1. Even if you have, the other three pieces are so unique and so well done that they more than justify the 60 dollar price tag.

(Note: The Xbox 360 and upcoming PS3 versions are 60 dollars. The retail version of the game is only 50 dollars for PC, and each piece can be bought separately on Steam.)

NPD September 2007

NPD sales data for September has been released:

NPD September 2007 Totals

Software Sales
1. Halo 3 (360) 3.3M
2. Wii Play (Wii) 282K
3. Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (NDS) 224K
4. Madden 08 (PS2) 205K
5. Skate (360) 175K
6. Madden 08 (360) 173K
7. Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (Wii) 167K
8. Bioshock (360) 150K
9. Brain Age 2 (NDS) 141K
10. Heavenly Sword (PS3) 139K

After a very strong sales increase in August due to a price drop, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (527k) jumped to an overall sales lead in September on the coattails of an impressive Halo 3 launch late in the month. Nintendo continued its strong performance, as Wii (501k), DS (495k), and GBA (75k) combined for over 1 million unit sales for the month; sell-through for all 3 platforms continues at a healthy pace. Sony’s PSP (284k) saw great gains due to the early-in-the-month launch of the lighter, brighter PSP Slim, while the PS2 (215k) again showed strong numbers (considering its age and 129$ price). The PS3 (119k) saw the biggest decrease in sales of any system (a whopping 26.86% decrease in weekly sales).

NPD September 2007 Weekly2

Microsoft will be thrilled with 360’s sales in September – for the first time in a non-holiday month, Xbox has finally performed up to its supply potential. And things won’t end here, as a strong lineup the rest of the year (Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, The Orange Box) and the rebranding of the Core SKU into the Arcade SKU should ensure that sales remain excellent (though perhaps not this excellent).

If there is any bad news for Microsoft, it’s that Wii continues to excel. That Wii was able to essentially maintain its August sales (which were phenomenal) with no big titles released in September against the juggernaut that is Halo… well, there is simply no stopping Wii. If there is supply, it will be sold – it’s that simple. And if lack of software and Halo 3 can’t slow Nintendo down, what’s going to happen when holiday sales ramp up and Mario Galaxy comes calling? Though the delay of Super Smash Bros. Brawl hurts the hardcore appeal of Wii this Christmas season, I’m not sure it will matter. I see no signs that demand is slowing down, and Nintendo has a great lineup in store for the first half of 2008 (Smash Bros, Mario Kart, and WiiFit among others).

Still, in light of PS3’s increasing irrelevance, I can’t imagine that Bill Gates is losing too much sleep over Wii’s success. Frankly, I wonder if it’s too late for Sony’s machine – it’s obvious that, for whatever reason, consumers just aren’t interested in what PS3 has to offer. July’s price cut saw no sustained momentum increase for the system, and Sony’s heavyweight titles (LAIR, Warhawk, and this month’s Heavenly Sword) have not performed as well as necessary. And while Sony recently announced yet another new, lower priced SKU for November release, there’s little hope that the PS3’s consumer mind share can be restored, especially because of Wii’s continued dominance and 360’s newfound momentum. Hey, at least the PS2 continues to really impress, right? Expect a price drop to 99$ this holiday season as Sony continues to milk PS2 to offset PS3 losses.

In the handheld world, all three platforms performed excellently. Though DS dominated per usual, the PSP continues to prove that it is a viable, long-term player in the market. And GBA, like the PS2, still moves a lot of units (which is especially impressive due to DS’s huge success).

Storylines for October:

-Was 360’s September success a Halo-sized anomaly, or will October show that Microsoft has finally broken through into the mainstream?

-Can Wii continue to sell out through another month of software drought?

-Will PS3 sales drop below 100k (pssst: it’s likely)? Will they drop below 90k? 80k?

-How much will PSP’s sales drop off after PSP Slim’s successful month?

-How many DSs can Nintendo make?

(thanks to sonycowboy at NeoGAF and NPD)

Predictions: NPD September 2007

I enjoy following the gaming industry, and for the past year I’ve been making monthly sales predictions. My predictions for September 2007 are as follows:

NDS: 520,000 (+8.5%)
Wii : 490,000 (-2.8%)
360: 355,000 (+5.5%)
PSP: 245,000 (+29.6%)
PS2: 230,000 (-8.9%)
PS3: 155,000 (-5.1%)
GBA: 87,000  (+.1%)

(Note: September is tracked as a 5 week month compared 4 weeks for August, so any comparisons between these months will be for weekly sales and not monthly totals.)

NDS and Wii are tough to predict, as they (especially Wii) are so often supply constrained. As demand for DS and Wii has dropped off recently in Japan, Nintendo has diverted excess stock to the US (where demand has continued at historic levels). But figuring out how much extra stock is actually making the trip across the Pacific isn’t easy. As it is, I see DS with a small increase over August due to a new color and the release of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass late in the month. For Wii, I’m anticipating no significant change over August – supply might have increased slightly, but the system saw no notable software releases.

The 360 saw a large sales increase in August because of a price drop and the release of some big software titles (Bioshock and Madden, among others). While consumer enthusiasm towards 360 because of the price drop will have abated somewhat by September, Halo 3 was released late in the month to record sales. However, high profile software releases on 360 have historically had little effect on hardware sales. Still, Halo is in a popularity class all its own – I expect 360 sales to be higher in September than in August.

A new, smaller PSP (PSP Slim) model was released early in September, so the platform should see a sizable sales increase. PS3, PS2, and GBA had few notable releases, though, and should see constant sales.

Actual sales data from The NPD Group will be released on Thursday, Oct. 17th after market close (4:00 PM).

Realism and Physics in Video Games or: How I Learned to Love the Rope

Over the summer, I began work on a video game/tech demo using XNA Games Studio Express.  My goal is to create a Bionic Commando-inspired 3D grappling game, but more on my game concept in a future post.

Since grappling (that’s swinging around like Tarzan with a grappling hook) is a key component of my game, I spent much of my initial development time working on a good rope physics solution. 

My first instinct was to make the rope act as realistically as possible.  It seemed logical to assume that a realistically swinging rope (that accounted for initial velocity, gravity, conservation of momentum, etc) would add depth to my gameplay.  After getting my initial rope physics implemented, though, I was surprised by the results.

Rope Realistic

Swinging from grapple point to grapple point felt pretty good as long as the object was moving directly downward (or not moving at all) when a “grapple” was initiated.  However, as you can see in the diagram, if the swinging object had any velocity in the X (horizontal) direction towards the grapple point at the start of a grapple, my rope simulation didn’t act as I had anticipated.  Instead of a nice, circular swing, the object would continue on its path towards the grapple point.  Only after the object had passed the grapple point and reached a point along the swing’s circumference would the rope exert force on the object, at which time the object would be sharply pulled in the opposite direction. 

I quickly realized that a perfectly realistic rope simulation wasn’t going to result in optimal gameplay.  Maintaining forward momentum was difficult, and grappling was more a chore than a pleasure.

Rope Better

To make things more fluid, I decided to try something different – at the start of each grapple, I transferred any horizontal velocity into velocity pointing along the tangent of the optimal swing’s arc.  The idea was to maintain a sense of constant momentum while allowing for a more circular arc in the swing.  I immediately noticed an improvement – this method felt far more natural than the perfectly realistic model, and because maintaining forward momentum was a breeze, it was much easier to travel across long distances.

Working on this problem made me realize that one of the fundamental elements of quality game design is finding the right balance between reality and, um, fun-ality.  Understand that I’m not talking about art style or color choice or even types of game content when I refer to reality.  When I say reality, I’m talking about what the user anticipates will happen when they perform an action.  When a human player initiates an onscreen action in a game (via a button press, an arm motion, etc.), he expects a certain thing to happen in that game’s world. 

He can’t help it.  

We live in a world with inherent physical rules and properties, and we’ve spent our entire lives learning the rules of cause and effect.  We can’t help but transfer our notions of how things work in the real world into expectations of how things should work in a game’s world, and it’s this connection between the anticipated result and actual result that dictates our emotional and intellectual response to a game’s design.  If a game is too similar to the real world, it’s boring.  But if it’s too fanciful or too off the wall, it’s confusing and frustrating.  The best games are the ones that conform to our expectations to a point but also offer something unique that builds on or enhances our real-world perceptions of reality.

Halo: A Lesson in Inconsistency

As I play through Halo 3, I’m reminded of the comingled feelings of love and hate I felt towards the original and first sequel.

In general, the Halo “experience” for me boils down to long periods of formulaic, mechanical gameplay that are interrupted by short segments of unique excellence. For anyone that’s played a Halo game, you know what I’m talking about.

The warthog escape sequence in Halo 1, for example, is a pulse-pounding conclusion that has stuck with me for years. While the concept of a last minute escape is hardly revolutionary (see Metroid), the combination of vehicular gameplay (with enemies, obstacles and jumps) and epic music was very well done, and it’s a scenario that every Halo player holds in high regard. I still remember it: as my warthog soared through the air towards towards freedom, I felt like a badass, a real hero. Bungie’s opus, if only for a moment, had achieved true creative success.

 CE

And yet, collectively among the three games, most of Halo’s gameplay revolves around decidedly less heroic, by-the-numbers first person shooter action. The shooting mechanics themselves are solid, and the importance placed on melee attacks and grenades is refreshing, but the actual gameplay scenarios are, in general, cut and paste exercises in killing every bad guy in an area and moving onto the next section.

What I find most striking about Halo’s game design is that nothing of consequence changes.

Ever.

No new enemies. No new guns. No new moves. No new abilities. Nothing. Everything available to the player at the start of the game is available to the player at the end of the game. And while some would argue that this feeling of continuity creates a real sense of world cohesiveness, I call it lazy game design that results in poor pacing.

That said, Halo 3 is the most consistently entertaining of the three titles in the trilogy. There are enough “hero” moments to outweigh the other, more mediocre sections. And the sole fact that I will finish the game is a testament to its value (and that’s not even considering the game’s multiplayer components, which are full featured and very well done).

Unfortunately, the situations where the game truly impresses me are infrequent to the point where, at the end of the day, I find myself asking “What if?” instead of saying “Wow.” And that’s just too bad.