Anachrony

2010-08-02

Respecting the Solitary Life

So, StarCraft II. Much ink has been spilled over various aspects of the game, from the rebalanced multiplayer to the lack of LAN play to the curiously elevated price tag—$60 for this versus $50 for most PC games. There’s an aspect to this that many haven’t considered, however: the singleplayer game.

Most RTS games treat the singleplayer game as an extended tutorial for the multiplayer. There’s a thin veneer of plot slathered on, but the real purpose is to get you familiar with the units and tactics of each faction, so you can go forth to the online matches and, hopefully, not suck.

This is not the right way to go about it. For one thing, the AI opponents never behave like real people do in a match. This does a disservice to those looking to get ready for the MP, because it sets up a bunch of wrong expectations that have to be unlearned once you actually wade into the fray.

The multiplayer craze has been huge in the past few years, driven in no small part by games like Team Fortress 2 and Halo that manage to be relevant years after their release. For these games, their success is driven by the depth and satisfaction of their multiplayer modes. RTS games are no strangers to this, certainly. The whole genre, more or less, has been serving up the same MP oriented gameplay for years now, providing further and further refinements of essentially the same formula.

The problem with this, I feel, is how this affects singleplayer enthusiasts. The people who play games not to connect with others, but to get away from them for a little while. Sure, playing with others can be fun, engaging, uplifting and so forth. But sometimes, you don’t want to put up with that. Sometimes, you want to just fire up a game and play, without worrying about coordinating with other people’s schedules, without worrying about dropped connections and server hiccups and oh hang on guys, I have to take out the trash.

Singleplayer is an aspect of gaming that has been denigrated in recent years. The contest of man vs. machine is one that can be mishandled in so many ways: inconsistent difficulty, cheating AI opponents, Insane Troll Logic puzzles, narmful cutscenes or dialog that serve to break immersion, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. Yet when it’s done right—and we have plenty of examples of how it can be—it is glorious. Games that pay attention to pacing, to challenge, to fun; these are the ones we remember for a lifetime.

This brings me back to StarCraft II. (Bet you thought I’d forgotten!) Blizzard has certainly spared no aspect of the multiplayer; they understand their fans too well to neglect that. One aspect that hasn’t gotten as much press—though there certainly has been some—is the singleplayer game. Yes, it focuses solely on the Terrans, but this is to the game’s benefit.

Instead of having to cram everything into ten missions, they have the space to let the player breathe—to absorb the game’s essence and atmosphere at a more natural pace. New elements are introduced gradually, and the player is given some agency in the progression via the research trees.

There’s certainly nothing here that hasn’t been seen in RTS games for years, but the sheer amount of care and craft that has gone into this game is phenomenal. I normally loathe RTS games; I only played through the first StarCraft with cheats on to get the story. In this one, I find myself playing the missions for their own sake.

The cutscenes can veer into cornball territory at times, but they never outstay their welcome. The shipboard scenes that serve as the mission hub are bursting at the seams with little touches put there to discover. One of these, an arcade cabinet sitting off in the corner of the Cantina, is the front end to a top-down scrolling shooter game: The Lost Viking. This bears emphasizing: Blizzard hid a whole other game inside StarCraft II, just because they could. It’s mainly meant to show off the capability of the SC2 engine, but it’s got enough depth to be enjoyable in its own right.

Blizzard didn’t have to do any of this. They could have slapped together a quick SP campaign, shipped the game with all the MP enhancements, and they still would have made a mint. They didn’t, though. They chose to put just as much time and care into the singleplayer experience as they did for the multiplayer game. The end result is a polished, refined game that’s a joy to play.

Sure, Blizzard has more money to throw at any one project than most companies have period. But that’s not what makes their games great; Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 had just as much money thrown at it, and nobody’s going to remember it in a year save the die-hard grognards who spend their life in MP matches. StarCraft II is going to be with us for years to come, because Blizzard put care and thought into making it fun as a game, rather than an interactive special-effects reel. More companies could stand to learn from that attitude.

2009-09-25

Intention vs. Utilization

Filed under: Rants, Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — halbyrd @ 01:42

I recently had a conversation with a friend of a friend at the movie theater, and as conversations among geeks will, the topic circulated around to gaming.  I mentioned how laughable Steve Jobs’ claim was that the iPod Touch was a “gaming device”, in his recent explanation for why it doesn’t have a camera.  In response, the friend of  a friend insisted that the iPod Touch was indeed a gaming platform, and worthy of respect.  This bothered me in a rather fundamental way, but at the time I couldn’t pin it down any further than to say that that didn’t really sit right with me.

In true l’esprit de l’escalier, I finally came up with the answer I was trying to formulate several hours later, as I was idly surfing the web.  The fact is, there is a real, measurable difference between a device that can play games, and a device designed for playing games–a difference of intent, as reflected in design.  The iPod Touch is a PDA running a general purpose OS.  Like any general-purpose computer, it can be used to play games, and there’s ample evidence to support the notion that making games for this popular platform is a profitable enterprise.  Despite all this, however, the iPod Touch is not a gaming device.  It is a device that can play games, among a plethora of other tasks.

The distinction might seem overly fine at first, but there’s a point to be made here.  When we call something a “gaming device”, we are asserting that this is a thing that is first and foremost designed for the playing of games.  Whatever other functions it may perform are to be considered secondary, however well it may perform them.  The Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP are gaming devices, and they make no bones about it.  Sony’s brief misadventure with UMD movies aside, neither of these devices are marketed as anything else, despite the fact that both can be made to do quite a lot besides just playing games.  The form factor, the interface, the inputs; everything about these units is designed around gaming, and both are very good at what they do.

The iPod Touch, on the other hand, is a very confused little device.  It’s named after a music player, but hardly anyone seems to care about that functionality, except when it doesn’t work for some reason.  It’s built like a smartphone, except it lacks the cellular radio and GPS that give the iPhone most of its usefulness as a networked mobile device.  It seems to fall into the much-neglected niche of PDA, but no-one in Cupertino dares call it that.  And now, after some prompting by the tech press, Word of Jobs says it’s a gaming device.

Alright, Steve, I’ll bite.  Let’s pretend that the iPod Touch is a gaming device, and evaluate it accordingly.  First up is graphics.  For a gaming device to succeed at what it does, it needs a decent-or-better screen, and enough horsepower to fill that screen with good looking visuals.  The latest generation of iPod Touch succeeds on this front, mating a 3.5″ QVGA screen to an Open-GL 2.0 ES capable graphics chip.  The PSP beats it with room to spare, and the DS probably out-powers it as well, but Nintendo’s already proven with the Wii that you don’t always need hyper-turbocharged hardware to succeed.  You also want some sound to go with those graphics, and the iPod Touch is certainly no slouch there.

The third thing you need, and one of the most important, is good controls.  Nintendo set the bar with the original Game Boy, and has since raised it with successive refinements to the controls.  Sony’s a relative newcomer to the portable gaming arena, but their experience with the PlayStation and PS2 have served it well–the PSP has a set of solid, responsive controls.  Sadly, however, this is where the iPod Touch falls hardest.  It gives you a fingers-only touchscreen, some accelerometers…and that’s it.  PopCap-style puzzle games work well enough, but most others are forced to make use of on-screen buttons, and they suffer for it.  Three and a half inches diagonal measure does not make for a large screen, and forcing people to put their thumbs over top of it only makes matters worse.  Accelerometer tilt controls help to alleviate this some, but forcing me to hold my iPod Touch at precisely the right angle in order to steer is just asking for long-term neck strain.  Put all this together, and you still end up two or three buttons short of what most games need to give you proper control of your avatar in-game.

In short, while the iPod Touch is quite a capable PDA and PMP, it is not a gaming device.  Its UI, design and controls are almost completely at odds with how a gaming device needs to behave.  I have no doubt that Apple could produce a proper gaming device, if they really tried, but this simply isn’t it.  Sorry, Steve.

2009-09-09

What I Hate About You: some pet peeves about gaming

Filed under: Rants — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — halbyrd @ 21:33

I love gaming.  It is one of the defining passions of my life, and the source of a lot of the better stories in my life.  Someday I’ll tell you about some of those, but today I’m going to talk about how my favorite avocation drives me crazy.  So with no further ado, here’s what I hate about you, gaming.

Half-assed PC ports:

Why is it that PC gamers, a group I would say are probably some of the most dedicated to the love of gaming, are so mistreated of late?  Games that worked perfectly fine on XboxStation360 come out on PC months late, missing features, sometimes completely non-functional–Gears of War, I am looking at you!–and laden with screw-the-customer DRM.

The piracy argument is a non-starter; people who do that probably weren’t going to put down cash for your game anyway.  The “it’s hard” argument doesn’t hold water either, porting from PS3 to PC is no harder than the other way around, and anybody who’s made their game for 360 has had Microsoft do half the work for them already!

Bottom line: if you’re going to do a PC port of your game, take the few extra weeks of time and effort to make sure it works properly.  Gamers are used to slipped release dates; we don’t even remember them most of the time.  Broken games don’t get forgotten, though.  Broken games get you blacklisted by a lot of gamers in a hurry, and that’s a blow that’s years in the mending.

On Game Price Gouging:

Why is it deemed desirable to price every game coming out at the same price-point as AAA-list blockbusters?  There are quite a few games out there that are quite enjoyable, but have been harshly panned by critics and gamers alike because they fail to deliver the premium experience we expect from a premium-priced title.  Games like Shadow Complex are a wonderful counter-example to this trend, but they are mostly relegated to the slums of console download services, which many are still leery of.

If they had tossed that game on a disc and sold it for $20, I’d bet we would now be talking about the surprise millions-seller of the year.  This is not because the game is inherently brilliant, though it is.  This is because it is not $60 or more.  I know every game is some dev team’s baby, but not every game is going to be the next Half-Life.  Setting more reasonable prices on middle-of-the-road titles would go a long way towards making this whole game publishing business more successful.

On Console Download Services:

The ability to pay for and acquire games over the Internet is a marvelous invention, and one that I partake of on a regular basis via Steam and Direct2Drive.  I will not, however, touch XBLA or PSN with a 10m pole.  Why?

It all boils down to a difference of philosophy.  Steam, and to a lesser extent Direct2Drive, thrive by offering you conveniences and extras that buying the game on a disc does not.  Not only can I pull down the game off the Internet in a half-hour or so, but I can do so on as many computers as I please (provided I only play the game on one at a time).  Should I so desire, I can generate compact backups of all of my games, in CD- or DVD-burnable chunks or as one megalithic file for storage on an external hard drive.  I don’t really need to do this though, because Steam even keeps a master list with product keys. Once a game is on my account, I never have to worry about backups, patching, product keys, activation, and all the rest.  Deleting a game to save space becomes fairly painless, since I can always bring it back with a few clicks.  Combine this with a social network/im/voip solution that succeeds where Xfire and others have failed, and losing the physical disk starts to look like a significant upgrade.

On the other side of the fence, we have XBox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.  These services have a thin veneer of the appeal that Steam has, but differ in several significant details.  Not only can I not download my game to more than one console, in the case of XBLA I can’t even back up my games to an external disk for safe keeping.  The PS3/PSN situation is somewhat better in this regard, as it has support for both external backups and redownloading of games.  Voice chat on these services is middling-fair: both support in-game chat, but neither supports game-independent multi-user chat rooms or cross-game chat, both of which severely hurt the social aspect of the service.  XBL also gets demerits for charging me $50 a year for basically the same matchmaking and voice-chat services that Steam and PSN give me for free.

Valve also understands the pricing game a lot better than Sony or Microsoft: price drops on older games and frequent weekend promotional discounts have kept Steam’s sales thriving.  Also, Steam is in the business of selling full games, not overpriced mini-games.  PSN and XBLA don’t have much that’s worthwhile, and what they do have tends to be overpriced.  Gems like WipEout HD and Shadow Complex are wonderful to be sure, but aside from games you could just as easily pick up at Gamestop for $20 I have yet to see anything else on these services worth buying.  DLC expansions are fine and good, but unless you’re a nutter for Rock Band/Guitar Hero, there’s not much there to sustain you.

On Games For Windows Live

This one is addressed straight to the folks at Microsoft Game Studios.  Ladies and gentlemen, why have you not yet gotten your house in order?  This service is two years old already, and still I hear frequent complaints about how your software breaks otherwise functional games.  You don’t even have the excuse of inexperience: you’re Microsoft!  You own the operating system that this platform runs on!  You are known around the world for hiring some of the best and brightest minds in the world! Why is this not fixed? I don’t hear complaints about Steam breaking games anywhere near as often, and many of these are from clueless users who have fouled their systems up and don’t want to admit it.  GFWL, on the other hand, is brittle.  Horror stories of games put onto fresh installs of Windows utterly failing to run are still far too common.  Get this fixed, or you will find yourself destroying the very Games For Windows brand you have so carefully tried to establish.

In Conclusion

I know it sounds like I’m filled with naught but bile and poison when it comes to gaming.  Therefore, my next few posts are going to be about what is good and right in gaming.  Meanwhile, sound off in the comments if there’s something about gaming that really ticks you off.

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