The Mojäng – Zenimax thing

Apparently the first step of Zenimax’ lawsuit is concluded. The trial remains and appeals do not seem unlikely, so it may be a while still.

Now, I am going to draw upon some experiences of my professional life in this post so maybe it is best to make it clear that this post, like all others on this blog, are my opinions alone and are not to be attributed to any of my employers, past or present.

In “the Darkness”, a little less than halfway through the game, Jackie runs into a WW2 era cannon. It is a rail-mounted monstrosity, somewhere between a train and a building – but more importantly, at one point the train had the number “999” stamped somewhere. This was a subtle reference to the anime “Galaxy Express 999”, but you will not find it anymore as it was removed due to copyright concerns. There is also a lot of graffitti in the game – we actually hired artists to paint this for us as just grabbing it from concrete walls around town put us in a sticky ownership position. The cool part about this is that the entire development team got to have their handles recreated as tags – though you will not find mine there as I requested that my tag have a stick figure with a halo. You know, “Saint” and all… I have some more understanding for the cutting of this (even though the figure in the tag looked nothing like the icon popularized by Simon Templar), but still. And those things are just the beginning.

Now, I do not blame the studio heads for wanting to play it safe – Intellectual Property law is apparently a minefield in entertainment in general and videogames in particular, for several reasons.

First, as a small independent studio making a global product we were at the mercy of our publishers. As far as I understand it, most similar contracts make it the developer’s sole responsibility to make sure that there is no IP infringement in the game, even if the publisher has signed off on the game and it sits on shelves around the world. A small independent studio could not handle the cost of a lawsuit concerning a game selling millions of copies.

Second, there is a general notion that since everything in a videogame more or less has to be explicitly created for the game, there is never a lack of intent. I have not been able to get this verified or denied by anyone – again, this is a subject no-one wants to touch. But unlike movies, where other trademarks might happen to be in the background, you better be sure all your designs are original in a game. This creates a warped responsibility where our artists had to design everyday objects and model fictional characters only to spend hours searching online to make sure they had not accidentally made it similar to an existing design or celebrity. It hurts narrative too, Max Barry wrote about the alienation of fiction when we are not allowed to use brands that have forced themselves into our everyday lives – this is the biggest reason why so few AAA games are set in contemporary settings.

Third, this is an issue that very few people talk about. No-one wants to be publicly involved in IP lawsuits, so nobody talks about it. All of the things we had to do for the Darkness (and later games) were not because of warnings from outside but from self-policing in fear of a reportedly massive number of copyright and patent trolls looming around every new release. Stories from publisher representatives and rumors from conventions where all we had to go by – but it was enough. We could scarcely afford to finish the game, a lawsuit would leave everyone without a job.

It is mainly because of this third reason that I appreciate that Mojäng are fighting this and they are being public about it – there needs to be a lot more light shining on these issues so we can get some real, official examples of what we can actually do. That is not to say I think either them or Zenimax are obviously in the right, but maybe if a case like this is settled in public we can be on the way to a functional industry where IP decisions are made based on facts and reason instead of fear and rumors. I think that would make the entire entertainment industry a nicer place to work in.

Posted on Oct 19/11 by Saint and filed under General game development, Intellectual Property, Meta-blog | 5 Comments »

/* */

Kirby Mass Attack

Kirby Mass Attack

Kirby games, like other former NES icons, tend to be of very high quality. They also tend to be very easy, and this combination is surprisingly tricky to achieve. There has been a trend in the games industry to create games with low levels of frustration (multiplayer games and games geared specifically for challenge such as Guitar Hero notwithstanding), the thinking is that everyone should be able to get to the end without too much hassle. As the gamer median age increases, the perceived values shift from how long a game’s content will last to how much concentration the quality content can have – we have more money than time.

This has given birth to a certain preference, a yearning for the good old days when games were hard an unforgiving – an increasing amount of people will take a game being easy as a sign of poor quality. There is some point to this as games with a lot of frustration require a lot of responsiveness so a good player can still win, but I would argue that making a good easy game is even harder. Keeping the player interested when there is no gamble requires a constant stream of inventive design to cover for the lack of challenge. Sid Meier once described gameplay as “A series of interesting choices”, making a choice interesting if neither option is fundamentally better or worse is hard.

So, my hat is off to HAL for creating good games that are still accessible Kirby Mass Attack is no exception – though this being said, it fares worse than any of Kirby’s other games of later years.

Kirby was always about stealing your opponents’ powers before the current generation. Canvas Curse made it somewhat less important, Epic Yarn marginalized it and in Mass Attack it is completely gone. Instead we have a new concept – a platform game where you do not control any individual character but indirectly influence up to 10 of them. It is an intriguing idea and HAL pulls it off fairly well, but without Kirby’s signature mechanic it gets familiar a little too quickly.

There is little to no exploration in the game, a few branching paths in some levels but mostly you are rushed through a corridor that can fit on the screen. Most of the later levels have some variation on the design – some remarkably different and very interesting, and some just tedious. It becomes tough to herd the Kirbys when you have many of them, some always get stuck in corners or behind walls and then the screen refuses to scroll forward into the level – as stated before, this would be a bigger issue if the game was harder, but it still makes the core experience annoying and discourages from replaying levels to discover all the secrets, which is sad.

Kirby Mass attack is still a good game, the level design is solid and the controls are good considering that the core gameplay is so innovative. It just feels like a lot of the game tries to use platform game cliches instead of coming up with something new and unique for the multi-character mechanic, not all of the levels but enough that the game is worse for it.

Posted on Oct 17/11 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

/* */

What Amanita Design are up to…

…Apparently the studio behind Samorost and Machinarium are making another game! A short one, but still cause for joy.

In addition to that, they have sent out word that they also started working on a third Samorost game and that unlike the first two this is to be a full-length game. Very good news indeed, but it is probably still ways off (at this point there seems to be no official announcement either).

Posted on Oct 12/11 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture | No Comments »

/* */

Carmel on XBLA

Ron Carmel of 2D Boy has an article about XBLA up. As usual when it comes to Carmel, it is a well-researched article putting hard and sometimes unexpected facts in context for an immensely interesting read. I would recommend everyone to read it.

Carmel points out that while XBLA has been instrumental in the rise of the independent games of recent years, a decline has already started and is looking to be more serious in the next few years. He argues that this is mostly due to Microsoft being unreasonably hard to work with and gives a few suggestions as to how they might change this. Again, read the article – it is great.

I am hesitant about one of his suggestions though, that Microsoft should establish their own rating system and ditch the ESRB – considering their console represents a good chunk of all the biggest budget titles in the games industry, them giving up support for the ESRB even in an unrelated way is a political issue as well. It is a hard problem to tackle – small developers do not necessarily have the means to secure a rating in all territories, but allowing more leeway would call into question the integrity of the rating system itself. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if XBLA as a service is actually right for this – maybe making these changes to XBLIG and promoting that service more would be a better idea. A small change, but an important distinction.

Posted on Oct 04/11 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »