Missing the Point

So, a few days back Irrational had a job posting with a “need to have shipped a game with a 85+ metacritic ranking” requirement and the Gamasutra staff took turns bashing it. Disregarding how rarely job “requirements” turn out to be anything more than a wishlist I find it a bit odd that none of them could make any sense out of this.

To be clear, I don’t think it is a particularly good requirement and I agree that in AAA productions you cannot judge games by individuals, or individuals by the games they have been credited on. Even if the entire team is top-notch, a multitude of external factors can affect the quality of a game negatively – also, games that are niche, underhyped or inaccessible usually score lower. In short, having worked on a “bad” game does not in itself make you a bad developer and I think allowing metacritic more influence on personel issues is a dangerous idea. You can, however, usually make some assumptions about high-scoring titles.

Games that score higher tend to be more polished, usually at least slightly innovative and having a good sense of identity. There are many reasons for why this might happen – enigmatic leads, a well-functioning team, an incredibly strong core idea, a technological breakthrough or enough money not to have to bend to anyone’s will. None of these guarantee success, but usually successful games have at least one of them. Working under these circumstances is different than working without them, and if you are an otherwise good developer you will learn things from it. I think when you are hiring a lead with this requirement you are not looking for someone who will automatically write a design for an 85+ game, you are looking for someone with experience in doing the little things a bit better. Be it prioritizing tasks, finding new talent, making sure everyone is heard, plan social events or anything else – you are hoping the applicant knows something that might give you an edge.

Again, I do not think this kind of requirement is the right way to go and I do not think they will enforce it. But I can see why you would want to hire people who have experience in working with a successful process.

Posted on Jul 31/12 by Saint and filed under General game development | No Comments »

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Rayman Origins

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this game – in a good way, I suppose. It looks fantastic with a visual design that manages to be fresh while rehashing platform gaming tropes like “the ice world”, “the water world” and “the mountain world”. It controls well, with a few glaring exceptions that has more to do with an overambitious feature set than sloppy programming. The difficulty ramps up in a good way, the game starts off easy but ends up challenging without any noticable transitions. I was raised on platform games so I might be biased, but it is truly a great game.

… So I’ll defer to specific nitpicks. The game becomes a bit repetitive after a while, there are plenty of levels but not a lot of different challenges. Checkpoints are usually placed in good places but occasionally you’ll have to repeat a tedious and easy collecting task because there is a tricky bit in the end of a section. And speaking of checkpoints – the popup suggesting that you leave a level after you die a few times is more offending than anything else since for the most part of the game there is only one way to proceed. Finally, there was an intermittent bug in one of the more challenging levels that made it unsolvable, this ruined a few levels for me as it made me doubt whether bonuses that were really hard to reach merely were really hard to get or bugged out.

But yeah, nitpicks. Great game overall.

Posted on Jul 31/12 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »

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On rapejokes

… I am going to write a few lines closely related to the rape joke thing. Now, I read about it since the discussion about sexism in videogames have expanded recently – I am neither a rape victim, a woman, a comedian or a journalist. I make no claims of being an authority.

As with anything else, most of what I read about this is preaching to the choir – aggressive language promoting either side is good at making people feel justified but unlikely to persuade anyone to change their ways. Some people, like comedian Curtis Luciani, attempt an explanation for those who simply cannot comprehend what is so horrible about it.

Personally, I think requiring people to imagine a completely different world is a bit of a stretch to make a point. A short description is not enough to provide context and legitimacy and people are unlikely to read Egalia’s Daughters just to be convinced. So this is my attempt to talk about something a bit closer to heart.

A friend of mine divorced his wife a few years back and as a part of this he lost custody of his child. Now, there was no violence involved, no drugs or abuse, no question about ability to be a providing parent or anything like that – my friend is a fairly normal guy but custody battles are one of the few places were the odds are usually stacked in the woman’s favor. The courts ruled that he should be allowed to see the child on a regular basis but it was up to the parents to arrange¬† this.

Fast-forward a few years and he is still fighting, still has not been allowed to meet his child. The mother has used the usual tricks; taking the child out of town during the time for the planned meetings, claimed the child was sick each and every time and in some cases blatantly lied about him being a danger to the child. It is starting to get into the territory of the mother claiming that since he has not met the child for so long, it would be best if he simply was left out completely.

Now, his friends are sympathetic but fighting this publicly quickly builds opposition. Comments like “well, he obviously can’t be innocent or this wouldn’t have happened“,¬† “it can’t be that bad, he should be happy that they are with their mother” and, at best, “sure, it’s bad, but we need to deal with these other injustices before we focus on the privileged“. The act itself is not comparable to rape, but the societal response is full of distrust, trivialization and derailment arguments in both cases.

So let’s say a comedian makes a cheap joke about this. Maybe something like this; “So, this guy is complaining because he’s not allowed to meet his kids once a week. Hey, my kids bug me all day when I’m home – it’s always dad! dad! dad! Maybe he could just take mine instead – say a few hours every Saturday so I can watch the game. But yeah, he seems pretty shaken up about it. Maybe it’s for the best that he has some alone time so he can figure out how to be a man again.” … To me, this seems a little more likely than a society where women cut off penises. I do not have to suspend myself in a fantasy world to know hearing that would hurt on a very personal level. I know women who were subjected to sexual violence, but I have never been afraid to walk home alone at night; never been in a relationship where I had to trust someone not to be violent. But I have been hurt by people I placed my trust in, and through my friend I can easily imagine how much pain that could result in.

To be fair to Curtis Luciani, the rest of his post is spot-on. Lindy West also wrote about it. It is not a question about free speech, it is a question about personal responsibility. If I make a violent game I do it knowing that I am ignoring the people who think violence has no place in games, if Daniel Tosh tells a rape joke he should do it knowing that a lot of people will be offended by it and take responsibility for that. I think my favorite quote in the matter is from Tom Bissell after the whole Skyrim joke thing; “Do I loathe people without senses of humor? Very much so. But what I loathe even more is people who thoughtlessly propagate stereotypes and fall back on an easy gag for what they think is going to be an easy laugh

Without knowing how we are offending people and how much, it would be hard to judge if the value of the work is worth it – hence the anecdote above.

If you read this and you feel that you are the friend in question and take offense to your grief being used in this example – I am truly sorry. I try to be constructive but not everyone solve their issues in this way.

Also, if you perceive this as a way to shift attention from rape to custody issues, I am sorry as well. This is definitely not the intent – I just want create understanding by talking about something a bit closer to home. I do not want to compare the two, but I will say that thoughtless jokes are a non-issue with custody problems – maybe because it is easier to relate to for most men.

Posted on Jul 15/12 by Saint and filed under Meta-blog | 5 Comments »

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Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

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Uncharted 3, like its predecessors, is a very polished game. It is first and foremost a game about interesting locations, so everywhere you go there are small details enhancing the experience and Drake reacts to the environments to make them feel real – the animations, in particular, are really good at conveying the story. I thought the pacing favored action scenes a bit more than Uncharted 2 did, which is mostly a matter of preference.

Now, I am not that big a fan of the game and it may impact my opinions about its shortcomings, so I’ll go through that first – the Indiana Jones- camp just doesn’t get to me. It is a cyclical story – uncover a map to the location of an artefact, find the artifact, antagonist appears out of nowhere and takes it. Rinse and repeat. If this had built up to a climax where you got to take down your tormentors it would be one thing, but the final confrontation with them is relatively anticlimactic. The disconnect from the gameplay doesn’t help much either – Uncharted encourages you to be stealthy when clearing down areas but will not let you proceed until you have alerted and killed all enemies. After single-handily taking down a platoon of armored soldiers you still get to watch a cutscene where Drake gives up since he is outnumbered by four goons. I can see why people would like it – I have certainly glossed over worse problems in games where I liked the basic premise – but I don’t.

The other big problem for me is that Uncharted 3 has cover shooting mechanics and melee combat as well as Prince of Persia-like terrain traversal, the controls to allow all of these elements are clumsy. Maneuvering covers is a much bigger hassle than it should be and it is not uncommon to end up in a fistfight by mistake and then get shot. Considering the game is incredibly linear; more or less a long and usually very narrow story corridor, this is particularly annoying.

Now, Uncharted 3 does go a long way to counter these issues – checkpoint placement is usually very good, puzzles are just tricky enough (although the game is a bit quick to offer you hints) and some of the scenes really are spectacular. It is also a masterpiece of engineering so disregarding everything else I can still admire it from a professional standpoint. But at the end of the day it is hard to enjoy if you do not like the campy adventure story.

Posted on Jul 13/12 by Saint and filed under Reflections | 2 Comments »

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Batman: Arkham City

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I may be remembering incorrectly but while Arkham Asylum had a distinct similarity to Metroid Prime, Arkham City feels more like a sandbox game – say GTA, since I don’t play that many of those. Instead of gradually revealing the world to you, Arkham city gives you access to most of the map and a good third of your abilities right off the bat, encouraging you to do what you find most interesting. Maybe Arkham Asylum was just as open and I just perceived it differently but there is a matter of preference at play – if you prefer to have all your toys immediately and explore on your own terms or if you’d rather discover the world one piece at a time.

In terms of the parts not related to exploration, the games share some things I did and did not like. Taking out enemies from the shadows is as rewarding as ever, fighting them head-on without anywhere to hide is still annoying and although you can use most of your abilities in combat they feel kind of useless and are still mostly lock/key mechanics. Aesthetically Arkham City is prettier than Arkham Asylum, albeit a bit cluttered at times.

… This same-ness is the problem with the game in a way, the only big change from Arkham Asylum is the more open world and it mostly just affects the pacing – the game feels a bit different, but not really better. I liked both of the games but with all the hidden stuff I did not bother finding everything, so in a way there is a lot more game left for me to play. I get a sneaking feeling that hunting the last collectibles in Arkham Asylum would have been a very similar experience to playing Arkham City.

Posted on Jul 07/12 by Saint and filed under Reflections | No Comments »