Game Design…er?

Featured image taken from Super Mario Bros 30th Anniversary Interview.

“I can do better than that!”

A common utterance of gamers. Usually heard shouted at the top of their lungs as they frustratingly die for the umpteenth time due to bad game design or some game-breaking bug that caused the gamer to lose hours of progress. In the past, we would have stewed in silent anger and kept playing. Telling ourselves that we’re just bad at the game. Today, however, it’s far less about cheap deaths and unfair difficulty but character design and story. Regardless of whether or not it’s the gameplay aspect or the aesthetics, gamers are far less likely to accept flaws while the complexity of making a game seems to be increasing exponentially as time goes on.

Good game design is usually unheard of. Not because it’s not possible, it’s just that no one really highlights it. I think good game design is akin to good CGI in movies. You wouldn’t notice if it was there but it would stick out like a sore thumb if it was bad. It’s just human nature that we notice flaws. And there’s another reason why it’s harder to notice good game design, unlike movies where movies are a purely visual media and over with in a few hours. Games could go on for dozens of hours and while there is that minute to minute gameplay that keeps a player interested, there is also another layer of design for long-term interest. That could range from having a good progression system to balance for multiplayer that keeps people coming back for more.

A lot of times, as a game writer, we tend to focus on the superficial aspects of games. Does it look good, does it play well, does it interest me because of how well written the story is. And to be fair, that is what is presented to the consumer. A movie is not advertised as “edited with Avid” or a book as “written with Stylewriter 4”. It doesn’t change what the final outcome of a game will be by knowing what technical creativity was used to achieve it. But I feel it would behoove the industry as a whole to have more technically savvy writers critiquing and providing feedback instead of a trend moving towards reacting to the animosity between the consumer and gaming journalists.

I feel that gaming is big enough that we don’t have to continually bump into each other and be at each other’s throats. We don’t have to always be following the hype train and be upset if a game doesn’t meet our expectations or be so defensive if other’s don’t find a game as fun as we do. Why can’t there be different segments of fans like how the music or movie industry do? There will be the huge games like how there’s a new Marvel blockbuster each year, but there could also be a market for smaller but more poignant titles.

What is my part in all this? In addition to covering games traditionally with game news and criticism, I would like to surface game designs and provide my best guess as to why certain choices were made. But to be able to put some weight behind my guesses, I need to learn game design. The reason behind this is because not every game is a Super Mario Bros. in the sense that not every game is so beloved. Being a beloved game means that out of the multitude of gamers that have played the game, a subset of that would be knowledgeable enough to put the game under a microscope and dissect it. It helped that there are interviews with the developers on how the game was made but you get my point. More eyes mean more chances for something to come out of it.

It’s a lofty goal, and I might need to take some game design classes. As well as some writing classes while I’m at it. But it’s time I give back in some way to the game industry however little it might be or feel to most people and maybe, just maybe, I get good enough that I can have my own game out there for others to play. Maybe.

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Retro Journal: PlayStation 2 – Part 1

One of the goals that I had when I went back to visit my parents during Chinese New Year this year was to try and get my PlayStation 2 out of storage and see if I could manage to get it to work on a HDTV. I had not tried this previously because I only have an HD monitor while I’m living in Kuala Lumpur, so it didn’t cross my mind to attempt this until fairly recently when I started thinking about collecting games for the older generation of systems. I was personally pretty excited to give it a try because I theorized that I could use the AV cable that came with my AVerMedia Live Gamer Portable (LGP) with the PlayStation 2 as the AV cables of the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 are the same.

005However, to my dismay, it didn’t work out quite as I theorized and I spent the rest of my time back in Brunei looking up ways to get it to work. I was disheartened as many videos I saw online were quite straight forward, just change the Component Output from RGB to Y Pb/Cb Pr/Cr and you’re all set. But I couldn’t figure out if the problem lied on my LGP being an older model or the AV cable not working. So I continued to search and managed to find a Mini AV2HDMI in one of the shops in The Mall.

While the device worked as advertised, it only supports composite inputs. Which was not very good in the first place. It was abundant, just not good. So this forced me to think of other solutions that I might have and what came to mind was something that I had used previously for capturing video on the PS3, EasyCAP.

002EasyCAP was pretty much the go-to solution for video capture in the late 2000s. High definition television adoption at the time wasn’t as prevalent as it is today and there was a market for capturing video straight onto hard drives without the need of a VCR or DVD burner. But long story short, I somehow managed to accrue 3 of them. Each of them with different chipsets and input capabilities even though their exteriors looked the same, besides how messy they look after being left unattended for ages.

003I had to pry each of them open to see which chipset they had and find the right drivers to go with them. A task made slightly more difficult that the company that made these devices did not have the latest drivers on their website.

My main focus was on the EasyCAP that had S-Video input working. I only managed to find one or two drivers that actually worked. If you are looking for drivers that work with the eMPIA Technology 2861 chipset, here is a link to where I got the driver that works with Windows 10.

With the hardware all setup, next comes the software to capture the video which I will write about in my next Retro Journal.

The Road to 150

A few years ago (Wow… It’s been 3 years?), I wrote a little bit about the time I was still in university and was struggling to afford a PlayStation 4 and what not. It’s interesting to read what I wrote back then because sometimes as much as things were to change over the years, some things never change.

Things like being broke or not having the time to play games, but one thing that I do appreciate not changing is that I’m still as passionate about it as I was a few years ago. While I’m spending most of my time these days barely surviving and writing to earn a buck. It has allowed my desensitization to the dopamine hit decrease and be happy with any trophies that I manage to rack up.

I won’t deny being envious when I look at my friends lists, seeing people either rack up a ton of trophies (where the hell do you get the free time?) or playing the latest games (where the hell do you get the money?). But that’s fine, over time I’ve gravitated my interest to be more of a curator than a quote-unquote reviewer and I’m more interested in finding the hidden gems. The less time I spend on video games have also given me an opportunity to sharpen my writing skills.

So, don’t cry for me. Not that anyone is. This is only temporary and hopefully in 3 years when I revisit this topic again that Sony has not closed down and I would be closer to 200 platinum trophies.

To Dev or Not To Dev

There’s a strange sequence of events that occurred today regarding how a few game developers poking a little fun at a gaming news blog escalated into something that the original writer didn’t intend. I’m not going to turn this into a non-existent witch hunt but instead write about my interest in this.

Late last month I tried to apply for an editorial position at a local video game developer, I think most people assumed that I just wanted to play free games or something like that. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. To put it simply, I’m the kind of guy that buys original DVDs and Blu-rays primarily for the behind the scenes footage and commentary. I like to know how the sausage is made.

It’s the main reason why I don’t sell my games off after I’ve finished them. I like to have them around like books in a library so that when a more recent game comes out and uses similar mechanics or alludes to a previous work I will have the game on hand to look up and compare. It’s interesting to me to see how something has evolved over time and also look at things both in context and out of context at the time of release.

Context is very important, because there are very few games that go beyond their initial sales period. Star Wars can still resonate 40 years later because you can watch it on TV, on your computer or on your phone. That experience changes slightly if you use a different medium but the movie remains mostly the same (outside of George Lucas’ new additions). However, old video games can’t transcend their hardware. Not that every game is a masterpiece, but 80% or more of these games are held back because the game is incompatible with the hardware and you can’t play them anymore.

Because of this, we talk about games in relation to their hardware. In people’s minds, there are better graphics, better control method, better something. Unlike movies, I don’t think I’ve heard how a movie is worse off because people watched it on their tablets or that watching it in a cinema is something worth shouting on top of the mountains as being a much superior way of experiencing it compared to watching at home. All this, is just a long way of saying, we see movies as they are without relating them to the technology that you use to watch them.

Video games experiences, however, are so intrinsically linked to the code and hardware but how much we appreciate what goes on behind the scenes is almost next to none. From design to techniques used to get the game up and running on a multitude of hardware while looking as good as it could be. Most of the time, we can only speculate about the techniques being used. Movie sites aren’t afraid to announce that Christopher Nolan is going to use an IMAX camera in his next movie and with that news we can make an educated guess as to how the movie will look like. But the inverse is more commonly true for games.

It could just be because of how it’s proprietary technology and code. Games are still commercial products and most publishers will be hesitant to share information about what tech they are using in their next game. As such, we get excited over the next product from a game developer through their trailers and the PR speak trying to sell their game. But the end product could be so vastly different to our expectations that the consumers bite back.

So we take aim at the individual developers themselves, without making informed arguments. It’s so much a team effort that things are so intrinsically tied that it’s absurd for any one person to be the sole blame for the failings of a product. But I do have to ask myself, is it because we don’t know enough how games are made or is it because of the ambitions of the developers that caused them to not have the time to finish and polish their products?

Which is why I want to make the jump to the development side. It’s not for the dream of making a game or take the side of the developer against the consumer but to have a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes. There are resources like Gamasutra and even documentaries like Double Fine’s development of Broken Age but there’s an appreciation that comes from being in the trenches day in and day out with them.

The Backlog

As a gamer, one of the biggest struggles I face is the looming pile of backlog games that I own and would like to play. Especially games from an older generation which the PlayStation 3 now falls under before I move on to the next generation. Taking stock of the games that I own and have a keen interest in playing that I’ve even entertained the thought that I should postponed getting a PlayStation 4 from late 2014 to late 2015 because of the limited time that I have and amount of games that I currently have.

It’s easy enough to just blow through a game and just reach the ending but me being me I would also like to platinum every game that I play. ‘Platinum’ in this case means getting the Platinum trophy of a game played on a Playstation console or handheld. This is done by getting every other trophy listed in the game and once you have unlocked every trophy in the game the final platinum trophy will unlock.

I will fill you guys in on why I am compelled to do so in another post but for now all I will say is that I have desire to reach 100 platinum trophies before even thinking about getting a Playstation 4 and currently with my latest platinum trophy from Rayman Origins my total number of platinum trophies is 67. Going by my average of 15 platinums a year, I might get this goal licked by the end of 2015.

Flapping the Bird

Social Engineering at its Best

Age of Innocence

Flappy Bird Title Screen
This cute exterior hides an ugly interior.

“It’s a bad game!”, “It’s so frustrating!”

I paid these words no mind when they first started appearing on my Twitter stream about a week ago. Later on I found out that these appearance of these words went hand in hand when talking about a mobile game called Flappy Bird by .GEARS Studios.

My impression before playing the game myself was that it was a buggy mess. Completely unplayable to some. So I wondered why people kept talking about it. This wasn’t a Sim City situation where it was a somewhat liked game that got lambasted because it didn’t work the way people wanted or worked at all if they servers went down. So why were people talking about playing this game everyday if, to me at the time, sounded nothing more than wreak?

After Flappy Bird

You'll be seeing this. A lot.
You’ll be seeing this. A lot.

“It’s not that bad.”

Was my first thought when I started playing the game. Before I go on about my impression of the game, let me explain what this game is about. It’s an endless runner game where you play as a bird and your goal is to “flap” your way through gaps between two pipes that are too reminiscent of the pipes from any Super Mario Bros. game. There is nothing else to do besides that. And when you lose, you get to see if you’ve beaten your old record or check on an online leaderboard.

I didn’t feel that it was particularly tough or difficult to control but I did feel that the game lacked polish. There were no menus or options to adjust the sound effects. There were no pause button or a any way to exit the game but to press the home button and close it from your task manager. Little things like these that are taken for granted if it was made by a more seasoned developer.

The Hidden Claws

It's a trap!
It’s a trap!

So the question is why all the buzz for a barebones minigame? It’s very much a combination of factors. First off is how the game presents itself. It’s simple, appealing, has a cute character that you control. Then comes the devious part. It’s because of how frustrating the game is. The game has simple controls, you tap once to flap the wings and fly up and then you start dropping at an increasing rate. The height gained from flapping your wings is about 70 to 80% the height of the gap that you have to fly through and because you fly at a constant speed the width of the pipes means you have to tap again somewhere in the middle of the pipes. Which brings about the dilemma, do I tap now or hold out and drop ever closer to the bottom pipe so that I won’t hit the top pipe when I tap the screen. Even for those who have it figured out, there is no safe way to fly through the gaps and psychologically it creates this buzz because of the risk-reward of flying through the gaps successfully.

To me, it was similar to flying a Dodo in Grand Theft Auto III. The Dodo is a small plane with the wings clipped off because Rockstar North (previously DMA Design) was afraid of the controversy that a flying plane in a city might cause in a game released during the time of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. The Dodo was still present in the game, you could drive it but you couldn’t fly it. Gamers somehow managed to get it flying, but it wasn’t perfect. The process to do so was clunky but rewarding. Similar to Flappy Bird, though much simplified. But the thrill is there.

What happens if you don’t manage to get the game because of the clunky controls? Then you become part of the viral machine. You would complain. Saying how tough it is on social media. Gaming websites picking up on the news and reporting on it. If it was another endless runner, say Temple Run 2, which had all the bells and whistles and serviceable controls you wouldn’t talk about it. But because it is a frustrating game. Then you would post it on Facebook, Twitter, anywhere that people will listen to you about how frustrating this game is. You give the game free advertising and more people will try it and more people will get frustrated and the cycle keeps going.

Flappy Bird is not a bad game. It doesn’t have the polish that games with experienced developers have, but it’s not bad. The controls and premise are kept simplistic but challenging. Challenging enough for a majority of people to complain about it and keep word of mouth going. That is the point of the game, it’s socially engineering and creating hype by not being a ‘good’ product. If it were good, we wouldn’t be talking about Flappy Bird at all.