It seems I’ve been a little lax with the blog. I’ll try to keep the updates coming a little more often. I’ve been doing game reviews for Game Chronicles. I figure it’s worth the writing practice, and having to articulate what I think about a particular game helps me think about it more critically. So far, I’ve got a review of Tales from Space: About A Blob, with more on the way.

I may be done with school, but I’m still doing graphic design work to keep myself on my toes and keep myself from getting too rusty on the tools I use. Here’s a couple exercises I took on.

This is the Youtube logo rendered in Tengwar, the lettering system that JRR Tolkien created for Middle-earth. I redrew every single letter in Illustrator. I feel like some of the strokes could be a little smoother, but as a whole, I’m proud of this. I don’t like to leave a job half-done, so I spent even more time actually making sure that everything was correct.  I ended up learning an awful lot about how the Elvish script works. Did you know Tengwar’s written phonetically and there’s actually two different Elvish languages? I sure didn’t. I think it’s kinda interesting that vowels are actually placed above or below letters, too.

Here’s the Viddler logo. Because it’s a more obscure video site, I’ve included the original logo. The gradient effect isn’t exact, but I learned a lot making it.  Figuring out an angle for where the text cuts into the camera took a lot of tries, but I’m satisfied with the result.

I recently bought a copy of Deadly Premonition on the Xbox 360. After seeing video of it, it seemed like a quirky game I might appreciate, and for $20, I wouldn’t mind giving it a chance. After having played it for a few days, I think it’s definitely an interesting game that people should try out. I wouldn’t say it’s an excellent game, but it’s a unique hybrid of a Shenmue-style sandbox world and a Silent Hill survivor horror game that I most definitely enjoy.

I’d like to say again that I enjoy playing this game. Deadly Premonition is definitely a quirky piece of work. The main character, an FBI Agent nicknamed York, is pretty clearly a lunatic, and the other people in the town you explore are visibly uncomfortable dealing with him.  The game is loaded with atmosphere, and the small town is filled with things to do. When you aren’t working on the case, you can explore places to look for Agent Honor badges, talk to the townspeople, buy a new car, perform part-time work to help out the inhabitants of the town, and many other things. I can’t emphasize enough that I found the game enjoyable, in spite of the issues that plague the game.

However, it does have its issues. The first thing anyone mentions is that the graphics aren’t pretty. They aren’t. Enough said there, moving on. The biggest issue I have with the game is the user interface. More specifically, the map. In regards to moving around the town, the user is given all the information they need to get from place to place, except maybe an icon to indicate the location of a car they can drive. This usually isn’t an issue, because your car is usually going to be where you left it, and is usually within spitting distance. However, the way the information in the map is presented to a player generates a lot of confusion.

I’d like to go over this step by step. There are three distinct map methods. The first is a circular mini-map that shows the immediate area during normal play.  It shows maybe two blocks around York, who is represented by an arrow pointed at the top of the screen. There is also a compass indicating which way is north.  This map is fine. I have no issue with it, though a method to make it zoom out a little would have been nice. Symbols indicating points of interest are displayed as well.

The second map is accessed by pausing the game then highlighting the Map option, but leaving it there without selecting it. This map covers the entire town and cannot be manipulated in any way, not even zooming in or out. The scale is small, but you can make out bodies of water, roads, and railroad tracks. However, there is no icon to indicate York’s present location or any points of interest, and the entire thing is brown. It seems intended to serve more as an very large symbol of a map, but because of the third map, it’s forced to function as more than is intended.

The third map is accessed by actually selecting the Map option. This brings up an area of maybe 4-5 blocks around York.  Like the circular map overlay displayed during normal play, this is in full color and has icons indicating points of interest and an arrow representing York’s current location and facing. Unfortunately, the compass indicating which direction is north does not always point up. The arrow indicating York’s facing, on the other hand, does. The area of 4-5 blocks is also the maximum zoom on this map, though the area of the map shown can be moved with the left analog stick.

These cause serious UI issues. A player has extreme tunnel vision and in almost all cases, cannot see both their current location and the location they would like to visit on the map at the same time. These are the steps I had to end up using to go from one place to another.

Step 1: Make sure York is facing north.

Step 2: Call up the map and memorize what the area around York looks like.

Step 2: Use the shoulder triggers to switch the focus the map through every single point of interest until I find the location I’m looking for. Alternatively, use the left analog stick and slowly scroll around the very large map until I happen to, by blind luck, come across the place I want to visit.

Step 3: Memorize what this area looks like.

Step 4: Back out of the map screen and into the pause menu screen.

Step 5: Look at the large zoomed out map that shows the entire town, which has no icons indicating anything. Try to find out where York is and where I want to go, trying to remember what each of the places looked like.

Step 6 (Optional): Realize I forgot what a place looked like. Repeat steps 2-5.

Step 7 (Optional): Realize that York wasn’t facing north, so the actual scrollable map is a rotated version of the large town map, so those memorized locations aren’t going to be anywhere near as useful. Exit all menus, face north, and repeat steps 2-5.

Step 8: Figure out a route and go there. If I forget where to turn, then I need to either face the car north or exit the car and face north, then repeat steps 2-5.

I enjoy this game. I really do. But the lack of attention to the user interface here should have been picked up in quality assurance at the absolute latest. Getting from place to place in a game where its most prominent feature is a town with a lot of things to do shouldn’t be this difficult a task.

The list is over here

There’s some GOOD STUFF here. Spycraft and Trail of Cthulhu, even.

Order here.

On top of that, they match donations.

Escape from Midnight Mansion

September 10, 2009

Over the past several months, I’ve created a cooperative board game for children between the ages of 7 and 10, titled Escape from Midnight Mansion. I hope to sell it soon. There are a few sites I have in mind where it could be sold. The Game Crafter is a site where I could upload pdfs and select game components, and I can sell my game to people through that site. The current design will have to be reworked for cost reasons, though.

The current design of the game involves a series of 22 small boards, and unfortunately, every board in a game at The Game Crafter adds two dollars to the price of the game. It’d be prohibitively expensive. One solution in mind right now is redesigning the boards so they become cards instead, which are much cheaper.

I’ll explain how the game works once I can figure out how much I can openly talk about it, but it’s got some ideas I’m pretty proud of. My inspirations include Pandemic, Shadows over Camelot, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and Arkham Horror.

GDC Day One

March 26, 2009

After a couple weeks preparing for and then taking midterms, I finally have spring break. Of which more than half will be spent at Game Developers Conference. This ought to be a good opportunity. I’m exhausted, but I managed to meet a ton of great people and find some really interesting opportunities. And of course, swag.

If you’re checking this blog out because of my business card or resume, I’d just like to say thanks for taking a look!

Difficulty and Gaming

February 25, 2009

There’s a trend in gaming I’m sure everyone’s aware of. Games that are made today are for the most part easier than they were long ago. They also take much more time to play through, but I’ll save that for another day. I have a number of friends divided on this issue, and I have to admit I don’t feel I stand firmly on one side of the fence.

Most video games are conceptual descendants of early arcade games, which had more to do with carnival games than say, basketball or Monopoly. It was not like a board game where you purchased it, then that was the end of the monetary stream. Arcade cabinets are expensive, even today. You had to plunk in a quarter and play it, and you better not play it for too long, because you’re not the only one with quarters. A game back then had to do two things to succeed. They had to be fun, and they had to keep players coming back to put their quarters in. To run a profitable game, you had to run a game to beat the player, so that they would have to put in a quarter for another play, or they would stand down and someone else could walk up with their quarter.

Home video games started off borrowing a lot from arcade games. I don’t feel this was uncreative. This was the context of the time, and the only electronic game framework people knew. It was a big part of the draw of home gaming, too. It was like having an arcade in your house at an affordable price. You had your limited lives, your high scores, your high scores, and your difficulty.

Time passed, other concepts became absorbed into games, and we arrived in today’s market. High scores for the most part are a thing of the past, because focus has shifted from beating a score to beating a game. “Lives” are often missing, because many games let you retry an area if you die an unlimited number of times, and even if you run out, a Game Over usually involves retrying the level or reloading a saved game instead of replaying the entire game from the beginning again.

Now we get to the main point. A game no longer has to be difficult in order to ensure its profitability. It doesn’t have to defeat the player frequently in order to survive. Developers could feel free to make games that kill the main character less often, or even games where the main character cannot be killed at all and the game is literally impossible to lose. In other words, making a game difficult has gone from a matter of survival to a matter of entertainment. Is it fun to play a game that you have to struggle with?

Honestly, it’s a matter of personal preference. Everyone is an individual with different tastes. The discussion is over, everyone gets what they want, we can all go home now.

Well, no. It’s more complicated than that, and this wouldn’t be much of a design blog if my very first article ended like that, would it?

A game needs some degree of difficulty, and every single designer has to make this choice at some point. In fact, every designer has to make this choice at every single step where the player has to overcome an obstacle, whether they’re aware of it or not. There’s going to be a degree of difficult in anything the player does. If it’s the sort of game where the player’s avatar has to jump over a pit, there are all kinds of difficulty decisions to make. Is this a large pit? A small pit? Is it a deep pit that will instantly kill the player character if they fall into it? Maybe it’s a pit they can just jump back out of if they fall. Or they’ll have to climb back out with the help of other platforms. Maybe there will be enemies in there. Or a single boss-level enemy. Maybe the pit is actually a shortcut and allows the player to skip a harder section of the level.

Every design decision carries some degree of difficulty and challenge, and the trick is figuring out how much to apply and at what points. You need to find your target audience and find out what they’re willing to deal with as well as what drives them. Maybe they’re someone who just plays to explore and wants to see the story advance. Maybe they’re someone who grew up in a time when games were not only difficult, but the difficulty was a bullet point on the back of the box.

That’s enough about difficulty for now. I’ll likely touch on the subject again soon.

10 Games This Post Made Me Think Of:
Lego Star Wars
God Hand
Mega Man 9
King’s Quest V
Grim Fandango
Full Throttle

Welcome to Pol’s Voice

February 24, 2009

I’m transferring my few posts from my old blog over to here.  This is where I’ll be posting my thoughts on game design as well as games I’ve designed myself.