Monday, August 29, 2011

Week the Last

The final week of my internship went out like a lion. There were a lot of things to keep us busy - mid-week, we had a presentation to give to stakeholders in the project, and at the end of the week, we had a deliverable due.

The good news is that we didn't crunch like we did two weeks prior to get the deliverable in. The bad news is that we still did, a tiny bit - the last day before the deliverable was due turned into a very late night. However, we as a team of producers really pulled it together and managed to (or were forced to) learn a whole lot of new things to get the mission in on time. That's a win in my book!

The presentation was a different kind of challenge - we had a nice presentation put together, but it was delivered in an open-forum-style atmosphere, and it turned into a long Q&A session, which is always difficult to manage. However, the stakeholders present seemed to be generally satisfied with the proceedings, and ultimately, that's a pretty good measure of success. We definitely came away with some things to work on and some things to try out, and I think it'll be good to get those into place.

This is also, as mentioned above, my last week. After five months - which has just flown by - I'll be done with this internship. I graduate this week, and I'll hopefully be working somewhere soon. I can't say with 100% certainty where, but it should pan out in the next couple of weeks. And so, to paraphrase the great halfling poet: though five months is too short a time to write for you - this is the END. I am going now. GOODBYE!

What's old is new again

Moore's law posits that computing power effectively doubles every two years. This has had a notable effect on the video game industry which, more than probably any other entertainment medium, relies on the power of computers to work.

What this seems to have done for the game industry is provide a scenario where games change rapidly in nature due to technology. This is interesting, because we get to see a contracted version of the evolution of trends in media - in video games, design trends seem to come and go with more speed than other media industries.

This all leads me to the thought process that went through my head as I read this article earlier this week. It was a highlight of a new game done in an old style - a visually pretty "point-and-click" dungeon crawler. Originally, this type of game was the product of software limitations - it was easier to produce a large world to explore if the world only had to be rendered in a series of 2-D images. Now, the type of game seems a callback at best and antiquated at worst - not that the nature of the game should necessarily be tied to the quality of it.

It seems only natural that older genre subtypes - at least those borne of technical limitation - should fade away. But what about their persistence (or even reintroduction), as in this case? One might think that these are simply pieces of nostalgia, relevant to a few but not really marketable (and consequently not really relevant to the industry at large).

However, games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii give the lie to this assertion.

The 2-D platformer was a product of a time where adventure games (and all games, really) were limited to side-to-side and up-and-down movement instead of movement in a 3-D space, and it's a product that has fallen out of vogue in recent years. It would seem, though, that either nostalgia has a much stronger effect on the purchasing population or that an enjoyable experience is an enjoyable experience, even when technology has passed up the very nature of the game.

It could be argued, of course, that the strength of the Mario IP (or other Nintendo IPs) could be responsible for the performance of these resurgent 2-D platformers. However, there's a strong counterargument against that: contemporary 3-D Mario games (Super Mario Galaxy-ies 1 and 2) - games which hold very high critical acclaim - still sell less than the NSMBW title. And not by a small margin - they have sold less by three or four times.

Now, I wouldn't advocate for a complete return to all earlier subgenres of video games, but perhaps it's possible that the things that made some early genres of games so good - ease of use, simplicity - the things that make games accessible - these may be easily and profitably translated to a modern gaming audience that craves easy access. I think the proof is already in the pudding.

Monday, August 22, 2011

If fear; while not suffering; anger++; hate++

Perusing the features this past week at Gamasutra, an article stood out - a student publication that broke down the implementation of "morality" systems into games.

It's easy to criticize morality features in games, and the author puts a deft touch on analysis of the issues with the "Bioware-standard" morality system. Normally, criticism of such systems focuses on the polarization of the divergent moral choices - either you're a saint or you're a demon. That's not an undue criticism, but the author goes beyond this. He mentions that the real problem is that the game forces the player toward poles of morality by tying gameplay mechanics into the morality system. The fact that many players often make mechanically sound choices in a game over narratively sound choices drives this - the same mechanism that drives players to choose optimal stats when configuring a character (over choosing more well-rounded stats) is what is moving this.

The author then goes on to assert that the best method is to divorce the morality system from main-line gameplay; to make it ancillary to the gameplay at most, irrelevant at least. He cites Dragon Age as an example - in that series, morality choices drive small story hooks and relationships with characters around you, but overt stats and story progression are largely untouched (it's not a perfect example, of course).

I think that there's a missed opportunity, though, if these faux-morality systems were gone completely. I think the problem may be that they're supposed to be stand-ins for morality - in that regard, they come up pretty short. There may be other places, though, where they work well. For example - my first experience with this kind of angel/devil "morality" setup was in Knights of the Old Republic, a game which, at the time, seemed revolutionary for its use of bilinear (or at least parallel) narrative. The morality system there was of course the Dark/Light sides of the Force, and even though it was simplistic, it fit stylistically within the context of the game universe.

So what is a designer to do? Can a game work with something like this without saying "this is Morality?" Maybe it can - I don't know of any reason that a game couldn't run parallel systems - one, this dual-phase pseudomorality that reacts to the player's actions, and two, the gameplay-divorced social morality that reacts to players' interactions.

Week XIX

This past week was a bit of a come-down from the week prior - not in terms of enjoyment, or excitement, but in terms of time spent. And I'm definitely okay with that, as the week prior was a bit of a bear. It's also my penultimate week here as an intern!

A lot of this week was preparation for a presentation I had to give on Friday. One of our requirements (as alluded to in the week twelve post) is to present to interested students and faculty a breakdown of what we've been doing all the time in our lab. This presentation is more substantial than the month three presentation I gave, and it gave a bit of my personal post-mortem on the project (so far, given that it's not entirely done). The presentation went well enough, and I got to touch base with a couple of my classmates who had been working in parallel internships, see what they had done, etc.

As far as the project, we keep moving forward. Our target of Mission 1 was met, and now our new target is Mission 2. We've spent some time fleshing out the second mission, and even fleshed-out it is less lengthy than the first, so it should be a little easier to manage in terms of completion. Next week we have to both buckle down on mission two and prepare an executive presentation for some of our stakeholders. It should be an auspicious last week to go out on!

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Trademark Scrolls

The best type of examples I use for myself - when I'm looking at what the stumbles and trials of production can be - are the examples I see with indie producers/developers. I like watching these because they can often be extraordinarily public, since the indies don't have much in the way of compunction about being forthright with their issues.

It is with interest, then - at least in passing - that I've watched some of the trials of Notch in his rise to indie megastar. His most recent issue has been a bit of a hassle with the legal team from Bethesda Softworks in regards to his attempt to publish a game under the title "Scrolls." Bethesda is, of course, the developer of the highly popular "Elder Scrolls" series (although they are more commonly known by their episode title, e.g. "Oblivion" or "Morrowind").

What initially appeared to me to be an uneasy case of a larger publisher wielding a heavy hand has gradually morphed into a situation that I've allowed myself to learn is a bit more complex, and more importantly, it has been a valuable lesson on how taken in planning for generating IP can be critical in terms of reducing fallout.

An obvious, but necessary, caveat - as neither an involved party or a trademark lawyer, I certainly don't have the expertise to be fully accurate in my reflections here. What I initially saw here was this: Company "A" tries to publish game with similar-sounding title to game of Company "B," although those in-the-know would easily be able to distinguish between the two. I don't know that I was quite as initially reactionary as many, since I do understand the necessity of defending a trademark in order to keep it strong.

However, what I did intuit this as was a simple unfortunate situation that would eventually be resolved by the strong arm of a legal team. What I learned later, through various blog posts on the subject, was that the issue is a hairier one - Notch actually tried to trademark the "Scrolls" name. This would be fine, and eminently logical in most cases. However, it's not difficult to see how Bethesda is rightfully concerned in this case. Several pieces of commentary on the subject correctly pointed out that, at some undisclosed time in the future, if one company that was not Bethesda were to hold the trademark to "Scrolls" within the context of "fantasy video game" that spinoffs - like "Ancient Scrolls," or "Older Scrolls," or some other similar-sounding variant to "Elder Scrolls" - would be much harder to defend against, since the second trademark holder would be simply applying a modifier to their original trademark.

It was a point-of-view I hadn't considered, and I think that's it's a relatively well-thought-out one. What I can take from this is that ultimately, this may be a hard and embarrassing lesson for Notch to learn, and that moving forward as a producer, I can take away from this an understanding that (as in many areas) in IP development, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure.

Week the Eighteenth

So, last week, I made mention that there was a bit of a shotgun approach in terms of addressing pieces and parts of the project, and that this week I would have to move back into the more sharply focused attention onto one objective.

And boy did I. This week was all about getting mission 1 out the door, and that is pretty much all I did. At the beginning of the week, I started with three distinct missions that were relatively disjointed. The week was, then, all about making these three missions playable as one mission. This presented a challenge because this was not technically something the game supports out-of-the-box. What this really means was that there was a lot of overhead to address to make sure that the mission came together, far more than just simply polishing and testing it.

Over the course of this week, we managed to address not only the issue of attaching the missions together, but also the issues of recording and adding dialogue, getting new scenery in, setting up working cockpits/gauges for the craft, and getting the working animated models in game. This was all in addition to actually fleshing out the functionality of the mission. It was a lot of work, but we got it done, and I feel pretty good about the end product.

The overview of the mission, then, is this: there are three phases to the mission. In the first phase (which is narrated by the Wright Brothers), the player "flies" an albatross to learn about the principles of flight and learn how to control an aircraft in Flight Simulator. At the end of that phase, there is a short cutscene in which the Wrights talk about adapting the principles of flight to their gliders, and then the game transitions to a scene of them completing their first flight. The second phase of the mission involves the player participating in a fictitious contest to fly a Wright flyer farther than the original Wright flight. After completing that, the player takes control of a later version of the Wright Flyer in an expedition the Wrights put on for a crowd. All in all, the mission takes about 20-30 minutes to play through, and I'm looking forward to seeing what our client thinks about it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

No such thing as a free lunch (for the delicatessen?)

For the past few months, one of my daily stops on the internet has been Amazon's Android app store. I don't often spend money on phone apps, but Amazon's store has given me a second gateway into trying out new things - they have a featured item that is their "Free App of the Day."

Often, it's something that's a whole lot of fun to try. I've picked up a couple productivity suites, which are nice, and I've picked up a couple of games I wouldn't have gotten otherwise, including popular games like Plants Vs. Zombies.

From a game developer's standpoint, though, it's interesting to think about the mechanism behind this. I recently read an article, that, while fairly self-evident (and couched in only a single anecdote), did at least prompt me to lend some fresh grey matter to that mechanism. The concept is a fairly simple one - offer a good for free for a certain period of time in exchange for attention. In this case, the attention is probably pretty significant. What was interesting in the abovementioned article, though, was that the particular developer being profiled saw no real uptick in sales as a result of all that attention (they did see a drain on resources, though, because of all the customer service they now had to provide to a slew of new users).

Now making the - admittedly dangerous - assumption that this is indicative of many app authors, it's interesting to work through this logically. It seems so pat, the idea of giving away "free samples" to entice users to a product. Why doesn't it work here?

I suppose that it may be working, albeit in a different way. Obviously one would expect sales to shoot high for a day, but maintain some small fraction of that momentum moving forward. Although that is not happening here, there may be a "double peak" effect that happens - the authors will see the obvious peak at the "free day," see the expected dip in sales, but then may see a second peak as the app starts to see press. I can't verify this, of course, and the article indicates that at least in this case, nothing like this was seen.

Another potential issue here may be that the short uptick in popularity represents an opportunity given to the developers, rather than the fulfillment of a previously-taken opportunity. The expansion of the user-base now may give them an "in" into a market for expansions, DLC, and the like. In the case of the article above, it's not necessarily the case that those authors took this advantage, and that may be where the true value lies.

Or, I suppose, it could simply be a well disguised benefit for Amazon and Amazon alone. It's tough to say, of course, but the job of a distribution channel like Amazon is certainly to make as much money off of managing their third-party content, and they may simply be exploiting that to its maximum.