Beast of America

My new favorite trailer.

I know I talk about Understanding Comics on this blog a lot, but that’s only because it so succinctly presents so many fundamental ideas of human communication. (I propose, yet again, that you should read it. Yes, you. Even if you hate comics.)

One of the ideas presented in Understanding Comics is how the lack of realism in art forms like comics and animation actually lends itself to greater acceptance of the ideas presented. We see things that look real enough to be recognizable but obviously aren’t; this allows us to accept things happening to and with these things that in a realistic medium would look jarring and out of place.

Simple example: Batman’s ability to effectively teleport when nobody is looking at him (this trope is known as the Stealth Hi/Bye). Commissioner Gordon looks away for a second, the camera follows his gaze – and when he looks back Batman is gone. The comics have presented Batman as being able to do this in a moving vehicle. We accept it completely in those media. But in the more realistic medium of film, our first thought would not be “Wow, that’s cool!” but “There’s no way he could have done that.” Don’t believe me? Go back and look at the Christopher Nolan films and notice how few Stealth Hi/Byes Batman pulls.

Video games have the incredibly enviable advantage of having that same acceptance as comics and animation, while adding the additional benefit of interactivity. And video games aren’t stuck in a kiddie rut like American animation is. Creators of video games are using its advantages to give us visuals and situations that we couldn’t see/hear/experience in any other medium.

I guess this is a really long-winded way of saying that I’m far more enthusiastic about the release of games than of most movies nowadays.

Lara Croft, PTSD Survivor

UPDATE: Hey, I’m not the only one who noticed!

Just watched the most recent trailer for the new Tomb Raider. Which we have to call “The New Tomb Raider” because they didn’t see fit to give it a number or subtitle.

After viewing, I kind of imagine this is how the pitch for this game went at Crystal Dynamics:

Designer 1: “Okay, we’re going to make a new Tomb Raider game.”

Designer 2: “God, really? Even when we make a good one like Tomb Raider: Legend, all we get is flack from female gaming pundits about how oversexualized Lara is and how she’s a throwback and a male fantasy object and is holding back the progress of strong women characters in video games, etc, etc, etc. Do we have to go through all that again?”

D1: “No, see, I’ve got an idea on that front. We’re going to desexualize Lara Croft.”

D2: “Seriously.”

D1: “Yeah.”

D2: “You’re going to make Lara Croft less sexy.”

D1: “Yeah.”

D2: “How do you intend to do that?

D1: “First, we give her more reasonable proportions.”

D2: “That’s not going to do it. Even if we reduce her breast size, as long as she’s fit and attractive, she’ll be considered ‘sexualized’. How are you going to get around that?”

D1: “Stay with me here. Second, we’ll make her a teenager.”

D2: “Okay. I guess that would desexualize her in the sense that not too many people would be attracted to her in that form.”

D1: “Right, so that’s a good start. Finally, we’re going to beat the living hell out of her. She’ll get shot, impaled, blown up, and beaten.”

D2: “In the death scenes? I remember that Tomb Raider used to be known for its interesting death scenes. My favorite was the Midas one from TR1…”

D1: “No, man, this’ll be during gameplay. Plus, she’ll spend the entire game filthy, with matted hair and ragged clothes, and bleeding from multiple wounds.”

D2: “O…kay. So we’re going to turn her into a completely different character, one that we deliberately construct so that it’s squicky to think of her in any sexual way.”

D1: “You got it! Isn’t it brilliant?”

Let me answer that for you, D2: no, no it’s not.

Let’s ignore the sex thing for a second. (Not just because it’s stupid; I have another point to make.)

One of Lara’s defining characteristics is that she’s always having the time of her life. She does what she does because she enjoys it. The real Lara is the one who purred “I’m such a lucky girl!” upon finding a new temple to explore in TR:L. This is the true root of her appeal – how can you not be attracted to someone who is so enthusiastic and having such a good time?

That aspect of her character will be destroyed – perhaps permanently – in the upcoming game, replaced by a shell-shocked teenager just trying to survive.

“But this is the origin story! This is WHY she -”

No. Frankly, the idea that a young Lara could go through what she’s being put through in this game and then decide to center the rest of her life around the experience is ridiculous.

Make her younger, okay. (And hey, it’s already been done once before in the series.)

Make her more realistically proportioned, I don’t care. (Although I personally think it’s a concession to snot-nosed, professionally offended people who would never have played the damn game anyway.)

But if Lara’s not having any fun in the game, how the hell am I supposed to have fun playing as her?

Splinter Cell: Conviction. Has Split-Screen Co-op.

‘Kay! A couple weekends ago (pre-shoulder-pain), my oldest daughter entered the living room and saw me playing Splinter Cell: Conviction.

Now, I really like Conviction. I thought it was way better than Double Agent and the fact that a lot of mechanics were removed allowed the team to focus more intently on the mechanics that remained, making them much better. Yes, the bad guys scream and yell a lot, but that’s a game mechanic – they are basically telling you where they are because you don’t have a handy radar like you do in Metal Gear Solid.

So, I’d played through the single-player many times but had never touched the multiplayer.

Let’s face it – I don’t like competitive multiplayer games. Why? Well, because I suck at them, and I don’t have the time necessary to get unsucky at them. The only two competitive multiplayer games I play are Team Fortress 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and even that is rare.

But I was bored. I’d just finished the single-player again, so I pawed through the menu and discovered a game mode called “Deniable Ops”. And I discovered that these were new missions that didn’t feature Sam Fisher but did feature a whole bunch of new maps to explore and new ways to cleverly kill people.

So I was having fun when my daughter walked in.

“So watcha playin’?” she asked.

“Splinter Cell: Conviction.” I replied.

“Does it have co-op?” she asked.

“I think it does, I’m not sure.” I replied. I exited out to the main menu and yep, sure enough, there was a menu entry called “Multiplayer and Co-op”.

“Does it have split-screen co-op?” she asked.

“Nah,” I said, “games don’t really have that anyHOLY CRAP IT DOES!”

So, after a brief but heated discussion on who got to be the Russian agent (hint: I lost), my daughter and I sat down and played through the entire split-screen story-based co-op mode. It was stupendous – the co-op story intertwines with the single-player story and has its own challenges. Even in the simplest mode, you’ll see many more enemies than in single-player; they’ll behave more realistically, and they’re not guaranteed to eventually open themselves up for a quick neck-snap. Which is why you need to depend on your fellow agent to either distract or help with a combined assault.

I feel like such a freakin’ idiot for not checking this out earlier. Megan and I spent about ten hours over the weekend playing split-screen co-op and I cannot believe I had no idea that game was on the same disc.

Plus, this simply reinforces my belief that co-op multiplayer is the only good form of multiplayer.

And then my daughter went and played through the single-player and loved it.

While I’m on this topic, here’s my suggestions for the next Splinter Cell game.

First, keep the Conviction mechanics.

Second, Anna Grimsdottir is the natural new choice to head up Third Echelon; if she’s not the boss I will be very disappointed.

Third, the enemy should be Megiddo. While Conviction only hinted at what Megiddo was and what it is capable of, that’s actually perfect – it leaves a lot of design and story freedom.

Fourth, no Sam. Let the poor man rest. He’s actually in a pretty good place at the end of Conviction, let him stay there. Instead, let’s have a new agent – an idealistic, tiny young woman. I think such a character would a) make the “hide in the shadows” mechanic more realistic and b) make a wonderful counterpoint to Anna, who at this point has practically sold her soul to defeat threats not just to America but to the world.

Finally, MOAR SPLIT-SCREEN CO-OP.

A-thank you.

The Couple Ideas

Okay, here’s what’s kickin’ around the old noodle:

Star Kittens

This will basically be Dungeon Keeper in space, with cute kittens taking the place of the monsters and the evil, evil, Chaos Dogs playing the roles of the “heroes”.

(I’ve mentioned before that the heroes in DK are the real jerks, right? You’re minding your own business, mining your own gold, building a little city for the oppressed minorities to live in, and then these guys come in and wreck it all and try to steal your loot just ’cause you look evil. Jerks.)

The kawaii factor will be turned up as high as it can go, and there will be lots of visual customization options for both your Star Kittens and the bases they build.

Target platform: PC, with possible Mac version if I can ever scrape up enough money to buy a Mac.
Target audience: Six- to eight-year old girls (I can’t wait to get them saying things like “cryogenic suspension”, “FTL drive” and “hydroponics”) and anyone who likes to play games with little autonomous people running around. (For some reason, Europe seems to be a big market for this type of game.)

PROS:

A unique space – nobody’s ever made a proper remake/ripoff of Dungeon Keeper. (Why? WHY? WHYYYYYYYYYYY?)
Six- to eight-year-old girls play lots of games. I’ve got one to prove it.

CONS:

Art heavy, which means lots of money up front (art is way, way more expensive than music).
I would want the game to be in 3D if possible, which will lengthen the development time.
I already tried making a 3D game in the same style (Planitia) and failed pretty miserably – BUT Star Kittens would actually require a simpler 3D engine.

The other game…

Clan Destiny (Possible working title if whoever owns Trilobyte’s IPs objects.)

Think for a moment about the first turn of Civilization. It’s 4000 BC. You’ve got a “settler” unit. You click “build city”. You hit “end turn”. The game time jumps forward by 20 years, and the city is built.

Clan Destiny is about what happens during that first turn. It will be a turn-based 4X game set in the stone age, with several different clans vying for supremacy. It will be completely 2D and sprite-based. It will also play FAST – the biggest game of Clan Destiny (large map, max number of enemy clans) should take no more than two hours to play. While it will be full-featured, with tech trees, different units to build and territory expansion through various means, all of these systems will be simplified and mechanics will be put into play to curtail the late-game, “mopping up” portion.

Target Platforms: The PC and Android phones, with a Mac version if I can yada yada yada.
Target Audience: Anyone who has ever looked at Civilization IV and/or Galactic Civilizations and said, “I’d love to, but I just don’t have the time…”

PROS:

If the game is even the slightest bit good, it’ll become an Android bestseller. Android users are dying for good games.
Much art-lighter than Star Kittens.
Possibly bigger market.

CONS:

Will almost certainly be harder to make “fun” than Star Kittens – lots of balancing will be required. And we all saw how “good” I was with that on Inaria…
A release of Civilization Revolution for the Android would kill this game. Star Kittens doesn’t have that problem.

So, which would you prefer to see first? And do you have any other ideas or suggestions?

The Unofficial Official Witcher 2 Tutorial

The Witcher 2 can be kind of a tough game. And after finally figuring out how to fight effectively in Witcher 2, I am more annoyed than ever that the game doesn’t have a proper tutorial, because the amount of data it would have to give you to be an effective fighter really isn’t that high.

So I wrote my own tutorial so that more people can get through the intro and into the meaty, meaty goodness that is The Witcher 2.

Geralt of Rivia

Magic user. Alchemist. Mutant. Monster killer. Geralt of Rivia is all of these things, making him far more powerful than a normal man. But that doesn’t mean he’s indestructible.

Geralt is the Batman of the Witcher universe. How does Batman deal with foes, especially ones more powerful than him? By being Crazy Prepared, of course.

Getting Crazy Prepared

There are three things you should take care of before you go into battle – Signs, Potions and Bombs.

1. Signs.

Signs are magical spells that can be cast quickly. The hotkey for casting your currently selected sign is ‘Q’. Before you go into combat, you should assign the Sign you’ll most likely need to your hotkey. Do this by holding down CTRL to get the quick menu. The Signs are on the left side; just click one to assign it to the hotkey. The two most commonly used signs in combat are Aard (knock an enemy back and possibly stun him) and Quen (give yourself three free combat hits of magic armor). Again, press ‘Q’ to cast the Sign.

Two important things to note about magic: First, you must have mana to cast. The mana bar is yellow and is below your red health bar. It’s divided into segments and you must have at least one segment to cast a Sign. Second, all Signs have an animation that must play successfully before the Sign is cast. If you get struck during that animation, your Sign will not cast.

2. Potions.

Geralt cannot consume potions in combat. I like this, it’s kind of stupid for RPG characters to be sucking down health potions in the middle of battle. (Even though I just wrote a game where you do exactly that.) In order to consume a potion, he must meditate. To meditate, hold CTRL and click the center “Meditate” button. If there are no enemies nearby, Geralt will go into mediation mode. At that point, you’ll be able to click “Potions” in the menu and choose which potion he should drink. By far your best bet is the “Swallow” potion; it will greatly accelerate how quickly you get your health back in combat. It will last for ten minutes after you’ve consumed it, so drink it in a quiet place before a big fight.

3. Bombs.

Geralt starts with one bomb type – the Samum bomb. The hotkey for throwing your currently selected bomb is ‘R’. The Samum bomb is awesome; it basically casts the Aard Sign on anything in range. To equip it, go into your inventory (by pressing ‘I’) and sort your inventory by “bombs” (using the icon in the upper-left). Drag the Samum bomb to one of the “Pockets” slots on the right. Now you can use it in combat instantly by pressing ‘R’.

(If you’ve noticed that you assign/use these three vital things in completely different ways then you get a cookie. The GUI is poorly laid out. It could have been greatly simplified. You’ll just have to deal with it; the interface for Witcher 1 was the same way.)

Combat Stuff the Game Doesn’t Bother to Tell You

The prologue is actually a bit of a change-up for Geralt; he’s a monster-fighter, not a six-guys-at-once fighter. Thus, he’s better equipped for going one-on-one against a single tough foe rather than engaging a bunch of foes at once.

You can target an enemy by pressing the ALT key when you’re looking at an enemy. (You can tell which enemy Geralt is looking at because he’ll have a little icon on him.) Once you lock on, all your attacks will be made against that enemy and all movement you do will be in relation to that enemy. If you find that Geralt keeps switching targets uncontrollably, use ALT-locking to fix this. This leads into…

If you don’t have a locked target and are spamming your attack button, Geralt will start attacking a new target as soon as the first one dies. This probably isn’t what you want, since he could move into a very bad position to do so against your will. Another reason to use Alt-locking and to not just beat on the attack button.

You can move quickly in combat by rolling. To roll, double-tap a movement key. I like the backwards roll (Down-Down) because if you roll left or right, you can still get hit by another foe.

Kill weak foes first. From a damage perspective, all foes are pretty much equal, so it makes sense to kill off the weakest foes first. In the Prologue, that means the guys dressed in green.

Parrying requires mana. This is weird but true. A lot of people think that parrying is unresponsive – it’s not. It’s just that it requires you to have a charge on your mana bar; if you don’t, nothing will happen when you hit the parry button. For this reason, I don’t parry a lot.

If you get surrounded you will die. There’s nothing for it, honestly. They’ll just chop you into sushi. So don’t let that happen!

Putting It All Together

So here’s how the dance goes.

Before combat, meditate and drink a potion to improve your chances. Make sure you have the correct sign and bomb chosen.

Once you’ve encountered a group of enemies…

1. Make sure you’ve got room at your back, if you don’t, don’t engage until you do.

2. Move the mouse over the apparently weakest enemy (or any missile-user) and press Alt to lock on to him.

3. When the enemy is at mid-range (too far away to hit you but getting close), press Q to use use Quen to give yourself an extra three hits.

3. Let the enemies bunch up as they approach you (and they will, the trusting fools).

4. Once they are almost in combat range, press R to throw a bomb.

5. Move in, swiping quickly at your weak and stunned opponent. if you’re lucky you’ll get a finishing move, if not you should still kill him quickly. Don’t spam attacks.

6. Back up. Roll backwards if you have to. Renew Quen if you need to. Pick a new target and start over.

7. If you’re facing an opponent with a shield or heavy armor and they are the only one left (which they should be, since you should have killed all the weaker ones first), you can then use the left and right roll to try to get around their defense and score some hits. This is the only time I use the left or right roll. If you have a charge of mana you can also try parrying, this might open them up to attack. (Not my preferred method, though.)

8. If you get badly hurt, run the hell away! Enemies won’t follow you forever; they’ll eventually return to their posts. This will allow you to regenerate your health and cast Quen on yourself again. Then come back and try again.

9. Don’t get impatient. Batman is patient. Geralt is patient. The goal is to force your enemies into a bad situation and then punish them for it, not to let them do the same to you.

And your reward? When you master this combat system and can decimate groups of foes that by all rights should cut you to ribbons, you will feel like a badass. And you’ll be playing Geralt the way he was meant to be played, which means – gasp! – you’ll be playing his role! You’ll be role-playing! In a role-playing game!

More on The Witcher 2…

…Okay. Apparently you’re supposed to roll around a lot, a feature that wasn’t even in Witcher 1. How do you roll? Well, you can double-tap a directional key on the keypad or…

You can plug in a wired Xbox 360 controller and press one button.

Also, locking on to enemies is important. This is also easier with the 360 controller than with the keyboard.

I seriously feel I got snookered on this game. And the sad thing is, it wasn’t even on my damn radar until I saw some trailers touting its “living world” tech (and you know how I be about the living world tech).

Now I’m stuck with what is apparently an Xbox 360 game masquerading as a PC game (and yes, CD Projekt just announced a 360 version). I don’t mind playing PC games with a wired 360 controller (and yes, I own one) when it’s clear that the game was designed for that. I recently played all the way through Red Faction: Guerrilla using a 360 controller because I knew that game had been designed for consoles first. (Red Faction: Guerrilla is an excellent game, by the way.)

But this was supposed to be a PC game. And it was supposed to be a Witcher game. Now everything I knew about combat and magic from Witcher 1 is gone so none of my skills map, plus if you’re using mouse and keyboard your control scheme is non-optimal.

Plus, for reasons I simply cannot fathom, blocking drains your mana bar. Seriously. This makes blocking completely useless, which is why you have to roll around on the ground like you’re Samus Aran in ball form.

And of course, you are told fuck-all of this when you actually start the game.

This goes beyond bad design. This feels disingenuous, like they’re figuring out the problems with the game on us more lenient PC testers so they can fix them for the 360 version (and I will bet $100 right now that the 360 version has a complete tutorial when it ships.)

After all the goodwill CD Projekt gathered after Witcher 1 – releasing the improved version for free to everyone who bought the original, adding a whole bunch of features (again for free) and having a pretty awesome base game to begin with – for them to piss all that down the toilet in favor of the 360 leaves a very, very sour taste in my mouth. Trust me when I say that Witcher 3 will not be a must-buy for me.

Inaria: Hide Your Children

Okay. I’ve got a puzzle in Inaria that requires the player to choose whether or not to attack a harmless but annoying NPC. The NPC is initially flagged as friendly.

For a long time, NPCs flagged as friendly would go hostile if you attacked them, attacking back (usually futilely). No big deal, right?

Except that Inaria has several children in it. Which means for a while you could attack and kill the children. This would get the game an AO rating from the ESRB.

The easiest thing to do, of course, is to take the children out.

This phenomenon is called Hide Your Children.

Lots of games get around this in different ways. Play any Grand Theft Auto game and you will notice that there are no children anywhere. This obviously is not realistic. Fallout 3 has children, but makes them un-attackable (the worst you can do is knock them out). This is also unrealistic.

So do I put killable children in my game?

This reminds me of a story. (Collective groan from the audience.)

Back when designing Ultima V, Richard was running through his tileset looking for monsters to populate a combat room and stopped on a curious choice – children. He proceeded to build a room full of little cells, each of which contained a child. Pulling a switch would free the children, who would then – since they had monster AI – promptly attack the party. He actually lost a tester over this, who claimed Richard was promoting child abuse. Even Richard’s parents got into the act, telling him, “It’s just this one little room, why are you fighting so hard to keep it?”

Richard replied that a) it wasn’t necessary to kill the children just because they attack you; Ultima had multiple humane ways (sleep and charm spells being the most common) that would allow the player to resolve the combat without harming the children and b) the very controversy that this room sparked proved that it had merit – it made people think in the midst of a dungeon slaughterfest. Ultimately the room was kept in and you can see it today.

So do I keep my kids? Do I keep them, but make them un-attackable? Or do I Hide My Children?

Fallout 1 and 2 would give you the anti-Perk “Childkiller” if you killed a child, which made it almost impossible to complete the game because any time you entered a civilized area, everybody (including quest-vital NPCs) would attack you. I kind of like that.

But, in the end, I DON’T need my first for-pay game to generate controversy. I want Rock Paper Shotgun talking about the game itself, not the fact that one of the sprites in the game looks like a child and you can pretend to kill that sprite.

What say you?

Another Great Development Vid

Again, these things simultaneously delight and depress me.

This is three guys from Cryptic Studios (two programmers and one artist) making a game in about 28 total hours (not counting sleep time) for the 2011 Global Game Jam (which I guess is as close to my Iron Gamedev dream as I’m going to get).

Now, it’s really unfair to compare myself to these guys. They were using a very well-designed framework (Game Library of Victory, which you can actually download here). There were three of them and one of me.

But still…look at them pump that stuff out! I’m starting to feel like I’m doing something wrong. It seems like it’s so much harder for me and takes so much longer than it does for many other people. Maybe my framework just sucks.

Gameloft

Okay, game producer Gameloft has been in the news in the past for ripping o…er, copying other people’s games. I don’t mean copying in the physical sense, but in the “look and feel” sense. But things have really come to a head with their recent trailer for Starfront: Collision:

A bit on the nose, dontcha think?

And yet…I like Gameloft. I like the fact that they are cheeky bastards. If you want an iPhone/iPad/Android version of your hit game, you can go to them and they’ll make you one. And oddly enough, it’ll probably be pretty good.

But if you don’t and you just leave that money on the table…well, they’ll pick it up. And I’ve no doubt that everything goes through the lawyers to make sure they aren’t infringing.

It would be different if the games were krep, but they aren’t. By all accounts, the games have high production values and are fun to play. Plus a lot of them have multiplayer, which is not trivial to do on handheld devices.

So kudos, Gameloft! Keep doing what you’re doing, and maybe game companies will realize how much cash they are missing out on by not entering the handheld market.

Maybe then you can make the real version of Starcraft II for the iPhone.