Crispy Gamer

Backseat Driver

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GameCynic is a game developer. He's using a pseudonym so he can write honestly about games ? and still have a job.

I just finished reading Jeff Green?s endnotes in Issue 14 of Games for Windows, where he tries to put together a list of New Year?s Resolutions for developers. I know the Greenie?s trying to be funny, but telling us that we should ?play something else other than our own damn game?? I understand where he?s coming from, and that?s what this column, Backseat Driver, is about. But he paints a distorted picture of game developers that at best, is deliberately na?ve, or at worst, is the product of a critic, never the person who has tried to create something. I don?t need to recite the entire Teddy Roosevelt quote, only to say that ?it is not the critic who counts.? Ha-ha, very funny, we?re a bunch of self-absorbed narcissists who aren?t in touch with our users. It?d be funny if it were an accurate caricature.

Too bad it?s been a banner year or so for quality games.

Game developers are often cuttingly insightful about the flaws and successes of games they play and games they make; the discussions in the studio or among colleagues are miles away in focus and depth from the average review.

Developers are not supposed to be reviewers. How developers look at games is about the art and craft of making games -- and there?s a wealth of experience in actually making decisions and seeing the consequences that change the way we tend to look at games. We tend to break down specific mechanics in a game and understand what the designers were trying to do, what feelings or reactions they were trying to elicit from the player.

Ultimately, both groups (should) care about the end-user experience -- an experience quite different from that of a reviewer, who probably hasn?t had to pay for a game in years, or the developer, who works in a bubble cut off from public discourse about their design decisions. Most developers never get a chance to talk about games candidly -- steely lip-glossed and starched collar PR staffers see to that. If you?re Will or Peter or Warren, you might get special dispensation (and probably, only Will really can do as he likes). Shigeru could, but that sort of maverick behavior is improbable at a Japanese publisher, and Shigeru might as well be Nintendo for many intents and purposes. There have been a few of us that take the leap to deconstruct our games at developer conferences -- sadly, some of them can?t seem to do it without essentially forcing their employers to fire them. No one?s ever argued that the Wii isn?t, more or less, two GameCubes duct-taped together, but the originator of that quote got pummeled for being ?anti-innovation? by a na?ve press/blogosphere/public that never reported or realized that most of his life was devoted to indie games.

So let?s try to add something to the dialogue, I thought. Let?s stick to the games, and let?s try not to directly bite the hand that feeds us (with or without expletives). One of the gripes of those who work in the industry is that we don?t get to play as much as we should -- something the Green Monster does point out in his column. So, in an effort to do just that, I?ve devoted time every month to Backseat Driver -- a chance to play and talk about games from a developer?s perspective, in a way that you might hear in the Fairmont bar, back when GDC was still in San Jose. I?ll talk about design decisions made, and why I dis/agree with them; I?ll try not to criticize without offering alternate solutions. You might even find me apologizing for what seem to be specific design flaws.

Some of the more cynical among you will be concerned about conflicts of interest. What if GameCynic is working on a competitive title? Wouldn?t he trash the competition to gain a few more SKUs sold? Well, no. Remarkably, most developers I know don?t think that way. (Our publishers might.) But in case my word isn?t bond, rest assured that our editor will be informed about what I?m working on and whether to post any sort of disclaimer.

As for the pseudonym: Well, judge me by my words, not my name or the list of games on which I have or haven?t worked.

There?s a running joke that game developers are professional haters -- we hate everything, including our own games. That?s certainly not universally true, but we do tend to be a cynical bunch. I thought it?d be a good way to start 2008 with two games that I actually liked: Call of Duty 4 and Silent Hill: Origins.

I?ve always enjoyed ambitious, combinatorially complex emergent behavior games, but I have a fondness for narrative and story. I?ve always hated games on rails; at least leave me the illusion that I?m making meaningful choices! But when you add the sleight-of-hand tension gimmicks of survival horror games, transparent, lead-me-by-the-nose linear plots become less obvious. You know what I?m talking about -- the fixed camera angle deliberately creating impossible tactical situations to prime you for a good scare. The original Resident Evil utilized this to great effect, and Silent Hill?s flashlight/fog trademark allowed the designers to keep the players lost in a sea of imperfect information while giving them more control.

SH:O is a good old-fashioned survival horror game, but it also has the staple of bad old-fashioned games of the genre: hallways of locked doors. Not the temporarily locked ones mind you, the permanently locked ones.

The player roams around the hospital. It?s early in the game, so the hallways aren?t teeming with nurses and straitjackets, yet. Try the door -- locked. Next one -- same. The map indicates that these doors will never be opened. So how did the developers make me feel? Stupid and ineffectual. Rule number one of game development (and, perhaps, any commercial business): Never make your customer feel stupid.

I can imagine a situation where the designers would want the player to be chased by some incredibly dangerous monster, run down the hall trying all the doors in vain to look for a place to hide, rewarding the player with good visual memory who remembers exactly where the open door was -- except that this moment never takes place in Silent Hill. You have weapons and save points, so your job is not to run from the monsters -- it?s fight or slip by them. Psychologically, that?s different than running -- you?re either combat-optimizing or ammunition-hoarding. Get tired of running? Drink some energy liquid, or turn around and fight. You?re just pretending to be prey, because there are bigger fish to fry. Move, action button, move; Repeat until a door opens.

The rest of the game?s a pixel hunt, too. Maybe my eyes aren?t 24 years old, or maybe they're blurry from too much crunch-period death marching, but despite the lovely PSP screen, that wooden-handled hammer just doesn?t pop from the rusty grey/tan medical cart. Yeah, the hero turns his head to look at objects of interest, but doors are also objects of interest -- as are monsters -- and if you?re running right into an object, the head doesn?t turn.

So, why? Ken and Roberta Williams adventure games did that already. Running around a room pressing the action button to make sure I?ve picked up everything that looks pick-uppable isn?t really furthering any concept of fear or suspense. Why not make items sparkle, like they did in Resident Evil 4? You know where the items are -- maybe the player might enjoy the challenge of shambling monsters guarding items, rather than a scavenger hunt on a tiny screen.

Screens bring up another issue that I had with SH:O in particular, and most PSP games in general: use cases. Where is your game meant to be played? By whom, and how? SH:O?s item-hunting mechanic will work better on a larger and/or higher resolution screen, which brings me to a use case question. I read that SH:O is being ported to PlayStation 2. Smart move. You sit in front of a big TV, you?ll experience the game in a certain way, and there are a lot of PlayStation 2s out there.

SH:O paced me through its environments well, though I ended up hoarding more ammunition than I needed to -- I would have enjoyed opening up on the enemies more often. No one wants to end up without ammunition entering a boss battle. That said, it is rare that I sit down on my sofa all ready to lose myself in a PSP game. I?ve got three next-gen consoles and a new PC for that, with a stack of games that should be played.
Seems to me that handheld games have a different use case and should be played in different time chunks than console games. DS games seem to do this well -- Lumines and Beats on the PSP are great examples of this, too -- but so many PSP games seem like they?re designed for a use case that requires the player to sit down and commit a specific long segment of time. The idea of a portable game system is that the games can be played in variable time segments depending on your location, five minutes to five hours (a cross-country flight). Maybe the higher computational power of the PSP makes it tempting to make PS2-like games; maybe the abundance of PS2 content made it easier for publishers to shovel their tech and designs onto the PSP. Despite too often feeling like a drunk perpetually fumbling with keys at the entirely wrong house, Silent Hill: Origins drove me through the game -- but never at home on the couch.

Call of Duty 4 strained my old PC to the limits, delivering a much more graphically pleasing presentation than Crysis at comparable frame rates. Playing COD4 actually made me drop Halo 3 back into my GameFly return envelope -- it was the best shooter since Half Life 2. Now, I?m hardly an FPS player -- you won?t find me in demand on any deathmatch ladders. I like open-world games, but COD4 was just so viscerally superior to the allegedly open-world Medal of Honor that it wasn?t a contest. I like a good narrative, and like the survival horror games of old, COD4 distracted me so completely that I was only distantly aware that I was on rails. The fiction was more relevant -- I only assume that Penny Arcade?s written some strips about the endless WWII themes, because they?ve been -- well, endless. The game had just enough veneer of tactical simulation to suspend my disbelief. It is very much the shooter version of "24" -- our heroes are insanely martially competent, the enemies are rooted in CNN, and the action is so fast, with lots of intermediate rewards, that you never question the believability of the story. While I played it on a PC, it?s no surprise that, like Silent Hill, COD4 aches to be played the same place you?d watch "24" -- on a big HD display.

COD4 also excels in an area that doesn?t get enough visibility: art direction. Half Life 2?s art direction really made the game for me -- the amount and variability of textures and environments made the game?s visual aesthetic a pleasure to explore; it stands in stark contrast to its cartoonish, endlessly adolescent contemporary, DOOM 3. I think this became clear to me on my first entry to Ravenholme, where a rusty children?s playground carousel and a sidewalk covered with fallen leaves greeted me. DOOM 3 lacked anywhere near that sort of subtlety.

The next FPS I played, F.E.A.R., was exactly the opposite -- cramped levels, repeating textures and objects, repetitive enemies -- and made me grit my teeth in frustration. Gears of War was also guilty here -- a limited color palate and the questionable decision to make your squadmate models (already an NFL steroidal caricature) look roughly the same size and color combination as your ? enemies. Hey, way to make me feel competent! COD4 sent us on a global tour of hot-zone hot spots -- the Middle East, Russia, Chernobyl, a cargo ship being tossed around the ocean -- not another office complex or a Martian space lab.

Visual style is so important -- it?s our first cue into the game before we get to trigger an event or try to open an unopenable door. It?s not the technical feats of rendering that are as important anymore (sorry, Crytek). I?m pretty sure that EverQuest 2?s renderer and technical art parameters are more sophisticated than WoW, but there is no question that WoW?s consistent aesthetic direction results in a more memorable, immersive visual experience.

I still can picture the flashback sniper mission level, when your camouflaged superior officer turns to you and you realize -- you didn?t quite see him. Art imitating life.

Of course, the game was over nearly as soon as it began. I understand that to create a finely crafted and detailed experience, Infinity Ward focused on building a great experience first, and that probably cost $20 to $25 million.

I?d be more forgiving of the short playing times if I knew there were expansion packs in the works, but I don?t hold out much hope for that. Why? Seems that Treyarch is working on COD5 for 2008, and Infinity Ward will take on COD6 for ?09. Selling COD4 expansion packs in mid-2008 would no doubt cannibalize COD5 sales. Activision?s been so enamored of the Madden model (new year, new game, 5 million-plus in sales!) that they might be missing the real opportunity: more episodes.
Treyarch has big combat boots to fill, and they better up their game from COD3.