Scenery for the Sake of Story

An interesting opinion piece on CNET got me thinking.  Are video game stories stagnant while the set pieces are improving?

It’s certainly evident that games today are much prettier than they have ever been.  There are quite a few where I sit back after a set of events and am simply amazed at the experience.  I felt that way back in God of War and the initial Hydra fight, as much as  I did in Horizon sniping robot dinosaurs who shot fire.  The experience itself is just amazing to watch, let alone play through.

The stories though, those are rough. Some are really impressive, others are really bad, and most are ho-hum.

I’m of the opinion that written stories are the most impressive.  From word to the reader’s imagination, you need to convey something.  There are a bajillion books, most are horrible.  But you find that diamond from time to time.  We’re still reading books from 100+ years ago.  How many games that are 10+ years are people playing today?

Movies and TV are next, as they require some solid writing and they are fixed without player agency.  As a viewer, there’s nothing you can do to impact the story while you’re watching it.  Letter campaigns may change the larger story arc, sure, but that’s the exception.  Again, there are classics and junk.  For every Blade Runner we get 20 Battlefield Earth or The Ranch.

Games with Heart

There have been quite a few good ones over the years, most of them in the RPG space.  Earthbound, Fallout, Planescape…games where you can still remember minute details 10+ years later.

Others, like Shadow of the Colossus took a different route, where the player is meant to experience the story under their terms, rather than an A/B/C decision tree.  I think most would agree that this is the game that triggered the whole “game is art” conversation. (side note, it will be remastered for PS4)

But these are exceptions.  We may get 1 or 2 a year.  There are hundreds of other games, dozens in the AAA category, that just use story as a tool to let people play solo.  Halo 2 had a good story, but it’s nothing but downhill since.  Aside from perhaps Wolfenstein this year, FPS games have horrible story (hi SW:B2).  Racing games, fighting games, action… all of them have pretty tripe stories.

Other Parts Have Improved

A story today has pretty much the same structure as it did 100 years ago.  But controls, visuals, audio… all of these have dramatically improved in the past 5.  It may seem that story is getting worse but perhaps it has more to do with all the other parts having large improvements in a short period of time, that the gap is tiny.

Ultima is a really good example of this.  Super story (til 6).  Horrible game to replay today from the start, as it has not aged well.  You could easily place the story in a new game though.

It Doesn’t Matter

You don’t go and see a movie for the soundtrack.  You don’t read a book because the pages and print are comfortable.  You do play a game if the mechanics are solid.  A crappy story is less of a hurdle as compared to crappy controls, balance, or video.  Story adds a tremendous value, but it is not the primary one (even in RPGs, this is debatable).

We can certainly appreciate a solid story – and talk about it for years to come (we do).  But it isn’t fair to say that all games require it, or even that the quality has gone down over time.  It’s just that everything else has improved so much that our expectations on story seem out of balance.

Let’s just celebrate the great story tellers when we find them.

 

Imagination Is Key

I have two lovely daughters.  They are similar but different – one being much more creative/artistic while the other is practical/structured.  Those are their areas of comfort and certainly their approach when it comes to problem solving.  It’s quite interesting to watch them think things through.

I worked for some time as an enterprise architect.  This is really similar to what people know as a traditional architect – buildings mostly.  I my case, I take the overall view of a business, its services, and its solutions – then map out how they work today, the growth, and then a plan to get there.  It’s a relatively new field, and not something that I’ve ever found taught in a formal institution (college/university).

It’s easier to compare it to Lego blocks.  I define those blocks, then use them to modify/build new things.   When I was a kid, I had a ton of Legos.  I never had instructions for them, just a giant pile of blocks.  I built what I wanted.  Nowdays, 90% of Lego come with an instruction book.  I am given a general idea of that final structure but it’s my job to build that final picture and instruction book.  Except I deal with people, technology, and really big budgets.

My kids aren’t really given the opportunity to flex that imagination muscle.  Everything is packaged/rote.  School has yet to really transform from memorization/tests to practical tests and creative outputs.  There’s not much focus on group-work.  It takes some effort to provide opportunities for them to develop that skill set.  But they do it.  My youngest may create new songs or dance moves.  My eldest may build a spaceship and pretend that it flies across the moon.  They’re both given boxes, and they make conscious efforts to look outside of it.

Tooting my own horn here, but when they were younger my wife and I applied a problem-solving approach to the kids.  We allowed them a fair amount of freedom in the house to discover what did what, and then to manage their own needs.  Practical example – making breakfast.  By the age of 2, both were able to make their own breakfast on their own.  They knew where the dishes were, the food, what amount to use, where to put the dirty dishes following.  We were both watching them… didn’t want knives and stoves going… but they did an awesome job to figure out how the pieces worked together.  All of a sudden we’d see Nutella, yogurt and cereal in the same bowl.  Something we sure didn’t show them.

It makes for interesting feedback from their teachers too.  Rather than either following the “expected behavior” they ask questions all the time.  (It’s a bit like that Simpson’s episode where Lisa steals the teacher’s copy of the lesson books).

That does take energy and patience.  It is a lot easier to just show them the right way (or your way) and have them repeat it.  There were a lot of spoiled breakfasts, or things I certainly would not have eaten.  I see it as an investment.  The steps we took years ago allow them to self-manage today.  It helps with their decision making process, taking more into account than just black and white.  They can relate to past experiences, find similarities, and then find a new solution.

It’s truly an eye opening experience to watch children grow and learn.  To see them fall and find a way to pick themselves up without our direct involvement.  Now if I could only slow time for it to last a bit longer!

 

Stressy McStressface

I’ve been leading a particular project for over a year now, with no breaks.  The big go-live date is this Thursday.  There’s a few loose threads but nothing too big.  Like most large projects.  I’ll explain what it is in a few weeks, so as not to jinx anything.

The kicker in this one is that it’s a project I’ve been trying to implement for years, and one that I am quite vested in its success.  I work for a group that doesn’t have the best of reputations and has a more corporate view of change.  In other words, the change we traditionally bring is more overhead, not something people are exactly clamoring for.  This project, it’s different.  Those that have been on the pilot have had nothing but positive feedback and wanting to accelerate the schedule.  Good stuff, generally.

The side effect of a large project, with high demand, is a lot of stress.  I’ve taken a better approach at managing this over the years.  I delegate what I can, prioritize the work, re-scope/focus the team.  I’ve really lucked out at the quality of the individuals on this project, though truthfully I’ve just used amazing references and keeners to get this far.  Still, the stress is there and I can feel it gradually pulling me down into exhaustion.

Family life has been good and busy.  It’s motivating to work hard when you know you have a good spot to go home to after the day is done.  The outdoor rink was built over the weekend.  3 hours of cutting, 1 hour of setup, with a team effort.  I’m quite happy with what’s there and I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time out there this winter.

Side note – my wife is rather empathetic to my stress, and naturally worried about my health.  I usually crash during the holiday break, the body just has had enough.  Then there’s a dozen activities with friends and family.  I recharge by being alone/small group, so this isn’t exactly restful.  I proposed simple skipping it all and heading down south.  She called the bluff (which in hindsight wasn’t a bluff) and booked something within a couple days. Awesome wife.

Long rambling post to say that I feel somewhat frayed.  I know the people I work with are doing a super job and that once this is done, it will be a highlight for everyone’s career, and have a dramatic impact on hundreds of thousands of people.  I know that I will crash something fierce when the stress is gone.  I just hope that it’s in that order.

Outdoor Rink

I had built an ice rink last year for the little ones and that went over rather well.  They were outside for about an hour a day, skating around and getting used to the ice.  I made my own ice surfacer too.  There were a lot of lessons learned, primarily that my backyard is not level and that the ice takes a crap ton of water to get started.

This year I want to try something a bit different.  We had our first snowfall last weekend, so time’s a wasting before I can get something up.  Instead of just laying it on the ice and flooding (and losing water from the sides), I want to do a slightly better job.  Main points:

  • Set up boards and supports
  • Put a tarp to contain the water
  • About 20′ by 30′.

Boards can be simple or complicated.  A real rink is rectangular, with rounded corners.  I’d have to bend some wood to make that work, or get some plastic.  And I have a near full size outdoor rink about 5 minute walk from my house anyhow.  I need simple.

The thinking right now is a simple box, with side supports.  Figuring I’ll need those supports every 4′ or so, and at the above size, that’s 26 needed.  NiceRink has some brackets that I’ve used in the past.  They are quite expensive though – just over $250US.  I think this year I’ll just use some treated 2×4 and build my own 12″x18″ brackets.  That’s ~48″ linear per bracket, I need 26, and a spare or two… so 112′.  Or 10×12 footers.  Just under $100.

Then the actual boards.  Plywood seems the best option.  2′ height, 8′ length.  A full sheet is 4’x8′, given 2 lengths per.  At 100′ to cover, that’s 7 total sheets.   Prices are all over… but likely $250 all told.

I bought a tarp last year for $100 that will more than cover the surface.  Just need to make sure that when it’s all assembled, I don’t pierce it.

I’ve got a couple weekends to go before the real snowfall and freezing temperatures hit.  Let’s see what I can do.

You Can’t Go Back

Memory is a funny thing.  It is entirely selective, and often based on an emotional trigger.  A smell may be enough to have you dream about some baking with your grandparents, or a tree about some trip taken with an old fling.  Few people dream of that time they went to the washroom, or read the newspaper.  We filter out the mundane.

Experiences are meant to be had and then recalled, not chased again.  Nothing will ever truly compare to that first kiss, or that game that you won through an amazing comeback.  Chasing for that feeling again, rather than a new feeling, tends to lead to disappointment.

I played Ultima Online when it launched and for a few expansions.  I made a decent amount of money selling characters on ebay (when that was a thing).  Looking back, it was an overall positive experience.  It was a truly social game, many complicated inter-woven mechanics, and the concept of people impacting the world.  I went back a couple years ago, both the to current game, and then to a shard emulator from the original game.

The first was jarring as it was essentially a new game.  The fundamentals were there, but most of the systems had changed and after a couple days I had enough.  The emulated shard was a worse experience.  For all the fun memories, there were some bad ones that I had simply pushed out.  Lack of housing, massive PvP, griefers all over the place, a large difficulty curve, lack of regeants…I had spent years immunizing myself while playing – building large stocks to off-set the large character losses.  I wasn’t prepared to spent the time/effort again to get back to that point.

I’m looking at Vanilla WoW and realizing it’s just not for me.  While I spent a ridiculous amount of time there, and memories are generally positive, there are some items that just make me shudder.  Classes and specs that have no value.  An economy based on being present in only 2 locations.  Resist gear.  The insane grind from 30+. (side note, I made some decent cash selling guides to address this grind).  Poor travel options.  No grouping tools.  The amount of farming needed.

My recollection of that time is more positive than not, but I was a different person back then.  My expectations were different and the gaming market was substantially different.  I have no need to chase that feeling or pretend that it was better than today.  Just like people reminisce of a day without cell phones, but after 3 days go stir crazy without one.

There are certainly people who will enjoy it, and for a long period of time.  I would still hazard to guess that quite a few more people looking back and applying selective memories, and will be in quite a shock once things get rolling.  I’d rather just recollect.

 

Axe Throwin’

There’s something to be said about the zen in throwing deadly weapons at walls.

Friends of ours booked a spot nearby to throw some axes (Backyard Axe Throwing League).  Went in with rather open eyes, as a few friends had given it a go and reported some fun to be had.

We headed in, found a rather open room and walls of spruce with painted targets.  Our guide, Rick, took about 30 minutes to teach the 7 of us some basic throwing techniques.  A sports background helps to start, but becomes a hindrance as you move on.  Explain.

The axe has to be thrown in a specific line.  If you throw it like a ball, it will twist in the air and lack bite on the board.  It really has to be on a consistent plane.  Experience in sports teaches you the basic technique and you’ll pay attention at the start.  Aside from spin, the distance is key, so moving forward/back is important.  Once you’re at the correct distance so that the blade hits, and you’re on plane, then things just work out.

As you spend more time throwing, you become more relaxed, and fall into older habits.  I found that as time went on, I applied more spin to my throws, which caused misses.  I had to concentrate on keeping plane and modify my technique.

Did I mention there’s beer?  That didn’t help.  Or maybe it did.

There’s a lot of fun to be had throwing an axe on a wall, sticking a bullseye with a flush blade.  And then doing it multiple times. And cheering on the rest of the team.

Tech-wise, they use a mobile app to track points, assign random bouts, and eventually set a seed for an elimination tourney.  We were there just under 3 hours, and I’m sure I threw the axe about 100 times, all told.  Had a smile the entire time, and the body hurts more from the laughs than the throws.

Well worth it if you have one in your hometown.

 

 

Anthem – Prediction

Due Fall 2018

The only video from the game so far dates from June 10th.  5 months ago.

Given that EA is in the news, why not have some rampant speculation!  None of it positive!

1 – It’s Destiny but with flying

The same BioWare team that did Inquisition would be working on Anthem.  Inq was mmo-ified, just lacking multiplayer.  Sure does look like Destiny – just with a different background and more focus on the 3D space.

2 – MTX everywhere

Where EA applies the EA logic to gameplay, and the lootbox fun that no one wants.  Want that neat gun that does double damage?  Gamble away for it.  Don’t actually buy the gun, that would cheapen the gun.  Gamble away for a secondary credit that you get in random amounts.  The gun could cost $10 or $100, cross your fingers!

3 – Timers everywhere

Gate things through timers and charge people to reduce the timers.  Crafting, missions, grouping.  Timers.

4 – Looks good, hard to see

I’ve never been a fan of the Uncharted series combat, since line of sight (LOS) is so hard to come by.  Most quality FPS games have a mix of open spaces, then closed spaces.  All told, you can still SEE things, targets in particular.  Horizon (robot dinosaurs) are a challenge, in particular in dense foliage because you can’t see them.

Anthem, in that video in particular, has a line of sight issue.  From that 3:00 to 5:00 mark, it is really hard to make out what is going on.

5 – Bugs.  Everywhere.

I was a huge Bioware fan for many, many years.  When the doctors left, it was a passing of the torch.  SWTOR launched, buggy and missing key pieces.  The story was amazing, but the other parts lacked polish.  That was the way every Bioware game had ever launched – we just ignored the rusty bits.  Fine enough for single player – just reload.  Time is crunched, things don’t work, day 1 patch, day 30 kitchen sink patch and then cross your fingers.

6 – Frostbite is a limiter

The engine all EA games work on (Frostbite) is both a bane and a boon to the dev cycle.  It’s “easy” enough to swap people from one project to the next, and to re-use previous content.  The engine is purpose-built and after a few years now, people are getting a better handle.  Unfortunately, it is built for closed-space FPS games.  Large scale, dynamic systems are a challenge.   Battlefront will help, but that will also mean that Anthem is more akin to lobby-based/sectional games than an open-world game.

7 – Poor inventory management

This is just a general problem with RPGs today.  Inventory is a mess.  There’s just too much stuff and no way to organize it.

8 – No group management

Following the Destiny trend, there will be no group management.  Guilds/clans, sure.  But active grouping and easy to use tools… nope.

9 – Poor length

Again, like Destiny and the Division, a lack of forethought to extending the life of the game so as to merit the name “games as a service”.  I would love to avoid another “dark zone”, or “single run forever” mentality.  Breadth of options = longevity.

10 – 1 year delay

To be fair, any game that wants to launch to a very large user base aught not be silent for months at a time (nearly half a year).  If it’s to launch in 12-18 months, then dev cycles tell me the core gameplay is done, and the side systems are being worked on.  No news means no progress, means at least a year’s delay.  Launch will be in the Sep-Nov timeframe… in order to get as many eyes as possible.

11 – Bioware’s last game

In two ways.  BW was recognized for making deep RPGs with interesting stories.  Mass Effect: Andromeda shook that trend, enough to shutter one of the studios.  Anthem appears to be taking the MMO part of SWTOR (people and stats) and ditching the RPG portion.  Those interested in a story will have to stick with SWTOR (which isn’t a terrible thing).

Second, EA has a tendency to close their studios who do not exceed expectations.  Unless Anthem is a smash (see above), this could be the final hurrah for the company name.  Which would be a shame.