Between training for the Austin Distance Challenge, being a dad, helping build a secret new iOS game (hopefully out in January!), helping to finish FEZ, working on an unannounced game design book, continuing to explore my own game ideas, both digital and otherwise, contributing to the GDC Advisory Board, and prepping for Fantastic Arcade and Indiecade, I haven't had a whole lot of time for playing video games. So last night, as a sort of self-reward for getting half my GDC talks reviewed and half the new book chapter written, I downloaded and played a dozen Playstation Network demos, including:
...and played through them all in one sitting. It was gluttonous and satisfying, but I started noticing some trends that were turning me off of a lot of the games. I wanted to record them here if only to help me remember them better, in hopes that I might be as strict and critical of my own work as I was being of others.
Please note that tese are highly subjective observations, and drawn only from the demos I played last night. Therefore, some of these games may not be the best examples of these particular flaws or strengths. The lessons presented at the end of each section are merely notes to myself about my own personal preferences and goals, and not intended as mandates to the game design community!
Most of the games I played presented strikingly little variety over the course of 30-60 minutes of play. I enjoy (and sometimes make) games that are only about one thing, but it's important for that one thing to have enough depth and interest. For the action games in particular, I can't help but compare them to one of my favorite beat-'em-ups, Streets of Rage 2. In the first level ofStreets of Rage 2, which takes less than ten minutes to play through, you walk through 3 distinct environments (street, bar, back alley), and fight at least 5 distinct types of enemies (thug, gangster, knife guy, whip girl, boss guy), many of whom are presented with differing costumes and colors. However, whether it was Castlevania, Bloodrayne or even Ace Combat, the lack of variety and hence sense of uninteresting repetition was severe and pronounced, whatever the inherent strengths of the controls or presentation. El Shaddai actually had a good variety of enemies, no mobs to encounter in that game; however, enemies took 50+ hits to dispatch, which quickly amounted to feeling the same as fighting 50 guys that took 1 hit each.
Lesson: I prefer constant engagement, whether I am diving deeper into a single fascinating idea or constantly improvising to handle new challenges. Once I have solved a problem like "what is the most efficient way to dispatch this enemy" I begin to lose interest in it, and resent my progress being halted to "solve" that problem again, over and over and over.
The demos I played were split about 50-50 between engaging presentation and boring presentation. While only Hoard and Age of Booty were actually unpleasant to look at,Echochrome was very uninteresting. I got the sense that it was the absolute minimum amount of effort in order to create something both acceptable and clear. It was functional to that end, but nothing more. Bloodrayne was full of nice details and flourishes, but the foregrounds and backgrounds were often unclear, and I frequently lost track of where I was in the environment or in a mob of enemies. El Shaddai was inspirational in its bizarre presentation, but as a result I frequently misjudged leaps over gaps and other simple fundamentals of movement.
Outland was the only title that really stood out in this category, taking the indie cliche of "silhouette platformer" to an almost PixelJunk level of attention to detail, filling the backgrounds with trees, vines, fog, and lumps of earth or fortress suspended from enormous chains. Every edge of every silhouette is covered with interesting and intricate detail, establishing an excellent sense of atmosphere whilst simultaneously clearly communicating everything I needed to know about the state of the game and how to interact with it.
Lesson: Presentation obviously has dual responsibilities - entertaining the sense pleasure part of my brain as well as feeding me hints and updates about the state of the underlying game system. Traditionally I've thought of the latter as being the most important role of presentation, but my tolerance for lazy approaches to the former is... lower than it used to be.
Nearly every game I played (with the exception of Ace Combat 7's airplane level, Outland, and of course Beyond Good & Evil) had controls that felt bad: movement that was simultaneously too fast and too slow, unpredictable consequences, and unclear connections between my inputs and actions in the game. I have always been sensitive to this, and it's something I obsess over in my own games, and I have apparently lost the ability to cut a game any slack if they haven't nailed down the most fundamental basics about how I interact with the system. This is only complicated by lackluster presentation and repetitive gameplay.
Lesson: Keep obsessing about controls. It's still more art than science, especially when it inevitably reaches across the game logic and presentation. But when it feels wrong it massively detracts from the game experience, like finding a chicken head in your chicken nuggets.
Made With Love
This is easily the most subjective (and possibly imagined) of any of these rushed appraisals, but I was finding games that I deemed "made with love" much more enjoyable than the others. Castlevania and Bloodrayne especially dripped with unnecessary detail and personality, as didFrom Dust and El Shaddai. Age of Booty and Echochrome felt like they were built by robots.
Lesson: Personality matters. I can tell (or at least I think I can tell) when the folks making the game really cared about what they were doing, and spent some of their limited time on this earth trying to make my limited time on this earth more interesting. This is a beautiful thing.
Outland and the Outsider's Perspective
Of all the demos I played, Outland was the only game (except Pac-Man and Beyond Good & Evil, but I've played those before!) that I wanted to keep playing. It was also the only game demo that presented an engaging amount of both systemic and presentational variety, coupled with tight controls and a sense that the team making the game really cared about every little detail in it. If I wasn't working on FEZ and GDC talks this weekend, I know how I'd be spending most of this afternoon!
Playing all these demos helped me remember a little bit of what it is like to just be a game player, not a game maker. There are lots and lots of things that are really important to me as a game maker that have little to do with whether a player finds the game enjoyable. I know for a lot of game creators that "finding the fun" is the ultimate law, and I do think engagement is important. But as a game maker there are so many other boundaries and concerns for me that that ultimatum is rather moot.
However, I've always believed in and practiced trying to view the games I make as an outsider, as a new player, and trying to imagine what they might feel. Playing these demos help remind me of the things that interest me when I decide to spend my limited leisure time with a video game, instead of a book or movie:
These are obviously very complex and overlapping concerns from the game maker's perspective, but as a player these were the things that stood out to me in sharp relief last night. I hope that the next time you play a game I made that you hold me to the same critical standards to which I hold the games I play, and I hope that sometimes I succeed.
PS: It's worth noting that Outland was created by Housemarque, the studio most well-known for Super Stardust HD, but also responsible for the vastly superior Dead Nation, an excellent nu-retro top-down co-op shooter available only on PSN. You can check out theOutland demo on either XBLA and PSN and give it your own critical look!