tirsdag den 30. marts 2010

Go episodic! (Part 1)

Traditionally the Computer Game has had the production form of the motion picture. This is fine if you have 20 million dollars to spend. If you don’t, then you should consider doing what TV-studios have been doing for at least 50 years – you should go episodic. But you have to do it right.

The Episodic Game was the new black in 2006. Tell Tale Games re-launched Sam & Max in an episodic form. Valve continued Half Life 2 as episodes and SiN, an old first person shooter, was reborn as SiN Episodes. But come 2007, and no one talked about episodic games anymore. SiN, episode 2 was never released, and we are still waiting for Half Life 2, episode 3. American McGee tried the format with American McGee’s Grimm, but failed miserably. Tell Tale Games have expanded their range of episodic games, but they among the very few companies to do this.

The reason why Tell Tale Games succeeds in this while the others fail is very simple: they have adopted the production form of a TV-series. And they understand one single thing: just as a TV-series is NOT a movie cut into small pieces, an episodic game is NOT a traditional game cut into small pieces.

The production form of a movie and a TV-series is very different. The obvious difference is that a movie runs around 110 minutes, while a single season of a TV-series (like Lost) runs around 16 hours. A movie easily costs around 20 million $, while an episode of Lost costs around 2 million $. A typical hour-episode lasts app. 40 minutes. In other words: a movie costs around 200000 $ per minute, while a high profile TV-series costs around 40000 $ per minute.

It costs a lot of money to start a TV-series. The pilot of Lost cost 10 million $ (the one of most expensive pilots ever) – about half the budget of a standard movie. If the networks don’t pick up the show, then the money is wasted; if they do up, however, the “machine” has been built and it becomes cheaper and cheaper to use.

While you essentially chuck everything when you've finished making a movie, the whole idea of a TV-series is that you can reuse the cast and the locations – in the long run this makes the production a lot cheaper. Once you have built a set, it becomes very cheap to use it again. Think of a sitcom like Friends: most episodes have a cast list of less than 10 – the 6 main characters and a couple of guest stars. The number of locations is limited to 4 or 5 – the two apartments, the café and 1 or 2 extra locations. Lost has more locations and more characters in each episode – but just as in Friends there are very few new locations and characters.

I think that a lot of this translates easily into computer games. But you have to respect the format– episodic games are NOT full games cut into small pieces.

I think that Half Life 2, episode 1, 2 and (hopefully) 3 is a full game cut into three pieces.

Some are already doing it right. The Phoenix Wright (Capcom) games are actually prime examples of the episodic game. Each game consists of a number of standalone chapters and each chapter has few locations and few characters. Blue Toad Mystery Files (Relentless Software) is an episodic game in 6 episodes, which can be downloaded from the PlayStation Network – the whole game takes place in 1 village and the characters are reused from episode to episode. And then there’s Tell Tale Games, which have released several different IP’s as episodes.

I’ll be returning to the dos and don’ts of episodic game in the future – I will be trying to set up some ground rules for the format.

tirsdag den 16. marts 2010

The multi-protagonist game

An overweight asthmatic private investigator, an FBI agent with a drug addiction, an introvert divorced architect and an insomniac photo journalist. Realistic characters in computer games? What will be next?!

From the very start of Heavy Rain (from Quantic Dreams) it is clear that this is a different kind of beast. You play Ethan Mars (the architect) and you simply wander around in your house, helping your wife preparing for a party, playing with your kids. Then a tragic accident happens and the story jumps 2 years forward. You now live in a rundown apartment with your son - the beautiful wife and house is gone. And then all of a sudden you’re Madison Paige (the photo journalist) being chased by hooded men with knives. And the next scene you’re Scott Shelby (the asthmatic PI), trying to interview the mother of a murdered child.

Last week I talked about the difficulty of feeling deeper emotions for the character you are controlling. In Heavy Rain you constantly shift main characters and quite often you interact with a character that you’ve just controlled. In one scene you control Ethan getting hurt doing something insanely dangerous and in the very next scene you control Madison tending the wounds on Ethan – wounds that he got when you controlled him. This is very, very clever. As I also said last week, it’s much easier to empathize with the side characters – so what Heavy Rain does is effectively making the main characters side character when it fits.

Heavy Rain is a multi-protagonist video-game. Each character in the game has their own goal and their goal becomes your goal when your controlling them.

Heavy Rain also lets you experience what the character you control feels. If your character is stressed, it becomes more difficult to control it. Your character will only run, when THEY feel there’s a reason for it. If you don’t react quickly enough, your character will autonomously make the easy choice … when you control Norman Jayden, the FBI agent, for instance, he will take drugs if you don’t actively stop him. And when you’re playing dreams or memories (which happen quite often) it seems as real as the rest of the game; because … you’re experiencing what the character you control feels.

You can influence your character, but that’s it; you don’t own them. This is emphasized by the fact that you don’t really know anything of your characters – despite that you’re controlling them, they are keeping secrets from you.

The multi protagonist game isn’t new – Infinity Ward, for instance, has done it with great success in the Call of Duty games. But the way it is done in Heavy Rain is really breath taking. Writer/director David Cage knows exactly what he is doing. While the story barely hits the standard of a straight-to-video rip-off of S7even, the way the character interaction works is going to set new standards.

The way Heavy Rain deals with characters should enter any game designer’s toolbox and as such the game, if anything is fair, will take its place in the video games’ history. It’s a landmark game.

I know that Quantic Dreams tried some of the same things in Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy, as it was called in some parts of the World) – I think it seems like a rough sketch compared to Heavy Rain.

Oh, and David Cage calls Heavy Rain an interactive drama. Spare me, David – Heavy Rain is a video game … and a damn fine one at that.

mandag den 8. marts 2010

Love your side characters

It’s very hard to make a player feel something deeply for the main character in a computer game. The reason for this is that the main character is our anchor in the game universe. Does that mean that we can’t invoke deeper feelings in a computer game?

Of course not – we just need to create great side characters.

When we play Uncharted, we become Nathan Drake. He is our alter ego in the game – but we don’t inherit his feelings. In the cut scenes he is Nathan Drake, fortune hunter who, whether he admits it or not, is in love with Elena Fisher. When he is in the game universe, he becomes the skin we wear. Any motives or feelings Nathan might have inside the game’s universe feels like postulates, because we become Nathan.

So, we don’t really feel for our main characters because we’re controlling them. But we can feel for our side characters – especially if something we do has a consequence for them.

In the end of the old text adventure Planetfall , the quirky droid Floyd, who is our companion throughout the game, sacrifices his life to retrieve vital information. While he is dying the player character sings “The Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner”. This is a genuinely sad scene, because Floyd dies as a consequence of something we’ve done.

The seminal horror game Silent Hill 2, has a scene in which the player character and his love interest Maria run as fast as they can down a corridor, trying to escape “Pyramid Head”, a horrific monster. We steer the main character and we barely escape into an elevator; but Maria doesn’t make it. She is caught and killed by Pyramid Head – again this is a consequence of something we’ve done.

It’s much the same thing when Alex is abducted in the beginning of Half Life 2, Episode 2 – it feels like it’s our fault, because we didn't take care of her. The reason it works is that we like Alex - and Floyd and Maria. And the reason we like them is that they are very well conceived.

While it’s difficult to have the player get emotionally involved with the main character of a game, it’s certainly possible to feel something for the side characters of a game. And the odd thing is that when these side character’s that we can emotionally connect with display affection for our character, it’s really us that they display affection for. When they blame the main character for something, it’s us that they blame.

So: if you want to invoke feelings in your computer game take a long look at your side characters. Do you like them? If you don't, then your players probably won't either. And if they don't, they won't invest themselves emotionally in your game.

mandag den 1. marts 2010

Refusing to be a bastard

In a pivotal scene in Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, Douglas Quaid (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) discovers that his personality is actually a memory implant ... and that the "real" Douglas Quaid (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) wants his body back. The real Quaid, it turns out, is a real bastard - and best friends with Cohaagen, the evil villain. The "fake" Quaid refuses to revert to the real Quaid - he refuses to be the bastard.

God of War 3 will be gracing PS3's all over the world from March 16th. I just (briefly) played the demo last night and the game play seems as fun as ever. And it also seems as tasteless and unpleasant as ever.

I have always had mixed feelings about the God of War-series. On the one hand the game design is nearly flawless - a good mix of really groovy combat and cool puzzles. On the other hand the protagonist, Kratos, is a real bastard. He takes great pleasure tearing his enemies apart limb from limb - and killing innocent people means nothing to him.

When you play a game like God of War, you embody the main character of the game. In the time you play the game, you ARE the main character; and quite frankly, I don't really like being a psychopath.

Like Douglas Quaid (the fake one) I want to rebel against the character, I'm supposed to be - but I don't get the choice. If I want to complete the game, I will have to maim my way through it, like a meth-crazed serial killer.

Don't get me wrong: I don't disapprove of violence in games, not at all. Nico Belli of GTA IV is a violent man. Nathan Drake kills his fair share of people in the Uncharted games (as the villain also points in Uncharted 2 ... who, come to think of it, reminds me a lot of Kratos) - and in Assassin's Creed 2 you're cast as Ezio the Assassin. The difference is that all of these characters have their reasons for killing - in other words ... they aren't, like Kratos, stark raving mad.
I know that it's a matter of taste. Teenage boys all over the world will think that Kratos is really cool and that I'm just an old man - and they might be right. But as a game designer I have to say that I would never ever make a character like Kratos.

God of War 3 will get rave reviews when it comes out. It will sell better than any PS3 game this year. And it will be fun ... but no matter how fun it is, Kratos remains a sick bastard.