Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels - Mini Review

So I did something I do less then I finish a game: I finished a book! I received this book from my wonderful wife for Christmas and 16 days into January I completed it with travels and all.

Who should read this book?
  • Everyone considering going into the game industry before spending considerable time, energy, and money on that pursuit. You should know what you're getting into! 
  • Anyone that has ever posted an angry complaint about a video game. Realize what went into the game before you rant. Chances are they are painfully aware of many more problems with the game than you are.
  • Anyone who loves games and wants a better appreciation or idea of how they are made.
  • Anyone already in the game industry could probably find something useful here. Either a pitfall to avoid, or just a realization that other studios have/are going though the same thing you are.
Jason seems to have a good grasp on the games industry. The introduction is about the most honest straight forward account I've read. Some of the chapters about larger studios are from an upper management point of view and so they glamorize and necessitate "crunch" as part of the process while talking only about high level issues, and filtering everything through their PR department. While these chapters are still interesting the best parts of the book are the less guarded chapters including examples of independent studios and a single developer telling his story.

From chapter 4 or 5 to the end the book shines with a "tell it how it is" feel. The book has an honest portrayal of what making a game alone or as a small team might be like. It shows how even "successful" studios are often only a single failure from closing their doors and some of the struggles and compromises they make to stay afloat. It looks at why some of the design choices may have been made and the struggle between developers and publishers that effect games more then most people realize.

It's a fairly short book at 279 pages with good sized print, but the thoughts are put together and presented well including footnotes. Many of the stories I knew something about, but each had more details than I knew before reading. If the studio has released multiple titles Jason also does a quick historical overview of relevant history to catch you up with the story he's telling. The games covered in this book are:

  • Pillars of Eternity
  • Uncharted 4
  • Stardew Valley
  • Diablo III
  • Halo Wars
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition
  • Shovel Knight
  • Destiny
  • The Witcher 3
  • Star Wars 1313

I have slight disagreements with his conclusions. I agree that it is a wonder any game ever gets made with everything that happens during the process, and crunch will always be a part of games, but i feel for another reason.

Games can and should be scheduled out to work within the studios budget and timeline, if crunch is required something went wrong and you need to hire for the work or move the date. It's illogical and probably illegal most of the crunch that happens in the industry. Planning for everything to take the maximum time you think it might seems to be working at studios I've worked for recently. This approach gives tasks that complete early to cover the ones that go long. At some point if you commit to a deadline you might need to put in a bit of extra time to make it, but there should never be long crunch phases, it's simply unsustainable.

So why did I say crunch will always be around? It is touched on a bit in this book. Game development attracts perfectionists and people will put in the time to do as good of a job as they can. If there is often "extra" time because of proper scheduling the level of polish will be higher with less bugs. If extra work is optional people will do it as passion project in a sustainable way.

Okay, sorry for the mini-tangent on the mini-review. Buy the book, it's a great read about the industry! If you're still on the fence Jason has posted a full chapter about Diablo III here:

Read it and pick up form favorite book store!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Cut Mechanics That Don't Help Your Game

You could ask the question of many game mechanics: Why are they there? I've heard death in games just in general questioned... but in this post I'm specifically looking at Super Mario 3D World and why lives are still a part of the game?

Donkey Kong and later Super Mario Brothers released in the arcade and arcade games make money by accepting quarters, so 1 quarter for 3 lives and fairly robust systems to gain more lives was a good mechanic for arcades and I assume this is where the idea of lives started in the Mario series

In 2013 however, Super Mario 3D World only released on consoles. The game saves after EVERY level so as long as you complete a level no progression is ever lost. (a good thing) 3D World also gives you unlimited continues as it should, so the only thing lives do in single player is give you x number of tries from the level's mid-level flag checkpoint if you need them.

You might not see a problem, indeed lives are a pretty useless mechanic at this point except for personal goals like you only used one life, or didn't use a continue. The problem is playing multiplayer especially with players of unbalanced skill levels. Specifically I've been playing with my 3 year old son quite a bit, and if he is on a level with challenging platforming or avoidance he will go through all of our shared lives and won't be able to play while I either finish the level or give into his please to kill myself so he can play with me again. This is a needlessly frustrating co-op game mechanic. The game gives you an invulnerable raccoon/fox suite that completely breaks most of the game's mechanics, but limits you to 5 lives per continue? So why not simply give unlimited lives in a multiplayer game? This doesn't even break any other game mechanics.

My speculations as to why lives are in the game:

The advantages to having lives: Lives do artificially limit the game and I can see how equally competent players could like this either by making the game more challenging or allowing for competitive griefing. This could be retained by making standard or free-play an option for multiplayer. There is also the since of urgency if you are at the half-way checkpoint to make it through the level before running out of lives. Lives give coins and green mushrooms meaning. (ways to get more lives)

The disadvantages of lives: The loss of a collectible: no more green mushrooms or they would have to do something different. Green mushrooms are often placed in precarious situations making your risk death for another life. Coins would also be effected: collecting 100 coins wouldn't really matter anymore. Really though the only disadvantage that matters is that they break multiplayer... multiplayer isn't multiplayer anymore if you can't play together because one player is dead and you're out of lives. If you're playing with a kid (it is a Mario game after all) you have to listen to them ask "where am I?" "get me back!" "where did I go?" "daddy fix it!" If you're playing with older kids/adults, while less vocal it is the SAME problem, someone is waiting around holding a controller that does nothing while the others have fun without them.

Anyway, it's interesting to take a look at game mechanics that have out lived their usefulness and try to figure out why they weren't cut in development. My best guess is multiplayer is somewhat tagged on to a lot of games and I'm considering writing a post just on this topic.

Like I said at the start Super Mario 3D World is still a good game, having lives just makes multiplayer frustrating. I'm looking forward to Super Mario Oddasy coming out here in a few days! I've avoided as much as I can about the game since I know I will be playing it at some point, but I really hope they eliminate lives at least in multiplayer and REALLY hope they bring back Yoshi!

Note about this blog post: It was written right before Mario Oddasy was released, Miiverse was taken down so I lost the ability to take screen shots. Oddasy also has probably the worst multiplayer ever. I hope Super Mario 3D World is released on the Nintendo Switch without lives in multiplayer so more people can experience this lost gem!