Category Archives: Blog

The Hardest Video Game Quiz Evar

Welcome, FlashInTO attendees!

We are pleased to announce this month’s release, The Hardest Video Game Quiz Evar!

The Hardest Video Game Quiz Evar

The Hardest Video Game Quiz Evar

Use the picture clues and your sense of humour to figure out 50 video game titles. Clues range from current titles to stuff you haven’t played since 1983. And if you weren’t yet born in 1983, use the Send to Friend button to call in the assist from a veteran gamer.

Hot MMOG Dev Tip #4 – Levels

i worked for over a year as sr. game developer on a massively multiplayer online casual game for kids and tweens called GalaXseeds. i learned a great deal, and am happy to share these tips about MMOG development.

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When you own and operate a Massively Mutliplayer Online Game you are, in very many ways, a day care worker. You’re trying to keep a group of players happy all day long. These players are all at different stages of development. Some learn faster than others. Some are well-behaved, while some draw on the walls and throw wood blocks at the other players.

The content you develop for your MMO costs you money. If your game is free to play with an enhanced subscription or micro-payment model, you need to structure your game to get the most mileage possible from your content. Your game’s structure determines how quickly players will use up your content. If your game is level-based, prepare to have a lot of cranky toddlers on your hands.

Many of the most popular MMOs today follow the levelling systems introduced by pen-and-paper role-playing games from the 1970s:

  1. Your character has a statistical list of abilities
  2. When you take actions, your score improves incrementally
  3. Once your score hits a certain threshold, your character “levels up”
  4. Levelling up improves your character’s stats
  5. The score required to reach the next level gets larger
  6. The more your character’s stats increase, the more of the game world you can experience

i have a few problems with this time-worn system. For starters, it’s time-worn. Just like any well-established genre, RPGs have sunk into distinct ruts. Levelling systems are a rut. Elemental (ice, fire, water, earth, lightining) magic systems are pretty tired too. A number of articles i’ve been reading lately wonder why so many MMOs and RPGs take place in traditional Tolkien-inspired fantasy worlds with orcs, trolls, ogres and elves. The same question was raised at the 2007 Game Developers’ Conference.

Firaga!

If i have to cast one more bloody fire spell, ima set something on fire.

The obvious answer is that established products sell better than untried ones. Sequels and spin-offs thrive not only in the game industry, but also in teevee land and filmywood. It often takes a young, upstart company to prove a new concept for a huge publishing giant to sweep in, buy that company (or steal the idea) and make good on it!

I Have a -5 Bonus to Tolerance

The second trouble with levelling systems is that they are dumb. If my character’s stats are Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity, and i kill the same rat species 500 times, i will eventually level up. Why did my Strength stat increase? Probably because my character got so much exercise thwacking away with his sword. Why did my Dexterity stat increase? This one’s a bit of a stretch. Maybe my character became a better sword handler during all that hacking and slashing? Maybe he learned how to do some cool sword twirls while he mundanely murdered a mob of matching monsters?

Fine. But why on Earth did my character’s intelligence stat increase when he levelled up? Was he reading an encyclopedia while he was fighting? Was he listening to some sort of Books on Tape series that i wasn’t aware of? The total abstraction of abilities to numbers forces artificiality on the game experience, an experience that could be much more enriching.

Skills vs. Levels

Games like Oblivion are more skill-based than level-based, and i prefer them. Oblivion still has levels and thresholds, but players improve their skills by actually performing those skills. To improve your acrobatics skill, jump. To improve your stamina, run. To improve your intelligence, read a book. To improve your magic casting skill, cast magic. It’s a very logical approach to character growth, and it’s much more rewarding than abstracted box scores that turn gaming into an undergrad statistics course.

Oblivion

Oblivion requires you to actually use a skill to make it stronger

The danger of levelling is that your players are encouraged to eat through your content as fast as possible. There’s a definite competition between your players to see who can reach your level cap first. And when players do reach the level cap, they complain on your boards that there’s nothing to do! Massively is hosting an interesting discussion about the pleasures and pains of levelling up quickly in an MMO.

RPGs Play You

The comfort of RPGs is that they require very little skill of the human player. i don’t have to be physically strong in order to complete a RPG. If my character dies, i can jump back into the game and monotonously beat up weak creatures until the game decides i’m strong enough to tackle larger creatures. i don’t have to be genuinely charismatic to sway the opinions of in-game characters. i improve that number stat, and suddenly the game gives me extra conversation options to woo the different people i meet. i know that i won’t be able to complete a twitch-based game that requires fast reflexes, but i can always rely on RPGs to let me methodically chip away at the game content, plodding through randomly-regenerated monsters until i finish the game … not by my own skill, but by dull brute force.

Some MMOs shake this format up a little. In Puzzle Pirates, encounters really are twitch-based. The player who can zip through a game of Puzzle Fighter (aka “swordfighting”) the fastest wins the encounter.

Rock Band

In Puzzle Pirates, your swordfighting success is based on real skill (twitch gaming skill, not an actual swordfighting skill)

But at the risk of sounding like John Lennon: imagine an MMO without levels. Imagine a game where only the smartest players solved the game’s puzzles and riddles. Only the fastest players could compete in twitch-based challenges. Only the most creative players earned praise and attention for their in-game designs. Only the most methodical players could keep track of complex game stats. Imagine an MMO that played to the strengths of the human beings backing each digital avatar, so that players really had to band together and use each other’s actual skills to succeed in the game. Then success would not be based on who could repeatedly click on the same monster for hours on end.

i don’t know what that MMOG looks like. But i’m working on it.

Update: One day after this post, an author at Massively wrote this pithy observation:

Killing a boss on launch day may mean you’re one of only a handful of people to do it – ever. The chance to actually be heroic, in a genre that more often than not defines heroism as ‘investing time’, is exciting.

The rest of the artice, titled “MMOG – missing a sense of mystery” is worth a read.

Five Things To Love About Rock Band

Rock Band

(Why you would offer up all four parts is beyond me)

If you’re just cottoning on to this Guitar Hero trend, you’re so far behind you might as well be … well, Guitar Hero. Rock Band is the new hotness, developed by the scorned developer of the first two Guitar Hero games. It’s not available in Canada until mid-December (which is after my birthday, so i don’t know what they could possibly have been thinking) , but my own personal guitar hero scrounged one up for me during a shopping trip to Buffalo. (Thanks, Ryan!!)

The game turns the music rhythm genre up to eleven, and then trashes a hotel room, sets fire to its guitar, and bites the head off a chicken – all before you get a chance to hit “START”. You can play four instruments: lead guitar, bass/rhythm guitar, drums, and your own voice (via a USB microphone).

For those of you who DO know all about the game and are looking for that extra little recommendation to push your over the edge (in case the 90+% score on Metacritic wasn’t enough), here’s are five things you might not know about Rock Band that make it fully worth the purchase price:

Rock Band Intro Movie

I don’t think he’s wearing his seat belt

The Intro Movie

Usually, a slick intro movie isn’t much to recommend a game on. i think it was because of the developers’ dodgy character models and lacklustre animations from GH1 and GH2 that i had my doubts about Rock Band’s level of quality. Once i popped in the disc, though, i was met with such a mind-blowingly amazing intro movie that my already sky-high expectations shot straight into the stratosphere.

i won’t blow any of the details if you haven’t seen it, but it’s a quality piece of animation that i have to watch the whole way through whenever i start playing the game.

Rock Band Drums

Despite what you have heard, these are NOT easy to disassemble and stow

Drum Fills

To keep lawsuits at a minimum, developer Harmonix kept the Star Power system from the Guitar Hero series and renamed it “Overdrive”. Players can build up energy by playing certain song sections perfectly. To maximize their scores, the guitarists tip their instruments’ necks up to kick the performance into Overdrive, doubling their score combos. The singer has to improvise over an empty gold-coloured stretch of the song. while the drummer has to hit a crash cymbal note at the end of a fill.

Drum fills pepper every song in the game. Here, the song’s actual drum track is silenced and Rock Band’s toy drumset plays “real” drum notes. You can fill the song however you want – your snare, cymbal, bass drum and toms are at your disposal while the drum fill section is live.

It sounds like a simple thing to build into the game, but it’s genius. It takes Rock Band a tiny step further from “nerds playing plastic instruments in a video game” to “nerds playing real instruments. In a video game. And the instruments are still plastic.”

Rock Band Avatar

I wish I could get away with pants this tight

Character Customization

i dismissed Rock Band’s character customization feature out of hand because during the whole game, you’re staring at a fret board. i don’t have time to enjoy the antics of my on-screen rocker, because my eyeballs have completely dried out and airborne dust mites and cat fur are sticking to them as i strain away at the onslaught of bright shiny coloured notes. Aside from that, claims of an amazing character customization feature almost always fall flat.

The most recent hype has been about Mass Effect’s character creation tool, with which you’re reportedly able to tweak eyebrow height, bone structure, and skin texture to the point where you can make a character who looks exactly like you. If by exactly like me, reviewers meant exactly like me as drawn by Billy, age 6 from the Family Circus comics, then i’ll concede their point. Otherwise, i wasn’t impressed with Mass Effect’s avatar tool one bit.

Billy, age six

Billy says “Guitar Hero looks like toilet sausages!”

Rock Band, on the other hand, wows with its initial toolset. Given a list of extremely well-designed presets, the player can tweak his character’s face, hairstyle, skin tone, build, and height. Additional options like “home town” endear the player to his creation. Further into the game, the player starts earning money to buy an incredible array of costume pieces, hair styles, jewelery, make-up, facial hair and face paint. Each costume item is sorted by music genre – Rock, Metal, Goth, and Punk.

You wanna create a short little Brian Johnson wanna-be with a cap and black curls for your AC/DC cover band? No problem. Fancy an Alice Cooper-styled rocker? Sure thing! What if you want to recreate KISS with their trademark face paint? Rock Band gives you a sticker art tool to custom-build your own face paint, tattoos and band logos. Believe.

Rock Band Gameplay

Rock Band: the most fun you’ll have faking it

The Band

With all this amazing customization, it would be a real shame to let the band avatars fade into the background behind a wall of fret boards, twitching to the beat with sorry animation. Harmonix has cooked up some really great ways to utilize your avatar.

During loading screens, you’ll see grainy Polaroids of your band hanging out and getting into trouble. One early pic has your group setting stuff on fire in the parking lot. The game poses your avatar for this shot, so that every tattoo, earring and pair of leather pants appears just as you decided in the Rock Shop.

While your band is on stage, the lip-sync is something to behold. Rock Band and Guitar Hero are the kinds of games that people enjoy watching (though with Rock Band supporting two extra players, one would hope that more party guests will get in on the action). The Guitar Hero games, with their pre-fab rockers and rotten animation, pale compared to seeing your custom avatar on-stage lip-syncing beautifully to every song, playing every drum hit in time with the music, and shredding the solos while actually pressing chords and strumming the strings.

The end result is that the character you created on a lark with a joke name actually becomes you in the game, and you actually start to feel like you’re in a real band and the crowd is going crazy for you. (While you’re at it, those voices in your head are probably real, too. Oh well. Guess it’s time to go murder your next door neighbour with a hatchet before the government activates the behaviour constraint mechanism in your teeth.)

Audience Participation

The crowd does more than simply scream for your alter-ego. If your band plays well, the crowd will actually start singing along.

Now consider this: when additional songs were released for Guitar Hero II, people balked at the price. The songs were packed as inseparable bundles, with usually one decent song and two mediocre songs that you had to purchase. Proponents argued that the songs cost so much (around $6 for a bundle of three) because of all the extra work that went into programming them. You had a lead guitar part. A bass guitar part. Four difficulty modes for each part. Practice mode sections. Co-op and versus modes. Detractors said that the song pricing was just plain greedy.

Rock Band’s list of additional content is huge, and this is only the first week. Just like Guitar Hero, Rock Band has 3-song packs, but players can opt to buy the songs separately. Each Rock Band song contains game data for four difficulty modes across four different instruments – that’s 16 game tracks per song. Add to each of these a Tug of War versus mode, and practice mode sections for each song. Each song must also be programmed with the excellent lip- and play-sync information i mentioned earlier.

And THEN, consider that if each additional song supports the audience participation feature (and i haven’t confirmed that they do), the developer actually has to record a group of people singing along.

Now for the kicker: the Rock Band content is priced cheaper than Guitar Hero content. For my buck, that’s a slam dunk.

Rock Band has consistently been the only game on my must-have this year, and now that i’m playing it, i’m thrilled to say it’s exceeded my expectations in every way possible. It’s simply the best game i own, and i can recommend it to anyone who has time to hear me rave.

Hot MMOG Dev Tip #3 – WoW!

i worked for over a year as sr. game developer on a massively multiplayer online casual game for kids and tweens called GalaXseeds. i learned a great deal, and am happy to share these tips about MMOG development.

World of Warcraft Cliff Notes

World of Warcraft

You may have heard of it?

Want to learn all about World of Warcraft, but don’t want to spend the time or money? It’s exactly like studying crack cocaine without actually having to smoke it. How Stuff Works has written a World of Warcraft primer to keep people in the know and free from addiction.

i’m taking the easy way out this week and simply linking to the article. Look for more articles from Untold Entertainment in this ongoing MMOG Tips series, geared for people who’d like to better understand MMOGs (particularly casual MMOGs, which exclude WoW entirely.)

Design Flash Games for the Ceeb

The latest job posting of interest for Flash game developers comes from the CBC. The post is MIA on their site, so check out the FlashInTO boards for the CBC Flash game dev posting. It looks like they need an artist to pair up with a programmer.

i interviewed with the CBCKids department a few years ago, and at first blush was impressed with their people and their facility. i’ve heard a criticism that the CBC is a big government-run bureaucratic behemoth filled with stuffed suits stodgily adhering to strict process. At the same time, certain departments (like CBCKids) were described to me as creative islands in an otherwise regimented outfit.

Have you worked at the CBC? Post a comment here and let people know how it went! (The organization is very large, so we’ll take your comments with a grain of salt.)

CBC building Toronto

Cee Bee Cee for me tee vee

One thing i really like about the place is their job application room. i’m not sure if it still exists, but here’s the idea: you go in there, fill out a cover sheet and drop your resume or CV into a box. Then you leave, thinking “what a gigantic waste of time and taxpayer dollars.” (By law, you have to throw in the bit about taxpayer dollars – it’s a requisite complaint whenever anyone talks about the CBC. Believe.)

After dropping my resume in the box many years ago, i wrote the CBC off as a no-go. But months later, when i had completely forgotten how to even spell “CBC”, i got a call inviting me for an interview. You see, when you slip your resume into that mysterious slotted box, it travels a series of brightly-painted and striped penumatic tubes until it reaches the Land of the Employment Fairies. The Fairies hold very serious council meetings about where the resumes should go. These meetings are all very stern and serious, which is adorable because the Fairies are only the size of a dumpling, and just as chubby.

After much bickering, the Fairies decide where in the vast organization your CBC resume submission should go. Then you get a phone call from a man who wants to know if you can come in and interview.

i was fresh out of school when the CBC Employment Fairies gave my resume to a producer. He worked in an office high up in the building. He sat in front of a window in a swivel chair like a Bond villain. My memory might be cloudy, but i’m pretty sure he was bald and stroking a cat. He also rode in an electric wheelchair like Professor Xavier from the comic books, and – again, i can’t be positive – but i think he had a metallic, mechanical hand like Dr. Claw.

Perhaps i’ve villainized him too much, but take a look at our conversation and you can decide for yourself:

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Him: (twirling his long, waxy black moustache) So we need someone proficient at Adobe Illustrator to design props for Air Farce. Signs, posters – that kind of thing.

Me: OK – sounds good! (resisting the urge to add “everything but the Air Farce part”)

Him: (drawing in smoke from a long, thin cigarette holder) You’ve brought a demo reel, have you?

Me: Yeah … but it’s mostly 3D stuff that i did in college. i don’t have many 2D examples from Illustrator, but i’m definitely capable. 2D design was one of my strongest subjects.

Him: (flicking the lid of his lighter made from elephant ivory) Well, let’s take a look.

(At this point, we watch the demo reel. The reel is not very good. Aside from that, it’s not very appropriate for the position – CBC did not give me any indication of what the position entailed before i showed up. Otherwise, i would have brought more 2D work.)

Him: (running his tongue along his diamond-studded front tooth) Hmm. Well, it seems that what you’re really interested in is 3D work.

Me: i’d really just like to start working in the industry to discover my passion! This job sounds like a great opportunity. Eventually, i’d love to get into video game design. But i’m fresh out of school, so i’d like to get some experience somewhere.

Him: (cracking his knuckles) Well, have you thought about taking courses at Sheridan?

Me: (crushed) Uh … i already have taken courses at Sheridan. i’m a graduate. i’ve just come out of school. i’m looking for work now. i’m not going to go spend another four years in school.

Him: (tying a lady to a railroad track) Well, usually sit prospective employees down at a computer to see how well they can use Illustrator …

Me: That sounds great! i’ll do really well. i’m very good with the program.

Him: (murdering a baby) … but we’re not going to do that in your case. Despite what you say, i don’t think you know how to use Illustrator.

Me: … WHAT?? How … how can you even say that? You haven’t even seen any of my 2D work. Just take me to that computer, and i’ll show you how well i know the software.

Him: (launching a surprise nuclear strike against a defenseless polynesian island) i don’t think that will be necessary. Thank you and goodbye. My henchmen will show you the door.

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We form perceptions about people, places and institutions based on singular experiences. After that interview, i wasn’t the world’s biggest CBC fan. i’ve been more at ease about the place lately, though your mileage may vary.