Monthly Archives: April 2016

Opinion – Pitch – Actual Pitch

Point.  Counterpoint.

Even the worst game ideas start off as well-meant concepts.  Developers include an idea in their game because they felt it was going to improve the user experience in some way.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out and even the best implemented mechanics have flaws.  This article presents the pitch for aspects of games….and the actual pitch that reflects how the idea worked out.

 

Stun Attacks

Pitch:  Certain attacks by players and enemies will prevent their target from acting.  This allows good players to show off their skills by stopping enemies in their tracks and incentivizes bad players to learn the ins and outs of combat.

Actual Pitch:  We can’t punish weak players physically, so psychologically is all we’ve got.  We’ll give enemies stun attacks so the player must watch helplessly as their avatar is pummeled to death.  By not killing them outright, we dangle the possibility of success in front of the player so that they won’t reload immediately.  I came up with this in elementary school when my teacher told us to envision a circle of Hell.

 

Quick Time Events

Pitch:  The players want to do cool things that we can’t always map to the controller.  Solution?  We temporarily remap buttons to perform those cool actions and notify the player via onscreen prompts.  We preserve the simplicity of a single control scheme while keeping the player involved in jaw dropping scenarios without having to work in a cutscene.

Actual Pitch:  We give the player on screen button cues so they can desperately look for the next prompt while other people get to enjoy the actual visuals.  We’ll also put up the prompts so quickly that players practically have to memorize the sequence and will consistently press the button too quickly or too slowly resulting in their death.  Think of it as a more painful game of Simon.

 

Death Animations

Pitch:  The player needs to know they’ve died.  This is how they know.

Actual Pitch:  Death needs to be even more frustrating and a load/exit screen just ain’t cutting it.

 

Unskippable cutscenes

Pitch:  We’ve established a brilliant narrative which the player will need to understand to truly appreciate our game.  We know it’s frustrating to go through unskippable cutscenes, but the joy they get in the long run will outweigh the frustration.

Actual Pitch:  Our artistic vision is way more important than the player experience.  Sure, the player will likely die to the next boss, and yes, this means they’ll have to rewatch the same scene over and over again, but that just gives them more time to appreciate our genius.  I see no reason why a scene would lose its impact upon repeated viewings by an unwilling audience.

 

Multiple Form Bosses

Pitch:  This last fight is going to be EPIC.  Picture this:  The player beats the final boss….but he’s not dead!  He comes back and he’s meaner than ever!  Even after the next death, the boss isn’t done yet!  He’s got one more form which is so devastating that the worn out player will have to summon up his last remaining strength to overcome the odds.  This is the kind of gaming moment that creates memories that last a lifetime.

Actual Pitch:  This last fight is going to be EPIC.  At least, if you define EPIC as long and boring.  The boss will have a ton of hit points and brutal super attacks, the mentally and physically taxed player won’t have any items or special attacks left, and no one will complain because everyone just expects this.  Don’t worry, we’ll shoehorn the fight in, even if it has nothing to do with the plot.

 

Instant Death:

Pitch:  Fuck the player!

Actual Pitch:  Yeah!  Screw that guy!

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Opinion – The Problem with Selling Virtual Reality

I got sick.  Sorry about last week.

Marketing reality.

With the launch of the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, Virtual Reality gaming is coming out in a big way.  The considerable excitement and attention belies a very real problem faced by Oculus, Valve, and (soon) Sony in communicating the experience that they’re selling to a new audience.  While there are undoubtedly parallels to the more traditional console market, the new VR consoles have much greater challenges than their predecessors.

The first and most common problem for any new console is to justify its existence.  Gamers often must shell out a lot of money for a small selection of games on the hope that their chosen console will ultimately become home to the experiences they enjoy.  On both the money and games fronts, the VR console markers will have a far harder time than the sellers of Xbox, Playstation, or Wii.  The first and most limiting is the cost.  While games are often big sellers of consoles, the extremely high price point of the VR machines makes their downward pressure on sales far more important than the games library.  At $600 for Oculus Rift and $800 for HTC Vive, both consoles reach and cross the boundaries of the price points many customers are willing to pay.  On top of the cost of the units, buyers must have a high end computer to support the experience pushing the price north of $1500 for the whole package.  No game is going to overcome that for the casual market or even many hardcore gamers.  That being said, a good library will entice new buyers.  Not surprisingly, most launch games feel like tech demos which may sate the early adopter crowd, but won’t bring in the large customer base.  The VR consoles will have to convince developers to invest in deeper experiences if it’s going to get customers off the fence.

Getting the buy in of developers is going to be incredibly difficult.  Unlike the traditional consoles that have a long history of successfully launching new iterations, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive are the first of their kind on the market.  Oculus and Valve will have to convince developers that their gaming machines represent a viable market that’s worth investing in and that will continue to grow.  Without a long track record of success, it’s hard to see a developer commit heavily to VR consoles until they’ve sold sufficiently to justify development costs.  Unfortunately, those development costs are going to be higher than traditional console games.  In addition to inexperience with the format, developers will have to contend with a whole unique market that won’t easily translate to other gaming markets.  Games that rely heavily on VR can’t be developed across consoles the way that traditional gaming can.  It’s telling that many of the first breakout games of this current generation were ports from the preceding generation and were developed across multiple consoles.  I suspect that early VR games will attempt to make minor adaptations to accommodate the VR experience as a way to hedge against committing to develop for systems with such a tiny install base.

As if all of the above were not challenging enough, the worst is yet to coming.  The main selling point of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive is the one thing that they cannot convey in the current market: the VR.  Without actually experiencing the product, most video of VR console games look like worse versions of their traditional brethren.  Videos of people playing these games show people laughing while looking incredibly dumb.  Until a customer puts on a headset, they can’t really understand what VR brings to the gaming table.  With most VR makers operating purely in Internet space, it’s hard to convince all but the already convinced about the virtues of this new kind of experience.  These consoles need to inspire incredible word of mouth to get new gamers to try it.

The problems I’ve laid out aren’t insurmountable, but there are incredibly difficult.  Oculus, Valve, and eventually Sony, will need to work on all of these issues to break out of VR’s enthusiast market.  Among the three, Sony probably has the best chance of making it work.  They’ve got a stable of developers, a strong brand name, and the cheapest set up (PS4 + $400 headset).  Still, Oculus and Valve have their products out first and are clearly more committed to the idea.  Any one of these companies could break into the mainstream, but they’re going to have to work hard to do it.

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Review – Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc – PC

Killing high schoolers has never been so much fun!

Murder mysteries are an often neglected part of video game design space.  Whereas books, movies, and tv series have seen great success with that theme, games have generally avoided it due to the lack of obvious gameplay.  Those that have tried (Batman Arkham Asylum or L.A. Noire come to mind) have trouble making the investigatory process interesting as compared to the shooty/fighty bits of the rest of the game.  Given the challenges of the past, it’s not surprising that the game that finally gets it right is the one that commits to being a detective.  Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc succeeds because it knows exactly what kind of game it wants to be.

The story begins with Makoto Naegi attending the first day of high school at the ultra-exclusive Hope’s Peak Academy.  He walks in, falls asleep, and wakes up to find the school has been shut off from the rest of the world.   Stuck with him are his hyper talented classmates who are then informed by the sadistic murderbear Monokuma that the only way they can leave is by killing one of their classmates and getting away with it.  The rest of the story focuses on the interaction between the characters as the bodies pile up and the desperation sets in.  The set up creates a great deal of natural tension between the characters as they grapple with their desire to avoid killing (or being killed) while still wanting to escape.  Each character feels more fleshed out than your standard anime archetype and the game explores their backstories as a way to both empathize with them and establish their motivations.  The murder mystery style pushes the characters in interesting ways so much so that you’ll be sad to see them go.  In between investigations, the player can hone in on characters they particularly enjoy and these mini vignettes fill out their personalities.  Danganronpa’s character depth helps the player invest in the world and care about the outcome.

The interesting setup and strong characters would have been enough to carry the game, but the gameplay elements form a nice compliment.  Danganronpa cycles through three sections: exposition, investigation, and trial.  The first two, exposition and investigation, have the player walking around the world in a first person perspective interacting with people and objects.  There’s more than a little walking simulator DNA here, but the perspective and dingy colors establish a haunting mood.  The trial is the most interactive part.  The player plays a serious of mini games designed to piece together clues found during the investigation phase.  Most of the games get at the player’s understanding of the clues and how they fit together.  For example, one mini game has the characters speaking.  The player must select the right fact that counteracts a phrase being said.  This isn’t the deepest gameplay and one of the minigames stumbles a bit, but it neatly includes the player in the business of figuring out the mystery.  I occasionally felt confused about the answers, but they largely made sense.

…and that’s the strongest aspect of Danganronpa.  If the game indulged in the leaps of logic endemic in many other Japanese series, the mysteries and solutions would have felt unsatisfying.  Instead, developer Spike Chunsoft took the time to come up with logical solutions to its puzzles and understandable motivations for its characters.  It makes sense in the way that good murder mysteries should.  It rewards the incredible interest that its unique premise generates making the player want to continue to solve the overarching mystery of how everyone got into this mess in the first place.  The only time it falters is at the end and, even then, that’s only for a piece of the big reveal.  In all the ways that matter, Danganronpa nails it.

With Danganronpa 2 coming out on Steam (the series has primarily been Sony handhelds) in a couple of weeks, now is the ideal time to pick up the original.  My only hesitation on recommending this game is the violence.  While there is no gore, there is a great deal of blood and brutal deaths.  If you’re okay with that, the intriguing mysteries, clever characters, and unique set up will grab you until the end.

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