One of the Best MMORPG Info Sites

mmorpgFinding the Best MMORPG

Are you too time-constrained to figure out the best MMORPG for your gaming happiness? The Game Writer Central crew is sending a shout-out to WhatMMORPG.com, a very useful and noteworthy resource. Even figuring out the basics of MMORPG play can be a huge timesink. Who wants to wade through all the marketing fluff — or worse yet, subscribe and invest gameplay time in an MMORPG that turns you off?

That’s where WhatMMORPG shines. Just click on the genre you like, and you’ll see all the basics presented in a simple chart. Date of inception, cost, grinding level (!!!), uniqueness, usability, PVP, crafting, and customizing, all laid out easy-peasy.

Grinding level, talk about a timesaver. This is a valuable service, my gamerz.

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Game design innovation… in today’s market?

game-design

I guess a few game designers were paying attention

The game design plaint that I most routinely dispense is doubtlessly one you’re familiar with. Game design is a dying craft. Publishers have forgotten what makes great games. Sequels are the spawn of Satan.

But maybe I was wrong.

A few fresh game design ideas are out and thriving

That’s right – I surveyed the market today using regression analysis and a four-variable study of the current holiday offerings, based on SKUs shipped, sales totals, sales velocity, and foreign distribution per capita. (Just kidding. Totally unscientific, but based on media coverage, advertising, and the ol’ sales chart.)

I have to commend publishers and developers for actually taking a few real game design risks. The primary success I see, of course, is the Nintendo Wii, which demonstrates that fresh game design starts with risky hardware and a canny knowledge of the gaming audience, its potential for growth, and most of all, that elusive forgotten factor called “fun.” Nintendo game designers understand that “fun” and “gigaflops per CPU clock cycle” are not necessarily tied at the hip.

Some games that are changing the ‘scape

I’m also encouraged by these titles. Maybe there’s hope.

Mirror’s Edge. Brilliant visual design and gameplay that might actually make something out of the rooftop-hopping game dynamic that went nowhere in Assassin’s Creed.

Little Big Planet. A fresh world, a world-building approach, and not a bullet in sight. Is it possible? Don’t get me wrong. I love shooters as much as the next game designer. I just want a balanced game concept diet, y’know?

Spore. Will Wright still marches to his own drummer. Certainly appeals to me more than the Sims.

Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Sure, once you saw the game design for DDR, you probably could’ve come up with the concept for these two. But did you? And c’mon, you have to admit that rockin’ the living room with your pals kicks the pants off Jenga.

The game sales chart still says “FAIL”

At the same time, the game designs that are dominating the sales chart are indeed largely sequels. Madden. (I know, it’s football season.) Mario Kart. GT. Other Mario games. Soulcalibur IV. Tiger Woods.

Still, I’m encouraged to see some fresh blood slowly being injected into the game design bloodstream. Without new ideas, the industry will die, or become trivialized and marginalized like comic books and (shudder) the sports card collectibles industry.

Maybe someday game design will be less of a craft and more of an art.

Ah, what the heck am I saying. Set your sights low. We might get some eye candy that engages a few different brain cells than last year’s game design crop. And that in itself is a revolution.

JJ Abrams’ Lost Thoughts on Creativity

JJ Abrams’ Lost Thoughts, get it? Ha ha… sorry. Anyhow, a friend recently turned me on to TED.com, a site where you can view talks from the cognoscenti from all sorts of incredible fields and backgrounds.

On TED, I recently found this entertaining and thoughtful lecture by JJ Abrams, the creative guy behind Lost, Cloverfield, Alias, and more.

Game designers should take note of his praise of the democratization of creativity. JJ Abrams works in an industry where a couple of dudes with standard desktop PCs can build all the effects necessary to make Lost or any other JJ Abrams production.

Someday, perhaps ordinary gamers will be able to do the same with a few game consoles. Now that would be a game design revolution, and it’s one that we’re already seeing hints of with some of the downloadable content for the 360 and PS3. It’s certainly in the best interests of console manufacturers, who would be happy to see game designers kicked to the curb in favor of a “reality TV” kind of vox populi revolution in game content.

Game design: Call of Juarez

Game design case study of the Xbox 360’s Call of Juarez

I played a decent chunk of this shoot-em-up – “the only Western first-person shooter experience on Xbox 360” – the other evening. I’m curious as to what other Westher shooter experiences there might be in the game universe. I’m offering $25, public accolades, and a free Space Squid t-shirt to the first person who can find me a Western second-person shooter experience on the 360! Jump on it! Wiki and google it, baby!

Anyhow, here’s our game design case study on Call of Juarez.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a decent Western shooter – since 1997’s Outlaws (Lucasarts), to be exact – and this one has some cool ideas percolating under the surface. I was thinking of starting with the game design mistakes so I could wrap with the good news, but I decided to follow a certain cinematic trope. Cliched but too fun to resist.

The good game design

I give the Juarez game designers credit for trying to inject new life without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. For example, weapons have lifetimes, and after pumping out a lot of lead, they start to cook off and finally explode. Like Halo, Gears of War, and many other shooters, Juarez dispenses with the healing item treasure hunt; you only have to avoid damage for a time and your health crawls right back up. Health status is indicated by the color of the hit direction indicator – an entirely new and harmonious idea. This eliminates the need for any kind of health bar.

Special notice goes to Juarez’s special version of “bullet time.” It’s a toned-down version of the gameplay mechanic that Max Payne made famous. You have to holster your weapons to use it, which means you have to plan for it in advance. You can’t just punch a button when things get hairy. You also can’t fire at anything; your movement is slowed. No silly diving through a hail of bullets.

Instead, you see two cursors progress from the lower corners of the screen and move toward the center. Each represents the business end of one of your holstered revolvers. As they pass over your slowed-down opponents, you can open fire and put them down. If you’ve positioned yourself wisely going into a standoff or ambush, you can change the odds dramatically.

Other good design elements: Some good level design that throws a variety of challenges at you from different directions. Nice mood and tone (the main character is a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher whose Bible is one of his weapons). Some environmental interaction, like the ability to use fire as a weapon, and to douse fire with buckets of water. Audio includes some distinctive gunshots.

The bad game design

Juarez throws in a fair percentage of jumping puzzles and narrow walks. I’ve never been a fan of designing jumping puzzles into first-person shooters. Why? Simple. You can’t see where you are. If you fall off that pipe between the barn and the water tower, whose fault is it? I’d say it’s half yours and half the game designer’s, because you can’t see your freakin’ body.

There’s also an odd plainness to the game that gives the experience a sheen of plasticity. Details are sharp enough; the texturing has been done adequately, although few items or scenes give you that “wow” that many 360 games deliver. Animations are jerky and lip-synch atrocious. Even the guns you find – marquee items if there ever were ones – are designed with a shortage of polygons. The game also is badly lit, in my opinion. In the level I saw, I think the art department was designing for stark shadows, but as a result we get either full blare or near-darkness. This is a gameplay gaffe as well as a missed opportunity for nuance that would better display the game’s textures and polys.

The ugly game design

The capper is a problem with the camera and gameplay design. I believe Juarez suffers from a distance, accuracy, and visibility issue. To survive Juarez, you have to approach enemies carefully and use cover. They’re fairly accurate and so are their weapons. You end up shooting at hidden bad guys as both you and they are hunched down behind obstacles. Basically, you end up moving the aiming reticule over dark spots on the screen where you think a bad guy might be shooting from, based on the hit direction indicator, and firing into that tiny space whenever the cursor turns red.

This is surely ugly game design. Although Juarez has plenty of virtues, for me this was the equivalent of pixel-hunting in an adventure game. You know, where the game designer has placed some special exit or item in the level, but because he’s too lazy to think up a good way to create gameplay, he’s hidden it with darkness or a bad camera angle, forcing you to click all over creation looking for it.

The game designers should’ve changed the dynamic, if you ask me. Much less accuracy for the bread-and-butter revolvers. (This is the Wild West, not Iraq. A thug shouldn’t be able to pop me repeatedly from 100 yards away.) Bigger and bolder. A different focal length on the virtual camera, if you will. Zoom in. No revolver sniping. Force both the player and the bad guys to get up close and personal, putting a premium on careful approaches followed by bold attacks and battles of nerves. It’d be a different kind of first-person shooter entirely. It’d be fresh game design.

Game developer subtly admits, “Our game writing was swill!”

gears_game_writingGame writing in the original Gears of War is one of my pet peeves*, and I haven’t unloaded that gem yet. However, I’d like to quote a little news nugget I found in the February EGM. In a teaser about Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360), page 59, developer Epic Games is emphasizing the writing.

The writing? What’s the world come to? This, my friends, is a tacit acknowledgement from Epic Games that the game writing in Gears was totally fubar’ed:

The follow-up to this cover-happy blockbuster will dazzle the graphic whores yet again. And apparently, developer Epic Games is putting much more of an emphasis on the sequel’s narrative (expect this story to be much darker than the original’s.

It may not look like much to you, but when half of a two-sentence teaser addresses an improvement in game writing, I guarantee you Epic Games is striving mightily to make up for past wrongs. And if you played Gears of War, you know how wrong that game writing was.

*I should also always add the disclaimer that the abysmal Gears of War game writing looks to me like a shortcoming of the development team and schedule, not the writer.

Game design goofup: goodbye, Devil May Cry 3

game_design_DMC3Game design has changed from the Dark Ages of arcade development.

Back when arcades ruled the roost, a game designer could assume a few things about his* audience.

They were under 18. They were male. They were playing in a movie theatre lobby or arcade.

And they were really freakin’ bored.

The classic arcade audience — the kids who played Battlezone, Pac-man, and Robotron — didn’t have all the distractions of the modern console gamer. And today’s gamer is older, too, with all the distractions, responsibilities, and competing entertainment forms that come with that demographic.

So that’s why Devil May Cry 3 is a sack of offal.

I paid real hard cash for this game at Circuit City, thinking, “Hey, I deserve a little treat.” This happens more rarely than you might think, and it sucks doubly when I find that the game in question is designed with that old-school, ball-busting aesthetic. DMC3 is really hard, and I’ve played my share of games, obviously. It’s also the worst kind of hard, burdened by the usual crap Capcom fixed camera angles (mostly) and camera-switch triggers that cause you to be headed left before you cross some invisible line, and then suddenly right as soon as you hit that border. You know what I mean.

The worst part is that the game looks good. Intricate environments, fantastic bosses (oh, those bosses), variety, upgrades, vicious melee and range weapons, nice blend of action and puzzling. If I were to draw comparisons, I’d have to pick a blockbuster classic like God of War. It even throws in three different playstyles and a main character who transforms into a demon for heavy combat. That’s a lot of goodness.

But then some blockhead game designer at Capcom decided to make the game ridiculously hard. Each mission — 45 to an hour of exploration and combat — must be completed in one sitting with one character. If you suddenly have to fly to Quebec or something, or the power goes out, your save file will put you right back at mission start. If you reload in any way, you’ll be at mission start. If you die fighting a boss or a gaggle of enemies, and if you have a “continue” gem, you can keep trying from mid-mission, but you respawn outside the room, so the baddies are back to full health. And did I mention how the health and continue gems get a lot more expensive every time you buy them? That’s right. You need them, but every time you buy them the price goes up. Sky high.

And of course the game writing is ridiculously convoluted and pompous. It makes William Shatner’s early acting look like Shakespeare. (Oh wait. He did do Shakespeare but it probably didn’t look like Shakespeare. Anyhow.) Game writers, avert thine eyes.

And so will I. This game writer is ditching this game ASAP. Game design goofups… so avoidable, so deathly.

* Usually I would say “his or her,” but when we’re talking about game designers from the arcade era, the female game designers were even rarer than they are now, and they usually were transsexual if they were female. Little-known fact. Also, some of those transsexual designers were damned good at game design. Some of your favorite games were probably designed by a transsexual.