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 writing: “I want my car back” and other reasons to fight

Game writing is sometimes worse off than I think it is. Really. It’s just gawdawful ridiculous, even in some of the most hallowed franchises.

I have to give props to EGM (Electronic Gaming Monthly) for their WTFiction!? series. These two-page spreads at the back of the mag are shining examples of how to pinpoint ridiculous game writing in revered games like Final Fantasy (you knew that was coming) and even Halo.  They did a WTFiction!? countdown over the last several issues, ending with the number one most ridiculous game writing of all time in the February 2008 issue. I’m not going to spoil that one for you quite yet, but stay tuned.

Best of all, for you who are too cheap to buy the mag or too lazy to read it on paper, some of these hilarious features are posted on their website. The Street Fighter WTFiction!? feature is a good one, for example — in it, we find out that Dudley’s rationale for training his lil’ buns off and risking life and limb in Street Fighter bouts is… because he wants his car back from Gill. That’s some quality game writing.

Dude, just go to Carmax and get yourself a Honda Fit or something…!

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.

Screenwriting: a ?!?! moment in Blade Trinity

A screenwriting thought: Blade Trinity puzzler

Screenwriting isn’t game design (although a lot of game designers wish it were). Still, screenwriters are, like game writers, in the business of visual storytelling. Under that precept, I’d like to relate the following tale of woe.


The other night I channelsurfed upon Blade Trinity. I’m as much a fan as anybody of the brain-dead spectacle so I watched a fair chunk of it, although I admit that I was hot-swapping between it and Harold and Kumar.

Anyhow, among ridiculous tropes and hilarious pomp, one ?!?! moment stood out for me. Abigail (Biel) and Blade (Snipes), after discovering their friends murdered and base defiled, are girding for battle to the requisite vengeance beat.

Silvery blades in leather holsters, check. Black revolvers that fire vampire-killing mumbo-jumbo fluid, check. CG-tastic UV folding hacksaw, check.

Cut to Abigail at her laptop.

Cut to Abigail selecting tunes for her iPod playlist. On the screen you can clearly see the phrase “Abigail’s iPod.” I nearly ingested a fatal dose of popcorn through my nose.

They’re about to do battle with the hordes of Hell and Dracula himself, and Abigail is loading Nickelback tunes into her freaking iPod like she’s preparing for a road trip to Boise?!? This was easily the funniest thing I’d seen all night. (Apologies to Kal Penn… the new H&K movie looks essential.) The only way they could’ve improved it would’ve been to show her loading up a Kung Fu lunchbox with a seaweed wrap and a thermos of Starbucks’ finest mochachoco latte.

To me this clip screamed, “Middle-aged screenwriter desperately trying to prove his cultural relevance.” Next time, guys, pay a little less attention to the cultural fads and a little more to the emotions and drama of the movie you’re making.

Did anybody see this thing in the theatres? Please let us know. I MUST know if this clip caused any guffaws – or not.

Game design case study: why can’t I stop playing Bard’s Tale?

Game writing trumps game design?

My current crap-game obsession is inXile’s Bard’s Tale for the PS2. An ill-fated classic-game revival, BT has very little in common with its storied predecessor (which I also loved back in the days when I was too young to buy my own computer – can you say “floppy disk swapfest”?). It’s an action-RPG that smells like rotting nipples.

Kind of like this image from the blog of Emmy C.

The main game design problems

  • Lousy visuals – inXile’s engine delivers a chunky, unpalatable picture sure to make children cry and dogs howl.
  • Ridiculous character control – amazingly, the Bard is unable to move and attack at the same time. A mistimed attack starts a damnable anim that gives your enemies enough time to slice you open and decorate their Christmas tree with your entrails.
  • Frustrating stun dynamic – if you’re hit, the Bard is temporarily stunned and vulnerable to more strikes. Of course, the genius game designers thought you’d enjoy it if those strikes also stun you. In other words, if you’re surrounded by cheesy grunts, as you usually are, and you happen to take a hit, the resulting dogpile will escort you right to Hades. As a result, I’ve been forced to play like a 90-pound weakling, cowering behind any obstacle and running in circles to avoid swarms of foes.

Running in circles. An apt description. Did I mention that blocking is temporary, so it’s impossible to block past this problem? Yep.Yet I keep playing. Why would I torture myself?

The game design pluses

  • inXile made a classic mistake — they saved the best game design for last. In the ice levels, they bring the camera in about 15%, and suddenly the game looks kinda nice! Decent water effects, reflections, cool textures… all the stuff that looked like surrealism from a distance.
  • The gameplay’s come up a notch. There’s a series of cool sequences on ice floes where you have to defend your floating ice raft as a steady stream of foes swim aboard and zing you from the shoreline. You can dodge, but you can’t cheese your way along by retreating every time you start to run low on health or mana. There’s a simple exploration puzzle and a funny headcount competition with a forlorn giant Viking.
  • Most importantly, this game’s made me laugh aloud several times. That helped me survive the first half, just barely. Usually game humor only makes me quirk my lips. I grudgingly admit that this might be the funniest game I’ve played since Lucasarts’ Monkey Island. That’s the highest praise I’ve got for game humor. A few examples:
    • The narrator comments dryly on your antisocial behavior if you open a chest in the storage room of the barmaid you’re tasked to help at the beginning of the game.
    • He also finds it surprising it’s taken you that long to try to get your hands on her chest.
    • The treasures are a constant source of absurdity. Druids carry mistletoe and Stonehenge souvenirs. The trow drop trow pants (trow pants, trowsers, get it?). Others are carting snowglobes of the local village. Of course, the attack chickens you encounter on a demented farm drop chicken nuggets. (Conveniently, there’s no voyaging to the local merchant to sell your crap. The game automatically converts these gewgaws into cash immediately — a game design innovation I’d like to see in other RPGs.)
    • Cary Elwes’ inspired, sarcastic voice acting as the Bard and the narrator’s dryly disapproving British persona. One of my favorite lines from the load screen is his “Where were we? Oh yes. The Bard was making an ass of himself.”
    • The hero (you) is such a bonehead that he releases a curse on the world that destroys villages and dogs his own footsteps. He’s working for good, but it’s kind of a two-steps-forward, one-step back thing. And he’s purely motivated by skirt-chasing and gold.
    • I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say there are a few musical numbers that pop up at the most unexpected times. I hate musicals with a passion, but the timing is sublime.
    • There’s more, and of course, like any good joke, it’s easy to suck the humor out in the retelling. Trust me, it’s good game writing.

Game writing carries it?

So I guess I’m saying that this almost unredeemable game has dragged me along, kicking and screaming, just because of the quality of the game writing. Is it possible that good game writing can justify a bad game?

Maybe a good game writer is worth the expense. They’re a lot cheaper than good code, and game writing crashes a lot less frequently.

game writers and gamers welcome

Game writers – specifically videogame writers – it’s here! The video game writer blog.

Thoughts about the art and science of writing for games. War stories. Analysis of games, gameplay, and of course, game writing. Case studies of videogame writing and where it succeeds (Planetfall, God of War) — and fails, even in bestselling titles (Assassin’s Creed, Gears of War, I’m looking at you!).

Game writers and game designers are heartily encouraged to comment and contribute. Aspiring game writers – if you can write, we want to hear what you think.