Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Blinded by the WoW

Yes, the post is a day late. I was spending Memorial Day not working, doing some chores, and experimenting with new hairstyles. Turns out I look awesome with a mohawk. Who'd have thought?

Games Bought:

Total spent to date:

Things I'm Sad I Can't Buy:
Nothing new this week, but the urge to buy Age of Conan is still high. There's something about an MMO that allows you to decapitate your enemies and ride around on a war mammoth that's alluring. Also, there's a brothel called The Bearded Clam. That's comedy right there.

In order to fight off the desire to buy it, I did wind up resubbing to World of Warcraft. I joined a new server that work people are on, so hopefully having some people to play with will encourage me to play longer. I spent the weekend working my priest up to level 18, which is probably the fastest I've gotten a character up that high. I decided to start her as a blood elf instead of my traditional undead. I don't like the blood elves as much, but I didn't want to run through the undead content for the upteenth time, and I haven't done the blood elf stuff yet. I suppose I could have just run my undead over to the blood elf territory, but that's a pain. Also, I didn't think of it.

So yesterday was Memorial Day, which got me thinking about the portrayal of military conflicts in games. Games have a fairly unique ability to bring their subjects to life in a very personal way for the player. Since they require the player to make active choices, the player is immersed into the game in a way that the viewer of a movie or TV show isn't. This, of course, isn't saying that one is better than the other, simply that they can affect the player/viewer in distinctly different ways.

Because of games' unique ability to place the player directly in the shoes of a soldier of a war, they have the ability to provide a more visceral understanding of what it might have been/be to be a soldier in combat, with one exception: the permanence of death.

I'd like to talk specifically about two games in particular in this regard, Medal of Honor: Frontline and Call of Duty 4.

The first, Medal of Honor, is an older World War II first person shooter. You play as an effectively nameless grunt during the Allied invasion, and one of the major setpiece levels is the D-day invasion. The level is lifted almost directly from the infamous scene in Saving Private Ryan. Because of this familiarity, one would think that the impact of the level would be less. Strangely, it's not. If anything, the feelings the film evoked are magnified by the change of perspective and the addition of control. In the game, the bullets are flying at you, and they fly thick. Move in the wrong direction at the wrong time, and death is almost instantaneous.

While playing it, I found myself instinctively cowering behind any cover I could find. I knew that it was just a game, yet I simultaneously didn't want to move and risk immediate death. When I did finally make my way up to the bunkers housing the machine guns, it was with relish that I charged in and emptied a clip of ammo into the soldiers manning the guns, and with pleasure that I watched my AI buddies burn the enemies with flamethrowers. I was starting to get a hint of what the soldiers charging the beach that day might have felt.

However, even then, I knew that what I was feeling was distinctly different in one very important respect: the impermanence of death. If I moved the wrong way, I died, yes. But the next step was to reload the level and try again. Because of this, what was initially fear turned quickly to frustration as I tried to make my way up the beach again and again. Lack of permanent death changed what was initially a starkly terrifying experience to a more standard game level.

The second game I want to discuss is Call of Duty 4 (spoilers ahead). This game is another first person game, this time set in modern-day, fictional conflict with Russian ultra-nationalists that have control of a nuclear device in the middle east. Throughout the game, you alternate between controlling a British SAS operative and an American Marine, playing one level as the SAS, and the next as the Marine. This mechanic is standard for the series, and has been used in all their previous games.

Most of the game is a fairly standard, if very well-done military shooter. One level in particular stands out. Playing as the Marine, you find yourself searching a middle eastern city for the terrorist controlling the nuclear weapon. As the level progresses, it becomes clear that the weapon is in the city, he intends to use it, and your chances of finding it are very small. Finally, your unit is withdrawn from the city as intel comes in that the bomb is about to be detonated. You fight your way to the chopper, and it takes off, with orders coming over the radio for all American forces to withdraw, and out the rear door of the chopper, you see others lifting off behind you.

Then nuclear bomb goes off behind your chopper. You see the shock wave hit the choppers behind you, and then your chopper. It spins wildly, finally crashing to the ground. Fairly standard action-movie stuff at this point. Then the game cuts to an animated loading screen showing satellite shots of the bomb going off, and a list of the soldiers killed in the blast. Your name is highlighted, and then the game centers on your position, saying "...located". The new level starts. The expectation is that you have survived, and the next level is going to be your soldier heroically making his way out of the area, probably rescuing a buddy or two along the way.

This never happens. Instead, you find yourself lying on the floor of the wrecked chopper. Wind howls outside, and a strange glow from outside leaks into the cabin. You push the stick forward to move, but all you can do is crawl along slowly. You make your way to the door, and look out on a decimated landscape all around you. In the distance, the mushroom cloud still burns. You look down, and see a ten foot drop. With no other choice, you flop to the ground like a dead fish. You have nowhere to go. Everything around you is dead. You crawl forward with no destination in mind, but hoping for something to happen. Something does. You hear your heartbeat slow. You stumble, pick yourself up, and stumble again. The world goes white as your heart gives out, and you die.

As effective as this scene is, and it is terribly effective, the truly impressive part is that death, here, is permanent. For the rest of the game, you control only the SAS operative. It's a striking way to drive home the possibility for a soldier's life to be snuffed out. Unfortunately, the rest of the game doesn't bear this out, as every other death in the game can be safely recovered from with a quick reload.

Unfortunately for game designers, making death permanent is a very tough needle to thread. Making death permanent poses a number of design problems. If a player dies a permanent death, do they restart from the beginning of the game? A frustrating result more than an emotional one. Some games have dealt with the problem by killing secondary, non-player-controlled characters. The trick here is that the deaths must often occur at predetermined times in order to avoid breaking any of the game's other story elements.

Some of the more effective deaths come in games where the characters are created entirely by the player, and have minimal narrative interaction with the world. Diablo, for example, offers a mode where a player's death is permanent, and dying means restarting completely. This certainly produces a different style of play, and can produce an emotional response from the dying player. However, it is an optional mode, and only a very small percentage of players attempt it.

A more accessible example is the old game X-COM: UFO Defense. In it, you can recruit and train a squad of soldiers to fight aliens. A soldier's death is permanent, but you can always recruit another, so death doesn't stop the game, but can produce a setback as the new soldier is trained. What makes this game interesting is that you can name your characters and watch them develop personal histories. It's not unusual to get attached to a particular soldier organically. Maybe there's one nitwit soldier who you send in first because he's expendable, only to watch him escape death time and again. Seeing him finally bite it can be both amusing and sad at the same time. This is probably one of the better examples of death in a game being both unscripted and affecting.

Unfortunately, the technology needed to duplicate this result, while also producing in-game character interaction, doesn't exist yet. Until we've had some serious advancements in AI programming, deaths in-game will likely continue to exist as throwaway events, or will remain the realm of the scripted event. It won't be until the game exists that lets you forge a bond with a soldier next to you, and allows you to potentially watch him die at any given moment of the game, with no hope of saving him, that we will even begin to be able to approximate what it's like being a soldier in combat.

For an excellent example of experimental game design on the subject of permanent death, take a few minutes to go here, and download the game Exection: http://gmc.yoyogames.com/index.php?showtopic=375097

It's a very short game, but definitely worth playing. Don't read the posts below until after you've spent a few minutes with the game.

I seem to have gotten a bit off-topic and long-winded. Sorry about that. Next post, I promise, more light-hearted fun.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Small things

Because of work, it's been a slow two weeks, gaming-wise. First, the roundup:

Games bought:

Total spent to date:

I was able to spend a few more hours on GTA4. With all the relationships you can/need to keep up, it's starting to feel like The Sims with guns and whores. Well, I guess all my Sims tend to wind up kind of whores anyway, but they definitely don't have guns.

In the game, there's various characters you can meet, and they'll frequently call you and ask to hang out. If you agree, you have to go pick them up, and then take them someplace they like, be it bowling, to play darts, to a show, drinking, or to a strip club. After the merry-making, you take them home, and the amount they like you goes up depending on how much they liked the date, taking into account your clothes, the car you're driving, and the activity. Different people like different things, like one girl likes when you pick her up in a hybrid, or one of the guys who love the strip joints.

Once a character likes you a certain amount, they'll offer you a perk. For example, one girl who works for the DA can reduce your wanted level if you give her a call, or a guy who will meet you and sell you discount guns.

The downside is that, like real people, they like you less if you never hang out with them, or if you turn them down when they ask to go out. The result is that you can easily spend more than half your time keeping ratings up for all the characters whose perks you want to use. There are downsides to being popular. Of course, you can ignore them for a while, but eventually you'll need to start seeing them again.

Other than GTA, I re-discovered some small games I picked up a while ago. Everyday shooter is a really stylish arcade-style shooter that heavily ties in the music to the graphics. Video here:


I also put some more time into Audiosurf. This is a game that has you racing along a track picking up blocks of various colors in order to form sets of three. The real hook is that the track is created and synchronized with any MP3 you want from your hard drive. Pick a fast song to get a fast ride with a ton of blocks. Pick a slow song to get something more relaxed. It's also very neat and good for playing in short bursts.


Games I'm sad I can't buy:
Age of Conan- It's Conan done as a massively multiplayer online game. This is good for me not to get, because I never seem to put enough time into them. Plus, I still have World of Warcraft that I could always play more.

Lost Winds- A neat looking downloadable for the Wii that has you controlling the wind with your Wiimote.

Drone Tactics- A strategy game for the DS that lets you control an army of robotic insects. Awesome premise, but I have a ton of these types of games already.

Penny Arcade: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness- The one I'm really sad about. It's Penny Arcade doing a Lovecraftian JRPG. That's 15 kinds of awesome, and it looked really good in the demo I got to see at work a few weeks ago. It makes me very sad to not be buying this one. Oh well, Lost Odyssey needs finishing anyway.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Work is busy, posts are late

I totally missed last Monday's post. I'm sure all three of you are terribly disappointed.

Why would I miss such an important occasion, you may ask? Well, I'll tell you, and in so doing, give a brief glimpse into the exciting, fast paced, and stupendously glamorous world of video game testing.

One of the harsh realities of the video game industry (along with low pay, no supermodels, and questionable personal hygene) is something called crunch. Basically, it's mandatory overtime during periods close to deadlines. The extent of it varies from company to company, and it can range from soul crushing to something resembling a refugee camp of coders and testers sleeping under their desks and eating nothing but Cup 'o Noodles.

Harmonix crunch is closer to the merely soul crushing end of the spectrum. We work 11 hour days Mon-Thurs, and eight hour days on Friday and Saturday. This goes on for a long as need be. Right now, we're in a light crunch, so it's only going on for two weeks. Crunch, however, flows like the tide, and it can be extended as needed. Last summer, crunch went on for about two months. We're hoping it won't be so bad this time. Hope springs eternal.

So what does one do during crunch? Much the same as one does during non-crunch, just more of it. What's that? Well, let me tell you.

The tester's job is to find bugs in the program we're testing. These bugs cover a wide range of problems and severities. Game crashes completely while starting up? Bug. Is something misspelled in the text of a certain screen? Bug. If you unplug and replug your controller 15 times in a row, and then back in and out of a certain screen while mashing on the green button and unplugging the ethernet cord, and the game freezes? Yup, bug.

Now, the trick is figuring out exactly what you did that caused the bug. Sometimes, it's simple. "Pressing start on the title screen causes crash." That's easy. Most times, it's not that simple. In the last example of the previous paragraph, you have to figure out is it exactly 15 unplug/replug cycles that do it? What if you mash the red button? Does it happen on every screen? So on and so forth. It's actually a lot like running a science experiment where you have to start with a theory about what's causing the problem, and then start eliminating variables.

What this boils down to is a whole lot of repetition. You might spend half a day tracking down a single bug. You might find three other things in the process. Sometimes, it's mind-numbingly boring. It is a good feeling when you finally figure out the exact steps needed to get a bug, and can finally submit it to get fixed.

So that's part of what goes on on a daily basis. A good chunk of the rest of my time is taken up working on test plans and checklists, which are the documents that we'll use to do thorough tests of the game now that it's getting more stable. These fall into the mind-numbing category. An example of a section of a checklist:

1) Load game. Each of the brand screens come up?
2) Does intro movie load?
3) Does intro movie play with sound?
4) Does into movie play to the end with no skips?
5) After intro movie, does title screen load?
6) Does title screen remain up for 30 seconds?
7) After 30 seconds, does demo loop play?
8) After 45 seconds, does game return to title screen?
9) Does pressing start on title screen bring up main menu?
10) On main menu, does pressing up and down cycle through menu items?
11) When a menu item is selected, does it's graphic change appropriately?
12) Does pressing A on a highlighted menu item produce a sound?
13) Produce an animation?
14) Are you taken to the appropriate next screen?
15) Does pressing B take you back to the main menu?

And so on and so forth. The checklists are for "critical path testing", or "what we expect the user to do."
Above and beyond this, we also do creative testing, or "shit the users shouldn't do, but will because they're dumb or are trying to break the game." This can include unplugging the system at weird times, pulling various wires, creating as many data items with stupidly long names as possible, or, my favorite, trying to get around the profanity filter (yes, you totally can).

What you don't actually get to do much of when testing is play the game. Yes, you go into gameplay, but we have cheats entered with a keyboard that can autoplay the game and do various other things that we might need to do while testing. Frequently, you can actually play if you want, but generally, your primary focus isn't necessarily on playing, and your attention is better devoted to looking for things other than gameplay, unless you're actually testing the gameplay element.

So, that's what I spend my days doing. Because of that, I didn't get last week's post up, and I also didn't have much time to game. I'll put up my regular post tomorrow about the games I'm sad I can't buy, and what games I did get to play.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Grand Theft: New Game

Games bought:
Grand Theft Auto 4 Collector's Edition - $93.99 (with overnight shipping )

Total spent to date:

This week's gaming time was spent almost exclusively with GTA4. I've racked up somewhere around 13 hours with the game, which is easily the most I've played any GTA game, and I'm definitely in the addicted category. It's an amazingly fun game.

The most impressive thing about the game is the city that lives inside it. This is the closest anyone's gotten to creating a living world inside a game. Traffic builds up during rush hour, while at 3 AM, the streets will be completely deserted. The areas of the city flow into one another organically. The citizens react (fairly) realistically to the mayhem that you cause, and interact with each other as well.

More importantly, the story and the characters it involves are interesting and have some depth to them. Your cousin is a blowhard bullshit artist, always telling you how awesome his life is, when really, it's two steps above utter shit. At a certain point, however, something happens that forces him to face reality, and cracks start to appear in his upbeat demeanor, revealing his upbeat personality to be a mask that he wears to conceal his despair about how miserable his life is. It's an impressive bit of characterization for a GTA game.

The rest of the cast I've run across is equally impressive. There's the rasta drug dealer who's patois is all but unintelligible, even with subtitles on, who surprised me by arriving on his own to back me up during a sketchy situation. There's the girlfriend who's strangely curious about my criminal dealings. There's the ultra-male juicer/stolen car dealer who's doping on bull shark testosterone, and is like a steroid-ridden self-help seminar turned up to 11. I can't wait to see who else shows up.

Finally, there's your main character, Niko. In past GTA games, the main characters have either had no personality, or one that was strictly stereotypical. Niko has a past. He's done bad things, and while he doesn't enjoy it, is willing to do them again if he must, but he doesn't feel good about it. He's a funny, sarcastic guy. He's someone that I wouldn't mind hanging out with, but who I would be careful not to piss off. He's the kind of character that I look forward to spending a lot of gametime with.

Of course, what would GTA be without a ton of unscripted going-on. There's plenty of crazy cop chases, both intentional and unintentional. I love that you can steal a car by standing in front of it and aiming your gun at the drive, who will generally jump out and run. Alternately, if your gun is in hand and you try to jack the car normally, instead of simply pulling the driver out, you'll hold the gun to his head while helping him from the car, and then apologize as you drive off. Once, while dropping my brother off, I pulled up next to another car. Instead of getting out, he socked me in the jaw, knocking me out of the car, then hopping over and getting out the driver's side. After, I figured out that I'd pulled up too close for him to open his door, so this was apparently the most effective way to get out of the car.

So, since it's my last new game for a long while, I guess it's a good thing that I like it so much.

Things I'm Sad I Can't Buy This Week:
Boom Blox comes out for the Wii this week. It's a kind of puzzle game involving physics and exploding blocks. It looks like tons of fun. I would love to play it. Sad for me.

Friday, May 2, 2008

My First Test

Just got Gamestop's weekly ad flyer. They're having a buy 2 get 1 free sale on used game. In the past, this has resulted in me buying many games for the cheap. That won't happen this time, but it won't be easy seeing that it doesn't.