narcogen's blog

Got some interesting mail from Amazon today.

First:

Hello from Amazon.com.

We now have delivery date(s) for the order you placed on August 26 2009 (Order# 104-9132614-4806655):

"Halo Reach"
Estimated arrival date: October 26 2009

Two months ago? That's great! Send it right away. Sure, the developer says it won't be out for another year, but I don't mind getting a sneak preview!

Then, an hour later:

Hello from Amazon.com.

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Now that I've actually gotten my hands on the game, I've been able to add some more data to that Google Earth Network Layer for Halo 3: ODST.

Each of the 29 audio locations in the Mombasa Streets level are labeled. So far there's no additional information (screenshots, descriptions) but I will add that as I go through on my next playthrough.

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First I'll say this: I liked District 9.

However, I never really thought Neill Blomkamp was really the best choice to do the Halo film, and reading this quote in his interview with Rotten Tomatoes only confirmed it for me:

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A small database glitch caused us to restore from a backup made a few days ago-- if you've submitted something to the site, or registered an account in the past few days, you may want to check and either re-submit or re-register.

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Okay, I admit it. After the announcement of Halo: Reach, set to come out in 2010, only twelve months or so after this year's Halo 3: ODST, I was set to bash Bungie for being unoriginal and Microsoft for upping the production quota on the goose that laid the golden egg(s).

I had a piece all written, with a pleasantly unpleasant pun in the title, about how this was only to be expected; that Microsoft almost certainly extorted... I mean, exacted from Bungie a promise to continue on with at least X more Halo titles after receiving their independence. This would appear to be true for all situations where X is two or larger. Originally I had thought perhaps ODST would be it; that was probably naive of me.

Of course there's always every chance that there are people in Bungie who want to continue with Halo. Just like Id software nearly split in half over the decision of whether or not to revisit Doom with Doom 3, one might imagine that some old-time Bungie devs want to go back to doing a game and a sequel and let the spinoff studios handle the third game, a la Marathon and Myth. It also seems possible, though, that there are Bungie devs who have not worked on anything but Halo, and perhaps some of those want to keep doing it because they like it, and others want to do something else because they're tired of it.

ODST, I figured, would be an expansion pack: some new campaign and multiplayer levels to tide us over while Bungie works on the Next Big Thing. In some ways, perhaps that's true. However it also looks like we're getting a lot more out of ODST than just that, and the design team have made some intriguing choices, many of which were on display at E3.

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Gravemind put all his ideas about what would be the ultimate Halo game. I thought I'd take a look at some of those elements and see which I liked, which I didn't, and why:

My preferred compromise would be a Resistance-style "sectional bar" health system, with the player using health packs to fully restore their health; the player's health would have limited regenerative capacity, and could sustain damage that won't come back on its own. The health bar would be divided into three to five sections, depending on which number works better for gameplay or for each particular character. The health bar would be a solid bar with no visible lines to demarcate the sections. Instead, it would change color as it diminishes depending on which section the player's current health level occupies, similar to Halo 1's health bar but without the less accurate individual squares that composed that one -- the colors would be blue, yellow, & red if there are three sections, blue, green, yellow, & red if there are four, and blue, green, yellow, orange, & red if there are five. Each subsequent section could be made to regenerate slower than the preceding one. For example, the blue section might regenerate at one-quarter the rate of the shields, while the yellow section might regenerate only one-eighth as quickly and the red section might not regenerate at all.

This really would be an Ultimate Halo, at least in terms of difficulty, unless the damage model were altered. In this case, players are punished doubly for allowing their health to drop precipitously. Not only are they close to death, with further damage threatening to kill them, but they are forced to wait in safety for health to regenerate longer than if they had taken less damage-- and at that time it would be less important.

Of course, if there are health packs available this difference in regenerative rate is moot, since they restore health fully.

I think the above scheme is unnecessarily complicated and not particularly transparent. Unless the indicator takes up a significant portion of screen real estate the difference in regenerative rate may not be immediately apparent.

Frankly I think the design decision required is bold: to either have regenerating health or health packs but not both. H2/H3 compromised by having your shield, as your primary line of defense, regenerate, while retaining a "hidden" amount of health. (Also not particularly transparent.)

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At Edge Online, N'Gai Croal in his blog discusses some interesting issues relating to realism, verisimilitude, and detail, many of which echo some of my own experiences.

Because even those titles which are widely seen as exemplars of game realism, be they Crysis or Mass Effect or Grand Theft Auto, are themselves stylised in some way. So what is it that we mean when we say that a game is realistic? Are we talking about verisimilitude? Detail? Atmosphere?

I tend to think that of all these, "realism" is actually the least important, followed by detail, atmosphere, and verisimilitude. This is the opposite of the order they are usually discussed (perhaps it's a prejudice against long words).

Realism, especially in a combat game, is the last thing you want. You don't want things to be real, just to seem real, or real enough. The exploits most combat games require of their players in order to "win" are ridiculous by their very nature, even for the super-soldiers those games have as protagonists. The last thing they need on top of that are realistic treatments of weapons, damage, fatigue, and the like.

I think that's a big part of the reason that so many very successful franchises (Halo, Mass Effect) largely operate outside those parameters by operating in the future, where unrealistic situations and damage models can be explained away by advanced technologies-- better shields, better weapons, better vehicles.

It is where realism is misapplied, or rather selectively applied, in games like GTA, where I think there's the most dissonance. Things look and seem like they are happening in the real world, but the perception of verisimilitude recedes as more and more unrealistic things happen, or else the fun turns into frustration when the virtual reality restricts the player's actions.

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...and what they are not doing is investing in original intellectual properties.

Actually I think that entire phrase is a contradiction in terms, at least in terms of how Microsoft can invest in something. Invest, in their case, means buy, and once something has proven itself worth buying it's no longer original.

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We have a well defined, carefully orchestrated, properly planned universe to explore not exploit.

--Frank O'Connor, July 2008, GameFocus

I can tell you that if you could think of a game that would work with a party atmosphere that would not gut the franchise, or milk it, we would think about it, seriously.

Jason Pace, January 2009, Videogamer.com

What's next? January 2009, Microsoft announces Halo Kart, Halo Halo Revolution and Halo Smash Brawl?

What part of a "party atmosphere" game in the Halo universe could possibly be exploration and not exploitation? How about a nice clear line in the sand now, not just "we know what we're doing"-- how about a laundry list of what you won't do? Promise us no karaoke, no karting games, no minigolf. Please.

RTS? We'll see, the demo is out any minute.

MMO? Don't blame them for trying, although I think something like this is just a lot harder to execute than a shooter, and the further away the franchise gets from Bungie the harder it is to execute.

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This article boils down to this paraphrase:

Everyone agrees sequels are bad. I mean, not all sequels are bad, but sequels in general are bad. And just like every game downloaded by a pirate is a lost sale, every dollar budgeted for a sequel is a dollar less for one of the kind of fun and original games they made when I was a kid and they just don't make anymore because the industry is full of beancounting sellouts who like sequels because they're safe. And that's why I don't want another Bioshock game.

This is almost complete and utter poppycock. It's so ridden with nostalgia masquerading as judgment, logical fallacies taken as common knowledge, and flawed premises that it's hard to know where to begin. But the beginning is as good a place as any.

"this is not a hate piece towards the Bioshock franchise. It is a deep look at one of the biggest problems in the video game industry right now, sequels and how they kill originality/creativity."

So we've got sequels kill originality/creativity. Let's separate those out.

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Thank goodness Sony is a Japanese company, because they can at least claim that English isn't their native language when someone points out the nonsense in claims ilke the latest regarding PlayStation 3 sales.

Things start out fairly innocuously:

"In terms of units, it is true that PS3, as compared to last year, is slightly worse, but on a full-year basis we believe we are on track to sell the 10 million units that I said at the beginning of the year."

Okay, that's not so bad. Specious perhaps, but possible. After all, the fact that 2008 was not as good a year for them as 2007 doesn't necessarily mean that 2009 won't be as good as they are planning. It would strongly indicate that, given that presumably they predicted that 2008 would be as good or better than 2007 (which they did); and if that prediction turned out to be wrong, might not this one, too?

Then they start digging:

"...Relatively speaking, [compared to] the growth of other platforms, we are behind, but it's not the case that we are not meeting the target."

If they are behind the other platforms but still meeting their target, this means they were planning to be behind at this stage? I think that's not true. I seem to recall that initial projections from Sony for the PS3 included catching up to MS and the Xbox 360's one year head start fairly quickly, and in no way included getting trounced, month after month, quarter after quarter, by Nintendo, a competitor that many commenters gave up for just about dead last generation, myself included.

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BioWare CEO Ray Muzyka's advanced the possibility that someday gamers would play games on one ubiquitous console. There are "valid reasons," he says, why the market would trend that direction, with the exception of "Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo maybe having some issues with that [as] they might want to continue their platforms."

You think?

This has come up before, and I'm pretty sure that it was Muzyka behind those earlier remarks also. I find it hard to consider the idea anything but the most fanciful of wishful thinking. Bioware makes great games with huge amounts of content, and their efforts would be greatly simplified on a number of levels if they could target a single ubiquitous platform.

The problem is that the benefits for such a scheme are asymmetric, and skewed sharply in the direction of the content producer, offering little or no benefit to platform owners or gamers. If BioWare makes its games for several different platforms-- say, Xbox 360, Windows, and the Sony PlayStation 3, it means that gamers have a reasonable amount of choice for gaming platform and can still assure themselves of access to BioWare games. Reducing the number of platforms BioWare has to target might make developing their games less expensive, but it seems extremely unlikely that this savings would be passed on to gamers in terms of lower title prices. After all, with only a single ubiquitous console platform, there is no longer any choice-- if you want to play a BioWare game you'd have to use that platform. If you don't want to, tough luck. If anything, standardizing on a single platform would likely increase prices (although the higher prices rose, the greater an opportunity there would be for someone to enter the market and therefore blow your "single platform" market right out of the water by undercutting you.

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Jonathan Blow, One man creator of the oh-so-pretty Braid platformer, as amazing for its interesting gameplay as its surreal visuals, says, essentially, that videogame stories are bad and probably wouldn't get much better with better writers since trying to tell a story in a game is a bad idea. One might wonder whether he's paraphrasing film director John Huston, who famously remarked, when asked about the "message" in one of his movies, that if one wanted to send a message, one should use Western Union.

One similarly might imagine that if you were to ask Blow about the story in his games, he'd say that if you want to tell a story, you should make a film. Or, perhaps, write a book. Seeing at what some triple-A titles have become-- long cutscenes with repetitive gameplay inserted instertitially-- one can't help but admit to at least some truth in the idea that there's something suboptimal about the way narration and gameplay are currently being combined. The flaws of the method get a pass when the separate elements are well executed in otherwise popular products. When either or both is weak, the combination itself makes the whole enterprise seem foul. In some games, one so dominates over the other that it is a wonder that anyone bothers; I tried the demos of a couple of JRPGs over the holiday break, the first ones I've ever played, and was amazed to find that the first hour or so of each of them consisted of scripted, in-engine cutscenes with no choices and player interaction limited to pressing the green button to advance to the next scene. Where's the game, I wondered.

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The gaming and tech press are all aflutter with the news that videogames beat DVDs... except they don't, at least, not in all the areas that matter.

The data that lead to the "games beats movies" conclusion, much like the one-day comparisons of game blockbusters like Halo 3 to the one-day takes of top films like Dark Knight, are revenue, rather than unit sales figures. They've taken the 2008 revenue for "packaged media" that includes games and DVD movies (including HD on Blu-Ray) and divided it into "games" and "DVD/Blu-Ray".

While the total increased, the share of DVD/Blu-Ray declined and the figure for games increased.

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This remark from Valve's Jason Holtman is the analysis of game piracy that I've been waiting to hear someone utter for years: the idea that copyright infringement needs to be analyzed from economic rather than purely legal or moral standpoints. It is, essentially, the market telling producers that something is wrong, and that smart producers should respond in a more productive way, rather than seeking legal redress or technological methods of copy protection.

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