After being annoyed by the ‘Shaky Arrow Glitch’ on Rock Band 3, I did some experimentation. It turns out that it’s not a software problem; my Rock Band 2 microphone is just crappin’ out. Fortunately, I have an alternate solution, using the Rocksmith guitar cable to take the output from my studio recorder and send it to the PS3. (I’ll look into getting an XLR-to-USB cable sometime, but right now I don’t really need it, so no rush.)
So if you’ve been playing Rock Band at my house and you thought your vocal performance was kinda crap, don’t worry, it wasn’t (necessarily) you.
So, from my Rock Band equipment, I don’t use the stock drums anymore, the stock mic has issues, one of my guitars seems to lose notes, and the other is totally erratic with Overdrive. I guess the manufacturing wasn’t perfect.
I should keep my eyes out for a higher-quality Rock Band guitar. I have the Pro Guitar, but I still need a good guitar for the standard modes.
It’s getting kind of absurd in the studio; Jacqi has a new piano that we’ll hook up to Rock Band, and pretty soon we’ll all be playing games with real instruments, and then just playing real instruments in general.
Rock Band has definitely been the most expensive game I’ve ever bought 🙂 But it’s also really opened up a lot of my life, more than any other game has done! Although I did have a good week of sprinting to work after playing Mirror’s Edge.
I assume that soon enough my studio will be wall-to-wall instruments with gerbil-like tubes used to access them.
I had some friends over and played Rock Band for hours and hours. I’m tired and sore now, but it was great.
I know that some other friends of mine are tired of Rock Band now, but for me, it’s a game that keeps on giving. Really, it’s less of a game, and more of a conversation with my friends. As we’re scrolling through the song list and shouting out the stuff we want to play, we’re expressing our music interests, cheering the choruses we know and laughing at the guilty pleasures that each of us have. As we play, we’re experiencing the music in a deep way; not just listening to it, but creating it, and watching the part we play. Learning the vocals for an overplayed 90’s song, or understanding how a certain drum beat was created.
At the end of the night, we’ve created an experience together, and it’s amazing.
Keynote – Satoru Iwata & Reggie Fils-Amie, Nintendo
The keynote was decent, but not exactly mind-blowing. Iwata’s sections were pretty much “I’ve been doing games for a while.”
Reggie’s sections were pretty much shills for the 3DS. Basically lecturing on how the 3DS was going to revolutionize gaming forever. I’ll post my thoughts on the 3DS later, but it was a pretty short-sighted keynote, considering that the majority of your audience of game developers has played games on and developed for mobile devices and web browsers.
Overall, it wasn’t really inspiring. I feel like a keynote should raise awareness, bring up issues – be something that people are talking about for the rest of the conference. In that sense, it makes the conference run smoothly, by giving the attendees common ground for conversations. This keynote wasn’t really thought-provoking…more of a press conference, really.
Game Works of Yu Suzuki
I left this one. In retrospect, I didn’t realize that they had translation earpieces available, but I was picking up enough Japanese to realize that it was a pretty boring, Japanese-style interview. As in,
“Is it true that Space Harrier originally had a plane, but then you put a person in?”
“Yes, we did a test with a plane, and it did better when we put a person in.”
“Ah, I see.”
Not exactly hard-hitting journalism. Some podcasts I’ve listened to said it was a great panel, but I don’t regret leaving, because it let me catch the panel on Dynamics, which I heard people talking about for the rest of the con.
I missed the beginning, but here are the notes I caught.
You want to choose how your story is told. It can be strict, forcing the player into a specific experience, or loose, allowing the player to be creative and find their own experience. Either method can work, but it definitely changes the theme of the game.
Changing the fiction of the game can change the meaning and dynamics, even if the mechanics don’t change. Clint gave the example of making Tetris about shuttling trains off to a concentration camp. When completing lines means killing innocent people, does it change the meaning of the game? Does it change your playstyle?
Synthesis: A combination of players’ views. Meaning comes from multiple impressions across the course of the game.
Rigorous: The stronger the concern about the outcome, the more meaning.
Instantial: You can’t talk about the meaning of a game, but you can talk about the meaning of an instance of the game. That is to say, I can’t exactly say “Mass Effect 2 means this” but I can say “my playthrough of Mass Effect 2 meant this to me.”
…you know, I don’t really like my writeup of this panel. I think there was a lot of terminology I didn’t completely grasp, and I’m probably using wrong.
One hour, ten speakers, about five minutes each. How did it go?
Introduced the panel. I should read Kill Screen, and play Sleep is Death and In a Star-Filled Sky. (The advertising is working!)
Is the father of computer games computers, or games? Michael argues it’s computers. Computers have given us an expression of games that games could not have created alone.
All games are played, not all play is games.
Kids should code. All kids should try making computer games. He recommends Scratch to start.
We need a language around gaming. A lexicon.
We have experiences in games, but if we don’t share them, they disappear. Don’t keep your experiences to yourself. Share them.
The Fantasy of Labor: Keep playing, keep buying, keep grinding. It will pay off. Is this true? Have games led us astray?
Getting into a console game takes too damn long. We’re not talking about the tutorial; we’re talking about system boot, logo, select the game, load, logo, logo, logo, press start, loading, accept legal agreement, loading, go. When I put a disc in that I’ve already played, just skip all that and start right from my most recent save.
This is why people are going to the DS and iPhone for gaming; you can get gaming and have a meaningful experience in 20-30 seconds.
Look at Farmville and Minecraft, games which are in a state of perpetual playtesting.
More playtesting = better games.
Text adventures were great. We had more direct control, more freedom, and less cutscenes.
What happened? When did we decide that we wanted to emulate movies?
Can we change the direction games are headed?
My notes aren’t great for this one.
Jason condemned thoughtful, artsy games for being boring. He looked to other modern games that can keep you focused for 8 hours at a time.
He noted games where there’s survival value in staying focused – where paying attention helps you succeed.
Games help us explore our dreamscapes. We should remind people why they used to play, and how they could get lost in their own imagination.
Everything can be a game. If you can play it, it will become a game.
Pro Guitar in Rock Band 3
When making design decisions, always go back to the One Question about your game.
For Guitar Hero, this was “Is this Rock?”
For Rock Band, this was “Is this an authentic band experience?”
They narrowed down their scope by choosing a definite target: Hard/Expert Rock Band players with no previous guitar experience. They wanted to teach these players the ‘campfire versions’ of their favorite songs, and let them graduate to the real versions at their own pace.
They spent 3 months on early concepts, 7 months prototyping, and 13 months in production.
Concepts: They had to narrow down a massive space of possibilities to a few possible ideas. What information did they want to convey first? How realistic would it be? What compromises were they willing to make?
Prototyping: Harmonix used a small strike team to prototype. The designers are also the implementers; if you have an idea, you have to figure out how to make it real.
They didn’t worry about hardware. They figured they’d make the feature, then figure out how to create the hardware they needed later.
They essentially created a new way of noting music; it’s not tabs, musical notation, or chord charts. Pretty impressive!
They found an issue when they tested; people said it was interesting, engaging, immersive, but not fun. They thought about it, but realized that for Rock Band, fun was what they needed to be testing for.
Suggestions from the prototyping phase:
- Reduce your team size.
- If an idea keeps coming up, even if it sounds stupid, you need to try it! It’s stuck in everyone’s head for a reason.
- Don’t skimp on the low-hanging fruit. It’s tempting to say “we’re short on time, and we know how we’ll do X. We’ll do it later.” But putting those easy features in place can give you more insight into how the hard features can work.
– You can’t make a good design decision just by debating it. Make prototypes!
Production: This took much longer than expected. Their team expanded, and they became more reliant on external resources. The actual Pro Guitars were slow to be manufactured, and the final RB3 song list was finalized fairly late.
To get back on track:
- Refocus on your target market. Pro Guitar is for new guitar players. Prioritize your features based on that market.
- Switch to short-term deadlines. Keep people focused on iterating in the short-term, and quickly.
- Use placeholder content for rapid development. Jury-rig whatever you need to get your ideas tested.
The Failure Workshop
Stories of the games that failed, and what you can learn from the attempts.
Robot and the Cities that Built Him
Went 6 months before doing a gameplay prototype, then realized that despite all the polish, the gameplay just wasn’t fun.
No amount of theming will save a bad idea.
Also, trying to live up to a previous game is paralyzing. Let go of your expectations for yourself.
Cat Mouse Foosball
George Fan designed a game, did some sketches, and thought it would be amazingly fun. When he prototyped it, he found that it just wasn’t any good. There was a total disconnect between how he thought it would play, and how it worked.
The difference between artists and designers:
Illustration takes place primarily in the mind. You imagine the total image you want, then make it.
Design can’t possibly imagine all the aspects of gameplay and the interactions between the systems. You can’t just think up good gameplay, you have to try it out!
Start prototyping as soon as you can!
Off-Road Velociraptor Safari HD
First off, calling it HD was a mistake. It builds a particular set of expectations. ‘Remix’ might have been more accurate.
They thought that doing an updated version of an old game would be easy, but it was a grind. Don’t confuse comfort with happiness – you may know how to improve these textures and remake these models, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be fun.
They lost sight of “games should be fun.” The game stopped being made for the players, and started being made for other purposes, to keep up with other games, to show off, etc.
Unlike the other games on the list, Stardock actually released Elemental.
They had a small-company structure, and when they increased the size of their team, they didn’t improve the structure. What works for 7 doesn’t work for 25.
It’s hard for a small studio to swallow the need to pay for a full-time producer. He’s not contributing, making art or code! What good is he? Well, you need someone objective to keep the project in line, and to have no personal involvement in any of the production. You need someone who can kill those unnecessary features.
Come down hard on scope creep. Keep your design focused, and don’t let people add new features without the producer’s say.
Rock Climbing Game
Chris Hecker kept adding more and more systems to the game: body physics, fatigue calculations, balance calculators…eventually, he realized that he was scared of the game’s design. He was retreating into his comfort zone – technical systems – as a way of avoiding the issue that he didn’t have a game yet.
NBA Jam Postmortem
How did they make such a strong sequel to NBA Jam? He cited the rule of thirds:
1/3 the same. Give the fans the things they remember.
1/3 improved. The same, but better. Don’t mess with the formula, but improve it.
1/3 new. Give them new features and ideas, but don’t violate the spirit of your source material.
Always stay true to your source material! In their case, they chose a specific example – the first arcade cabinet of NBA Jam – and based all their decisions on how to recreate that feeling.
On Voice Actors: Help them get into character. He referenced that the voice of NBA Jam had this really exuberant Scottie Pippin poster that he tacked up in the recording booth, and it helped him drop into the NBA Jam voice instantly. Think about props, posters, concept art, and lighting that you can use to get your voices in the zone as quickly as possible.
Overall, find your fun as quickly as possible. Identify your core gameplay, and make it shine.
Independent Game Festival Awards
Lots of good games I need to check out. Fract, Amnesia, Nidhogg, Desktop Dungeons, Bastion, Dream Machine, B.U.T.T.O.N., ByteJacker, Limbo, GameDevStory. I’m going to be busy!
Game Developer’s Choice Awards
Red Dead Redemption is game of the year! It wouldn’t have been my choice, but there’s no denying that it’s a great game.
Double Fine revealed their next game, Trenched. The trailer doesn’t do a lot for it; it’s a mech shooter. If there’s a cool twist, I didn’t see it in the footage they showed.
Met with a friend from UCI, Charles Black, and got into the Gamespy party. Talked to some people, exchanged some business cards. It was fun, although the food and the drinks both ended far too quickly. What’s up with that?
I finally got Rock Band 3 set up upstairs, and linked up with my electronic drum kit using the MIDI-Pro Adapter. It’s been a neat experience.
The way I have it set up is that the output from the drums goes both to Rock Band, and directly to the speakers. Each hit triggers the right pad in Rock Band, but it also just plays the sounds of my drum kit. The effect, if I keep the drums slightly higher than Rock Band, is that I can still hear the song and play along, but all the drum sounds I’m hearing are my own creation.
It’s been useful thus far. When you screw up, the song doesn’t just carry you through, and you realize that sometimes it’s better to just take a second and regain your focus, rather than flailing wildly trying to grab a few points before they’re gone. Some complicated drum parts make a lot more sense when you can hear directly the sound they’re trying to produce. And when you’re just a millisecond off, Rock Band might be saying that you’re still hitting all the notes, but you can definitely hear the problem.
Not everyone has an electronic drum kit, but if you have an opportunity to play a keyboard or guitar both live and through Rock Band, give it a shot. It definitely pushes Rock Band one step towards an educational tool, while still keeping it firmly grounded as a game.
I’m deviating a bit from my game design posts here, but I’d like to break them up with some more general thoughts about the gaming industry.
I’m thinking about games as platforms. Where you might buy or download the core engine, then purchase additional levels, characters, or features individually. The best example of this so far is Rock Band; the retail discs contain a lot of songs, but it’s expected that you’ll expand that experience with additional tracks.
This is a new area for game design, brought about by internet connectivity and built-in hard drives. I’m expecting that over time, more games will move toward a platform or primarily DLC model – the idea, essentially, being that you don’t have to buy the whole game at once.
I started thinking about this during a discussion about Marvel vs. Capcom 3 on Kotaku. It’s going to be very difficult for that game to exist. The MvC series came at a fortunate time for Capcom – most of their fighting games ran on the same engine, and had similarly sized sprites, so they could reuse a lot of assets. Now that we’re in the HD era, it’s going to be prohibitively expensive to create 56 characters in 3D or hi-res 2D…but fighting game fans will whine if they drastically reduce the character roster.
The solution, I think, is to create Marvel vs. Capcom 3 as a fighting game platform, rather than a complete retail game. The retail disc or downloadable client would only need to ship with 15-20 characters. After that, Capcom could produce weekly or monthly updates, with new characters, modes, and game rebalancing. Over time, the roster might grow to 100+ fighters, but they don’t all need to be ready on launch day. The game’s full development cycle might be extended over five years or more.
I expect games to start positioning themselves as platforms in their marketing, too. The selling point is value – suggesting to players that the money and content they purchase for their games will always be useful, and that you’re adding on to your games, not replacing them. That’s where Rock Band has really succeeded. In the early Guitar Hero days, the choices could be painful – do I want to play the music I love from Guitar Hero 1? Or do I want the improved gameplay from Guitar Hero 3? Or maybe I liked the character designs in Guitar Hero 2. Rock Band solves the problem by divorcing the engine from the content. With a few exceptions, you can mix and match your favorite engine with your favorite songs. Nothing ever becomes truly obsolete.
When the next wave of consoles hits, players will expect to carry their content with them. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo have to provide an upgrade path, so that the player’s DLC and progress aren’t lost. Games are no longer one-off experiences; they’re investments. Expressions of brand loyalty. Customized experiences. Games as platforms are going to become multi-generational, crossing from one console generation to the next.
Of course, each of these successful platforms takes up more and more of the customer’s time, attention, and budget. It may be that only the large publishers will be able to support platforms, while indie game designers produce more disposable experiences, gems of gameplay that can be experienced in 10-20 hours then discarded. I think we’re moving in that direction already, and I think the future’s looking pretty good.