Monday, October 27, 2008

What Can We Learn From Little Big Planet?

Sackboy is the undisputed hero of 2008

So how awesome is "Little Big Planet", really? It's fair to say that Sony's burlap-fabric-laced world is easily one of the most ambitious console games this generation. It boldly attempts a seemingly impossible mission - to inspire players to be game creators and slowly cultivate their design ambitions. Despite the launch of LBP being anything but smooth, the potential for the design platform is unprecedented in the console video gaming industry.

But can we expect much from the growth of the LBP community now that the critical darling of GDC 2007 is finally available at retail? The rather obvious answer is, yes. Each week we'll see uploaded creative content, and a metamorphosis of community as they accept their new role as judges, sifting through the sea of material to find the best stuff the community has to offer.

Despite my own reservations of ever being a successful video game creative, I can definitely admire the little things that "Little Big Planet" does so right - namely, it's charming presentation and deep tool set. In fact, it's the tool set specifically that makes the designers at Media Molecule so incredibly genius. They conquered the one thing that so many previous D.I.Y games like "Fighter Maker" and "RPG Maker" struggled with - easy access tools lumped together in simple and understandable categories. If it's mechanical, the player knows to examine the tool box portion of the "popit". If it's a scenery piece, then they look in the goodie bag. This marvelous design choice makes the tools so light and easy to use, yet the near endless tutorials in the game emphasize the importance of choosing the right part for the job.

But prior game creation tools on console made another fatal error in that they were too technical, and focused on very niche genres like fighting or RPG's. Well, to be fair, maybe fighters were more mainstream, but that doesn't make them easier to design. In fact, the average fighting game takes months of proper balancing and animation work. On the other hand, RPGs need strong narratives, character development, and battle systems. Set pieces need to be carefully orchestrated to guide the player through a world of possibilities.

The D.I.Y. model of games is not new. The PC has seen way too many mods come and go, but this genre has stumbled by failing to understand the importance of simplicity. Little Big Planet rewrites the D.I.Y. rules for a very different console audience. This is an audience that doesn't memorize dozens of hotkey combinations or menus. It's an audience that just wants to dive into simple tools and make charming and visually impressive content. Simply put, Little Big Planet is the right product at the right time, and in the coming months we'll bear witness a dearth of content, a growing community of designers, and the real start of D.I.Y. games on console.

Fast forward ten or twenty years, and we'll see the fruits of Little Big Planet's labor, a game designer who claims he got his start designing levels in Media Molecule's incredibly deep burlap world.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Did I miss something, and why is it titled "Soundtrack from the Motion Picture"? Strange, I thought the movie was still in production.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

For the Love of Dead Space

Although I had briefly admired some of the preview coverage for "Dead Space" - EA Games' descent into horror based survival games - I expected little from the final product. Maybe these low expectations seem harsh, but the reality is there hasn't been a new IP from EA that excited me in years (Army of Two = epic fail). Granted, "Mirror's Edge" holds some of my interest this year, I'm still not convinced its a game I really want to play - at least not lieu of the swarm of high quality games due this fall like "Gears of War 2", "Fallout 3", and "Left 4 Dead".

So how'd Dead Space managed to slip under my radar? Honestly, I don't know. But in light of everything (now that I'm nine chapters into it), it's the best game to kick off this holiday season, and the swarm of games coming into retailers.

By now you must've seen all the positive reviews filing into the internet. But the biggest question on anyone's mind is: How scary is Dead Space, really? But the answer depends on your experience with this sort of material. The beginning of the game isn't very scary at all, or it might be for a brief moment. But the overall tension doesn't rise until about mid-way through the game, where the ammo and health packs start to become real scarce. It's at these points that the suspense level truly rises, because no ammo means you're pretty much screwed. And judging from the sound of things, only God knows what's coming around the next corner.

The overall ambiance also contributes to why, in the end, Dead Space is pretty amazing. As you wander the ship, the empty halls will not only feel dead and devoid of any living thing, but occasionally you'll hear whispers and heavy things being knocked over in the distance. The incredible sound design really put me on the edge of my seat, even though the average enemies at the start of the game do very little to freak you out of your seat. Instead the designers find clever ways to mess with your head - One particular case of this happened after a quick trip to the Work Bench - a part of the game's weapon upgrade system. Right after I finished the transaction, the camera pulled back to reveal a snarling necromorph standing right over my right shoulder.

If that doesn't freak you out, I really don't know what will.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Obligatory Halo 3: Recon Fan Post

This generation has been chock full of changes for both hardware and software manufacturers. We've now lived through the metamorphosis of console pricing, with a number of different flavors (a.k.a. SKU's) to choose from. On the software side, we see a persistence among developers to keep iterating on a working engine, rather than rebuild with each new title in development. This recent shift has also led developers to experiment with the episodic model - smaller, focused game releases promising high quality entertainment at lower prices.

This generation we've seen Burnout Paradise and Half Life 2 (and the perfect model this gen: Tell Tale Games) embrace this new theory in AAA design, with a number of studios following suit.

As the title already suggest, yes, this is a fan post about my favorite franchise, Halo 3. The Tokyo Game Show may have been the most awkward place for the announcement, but both Bungie Studios and Microsoft have decided its time too reveal the biggest secret since E3.

Some of us could guess this standalone model was coming, but what can we expect from the new Halo project, subtitled Recon? Here's a small list of thing's that has stood out to me amongst all the coverage we've seen and the trailer debut:

* This is an entirely new campaign experience in Halo 3 that focuses on a much more fragile hero, the ODST (Orbital Drop Shop Trooper). These high caliber marines fought next to the Chief briefly in Halo 2, and then again in Halo 3. But Bungie has teased that this hero won't be identical to a certain super-powered Spartan. If the gameplay of Halo 3 is any indication, these super bad marines have been just as disposable as the regular marines, their only visible advantage being ultra cool black garb. So with Halo 3: Recon, we'll finally see the ODST at work, proving once and for all why they represent Robin compared to Master Chief's Batman.

*Bungie has already cleared the air (and quickly) that this is not Ghost Recon: Halo, or Gears of Halo, or Halo Gear Solid. And they were quick to point out that the weapons of Halo 3 won't receive any major changes (so don't go hoping for that original Halo pistol to make a reappearance in Halo 3: Recon). Instead, fans can expect the same weapons currently found in the Halo 3 sandbox (for better or worse).

However, the ODST that emerges from the drop pod in the trailer is carrying what appears to be a silenced variation of the SMG. Can we expect more slight variations added to the marine class weapons of the original?

*The multiplayer component of Halo 3: Recon will be an exact copy of the multiplayer that shipped with Halo 3, last year. That means no ODST will substitute the familiar deadly hallways pf Halo 3 multiplayer. Instead, we'll see the retail disc version carry the same (and some currently unreleased) maps, with the same outcomes. There will be no separate multiplayer component added to Halo 3: Recon.

*But many websites have all agreed that this campaign could be the content players unanimously felt was missing from Halo 2 - the bulk of which was expected to take place on Earth. As such, Halo 3: Recon could plug a familiar gripe of the design team since Halo 2. And the presence of a mysterious A.I. only reinforces that we'll some interesting level design and navigation queues (hopefully, anyway).

I've been a major fan of this series, despite my gripes with Halo 2, so this announcement is huge for someone like me (and like you, if you're still reading this). It might be cool to hate on Halo these days, but one thing is certain: Halo is still one of the largest IP's this generation, and a brand extension like Recon could potentially be another blockbuster notch on Bungie's belt.