Monday, March 30, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum Hands-On Preview

Originally featured on

The one thing every comic book fan I've ever met can agree on is the villainous rogue gallery of the Batman comics contains some of the darkest, most sinister enemies of any comic universe. These are mad men with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas, each one a twisted souls looking for more than wealth as they inflict pain and suffering on the citizens of Gotham. If there is one thing that Batman games have taught me, its that gamers can completely identify with Gothamites. We've been put through the wringer by the last trio of Batman games, each one under-delivering on the promise of playing a game featuring the Dark Knight Detective. And it's hard to undo the collective amnesia that we all seem to undergo the second a new game set in the franchise is announced.

It's with this mindset that I walked over to a demo session of "Batman: Arkham Asylum", and got a closer look at the game during the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco.

Three Pillars of Game Design

The developers of "Batman: Dark Asylum" were quick to inform me of the game's three pillars design philosophy (think concentration areas). These three areas of focus were: Investigation, Free Flow Combat, and Predatory Combat (think stealth). Interestingly, my reaction to this design credo was surprise because I'd never actually thought deeply on what the core essences of the character were. But when I did, I saw a lot of value to this list - they're the most important elements of his masked persona distilled to it's purest and basic idea. To showcase the three pillars concepts in action, I was given a demonstration in the Riddler's Challenge rooms.

The Riddler Challenges

The Riddler challenges are a set of rooms that are designed as an incentive for players to unlock bonus art and character profile info (the game will ship with over 200 of these). The first challenge room I'm shown showcases the game's Free Flow Combat System. Controlling Batman, I'm able to ping-pong around the room engaging different opponents quickly using strikes and kicks. Of course, combat in real-life (or comics for that matter) is rarely ever focused between two people trading blows in gentlemanly fashion and a third person enters the fray. As said goon makes his move I get a moment to try a cool feature that the developers call, a re-direct.

Re-directs in "Batman: Arkham Asylum" are used as a way to redirect Batman's attention to a separate incoming attack. Whenever the Caped Crusader's attention is diverted and an opponent is attacking from his blind side, a lighting bolt appears over the incoming attackers head. This is your prompt as the player to hit the re-direct button to intercept the attack (and look super cool) and then counter the move. Players can either redirect or dodge which leaves the system open and not feel too automatic, and if a prompt makes you feel like the sequence is too quick-time-ish, it shouldn't. Ultimately, it contributes to keeping Batman aggressive in these one-versus-many brawls, and it's satisfying when you nail them into consecutive combos (which for challenge rooms, can be recorded and then uploaded to online leaderboards).

Predatory Instincts
The second series of challenge rooms show off the predatory combat pillar of the game's design. As Batman, players are tossed into a much larger room with the goal of taking out all the goons, only now they are encouraged to use more stealthy means. Batman can crouch walk to silence his steps to sneak up behind foes, or use his grappling hook to observe his prey from above and put together a rough combat plan.

I scale to the top of the room using my grappling hook and check out the Caped Crusaders wonderful toys in "Batman: Arkham Asylum". My first assessment tool is called investigation, and by tapping a button I get a wire-frame looking heads up display that informs me of enemy positions. Using the right trigger, I can crouch walk and sneak up behind someone for a stealth take-down, one of the best ways to dispatch an opponent silently, or I can look for marked surfaces to use my explosive gel. Tagging a marked surface, you can remote detonate the get and take out an enemy using the opposite of a stealth take-down, but its still very satisfying. Two more great tools for the Dark Knight are the Bat Claw and fan favorite Batarangs. The Bat Claw pulls enemies across the room over to Batman (think Scorpion's claw from Moral Kombat), or over rails, taking them out in the process. And Batarangs are like ninja stars except shaped like .... bats.

As I systematically took out each goon in the challenge room one by one, I had another epiphany - this could be the best Batman game so far. The predatory combat felt right for the license, but the thing that sealed the deal were the enemy A.I. and there reactions. If I was too loud, all the thugs would come running to see what happened - a plus in my book. One of my favorite moments played out when I used one of the game's vertical take-downs - If an enemy passes under Batman's perch in a level, he can grapple down, scoop up the enemy, and tie him to the post while he screams for help. After I hog-tied my prey, he scream out and all the goons leveled their machine guns to fire at me. Using the grapple I was able to evade the bullets and seek a better spot while the enemies bickered amongst each other wondering where I went. This was a Batman moment and it convinced me that the game is on the right track.

There's still much to discuss when it comes to "Batman: Arkham Asylum". The game takes place over the course of one night, and with a pretty familiar comic book plot: Batman apprehends the Joker. Joker escapes and then sets all the lunatics of Arkham loose on everyone's favorite Dark Knight (all according to plan, I might add). So, while the outcome to the story could feel obvious, we're fairly excited to see how it all plays out for Batman this time. Clearly the three pillars philosophy as a key design decision means that Rocksteady Studios understands the Dark Knight, better than the developers that came before. Yet its to early to tell if this is the game that vindicates the Batman license and lifts it out of the dredge of 'bad licensed games'.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Solid Advice: Shut Off Your Phone

Please shut off your cell phone before the show begins.”

This was the robotic message that blared through the South Hall of the Moscone Center just moments before Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo Japan, took the stage for his keynote session on developing games for an emerging market. This was just one of two big headline keynotes taking place this week during the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.

I probably had the same dismissive reaction to this announcement as the countless others that were filing into the large hall for Iwata’s session.

“Shut off my phone?” I thought to myself. “Yeah, right.”

But midway through the keynote, I would come to regret this decision, after all the unthinkable always happens. In fact, this accident was something that I programmed to happen every day at 9:30 a.m.

It was my alarm clock. And at 9:30 a.m., it sounded off in the middle of Iwata’s session programmed with the same high pitched sound as the Codec noise used in the Metal Gear Solid games.

See, this alarm is usually important because it signals the end of my first period class. But today wasn’t one of those regular days.

And as I sat in the press section surrounded by high profile members of the gaming press - Stephen Totilo and Tracey John of MTV Multiplayer to my right, Seth Schiesel of the New York Times sitting in front of Stephen, and Brian Crecente and Mark McWhertor of Kotaku both sitting side-by-side in front of me, I reached into my pocket and silenced my cellphone, feeling very foolish the entire time.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kellee Santiago Speaks on Managing Creative Talent Within Indie Studios

Kellee Santiago, of thatgamecompany, hosted a lecture today emphasizing the importance of managing creative talent within Indie studios at the Independent Games Festival, part of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

The core team of her studio started with 3 people and steadily grew to 7 over the last three years. But despite constantly dealing with contract workers during her studio's game projects, the important piece of her discussion today was aimed towards managing full-timecreatives of an Indie studio instead.

"The focus here will be on your full-time employees, who are probably slash some of your best friends right now," Santiago said, a nudge of sorts toward a key issue for Indie teams, as they transition from creative relationships based off of their early friendships to a more organized format required for business.

Santiago went into specifics by sharing the personal growth and experience at thatgamecompany, and pointed to the creative arguments that began occurring regularly within the group at a very critical moment for the studio last year.

Following the fantastic response from critics to the first showing of their last game, "Flower" at E3 2008, and an offer from Sony aimed at giving them more time and money towards the development of the game, the team was suffering from an all-time low morale within the company and some severe growing pains.

To help the attendees understand her company's situation, Santiago gave a pop quiz to the audience with questions that switched between topics of trust, to then conflict, commitment, and lack of accountability; a laundry list of problems that were contributing to issues at her studio. As one of the the co-founders of her company, Santiago admitted to struggling with knowing when to get involved in the arguments, knowing that on many times when she did it was from being over protective of her staff.

With the help of consultants, the collective of thatgamecompany were able to sort out their issues by identifying the key problems, and then enabling solid management techniques within the company to help address them. They found that there was a growing fear of conflict or the avoidance of conflict between team members, hidden under the guise of thinking that "the game just needed to get done", Santiago said.

For any Indie studio today, Santiago's lecture could hopefully be viewed as solid advice, and she touched on a very human part of the game development process that is never talked about in the daily public relations cycles or information that is passed on to the gaming press.

Santiago closed her lecture by comparing her company's situation to a bad early relationship. "It took (us) a while to learn that its not going to get any better, and that we had to change something here," Santiago said. "But now that we are more mature agency, we can see the signs much more clearer. You can see them a mile away."


Monday, March 23, 2009

The Night Before GDC 09'

So, how did I spend the day before the Game Developers Conference in San Francsico?

I spent the night before GDC playing (and finishing) Resident Evil 5 on my Xbox 360, and then grabbing a quick nap afterward because my eyes were almost bloodshot from playing most of the day.

But napping at 6 p.m. on the night before a big industry shindig like GDC can be a bad thing. Let me explain. First, i missed a huge kick-off party at a local bar downtown. Second, I woke up restless at 12 a.m. and couldn't go back to sleep. So I spent the early part of this morning browsing more panel sessions and discussions and hoping that I'd make a breakthrough in cloning before 7 a.m.

Sadly, that breakthrough didn't happen, but GDC is still going on and I'll be there on Wednesday.

Maybe I'll get some sleep before then...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fast Forward: Resident Evil 4 is Keeping Me Busier Than I Thought

If there's only one thing that's difficult about being a fan of gaming, its that keeping up with the annual release schedule is tough business. Or, at least playing through each game can be.

A friend of a friend of mine said it best one day. Well, both he and his wife did; They agreed that the initial investment a person puts into a game can quickly feel like more of a burden than a benefit. Especially with the longer games that dominate our playtime.

Consider what reviewers go through. These folk are paid to play as much as possible (given embargo and other circumstances) and then write a quick yet detailed review chronicling the experience. Of course, average Joe is blind to this part of the experience since no one is making him write a detailed analysis of the game, but he/she would agree that playing game after game and investing 10, 20, or even 50 hours of anyone's time in an experience is daunting all of the time. After all, we all have lives to consider.

Except if you're one of the lucky ones and the terms rent, mortgage, jobs and or social-life are devoid human abstracts of little value to you (very lucky for you indeed).

So, back in 2005 something came up that kept me from playing the somewhat-ubiquitous Game of that Year, "Resident Evil 4". Actually, I think I remember now - that was my first year teaching high school.

A January release was radically different for consumers then given the franchise's pedigree - a bold set of survival horror games set in plague filled middle-American town of Racoon City, but we all were prepared for the revolution that RE4 promised. The new camera, great precision and aiming controls were only some of the benefits, but the game also delieverd what many considered a deep and engrossing action adventure through the spanish part of Europe.

Come to think of it. Now, I really remember what took up most of my time that year: preparing for first batch of mid-term exams. It was a really difficult task, I can assure you.

Well, a little game called "Resident Evil 5" just came out last Friday and as excited as I am for it, I can't justify jumping into the zombie filled plague lands of Africa for a reunion with Chris Redfield just yet. At least, not until I complete the last game in the series that I severly neglected despite the hype. So then I've decided to jump back in and complete RE4 on the Wii.

So far playing RE4: Wii Edition has been great, even if the visual style of the game hasn't aged well. It just doesn't look so hot on an HDTV with VGA cables. But you can blame the manufacturer LG, who only put one set of component cables on the back of the unit. Also, feel free to blame the cost of said component cables for the Wii while you're at it.

I should be done with the game this week, and as of right now I'm on chapter 5-3. Hopefully, my commentary on RE4 for the next few days won't put any of you to sleep. And if so, that's fine. I'll just drone on anyway until I start RE5 right after.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Opinion: The Negative Effects of Exclusivity

The sports genre used to be my favorite genre in video games, but now this simply isn't the case.


In 1998, I was quite different: I loved sports games (mostly baseball and football games). My friends and I would spend countless hours playing the latest "MLB" or "Triple Play Baseball" game. We'd switch between the latest "Madden NFL" title and "NFL Gameday" or play "NFL2K" on my Sega Dreamcast. Maybe we just had more time to play back then than we do now, but ever since the early sports game era of the PS One the genre was loaded with promise. Sure, most baseball games were way too homerun friendly, and a Hail Mary pass play might work one time too many, but the level of competition between all the popular franchises was inspiring new ideas and each publisher did there best to capitalize on it and cultivate innovation. New ideas were formed, titles each had a strength, and everything was right with the world.

Fast forward to December 14, 2004. This was the day that Electronic Arts announced it's five year exclusivity agreement with the NFL, giving EA the leverage in an ongoing sports-game-brawl with 2K Games and their NFL2K series.

Even back then gamers had their issues with the EA deal, but nothing could change the mark that this move made on the industry, or the subsequent moves right after: Take Two Interactive entered a similar agreement with Major League Baseball giving their 2K baseball series a jolt, but failing to secure full console exclusivity in the process (first-party published games were allowed, potentially leaving the door open for Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft to develop their own fledgling sports games).

Fast forward, again, to 2009. After dabbling in the Madden series three times and purchasing two of the 2K titled sports baseball games onXbox 360, I've decided that I'm done with the genre (mostly). Granted, my opinion is probably a minority in the realm of sports gamers, but neither series has managed to excite me about playing a virtual sport the way they used to. And blame, what I call, the roster update theory for that - the idea that year-over-year features aren't changed or lightly modified, with only the player roster being the most significant change from sequel to sequel (something that DLC might solve someday).

Sadly, my stance is ironic considering the level of graphical fidelity that this console era and the improvements to the genre it's providing. Today, we're part of an era where high-definition visuals can paint an amazingly realistic representation of a stadium, and sometimes (if we're lucky) a sportscast. Today, we truly see something remarkable during a pitcher's wind-up and delivery. These little things are becoming more and more a true to life representation, and this will only continue to improve with time. But at the end of the day, no matter how visually splendid the product has become, the name of the game isgameplay. Well, that and presentation. And that's my beef with the sports genre, today: the lack of choice.

Call me biased, but I'm tired of the loose feeling my controller gives me as I try to judge a baseball grounded up through the middle of the field. It stymies me that I never know what fielder I'm controlling on a quick play. The blatant notion of involving the right analog stick as 'do everything' feature is dizzying. The fact that no game (in any sport) is really teaching me anything for fear of being too casual is sickening. Why not offer a mode to teach people not just the controls, but what to do here and why? Clearly this is something that a competing sports title can one-day offer, but in the current state of the industry there is no room for that competition. And now there is only one multiplatform baseball game and one NFL football game released every year.

The lack of clear choices, that's my gripe. It's the reason that I've sworn off most of the sports genre, with the exception of "Fight Night: Round 2". Players knew that the running game in NFL2K was great, probably better than the Madden equivalent. But Madden had it's own strengths. Both games did.

I'll admit that some of this post is a bit of an overstatement, but I yearn for the day when the exclusive publishing agreements are over and that day might be coming according to GamePolitics (via GameSpy ). Maybe then I'll be more apt to want to try a baseball game or a football game, again. Until then, I'll hang on to my fond memories of "MVP Baseball" and my younger years playing football games. Those were the best days of the genre because of how much choice we had, and in the end having choices is what makes games great.

Required Listening

(Another cross-post from systemic)

If you're the type of person that loves deep, informative podcast discussions playing in your ear during a morning commute, here's a quick list of some of the best audio on the internet.


A Life Well Wasted - Hosted by former EGM'er Robert Ashley, this show is anything but a waste of time, and its shows plenty of potential for the future. "A Life Well Wasted" focuses on video games and the people who love them. After only two released episodes, this show has managed to infuse a strong video game soundtrack with an interesting and often unique social commentary on video games culture. Think of it as a gamers version of "This American Life".

Idle Thumbs - The perennial multiplatform video game discussion podcast hosted by Chris Remo of, Nick Brekon of, and Jake Rodkin of Telltale Games.

The GameSpy Debriefings - the rag tag bunch of editors over at weigh in on the weeks news, previews and reviews for console and PC. Each week, listeners are treated to the awesome personalities of Sterling McGarvey, Miguel Lopez, Will Tuttle, and others as they discuss the latest topics in the video game industry.

The Player One Podcast - Hosted weekly by former EGM writers Chris Johnston, Phil Theobauld, and guests, The Player One Podcast offers fun, detailed discussions on the hottest topics in the games industry.

The Geekbox - A podcast hosted by some of the best personalities in the business, "The Geekbox" covers a multitude of media for geeks everywhere. Each week, listen to the Geekbox team sound off on games, comics, television, movies and more.