FireSprite and The Playroom

December 10th, 2013 in News

Following on from the announcement that I worked on Xbox Fitness, which was a launch title on Xbox One, I can also now proudly reveal that I have also worked on an launch title for PS4. In fact, The Playroom, which is pre-installed on every PS4.

The Playroom itself has been announced since E3, and recently had this great demo on the Jimmy Fallon show:

However, FireSprite have only recently made themselves public, which is why I haven’t been able to post anything on this until now. It’s been a really exciting 10 months working at FireSprite, and there are some real legends of the games industry there doing amazing work. Look out for more information on other projects in the coming year!


Announcing… Xbox Fitness

September 30th, 2013 in News

As is often the way with video game development, you can’t talk about something you’ve worked on until it’s very close to the end of development. Since going freelance 18 months ago I’ve worked on quite a few titles, and today can announce the first of those: Xbox Fitness.

It’s a launch-window title for Xbox One, and uses the new Kinect sensor to great effect. I did 6 months design work on the game for Sumo Digital back in 2012, and can’t wait to see what the game has evolved into since.


Gone Home

August 21st, 2013 in Thoughts

It’s been a fair while since I posted here, and I’ve been looking for something that’d inspire me to get back to writing again. Gone Home is that inspiration. It’s also the prefect counter to my last post because it is worthy of the praise and accolades it’s getting in a way that Bioshock Infinite wasn’t.

Like Infinite, Gone Home’s main draw is its story. The biggest difference to me is how that story is revealed. Bioshock is a completely linear affair, complete with cut scenes (albeit from first person), lock in areas and huge scale. It was a compelling story and well told, but I never felt that I had any influence over it – I was simply battling my way through to the next trigger point.

While Gone Home doesn’t give you any opportunity to change events, what it gives you instead is a voyage of discovery. There are a few forced bottlenecks to ensure you’ve heard or done certain things that count towards the main narrative, but you’re free to discover the clues at your own pace. The thing I like most about it is how subtle it is, not just how small scale and personal the main story is, but in that so many things are there just for you to interpret how you want.

The way you’re guided through the world is very well executed, using established tricks skilfully. The misdirection at the start is really well done – I know not everyone agrees and is disappointed in a lack of payoff (Oli Welsh’s review over at Eurogamer highlights this), but I thought it was really well done. It also has parallels with the story’s main theme, when you stop and look back at it.

And that’s the greatest thing. Rarely does a story in a game ever give me pause for thought. Even more rarely do I find myself thinking about the characters in a game after I’ve finished it. There are a few flaws and some bits are contrived, but overall it’s a wonderful experience and, as I mentioned above, very personal and open to your interpretation. It’s the game closest to being like a good book rather than a summer blockbuster, and for that it should be highly commended.

As I did on Twitter, I also want to mention the similarity between Gone Home and Fragments of Him, a small game developed by a friend for Ludum Dare 26. If you’re on the fence regarding buying Gone Home, have a play of Fragments first. If it intrigues you then I think you won’t regret spending your money.


On Bioshock Infinite

April 26th, 2013 in Thoughts

There’s been a lot of stuff written about Bioshock Infinite over the past few weeks, and I’ve recently finished it and wanted to write something myself. Overall, I enjoyed it and the story and environment visuals are, without doubt, what holds it together. Normally that’d be it: I’d accept it for what it is and move on to the next game. But this is Bioshock Infinite – still riding high at 95% on Metacritic, with a whole host of reviewers throwing 10/10′s at it, saying it’s a game changer and that it redefines shooters and storytelling. I don’t know which game they’re playing, but it doesn’t feel like the same one I’ve recently completed.

It’s good entertainment but it isn’t doing anything that Bioshock 1 didn’t do back in 2007. Initially I thought I was the only one that thought this, that it was me that was missing something, but now the dust has started to settle quite a few people are starting to voice similar thoughts.

This post isn’t an attack on Bioshock Infinite, but done more as an analysis of why I don’t believe it’s a 10/10 game. This is me, as a games designer, asking the question: does gameplay not matter as much when it comes to reviewing anymore? I ask this because, while parts of the story telling have been refined, the gameplay feels to have taken a step back.

The combat

The biggest thing wrong, which has been very covered excellently here by Kirk Hamilton on Kotaku, is that it doesn’t actually feel that Bioshock Infinite should even have combat in it. The world, the main characters and the overarching concept are really interesting, and have the potential to make an amazing exploration / voyage of discovery / mind bending puzzle game.

The violence

The violence is brutal – the first time you kill someone is, without doubt, the most horrifying experience I’ve had in a video game. Not because I haven’t done that sort of stuff in games before, but because it’s so out of context: I had absolutely no desire to kill an NPC, and I didn’t sign up for a gore fest. The reviews and trailers sold me on the world and story, but the game undermines them with endless violence.

It’s a real shame: Irrational Games are in the Elite of AAA game developers, and had an opportunity here to make an amazing statement on how big budget games can be made. It really does feel like they had a chance to create something truly game changing, but ultimately delivered just another shooter.

The shooting isn’t much fun

This might be ok if the shooting itself was good but, in my opinion, it’s average at best. It all stems from the basic fact that the tempo of the combat is out of sync with the rest of the world. You’re given so many options – guns, vigors, tears, sky hooks, suit items – yet rarely given any time to actually consider what you want to do next. I remember constantly pressing the wrong select button in Bioshock 1 – it was annoying but not too detrimental, because the game paused when you were cycling weapons or plasmids. It gave you time to think. The encounters in Infinite don’t allow this – from the very first fight the number of enemies is turned right up to max. There’s a few that buck the trend, and these ones stand out in my mind as being the only places where the combat actually shines.

It feels like Irrational went down this road to try and force the player into using everything they have at their disposal, yet in actuality it produces almost the complete opposite. I’d often stick with a single vigor and only changing it to Possession if something big was about. We had a similar issue early on when making Rogue Trooper, and solved it (to a point) by stripping the features down right back to basics. I wish someone had done that with Infinite.

The design of the combat areas doesn’t help, because most start you off in a choke point and say ‘here ya go!’ as 10 enemies start charging towards you. Sky hooks sometimes raise you to a better position to see from, but rarely better to actually fight from. They should have been akin to the hook points in Batman, where you could get some breathing time or survey the scene from relative safety. But their effectiveness is diminished by the fact that the normal AI can use them too, and biggest of the biggest flaw in the game as a whole:

The boss design

I could dissect the combat for hours, but I’ll simply ask a question: did you honestly enjoy any fight where a Patriot or Handyman was involved? These enemies are so bad they strip a couple of points off the score on their own in my book. Their concepts are fine: both have very well choreographed weak spots. The issue is the implementation, as it’s practically impossible to actually flaunt said weak spots. No matter what I throw at him, the Handymen won’t stay still and the Patriots can turn far faster than the player can circle strafe them. Any attempts to get some distance on a Handyman usually proves futile, and Patriots don’t appear to have a line of sight check; they just blunder round corners already aiming and shooting straight at you. Let alone the fact that there’s nearly always another 10 AI trying to shoot me too.

There is one other boss fight in the game towards the end, split over 3 phases. By the time the 3rd phase came along I was ready to give up. Please take note Irrational: Boss fights should let you actually get to the boss, not hoards of standard AI draining your ammo and getting in your way.

Suspension of disbelief

This is the key to success in any work of fiction, and it is another area where Bioshock Infinite falls down on. Which is, possibly, the biggest puzzle of all; especially given how much the reviews have waxed lyrical about the immersion in the world.

The problem is: the player character doesn’t feel connected to the world, and nothing is consistent. For example, I don’t have a shadow or a reflection, except for every now and again. I, occasionally, have hands. I can reload my gun while hanging onto a sky rail. I can steal purses and loot from people and they ignore me. Of the characters that do actually acknowledge I exist, most can’t be bothered to look at me. I can eat an infinite amount of food and never get full. I can take apples and oranges from almost anywhere, except the fruit stalls. The list of inconsistencies goes on, and while each one is quite minor, they quickly stack up and pull me out of the world.

To sum it up though, I think the biggest problem is how static and linear the world feels. It’s like it’s a museum, frozen in time, that I can only go through in one specific way. Which should be fine; after all: lots of video game worlds are the same. But the reviews made me expect more.

The delivery of the story

The core of the story is delivered by Elizabeth, who is very well executed. Primarily though, her dialogue is incredibly well written and her voice acting is probably one of the best performances in a game to date. She is also, without doubt, very useful in a fight.

But the actual delivery of the story is nothing new at all. Anything important requires you to be locked in a small box, usually a lift or a control room, and to be looking in roughly the right direction. Or it’s blasted at you via a PA system from an unseen character, quite often while you wait for a wave of enemies to pour in over the nearest wall. Occasionally, control is taken completely away from you – you grow arms and watch a cinematic play out from first person. Essentially, it uses all the same methods that most games use.

The story itself is intriguing, and definitely better paced than Bioshock 1. There are still too many false endings, but they weren’t as bad as the one in their previous game. I’m not sure I feel entirely satisfied at the end of it though, and I certainly don’t understand why I had to kill quite so many people to get there.

In summary the, yes: Bioshock Infinite is good, and worth playing. But I don’t understand why it’s been been awarded so many 10/10′s. If you can explain, I’m all ears.


Why is it so hard to make a good Aliens game?

February 17th, 2013 in Thoughts

This week Aliens: Colonial Marines was finally released and, unfortunately, the reviews of it don’t seem to rate it very highly. Worse still: some review sites have gone so far as to post videos of glitches, which I think is the first time I’ve seen that happen. People on forums are saying pretty much the same things, and with all the disappointment questions get asked. Specifically: why is it so hard to make a good Aliens game?

It could be argued that I don’t know the answer to that, having being involved with Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem on PSP (49% average on metatcritic) and the lead designer of AVP2010 (64% on xbox360, 68% on PC). The first of those games was tied into the launch of the film, whereas the second was the flagship title for Rebellion that year, and we had a good sized team working on it for a decent amount of time. We knew Colonial Marines was in development – Gearbox had announced as such in December 2006, and it had been on the cover of Game Informer in February 2008. And we had a very broad overview of what the story would be, because we had been told not to go anywhere near LV-426, Space Jockeys or the Sulaco. The latter was a bit of a blow for me personally, as early story concepts had revolved around Predators using the Sulaco as bait to lure Marines in.

Instead, we set AvP about 30 years after the story events of the Aliens film. By this point it seemed reasonable to assume that word of the Xenomorphs had spread, and that Marines would have a rough idea how to go up against them.

Kane

This is the first difficulty faced with making an Aliens game: the audience knows what to expect, and it’s reached the point now where it’s pretty much impossible to create a storyline that would surprise players. We all know that Aliens burst out of chests, hide in shadows, crawl on walls and are devastating at close range.

This leads to the second problem: Aliens themselves are the complete opposite of the kind of enemy you need if you’re making a shooting game. They’re fast, they’re hard to hit, if you don’t kill it before it’s within 10 metres of you then you’re going to get doused in acid and die anyway, and if it does get close you’re instantly dead. A player would put up with them as an occasional boss fight, but as the main enemy it just gets annoying.

This wouldn’t be too bad, if not for the third problem: audiences expect a game with a lot of shooting. You’re playing a bad ass Marine and are have access to some of the most iconic weapons from cinema: you want the excuse let rock and use them.

Drake

Lots of shooting requires a lot of enemies though, which is the complete opposite of how you create tension. People also expect that an Aliens game is going to be scary, because the first film was terrifying (Aliens has its moments, but it’s more tense than downright horror). The Marine campaign in AvP’99 got this almost perfect, and regularly scared the day lights out of players. Since then, we’ve struggled to replicate that because of a belief that shooting games have to be fair, brightly lit and well sign posted.

Are there alternatives?

Yes, I think there are a few options available to whoever gets the next go at developing an Aliens game.

The first is to make it much more horror based – akin to the Alien title on Spectrum that Eurogamer did a retrospective on a few days ago. Having the player character be more fragile – more Ripley like – and only having a few enemies to, effectively, avoid, could make for an interesting game.

The second potential is to just make it plain hard. In 2010 I don’t think we could have gotten away with this, but since then the Indie scene has exploded and gamers have shown that they’re eager for games that present a big challenge (FTL springs to mind). Taking a cue from a game like Infinity Blade on iOS, the player could play a continual stream of Marines that are sent into a situation. The environment would be the same each time, but the Alien AI allows for random encounters, different spawn places and so on. The ultimate aim is to get through  to the Queen, and the first few times you do that you’d die horribly. Each Marine is plugged in to the other’s feeds, either via a video comm system or a dream machine like the one seen in Prometheus. When it’s their turn, they’ve got a good idea of what to expect.

Sending 4 people at a time in could tie nicely into the Left4Dead style multiplayer game, which we started to make a good version of in AVP2010 with Survival mode but could have benefited from larger environments to make your way through.

Either way, I think the world is ready for a game where the Xenomorphs aren’t dumbed down to make the game fairer, but instead are as lethal as they are in the films. It’s got to be worth a go, right?

Disclaimer: I don’t work for Rebellion any more, and don’t have any contact with anyone from Sega or Fox. This article is purely my take on how to potentially move forward with the licence.


An update to Single Joystick

January 29th, 2013 in News

A few weeks ago I posted about a new concept for creating a joystick on touch screen devices, and the response was really good so I’ve continued working on it. The video below covers the main points (and also has me talking on it), and I’ve updated the original article and also posted a quick update here on AltDevBlogADay as well.

Hopefully this will start showing up in games soon!


The Eiffel Tower

January 23rd, 2013 in Photo

I’ve recently spent a few days in Paris, and was lucky enough to find the time to visit the Eiffel Tower once again. The very top is closed at the moment for renovation work, and while the view from the second floor is still magnificent it’s what’s going on in the middle that really caught my attention this time.

They’re in the process of building a new restaurant on the first floor which, from the information boards, suggests that it will block the traditional view up through the middle as it is going to span that entire area. On ground level there is a small fenced off area for the work force, and the four skinny lifts shown above. It’s an amazing contrast to the huge structure around it, and also quite amazing that a structure so famous can undergo significant work to transform it into something new.

I look forward to visiting it again once the work is complete.


A new kind of joystick…

January 15th, 2013 in News

If you follow me on twitter, you may have seen me mention working on a prototype control system for touch screens. A few weeks ago I set myself a challenge: see if it’s possible to combine two virtual joysticks, used in most touch based first and third person shooters, into a single joystick. And still be controllable. Here’s a very early stage video (a bit jittery due to my capture method):

It’s been a nice little side project to work on, and I’ve written up my progress so far. As usual, it’s both on this site here, and here on AltDevBlogADay too.