Spore (PC) – Review

September 28, 2008

Probably the most hyped game in the past few months (definitely since GTA4 and MGS4), Spore is Will Wright’s and EA’s newest Sims-like game with added components of an RTS (real-time strategy). The object of the game is to take a creature from a microscopic stage (I’d say single-cell, but I’m not sure) of life all the way through galactic conquest via evolutionary add-ons, trade and warfare. How’s that for an elevator pitch?

Look! A Spike-tailed Bloody Phlegm!

Good: The game is an immersive world with a gradual learning curve. I believe this is something the whole family can enjoy for small snippets of time, but then again, I don’t have kids. Do I have any parents reading? What do you think?

The Creature Creator (sold seperately for those who want to populate their world with their own creations) is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is the ability to fully customize the positions of arms, legs, necks, tails, spinal curvature , spikes, poison jets, skin color and texture, etc. The curse: for anyone with any level of OCD, get ready to spend a lot of time color coordinating arms and legs, swelling the belly and tapering the tails – and when you’re finally done with the creature, you’ll be too mentally fatigued to play the game that day.

Ahh...Cartoony-space. What can't you do?

Ahh...Cartoony-space. What can't you do?

Another beautiful aspect of the game that other studios should pay attention to is the level pacing. There are five different stages, or levels, to Spore: Cellular, Creature, Tribal, Civilization and Space (or Kick in the Nards). I found that when I began to tire of swallowing bits of cellular debris and adding spikes to my sides, it was time to move to the next stage. Also, by the time I made it to space, I was worried the game was almost over, only to find around 40% of the game’s content is in the final stage. Just say no to final stage Boss Battles and yes to long, immersive, final levels allowing you to use everything you’ve learned throughout the game!

The bad: Repetition. Once you make it to space, it’s all about repeating the terraforming and colonization of other planets and returning home to defend your planets. When you pan out to see the galactic view, you realize how long a journey you have to make it to the center and how many of these planets you have to colonize…and then you yawn. So, long final level? Check. Immersive? BONK!

Also, if you’re truly talking about an evolving species, the creature should have to carry on the traits of his ancestors, not suddenly switch from being a carnivore to an herbivore or removing all spikes and adding dancing feet. It’s fun, but doesn’t this destroy the idea of evolution?

Interactive Media

September 21, 2008

Since the AGDC, a thought has been nagging me in the back of my brain-bone. I want to open this up to discussion because I want to get a feel for what others think about the idea of interactive media. A great number of theories about the future of storytelling have popped up in conversations and so I turn to you.

What are the boundaries of interactive media and what is at its core?

I feel, at its core, a book is a form of interactive media, albeit rudimentary. A reader must turn the page to progress the storyline. This said, the author has complete control of where the story goes and the “player” merely turns the page and reads on. Linear? Yes. Interactive? Sure.

The books are in the computer!

The books are in the computer!

The problem seems to arise when folks begin discussing non-linearity and interactivity. Terms like “open world” and “sandbox” get tossed about and there is finger-pointing with shouts of, “That’s still linear!” Some seem to think the idea of storytelling is a burden to be placed on the shoulders of the gamer in the future.

WHAT?! Wait, why exactly should this happen?

The general theory appears as such: in our day-to-day lives, we constantly fill in blanks with things we see and conversations we overhear. Sometimes, we are spot-on. Other times, we create stories that are far greater than the actual occurrences. To this, I say, “Kudos! We all have some level of imagination and contextual reality.” But does this make us all good storytellers?

I fully understand the desire to interact with a game’s storyline and make it my own personal experience. As a fan of RPGs, it’s what I thrive on. But what makes a game a game? Furthermore, what makes an interesting storyline? Non-linearity is great, if done well. I love being able to do what I want (in any order) and having the consequences of my actions affect the outcome of the game. This being said, I want to be part of a strong story, not something being generated on the fly that has a greater than 50% chance of being worthless and uninteresting. As a writer, I have a daily opportunity to write garbage. As a gamer, I want a refined and polished storyline that can be altered – sometimes subtly, sometimes majorly – but never breaks my immersion.

In my opinion, you should enjoy a storyline that allows you to play along; a storyline that a professional has spent time on to make sure there are moments of tension and action, betrayal and emotional pulls.  If you want full control of your destiny, play 2nd Life. Better yet, go to work.

Agree? Disagree? Let me here from you.

From new friends to slammin’ parties and everything in between, the AGDC was everything I hoped it would be. Maybe more. I will try to be brief but invite all of you to ask any specific questions you may have about the goings-on of the conference.

Sunday night: The writers gang met at the Gingerman around 8:00pm and I met who would turn out to be the usual suspects: Jeff Spock, Rhianna Pratchett, Andy Walsh, Ron Toland, Susan O’Connor*, Haris Orkin, Richard Dansky, Tom Abernathy and others (sorry to any I may have left off…there was alcohol involved). Without missing a beat, Andy launched himself into several rants that were informative and entertaining all at once; not a bad skill for someone who would later be giving a lecture about OnDemand Dialogue.

*Meeting Susan will be forever memorable as I made a giant fool of myself by asking her husband if Susan was married. As a writer, this was a moment of poor word choice.

Me, Rhianna Pratchett, Andy Walsh & Richard Dansky

Me, Rhianna Pratchett, Andy Walsh & Richard Dansky

Monday:I arrived early to the convention center and brought two dozen donuts along with sign-up sheets, coupons and an easel. Registration was quick and painless and I got a shirt, a schwag bag and a water bottle. I met Kristy Bowden who brought boxes full of literature and books for our table. I set everything up with some help from Ron and things looked good!

Celtx guys watch Andy dance the Robot

Celtx guys watch Andy dance the Robot

I spent the day going to a few panels (including a brilliant session with Shana Merlin on improv storytelling and a critic-al workshop hosted by Richard Dansky) and manning the booth. I met Tim Langdell and we had a couple of drinks before leaving the center and making our way to the ArtHouse for music, art and drinks. There, Tim and I met with John Canning and left to eat dinner at Thai Passion. After this, the three of us went to the Sky Lounge for the Heatwave Interactive party. Open bar, food, cookies and Rock Band 2 competition – ‘Nuff said.

Tuesday: Waking up was a little difficult on Tuesday, but I still managed to arrive early with some donuts and kolaches. Interestingly, the booth, books, literature, poster and drapes were all gone! Mix up with CMP, but things got fixed while I attended Andy’s panel on the Prince of Persia and OnDemand Dialogue. Kudos to Andy on what seems like a very interesting way of handling story through dialogue in an open world. I had a chance to walk the Expo floor (pretty small and packed) and later attended the Writers’ SIG meeting to put many more faces withnames. The night was devoted to Valve’s party (I met Marc Laidlaw – the man behind the story behind the game of Half-Life) and the Gingerman.

Daniel Greenberg & Haris Orkin @ the Gingerman

Daniel Greenberg & Haris Orkin @ the Gingerman

Wednesday: The last day was slow for the first half, perhaps because Andy had left us. I manned the booth and then went to lunch (leaving the booth in the very able hands of Jeff Spock). Upon returning, I attended Adrian Hon’s panel of We Tell Stories and finished with an excellent presentation (or conversation speech) by Ground Zero Productions’ Flint Dille covering the necessary practices of writers wanting to break into the industry. A group of the writers ate at P.F. Chang’s and then split to attend different parties (most heading straight to the Gingerman).

P.F. Chang's FTW!

P.F. Chang's FTW

I was sad to say goodbye to so many of the writers and even though I’ve already read emails from a few, I hope to see them again before next AGDC. Call me a pushover, but the 3 days and 4 nights of the conference have made me feel that a lot of the writers are more than just names on an email list now. They feel more like friends.   

Again, if you have any specific questions about the conference (I know I was pretty vague here), please ask. I’d be more than happy to talk about this some more! Also, join the IGDA Writers’ SIG email list!

I would love to be writing more about the Austin GDC that is quickly approaching, but all things have their time and place. Activision’s The Bourne Conspiracy is here and now.

Activision's tips on avoiding the draft

Activision's tip on avoiding the draft

 The Good: Per my post about Bioshock, I played through this game as a Trainee (easy) and still found moments of solid challenge. What the fighting lacked in combos, it more than made up for in QTEs (Quick-time events). The QTEs truly resonated with me for this style of game because for the few hours it took me to play through the levels, I felt that I had the quick, decisive nature of Jason Bourne from the movies (not the books…dear Lord, not the books). In the middle of tapping the triangle and square buttons to deliver brutal punches and kicks, you have mere seconds to tap the correct button during a QTE to stave off an opponent’s vicious attack. If you fail, you don’t necessarily die (unless someone is shooting you), but you do suffer a hard knock to your health meter and in a fight with a boss, that health meter needs to last.

And. The boss fights = greatness. After the first two or three, you know what to expect, but they’re never over-the-top. Simply put, a man in a position that requires him to be better than the men below him is harder to beat than the men below him. Or maybe that wasn’t so simply put. Eh, figure it out.

Lastly, the movie-to-game adaptation is handled better than I’ve seen in most games like this. I’ve seen the movie. I love the movie. But the game flashes back to missions Jason ran before the incident on the boat left him for dead in the Mediterranean Sea. Thank you, Ludlum group, for allowing Activision some artistic license to create an entertaining back story and fresh scenarios that were unpredictable.

The Bad: Not a lot to say here other than the controls were a bit quirky. Okay, in all fairness, after my first hour of playing, I was tempted to put the game down due to control-induced frustration. When sprinting through gun fire, Jason Bourne – a $30 million perfect weapon – runs like Mike Myers’ Philip the Hyper-Hypo, run and jerked to a stop…into boxes, fences, cars or anything else that gets in his straight path. I was finally able to come to terms with it later when I realized the shooting was made a lot easier through the “Bourne Instinct” (aka Spidey Sense). Just take cover, pop up and shoot. If you want a headshot, move the crosshair up a hair.

Overall: Play it. With the slowly growing library of games for this console, it is definitely worth your time.

Perhaps a bit overdue, but nonetheless, here we are discussing the upcoming Austin GDC! Not sure what others are hoping for, but as this will be my first official conference to attend, I am…giddy, for lack of a better word. The Writers’ Track alone looks amazing, not to mention audio portion and other key guest speakers.  Personally, I am looking forward to the speech: Endgame: How to Build High-End Gameplay for Your Most Devoted Players by Damion Schubert, Bioware, Austin. So, maybe I’m a little biased about this one because I absolutely love Bioware’s products, but it’s nice to know that the company does think about its most hardcore fan base (“They love me. They really love me!”).

And on to some (not all) of the individuals that I am eager to meet.

First up: Rhianna Pratchett. Not only is she the narrative designer for the upcoming Mirror’s Edge by EA Digital Illusions, she put the “bad ass” in Nariko from Heavenly Sword. Plus, she has all but promised me a quick Q&A session – more than likely nothing you haven’t read elsewhere, but I’ll be the one asking the questions. (Insert evil, maniacal laugh here…unless you are Rhianna Pratchett, in which case, you should have only read the first two sentences of this paragraph)

When I think about you, I touch myself...Get it? Get it?!

When I think about you, I touch myself...Get it? Get it?!

Another presence that I’m looking forward to is Austin’s own Susan O’Connor. Okay, I’ve devoted two different blog entries to Bioshock’s amazing story so, all of that applies here. Now. To this woman. ‘Nuff said.

Richard Dansky’s workshop is another one pulling me. I’ve actually spoken with him briefly on the phone once, so…I don’t really know what that equates to, but it’s out there now for the record. Can’t I just be excited to meet people in the industry without having to qualify it all? Who are you to judge me? (grin)

That is all I have for now. If you’re going to be there, be sure to stop by the Writers’ SIG Booth as I will more than likely be there most of the time. And say hi to me. I would like to meet my two or three readers!

Repetition ingraines the idea

Repetition ingrains the idea

Bioshock Revisited

August 4, 2008

And like that, a week has passed since my last entry. It doesn’t seem possible, but between trying to beat Bioshock on the hardest setting (got the “good” ending…more on this later) and reading Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (a little too feminine for my taste) and work, I guess a week’s worth of time can be accounted for.

So, to keep with the theme of my blog, I present my final thoughts on Bioshock for PC. Overall, a great game…so great, in fact, I may have to change my gaming mantra, which is to always play a game on its hardest difficulty because more than likely, I won’t play it again. I think I will now play games on their easiest difficulty to save time and frustration. If I find I need more of a challenge, the game SHOULD allow me to change at any point (Are you listening 2K?). This said, I probably won’t play Bioshock again, regardless if I had played it on easy, simply because it freaked me out. I can’t take the anxiety and overall constant state of heightened tension these types of games put me through. Kudos for being able to do it, but…yeah, not for me. This does put a damper on my excitement for Resident Evil 5, however. 😦

 

I can’t say enough about the storyline…or maybe I could, but I won’t. Play this game if you haven’t already! The way things are handled with controlling the story while allowing players the illusion of freedom is amazing. And the few times you do lose control of your character, it gives you enough time to sit back, watch a quick interaction (NOT A CUTSCENE in the original sense) and force your heart to slow its BPM.

As for the ending, it was solid. Not long enough for my taste, but solid.

Short endings are for 8-bits...and even they had bikinis

Short endings are for 8-bits...and even they had bikinis

If you’re looking for more info about me, try www.MadeInMcGee.com

1up.com covered a Q&A with Stan Lee at Comic Con and apparently “The Man” approves of the storylines going into games now. He, like many others, recognizes that early on, comic book-based games were not only hokey, but “nothing special”. When asked about the stories in current and upcoming Marvel games, he said, “I hate you [videogame developers] for being better than we [comic creators] are at storytelling, but at least it’s based on our stuff.”  Receiving a compliment from a man who crafted so many of the heroes that generations of readers have and will grow up with is incredible, even for an outside aspirant like myself.

Was Stan Lee a pimp in the '70s?

Was Stan Lee a pimp in the '70s?

 

This being said, I pose the question: Who is the most influential writer/creator for game related characters or ideas? Not to slant the vote any, but I have to give Stan Lee the gold on this one simply for the number of games made with the Marvel IP. Can you think of anyone else who could take it away from him?

Tantalum capacitor - new Blood Diamond?

Tantalum capacitor - new Blood Diamond?

I should probably already be in bed but as I logged on to do a final email check, I came upon this interesting article. I am very surprised by this as I’ve never taken the time to understand what actually goes into making “western electronics”.

Better?

Better?

That being said, I feel like slapping Ex-British Parliament Member Oona King upside the head with a PS2 rumble controller for delivering lines that are nothing more than undeserved sensationalist speak. Quoted, he said, “Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms.” What kind of thing is that to say? Do you want the world hating young American and European gamers now? I can see a Leonardo DiCaprio role reprisal now. And, furthermore, why doesn’t Japan get mentioned in this “throw-the-kids-under-the-bus” statement?

Also of note, reviewing the release titles for the PS2 (this is apparently when the run on coltan hit its highest), I don’t see a single game that revolved around killing aliens. I bring this point to bear not to discredit Mr. Oona King, but to show the still sad state of what the world at large thinks of video games. If they’re not causing children to want to pick up prostitutes in cars or kill police, then they’re about killing aliens (I can only imagine Mr. King’s idea of the PS2 is one of an arcade machine for Space Invaders 2).

Still, all the misconceptions aside, this is bad news. I’m not sure what the Xbox and the Wii use that allowed them to fly under the radar of this article, because it seems that many electronics nowadays use the tantalum capacitors. Read this article for more info on the usage and specs than you probably ever wanted to know.

Following a night of music performed by the Austin Symphony Orchestra at Video Games Live, I spent Saturday at Richard Garriott’s lakeside retreat for Austin’s IGDA Summer Picnic. This was an excellent opportunity to meet some new faces in the local games industry while reacquainting myself with some familiar folks. I volunteered to help with the setup or the day’s activities and saw most of the attendants while directing them to their parking spot.

Mike McShaffry was at the helm of the picnic and could be seen throughout the day scurrying along in a John Deere cart. I met Mike back in February at a pre-SXSW mixer hosted by ScreenBurn and Austin Community College. At the same time, I met Kain Shin who also assisted with the volunteer work during the picnic. I knew from reading about Red Fly Studios on Kotaku that Kain was close to finishing the Mushroom Men project, but I was excited to hear that he was now soley in charge of the combat system for the game. Congrats Kain! Looking forward to this one.

Mr. Mike kicking up dust

Mr. Mike kicking up dust

The picnic was sponsered by several companies including KillerNICs and AutoDesk, with KillerNICs winning my personal award for Sweetest Marketing Ploy to Date. It was a chain with their NIC’s heatsink hanging from it. The catch is the heatsink is a “K” that smacks of Killer Instinct or the Blade movies – if, you know, Blade had a “K” in it.

Me in Killer Bling

Me in Killer Bling

When the sun started cooking us all, the Games2U truck provided a dark and airconditioned place for all of us gamers to do what we do best: kill each other in 8v8 Halo 3 battles. They also had outside screens for Guitar Hero and Laser Tag!

The Games2U Guys

The Games2U Guys

Of course, the most tiring part of the day came from Yoga Soccer and the mutations thereof. By the end, it was more of a basketball-soccer-rugby mashup that resulted in a few minor injuries and a lot of sweaty and panting volunteers.

Me trying to defend a girl in Yoga Soccer

Me defending a girl in Yoga Soccer

My personal thanks to Salt Lick Barbecue for catering the event, Amy’s Ice Cream for a little dessert and Opal Divine’s for the refreshing brew. Look for this event to happen again next summer and register early as some of my friends were unable to get in last minute.

Friday night in Austin, TX, Video Games Live put on a show like no other that I have seen. My girlfriend and I arrived around 6:30 for the preshow festivities at the Long Center on Riverside (for those of you familiar with the Austin area). Unfortunately, there was little going on (the following day, I ran into one Julianna who ran the hosting of VGL and she told me that she was disappointed in what VGL actually brought with them as opposed to what they said they would bring) but we grabbed a bag of Razer gear, chatted with some friends also in attendance and went to be seated. As luck, or oddness, would have it, they would not allow us to sit in our designated seats, so we were moved closer to the action.

Me, Brandi, Pam and Roddy

Me, Brandi, Pam and Roddy

The show began with a very energetic appearance by the composer, Jack Wall, and occasional narrative by Tommy Tallarico – also full of energy. If you don’t know what VGL is all about (and perhaps this should be at the top of my entry rather than here, but, enh…) you can see a YouTube clip here and read the official site here. The Austin Symphony Orchestra played the themes of classic games such as Super Mario Bros. and Metroid along with lighting effects that spared no expense. The more intricate compositions of newer games such as Mass Effect and Halo were also elegantly intertwined.

A compilation of classics

A compilation of classics

Intermittently, a radio contest winner or preshow game winner entered the stage and was thrust into a gaming opportunity for some cool gear. The first man had to run across stage with a spotlight following him as his movements controlled the base launcher of the original Space Invaders. In two minutes, he managed to fail at clearing the first stage and instead of leaving with a $3K arcade machine, he got another bag of Razer gear. The second competition was much better. A 20-yr old came out to play Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion accompanied by the symphony. He had to hit 165K points on hard to win a $2,500 Dell Laptop and ended up with a score of 250K on Extreme! The tension had the crowd at the edge of their seats and a standing O when he won.

Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall

Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall

Other acts included Martin Leung (seen here) playing the Mario Bros. theme blindfolded and Tommy himself kicking in on the last number, the theme for Castlevania. Overall, an amazing show that these two men have developed over the past 5 years. Even my girlfriend, who is not a gamer, had a great time pointing out which games she recognized. I wish Tommy and Jack the best in the future and they have an attendant for life.

*Pictures by Eugene Hsu