Saturday, February 12, 2011

Missing what might have been: a thought about meta-spoilers

Saturday, February 12, 2011 8
An 8 year old sketch. A pretty decent
Geoff Darrow bite if I say so myself.
The neologism "meta-spoilers" is intended to get after that peculiar issue common to both game developers themselves and hardcore game fans: nostalgia for the path not taken. For game developers it is a constant companion, sometimes threatening to grind game production into endless series of retrenchment, feature creep, muddled design, etc.

But because I am pursuing a policy of open development, modeling after the pioneering work of Mount & Blade's development and current peers like Wolfire, this also applies to fans. I think open development is absolutely the best policy for small developers, and might actually do some big developers quite a lot of good as well, if they could only wrest their freedom to speak to fans back from their marketing departments. But there are some downsides as compared to the traditional model.

Meta-spoilers don't even require knowledge of the game development while in progress. I know a lot of people who appreciate Half-Life 2 very much, but have effectively meta-spoiled themselves by perusing that Raising the Bar book once too often... a game that triumphantly exists is overshadowed by the knowledge of what might have been. And quite honestly I have exploited this very dynamic explicitly with my Design Reboots.

Open development means sharing the heartbreak. In the coming months my posts will not be lying to you--if I discuss ideas here, or post concepts, or respond to a suggestion with "hey that's a really good idea" I am not blowing smoke if it doesn't end up in the game.

Rather, it's just a part of how games happen, or get caught in an endless loop like Duke Nukem Forever's original development cycles. There's no way out from that trap. At some point the game must collapse down from the more attractive, purely hypothetical realm of possibilities into a finite game that actually is.

I am really looking forward to people getting to know what's been inside my head for a year or more, but I thought this should be said first.

Also, with some mulling it over, I will be posting devblog updates to this site, rather than spinning off into yet another page to maintain (and sooner than later stop updating as a result). All posts will be tagged, so a simple filtering will allow you to view exclusively the development updates.

Discuss this post in the forums

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Duty Calls: Kettle Ops

Thursday, February 3, 2011 23
As a part of a campaign to promote the upcoming People Can Fly/Epic game Bulletstorm, we get the following elaborate send-up of Call of Duty games, Duty Calls. I thought it was funny. But who's really the butt of the joke here?

It is not my nature to be peevish or small about this kind of thing, but there's a kind of mean-spirited angle to the parody here that actively courts it.
So here's a point by point dissection of the above from a developer's perspective very keenly interested in issues of FPS level design. (Also, just watch the video, don't bother downloading, lugubriously installing 768 megabytes for a 4 minute spoof on Call of Duty. There's a metatextual joke about the install size/gameplay time ratio in AAA games here, if only I could find it.)

  • @0:33 COD's leaden pre-mission voiceover cinematics are also there to disguise loading--once the level is loaded you press a key to jump right into the mission. It's interesting to point out that the Unreal Engine masquerading as COD, at least in this configuration, isn't able to manage the same; we get a second (albeit brief) loading screen after the pre-mission voiceover/satellite spoof. I think it's interesting that only by way of doing a direct parody does the engine beg this sort of comparison and here, fall short.
  • @0:36 Gunhaver tic: having the M4 have the wrong ammo count seems intentional, but it's only off by a little bit--what's the joke here? That we wish we had two more rounds for an in-game M4, or rather a single extra round past 30+1? That the Bulletstorm developers think it is silly to know how many rounds go into a STANAG magazine? 
  • Also, the BUIs (back-up iron sights) are folded down, giving the weapon no rear sight. The game gives no option to sight-up on the (missing) ironsights, another COD gameplay hallmark. Or is this not present in the parody because Bulletstorm also features ironsight aiming, like everyone else chasing COD's crown?
  • @0:38 The voiceover is consistently funny, to me--but what's the joke about sticking the objective in the player's face? Are we saying that Epic isn't as thoroughly guilty of technobabble comm traffic about MacGuffins in Gears of War, or more pointedly, that we will be free of this in Bulletstorm? The "Story and Characters" trailers seem to suggest otherwise. An easy joke to make but harder to follow through on--leading the player by the nose with objectives is de rigeur now; does Bulletstorm offer an alternative?
  • @0:52 nice gag about gated gameplay areas... but once again, who is this directed toward? All Gears of War levels are rigidly gated this way, and I find it hard to believe Bulletstorm is bucking this trend either.
  • @0:56/throughout: an excessively linear slalom of obstacles where enemies appear at random intervals. Again, if the developers of Bulletstorm are suggesting that their game is something other than a very pretty linear corridor slalom with spectacles or special scripting at interval, consider me elated.
  • @1:01 I laughed at every one of these leveling up messages. But here again--really? Are we taking a swipe at one of the most successful leveling mechanics for competitive multiplayer games? Not that it isn't worth very serious questions about, as well as a good bit of fun-poking... yet Epic is one of the leaders in this kind of thing. Gears of War 2 features multi-stage Achievements that you grind like any other experience point system, in order to unlock arbitrarily gated content.
  • @1:05 I also laughed at the "b-b-b-bloody screen (so real)" gag every time it came up... but again. I guess the joke here is that COD pretends to some kind realism that is undercut by a regenerative health mechanic. Little argument from me on that point... but from what I understand Bulletstorm will, like Gears of War, also feature a regenerative health mechanic? (In COD the effect only vignettes the screen--Gears of War sees fit to place a bloody COG emblem dead center of the screen.)
  • @1:12 The M4 is not fun to shoot. The gun is limited to semi-automatic fire at a glacial pace, with a tired "boring" intoning with every shot. How is that fair? COD is king because they have gotten certain details very, very right, and one of those is exquisitely responsive gun handling. People love to shoot these virtual guns, for hours on end. Bulletstorm can potentially get a lot of mileage out of its colorful set of outsized science fiction weaponry, but the 'negative campaigning' here so to speak seems deeply wrongheaded.
  • @1:31 "You have picked up a small meaningless stick. Congrats." Incisive for most shooter games but again, Epic's own headlining franchise is equally as cut down here. Intel briefcases in COD single player games are exactly the same as COG tags in Gears of War titles.
  • @1:40 a funny cutscene--but aside from the gag about the slow-mo, the same criticism also applies to Gears of War.
  • @2:40 Serpentine linear layouts are equally damning to all shooters.
  • @3:00 "you cannot shoot me because this a cutscene." Also equally damning to most shooters, and I defy Bulletstorm to do anything with their Story and Characters that is beyond this paradigm.
  • @3:28 A player-openable door? Gasp. Everyone knows your COD hero player character, no matter the era, is completely unable to open doors themselves--they can press a context key to plant breaching charges, but not use that same key to open a door. So I guess this is one of the first legitimate criticisms that applies only to COD here?

And that's all of it. Exhaustively nitpicky? Reading too much into all of it? Yes and yes. Even I was tired at the end of this, and surprised at how long of a list I had gathered so quickly. 
But a good parody is about nailing details right: people laugh at a very good impression of say a president or a movie star because he or she nails key elements; offhand mannerisms, vocal cadence. Looking past the wisdom of the stunt of releasing this as playable instead of as a youtube video in the first place, it's hard to see this as an effective send-up of COD when it is so slop. COD games make me very, very angry about certain design practices its developers espouse. Along with Halo, it's the biggest shooter out there. 

This parody seems more than a little backhanded to the fanbase you are no doubt attempting to market Bulletstorm to. "Hey Dicktit (or other such vulgar portmanteau favored by the game's protagonist), we think the game you love sucks! Buy our game instead!" 
Yet at the same time, attempting to have it both ways--vide the "Story and Characters" trailer again. (Or better yet, don't.) Bulletstorm has been very effective in marketing a loose and easy sense of humor, albeit a sophomoric one. Are we meant to deride COD for all its hoary tropes and then buy another Epic game of huge bros and (newly more modest) chicks in glowing armor on bloomed out exotic science fiction worlds and expect it to be this aware of how terrible shooters are now?

If this is some deeply coded message about how People Can Fly and/or Epic are renouncing their endless reliance on movie tropes, spectacle and extrinsic motivators strung through linear levels then I applaud them. 

More likely it is People Can Fly retrenching their position as purveyors of false nostalgia--shooters dumber than the games they claim to harken back to. By which I mean Doom still has more interesting and challenging level design than most shooters of the last ten years--but we always seem to come back to on-screen monster counts and player running speed instead.
If there is a retro backlash in the works for shooter design, let it be an appeal to that lost design craft, not to some wistful desire to mentally regress to the age we were when we played the shooters we loved so much.

I look forward to your comments on the topic in the comments below or in the gausswerks forum.

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