Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

Month: December 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Design Features I Love: Saboteur

The first single-player open world game of the post-Playstation era that I ever loved was Saboteur.  I realize that may seem to come a little late, but to be honest, if you’re used to the wide open worlds of MMOs for your entire career, GTA and the like actually seemed kinda … empty.  After all, MMOs are massive open world games, but with people saying awful things about your mother. Saboteur, on the other hand, hit a primal chord with me.

On the surface, the game design is simple: it’s a GTA-like, but set in occupied Paris, where you play as an Irish race car driver turned French Underground sympathizer.  So you can still steal, rob, and blow stuff up, but most of the time, the innocent victims were Nazis, which nicely solved the whole ‘feeling human empathy for the computer-AI driven cops you are running down’ problem that GTA has.  Also, you drove a lot of period race cars, and the car radio played cool, period jazz pieces.  Which was awesome.

But what grabbed me was the chance they took on the color palette.  You see, when you played the game most of the time, it played out in a very Schindler’s List color palette – black and white, with reds and yellows as splashes.
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Endless Legend Revitalizes the Civlike by Rethinking the City Expansion Game

Well, when Civ:BE failed to grab me, what I reached for instead was a different 4x game that was recommended to me: Endless Legend. This is a Civ-like set in a fantasy universe, similar to a Masters of Magic. And man, does it scratch the Civ itch in ways I find new and different for a Civ-like.

Endless Legend’s fantasy setting means that the game still has emotional resonance, even though the tech trees still have magic and other non-realistic advances. They lean on fantasy tropes quite a bit, but manage to stretch the lore in some new and interesting ways, particularly in the creation of their alternate races, many of which play almost entirely different games due to the nature of their mechanics. The exploration aspect of the game is ramped up – similar to what you see in CBE. Military is both viable (i.e. it doesn’t drag the game too much) and (in many games) somewhat dodgeable if you prefer to turtle and just build a great society.

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GamerGate Hits Rock Bottom, Keeps Digging

GamerGate has chosen a peculiar hill to die on.  Yes, this Christmas is the Christmas that the cause to fight for ethics in games journalism is best served with a spicy discussion of child pornography.  Because of course it is.  People who want to read a more in-depth analysis can go here.

GG has a couple of home bases, one of which is 8chan, the site that gamergate was forced to flee to when 4chan — which will pretty much allow anything — decided not to allow Gamergate discussions anymore.  Which is to say, if 4chan is the toilet of the Internet, 8chan is the sewer.  8chan is proud of allowing, as founder Frederick ‘HotWheels’ Brennan describes, a forum where you can post anything that is considered legal in the United States.  This includes a lot of stuff that flirts with the line of legal, such as sexualized images of children that may or may not qualify as pornographic.

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Operation ZenRescue Completed

During my time off, I have been devoting a fair amount of my time and energy to rescuing my old blog content – a couple of years ago, I had an incident with my hosting that resulted in me needing to start over with a clean state, which put about 8 years of content in limbo.  I’ve spent the last few weeks in my spare time rescuing that content from purgatory.  Of particular note:

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Added New ‘Published Articles’ section

Between 2008-2013, I wrote a column for Game Developer magazine called “Design of the Times”.  As part of me enjoying my time off, I created a new Page for these articles – you can find them from the Published Articles tab under the main masthead, or you can click here to read them.  In particular, they are a good primer for Systems Designers looking to improve their skills and thinking about the art and craft of making games.

On Progressive vs. Normal Criticism

Erik Kain of Forbes Magazine says that on the topic of GamerGate, I understand it among the best.  Which is high praise, as he’s been fairly plugged into the controversy from the outset, and is actually reasonably sympathetic to some of the undertones of the cause, where as I am mostly a caustic chronicler and critic of the subject.  I’ve slowed down my writing on it quite a bit as the cause has started to flatline and I’ve discovered that I could be using that free time to instead do more productive activities such as watching paint dry, but anyone who wants to know what he’s talking about may want to look for articles with the GamerGate tag.

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MMOs and the Fall of THQ

The AAA games industry has hysterically overreacted to the failure of anyone to capture the lightning in the bottle that World of Warcraft.  It’s weird – AAA studios seem completely and totally oblivious to the fact that EverQuest was quite successful with – what, 450K subs max? WoW at the time, if you recall, stated they merely needed to match EQ to be successful.  Analysts at the time used to say stuff like ‘there might only be 600K to 1M MMO players in the world – how could WoW and EQ2 possible coexist?’  Even then, the breakout success of games like Lineage in Asia suggested that something could come along and blow the doors off of things.

Going back through my blog in the mid-aughts, people forget both how slow WoW’s roll to 12M actually was, and also how stunning most observers thought it was at every major milestone.  I remember when they hit 1M and were clearly still on the uptick, a lot of people discovered the need to recalibrate their definition of success.  As one example, Star Wars: Galaxies (which launched about a year prior) went from being considered a solid and respectable success at 250K subs to one that the corporate overlords apparently figured needed a disastrous reboot in the form of the ‘New Game Experience’.  Because WoW recalibrated what success SHOULD look like for a major MMO.   Continue reading

Civilization: Beyond Earth, and Resonance’s Role in Game Design

I won’t lie – when I was planning on when my last day with Bioware would be, the idea of coinciding it with the release of Civilization: Beyond Earth was pretty damned serendipitous.  I expected to go into a six month Sid Meier coma of one-more-turn up until the money ran out and my wife demanded I shower, get a job and start bringing home bacon again.  But I’ve found I’m not just reaching for the game.  Instead I’m reaching for Endless Legend.

CBE is a fine game, and in many respects it is an excellent evolutionary step to Civilization 5.  The game balance still has some flaws (trade is ridiculously overpowered, for example).  Right now, Civ 5 + Expansions is a better game.  A lot of that is just because Sid games seem to require at least one expansion to get all the kinks out, which is fine.  I strongly suspect CBE’s first expansion will move it from ‘Fine’ to ‘Excellent’.

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GamerGate Now Beating Up on Gamers With Disabilities

AbleGamers is a charity that I have some familiarity with.  I actually spoke on a panel for AbleGamers in 2012 at PAX, when I also accepted the award for Accessible Mainstream Game of the Year on behalf of the SWTOR team.  Their mission has always been noble, and from my viewpoint does three things:

  1. Help raise money so that kids with disabilities can buy peripherals allowing them to game.
  2. Help raise awareness among developers that design choices can limit their game’s reach among those with disabilities.
  3. Help the differently-abled identify games that can be played with people despite their disabilities.

Designing with disabilities in mind is often put off way too late in the development cycle of the game.  It’s often easy to do if you include factors early in development, but hard when you factor it in late.  Common examples of things that should always be included but aren’t include: colorblind-friendly UI design or alternate mode (8% of males are RG colorblind – this is significant!), ability to remap literally any command to allow for alternate control mechanisms, and including close captioning and not depending on audio cues for key playability.   You know, all those things in the options menu that you never turn on.

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Perversely, the Target GTA V Kerfuffle Represents Progress

Target Australia’s decision to pull GTA V from shelves is surprising for a few reasons, the least of which being that the product has been on shelves with nary a buzz since September 2013.  Not much has changed since then, other than the title’s rerelease on next gen platforms last month,  the windows version coming in 2015, and the announcement that the PC version will have first person mode, which apparently makes for some spicy sex scenes.  And by ‘spicy’, I mean, ‘holy uncanny valley, batman!’  And, ‘you people do know you can get real porn on the Internet, right?’  Also, it really seems like the biggest badass in Los Santos should last longer than 25 seconds.

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