Sunday, February 26, 2006

Adventure Gaming

As we wind up to our ever delayed launch (4 to 6 weeks, I swear) and I spend more and more time bashing my head against php and html in notepad (one day I'll get a visual html editor, I swear*) my mind keeps itself handily away from my work by thinking about adventure games and the lack of good ones these days. (I'll stop putting things in brackets after every thought at some point in this post, I swear)

The sad thing was that even back in the day, when adventure games ruled the EGA, most of them were pretty crap. Sure, there were some absolute classics, but it wasn't as rose-tinted as I like to recall. I think that was just the blue gun in my monitor giving up.

The gold was pure though, thanks to these men and the other luminaries at Lucasarts. Great days.

So it was, with great excitement that I downloaded the demo for Bone. I loved the comics (Bish, you'll get them back one day) and I loved adventure games. And possibly it was the unrealistic expectations I had given myself in the short time between discovering and playing the game, but I was to be both exhilarated (hurrah!) and disappointed (boohoo)

Don't take this as a negative review - I've played the game for a sum total of maybe 12 minutes, which qualifies no one to apply the 'review' moniker on anything. It just stirred some thoughts. First off though, the good bits:

The animation, design sound and puzzles. Animation was beautiful, the design of everything was very true to the source and the puzzles, such as they were, were quick and fun. The voices were well performed and the characterisation faultless.

So... where did it fall down for me?
Point 1 - It was very linear. The flow went like thus: Be on a screen. Solve the puzzle/s. Move to the next screen. Latherrinserepeat. In the opening sequence, I forgave this, knowing the story and knowing that the 'game proper' would take place in the valley, but Bone would have to get there from the desert first. I quite liked the notion of ludicrously simple puzzles and nice animations with some character control as an introduction. It worked for me, were I to do the same thing in a game, I would keep this to around 5 minutes.

Then I get into The Valley, where I meet a character I had in fact totally forgotten from reading the comic, which was a nice surprise. But from this point on, I was hampered by having to solve a puzzle to move any further into the game. Yes, the puzzles were nice, and yes, changing the character I controlled to make a different kind of puzzle available to me was refreshing, but this is an Adventure Game - not a hypercard stack of puzzles! I want to explore. I want to find out about this world. I want to meet interesting characters and talk to them when _I_ think it's time. There is a way to do this, if you follow Ron's Guidelines. You could make a valid argument for the linear puzzle genre, but in making things a little more open, when the player reaches a puzzle that takes a little more thought to solve, they'll move away from it and look at some other aspect of the game, instead of (like me) remembering that they're meant to be working and exiting. This wasn't such a problem in the old days. Somehow over a few months you'd scrape together your $70 and then buy the latest Noun's Quest. But in today's try before you buy world of gaming, you don't want anything that reminds the player they could (and probably should) be doing other things.

The other thing that didn't work for me was the dialogue interface. The dialogue itself was very well executed, and there were even some puzzles based on it very early on, where you could (in the one conversation) pit two other characters against each other. My problem comes from the doubling up of information. When I have just read my three possible choices for my next contribution to the conversation, I don't want to wait around while my character reads the line again before I get to what I really want - to hear the other character's reply. I don't care how good the acting is, it's just repetition. Which is dull. Repetition is dull. It's not interesting... repeating things.

And another thing - Let me click through dialogue. I can read faster than characters can speak. We don't have a 'language' for games in the way films, plays and the various forms of literature have. These 'languages' are used to describe the progression of the audience through the information in the story. The progression or flow is used to suggest and dictate mood and interest. In games, and especially in adventure games, the flow is on getting peices of information and _using_ that knowledge to solve the puzzle, not the presentation of the information. It's about action, not immersion.

The team behind Bone have done some fantastic things to breathe life back into a genre that could be so popular (and profitable!) both in terms of modernising the graphics and their business model. If we can solve a few of the teething issues I mention, there's so much fun we could have.

To sum up (and add a few things):
- Give me a definite goal but freedom to approach it from different angles (even if there is only one correct solution)
- Don't double up on the information delivery
- Let me click through dialogue and cut scenes
- Don't have cut scenes
- Except where they're REALLY necessary
- Seriously - even if they're funny.
- And when you do have them - keep the really short. Really short.

Oh, and anyone out there writing an adventure game, or thinking of doing so - take another very important lesson from Monkey Island: Use A Five Act Structure. It Works. It Keeps Goals Clear For The Player. It works across so many genres of storytelling that in not using it you're just being arrogant. If you don't beleive me, play Monkey Island again. I just can't beleive how few games that followed did the smart thing and copied it.

Seriously. Use a five act structure.

Damn I want to make an adventure game now. Maybe I'll just go to bed instead.

* if notepad had tabs on it, and a goto line number option in one of its menus, I'd never need another text editor. Ah well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

So close!

As all five of you out there who read this thing with any degree of regularity may have noticed, our beloved has yet to go live as semi-scheduled. While this is a little disappointing, it's way easier to take than releasing with a product that is almost completely awesome.

The boys have been putting in superhuman performances. 'Bed' is a strange concept these cabin-bound days. 'Sleep' I find even less familiar, because even once the body cries "Enough!" at around 4:00 or 4:30am, the brain takes that much longer to slow down. On the plus side, this means I've read more books in the last 6 weeks than I did all last year. (This is actually not much of an acheivement)

It's not as though forces beyond our control got the better of us. What snow we've had here has been very calm and well-mannered. It's simply that when you're a group of three perfectionists who will happily argue for hours over the colour of a translucent column of pixels for a button that will be seen occasionally by advanced users, everything takes that little bit longer.

And judging from the responses we've had from the alpha - it's worth it!

One of the best responses I've had was that it "looks so professional!" Even with a slight tone of surprise in there, that's a compliment. Mind you - it's not like we've been doing nothing these last 17 months!

So the current release plan? Maybe friday? When it's done?

Or, to quote old Sierra Catalogs:


We thought it'd be a good idea to have an early night tonight - recharge a bit for tomorrow. How the hell did it become 02:15am?

Happy 21st Alex!

hvd cfkkafsdsmrjmmc

Khrob out

* Real Soon Now

Monday, February 06, 2006

Yo Seth...

Back of the phone man? (Big one with a screen on the left)


Step One

So how does one set about becoming a toymaker in these modern times? I'm no master carpenter; my skills with injection molding are haphazard at best, and that's leaving my sewing 'skills' entirely unmentioned.

Being a nerd helps. Following the resounding lack of wider interest that was 'Raptor Crunch' (coming soon to a crappy java game site near you) the SoupCrew decided to take a different approach. To fully understand this approach, I think it's necessary to form some sort of appreciation of 'Napes'...

Now, 'Napes' or Napier St was not something you could call unique. It was a house dwelled in by two (then later three) uni students. As such, one could expect certain things. Couches on the front verandah. A dead garden. The slightly odd smell that never seemed to go (and was there when we arrived, we swear). 7 meals in 8 cooked on the BBQ (in our case, the mighty 'Beff Baron'). A student house. A place where everyone knows your name. A drop in house of late night imbibery.

They say cleanliness is next to godliness. We were directly across the road from a church. Whether that qualifies us as 'clean' I dread to think, but there you go. (Someone 'liberated' the flag from the church at one of our more.... elongated... parties one evening. I kinda feel bad about that, but it wasn't me, so hey.)

But I'm sure you know the place. You went there a million times during your time at uni. Maybe you picked up your cigarette butts and maybe you didn't. I'm not here to judge. What Napes was though, was a place where ideas could get a good discussion. We had a tradition with some good mates in the Napes days... that of the curry night. Tuesday nights (before we declared Tuesday a freeloader on the 'week') were often a night where a goodly group of us would congregate, eat a curry prepared by one or more of the attendees, and several relaxing ales were taken alongside extensive discussion of our beloved nerdly industry.

Ideas for sharing networks, quiz shows, top five ratings systems and many many more were bandied around at these evenings. Do you know why Pixar invests so much time in storyboarding? It's because one person with a pencil can draw a shot from a film in 20 seconds, and from that sketch, it can be determined whether it's worth letting the other 40 people who have to work on that shot, frame by frame, to get it to the big screen. 20 seconds from one person is a hell of a lot cheaper than a day or a week from 40 others, and even if that person has to draw that shot 600 times, you still wind up with a better product. That's what curry nights were at Napes (and Railway; and Jimbo's; I'm just making a long-winded point here). They were test-beds for ideas.

Some ideas stick.

Others insinuate themselves into your head and kick around there. But the point is, it's easier to shoot down lots of ideas with intelligent and informed mates, than it is to take an idea and try and prove it yourself. Discussion is the storyboard of the startup. I know you've got friends. Cook them a curry. Tell them to bring beer. Talk about what you're thinking of. If an idea deserves to die a cold, heartless death in the idea wasteland, it will soon get shot down.

Just don't be afraid of your ideas shrivelling under that process. One of the hardest things to reassure yourself about is that you WILL have more ideas. Some will be crap. Some will be fantastic. Just don't stop throwing them out there when one does get shot down. This is what the curry and alcohol is for. It both cushions the fall of bad ideas, and encourages... well... abstract thought about the good ideas. Don't worry though - more ideas WILL come.

I'm sure I've said it before, but we have a rule at Souptoys: "All ideas MUST be stated." If you have a bad idea in your head, and you don't tell anyone, it's taking up room for good ideas in that noggin' of yours. Get it out there. We're fortunate in that we're essentially a few mates, and we take the bad ideas with the good; if you have to work a little harder at making an environment where bad ideas aren't used against their originator, so be it. I swear it'll be beneficial.

So when we hit on the idea for toys on your computer, you can rest assured that we attacked the problem from many angles, before any fingers hit keyboards.

So that's Step One. Have an idea and try to kill it with discussion.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

To Swim To Play, The Absoluteness Must Be Given

Or so several friends and I were humourously informed by the Engrish manual for some really cool little radio controlled cars that Rory's dad brought back from Singapore. And so was the floor of Napier transformed into a series of jumps and obstacle courses for the two small vehicles. We think it means "Don't get your cars wet".

I love toys. Maybe not as much as John Lasseter, but enough that I visit toystores more often than most in my demographic. I had great toys growing up. From Duplo to Lego and Mecchano, Tonka trucks, bears, Transformers and Matchbox cars. Not just injection moulded plastic toys either - my parents were good enough to keep me in an endless supply of paper, white on one side, old ABC TV schedules on the other, and crayons, then textas, then pencils, then pens, then back to the textas (except my taste in textas now is in the $10-$15 pantone range, but hey!) so drawing, designing and creating my own thing was always encouraged.

I also grew up alongside the Microbee Computer (thankfully I outlived it) and PCs back to the heady days of the 286 and I was allowed pretty much free reign over the various machines that inhabited our home.

All these toys, from the paper through the mecchano to the computer were very open ended and encouraged a healthy exercise for the imagination. Imagine my horror, when in late 2004 I am in a toystore with a few good mates, and we are SEARCHING for toys. Just toys. Plain old toys. But could we find them?

Behind the rows of Dreamworks, Star Wars, Pixar, Disney (should that be Dixar? [that is SO January 2006 - ed]) and Warner Brothers branded merchandise we eventually located some Lego that wasn't pre-cut to only form one possible toy (typically some form of AT-AT or Endor Moon Speeder Bike) and settled for that. But there was a conspicuous absense of honest, open-ended, imagination utilising toys.

And so began an Epic Quest, to bring fun toys back to the world... For 14 months, in and out of basements, bedrooms, disused hotel rooms, bars and prison cells, subsisting off tins of tuna and the meanest of lagers, Tim, Rory and I toiled.

In 9 days, Souptoys will be unveiled. We hope you can be with us.

Saturday, February 04, 2006