Posts Tagged ‘ Bioware

Boston GameLoop 2010 – Overview

Saturday morning, at Too Damn Early AM, I was sitting in a large briefing room at Microsoft New England and clutching a cup of not-quite-hot-enough Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. A hundred or so other people, game designers, artists, programmers, academics, and writers like myself were listening to Darius Kazemi and Scott Macmillan explain exactly what the hell we were doing here.

Well, Darius was trying to explain. Scott, and most of the audience, were trolling him. Still, he managed to get a few key points across.

  • GameLoop is a small local conference that is seeing rapid growth. ’09 had about 100 guests, this year was closer to 200.
  • We were here early to raise topics for discussion and vote on sessions that sounded interesting. Anyone was free to bring up anything, though it was best if he was prepared to run a session.
  • Once a session had enough interest, it won a slot in the schedule.
  • Expert talks should be clearly labeled as such, and moderators should keep the discussion on track so that it remains the proper knowledge level.
  • Bail on sessions that you’re not getting enough out of. No hard feelings.
  • Tabletop gaming is not dead and this audience doesn’t think it’s funny if you make jokes like that.

It’s a great concept and quite a ridiculous amount of fun. Before I get into some of the conversations I had during this conference, however, I should point out a couple things that didn’t seem to work quite right.

For one thing, GameLoop seems to be getting big enough to the point where it is causing problems. The informal nature of the conference agenda (the fact that it is created on the spot) seems like it would work brilliantly for a hundred people. Beyond that, it seems like it started to cause problems. Voting took forever, and the morning schedule filled up with the most popular topics while there was a bit of a “leftover” feel to the afternoon talks. Not that these weren’t valuable, it’s just that there were schedule conflicts in the morning, where 3 out of 5 sessions sounded great. In the afternoon, I was having a hard time finding any talks that I was keenly interested in. But it was the nature of the chaotic morning vote.

Second, I can’t help but wonder if maybe Darius and Scott have made GameLoop too welcoming for guys like me. Mind you, I really hope I can attend next year and they’ll still have a spot open for writers, but I also picked up on some frustration from some of the more advanced professionals attending the event. There were not enough talks for working professionals, and the discussion level tended to operate at an amateur level. If I were at BGL wanting to hear about new design tools, principles of level design, or get a primer in a new coding language, I’m not sure it would have been an entirely satisfying experience. I’d be interested to know whether this jives with what other people observed.

For instance, my day was bookended by two discussions that sprawled into armchair design by people who really didn’t know what they were talking about, but were plenty willing to share opinions. I was one of them. They were great discussions, one about making conversation in games a more satisfying from a gameplay perspective, the other about creating the illusion of life in AI-controlled characters. But the first conversation trended toward some truly ridiculous armchair design that had more to do with what people thought sounded cool than with what was actually practicable for a working designer. The second was largely about what people found lifelike in AI characters, and not about how to make life-like characters.

One last point: Bioshock seems to be growing more important with time, not less. The simple fact is that absolutely no discussion of any game-related topic occurs without reference to it. Narrative, level design, morality, choice, character… someone, every time, will bring up Bioshock. And it is never out of place. It is well on its way to becoming a crucial part of the conceptual framework that everyone uses to interpret and understand games.

The Bioware oeuvre is similarly important, though mostly within discussions of narrative and character. No discussion of storytelling in games passes without someone using Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age to illustrate something. I think what these works have in common is that they point the way forward in a number of ways, but that only serves to underline their limitations.

Point and Click

Mass Effect is beginning to bore me.

I realized that yesterday afternoon as I tore through yet another series of missions, blowing away Geth troopers that were unable to so much as pierce my party’s shields. Shepard and her squad have not been in peril since the earliest segments of the Noveria mission. Now we’re in the sky-towers of Feros, single-handedly exterminating a Geth invasion force. If it weren’t for my interest in Mass Effect 2, I think I might have pulled the plug on this by now.

What’s getting to me is the bogus inventory management I have to do and the fact that I have absolutely no meaningful choices in combat. It’s too fiddly and generic to satisfy on the same level as, say, a hack-and-slash loot-fest like Diablo or Torchlight, but it’s too idiot-proofed to match something like Deus Ex’s or System Shock 2′s balance of RPG / shooter mechanics.

Every character has the full complement of weapons: pistol, shotgun, machine gun, and sniper rifle. Now most character are good with one, maybe two of these weapons. They will never use anything else, because it wouldn’t make sense for them to try. On the other hand, none of these weapons have any real disadvantages. Not when you have a squad of three people helping each other out. So the sniper rifle might be slow-firing, but a trained sniper only needs one or two shots to kill a healthy target. The shotgun is slow-firing and short ranged, but it is also a one-hit kill weapon at times. The assault rifle is kind of inaccurate, but it shoots so fast and puts out such high damage that it doesn’t need to hit reliably. It wears its targets down. The pistol… well, it’s not too good but the characters who rely on the pistol tend to have other powers to make up for it.

And since engagement ranges always tend toward short or intermediate, every single weapon I named above manages to be useful in every situation. Under attack from snipers? Run twenty feet and murder them with your shotgun. Is a big space lizard charging you? Step aside and tag him with the sniper rifle as he comes. Just make sure to max out your chosen weapon, and you’ll never need another.

That doesn’t mean I wont have to go into my inventory and tediously upgrade from one gun to the next. It won’t change anything, since all the weapons look the same and shoot essentially the same, but I have to do it to make sure I’m doing all the damage I can. It provides a nice little illusion of progress. But I have never really noticed much change.

Boxes. Identical weapons. People standing in the open and shooting. Back in the day, this could have given Doom a real run for its money.

What Bioware missed, I think, is that good shooters are really about improvisation and opportunity. Having the right tools can make a job boring. It’s more fun to take down a squad of enemies when the right weapon is down to its last dozen rounds, and the only other thing you’ve got on hand is a pistol and a couple hand grenades, than it is to simply machine-gun them. Those are the moments that let us invent strategies on the fly and play efficiently with inefficient tools.

Opportunity comes during what Lange calls “Fuck Yeah Levels”, when the game gives you a period of super-empowered grace and the incentives to enjoy it.  The amazing weapons for which ammo has been scarce in previous levels are suddenly stocked. The most interesting enemies in the game are present in droves. The level design keeps the action fast and dynamic. It’s the lobby scene in The Matrix. Think of the climactic sequences in every act of a Max Payne title, or the street battle in Japan in Kane and Lynch, the church in Uncharted, or the scene where Sander Cohen tries to kill you in Bioshock.

In the same way a story uses the dramatic structure to vary the tension as it builds toward the climax, a shooter must vary encounter structure. If it doesn’t, the tension ultimately flatlines no matter the intensity of action. Whether I’m fighting three guys or 300 won’t really matter if my actions never change. That’s where I’m at with Mass Effect. Approximately 1/3 of the game fluctuates between dull and pointless.