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February 21, 2006

Meanwhile, Out in the Galaxy...

Galactic Civilizations II has just been released. Outside of Civ, the epic turn-based strategy game market has been pretty small this decade, so it's good to see another successful franchise in the space. Brad Wardell, the lead designer, gave me a chance to play-test the game late last year, and I had fun with it. It's certainly a step up from its predecessor, which was a good game that was probably put together on a wing and a prayer.

This version should hold a lot of appeal for fans of the Civ series. Unlike MOO, it sticks pretty closely to the turn-based, tile-based game mechanic of Sid's original game. However, it definitely falls on the "more complex" side of the spectrum (it has more "stuff" in it than Civ4, for example...), but it starts small, which is key.

At any rate, turn-based fans should give it a look!

Posted by Soren at 5:04 PM | Comments (232)

February 14, 2006

God of War: The Game

Like most great games, God of War decides to be great at just one thing - namely, beating the snot out of your enemies. For variety, there's a dash of platforming and logic puzzles, but overall it's just one, long bloodbath from beginning to end. So, fortunately, that is the part of the game which shines. The "feel" of swinging Kratos's blades is so good that it's fun to do just by itself - which makes GoW one of the few games where I welcome the crates. More stuff to smash!

My interest in God of War comes from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which is my favorite game of this last console cycle. PoP:SoT had a simply incredible movement/jumping/swinging mechanic which, unfortunately, was interrupted by a clumsy combat system. The game still succeeded because they got the core feature so spot-on right. When I heard that the sequel was going to focus on combat (and drop the wonderful storybook ambience), I lost all interest. Which begs the question: if Prince of Persia had God of War's great combat mechanics, would it be the action game to end all action games?

I'm not sure... I think we can often overestimate how much "stuff" the player can juggle (or, rather, enjoy to juggle) in his or her mind at one time. The idea of a PoP/GoW hybrid gives me a mental image of my brain exploding. And not in a good way.

God of War also has an insanely high level of polish, an intimidating level of polish, I would imagine, for its competition. Perhaps someday I'll write an entry on whether this is a good or bad thing for the games industry in general. It's certainly a long, long way from a game as fun and innovative and yet rough around the edges as this. Here's hoping there's room for both...

The other point to discuss is the game's relation to film - God of War is certainly the most cinematic game I have ever played. It's no surprise that the game gives you no control of the camera; I have a sense that the level designers always wanted control over where you were looking. David Jaffe, the game's lead designer, or "Game Director" in official terms, has expressed some ambivalence over the connection with film. I have similar feelings.

The challenge for understanding games is not figuring out whether games are movies or whether they are cars. The trouble is that some games really ARE like movies and some games really ARE like cars. I have a hard time thinking of another art form where its members are so radically different. Which has more in common: Star Wars and Annie Hall; or God of War and Civ 4? I would say the former, however crazy it is to link those two films together. (well, I guess there WAS the scene in the planetarium... in reality, of course, they are similar because they are both ultimately about the characters. That's what makes them both good movies.) So whenever people (like me!) pontificate that games are like this or game are like that - it's important to remember that "games" are a super-category of their own. Like sound. Or matter.

Because games have so much variation, I'm not sure how universal some of the "rules" are that designers like to state. I think it would be an interesting exercise to line up designers from all the different genres and give them an identical list of general questions about game design and see what they come up with. I haven't, for example, designed a game with a player avatar in a long time... and I bet there are a lot of designers who have never designed a tile-based game. I would love to know how the hard problems (how do you teach gameplay? how do you divy out rewards? how many difficulty levels? how do you address cheating? saving?) are solved in other genres that I have never touched.

Posted by Soren at 6:20 PM | Comments (265)

February 3, 2006

Being Awesome: Will Wright

This is awesome. It's nice to know that they've finally just cut to the chase. I've been to GDC four times, and each time the highlight of the show has been Will Wright's talk. Furthermore, his talks seem to get better and better every year - and, of course, more and more crowded. I was particularly fond of his wild tangent in 2004 about the history of the Russian space program (short version: NASA's money and engineering hasn't made the US's space program any safer or more effective than the Russians who favor low-tech solutions).

Of course, his talk last year - when he revealed Spore - has become the stuff of legend, so it's a sure thing that every person going to GDC 2006 will be trying to squeeze into whatever auditorium can't hold us at noon on Thursday. Woe to any other speaker scheduled for the same time.

Fortunately for me (note the effortless segue here!), my talk is scheduled for a different time slot. I will be giving a presentation with Dorian Newcomb (our Lead Animator) on the prototyping phase of Civ4. We'll be showing off some very, very early versions of the game, revealing what was playable and what wasn't in the first year of the project. By the way, my 2004 GDC talk was given right in the middle of that prototyping phase, which lasted roughly from Fall 2003 to Summer 2004.

Posted by Soren at 11:18 PM | Comments (178)