« April 2006 | Main | June 2006 »

May 21, 2006

The Rockies and their Humidor

The Colorado Rockies enjoyed a strong start to their season, which of course means that it is time to be treated to the annual dosage of stories about their humidor.

I find the story of the Rockies very interesting, from a game theory perspective. Basically, the Rockies's home stadium is - by far - the most extreme hitter's park in the majors. Since their inception in 1993, the Rockies have had very little success, with only one playoff berth in 13 seasons. Many critics have argued that the ballpark is the chief factor hampering the franchise.

However, an understanding of game theory suggests otherwise. The extreme nature of Coors Field means that games played there are the least similar to games played anywhere else in Major League Baseball. It is essentially a different game in Denver than in the rest of the country.

It is quite simply impossible for the Rockies not to be able to use this to their advantage. For example, imagine if games played at Coors Field were even more different from vanilla baseball than they are now. Imagine if the games were - say - basketball instead. What would happen? Well, the Rockies would start filling their roster with players who were good at both baseball and basketball. If the General Manager did a good enough job, the Rockies should be able to go 81-0 at home. Even the most meager college basketball team should be able to destroy a major league baseball team on the ball court. Baseball players simply are not selected for their skills at basketball - pure and simple. Some might be naturally talented at it, of course, but probably not enough to match a team built for it.

The Rockies, of course, would do very poorly on the road. Very poorly, indeed. However, even if they could win just 15% of their games - well below the worst winning percentage of all time - they would have made the playoffs 7 of the last 10 years.

So, is it possible to find baseketball players skilled enough to win 15% of major league games? The answer is yes, of course. The real question is whether these players are affordable. I would posit that the answer is also yes - because the Rockies are the only organization in the world looking for such players, they would not be bidding against anyone else for this unique set of skills.

If this scenario was actually true, the other teams in the league would obviously cry foul. How could they possibly compete with a team with such an unique home-field advantage? The real story, of course, is not so extreme - but they are still playing what is essentially a different game from the rest of the league at Coors Field. The situation is not entirely dissimilar.

So, what should the Rockies do? I have no idea. I know one thing, though. They shouldn't blame their park, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. In fact, they should embrace Coors Field - there must be a way to leverage a strategic advantage from it. They should lose the humidor. Perhaps they should even move IN the fences to make their home park even more unique!

Posted by Soren at 3:11 PM | Comments (214)

May 12, 2006

GDC... with a Theme!

So my GDC write-up is a wee bit late... my weak excuse is that I took a two-week vacation to New Zealand immediately afterwards, which sort of broke me out of the momentum I needed to write this post. At any rate, it was a great GDC - possibly the best I have yet atteneded. Unlike most years, a certain theme actually emerged from many of the talks I heard - namely, the advantages of prototyping. In fact, a number of talks I couldn’t go to but that had people talking – such as Chaim Gingold’s and Chris Hecker’s talk on “Advanced Prototyping” – were on the same subject. The benefits of cheap experimentation were clearly in the air.

Brian Jacobson and David Speyrer gave an excellent talk on how Valve prototyped Half-Life 2. I knew prototyping worked for dynamic games like Civ, but I had always assumed it would be tricky for linear, scripted games like Half-Life. Valve seems to have solved this problem through parallelism, by splitting the game into sub-parts, each of which could be managed by a small design team. Then, they pulled in new testers from the outside world (often, just random gamers) to provide feedback for continual iteration on the design. The fast turn-around times they established (weeks, not months) was, I believe, a direct result of this reduction in scope – by focusing on small chunks of the game, their designers could afford to nit-pick over the details. The key to successful prototyping is not how you build the prototype but how you test it. After all, that testing is the whole point! The more feedback you receive, the more you will understand about which parts of your games are working and which parts aren’t. A direct linear relationship exists became the number of iterations of the game which you can test and the final quality of the product. By forcing themselves to cycle through their prototypes so quickly, they increased that number and – therefore – the quality of the final product.

(An interesting contrast exists between the prototyping of Civ 4 and Half-Life 2. Both products made a point to get early feedback from the outside world years before release. However, for Civ 4, we relied on a set group of testers culled from our community boards – people who were able to play bi-weekly versions of Civ 4 over the long-term. In contrast, the Half-Life team used “kleenex” testers – meaning they used them once to get their impressions and then never dealt with them again. This difference is a natural extension of the different genres the two games inhabit. Civ is a game meant to be played over and over again, with a focus on experimentation and strategy. Half-Life is a narrative game meant to be played once with a focus on visceral experience. If we had focused on using kleenex testers like Valve did, the game balance would have suffered as first impressions for strategy games are often wrong.)

EA’s Neil Young supposedly spoke on “Feature IP” – which as far as I could tell was just a fancy way of saying “new ideas” – but was actually giving a talk on prototyping in disguise. Some teams at EA are beginning to adopt a new experimental phase before pre-production in which small teams focus on solving specific problems in a lo-fi environment. Most people would recognize this as prototyping (of course, being EA, they had there own name for it, one which I have promptly forgotten).

Louis Castle gave a wonderful presentation (in the dreaded last time slot on Friday) on this process at EA in practice while developing the control scheme for the Xbox 360 version of Battle for Middle Earth II. He was given the freedom to spend at least a year focusing on just one thing: how to create the feeling of an RTS with a joystick instead of a mouse. I enjoyed seeing just how quick-and-dirty some of the early versions were – a few were simply the original BFME with an Xbox controller plugged into a PC. Most importantly, they were able to work on the challenges that were important to them (the control scheme) and ignore the rest (graphics, sounds, gameplay, etc.) After many failed attempts, they seem to have hit on a system which might break new ground – we’ll see how the market takes to it.

My talk was also on prototyping. For those who missed it, the slides are available here – although we obviously can’t recreate the many demos Dorian and I presented of early versions of the game. If we had something different to say about prototyping compared with the other talks, it was that prototypes do not need to be disposable. We started with a “prototype” and finished with a “game” but there was no thick, black dividing line between the two. Because we always intended for the prototype to become the finished product, we were able to keep working until the game was playable from beginning to end – always finding tricks or shortcuts to support the gameplay if the art or engine code wasn’t quite in place yet. The result was that we had a LOT of versions we could supply to our testers, providing a very visible sign of our progress.

So, why are so many companies focusing on prototyping? Frankly, it is one of the few aspects of game development that can still be done cheaply yet with great results. Further, it helps teams focus on what should always be most important: play-testing. If a game turns out fun, it's because people played it early and played it often.

Posted by Soren at 6:00 PM | Comments (211)

May 10, 2006

Whither Gen?

One cringe-worthy phrase which will be ever-present at this year’s E3 is “next-gen” - as in, “that title is truly ‘next-gen’” or “those graphics just aren’t ‘next-gen’ enough” or “does it really have ‘next-gen’ gameplay?” The assumption, of course, is that there is something so fundamentally different about the new wave of consoles that our games will need to take entirely new shapes or forms in order to succeed. This assumption is just not true.

Let me ask this question – what new types of gameplay emerged in the last generation? What were the great games from the Xbox and PS2 generation that changed our gaming landscape forever? There was just as much talk back in 2000 about the “next generation” of consoles and how much games would be changing. Remember Sony’s “Emotion Engine?”

Certainly, significant improvements were made in the previous generation, but I am at a loss to describe any sort of “next-gen” gameplay that defines it. The open-ended world of the GTA series is certainly inspiring, but it seems more an important exception than anything else. Online play has finally started to come of age, of course, but PC gaming has always been the leader here. Thus, if there is “next-gen” multiplayer gameplay coming to consoles, you should already see be able to see it on the PC.

Simply put, was there actually revolutionary change over the last five years? If not, should we expect it in the next five?

I don’t. I see people still playing games in their living rooms, sitting on their same old couches 10 feet from the TV, holding the same old controllers they have since 1995. (Of course, Nintendo is an important exception - but when one hears the phrase “next-gen,” this is not what it refers to…) Sure, the TV’s might be in high-def now, but this is simply the same promise of every other generation: better graphics.

If the games are going to change in some fundamental way, why haven’t they changed already? If a programmer can imagine the gameplay working with the current inputs and outputs (controllers and screens), there is always a way to make it work. It boggles my mind that Sid was able to squeeze Civ onto an early-90s PC, but he did. The human mind hasn’t changed one bit since “Pong” - so if the consoles aren’t changing fundamentally, why should we expect the games to?

Which reminds me… I really need to post soon about why I love my Nintendo DS. Different console. Different games.

Posted by Soren at 2:05 AM | Comments (178)

May 8, 2006

Before the Noise...

I just wanted to throw out a post about the panel I will be on at E3:
Franchise Power: Understanding the DNA of the Industry's Greatest Games. I talked on this subject at length at GDC 2004, but I have some new thoughts on the topic after my second iteration within the Civ universe. (I am also looking forward to meeting Yannis Mallat as I just LOVE the newest Prince of Persia series...)

Posted by Soren at 3:09 PM | Comments (219)