New Max Payne trailer

Ok, I’m hyped. Max Payne the movie might actually be really good. The latest trailer shows a great looking, atmospheric movie that seems to capture some of the experience of the games. Let’s keep our hopes up that this won’t end up as most other game-to-movie conversions.

Yes, I’m a Max Payne fan. The 2 games are among the very best when it comes to story and storytelling.

Through the noise

I’m starting a new section called “Through the noise” which I’ll try to post every week or so. Its basically a collection of news and links that doesn’t warrant their own post. Stuff that interests me on some level and are worth sharing with the game dev community.

  • In “It’s Ok to Grow Up“, MobHunter compares how he moved on from Sesame Street when he grew older, to how people grow out of World of Warcraft. Don’t blame the game because you’ve moved on.
  • Groping the Elephant, in the post “Redundant?“, talks about wheter to avoid the redundant choices in games to improve clarity of those with consequence, or to keep them to define character.
  • Double Buffered has some thoughts on a discussion between some industry people Valve’s cabal system was measured against the auteur model.
  • A free, indie, point-and-click adventure game called The Vaccum is out, and I can really recommend it. Very old school in graphics and sound, but it actually works for it rather than against it. The game has some interesting design choices that I might write about in a future post.

Going Schwarzenegger

Arnold back in the day

Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the beginning of his movie carreer, took acting lessons and strived to be an accomplished actor. In Stay Hungry, one of his very first movies, he even won a Golden Globe. But soon he realized that to be a superstar he had to be an icon – and dropped nuanced acting and challenging scripts for more… challenged scripts. The movies he acted in from that point mostly consisted of action, and were simple and one-dimensional tales.

And he did become a superstar. Arnold would be the greatest actionhero of Hollywood for decades. But the truth is that few of his movies made much money. They were expensive to make, and didn’t attract the box-office audiences the studio executives hoped for when they signed him.

His most successfull movie? Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Was it a simple movie? Sure, if you look no further than the surface. But just as with most great (and successfull) movies, it is multi-layered in that it explores several themes and storylines.

Terminator 2 can be seen as a movie about guns and explosions and exciting chases. But if you look just an inch further, it asks questions. It asks if fate determines history and our lives. If it is right to kill a man to prevent the death of many more. It asks what it is to be human.

Unfortunately, afterwards Arnold continued to make the simple explosion-fests he knew and mastered so well, and from that point his movie carreer went downhill.

The game industry is, and has been for quite some time, moving from complex games to simple games. It is the distinction that appeared between “hardcore” and “casual”, caused by the belief that going casual will sell more boxes to a wider audience. Which it probably does.

But casual players are not stupid. They’re just not interested enough in games to deal with a steep learning curve, to spend more than a little energy on learning how to interact with the game. It is not the complexity – it’s the presentation of said complexity.

Bioshock, although it sheds some of the versatility of its ancestor System Shock 2, has quite a bit of complexity. But, just as with good movies, it is a multi-layered experience, and that is one of the reasons behind its critical acclaim and financial success. If all you seek is a shooter with awesome visuals, that is as deep as you have to go. But if want to, you can ponder the criticism against objectivism, use the environments to your benefit, evolve your character and make moral choices.

The choice we have now is if we want casual to mean “stupid” or if we want it to mean “accessible”. Stupid is accessible, but accessible doesn’t necessarily have to be stupid. Most people are not dumb, and appreciate not being treated as if they were.

Let me repeat myself. It is not the complexity – it’s the presentation of said complexity!

The fundamental flaw of MMO’s

Traditional narrative

The basic design behind MMORPG’s, as we make them today, is fundamentally flawed. Now, that does not mean that they cannot be fun to play or have the potential of financial success – today. But what of tomorrow?

Quite the cocky statement, but indulge me. To understand the flaw, let’s backtrack a bit.

As humanity has carried and evolved the tradition of linear storytelling throughout thousands of years, game designers now struggle to understand the power and meaning of nonlinear narrative. Of course we do! It is not intuitive to us. That the player has some level of control over the narrative faces us with a problem – and an awesome opportunity. How we solve it will define our medium as an art form.

The problem of “linearity versus nonlinearity” shares similarities with the issue at hand – which is “massively multiplayer versus singleplayer”. MMO’s are made to support thousands of players in the same world, yet we build them with the building blocks of singleplayer, building blocks we are comfortable and used to work with. Just as with nonlinear narrative, the MMO space is not intuitive to us. Let’s see what problems we get from making MMO content with singleplayer ideas:

– The story defies the nature of time. You have just saved Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf at her grandmother’s house, but in your friend’s experience she hasn’t reached the house yet. A linear timeline is used. We are in different stages of the world story, yet we both inhabit the same world. This makes the storytelling bizarre, and splits up players.

– The content of the world is static. The ideas of singleplayer heroism and semi-linear progress are used, but the aspect of a thousand protagonists all being in their own point in the timeline denies any real change to the world. The content created becomes a weak, faded version of what could have been.

The core of the flaw is using a linear narrative timeline even though it goes against the nature of the MMO environment. How do we break the spell of singleplayer? We go dynamic, organic.

The content, the story, the gameplay and the experience must come directly from player interaction with dynamic systems. That way, the world is reactive to (and changes by) the actions of the player, and everyone shares events in realtime – at the same time – instead of being separated within an artificial timeline.

Games like Eve, Tabula Rasa, Warhammer Online all dip their toes in the dynamic pool, but to create a truly dynamic, player-driven world will demand something far more complex and visionary. And boy, will it be difficult to achieve!

The first struggle is simply to figure out how it can be done, and who’s going to pay for the research. Lots of prototyping will be necessary to not only find systems that are interdynamic and consistent, but also fun. It’ll be a problem to find the funds, because where do you find a publisher willing to shell out millions of dollars on something that is extremely high risk, when the existing models are working well enough (financially)?

Perhaps baby steps will have to do.