The top sellers of 2008

Swamp of the Dead in Age of Conan
IGN has published a list of the top selling PC games of 2008. The list is based on data from a bunch of US retail stores (no digital distribution). A few comments.

  • First, Age of Conan is 4th on the list. Woohoo! Certainly not bad.
  • It’s obvious how the PC platform is dominated by MMORPG’s these days. 7 titles out of 20 are MMORPG’s (although 5 of those are different versions of World of Warcraft and its expansions, another sign of their incredible success).
  • Some of my favorite games of the year sold very well (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Fallout 3, Left 4 Dead).
  • It’s still possible for small, unknown developers to make hit games – Sins of a Solar Empire by Ironclad Games is on the 14th place, and that’s ignoring its digital downloads.

Max Payne opens on friday

Max Payne

So Max Payne opens on cinemas on friday in Norway, and I bought a ticket (of course). I live a couple of hundred meters away from the largest THX cinema in the world, and it’ll be the perfect place to see it.

I’ve never ever before been looking forward to a movie based on a game license, but this time around I cant wait to see it. Let’s just hope it’s good, and doesn’t stray too far away from the games. The trailer suggests that they did find the right atmosphere, but also that they might have included a story element that doesn’t belong (the valkyries).

In the games Valkyrie was a drug, but in the trailer they are mythological creatures, which has worried fans. I still think – and hope – that it just portrays what’s going on in Max’s head, a symbol of the effects of the drug or something similar.

Yes, I do realize I sound like a fanboy.

Half-Life 2: Episode 3 will star…

SPOILER ALERT (Half-Life 2: Episode 2)!

Kikizo has published an interview with Valve’s Doug Lombardi, where he gives a small hint about Episode 3.

Kikizo: When are we going to start to hear about Episode Three? Because the gaps seem to be quite long based on the first couple of episodes.
Lombardi: Yeah, the next time you play as Gordon will be longer than the distance between HL2 to Ep1, and Ep1 to Ep2.
Kikizo: Won’t you announce or show anything on Episode 3 this year?
Lombardi: We may at the very end of the year.

It seems like he’s saying that we won’t play Gordon this time around. Rock Paper Shotgun suggests that we might play Dog (Alyx’s robot pet), but it seems to me like it’ll be Alyx herself.

As you know, (and if you don’t, here comes the spoiler) Episode 2 ended with Alyx’s father getting killed before her eyes. I predict that Episode 3 will be a dark tale of Alyx’s revenge.

And I look forward to it.

Through the noise

Here comes a new batch of articles, blog posts and rants that survived through the noise of the tubes.

It’s not a game


Moving pictures, or the motion picture, was invented in the second half of the 19th century. Since then we’ve gotten as diverse uses of this technology as movies, sitcoms, debates, news shows etc. Even though the underlaying technology is the same, we’d never dream of using one word to describe all these very different expressions.

Interactive entertainment was invented during the 20th century. As the decades have passed, the medium has evolved into many different forms. We have multiplayer action titles, interactive dramas, puzzles, family games, etc. Even though the underlaying technology is the same, we’d never dream of using one word to… wait a minute!

When the industry was young and not as multifaceted, the word “games” sufficed. But I think we’ve gotten to a point now where we have outgrown the term. No longer are “gamers” unified by a nerdy fascination for the medium itself, with all its products. We’ve opened the flood gates to new audiences, all expecting very different things.

Just like someone who watched every episode of Friends doesn’t necessarily wait for Michael Moore’s next documentary, someone who followed Zoë’s journey in Dreamfall might not want to sit down with a plastic toy guitar to play Guitar Hero. With such a diverse medium as interactive entertainment has become, the term “games” fails in actually describing what it encompasses, and becomes a blunt tool for both professionals and consumers.

Isn’t it also the case that many titles defined as games simply aren’t? While I’ll happily call Buzz and Peggle games, I’m less sure about titles like Fahrenheit or Call of Duty 4. Are they games, or are they something more? Let’s try to come up with a definition.

“A game is an entertaining activity performed according to a set of rules to reach a goal.”

In CoD4, when I’m fighting in the streets of a middle eastern city to save a friend from a downed Black Hawk helicopter, that’s an experience. Yes, it has rules, but they are transparent and recieve very little focus from me. They are simply there to generate the experience, enabling the interactive narrative which I am exploring.

Game? I think not.

More importantly, I fear that the term “games” limit the designers and directors of the industry. The traditional meaning of the word, and all the baggage it carries since Pong, probably makes it harder for visionary ideas to break through. Our legacy controls the expectations of consumers, the demands of publishers and the work of designers.

So if you’re ever in a discussion about game design and are confronted with “that’s not what games are about”, just answer “exactly”.

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.