Nintendo’s Software Problem

September 5, 2013 § 2 Comments

Well, this was unexpected.

Mario

After announcing a price drop to its floundering Wii U and unveiling the bafflingly titled 2DS, Nintendo has curiously become the center of the tech sphere’s attention.

Some argue that our methods of evaluating Nintendo are faulty, several say the company’s strongest opportunity resides in Apple’s ecosystem, while others simply wish to convince us that above all else they must change course.

Anyone who played the latest Animal Crossing, a game seemingly made for iOS but confined to the 3DS, can understand the appeal of Nintendo software running on Apple’s hardware. However, I do not view a switch in hardware as the ultimate solution to Nintendo’s woes. Hardware does not define Nintendo. Games do.

Nintendo’s software problem is much more serious than their hardware problem, and it is a problem we tend to ignore. After all, they are still rolling out great Mario and Zelda games, right?

Sure, but they are resting on their laurels. I remember back in 2010 when the internet decisively declared Nintendo the winner of E3 (a completely meaningless accomplishment, but that’s another story). While my little sister watched me read every glowing hyperbolic piece published after the conference, she finally said to me, “I don’t get it.”

“What don’t you get?”

“Aren’t these just the same games you’ve been playing for years?”

Yes, of course they are. Nintendo, like so many Japanese game companies, loves to prey on our nostalgia. The generation who grew up with their characters has developed a fervent admiration for the company, while their younger counterparts can only shrug, barely looking away from their iPads.

I watched Keiji Inafune lament the state of the Japanese games industry at GDC 2012, criticizing his peers’ eagerness to sustain old brands rather than create new ones. While reskinning Mega Man may not be the proper solution, he certainly asked the right questions.

Nintendo asks, “what will Mario and Zelda look like on this new platform?” They should instead ask, “what can we create on this platform that we never could have imagined before?”

Imagination and surprise are always more exciting than the sustainability of an established brand. When Reggie Fils-Aime expressed frustration at his audience’s insatiable appetite, he failed to recognize why his audience fell in love with Nintendo in the first place. No, it was not because of Mario, it was because of their constant stream of surprises and delights.

The Wii was a great surprise, a shot in the dark that reached an entirely different audience. But alas, it was a fad. Why?

In my eyes, Nintendo created only four pivotal titles for the Wii:

  • Wii Sports
  • Wii Fit
  • Super Mario Galaxy
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

We could argue on and on about what makes a “pivotal” title, but I essentially view a Nintendo pivotal title as one that sufficiently surprises and justifies its current hardware. Wii Sports and Wii Fit were casual titles that embraced the Wii’s physical affordances. Nintendo somehow reimagined the Mario formula yet again with Galaxy’s remote waggling, gravity-centric platforming, and Skyward Sword displayed how fairly accurate motion controls could effectively enhance an action experience.

The first two titles catered to Nintendo’s newfound casual audience, while the latter two catered to their existing core fan base. Even with a paltry number of system defining titles, there was a dire need for an exciting middle ground between core and casual.

Instead, Nintendo phoned in another Mario Kart, another 2D Mario, a few Mario sports games, and little else. The Wii was Nintendo’s promise of a revolution, but even they struggled to come up with new ideas to showcase its full potential.

It seems fitting then, that the title Nintendo is hoping to finally convince their fan base to buy the Wii U is an HD remake of a ten year old game. Déjà vu.

Meanwhile in the other corner, wholly original experiences are gracing every other platform, from developers both big and small. Yet Nintendo seems content living in the past. I often hear Nintendo compared to Disney (both place high value on characters), but there is an important distinction. Disney thrives on a constant supply of new, exciting franchises and characters, while Nintendo clings to the hope that theirs will continue to remain relevant.

The Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros was the first video game I ever played. I love it now as I loved it then, but I never imagined that over two decades after first playing, Nintendo would still be attempting to sell its latest iteration.

Here’s hoping they have a few more tricks up their sleeves.

We Created Monsters

June 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Actions speak louder than words.”

The Last of Us

I was reminded of the old idiom every time Joel dismembered a runner, stuck a shiv to a clicker, or burned another human being alive. Had I made a list of all the brutal actions I instructed the titular character to perform in The Last of Us, I hardly imagine I would have found a fraction of humanity beneath all the bloodshed.

You know where this is going, of course. Ludonarrative dissonance is the plague that infects the AAA game industry, and The Last of Us is its latest victim. The game does not go down easily, for Naughty Dog has come equipped with sharp writing and subtle character development that make March’s victim, the beleaguered BioShock Infinite, appear timid in comparison.

The opening hours are harmonious enough. Despite an obvious ploy for the heartstrings, the story is introduced through delicate use of contextual actions, and early encounters sparsely supply ammunition. Enemies quickly overwhelm, and commanding John Marston to run and hide becomes a dominant strategy for survival. The feeling of weakness is fleeting, however, and predictably enough Soap MacTavish transforms into a one man tank capable of obliterating every living thing in his path.

Along for the ride is fourteen year old Ellie, whose relationship with Marcus Fenix anchors the impressively focused story. Like her protector Sam Fisher, she too turns more violent as the game progresses, and unsurprisingly becomes an ally combatant. Her secondary role as an echo for the player’s thoughts is likely a bit more accidental. After the umpteenth time Lara Croft flings a pallet into the water and starts to instruct Ellie, she responds, “I know, step on the fucking pallet.”

Here we find what David Cage was referring to when he made the controversial claim that “game mechanics are evil.” The pallet mechanic was likely tossed in because it is reusable, shows off impressive technology, and breaks up the combat. On the other side, the combat was likely tossed in because it is a proven design, shows off impressive tech, and breaks up the pallet pushing. When viewed in a vacuum, the game’s tried and true mechanics paint the portrait of a monstrous mass murderer with an affinity for ladders, pallets, and planks, thus the story is tasked with justifying their inclusion.

Naughty Dog is quite aware of their created dissonance, and have even attempted to justify it previously in Uncharted 2, with a short monologue from its antagonist:

“You think I am a monster. But you’re no different from me, Drake. How many men have you killed? How many… just today?”

A quick trip to the statistics screens takes the mystery out of the number of men killed in The Last of Us, but Naughty Dog fares much better this time in their attempted justification. The final act of the game completes Max Payne‘s descent into an unadulterated killer, and his unspoken motives leave much room for thought. Does he place Ellie’s life above the lives of countless others because he cannot bear the loss of another child? Is his ounce of remaining compassion a strength or a detriment to mankind? Or is it not compassion at all, and simply selfishness?

The questions are there, they are interesting to ponder, but they are there because Joel had to turn out this way, or else the story would be devoured in the absurdity of the mechanics. Neither The Road nor Children of Men, the contemporary works of fiction from which The Last of Us draws frequent inspiration, have to justify their protagonists’ trail of bodies or even leave one at all. The mechanics of literature do not mandate it.

And yet here we are, with another game trying so hard to justify the role in which games always seem to ask us to play. Perhaps a greater achievement would be to create a different part.

“You monster,” the doctor screams at me during the game’s finale before I put one last bullet in her head.

I’m sorry, doctor. It’s the only role I’ve ever known.

For Baltimore

February 6, 2013 § 3 Comments

4…3…2…1…

The final seconds vanish from the clock and the 49er’s ball carrier is stopped in his tracks. I let out a joyous scream. They did it. The Ravens won the Super Bowl. The Baltimore Ravens. My Ravens.

The frenzied, Jim Harbaugh-esque state of insanity that takes over my usually calm personality during Ravens games is hard to explain in Southern California. The general feeling in Los Angeles after a Super Bowl victor is declared is one of apathy. Texts are exchanged about bet results while strategies begin to form for next year’s fantasy season, but few share the joy felt by the winning team and their fans. Blame it on LA’s lack of an NFL team, but I have always found the overall sports atmosphere here to be a bit off kilter. Fans love the teams when they are successful then abandon them when they lose, apparently deeming them unworthy of further attention. After all, LA has plenty of other worthwhile distractions.

I have never understood this attitude. I’m from Baltimore.

Almost everyone in Baltimore develops a feverish love for the Ravens after enough years of succumbing to their unavoidable presence. Purple banners stream from light-posts in the teenager filled Hunt Valley Towne Center, bird logos adorn the walls of every public place imaginable, and some Baltimoreans’ entire wardrobes seem to exclusively consist of Ravens apparel.

Baltimore has long been a football city, and it has been a Ravens city for almost long as I have been alive. I was in elementary school when the Ravens went on their original Super Bowl run in 2000. The vice principal gave a brief synopsis of the previous playoff games during morning announcements, and the school faculty actually encouraged the students to wear purple every day for our scheduled “Ravens Weeks.” During the family Super Bowl party we stuffed our faces with Bill Bateman’s buffalo wings, a Baltimore classic, and excitedly watched the Ravens rout the New York Giants for their first Lombardi Trophy. The city was ecstatic.

After several years of stagnation the Ravens made some major changes, welcoming new leadership under former special teams coach John Harbaugh and rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, a first round draft pick from the University of Delaware. A few Baltimoreans were at first nervous about the new faces, but everyone ultimately rallied behind the team per usual. However, while the Ravens inevitably changed, Baltimore stayed mostly the same.

The inner city was always a place we were told to avoid, with a few exceptions like the tourist heavy Harborplace and M&T Bank Stadium of course. Fans of The Wire probably know as much about the grittier side of Baltimore as do the residents of Baltimore County’s surprisingly segregated suburbs. My community was mostly Jewish, while the neighboring suburbs were predominantly composed of one or two ethnic groups – hardly a cultural melting pot.

The suburbs in Baltimore were fairly typical. We found ourselves with little to do on weekends during the football offseason, especially since we couldn’t count on the Orioles for entertainment (although I’m sure that changed this year). I was fortunate enough to have a passion for video games and technology to keep myself busy, but boredom spread rampantly among my peers.

This narrative should seem familiar to anyone who grew up in a small American town, but Baltimore’s pride in its football team created unusual opportunities for friendship.

My high school was full of the stereotypical cliques and cliches, yet through the Ravens we found common ground. I could discuss football with the artsy students and jocks alike – both wore purple jerseys on a regular basis. It took me some time to find my place in high school, but when I finally found a great group of friends we bonded each weekend over Ravens games. The games became a Sunday ritual that transformed the entire group from casual to diehard fans, and we haven’t looked back since. Although we mostly communicate now through Twitter and text messages, The Ravens continue to bring us together today.

Baltimore may lack Los Angeles’ endless sources of entertainment or New York’s cultural diversity, but its pride in local heroes has infused it with a tremendous amount of heart. While some Baltimoreans happily live there forever and others like myself leave to pursue other ambitions, everyone maintains faith in an unspoken but fundamental idea: great things can come out of this place. Since 1996, the Ravens have been THE great thing. They are more than Baltimore’s football team – they are the rallying point and motivational force in a city often deprived of greatness.

I wish I could have celebrated with you at the parade, Baltimore. You deserved this victory.

Ravens Logo

Flight & Payne

November 2, 2012 § 3 Comments

Tonight was a special night to be a USC School of Cinematic Arts student. The film screened in our Theatrical Film Symposium class was the marvelous Flight, starring Denzel Washington.  Our guest speaker was none other than director and USC alumnus Robert Zemeckis, whose name adorns the building where I have spent the vast majority of my college career.

Flight is a character study about addiction. After a heart pounding first act in the air, its pace becomes more measured as Denzel Washington’s character is slowly consumed by the weight of his own lies about his substance abuse.

I couldn’t help thinking back to another character study concerning addiction I experienced this year: Rockstar Games’ Max Payne 3. I had some problems with the game when it was released, and tonight I was once again reminded just how wide the gap is between the expression of a serious subject in film and in games.

Max Payne 3 was not slow and measured, it was an unapologetic Rambo-esque romp. The aesthetics highlighted Payne’s struggle with substance abuse, but his inner turmoil never found its way into the moment to moment play. I mowed down enemy after enemy without a thought. I was not Denzel, I was Stallone.

And there’s the rub. The game may have meant to be about addiction, but in reality it was about killing people, like so many of its peers. Why do so many games start with noble ambitions but resort to asking the player to perform heinous tasks?

The only answer I have been able to come up with is that it is hard to sell a player on a serious subject without exciting moment to moment action. But you know what, the same goes for film, yet big studio films like Flight are still made.

As game designers I feel that we have a responsibility to join our aesthetics and mechanics in a cohesive package. They cannot be about different subjects, just as a film’s direction and editing cannot tell different stories.

While I believe games capable of tackling serious subjects, Flight served as a painful reminder that here they have yet to take off.

Punch Quest’s Monetization Problem

October 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

Frederico Viticci wrote an interesting article today on Punch Quest’s monetization problem, but I don’t entirely agree with his angle.

His argument that customers value new content and features higher than consumables does not line up with customer behavior. While working on “Where’s My Water?” we released two one-time purchase IAPs: Cranky’s Story and Mystery Duck. One of the two was a resounding success, yet while “Where’s My Water?” has a comfortable spot in the paid app charts, it doesn’t generate nearly as much revenue as the top freemium games.

Take one look at the App Store’s top grossing section. Every single top grossing game is supported by consumable IAPs.

So what went wrong with Punch Quest? In my opinion, the problem is not with its business model, but with its design.

First, there’s the menus. They are really, really ugly, and quite hard to read. Pixel art is fine for your main game assets, but when trying to convey information to a player, dial it back a bit. Halfbrick found the right balance with Jetpack Joyride, displaying clean GUI elements on top of the pixel art game world. Additionally, I take issue with the language they chose to direct players to their up sell screen. What does “loot” mean to a casual iOS gamer? Once the player navigates to the loot screen, a button titled “get” directs them to the IAP screen. Get what?

20121031-160031.jpg

Second, average Punch Quest play sessions seem longer to me than other auto runners. The game uses an old school heart system rather than instant death, which decreases the player’s perceived value of consumable power ups. I made it pretty far during my very first play session, and with five hearts, I felt that my chances of success were fairly high even without purchasing any power ups. Both Jetpack Joyride and Temple Run ramp up more quickly, thus the player feels more pressure to spend money on a helping hand.

Viticci cites Letterpress as an example of successful use of IAP. I love Letterpress, but do you see it in the top grossing? Letterpress is a classic example of confusing freemium with shareware, as Tadhg Kelly so wonderfully described. You can spend a maximum of $1 on Letterpress. Even with a high conversion rate of free to paid users, that is not a recipe for a hit.

Punch Quest did not confuse freemium with shareware, but it failed to clearly articulate to customers how or why to part with their money.

Chapter One

October 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Honored to be featured alongside some of my greatest inspirations in this new video for the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

A huge thank you to director Cassie Brooksbank for including me in her work.

Why I Love Making Meaningful Entertainment

September 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m currently leading one of USC’s Advanced Games projects, and our goal is to create a game that has value in the real world beyond pure entertainment. I could dedicate dozens of blog posts to why I think meaningful content is essential to ensuring video games’ transition from mindless entertainment to a widely respected form of expression, but today I want to share a few quick thoughts on why the creation of this kind of content is so fulfilling.

When making a game without meaningful content, whether it is a pure mechanics driven game with little story or an “epic” game sewed together by an incoherent story, it is not necessary to utilize much knowledge from the world we live in today. Sure, player behaviors must be studied in playtests to make sure the game’s objectives and systems are properly sign posted, but this limited psychology is just about the extent of using current real world knowledge and experiences to solve game design challenges. Most game designers use other games as their primary research targets, or works in other mediums of the same genre or style.

At J.J. Abrams’ WWDC talk, he told the audience that his dream was to attend USC for film school but his father persuaded him to pursue a liberal arts degree at a smaller institution instead, reasoning that without a well-rounded education J.J. would not have any subjects to make movies about. I wholly agree with this sentiment (although I believe USC offers an excellent well-rounded education) but I believe it works the other way as well. A well-rounded education influences meaningful entertainment, and the pursuit of meaningful entertainment influences a well-rounded education.

My attempts to bring meaningful content to games have made me a more intellectually curious person than ever before. My interest in all of my classes, from science to literature, has been dramatically heightened because I always discover a piece I can bring back into my current project. I read more, I inquire about subjects I traditionally had less of an interest in, and I am more engaged in my school work due its newfound relevance. Back in high school I saw little value in subjects outside my area of interest. Today I see value in all subjects, for I now know that one way or another they all fall within my area of interest.

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