Thursday, December 6, 2007

"I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split."

Kurt Vonnegut quoted in "The War Between Writers and Reviewers," New York Times Book Review (6 January 1985).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Episodic Content soapboxing

One of the email interviews I'm involved in popped the question about episodic content. I thought it was an interesting question with a very soapboxey response, so I'm republishing it here:

"As a developer in general, do you think it's difficult for video games as a popular medium to keep up with more reactionary media -TV, movies, pop music - due to lengthy development cycles? It's hard to be timely when a game takes two years to make, versus the opposite extreme, a talk show which is written, rehearsed, played out, edited and aired all in the same day."

I think a lot of the problem is people trying to make games fit into models that other media use, like TV and movies, instead of discovering the model that works for game development and design.

With linear short-form media like TV, it's almost compulsory to pump out content on a regular basis to keep people interested, just because it has almost no reusability. You're not going to sit down and watch the same episode of "How I Met Your Mother" every day or two with your friends, because you've sucked out the goodness on the first (or second, if you're hardcore) viewing.

With games, we have the opportunity to build these experiences that have much broader reusability. I think the real focus is making sure that developers grow these titles with content that fits, like tournaments, new features through title updates, and especially affordable or sponsored downloadable content.

For single player centric only titles, it comes down to also designing the mechanic and narrative to allow players to participate in a world rather than just crafting some linear narrative that people won't want to sit through again. Mass Effect is a great example of this, while there's a critical path there's also a big fat universe out there that people actively want to go and explore after "beating" the game.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Hard Knocks Lesson #3: Check your GM

No, seriously.

Yes, even after sending out the build, get your publisher to send you a copy of the disc they're sending to get pressed. Get them to send you one of the first discs off the line as well.

There's some hilarious and not so hilarious stories, all of them dealing with a complete failure between a developer submitting the build and the publisher sending off the disc for pressing. In the last 10 years, I have yet to work on a title where this has gone off perfectly.

One of them is a PC title I can talk about, since the publisher is no longer in business.

We were doing the usual thing of finishing the US PC build first, then sorting out EFGIS a few weeks later. We ship off the US build at the start of the month, take a few days off, then get cranking on the the EFGIS build. About a couple of days before our shelf date, we get a bug from publisher QA that the EFGIS build goes out of sync in multiplayer with the US build.

This is scary. So, we check here with our US final build and our EFGIS build, and the only difference is in our localized text and audio - the exe and data is all in sync, which means there is nothing being sent that could throw either client out of sync.

After a day or so of head scratching, the project lead decides to ask the publisher for their US build, you know, just to make sure they're on the right build. They insist they're using the final build, and send us an ISO of the final disc.

After receiving it in the morning, we install it and see that it's from a week before GM. You know, the build with last minute crash bugs and without the last minute tweaks we slaved over.

We head to lunch, and bemoan the fact that our publishers are incompetent jerks who can't even manage to copy the right build onto a bloody disc. We laugh and make comments of "oh well, at least it wasn't the build two weeks before". We're sad that what people are going to play isn't perfect, but there's nothing we can do - after all, they've printed 50,000 units so far.

We get back from lunch to find that this disc was forged in the depths of hell. After getting out-of-sync issues off the same disc, we find out that:
  • The installer on the root of the disc is the GM minus 7 days build. This is installed by running install.exe manually.
  • There's a directory on the disc called "autoplay" for the autoplay code. In that directory, is another copy of the game - the GM build minus 20 days (essentially, our beta build plus two weeks). The autoplay installs this build.
  • GM minus 20 days is an unencrypted version of our game data
  • GM minus 20 days includes our in-house custom tools for data packing, localization, mesh exporting - pretty much our entire custom toolchain.
Luckily for us (and unluckily for our publisher), shipping our in-house tools is a breach of contract. Lots of calls are made. Many people who make money off other people who make money off us get mad.

Somewhere, there is a landfill that contains 50,000 copies of the frankenbuild.

Hard Knocks Lesson #2a and b: TCR/TRCs

No matter how well you plan or how early you start prepping for certification, you'll always come across horrible TCR/TRC issues that require work within a month of your GM candidate. It's even odds that they'll be saving or naming issues.

The number of TCR/TRC's you'll get waived is directly proportional to how big a title you're shipping. Multiply by 3 if you're first party, Multiply by 0.3 if you're dealing with Sony.

Hard Knocks Lesson #1: Launch Screenshots

No matter how many screenshots you send out after you announce your title, blogs and other press sources are guaranteed to only use the first 3-5 screenshots, even after you ship. Hell, your marketing department will probably slap them on the box if you're unlucky enough too.

Yes, even that shot, with the horrible bloom and intersecting geometry that you fixed a month after you sent it out. Yes, even though you've sent 100 other more beautiful shots since then.