When Limited Hardware Led To Limitless Creativity

Nothing breeds creativity better than adversity. When you have to make something out of a limited set of parameters, it forces you to get creative in order to make it work. Continue reading “When Limited Hardware Led To Limitless Creativity”

Chi-Coder: Is open world a good thing?

I picked up The Witcher 3 over the weekend and I’m loving it (like a Big Mac).  If you keep an eye on game reviews it’s basically everything that all the reviewers say it is.  Sure, it has a few minor flaws, and I’m not far enough in to completely give you my full critique (nor am I here to do that).  Rather, I’m interested in discussing the points raised in this article.  The author of the article raises some really interesting questions about the validity of open-world as a concept.  They’re questions that I think merit some thought.

Before I move on to the topic of open-world though, I’d like to lay some ground work for an anti-open-world example.  In addition to playing The Witcher 3, I’ve been working my way through Metroid Prime Trilogy.  My Wii U hasn’t seen action in a couple of months so I figured I’d give it something to do.  To clarify, yes, my idea of utilizing my Wii U is playing old GameCube games re-released on Wii and then emulated on Wii U.

gameception

Metroid Prime is an utterly fantastic game, but that’s not news.  It’s also decidedly not open-world.  It uses a few tricks to give you the feeling that you can go wherever you want, but you need only go back and play it for a few hours to realize that it’s an extremely guided experience.  You go where you weapons and items dictate that you’re allowed to go.  This isn’t a knock on the game.  In point of fact it’s high praise.  Metroid Prime’s level design is near perfect.  The flow is amazing.  There is a bit of back-tracking, but because elevators to areas are laid out so well, it feels really minimal.  It’s an awesome, non-open-world game.

Open-world is technically difficult.

Open world games are, by nature, incredibly complicated.  The amount quests/missions to undertake, ways to solve them, and order in which they’re done make these games nearly impossible to perfect.  No amount of QA or testing can account for every single possibility in a game like The Witcher 3, and trying to is an NP problem of the highest order, so it’s not even worth attempting.  By contrast, Metroid Prime only allows you to go where it wants you to.  By doing this it cuts down the number of variables by orders of magnitude.  In open-world games you often hear this critique, “the occasional side-quest was broken”.  You won’t find that in Metroid Prime, it’s experience is pure and focused.  There are a few design decisions about Metroid Prime that I don’t love, but from a technical perspective it’s nearly perfect.  There are no glitches, no “broken quests”, no buggy AI patterns because some NPC exists when they shouldn’t.  The variance that plagues open-world simply doesn’t exist in Metroid Prime.

Open-world is difficult in non-technical ways too.

Skyrim is one of my favorite games of all time.  I’ve poured hundreds of hours into it, none of which I regret.  I’m going to pick on it a little bit here though.  Because open-world games offer so much freedom, they often disguise their lack of choice.  In Skyrim this is most apparent in the extremely homogeneous combat.  When you boil Skyrim’s combat down to it’s most basic there are really only two choices that matter; to stealth or not to stealth, and ranged or melee combat.  If you stealth you either shoot your bow or you run up and stab someone.  If you choose not to stealth you either do ranged damage as a mage-type (or with the bow), or you run up and bash people.  You can specialize in certain weapons or magic types but most of those choices are very unspectacular.

Beyond that, encounters in Skyrim tend to be extremely bland.  Most enemies have one of a few different, equally stupid AI patterns.  Most run straight at you begging you to kill them.  A few attempt to kill you from range, and dragons fly around.  Play a few hours of Skyrim and you’ll realize that none of these encounter types are interesting or challenging.  Dragons are especially lackluster.  The first time you kill one it’s pretty awesome but after dragon kill #453, it becomes very rinse-and-repeat.

All of this is to point out the incredible amount of homogony in Skyrim.  The game gives freedom without necessarily giving you choice.  None of the gear in Skyrim is interesting.  None of the abilities are interesting.  Everything basically feels the same.  A melee mage and a melee fighter are, for all intents and purposes, the same thing.  A lot of this comes down to the technical difficulty I described above.  Encounter design has to be informed by what abilities you as the player have available, and if you can do anything then the AI has to account for everything.  Since that’s pretty much impossible, the game opts to do what most open-world games do; present the player with the illusion of choice.

One other major gripe I have with Skyrim actually has to do with the opposite problem I just described.  To a large degree, open-world games choose to homogenize things, but occasionally they pull a 180 on you.  Here’s what happened to me…  The first time I played it I went full cloak-and-dagger stealth.  It was a fine choice until about 10 hours into the game when I decided to start killing dragons.  Guess what, it’s impossible to stealth kill a dragon (at least early on).  With 90% of my damage tied up in stealth backstabs I was all but useless against the flying menaces.  Nowhere did the game ever mention that maybe stealth wasn’t the best choice right off the bat.  Sure, I could avoid the dragons (and I did), but that’s not a good answer.  I wanted to kill them; after all, it’s a major part of the game.  I ended up having to start over as a warrior type just so I could get past parts of the game that were poorly designed.

Go away jerk.

Open-world is unfocused.

One of the core things that bugs me about open-world games is the odd nature of the storytelling.  There is this odd dichotomy between the world and the story that are being presented to you.  In most open world games you’re presented with some main quest to complete.  Typically it’s epic in nature and often times involves you saving the entire world.  At the same time open-world games provide you with this huge sandbox to go play around in.  So wait, does the game want you to go save the world or kill endless hordes of rats and bandits?  Skyrim feels especially unfocused in this way.  Your main quest is more important than anything else in the world, and yet, the story’s main antagonist seems content to just wait around as you clear every cave and mine in the game.  Why doesn’t he just kill everyone while you’re rooting around in Labrynthian for 3 hours?

This problem plagues open-world games.  These games are the antithesis of focus, and yet they seem hell-bent on weaving in the common tropes of linear single-player games.  To be honest, Skyrim would almost be a better game without the main quest, in my opinion.  In fact, if they had taken it out in favor of 20 more hours of side-content and just said, “here’s a sandbox, go and play”, I would have been so happy.  It would have made all of the existing side-content (which is better than the main quest) feel more epic in scale, and it would have removed the albatross around my neck.

But is it bad?

Games like Metroid Prime are decidedly more focused, and because of this there are more opportunities for really well designed encounters.  From boss fights to arena-type rooms, the guided single-player experience is one that is hard not to enjoy when it’s done well.  Is it better than the muddled, unfocused experience of the open-world sandbox though?  I wish I could take a more defined stance on the issue, but I can’t.  The truth is that despite all of the flaws that open-world presents I still find myself excited to play those types of games whenever they come out.  Even when a game doesn’t necessarily fall into my preferred genre, if it’s open-world, I’m interested.

Open-world, in it’s current iteration is still pretty young, anyway.  I’d say that Grand Theft Auto III was the first game to really introduce us to this style of game and that was only 14 years ago.  The linear single-player experience has had a lot more time to grow.  With big name game designers like Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto throwing their hats into the open-world ring, I think there is a lot of room for the genre to get better and more polished.  Maybe Miyamoto can contribute something similar to the open world genre like he did with z-targeting in Ocarina of Time.  Open-world, as it stands, has its fair share of glaring flaws, but with time and polish the genre will surely improve.

Meet the New Gen, Same as the Old Gen

By: Chris Hodges, Editor-in-Chief

As I look through the planned launch lineups of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, there are actually some impressive titles on both lists. There’s just one small problem: Most of them are also coming to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and/or the Wii U, all of which I already own.

Once upon a time, a new console meant new games, exclusive games that you couldn’t get on your pathetic “current gen” hardware. Of course, this was back when generations were more easily defined by their number of bits, before we started confusingly defining console generations as either “last,” “current,” or “next” and never quite being sure when the change officially takes place.

It was around the time that we started measuring our consoles’ manhoods not by the length of their bits but the way they used them that the line between one generation’s software and the next became a lot more blurry.

I first began to really notice this trend when prettier versions of current and even slightly older PlayStation 1 games began to pad out the Dreamcast’s lineup. It didn’t seem quite as prevalent twilight_princess_02_desktop_1280x800_wallpaper-417280on the PlayStation 2 or its competitors, but when the Xbox 360 launched that’s when the separation between the games of one generation and its successor became a lot more muddied. Many early Xbox 360 titles were little more than Xbox and PS2 games with a layer of HD gloss plastered over them. If you owned both platforms there was no question as to which version you wanted, but if you weren’t ready or able to upgrade to the 360 there weren’t really a ton of games you had to completely live without even if you were getting the jaggier, less shiny version. Nintendo shamelessly took its long-in-development Zelda follow-up Twilight Princess and released it as both a Gamecube swan song and a day one Wii launch game, and then turned around and played up the exciting and previously unheard of prospect of a full-fledged Zelda game launching with a new console. It was technically the truth, but it felt a little shady and ended up leaving Link to awkwardly straddle two console generations, not really knowing where he belonged and his fans not knowing which side to pull him over to.

Speaking of Nintendo, their Wii U launch last year was technically the first console of the “next generation”, and other than a mere handful of true exclusives their lineup was and continues to be mostly Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games (with varying degrees of Gamepad metal-gear-solid-v-the-phantom-pain-1370995335366_1920x1080support). And as I stated earlier, most of what has been announced for the immediate future of the XBone and PS4 isn’t too much better, and I’m not just talking the launch window. Even games that have been announced for well into 2014, like Metal Gear Solid V Ground Phantom Zero Pain or whatever it’s going to be called, is being developed for next AND current gen consoles, and depending on which quote you believe and from which interview you read it from, Hideo Kojima has said that much of what we’ve seen is actually largely current-gen footage. Maybe. Possibly. I don’t know, the guy is my hero and is the brains behind one of my all-time favorite franchises and I normally enjoy his games, but this time around he’s just giving me a headache.

The point is, we have yet to see very many titles that are 100% next gen exclusive or look extraordinarily better on the more powerful hardware. I can only speak for myself, but games are the primary reason why I buy a game console, not ancillary features or hard drive space or social media connections. And as long as all Sony and Microsoft are showing me are games that just look a tad bit prettier (and are possibly going to cost more money), I’m not going to be in any big rush to buy new consoles to play games I can play on systems that have been bought and paid for for years now. It’s not sharper textures or more realistic lighting that make me want to camp out at Best Buy or buy extra games I don’t want in forced bundles or overpay on eBay instead of waiting a few more months until the stores replenish their stock. It’s completely new games. It’s Ridge Racer, Virtua Fighter, Super Mario 64 , Soul Calibur, SSX, Luigi’s Mansion and Halo. Not the higher polygon count version of the new Call of Duty.