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Just a quick update. For those who actually read them, there will be a new Press Start To Play next week. It’ll probably be a long one, so I may not include it in its entirety, or I may offer a download of the full article. Or I’ll just throw it all up there. We’ll see. In any case, we are doing a unit on music in my writing class (why we’re doing a unit on music in my writing class is, well, sort of a problem) and I chose to do mine on the history and evolution of video game music. It is a four or five page paper, which is why I am debating on how to transcribe it here.

So stay tuned for next week’s episode of Press Start To Play!

-Jsnf

It is the mission statement of Modern Magic Enterprises LTD;

  • To use the book, the game, and the film to present the best stories in the world.
  • To offer quality writing services at exceptionally competitive rates.
  • To become a preeminent developer of story-based multimedia in the American Midwest.

From a gamer’s perspective, greater risk almost always leads to greater rewards.

From a developer’s perspective, however, apparently hand-holding is the way to sales, no doubt due to the softness of games these days (See “Game Over” below) but I still don’t understand some of the design choices developers make.

When a game takes away a big risk, such as penalties for dying, they also take away a big part of the rewarding gameplay. BioShock was the worst example of this, since whenever you die in BioShock, you almost immediately respawn in a nearby chamber, with all the regular enemies at the health you left them at, and you have all your gear. While, generally, you have a limited amount of health and power after doing this, there is no long-term punishment for dying. So once I realized that I could run up to a Big Daddy, beat him a few times with my wrench, get killed, and do it all over again until the rusty bastard is dead, it completely took away the fear of running into them. Seriously, when you come up against something that big your first instinct should be to piss your pants and run, but when you know there is no significant reason to, throwing caution to the wind is as simple as shooting at a Little Sister.

Image courtesy of Google Images

Image courtesy of Google Images

Now, its not just the player’s life that should be at risk. Another big mistake that developers make regarding AI partners (Killzone, pay attention here) is that friendly units should not be immortal. Why should I run in and risk my life, when I can just order my teammates to run in there and do all the shooting for me? Sure, it’s not as fun but if I’m really worried about dying, I can just step back and take a small breather while my AI buddies fall over, get back up, and enthusiastically throw themselves into the onslaught of bullets once more.

This is why I have worries about the upcoming Prince of Persia game. It’s a game where, essentially, you can’t die. IF you jump off a cliff, your AI teammate pulls you to safety, as well as healing you when you are “knocked out” (a state which is quickly overtaking the concept of dying in games) and even though the enemies also get a healing breather, it’s not enough of a setback to balance that you’re basically unbeatable.

There are certain instances in which I will concede that the lack of big-setback risks is a good thing. In some platformers, such as Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, it’s nice that if I mistake some background hanging ivy art as a climbable surface and plummet to a painful, dismembered death, I can start from very close by, usually the last ledge my feet were thankful to rest upon, without having to go through a menu screen to slow down the flow of gameplay.

However, for the most part, the more risky an action, the more reward you are likely to feel for accomplishing it. In big ways, like making you immortal, and even just partway, like regenerating health bars. If you have a set amount of health at a given time, you’re not likely to want to throw that health away, so you’ll be careful, you’ll take your time, and you’ll ration any items you have. However, when you can take a few dozen bullets to the chest, hide behind a corner and wait five seconds for your health to regenerate, there’s no reason not to jump back out of cover. Yes, it does speed up gameplay and that is about the only reason why I would agree that it’s a good feature. However, I feel much more proud of myself when I make it through a dangerous situation with a mere sliver of health, surviving only on my wit and skill, then when I know I could have taken a few more grenades and died a few times before getting to this point.

Not only does this effect gameplay, but it can alter the feel, mood, and atmosphere of a game depending on what the consequences of your actions are. The Survival Horror genre, actually, best emulates this idea, especially when you examine its effect on the gameplay and how other games are different, but I’ll discuss that further in a separate post.

Meanwhile, let’s look at racing games. Again, if I can crash headlong into a semi-truck and explode in a fiery maelstrom of destruction, I should suffer more than a few seconds off my lap time. I notice that the sooner the game will let me get back on the track and race, the more reckless I am willing to be. Games that set me back, have long respawn times, or other consequences make me more careful, less willing to take a dangerous shortcut or attempt to weave heavy traffic, if I know that I’ll have to make up a lot of time if I fail.

Oddly, this concept of succeed-or-fail gameplay used to see its best use in old Role-Playing Games. Some RPGs have segments where, if you fail, the story goes on but with a different outcome, while in other games (Threads of Fate being one example) there are certain plot points where, in fact, you must lose, as there is no way to defeat the enemy. In these cases, the act of failing, even if inevitable, comes with a consequence that actually carries through with the story, and RPGs have made the best use of this mechanic.

In any kind of mission-based game, there should always be risk, the possibility of failure, and an ongoing consequence for it. It deepens the experience, and ultimately provides even more rewards.

Games are about succeeding over trials and tribulations; and everyone knows that the harder you work for something, the sweeter victory tastes. It’s a simple concept, if only developers would pay more attention to the act of playing games.

That’s my two cents on the topic. Check back soon for more updates.

“Think Deeper

Video games have gone soft.

I mean this generally; avid victims fans of the Ninja Gaiden games, for instance, would argue against any leniency in modern video games, and may very well be correct. However, I am looking at games over all. There are some subtle, and some obvious, ways in which games have gotten easier on us. The rise of “casual” games being too obvious an example to discuss at length, it still protrays how video games are now designed to appeal to people who don’t play video games. Video games used to be for gamers.

However, my favorite example is the end-game screen. In the old days of arcade and some early console games, what happened when you lost all your lives? In most cases, you saw a screen that said two words.

GAME OVER”

How often in the last.. three to five years, have you seen that screen? Here and there, I’ll admit, but when you consider the sheer volume of games? Not terribly often.

Those were powerful words. They meant that you had lost, failed, and you had to start from the beginning and do it all over again. Everything you had been working towards was suddenly brought an abrupt and heart breaking halt. That, however, was the addiction. You lost, so you try again. And again. And again. You kept going until you beat it and you’d feel damned proud when you did. You had to work for it, which brings us to another end-game screen. These days, when you beat a game, you’re treated to a cinematic, a cutscene, or some visual display of your epic heroic awesomeness. It made you feel special, while at the same time, made it so that it was a natural thing. You saw the conclusion of the story, because you beat the game. But really, you were always going to get there, the story had to end somehow. Go back to some of those crazy-hard games that would take a dedicated gamer months to beat, and quite often the only thing you’d see would be along the lines of:

You beat the game! Congratulations!”

Maybe some kind of cutscene, maybe a little victory video, but mostly it was just the credits rolling.

And oh, how good that felt. The feeling of accomplishment and victory that came with that screen. Modern gamers are spoiled, because its getting easier and easier to get to that screen. It’s almost unheard of to play a game that you can’t beat in under a month, maybe even a week. Continues, save points, extra lives and health bars all contribute to this.

Another trend in gaming: regenerating health. Halo, Gears, Call of Duty, so many recent games have a system where you can take a few hits, and if you can manage to remain unhit for a little while, you gain your health back. Arcade games? One hit, you are dead. Extra lives were a blessing, a gift. You would sometimes risk your current life in order to get an extra one, or something to help you along.

Galaga, anyone? Do you take out the alien ship nice and safely, or do you let it take your ship, so that you can try to get it back and have 2 ships, thus increasing your firepower? It was always risky, and you had to have an extra ship in reserve to do it. But if you miss and hit your ship, you just lost a life, and what a blow that felt like. Especially since it was all your fault.

Modern games don’t have “game over” screens. They have “Continue?” screens, or “Go back to the last save point” options. Tools that would enable you to progress with only a slight hindrence. Games used to be made to be hard to beat. Now they’re designed to be easy to beat. They even have difficulty settings, so that if you can’t beat the game, they will make it easier to beat.

Today’s gamers are spoiled by games that are made to be beat. I mean, come on, dynamic difficulty? Automatically adjusting the difficulty of the game to custom cater to the individual gamer. It will change the difficulty for you based on how badly you’re failing.

The thing is, all this is smart investment. As games are becoming increasingly popular and more “casual”, even the hardcore games need to be able to be played by a wide variety of gamers.  After all, most gamers will not admit to having to play a game on easy. Everyone wants to be able to beat a game on its hardest setting; the appeal of that top “elite” ranking is what sells games to a lot of people. People don’t want to have to work for their achievements anymore; you can purchase, for cash money, MMORPG characters that have already been upgraded and leveled up for other people. You can skip the work and get right to the part where you’re awesome.

I play games because they’re challenging. They make me think. However, its less and less common to see Game Over. Now there’s always a backdoor.

Modern gamers are spoiled. Video games have gone soft.

Think Deeper”

The first thing I’m going to mention, is going to continue the theme of blogs. Regarding blogs, the key is not what you know. In fact, many of the blogs I’ve come across are populated by people to whom knowing a vast amount is an entirely alien concept.* The key, is who you know. It’s all about networking.

That said, I’m going to share a blog with you kind readers. Self-described as “A blog containing tequila and truth, science and skepticism, culture and cynicism, wordsmithing and wonder, and an abundance of alliteration”, En Tequila Es Verdad is written by a very close friend of mine, Dana Hunter. While it’s not directly related to video games or its processes, leaning instead towards more political topics, its a very snarky, fun blog to read and one of my occasional past times. For a while I co-authored the blog, adding some articles regarding education, but she has far outgrown me at this point, and I have since resigned the post. In any case, its a great blog to read and I highly recommend it. If there is any cross over in the articles I will mention it, but this is mostly just a plug.

I will be posting a real article on here tomorrow or the next day. Currently, it is 4:30 in the morning, and I am meeting my girlfriend in a few hours to spend the day. Goodnight.

Think Deeper

Good morning, afternoon, or night, depending upon the time you are sitting down to read this. Or, standing up on a crowded bus, checking blogs on your iPhone or Blackberry or whatever new doohickey you all use these days. Maybe you’re at home, or a local library, or a coffee shop, enjoying the benefit of free wireless access.

See, the thing about the internet and the modern world, is that you never know who is going to be reading your content, as well as the context of their reading, and the individual themself. Really, its a very vulnerable thing, a blog. However, Avery and I are here to expose ourselves. We are going to try to tell our story, share our thoughts, our feelings, and most likely our frustrations as well. By reading this blog, I do not promise to provide insight, or wisdom. I do not promise it will have the usual dose of snark or sharp wit that keeps the masses entertained. Nor will I ever say an unfair criticism of another individual or group. (Which is not to be confused with fair criticism). So let me make it clear; this is a blog about video games, as an industry, as an art, and our progress in trying to make one. We are not video game critics, and while I will often make comments about trends or games individually, its not with the purpose of being cruel; of luring in readings and commenters by breaking down a piece of art that I had no part in making.

I merely want to make my intentions clear. So now that we know all the things I won’t be doing, what precisely will I be doing? I will be providing my opinion on games, trends in gaming, individuals in gaming, as well as general writing/story ideas, thoughts, tips, and reviews on books, movies, and games as they relate to a particular point. I will also probably be singing the praises of my partner, Avery Tingle, from time to time.

Moving on, now, to the actual point of this particular post. To introduce myself to the readers, let you know who I am and what precisely I am up to.

My username is jsnf. That is because my name is Jacob Steven Nicholson-Fitzgerald. I am the President and Co-Founder of Modern Magic Enterprises. I am also one of the creative writers, though that title may or may not be official. In any case, I am one of the forces behind Modern Magic’s current project, Flight 271, and the primary force behind the sequel, Survival Instinct.

I am nineteen years old, with a science fiction novel currently on the backburner while I work two part time jobs and get myself through college, majoring in Multimedia Design. With only one day a week off (which is usually spent with the girlfriend, which really doesn’t count as a day off), the majority of my posts will be written late at night; tonight’s 4 am draft tonight is evidence of that. So if you get lost in the cornucopia of words, don’t blame yourself.

Basic information covered, I think that’ll do for this post. I thank you for your patience and your time, and I hope you enjoy reading along with us as we try to find our way along this winding path.

-Jsnf

President/Co-Founder

Modern Magic Enterprises

“Think Deeper”

I just got through a podcast on PAX keynote, “How To Pitch A Video Game”, courtesy of G4. One of the points Zack Karlsson (Namco-Bandai of America) makes is; “Don’t start with the story.”

Now, granted, a game is primarily that, a game, and should be played and interacted with as such. The simplest ideas have found the most success (Tetris, anyone?), but I think we’re on the forefront of a new horizon in video gaming, one I hope to finally capitalize on.

Movies are passive; you sit back, watch, and you have fun (mostly), but you don’t interact in any way. Whatever is happening on screen will happen whether you like it or not. Books are passive, but much more intense; as you read, your mind creates images based on the words, which allows for a much more intimate following of the story.

This is where the saying; “The book is always better than the movie” comes from. If everyone experiences a different telling of the story in his or her own mind, how is one vision supposed to please everyone?

This is where games come in, and this is where they can be elevated into an art form. Games give people the ability to interact and even manipulate a universe that they don’t have to imagine, but see and hear. More and more titles these days offer players the opportunity to custom-create their own character to allow for deeper immersion. In this light, I’d classify Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto or Bully franchises as art because you can play them any way you choose—and they are set in worlds not too far removed from our own.

I’m hoping that this is where Modern Magic finds its groove; it’s my belief that any game released today should bring something interactively new to the table. It’s a game and it needs to stand out. I want to offer stories so compelling that you just have to know how it ends (Legacy of Kain did this beautifully, IMHO). I sincerely believe that a story can make a game, when done right. Final Fantasy VII proves this.

I tend to write a story and then design a game around it. I was so dissatisfied with the “me-too” gameplay of Flight 271 (working title) that I took a step back (thanks to Jake and Shan) and remembered why I got into this business in the first place. Just because the game is relatively simple doesn’t mean the plot should be.

Having completed the story, we approach the game anew. Lucky, we didn’t lose any development time.

And the band plays on.

I suppose if I have to find time to post, it means I’ve been keeping myself really busy. At my age, I have to play to my strengths.

I look at building a good development team the same way the owners in the NFL look at constructing a solid football team; sign talented people, put them in the right places, and then hope you can lead them all the way. In this case, to publication.

In the world of indie game development, Modern Magic is definitely the expansion team; its head didn’t arrive here by learning code, and we’re actually trying to break into mainstream development.

Luckily, despite a few delays, things are swimmingly back on track. Shan actually handed in a demo featuring very basic gameplay fit for the Xbox 360! Jake is the one who gets to test it out. I have to take my ego out of the equation here; I’m developing a game for a system I don’t own, nor can I afford right now. It hurts that I can’t play my own game.

But the point is, we have accomplished enough to put something playable together, even if it’s not fit for public consumption.

But it was my idea, we can play it, and I have full faith in Jake’s judgment. That’s huge.

I’m also pleased to say I have no shortage of personnel suddenly. I’m abysmally broke, but things are getting done, and that’s what counts.
Modern Magic Enterprises isn’t only about video games; it’s mission is to tell great stories. I’ve had a script ready for Epic’s Make-Something-Unreal competition for a few months now, and I just signed a weapons and character concept artist to begin preproduction. According to the rules of the contest, the film has to be under five minutes, and we are ineligible for the grand prize. To be honest, I could probably take Trista’s concept art and make the film myself using MovieStorm, but Epic will give us way more exposure. It’s always nice to be able to put “Honorable Mention” or even better “1st Place” beside your title.

The film, “Universal Warrior: Faithless” deals with a small paramilitary unit and their leader, Ann Dalloway as they try to recover the spikes used to execute the son of the universes’ creator, and make a miraculous discovery. How this discovery is dealt with will have alter the lives of everyone involved forever.

I’ve also begun work on “Universal Warrior: The Last Campaign” as a work of print. Everyone keeps telling me that the best way to hold onto your rights is to create them as a novel and then go from there. The hardest part for me is disciplining myself to see this through to completion, as I can envision Universal Warrior in every form of media on the planet. But it has to get it’s start somewhere. The story revolves around the first Archangels as they battle their way from Valhalla to the gates of Heaven in a final attempt to hold off the armies of Lucifer.

So that’s it. One week, things are bleak, the next, you’re in the high life. This is a good moment, so I’m going to capitalize on it and keep things moving forward. Until next time…

-Avery

Ugh. It’s Wednesday, and it’s not been a good week. First of all, on a separate project, I have to get thirty pages done by next Monday. Thanks to congested nights at work and just plain laziness, I’ve struggled to reach four. I always have one day a week where I seem to be invincible; capable of keeping my mind at warp speed for hours on end. That usually happens on Monday, but I’m hoping for a few more of those. But right now, entire pots of coffee can’t clear the exhaustion from my mind.

I suppose I really shouldn’t complain; I was able to purchase Torque on schedule and get it uploaded, and I can write that off as a business expense next year. On the other side, Jake’s internet went down, and it’s down indefinitely, effectively cutting me off from my partner. We’re able to stay in touch via phone, but I can’t transmit documentation over the phone, now can I?
And to top it all off, Dylan backed out today, leaving me without a sprite artist.

Of course, my mind goes into overdrive; I already contacted a few backups and placed an ad. If worse comes to worse, I have to learn to do the work myself. I’ve been studying up on tutorials and I realize I at least need to provide better concept art. That much I can do.

You know, in the end, you can bitch, moan, and complain, but the work still needs to get done, even if you have to do it yourself. I’m not one to complain about my losses, rather focus on what I have. I still have a very competent programmer, and with his schedule, I figure we can actually begin production at the beginning of next month. By this time, I’ll have the whole engine and—God willing—a full staff.

If I have no one, I have to do it myself.

In the meantime, I’ve begun planning my entry into the Make-Something-Unreal competition hosted by Epic. I’m entering in the machinima category, which makes me ineligible for the grand prize, but that’s not the point of entering; win or lose, if the film gets enough attention, then people will want more of the story. Desire, done right, can translate out into demand. Blessedly I was able to renew a contract with very competent manga artist I know, and the script for the film has been done, and reviewed, for months. If you want a copy, drop me a line.

Not a lot to complain about. This is all part of it, so I take my licks and move on.

Overall, I don’t have a lot to complain about. My dev team is volunteer; luckily, the way they tailor their schedule syncs up with my financial situation. I don’t like to waste anything, so when I found a decent facsimile of the ship I want to use for our first title, I took the asset Dylan already created and turned it into another enemy. I think he’s a little mad at me now, since he has to start from scratch…

Jake is generally a good kid. He’s young, but he’s dynamically creative and my flair for drama has nothing on him. I chose him not only because he supplied one hell of a writing sample, but he knew what it was like to develop a story and have it grow beyond you.
Anyway, Jake is professional way beyond his years, so when I send email after email, it’s uncharacteristic th at I don’t hear back from him. A little worried, I drop him a line and after confirming that he’s okay…I wonder why he hasn’t responded to any of my messages yet. What he says makes my heart skip a beat;

What messages??
In game development, the most precious commodity you have is time, not money. You can recover lost finances.
I’m curious as to why Jake hasn’t been receiving my messages, so I open my outlook and with him on the phone, I ask him to confirm his email address. Turns out I was off by a number…and he hadn’t received any of the updates I had been sending for the last week.

Jake often gets the extremes of my emotions because it’s very rare I can talk to someone and be completely myself. He must’ve listened (very patiently) as I beat myself up for over ten minutes. I compiled and forwarded all of the messages that he’s missed, and he should be back up to speed come Monday.

I am relentless on myself when it comes to these thoughtless errors for so many reasons. Game development is a cutthroat business, and only the best survive. The best of the best succeed. Right now, there is undoubtedly someone in the world who is doing the exact same thing as I, who will not make the mistake I just did. I also wonder who has been receiving all of my mails, since I haven’t been getting daemons back. Jake is good, but now he has to spend time catching up. This was time that could’ve been spent fleshing out the story of the human race’s battle against the Tethoy. Don’t worry, you’ll know soon enough.

The point is, this is a stupid clerical error that could’ve been avoided with just a little proofreading, and I was so caught up in multitasking that this one mistake cost almost a week worth of development time. I beat myself up so it won’t happen again.

After I finished ranting, Jake suggested (calmly) that he can pick up the slack; pick up what I miss, as he’s meticulous when it comes to details. Going along with this, he’s going to get a copy of my office pro so we can keep the same files. We are partners, after all.

In some eyes, this is not a costly mistake, and I understand. I just want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.

I won’t be trying to guess what I’ll write about from week to week anymore. I do better when I shoot from the hip. Thanks for reading along and bearing with me.

 

-Avery