Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Misadventures of some Odd Gentlemen

When a gaming publicist pitched me an interview with the men behind P.B. Winterbottom, my first reaction was to decline. I write about PC gaming, not Xbox Live. But the opportunity to go one-on-one, or one-on-two as it may be, with these gentlemen was too good to pass up. So I accepted, and I'm glad I did. Hopefully you are too. Originally published at Hooked Gamers.


The Birth of Winterbottom

Silent films, clones, and pie. Lots of pie. This is the world of P.B. Winterbottom - a world that lead designer Matt Korba and producer/janitor Paul Bellezza have lived in for the past three years while developing The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom.

The game began as a thesis project. While a graduate student at USC's Interactive Media Division, Korba saw Zbigniew Rybczynski's short film Tango. The film's complex choreography provided inspiration for the game's time-manipulating looping mechanic. And the works of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd - auteurs Korba gained experience with as an undergraduate film major - supplied the aesthetic.

Korba joined with fellow student Bellezza to create a team comprised of other graduate students, undergraduates, engineering students, and even a high school student - all focused on making Winterbottom a reality. After many sleepless nights and lots of pie (of the pizza variety, not dessert), the team had a Flash-based bare-bones Winterbottom prototype.

"We just submitted it to the [2008] Independent Games Festival and then waited by our e-mails for weeks until we found out if we got in," said Korba when I asked the cofounders of The Odd Gentlemen about how the game came to fruition. "We ended up getting in and that's where the ball started rolling."

Trade Shows, Press, and Publishers

After winning a spot on the IGF Student Showcase, The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom garnered significant attention from media and publishers. "It was overwhelming, trying to work on the game and handle all this press."

Korba and Bellezza began actively shopping their game to publishers after receiving more positive attention at GDC 2008. "We literally had a meeting with everybody."

"Some of the publishers we met with had their own spin on [Winterbottom]," said Korba. They told him the game should be made in color, Winterbottom should talk, "and all this other crazy stuff."

However, one publisher stood out. "2K, from the start, got what we were going for and they weren't going to mess with it creatively. They got it and they know that… you should just leave the creative people to be."

But neither side was ready to strike a deal. After all, Korba and Bellezza still had to finish their graduate theses. The two went back to school but continued publicizing their game by submitting it to E3's Indiecade, Wired's NextFest, and the 2008 Tokyo Game Show. Korba reminisced about the 2008 Indiecade. "It was really cool that year because it was the year that [E3] was really small, so we were literally right next to Mirror's Edge."

"We actually won Best of E3 Awards and Top Ten of the Show from giant sites, which to us was just flabbergasting. We were totally honored because we were a little Flash game that was nominated with these big huge budgeted games."

Of course, Winterbottom's continued success was not lost on publishers. "2K came by again," Korba chronicled. "I think they were starting to get a little nervous because of all the attention we were gathering."

After negotiating with the publisher, Korba and Bellezza finally signed over The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom's publishing rights to 2K Play. But the duo didn't have time to enjoy their accomplishment. They still had to make a fully developed Xbox Live Arcade version - Winterbottom remained a Flash prototype.

A Braid Intermission

Winterbottom has often been compared to another XBLA game, Braid, and not without reason - both are side-scrollers with time-bending mechanics. To lend even more credence to such comparisons, Braid developer Jonathan Blow served as Matt Korba's thesis advisor at USC.

When I asked Korba about the influence Blow's game had on his project, he was quick to respond. "When we started this game, Braid wasn't out. We didn't know about Braid."

So I asked if the opposite was true: Did Winterbottom influence Braid?

Bellezza chimed in, "The advice from Jonathan on our game wasn't even really about mechanics but more about, 'What do you want the user to feel? What do you want the experience to be like?'"

Korba persisted, "We never swapped time tricks. It wasn't like, 'Hey, try this time trick or try that time trick.' [Jon] was more about… 'What do you want the player to feel?'"

I guess great minds really do think alike.

From Students to Professionals

The first step for the professional partners was to build a completely new team, under the recently formed Odd Gentlemen studio, that could develop the game for its new platform. "When we had to go professional, we had to hire outside engineers and artists… cause half the student team was either still in school or didn't have the skill sets we needed to actually build the Xbox version," said Bellezza.

Korba continued, "As a student, in Flash, it's so easy to just get things up and running. We didn't really need a team of engineers. But obviously that's not the case with C++ and harder code."

The Odd Gentlemen then began the arduous task of reimagining Winterbottom. "Everything that was on the student game was just a prototype. We had to flesh it out and fully redesign the game. There was no magical way to take the student game and push it to the Xbox."

"I remember one day on the whiteboard, we had this crazy flowchart about what happens if you pull the trap but another clone is standing on top of the clone [that pulled the trap]. Does the clone fall down? Does he poof and disappear?" said Korba. "We were trying to figure out these paradoxical equations to make… sure we had all those edge cases covered."

Despite having had to essentially start from scratch on Winterbottom's professional counterpart, Korba maintains an attachment to the original bare-bones student version. "One day I want to just put it out there so people can see where we started from."

Looking Back

Both Korba and Bellezza took a moment to appreciate their tumultuous journey into the videogame industry when I asked them if they ever considered dropping Winterbottom to pursue something else.

"We've been moving so fast we really haven't had any time to think about anything. Making a game in a year has been pretty hectic. It's not really a road I want to walk down again, trying to do a brand new IP in a year. It's just been really crazy," said Korba.

Bellezza expressed more awe than fatigue. "It's surreal that the game's coming out because we've literally been working non-stop since March 2007. That's almost three years now, and we're finally at a point where… the game is coming out. I'm three years older. It's been a whirlwind."

I also asked Winterbottom's designer and producer if they had any advice for current students trying to develop and sell their own games. Both were very forthcoming.

Korba began, "I think the best advice is just do something personal that means a lot to you and worry about the game… I think one of the things we did right is, even though we had all this crazy stuff going on, we always focused on the game first. No matter what, it was always about the actual game."

"And I would say if you can't code… if you don't have engineers or you don't have artists or whatever, just do whatever you can do. Do it in Flash. Do it in Game Maker. It doesn't have to be this huge thing."

Bellezza echoed his partner's sentiments. "A lot of students talk huge ideas, like Halo-scope ideas. And you, as a student, will never be able to make a Halo. You might one day in your career, how many years off, but as a student, you've got to keep it in scope for what you can do… Don't design this grandiose design document and think 'this is what is could be if I had unlimited resources.' You've got to look at your resources and see if you can make something that speaks to you out of it."

"If you can demonstrate some core nugget of fun, even if it's the worst possible art… you've got something and that's what you should invest your time in."

The Possibilities

So what's next for these odd gentlemen?

"Anything's a possibility right now… We're excited to obviously work on something new, but we are excited too about the possibilities of what else we can do with Winterbottom and his universe."

Given their seemingly meteoric rise from students to indie game rockstars, it really does seem like anything is possible.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy Review

My Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy review, originally published at Hooked Gamers.

Revisiting a Classic

When Stardock released Sins of a Solar Empire two years ago, the game's large-scale blend of real-time strategy and turn-based strategy elements garnered multiple PC game awards. But its slow pace and predictable AI soured the game for me a bit.

After taking the time to establish a sustainable economy and large fleet, while fending off constant hit-and-runs from AI opponents, I could methodically destroy enemy fleets and planets. At least until the AI players allied with each other. Such scenarios were either very frustrating when they crushed me or very rewarding when they didn't.

Love Me

Diplomacy, the recently released micro-expansion for Sins allays many of the qualms I had with the original by providing features fitting to its title. The biggest and most encompassing addition is a new way to win campaigns: Diplomatic Victory. Theoretically, achieving a diplomatic victory is straightforward: make everyone love you. Practically, doing so is complicated.

Every player in a campaign has a diplomatic score, which represents how he or she or it feels about you. That diplomatic score results from a large number of detailed variables, including adjacent territory, military actions, resource trading, and fleet strength. Some variables are out of your control, such as racial inclination. The Advent do not like the TEC - and diplomatic inclination - and some AI players just don't like you from the beginning.

Increasing Relations

To make those players like you, the Sins expansion offers a new research tree aptly titled Diplomacy for the TEC, Understanding for the Advent, and Manipulation for the Vasari. The new win condition may be Diplomacy's largest addition to Sins, but the new technology tree is its most important.

The first researchable technology, and your initial foray into relationship building, is a new cruiser which can be sent into other systems to increase relations with and generate income from AI or human players, thereby creating new opportunities with allies. You can also research general relationship bonuses that automatically improve Diplomacy points with other factions.

In the original Sins, AI players could offer you missions, but you had no way of offering missions back. With Diplomacy, assuming you have the required research upgrade, you can pay an AI player with an amount dependent on your Diplomacy points to attack an opposing player's specific planet. It is a great way to keep AI players vulnerable and to prevent them from ganging up on you.

You can also research mutually beneficial pacts, to share resource, missile, armor, and other technologies with allies. Doing so can afford increased metal extraction rates, increased missile damage, and improved armor strength, respectively. Of course, you have to be careful in creating pacts - while a pact can bolster your armor, it may do the same for a potential enemy.

Diplomacy also greatly increases the strength, and resultantly the cost, of pirates. If you spend enough money, you can generate a pirate fleet large enough to destroy home planets. However, I found the addition of missions really reduced the necessity of pirates. And given the large amount of credits it takes to hire pirates, why not just upgrade or add to your own fleet? I always found pirates and their bidding wars to be a distraction from what I really wanted to do. Now they're powerful enough to obliterate me in early stages of the game.

Balancing Power

Outside of the new in-game features, the micro-expansion also offers a new and very welcome pacing option, Faster. You can apply it to a campaign's income rate, build speed, ship speed, and other game variables. Two new difficulty levels, Cruel and Vicious - both of which I'm too scared to try - are also available. And of course, the expansion adds new maps.

Despite the micro-expansion's victory option and all of its related features, you're not going to be able to sit back and win. Even the new peaceful victory requires more traditional gameplay: to establish an adequate economic base for Diplomacy, you'll need to expand your empire. You also can't completely ignore the diplomatic options and focus solely on military might - relations offer substantial rewards and you can be sure AI players will make use of them. One of those AI players may even reach a diplomatic victory before you can reach a more traditional one.

Diplomacy's strength lies in the balance and depth it creates between your relations with AI players and their relations amongst themselves. AI players are no longer either enemies or allies. Now, they can be trade partners, military advisors, potential employers, or just tools for achieving an end.

Improving a Classic

Diplomacy may be a micro-expansion, but the features and gameplay it adds are akin to what one would expect from a fully developed sequel. It evolves Sins of a Solar Empire into a deeper, more varied, and more satisfying experience.

Given that Diplomacy is available alone or as part of Sins of a Solar Empire: Trinity - a package that also includes the original game and its first expansion, Entrenchment - there is no excuse to not experience this improvement on an already worthwhile game.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mass Effect 2: Making Me Care About the Team

Because of the great response I received to my Dragon Age recounting, I decided to take a similar approach when writing about Mass Effect 2. Unfortunately, no one read this article at Bitmob. I guess the spoiler warning really scared them off this time around.

Spoiler Warning: Do not proceed unless you have completed Mass Effect 2.

The Team

After finally passing through the Omega-4 Relay, we emerged in what appeared to be a spaceship graveyard. So this was the fate of all ships that passed through the relay.

A few seconds later, I discovered how these ships met their fate. Numerous enemy drones appeared from among the debris and began firing upon the Normandy. Joker attempted to dodge their fire, but there were just too many drones. A blast from one of the drones ripped through the Normandy and hit Jack, killing her in an instant.

“She can’t be dead, get to medical!” I yelled at no one in particular. But she really was dead.

I never liked Jack – I found her to be scary and gross and a little too whiny. I was always content to leave her in the bowels of the ship.

Jack

But she was still a member of my squad. Like a good paragon, I had helped her to overcome her traumatic childhood. I had grown accustomed to her, and I couldn’t believe she had died so suddenly. Where was my moment to say goodbye?

As I attempted to get over the shock, Joker steered the Normandy into a particularly dense debris field, hoping to lose the remaining drones. The plan worked, but not without casualties. A collision with a large piece of debris resulted in a depressing status report from EDI. “Explosion in main engineering. Damage was contained. Unfortunately, Tali didn’t make it.”

I still hadn’t recovered from the loss of Jack, and now I was forced to deal with the loss of Tali – a much more poignant loss as I had befriended her years ago. But the worst part about these two deaths was that I began anticipating more – remorse turned to dread.

After escaping the drones and clearing the debris field, the remaining crew and I gained sight of the Collector base. Unfortunately, a familiar Collector ship emerged to intercept the Normandy. Again, Joker took a high-risk action – steering the Normandy right down the Collector ship’s throat – and again the Normandy prevailed, but not without a casualty. An explosion caused a beam to run straight through Thane, who was sitting peacefully in his quarters.

Thane

The crew’s reaction to Thane’s death was perhaps their most cursory: Miranda simply yelled out, “They got Thane!” Such treatment didn’t detract from the effect it had on me. Of the three squad members that died, I sympathized with Thane the most. The contrast between his lethal skills and religious nature, in addition to his reconciliation with his son, drew me to have more conversations with him throughout our acquaintance.

After finally accepting the deaths of Jack, Tali, and Thane, I was pissed off. How could Mass Effect 2 kill off three of my characters? During a cut-scene? Giving me no opportunity to save them?

However, the game had given me ample opportunity to save all of them; I just didn’t recognize it thanks to my self-centered in-game personality. In the original Mass Effect, I chose to be a Sole Survivor – a soldier who lives against all odds while everyone around him perishes.

Following that sole survivor mentality, I always gave myself the best weapons and armor in Mass Effect, leaving the lower-level armaments for my squad-mates. After all, they were just fodder – targets for the enemy to focus on while I hit every shot and eliminated every target. I was badass.

I maintained a similar mentality in Mass Effect 2. I spent every ounce of iridium and palladium and platinum on upgrading my health and my armor and my weapons. I never thought to spend resources on upgrades for a particular squad member, much less enhancements for the Normandy – enhancements that could have saved Jack, Tali, or Thane.

Shepard

Like a good sole survivor, I managed to escape Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission victorious and unscathed. Though, I left behind four members of my squad (Mordin died in the Collector base) and the entire non-combative crew of the Normandy: Dr. Chakwas, who I shared a bottle of brandy with; the cook, who I procured special ingredients for; and Kelly, who I flirted with on a regular basis.

Throughout the Mass Effect series, I’ve always treated my allies as expendable. Now that they’re really gone and I’ve met the logical consequences of my decisions, I don’t want the best armor or weapons anymore. I don’t want to be a badass or a sole survivor. I just want my crew back.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Thoughts from Beyond the Sea: A Bioshock 2 Interview

Prior to the launch of Bioshock 2, I had an opportunity to sit in on a Q&A with the developers of the game. This is what I discovered. You can listen to the entire conversation at Hooked Gamers.

Perhaps no developer has dealt with more pressure and scrutiny than 2K Marin. The original BioShock, released in 2007, was a truly original title in its Art Deco design, dystopian setting, moral quandary, and Randian inspiration. Given BioShock’s fully developed story, many questioned the need for a sequel.

With BioShock 2’s release date imminent, I had the opportunity to sit in on a conference call including the game’s Creative Director Jordan Thomas, Lead Designer Zak McClendon, and Lead Environmental Artist Hogarth De La Plante – all members of 2K Marin, the studio built specifically for BioShock’s sequel. The developers discussed the challenges of making a sequel to 2007’s most beloved game, in addition to the inspirations and thought processes behind certain design decisions for the sequel.

In the Shadow of a Giant

“Everybody who joined [2K Marin] was an immense fan of the first game… There was a lot of reverence to it, which can lead to a lot of second-guessing and a lot of trying to please everyone,” said McClendon. The developers at 2K Marin had to find a balance in BioShock 2: They couldn’t simply follow in the footsteps of BioShock developer Irrational Games, nor could they rebel against it irresponsibly.

Jordan Thomas elaborated on maintaining BioShock’s influence. “The setting of Rapture will never be as new as it was in the first game. And I think trying to change that would have been folly on many levels.”

“BioShock has an extremely detailed mythos: The backstory is novel length… Adding new history into that canon was certainly a challenge, and it’s something that I took very seriously. The writing team in general had to become very familiar with the script of the first game so that we weren’t contradicting ourselves.”

To balance mythos with originality, the team decided on a central theme of family for BioShock 2 – an exploration of the perverted father-daughter relationship between Big Daddies and Little Sisters. Players experience the game through Subject Delta, the first Big Daddy successfully bonded to a Little Sister. “He’s really out in search of his original Little Sister, so he has a much more personal stake… [in] Rapture itself.”

Jesus or Hitler?

While maintaining perhaps the most iconic representation of BioShock, exploring the father-daughter relationship as a Big Daddy also offered 2K Marin a number of opportunities in the development of moral choices. The developers specifically acknowledged BioShock’s choice to harvest or save Little Sisters as lacking depth. Maintaining that same binary gameplay for a Big Daddy “would undermine the value of a moral choice,” Thomas stated. “You are still called upon to make those choices but you are not forced to mistreat [Little Sisters].”

Zak McClendon elaborated, “We tried to make our choices around the Little Sister a little bit more grey. It’s both harder to be good and more rewarding to be really truly evil.” Adopting and eventually harvesting Little Sisters in BioShock 2 provides players with a great deal of ADAM as in the first game. However, unlike the original, saving Little Sisters in BioShock 2 leaves players starved for ADAM – there exists no benefactor to reward a player’s kind nature. “But there’s a middle ground and if you are the kind of player who really wants to work for it and gather ADAM from bodies and save Little Sisters, you can keep pace with the selfish player… but you’re going to be doing a whole lot more work for it.”

“We’re hoping that gameplay choice is actually a little bit more reflective of the choices that go on in your head when you’re trying to deal with complex moral situations.”

Destructive Altruism

Considering the central theme of a father-daughter bond, 2K Marin wanted to create an antagonist early on that would “subvert the traditional definition of family through a heavily altruistic filter for the common good above individual loyalty,” Jordan Thomas stated. 2K Marin created Dr. Sophia Lamb, borrowing influences from numerous altruistic philosophers both past and present, including John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Richard Dawkins, and David Pearce.

Given Lamb’s contrasting philosophy when compared to Andrew Ryan, her influence on Rapture is much different. BioShock 2 explores “the perspective of the disenfranchised, the perspective of the altruist or the religious – [philosophies] that would have been banned by Andrew Ryan, but in the areas informed by Sophia, these things were kind of battle-flags. They were her attempts to control culture and assassinate Ryan’s character from the ground up.”

“[She] has a very different attitude and her splicers are deeply loyal and adopted the butterfly, the symbol of their faith. You see a lot of that motif with her,” said Thomas.

Rethinking Combat

Outside of the story, casting a Big Daddy as BioShock 2’s protagonist also offered 2K Marin new and evolved gameplay features. At the outset, the development team had to reevaluate the workings of weapons, the feel of the character, and the balance of combat. “It really was a good way for us to bring a fresh perspective to all the gameplay of BioShock,” said McClendon.

He also cited Subject Delta’s ability to dual wield weapons and plasmids as BioShock 2’s biggest improvement over its predecessor. Players don’t have to think, “I’m going to switch to my plasmids, use Electro Bolt, shock the guy, switch back to my weapons, equip the wrench, and hit the guy.” McClendon stated, “It’s all part of just one fluid action for players, and it really brings a whole lot more immediacy to the experience. It was one of the first things that we added when we were still working with the early BioShock toolset, and it just changed the way the game played substantially.”

Despite greatly increasing the protagonist’s prowess and durability, 2K Marin aimed to maintain the visceral and adrenaline-pumping combat of BioShock. Ten years after the events of the original game, Rapture is apparently a much more dangerous and hostile place – a place that Jack Ryan could never have survived. “The Big Daddies are still immensely challenging for you, and we have a new Big Daddy type, the Rumbler… You may get knocked down a few times and have to replan your strategy. It’s not meant to be an even battle most of the time.”

“The first time you went toe to toe with a Big Daddy in the medical pavilion in [BioShock] was just shocking and terrifying… We have a lot more of that when you fight the Big Sisters.”

All Grown Up

Big Sisters are physically unstable grown-up Little Sisters – manifestations of a father’s influence on his daughter, given their appearance and desire to protect other Little Sisters. “The ADAM they’ve been ingesting for years and years and years has begun to manifest,” Jordan Thomas explained.

Zak McClendon discussed the design philosophy behind these Big Daddy-Little Sister hybrids – a philosophy that greatly contrasts their lethal nature. “Whereas the Big Daddies have this kindly old man, weary, lumbering appeal to them, the Big Sisters were meant to embody an awkward adolescent phase… They’re a little awkward in their posing and they have leg braces.”

Despite their awkwardness, Big Sisters still maintain a grace and soft edge, further accentuating the idea that they are Little Sisters who have grown up too fast. “Some of the smaller details that you may not notice during gameplay are things like little ribbons on the basket that she uses to carry Little Sisters or small childlike drawings on her tank.”

Taking a Break

While maintaining the visceral combat of BioShock was important to 2K Marin, continuing the isolation and perpetual tension was not. As Hogarth De La Plante stated, “We had a lot people who said, ‘It’s sort of weird that I walk around in the city and all I see are these murdering splicers all the time. Aren’t there any other normal people like me who live down here?’”

Subject Delta has the opportunity to meet “normal human inhabitants who aren’t spliced up murderous lunatics.” As De La Plante explained, these sane inhabitants provide a much-needed respite from the hectic and tense combat, while also being important to the narrative. “I think they really do help make [Rapture] feel a little bit less lonely.”

McClendon also weighed in on why 2K Marin wanted to create a more varied pace in BioShock 2. “Rapture from the inside is such a dangerous, tense place and so many people who played the first game, when we talked to them, talked about how they never felt safe and never [enjoyed] the beauty of the environment.”

McClendon cited such fan feedback as motivation for the game’s outdoor levels. Going outside affords players a lull from splicers and Big Daddies and Big Sisters while providing a view of “this gorgeous amazing city from a different perspective.”

Maximizing a Sequel

While BioShock was a story complete in and of itself, 2K Marin tried to make the sequel both familiar and original by allowing players to explore Rapture from a different perspective and different philosophical viewpoint. This strategy allows players unfamiliar with BioShock to enjoy its sequel by itself, while also allowing veteran players to gain a new appreciation for an existing world.

A sequel to BioShock may never have been necessary, but 2K Marin certainly attempted to make it welcome.