Random Thoughts – Randosity!

ffmpeg: A recipe for HD video on portables

Posted in video conversion by commorancy on May 17, 2015

The first thing people are likely to ask about this article is how to rip a blu-ray disk. Unfortunately, I’ll have to leave that task for you to figure out. There are plenty of places on the net to find this information. I’d suggest you visit www.doom9.org and poke around there to find your answer. Once you have your HD video ripped, that’s where this article will help you produce a high quality portable video experience for your tablet or phone.

What is ffmpeg?

I’ll start with an analogy. What sox is to audio, ffmpeg is to video (and audio). Sox is a great tool if you need to manage wave files, mp3s or au files. But, these audio formats are not so great when you want to use it as a soundtrack in a video. That’s where ffmpeg shines.

Ffmpeg is a tool that converts one video + audio format into another. For example, a blu-ray disk contains a file format known as m2ts. This is a type of container that holds various types of video, audio, chapter and subtitle information (many times, several of these). However, the m2ts file, while playable with VLC, is not so playable on an iPad, iPod or a Samsung Galaxy Tab. In fact, portables won’t play the formats contained in an m2ts container. Of course, it’s not that you’d want to play this format on your tablet because an m2ts file can be 25G-40G in size. Considering an iPad has, at most, 128GB, you’d only be able to store about 3 of these honking videos.. not that you’d actually be able to play them as the format is incompatible. To the rescue, ffmpeg.

ffmpeg and video containers

The format of choice that Apple prefers is H264 + AAC. The first thing I will say about this is that the libraries needed to get ffmpeg to produce this format are not in the pre-compiled version. Instead, you’ll need to set aside a weekend to compile up the latest version of ffmpeg with the non-free libraries. By ‘non-free’, that means these libraries are potentially encumbered by copyrighted or patented code. For this reason, the pre-compiled versions do not contain such code. Therefore, it’s impossible to produce an H264 + AAC mp4 video file with the pre-compiled versions. This means you have to compile it yourself.

Explaining how to compile ffmpeg is a bit beyond the scope of this article. If you are interested in this topic, please leave a comment below and let me know that you’re interested in such an article. I will state, of compiling this, that the –enable-free option when running configure on ffmpeg is only half the battle. You first need to go get the non-free libraries and compile them up separately. Then, when compiling ffmpeg, reference the already compiled non-free AAC shared libraries so that ffmpeg can link with them. ‘Nuf said about compiling it.

The good thing about ffmpeg is that this tool understands nearly every video container type out there. This includes VOB (DVD format) and m2ts (blu-ray format). For what it’s worth, it also understands HD-DVD format even though this format is long dead.

Converting with ffmpeg

There are what seem like a ton of options when you type in ‘ffmpeg –help’. In fact, the help is so daunting as to turn off many beginners who might look for something else. Yes, there are tons of options that can tweak the resulting video file output. That’s why this article is here. I have found what I believe to be the perfect video conversion method from 30GB m2ts format to around 3GB files that fit quite comfortably on an iPad or Galaxy TabS and still retain HD quality. Without further adieu, let’s get to the recipe:

Pass 1

/usr/local/bin/ffmpeg -y -i “/path/to/input.m2ts” -f mp4 -metadata title=”movie_title” -vcodec libx264 -level 31 -s 1920×1080 -vf crop=1920:800:0:140 -b:v 3600k -bt 1024k -bufsize 10M -maxrate 10M -g 250 -coder 0 -partitions 0 -me_method dia -subq 1 -trellis 0 -refs 1 -flags +loop -cmp +chroma -me_range 16 -keyint_min 25 -sc_threshold 40 -i_qfactor 0.71 -qcomp 0.6 -qmin $qmin -qmax $qmax -qdiff 4 number_of_cpu_cores -pass 1 -acodec libfdk_aac -cutoff 20000 -ab 192k -ac 2 “/path/to/output.mp4

Pass 2

/usr/local/bin/ffmpeg -y -i “/path/to/input.m2ts” -f mp4 -metadata title=”movie_title” -vcodec libx264 -level 31 -s 1920×1080 -vf crop=1920:800:0:140 -b:v 3600k -bt 1024k -bufsize 10M -maxrate 10M -g 250 -coder 0 -partitions 0 -me_method dia -subq 1 -trellis 0 -refs 1 -flags +loop -cmp +chroma -me_range 16 -keyint_min 25 -sc_threshold 40 -i_qfactor 0.71 -qcomp 0.6 -qmin $qmin -qmax $qmax -qdiff 4 number_of_cpu_cores -pass 2 -acodec libfdk_aac -cutoff 20000 -ab 192k -ac 2 10 “/path/to/output.mp4

Note that the libfdk_aac is a non-free library which will not be in the free and pre-compiled version.

Two Passes? Doesn’t that take longer? 

Yes, it does. Two passes are necessary to provide the best motion quality in the video. The first pass retrieves statistics about each frame transition of the film and stores it in a statistics file. The second pass reads this very large first-pass-created (~2 GB) statistic file and uses it to creates smooth transitions between each frame of the output video. For this reason, you need to make sure to have plenty of disk space free. This two-pass system removes the herky-jerky video experience (especially with horizontal camera pans). Ultimately, what you’ll find is that the recipe above gives the absolute best quality and size I’ve yet to find from any conversion. For a 90-120 minute film, you’re looking at around a 2.5G-4G resulting mp4 for full 1080p + stereo audio. This file is compatible with the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy series.

Conversion of 90-120 minute films can take anywhere between 40 to 70 minutes for each movie conversion. You can run them in parallel on your system, but you’ll need to run them in separate directories to keep the statistics files in the first pass separate.

Stereo audio? Why Stereo?

I always convert down to stereo for good reason. These videos are intended to be used on portable devices. I’ve yet to see any tablet, computer or phone support 5.1 or 7.1 audio with the built-in audio hardware. Leaving the multi-channel audio intact is basically pointless and consumes extra disk space. Sure, if you want to export the video and audio to something like the Apple TV, it might be handy to have. But then, you’d probably want to stream the m2ts file rather than a slightly more sucky mp4. After all, converting to mp4 is equivalent to ripping a CD audio to mp3. It makes the size of the file much smaller, but is also lossy. However, in this case, sucky isn’t sucky at all and most portable devices support stereo.

In other words, the output is stereo because portable devices don’t support multichannel audio. At least, not yet.

How good is the video quality?

Excellent. It’s will not be exactly the same quality as the m2ts file (that’s not possible considering it is being compressed), but when viewing on a portable, it’s practically like watching a blu-ray disk. The video is still 1080p. It’s that good, all in about 3GB size. Note the crop size above. It is designed to remove the black bars from the top and bottom. When blu-rays are encoded, they are encoded full 16:9 even when the video may be wide screen. This means that the black bars are stored as extra video information in the video file. Removing this unnecessary black space eliminates encoding this blank video, thus reducing the size of the output file. Because these black bars are totally unnecessary, it also makes for a better viewing experience when watching the video in a picture-in-picture style window.

However, the crop value given is intended to be used with widescreen 2.35:1 and 2.39:1 films that have been produced since the mid-1970s. Widescreen films produced in the 1960s and before have a different aspect ratio and using this crop value will cut off pieces of the top and bottom. There are also some films that use unique and creative aspect ratios that may not work with that crop value. Also, many animated films are full 16:9, so you’ll want to remove the -vf crop=1920:800:0:140 argument entirely to prevent ffmpeg from cropping.

Calculate Crop

To calculate crop, here’s how to do it. The arguments are crop=:::. Here’s the table:

  • hwidth = horizontal width of input video
  • vheight = vertical height of video
  • hoffset = how much to move the video horizontally (into frame)
  • voffset = how much to move the video vertically (into frame)

Note that my crop recipe above does no horizontal cropping, but it can be done just as vertical cropping. For the vertical cropping, note that I’ve reduced the frame canvas size from 1080 to 800 to make the frame the proper aspect ratio. But, reducing the frame size from 1080 to 800 only changes the size of the video canvas. It doesn’t move the content back into frame, yet. To do that, you need hoffset and voffset. To calculate the voffset value and move the video into the newly sized canvas, you need to fill in the voffset value. To do that, subtract 800 from 1080. So, 1080 – 800 = 280. Then, divide that subtracted value by 2. So, 280 / 2 = 140. The voffset value is 140.  About cropping, one thing is important to note. If you divide the value and get floating point number like 141.2222. You can’t use this. You need to adjust the voffset value so that it is always a whole number. To do this, ensure when you subtract your vertical size from 1080, it always results in an even number so that the division by 2 also results in a whole number.

VBV underflow warnings?

Note that when converting some content, the conversion output may occasionally show VBV underflow. This is intentional. While it is possible to get rid of these warnings by raising or removing the -bufsize and -maxrate options, raising this value may also increase the size of the output movie file. This underflow warning means that there’s just too much input to be stored in the requested output bitrate. That’s why I say this video won’t be exactly identical to the input file. This selected settings given provide the perfect marriage between size, quality and functionality. If you raise or eliminate the -maxrate option to get rid of the warnings, so too will the size increase of the output video file. Because I prefer the mp4 file sizes to remain in the 2.5-4GB size range and because the VBV underflow warnings do not materially impact the resulting output file, I have chosen not fix this issue. However, if you would like to get rid of these warnings, you can remove the arguments -bufsize 10M -maxrate 10M or increase these values as you see fit. However, you might want to read this wiki article describing the interrelationships between -b:v, -bufsize and -maxrate.

Because I also want the final videos to have the most steady bitrate possible (very important for any kind of streaming), I allow the VBV underflow warnings. Removing the -maxrate and -bufsize options (to get rid of the warnings) will allow the bitrate to vary wildly at times. This can cause unsteady or choppy playback in some players, especially when network streaming. To avoid wild variability in the bitrate, I intentionally force -bufsize and -maxrate to be a specific size.

Enjoy the recipe. Hopefully, it’s helpful. If you get good results from these ffmpeg recipes, please leave a comment below. Also, feel free to tweak the recipes with however you see fit. If you find something even better than what I show above, please post a comment below and let me know what you did. I’m always interested in seeing what people can do with ffmpeg.

Random song of the Week: Playmate to Jesus by Aqua

Posted in music by commorancy on April 5, 2015
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Skylanders Trap Team: Review + Kaos Trap?

Posted in botch, video game, video gaming by commorancy on January 9, 2015

trap-team-compatibility-logo[Update 3: 4/6/2015]: Gamestop.com has several Kaos Trap bundles now available online for purchase. Not only do they now have the same 3 trap bundle as on Amazon for $15.99 (only available in stores), Gamestop.com also carries 3 additional Kaos Trap bundles (online only) that Gamestop has created (Kaos-Water-Magic, Kaos-Water-Earth & Kaos-Water-Life) containing 3 trap singles as a bundle for $17.97. If you’re looking for the individual trap (not as part of a 3 pack), this is the best and least costly way to get it. Now I know why Gamestop has been hoarding Kaos Traps from their case packs at their warehouse instead of sending them to the stores. They have been stockpiling these Kaos Traps to create these 3 trap single bundles for online sales. Retailers should not be allowed to break case packs open and hold out stock for months for the purpose of creating bundles. All I can say is, if you want this trap, hurry.

[Update 2: 4/1/2015]: It seems Amazon’s stock of the 3 trap bundle has been temporarily depleted at $14.99. Try back in a day or two as Amazon refreshes their stock every day. However, don’t limit yourself to Amazon. All retailers are likely to get this 3 pack. Try looking at (or calling) Best Buy, Walmart, Gamestop, Target, Kmart, Toys R Us or any other retailer near you that carries Skylander’s toys.

[Update 1: 4/1/2015]: If you’re looking for the Kaos Trap, it is now included in a 3 trap bundle (Air, Kaos, Earth) for KaosTrapBundle$14.99 available now at Amazon. Be sure to choose the Amazon version marked at $14.99. Amazon has a tendency to put items in stock as the first item in the listing (even if it’s a higher price). Choose the Amazon item at $14.99 even if it says it ships later. If you don’t see a $14.99 listing, it means Amazon’s stock has been depleted and their listing has been temporarily removed. Try back again another day.

Skylanders Trap Team

While I have to give kudos yet again to Activision for producing a top notch installment to the Skylanders franchise, there is one huge peeve I have with this series. What is Skylanders you ask? Let’s explore.

Skylanders Video Game and RFID

This game is relatively simple video game with a brilliant gimmick that parents all over the country are cursing their wallet. This is exactly how it was designed by Activision. So, what is it?

It’s simple, it’s basically a cartoon turned into an action fighting game with characters that you must purchase separately. Each figure you purchase has its own strengths and weaknesses in battle. These are determined by the character’s abilities. Once you buy a character toy, you place it on the Traptanium Portal (included with the Starter Pack) and an RFID reader pulls character information stored on the toy into the game. So, the more you play with that character, the higher it levels up and the stronger it becomes.

In fact, it’s a brilliant use of RFID technology and video games. I’d love to see more RPG games use this idea. For example, a series like the Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect or even Star Wars RPGs could benefit from this. Instead of relying on finding items in the world, you would buy them at the store and level them up on your character. The item could then be added to any character you own. There are so many uses for this idea in gaming, it’s sad that it’s not being used more. I think it’s absolutely brilliant for gaming.

Toys and Scarcity

My peeve.. Activision has taken the approach of releasing toys in waves and at random times throughout the year. This does a couple of things. First, withholding some toys means that you can’t play parts of the game until the toy is released. Second, some of the toys are intentionally hard to find so that parts of the game cannot even be completed until you manage to find it or you are willing to pay the highly inflated price on eBay or Amazon.

For Skylanders, this approach is extremely frustrating and introduces kids into the fray of toy collecting early. But, unfortunately, kids don’t have the money to locate or pay for these toys. The parents are firmly on the hook for locating and placating their child’s video game play.

To this I say, “Shame on you Activision”. This series appeals to children at an age that have little concept of collectible toys or scarcity of toys on the shelves. What am I talking about here?

Skylanders Traps

The latest Skylanders game is titled Trap Team. The concept behind this game is that not only can you buy and use toy characters, you can now trap the villains you defeat and they become good characters you can use to defeat new villains and trap them. But, this is not just about any old trap. I’m specifically talking about the Kaos trap. Note that there are 40 or so villains in the game. This also means you need to invest in about 40 traps to to entrap the villains. What is a trap? It’s a small toy that looks like a crystal. It is initially empty, but once you trap a villain, it becomes associated with that specific toy trap. So, everytime you place that trap into the portal, it recalls that same villain. If you take that crystal and put it in someone else’s game, it will also pull in that villain into their game.

In addition to buying small traps, there are different elements (earth, air, water, fire, life, tech, magic, undead, light and dark). Each of these element types requires a special trap that is color coded. So, unless you have one of these specific types of traps, you cannot trap a villain of that type. More specifically, the main villain in the game is Kaos. He has his own personal trap type called, creatively enough, the Kaos trap. This trap can only ever hold Kaos. Once you trap Kaos, you can use him as a character in battle.

KaosTrapUnfortunately, Activision has dropped the ball heavily with this game in this area. While it’s easy to find Fire, Water, Earth, Air, Tech, Life, Magic and Undead traps pretty much everywhere, the Kaos trap is extremely hard to find. In fact, in a case of 20-30 traps, there may be only 3 Kaos traps. This means the store gets a boatload of these easy-to-find elements and Kaos trap immediately sells out. Because Kaos can only be trapped in a Kaos trap, you have to find that trap or your child cannot play as Kaos. Kaos is the absolutely strongest villain in the game, so having him to use in battle is extremely useful.

Note, a lot of people believe this trap has never been released. It has. It was released when all of the traps first released. However, there are so few in the retailer case packs that you’re unlikely to ever see it in the store. What I recommend at this point is to buy the Dark Edition Starter Pack which contains an Ultimate Kaos trap. This will at least let your child play as Kaos. The Dark Edition is a whole lot more expensive than buying the Kaos trap at retail price, but this trap is almost impossible to find in any retailer. At this point, to buy the Kaos trap alone aftermarket might cost you $50. Though, that’s cheaper than buying the Dark Edition Starter pack. But, if you’re buying the game brand new, I highly recommend buying the Dark Edition set. If you’ve got an existing a game you’ve already purchased, then buying an aftermarket trap may be the only answer. I’d also suggest filing a complaint with Activision on the scarcity of this trap.

Light and Dark Traps

The reason I excluded the Light and Dark traps from the above is that both of these sets were released immediately prior to Christmas. These traps are a bit hard to find because they are brand new. But, they can be obtained in the light and dark adventure packs that also contain the new level, the trap and a trap master. The light (Sunscraper Spire) and dark (Midnight Museum) adventure sets can be found periodically on Amazon. Note, make sure that it says you’re buying these from Amazon and not a third party seller to get the lowest price. When Amazon (or any store) has these in stock, they should cost around $29.

Activision’s Game Clock

There is absolutely no reason the Kaos trap is so hard to find. Activision could ship retailers cases entirely of the Kaos trap and completely eliminate the scarcity of this trap. In fact, there is no reason this trap is so scarce. This is an artificial scarcity that Activision has introduced into the series, but this type of scarcity doesn’t belong with this game. This is a completely mistaken and asinine strategy. If this were a series aimed at adults (and specifically adult collectors), such as The Elder Scrolls series, this situation is perfectly acceptable. Unfortunately, this game is targeted completely at children. This scarcity of the Kaos trap is likely backfiring on Activision hard and ruining their PR, but they seem oblivious to this issue.

Parents have no interest in playing this game (other than getting things for their children) and will ultimately take the game away from little Timmy when it becomes too costly and problematic. That means, no more money to Activision from that family. More and more families are pulling the plug on this game in their household because of this exact scarcity issue. To avoid disappointments in children, you take away the thing that’s causing it. Worse, children don’t have the longest attention span in the first place. So, when a child can’t do what they want to do in the game, they’re going to give up on it sooner rather than later and never come back to it. Meaning, if they can’t get the Kaos trap to play as Kaos when they need it, they’ll give up on the game and forget all about it by the time the Kaos traps do arrive.

Shelf Life of Games

Games typically have a 6 month or so shelf life at the longest before a newer more compelling game is released. Seeing as this game released October 4th, 2014, the clock is firmly ticking on Activision to make these toys more readily available. If Activision cannot solve this Kaos scarcity problem, assuming the parents haven’t already pulled the plug on the game, the kids will lose interest by the time the next game arrives.

Kaos Arena Game Play

What’s worse is not only the shelf life, but the replay-ability. This game is short. It doesn’t take long to get through the entire story piece. Getting through the arena levels takes only slightly longer. However, if you want to open every door and unlock every treasure, that takes substantially longer. Unfortunately, you can’t easily do this because Activision was, until recently, withholding critical toys to make this a reality. But, in gaming, not everyone is a completionist, let alone assuming this of children. While some children may want to finish the entire game and get every medal, not everyone will.

In reality, once you get through the story entirely, you’re pretty much done with the game. You don’t learn anything new or gain any new story by completing everything. So, it’s a stretch to ask kids to wait months to get the final content they need to complete the game. In fact, Activision is stretching it if they think they can stretch this game’s lifespan longer with this slow drip toy strategy. Activision will be lucky if many kids are still playing this game come March. Timing is everything with this game and Activision not delivering critical pieces of the game within a few weeks of the release of this game is really not a great strategy.

Costly

SkylandersDarkEditionOne aspect of this game that I haven’t yet touched on is cost. To really play this game properly, in addition to buying the Starter Pack Edition game kit (around $50) or the Dark Edition Kit (around $125), you need a Trap Master of every element and purchase traps of every element. Like Skylanders Swap Force required purchasing characters that you could swap their top and bottoms, you also needed every element and every power type to complete Swap Force. The same goes with Trap Team. Not only do you need a Trap Master of every element (of which Magic, Light and Dark are the hardest to find), you also need to buy a trap to contain each villain to be a completionist. That entails purchasing 40 traps in addition to 10 trap masters. Traps cost around $6 a piece and trap masters anywhere from $12.99 to $14.99, though Toys R Us puts them on sale at buy one get one 40% off regularly. So, you can reduce the cost by taking advantage of this deal. You can also save a little money if you buy the bulk trap packs that contain 3 or 8 traps bundled together.

And don’t think you can get away just with purchasing the toys. No. You’ll need to organize and store them. So, you’ll also need to purchase a chest for the traps and a case to hold the figures to keep them organized and stored.

EliteChopChopIt doesn’t stop there, there are also standard toy characters that you can buy to battle with and more powerful characters called Eon’s Elites (which are primarily collectibles and only available at Gamestop and EB Games in North America, Australia and New Zealand, and select retailers in Europe). They also appear to be limited. Be prepared to call Gamestop or EB Games looking for these Elites if you need to find them. There are adventure packs to add new levels to the game which usually retail around $30-35.

This is a fairly substantial investment for a game. Most games cost $60 with at most $10-20 worth of DLC. But, Skylanders can run you into the hundreds of dollars with all of the toys and add-ons. I’d recommend that, unless absolutely necessary, the toys should remain in their packaging. This will retain the value of the toy. So, when the game is done, you can put it on eBay and sell it off at a reasonably good value. People are willing to buy figures still in the package, so it’s always wise to do this when possible. Keep in mind that this is impossible to do for the traps. The traps have to be extracted from their packages to be used. But, the Trap Masters and most of the characters will play just fine if left in the package. The only exception to this is the Light and Dark adventure packs that include traps that must be extracted to be used. So, you have to rip open these packages for the traps.

Overall

The game is reasonably fun and plays like watching a cartoon. The voice acting is superb and the story is well written. But, it does require a costly investment in toys and extras. Unless you have the means and you are willing and able to run around or call stores constantly to find that ever-elusive toy or trap, you might not want to consider this game for your child. It could end up being a huge source of frustration. Else, you’re likely to find yourself spending a lot of time running around looking for the elusive trap, toy or character. And, these waves of new toys don’t stop. There are many variations of trap shapes (well more than there are villains). Toys will continue to show up in stores until Activision releases the next version of Skylanders. However, you will be able to use these toys in the next Skylander’s game, but Activision will require a new gimmick to force repurchase of an entirely new set of toys. Ultimately, the game itself is fun, but not overly replayable. However, for some children Trap Team may offer some level of replay.

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Game Review: Defiance MMO on Xbox

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on April 29, 2013

Defiance While I really want to like Trion’s Defiance on the Xbox 360 and in some ways I do like it, it also has some highly annoying design ideas, features, levels and quirks. Before I begin, you need to know that Defiance is an online multiplayer game only and requires a subscription to Xbox Live Gold. Don’t buy this game unless you plan to buy or already have a subscription to Xbox Live (which, of course, requires broadband Internet access). Additionally, this game is completely dependent on Trion’s servers being continually available. If Trion’s servers go down (and they do regularly), you cannot play the game AT ALL. Anyway, grab a cup of coffee and let’s get going.

Disclaimer: Be careful buying used copies of Defiance. If Trion folds or they shut down the Defiance servers, the game disk will become a coaster. The game disk has no standalone content. The Defiance game relies 100% on Trion to operate the servers and stay in business. The business of gaming is fickle. If this game doesn’t last longer than a year in operation or the TV series is cancelled, don’t be surprised if you can’t play the game. If you are reading this review a year (or later) since it has been written, do some research before investing in a used copy of the game. 

What is an MMO?

MMO stands for massive mutiplayer online. Basically, it’s a multiplayer game. It isn’t really a single player campaign game. Basically, what Defiance is to 3D gaming, a MUSH is to text-based gaming. Basically, it’s a large map environment with a load of players from all over all playing the game together.

What’s good about Defiance?

Defiance is not your standard third-person 3D Campaign based shooter or even a standard 3D death match style multiplayer game. Defiance mixes both single player campaign with multiplayer coop seemlessly.  In fact, it’s really the first game I’ve played to do so. Granted, I have not played World of Warcraft, so this game may offer that level of play, also. Basically, you and your friends can join in and all defeat an enemy or boss together… at least, sometimes. Yes, there are missions where coop is not possible. It really is a pretty cool idea. The trouble is, the idea of it is pretty much where the coolness ends.  The way it’s designed could be way better.

What’s bad about Defiance?

It’s highly repetitive.  

As you’re driving around, you see a whole bunch of different missions on the roads.  But, you’ll see the same drive-by road side missions time and time again. These drive-by missions are distinctly different from those that appear on your map as an exclamation point in a diamond. Once you’ve played several of those drive by missions, you don’t really want to do it again… and again.. and again. It’s not cool. Also, it’s the same enemies over and over. So, even though it’s a new mission, it’s the same enemies with all of the same tactics.  Tactics, I might add, which can be highly boring after defeating them several times. It’s okay when you’re doing it for the first time. But, after you’ve played the same enemies and tactics about 5 times or more, it gets old really fast.

Leveling up is very s l o w.

As you level up, you get more and bigger weapons and perks. So, at least you do get stronger weapons as time progresses. But, expect that progression to go very s l o w l y. Don’t expect to get the biggest weapons really quick unless you play the game non-stop. However, even getting to Level 650 doesn’t seem much different than being at level 200 or even level 0 in terms of health or shield. You character still becomes incapacitated just easily. So, effectively all you are really getting out of leveling up is somewhat stronger weapons, maybe.

Boss Levels have no checkpoints

Single player boss levels have no save points during battle. If your character becomes incapacitated, you start the entire boss over from scratch just outside of the room.  In other words, you could lose up to 30 minutes of play time whittling the boss’ health down only for one missile to incapacitate you and you have to completely redo the whole thing again and again and again. This is entirely frustrating and time wasting. Basically, you are forced to play the boss level on the game designer’s terms, not yours. If you decide that you want to use stealth and sniper tactics, you can’t. The only strategy given is the one forced upon you by the designers… which usually entails running away from the enemy in hopes you can strike them with enough to kill them before they incapacitate you. It’s all trial and error and timing. There’s no strategy involved.

No way to change weapon load out quickly

Due to the frustrating menu system, you cannot change your weapon load out while in the middle of any battle, let alone a boss battle. Otherwise, you will be incapacitated. If you don’t load out correctly before going in, expect your character to die early and often.

Scrip and other currency types

Scrip is one type money in this game.  There are vendors that sell cars, weapons, weapon mods, shields and lock boxes.  Unfortunately, there are other forms of currency in this game which include bits, resources, reputation and keys.

  • Scrip is obtained by completing any mission or selling goods at vendors
  • Bits are obtained by buying them with Microsoft points (i.e., real money).
  • Resources are obtained by completing missions or by breaking down objects into resources
  • Keys are obtained by completing arkfalls and other missions
    • Unfortunately, there is a severe limit on how many keys you can hold (my limit is 75)
  • Reputation is obtained by completing multiplayer co-op missions (requires 4 players to participate)

Some items for purchase require a mixture of the above currencies to obtain that item from a vendor. So, some specialized weapons may require 200 reputation plus some Scrip to get that item. Getting that many reputation points requires participating in many 4 player coop missions.

Main Missions

The main missions consist of a story that seems to be leading someplace, but I’ve not yet figured out exactly where. Sure, your character is being ‘groomed’ for something big, but who knows really what. At a point early in the game, you meet a character that looks very similar to a Borg (and sounds like one, actually) named Nim Shondu. Later on, you have to kill him. Believe me, this boss level is nearly impossible to beat unless you come into it with the correct weapons dealing a high amount of damage combined with overcharge.  Even then, expect to spend loads of time with this room. There’s no hiding place in the room, so you can’t get away from his sword and special attacks or his EGO moves. He moves so fast that you can’t block his attacks. So, the best you can do is try to stay away from his attacks just long enough to kill him. Worse, you have to kill him 3 times. Good luck with that unless you are equipped correctly. Worse, you won’t know his tactics until you enter the room.  And, by then it’s too late to go find the right weapon let alone equip it. Even worse than all of this, the game still charges you an extraction fee each time you die and can’t self-revive. Truly, a poorly designed level

So far, this story has been about rag tag missions that seem to just open up more missions and more side missions. I don’t really see where the story is going at this point.  So, let’s hope the writers have a cohesive story arc in mind.

Weapons and Shields, but no Armor

Unlike other military games which allow you to level up and find weapons, armor, shields and clothing modifiers, Defiance only offers shields and weapons, which isn’t really enough for this type of game.  Of the shields you can find, they are all weak. Basically, there are two types of shields you can find:

  1. A shield with a low threshold for damage (1000 points or less) and recovers fast (1-3 seconds)
  2. A shield with a high threshold for damage (1500 points or higher) and recovers very slowly (delay 7-9 seconds)

Some shields are augmented with other traits (like better protection from fire damage, your own weapon damage, biodamage, etc).  I’ve yet to find a shield that has offers a high threshold for damage and recovers quickly. There might be one in the game somewhere, but I’ve yet to see it or find it.  Even still, it only takes about two Dark Matter troops firing their weapons at you to completely wipe out your shield with about 5 shots and another 5 will wipe out your health and incapacitate you. Worse, you cannot augment shields with any mods at all, even though the game lets you mod weapons.

Arkfalls and Side Missions

There are basically three types of side missions. Random encounters, marked side missions and Arkfalls.

Random Encounters

Random encounters are basically roadside missions.  That is, you drive by and see something blocking the road.  It might be Raiders, 99ers, Dark Matter, Scrappers or Hellbugs.  That’s basically the list of enemies in the game.  So, it will be one of these enemies that pops out of a road side mission. In fact, it’s the only type of enemies that will pop out of any of the missions including Arkfalls.

Side Missions

These mission types are marked on your map with an exclamation point in a diamond shape. These give small amounts of scrip (money) and small amounts of experience points.  They usually ask you to locate and obtain something and sometimes drop it off.  It might ask you to plant explosives.  It might ask you to clear out a Hellbug nest or kill all of the Raiders in a camp.

Arkfalls

Other than multiplayer coop maps, these are the truly massively multiplayer exeperiences in this game. When an ‘ark’ falls and hits the ground, ark hunters swoop in and scour it for parts to be sold.  In the game, when an ark falls, it’s just a mechanism to create a huge Hellbug or Scrapper to kill.  Each Arkfall starts off small (destroying crystals in two or three waves) or killing the enemies in an area.  As the smaller arkfall crystals are destroyed, this leads up to the big boss arkfall. You might have to do two or three small arkfalls before the big boss appears. Once the boss appears, all of the online players congregate and use whatever weapons they have to whittle the health down of the boss until it’s destroyed.  At the end of the arkfall, a panel appears showing who did the most damage in an ordered list.

These usually give about 6500XP experience. So, if you want to gain experience and scrip fast, join arkfalls regularly. Also, do the main missions. These gain you a lot of scrip.

Incapacitation

This is one of the sore spots in this game and is poorly designed.  I understand what they were trying to achieve with this part of the game, but it just doesn’t really work. So, you’ve lost all your shield and your health is now drained.  Once this happens, you fall to the ground and become incapacitated. Sometimes you get two options (self-revive or extraction).  Self-revive is as it states, you revive in place and pick up right where you left off.  Extraction means you start over at the extraction point. Self-revive only becomes available after 5 minutes or so of playtime after the last self-revive was used.  So, if you fall quickly after a self-revive, you have to pay scrip to get extracted.

When you’re in the world, extraction is generally cool (other than you lose a percentage of your ‘Scrip’ for being extracted).. except when your closest extraction point happens to be halfway across the map.  I’ll discuss extraction points next. However, when you’re at the boss level in a dungeon, it’s not fine. In fact, it’s damn right annoying and frustrating.  Worse, when you’re on a boss level, the game doesn’t even give you the option of using self-revive. You are forced to defeat the boss in one complete perfectly executed go or you fail and start over. There’s no help, no reviving, no one there to help you revive.  In the case of the Borg, you’re have to completely kill him in one single go with the weapons you have in hand or you start the boss level over again.  Worse, if you abandon the mission, you have to completely replay the entire intro of the level over again to get back to the boss level inside the dungeon. That may involve 20 minutes of lead-up to get into the dungeon again.

But, if you didn’t enter the level equipped with the correct shield or weapon load out, don’t bother trying to do that in combat.  We’ll discuss weapon load outs shortly.

Extraction points

This game ‘binds’ your character to an extraction point that are post-like markers with a purple light (and an ammo dispenser near it). Once you get close to one of these markers, your character will become bound to it. If you extract, your character will end up back at one of these markers.  As you drive by the markers, your character will become bound to them.  Note, however, that these markers only appear on major roads. So, if you drive off-road all of the time or fast travel, you could leave yourself vulnerable to an extraction point that is a very long way away from where you presently are. So, if you’re doing an arkfall and you extract, you’re going to end up a very long way away from that arkfall and will have to spend the time to drive all the way back over there.

This is really one of the sore points of this game.  There should be twice as many extraction points as there are.  In fact, when an arkfall goes up, an extraction point should appear for the duration of the arkfall. So, if you have to extract, you end up somewhere close to the arkfall again. Better, if you’re in an arkfall, it should bind you to the arkfall until it’s done. Just extract me into the arkfall location where I previously was.  Why force me to drive a huge distance just to get back to it? Not very well thought out.

Weapon Load Outs from the Menu

The menu system in this game is also poorly designed. In most games like this, you would have a weapon wheel where you can assign your favorite weapons for easy access during active combat. Not in this game. You have to open a menu (which can take 10-20 seconds to completely draw), then you have to select the slot and dig through a scrolling list of weapons to place into the weapon slot (another 5-10 seconds).  The entire screen is completely covered with the menu so you cannot see any live actoin at all. Yet, everything remains live. There is no pause. So, your character is completely vulnerable while you diddle in the menu.

Bad bad BAD. This is one of the worst combat menu systems I’ve seen in a game like this. If you need access to weapons/grenades and shields easily and quickly, you NEED a selection wheel that pops up right inside the game over the top of the live gameplay. Sure, let us fill this wheel with our own weapons of choice, but after that, we can easily choose the weapon we want to use.  Instead, you have a completely cumbersome menu system that completely obscures live combat and that takes 30 seconds (or longer) to walk through. Even then, you can only get easy access to two weapons at a time.

The game offers alternative weapon load outs by pressing Y in the menu and will cycle through 3 different loadout presets, but even that isn’t fast enough to work. This game desperately needs a weapon wheel preset overlay.

Inventory and Menu

Menu System

The menu includes everything to manage your weapons, weapon features, and everything in your inventory. The menu system is really overloaded. Once you get into the menu, you have the base menu which is what appears when you press the start button.  But, there’s even another menu when you press the left trigger.  That pops up a wheel that contains more submenus to get to things like the Defiance Store, Social, Stats, etc.  Then there are the RB and LB sub menus of the main menu which cycles you through weapon modification, EGO powers, and more stats. Why they needed both the wheel menu and the RB menu system, I don’t know. It’s not intuitive and it’s confusing.

One thing, though, is that even with all of these menus, once you have created the look of your character, you’re stuck.  You can’t easily change that look if you don’t like it.  If it’s in the menu system somewhere, it’s well hidden. Suffice it to say that I’ve not found it.

Inventory

Inventory is severely limited.  When you first start out, you get something like 12 slots which you quickly fill. Note, anything you hold takes an inventory slot (shield, weapon or mod). I don’t understand why there’s even a limit in this game. But, it’s here and it severely limits what you can pick up. I’m forever destroying objects to be able to pick up something that’s fallen from an enemy. It’s highly frustrating and highly annoying to constantly have to destroy things to get new things.

Additionally, there is no lock box, locker or any kind of storage system for extra stuff. You constantly have to carry everything with you. You can’t offload your stuff into something you own (a house or a locker or any kind of personal offline storage). The closest you get is the ‘Claim Items’ in the Defiance Store. But, that only holds stuff that won’t fit into your inventory at the time that some quest tries to give it to you. You can’t place anything into the claims item area. It only takes overflow items so you don’t lose it.

No Armor, Only Shields (and they’re limited at that)

This game has no concept of armor.  Only shields.  Once your shields are drained, your health starts draining and then you become incapacitated. With any combat game, armor and armor rating should be a huge part of this game. Even at level 650, your character incapacitates as easily as a level 1 character. The shields you find just really do nothing.  Worse, you cannot modify shields by augmenting their protection levels. This game completely fails for character protection. There’s nothing you can do to help fortify your character’s health or protection. You’re completely at the mercy of the game to provide this protection which it does not do.

Multiplayer and Chat

Don’t bother to try and text chat in this world. The chat window is complete junk. The chat system in this game is never used by anyone because you simply can’t use it. To bring up the chat, you press the D-Pad to the right which opens a small menu, then you have to select the chat window which takes over the whole screen. Then you have to use the Xbox controller chat pad (if you have it) to enter your text. Otherwise, you’re limited to that horrible move-the-cursor-and-press-letters-thing (which is even worse).

If you do decide to chat in the Xbox version, get the controller chat pad. Even that is not enough to make this system work. Instead, grab a headset and plug that in. Voice chat is the only way to do this game. Even still, there aren’t that many people using that. So, what you end up with is most people doing their own things without discussions (except where clans are involved).

TV Show Defiance Tie-In

After the shows air, the game is supposed to change its play in-world to accommodate the changes to the series. So far, I’ve seen none of this. Granted, we’re only 2 episodes in as of this writing, still I see no changes in the world or in any of the missions. So, I’m still waiting for these changes to show. Personally, it looks like hype to me.

Audio and Graphics

The graphics are reasonably decent in most cases but there are a few brilliant places. Mostly, the graphics are average.  The lighting is adequate, but not spectacular. The surface textures are good, but could be better.  The graphics can be glitchy, especially where other online players are concerned.  Players disappear, jump from place to place or just don’t work correctly when other online players are doing their thing. The graphics are mostly smooth when it comes to your player, but it can be glitchy and jumpy at times even then.

The audio soundtrack works quite well. The audio voiceovers are mostly well done, but there are some bugs.  For example, EGO says ‘Shoot it in its hideous Moths’ (you know, those white things that fly around at night) when it specifically means the word Mouth (which is printed on the screen). Trion has not yet corrected this audio track. When dealing with side missions, EGO’s phrases are so generic they sometimes don’t make sense.  EGO also pops in at very inopportune times to say things. Sometimes, I wish she’d just shut up. Also, there are audio drop outs where EGO is supposed to chime in and doesn’t, but the audio volume lowers for up to 5 minutes until something else brings the volume back up. You also get these audio dropouts when entering and leaving buildings.

Overall

Defiance on the Xbox 360 is fun to a point, but is a bit too clumsy and has too many quirks and problems.  After you’ve played it for about a day, it gets old and repetitive really fast. The terrain is small and there’s really very little to do other than arkfalls which also become repetitive and boring. The menu system is cumbersome and annoying. The inventory system is overblown and convoluted, but doesn’t hold nearly enough. There are no long term storage lockers, so you have to destroy items frequently. The lack of a weapon menu wheel severely hampers the combat playability in Defiance. The lack of checkpoints makes playing the game a chore in places, especially boss levels.

I’m giving this game 4.5 stars out of 10.  It needed a whole lot more careful design treatment with playability testing and didn’t get it.

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Sony PS4 announced.. blah blah blah

Posted in video game, video gaming by commorancy on February 24, 2013

So Sony officially announced the PS4.  But, before I say anything, let’s let their specs do the some talking:

Main processor

  • Single-chip custom processor
  • CPU: low power x86-64 AMD “Jaguar”, 8 cores
  • GPU: 1.84 TFLOPS, AMD Radeon™ Graphics Core Next engine

AV output

  • Analog-AV out
  • Digital Output (optical)

Communication

  • Ethernet (10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000BASE-T)
  • IEEE 802.11 b/g/n
  • Bluetooth® 2.1 (EDR)

Optical Drive (Read only)

  • BD 6xCAV
  • DVD 8xCAV

Super-Speed I/O USB (USB 3.0), AUX
Hard Disk Drive Built -in
Memory GDDR5 8GB

In addition to the actual console specs, Sony also announced a Dual Shock 4 controller with a touch surface on the controller.  Nothing like the Wii U controller, mind you, but a finger touch surface (like a glide pad on a notebook).

Wait.. What? Is this real?

Let me start by saying whoopee! =sarcasm off= My first thought after reading this spec sheet is, “WTF? Is this for real? This has got to be a joke, right?” And then it sank in, this wasn’t a joke and it is for real. This hardware is so 5 years ago. It’s basically a glorified PC with 8 cores and a reasonably slow one at that. I’m definitely not impressed. This is most definitely not what I expected to see from Sony. A glorified PC with a Radeon card as the new PS4?

So, why is this a problem? Let me count the ways…

1) No backwards compatibility to the PS3. The AMD chip is in no way compatible with the PS3’s cell processors. So, unless Sony has asked AMD to build in cell core backwards compatibility, the best we can hope for is emulation. And, with emulation comes slowness and games that feel sluggish, choppy and crappy. Sure, they might play, but they’re not likely to play WELL. That’s the difficulty with emulation.

B) It’s a PC.  I’ll say that again, it’s a PC… and not a particularly great one at that. The graphics card might be somewhere close to a mid to mid-high end card in today’s market, but again Sony has trapped themselves into outdated graphics before the console is even released. Unless they plan to release this ‘PC’ in the next 3-6 months, this thing will be outdated and worthless when it arrives.  Sure, it may be faster than the PS3 today, but what difference does that make in the grand scheme?  If a then $300 netbook runs rings around the PS4 in speed, it’s a DOA device. Sure, I love consoles, but I want them to be cool, sleek and unique, not mundane and something I could buy anywhere.

What Sony should have done here is ask for a modular slot for a graphics card. Then, when the card gets outdated, pop in a new updated card.  This does two things for Sony. 1) A modular slot allows the console to remain relevant independent of the processors. The processors will remain relevant far longer than the graphics processor.  In addition, the GPU can be used for game processing. 2) A modular graphics card slot would allow for many uses all across the board. Placing components into modern PCs should become easier and also allow upgrading graphics cards in such devices as netbooks and notebooks easily. This is a pioneer and innovative approach to creating a new device.

iii) Ok, so I have to concede that it will be compatible with PC games IF Sony doesn’t blunder the PC part of it. That is, if they license Windows (of any variety) from Microsoft, they can at least pull in all of the PC game titles that get released (or at least have them ported much more easily). But, that’s not necessarily going to save this turd… ahem, console.

Sony’s day is Done

Sony has been the odd man out in gaming recently and their lack of innovation in gaming is very much apparent. What Sony needs is something innovative, and the PS4 isn’t it. The Wii U is innovative.  Sure, it’s got issues due to launch immaturity, but that will be corrected through updates. Sony’s product is immature and it will clearly remain that way throughout its life. You can’t turn a Hyundai into a Tesla. That just doesn’t work. Sony’s product is clearly a crap attempt at a new console.

Sony, take this idea, rework it and make it loads better. Then come back and re-release the specs.  This is a crap first attempt at a new console.  Let’s start from here and make it better. Otherwise, your current PS3 lackluster sales will turn into no sales when the PS4 arrives.

Right now, the only thing Sony has going for their entire gaming market is the PS Vita. They better damn well hope they can get some decent games out for the Vita because the PS4 is even less attractive than the PS Vita.

Next Gen Gaming

This is definitely not what I expected to see for a next gen gaming platform. We need to move towards more realistic 3D gaming, not towards commodity hardware. The Wii-U definitely heads in the right direction with innovation. It’s not going to take much for Microsoft’s new Xbox to kick it out of the ballpark. In fact, if Microsoft can in any way integrate a Surface tablet into the gaming experience of the new Xbox, it’ll be a whole lot more innovative than this Sony console has any hope of being.  Sony, take it back to the drawing board and rethink it. I think I’ll call it now, the Playstation home console brand is now officially dead. Sony better hope the PS Vita can carry SCEA onward.

Video game designers stuck in a rut

Posted in video game, video game design, video gaming by commorancy on March 4, 2009

Video game consoles, such as the PS3, Wii and Xbox 360 (and even PC’s) have gotten more complex and provide impressive 3D capabilities and 5.1 sound.  Yet, video games have not.  There was a time many years ago when video game designers would take chances and create unique and unusual titles.  Games that challenge the mind and challenge the video gamer’s thought processes.  Games used to be fun to play.

In recent years…

Today, most games fall into a very small subset of genres: First/Third Person Shooter, Fighting, RPG, Simulation, Sports or Music (with a few lesser genres appearing occasionally).  While the innovation in the hardware continues to progress, the video game designers are not progressing.  Sure, it takes time to get actors into a studio to record tracks.  Sure, it takes time to build and rig up 3D models.  Sure, it takes time to motion capture realistic action to plug into those 3D models.  Yes, it takes time to program all of those complex algorithms to make it all work as a whole. I understand all of that.  But that’s the process, not the innovation.  These are the tools necessary to get the job done.  They are a means to an end and not the end in itself.

Design considerations

For whatever reason, big video game executives have it in their heads that the tried-and-true model sells a video game.  That may be true to some degree, but you can also wear-out-your-welcome with overused techniques.   In other words, when a game title sucks, the word spreads FAST in the video game community.  That can stop a video game’s sales dead.

When starting a new game project, the producer and creative staff need to decide whether or not they are planning on introducing something new and innovative.  First and third person shooters (FPS/TPS) have already been done and done and done and done again ad nauseam.  That’s not to say that yet another TPS or FPS can’t be successful.  It can.. IF there’s something compelling to the game… and that’s a big IF.

Sure, there are video gamers who will play anything they can get their hands on (known as video game fanatics).  But, as a game developer, you can’t rely on these gamers to carry your title to success.  These gamers do not necessarily make up the majority of the game buying public.  As far as myself, I am an much more discriminating buyer.  I simply won’t buy every title that comes along.  I pick and choose the titles based on the styles of games I know that I like to play.  For example, I do not buy turn-based games of any sort.  I don’t care if it’s based on dice rolls or card draws whether in a fighting, FPS or RPG game.  I won’t buy them because turn-based games get in the way of actual playing.  Turn-based games also tend to be antiquated.  I understand where turn-based play came from (i.e., board games).  But, it has no place in a 3D world based video game.

Again, choosing to add turn-based play into your game is your decision as a developer.  But, by doing so, you automatically exclude gamers who won’t buy turn-based games, like myself.  There are gamers who do enjoy turn-based games, but I don’t know of any gamers who won’t buy real-time play styles and buy only turn-based.  So, you automatically limit those who purchase your game to those who buy turn based.  But, by making your game real-time, you include a much bigger audience.

These are up-front design considerations that, as a developer and producer, you need to understand about gamer buying habits.  These are decisions that can directly affect the success of your video game title.

Previous innovations

In the early days of 3D console games (mid-80s through mid-90s), game developers were willing to try new and unusual things.  Of course, these were the days when 3D was limited to flat untextured surfaces.  We’ve come a long way in the graphics arena.  But, even as far as we’ve come in producing complex and unusual 3D worlds within the games, the play styles have become firmly stagnant.  For example, most First/Third person shooters today rely on a very linear story to get from point A to point B.  Driving the game along is an invisible path.  So, while the complex 3D world is wonderfully constructed, the character can only see the world from a limited vantage point.   The cameras are usually forced to be in one spot (near or behind the character).  The character is forced to traverse the world through a specific path with invisible boundaries.   So, exploration of the world is limited to what the game designer and story allow you to do.

This style of game is very confining.  It forces the gamer to play the game on the programmer’s terms rather than on the gamer’s terms.  Worse, when this play style is combined with checkpoint saves, health meters and other confining aspects, these games can easily become tedious and frustrating.  So, what a game developer may consider to be ‘challenging’, in reality becomes frustration.

A shot of new innovation

The video game development world needs is to open is collective eyes.  Don’t rely on the tried-and-true.  Don’t relay on formulas.  Don’t assume that because a previous game worked that your next game will also work.  What works is what video gamers like.  What doesn’t work is what video gamers don’t like.  The video game community is very vocal, so listen to your audience and learn.  Most of all, try new things… and by that I don’t mean tweaking an existing formula.  I mean, take a risk.  Try something new.  Let gamers explore the world.  Produce worlds that are open and complete.  Let gamers build things.  Let gamers take the game to whole new levels.  Build in construction sets to allow gamers to create things you have never thought of.  Build in ways to save the constructions to web sites and allow gamers to monetize the things they’ve built.

These are innovations that lead to progress.  These are innovations that instill addictiveness into the game.  These are innovations that keep your game alive for years to come.  You only need to look at the popularity of Second Life, World of Warcraft and even the Elder Scrolls series to understand that an unlimited world with construction kits allow gamers to take the game into directions you’ve never even thought of.

Most games play through in only a few weeks (sometimes less than 1 week).  The gamer buys it, plays it through and then trades it in never to touch it again.  This is effectively a movie rental.  So, once the gamers have had their fill, the game is effectively dead.  This style of game does not provide your company with a continued stream of revenue from that title.  Only titles that have open ends, that offer expansion packs, and that allow gamers to construct things on their own are the games that keep a title alive for years rather than a few weeks.

 That may require a slightly bigger cash outlay in the beginning (to support a title that has a longer lifespan), but if done correctly, should also provide much more income for that game company.  This is why titles like Fallout 3, Oblivion: Elder Scrolls IV and World of Warcraft are talked about months (and even years) after the game’s initial release.  But, forgettable games like Fracture, Too Human or even Force Unleashed have no extra play value after the game ends.

Gaming elements incorrectly used

In too many game designs, programming elements are used incorrectly to ‘challenge’ the gamer.  Game challenges should come in the form of story elements, puzzles, clues and riddles.  Game challenge elements should not involve game saving, turn-based play, checkpoints, character deaths, camera movement, controller button sequences, or anything dealing with the real-world physicality of the gaming system.  In other words, challenges should not be tied to something outside of the video game or outside of the story.  So, as a designer.. you should always ask yourself:  Does this challenge progress the game story forward?  If the answer is no, the challenge is a failure.  If yes, then the story becomes better by the challenge.

Button Sequences

For example, requiring the gamer to respond to a sequence of button presses in a very specific real-world time limit is not challenging.  This is frustrating.  This means the gamer needs to trial-and-error this section until they can make it through the timed sequence of buttons.  This is a failed and incorrectly used ‘challenge’ event.  This section does not challenge.  Instead, this sequence requires the gamer to ‘get through’ that section.  Note that ‘getting through’ is not a positive gaming aspect.  Worse, if this game section comes in a FPS game, but only occasionally (only to fight a boss), this is also incorrectly used.  If this play style is used regularly and consistently throughout the game, then the gamer knows that it’s coming.  If it’s used only at certain undisclosed points rarely, then the gamer has to fumble to realize what’s going on when there is no warning.

Death Sequences

Another common, but also incorrectly used gaming element is the character death sequence.  For some reason, recent games have promoted the use of character deaths as part of the challenge element.  So, there are sections of some games where the designers specifically designed the level so the gamer has to ‘die’ his way through the level.  These trial and error sequences, again, are incorrectly used and do not aid in moving the story or the game forward.  These also tend to promote deaths as a way to solve problems.  This is not appropriate.

Games should always promote the positive aspects of life and not promote death as a means to an end.  Worse, games like Too Human take the death sequence to an extreme and make the gamer wait through an excruciatingly long cinematic each time the character dies.  This, again, is an inappropriate use of a gaming element.  The game should be designed for the GAMER and not for the game designer.  Long death sequences such as what’s in Too Human overly emphasizes death.  This is, again, not appropriate.

Health Meters

Health meters are another common gaming element that are incorrectly used, or lack thereof.  Every game that allows the character to ‘die’ needs to have a visible health meter.  Games that use the Unreal engine do not have this.  Instead, when your character takes enough ‘damage’, the screen will become red with a halo.  The problem with this system (and this is also why its incorrectly used) is that the gamer doesn’t know how far from ‘death’ the character is.  This is not a challenge.  This is annoying and frustrating.  This leaves the gamer wondering just how much health they have. 

Game Saves

Again, story elements move the game forward.  Having the gamer stop and reload a game takes the gamer OUT of the game and forces them to restart from some arbitrary point.  Checkpoint games are particularly bad about this.  When checkpoints are the only way to save a game, this means the gamer must waste their real-world time through trial-and-error gaming.  This means, the user must wait through character deaths and then the subsequent reload of the level to restart at the checkpoint.  Again, this is not a challenge… it’s simply a waste of time.   When levels are designed such that the gamer’s character will die at least once to get through the level, the level has failed.  This forces a reload of a previous save.  This element, again, is misued as a challenge element.  Taking the gamer out of the game by forcing a reload ruins the game experience and disrupts the story you, as a developer, worked so hard to make cohesive.

Future of Gaming

Even as game developers are now stuck in the genre rut, they do have the power to break out of it.  They do have the means to produce games with more compelling and addictive content.  Instead of using old formulas that used to work, designers need to look for new ways to innovate,  monetize and bring video gamers into their game worlds and keep them there.  Games shouldn’t be viewed as a short term point A to B entity.  Games need to move to open ended and free exploration worlds.  Worlds that let the gamer play on the gamer’s terms.  Sure, there can be story elements that tie the game together like Fallout 3 and Oblivion.   In fact, I’d expect that.  But, these game threads should start and end inside the game as quests.  You can play them when you want to and you can leave them hanging if you don’t want to complete it.

Game elements like checkpoints, saves and button sequences need to be rethought.   Some of these elements can be successfully used, like checkpoints if implemented thoughtfully.  However, allowing the gamer to save anywhere lets the gamer save and start at their leisure.  But, that manual save process leaves it up to the gamer to remember to save.   For this reason, checkpoints when combined with save-anywhere is the best alternative when gaming.  After all, the game was supposed to be produced for the gamer.

Designers, creators and developers need to challenge the notion of what is a video game.  They need to use the 3D worlds in creative NEW ways.  Let the users explore the worlds on their terms, not on some dictated path and story.   Designers need to take a page from Bethesda’s book on free-roaming RPGs and expand on this.  Closed ended, path based games have limited playability and definitely no replay value.  Monetarily, developers need to understand that open ended construction based games let gamers take ownership of the game and make it their own.  Closed, narrow pathed games do not.

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