Thursday, March 20, 2014

Second Edition of Level Up! available for pre-order!

Super-exciting! The second edition of Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design is now available for PRE-ORDER at Amazon.com.

 
You'll notice right away something different about Level Up! 2nd Edition - that's right, the cover is ORANGE!
 
Why the color change? I wanted to let Level Up! readers know that this new edition isn't just a few corrections or a couple of pages of content updates - there is a lot of NEW content throughout the entire book! The gaming industry has changed quite a bit since I wrote Level Up! in 2009 and I wanted the new edition to reflect that. Here's a few of the new topics covered in the second edition:
  • Designing for mobile games
  • Monetization strategies
  • Free to Play and other publishing models
  • Touch screen controls
  • In-depth look at Game Genres
  • In-depth look at combat (and non-combat) mechanics
  • New illustrations!
  • An introduction by God of War creative director David Jaffe
  • and yes... a BRAND NEW CHILI RECIPE!!!
 
Now before you rush over to Amazon.com buy your copy of Level Up! 2nd edition, I ask that you please consider ordering through the link on this blog. You'll find it located on the right. Just look for the ORANGE cover to Level Up! 2nd edition. 
 
As a brand-spanking new member of Amazon's Author Affiliate program, I get a small percentage on every book sold this using the link. In fact, I have several links to great items sold on Amazon and I'd appreciate your business when you use the link to pre-order your copy of Level Up! 2nd edition.

Speaking of Amazon, if you like Level Up! 2nd edition and want to write a review on Amazon about the book, I would really really really appreciate it. Every review helps spread the word about the book and I was honored to receive so many great reviews for Level Up! the first time around, I hope you all do it again for Level Up! 2nd edition.

Thanks and happy reading!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

PRESENTING LEVEL UP! SECOND EDITION!



Wiley & Sons is publishing a SECOND EDITION of Level Up!

Since Level Up!'s release in 2010, the game industry has evolved with the rise of mobile gaming, social gaming, monetization and touch controls. (to name a few) Level Up! 2nd edition has been completely revised to address these topics and more - expanding on everything in the first edition. There's even a new introduction by God of War's David Jaffe, new artwork and a delicious new chili recipe! I hope you'll find Level Up! 2nd edition a home on your game design bookshelf.

Level Up! Second Edition will be released this summer everywhere books and e-books are sold.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Not just video games!

Happy 2014!

When I first started Mr Boss's Design Lair, I added the phrase "and other nonsense" just in case. Well, it's time for some other nonsense! Still game related of course!

(not my shelf... mine is much bigger!)

Over the past year I've rekindled my love of tabletop games. Tabletop games is the new term for board and card games. There's something great about tabletop games - their replayability, the elegant systems, the tactility, the toy-like bits, the wide variety of themes and a chance to interact with human beings - that sets them apart from video games.


(It's just like a video game, but your cat can knock it over!)

I remember going into dusty game stores filled with Grognards (Gamers that look like the guys from Duck Dynasty) to try to find a board game that wasn't about World War 2. Or the Civil War. Or the Napoleonic Wars. Of the Crimean Wars. Or the Roman Empire. Usually I was out of luck. But nowadays we are in a golden age of tabletop gaming! They are so easy to find (just go to Barnes and Noble or Target or Toys R Us!) and there is something that appeals to just about everyone.

(For the record, I love games with miniatures, modular boards and dice rolling)

I've always loved playing tabletop games and own quite a few. Ever since I was a kid, I always liked designing them. They're probably part of what led me to become a video game designer. You can learn a lot about making games by making tabletop games.

That's why this year I have issued myself a challenge - to design a tabletop game a month over the year.

I plan on detailing the process of making a board game and publishing the results right here for you to play! My criteria is this:

1) The game can be of any theme
2) The game can be of any genre - from cards to miniatures - from Ameritrash to Euro
3) The game must reach alpha - it must be a completely playable game with very few (if any) bugs
4) The game can be playtest able - most of them will be available as free "print and play" games at this website - or they will be playable by downloading the rules and using stand-in pieces from other games

And if you haven't dipped your toe into tabletop gaming yet, I'll be posting some reviews of some my all-time favorites over the following year.

I'm really looking forward to this! I hope you check back soon in for some tabletop games!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

One Hour Playthrough - Ao Oni


I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Ao Oni has no cover, but if it did, this would be a great image

Game: Ao Oni
Developer: noprops
Publisher: NA - freeware
Published in: 2009
Genre: Survival Horror
Rating: Unrated (but I would rate it T)

For the entire weekend, my eleven-year old daughter has been begging me to download a game called Ao Oni - or Blue Demon. She says it's a horror game where you "die a lot." As a fan of horror games, I was intrigued, but I was especially intrigued when I started to do research on the game.

First off, Ao Oni is an RPG Maker mod - not quite what I expected. For those of you who aren't familiar, RPG Maker is a pretty nifty piece of software which allows wanna-be game developers to create their own JRPGs. It has really simple scripting tools and templates for you to create your own sprites and tiled artwork. I was familiar with RPG Maker, especially since after writing my book (Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design - pluggity plug), I get many e-mails from excited children wanting to know what they can do to get into games (I tell them "make games") and from their somewhat anxious parents who want to know if their kids can actually make a living with this "video game stuff." (I tell them "yes.")

The other interesting thing about Ao Oni is that it is ridiculously popular. Not popular on a level that people like you or me understand, but internet popular - the way Homestuck or Charlie the Unicorn or Hark A Vagrant is popular. Trust me, if you aren't under 25 or have kids that are, you'll never find this stuff. There have been a bajillion fan versions of Ao Oni and it's gotten so popular in it's native Japan that they're starting to write novels about it. I suspect an anime cannot be too far off. Get on the train while you still can.

In order to play Ao Oni - it's free btw - you have to download the RPG Maker Run Time Package file exporter and extract a zip file of the game. Once you do that, it's a pretty quick process and soon you're ready to Game Up!

I've seen various amateur/fan created projects over the years but I was moderately shocked at how bare-bones Ao Oni is. There's nothing resembling a start screen except for this:

This is the start screen. Honest

And forget anything resembling a manual. There's not even a control scheme to be found. Don't bother with pressing every key on your keyboard like I did. As a public service to your sanity, here is Ao Oni's control scheme.

ARROW KEYS - moves character  
ENTER - Examines objects, collects items, pushes things, opens and closes doors and closets
X or ESC key - Opens inventory

That's pretty much it. And that's pretty much the gameplay.

I should have taken this kid's advice

To sum up my one hour play session, I wandered around the house, collected some items, "solved" a couple of puzzles (more on that in a moment), frequently got chased by the Ao Oni and died or hid in a closet and escaped. The game doesn't mess around and by the end of the hour I felt like I had made somewhat good progress in the game.

Get used to seeing this... a lot

That's the thing about Ao Oni. It's ridiculously simple. The plot is simple - four kids get stuck in house with demon on the loose. The gameplay is simple - explore the house/advance the story without getting caught by the demon.  Run if the demon finds you. Hide in a closet without being seen. Solve some puzzles (still more on that in a moment) The art is simple - for a "haunted" house the place is extremely well-lit and there's almost no detail to the art. The dialogue is sparse at best. The whole presentation is almost amateurish (and this is the 6th version of the game - according to the game's fan run Wiki, the game has undergone drastic changes both in story, gameplay and art with each iteration) except for one thing... AO ONI IS SCARY!

I wuv to eat yooo

It's not the titular Blue Demon that's scary. That creature is one of the stupidest looking monsters I've ever seen. He's blue as a Smurf. He has pudgy little arms and legs. He has a ridiculous run cycle. He has big soulful eyes like one of those "I Love You This Much" statues from the 70's.

OMG! He's RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!!!!!

Where Ao Oni is effective is this: The player knows that at any moment, they're going to get scared. They don't know where or when, but they know it's going to happen. It's the context that's scary. The house is barren. You're all alone. You can hear wind blowing outside but not much else. When the Ao Oni appear, he comes out of nowhere and starts to chase you as "scary music" plays that could have come from the keyboard of John Carpenter. And when it happens, the player panics, runs the wrong way or into a way and wham! the Ao Oni gets 'em. Come to think of it, the gameplay is similar to other survival horror games like Clock Tower, Resident Evil Nemesis or Amnesia.

Here's an important Pro-Tip. See that "Save" command? You're going to need it. A LOT. Not since the original Doom have I saved a game so often. And not since the end of Dead Space 2 have I died so much in a survival horror game. As long as the Oni isn't in the room chasing you, save your game.

OOOOH NOESSSS!!!! NOT ANOTHER ONE!!!!!!!

There is one other mechanic that Ao Oni does well - when the player hides in a closet, if they haven't evaded the Oni for a predetermined amount of time or the Oni sees you go into the closet, he will peek in and find you. The presentation is startlingly effective and I jumped the first time it happened to me.

This is Ao Oni's first puzzle. Have you solved it yet?

So far, this might sound like Ao Oni is a good game. Now let's talk about the puzzles. There's no mechanism that lets the player know they've found an item. There's no "observe" so the player can tell what they're looking at. I hate to do this, but I had to go online to find the solution to the first puzzle. The first item that you find doesn't even come into play until close to an hour into the game. The lack of information really hampers the experience. With some simple instructions and dialogue boxes, this could all be avoided.

Ah the infamous toilet. My kids were very amused to see a toilet in a video game

My other problem with Ao Oni is that it cheats. The player is unjustly and randomly killed off at almost anytime. (I understand that there's a 10 percent chance that if the player enters a room the Oni will swoop in and kill them) The best/worst example of this was at the beginning of the game. There is a door that, as you pass, a shadow moves past it. Having seen this happen before in games such as F.E.A.R. and Resident Evil 2, I went to investigate. My character opened the door, went into the room (without the camera following - as was the case in the previous rooms) and the next thing I know, a splatter of blood sprays against the glass and the words "Game Over" come up. What the hell? Since when is that fair? Well, it might not be fair, but it did make me edgy, which did ratchet up the fear factor... and like I said, Ao Oni does provide the scares.

Get used to seeing this

So, should I keep exploring the house of Ao Oni or stick it back in the closet?

What would I do differently? So many things. The art could be greatly improved to add to the atmosphere. A starting screen would make the game look more professional. I couldn't figure out how to backspace to change my character's name. I would provide a tutorial for movement or at least a control screen. I would have dialogue boxes pop up for when the player examines items in a room or finds an inventory item. I could go on and on...

Will I keep playing? Sadly no. I'll leave that up to my kids. I think I've seen all that Ao Oni has to offer. While it is creepy, I'd rather spend my time playing Fatal Frame or Haunting Ground. However, I can honestly say that I feel a little more "in the know" for playing it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Enslaved Odyssey to the West


I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.


Game: Enslaved Odyssey to the West
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco
Published in: 2010
Genre: Action
Rating: T

The only thing I remember about Enslaved Odyssey to the West when it first came out was that it seemed to have arrived out of nowhere. I had played developer Ninja Theory's previous game, Heavenly Sword, and didn't care for it (their arrow POV game play made me rage-quit) so my expectations weren't very high. Still the cover of the game looks nice, with a burly guy and a redhead girl running from a rusty monster-machine. Inside, there is the usual Namco manual shenanigans - they've created what would be a sweet looking manual if it were only published in color. SIGH. I know printing in black and white saves pennies on the dollar, but you just come off as cheap, Namco. Image if movie producers printed their coming attraction posters in black and white. To me, that's what it feels like. It's a battle I couldn't win in the past, so I should just let it go... NEVER!!!!!

Ahem. Let's Game Up! and start playing!

Complete with flickering CRT noise. Or maybe I need a new TV

Enslaved start screen is very high tech-y with calming "Enya-esque" music playing which creates a very different mood is set than what is shown on the front of the box. What's this? No attract mode? Maybe developers are learning they're not necessary anymore.

The selection screen keeps the gestalt going

We now see a girl's face (the red head from the cover?) reflected in a screen. New game is titled "New Journey." In the Batman Arkham Asylum OHP (One-Hour Playthrough) I talk a little about creating a Gestalt for your game. I don't break out the 2 dollar words that often, but it's one of the few I believe in. It's a German word for "essence or shape of an entity's complete form." In otherwords, it means that start screens and pause screens and option screens and volume control screens should be just as designed as your gameplay. Already by screen two, Enslaved shows that it cares about creating a complete experience for the player.

The game starts within a slave ship. A strange looking man with scarrification tattoos and Akuma from Tekken's hair is locked in a pod and is on his way to "the pyramid." The red-headed girl escapes from her pod and starts a chain-reaction to destroy the ship. Our hero's pod is knocked free and gameplay begins. One thing I have to say about Enslaved is it is very pretty. There are a few things that look dated, like main character's hair for example, but the lighting and the overall design of the game makes it still one of the better looking games out there.

That is some pretty lighting

The ship is blowing apart as we learn to walk, run and jump. Camera movement isn't covered but fooling around with the right stick shows that it works just like in every other game. Here's a pro-tip, if it ain't broke don't fix it. If Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 has the best shooter controls and it's a game everyone plays then using that control scheme for your game is going to let the player get into the game faster than if they have to learn some new and unique control system. Go with what works. Get over your "not invented here" complex. You're only hurting your game in the end.

The hero is nicely animated (I remember reading somewhere that Enslaved's motion capture actor was Andy Serkis) but as a game character he suffers a little too much from what I call an "over-animated control system" in which while creating the most beautifully animated character ever, you sacrifice precision controls for the player. Prince of Persia, Flashback, Abe's Oddysey and Little Big Planet games all suffered from this. It's a design choice, but one that needs to be made very early on and stuck with. Players might hate it or love it but they'll have to adjust the way they play to it. Consequences result in players falling off the edges of platforms because their skid and roll cycles end further than they anticipated.

I think I remember this scene from Uncharted

Enslaved also used a trick I like to call "false danger" - the ship is exploding, things are on fire, people are dying left and right, but the player isn't in any actual danger of losing a life. This makes the level exciting even if you are walking from one place to another (you know that walking isn't gameplay, right?) After some running, jumping and pole walking, the hero catches up to the girl just in time for the back of the ship to explore; leaving our hero hanging from the wreckage. We learn to climb (well, more like move from point A to point B ala Sly Cooper than climb like Assassin's Creed or Uncharted) and eventually are able to get our weapons back - a glowy staff and a pair red punching gloves.
R2 provides us with a shield while square lets us attack regularly and triangle lets us do a strong overhead attack. Enslaved takes a page from Batman Arkham Asylum with a close-up beauty shot whenever the last enemy is defeated.

Hadouken!

Maybe it's because we're fighting robots with scythes for hands, but the combat against these robots feels a lot like combat in Maximo vs. Army of Zin. That's a good thing because that game was good. (and not just because I helped design it) But Enslaved's hero has a few other tricks including a wide staff strike and a charge attack. Even with these limited number of moves, the combat is still pretty satisfying and has the right amount of what gaming journalist Tim Rogers calls "frictive-ness." My hour ends with the hero still not escaped - battling robots outside on the wing of the crashing slave ship.

It's nothing if not epic

Should Enslaved Odyssey to the West be sent back to the slave camps or set free to play on my PS3? (Let's see you come up with a better one.)

What would I do differently? My biggest beef with Enslaved is the game starts, I play for an hour and I still don't know the main characters name! (and no, I will not read your manual) - other than that,  Enslaved has a gentle learning curve, some robust combat and other than the adjustment I have to make to the character's exaggerated animations, strong controls. Only once did I notice the camera running into to issues during combat. It just means I need to move the camera around more during combat.

Will I keep playing? Yes. While it plays like Batman Arkham Asylum and Uncharted, but that's not a bad thing. I'd rather play a half-dozen well-meaning but slightly derivative games than one truly crappy one. Enslaved Odyssey to the West is a breath of fresh air - an unique, a non-licensed property in a world increasingly filled with licensed games and sequels.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Batman Arkham Asylum

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.


Game: Batman Arkham Asylum
Developer: Rocksteady
Publisher: Warner Brothers
Published in: 2009
Genre: Action
Rating: T

To anyone who knows me, this does not come as a big surprise, but I LOVE Batman. I have loved Batman ever since I first saw the 60's TV show in reruns in 1969 and have followed his comic adventures since before I could read. I have at least two shelves of just books (not comics, but books) about Batman and own every comic the character has headlined as well as his appearance in another character's comic since Batman's "new look" debuted in 1964.

You should see my Batman bathroom. Then again, the less said about that the better

I've played every Batman video game made - from the cruddy PC title to pretty good Super Nintendo Adventures of Batman and Robin to Lego Batman - only to be (mostly) disappointed with the results. However, what was missing was a truly great Batman game that was based on the comic book - one that featured all his classic villains, gadgets and made the player feel like Batman. (sadly, I didn't feel like Batman when I was made of Lego) It was a tall order that no developer seemed capable of achieving. Then came Batman Arkham Asylum. Now, I realize having already played this game will make my review a teensy bit skewed, but I will endevour to remain neutral. It's been years since I played Batman Arkham Asylum to completion so it's time to put back on the cowl of the Dark Knight and see how Batman Arkham Asylum (selected by YOUR request!) holds up - at least for the first hour. Let's game up!

The cover is pretty simple. Batman (Albeit a more armored Batman than we're used to seeing in the comics, ...but not in the movies) stares out at us, Arkham Asylum looms in the background. I don't know if this is the regular version of the game because I went ahead and bought this version when it first came out instead:

I told you, I love Batman. Plus that Batarang is pretty sweet

There is no manual but there is an art book and a batarang! Since we don't read the manual during One Hour Playthroughs we won't read the art book either! Let's just start playing! The game starts the way any good Batman game should - with Bats standing on a gargoyle, overlooking Gotham. From this screen, we see that developer Rocksteady is treating Batman with great restraint and respect. No Pow! Zap! or Bam! here.... not that there's anything wrong with that. :)

Simple and yet so Batman

I press start and hooray! I don't have to overwrite my old game! Four beautiful slots to save in. I create a new game file and then I am asked to adjust the brightness; after all, there must be shadows for Batman to lurk in. A note about transitions in Batman Arkham Asylum. Every screen transition is accompanied with a flurry of bats. It's a great transition trick that doesn't drop the player out of the game. I'm given my choice of difficulty (I choose normal) and a cut scene starts.

Walking is not gameplay... unless you are teaching the player how to walk, use the camera and telling story all at the same time

Batman has once again captured the Joker and is bringing him back to Arkham. The game seamlessly transitions into a "playable" sequence where Batman accompanies the trussed-up Joker into the heart of the asylum. The player can walk and move the camera around. Guards talk to Batman as he passes by. It's a nice narrative trick that keeps the player engaged while learning the basics of movement and camera controls. As we make our way further into the asylum, we see other familiar Batman characters like Arkham guard Aaron Cash - who was a relatively recent character in the comics at the time of the game's release. We also get our first look at Killer Croc. These nods to the comic universe are extremely satisfying to us hardcore Batman fans.

Tell me you don't hear Mark Hamill's Joker right now

But fan service is another reason why Batman Arkham Asylum works so well. Rocksteady wisely cast the talent from exceptional Batman the Animated Series. Series scribe Paul Dini wrote the script. Kevin Conroy is still the best Batman ever and I can't read a Batman comic anymore without hearing Mark Hamill's Joker in my head.

Button prompts don't annoy me as much as they could

Of course, all of this has been a set-up by the Joker who takes over the asylum. Combat training starts for the player as Batman is attacked by several goons. Even the most flagrant button-masher can feel like the bad-ass that is Batman with this extremely fluid combat system of attacks and counters. It's no wonder why every action game has tried to replicate it or at least come up with their own version of it. Dispatching the last thug in a group ends in a beauty-shot of Batman administering the coup de grace - an elegant solution to letting the player know the fight is over and enjoy Batman doing what he does best.

Time to knock some teeth out

After defeating the bad guys, I explore a little. Tearing a grate off a wall reveals the first Riddler trophy and a room full of Joker teeth gives me a first taste of using the batarang. A long corridor allows me a chance to run without feeling like I need to stop every foot to search for hidden items. Batman Arkham Asylum does what most superhero game forget to do - provide the illusion of a full-functional character while still letting the player level-up. Batman has all his gear and abilities, he just doesn't use them until he needs them. It's a lesson I hope the creators of whatever Superman game is next learns.

Sadly, I could tell you all this from memory

Just as I polish off another group of thugs, Oracle contacts me. This allows for the introduction of character bios. As I open up the bio screen, I see there are several already waiting for me: Batman, Joker, Warden Sharp... every character I've interacted with so far. These bios feature some nice comic artwork and the bios act like the recorders in Bioshock - providing background at the player's pace. A less subtle game would have forced the player to read them the moment they were collected.

It's a bit too Mad World for my taste

As I stop my game at the hour mark and hit pause, I notice one more thing that bears comment. Whenever the player pauses, the options are displayed over a black and white captured image of whatever's going on in the game. While I'm not a huge fan of the look, it's a detail that some games neglect. Many developers treat the pause screen as not being as important to the developers as the main game - but the truth is, it's ALL important. They call it gestalt - which means everything is designed together - and it can turn your game from a collection of pages, screens and ideas to a fully-formed piece of art.

So, do I send Batman Arkham Asylum back to its cell or do I keep plunging forward into the madhouse?

What I would do differently? There's a lot of story in the first hour of Batman Arkham Asylum, but unlike many other games it felt necessary and certainly kept me entertained. The black and white pause screens seem a little off-brand for Batman (I guess they're going after the starkness of a black and white comic page? But control-wise, story-telling wise, visually and gameplay-wise Batman Arkham Asylum plays like a dream.

Will I keep playing? Absolutely - which is a bit baffling since I'm finishing up playing the sequel Batman Arkham City. I'm finding myself drawn to replaying Batman Arkham Asylum. It's a tighter experience, a little more compact and a little more manageable than it's big city cousin. All I know is, it was the game I had been waiting a long time for.

The most influential man in video games

I am sad to report that the most influential man in video gaming has passed away.

No, Nolan Bushnell is still kicking and Miyamoto is still going strong. The man I'm referring to is Ray Harryhausen, the father of stop-motion special effects.


Wait a second, if Ray Harryhausen never worked on video games - what right do you have to call him "the most influential man in video games"? Because in 1958, Ray Harryhausen created this:


And this one sequence from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad (which took Harryhausen nearly three months to complete) has inspired more game creators than any other single idea. In fact, the scene was so successful, that Harryhausen topped himself by creating this sequence for Jason and the Argonauts in 1963:


Tell me that doesn't look like every fight you've ever played in an MMO.

Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, must have had Harryhausen's skeleton in mind when he added this charming fellow to the Tomb of Horrors:


To say Dungeons and Dragons inspired video game designers is possibly the understatement of the decade but when those early game creators started making games, guess who was one of the first bad guys to show up? That's right, the animated skeleton. 

You can find them in JRPGs...


...hack and slashers...


...platformers...


...dungeon crawlers...


...and of course adventure games.

Animated skeletons have become so popular, they're even the main characters!


I admit, as far as cannon-fodder goes, you can't get much better than an animated skeleton. They look awesome and scary and make a great smashing noise when he thwack them with a sword (Pro-tip: real bones breaking don't sound very good. Instead, use the sound of a bowling pin getting knocked over) Lord knows I put enough of them in Maximo: Ghosts to Glory

We had Harryhausen-inspired skeletons...

 

...Guard skeletons...

...Pirate Skeletons...


...Pirate Skeleton Bosses...


The animated skeleton is here to stay, but as I always say "You can never have too many skeletons" (unless you're this game:)


So let's all raise a toast to Ray Harryhausen - the king of the animated skeleton and most influential man in video games! Thanks Ray!