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by G. Christopher Williams

16 Dec 2009

One might observe that the opening few hours of Assassin’s Creed II resemble the pacing of a story told in a still life painting (that is: going nowhere fast).  Blessedly once the player has a larger sense of the picture of the game as its vistas and views unfold, it becomes a canvas much much more vividly alive.

While this metaphor between painting and game might seem just a cute criticism, it is also a rather appropriate one for a game that is set in one of the most fruitful eras and locations for painting in Western history, the Italian Renaissance.  Also, it is notably a game particularly focused on vision and seeing as the game’s protagonist, Ezio, is an assassin who can only get his bearings in the world by scaling buildings to overlook the places in which he will be hunting his prey.  This need translates into one of the major objectives in gameplay. Unlike other open world games, which usually feature a fairly clear sense of the layout of the place that the main character will be residing in through a map in both compass form and/or accessible through a pause menu, both Assassin’s Creed games require the player to uncover the details of such maps by reaching perches noted on a map that is otherwise obscured by a fog of war.  The fog of war is removed when the player figures out how to reach a perch and presses a “sychronization” button that results in a long sweeping camera pan around the city revealing its heights and depths to the player on the main screen but also as it clears away the obscurity of the mini-map.

Renaissance painters are frequently cited as the chief developers of the landscape painting in the history of art, so this camera pan, which has qualities of the landscape painting (revealing the immensity and grandeur of size of human surroundings) seems particularly fitting for this second game in the series.  After all, it is set within this time period. 

The Healing of a Madman

The Healing of a Madman (1494), Vittore Carpaccio

While one might note that landscape painting very often revels in showing the small stature of humanity in relation to their surroundings, art critics have noted the complicated relationship between landscapes and human beings especially as they relate to human power and authority.  The central thesis of Kenneth Robert Olwig’s Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic is that in landscape painting the viewer discovers that “our environment, conceived of as landscape scenery, is fundamentally linked to our political landscape.” Olwig’s observations concerning the landscape painting that developed during the Renaissance is especially indicative of this correlation between nature and the political.  For instance, he describes the world controlled by a Renaissance prince in terms of how it is viewed as landscape by such a ruler:
One characteristic of that world is that it was observed at neither ground level nor from a vertical point infinitely above, but somewhere in between—a compromise, as it were, between the vertical and the horizontal.  From the vertical axis were taken such elements as pagan gods and goddesses floating in the sky and tableaux showing the unvarying cycle of the season; from the horizontal axis, pastoral landscapes of Virgilian inspiration opening out to the horizon, that is, reaching deep into the recesses of an elongated stage.  The potentate viewed the entire spectacle from a well-placed, elevated seat.  HE was the force that made it all happen and now he could see it all—an essentially harmonious universe—going through its paces before his commanding eye.
Interestingly, in Assassin’s Creed 2 such tableaux’s become the object of Ezio’s studied eye and not that of a Renaissance potentate.  Having to crawl up the walls of Venetian churches or bell towers in Florence, Ezio finds himself at the “top of the world” to study and map the region and its doing.  That so much of Renaissance Italy’s heights are marked by churches and the like, though, is indicative of Olwig’s thesis.  As much of the game suggests, most of the powerful men of this period were directly or indirectly related to the church, and thus, the “elevated seat” of rulers could often be mapped to the elevated steeples and bell towers of the churches of the area and the men who control the knowledge of the world and cosmos that occupy those spaces and would normally then “control” those heights.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558), Pieter the Elder Bruegel

That Ezio climbs to these heights himself is indicative of his character as assassin and general troublemaker.  In attempting to figure out his bearings and to suss out the mysteries that underlie the landscapes (both their physical space but also the political realities that the cities represent and that he will involve himself in) before him, Ezio takes it upon himself to share the perspective of the vertical and horizontal worlds controlled by his opposition.  That Ezio is capable of surviving on the rooftops is suggestive of his challenge of those normally “seated” there to view the spectacle.  He wants to be able to view this spectacle too.  He may be able to wrest control of the heights, or at least, do so long enough in game terms to understand the lay of the land beneath him, what treasures and objectives that it holds (again, in game terms, since the mini-map provides information on collectibles and mission starting points).  In this sense, the game mechanic of revealing maps by climbing towers in order to understand how to proceed next is emblematic of the narrative, as those physical spaces represent the political world that Ezio needs to map and wreak havoc upon.

Thus, landscapes serve both the interests of this political narrative as well as the interests of uncovering the mysteries of power in the game.  Ezio is constantly trying to see the order of the conspiracies that underlie the hidden power structures that have embedded themselves into the landscape.  Be it in unraveling the mysteries of the Codex or by locating the glyphs that also mark the heights of these politicized buildings, the mysteries of Assassin’s Creed II are all about gaining enough height and perspective to put the pieces of a picture all together.  Climbing towers to fully come “to know” the landscape beneath him becomes a metaphor for fully coming “to know” the grounds under which power lies.  To climb to these heights is to rebel and to attempt to see as a potentate or a god might, which is ironically exemplified by the artifact of power that so many are seeking in both games.  The apple of Eden involves coupling the concept of rebellion against authority with knowledge, thus, overcoming one’s lowly stature as mere mortal and becoming powerful “like a God.”  While taking on such authority through knowledge is warned against in the traditional views of this story, the man that so comfortably scrabbles over rooftops and cornices, the assassin Ezio, simply seems less afraid of a fall.

by L.B. Jeffries

15 Dec 2009

Predicting the direction that the game industry is headed is something of a dubious talent to most people who play games. The most successful analysts like Michael Pachter are impressive because they have to predict how well a game is going to sell and consequently a company’s profit margins. There are deadlines by which their predictions must come true and a specific moment where you can say that they were wrong. An in-depth article at Kotaku by Tori Floyd explains that the job requires crunching a lot of sales data, how many consoles were in the market at a given time, and then guessing how a similar game will do under the current circumstances. Pachter made a lot of impressive educated guesses in 2008, like the overall profit increase of the industry from 2007 or the precise date of the PS3 price cut. The average response when a gossip blog like Kotaku posts this stuff is to point out that obviously a four hundred dollar console is going to have to drop in price to be realistic, but knowing when to tell an investor to buy or sell stock does take skill.

Beginning with that caveat, back at the start of 2009 I decided to write a blog post predicting what the tech trends would be in 2009. Since people make money by predicting this stuff, I thought I’d score myself to see how an amateur did. This should not be confused with really doing anything useful or comparable to someone like what Pachter has done. Identifying a social need and concluding that someone will fix it takes about as much skill as bouncing a ping pong ball into a pool. My background in this field is a Business Law class that I got a C in, a long conversation with a drunk broker, and re-reading the portion of Freakanomics that explains how the crack cocaine industry works. So, how well did someone like me guess the year 2009 would play out in video games?

Overall Prediction: Functionality is going to be the defining trend of successful consoles.

Basically, I argued that the consoles and gaming devices that do things besides just play games are going to do a lot better than traditional platforms. I’m going to say this proved true. The I-Phone and I-Pod Touch are dominating in sales. Apple has so far moved about 21.4 million of the things with literally thousands of apps and games going on the market every day. While quality control is a bit lacking, this trend has produced several decent multiplayer games and one gaming masterpiece. That’s a lot of ground to cover in two and a half years for a new platform with what is essentially a new interface.

Compare that to the PSPgo, which has only moved about 28,000 units in Japan. The device does nothing but play digital games. The DSi, on the other hand, has moved 10.17 million units. It’s also got a camera, decent Wi-Fi, and supports SD cards. While Nintendo is right in claiming that this isn’t meant to compete with the I-Phone, it’s definitely a respectable replacement for an I-Pod Touch.

Prediction #1: Having Netflix on your console is going to move a lot of units.

True. Xbox 360 sales have been going strong all year, and I think it’s fair to say a great deal of credit goes to how easy it is to watch movies through the internet service via console. Microsoft believed this enough to create an exclusivity contract for the service that Sony found their way around. I’m not going to claim that the very strong years that both Xbox 360 and PS3 had is totally thanks to Netflix. People have finally figured out how to do something on the PS3 besides guide nukes and calculate quasars, so the price drop and impressive games for PS3 this year obviously deserve a lot of credit. More interesting is that the one console that does not offer any media functions whatsoever, the Wii, has seen a steep sales drop this year.

Prediction #2: Something like streaming or a tiered commercial service has to come along that is easier and more efficient than what a pirate has to go through.

The jury is still out on this one, but the first steps for implementing something like the above were announced. I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea how cloud computing specifically works, but On Live is basically promising to give me access to games that will play on a low end PC with great graphics and speed. Even the people stealing games have to cough up the money for a machine that can run them decently. Early reports have been positive but the service only works if you have a great internet connection. Given the choice between dealing with torrents and mucking about with a stolen game’s code, the average person is probably going to opt for the live service since it’s the same bandwidth either way. You don’t beat pirates, you just offer something that takes less effort than stealing a game.

I’ll also add that the problem that I identified, paying for sixty dollar games, has been addressed by brief sales on STEAM and other ways to maintain long tail viability. Price drops happen sooner than ever with games, particularly ones that are sold online, because there is no resale loss. This is an enormous topic, one that will get its own post next year.

Prediction #3: Developers will begin to experiment with the sixty dollar pricing model by making games episodic. These will sell.

True. This had already been going on by the time that I wrote this. Siren: Blood Curse was an interesting experiment on the PS3 and TellTale Games have both been going strong for a while. I’m giving myself this one because several more AAA episodes came out this year featuring purely episodic content that have all sold well. The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony are both doing well despite being console exclusive.  Though, I haven’t found any exact numbers for Fable 2’s episodic release, however, giving away the first episode for free is a bold step in the right direction. All of TellTale’s products have also done well this year. The social need basically works like this: starting a game that takes 100 hours to beat is a bit like starting a giant book. It’s perfectly doable; it’s just intimidating. Breaking such a game up into chunks ensures that the player will hang on until the end and consequently be a lot more satisfied with the product.

Prediction #4: DLC is and will continue to be used by companies to make more cash out of pre-existing IP.

True. DLC sales for CoD 5 are now over 45 million. I don’t really know if that’s because people like shooting Nazi zombies or that they actually used the other maps, but that’s still a lot of easy money. Almost every major release is offering DLC that can be bought right when the game is released. Dragon Age actually has NPCs that sell it to you in game. Companies now even use DLC to help boost pre-order sales by offering you a free piece of junk in-game.

I also did a lot of jabbering about maintaining the viability of multiplayer games by using DLC to keep the game changing and vibrant. I would’ve used ODST as proof of this but they decided to turn it into a full blown game. I have a feeling that you’ll be seeing even more of this in 2010 when companies are trying to make do with what they’ve got in a tough economic climate.

Prediction #4: Forum Games are going to be increasing in popularity and you really need to dump all of your money into a company making them.

Holy s*** was I right about this one. The top game on Facebook in August of 2009 was Farmville at 56 million users. That easily beats WoW’s 11 million. A game about raising a fake dog even beats WoW on Facebook. Of course, none of this is going to matter once Civ Facebook comes out. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you ought to invest in that. Actually, that’s not really going out on a limb.

Like I said at the start of the post, most of this stuff is obvious. I don’t have access to any hard financial data and just pulled together a weird variety of articles for my sources when producing this piece. People in forums make this same point when video game analysts are discussed, but it’s easy to just complain in the comments section. The only real way to prove it is to have someone make a bunch of predictions and then a year later see how many they got right. Either I’m really good at predicting future trends in the game industry, or it was never very hard in the first place.

by Nick Dinicola

11 Dec 2009

Online gaming has become prevalent in this generation of consoles, but curiously, online communication has not grown at the same rate. While many gamers may enjoy playing online multiplayer games, they don’t enjoy communicating with those that they play with. Xbox LIVE has a sullied reputation as a home for racists, sexists, and otherwise annoying fratboys, so it’s no wonder many decide to play without their headset. Since a microphone must be purchased separately for the Playstation 3, many people have decided to play silently rather than pay the extra cash. This isn’t a problem for competitive online games, but it’s a major hurdle for any kind of cooperative game. The whole point of something being cooperative is that the two (or more) players must work together, and that becomes difficult—if not impossible—if they can’t communicate. Some games have devised clever workarounds for this limited communication, and it’s interesting how these alternative methods of communication reflect the design philosophy of the given game. Of course, some games have no alternative, and so it’s up to the players to improvise one.

’Splosion Man is a game that embraces only the bare necessities of gameplay. The controls are the epitome of simplicity, requiring only one button and perfect timing to pass most obstacles. We spend the game jumping over, under, around, and through the environment, occasionally slowing down to solve a platforming puzzle, and the co-op mode is filled with platforms we cannot reach by ourselves. The solution here is just as basic as the rest of the game. If two ‘Splosion Men explode at the same time next to each other, they’ll jump higher than normal. Most of the obstacles in co-op can be easily passed as long as each player understands the timing required. But coordinating something as specific as timing without talking is impossible, so the game yet again provides the most simple of solutions: a countdown timer.

’Splosion Man is all about forward momentum, progress is everything. Any kind of communication that doesn’t help players progress is therefore a waste of time. Since progress only requires jumping and timing, and all players know how to jump, the only thing that must be communicated is the timing. The game takes pride in its ability to distill the gaming experience into as few interactions as possible, and its chosen method of voiceless communication reflects this design philosophy.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Little Big Planet, which allows players to use their whole sackboy body to express emotion as well as commands. Pushing left, up, and down on the D-pad makes your sackperson sad, happy, and angry respectively. Also, holding R1 makes each control stick move one of sackboy’s arms, allowing players to wave, point, or hit each other. The game is largely about social interaction, and with the ability to create and share your own levels, the game turns its fans into a social community. You can comment on levels and can play every one with up to three other people.

Since Little Big Planet is all about social elements, it is natural that it would encourage this socialization even when voice communication isn’t possible. The ability to wave and point allows us to specify locations that we want to go to or items that we want to get and being able to express emotions allows for a deeper level of communication than what ’Splosion Man offers. That’s because Little Big Planet is not simply about progressing though each level. The social interaction with strangers and friends is a core part of the game, and that desire to encourage interaction is represented in the way that it lets us communicate without speaking.

Some games don’t offer any alternative to voice chat (most first-person shooters for example) so that makes it all the more interesting when players come up with their own alternative methods of expression. Examples of this improvised communication are best observed in any Battlefield game.

Battlefield games are mostly played for their multiplayer. Only one game in the series has a dedicated single-player campaign. Matches are always team based and require that certain objectives be met for victory. The maps are large and vehicles are usually necessary to get around. In Battlefield 1943, shooting teammates in vehicles has become the most common form of expression in these games, and the act changes meaning depending on the context. If one player takes a vehicle and another player then shoots at them, this is meant as a request to stop. Since the maps are usually large, it’s inconvenient to respawn far from the fighting without a vehicle. So if another player gets in a vehicle and begins to drive away, shooting is the only way for the driver to know there’s a teammate nearby that wants a ride. However, if the vehicle only seats one person, such as a plane, then the act becomes an expression of anger, since it’s likely that the shooter wanted to drive the vehicle in question but was beaten to it. If two vehicles are driving on a long road with no fighting going on around them, shooting the teammate’s vehicle becomes an act of camaraderie, a kind of banter to kill time while waiting to reach the actual battlefield.

Of course, all this is predicated on the assumption that friendly fire isn’t possible. No amount of damage from a teammate will kill you in 1943, but in Battlefield: Bad Company, friendly fire is turned on. For the most part, shooting a teammate in a vehicle holds the same meaning since regular guns aren’t effective against vehicles—except during the last act: vehicles with mounted turrets are quite effective against similar vehicles, so shooting a teammate is likely to be considered a traitorous act instead of a playful one.

A surprising number of big releases this holiday season have online co-op as a major selling point: Borderlands, Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, and Halo 3: ODST. But for every one of them, it’s nearly impossible to communicate without voice chat. It will be interesting to see if future iterations of these franchises add in some method of communication that doesn’t require a microphone, but until then, players will have to settle for talking with their guns.

by G. Christopher Williams

9 Dec 2009

Video gaming’s recent love affair with parkour (or free running) should really come as no surprise given the centrality of two basic forms of movement, running and jumping, to the video game experience.  In a sense, this love affair might be traced back to Super Mario Bros. whose gameplay solely derives from the notion of carefully managing velocity and gauging distances.

One of the more innovative elements of of Super Mario Bros. is one often taken for granted in contemporary gaming, and while I can’t say with absolute certainty that the idea of a “speed run” button first appeared in Super Mario Bros., it is certainly the game that brought the usefulness of such a button to gamers’ general attention.

The notion is simple: hold down a button while moving and the avatar onscreen runs rather than walks.  The application of that simple mechanic made all the difference to the Mario experience, though, since Mario’s survival depends on leaping onto turtles and over seemingly bottomless pits.  Thus, the ability to change the speed of the character in order to make a jump of just the right distance to either bop a turtle on the head or to clear a distant jump becomes the main skill that needs to be mastered in order to solve the game. 

Here we are over twenty years later and this notion of playing with speed and evaluating distances is still one of the central mechanisms that gaming depends on.  Part of the allure of the simple run fast and jump mechanics of Mario games seem to derive from a pleasure that is taken on the part of the player that is probably less intellectual than it is visceral and kinetic in nature.  While precision is essential in succeeding in running and jumping and certainly there is an intellectual component necessary to process how fast and how far a game character can run and jump, there is something about the motion itself of moving in this way that reminds us of our own bodies and how they move.  Physics are being simulated alongside a simulation of physical expression, which brings us to the recent spate of games that have overtly or less explicitly adopted parkour (literally “the art of moving”) as a more refined influence in the simulation of human locomotion.

In particular, three recent games come to mind whose gameplay largely concerns emulating parkour and simulating it for the pleasure of the player, Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia, and Assassin’s Creed.  The first of these three, Mirror’s Edge most overtly references parkour as an influence on its gameplay, which is ironic as it seems in my estimation to be the least successful of the three in creating a simulation of a free runner.

Mirror’s Edge certainly attempts to immerse the player in the perspective of the free runner.  By adopting a first person perspective, the player finds themselves thrust into the simulation of running itself.  Velocity becomes immediately apparent to a player as a touch of a controller really does seem to “thrust” them forward into the world. The illusion of accumulating speed becomes much more apprehensible from behind the eyes of a free runner in a way that a third person, two dimensional perspective (like Mario’s) is unable to, since space itself seems to move past the player from this viewpoint as opposed to watching an avatar traverse it.  The illusion of speed is magnified by the perspective offered to the player.

Of course, the problem that underlies this model is one that plagues games from the first person perspective generally.  The somewhat artificial and rather “slow” means that one has in changing perspective (with a right hand controller stick for instance) as one moves rapidly through surroundings makes it difficult to quickly evaluate what you are looking at and to gauge what elements of the environment can be successfully traversed on foot or by leaping in the air.  The right thumbstick control scheme for looking around has yet to properly simulate the movement of the human head and eyes to effect this same ability to take in surroundings rapidly.  Mario has few of these problems as the two dimensional perspective nearly guarantees a pretty clear sense of just how wide an upcoming gap might be.  The first person camera perspective with no ability to “crane the neck” or “squint” to focus quickly seems sorely lacking in this regard.  Additionally, no real sense of where your “body” is underneath you (there seems to be some sense of weight that is lacking in this simulation, reminding me somewhat of the problems that I have with Wii bowling—it simulates the motion of rolling a ball, but I can’t gauge the ball’s “weight” with a Wiimote) makes it more difficult to judge where “you” will land.

Mirror’s Edge‘s interestingly stark and washed out aesthetics are a solution to at least the problem of perspective.  Since the world is so washed out, the game’s design provides visual cues to draw the attention of the runner that indicate what are the most useful environmental details to use to move through an environment and to indicate the best routes through them.  These markers, designated by their orangish color, are fairly noticeable as they stand out in contrast to the starkness of the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, this detail while sounding reasonable on paper is less useful in practice.  Since Mirror’s Edge‘s main sequences usually involve running for your life from some threat, it still remains difficult to quickly assess the landscape and make the right decisions about where to run.  Much death results or a tendency on the part of the player to have to stop frequently to regain their bearing, which kills the fluid dynamism that free running is all about.  In Mirror’s Edge, you take on the role of a free runner but a seemingly less than competent one since she is so frequently falling off things or starting, stopping to look around, starting up again, then stopping again to look around.  All the pleasure of moving in a fast, fluid way is replaced by a frantic, spasmodic form of “the art of moving.”  Unfortunately, the mechanics undermine the simulation not only because they don’t work well but also because they call into question the authenticity of the character herself.  Faith is supposedly a world class free runner, how come she falls down all the time and seems so incapable of keeping up a regular and fluid parkour pattern

Now before getting into arguments concerning whether or not the player is as skilled as the avatar that they are playing (and ignoring also for the moment that Mirror’s Edge does provide some slight narrative justification for Faith’s relative incompetence during its tutorials – she has been away for awhile, is rusty, and needs to brush up on her skillz), I want to turn my attention for a moment to the other two games that I brought up earlier that also lean heavily on mechanics that concern moving rapidly through an environment. 

The newest Prince of Persia depends heavily on just such a mechanic.  Curiously, by distancing the player from the experience through the use of a third person perspective and simplifying the way that the player responds to the environment the game more successfully creates the illusion of both speed and fluidity of movement but also the competence of the Prince as a free runner.  I (and others, like blogger Iriqois Pliskin) have commented before on how much Prince of Persia resembles rhythm games like Guitar Hero.  Much like Guitar Hero‘s note track designated by colors onscreen that correspond to the buttons needed to be pressed on a guitar controller, several simple and distinct visual markers like gouges in a rock face signal to the player of Prince of Persia what button to push at any given time as you approach that kind of obstacle.  Like a rhythm game, this does indeed make movement in Prince of Persia feel rhythmic as timing button presses—A, then B, then A again, then X—suggests the same kind of rhythmic timing that makes the Guitar Hero experience feel like an approximation of playing a guitar.  The illusion of playing in a band or running along a wall is supported by the very real sense of rhythm and timing that the player is experiencing while inputting commands on the controller.

This tends to further immerse the player in the simulation of a physical experience of moving fast across the landscape, flipping, spinning, andkicking out in a regular way as if one actually knew what one was doing.  The illusion of movement supports the illusion of a competent acrobat and gymnast.  Furthermore, that the Prince is saved from falling by his partner in parkour, Elika, further provides an illusion of a man who knows what he is doing (who slips once in awhile) as opposed to a player who just can’t keep up with the amount of visual data being thrown at him.

Likewise, Assassin’s Creed generates a similar sense of confidence in the player in an even more simple manner.  The mechanic of holding down one “speed run” button with another button that might be termed a “do anything that is appropriate given the context” button, Altair and Ezio are both capable of some stunning acrobatics with great regularity and the illusion of a real competence.  While a button that allows a player to signal his avatar to “do the right thing” in a given circumstance might seem like a cheat, it really serves as a more important support of the player’s sense of the character that they are playing and frankly adds a level of authenticity to a confident and competent acrobatic assassin. 

Altair and Ezio basically will determine how to respond to an environmental obstacle as is appropriate when holding down this button.  If they leap towards a small square chimney, they will perch when they reach it or bound off of it quickly if the button remains pressed down.  If they are just short of hitting a rooftop as they leap towards it, they will reach out and grab it.  This is a long way from the days of Super Mario which a jump just shy of the lip of a cliff would feature a hapless Mario falling to his death without ever reaching out to save himself, hands left stupidly at his sides.

The reason that this isn’t a “cheat” is both due to the reasonableness of the idea that a trained acrobat would try to land correctly given the circumstances but also because it maintains the fundamental principles of the mechanics of running and jumping.  The player is not passively watching Altair and Ezio; the player’s responsibility is still to judge the velocity necessary for a jump and the distance that can be reasonably leaped.  Failure is still possible if the player makes a bone headed decision about what Altair and Ezio can actually do.  It is just that they aren’t such spazzes when performing their role as gymnast for the majority of the game.  The player is left to evaluate what can be done and where to go but in ways that still allow for the character to look both competent and experienced at the extraordinary feats that they are accomplishing.  Thus, both the simulation of kinetics is maintained but also the illusion of a competent hero, satisfying both the needs of the game as well as the needs of generating an authentic character within the parameters of the story.

by L.B. Jeffries

8 Dec 2009

All games need load times to set up those nice graphics and giant levels. We’re all accustomed to sitting through them with patience because we know that eventually the game will find itself and get back on track. But at what point do you finally just say no? What are the standards for saying a necessary lull has gone on too long? Technically speaking, what’s happening when a game is loading is that the console is scanning the disc for various bits of information. A guide to reducing load times explains the basics: make the files loaded as small as possible, make sure only essentials are being loaded, and try to get the heavy processing done before the game is going. I’m not a programmer and this isn’t going to be a technical guide, but you can flip through enough forum chats on the topic to know that reducing load times is a very important part of the process. And since we at least know there are ways to shorten the load times from a technical standpoint, what about from a design perspective? How should gameplay be organized around load times?

The most hellish load time sequence I’ve ever seen was sent to me by SnakeLinkSonic detailing the tedium of Sonic 360. Talk to an NPC, load. Answer a question by the NPC, load. Examine puzzle, load. Answer question, load. It ends up taking ten minutes for only about 1 minute of gameplay. It’s also very boring gameplay at that. This would pretty much be the absolute worst case scenario for a load time: there’s more loading than there is actual gameplay. A random twitter poll called up a lot of other violators that were much more in the middle of this standard. The average time that people said they would start to get ticked off with a load time was about 1 minute. One of the major targets was Grand Theft Auto IV, whose opening sequence lasts a good two minutes before you can start playing. Another was Mass Effect and their infamous elevator sequences. Lucasart’s The Force Unleashed was mentioned for having 6 to 7 second loads between menus. By contrast, Gatmog pointed out that Diablo 2 was the prime example of a game getting load times right. There are a few seconds at the start of a dungeon followed by maybe 1 to 2 seconds whenever you enter a dungeon.

The consistent theme in all those complaints is that the game has to load right when you want to be playing. A well paced game like Half-Life 2 knows loading sequences can provide a break after a heavy fight in the same way that cutscenes can be used to steady the pace of play. In Mass Effect, the main place that you run into the elevator problem is at the Citadel station. What happens is that you walk to an area, see that what you want isn’t there, and then have to get back onto the elevator that you just left. Another load sequence to get onto the ship, another load sequence once you pick a new destination, until you finally find a place with something to do, and you can get back to playing. The obvious solution is to just cut out one of these steps. From the elevator, let me choose to just go back to the ship’s navigation system. After the first time that I’ve walked through an area, there’s not much point in making me re-experience it unless I voluntarily choose to do so. That’s the argument Ron Gilbert makes in his retrospective on Monkey Island when they opted to cut out the row boat sequences in Chapter Three after the player has traversed the island. What’s the point in making them do the same thing over and over if it’s just travelling filler? In Grand Theft Auto IV, the problem is not so easily resolved. The game is just getting the heavy lifting done early so that you can play with short load times for the rest of the game. One of the interesting solutions that a game like The Darkness tried was by just playing a short movie during these periods. Given how GTA IV is filled to the brim with short TV shows that at least some players never bothered to watch, why not just play them while the game is loading? Stuff like Republican Space Rangers are great for complimenting the game’s satire and would probably have been much more appreciated since the player has to wait anyways.

It’s not that load times are unacceptable; it’s that there needs to be some kind of organization behind them so that the player isn’t going to spend most of the game irritated by them. A game should try to avoid a design where a player is going to be travelling between hubs excessively and watching too many load screens. If that can’t be avoided, it could try to have something going on during them. The thing is that it is possible to design these things so that load times are minimized. An essay at Planet Half Life describes how the Half-Life 2 mod Minerva does a great job at making loading almost unnoticeable. It explains that the maps are technically very small, “because of Foster’s ground-breaking idea to utilize every possible area to its maximum potential, and instead of expanding horizontally, he expands vertically. Rather than leave large areas wasted with inaccessible buildings, ‘fake’ corridors and rooms to give the impression of an immersive, realistic environment, Foster makes every area accessible. This doesn’t mean that one can simply travel all over the maps in any manner one chooses—but instead through the use of very creatively-placed barriers Foster is able to funnel the player around the maps in a spiraled fashion.” That’s just another solution to the problem. Enjoying a game does not just involve it having great game design and story, it’s also about how well it works within its own technical limitations.

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Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

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