The Assassin’s Creed Reception.

(Note, the following are my own personal opinions, and not those of Ubisoft)

So, I’d always figured Assassin’s Creed would end up being a love it or hate it kind of game. So I was surprised when no one actually hated it. In fact, the reception has been predominantly positive. But, there are a few low reviews. I’ve read a bunch of them, and ultimately, a lot of the negative points have to do with the game not being what the reviewers wanted it to be, or thought it would be. Now, I suppose, in some fashion, that’s a valid critique. But if you expect fruit, and you get an apple when you expected an orange, does that make the apple bad? I’m no good at analogies.

What I find truly hilarious though, are the conflicting things people want out of the game, and ultimately I take that as a huge positive. I’ve seen people say that the fast travel option shouldn’t have been available, in the same sentence that they say the kingdom area isn’t that interesting. Well… okay? Seems like one is a solution to the other… but that’s just me. What do I know.

Another thing I find interesting is how a lot of the negative things people say about the game… have to do with the fact that it is, at the end of the day, a game. People complain about how it’s repetitive because you do the same gameplay over and over. Seems to me that in most games, you do the same gameplay over and over, only the reasons change, and maybe the settings. I think it’s likely that people notice the “gamey” parts in AC more, simply because the game world as a whole is so detailed and realistic. It’s true, when contrasted against realism, the parts of the game that make it a game will stand out.

Granted, putting the game in a historical setting tied our hands somewhat. People have complained that the cities are too similar. Well… yeah. What do you want, an ice level? A fire level? Last I checked, this wasn’t Zelda, and no one slams WW2 games for being in yet another bombed out setting. Why can’t we play WW2 in a jungle for once?

Another laugh I had was at a guy complaining that the game doesn’t have weather. Right. In a desert area. Perhaps we could’ve made Altair comment about how it’s kind of hot today. Today it’s drier than usual!

I must admit, there’s definitely some valid criticisms of the game. It’s not as polished as I’d have liked. Cutscenes aren’t skippable, checkpoints aren’t clearly defined and reliable, instant kill water, and, of course, the odd crazy bug. But for all of that, it seems that most people agree: We made something special and innovative. And when you get down to it, that’s all we set out to do.

And really, if you are going to poke at the weak parts of the game, why not do it in style?  With that in mind, I sure hope Yahtzee does a Zero Punctuation on AC.  It would make my year.

The Politics of Overtime

It never ceases to amaze me how an industry so built on overtime still can’t understand the politics of overtime.  They are very simple.  I’ll outline them.

  1. The best overtime is the overtime which is volunteered.
  2. Forced overtime burns goodwill at an extremely high rate.
  3. The instant forced overtime goes in to effect, everyone will immediately give only the bare minimum to the project.

And now for an explanation.

  1. An employee who volunteers overtime is an employee that believes in the project, or has personal investment.  These people want the project to succeed, and are willing to give of themselves to make it happen.  When employees volunteer overtime, it doesn’t burn any goodwill, and it actually builds goodwill, from the top down.  Which is great, because then everyone wins.  People are more productive, get more done, feel better about the project, and in general, are happier.
  2. As soon as you tell someone they don’t get an evening or weekend (or any multiple thereof) they’re going to get angry. They are going to bitch and complain, and the employees doing the real work are going to amplify this anger amongst themselves.  Offering direct and immediate compensation can mitigate this somewhat, but only in small quantities.  And this can be really dangerous to management, because if they compensate once, but they don’t on a following bit of forced overtime, they will actually burn even more goodwill the second time around than if they’d not even offered compensation in the first case.  Because now they expect something for nothing, when previously they brought something to the table.
  3. Someone who doesn’t want to work overtime won’t.  Sure, they may be in the office, but most will actively limit their productivity past a certain point as a coping mechanism.  If you tell someone on Wednesday that they have to work Saturday and Sunday, you can pretty much guarantee they won’t be working any extra hours before Saturday.  Whereas before with a simple push for completion, people might have given some extra time each weeknight, which ties back in to point 1.

Of course, none of these points ties in to basic limits of productive work time, or the reasons behind the need for crunch.  That’s a different topic for another time.

On a more personal note, I’ve realized that after my near seven years in the game industry, that all goodwill I have for a project pretty much evaporates as soon as there is forced overtime.  I just… I can’t do it.  It’s not in me to allow parts of my life to be taken for a simple job.

I’ve been down that road many times, and I know where it leads.

Wii’s Weakness

Before I get in to this post, let me say that despite my skepticism about the Wii, I did hope that when I finally got to play, controller(s) in hand(s), it would feel perfectly natural, and everything Nintendo claimed it would be.

Well, after spending about a half hour with Monkey Ball, I must say I am somewhat crestfallen. Played the single player standard game for a bit, and it felt okay. Not spectacular, but I could (mostly) control it. Then I played some minigames. I’m hoping that the minigames are just bad games, with poor use of the controller. With almost no exception, the minigames were hard to control, and there seemed to be no direct relation between the motions you were doing and what was happening on screen.

This is when I realized the Wii’s weakness: People expect more from the games than in most cases they can actually do. And it’s not unreasonable, it’s a natural extension of the built in reflexes that Nintendo is trying to capitalize on. When I play, and moving the controller is how you play, the reflexes to do certain things are there by default. When they don’t work, when the game doesn’t support them… it makes the controls feel broken.

This is absolutely a player problem, but I have a feeling I will not be alone. You get in to a groove of moving the controller, and then you want something to happen on-screen, and you move the controller in an intuitive fashion… and nothing happens. Or the wrong thing happens.

Ultimately, for developers to really get the most out of this console, everything that a player will attempt to do probably needs to be supported. And I know that’s a tall order… but I don’t know what else will work.

I hope that ultimately other games will make a better impression. I’m still hoping to try out Zelda at some point. I’m hoping it doesn’t feel as broken as Monkey Ball.

Sigh.

Co-operative play is the future.

I’ve been playing Gears of War sporadically over the past week.  Ultimately, I was left ambivalent about the game.  Looks good, sounds good, great voice acting.  But the main gameplay mechanic is ‘learn through failure’, the difficulty levels need an extra step, and there’s a whole hell of a lot of instant death, despite the forgiving health mechanic.  So I was playing it, but not really enjoying it that much.

Enter Xbox Live.  Got an invite to play last night from a friend.  We did a bit of 1v1 deathmatch.  Which had a couple fun moments, but ultimately, was a game not built for 1v1 play.  But then I suggested he join me via co-op and give me a hand with a boss.

What followed was two hours of some of the greatest gaming I’ve had since Halo.  Why?  Because co-op simply makes everything better.  It can take a mediocre game (eg. Gears of War, Halo) and turn it in to a fantastic experience.  Because you are no longer just playing a mediocre game.  You are playing a mediocre game with a friend.

But above and beyond that, Gears of War’s implementation is absolutely fantastic, and as much as I avoid heaping praise on Epic, purveyors of everything sci-fi and deathmatch generic, they deserve some kudos for this one.  First of all, with the exception of choosing how you start the game, the implementation is totally transparent.  You can have a friend hop in to your in-progress campaign.  Progress made in co-op saves to your single player campaign as well.  Hell, I’m probably going to get in the habit of starting a game as a private co-op host, simply so that if I feel like it I can invtie a friend in.

Online co-op is the future.  Developers take note.  You skimp on multiplayer co-op, it’s a black mark against you. In the coming years, a common line in a review will be “But it would have been so much better if there’d been co-operative online play.”

Neverwinter Nights Poo

Neverwinter Nights 2 is the prime example of what happens when you give a bunch of green developers a big game to do, with not enough people and/or time.  Say what you will about the first game, at least it had a level of polish to it.  NWN2 is an object lesson in poor design.

I want to like it.  I really do.  Maybe after an upgrade.  And about twelve patches.

I think it’s time for Obsidian to stop getting work.