Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Genres and Innovation

This is probably going to be a cynical rant, but I'm just getting fed up. The emergence of "game genres" and formulaic game structures within those genres is seriously hurting innovation in the industry. This has been building for a long time, and it isn't a new problem, but I feel the situation has been thrown into sharper focus lately. To an extent, the very same thing is happening in Hollywood with the film industry, so this is not endemic to the game industry. First, I'll start at the beginning - chronologically - with the original of the game industry as it pertains to this discussion. I will then move on to the state of the gaming industry today, and the causes that have led to the stifling of innovation and "newness." Finally I will discuss what I predict for the future.

Back in the 90s, games as a medium was still new. It was evolving. Developers tried different concepts and ideas. Production costs were low so there was little risk involved. Many games were distributed as "shareware," free versions of the games which could be unlocked to the full version with payment. Think of it as an extended demo. Individuals decided to program games because they wanted to make something fun to play, and then decided to distribute it for others to enjoy. New ideas were toyed with and manipulated, and some went on to success. Among these, the concept of first-person shooters that began with Doom, and was copied so extensively that a genre of games - which had before been termed "Doom Clones" - came about called "First Person Shooters" (FPS). There was enough variation between games like Quake, Half-Life, Deus Ex, and even outlying titles in the genre like Descent, that the genre came to be known based on the one similarity all these games shared: namely, the first-person viewpoint and shooting elements made them more similar than different. This "Doom Cloning" has set a precedent that continues today, but I'll get to that in a moment.

On consoles, this trend of game "cloning" was especially prevalent. "Mario Clones" became "Platformers," for example. More recently, games that copied Chrono Trigger and the Final Fantasy games came to be known more generally as "Japense RPGs" (JRPG) and all share similar characteristics. This is basically how genres came about. During this time period, however, each genre had a first game which was later copied ad nauseum. There were many more genres at that period of time that have since become much less popular. Among these: adventure games, puzzle games, vehicle simulation games and flight combat games have all become scarce. Consoles experienced a major upheaval of established traditions by the advent of 3D technology with the Playstation, Saturn, and N64, but many attempted to simply "port" 2D genres to a 3D environment. This achieved limited success, as well as spurned needed innovation, but at the end of the day developers went right back to "cloning."

We see, today, the culmination of this philosophy of "cloning" successful games to the point that it stifles real innovation. Out of the innovation of the age of shareware and genre-defining games, we've shifted into an age where every game must follow some established genre rules.

Let's first look at FPSes. FPSes until around 2001 had mostly copied Quake or Half-Life with regards to many major gameplay mechanics. Health pickups or health stations were used and games had puzzles to solve. As soon as Halo came out, it stood out as the best console FPSes of its time. It featured a regenerating shield system combined with the standard health pickups, little to no puzzle solving, and a focus on extreme linearity and combat itself. It wasn't a bad game, and it did things refreshingly differently for its time. It featured drivable vehicles which was rare for FPSes, and especially the multiplayer component. I enjoyed playing the game on PC quite a bit. Things went downhill with the sequel, Halo 2.

Halo 2 was average at best and boring at worst. The game removed the health system and pickups in favor of relying entirely on a regenerating shield model. If you could avoid being hit for several seconds, your health would regenerate itself completely. If you got hit without a shield, unlike the first game, you had no "HP" to account for. You would just die in a couple of sustained hits. The game added use of a few new weapons, and the ability to "dual-wield" certain guns, but beyond that the gameplay became far more repetitive and linear. The lack of quality in the single player mode is most likely a result of the focus on multiplayer. Regardless, the massive success of Halo 2 led to the new trend of console FPSes copying many aspects of it, which in my opinion is a step backward for the genre. Let me elaborate.

Regenerative health, the ability to only carry a small number of weapons at any given time (usually 2 to 4), a dedicated button to use a melee attack, and a dedicated button to throw grenades, are all frequently copied features. You can notice many of these in the following games: The Call of Duty series; Gears of War; Portal; Mass Effect; Assassin's Creed; Timeshift; Resistance Fall of Man; Project Origin; Mirror's Edge. This is a trend that will not go away.

Another example is the "gritty" or "grey" or "colorless" appearance that I'd like to say started with Gears of War, but carries through on most games that use the Unreal 3 engine since then. Guilty games include: Gears of War (duh); Call of Duty 4; Timeshift; Mass Effect; Resistance Fall of Man; Killzone 2; Project Origin; Unreal Tournament 3; Rainbow 6 Vegas series; Army of Two; Frontlines Fuel of War; Turok (latest); Fallout 3. For some reason, making a game look grey and dirty makes it feel more "realistic." I personally think it just makes the game more "ugly."

These individual problems are just symptoms, though. Games have massive budgets these days. Making a huge game that ends up flopping can put a developer out of business. Gamers also continue to demand better graphics and physics, which increases the cost of many large game releases. For this reason, risk taking is discouraged. Developers strive to follow certain formulas that they hope will lead them to success. Modern FPSes follow the formulas I just mentioned, with very few exceptions (the most notable lately being Bioshock). JRPGs today try to follow the standard for the genre set by Square Enix's games. Even original concepts like the upcoming game Mirror's Edge, which tries to simulate the experience of a rooftop-free-running courier, will have guns you can take from enemies and then shoot, from a first-person perspective. Essentially, it will be an FPS, but with the option of carrying a gun or not, in addition to the free-running gameplay. The fact that the developers felt the need to do this saddens me.

It's simply inconceivable in this age to think of a major game release in which you don't engage in combat with something. Portal, for all its puzzle solving and fun, had enemies in the form of turrets and the final boss. This is one game convention that has not been shed lately nor will be any time soon. Think of how much more unique Mirror's Edge would be, if the game had no enemies, only platforming and free-running puzzles, perhaps time trials or hidden areas, with incentive to keep a running "flow" going to build momentum. The developers had to pigeon-hole the game into the "FPS" genre in order to appeal to the widest audiences. Genre-defining innovation has been reduced to a unique FPS title. To take the Portal example, I had my dad try the game because of the puzzles. He enjoyed the spatial thinking a lot, until he got to the turrets, where it became an action game. At this point he lost interest. Why did Portal have to move from portal-based switch puzzles and platforming to turret puzzles? Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed those levels immensely, but I can't help but feel that the game could have been more unique and innovative if it had shed the common conventions of games needing to have combat in some form. The market for peaceful games, however, is just not going to appeal to the kids who crave action. In part, this can be blamed on Halo taking the focus off of tactical gameplay or puzzle solving and onto pure action. It's a step backward in game design. All the copied features I mentioned earlier, all feed into this philosophy of "more action." Mass Effect, a supposed "RPG" by the makers of the amazing Knights of the Old Republic, is literally a shooting game similar to Gears of War, with stat building, special abilities and an inventory screen. The game was praised by critics for having so much action. The most enjoyment I got out of the game was interacting with NPCs and completing side quests which each seemed to involve short self-contained stories. They offered more unique, often non-combative gameplay.

So, I guess I'll generalize and say that the current trend is copying rigidly defined genre formulas, increasing the action and decreasing the complexity. This is due in large part to Halo and the rise of the console FPS, as well as many console FPSes going multiplatform and causing PC FPSes to copy them as well. No one wants to take risks, and profit lies in doing what is known to succeed. Innovation is stifled, and new concepts are pigeonholed into known classes to appeal more. You can see this happening in the film industry, too. Hollywood has run out of new ideas, so they continue to make big-budget movies based on older movies, or TV shows, or comic books, and count on familiarity for the movies to succeed. To a large extent this does work, in both the gaming industry and film industry. This "safe blockbuster" approach generates a lot of money. We've shifted from the days of the 90s where small developers published their own shareware games, to massive megacorporations working to make the most money off the latest trends.

The most obvious counter-argument to this is indie games. They seem to embody the ideal of cheap, innovative games that defy genre conventions. The problem here, though, is they are not large commercial games. They are only experienced by small numbers of people, they're viewed as inferior games entirely because they are "independent," and often they are indeed unpolished or small games built onto interesting concepts. I sincerely hope that Valve will improve things. Audiosurf, one of the most unique and awesome indie games of last year, achieved incredible success by releasing on the Steam platform. Portal also came about because Valve saw the indie game Narbacular Drop, made by a group of Digipen graduates, and decided to turn it into a full game, employing the developers to do so. Valve has also hired developers of major mods of Half-Life, including the teams for Counterstrike, Team Fortress, and Day of Defeat, turning these mods into full-fledged games that have achieved massive success.

Another possibility is Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network, and Wiiware. These give more indie gamers outlets to display new games. The problem here is that the developers have to contend with the console publishers to be featured on these services.

To summarize: I'm getting sick of grey FPSes with regenerating health. JRPGs annoy me with too many cliches. Every game feels the need to fit into a certain "genre" and is developers are afraid to leave that comfort zone. Indie games need more support from larger developers like Valve. Question the formulaic designs of almost every major game that will come out in the next year or two. This is the idea of "Clone games" taken to such an extreme that genres themselves are far too restrictive of a concept. Go play games that innovate and challenge assumptions of game design!

Friday, August 1, 2008

Tenchu: Wrath of Heaven

Who doesn't want to be a ninja? Infiltrating fortresses, sneaking past guards, slitting throats, hiding in the shadows; pretty darn cool, right? Tenchu has the unique distinction of being probably the only ninja game around where you play an actual, stealthy ninja assassin. Games like Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi are really hack-and-slash games, not stealth games, they only happen to feature ninjas doing very un-ninja-like things. Metal Gear Solid is more of a ninja game than Ninja Gaiden is; Snake does in the modern day exactly what a ninja did back in feudal japan, albeit with more modern tools. That's not to say Tenchu is a hyper-realistic depiction of ninja life, however. It's a japanese game, and as such, inevitably falls into the hole of demons and robots and magical ninja powers. It's not so bad, though, as the game uses these fantastical elements as an excuse to test your skill in sneaking, or sometimes fighting, rather than changing the gameplay into something else.

So what do you do in Tenchu? You play DEATH PERSONIFIED - ahem, excuse me, ninjas Rikimaru or Ayame - as they sneak through castles and villages and caves and cemeteries, slitting the throats of enemies. Just look in the eyes of this guard: I'm pretty sure he's wetting himself right now.

The levels vary between linearity and openness, which is awesome for pacing. Most of the levels offer multiple branching paths and maze-like layouts, but are still designed to let you get the drop on every guard. The challenge comes from the guard layout and movement patterns, as well as the actual combat. More on that in a moment. As you sneak through the level, you'll routinely be checking corners and backing along walls, waiting for a guard to turn his back so you can pounce.

The guards in this game are pretty much robots. They move along mostly straight-line patrol routes, walking one direction before turning around and walking the other way. It's not very hard to anticipate their movements. The challenge comes when there is more than one guard in a room, because you will then need to take each one out without alerting the others. If you come up to a guard before he sees you, you are awarded a stealth kill which kills him instantly, and looks awesome. If you get a certain number of stealth kills in a single mission, you're awarded a new ability, such as combat moves or wall clinging or a zoom-in camera mode. There is lots of incentive to beat each mission without being seen once. The stealth kills themselves are very rewarding. The camera will change angles to show a cinematic assassination, the animation itself depending on the angle which you approach the enemy. Each character is different, too. For Rikimaru: directly from behind results in a throat slash (and occasionally decapitation); approaching from the side results in multiple torso slices; approaching from above features a fierce stab through the top of the head, and approaching from the front results in a stab through the stomach. There are even contextual kills, such as when you jump down onto an unsuspecting enemy and stealth-kill in mid-air. The system is a lot of fun, and each character has different assassination animations.

To help you get the drop on enemies, you have a variety of tools at your disposal. The grappling hook is by far the most useful, and the most fun. It lets you quickly escape to rooftops or ledges, where you can better stalk your prey. It's also a real thrill in the middle of a battle to throw down a smoke bomb and then grapple to a nearby roof, leaving the enemy puzzled as to how you disappeared completely. There are also multiple ninja weapons and traps. Poison rice will paralyze whoever eats it, letting you kill them with ease. There are bear traps, mines, and caltrops as well, to damage anyone unwitting enough to walk over them. And, of course, there are shurikens and blow-darts to attack opponents from a distance. These won't work very well in the middle of a fight because you have to take the time to aim each one, but for dogs and other assorted enemies, these can be invaluable.

If you do get spotted, you'll have to choose between fighting it out and running away to hide. Fortunately the game sports a decent combat system which includes combos, special moves, and dodges. It's entirely possible, especially if you suck at sneaking, to beat each level dueling every enemy instead of stealth killing them, although it isn't nearly as fun. One problem I have with the fighting system, though, is that it can be unfair at times. If you take a hit, you have a hit-stun animation that is far longer than I would like. Many times opponents can rack up large, deadly combos on you after the initial hit, and you can't do anything at all. The worst offense is the demons in the cemetery who breath fire. If they catch you in the initial flame, you'll be paralyzed losing 30%-50% HP as the flame keeps hitting you, not to mention any other enemies nearby who want a piece of you. The boss battles in the game necessitate combat as well, which is unfortunate. Metal Gear bosses often let you utilize stealth as a means to help you beat them, drawing on the core gameplay for boss designs. Tenchu, however, throws out stealth as soon as a boss fight begins, and challenges you to simply win with your combat.

As I said earlier, the enemies in this game are completely stupid. They do not behave like real people whatsoever. If an enemy spots you and tries to fight you, it is possible to run around a corner and hide, and after only a few seconds the guard will look around, shrug, and resume his straight-line patrol route as if you never existed. If an enemy spots a body, he will, without fail or variation, walk in a straight line to examine the body. If there are multiple bodies in his line of sight, he will do the same to each in sequence. Furthermore, guards have very limited ranges of vision. If you are on a ledge 5 feet higher than the guard, you are effectively invisible. If you are 90 degrees to the side of an enemy, he cannot see you. In fact, it's often possible for you to move even closer toward the front of his vision without being seen. You make no sounds while running, unless you're moving through water or on a hardwood floor, making approaching guards very easy. Metal Gear Solid for the PSX came out a full five years before Wrath of Heaven for the PS2, and it still wipes the floor of Tenchu in terms of the AI as it applies to stealth gameplay.

This last paragraph may sound like I'm being critical of Tenchu. I do think the game would benefit from smarter AI, but at the same time, the stupidity of the AI and simplicity of the stealth elements give the game its personality. Unlike Metal Gear Solid, the challenge is not avoiding being seen, but rather perfecting each level. At the end of each level you are awarded based on how often you were seen and how many stealth kills you made, and this gives the game an arcade feel. It's easy in Tenchu to hide and avoid being seen when you don't want to be. It's harder to stealth kill every single enemy in the game without being spotted once. Much harder. Where Metal Gear Solid rewards you for sneaking past guards unnoticed, Tenchu rewards you for killing them in the most stylish way possible. The robotic patrol paths of guards and the layout of the levels are all designed to facilitate this. If you aren't a fan of stealth games, you still should consider trying Tenchu, because the stealth isn't all that hard, on its own. Stealth is only a tool to help you achieve the stealth kill. This is why the game succeeds so well. It's a different take on the stealth genre. It's a game about silent assassination. It's an actual ninja game.