Friday, March 26, 2010

Acknowledging Trackmania's non-racing mode

Trackmania Nations Forever is an incredible game. And tonight I am arguing this because I came to realize yesterday that it has allowed users to actually "play" the editor. Have you ever seen a Press Forward track? This is a tm track in which a player only presses forward and they will reach the end of the track.

The editor of TMNF is very simple and powerful, letting you create any track that you have played in the game. Using a simple system of track pieces and props, you create a Hot Wheels-esque stunt track that might be very tough and narrow and slow to navigate, maybe you make a nice fast track with wide turns and many turbo-boost tiles, or perhaps you infuriate the player with a 30 minute track of death and crazy stunts that are almost impossible to complete to reach the next stage of the track floating 300 feet in the air. All of these and any combination therein is possible. But the real gems as I have discovered, are the press-forward tracks.

I find Press Forward tracks to be the result of "playing" the TMNF editor. The editor is so easy to use and it is so easy and simple to test, that people create a piece of track, press forward and see where their car goes. Then they create some more track and add a jump. Then they see where their car goes. Then they build track up in the air where their car ended up. Then they start adding more and more pieces and creating a maze of speed. This is really easy too, and it all hinges on two simple factors: testing is almost instantaneous and there is no randomness in TMNF's physics. It is beautiful.

Press forward tracks are like movie-making, but even more satisfying, in my opinion. To play a track is fun. It might be almost exactly like watching a youtube clip of a PF track, but there is a very interesting dynamic in the player always needing to press forward. Play one of the best tracks and then stop pressing forward at some point. You screw it all up and you feel as if you are backstage at Disneyland.

Press forward tracks are an interesting phenomenon created by Trackmania's wonderful and intuitive editor. I have spent more time with Trackmania than almost any other game (and it's free!). Check it out sometime, and consider the editor and what it has done. It has created an intricate alternative Rube Goldberg-machine-maker.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Thrill of Navigation

I have been playing, almost every day, the Just Cause 2 demo. After playing it for two days, I decided that here was a game I would be willing to shell out to get on opening day. It has been a while since I have had that urge. Oblivion perhaps? And what is even more amazing is that I am shelling out money for a game that freezes on me every time I play. I have only once reached the 30 minutes that the game allows you to play before kicking you off with a sweet enticing trailer. Every other time it freezes or just disappears. Other than that, however, I am entirely indebted to this game for getting me to play games on the PC every night again.


I have been spending an inordinate amount of my time playing iPhone games. There are two reasons: they are simple to pick up and play for a short time and the ones I enjoy the most understand the mechanics of touch-control. I have talked about Canabalt previously, I am playing Spider again, and lately I have also been enjoying Mini Squadron. Each one is enticing to me because of the wonderful speed with which you interact with the world. In MiniSquadron, a fun little dogfighting game, you loop your plane around to dodge and attack with varying quickness, and they smartly slowed the various bullets down to the point that you can dodge them. It lends the simplicity of the game a really fun strategic element, making you stronger than such a real dogfight would ever present.

And the game is comfortable. You really feel the bullets as you fire, their sound effects joyfully punchy, and once you press down on the directional pad, it keeps track of that finger wherever it goes on the screen, always maintaining the same centerpoint. This allows you to rely on the feedback much less. Not only can you watch the plane respond to your finger, but you know it will respond as long as you have your finger down anywhere on screen. It is smart and always works in favor of the player. Indeed, even the shooting button extends noticeably past the space marked on screen. Just get within 50 pixels and you should be fine. That is strong understanding of our interactions with the device.

Spider, as I was able to present at GDC last week, worked because 95% of the game was controlled with three super simple mechanics, all of which controlled the actions of the spider. Tap to prepare a web, flick to jump with or without a web, and hold to attract the spider to your finger. I was able to rapidly explain the game to a newcomer and then go back to chatting with someone else. Fantastic! Control has kept me playing around on the iPod Touch for the last three months that I have had one. I am seeking out the latest games that use the device for all its power. A new method of interaction and navigation, that has distracted me from my DS, my PS2, and even mostly from my PC as a gaming device.


But let us steer back to the road that got me onto navigation in the first place: Just Cause 2. I think it is a superb game (demo at least) because it lets me run, fly, and drive around a world with the simplest of ease. Using Rico's grappling hook and parachute, I can quickly transition from any form of transportation to another. I can jump out of a helicopter and parachute to the ground. Or grapple back onto a helicopter. The game does, admittedly, have slight control hiccups in these transitions. As you enter or grab onto a vehicle, you notice your normal movement controls disappear, but the developers clearly recognized that you only needed a few controls to navigate around the vehicle, and then the main controls for handling the vehicle. In the end, it works well.

I am still getting comfortable transitioning from vehicle to running to another vehicle and then jumping to a third. But I am having fun doing it. And that is why I personally play games. To experience the thrill of navigation. The developers of JC2 have made a fun game. An open world with lots of things to destroy, and plenty of vehicles to get from destructible to destructible. (And of course I spend half the time destroying the vehicles I drive.) Hopefully when I install the full game I will keep finding new thrills, or at least that this main mechanic will not wear old. [And hopefully they will resolve this major crash bug.]

Friday, March 5, 2010

GDC and the value of our lives

So I'm writing this while I still have time before GDC's massive gathering of developers. That godly mess was both inspiring and humbling last year. You realize how little one person can be in that crowd of thousands, and I cannot even imagine the numbers that do not or cannot attend. But you also realize how many people share your passion for games, whether seeking fame, fortune, or something more.

I volunteered last year and I am doing the same this year. Last year I traveled from Boston and crashed in a friend's apartment for a few hours each night. This year I am living across the bay in Berkeley. Last year I attended a few different parties and got to talk to people who had roused my spirits at the Indie Games Summit (such as Jonatan "Cactus" Söderström, who was quiet and told me he was totally disgusted by realistic violence, which made me contemplate the difference between his violent unrealistic games and those oh-so-violent mainstream AAA realistic titles). This year I plan on attending as many parties.

There was one thing in last year's events that stood out to me more than any other occurrence. I do not know how many people noticed it, but Todd Howard, the director of Fallout 3, upon receiving the award for Game of the Year, talked about how he once again missed his family vacation with his growing children. His wife had asked, as he was finishing the game for release and she was leaving with the children for vacation, if it was worth it. Then he held up the award and walked off the stage with his team. I was so struck by that moment. I still cannot say how he felt, but it seemed the most bittersweet moment to me.

What are we doing with our lives? What do we want from our lives? Is our drive to create the masterpieces that shape the world? Do AAA titles redefine who we are? Do indie games affect us immeasurably? Is that what we want? Is it more important than the people in our lives? Are the people we care most about, are they the men "in the trenches" and cubicles beside us?

I do not know the answer to these questions, and I know each person would answer differently. But I am thankful that in my development career so far, the people I have worked with and under have recognized the importance of our lives beyond games and encouraged my other sides. Games drive us, but they cannot take us everywhere. And with that extra mile beyond the limits of games, we have that much more under the hood when we get back on the road of development.