My thoughts on L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire

Last week I purchased the Rockstar Pass for L.A. Noire which gave me access to all of the DLC for the game. Inspired, this weekend I finished the game completely, 100% story, hidden items and achievements. Actually, I think this is a personal milestone for me since I have 1400/1400 gamer score in this game which is the most I have in any single game.

For those that aren’t aware the game is based around the life of a new police officer in 1947 Los Angeles, Cole Phelps. He’s fresh back from fighting in World War II (and winning the Silver Star), and is looking to be the best cop he can be. You will go on cases, collect clues, interrogate witnesses and suspects and try to solve a wide variety of crimes as you move up the ranks in the department!

Now, I do not know what the budget for this game was, but would be surprised if they didn’t spend a huge portion of it on Hollywood talent. I have never before seen a game in which almost everyone was someone I recognized from television or movies or both. One of the early cases had me exclaiming “Hey, that’s Matt Parkman!” Every time I turned around there was another actor I recognized. There are 21 cases in the main game (plus 4 DLC cases currently), each case having at least 3-4 new actors in it (along with the recurring characters). The credits listed at least 100 different actors which doesn’t even count all of the other people involved in making the game. Given the seven year development time, and this list of talent, I’m sure the cost of the game was much higher than I’m imagining.

The technology they used for capturing facial expressions and displaying them to us during the game was absolutely amazing. While they probably could have made the game without using “real” Hollywood actors, I think the game would have suffered for it. Using “real” actors and this technology was incredibly immersive. It was the closest I have ever seen to getting out of the uncanny valley, and part of me wants to argue it succeeded in getting out completely.

Of course, simply having this technology without using it for some game mechanic would have been silly, and the major mechanic for this game is the requirement that you “read” the person you are interrogating’s face to help determine if they are telling the truth or lying. Having real actors here was both a large success and a bit of a letdown. It was a success because they did an amazing job in getting the emotions across, but at the same time, it was a bit too easy for the same reason! For example, if you tell an actor to say “sit there and act like you just lied”, well, they will look like they just lied!  It was relatively easy to determine whether the response to a question was the truth or a lie.

Having only those two options would have made the game entirely too easy though, so lies (by far the more common response) were broken up into two different categories.  You could either choose “doubt” when you thought they were lying but had no proof or “lie” if you thought you could prove they were lying. The “lie” choice always felt entirely too arbitrary though, much like the old adventure games back in the day. If you weren’t following the exact logic the game designer was, deciphering whether or not you had “proof” of a lie was a dice roll half the time. Early on in the game I figured out that accusing someone of lying would sometimes give you a hint as to what kind of proof was needed, and you could always “back out“ of the accusation so that became the way I played most interrogations. If I wasn’t sure if I had proof, I would accuse them anyway, and if I didn’t get a hint that helped, I would back out and choose “doubt”. Sort of a “trial by error” way of gaming that hints at bad design if you ask me.

The game itself was extremely easy to finish if you didn’t care about your “case ranking” (how well you did) or anything. Finding clues was almost done for you, simply walk around and push the A button when the controller vibrated. Once all the clues were found, the game would play a little chime and the music would stop so you always knew when you were done.

The story of the game was another factor that I liked. It was basically broken up into two overarching sections as you worked your way across five different “desks” in the precinct. You start as a lowly beat cop on patrol before working your way through traffic, homicide, vice and finally arson. There’s an apex of sorts at the end of the homicide cases and the final resolution of the game at the end. The story was well told and kept me intrigued through the end, but I have one big complaint about it.

I hated Cole Phelps. If you remember back from the second paragraph, Cole Phelps is the person you’re playing as. Having the person I’m supposed to be playing (and having a connection to) be on my “I hate this guy” list doesn’t seem to be a great way to endear him to me. What’s worse, I get the feeling that I was *supposed* to dislike him! Towards the end of the game they try to redeem him in the story, which falls flat for me because I don’t want him redeemed since I disliked him to begin with. The flashbacks to the war did nothing but make me dislike him more (and why did he treat Jack Kelso the way he did?) The big “twist” towards the end didn’t make me feel sorry for him, it made me feel he got what was coming to him.

I liked all of his partners though, particularly Roy Earle which is weird because I don’t think I was supposed to like him either. Aside from one time early in the game when he slapped a girl though, I always got a kick out of him.

Having said that though, it’s a testament to both the actor who played Cole Phelps as well as the technology they used in the game that I got such an emotional response out his story, even if I didn’t necessarily like him.

There were also minor complaints in that my interrogations would go from calm talking to yelling insanely accusing people of lying back to calm talking in a matter of seconds, but given the huge dialog trees and the various outcomes that were possible depending on how I reacted, I don’t fault them too much for that. Overacting a bit perhaps, but nothing too detrimental.

I also liked how the DLC packs integrated right into the story if you happened to be playing them then. They were simply more of the same from the original game, but since I liked that, it worked out pretty well! Plus, since each DLC case cost 320 points individually, but I bought the pass for 960 points for all four cases (plus a few suits), it was a great deal!

All in all, I enjoyed my time with L.A. Noire, enough to even go searching around for all of the film reels. Enough to buy all of the DLC packs as well.

Game development is still hard…

It’s hard to believe that over ten years ago I joined the DirectX team with a goal of making game development easier. Back then, being a game developer was a relatively “exclusive” club. The barrier to entry for developers who wanted to make games was very high in all aspects.

My first goal was to make the act of writing the code itself to be simpler. DirectX is very powerful, but was quite esoteric if you didn’t use it every day. At the time, it was C/C++ only as well, and while these are great languages the fact was that Visual Basic developers (C# didn’t exist at the time) outnumbered them five to one (at least). Over the next few years many VB (and some C/C++) developers migrated to C#, DXVB became Managed DirectX, which in turn morphed into XNA Game Studio. Through each of these iterations the act of writing the code for a game became easier and easier.

If my only goal was to make writing code easier, then by any measure I can think of I accomplished this goal, but it wasn’t. I wanted to expand beyond the PC as well, I wanted to allow every day folks to write code for their home consoles, and in 2006 (with the first version of XNA Game Studio) that goal was accomplished as well (followed by the ability to publish and make money a year later). People don’t think much about it now, but that was huge back then. Nowadays it seems every device has a public marketplace and an ability for anyone to write apps and make money from them (and you would dismiss them if they didn’t), but it wasn’t the landscape in 2006.

It was all of these “successes” that prompted my exodus away from the XNA team and into a game studio in 2010. I felt I had accomplished all of the goals I had in lowering the barrier to entry for game development and wanted to move on to my passion of actually creating them. The release of Beards and Beaks has given me a bit of time to be introspective somewhat (which isn’t to say I’m not busy, but still).

For all the successes that we’ve had though, the simple fact is that today, halfway through 2011, game development is still hard.  In some ways, I would argue that it is actually even harder today than it was when I started, albeit for completely different reasons.

While we certainly helped remove some of the barriers to entry over the last ten years, we didn’t remove them all, and we’ve actually added a few new ones. For example, it’s still extremely difficult for an up and coming game developer to hook up with an artist, just as it’s hard for that artist looking for things to stick in their portfolio to find a developer. People are still confused about what a good “game idea” is.

Actually, that’s a good enough side track that I need to break off for a moment for a mini-rant. I swear if I hear one more person tell me that they have a great idea for a game, and then begin describe some story I’m going to scream. In the majority of cases, the story is not what is going to make or break your game (and invariably when someone is describing a “game idea” to me in this fasion, they are not in the minority where it matters). You need to know what game mechanic makes your game interesting. Even in story heavy games, the game mechanic is what makes your game most times. If your game idea is essentially “all the game mechanics of Gears of War with a different story”, this isn’t a good idea.

Sorry, with that rant out of the way, I’ll continue. I believe the barrier to entry for a budding game developer is so low now that the real problems are no longer “how do I make games”, but instead “how do I stand out in the crowd”. The barrier is no longer to entry, the barrier is now to recognition. How can your shining gem of a game rise above the cess pool of thousands of terrible games?

If you ask me, this is an even harder problem to solve, and despite rambling on for all this time so far, I’m not about to say some magic incantation that solves it because truthfully, I don’t know how. Sure, I have some ideas which I’ll go into presently, but I have no delusions that they are a sure-fire way to success.

First, as I alluded to above, you need to have a good mechanic (and a fun game). If you’re trying to make a rip-off of Gears of War, well stop it because you’re not helping anyone and just adding to problem. Now, that isn’t to say that taking a formula that works and improving it is a bad thing, but don’t try to copy something whole-sale unless you can do it better. You want to make a game that’s like Gears of War but includes the ability to turn into a dinosaur and eat folks? Awesome! You want to make a copy of Gears of War with a budget of $30 and a diet coke? Get out of here.

When I say taking a copy of a game and making it better, what I really mean (most times) is “polishing” the game. The term is a little weird to begin with, but basically what it means is that the game looks and feels professional. It’s hard to describe, but you can see it when it’s there and will miss it when it’s not.

People think that polish doesn’t matter as much, but in reality it matters probably more than anything. Consumers can tell. Angry Birds is like a printing press that spits out money, but it isn’t an original idea or anything. The exact same game came out years before it, but that game was unpolished and forgotten to the sands of time. Rovio took the basic idea, polished the hell out of it and have made more money than they know what to do with.

Of course, once your amazing game is out, you then need to market yourself. I feel a bit sorry for the single guys (or small teams) in this regard. At Microsoft, we have entire marketting teams, and it’s still a difficult proposition! I hope one day soon to talk more about this and some ideas I have, but right now this post is already way longer than I was intending it to be.

As the title says, game development is still hard.. I suppose I have a lot more work to do..

The Gunstringer and Fruit Ninja Kinect, $40 bundled!

One of the more difficult things about my job at Microsoft is not talking about all of the cool things we have coming up. Luckily we eventually announce things publicly and then I can talk about them, and today was another one of those announcements!

On September 13th (September 16th in Europe) The Gunstringer from Twisted Pixel will be publicly available for $40. If you don’t know who Twisted Pixel is they’ve put out some of my favorite XBLA games to date (‘Splosion Man, Ms ‘Splosion Man, Comic Jumper, The Maw), and having their brand of humor in a puppet shooter kinect game? I’m looking forward to this one!

What’s even better than that, it will come bundled with a code for the XBLA title Fruit Ninja Kinect. If you think slicing fruit with your finger on a phone is fun, wait until you try it with your whole arm.

This bundle is going to be one heck of a good deal if you ask me, and I can’t wait for it!

Beards and Beaks!

If you follow me on twitter or the like, you may have heard by now that my latest Windows Phone game was just recently released called Beards and Beaks! I’m pretty happy with how the game has turned out, and thus far we’ve gotten pretty positive reviews with an average of four stars, and a large amount of the negative reviews were due to the fact that you can spend money beyond the actual cost of the game (which I can understand the reluctance there).

Beards and Beaks
Gameplay shot!

We had a lot of things we wanted to accomplish with this game, and while it isn’t perfect (what game is?) we did get the big ticket items we wanted in there! We wanted to come up with a game mechanic we hadn’t really seen before that worked well on the phone, and we wanted to enable premium downloadable content on the device. Based on the reviews so far, I think it’s safe to say we accomplished the former, and the latter is pretty easily quantifiable, so I feel really good about how the game ended up!

Meteor Power
Using the meteor power

There are also a lot of misconceptions though, or features people are just unaware of! One of the biggest complaints I see in the reviews is that people think that you have to spend actual money to use the mushroom powers, which simply isn’t true! Now granted, you certainly *can* spend money to use these powers more frequently, but your mushroom power bar slowly refills over time. If you played once a day, you would notice that every day you would have a new full mushroom bar!

Beards and Beaks
Attacking the crows base!

We also have quite a few more leaderboards than it seems most people realize. When you click the leaderboards button on the main menu you will see three leaderboards at first, but did you know the list of leaderboards at the bottom is scrollable? There are quite a few different leaderboards you can see if you scroll that list down! That isn’t even the start of it, every single level in the game has two leaderboards as well (best score and best time)! If you click the button next to the score or time on the level information tab, you will be taken to those leaderboards!

We also have quite a few levels. There are thirty in the base game when you first download it (seven in the trial), and another 15 in the first level pack (which is absolutely free)! Which brings the number of levels for free up to 45. There’s also currently another premium map pack available for $1 (another 15, up to 60 levels), and that isn’t the last map pack the game will see!

Anyone who’s seen my gamertag probably realizes that I love Xbox 360 achievements, and if you’re like me, you’ll be happy to know that getting all of the achievements in this game won’t be a lesson in frustration! It’s possible (albeit unlikely) to get every one of them in your first playthrough of all the levels if you know what you’re doing (and get a little lucky)!

I’m also giving a performance talk at Gamefest in Seattle next month in which I go into the nitty gritty details on the performance gotchas we ran into during development of the game, along with how I found them, and what I did to fix them.  The title of the talk is “Performance Patterns and Pitfalls for Windows Phone Games” if you want to find it in the list!

If you are going to be at Gamefest come find me to chat! Maybe by then someone will know what a Bleego is.

Multiboxing

After being bored with World of Warcraft a bit, I decided to get back into some multiboxing where I’m controlling an entire instance group on my own (5 players). Here are a few videos of my recent escapades with my 5 paladin group!

Archaedas

Princess Theradras

Herod

Razorfen Kraul

Lord Vyletongue

What do you look for in books?

Having written a few different books in my time, it occurs to me that I rarely actually read technical books myself. It’s not that I don’t find them valuable, it’s just that I don’t personally learn best from that type of interaction. So when I began writing the books I have, I started from a potentially invalid position, namely describing the things that I thought would be useful to me if I knew nothing about the subject material. In the latest book, my co-author Dean mirrored this style to make the book flow reasonably between the two of us.

All of this to beg the question what do you look for in a book? To ask a more specific set of questions, what types of things did you like in our latest book? Did you think there were pieces of functionality completely missing? Were there areas you wished we had covered more in depth? Were there areas you thought we talked too much about? Were you hoping to find it to be more Xbox 360 centric? Windows Phone 7? Windows?

If an update to the book (or an entirely new book) were to come out, what feature must it have?

 

My new project!

After I left the XNA team last year, two of the most popular questions I was ask was why I left and what I was going to do next. It was hard to really formulate a good response to either given the general culture of secrecy that seems to always be around. However, now is the time to lay it all out on the line!

First, why did I leave to begin with? Philosophical differences I suppose you could call them. I was pushing very hard to get a LISP and COBOL version of the project out, and they didn’t think it would have a large enough audience. I still can’t believe they were so naive, but c’est la vie.

When I left I had a multitude of opportunities available to me, each of which were very compelling. Right when word got out I was leaving, I was contacted by the good folks at a new team that was forming. They had discovered that certain images in certain sequences could actually change the chemistry in the brain and give the user experiencing them a completely new outlook on life. The government wanted to get involved though, and I’ve worked with the government before. The technology was exciting, but not enough to work with them again.

Yet another group offered me a new job which sounded at first glance to be quite boring. Have you seen those big number signs where they’re constantly increasing with witty phrases such as “Your share of the national debt is <blah>”? Did you know that Microsoft wrote that software? I was offered the chance to be the guy who watches the numbers scroll by and make sure they stay accurate. Sure, it sounds boring, but you get to travel the world and see lots of numbers, how bad could have it been? Everyone loves numbers!

However, the job I finally took was over in Microsoft Game Studios working on an amazing new title. I probably shouldn’t be telling anyone this, but I’ve been holding it in so long, I just can’t wait anymore. What’s the worst they could do? I’m proud to announce our new game Kinectodeck. Everyone has seen how amazing it can be when you’re the controller, but we wanted to see how amazing it could be if you were actually in the game!  We use an amazing set of new technlogies to transform your living room into the actual game playing field. There are eight different Kinect sensors spread throughout the room along with sixteen mini-projectors which bring the game world directly there! It is a completely new innovative experience, where the possibilities are really limitless.  One of our recent test subjects was sent on an safari adventure where they were out riding a tiger through a lake:

We have a few bugs we still need to work out though. For example, due to our desire to have maximum realism, we may have went a little overboard. Shortly after the picture above was taken, the tiger ate our poor test subject. It’s ok though, she signed the release form. Minor setbacks, something you would expect from such an ambitious project. Major innovation doesn’t happen by being safe!  We’re moving quite fast though, and an expected release date should be just about a year from now, and I can’t tell you how excited I am.

You may be wondering how you write the games though? Why XNA of course!  You will of course need an AppHub membership to get the toolset. I’m also happy to announce that the toolset will be available for download (in a very early alpha form) next week! Stay tuned for more information, this is an exciting time in our industry and I am ecstatic to be a part of it.

Sometimes I don’t understand book reviews..

Not that I have any complaint about them, it’s just odd. For example, my latest book only has a single review, but the review is glowing and the best it could be.  Now, I naturally don’t know how other books are doing, but I am a little obsessive compulsive, so I do watch the average Amazon sales numbers, and compare them to how my book has been doing. Generally, in the category the book is in, we do very well (which is awesome), yet I see other books doing much worse in the average sales with many more reviews and I wonder why? Does their publisher try to prime the channel with reviews? Pay people to give reviews? Maybe those books just give people the overwhelming need to tell others about them, where ours does not?

I also know that our book isn’t perfect, I’ve seen mistakes in there.

I’m curious though, what do you think about the book? Like it? Hate it?