Sell What?: X-COM

September 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Welcome to ‘Sell What?’, the first in what will hopefully become a series of articles examining potential advertising strategies for upcoming games, focussing on style and innovation rather than bombarding customers with screenshots and heavily scripted PR developer interviews.

This time it’s the turn of 2k Game’s ‘X-COM’, a reboot of MicroProse’s classic UFO: Enemy Unknown (also known as X-COM: UFO Defence in the US) released in 1993. More of a re-imagining than a re-boot, X-COM eschews the turn based strategy of its ancestors, in favour of a more action-oriented shooter experience.

Launching any new franchise into as competitive a marketplace as the first-person shooter genre is difficult for any publisher, especially this late into a console’s lifecycle. 2K have ostensibly side-stepped this issue by acquiring possession of an existing property, but their choice really begs the question; “How many (especially younger) people have actually heard of X-COM?”

We could argue for days about X-COM’s brand recognition, but we’re really not going to get a very representative sample of the population from the users of this site. The claim here is not that “No one has heard of X-COM” but simply that its audience was not as broad as the market for games today.

The most obvious solution of how to market a modern day X-COM game then, is to remind people of how awesome UFO: Enemy Unknown is to this day. To coincide with the release of its big, modern brother, 2k games should produce a true-to-its-roots remake of the turn-based strategy game that started it all.

The idea of making an appetizer for an upcoming larger release is something Capcom has pioneered. With both Bionic Commando: Rearmed and Dead Rising: Case Zero, they showed that the profits gained from a smaller downloadable release can be large, even if the jury’s still out on whether these can actually help the sales of the title it’s supposed to promote. Bionic Commando sold badly primarily because it was a genuinely bad game, and Dead Rising 2 has of course not yet been released.

UFO: Enemy Unknown has great potential for this format because of how little work 2k need to do on the design front. The game’s structure is endlessly appealing, and to this day many still spend hours building up the ultimate earth defence network.

It also helps that UFO’s UI is already so flexible. Unlike many PC strategy games like Civilization or Command and Conquer, there aren’t any complicated keyboard shortcuts to deal with when porting the game to a console, and the fact that the original was designed to be played on the early 90’s low resolution monitor’s means that its HUD need not be compromised when making it work on a TV.

Additionally the turn-based nature of UFO means that it would be ideally suited for a PSP or DS appearance, although such a move may not be as wise since XCOM is after all not receiving a portable release.

There’s a risk involved with this strategy as with any release of course, but the costs involved shouldn’t be particularly high. After all, so long as the original design formula is adhered to, there really shouldn’t be much work to undertake from a design standpoint, merely a technical one.

Producing a remake of UFO: Enemy Unknown would produce numerous benefits for 2k Games. It would re-introduce the brand into the minds of gamers who may have long forgotten about it, as well as introducing it to younger gamers who may never have otherwise heard of it. Such a remake would also be very beneficial to gaming as a whole, ensuring that one of its classics doesn’t disappear into the mists of space and time. Of course, there’s also the distinct possibility that 2k might actually make a profit on the release, which I’m sure no one would want to complain with.

So would a remake of one of the best strategy games of all time interest you, or do you think that its entire potential audience can already get their fix from DoxBox and an old copy of the original?

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Heavy Rain and the Destruction of Traditional Game Design

September 13, 2010 § 1 Comment

[Spoiler Warning: I’d recommend you play through Heavy Rain before reading this article since I spoil quite a bit of its story in here. It’ll also be a confusing read if you haven’t played it.]

Heavy Rain by Quantic Dream is a game with lofty ambitions. “Games are immature,” it sneers, “here’s how we can grow up.” Whilst it’s certainly a noble ambition to try and move any medium forward, be it film, music, literature, or architecture, any casual observer would be forgiven for thinking David Cage’s team is going about it in the wrong way.

Instead of pushing the medium forward into its own unique space, where the specific benefits and disadvantages of the ‘ludios‘ in mind, the developers have instead employed the world of cinema as a crutch, and taken a huge step back in the process.

The theory behind this new game design philosophy seems to make sense on paper. Film, as an established medium, has already worked out how to tell a gripping story through decades of innovation. Thus, the world of film could be used as a basis for so called ‘interactive drama’ (which incidentally provides inspiration for the most pretentious trophy title ever conceived) with all the interactivity games allow roughly taped on top of it.

So let’s start with the obvious, is the story told by Heavy Rain a good one? On the whole, yes. The voice acting though a little patchy in spots is mostly pretty good, and aside from a final scene twist the overall story makes sense and flows well. Then again, the quality of the story here isn’t what’s being examined, Heavy Rain could have told a story as gripping as the Wire and still fail fundamentally as a game. In other words, a game needs to justify its existence as a game, otherwise it might as well have just been a movie.

Heavy Rain’s primary addition to the cinematic formula is that of choice, and ostensibly it seems to do a pretty good job of it. You can choose to let your clichéd loose-cannon sidekick beat the snot out of a witness, or intervene at the risk of losing his help. You can shoot a witness or choose to let him live. Within scenes there are many different options to choose from, each of which producing a specific outcome.

The problem is that with any illusion of choice in a game there a barrier that you can’t escape from. One scene early on asked me if I was willing to drive the wrong way down a highway to save Ethan’s son. I should note that he was asked, but I was tasked with answering on his behalf. Putting innocent people’s lives in danger for the sake of a poorly acted son by the request of a serial killer who had given me no guarantee that I’d actually get what I wanted wasn’t something I was willing to do, so I searched for the ‘drive away’ option. It wasn’t present.

Providing the player with choice is all well and good, but it’s also important to remember that that lack of choice is going to become that much more jarring when the player finally reaches it. I’d reached the barrier at this point, and the smoke and mirrors were revealed in all their glory.

Of course, if I was in Ethan’s exact position I would have likely acted differently. The problem therefore is that my motivations don’t match up with my character’s. The player is introduced to Ethan when his son is ten. That’s ten years of experiences that are driving him to want to save his son, but which the player was absent for, and thus cannot share.

An approach which relies upon events that have occurred outside of the experience’s runtime work in films because the audience isn’t an active participant. We may not share Luke Skywalker’s wish to explore the galaxy because we haven’t shared his boring rural existence but the film still works because we’re not the ones making his decisions. A game works differently; we need to share the hopes and dreams of our protagonist or else we can’t effectively empathise with him or her. We need to want the same things to make reaching the conclusion of the game satisfying.

A game cannot keep the audience in the dark in the same way a film can. This is made abundantly clear when we reach Heavy Rain’s climax and it transpires one of the characters was the killer all along. The audience has been playing as this person for a good few hours, and whilst in a movie this revelation would be shocking, as it reveals what he was really up to in all those scenes, in a game it’s just confusing when you’ve been making choices on the behalf of a character that you don’t know the true motivations of.

On a moment to moment gameplay level Heavy Rain can be a bit of a chore to play. The strange control scheme may make characters look more realistic in their movement, but the trade off here is that they’re awkward to control. It feels impossible at times to get in front of objects you need to interact with thanks to how characters seem unable to turn at angles any less than 90 degrees and the static camera angles the game employs don’t help matters when they’ll change without warning mid-scene.

Thankfully you never really need to control your character with much finesse because whenever the action gets the least bit intense the game turns into a giant quick-time event. These have proven to be a very divisive inclusion in past games; some love the way it allows events of a far greater scale than anything which could occur in normal gameplay, whilst others see them as reducing games down to a series of button presses, with little space left for the all important choices present in normal play. Much of Heavy Rain’s quick-time events come off as feeling very non-interactive, which only serves to add more fuel to the ‘why does this need to be a game’ bonfire.

That last sentence really sums up the crux of the problem with Heavy Rain, in that it never really justifies its status as a game. The desire to tackle a more mature subject matter is certainly a sincere one, but the game never really delivers on this in a way which makes it seem proud to be a game. It’s a movie with some rudimentary choices thrown in, but ironically because it’s so scripted you end up making far less choices than you would do in your standard Halo firefight with the added disadvantage that you’ll never get to see what would have happened if you’d taken the other option.

If video games want to move forward, then they need to do it on their own terms. They need to do things that simply aren’t possible in other mediums, to provide an experience you’re truly content playing through rather than watching or reading. The simple truth is, without the emotional presence provided by real actors, video games are never going to be able to match the visual storytelling of cinema: our princess is in another castle.

PS. Having to shake the controller at pivotal moments in the story is possibly the most immersion breaking thing I’ve ever been asked to do by a video game. It also looks ridiculous.

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