Friday, August 24, 2012

New Super Mario Bros. 2 Blur Effect - A Mistake?

Hey Nintendo. I've got something to say.

Yesterday I received my brand spanking new copy of New Super Mario Bros. 2 for my Nintendo 3DS. I literally have not been following it in the news, knew nothing about any premise or setups, and chose to be pleasantly surprised by whatever the game had to offer. But I didn't think one tiny iota that I would be disappointed right off the bat with a new graphical feature.

As a person with a strong opinion on a number of things, I have been known to throw my weight around and open my mouth when I probably shouldn't. Now that I am in my thirties I generally find myself a lot more forgiving of artistic decisions than I was in my teens or twenties. So for me, this is a big, rant-worthy one and I promise it doesn’t come from a fanboy “You ruined my favorite game brand” perspective.

I love my 3DS. I love it more than I thought I would. Games like Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario 3D Land, and Mighty Switch Force! (shameless self-plug) look great when turning on the 3D mode. The already great graphics pop out and have a whole new feel. But New Super Mario Bros. 2, a game which delivers clean and colorful graphics, simply looks awful when 3D is turned on.

If you haven't seen NSMB2 in 3D, you need to. Rent it, borrow it from a friend, see it in a store kiosk.  Whatever you do, see it! The mechanics of it are: as you slide the 3D slider on the top screen the objects "slide" horizontally in each eye to create the 3d effect, much the same as any other game. But in addition to this, the game is layering a blur effect on every background object being translated into 3d which gets stronger as the slider is pushed further. To reiterate, every object behind the playfield is being blurred, and the more 3d you want, the more blurry it gets.

This is a “feature” new to any game on the 3DS (to my knowledge). Up until this release every game has simply translated objects horizontally to enable the 3D effect, and for those of us who can see the 3D effect, and enjoy the 3D, this new effect is horrible. It sounds so subjective, but I have shown this to many people who are confused and turned off by the effect, and the only remote support was a Nintendo fanboy who was mostly playing devil’s advocate calling it a neat idea.

The blur effect is fundamentally flawed from a functional standpoint as well as an aesthetic one. It literally makes the objects in the background lose enough detail that your eyes can’t see the 3D on the background objects. Some playfield objects and those just behind the playfield begin to pop out in 3D, and feel far in front of the hot blurry mess in the far background, but the subtleties of items existing at different depths is completely lost. Ultimately what you are left with is a game which looks great in screenshots, and without the 3D turned on, but the very key feature of this specific console completely obliterates the great graphics into a blurry mess.

As a developer who has worked on the 3DS, I can see where someone would get this idea. And as the phrase goes “There is no such thing as a bad idea”, but I am sure there is a quote out there that finishes it out with something along the lines of “...but if that idea comes to fruition make sure it doesn’t suck.”

I am surprised this feature saw its way to release for a number of reasons. I do not know if this is an “East vs. West” kind of situation, but I know many people on any of my dev teams would see this in action and say “This doesn’t work very well” or “This sucks, you’re an idiot for wanting this.” (And others may simply commiserate while out at lunch with coworkers, but when more than one person complains about the same thing it usually finds its way back to management to try to be fixed or addressed.) I welcome this kind of an open discourse, but wonder if employees at a Japanese developer and publisher keep these kinds of things to themselves more often, because I have to believe some people didn’t like this during the course of development.

I am also surprised by how strong the blur effect really is. It reminds me of when I bought my first computer in 1999 and had a copy of Adobe Photoshop 5.0. The first weekend I had the thing I stayed up until six in the morning for three straight days just fiddling with filters and creating neat art (which I look back on at times, and find the art to be riddled with lens flares.) There was never a hint of subtlety: you did an effect to showcase the effect. The NSMB2 blur effect feels like more of a tech demo than a feature to be praised or showcased, and I really feel it should have stayed in the demo stage.

But a part of me is not surprised to see this thing out there because I have seen this kind of thing before on other games I’ve worked on (as I am sure many other devs have as well). Someone with some clout had a neat idea and really, really wanted to see it in the game. I can imagine meetings over the course of development going:
  • “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a blur?”
  • “Hey guys, make sure you get that blur in.”
  • “Hey, it’s that blur, I love it.”
  • “I hear what you are saying, but I really like the blur.”
  • “Tell the testers to stop sending bugs about the blur.”
  • “Stop bringing this up, we are 2 weeks from beta. I’m the boss and I like it. The blur stays.”
Blur occurs in films and photography, and we have all seen how blur works: focus on one object, things behind or in front get blurry. The blur helps to distinguish between foreground and background objects, and even Penny-Arcade started using this from time to time for dramatic purposes. But in 3D simply turning the 3D mode on makes the depth distinct, and you don’t get confused about the location of the player and what exists in the background and what exists in the foreground.

The thing that frustrates me the most is that the whole point of the 3DS console is the 3D effect. No other device is doing it. It’s in the name. I am stating the obvious so hard it is hurting my fingers typing it. This blur effect ruins the very feature that makes your system unique and wonderful.  This is Nintendo making this happen, not a third party developer. This would be like Tesla Motors releasing a diesel engine vehicle. This would be like Apple putting a 56k modem on their iPhone. It would be like Smith & Wesson selling a black powder musket for law enforcement. It is counter to the very thing that makes their product a unique standout.

Nintendo, by doing this you are saying one of two things to consumers. 1) "Some people have a hard time with 3D so we are turning on this blur to make 3D easier to see", which is essentially apologizing for the key feature of your best device currently on the market. Or 2) "We don’t feel the 3D effect is important enough for our customers to keep the game looking good when 3D mode is turned on."

Every game developer should see this for themselves and come to their own conclusion. I for one genuinely hope this is the last time I ever see this effect in a 3DS title.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thor: God of Thunder - Birth of a female troll

Last year I was honored with the task with directing the DS version of Thor: God of Thunder. Working closely with Marvel and SEGA I came up with a story which featured a Troll invasion in Asgard as the catalyst for all events in the game, and gave us a group of enemies which would serve as our most versatile and commonplace enemy. (Trolls served to be the "rats" of the 9 worlds, so from a design perspective they essentially became our de facto enemy type.)

While designing out some of the trolls we wanted to make sure they stood out from the Lord of the Rings trolls and fit within the Marvel universe, and in trying to differentiate from LOTR I got to thinking: were there any female trolls? Are there ever really any female trolls? Without researching it I decided the answer was "no" and sought out to create one. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Verma.

Crystal Clear
Now before I get harangued for this design and be labeled a sexist pig, I want to explain a bit about myself. I am a male. I was born in 1980 and grew up in a time when equality for women was taught to me at a young age. I grasped it as fully as a young boy could and I firmly believed a girl should be able to do all the same things a boy gets to do. When I started designing female characters for my fantasy stories I made a concerted effort to dress them in clothes which didn't demean them and turn them into sex objects. And I am proud to say 32 years later that opinion has shifted little over the years.

I currently work at a company which features female characters in many of our lead roles. Shantae, Luna, Alta, and Patricia Wagon are strong characters which are visually appealing without relying on exploitation tactics. And recently we rebooted Bloodrayne and made her a powerful female without sexual innuendo (which Jim Sterling at Destructoid absolutely hated us for.)

I personally do not like the overt "underboob" of Ivy in Soul Calibur, the skimpy outfits of Fei in Cowboy Bebop, or the overall depiction of the women in DOA. I grew up loving Sandahl Bergman in Conan the Barbarian and Lady Jaye in GI Joe, and don't find that less clothes make a better designed character.

So with that said, let's see my foray against my upbringing and creative instincts!

Sexy Beast
So how did I come upon this amazing design? It was simple really.

It all started as a game design first.  Early concepts featured such creatively named characters such as "Fodder Troll" and "Hammer Troll."  This particular character would be known to the development team as "Battle Troll", because they were focused on battling and were capable of blocking with the shield, making them a tougher opponent.  I wanted a strong female character somewhere in the roster of enemies, and felt a strong fighter was appropriate.

I looked at a number of comics for reference and pulled some pages from a Thor issue depicting an ancient battle amongst gods and monsters. I took an image of a troll with a scary face, and an image of what I believe to be a Valkyrie in ridiculous armor, did a little color correcting to give them a similar skin tone, then combined them to make a female troll!

After receiving some reference from the studios making the Wii/3DS and Xbox 360/PS3 versions of the game (RedFly and Liquid, respectively) we shifted the color of the skin, removed the loin cloth, and added some glowing bits to the armor.  Then our amazing pixel modeler gave her the pixel treatment.

A Professional Touch
Up until now (aside from the pixel version) our female troll was nothing more than a crappy sketch and amalgamation of other characters, but she would soon get the star treatment for our character portraits by genuine Marvel artists.  For our game we enlisted the talents of Mark Brooks to pencil and ink our characters, and Sonia Oback to handle colors.  Working with them was a dream come true, and the character portraits they created were absolutely stunning.  We loved their work so much we were sure to include a character portrait gallery accessible from the main menu of the game and have their signatures boldly displayed on one of the screens.  (game code tip: if you are playing the game and it is your birthday on your DS, all the portraits are unlocked.)

I can't say what Mark or Sonia's opinions were of this character, but regardless they were consummate professionals and did simply amazing work.  Here is the first pencil sketch I received back along with an early color pass.

Because this character would be featured in the dialogue system, and from the portrait gallery, she needed a name to display. I tried coming up with a name that fit in the Marvel universe, and somewhat to the ancient Norse myths, and came out of it with the name "Velma."  It had the letter "V" and felt good, but Mark suggested "Verma" and the rest is serendipitous history.

I ended up loving the design of Verma so much I wanted a full body action shot of her to display in the menu system.  Here is a work in progress of the full body image (linework and first pass color.)

Who's that girl?

Friend, colleague, and fellow WayForward director, Adam Tierney, has worked on a number of comic related games in the past and was nominated for his writing on the Batman Brave and the Bold video game.  He informed me that any character created for our game becomes part of the Marvel mythos and lore.  (You hear that world!  Verma is a Marvel character!  Demand a "one-shot" of her taking on Thor mano e trollo and start dressing as her for comic-con!)

The backstory I created is Verma is the daughter of Ulik (who is the leader of the Trolls).  She is a highly skilled fighter with many forms of weapons, including her bare hands, but prefers to fight with a short sword and shield.  She is a leader in the society of the Trolls, because she is smart like her father and is capable of fighting anyone who stands in her way or questions her ideas.  She has secret plans to usurp Ulik and overthrow Asgard, but she is patient and can bide her time.  And... that probably contradicts some stuff but I felt it was a good starting point.

Bottom line, I absolutely love Verma and I am proud of creating her.

First and foremost, I am an artist.  Whether the products I create can truly be called art, or if they are fully my vision, that is up for debate (but that isn't a bad thing.)  But as an artist I love the subversive.  I love Koons and Duchamp, because they are pimps.  In college for an art competition when everyone was trying to out-do each other with art fit for a "Spectrum" publication, in a nod to Malevich I painted a white illustration board white, with another small white square inside, and inside that in white letters I wrote "WTF."  From far away it was a simple block of white, and it was seemingly a joke, and only when you look really close in the right light, you realize it is a joke.  I love challenging conventions in small, fairly safe, not too aggressive or mean ways, and only get to do it from time to time (hey man, I don't like being mean at other people's expenses, that is just sadistic), and felt an opportunity was at hand with this game.

To me, Verma is a satire.  Below the neck she is all the things that young boys in the 90's dream about sneaking a peek on Showtime or Cinemax when their parents are fast asleep or out of the house.  She has the same body thousands of female comic characters have, and I was having a hard time escaping it when doing my research for this game.  This body type is no stranger to video game characters as well, but she has a face reminiscent of a number of Hollywood monsters and demons from scary tales.  And someone putting those two things together creates a kind of knee-jerk reaction from people, and a lot of guys hate looking at this character, and I love that.

Arenanet did an amazing job exploring how to make a female non-human character, which the video game industry needs more of.  Verma is not this kind of character, and in a way she is showcasing that no character with her intended personality really seems right wearing so little or being so gussied up for the male gaze.

Are we ready for this?
I wrote the first draft of this post way back in February.  I only recently made the time to stop being a lazy butt and finish up my thoughts on this character, and now felt like a very appropriate time considering how many issues are being talked about in the gaming press on a daily basis regarding sexism, misogyny, and overall douchebaggery.

I believe that if we want to support games as art then we need to support the voice of the artist regardless of the maturity level of the audience.  Whether it is a semi-naked troll faced lady warrior or gun toting unrealistically dressed hit-ladies hiding in nun disguises, the misinterpretation of a minority of morons in an audience is not the responsibility of the artist.

An artist can not, and should not be expected to, wait for an audience to mature only after a series of disclaimers and explanations, to finally reveal an otherwise obscene idea or hypothetical which you must be mature enough to appreciate and understand in context, because in the time it takes for everyone to get on the same page new people have joined the discussion and are not up to speed.  It takes major events which aggravate large groups of people (rightly or wrongly, it doesn't matter (and that's subjective so shut it)) to slowly shape our geek culture, like little kernels of popcorn exploding violently until we have a nice warm bag of soft fluffy goodness.

But it will never end, and we need to be OK with it.  It is a simple matter of life, the revolving door of any culture which will slowly change over time, that new situations and new people will come along and this discussion and turmoil will never truly end, though it will evolve and shift over time because that is what all social issues are.  I think in order to remain sane and civil we must be sure to:
  1. Support the disenfranchised to speak up and continue to ask for tolerance and equality wherever people feel it is lacking, and support those who try to make a difference, and support the supporters.
  2. Know that a person of the ignorant attitude of "business as usual" is often someone who needs the right kind of gentle nudge, and that their existence isn't a sign of things being at their very worst because they will always exist. A new one is born every day and many and more are converted every day thanks to these discussions.
  3. Stop being an anonymous ass-hole arguing over the internet and harassing people for thinking different than you.
In the end despite the satire, I love Verma and would gladly redesign her outfit and body proportions and still think she'd be just as awesome of a character.  She is a creation completely unique to our game and is something I created very intentionally and lovingly.  Long live Verma.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The value of a games length (or it's short so it sucks)

Recently I was incredibly fortunate to be a part of the team for Mighty Switch Force! So far the game has gotten an incredibly warm response from the gaming community and reviewers, and as of this writing has an 83% on Metacritic and 84.4 on Gamerankings. Really I couldn't ask for a better reception for the game, even though there seems to be one universal complaint: it's too short.

(Just to be clear, my opinions don't represent those of WayForward, and a lot of this isn't definitive opinion, more introspection. I really want to open a dialogue on the matter and see what other people think using this game as a familiar example.)

Is it too short?

I emphasize the "too" because I am really curious about player expectations in our current world of gaming. Where $.99 and Free(mium) games are readily available on our phones, what are our expectations of a game and the amount of time we spend with it? Traditionally a handheld system, like a Game Boy or DS, has had smaller games than those on console, giving players little nuggets of gameplay and escapism in small session increments between the events of everyday life. I would expect no different for the 3DS, which is arguably going to be the flagship handheld system for the next 5+ years (barring "Lite" versions or alterations to the design which Nintendo always does). Also, downloadable titles are generally smaller than retail releases. So by that logic we should expect a downloadable title on a handheld device to be short, right?

As Designed?

How should we as gamers measure our expectations of a game with the intent of the creators of a game? Take for example this Nintendo Power interview with the game's Director, Matt Bozon, where he addresses the length of the game from June 2011:

Though [the levels] are longer and more action-packed than our previous Mighty titles, the total game will be somewhat shorter, and here’s why. What I love about NES-era games, and especially Contra, Journey to Silius, and Mega Man 2, is that once mastered, they can easily be beaten in a single session. Nowadays if I want the satisfaction of sitting down and “taking in” a game in one sitting, I have to look backward. We’re going to try to change that, and embrace the pocket-sized appeal that’s been lost over the years. That’s the beauty of the eShop–we can experiment with different kinds of releases and see what the players like. So prepare for gaming concentrate.

Yes, Mighty Switch Force! is a short game, but it is intentionally short. It is a game without tutorials, without padding, without unskippable dialogue exchanges, without fake longevity. It embraces the notion of getting to the essence of the fun and experiencing it uninterrupted. But in the end it's short so it sucks, right?

Michael: Okay, okay, what's better? A medium amount of good pizza? Or all you can eat of pretty good pizza?
All: Medium amount of good pizza.

Video games are most often compared to the movie industry, with big teams and big budgets working on epic audio visual experiences. But with indie developers having a platform to deliver work to consumers there are more and more parallels with musicians than ever before. Like musicians getting together and recording songs in a studio, indie devs can get together and put together a game. Traditionally in the music industry there were three kinds of releases: LP's, EP's, and Singles. LP's usually have 10+ songs and are seen as the more standard release in popular music, a full album or CD. Singles are single songs. EP's (short for Extended Play) are longer than a single but shorter than an LP and generally have 4-6 songs.

I'd like to think indie endeavors and downloadable titles are much like EP's. They contain the essence of the art in a smaller package, and without the kind of funding a big budget game, or LP, may receive, but they are also not a tiny snippet of the art like a flash game, or a single, might be.

Games do not have the kind of labels to manage expectations of content quantity the way EP's, Short Films, or even appetizers do.

You beat the game, now what?

One of the more interesting comments I am seeing are people wondering what they can do with the game now that they have beaten it. It brings to mind a few questions:

1. What do you do with any game that you have beaten?
2. Have some of these people beaten games before? I don't mean it to be harsh, but most people don't complete games and it's either a shock or unfamiliar territory. Here's an interesting read on the matter.
3. In today's games can they actually be beaten in the traditional sense because there are too many things to actually be considered complete? 1up did a great feature on this very topic.

One of the company's key goals with MSF! was to have a game people could actually beat. Some of our earlier titles were unforgiving in their difficulty at times, so we made a concerted effort that all challenging puzzles were reasonably difficult but not unfair. I feel we are incredibly successful in this because so many people have beaten the game, which is actually no small feat on the player's part and I applaud them.

But is there something more sinister and psychological than these reasons? Do people prefer simply to have a lot of content available even if they had not beaten the game? If we get 50% through a game in two hours but hit a wall of difficulty where we put the game down for hours or days (and possibly never pick it back up), do we feel the game is a better value (or just better in general) than if we had beaten 100% of the game in those same two hours? Is there a high level of value for potential game to be played even if these potential parts of the game are never played?

It's no longer art

This is an ongoing debate and a hot-button topic, and I am going there: Are games art? If the answer is "yes" then isn't judging the worth of a game based on it's length counterproductive to the notion of games being art? No other medium gets this same kind of direct scrutiny. Paintings are not better for being bigger. Songs are not better for using more instruments. Films are not better for being longer. Books are not better for having more pages. Great chefs are not determined by how much food they can cram on a plate.

Rothko is a great artist because his paintings are huge.

When you begin to value an artistic medium and it's pieces of art based on the amount or size of content provided instead of intent of the creator or artist, the message relayed or the experience that is had, then the medium ceases to be art.

Time heals all wounds

In the end our "game length = value" is upended years after the release of a title in question. Ico and Portal are both games clocking in at around the 4 hour mark for someone playing through on their first time, and both titles were dubbed "short" when they were released. But years after their release the length of the game is no longer a factor in determining whether or not it is a great game. They are revered for their creativity and the overall experience the player has with the game.

I'll shut up now

It's funny to think that 10 years ago a game like Mighty Switch Force! would be released for the GBA at $30, and in those 10 years our expectations as consumers has obviously, and quite fairly, changed. I know mine has. But it leaves me wondering what our expectations are going to be 10 years from now?

Ultimately I think hearing a few people out in the world wishing for more game is a good thing. They saw the entirety of the game, got a taste of something wonderful, and want more! Any great song, any great meal, any great story always leaves the masses wanting more.