Tag: videogames

The build succeeded… uh, yes, and…

The phone rings in the heart of the night. A sleepy programmer, tired for an extended period of hard work and long hours, wakes up and after a few attempts picks up the receiver. On the other side the slightly frantic voice of his boss: “Good news. The build succeeded…. oh, yes, and Jimmy has been kidnapped”. In fact, Jimmy (not the real name), a coworker and friend, had been kidnapped by two crooks while he was withdrawing at an ATM a couple of hours earlier. Luckily he was released in the night, naked in open country, but unharmed.
Well, I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure if the conversation really occurred this way or if it has been “enriched” for the audience. But this situation came to mind recently because I start feeling that it captures quite well some peculiar traits of the videogame industry when compared to the software development industry at large.
In my experience, and surfing the internet also to many other experiences as well (see this, this, or this, or just google for more results), most game development projects turn into a nightmarish run for your life against the deadline. The only certainty is that you and your loved ones are going to pay an exaggeratedly high price for you “making games”.
Family, health, friends, life, nothing matters when confronted with The Game. You can’t plan a vacation with your family, you can’t go to the gym, you can’t be home to be with your children or your wife, but hooray the build has succeeded.
But why? Why has to be like this in the videogame industry? While industry and academia have developed methods and strategies to improve project management relieving workers, reducing risks and improving quality, why the game industry fails so epically to be a saner environment?
Of course every project, regardless of the industry, has to be profitable and economically viable. And the justification I often heard is that if you are late then you can only work longer to hit the target. You have only to agree, but this is just denying the value of planning. Is like to say if you are outdoor and starts raining you can only get wet. Yes. At that point, you don’t have any other option. But a good planner likes to be prepared and would have brought an umbrella.
As any project management book will tell you, projects are defined by three variables – time, resources, quality. Time is, well calendar time needed to complete the project. Resources are the people working on the project and their tools. Quality is the quality of the product that can also be seen as a list of features.
Of these variables only two can be set, the other one is given. That is, you can set the target quality and the time, but then the resources count is derived and cannot be forced. If you attempt to fix all three variables, then the project will be understaffed or late or shoddy, possibly all three.
The agile process doesn’t do any magic, it is just chopping the project into smaller projects with more flexibility on the feature list. A sane agile project will scrap features that don’t fit into the iteration and those that add the least value to the project. This is known also as de-scoping and it is something that I found extremely hard to do on a game project planning.
My impression is that, aside from the basic mismanagement, in the process of developing a game too much passion and too strong emotions are involved. It is not just being passionate about your own work, it is something more akin to religious devotion. In my past experience, people had a brawl because of the misappreciation of an artist’s work.
So, if the videogame is, after all, a work of art and art is about emotions and feelings, is it possible to make games and work in a sane environment?

next next next gen

Now that I am again in the Industry, I can spill cheap thoughts pretending to be somewhat authoritative. Yesterday, Xbox One has been unveiled and in a few weeks PS4 is going to be exposed as well. Third player in the arena, Nintendo already played his hand with WII-U.Xbox One presentation enlightened me on how difficult is to sell new consoles. Long gone are the times they could double their installed base by pushing the hardware performances and techno babbling customers into buying the new console. This trend was based on the assumption that the more powerful the console, the better the games. But nowadays it is clear to many that, beyond a given threshold, the entertainment quality returned by doubling the gazillions of polygons per second, or adding physics simulations everywhere flattens and it is hardly noticeable.
Console manufacturers are confronted with a saturated market where existing customers have no compelling reason to throw their existing console to the landfill and rush to buy the new model. This is why they try to expand their domain into the mass-market of casual gamers. Unfortunately this is no piece of cake. In fact it is very clear if you look at what happened to Wii-U. Nintendo, with Wii had been the first manufacturer to target casual gamers. They dumped the complex controller (too many mysterious buttons) for the more intuitive (even if not so hardcore-player friendly) Wii-mote. But they discovered that it is far more difficult to have casual gamers brace the new console then gaming nerds. I think the reason is quite simple – the casual gamer considers the game console like a fungible appliance, no more, no less than a TV set or a dishwashing machine. Do you rush to buy a new dishwashing machine as soon as a new model is out?
That’s why, IMNSHO, Sony and Microsoft try to appeal non-gamers and to differentiate their products by center their marketing on non-gaming features – social and “share button” for Sony and TV and sports for Microsoft.
This makes the arena wider, it is no longer the game console, but the living room. This arena is open to other competitors, whose appliance are all considered fungible – smart-TVs, DVRs and disc players (that can do everything a smart-TV does), apple TV and other set-top boxes. There are so many different, diverse and overlapping technologies hardly talking each other that I found difficult to think that there could be ever a single winner.
Wii-U has been a flop, PS4 and XBox-one, despite all the hype, may likely to be on the same track. At this point, it would make more sense to turn consoles into a standard appliances you don’t need to know anything about thanks to compatibility. Much like you buy a dishwashing machine, once and then again when it breaks beyond repair. But every dishwashing machine soap is fine. Just take the one you prefer (usually the cheapest).
I don’t like really this approach, but if you look for mass market, that’s what mass market is. Hardware is not going to be profitable because manufacturers will no longer be able to appeal customer to shell out their money on the next generation.
As per I see it, the only way to stay profitable is on software – moving along the content dimension. Be it a renowned brand or an innovative art and entertainment expression, it is the content that differentiates and eventually pays the bills.
Thinking about content, maybe that the mass market be still precluded to traditional video game designers. Successful mass market titles such as Ruzzle or Angry Birds are fast and cheap entertainment designed to split in small chunks to fill your daily waiting (to be played while queuing up at the lift, or during train commuting). This is quite far away from the desired audience for traditional game designers, since they tend to consider videogame more as art than an idle pastime. Even if we achieve to make game shorter and denser, filled with emotionally sound playtime and captivating story, maybe that the really casual gamer – as of today – will always prefer swiping words into place or flinging birds at pigs. This doesn’t contradict what I stated above, i.e. that the software is going to stay profitable, because it is just a matter of rightsizing the development effort and to define success as (more or less) stable profit, not unlimited growth.

To the Moon and Blackwell

I’ve always been convinced that you don’t need big bucks to create masterpieces. Masterpieces are masterpieces regardless of the technology, the cast, the equipment, and the AAA team. Masterpiece is when you’ve got great inspiration and great capabilities. Technology is just something that is in your way. Recently I played two games that prove this theorem.

Blackwell Deception is an old-style point-n-click adventure. Do you remember the good ol’ Zak McKraken and the Alien Mindbenders? Or the more recent Monkey Island series? Well, that’s the genre. But that’s just the technology. There’s a great story, greatly narrated through the pixellated characters. There’s this strange pair – a young woman and the ghost of her uncle. They help just passed away people to understand their new condition and leave this world. While you play you discover both the current story and the characters’ background – their lives. There are 3 (at least) titles in this series, I played some, and I’d like to play more, but I have a life. Nonetheless, if you like either adventures or stories, give this a try, money will be worth spending.

To The Moon is a narrative RPG, really there is little G and not much RP, but there is playable poetry. Besides if you are a bit clumsy – as I am – in adventures, and sometimes it happens to get stuck, this is the game for you. I never doubted what to do or where to go.

The graphics is pixel art, classic RPG pixel art. But the story is light years ahead of everything I played. This is so gentle, so touching… I am just sad it is over.

There are two agents/scientists that help people in realizing their wish. When someone is about to die, they can help him (or her) in achieving the strongest wish they had in life.

So the scientists are called to help a dying men in realizing his wish – going to the moon. They travel back in memories, with the help of virtual reality machinery, in search of the proper spot to insert new memories of their travel to the moon. The mission wouldn’t turn out so simple, but the story of the man, his infancy, his love, his passion, lived in a great flash-back, is something that ties you to the PC and won’t let you go. Here, too, your money will be well spent.

So I’d say, you’ve got no excuses, pick the technology you can afford and create your masterpiece.

The Ultimate Guide to Videogame Writing and Design

Video gaming is for sure one of the reasons I got so addicted in computer programming. Being forced out of the videogame industry in 2004 had not been an happy experience at all and I am still trying to make sense out of it. But life goes on and if I am not really capable of “letting go” that part of my life, I am gardening the (possibly false) hope of making some games in my spare time.I am just a programmer and I know my game design skills will never rival with even to the scantest game designer. That’s why I bought and read this book. Not with the intent of becoming a game designer, rather with the desire of filling some of the gap and better understand the techniques and the mechanics of their work.
The book is easy to read and concepts are easily grasped. I found some little inspiring pearls. The first is the introduction itself. Authors claim that in an ideal world they would have suspended their work for at least one year in order to properly write the book. Actually this is impossible, as is impossible to do with much of the work they do – multiple projects are developed in parallel and the successful worker has to deal with this rather than complaining.
The first drawback is, IMO, a direct consequence of this – the book is not very well organized. I found that some chapters are out of order and oftentimes an overall picture is missing. It is not too bad, you may argue that is just “creative” at work.
Another interesting concept is that writing a game (o a show, a movie) is not “art” but “craft”. I.e. “art” is about inspiration and cannot be relied on for day-to-day work. “Craft” is something that gets thing done, in the best way, even when your muse is on vacation.
The book propose a good number of exercises. I started with the intention of doing them all, but some of them are too time consuming to be done on holiday, with an inviting sea in front of you (and your children yelling around).
The other big drawback is that this book is much more about “writing” than “designing”. The distinction may be thin, but “writing” pertains to the story, while “designing” pertains to the mechanics of the game. Most of (if not all) the problems are seen from the story point of view. Therefore characters are examines and created starting from their story, their internal struggle, their relationship, i.e. everything that is story, rather than from “powers” and which “actions” they perform.
This is not bad per se, it is just that the title may result a little misleading.
I have mixed feeling about suggestions given in the book about the job at large. At one extreme are good advises about how to deal with conflict in the team or with other project stakeholders (even if not everything is applicable in working context other US). At the other end are obvious suggestion (don’t live over your possibilities and subscribe a pension fund).
The book proposes a set of templates for the definition of characters, parties and world. The approach is good and likely the tables contain the right set of questions. In fact I found myself to develop an unexpected and quite awesome background for the videogame I am working at.
To sum it up, read this book if you are interested at story in videogame.

Red Ring of Death

Despite of the claims, I start thinking that the failure rate for XBox 360, regarding the Red Ring of Death is approximately 100%. I hoped that the occasional freezes I experienced lately more and more often were just to blame to not enough QA for the games I was playing. Today I even bought two new games – Red Alert 3 and Mirror Edge (hi Manuel) – but after having watched Red Alert trailing videos the console locked up with the infamous red blinking.
Microsoft extended the warranty to three years for this very problem. Maybe I’m still covered.

Tomb Raider – the prophecy

PaoloMan sent me a link to a video review of Tomb Raider – the prophecy the game we developed some years ago when I worked at UbiStudios. The development was quite a challenge – we have to reuse as much as possible from the previous game – Rogue Spear and write, test and debug the whole game in three-four months.

Continue reading “Tomb Raider – the prophecy”

The end of the Trousers of Time

Eventually one leg or the other turns out to be worse than the other. Times ago I wrote about being down in one leg of the Trousers of Time. Now it turned out that the leg I picked up is the good one and the other is a dead end. Feww! GameLoft Milan subsidiary closed at least according to the recent news. That’s sad and somewhat beyond understanding. The firm showed to be brave to invest in the Italian game industry but then retract despite of a great sales year. That reminds me of other stories by the same French proprietors, but those are… other stories.
I wonder how it turned out the decision that the investment was a complete waste of money and resources and the studio was better closed. After nearly a year of work they considered that the team was so worthless that keeping a production line in Italy was a nonsense. I personally know some of the people who worked over there and I know they are talented and have specific game industry experience, so I can’t figure out the reason for such a drastic decision. My solidarity to all those people laid out. I know what it means, really.

Disappointingly Short

There are events you can’t miss. If you have an Xbox 360 you simply cannot afford to miss Gear of Wars, Bioshock and the most unmissable ever Halo 3. With over 4 million copies sold in pre-order alone and a 93% score in average is hardly something you can heart-lightly miss or ignore. So I diligently bought my copy and started playing it. The game story is set just after the end of Halo 2. I am not a 3D guru, so the graphic let me quite unsurprised – Halo 2 had a superb outlook on the Xbox 1, while XBox 360 sported Gears of War and Bioshock that trained us to take for granted such high levels of details. So the start of Halo 3 in a wide open jungle wasn’t really astonishing, was more a … well, yes, good sort of thing.
The game is nonetheless very polished, you find enemies, weapons and vehicles, lots of funny stuff.
The most annoying piece of the game is the AI of the jeep driver that quite often get stuck into some dead end, leaving the player an easy target for incoming enemies.
The story is good, is somewhat more understandable of that of Halo 2, nonetheless is quite fictional for the game progressing, just blast away your enemies, try to not hit your friends, that’s all.
There are a couple of points were the sense of wonder brutally kicks-in, the ending level is epic. Although I miss the awe I felt back in Halo 2 when I discovered I could jump on the insectoid-mecha and bring it to a grinding halt.
But the worse part, the really bad thing is that this game is short! Really short, you can cut through it like a knife through a piece of butter and around in the same time. 8-10 hours even for me that can qualify something more than casual gamer.
The XBox live for sure brings oxygen to the game, adding value, but if you, like me, have not the on-line option, than this game is hugely overpriced.
My vote is 6 of 10.


Last Saturday I completed Bioshock. I think this is the last horror game I am going to play on this and next hardware generation. It is becoming way too scaring. This game is rated 18 and it really is – the second level, set in a hospital, is also quite disturbing. The overall atmosphere is dark and chilling.Despite this, the game is great, immersive and thought provoking. That’s quite odd for a game especially if you consider that I wrote that not meaning the alienation you get after too many hours spent on Tetris, when you start thinking in boxes and shape pluggings.
The game has been widely reviewed and advertised, so I think that the scenario of the game is no surprise for you. Bioshock is set in an underwater city – Rapture. Built here by a (filthy) rich scientist and ideologist, Ryan, upholding the principle of extreme freedom, so that the great is not limited by the small, the scientist is not withdrawn by moral or religion. It is a great vision, then something went wrong, terribly wrong. It is interesting what a FPS videogame can move, whether is necessary or not that such unlimited and unconstrained utopia had to fail; what is the extent for those premises.
The player himself (or herself) is faced with strong questions. You have the chance of saving an innocent children or killing a terrible monster, you just don’t have enough clues to determine whether the small girl is one or another. You have to take a choice.
The story is good, the player is tied to the game not just by the game itself, but for the compelling story, to discover what’s next. Will the player be able to help Atlas to save his family? What will happen when the player will face Ryan? Is Mrs Tanenbaum really redeemed?
From the technical viewpoint the game is based on the Unreal Engine, the same used by Gears of War. This engine is capable of delivering complex sceneries to an outstanding level of detail. For this very reason artifacts of artificial behaviors clashes hardly on the suspension of disbelief. This seldom happens, just don’t look for your body, you have just a disembodied arm. Occasionally you may find a lighting problem or some iterations of the physic looking for the right place where you have to be positioned. But these are just minor flaws. This is a great game.


I was on the train, fighting against that locust general, trying to reach the solar bomb to get rid of all his vicious breed…Well I did it… at least virtually. I completed Gears of War, game of the Year, winner of several prizes and mentions, and got the status of “Mercenary”. So long, so good. Having played the never-ending Serious Sam (I and II) I expected the game to be somewhat longer, but apparently gone are the times when a game lasted for tens of hours… or maybe I’m getting too good at playing. Unlikely, I would say.
In this game you play Marcus Phoenix that begins his quest in a prison (Unreal, anyone?), freed by an old friend, stating that the army needs his help. And in fact any help is desperately needed – the world has been taken over by the Locusts, a cruel race of creatures resembling of reptiles, they savaged the cities so that the government decided to bomb everything (smart move, isn’t it?). Roughly you have the task of mapping the caves of the Locusts and then activating a “solar bomb” to destroy them all.

The game is a 3rd person shooter and one of the best yet seen. The graphics is gorgeous, really delivering a full immersion to the player, is movie-like quality and the suspension of disbelief is very easy. Classic realtime graphics defects (such as polygons cut by the camera plane, textures revealing their pixel based nature, squared objects) are basically non-existent. For this reason and the abundance of gore, this title is really not suitable for kids.
The only dissatisfying aspect is that bulk objects (such as the choppers) are apparently without mass, their movements is not as smooth and … inertial as they should be. The best bulk “mass” simulation in videogame remains Halo 2.
The camera (aside from never ever letting you down), sports an involving war-footage style.
The game play is slightly innovative, and it is quite difficult given that the genre counts tons of titles. New is the need for the player to look for a cover in a firefight, you have to plan your moves quite accurately if you don’t want to be blown off.
You can carry two weapons. Aside from grenades, there is a basic set of weaponry – the standard machine gun (with a chainsaw), a sniper rifle, a bow with explosive darts, a rocket launcher and a shotgun. You have a non-standard “Hammer of Dawn” which is a targeting device for calling satellite beam attack on your enemies. The satellite attack takes quite a long time for aiming and works only outdoor with clear sky (and satellite coverage).
You have a team, usually just another guy the fight at your side. His AI is pretty brilliant – he usually don’t get into your line of fire and doesn’t stops you from moving around (or worst blocking while you are retreating, as it happened in HalfLife 2). In the beginning of the game he usually hints you for the direction where the game proceed. The game is never too difficult on the brain side, the most difficult puzzle you have to solve is find the switch aside of the door you want to open, nor you risk of getting lost – maps are pretty big, but the path is so marked you have no chance to get it wrong.
The only downside with the gameplay is that occasionally the “take cover action” interferes with the movement, or the crouched-run that you try to save your life. Just occasionally annoying. Also, if you are picky enough you could note some bugs here and there, such as enemy boss that slams into invisible barriers, or the multipurpose floating robot Jack that appears out of thin air. The worst bug I encountered was against a boss, I was expected to attract the boss on a carriage with a gasoline tank, then leaving the cart and throwing a grenade to let the carriage explode with its annoying passenger. Unfortunately the split second I throw the grenade the boss jumped on my wagon, causing the trap to explode and leaving me without any weapon to get him off.
But these are just minor quirks for a great game I really enjoyed.