Category: Gaming

Oh the (virtual) places you’ll go!

I was wandering through the Fallout3 version of post apocolyptic Washington DC when I spotted what I strongly believe to be a small section of architecture lifted from Oblivion. The area I was looking at was taken almost directly from a section of Cyrodiil. It was very small and subtle, and since Bethesda made both virtual world games it makes perfect sense that they would try and reuse some assets.

But in noticing it I was struck by all the useless virtual architecture and virtual geography I have in my head.

Am I ever really going to need again the knowledge I have of Vvardenfell? Or High Rock? How about Vice City or Liberty City? I scoured Pacific City for orbs and rooftop races. Will I really need the ability to know the fastest way to traverse The Volk island to reach Los Muertos? As I started thinking about it I got more worried.

What about all the various levels I have memorized from the Quake, Doom, and Duke Nukem games? Or the special geographic layouts integral to being good at RTS games like Command and Conquer in all its various forms, Age of Empires and its sequels, and Starcraft? My god it goes even further.

I remember almost all the level layouts for Ultima Underworld. Wait it’s even worse than that, I can even recall dungeon layouts from my D&D days. Ship layouts from Star Frontiers. The path to the keys IN ADVENTURE FOR CHRISTS SAKE.

My generation probably has more brainpower dedicated to storing locations that do not physically exist than any other right now. An army of explorers and travelers whose gigantic virtual world Talosian brains would rule even more supremely would that there was some applicable use for the knowledge.

Now I’m depressed. If anyone needs me I’ll be at D3D: E1L5 mocking Levelord’s "You’re not supposed to be here"

Blog Banter: More games like Portal and Braid

So I’ve joined in on Hawty McBloggy’s Blog Banter, whereby a bunch of gaming bloggers all blog at the same time occasionally on a specific topic. For my first entry in this series the topic is: "If you could ask for one thing this year from the gaming industry as a whole, what would it be and why?"

I’ve been thinking about it all week feeling a little weird now that I’m actually in the industry. Should I take the approach of what I want to see that I can directly influence? That seemed too much like, I don’t know, advertising. I figured I’d just write it as a gamer. So for those who might have a litany of Xbox things they want us to change or provide, you can email me.

I want more games like Portal and Braid.

When I first read about Portal Valve had not really talked much about the "plot" so the first impression I had of it was that of a first person shooter with an interesting gimmick. Not unlike Prey or Timeshift. Since it was going to be bundled with The Orange Box (oddest product name ever) I didn’t bother to read any reviews or pay a ton of attention to it until right up to its release. I already knew I was going to get Orange Box.

I’ve since spent hours with Portal and even replayed it when it was released to Xbox LIVE Arcade. You can boil the poral gun down to a gimmick if you want, but what it did in essence was force the designers to create a new genre, a First Person Puzzler. While they aren’t my favorite, I do enjoy puzzle games greatly and get that special little pleasure synapse firing whenever I solve something particularly tough. (Which is why I also think achievements are so popular) But we all have our standard view of what puzzle games look like and how they operate. Portal has shattered that. Instead of a gimmick added to put puzzles into a shooter, they tossed out the shooter entirely and focused on fun and atmosphere. And we got a great song out of it too!

Speaking of music, that brings me to Braid. Just like how Everyday Shooter took an established convention and made it seem new, Braid takes the puzzle adventure genre and provides a new sense of style to it. I love how Braid looks.

Roger Ebert often talks about how the primary purpose of movies is to show us amazing things we wouldn’t otherwise see. This explains why he tends to be more forgiving of a films flaws if it swings for the fences in its visual imagery (like, What Dreams May Come). You’d think, therefore, he would be a bit more understanding about games as an artform, but I digress. I feel the same way about video games. I can forgive a game a lot of flaws if goes for broke on something like visual style. If you really think about it, RezHD is the simplest possible gameplay dynamic. But the music and visual style make it a blast for me to play.

Same with Braid.

Like Portal, Braid isn’t afraid to muck about with the very conventions it uses to achieve its play style. The puzzles are very clever and several of them are real stumpers. But the art, music, and "plot" all combine into a result that shows that, whatever Roger Ebert’s view, games have passed the shaky toddler crawl/stumble phase and are really ready to start walking when it comes to being an artform.

Braid and Portal each have something to say. What it is, and how they say it, is what makes them standout experiences. When you look at their remise on paper, someone is going to say "but what makes that fun?" and might not want to take a chance on it. But Valve and Jonathon Blow took a chance and put in the effort. I would love for our industry to take their example and run with it in 2009.

Other participants!

Guitar Hero: Aerosmith

Last night I pretty much finished Guitar Hero: Aerosmith in about 3 hours of play. From popping it in for the first time to unlocking all the songs and finishing single player on Hard.

The Guitar Hero series is what brought me to music rhythm games and I still have some affection for the series, but playing GH:A just reminded me of how much I love the innovations that Rock Band has brought. One of the most important being rectangular notes instead of circles, in addition to the other band roles.

But GH:A just felt incredibly short, and I can’t tell if it’s my stereo but the sound was incredibly muddy on almost every track, the exception being if you unleashed star power. Then the sound sounded normal and clear. Weird. Playing it, I just kept wishing it were Rock Band.

I doubt I’ll be picking up any future GH titles until I examine World Tour, and even then I will have to weigh, perhaps even physically, whether I want another set of plastic instruments in the theater room.

Don’t get Intellectually Lazy

Every once and a while any good security professional gets reminded of just how pervasive you have to let your security paranoia be when designing tools and systems.

Case in point, we discovered a minor issue in the tool we created to do Xbox LIVE complaint enforcements. It caused the tool UI to hang when displaying profile field complaints. Gamertags and everything else was humming along just fine. We were kind of scratching our heads over it.

Without going into too much detail on architecture, the tool has a UI component that renders complaint data to our agents so they can review it, and an enforcement component that enforces the decisions. I designed these to be separate since the UI component for profiles and gamertags is basically taking in a complaint stream consisting of a large amount of user created data.

Granted, that data is text only, but my theory was that if anything happened on the UI side, it would be isolated to that side only. The enforcement engine is on a completely different machine and only accepts set limited non-variable input. The UI is rendered for low rights IE 7 and the agents process the complaints on restricted user accounts on Vista. The entire toolset is also isolated from the LIVE service itself.

Yay for me.

Until someone put script in their Bio field and someone else complained about it. The UI design hit script where it didn’t expect to see it and halted. [EDIT: since I got asked, no the script was not malicious in nature, it was just a simple display of a bad word]

Thankfully it only caused our UI for profiles to hang until we (quickly) figured it out. This was a good "Fail safe". It didn’t interrupt enforcements or represent any threat at all to the service since the enforcement tools are totally isolated from the LIVE service, but when we discovered the problem boy was my face red. How many times have I dealt with issues involving trusting input to let something like this happen. Michael Howard would point at me right now and laugh.

So here’s a case where overall design took into account best practices (I knew to isolate variable user generated input) but I only trusted myself to think about the threat model and didn’t define specifically what bad input would consist of. I got a little intellectually lazy, but thankfully thanks to design this wasn’t a threat of any type other than an annoyance. Let that be the lesson I was reminded of so you don’t have to be!

(and yes we now vet the data stream for a variety of nasty text bits)