Game Producer Quest, Part 03

Spoilers about games abound.  You have been warned.

So with rumors on the internet about Bioware patching the ending to Mass Effect 3.  I had noted in my last post that I think they should stick to their guns, simply because the idea of having invested in an incomplete game (“This is the fake ending!  Here’s the real ending, right here for $10.00!) does not endear me…to anyone, really.  Then I began thinking if a precedent was being set here.

And I realized that this has happened before.  In Fallout 3, you take the role of the Lone Wanderer, and in the main plot line can choose to activate a machine that will purify the water of the land.  If you choose to do so, you die.  Or someone else whose name evades me can do it, and you live.

Fallout 3 Dad

Now son, you must sacrifice yourself to save all of humanity, ghouls, and mutants. I know you can do it. I'm so proud of you...now go ahead, and die.

At the time, if you chose to sacrifice yourself, the game was over for your character, uncharacteristic of a Bethesda game.  I was accustomed from Morrowind and Oblivion to continuing the adventures of your character after the main story ended.  While it is true I could have loaded an earlier save to complete the remaining side quests I had skipped over for achievement points, the adventure felt over for me, so I let it lie.

I tend to wait for DLC to go on sale before purchasing, so I did not find out much later that this ending was essentially patched with a new DLC adventure.  Apparently six weeks (or maybe months?) after activating ‘Project Purity’ your lone wanderer awakens, having somehow magically survived the ordeal.  Now, I don’t recall the internet exploding with anger at Bethesda at their original ending, but my memory may be off on this subject.

Speaking of endings, while I cannot say I’m happy with Mass Effect 3’s ending, it doesn’t make me furiously angry as well.  As I noted, I find it to be rich in confusion, which can be frustrating but I’d like to think the franchise will go on and lift my confusion, even though its sales don’t compare to Modern Warfare.  Case in point, I took a peek at vgchartz, and Mass Effect 2 across all platforms sold under 4 million worldwide.  Certainly very successful, but not a mega seller; case in point, Modern Warfare 2 across all platforms sold a little over 23 million.

As a gamer, I can immediately think of two endings that I consider to be worse than Mass Effect 3.  The first and foremost game that springs to mind is Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2.  While the first one was developed by Bioware, the second game I believe was developed by Obsidian.

Star Wars: KOTOR 2

When the ending rolled around, the disappointment on my face was unmistakable and sad...

I remember being so excited about the sequel as I enjoyed the first iteration so much.  It started out somewhat slow, but once things got rolling, it was certainly as fun as the first one.  Until the ending; after the final boss battle, you see the ending cutscene, which sees the Ebon Hawk (a Millenium Hawk clone) flying away.

That’s it.

There’s nothing else.  That’s the ending.

It was awful.  I would argue that it’s a non-ending, and raised a dozen questions, which incidentally is what the ending to Mass Effect 3 purposefully does.  Increasing confusion does not make a good ending, in any medium.  At least in my opinion…

The second worst ending would be for a game called Quest 64.  It was the Nintendo 64’s first RPG, if memory serves me correctly, and the gameplay was certainly competent, and fun for a time.

Quest 64 Boxcover

The first RPG for the N64, with an ending so disappointing, it hasn't been played since.

However, the game was long enough where by the endpoint I was tired of playing and just was looking forward to the ending.  However, the ending consisted of a still picture, a painting of a castle I think, with a couple of text boxes below…aaaannnd, cut!  That’s the ending…I was so disappointed, thinking “That’s it?!”

Finally, the Mass Effect 3 guide is sorely lacking in maps and just as importantly, a checklist of clusters that can be scanned for war assets, intel, artifacts, and fuel.  So for my second playthrough, I took the time to make such a list, keeping my laptop handy while I played.  I don’t claim it to be perfect, though I do believe it to be 100% accurate.  It’s the best job I could do and believe it to be a valuable tool.  Just remember that some systems don’t become available until later in the game.  Anyone may use it, though if you post it, I would appreciate giving credit and adding where you originally found it. Anyway, it’s a pdf that you can print out and ensure you get all the war assets from scanning and what not.  Enjoy: Mass Effect 3 System Exploration Checklist

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Game Producer Quest, Part 02

Spoilers abound, regarding Mass Effect 3, so read on at your own peril.

So I finished Mass Effect 3 last night.  Technically, early this morning at 3:00 AM.  It was…interesting.  I had been meaning to get to the end as to better understand the stories that have permeated the internet regarding fan backlash against Bioware and how the game ends.  I’ve been avoiding those posts and stories so that I could judge for myself what they had done.  Now that I have finished it, I’ve been catching up on what has got fans all hot and bothered.  Some are more diplomatic than others, but one of the best I’ve read is right here.

Before I talk about the ending, I think I’ll mention things I like / disliked about the game.  Combat is very enjoyable overall, with well-designed levels, impressive enemy AI, and fun player abilities & weapons.  Voice acting is as strong as ever, the music is pretty good, though it recycles quite a number of tracks from the first two games.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that; in fact, it’s expected.  Still of the three games, I think the 2nd game had the best musical score.  In fact, I was admittedly not all that crazy about the music for the closing credit sequence.  It was good, but I would have preferred some grand, orchestral score playing with the main Mass Effect musical themes that dominated the three games.  Almost like a musical overview of sorts.  Instead, something unique was presented, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Personal preference I suppose.

There are other constructive criticisms I have, such as squadmate AI, which at best is competent, and at worst continues to make me cringe.  I have literally seen my squadmates stand in one spot in combat doing absolutely nothing.  Not using ability, firing a gun, or moving for cover.  Nothing, and they get killed for their stupidity.  Or alternatively, I have seen a squadmate sit behind cover for long stretches at a time, not even peeking out to take fire.  They just sit there.  It’s true that I can direct them to move to another location, but it simply does not feel like I’m fighting with strong-minded, free-willed individuals.  It’s occasionally infuriating, as I’m no longer part of a team, and essentially feel like I’m fighting alone, by myself.  On one hand, this does not happen too often, but it does happens with enough regularity that it’s noticeable. Smarter squadmates would be appreciated.  In fact, a part of me wonders if the squadmates from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic were smarter.  I don’t even recall this being an issue in that game.  Same with Jade Empire.  In this generation of consoles, shouldn’t the squadmates be getting smarter?

Another constructive criticism is that choice of squadmates.  I’m not talking numbers, as someone at Bioware had mentioned in an interview that they wanted to limit the number of squadmates to make character interactions more meaningful.  I understand that, but as it stands, we have four people returning from the first game (Ashley/Kaidan, Garrus, Tali, Liara), and two/three new characters (James, Javik, and EDI), depending on if you have the “From Ashes” DLC.  EDI was not a squadmate in the 2nd game though she was introduced there, so I’m counting her as brand new.  This screams character imbalance to me, as there are ZERO selectable squadmates from Mass Effect 2 (discounting Tali & Garrus, who made their first appearance in Mass Effect).  True, many of them make cameos, but I would have loved to have had some selectable people who debuted from that second game.  Grunt would have filled the noticeable Krogan void on the team, for example.  I would have found this more preferable, and I don’t believe adding two additional squadmates from Mass Effect 2 would have made character interactions any less meaningful.  In fact, I would argue the opposite to be true, though more than two would probably be pushing it.

Finally, while the gameplay is quite strong, there were a  few moments where I wish the context sensitive button and roll/evade button were not one and the same.  For example, there were some overwhelming battles where to end it, Shephard had to make a run to a console and active it.  So I would do so, and when I reach the console I press A to activate it…and tuck and roll towards the console.  If you aren’t standing at the right distance, looking straight at the console, it won’t register.  Then I was killed for my desperate action, outside of cover.  These circumstances only came up two or there times throughout the entire game, but again it is noticeable as everything else is so smooth and refined, and a part of me wonders if there is a better solution.

Getting back to the ending, there’s now an indoctrination theory floating around that some fans are lending credence too.  It’s rather neat, and brings up some of the confusing moments I found about the ending.

For the record despite my feelings on the ending, I think Bioware should stick to their guns with regards to the ending.  They had enough courage to try something very different, though their execution of the differences I find questionable.  And that’s okay, as no one bats a hundred.  Even the Bioware’s of the world stumble on execution once in a while.

So what did I think about the ending?  I found the three choices (two for me due to not enough war assets) of taking control of the reapers or destroying all synthetic life to be interesting, but also strange.  When the choices were presented, there was a brief image of Anderson destroying the Reapers, and the Illusive Man taking control.  This would suggest that destroying the Reapers was the paragon choice, and taking control was the renegade choice.  However, when I went to make my choice, the area to take control of the readers had a blue hue (paragon), while the area to destroy the reapers had a red hue (renegade).  This made me question which to go for, and I wondered why Bioware was making this choice so ambiguous.  After all, I had spent the all of this game, and the two previous ones, making paragon / renegade choices.  Perhaps Bioware was tired of having these choices defined by this system, but the problem is that this is the system that they themselves developed and championed for three straight games.  It may very well have been Bioware’s intention to play the ambiguity card with regards to choice, but I question whether this was really the time to do so.  It’s okay to try something new and different from what came before and change the status quo, as this is what it means to innovate.  I question the timing however, as the ending to Shepherd’s story would have probably had a greater payoff for player’s who played through these games as a virtuous paragon or ruthless renegade would have liked to have seen THOSE specific decisions to the end.  I would argue that now is not the time for these decisions.

Another strange decision Bioware presented is that regardless of the choice Shepherd makes, the Mass Effect relays would be destroyed, essentially cutting off all interstellar space travel.  For a futuristic science fiction franchise, this seems to be an odd choice to me.  Unless Bioware has a “we can rebuild all the mass relays” card they can play, cutting off contact to all the species makes me wonder exactly where they will, where they can take this franchise.  Shepherd’s story, excluding DLC, is for all intents and purposes over.  Bioware has been very upfront from early on in the series, saying the Mass Effect trilogy was Shepherd’s story.  With that said, I would be shocked if there wasn’t another Mass Effect game, perhaps another trilogy with a new protagonist.  So I wonder, where they could take the series with the Mass Effect relays destroyed.  Are we going to see all the galactic species that came to fight the reapers all living on earth, and fighting each over land and property rights?  Are Asari brothels going to spring up all over the remains of Nevada?  Will the internet (formerly the extranet) explode with cross-species adult entertainment Cerberus will have a monopoly in and that the Alliance is trying to shut down?  While humorous on some level, none of these things screams excitement to me, though perhaps they’re thinking of creating a sci-fi Game of Thrones?

Finally, I simply found the ending to be overly confusing and convoluted.  I wonder if the team at Bioware like Japanese RPG’s?  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But I digress; as a Mass Effect relay explodes, we see Joker crash-land on what appears to be another planet.  At least I think it’s another planet…unless I missed something and it was earth.  It was 3:00 in the morning when I watched this.  Anyways, this is followed by Joker exiting the Normandy, followed by Javik and Liara.  This scene makes me scratch my head in utter confusion.  The battle was on Earth…why would the Normandy be anywhere near a Mass Effect relay, let alone another planet?  Did Admiral Hackett tell them to leave the system to go get him some much-needed coffee?  And Liara was one of my squadmates…how did she get on the Normandy?  I was worried she got zapped by the Reaper when we were making a desperate run for the transporter beam, but apparently she decided “Hey Shepherd, I love you and all, but I forgot to feed your fish on the Normandy.  Also, someone is paying me one million credits for Shadow Broker information.  Be right back…”

Casey Hudson stated the following regarding the backlash for the ending: “I didn’t want the game to be forgettable, and even right down to the sort of polarizing reaction that the ends have had with people–debating what the endings mean and what’s going to happen next, and what situation are the characters left in. That to me is part of what’s exciting about this story. There has always been a little bit of mystery there and a little bit of interpretation, and it’s a story that people can talk about after the fact.”  I question the mystery part.  True, there were revelations throughout the games.  In the first game, after fighting Saren for much of the game, we discover he’s been indoctrinated by the Reaper Sovereign.  In the second game, we discover later on that the Collector’s are indoctrinated Protheans.  But having revelations that add to the mythos of the Mass Effect universe are different from showcasing cut scenes that make very little sense.  The examples I gave are within the context of the story.  The cut scenes at the end came out of no where, making me think: “What just happened?”

As for not having something forgettable, this is a personal belief of mine, but I honestly believe that it is not super levels of complexity or mystery that make a story unforgettable.  You can take the simplest story in the world, and make it compelling and engaging through strong execution.  Execution trumps all, and in this case the execution was…courageous, if uninspired.  Again, no one bats a hundred.

Then again, I’ve been wrong before.

Game Producer Quest, Part 01

So I’m thinking I should refrain from blogging whenever I’m jet lagged at an airport waiting for to board my flight.  I can’t even write blog post titles correctly.

So a new quest begins…actually, this has been ongoing for awhile, but attending GDC 2012 has rejuvenated me in a sense.  I don’t want to jinx myself, but if everything goes well, I’ll be graduating Full Sail University by the end of the month.

And by merely mentioning it, I probably just jinxed myself.  Le sigh…

Onto different news, I’m thinking I’ll use this blog to write about producer topics and job hunting, but truthfully, I’ll probably just whatever strikes my fancy.  Sometimes I’ll talk about food, sometimes I’ll talk about sports, sometimes I’ll talk about video games.

Foodwise, I normally avoid Taco Bell, but for lunch today, decided to try their new tacos with the Doritos shell.  It honestly wasn’t as disgusting as I had imagined it would be.  It’s weird to have orange, finger-licking, faux cheese on my fingers after eating a taco though.  Also, I’m not sure it tastes all that much better from the regular Taco Bell taco.  Come to think of it, that’s what I should have done: a side-by-side taste test!  Maybe I’ll save that for next time…

Onto video games, due to GDC last week, I had to reschedule my delivery of the Collector’s Edition of Mass Effect 3.  It just arrived not even 10 minutes ago, filling my day with absolute joy.  Still, I probably will refrain from playing it immediately, as I’m waiting on a super-important email from Full Sail hopefully giving me some good news.  While my I’m on the subject: video game developers and publishers, please refrain from releasing titles the week of GDC from this point onward.  That would be greatly appreciated, thank you!

Mass Effect 3 Collector's Edition and Guide

I've been waiting for you both...would you like a seat?

Game Developer’s Conference Quest 2012, Part 3

The journey home from GDC 2012 begins today.

So I pulled a rather bonehead move, and forgot to empty my blender bottle, which was full of water.  My options after I had gone through the security gate were to let it be confiscated, or to go through the gate for a second time, with the bottle empty (or consumed).  Even though I had plenty of time to spare, I had no great desire to go through the security gate again, so I let them have it.  Looks like I’ll need to invest in another blender bottle.  Le sigh…

I have a connecting flight in Phoenix, and won’t be back in Orlando until 12:20 AM Sunday morning, assuming the flight is on time.  Considering driving time, and I probably won’t be back home until 2:00 AM.  C’est la vie.  Still, it’ll be good to be back home.  And until then, I have my Nintendo 3DS and Game Developer magazines to keep me company.

Oh, and quick note about Mass Effect 3.  I read on eurogamer that the PS3 version suffers from framerate issues.  While not as gamebreaking as Skyrim, it can probably be annoying for Sony enthusiasts.  A part of me can understand player frustration, but to make blanket comments about how Bioware should have optimized PS3 performance is a bit much.  Heck, the only games that really truly demonstrate optimized PS3 performance are PS3 exclusives.  Crossplatform development can be a bit trickier, and with x amount of resources to invest (even if x amount is huge) doesn’t necessarily mean perfect performance across all platforms.  A sad, yet understandable truth, I suppose.

Game Developer’s Conference Quest 2012, Part 2

Friday, 3/9/2012

Le sigh,

So what happens when you try to make a post as quickly as possible between sessions?  Lost of spelling errors, titling the post incorrectly, and an overuse of the word ‘attend.’  Oh well.

I attended a couple of sessions yesterday, including two from Bioware that were fun.  The first concerned the idea of encouraging team members to take ownership of whatever they’re doing, while the second focused on using contrasts to create meaningful story and gameplay.  Fun times!

So the last day of GDC 2012 went out with a…something between a bang and a whimper.  It was fine for what it was.  I attended a morning session on networking, which was very informative and well done.  As for the remainder of the day, I talked to company representatives of whatever publishers had booths at the career pavilion.  Again, fun times.  I’m actually writing this in the Moscone Center before I make the six block trek back to the hotel.

If there’s one thing I learned, unless I get an ipad between now and GDC 2013, it’s to bring two notepads with me; one for taking notes during sessions and another purely for networking reasons.  Oh, and I bought a t-shirt and shot glass, both adorned with the GDC 2012 logo.

My flight gets into Orlando early Sunday morning at 12:20, and I won’t be back in my apartment until around 2:00 AM, I’m guessing.  C’est la vie.

Game Developer’s Quest 2012, Part 1

So I was planning to return to blogging with daily entries of my experience at the Game Developer Conference.  It’s my first one ever, and that alone makes it all exciting.

However, the wi-fi at the hotel I’m staying at is virtually non-existent.  I try logging into the wi-fi, and I’m the log-in screen just loads…and loads…and loads…le sigh…

Perhaps I should have anticipated this, as the hotel is an older, historic hotel.  Still, it is frustrating.

So what I’ll do is write my thoughts daily below, then throw it all into one super-long blog that I’ll post at my earliest convenience.

Sunday, 3/4/2012

It’s been forever since I last wrote a blog post, but I thought tonight would be the perfect time to restart, as I’m in San Francisco to attend my first ever Game Developer Conference.  It’s exciting, but not without some pressure.  I’m hoping to network and make some great contacts in the game industry, which in turn will lead to potential job prospects.

In the meantime, the flight from Florida today felt long.  The good news is that there were no connecting flights.  The bad news is that there were two stops en route to San Francisco, first at St. Louis, then Denver.

Looking forward to day one of the conference tomorrow.  More blogging then…

Monday, 3/5/2012

The first day of GDC was fun and informative.  When I complete my Masters at Full Sail University, it is my intention to become a certified Scrum master.  I attended a Scrum essentials talk hosted by Clinton Keith and Scott Crabtree.  The Scrum parts were informative and served as a good primer for my future interests.  Meanwhile, Scott mentioned many things that I already learned from my music education / choral conductor days.  Still, he put a scientific twist on the whole thing, which I can appreciate.

Also got to meet up with some Full Sail friends and classmates.  Fun times indeed!  Anyways, more blogging tomorrow…

Tuesday, 3/6/2012

Another fun and informative day here at GDC.  Spent some more time with former Full Sail classmates.  In fact, one of them was just hired to be a production assistant at Bungie, so congratulations to him.  Today’s talk was a Producer Boot Camp, and has a plethora of speaker share their insight and experience on the subject.  Again, similar to yesterday, there were many things mentioned that I had already learned from music education, but there were also some new items, or a different twist on similar topics that piqued my curiosity.

The conference feels like it’s farther along than it really is for me, but in any event, many of the tutorials, filling the entire day, are complete.  Instead, we have shorter sessions, with many to choose from.  In fact, there are quite a few occurring during the same time slot, and I’ll have choose carefully.

Wednesday, 3/7/2012

Attended talks by Sid Meier & Tim Schafer today; real cool stuff.  Sid talked about game design from a very broad view, sharing his insights into things we should talk about.  For example, supplying interesting decisions for the players to make during gameplay.  Tim Schafer spoke about some of the smaller games his company, Double Fine, had done in recent years.  Also, while the names evade me, I did attend a talk by an artist from Rocksteady who worked on Batman: Akrham Asylum & Batman: Arkham City, as well as a talk by a software engineer at Bioware, Edmonton, which is essentially my dream company to work for.

Thursday, 3/8/2012

So I got smart and brought my laptop to the Moscone Center to use their infinitely better wi-fi so I can make these blog posts.  I haven’t attended anything as of yet, but I’ll attend to the career expo in about 10 minutes or so.  I’ll post again tomorrow if I get to attend any talks.