GWJ Conference Call Episode 247

Conference Call


Uncharted 3 Beta, FEAR 3, X-Plane 9, Great Little War Game, Shadows of The Damned, FEAR 3, Empires & Allies, Special Guest Ken Levine Talks Bioshock Infinite, Your Emails and more!

This week Shawn, Elysium, Julian and Cory are joined by Irrational's Ken Levine. He gives us insight into the 15 minute walk-through of Bioshock: Infinite that's airing on Spike this Thursday. He also talks about inspirations, running and studio, sucking at things, the meaning of money and more!

To contact us, email [email protected]! Send us your thoughts on the show, pressing issues you want to talk about or whatever else is on your mind. You can even send a 30 second audio question or comment (MP3 format please) if you're so inclined. You can also submit a question or comment call in to our voicemail line at (612) 284-4563!

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CastMedium
Game Thing Daily
Good Old Games

Bioshock Infinite
Bioshock: Infinite on Spike
Uncharted 3 Multiplayer Beta
FEAR 3
Shadows of The Damned
X-Plane
Space Pirates and Zombies
Great Little War Game
Ascension
Empires and Allies
The Devil in The White City
America 1900

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Show credits

Music credits: 

Intro/Outtro Music - Ian Dorsch, Willowtree Audioworks

You're A Grand Old Flag - Billy Murray - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzEJC... - 0:32:15

Bioshock Main Theme (The Ocean on His Shoulders) - Garry Schyman - http://www.2kgames.com/bioshock/ - 1:29:56

Comments

I think Ken Levine is absolutely right--the industry needs to market itself better, and not wait for others to recognize its worth. But whether he means to or not, the more he speaks out on these issues on GWJ and other media, the more he increases the likelihood of a publisher asking to include his name in the game title. Which is good; the industry just needs more people to take that leap.

Good conversation on multiplayer gaming. I don't think that better players getting more powerful weapons first because they level up faster creates that much of an imbalance, and most games do keep the weapon unlock trees fairly balanced. That said, the weapon unlocking mechanic could be done in a more interesting way. I think developers (talking about FPS or Uncharted type games here) need to rethink two things--skill balancing and what the value is in gradually making new weapons/items available.

In terms of skill balancing, I think Halo was on the right track--matching you with other players of a similar skill level. The problem here is what if not so many people play your game of choice, making it difficult to get into matches filled with people about as good as you, forcing you to play in matches where you regularly get your ass handed to you? At the same time you don't want to make the auto-drag effect too obvious. So what I think might work is to use the ranking system Halo has, but add a few modifiers that ramp up the challenge a bit for the better gamers. For example, make the skill rank the "age" of your avatar. Above a certain age, your abilities start to deteriorate. Your aim becomes a little less accurate, you move/reload a little slower, you can't carry quite as much ammo. Play test to figure out how strong the modifiers should be. This I think would encourage the better players to focus more on outsmarting their opponents, rather than just using their better reflexes to beat them.

At the same time, have a separate leveling system that makes new weapons and items available over time. People like having unique or rare things, and I think these days it is less important to leave the most powerful weapons to be unlocked last. Instead, let players have access to a full range of standard weapons up front with all the fancy scopes and whatnot. As players level up, they would instead "discover" unique or rare weapons (maybe Diablo style?) that aren't more powerful, but are clearly visible in combat. A high level player would have a gun locker full of interesting/exotic/historic weapons, and the game needs to provide a way for them to show these off to other players outside of combat. Maybe even allow them to trade these items, or to be lost/gained in battle.

The point to all this is that the value of being a higher ranked player should come from an understanding that it is actually really difficult to reach that rank, while still giving everyone the opportunity to get new and more interesting stuff. Keeping a separate leveling system will allow less skilled players to eventually get cool unique items, so they have something to work toward, but they would not have that intangible prestige factor the better players would have. I don't think this would bother most people, however, as long as they feel they have a reasonable chance to do well against the better players, without the better players feeling too much like the game is gimping them.

Regarding game consequences, I'd say there's some games that do have later consequences, but those consequences are limited and predictable, in that a certain follow up event is queued up for later in the game. What's extremely rare is for all those consequences to add up and interact (say you save the damsel in distress and kill a beggar in the street, and later the damsel learns of you killing the beggar and changes her attitude towards you). However, I think that's difficult and complex to do, and hard to do right in a game, I can appreciate that most games don't need it to sell, which is often the objective.

Something else I think is underrated and and perhaps underused in games is consequence of how you build your character, for example giving you a situation that is tough for a close range character and puts them at a disadvantage if you've decided to go that route. There's two factors in there, having some link between character builds and encounter design, and for designers to make an encounter that is tough for some player decisions or that they have to provide an alternate route for those players.

In case you couldn't tell, I want those kind of interesting consequences in games I play.

I'm disappointed Ken Levine seemed to create a false dichotomy when talking about working conditions at game companies. The developers at Team Bondi (and previously, Rockstar San Diego, EA Spouse, etc) are not looking for a gold star every day. They're looking for an environment that's not at overwhelming crunch time all the time, an environment free from verbal abuse, mismanagement, and possibly illegal employment practices.

Xplane! Yay!!!!

Lalalalala, not paying attention to any Bioshock Infinite stuff, going in completely cold. *sticks fingers in his ears*

I remember hearing that Ken Levine tends to listen to the Conference Call on his run.

So Ken, will you still run to this podcast even though you were part of the Conference Call?

I'm impressed by people like Ken simply because I understand how difficult it is to be creative and successful in a largely "artistic" field like Video Gaming. It's far easier to take risks and really stretch your creative juices when you have no real risk on the line. Once gaming became a "real" business and the money guys started attaching concepts like ROI, Exploiting Franchises, and "Risk Averse decision making" it forever changed the nature of the "game".

I do wonder if Ken ever gets jealous of guys like Notch who without any publisher pressure can sit back and freely develop in a vacuum.

Julian... I'm just wondering what you're basing the idea on, that Microsoft Flight is going to be some arcadey flight sim? It looks anything but that.

It has the games for windows live tag, but that supposedly has more to do with how they're going to allow add-ons.

FS Nerdism:

All I have to go on is what they've shown in screenshots and what little they've disclosed. From that I've concluded:

- They're focusing on bringing Flight to folks who aren't flight simulator nuts. All the imagery/video so far is very very simple GA aircraft and pretty scenery.

- They're focusing on the online componant "fly with your friends" and use the word "social" a lot.

- They seem to not be communicating with the add on community at all

- They've already mentioned (I believe) that there won't be backward compatibility, and most folks are assuming that the heavy touting of the GFW Live connections is as much about running an addon store as anything else.

- FSX, out of the box, was already sliding heavily towards "gamification" of Flight Sims, with a heavy focus on missions and a real dumbing down of the configurability. Years later, that's WAY not the case, and FSX with a load of addons, ATC systems, weather systems, aircraft, sceneray and airports is nearly a "total conversion" of the orginal game.

With all of that, I see X-Plane trying to, with Xplane-10, take the high-detail, highly configurable, sim-fanatic centric approach of the END state for FSX and go from there, where I sense (with limited information) microsoft going in the other direction.

Does that mean Flight can't surprise us with a massively open add-on friendly system that lends itself to multi-monitor, head-tracking, multi-input simming? Nope. I just don't see much evidence they're headed that way.

Rabbit, I had no idea that you were a fellow simmer. I waffle between FSX and X-Plane still, preferring the flight "feel" of the latter, and the massive add-on investments made into the former. At one point, I made a run at flying GA craft from Boston across the country; I quit in Ohio, but loved unwinding at night with a 2-3 hour flight, picking up from where I'd touched down the day before.

The thing that most flight sims struggle with, I think, is that flying on a computer is boring. Even with nice hardware (yoke, pedals, triple monitors, TrackIR, etc.), the act of flying tends to be somewhat underwhelming in simulation. Taking off, landing, and navigating -- that's fun. Flying in a straight line for a few hours without any social interaction, less so. VATSIM helps, I imagine, but it's a pretty high bar to set for the market that actually buys games. I struggle to picture MS investing heavily in that particular experience again, after shuttering the Aces studio. My hope is that by scrapping the FSX engine and starting anew, we'll get a better-performing and more capable sim, even if it means re-purchasing a bunch of payware at some point in the future.

That said, my truer hope is that X-Plane 10 kicks Microsoft's new sim in the tail.

I liked hearing someone like Ken Lavine say that each time they start, they feel like, "uh, how do I do this again?". As someone starting up a company with a creative product it's reassuring to hear that even the big wigs still feel those pangs of uncertainty.

Also,

Does anyone know if the Spike broadcast will stream legally for those of us that kicked our cable TV providers to the curb?

Ken is hilarious. Kudos.

Good to see someone else has the retail game buying disease too. I think.

I was surprised to hear Julian say that TF2 players get an advantage in having "better weapons" for having played longer. Fact is that the vast majority of the weapon drops are sidegrades, not improved versions of the default weapons. Valve has been (for the most part) careful to make sure that each new weapon has a downside to go along with any improvement.

Basically, the long time TF2 player has more playstyle options.

Great show! And thanks to Ken for taking more time to chat. Even if you may have lured him there on the pretense of playing WoW instead.

Two things that really stood out about Infinite and that make me feel like I understand the game much more clearly now:

-The skyline philosophy that it should be about combat tactics instead of "can I even make this jump." It feels like looking past the mechanics of it to the end goal of any skyline encounter, and then streamlining the mechanics to not get in the way, is the right way to go. The snobby PC gamer in my head complains that this may be "dumbing down" the game, but if it leads to better combat and doing awesome things more often instead of falling to my death, then that should quiet the whiny part of every PC player.

-The AI "talking" to one another in order to dynamically make cool things happen on screen in any given situation and the contrast to Oblivion's Radiant AI. Games like Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft have really ruined my tolerance for any kind of scripting, and I feel like this is a great compromise between the need to have set goals and progress versus the desire to feel like my experience will be unique.

Valmorian wrote:
I was surprised to hear Julian say that TF2 players get an advantage in having "better weapons" for having played longer. Fact is that the vast majority of the weapon drops are sidegrades, not improved versions of the default weapons. Valve has been (for the most part) careful to make sure that each new weapon has a downside to go along with any improvement.

Basically, the long time TF2 player has more playstyle options.


I get the impression Julian doesn't play much TF2.

Scratched wrote:
Valmorian wrote:
I was surprised to hear Julian say that TF2 players get an advantage in having "better weapons" for having played longer. Fact is that the vast majority of the weapon drops are sidegrades, not improved versions of the default weapons. Valve has been (for the most part) careful to make sure that each new weapon has a downside to go along with any improvement.

Basically, the long time TF2 player has more playstyle options.


I get the impression Julian doesn't play much TF2.

That stat's a massive lie. I certainly won't make any claim to SKILL, I've put in well over 100 hours in TF2, most of it admittedly in the first few weeks after launch. I'm sure plenty of GJWers remember me from those early, sad, sad days. I have well over a day in Engineer and Medic both. Heck, I was on that ill-fated DGR smackdown team we did.

I say this not to brag, there are far more of you playing far more and far better, but only to caution you against "journo gotcha" based on public profile stats on steam and Xbox and such. There's been a rash of this lately.

My guess is steam resets your played stats everytime you uninstall/reinstall. I have Steam on three machines, and am constantly uninstalling/reinstalling as I keep steam games on my (sadly small) SSD drive. According that page, I've never played Bioshock or most of the games I've purchased on steam, at all.

Have I played a ton of TF2 in the last few months? Nope. The skill gap for long-time players has left me far, far behind. But that said, I do watch and play and read about one of my favorite games, and perhaps I jsut don't get how, for instance, the amputator (Heal on taunt saw) isn't just better than the regular saw, which has the same damage.

But I accept your point -- they've been very careful to maintain balance, as you would expect from valve, and most of the upgrades for sure are "+ this, - that." Far more annoying for the non-uber gamer like me is the propensity of games to have levelling built into multiplayer, where players have "earned" better weapons, more weapon slots, etc. etc. This leads to all sorts of issues. I get that there are plenty of folks who LOVE systems like this. But the barrier for more casual players is rather steep, and leads to segregation in the communities.

So, point taken on TF2 upgrades.

Counterstrike: Source doesn't have leveling the last time I looked (may be wrong about that - haven't played) but I don't know that the supercompetitive high-skill-ceiling environment is any the more inviting for newbies.

The last time I reentered a Counterstrike team, I had a 1:20 kill ratio for days of gaming. That's 20 of my deaths for every kill I registered.

The thing is, gamers being people, they like to feel like they're improving at any activity they're doing, be it dating, gaming, or working. One solution is to just have a game where the skill ceiling is astronomically high: e.g. Starcraft. The other is to have a game where you can earn game mechanics through length of play ala RPG tropes.

Neither of those are friendly to newbies or casuals.

Levine makes me proud to be a gamer. He gives me hope that gaming will one day be taken as seriously as movies by the general public, especially in terms of being an art form and having deep meaning. In a way, thanks to games like Bioshock, gaming is already there.

Bruce Campbell said in an interview that when did Serving Sara, everyone on the set was laughing and having a good time, then the movie turned out to be crap. But when he made Evil Dead, it was a horrible, painful, miserable experience, but the movie was fantastic. When it comes to artistic endeavors, there is something to be said for adversity during the creation process. That being said, I don't think we should go to our jobs and start yelling at everyone. Well… maybe just a little bit.

What I want from the upcoming Star Wars MMO is a game that feels like it belongs in the Star Wars universe, and not just WoW/EQ with a Star Wars skin on it. Good luck Bioware. We're all counting on you. But not really.

Okay, Julian, sell me on X-Plane for iPad. But first, know that:

1. I haven't played a flight sim since I was a teenager, though I've recently become interested in getting back into them. So the learning curve might be kinda steep.
2. I can't stand tilt controls.
3. When gaming on the iPad, I generally don't have time to play for long uninterrupted stretches—it's generally a pick up & put down thing for me.

Will this sucker still work for me, you think?

So, xplane for IOs is cheap, and the only game in town. It works great in 10 minute chunks. Do a quick airport lap, or preset approach.

For the pc, don't take my word for it, just download the demo.

As for tilt controls, I'm generally not a fan. I don't think id permanently trade my yoke pedals and throttle for an iPad at the PC, but on the road, it's brilliant.

There are many nits to pick at the way Levine talks now vs. before but damn if you guys don't still cull the best conversation together.

Great episode.

Re: Ascension

It sounded like you guys were playing it on the iphone or ipad? I first played it as a tabletop card game, and I highly, highly recommend trying it in real-space if you get the chance. The gameplay mechanics and visuals really shine when laid out across a table. It's a truly fun, beautiful game. Yay, Ascension love!

Amoebic wrote:
Re: Ascension

It sounded like you guys were playing it on the iphone or ipad? I first played it as a tabletop card game, and I highly, highly recommend trying it in real-space if you get the chance. The gameplay mechanics and visuals really shine when laid out across a table. It's a truly fun, beautiful game. Yay, Ascension love!

I agree its great face to face, but beautiful? My daughter asked me if it was a prototype and what the art would like when it was done!

rabbit wrote:
Amoebic wrote:
Re: Ascension

It sounded like you guys were playing it on the iphone or ipad? I first played it as a tabletop card game, and I highly, highly recommend trying it in real-space if you get the chance. The gameplay mechanics and visuals really shine when laid out across a table. It's a truly fun, beautiful game. Yay, Ascension love!

I agree its great face to face, but beautiful? My daughter asked me if it was a prototype and what the art would like when it was done!

Youch : )
I agree that the character models are lumpy and awkward, I may have been blindsided and more forgiving due to the colors and textures.

Infinite is sounding and looking magnificent, but I feel like maybe you guys missed a trick tying the conversation into David Heron's comments from last week.

I agree with David that games are getting too big and expensive to remain sustainable and I would have been curious to hear Ken's perspective considering the scope of what he's working on now. Add to that the fact that Infinite is also pretty risky, it's not a 'safe' bet like a military shooter, it must be something he has thoughts on.

MrDeVil909:

I prefer to think of the statement as relative. David's friend and industry acquaintances, as far as he notices, are all working on games that are same-ish and too big and too expensive. Not all game designers and teams are working on such projects. Aside from the occasional indie blockbuster like Minecraft, there's a bunch of guys working on sustainable gaming systems in Big Fish, Zynga, Level Up, Play First, and various other notable companies on the App Store.

Granted, few of their titles are FPS's, but wasn't the same-ishness of gaming part of the concern?

I echo Demiurge's sentiments on this. There has never been a better time to be a gamer, because no matter what kind of game you like, you're bound to find a nice collection of material to satisfy your requirements. But let's not mistake the bounty to mean that the market only contains games that cater to the interests of a few.

Really enjoyed the episode. Great work, guys.

Podunk wrote:
Really enjoyed the episode. Great work, guys.

I agree. Ken definitely had a lot of food for thought with regard to publicizing video games and gaming.