Friday, June 5, 2009

E3 2009: What Else Can We Do?

the future Some pretty hefty claims were tossed around E3 this year.  Microsoft is now best friends with every social networking site, and it’s ready to bring Real-Time MoCap to your living room.  Sony thought they had an exclusive in Final Fantasy XIV, and they thought they’d stolen the show with their one-to-one tracking wand.  Nintendo thinks you need a Vitality Sensor, and they’re pretty sure they’re the ones who made everybody care about motion-sensor gaming anyway so…suck it, Other Guys.

These claims were huge, in some cases, gargantuan (in others, unfounded).  But I found my interest piqued by two games which got only a fraction of the buzz.  And I’m not interested in these titles simply for their own sake.  I’m intrigued by their potential, their contributions to the medium – I’ll stop the pontificating right there.  Hit the jump and see what I mean.

256 Players: Can You Really Control This?

For whatever reason, I don’t think MAG’s been getting the press it deserves.  About a month or so ago, a series of press previews hit the web, but I’m not sure that word’s fully spread to the masses.  Sony announced it in their presser, people clapped when they were told how many people were playing, but did they get it?  I’m not so sure.

For the uninitiated, MAG (currently abbreviating Massive Action Game) is an online FPS from Zipper Interactive, the folks behind SOCOM.  It will features 256-player battles, complete with maps modeled on a kilometer scale.  1UP’s Joe Rybicki said that during his time with the game, “[M]ost of us are too busy trying to get a sense of the sheer size of the environment we're fighting in to pay much attention to mission objectives right now.”  The Zipper guys doesn’t think this will prove too persistent of a problem.  The maps have been designed with 256 troops in mind, but also with the knowledge that these are primarily infantry units.  Getting from point A to point B shouldn’t feel like you’re playing Morrowind.

The footage from the E3 presentation was certainly impressive (as is their trailer).  Graphically, it walks that fine line between “This Is Good But Now Mindblowing” and “It’ll Do When You Consider How Many Twelve Year Olds This Engine Can Handle At Once.”  SOCOM always erred on the side of realism, so don’t expect much in the way of crazy weapons or aliens or crazy alien weapons in MAG.  Then there’s the sheer scale of the online match, which was worth the round of applause it received.

And it’s this sense of scale that will make or break the title – how the player fits into the overall battle, how the servers handle all the traffic, and, most importantly, how two hundred strangers are supposed to function as a unit.  People go to military camp for a reason.  They learn how to take and give orders so that objectives can be achieved in the heat of battle.  Your average Playstation-savvy teenager is not ready for this.  Nor is he regularly expected to in a virtual space.  Plus, MAG plans to use an experience system which will allow established players to be squad leaders and Officers in Command.  Meaning, that said Playstation-savvy teenager, regardless of his emotional maturity, may end up my Commanding Officer simply because he has ten more hours a day to devote to MAG than I do.  Not cool.

What has me worried about MAG is exactly what has me excited about it, however.  Years ago, I dreamed of a large-scale, multiplayer war game in which players would control troops in various levels of command.  Something like a Dynasty Warriors, but with squad leaders and some kind of overall general.  Then I played Savage.  It felt close.  But never quite clicked.  MAG might just click.  Games will consist of more than simple “Blow up the other base” objectives.  Squad leaders can issue FRAGOs (fragmentary objectives), which provide experience opportunities for their troops while simultaneously helping to turn the tide of battle.  If Zipper can somehow manage to reign in 256 players at a time, games of MAG might actually be fun.  In the meantime, it’s good to know the online infrastructure is in place for online games that are more than your average MMO grind.

Scale of a Different Kind

The second title that’s caught my eye is 5th Cell’s DS puzzler Scribblenauts.  Sure, it’s nowhere near MAG in scope.  Your lone character needs to obtain a single Starite to pass each level.  Sometimes just a single obstacle may be in your way.  It’s how you traverse these obstacles that’s worth discussing.  5th Cell, in a technological and creative coup, decided to give the player access to the dictionary.

What do I mean by that?  It’s simple, really.  Is the Starite suspended by a rope that needs cutting?  Type in “knife” and your character is given a knife.  Type in “scissors” and voila: scissors.  Need a vampire to take down that foe in front of you?  No problem, type in “vampire.”  For more examples of the kind of fun Scribblenauts offers, check out this trailer or the most recent episode of Co-Op.

I can’t get over how genius this is.  I’m not sure how many words Scribblenauts has in its visual vocabulary, but think about it.  Ten years ago, my crappy PC could run a program (MS Word) capable of recognizing a substantial portion of the English language while I typed.  Your iPhone can surf the internet and watch goofy Punch Out!! videos on YouTube.  Why couldn’t a developer fit a hefty amount of the dictionary into a DS cart, correlate some images and animations, and deliver an open-ended puzzle experience to players?

Open-ended is the key.  Most puzzles (and puzzle video games are no exception) require a specific solution, and part of the joy derived from the game is the triumph of figuring out said solution (re: Braid).  Scribblenauts offers players the opportunity to create their own solutions.  This scale of choice is unprecedented in the puzzle genre and on a handheld platform like the DS.  If this one does well, which I sincerely hope it will, I hope it inspires other developers to think outside the box.

Where To Next?

Games like MAG and Scribblenauts, while on opposite ends of the production value spectrum, demonstrate how technology really can impact the games gamers play.  We may not be excited by Sony’s motion wand because we get annoyed by Wii waggle controls.  We may not care that much about Natal until Peter Molyneux really figures out how to help us interact with virtual boys.  Leaps in graphical fidelity and the ubiquity of high speed internet allow us to tinker with the online multiplayer formula.  Existing databases of electronic information can be combined with some old-fashioned ingenuity to create contingencies and stockpile choices so that players can interact with a game on their own terms.  We don’t need to toss out the controller to create new ways to play games.  We just need to think of what else we can do.