Monday, August 13, 2012

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Once upon a time I had a girlfriend. She liked to play games and the games that appealed to her most were singing or dancing type of games. She liked horror based games too, especially ones featuring zombies, but tended to prefer watching them being played. I'd try and get her to join in or have a go herself but she'd decline because by her own admission, she sucked at these games.

One day I was playing Fable 2 and she showed a great deal of interest in it. Having a momentary brainwave, I quickly made a profile for her on my Xbox and got her to create a character. She started a new game and I joined in as her henchman. Doing this gave us hours of fun as she got to experience the game without the frustration of struggling with the combat. Any time she got overwhelmed, my character could jump in and take out some of the enemies. 

What a great feature, I thought at the time, removing one of the more frustrating elements for casual gamers while allowing them to explore and enjoy the game world. And look! I'm actually playing a game with my girlfriend!

Now imagine some time later I'm working on a sequel to a successful game. Let's say that the main selling point of this game is its co-operative play. I'm faced with adding new ideas and content to improve it over the original. I think back to playing Fable 2, how much fun that was and how it would be great to get people like my girlfriend playing our new game.

"Hey guys" I might posit while sat in a meeting "Wouldn't it be cool if we could reduce the barrier to entry for our game?"

"What do you mean?" they may ask, unclear where I might be going with this, possibly sneering at the use of buzz phrases like 'barrier to entry'.

I may go into further detail and recount the Fable 2 story to them. How difficult some people find our type of game. How we should try and create a way to encourage more casual gamers to our franchise. 

While being roundly mocked for using the word franchise, a few nod in understanding but not everyone has understood my point. To win over the rest of the team I desperately try and convey the feature in an even simpler way. Jokingly I may suggest,

"Let's call it my girlfriend mode. A mode my girlfriend can play."

Everyone now understands.

And so we spend many hours on this feature, looking at how to make it work, how to balance it, how to make it appealing, attempting to address the issues that have prevented people from participating in our game previously. There's no real name for this yet, that'll get finalised nearer end of production, so it's still jokingly referred to as 'my girlfriend mode'. As the feature is closer to completion, I begin to feel very happy with it. Here's a cool mechanic that will allow more people to get involved and enjoy the experience too. Friends who have never played my game before can now join in. My girlfriend too. 

Hey I'm awesome.

Later I get interviewed about this new cool feature. Full of bravado of my own brilliance I explain my inspiration to the journalist. I go through the Fable 2 story, my meeting with the team and the 'my girlfriend mode' eureka moment. Excitedly I explain how even more people will be able to enjoy our game now. We've broadened our appeal without diluting the game one bit. Look at me, new features and a cool back story to go with it. This article is going to be amazing and everyone will recognise my genius. Everyone will be talking about this.

So imagine my surprise that when the article is published all the emphasis is on Girlfriend Mode, that my low barrier to entry mechanic is seen as patronising rubbish and that it appears that along the way I've said that all girls can't play games. Somehow I now look like a dick. 

Not a genius.

Of course, this didn't happen to me. 

Something similar did happen to John Hemingway, the lead designer on Borderlands 2 today. Whether he had a Fable 2 story, a 'my girlfriend mode' pitch or considers himself awesome is unknown. All the above is based on the fact that my Fable 2 story is true and if I was to ever pitch a similar idea to a team I may well find myself telling that story and the words 'girlfriend mode' may be said in a quick shorthand way to get the concept across.

Even as I write this, the Eurogamer article is being amended to attempt to clarify the original comments:

Now I very much doubt that Hemingway is a sexist, patronising pig or that Eurogamer deliberately focused on 'girlfriend mode' just to sensationalise the article to create traffic. Regardless, it seems to have created a storm over the careless use of a couple of words rather than focus on what is potentially a very good feature.

The games controller is like a language. Many of us, regardless of gender, have grown up with this language. We learnt the basics and as the consoles and joypads became more complex we adapted and mastered those too. It is native to us. For someone now, picking up your average controller for the first time is like asking them to conjugate verbs in Latin.

There's a reason why singing and dancing games are popular. Why your average non-gamer loved Samba de Amigo and Donkey Konga, Why EyeToy took off, why Wii sold so well and why Sony and Microsoft are pushing Move and Kinect. They remove the single most difficult part of entering the world of games. 

The controller.

Now I love console games and I loved Borderlands. I generally like FPS games but struggle with a keyboard and mouse set-up. Why? Because it's not my native language. I can get by on it but I'm not fluent. I know other people who are the exact opposite and would not even consider playing a FPS using a joypad.

So when I first read the Eurogamer article I was much more excited at their attempt to simplify Borderlands 2 than to notice the 'girlfriend mode' comment. Perhaps that makes me sexist too or perhaps I just saw it for what it was. A clumsy, inelegant, shorthand phrase to convey a great feature that was given too much prominence in an article.

Anyway, girlfriend mode for me these days means waiting for my arm to fall asleep.

Thursday, March 08, 2012


For those of you not aware of it, House of the Dead started out as an arcade game in the '90s. It's an on-rails shooter, where you use a light gun to shoot enemies, mostly zombies, with boss levels thrown in for good measure. It was developed by Japanese company SEGA and whether by design or due to translation issues, the original story is somewhat bizarre and the acting wooden.

Useless bit of trivia - SEGA started life as a US company called Service Games of America.

House of the Dead has had many incarnations in the arcade, on computers and on consoles, including spin-offs Typing of the Dead and Pinball of the Dead. One of the latest versions was House of the Dead: Overkill, developed by Headstrong Games, which gave the series a gritty reboot (aren't all reboots gritty these days?). Taking on the Grindhouse stylings of films such as Planet Terror, it was a gore-filled, F-Bomb laden journey through madness with an ending that at best is described as interesting and at worst disgusting. Having an 18 rating and the world record for most uses of the word 'fuck' in a game meant it was a bit of a black sheep on the family friendly Wii but regardless it was a  success.

Having spent far too much money in the arcades and too much time playing House of the Dead 2 on the Dreamcast, I was more than a little envious of those that worked on Overkill when I joined Headstrong. I loved the style and writing, particularly the B-movie film presentation. So when Headstrong were asked to remake it for the PS3 Move and I was asked to be Lead Designer, I jumped at the chance.

In many ways, being asked to update a successful game puts you on a hiding to nothing. If it isn't successful, the blame lies squarely on your shoulders. If it is, you're seen as having merely done a conversion, with all the hard work already done by the original team. So with that sort of pressure I wanted to ensure that not only was the game good but that it had enough differences and improvements to distinguish it from the Wii version and give us some ownership over it.

When working on a game like this, I like to do a lot of research and use as many influences as possible to get into the right mindset. Having played the original Overkill and House of the Dead arcade games was definitely a good start. Next, I started trawling through the game forums and reviews, seeing what elements were praised and which were criticised. From this, I could start making a wishlist of things that I wanted us to do.

As good a start as this was, I wasn't feeling I was in the Overkill mood, so further research was required.

So I bought a couple of books:

Some DVDs:

Some more DVDs:

A few more:

And this:

Actually, ignore that one. That was for another project.

Bought the T-Shirt:

And spent 2 days wandering the streets of Brighton looking like this:

And this:

It was at this point one friend suggested that I might be a little monomaniacal. After spending several days writing a rebuke, I'm pretty sure I proved him wrong.

Anyway, after all that research I was definitely getting into the zombie vibe needed for a game like Overkill and the hard work could commence. Naturally, it was only then that someone decided it might be a good idea to tell me that we weren't allowed to use the Z word and that our enemies were in fact mutants.

And as any horror expert knows, mutants are not the same as zombies.


Saturday, March 03, 2012

Bring it back

Those of you with higher than average deductive powers will have noticed that this blog has been dorment for the last 5 years. I wish I had some exciting story of having to fake my own death while attempting to save the world from an underground criminal cabal, being kidnapped and held hostage by nymphomaniac lingerie models that demanded sexual favours on an hourly basis or a strange case of Memento type amnesia where I lost the Post-It note marked 'update your blog'.

Sadly I've got nothing.


Just a slightly sheepish expression and a mild resolve to try harder until the next bout of apathy takes hold. I know that's the sort of commitment and dedication that is bound to endear me to readers new and old alike. Strap yourself in. You're in for a mediocre ride.

The obvious question is 'why now' and if I was being facetious, which I often am, I would reply 'why not?' However, dear reader, I think after such an absence I owe you a little more than that. So here it is.

I want to write more and a blog offers an outlet for that, opening up my musing, rantings and hopefully insights to a public forum. It means I have to make an effort, introduce some sort of discipline to my life and if nothing else, it keeps me away from drinking cider on the street corner with other undesirables. I have time on my hands at the moment and don't want to waste it.

Well, not completely..

To be a writer, you have to write, which while sounding moronically obvious is rarely that simple. Realising that I don't write anywhere near enough, it was long overdue that I started again. and so here I am. Hopefully a few of you will read this, comment, offer feedback and generally give me the motivation to carry on. If you don't, don't worry, you're not a bad person. I'm not judging you.


So I hope I can get back into the habit of writing on here regularly and in return you will get in the habit of reading it. I've given this place an overhaul, adding various buttons that allow you to stay updated, share my idiot words with friends (or enemies) or just add abusive comments.

Failing that you can abuse me on Twitter. Although abuse will have to be limited to 140 characters but that's your problem.

To start off with I thought I'd do a few bits on House of the Dead Overkill, talk about the scripts, cutscenes and marketing stuff I did for it. I might as well stick the scripts I wrote on here while I'm at it and some videos. Hopefully I can make it interesting for those of you that don't like grindhouse inspired video games and B movie bad writing. Although if you don't, what's wrong with you?

Once I've done that I might get back to my usual ranting nonsense. Who knows? Fresh start and all.

Regardless, it's good to be back.