Mafia III: Hangar 13 Couldn’t Win

Given the Mafia franchise’s track record of hype and half-measures, should we be surprised that critics love to hate Hangar 13’s Mafia III?

With a different dev for each game and hard-to-please fans at every turn (I’m one of them), the Mafia series can’t catch a break. Although an open world hit on the PC, the first game suffered from a garbage console port. The second game hit all the notes but the one that really mattered: it was an on-rails shooter disguised as an open world crime epic. Now, we have 2016’s Mafia III, open world, unpolished, buggy as all get-out, with what many have called a great story submerged in the mire.

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image credit: IGN

Critics adored the first Mafia game on PC. Released in 2002, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven sidestepped Rockstar Games’ comic mischief and opted instead for dramatic realism. Sporting a map three times the size of GTA III‘s Liberty City, it would be a contender for 2002’s PC Game of the Year at IGN.

In 2004, console gamers who missed out on the beloved PC game were (mis)treated to abysmal ports which for many gamers were their first encounters with the Mafia franchise. To put that in perspective, in 2005, PC popularity was 1.17% that of consoles. Things were different. Every intellectual property begged for the GTA treatment.

To console-exclusive gamers spoiled by GTA III (which had been ported to the Xbox in 2003), Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven wrote Rockstar-sized checks it couldn’t cash. Just take a look at the following PC/PS2 comparison video from YouTube user troyar R.

In 2010, Mafia II appeared on the scene. A good game but not a great game, this sequel suffered from design flaws and a bland empty world. Its gritty story prided itself on “mature content” for its one sake. Taking an unfortunate cue from the series’ creator, misogynists have made a pariah of Mafia II ever since the sky darkened and a great and “ethical” evil lurched out of the woodwork. But for the linearity of its campaign, its story’s fondness for stereotypes (i.e. women as sex objects, whores, damsels, status symbols for the men around them, insufferable old crones; Italian-American men as cretins of the criminal underworld), and an ill-begotten partnership with Playboy magazine (centerfolds appeared as collectables), 2010’s Mafia II might well have overtaken the GTA series.

At the time of Mafia II‘s 2010 release, Saints Row: The Third and GTA V were still in production. (As for Saints Row IV, its Prototype-like superhero gameplay wasn’t on the critics’ radar.) GTA IV was two years old and showing its age. Saints Row 2 was a largely overlooked cult hit. The mediocre True Crime series’ triumphant reinvention as 2014’s brilliant Sleeping Dogs wasn’t yet on the horizon, either. Mafia II‘s devs had an opportunity to upstage Rockstar at their own game and set a new standard for open-world mission-based action games, and they blew it.

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image credit: wikia

Mafia II‘s linear design eclipsed the game’s technical achievements as a fine cover shooter with a strong crime narrative. The tragedy is this: there’s a niche for the Mafia series. It could be the slightly too serious counterweight to Saints Row‘s purposeful, smarter-than-it-looks silliness, with the GTA series’ sardonic wit and tragicomic ultraviolence at the fulcrum.

Corrections

Updated (10/13/2016):

I’ve cut this article and issued a correction. While there remains a very serious copyright problem on the Amazon Kindle store, the issue is complex, with game concept art being sold as stock images. So, if you see your favorite character on the cover of a book, don’t assume foul play. It’s very possible that the rights holder has given the OK.

Updated (10/09/2016 3:35 PM):

This article covers the plagiarism problem in Kindle’s now notorious erotica genre.

Updated (10/09/2016 3:30 PM):

This article gives a solid overview of the history of plagiarism and unfair use among authors on Kindle.

Updated (10/09/2016 3:25 PM):

Here are some reasons why I initially had my doubts.

 

 

Beyond Good and Evil 2 Confirmed

Yesterday, Rayman creator, creative visionary, and underappreciated fashion icon Michel Ancel confirmed Beyond Good and Evil 2 is in development. You read that correctly. The sequel to the 2003 cult classic Beyond Good and Evil, rumored and whispered about since 2008, is at long last in the works at Ubisoft Montpellier.

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No shame in Ancel’s T-Shirt game. image credit: 24liveblog

Elderstatespersons of the gaming world joyously await the return of Jade and Pey’j. Never played Beyond Good and Evil? Ancel and his crew have got you covered. The first game will soon be free via Ubi30.

Gamemoir 05/09/2016 – Meaningful Decisions and Yesterday’s News: Why I’ve Waited So Long to Write My Final ECGC 2016 Piece

An ECGC article three weeks after the conference? I had better have a good reason for it, and I do. 


ECGC was last month, ancient news. Who even remembers it? An internet-eon has come and gone. PAXEast has happened. Everybody is talking about the lead up to E3. If you are going to report on yesterday’s news, you had better have a good reason to do so. I believe I have one. My notes on ECGC have helped me to put the cancellation / inevitable failure of my book’s Kickstarter campaign into a more useful context than, simply, “The people do not want another analog book about digital media.”

Two-panel discussions stand out to me as pertinent to the theme of this article.

In a panel called What Not To Do As a Game Writer, Richard Rouse III (State of Decay and the upcoming game The Church in the Darkness) hosted Carrie Patel (Pillars of Eternity), Antony Johnston (Dead Space), Annie Reid (Dead Rising 2 and Dead Rising 3), and Dan Jolley (Prototype 2, Dying Light, Transformers: War For Cybertron and Transformers: Fall of Cybertron). Patel talked about another writer’s rewrites that changed a flawed character, whom she had created to be flawed but likable, to a very bad guy. Johnston emphasized the importance of clear instructions and documentation when communicating over Skype and email. Jolley told a tale of woe in which he was not paid for his work on a game due to a contractual loophole. Reid gave examples of how passivity and foolish pride can be a game writer’s downfall. Stay humble but be heard; take the long-view.

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In a panel on Writing for Franchises, Carrie Patel, Eddy Webb (Futurama: Game of Drones, an addictive and consistently hilarious Match 4 mobile game), Jessica Sliwinski (Lead Narrative Designer at Disruptor Beam, makers of Game of Thrones Ascent), and Jonathon Myers (Game of Thrones Ascent, Ear-Plawhich makes immersive gaming experiences that are entirely sound-based). Patel and Webb shared anecdotes from their careers. Sliwinski sang the unexpected virtues of high-quality fan-fiction for aspiring game designers. What better way to prove you can write for an established franchise than to have a portfolio of evidence showing you can do just that? Myers emphasized the importance of having deadlines defined in writing, going on to say that if “silence equals consent” on an issue, then “spell it out” in the original correspondence. That is to say, if you ask a question in an email to the intellectual property holders and you receive no response, be sure whatever action you will take on the issue is in writing beforehand. After all, the IP holders have the final say. Define your terms and stick to them.

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There were other standouts, including Warren Spector’s keynote on choice and decision-making in game design; a panel discussion about Tom Clancy’s The Division and its team’s writing process (lots of Skype calls and patient collaboration), featuring Annie Reid and Richard Dansky among others; Jonathon Myers’ entertaining Futurama Lives! talk; and from the tutorial sessions, Jana Sloan van Geest’s masterful presentation on story structure and dialogue writing, and Eddy Webb’s witty presentation on narrative. To the delight of everyone in attendance, Webb declared, “If it makes sense to have a battle while riding a giant turtle through a forest that’s on fire, by all means do that!” You do what makes sense for your game, your story.

Rewind to ECGC Day 2 (April 20). Richard James Cook, creator of the Devolver Digital Films documentary Pixel Poetry, gives a presentation on his own experiences as an indie dev. With disarming honesty, Cook cataloges his failures to make a name for himself in the games industry, his DIY adaptability (the camera he used to record his first doc was a Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone), and celebrates his recent Devolver Digital Films successes. Here, Cook riffs on Beckett’s old theme which only gets truer with age. Try again, fail again, fail better.

Fast-forward to the end of ECGC Day 3 (April 21). I chat with Heather Albano, game dev and writer at Choice Of Games. Her latest game is A Study in Steampunk: Choice by Gaslight, a Choose Your Own Adventure style text-based game about steam-powered mech warfare. Choices matter.

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Fast-forward again to May 4. Enhance the image. My Kickstarter campaign teeters at 11 percent funded with less than two weeks to go. It is clear to me that the campaign is taking up too much of my time. The outlook is grim. I hit the kill switch to cancel it. If you want to get anywhere in this industry, you can’t look back for long. Keep moving. E3 is right around the corner. I can’t wait.

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously identified Jessica Sliwinski as an employee of Telltale.

Special thanks to the incomparable Rellik Nissassa, my ECGC spirit guide.<

Gamemoir 04/25/2015 – ECGC Day Two and Day Three Reflections: Developers on VR and QA – Part One

There is no way to fit everything else ECGC-related in one post, hence Part One.


Most technology-focused conferences amount to disguised marketing ploys, concocted by product-pushing corporations. Conferences tend to perpetuate ideologies consistent with transhumanism (a dangerous New Age memetically transmitted infection common to billionaires who want to live forever) and technofascism — this is to say, ultra positive portrayals of technology, techs nouveaux as humanity’s Redeemer. People are valued in as much as they express monetarily their devotion to the latest tech toy.

Since 2006, Walter Rotenberry has sought to change the trend from presenters peddling wares to presenters providing useful trade-specific information to gamers, programmers, and designers. Let Day 2 and Day 3 of ECGC 2016 stand as irrefutable evidence of the success of Rotenberry’s efforts. In presentation after presentation, ECGC’s speakers and panelists offered priceless career advice and hard-won industry wisdom. Unlike other conventions and conferences, ECGC is truly about people, not products.

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Right on, Garth. Not everything should be about selling products.

Two speakers communicated ECGC’s message particularly well in their talks: Dr. Jennifer Elliott of the University of North Carolina in a talk on the right ways to bring Virtual Reality into classrooms and Chelsea Curran Adams, QA Lead of Epic Games, in a talk on teamwork and quality.

On Day 2, Dr. Jennifer Elliott of the University of North Carolina lectured on present-day educators’ Rift/VIVE/VR mania (in particular, fully immersive VR mania), showing it to be just another iteration in a historical pattern of education industry hype. Dr. Elliott summarized educators’ obsession with new technology as a pervasive belief that the tech industry is always one innovation away from radically changing the way we study and experience the world. Once new tech, now old news; as it has been since 1870, evermore shall it be – unless we get real about the limitations and the qualified promise of the latest tech craze.

Using a timeline of classroom tech breakthroughs (everything from the pencil to the projector) and the hype surrounding them at what we would now call launch, Dr. Elliott reinforced the need for teachers and students to understand the technology they use. Information on the new tech must be made freely available to teachers. If a VR tech company or software developer promises a VR-powered revolution in education and can’t offer the how and why specifics, then educators should assume the pitch to be industry hype, hot air, and little else. To use one of Dr. Elliott’s examples, porting a documentary from video to non-interactive 3D video is a waste of designers’, programmers’, educators’, and students’ time. Better just to play the video.

In order for an interactive lesson in fully immersive VR to be a worthwhile use of resources, Dr. Elliot argued, its quality must be assessed in terms of its purposeful utilization of all the unique aspects of VR. If the new VR technology is to be useful for educators, if new technology is to facilitate unique learning experiences, the technology must be what Dr. Elliott calls the “context” for the lesson, not just the medium which communicates it. Educators should be able to answer questions like; Does the lesson take purposeful advantage of simulated tactile stimuli, stereoscopic rendering, 3D sound, full 360-degree camera tracking, gestural inputs, etc.? The more specifically a teacher can answer these questions, the likelier the lesson is to be a worthwhile use of resources.

On Day 3, I attended a talk on teamwork and quality by Chelsea Curran Adams, Quality Assurance Lead of Epic Games. As in an earlier talk, Adams utilized constructivist techniques to emphasize the human element in the Quality Assurance process. She incorporated input from attendees, assured attendees that the presentation would “tie in everything you guys said here today,” and delivered on the promise. This implicit tactic made all the more compelling her argument that design is a collective activity.

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Adams examined the perks and drawbacks of two design methodologies, waterfall and agile. Waterfall is sequential, linear, with the entire team moving together through each design phase. At the expense of adaptability, waterfall keeps the team on the same page, so to speak, working together today on the physics engine, tomorrow on the control schemes, the next day on the level design, and so on. You can see how, if you suddenly need to back-track to a previous development phase, your team will have to do a lot of things over. Although waterfall is “demonized in the industry,” as Adams put it, indie dev teams often find it useful. When waterfall works well, it is more cost-effective than the alternative.

Agile development is the design methodology by which AAA games are made, almost without exception. With hundreds of people working on one game, it would not be feasible to have everybody – programmers, writers, marketers, graphic artists, motion capture artists, actors, testers, et cetera – moving rigidly from one design phase to the next. Rather than linear in progression, the agile methodology is cyclical, with QA assessments built into each phase of development. With agile, a large studio can have multiple teams in different phases of the design process at the same time. Agile’s drawbacks are its price tag for the company and, in the event of poor communication and incomplete documentation, its potential to engender chaos for the dev team.

True to ECGC’s focus on people, Adams suggested that devs use message boards to start a dialogue with the people who will be playing their game. It’s the players who will be most likely to speak up when they find a bug, encounter an established character behaving in an unexpected way, et cetera. In the games industry, Adams concluded, communication among people on all sides of a project is key to successful QA. At no point did her informative talk stray from useful methodological analysis into product placement.

On that note, have I told you about my Kickstarter?

Gamemoir 04/20/2016 – ECGC: Day One Indie Game Highlights and Reflections

Day One of the East Coast Game Conference has lived up to its wholesome, entertainment-focused Community Day designation, a half-day of light-hearted non-technical presentations and exhibits from indies.


Here are a few highlights:

As a fan of Saturday Morning RPG and Breach & Clear, I enjoyed geeking out with the guys at the Mighty Rabbit Studios booth. That alone would have been worth the price of admission. If you have never played a Mighty Rabbit game, stop reading and correct this matter at once.

Trans-Galactic Tournament

Trans-Galactic Tournament

I played a PS4-exclusive Free-To-Play MOBA from Kiz Studios called Trans-Galactic Tournament. The work of a small dev team with an interest in making MOBAs faster and more action-oriented, Trans-Galactic Tournament sports slick visuals, that good old-fashioned isometric perspective, and lots of character abilities. I do not have the MOBA experience to say how Trans-Galactic Tournament compares to something like DOTA 2, so I will compare it to something I know very well: Dark Souls. Like Dark Souls, Trans-Galactic Tournament makes it near impossible to spam attacks. The shoulder-button focused control scheme, locked animations, and strict cool down times ensure that the strategic battle never deteriorates into mindless button-mashing. Unlike Dark Souls, Trans-Galactic Tournament was light, accessible, and a little on the easy side, but I expect that the minimal challenge is quickly remedied with the addition of human teammates and opponents.

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Battlesloths

The guys at Invisible Collective showed me their sleeper hit Battlesloths, a four-player single-screen local multiplayer combat game. Billed as “a lightning -fast competitive multiplayer shooter,” Battlesloths is the first game from Invisible Collective. Sloths move slowly. Battlesloths move with a quickness and fight over pizza! Animated in a quirky pixel art style, Battlesloths is the first game every new indie studio hopes to make: simple, distinctive, fun, and memorable. Who doesn’t love a heartwarming Humble success story? Gamemoir’s readers should expect more info on this promising indie dev team in a future article.

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What is Quality?

I attended the “What is Quality?” talk presented by Chelsea Curran Adams of Epic Games. Singing the praises of collaboration and communication, Adams elicited examples of quality from attendees (see photo). I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the design process, such as the need for a dev team to have “road map,” the causal link from priority to quality, and the importance of message boards in the process of writing software documentation and finding bugs. Adams’ talk used techniques introduced by the constructivists, the original promoters of crowd-sourcing and its virtues.

Midway through Adams’ talk, I could not help but ponder how even the presentation itself had been gamified. How fitting for a games convention, that the game space expands beyond the screens to encompass the entire convention center! Can’t you see the HUD with its map of the floor plan, booths identified by coordinates, highlighted interactive objects, a count of business cards collected and meaningful exchanges experienced, networking side-quests completed and Easter Eggs discovered? I can. That’s why I turned my tablet into a DIY billboard advertising my blog, Gamemoir, and my Kickstarter campaign.

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Kickstarter!

That’s right, my dear readers. I am crowdfunding a book about video games based on the ideas McKenzie Wark explained in his excellent book Gamer Theory (2007). Think of my book as a critical driver update, a much needed OS upgrade, a new video card. I will leave most of the hardware and firmware of the theory as they are and expand the theory’s scope to include contemporary games, trends, and ideas. After all, a lot has changed since 2007. Gamer Theory needs an update. Will you help me make it happen?

All in all, Day One did what it was supposed to do: It provided a venue for gamers, indies, and industry mainstays to meet, mingle, and geek out about video games. That said, I can’t help but feel like a sort of geek Prometheus. I get the sense that the most potent digital fire remains a well-kept secret — for now.

Gamemoir 04/15/2016 – Woah! More Daves, Please! A Timely Look Back at an Indie Classic

Here’s a timely look back at Woah Dave!, the minimalist masterpiece from Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games).


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For fans of indie gaming, news of another beloved studio’s shutdown is never inexplicable. It’s a tough business for indie devs. On April 7, 2016, Choice Provisions (formerly Gaijin Games), makers of the legendary Bit.Trip series, announced it will be closing its San Francisco office. The Santa Cruz studio will continue to operate. As a tribute, let’s look at one of Choice Provisions under-appreciated gems: the neo-retro masterpiece Woah Dave!, developed by MiniVisions. Released in 2014, updated in 2015 as Woah Dave! DeluxeWoah Dave! is everything I love about indie gaming. (This article refers to the Classic mode, unless otherwise noted.)

Woah Dave! Classic

Woah Dave! Classic

Woah Dave! in its original form is a single-screen action game reminiscent of post-Atari, pre-NES arcade games. You’re Dave. Dave is a yellow square with blue pants and big eyes. The PC version of the game features an option for a second player to take control of a second Dave. Each Dave has one hit point and no pennies. Eggs and explosive skulls fall from the sky. Eggs hatch aliens, skulls explode. Dave’s only method of self-preservation (and/or little green spacemen-murder) is to pick up either an egg or a skull and throw it.

Items and enemies drop pennies. As Dave, your job is to get rich and you will die trying. An intact skull can smash an egg on contact. An egg cannot smash another egg. Throwing either a skull or an egg will slay a hatched enemy. Exploding skulls destroy eggs and Daves but not other intact skulls. The lava at the bottom of the screen enrages aliens Super Crate Box-style and destroys anything else. Occasionally, a Whoa box appears, which, when thrown, wipes the board clean and leaves the pennies for Dave to pocket. If you require more “game” than this, then you might prefer the Deluxe mode which disguises the same gameplay with new characters, enemies, hazards, vehicles, and portals.

The genius of Woah Dave! is in the timing of its First In First Out spawn patterns, indicated by blinking visual cues, and the subtle polish of its controls and physics. If you hold the jump button, Dave kicks his legs and descends more slowly. Eggs and skulls have mass. They don’t bounce around like turtle shells in the Mario Bros. series. These details are essential to the game’s success. What could be a run-of-the-mill action-platforming game becomes something akin to a real-time resource management sim with twitch gameplay and action-platforming elements.

“Put this egg over here, put that skull over there, collect these coins, wait to collect those…”

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Chaos you can organize.

In his Destructoid review of Woah Dave!, Johnathan Holmes points out the hallucinatory aspects of Dave’s adventure, how when Dave dies the world around him loses its absurd and menacing qualities. The lava falls away, buildings appear in the background, the aliens go back to their day jobs. I share his view and would add to it the following: While the juxtapositions of Woah Dave!’s imagery may be nonsensical (eggs and skulls falling like rain, arbitrary lava traps and disappearing platforms), the images themselves belong to archetypal symbolism. Eggs represent life, fertility, beginning. Pennies, which are ultimately of no consequence to the way the action plays out), represent futile earthly pursuits of status, wealth, fame. The blinking patterns represent the irreversible passing of time. Aliens are the menacing Unknown. Lava is lava. And you already know what the skulls mean, don’t you?

The skulls in Woah Dave! serve the same purpose as they serve in the memento mori tradition in medieval art. A memento mori is a fetish, nicknack, or emblem, oftentimes in the shape of a skull if not an actual skull, a commonplace reminder of one’s mortality. It says to onlookers, “Everything that lives will die.” Sisyphean in his resolve, Dave sees the terrible signs and forges ahead, anyway. Indie gaming needs more Daves, not fewer.