A Brave New World (in more ways than one)

Where to start?

Brave New World, the next expansion for Civilization 5, has been wrapped up and is ready to go. I've was able to fulfill a development dream and design a trade system to be added to the game. Something about caravans and trade ships moving around the screen delights me to no end and I hope other people enjoy it as well.

After much discussion with Bessie, I've decided this would be the best time to leave my position at Firaxis Games and work with Todd and Derek at Gopherwood Studios. My seven years (!) at Firaxis have been wonderful and I'm proud that I got to work with such great people on such great products. I will miss my team tremendously; they are my second family and, while I'm not moving away from Baltimore, I'll miss talking to them daily and being a part of their lives.

That said, I'm both nervous and excited about working at Gopherwood Studios. I'll be a contractor, largely responsible for pulling in my own clients, and that will be a big change from the "paycheck every two weeks" life of AAA publisher development. (Gulp!) I said for years that this is what I've wanted and now it's time to live it. I can't thank Todd and Derek enough for giving me this opportunity and Bessie for her patience and understanding.


Kid Icarus: Uprising thoughts

I chatted with Todd about Kid Icarus: Uprising and I thought that the conversation expressed a lot about what I think about the game and game design in general. I'm sorry that this is not in a more easily readable form, but I don't have the time or the inclination to polish it up.

Todd: So Icarus still as good as you said?
Scott: All of Sakurai's games are good
Or at least well-made
Or complete
I don't think I'd recommend it at this point
Todd: gotcha.
Scott: Flying and shooting is a lot of fun. The bosses are quite good. Walking around is aight. It's not just that the controls are a little wonky, but it's just a bit slower and doesn't feel as nice.
Lots of the good and bad rules of Smash Bros apply
Like tapping to start running
Which is something that annoys me in Smash Bros and sometimes annoys me in KI
There are a tremendous number of weapons, but I don't feel inspired to "breed" them
Effectively there are maybe 64 different types of weapons
but then there are bonuses that can be applied to them
like +2 movement
or -1 firing rate
Todd: yeah
Scott: and a weapon can have up to 6 modifiers
So when you combine weapons you try to get the best modifiers on the weapon you want
Honestly, it just feels like too much of a hassle
unless you get big into mp
MP is all ground-based combat. It's good, but I'm playing it to unlock stuff, not because I'm having fun.
Todd: yeah
Scott: So, once again, a brilliant Sakurai game that I don't really like.
Todd: :)
Scott: Or at least I get to a point where all the things that I can possibly do stretch far beyond my interest in the game.
Todd: yeah, you can't fault him for not giving you enough things to do. :)
Scott: (I guess that's true for many good games though. DF for example.)
Yeah, every game he makes is a great value.
If you enjoy the game, you have 100+ hours of content.
Todd: :)
I wonder if it's just because he's given a ton of resources, or is he just somehow more efficient and able to make all that stuff at once.
Scott: The structure is similar to Smash Bros and Meteos, so he's not building from nothing.
Todd: yeay
Scott: There is very little that's completely new.
(At least in the meta-game portion.)
Todd: Yeah, the game is obviously new.
Scott: I think that makes it easier to get to your goal because you have a well-defined meaning of the structure of the meta-game
But, as with all his games, there's a tremendous amount of polish and love in the actual game
He pays attention to details and you can clearly tell.
It's just that it feels a bit soulless, in a way.
Todd: yeah
Scott: Like there's all this machinery to get you to keep playing the game
and you start to question whether you like the game at all
or if you're just doing it because of the machinery
Todd: yeah
Scott: I feel like Journey is just the opposite
There is almost no machinery. (There is a single unlockable, afaik. But they do have trophies.)
And when you're done you're completely done
Todd: yeah
Scott: but it feels more special because it doesn't have all this rigging to make you want to play the game over and over
I think it's hard for developers to say "we're not going to have this feature because it's too much"
Todd: yeah
Scott: But I think in some instances it can be the better thing for the game
Todd: what can?
Scott: Not having rewards for everything
I think it comes from my basic dissatisfaction that every game must have achievements on Xbox live.
Not every game should have achievements.
Todd: yeah
Scott: Not every game needs achievements.
In many ways, it can make a game worse.
and Sakurai is the undisputed king of achievements.
Todd: Yeah. I think part of making a game is the illusion.
Scott: Yeah
Todd: and having stuff like that breaks the illusion.
Scott: I think that's also one of the million reasons that I have no interest in Facebook games as Zynga makes them
There's no magic, just artifice.
(Or little magic.)
Todd: yeah
Scott: So that's my Kid Icarus Uprising brain dump!


Intriguing thoughts

I love Dominion, Donald Vaccarino's fantastic game from last year and have been playing almost constantly since I got it. The expansion (Intrigue) is out in Europe but not in the states; my pre-order hasn't arrived, but I've been able to play 5 cards from the new set for free on BrettspielWelt. (Look for games that are set "random intrigue".)

Here are the cards that are included and my pithy insights into each of them:

Card: Baron
Type: Action
Cost: 4
Text: +1 Buy. You may discard an estate card. If you do, +4 Coin. Otherwise, gain an estate card.

Nice new use of estates and overall a quality card. If you have an estate in your hand, he thins your deck and gives you a sizable purchase bonus. If you don't, he gives you an estate. Perpetual motion money machine!

Card: Nobles
Type: Action - Victory
Cost: 6
Text: 2VP; Choose 1: +3 Cards; or +2 Actions

There used to be no decision when it came to what to buy with 6 money, and now they're still isn't. You buy this card because there are fewer of them than golds and he chains with other nobles like crazy. Drawing 2+ of these guys is great; combo-ing with a throne room is divinity. (Granted almost everything combo-ed with a throne room is great.)

Card: Minion
Type: Action - Attack
Cost: 5
Text: +1 Action; Choose one: +2 Coin; or discard your hand, + 4 cards, and each other player with at least 5 cards discards their hand and draws 4 more cards.

Not the best 5 cost card, but a strange attacking library variant. I buy these and chain them together, then reset my hand if I didn't have any money in my final hand. I think this is the card makes action chaining decks more viable. Works well with extra action cards (village, festival, noble), because having more than one action after the discard is key.

Card: Swindler
Type: Action - Attack
Cost: 3
Text: +2 Coin. Each other player trashes the top card of his deck and gains a card of the same cost that you choose.

If you thought the thief was evil, you haven't played with this guy yet. The key words are "you chose". You know what costs the same as a copper? A curse card. You can turn opponent's estates into lots and lots of chapels, their gold into adventurers, and other truly awful things. Has a pleasant side benefit of making the game end much quicker because lots of cards are trashed and picked up. Less effective later in the game because at the 3, 4, or 5 cost level because it's often an even trade. Swindling an opponent's province when they're in the lead (trashing their province and having them pick up another one) can cause biblical lamentations.

Card: Upgrade
Type: Action
Cost: 5
Text: +1 Card, +1 Action. Trash a card form your hand. Gain a card costing exactly 1 Coin more than it.

I think this card sucks, except for being a cowardly (and chaining) man's chapel. (Throw away a copper/curse, nothing costs 1, so you don't have to pick anything up.) Otherwise you need a very even spread of cards on the table for you to climb the cost ladder successfully. All other main set 5 cost cards are better buys. (I'm right until someone beats me with this card!) Remodel is superior and cheaper.

If these five cards are an indication of the quality of the set as whole, Vaccarino may earn my "boardgame of the year" two years in a row. I can't wait for the set to come out!


Civilization Revolution

After wrapping up core development a few months ago, Civilization Revolution (CivRev) is finally being released in the US this week on the Xbox 360, PS3, and Nintendo DS. I have been thrilled by the response to the demo on various message boards; CivRev is quite a different game than most console experiences and it was never completely clear to us how the public would respond. Thankfully, most have understood what we've tried to with the series and embrace it as its own thing rather than Civilization 5. I've been particularly proud of the responses of players who have never played a strategy game like this before. The sort of wide-eyed "there can be games like this?!" response makes me feel like we helped expand what people think of games by a little bit.

Developing CivRev was quite a challenge for me because it was the first time that I was a lead in charge of other developers, the first time I developed a console title, and the first time we used Scaleform's GFX (a flash interpreter) to process and render the interface. Any and all accolades were won by my great team: Brittany Steiner, our flash genius that carried one of the heaviest loads in the development on her first project, and Russell Vaccaro, who simply would not stop trying to make the interface look as great as possible. Without the herculean efforts of these two individuals, CivRev would have been a much poorer experience.

The success of the entire game can be credited to Sid Meier, who, among his many skills, can imbue all of his games with his unique charm and friendliness that makes them somehow more intimate and engaging than other designers. I particularly appreciate his patience with me; I'm sure he wanted to throttle me more than a few times during the project.

I hope you have a chance to play the game. (Demos are available online for the Xbox360 and the PS3.) CivRev is one of the best games I've had the opportunity to work on and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.



This post includes complete, fun-negating spoilers. Do not read if you haven't seen Wall-E yet!

The first two thirds of Wall-E (until the Captain starts talking) is amazingly great. Pixar's greatest work, including the Incredibles. They have effectively a silent movie with a robot on a destroyed, garbage-filled Earth that is compassionate, warm, and endearing. Before Wall-E, Lucas owned robots. Wall-E makes R2 look like a 8-bit hack. His bazillion-points-of-articulation eyes, insanely clever physical design, and his collection, organization, and adoration of unique human garbage makes him brilliant. Pixar excels here because I believe robot humor is all about making you think the robot is a human, then doing something unexpected to remind you it's not. Pixar's creativity shines brightly through constant surprises. The first 2/3rds played out beautifully because they relied on the roots of Chaplin movies; an instantly beloved protagonist and inventive physical comedy.

My problem with the last third (it may have been shorter than that but it seemed to go on forever) is that much of the lightness and artistry of the first two thirds is trashed through clumsy Pixar-rhetoric dialog by the captain and the jabs at modern human society going from subtle to street-corner preachy. The giant (30 minute plus?) chase scene was a soul-sucking endeavor that lacked much of the creativity that the rest of the movie exhibited. (Monsters Inc. is the textbook example on how to do a final chase scene.) The crazy robot ward was a highlight, until they went from the loony-bin to the wacky off-beat mascots featured in nearly every animated movie. The final scene of bringing Wall-E back to life might have not been completely cheesy had the last half-hour not sapped all my suspension of disbelief.

Few things are more vexing than something that is mostly magnificent but partially crap. Wall-E could have been Pixar's best movie had they never set foot on the human spaceship.