GameFile: Game Maker Test; Handheld 'Halo'; Flying On Xbox 360 & More

Plus, forget single-player and multiplayer — meet cross-player.

Ever get stuck in a video game level and decide you could make it better? Maybe the enemies seem too tough or the jumps are placed in just the annoyingly wrong way. Perhaps the free life or health packs were too few or the placement of automatic restart points too unforgiving.

Well how could a game maker really prove that he or she can do better? They'd need to get a job as a level designer, a gig that is seldom entry-level in the game-development industry. Recently Lesley Mathieson — design director of "Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters," the first PSP installment of the popular "Ratchet & Clank" PS2 series — explained how she convinced people she could design a good video game level.

She had to pass a test.

Mathieson got into the games industry in 1994 while she was studying film in college. She got a summer job as a "role-playing consultant" on a Monty Python game being made at the now-defunct Dallas game development studio 7th Level. She worked in film after school and then got a job as a game tester at Interplay, did the same at Microprose and became a lead tester at Ubisoft.

As the century turned, she got a call from a recruiter looking to fill a spot at Insomniac Games, a studio then known for its "Spyro" purple dragon platforming games on the original PlayStation. Insomniac had been churning through candidates for a level designer. They sent her a "Spyro" design test.

"They basically give you sort of criteria for a level and you do a written description first and then you do a map of the level and everything going on in it. It tests not just your creative skills but also your ability to take feedback and revisions and layouts for maps.

"They wanted a farm level," she said. Insomniac's boss, Ted Price, based his test on "Spyro 3," which had added some Spyro friends to the series' roster of playable characters. "Basically, it was a Spyro section where you had to fight some guys and then you had to do a little Spyro mini-game, and then you had to do a segment with this other character." She wrote out her ideas. Price called her with feedback. She drew a map. As she was doing that, the studio gave her some key information, like Spyro's running speed.

Naturally she passed the test and now gives it to people interested in joining High Impact Games, the young studio that made the PSP "Ratchet." That written first stage is partially an exercise in brevity. "You write a description and the description says what all the gameplay is going to be like and what the enemies are and how the enemies behave," she said, adding that she asks people write two pages max. "If you don't, people will write like novels sometimes, and you don't want that. The goal is to get people to say, 'How do you communicate something to somebody in as few words as possible?' Because if you're working in a studio and I write a giant document on the enemies, no one is going to read it. No one has time to sit down and read 30 pages on an enemy."

Mathieson doesn't remember the feedback Price gave her a half-decade ago, but she shared some of the critiques she give people who take her version of the test. "Someone might come up with a platforming challenge. They'll make a big room with spikes coming out of the wall. There's no way for the player to know when they walk in the room that spikes are going to come out of the wall. I might comment that they need to create a setup that introduces the player to the idea in a very safe way so they learn how it works, so you can introduce the more difficult things later. Or I might comment that their enemy combat doesn't really ramp out. They'll just have a whole bunch of rooms with five guys in each instead of having — every bit of gameplay should build up to a climax. It should start simple and get more and more exciting and intense as you go through."

"Size Matters" is High Impact's first game, the product of about a year and a half of work. Mathieson is proud that the studio has figured out a way to run a "Ratchet" game on Sony's handheld, tweaking the series' control scheme to accommodate the PSP's single analog stick and peppering the title with gameplay homages to the four previous games in the series. They've even added new ideas, including a shrink ray, an armor system and several multiplayer modes. Previous "Ratchet" games rewarded players with new content for playing through the game a second time. She said this one is designed to give players new material if they come back twice.

But, really, the question is, did High Impact's designs pass the test?

More from the world of video games:

A few days after New Year's, Matt Casamassina, the influential Nintendo beat reporter at gaming site, reported on his blog that he had played "Halo" on the Nintendo DS. While games from Microsoft's development studio Rare — formerly owned by Nintendo — have appeared on the DS, the idea of the Xbox's premiere first-person shooter appearing on Nintendo's handheld seemed like fantasy. Casamassina swore it was true, the result of a game design team being hired to create a spec version of what "Halo" would be like on the DS, in the hopes of selling Microsoft on the idea. He reported that the test version of the game was made, but a deal to commit couldn't be made. At the recent DICE gaming convention, GameFile asked executives from Microsoft and Nintendo about their interest in such a project. Microsoft Games Studio general manager Phil Spencer said experiments like that happen all the time that consider company franchises showing up on handhelds and Xbox Live Arcade. He didn't discount a "Halo" DS being greenlit someday: "The big properties like a 'Halo,' like a 'Viva Piñata' — for an intellectual property that is part of what MGS is — we're always going to push the boundaries of where that intellectual property should show up." Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime said he hadn't ever played a "Halo" DS build. "Never say never," he said. "I wouldn't expect to see any Sony games on our platform. Never say never." ...

With an announced lineup of Xbox 360 games that includes original games such as "Crackdown," "Mass Effect," "Blue Dragon" and "Too Human," Microsoft appears to be a less sequel-happy game publisher than some of the other major companies in video games. Nevertheless, some original Xbox games have their followings. Asked at the DICE gaming convention if a sequel to the Microsoft-published "Crimson Skies" flight games would appear on the Xbox 360, Microsoft's Spencer was doubtful. The Xbox version was a "great game," Spencer said. A "but" was coming. "We're going to make games that will come out and impact the whole community." When asked whether the flying-game gap on 360 could be filled with a version of Microsoft's "Flight Simulator" series, Spencer said the series' development team has been focused on the PC versions for now. He likes the idea in theory and did note that the newest version of the PC game can be played with a 360 controller. ...

Some games are single-player. Some are multiplayer. Is there a possible third category coming? Arkane studios recently announced a first-person shooter called "Crossing," which will include "cross-player" action. The idea is for real gamers to take the roles of the usually computer-controlled enemies that populate typical single-player games. And that's the straightforward part of Arkane's plans. To read the rest, click here. []

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