Multiplayer Archive: Week Thirteen

Multiplayer: Ray Muzyka On The Best Eyeballs In Video Games
Former doctor talks about crusade to create lifelike eyes in ‘Mass Effect.’

02.16.07

During most weeks, I use Multiplayer to share the things I’ve discovered in the games I play. This week will be different. I recently attended the Design Innovate Create Entertain (DICE) gaming conference. I spoke with many top game makers and will host the best of those conversations on Multiplayer all week … slices of DICE, if you will.

Ray Muzyka, a trained doctor who now runs a video game company for a living, has a small but profound hope for the future of interactive entertainment: “It’s a small detail, but one of the details I’ve always wanted to have in our game is eyes that look like eyes.”

Muzyka was looking into my eyes as he said this during an interview last Friday at DICE. We sat across a table from each other and chatted about the future of storytelling in video games. It’s an issue that both he and fellow doctor and BioWare founder Greg Zeschuk take seriously. “Our mission statement is to deliver the best story-driven games in the world,” Muzyka told me. Key to that is delivering emotional moments. And one key to that for Muzyka is creating believable eyeballs.

“There has to be a couple of layers of reflection,” he told me, recalling his medical days and rattling off parts of the eye and explaining how they might reflect light differently. He was feeling good about the eyes in his company’s upcoming Xbox 360 outer-space role-playing game “Mass Effect,” which is expected to come out in the middle of the year. He started talking about characters in the game. “They open their eyes, they look at you, they tilt their head and look you up and down, nodding their head.” They don’t even have to speak, but the player should be able to tell that they’re alive. He turned the conversation to my eyes. “I know whether you’re agreeing or disagreeing, whether you’re skeptical or saying, ‘Yeah I get it.’ ”

I asked him if he stared at people a lot. “I like playing poker,” he said. “It’s very important in poker to have a read on your opponent.” DICE is held at a casino and Muzyka likes to play against his fellow designers. Last year he cleaned up. “My grandparents taught me how to play poker when I was 8, stole my money and I’ve never looked back since,” he said.

I was surprised we were talking so much about eyes. BioWare has long been a role-playing-game company, one proud not just of its storytelling but of the thousands of lines of dialogue programmed or recorded to tell its epic tales. Muzyka was suggesting that words may be a bit overrated. “Dialogue is actually not the solution to story,” he said. An emotional moment doesn’t require words. “You don’t need to have dialogue.”

“Mass Effect” won’t exactly be a silent game. It will be full of speech as its lead character explores the galaxy in an attempt to save it. But Muzyka says that the company is learning how to improve on its mission statement, how to make moments matter, and it doesn’t have to involve so much talking. As can be seen in a demo of the game available on Xbox Live, players will trigger their character’s part of a conversation based on a dial of emotions, not by selecting from a multiple-choice list of replies. Muzyka says the game will employ “a much less text-heavy way to convey storyline.”

Muzyka told me he wants the new game to show his company’s progress. “Everybody has done this when they’re younger, when they’re a new developer trying to go for a long experience and a deep experience. But now what we’re trying to do is go for not only a deep experience, a long experience, but a quality experience, a sustained quality experience. …You’re better off making a tight experience where every moment is going to be memorable.”

So what’s the tale of “Mass Effect”? He describes it as “Jack Bauer in space,” a reference to “24″ and its morally gray hero. “You have complex moral choices to make,” he said about the game. “You’re out to save the galaxy. You’re going to have to do things that don’t seem like they’re good to do that.”

Muzyka talks differently than many other developers I’ve interviewed. He spends less time dwelling on technical things and more time pondering human stuff. I asked if his medical roots played into that. As a young small-town doctor in Canada, he used to be the only emergency physician on call for a 100-mile radius. He dealt with a lot of people with a lot of problems, sometimes handling problems that had nothing to do with blood and bandages.

“I did a lot of counseling in small towns,” he said. “I liked having people come in and talk about how things are going and seeing what I can do to help them. And you think about things differently if you approach it that way, you approach everybody on their own merits and have a relationship or rapport with every person you talk to. And I think we’re trying to create that feel in our games.”

Muzyka has lofty aims. I asked if there was a scene from art or life that he uses as a benchmark to indicate when gaming storytelling is working. He recalled Steven Spielberg’s famous black-and-white Holocaust film. “In ‘Schindler’s List,’ that moment where you see the little girl in the [red] dress … and then you see her later [among the dead]. For me, if you can convey emotion to that level in a game then we’ve succeeded. For us that’s our goal.”

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: What’s Next For ‘Halo,’ ‘Viva Pinata’ And ‘Crackdown’?
At DICE, Microsoft Game Studios’ Phil Spencer says ‘Halo 3′ beta test won’t hold anything back.

02.15.07

I was told by a friend in the gaming press that Phil Spencer, the general manager of Microsoft Game Studios, is a good guy to talk to. He’s the man in charge of dealing with every game studio owned by or partnered with Microsoft, each making exclusive games for the Xbox 360 or Windows. So at DICE, I found a quiet conference room and asked him to tell me the future.

I wanted to know about “Halo,” specifically the status of the Peter Jackson “Halo” project and the “Halo Wars” game announced in September (see “Microsoft Partners With Peter Jackson For Xbox, Reveals New ‘Halos’ “ ). Spencer told me that both projects are still in the early stages.

We also talked about the upcoming “Halo 3” public multiplayer beta test. “It isn’t really a tease,” he said. “People should expect a pretty robust experience when they’re playing. Don’t call it a demo.” (Click here to hear much more of Spencer’s comments on the “Halo” projects.)

Executives from every game company express pride in the games they back. Usually the top guys at the biggest companies, like Sony, Nintendo and EA, give the impression they’re overseeing a vast mall of content. Spencer’s description of Microsoft’s gaming operations makes it sound more like he’s running a boutique. “It is very important that we pick games that matter,” he said. “We’re going to focus on fewer games and make sure those games are stars when they come out.”

He’s heard the criticism that Microsoft backs lots of games that feature guys and guns — “usually bald guys with armor and guns,” he clarified. He said he’s actually looking to back diversity. Last November’s “Viva Piñata” is an example, a family-friendly game released in the shadow of the mighty M-rated “Gears of War.” But Microsoft has yet to issue a press release announcing the first million copies sold of “Piñata.” The company has been able to do that three times over for “Gears.” Is that reason to go back to the bald Marines?

“We shipped both the games in a relatively short period of time,” Spencer said. “So it was easy for people to lay out a ruler and say, ‘Which one is better? Which one is the phenomenon, and which is the flop?’ We don’t think about that internally. Success for those games was measured differently, and I look at both of them as tremendous successes for us.” There’s life in “Piñata” yet, he indicated. “It’s an intellectual property we’re committed to. We’ll do other types of games with that property.”

Spencer thinks highly of “Viva Piñata” developer Rare, which Microsoft bought from Nintendo five years ago, but it has been slow to reclaim the praise once showered on it for titles like “Banjo-Kazooie” and “GoldenEye.” “As somebody who works with the studio on a day-to-day basis, I would encourage the studio to stay diverse,” he said. “I think that’s the key to creativity.” He also wants Rare to keep making games for its former backer, Nintendo. It’s an oddity, of course, that a Microsoft-owned studio makes games for a rival company’s platform, but it’s the way things have been for years. Rare makes games not just for the Xbox 360 but for the Nintendo DS, including this month’s “Diddy Kong Racing DS.”

“We could have easily pulled the plug on that, but as somebody managing the operation, I looked at it and said, ‘Hey, this is something we should foster,’ ” he said. “If we have a good game idea that could work well on the DS, I think it can be an interesting extension of our intellectual property. ‘Viva Piñata’ on DS would make sense. I’m not saying that’s going to happen. But it’s easy to think of ideas like that.”

Spencer is a big proponent of expanding Xbox 360 games with Xbox Live, and he’s ready to advance that line of discussion in some unexpected ways. Take “Crackdown,” the open-city supercop game coming February 20. The game’s creative director, David Jones, has already teased the idea of bolstering the game via Live (see ” ‘Halo 3′ Gives ‘Crackdown’ A Boost — And That’s Just Fine With Its Creator” ). Spencer wants to push even further.

“If you think about the next experience you want in that game, it might not be to go out and buy a ‘Crackdown 2′ game,” he said. “There might be gameplay that we could actually add to the ‘Crackdown’ world. And something as simple as adding an island is not what I’m talking about. Do you take this space and these millions of people that are playing your game with powered-up characters and do you create new games for them within that world and let them play?”

I suggested adding a new gang to the city as downloadable content. Apparently I think small. “That’s the easy way to do it,” Spencer countered. “You could also say, ‘Well, maybe the whole world goes [player vs. player],’ or maybe you start dumping a whole bunch of people in.” He considers “Crackdown” an ideal laboratory to experiment with this stuff.

At the end of our conversation I asked him which 360 games on the horizon deserved an extra look from gamers otherwise distracted by “Halo 3.” He tipped “Blue Dragon,” “Fable 2” and “Mass Effect,” all 2007 titles. Multiplayer’s DICE festivities will wrap Friday with a chat I had with one of the creators of that last game.

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: How To Hide $200,000
‘Perplex City’ mastermind Michael Smith talks up Alternate Reality Games at DICE.

02.14.07

One of the more conveniently timed bits of news coming out of last week’s DICE conference was Michael Smith’s announcement that his company was about to be $200,000 poorer.

Smith runs Mind Candy, a British development company responsible for the Alternate Reality Game “Perplex City.” His kinds of games don’t happen on a TV screen; they occur in the real world. “Perplex City” sent gamers down a rabbit hole of fake Web sites, puzzles released on trading cards and real-life treasure hunts, all leading a lucky winner to a cube hidden somewhere in the world and a $200,000 prize (see “Want To Live Like Neo? Alternate Reality Games Might Be Your White Rabbit” ).

On the day of Smith’s speech at DICE, someone in his native England had discovered the prize cube. Smith swore to me that it was a coincidence. His players are rabid. I should know. They were stalking me a couple of weeks ago (see “Multiplayer: Have You Seen This Man?” ). I talked to Smith right after his speech and got the lowdown not just on how the cube was found, but on the extreme lengths he and his team at Mind Candy went to hide the thing two years ago. (See his interview here.)

But what was Smith doing at a video game event like DICE? He was sharing a presentation with Jordan Weisman, who presented the “i love bees” ARG that promoted “Halo 2.” The two speakers were hoping to excite video game makers about their kinds of games and suggest the area for overlap. For one thing, ARGs tend to be played by global networks of fans who share clues, pool together on hard projects and use their so-called “hive mind” to crack puzzles solo players would likely never complete.

“This has become a bigger issue with gaming,” Smith said. “It’s so much more than one player playing on their own with their video game. And ‘Perplex City’ builds up community not just online but into the real world as well, offering players the chance to meet up and connect with other people who are playing the same games in public spaces.” He thinks video game publishers should consider encouraging more of those types of real-world connections.

Smith described an ID system his game uses that he thinks might work for video gamers as well. “We have [tags] that players actually attach to their clothing so other people can spot them when they’re out in public. And players get different colors depending on how far you’ve advanced in the game. That could be something that could be incorporated into more traditional video games going forward.”

As for “Perplex City,” Smith said a second season will start in April. One of the knocks on the original game was that it was too intimidating for casual players, who could safely assume that they weren’t going to come close to the $200,000 cube unless they dove into the deep end of the game’s mysteries. Season two, Smith said, will involve more prizes for more people to win. More importantly, he said that the April launch would involve some relatively gentle puzzles designed for players to solve solo. That solo segment will involve some of the classic ARG/ real-life crossover, with a surprise phone call and fake Web site or two.

Someday he’d even like to expand that web to “Perplex City” books and video games all weaving a tangled web.

A trailer for the season will launch in March.

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: Alex Ward Talks ‘Black,’ Underappreciated Games
‘Categories change and evolve, but each game is its own thing,’ Criterion Games creative director says.

02.13.07

During most weeks, I use Multiplayer to share the things I’ve discovered in the games I play. This week will be different. I recently attended the Design Innovate Create Entertain gaming conference and spoke with many top game makers; this week I’ll host the best of those conversations on Multiplayer … slices of DICE, if you will.

Several hundred game executives and developers attended last week’s DICE conference. Some of them knew why they were there. Alex Ward wasn’t so sure.

“I have no idea what I’m doing here,” said Ward, the creative director of EA-owned Criterion Games, the makers of the first-person shooter “Black” and the crash-crazy “Burnout” racing series. “As a game developer, there are a lot of events that happen around the year and you always get invitations to come to them. Me and my team, we never normally come to events like this. I don’t know what you normally say at events like this other than, ‘Make good games. See ya! Bye!’ ”

Ward does have more to say than that. On just about any gaming topic, he’s got a strong take. (Click here to see Ward talk about getting political in “Black” and taking great umbrage with my reference to “beating” that game.) He’s ready for games to tell great stories. “We’re definitely interested in telling a story that’s meaningful and hopefully has an emotional resonance with the audience other than, ‘Here you go, here’s Mr. X. Go kill him.’ ”

He’s ready to rebuff any trends toward making bigger and bigger games. “The big trend in gaming is to overproduce everything. Everything’s a Hollywood production,” he said. At Criterion, however, they’re mixing in experiments on small games potentially for Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation 3 network. “We’re always developing new ideas. Even while we’re working on something big like ‘Burnout 5′ or ‘Black,’ we’re always trying to develop something in the background. So I’m involved in about six or seven projects at the same time in the background where it’s, ‘Here’s a good idea. Let’s work on that. Let’s spend two or three days sketching something up. What can we do that’s very small?’ ” Doing that, he said, they can make a game in a week.

He also feels that some fantastic games just don’t get the proper respect. “There’s a lot of games out there that I think are misunderstood,” he said. He wasn’t talking about controversial titles or obscure critical darlings. He had another type of misunderstanding in mind. “I think that some games that are seen by some in North America to be old-fashioned are misunderstood. A game that came out could be very arcade-y. Something like [Namco's] ‘Ridge Racer‘ is a good example. It’s always going to be an arcade racing game. I know the guys on the team. I’ve spoken to them because we both kind of make arcade games. It’s about fantasy cars racing through a Japanese environment at incredible speed. And I think as that game series has evolved it will always be what it is, and I respect Namco for doing that. But the perception of the franchise has changed and the media now expect them to be something else.”

He thinks people expect “Ridge Racer” to have crashes because “Burnout” does. He doesn’t want that — not because he can’t handle the competition. “The new one on PlayStation 3 is the best ‘Ridge Racer’ they ever made. I mean, it’s really, really good. But a lot of opinion and a lot of noise was put out there that it’s not as accepted to do ‘Ridge Racer.’ … A lot of games come out. Categories change and evolve, but each game is its own thing, and I think that’s what media have to remember. That’s a bit of anarchy for you.”

That’s all certainly more interesting than just saying, “Make good games.”

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: Cliffy B Talks ‘Gears Of War,’ Tears For Fears
This week, our games reporter brings you slices of DICE.

02.12.07

On Thursday afternoon, I spent 20 minutes talking with Cliff Bleszinski, a.k.a. Cliffy B, about the big game he finished designing: last year’s “Gears of War,” which sold 3 million copies. He wouldn’t ‘fess up to any “Gears” sequels, stating: “There’s just ‘Gears of War.’ The game was always intended to be an action movie and [go from] point A to point B, as far as these guys in Delta Squad trying to find mapping data for the underground and blowing the hell out of the Locust. That’s all we’re announcing at this point.”

(Click here to see Cliffy B talk about the parts of “Gears of War” players still haven’t discovered, and how he fares when he plays on Xbox Live.)

Bleszinski described the journey of making the game as “pretty much the most satisfying feeling a person can have in the entire world.” He said he’d been itching to do something like it since 1999. I wanted to know how different the “War” we’ve played is from the one he first dreamed up.

“Starting off, the game had more of a commander-type focus and the order system wound up becoming more of an ancillary feature,” he said. But for every change, there was stuff that stayed the same since the start. “Cover was one of those things we knew we wanted to do from the beginning. So the fact that you can take cover quickly and seamlessly — [and that] it felt visceral, it felt violent, it felt hard-core — that was in there from the get-go.

“We always knew it would be four guys with kind of a pseudo-European setting, as far as feeling like it’s set in this bombed-out, post-apocalyptic, alien London setting. We always knew that was going to be the environment because, quite frankly, that’s what shows off next-generation graphics well.”

During the MTV News E3 roundtable last spring, Bleszinski said the game would also be about going home (Click here to watch Cliffy B and other game makers chat with Gideon Yago.) The game’s hero, Marcus Fenix, starts the game by breaking out of prison and winds up on a mission destined to reach his father’s hilltop estate. How personal was that? “I grew up in the suburbs of Boston,” he said at DICE. “I lived in the suburbs of Boston until I was about 15 and was able to just explore the woods around that area and the different seasons and be a kid. And that’s something day to day I think I miss occasionally. It came through a little bit in terms of going home and the house on the hill.”

Something that never made it into the game but that many people likely associate with “War” is a cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews. That version was made for the movie “Donnie Darko” and used as the backdrop for a “Gears of War” TV commercial, its melancholy vocals juxtaposed with visuals of the game’s violent gunfights. Bleszinski liked that commercial quite a bit.

“I think what we learned from ‘Mad World’ is contrast can be a very useful thing in selling your product and getting people’s attention,” he said. “I believe it could be a very exciting scene in a video game, to be in the middle of an intense gunfight and then have slow, sad music play in the background just like a John Woo technique. I think that’s absolutely a very valid technique for game designers to play with in their product.”

Over the last few years, Bleszinski has built an image. He isn’t Cliff to gamers. He sure isn’t Mr. Bleszinski. He’s been Cliffy B, the straight-talking, tight-T-shirt-wearing hotshot game designer out to make a more awesome game than the square, bearded game makers of old. I’d heard this was all intentional — a self-imposed makeover. He confirmed as much.

“I like attention and I figured out I would put myself out there,” he told me. “Anything I’ve done to build up any sort of image I have as a game designer has helped to establish ‘Gears of War’ as a kick-ass game. And that’s been the prime directive.”

So were there any drawbacks to putting himself out there? “I think it’s possible in this day and age, on the Internet, for any game designer or any creative [person] to get caught up reading too many comments in regards to what people think about them or their product. And I think it’s possible to agonize over that.”

Bleszinski doesn’t seem like he’s agonizing over it too much. He’s got enough to look forward to and keep him distracted. “I have 8 trillion game and universe ideas in my head. Whether I’m able to realize those, time will tell.”

— Stephen Totilo

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About this column: The average gamer doesn’t have the time or cash to experience one-tenth of the games that come out every week. Collectively, the MTV News team does — and then some. With games streaming into the office each day, we see a lot, we play a lot and we remember a lot. We want to tell you what we’re playing and what’s worth caring about it, and we’ll do it every day at MTV News: Multiplayer. To follow the column daily, bookmark multiplayer.mtv.com.