I know that Teminalists tend to be connoisseur gamers. We may not all like the same games, but most of use spend considerable amount of time playing them. So let’s talk about game development houses. Who do you love unconditionally? Who gets your money every time?
I have realized that nearly all of my favorite games have been created by 3 companies. There are dozens of game publishers out there. and many many awesome games. But the ones which are on my top 10 list all came from either Valve, BioWare or Bethesda. These development houses seem to consistently be able to produce titles that I find deeply satisfying. Every time I pick up one of their games I end up loving the shit out of it. Why is that?
Its possible that I somehow conditioned myself to think highly of these companies. It’s possible that I cut them a lot of slack, and tend to ignore a lot of stuff otherwise infuriate me. But I don’t think so. When I picked up Morrowind I had no clue what Bethesda was. Same goes for Jade Empire and KOTOR – I wasn’t even aware they were both made by BioWare until I started writing a review for KoTOR2 and looked this information up. They were just great games that I loved. I didn’t really care who made them.
I think what happened is that these companies found the right formula for their games – one that draws me in and keeps me coming back for more. Valve for example completely nailed the FPS. I don’t claim they are the best in the FPS market – I’m just saying that what the do, is exactly what I’m looking for in an FPS game. But different people, like different things.
I learned this when I gave Ark the Orange Box copy of HL2 (I already had it, but I bought the box for Portal, Episodes and TF2). I really wanted him to experience what I thought to be one of the greatest FPS games under the sun. He beat it, and summed up his experience with a shrug. “It was ok”, he told me. Too easy, terrifyingly linear with a vague, incomprehensible story. Funny thing but this is precisely the stuff I loved about it. It was difficult enough to get my adrenaline pumping, but forgiving enough to prevent me from dying every 5 minutes. Staring at a game-over screen takes me out of the game – and since I rarely died, HL2 was a very immersive experience. The linear design made it possible for the scripted events that make the game so cinematic.
I loved Portal which was a a hybrid FPS, puzzle game with an incredible story that was as funny as it was disturbing. I love Team Fortress 2 which distilled the multiplayer team play to the point of science. Few other games offers such variety and balance. Not to mention the Left 4 Dead which combined zombies, co-op play and a unique dark humor. Valve is the only company that actually managed to get me to venture out of my shell and try that multiplayer thing that I have been avoiding for years.
Bethesda nailed the sandbox RPG model. In this day and age, everyone and their mom is using the sandbox but no one does it right. Anyone following Rockstar school of game design tries to design the experience for you. They script the missions so that you have to do them by the numbers. Bethesda tends to give you some overall quest goals and then steps back allowing you to create your own adventures. They let you wander around and steal shit from people’s houses. Most objects in their games can be either destroyed, or stolen and sold for profit. Most of the doors can be lock picked. Most fences can be scaled, jumped or levitated over. There are no impassable chest high walls or fake, painted on scenery. All enemies actually carry the items they are shown wearing. In most games when you kill a powerful knight in full plate armor who is carrying some nasty enchanted blade, all you can loot from his body is 20gp and a crappy magical helmet he wasn’t even wearing. In Bethesda games, looting is a WYSIWYG operation. This is the right way to make sandbox games.
Let me give you an example: my brother once created a Morrowind character who was a Dwemer scholar and artifact collector. He spent all his points on social skills such as bartering and speachcraft and just traveled across the island collecting Dwemer related books, items weapons and armor. He funded this enterprise via theft, drug trafficking (oh, and selling the ridiculously expensive Dark Brotherhood armors to that one talking crab merchant). After a while his house in the game looked like a museum with almost every piece of furniture holding stacks of Dwemer items.
BioWare’s winning formula on he other hand is their writing team. Not that Valve and Bethesda don’t know how to write. They all do, but BioWare makes this a core part of their experience. They can consistently invent new game worlds with expansive and complex lore, and populate them with interesting NPC’s. I mean, just look at these titles: KOTOR, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Dragon Age. Great story arcs, interesting characters, plot twists and and deep branching dialogs. Their games are usually very linear but let explore the game world quite extensively by talking to NPC – both friend and foe. But most importantly their games let you develop relationships with your companion NPC’s. I mean, I am still kind off shaken by how Morrigan fucked me over in Dragon Age. Same goes for the end game twist in Jade Empire.
What is your favorite game design studio and why?