Category Archives: Design

Good Enough

After listening to Polygon’s Samit Sarkar discuss the Xbox One X on the Achievement Oriented podcast, I was this close to writing a piece simply titled “Good Enough” on the premise that the Nintendo Switch is just that — good enough; that bleeding-edge specs are not compelling enough to warrant the masses to upgrade consoles mid-cycle for already gorgeous experiences.

I’m glad Ben Kuchera at Polygon beat me to the punch :

Nintendo focused on making a system that was easy to use, relatively inexpensive and could be both a portable and a home console. The stats show that players are taking advantage of these factors, and the sales speak for themselves. In a business where it often seems like companies are killing themselves trying to push for the greatest visual fidelity possible, Nintendo has completely shifted the conversation to convenience and fun. The Switch is being richly rewarded for this approach.

Nintendo has also changed the game when it comes to third-party developers. Visual quality is no longer the most important thing, the game just has to run well enough to be playable and enjoyable. A company’s back catalog of older games is now a treasure trove of potential Switch ports. Fans are asking for any number of games from any number of companies to be brought to the console, and publishers would be wise to listen to them.

The Nintendo Switch once again proves the value of changing the game if you can’t win by the existing rules, and there’s not much Microsoft or Sony can do to gain the same momentum with strategies that focus on raw power. Nintendo has this market all to itself, and that’s a great place to be. The game developers just have to learn that looking good enough is a great way to sell a game to an appreciative audience.

In August, I wrote about moving to handheld — shelving my PS4 and Xbox One and exclusively playing Switch and 3DS. I’ve since gone one step further by disconnecting the Switch dock from the TV. It now serves as a holster on my nightstand. There are games I yearn to try, but the thought of anchoring myself to our living room television just to partake in a boisterous chaos for my own pleasure seems irritating, selfish, and wasteful. I much prefer the experience of dipping in and out — sound off — while my wife and I relax together. Conversations aren’t drown out. A quick press of the Switch’s lock button not only pauses the experience, it completely disengages me when necessary. No static menu hogging the television screen. No anxiety about not being able to pause in certain areas.

I won’t go as far as to say that mid-cycle upgrades are outlandish. There are small things I’d love to see enhanced on the Switch: smaller bezel, larger screen; better kickstand; move toward haptics vs. vibrate motors; better speakers. The one thing I haven’t craved is better graphics — a statement I would not make for the 3DS. The Switch has hit a fidelity sweet spot.

This has been a long time coming. I would go as far as to say that the boom of pixel art, retro, and minimal art styles is a statement about bearable visuals as much as it is about style. What was novel has become an expected and even desired norm. This extends beyond mobile and casual games to hearty indies like The Witness and Super Hot.

The fact that new and recent third-party titles are making their way to the “underpowered” system is impressive. While we wait for Nintendo’s online service / Virtual Console to make an appearance on the Switch, there is an abundance of third-party back-catalog that could be used as a testing ground. I cannot comment with any authority about cost to port legacy games vs current-gen, but I do know that there exists a wealth of proven titles that will run current hardware rather than gambling resources to try to port new titles to the Switch. Really, I’m just jonesing for Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts.

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Super Mario Odyssey — A Review

This review covers the core game, which — arguably — may not be considered the “core” game.


Everyone loves a Mario game. Polish, charm, fun. Mario games are a barometer of execution for each of Nintendo’s console generations. Where they don’t push boundaries of graphical fidelity or online community, they shape design language, innovation, and soul within the confines of a familiar world.

For the Switch, the promise of a high-fidelity, 3D, sandbox Mario game akin to Super Mario 64 has whetted the appetite for many a fan since its reveal in January 2017. It’s big. It’s beautiful. It’s Mario. It’s everywhere.

But is it familiar?

I had the opportunity to preview Super Mario Odyssey at E3 — an excerpt from my E3 experience below:

Odyssey feels like the perfect amalgam of all 3D Mario adventures: The playground of Super Mario 64‘s introductory courtyard, Super Mario Sunshine‘s NPCs, Super Mario Galaxy‘s inventiveness, and Super Mario 3D World‘s fidelity. Above all, there is a “weird” factor that has been generating buzz. The various worlds Mario can travel to feature a variety of art styles: the playable New Donk City feels like a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater / Sims hybrid while the Sand Kingdom felt like a traditional 3D Mario world with a new classic 2D side-scrolling mechanic added to the mix. (Think The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.) The game played as great as you can imagine, but the real allure is looking forward to the variety and trying to figure out just what the hell is going on!

It’s this last (emphasized) phrase that I’m struggling with. At E3, I thought I was playing a sample of the complete game. I was sure there was something in the game that would tie the experience and aesthetic of the kingdoms together. Unfortunately, the worlds feel as disconnected as my preview experience.

Even for a franchise about an (ex-)plumber in a fantasy land inhabited by mushrooms and turtles, the story is bonkers. A captured Princess Peach is being forcibly wed to Bowser. Bowser is on a quest to find wedding hallmarks (a ring, a cake, etc.) while his wedding-planning henchmen, the Broodals, stave off Mario. The player is thrown into this storyline via an opening cinematic: Mario plunges to his doom from Bowser’s airship, his iconic hat shredded to bits in the blades of the airship’s motor. Wake to find Mario in a strange, noir themed world and introduced to his new sidekick Cappy. Then, the player is off on an adventure to stop Bowser.

From the start, something feels off. It’s disorienting not to kick off in Mushroom Kingdom, solely as a frame of reference. As Mario progresses from kingdom to kingdom, it’s not clear how these aesthetically diverse worlds fit into the once familiar Mario universe. While that’s likely the point, they never quite feel like “Mario”.

To progress from world to world, the player is expected to collect a certain number of Power Moons to power Mario’s airship. While there is a clear target of power moons to collect, it’s never clear if the player should collect as many as possible now or if there will be an opportunity to collect later.

I’m not a completionist. If anything, I’ll blaze through a game as quickly as I can to relate to the zeitgeist. The idea that Super Mario Odyssey rests on the principle of collection is — dare I say — infuriating. Sure, collection is a core tenant of Super Mario 64. However, its hook comes from a limited but achievable set of 120 Power Stars as rewards for solving puzzles and riddles within the game’s 15 stages. However, Super Mario Odyssey falls “short” due to abundance — 999 Power Moons spread across a like 15 stages.

It quickly becomes apparent that collecting is the name of this game. Beyond power moons, there are outfits and airship decor to purchase with two types of coin — gold coins as generic, globally accepted currency; purple coins as world specific currency. Purchasable items match the flavor of coin. Outfits purchasable with gold coins are easier to obtain and can be purchased anywhere in the game, while those only purchasable with purple coins require the player to search each world high and low for every specialty coin. Outfits and decorations provide no value outside of aesthetic, but the idea of collecting them sinks its hooks in nonetheless. As for the airship decor, I was not clear what it was initially. In fact, I hadn’t purchased my first one until New Donk City.

Ah, New Donk City — Mario’s foray into a world populated by actual humans(?) It’s as wild as it sounds, but somehow, it is the most comfortable of the kingdoms the player visits. As mentioned above, the Tony Hawk / Sims vibe makes this concrete jungle surprisingly welcoming. So much so that I found myself trying to complete every little task in the world before moving on — something I hadn’t tried in worlds previous and quickly dropped afterward.

It wasn’t until New Donk City — 8 kingdoms in — that I felt like I understood the game on an objective level. While it’s difficult to put my finger on what felt different, I understood objectively what needed to be done, how to do it, and what to look for. New Donk City feels as welcoming as Super Mario 64‘s courtyard. It provides the opportunity, aesthetic, and space to mess around; to get comfortable. I can’t help but feel New Donk City should have been the first full world in which Mario travels. By wholehearted breaking the art style of Mario games past, it communicates that Mario isn’t in Kansas any more — things are going to get weird. But, it’s a safe space. The platforming opportunities abound go a long way to bridge Mario games of yore into Odyssey and get the player comfortable with the mechanics and core controls. It is the prize of Super Mario Odyssey.

Until New Donk City, I felt like I was tip-toeing throughout the game, afraid to miss something important. Something wasn’t clicking, which is a sour experience for a Mario game. At it’s core, Super Mario Odyssey is awful about communication. It does not communicate what’s necessary, what’s optional, and of the optional, what is what.

After a week away from the game, New Donk City is what I keep coming back to. I only wish New Donk City was larger. It’s a wonderful playground and an iconic area players will remember. My only hope is that Super Mario Odyssey — like Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker — is an expansion of what we know of the Mushroom Kingdom, or at least the universe in which it inhabits. I hope this is a taste of what’s to come for the Mario franchise — the characters and worlds introduced — or else what’s the point?


While playing, I strayed away from many reviews and opinions. Afterward, I needed validation that I wasn’t crazy — that Super Mario Odyssey is very, very good, but not great. That something was off. I found solace from Justin McElroy on Polygon’s Quality Control podcast:

It is hard to find — these days — a game where “progression” is not a large aspect of it. At least in the games that I find myself playing a lot. Almost every game has some sort of in-built role-playing system where you’re getting better, you’re getting more powerful, you’re collecting more items, you’re collecting more Pokémon — you’re building a stable of those — you know. There’s a sense of progression.

For me, I weirdly felt myself not incentivized to play more Mario. Like, I enjoy my time with it, but I don’t find myself… hooked. And I think it is because of that — because you can hunt down a bunch of moons in an individual level. But in the end, I don’t feel stronger or that I’ve accomplished more, necessarily.

Super Mario Odyssey is beautiful, charming, and expertly crafted — possibly the most polished and well designed game I’ve ever played. But the desire to jump back in never took hold. Beyond New Donk City, I wasn’t particularly enchanted by any of the other worlds and found myself rushing through the game. That said, mid-way through, I’d begun hearing whispers of something amazing waiting at the end of the game.

Truth be told, the end delivered. All of the charm and soul I had been waiting for came to a head. A smile spread across my face — the same smile I imbued upon booting up this new Mario adventure for the first time. I only wish that smile had maintained throughout my experience with Super Mario Odyssey.

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‘The schoolyard is the entirety of the internet’

Ben Kuchera, Polygon:

Breath of the Wild feels like a return of the schoolyard culture, where friends meet to discuss the latest things they’ve found in a Nintendo game and share rumors of even bigger possible secrets, except now the schoolyard is the entirety of the internet. It’s comfortable with assuming that you’re smart enough to figure things out, and it knows that it’s not going to be ultimately responsible for everything you miss or even built-in frustration. The answer to every puzzle is a quick Google away, and the game’s design seems comfortable with that option being a viable path to moving forward.

I completely agree.

Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Breath of the Wild Game Director, on designing Breath of the Wild’s open gameplay at GDC:

Let’s not forget the fact that all the solutions to all the puzzles that we’ve painstakingly prepared for a dungeon are made available on the internet.

Great design decision by Fujibayasha and team. Breath of the Wild is clearly not their first rodeo, but this strikes me as forward thinking for Nintendo.

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Switch On, Switched Off

I have felt an incredible sense of satisfaction in owning a Nintendo Switch. It sounds absolutely insane and gross, but owning the Switch has made me feel better. I feel less stressed and more focused at work. I feel less anxious as a whole. My mood has lightened. My spirits have been lifted. And unlike Gollum’s incessant need to touch and obsess over the Ring of Power, my joy and calm come purely from ownership. In the twisted space of consumerism, something strange is at play.

Federico Viticci, Remaster podcast:

This is the console that I’ve been waiting my entire life for. That’s based on the idea—and really the dream that I’ve been having since I was a kid and I got my first Super Nintendo—that I want to have the same games everywhere on one console that I take with me all the time, and that I can choose whether I want to play as a portable console or on the TV.

It’s been over 25 years since I’ve been playing Nintendo games and we’ve been through a lot of changes in the video game industry. Other companies have tried to do this sort of dual-screen, single console before. When you think about the PS Vita, when you think about the Wii U or the Nintendo DS, a lot of the ideas have been fragmented over the years in the industry. The Switch feels like the unification of 30 years of work from Nintendo. It’s the distillation of decades of work in portable consoles, in home consoles, and now in just one console.

I think the strangeness I’m sensing has a lot to do with what Federico outlines. The Switch is the amalgamation of decades of hardware design, innovation, and childhood fantasies.

Born in 1985, my first memory is of Mega Man 2 on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. My babysitter owned one. How I yearned for that console. Christmas of 1989, I opened a Nintendo Game Boy. Not quite an NES, with it’s 2-bit color palette on green green display, but boy did my imagination soar. Surely, the tech would evolve and those 8-bit color experiences could live in my hands. The dream of taking the vast digital worlds I played on a TV with me on the go was sparked.

In 1995—the year the original 32-bit Sony PlayStation was released in North America—I was gifted a Sega Genesis Nomad. The handheld Nomad accepted standard Sega Genesis cartridges, enabling full 16-bit gaming on the go, albeit with a massive 6 AA battery pack that lasted 2-3 hours. While it was a console generation cycle off, we were getting closer.

In 2005, the PlayStation Portable’s (PSP) display and graphic capabilities re-inspired the dream. On it’s heels in 2006 was the promise of remote play from PS3 to PSP, later mandatory of PS4 games to the PlayStation Vita. In 2012, remote play was a core gimmick of the now infamous Wii U. Also in 2012 came Sony’s cross-buy service launched, allowing for a single purchase (of compatible games) to work on Vita and PS3/PS4. In 2015, the PlayStation Now’s cloud-based service would seemingly allow Sony devices, Vita and PS4 included, to access a library of online games from PlayStations 1 through 4. PlayStation Now has discontinued support for all devices save PS4 and Windows PC, including the Vita.

Now, the dual set-top/handheld console is a dream realized with the Nintendo Switch. And the versatility of it’s Joy-Con controllers takes it one step further, opening the console to instant local multiplayer. The Switch is a simple and obvious design that delivers and, for some sick reason, fills a hole in my life I never thought existed.

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Nintendo’s ‘Conductor’

Matt Peckham, writing for TIME, with a great profile of Nintendo’s Shinya Takahashi:

“If all of Nintendo’s content creators were to be seen as a symphony, then Mr. Takahashi is our conductor,” says Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aimé, when asked to contrast Takahashi’s role with Iwata’s. “What I mean by that is, it’s his decision to bring the different players in our orchestra onto a particular game or a particular initiative. He’s the ultimate decision maker in what gets played by the symphony or what gets created by Nintendo as a company.”

And to follow the metaphor through, audiences rarely get to see the conductor’s face. “He’s been creating this big show, but because you only see his back, you really don’t know him all that well,” adds Fils-Aimé. “But he drives the orchestra and he sets the pace and the bar for the performance.”

Fils-Aimé pushes back on positional comparisons between the preeminent role Takahashi now plays with the myriad ones performed by Iwata, Nintendo’s former “ultimate decision maker,” calling them “different roles, different times, different needs of the organization.” What’s changed, he says, is that after Iwata’s passing, the company decided it was time to ask its less visible luminaries to step up. It’s a a philosophy others in the company, like Miyamoto, have espoused in passing for years.

“The people that came out in the presentation, when you look at it from the perspective of Nintendo, they’re actually not new at all,” says Miyamoto of the varied group chosen to rep Nintendo’s Switch during the system’s January feting. Miyamoto, whose hands have touched virtually all of Nintendo’s storied IP, will be 65 this year, while the company’s new president, Tatsumi Kimishima, turns 67 in April.

Takahashi has a storied career with the company. I especially love his history with Wave Race 64 and 1080° Snowboarding, two of my favorite Nintendo 64 titles. His views on management are similarly inspiring.

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Warcraft Plot

Wikipedia:

Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilisation, led by the humans, faces a fearsome race of invaders: orc warriors fleeing their dying world, Draenor, to find their place in another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, known as the Dark Portal, the humans face destruction while the orcs face extinction. Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), leader of the humans, and Durotan (Toby Kebbell), leader of the orcs, are then sent on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people and their home, in which war has many faces and everyone fights for something.

Maybe the trailer wouldn’t have been such a miss if they stuck to this description?

Regarding my last post, how come one of the female orcs (Garona? Draka?) doesn’t get the GCI treatment? Seems to heighten the awkward balance between the animated and unanimated.

warcraft_movie_female

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Xbox One’s 7th Core

A very interesting read from Richard Leadbetter at Eurogamer:

Up until recently, both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have reserved two entire CPU cores (out of eight available) in order to run the background operating system in parallel with games. Since October, Microsoft has allowed developers access to 50 to 80 per cent of a seventh processing core – which may partly explain why a small amount of multi-platform titles released during Q4 2014 may have possessed performance advantages over their PS4 counterparts in certain scenarios.

However, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the additional CPU power comes with conditions and trades attached – however, there is the potential for many games to benefit. Firstly, developers need to give up custom, game-specific voice commands in order to access the seventh core at all, while Kinect’s infra-red and depth functionality is also disabled. Secondly, the amount of CPU time available to developers varies at any given moment – system-related voice commands (“Xbox record that”, “Xbox go to friends”) automatically see CPU usage for the seventh core rise to 50 per cent. At the moment, the operating system does not inform the developer how much CPU time is available, so scheduling tasks will be troublesome. This is quite important – voice commands during gameplay will be few and far between, meaning that 80 per cent of the core should be available most of the time. However, right now, developers won’t know if and when that allocation will drop. It’s a limitation recognised in the documentation, with Microsoft set to address that in a future SDK update.

The concessions Microsoft has been making to the Xbox One (revised DRM model, “dis-Kinect”, price-drop, bundles, and now opening the seventh processing core) are admirable, and considering the recent spike in sales, certainly make for an interesting future for the console war. However, these are just that — concessions. Sony has continued to stay the course with compelling hardware and a simple story. Not to mention this is another hit against Kinect and the original vision of Xbox One.

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‘There and Back Again: A History of The Lord of the Rings in Video Games’

Alexa Ray Corriea, Polygon:

The Tolkien Estate still firmly holds the score of books and snippets that fill out the world of Arda beyond The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit — called Tolkien’s legendarium — close to its chest. Christopher Tolkien upholds his position as keeper of the keys to Middle-earth; the IP remains split; and The Silmarillion is still locked away, out of reach from those who might adapt Tolkien’s deeper mythology.

But after more than 30 years of video game adaptations, things don’t seem to be slowing for developers like Turbine and Monolith Productions. With The Lord of the Rings Online still bringing in players and Shadow of Mordor poised up against other major franchises like Dragon Age and Assassin’s Creed, it looks like the industry will still be talking Tolkien for years to come.

A fascinating dive into The Tolkien Estate. Tremendous piece by Corriea.

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Chocolate-Covered Broccoli

Daphne Bavelier, TEDxCHUV: ‘Your brain on video games’:

Now, at this point, a number of you are probably wondering well, what are you waiting for, to put on the market a game that would be good for the attention of my grandmother and that she would actually enjoy, or a game that would be great to rehabilitate the vision of my grandson who has amblyopia, for example?

Well, we’re working on it, but here is a challenge. There are brain scientists like me that are beginning to understand what are the good ingredients in games to promote positive effects, and that’s what I’m going to call the broccoli side of the equation. There is an entertainment software industry which is extremely deft at coming up with appealing products that you can’t resist. That’s the chocolate side of the equation. The issue is we need to put the two together, and it’s a little bit like with food. Who really wants to eat chocolate-covered broccoli? None of you. And you probably have had that feeling, right, picking up an education game and sort of feeling, hmm, you know, it’s not really fun, it’s not really engaging. So what we need is really a new brand of chocolate, a brand of chocolate that is irresistible, that you really want to play, but that has all the ingredients, the good ingredients that are extracted from the broccoli that you can’t recognize but are still working on your brains. And we’re working on it, but it takes brain scientists to come and to get together, people that work in the entertainment software industry, and publishers, so these are not people that usually meet every day, but it’s actually doable, and we are on the right track. I’d like to leave you with that thought, and thank you for your attention.

I’m currently playing Valiant Hearts: The Great War. In speaking to the colleague that recommended the game, I told him it feels like perfect edutainment. An extremely engaging action-puzzler, rich with gorgeous music and gut-wrenching narratives, that also aims to teach the historical significance and effects of World War I. A new brand of chocolate.

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Your Brain Sucks at Video Games

Anthony Carboni:

We blame everything when we suck at games: lag, the controller, bad framerates- but here’s a fun fact: your brain is built to be terrible at video games and everything is usually your own fault.

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