Monday, August 20, 2007

Calling All Cars: The Postmortem (Part I)

It’s been almost 4 months since Calling All Cars! was released on the Playstation Network. As of this writing, it has garnered a decent-but-not-great review score of 77/100 on It has sold well, but not so well that it’s broken records or established the current ceiling for best selling downloadable titles. Overall, it’s performed solidly, respectably, and gathered up a loyal group of fans who really seemed to dig and enjoy what we were trying to do.

So now that some time has passed, I feel I’m at a place to look back and see what we did right and what we did wrong on the title. Some of these issues are game design related, others are PR related, while some deal with the philosophical aspects of what a game reviewer’s job is supposed to be and what customers should be expecting out of these new breed of ‘smaller games’.

Time being as limited as it is these days, I’ve only had a chance to write up the first part of this postmortem. The final part will follow in a few days.

All that said: here’s what I learned from working on Calling All Cars:

LESSON #1- GET EVERY ELEMENT RIGHT OR RIP IT OUT- We should have not included a single player mode in this game. From day one, CAC was designed to be a multiplayer title, an action/party game designed to make folks scream at the tv and trash-talk their buddies (online and in the same room). And because the only way people could purchase the game was off the internet, we knew there would be- usually!- at least a handful of people online to play with (so the idea of downloading the game and not being able to play it in multiplayer mode was never a concern). The logic behind putting singleplayer in the game was- I suppose- an unconscious, ingrained game design choice born out of the pre-internet days where every multiplayer-designed title still needed a singleplayer component, even if that mode was not all that great. The problem is, if it’s included, people will judge it. Unless you bury it in bonus features- where people are grateful to get anything extra, including elements that are not-quite-up-to-snuff- there is the expectation that everything on display should be great. And this is a fair expectation. I made an incorrect assumption that it was clear the game was multiplayer centric, an incorrect assumption that most people would play singleplayer to just warm up and learn the game (I mean, who plays games like NBA JAM, or Madden for that matter, for the singleplayer?) But there were people out there judging it mainly as a singleplayer title- as was their right to do since we included it in the core package/shell- and because of this, we got lower scores on some sites and some message boards. This is not the ONLY reason we got some bad scores, to be sure, but I did see a number of reviews (pro and amateur) where people were complaining that the singleplayer game was not very fulfilling. And they were right. But it was never designed to be. The team executed it well, but there was not much to it, design wise, to begin with. So now I know. In the future, if our game is really meant to be a multiplayer title, we will only provide that and not spend valuable time trying to make the singleplayer work. We had a very talented programmer focused on single player for months. I kick myself now when I think that his talents could have gone towards making the multiplayer game player even better.

LESSON #2- SOME CRITICS GET IT, OTHERS DON’T- I got a lot of crap when I called out the Gamespot 6.7 review on this very blog. Most people didn’t like the fact that I- the designer of the reviewed title- was responding to a review, but I didn’t- and still don’t- care. I just don’t agree with those folks who have a problem with it. And today- 4 months out- I still think the Gamespot review was off base and I think I had/have every right to shout about it. And it’s not because of the review score. We got a lower score- a 6.0- from the European site, but not only did I not have a problem with this lower review, I thought it had some excellent points. Like this one:

More than that though is the fact that Calling All Cars! can swiftly descend into a series of multiple bumper car-style melees, with little reliance on skill required to emerge victorious from the scuffle. Too many journeys back to the clink are essentially one-note, repetitive ramming contests that effectively randomise who the eventual winner of the round will be. Short of an extremely well-timed nitro boost it's difficult to break out of this cycle once it has begun and you can't help but think that it wouldn't be happening with more balanced gameplay.

I love that! Well I hate it, cause they hit the nail on the head. But I love that a review understood the game- warts an all- well enough to be so eloquent about the mechanics under the hood. Their critique is so true and it’s the biggest weakness of the title, one we should have caught very early on but simply didn’t (more on why in Part II). But to the point: if you want to give us a 6 and you can back it up with good, solid analytical critiques like that? I not only can live with it, I support it and appreciate it (as a player and designer). I am a better designer for such a succinct analysis of the issue. So thank you, Eurogamer!

LESSON #3- 10 BUCKS IS WORTH DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE- 10 dollars to me is an impulse buy. I’m 36, make a great living, and barely notice when 10 bucks gets spent. If 10 bucks flew out the window while I was zooming down the freeway, I’d wince but keep driving. 100 bucks, I’d turn around and go back for. Not for 10. But some- many- people think 10 bucks is a lot of cash. And that is fair. I have no issues with this. But it DOES affect the game design mindset and I am resetting my mindset for future PSN titles to make sure we pack in as much value as possible into our games. Not that we didn’t feel we were doing that with CAC, but we should have pushed harder, for extra levels and extras modes (I still hold that more weapons would have hurt the balance). At the same time though, it does get a bit frustrating to read comments from forum posters saying things like: it’s a great game but it gets old after about a week. To these sorts of responses, I usually shout the following at my monitor: ‘Dude! It’s 10 dollars! You can see a movie for that and after 2 hours (usually less) it’s over and you’ve got nothing to show for it. We entertained you for 7 days for the same amount of cash! Why are you complaining?!?!’

Yes I’ve seen the net response that you can buy a full used game for 10 dollars and get 60 hours of play from that used game! And to that I respond: I have no response. You are right. You can do that, and in doing so you can get better value for your money. And that applies to most downloadable titles, not just CAC. Hell, that applies to all titles, even upcoming 60 dollar monsters like HALO 3 and DRAKE’S FORTUNE. But isn’t the logic then being trotted out by this statement that: games should only ever be 20-100 hour beasts and they should only sell for 10 dollars and anything else is not worthy of my time/money?

It may very well be the logic on the part of the gamer but it’s hard to do the job of a game developer by going down that path. So the promise I can make is that we will work so hard to make you always feel you got your money’s worth. We don’t set the prices on these games (that’s the publisher) but we will pack in as much value as we can. It will never be enough for some, but for others, we hope you will play our games and always feel we gave you a great time for your money.

Ok, time to get back to work. Part II coming soon.

Oh, and let me leave you with this:

This is me and Lee Wilson, the creator of Sweet Tooth! We were shooting the Twisted Metal doc in Los Angeles last week and he flew down from Microsoft (where he is now a concept artist on Halo 3…and was on Halo 1 and 2 as well) to be part of the doc. He really was key to the series, creating the look of the world and the characters and the initial visual heartbeat of the whole thing. So thanks Lee! For coming to do the doc and for helping us bring the world of Twisted Metal to life!

Ok, gotta run…talk to ya’ll later!