YouTube Spotlight: Mark Brown

It’s been a while since I did any kind of creator spotlight, and I feel that it’s high time.  My last spotlight was on the wonderful Arin Hanson, AKA Egoraptor.  Recently I’ve been discovering a lot of new game design channels on YouTube.  So now that I’m finding more to talk about all the time, I figure I’d better start for real.  This week, we’re talking about a huge inspiration for me, Mark Brown.

Mark is the creator of Game Maker’s Toolkit, an instructional series on level design, game mechanics, and generally what makes certain games special.  In particular, he has a series called Boss Keys about dungeon design in The Legend of Zelda series.  He compares this design across installments, and sheds light on each game’s personality.

Mark’s videos are generally around 10-15 minutes long, which is impressive given how beautifully produced and edited they are.  They aren’t comedic, but are far from boring.  I think this is partially because Mark has a way of digging up really interesting bits of information.  For example, he found an instance where Takashi Tezuka referred to Link’s Awakening as like a “parody of Zelda.”

Like a true game design expert, he takes a lot of interest in the mentality and process of making games.  I particularly love this approach, because it focuses on more than just the end product.  What particularly impresses me about Mark is his way of analyzing games without bias.  He never loses his cool, and always provides clear insights.  I often see him start with a direct question, and answer it in full by the end of the video.  If Neil DeGrasse Tyson were to make a series about game design, you would get Mark Brown.

If I had to make a couple recommendations, I’d watch his video on Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, his video on the “little dotted line” in open-world games, and “What Makes Good AI?”  All three are a great showcase of his style and analysis.

Mark’s uploads are quite regular, with a new video showing up roughly 2-3 weeks apart.  And what I really love is that his videos are a mixed bag — every video shows you something completely different than the week before.  One week you see his video on Shovel Knight and nostalgia, and then a video on Deus Ex‘s open world soon after.  This kind of broad variety is something I strive for in my own writing.

If anyone out there is teaching a class on general game design principles, or just finds the topic interesting, Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit is a must.  If you want to support the show, become a patron on the GMTK Patreon.  You can also follow him on Twitter @britishgaming.  Finally, here’s his full list of videos!

Metal Gear Solid and Designing Outside the Box

People have said a lot about game designer and film buff Hideo Kojima.  General consensus is that he’s one of the best game makers alive.  I took this fact for granted for a long time, but never actually played a Kojima game.  In 2017 I finally played through Metal Gear Solid, a game many consider to be Kojima’s greatest work.  Now I know that the rumors are ALL true.

As I played through the first Metal Gear Solid on PS1, I saw the transformation of the interactive medium into something closer to a focused experience as opposed to pure entertainment.

Metal Gear Solid PS1
The logo for the first Metal Gear Solid game on PS1! (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

That’s not to say I had a bad time playing through this game.  It was far from perfect, sure.  I became seriously frustrated with some of the combat controls and the last two boss battles.  But I can understand that this was the first attempt at a formula that  improved with every new installment.  What stood out was the game’s self-awareness, and how it made me really think about my surroundings.

This game is not huge or lengthy.  It consists of only a few major areas, and I beat it in around 10 hours.  It just makes you know each area inside and out — returning to early areas later on in the game will lead you to secret items to help with the mission.  Some areas even have stipulations like getting into no confrontations at all, an interesting twist.  Most of all, I love unorthodox solutions like using cigarette smoke to uncover laser grids.  This kind of thing gives a game so much character.

Snake and Meryl
Concept art of Solid Snake and Meryl. (Photo: xploitme via Flickr)

And that’s what I think makes Metal Gear Solid unique and brilliant.  In a time when games were desperate simply to be a fun escape and keep the player playing, Hideo Kojima was staunchly unafraid to create his own vision.  Just as it is personal to him, it becomes personal for the player.

I particularly remember a sequence in the middle of the game where Snake is tortured with high-voltage electricity.  You, the player, have two options.  You can submit to the torture, which yields a worse ending, or you can undertake the intense button-mashing challenge of surviving the torture long enough to escape.  Each path yields a different ending to the game and different items to start the next playthrough.

This challenge made me, with no one else in the room, say out loud, “Kojima, you brilliant bastard.”  Here he presents us with a challenge that tests our mental and physical resolve.  He pits us against an evil captor and daring us to quit.  The consequences of our decision are substantial, and we can’t take them back.  In this way, Kojima found a way to put the player directly into the story.  Kojima went on record saying he thinks games and film will eventually merge.  It’s not surprising that he breaks traditional rules of game narrative.

Another instance earlier in the game makes you look at the back of the physical case that the game comes in to find the frequency you need to progress.  It’s an absurd solution, and it’s a one-time solution. But it makes you think outside the box and be creative.

I think the Psycho Mantis boss is one of the greatest in video game history for the same reason.  In his posturing, Mantis reads your data and vibrates your control to make it look like he’s really in your head.  Fighting him requires you to switch your controller into another controller port so that he can’t read your movements.  You need to crawl along the floor to dodge his attacks.  Optional night vision goggles are the only way to see through his cloaking device.  This battle has so many layers, not all of them necessary, but making a fight easier through a creative approach is much more satisfying than following an obvious pattern.

I think as far as legacy goes, Hideo Kojima and his team paved the way for modern visionary developers like Jonathan Blow and even Toby Fox.  They make games that are inspired.  They never needed to be made, but they convey messages and feelings that struck a serious chord.  Kojima showed us the power of something unique to video games — a direct connection between the game’s world and the person experiencing it.  He creates films with a million different protagonists at once.  That’s why I want to play every Metal Gear Solid I can get my hands on.  And with Death Stranding from Kojima Productions on the horizon, the gaming world might be flipped on its head once again.

My Thoughts on E3 2017

Critics and online personalities have been saying 2017 is shaping up to be the best year for video games in decades.  E3, the biggest event in gaming, had a lot riding on it.  I went in with few expectations.  E3 is often hit-or-miss, and commentators will usually talk about it in terms of who “wins.”

I’ve fallen victim to this mindset in the past couple years, but I don’t really think it’s healthy.  I wrote posts for Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo separately.  But I’ve realized that E3 is an expo, not a competition.  Sure, one company or one game might generate more hype than others.  But the real winners are us, the video game community.  We’re the ones who get to play the great games.  So instead of breaking this E3 down by company, I’m just gonna talk about everything I’m excited for!  And there is a lot of exciting stuff happening.

METROID

Let me kick off with the return of Metroid.  I went convinced that Nintendo could rock the E3 boat in two ways: porting Super Smash Bros. to Nintendo Switch, or bringing back Metroid.  Smash is going to wait, but Metroid is back in full force.  And although I’m not a huge series fan, I’m now a believer.  Metroid Prime is now in development for Nintendo Switch, and Metroid: Samus Returns is coming to 3DS on SEPTEMBER 15th.  Now that this series is back, I’m gonna do all I can to support it.

MARIO ODYSSEY and MARIO x RABBIDS: KINGDOM BATTLE

Although Mario games are consistently good, I usually don’t get excited about the franchise.  I was burnt out when Odyssey was announced, and Mario x Rabbids sounded too weird to be real.  Come E3 though, both games really impressed me.  Mario x Rabbids is a fun spin on the XCOM style, and it has the great Grant Kirkhope coming through as composer.

Meanwhile, Mario Odyssey looks expansive, innovative, and fun.  It’s the ultimate Mario playground, and a return to the best 3D Mario formula.   I’m definitely going to give it a play at launch.  All in all, a great showing for the franchise.

YOSHI AND KIRBY IN 2018

Like with Mario, I tend to sleep on the Yoshi and Kirby games, but their planned releases in 2018 are promising.  Kirby on Switch promises to bring back cool franchise mechanics and Yoshi looks clever as ever.  Now I just hope for a revival of Kirby’s Air Ride.

POKEMON

We didn’t see much from the Pokemon Company at E3, but what was announced is the development of a main-series Pokemon game for Nintendo Switch.  This is a huge development.  We got no further details, but Pokemon for Switch is a win in itself.

I also rally enjoyed watching the Pokken Tournament DX Invitational.  I know virtually everyone hates Pokken, but I have something of an affection for it.  I’ll probably be picking it up on Switch.

SPIDER-MAN by INSOMNIAC

I’ve always been a massive fan of Spider-Man games.  I played both PS1 games, all three Sam Raimi movie games, and spinoffs like Friend or Foe and Ultimate Spider-Man.  With the recent movie reboot, we got a couple of incredibly lazy games along with them.  Thankfully, at E3 2017, Insomniac Games showed off their new palate-cleansing Spider-Man game.

This game looks incredible.  Despite my distaste for quick-time events, it includes them gracefully and cinematically.  Combat looks complex and engaging.  The world of Manhattan looks vast and varied.  Most of all, navigating the world by swinging looks like an homage to Spider-Man 2 on PS2, the best of the bunch.  I can’t wait for this game to come out.

STAR WARS BATTLEFRONT II

The first Star Wars Battlefront by DICE and published by EA was one of my worst disappointments.  Battlefront was one of my favorite games as a kid, and I always wanted a revival.  Sadly, although the revival was aesthetically beautiful, it turned out to be a bore.  And a money scam.

BUT, if the new sequel turns out like it looks so far, it will be a huge turnaround.  It has a story mode, an improved class system, more heroes, and generally more content.  Furthermore, DLC will be free so as not to divide the player base.  This game has my attention, so hopefully it doesn’t disappoint.

MIDDLE-EARTH: SHADOW OF WAR

This sequel to Shadow of Mordor has actually been around for a few months, but I’ve been on the hype train since the beginning.  I wrote a post about this hype train a few weeks ago.  For E3, we’re getting new story content, new characters, and a look at some of the new mechanics.

Combat looks more intense and brutal.  Cinematic scenarios and conquest missions are coming through in full force.  And the plotline of Talion is coming to a head as he confronts the Dark Lord Sauron.  I honestly can’t remember wanting a game this much.

MISCELLANEOUS COOL STUFF

There was a lot of other stuff at E3 that looked neat to me, so I want to mention it.  Fire Emblem Warriors is an idea I had years ago, and to see it in action is thrilling.  I like that it has character switch and strategic mechanics.  Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a big point of love for me, and what I saw at E3 looks like a beautiful successor to the first game.

Days Gone looks like it’ll be the most interesting zombie game since The Last of Us.  Uncharted: Lost Legacy will be an interesting game, especially thanks to its two female main characters.  God of War is finally on deck, and it looks much less over-the-top than its predecessors, which I enjoy.  Bethesda’s VR shenanigans, like Fallout 4 in full VR, looks like an exciting step forward.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus seems like a ridiculous, Nazi-killing extravaganza and I can’t wait.  Anthem looks like a fun, huge multiplayer experience that will hopefully deliver. The Artful Escape of Francis Vendetti, Super Lucky’s Tale, and Cuphead are bringing back fun, quirky platforming adventures.  Assassin’s Creed: Origins actually has me really pumped because I’m a fan of the franchise and I like the new mechanics.  Although I’ve sadly never played the first game, Ori and the Will of the Wisps looks like a great sequel and it’s stunning in 4K.  Sonic Forces didn’t get a lot of new info, but we saw a team-up of four legendary villains, which should be cool.  Lastly, Crackdown 3, The Darwin Experiment, Dragon Ball Fighter Z are games I know nothing about, but they look sick.

So that’s where I stand on E3 2017.  Reactions are all over the map, but I’m honestly coming away from it feeling excited.  A major plus is the fact that most of these games are coming out this year, so 2017 should be a great year for games after all.

What I’d Like to See in Smash Bros. for Switch

Boy, it’s been a while since I’ve gotten to talk about Smash Bros.  It’s just like coming home again.

The last patch to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U / 3DS was released about two years ago now.  Since then, there’s been no new developments to the series.  But with E3 2017 approaching rapidly, the rumor mill has been grinding out speculation about a port of Smash 4 to the Nintendo Switch.

I’d actually say this rumor is pretty likely.  Ignoring the supposed “leaks,” I think it would be a shrewd decision by Nintendo to port Smash Bros. to Switch.  Mario Kart 8 DX was a huge success, after all.  It might even be a way for them to address complaints that fans had about the original game before development ceased.

Now here we have a prime environment for people to sound off on what they think a possible port will or should have as an expansion.  I’m enjoying seeing people’s ideas so I’m going to put in my two cents.  Not all of these ideas are realistic, but I want to talk about them as a Smash fan.

FIRST, I’ll start with little things.  These are small, easy changes that I would like to see.  For example, I’d like to be able to toggle hazards on and off.  This would make stages like Lylat Cruise competitively viable and would provide more options for people who want a fair fight.  Hazards can be fun, but having them turned off would be nice and would add a lot of variety.

I also think some balancing tweaks are necessary.  I’m sure this is a tired message by now, but Bayonetta needs to be toned down in strength.  We’ve seen Bayonetta banned from certain tournaments because of her overwhelming array of tools.  Fixing this issue would help appease players.

Adding in more music would also be ideal, and this isn’t particularly hard to do.  In modding, I’ve added in tons of tracks by injecting .nus3bank files.  If I had to make an unrealistic music request, though, I’d like a revamped music system.  I’d like to see a pool of music tracks that you can add to any stage.  I wanna be able to play the Delfino Plaza theme on Smashville, for example.  I’m big on custom music in games, so this is a personal want.

MOVING ON, I want to talk about more complicated but still realistic changes.  If there were a port, I would expect 3DS stages remastered in HD.  We might even see a couple new stages as well.  I certainly think we might see Smash Run from 3DS brought into HD alongside Smash Tour.

New characters are a possibility.  If we get any, it will be very few.  One or two maybe.  Creating new characters with full movesets is a big task, but it would also pay big dividends for Nintendo.  Only time will tell.  But since I’m here, I’ll pick a pool of ideal characters.  I’d like to see Spring Man/Ribbon Girl from Arms, Inklings from Splatoon, or Simon Belmont from Castlevania.  Also, you might remember an article I wrote in my awkward phase about why Shovel Knight might get into Smash.  So he’s at the top of my list by default.

What I think would be more doable is additional character skin packs as DLC.  For example, Nintendo could take the Injustice route and add new character skins to characters with established movesets, but with different voice packs.  For example, Shadow over Sonic or Young Link over Toon Link.  This might be a fun way to represent more characters.

Lastly, for my competitive Smash fans, I hope the game comes along with some kind of controller adapter so that people can use GameCube controllers or whatever controller they prefer.

The Wii U and 3DS versions of Smash Bros. sitting next to a GameCube Controller.
(Photo: FaruSantos via Flickr)

FINALLY, we get to the fun part.  Time for my completely unrealistic asks.  If any of these were to happen, they would likely be the only additions to the port.  First, any kind of narrative-driven Adventure Mode comparable to Subspace Emissary from Brawl.  That would be incredible.  Considering the caliber of character trailers we’ve seen and all the awesome newcomers, this would be a system seller for sure.  The problem is, Subspace Emissary was such a huge task that it was like developing a game within a game.  Anything of that magnitude might kill Sakurai.  Still, I’d love it as a fan.

Something else that will never happen is, if Nintendo wants to please everyone at once, they could incorporate some kind of mod support. So that fans can make whatever changes they want to Smash.  As I said, Nintendo likes to keep this kind of thing in their own hands so this is just a dream.

At this point I should reiterate that this rumor is still just that: a rumor.  A port of Smash Bros. might not happen soon, or at all.  But my favorite part about the Smash community is speculation.  It’s been a year or two since I’ve had that, and with so many possibilities on the horizon for Nintendo, that fun community aspect is coming back.  So we’ll see what happens.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get to switch into HD Smash in the near future.

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is Incredible

I’ve always believed Shovel Knight is the best thing ever to come out of Kickstarter in 2014.  Now, 3 years later, I have to give props to Yacht Club Games. They’ve been generous enough to give Shovel Knight buyers ALL of the game’s expansions for free.  The first game, now dubbed Shovel of Hope, was inspired.  The next installment, Plague of Shadows, was ambitious and creative.  But the newest game, Specter of Torment, is a masterwork that I can only describe as …elegant.

Specter of Torment logo
The logo for Specter of Torment!

As a prequel to Shovel of Hope, Specter shows us the story behind fan favorite Specter Knight, in addition to answering questions like Shield Knight’s disappearance.  Story-wise, it takes an unusually dark, poignant approach that I really enjoyed.

Specter Knight reflecting
Specter Knight looking wistfully at his locket.

But just as Plague of Shadows tweaked the original level design to suit a new gameplay style, Specter made even more changes and managed to be even more graceful.  The core gameplay involves scythe dashing (used against enemies and certain set pieces) and short-distance wall-climbing, both new mechanics.  Yacht Club’s specialty has always been designing good gameplay around specific mechanics.  Their stage design is not only consistently clever, but challenging, particularly in Specter.

Specter Knight skating
Specter Knight skating around on rails!

For example, an early level challenges the player to use a stationary series of hanging lanterns as dash targets to cross an open pit and reach the end.  Early on this task takes getting used to, but by the time you reach Propeller Knight’s stage, the same challenge is given to you with moving targets.  By the time you reach the Tower of Fate, you have to be able combine air dashing with climbing to reach the top.  There are plenty of times when the game acts in a way you don’t want and kills you, sure.  But you can overcome it with practice, and the controls work amazingly well overall.

Specter Knight Dash
Lantern dashing in Specter of Torment!

What impresses me most about Specter of Torment, though, is its streamlining and refinement.  Most importantly, every new item you get comes with a very brief tutorial.  This naturally teaches you all the item’s uses, a genius move.  You obtain these items by finding Red Skulls, with a total of 100 (a nice round number) spread across 9 levels and the hub castle.  The hub castle is also where you reach every level, conveniently replacing the overworld.  There you can find every seller and challenge, as well as my personal favorite, the Cold Shoulder, which allows you to cross your arms defiantly at any point in the game.

Specter Knight Castle
The castle hub in Specter of Torment.

There’s so many more tidbits about this game I just love.  I will admit that it’s fairly short, but it’s the best expansion I’ve played for a game.  Basically, if you haven’t played Specter of Torment, do it now.  This is the series at its very best, and a master class in platformer design that oozes personality.

10/10 IGN.  GameInformer.  Go home.