Thursday, April 21, 2011


I've had Phoenix Wright on the mind on and off. I was really sick yesterday, and built a Phoenix Wright engine. It's certainly not something perfect, but it made me think that maybe I should explain some of the details about what makes Phoenix Wright games Wrightlike.

It's easy to say "the writing", but that's a copout. Let's go over some of the facets that give these games their particular feel.

The most important aspect is that these games are relentlessly linear. There is one specific route forward, no deviations, no branches, no nothing. While there is space to explore, it's 90% color. Because the game is so linear, all the writing effort can be spent on the scenes that will definitely happen, knowing full well the exact path the player took to get here.

This is quite a limitation, but like all limitations, accepting it can open up new vistas of possibility. In this case, the super-rich environments and characters are possible only because of this limitation, and the way each case ticks over into the next with a strong continuity is also because of this.

Nearly all the writing and gameplay elements stem from this relentless linearity.

For example, the pacing of a Phoenix Wright game is a simple but unusual factor. I think of any part of the game as having a pacing which is the risk divided by the exploration capability.

In "exploration" mode, the only real risk is that the player will quit. And there's lots of places to explore. So it's a low-paced part of the game.

In "court" mode, there is some well-defined risk of losing health if you do specific things, but there's also a fair amount of riskless exploration in pushing and listening. So this is a kind of medium-paced part of the game.

In "lockbreak" mode, every move you make is a health risk. There is absolutely nothing to explore. This laser-like focus makes this the most pushingly-paced part of the game.

In actuality, I split these three up into five, because exploration mode has three grades: "wander" mode in early midgame where you get to explore loads of places, "investigate" mode where the number of places is reduced and the amount of interplay between objects increases, and "inspect" mode, where there are only a few places you can go/people you can talk to (for example, if you're locked in a basement).

These pacing tricks can be extrapolated out into a wider variety of games - the amount of risky exploration/choice vs the amount of risk-free exploration. Through this lens, you can see a lot of games taking the same kind of approach. However, there are also games where you have risk-free zones that have no real exploration - hubs, basically. These hubs are very useful to a not-so-relentlessly-linear game where you might have the option to customize things or take different approaches.

Another factor to the Wrightlike games is their puzzles. The puzzle quality varies - it isn't rare to fall out of synch with the script writers and end up either stuck or trying desperately to solve a puzzle that isn't what they want you to solve.

However, setting aside the quality, the puzzles have a slightly unusual timbre to them. The puzzles are relentlessly linear, as mentioned. Unlike normal adventure game puzzles, there's not a world where several puzzles lie in wait. The puzzle coming down the line in a Wrightlike game is the only puzzle, at least at the moment. Other puzzles may be tied to it, but they cannot be dealt with at the present time.

This means that all the inventory stuff, color text, and hints you give out are focused like a laser on the next puzzle. This is a distinctively different feel than you get from an adventure game where there might be four puzzles itching at the back of your mind while you collect stuff.

I think this gives the Wrightlike games an unusually tight, fluid flow to them. Of course, it also gives them a clogged-drain-style flow when the player can't solve a puzzle, which is a downside. Being forced to replay a mission after losing too much health is also unusually onerous, since you have to go through things in precisely the same order again.

Anyway, I'm not normally a fan of linear games. However, to paraphrase Ebert, I may disapprove of a game for going too linear, and yet have a sneaky regard for a game that goes much, much more linear than merely too linear. Embracing this linearity is, I think, what makes Wrightlike games so unique and enjoyable.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Old College Try

One of my friends has gotten involved in the age-old "what's college worth" debate. My point of view is pretty unusual, so I thought I might as well spell it out.

In the broad strokes, I agree with the stranger he's trying to rebut. Not only is college overpriced, it provides very, very little actual advantage. To be honest, just the opportunity cost of attending college is higher than the reward of a diploma. IE, even if the education was free, college would still be overpriced.

There is, however, something very useful about college. If you know how to get the most out of college, it can be worth your time and money. Unfortunately, I think most people aren't ready to get the most out of college until they're in their mid-twenties - after having graduated and worked in the rat race for a little while.

Everyone will tell you to learn all you can at college, but in truth the things you learn either aren't very important or will be picked up even without classes. Classes aren't taught very efficiently, anyway. With the possible exception of things like doctors, you can learn everything in a quarter of the time by reading it on-line and doing projects. Sure, there's some pressure to work hard at learning while in college, but you could get that same pressure by hiring a random person to badger you about it four times a day, and I bet you can get that service for significantly less than $30,000 a year.

(New start-up idea: badgerMe. Have someone you don't know call you up several times a day (videoconferencing extra) to ask what you've accomplished towards your goal, and to bitch at you if you slacked... I'm taking investors!)

The real way college can benefit you is that it offers an almost unique combination of free time and companions with diverse but compatible interests (who also have free time).

Nobody really stresses this properly. Frat houses might stress the interpersonal relationships, and how they can help you get jobs and so on, but that's old fashioned. Not obsolete, per se, but only a tiny part of what can be accomplished.

These days, it is completely possible to publish a book, paint beautiful murals, write a game, create a social network, innovate a new kind of cuisine... all of these things can be done rather easily by a small group of people stuck in the same place with a lot of free time. Even if the final product sucks, you have gained a lot of really, really valuable experience. And, if you do it over and over, eventually the final product doesn't suck, and things can take off.

Unfortunately, most college students are right out of high school. A few may intellectually understand that they can do these sorts of things, but inertia pushes them to do the same things they did in high school. Even if they were honors students, it's unlikely they ever really tried to create something for the world. It's a different mindset, a very unscholastic mindset. One that can really only be learned by trying and failing to do so in the real world, first.

After college ends, it is much more difficult to start up projects with other people. You have less free time, and there are fewer people nearby, and the people nearby have less free time. We have very few of these "pressure cooker" situations where people can get together and create something over weeks and months. College is one of those situations, and instead we tell people either A) it's worthless, or B) you need to focus on learning.

You don't need to focus on learning. That's the mindset that makes it worthless.

In my mind, the ideal college setup would be:

Freshman: Spend a year working shit part-time jobs and desperately trying to make your hobbies into a business.

Softmore: Come and live on campus. Take a few classes, but more importantly, join a review/testing team for an industry that interests you, and take small roles in random projects.

Junior: Team up with other students to do lots of small, cool, shitty projects. Learn to promote your stuff as well as create it. Begin to pick up best practices and advanced theory from classes and random other students who need you to know it.

Senior: With a fat resume of shitty projects, turn your attention to somewhat larger, more polished projects. Cement your team of trusted allies. Take pseudo-classes to keep up to date with recent advances and shore up your weaknesses, but focus mostly on getting your projects out there.

Graduation: Does there need to be one?