Orange Box Designer Commentary

Valve first tried out designer commentary with the Lost Coast standalone demo. Apparently it was such a big success that they decided to do the same for all the games in the Orange Box.

Now Valve is a group of some very, very smart people, and it shows.

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Escape from City 17 at the end of Half-Life: Episode One.

Generic behind-the-scenes specials tend to tell the same old story: the development cycle was hectic, but the team eventually persevered and released a great product (even if it was a little flawed and missing some features). In between all that you might come across an interesting tid-bit or two, but don’t expect any mind blowing revelations.

The commentary on the Orange Box, though, is full of pure-gold nuggets. In fact, playing through its four commentary-enabled titles will probably teach you more about various aspects of videogame production than any game design book. If you haven’t checked it out but are in any way interested in videogame design, I urge you to do so now.

Here are just a few segments I picked out:

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Galaga Legions Bits

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Your two faithful satellites deployed at the top of the screen.

After the unique and well-received Pac-Man Championship Edition, Namco-Bandai decided to remix another one of its classics: Galaga.

Galaga Legions varies quite a bit from its predecessor(s) — your ship is no longer anchored to the bottom of the screen, bosses don’t use a tractor beam to steal your lives, there are many more enemies on the the playing field, and the presentation is filled with lots of modern bells and whistles. Still, it’s a very good shmup in its own right, and a great fit for Xbox Live Arcade.

Bullet points:

  • Pressing the right analog stick either up, down, left or right drops a satellite beside the player’s ship that points in the indicated direction. Whenever the player fires, so do all the deployed satellites. However, satellites can be destroyed, and only two can be used at any one time (pushing on the right stick repeatedly will simply teleport the “older” satellite to the ship’s current location).

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    The titular legions.

  • Enemies enter the screen in waves, with the master ship usually at the head. The waves circle around in different patterns, and sometimes end up settling somewhere on the playing field. Prior to a wave materializing, though, the player is shown a glowing track that represents the wave’s path. This results in some fast-paced, Tower Defense like gameplay as it allows for satellites to be accurately deployed and used to decimate enemies.
  • While in motion, destroying a wave’s master ship can cause a chain reaction that wipes out all the enemies connected to it.
  • Some waves contain glowing ships, and if these are the first to be destroyed, they leave behind a worm hole. Shooting the worm hole expands it until it blows up and summons a ghostly legion of ships that fights along the player’s side.
  • As bullets cover distance, the amount of damage they do is lessened. This encourages the player to take risks in order to maximize his score and playthrough speed.
 Galaga Legions Bits

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The Personality of Movement

arcthelad run The Personality of Movement

Arc the Lad's Poco is a clumsy, rotund fellow who must hold onto his hat while running.

A while ago while I was on vacation I spent a lazy Saturday morning channel-surfing. One of the things that came on was Disney’s Pooh’s Heffalump Movie, and something about it immediately stuck with me: the iconic movement of its characters. Pooh clumsily waddled, Piglet frantically scurried, Roo playfully hopped, Eeyore paced at a glacial speed, Tigger carelessly bounced on his tail and Rabbit had a cocksure stride.

Without explicitly stating anything about the characters, these traits imbued them with an instant and very powerful sense of personality. It’s something videogames have been known to do as well, but not that frequently.

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As Sonic picks up speed, his legs turn into the signature swirling blur.

Of course any character trait can be memorable and evocative as body language is a pretty universal thing. Generic personality quirks, though, tend to be tricky. It’s very easy for quirks to become caricatures, especially if they represent some sort of a cliche, e.g., the gruff loner who always crosses his arms. They also cover a large field with plenty of subtleties that are not always feasible to implement. Then there’s the issue of plugging them in: do they happen automatically, or are they random, or only initiated by the player?

There’s validity to all these approaches, but movement is unique because it’s pretty much a guarantee. Your characters will move, so why not use that? It worked wonders for Sly Cooper and his fast and soft gait, and for Altair with his weighty, coiled-spring like movements. And hey, sometimes even cliches are preferable to no personality at all…


A new post on Gamasutra has popped up that deals with body language a bit more in-depth, so I figured I’d add a link to it.

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DreamWeb Bits

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The penthouse of David Crane, your first assassination target.

DreamWeb is an old DOS/Amiga cyberpunk-themed adventure game developed by Creative Reality. The titular DreamWeb is what secretly holds the world together. Some guys are out to destroy it, though, so the monks that maintain it awaken you, the chosen one, to save the it. It’s all very Matrix-y, and, oddly enough, takes place in just a postage-stamp area of the screen. Unfortunately, the rest of the visual real estate isn’t used for your inventory, and the whole game has a pretty horrible interface.

Still, its dark graphics and brooding audio fit the theme, and it has a couple other notable parts:

  • The projected 2D view is almost entirely top-down (which is very rarely used), helping to give the game a distinct look.

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    Your girlfriend's garage.

  • The bottom-left corner of the screen contains a small window which shows a “zoomed-in” (i.e., scaled up) portion of the postage-stamp where the cursor is currently residing. This helps to offset the small viewport and enhances the investigative aspect of the game. It also makes navigation easier since the window contains a verbal description of what’s underneath the cursor.
  • The size of the postage stamp itself is relative to the area the player is in, adding a sense of scale to the locations he visits.
  • There are a lot of well animated cutscenes in DreamWeb that are seamlessly implemented in the game. For example, the player’s first assassination mission ends with him bursting into a room where a couple is having sex (yes, this is the somewhat famous sex scene). As soon as this happens, the naked woman scuttles away and hides under the bed, while Crane, the player’s target, grabs a pillow to cover his crotch.
  • Although the player gathers various weapons throughout the game, they’re all context sensitive and only used during specific segments (which don’t even require the player to select a target).

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    Dreamweb's map screen.

  • Putting on sunglasses is reflected in the game’s HUD via the player’s portrait.
  • The game has a very brutal atmosphere, best exemplified by the second assassination mission where the player drops a heavy crate on top of his target during a live TV broadcast (this also makes very good use of the perspective).

If you’re curious about DreamWeb, you can also check out the various YouTube videos, including this full playthrough of the game.

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Monster World IV Bits

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Arsha and her sidekick.

Monster World IV is something of a semi-official sequel to Wonder Boy 5: Monster World 3. It’s a cutesy, large-sprited side-scroller in which the player takes on the role of a young girl named Arsha.

The game is mostly a linear platformer with some rudimentary puzzles and RPG elements, but its highlight is the cute little sidekick Pepe. It’s easy to initially assume that Pepe will help you fight the various enemies you encounter, but he never actually attacks anyone. Instead, he can be used to help Arsha traverse the game’s environments. This might not sound like a big deal, but the there’s lots of variety here:

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