Friday, May 21, 2010

Red Dead Ripoff!

It has recently come to my attention that Rockstar Games has blatantly ripped off Johnny Outlaw: Gun for Hire. Maybe you've heard of this, their latest Grand Theft Auto iteration: Red Dead Redemption. Not only does it appear that they have ripped off the setting (the West), they have also possibly ripped off the game mechanics (shooting, running, ducking), and they not-so-subtly named their protagonist John. For those of you who do not know, a nickname for John is Johnny. And if that wasn't enough, they went and made the protagonist a man outside the law: an outlaw. A "Johnny" Outlaw. The audacity.

Yes my friends, we have come so far, but this is it. This is the story of the independent developer, told over and over again. It is the story of Jurgis in the Upton Sinclair classic "The Jungle". A simple story of the ruthless oppression these economic tyrants impose on us all. These modern day Rockefellers, these Carnegies of the video game industry, have used their limitless resources, their sheer size, to conquer the small business, the everyman. And what can we do to fight it? Bankrupt ourselves in the courts? To fight it would be insane; to submit, even more insane.

Of course, nothing is ever so simple. Is it possible that we both attempted to rip off the cowboy experience of film, and so our games have experienced what is known as "convergent evolution" in the video game world? Absolutely not. Still, some will point to the fact that Rockstar has been developing this game for over 4 years, and could not have possibly ripped us off. A compelling argument. Compellingly bad, that is! Here is my unverified version of events. Red Dead Redemption as a game was totally lacking, and with but months until release, the company decided to pull a desperate move. Yes, in those final few months, they realized the game in its current state was guaranteed to fail. Then, their fortunes changed. They visited the Johnny Outlaw blog, saw our YouTube videos, and stole away those perfect ideas, hoping to hop on the Johnny Outlaw bandwagon. If this is true, and I have no compelling reason to believe otherwise, then they are indeed the worst kind of outlaws, the kind that hide behind the law.

But wait. You are not convinced! After all, we have already been accused of plagiarizing "Energy" and "Health". That's what you're thinking. If we can steal the age old concept of Health and the Health bar, what else might we steal? Integers? Shapes? Colors? But you must trust me here. If you, presumably a mere simpleton, thought of that, then certainly the mongoloids at Rockstar games realized that as well! Yes. They saw that we had been accused by Hideo Kojima, and knew this would make us an easy target. If we attempted to make a claim against them with those accusations of guilt hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles, suspicions would just as quickly turn against us. We were the perfect target. Accusations flying. A cowboy game by a bunch of nobodies. And, lucky them, it just so happened to be the World's greatest cowboy game.

Where does that leave us? Now's the time; it's fight or flight. Well, this is what I say: their sterilized, hackneyed attempt to tame the wildness of the West is downright insulting to the cowboy legacy. And they may steal and steal all they like, but they can steal no more. They have released their game, they have played all of their cards. Johnny Outlaw, the fountainhead of all good ideas, is still in development, and so the metaphorical ball is in our court. I'll show them what being a cowboy is all about. They thought the action was over the top before? They thought the comic relief was endearing and delightful before? They thought our villains were timeless and suitable for a younger audience before? Well get ready, because we're turning everything up to eleven. You hear me, Rockstar? This town ain't big enough for the both of us, and it seems to me that you're all out of bullets.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Missing the Mark

While we’re talking about how to make cowboy games, there’s one very important issue that needs to be addressed. What is the target demographic of the Western themed game?

Some people say that cowboys are kids stuff. Now, we all know that’s just not true. Cowboys spit and swear. Cowboys kill indiscriminately. They hunt for gold in all the wrong places; they chase skirts, ride horses, and steal land from our Native American brothers. Does that sound like kid stuff? Course not, unless of course your kid is a full grown cowboy. No, no. That isn’t kid stuff. For all you foreigners, that is what we refer to in the U.S.A as the “American Dream”.

Really, the problem isn’t the cowboys. The problem is that in our society only a child is allowed to dress up and play cowboy without being considered a “public nuisance”. Of course, with the advent of video games, we can now play cowboy at any age. And we do it from behind a computer screen where no man alive can judge us.

Yes my friends, the cowboy is not for kids. The cowboy is for adults. Now we know that for certain. But despite that, here at the Johnny Outlaw studio, we have made it our mission to spread the cowboy gospel to all mankind, even the children. After all, what could be more important than passing on the cowboy to the next generation, to make the cowboy for kids? Much as I hate to say it, that’s getting harder and harder to do.

As I said before, cowboys aren’t kid stuff. The cowboys we call “kid stuff” are stripped of all the rude behavior and viciousness that made them cowboys to begin with! And if that isn’t enough, the good people at Microsoft prohibit games from having too much indiscriminate killing, alcohol, spitting tobacco, and God knows what else. My friends, Microsoft has literally outlawed the cowboy. And when the cowboy is outlawed, only outlaws will be cowboys.

Now our children will never know the joys of being a real cowboy. What can we do about this? Some people might protest. Maybe even start a boycott. I tell you, if former American president and cowboy enthusiast Theodore Roosevelt were here, he’d be mad as all Hell, and he’d sure do something about it. So what are we going to do? We’re going to do what a true cowboy would do: stick to our guns.

So we come to the greatest weapon in Johnny Outlaw’s arsenal: the euphemism. Every cowboy action can be euphemized so that the kids can experience the real cowboy way and those goons at Microsoft can be placated.

Things that might be considered offensive can be slightly altered, and made "kid friendly".
-Cigarillos can be replaced by the smoking toothpick.
-Whiskey is gone, but "tasty cowboy juice" is not.
-Instead of killing a man, we simply "shoot his hat off".

Of course some things just plain had to go, but the cowboy spirit remains.
-Instead of profanity, we have the uplifting words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
-The cowboy’s often ignored sense of duty and honor is replaced with a comically inept anthropomorphic cactus sheriff.
-The deep-seated greed that rests in every man’s soul and drives our villains onward has been replaced with an inexplicable deep-seated hatred for fun and good times.

Did we betray the cowboy? No. Microsoft did that. But we will overcome. We will one day have cowboy games tailored to every demographic, for the cowboy is timeless. At what age, in what nation, under what creed does a man tire of ogling women, drinking whiskey, and taking lives? This is the heart of the cowboy. And a cowboy's heart won’t stop until he’s dead. And a cowboy is only dead if he was killed by a better cowboy.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How the West Was

I must confess that although I have designed a game about cowboys, I am no cowboy. I am not even a fake cowboy like Owen Wilson. Some people might say you don't need to be a cowboy to design a game about cowboys. A cowboy wouldn't say that.

I had to discover the essence of the cowboy. Now, what does "cowboy" actually mean? If you ask a dictionary, the cowboy is simply a man who drives cattle. But if you had asked Roy Rogers, cowboy inventor of cherry cola, he would certainly say that a cowboy is more than a man who drives cattle. But how much more? And how do we make it into a video game?

And so I turned to the only surviving historical records from the days of the cowboy: the Spaghetti Westerns. Researchers have termed this collection of films the "Cowboy Rosetta Stone", for within it is the key to deciphering the cowboy language, or "Code of the West". I watched. I understood.

Recreating the Spaghetti Western became my chief design goal. It would be the cowboy experience, straight from the source of all cowboy experiences. Well, delivering that experience turned out to be no easy feat. A game typically needs to be highly interactive and rely on the player's input. Out in the Spaghetti West, fights are hardly common and when they do occur, they are over in the blink of an eye. Usually the entire movie is spent building up to one single fight, and the majority of the fight is a non-interactive five minute panoramic shot of the combatants with guns holstered. This was the experience that enthralled so many, but it did not readily lend itself to the game format.

Or so we thought! The quick-draw aspect was expertly replicated using a modified Duck Hunt pistol with a pressure sensitive holster. Retinal scanners were used to detect if the player blinked or maybe just wasn't glowering hard enough. The player could control the pacing of the fight by simply increasing or decreasing the intensity of the background music. If done with an artisan's touch, the player might be able to delay the draw indefinitely. We had done it. We had broken the barrier between man and motion picture. We had deciphered the Code of the West.

But in the West, stories don't always have a happy ending. I had a few testers take the rig out for a spin. The legal staff recommended we suppress the findings, but I suspect they'll leak one way or another. I watched a man stare down that screen for five straight minutes, pale as a ghost, sweat beading up on his forehead, teeth clenched so hard it'd make your dentist cry. Five minutes. Five minutes of the most intense focus you ever seen in your life. And after five minutes the poor bastard forgot to draw his gun. Talked it over with some of the boys in R&D, said it was probably a fluke. Few more testers later and we had a whole lot of flukes on our hands.

The truth is, people may have wanted the Spaghetti Western experience, but they sure as hell couldn't handle it. When you make the player a cowboy, you quickly discover that a cowboy he is not. And that's how we arrived at Johnny Outlaw, the top down shooter. Now the player is only a hero by proxy; we leave the actual shooting and staring to a professional. The third person view constantly assures the player that he is not actually the cowboy, and helps alleviate the high levels of stress that accompany such cowboy situations. Sure, the fundamental problems of translating the Spaghetti Western style into a game emerged again, but this time we did not take chances; we just added more fights.