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Thursday
Dec132007

The Chief Justice and a Movie

ast week I attended Judge Kozinski's screening of the court-room drama The Music Box. Alex Kozinski is the Chief Justice of the Ninth Circuit Court. I was the only game designer in the room.

I liked the film, though it's strangely named and I find the role of the music box itself pretty questionable. Still, it's an interesting film that follows the personal journey of a daughter who defends her father against heinous charges.

What's surprising to me is that 57 year old Kozinski knows a thing or two about games. I mean, how many people from his generation know how to be beat King Hippo in Mike Tyson's Punchout? Many years ago, he wrote some game reviews for the Wall Street Journal herehere, and here. I'm considering writing some law review articles for The Journal so we'll be even.

Kozinski is known for his writing, which is both clear and harsh. I think he delights in the controversy he creates, and he sticks in verbal jabs to those he thinks deserve it. Sound familiar? I think it's very weird that he's a judge who is a game designer in another life while I'm a game designer who is a judge in another life.

I didn't get a chance to tell Judge Kozinski that his law review article on patentsis way off when it says the system favors the infringer. It surely favors the deep-pocket companies who snatch patents that should never be granted, then hold them over the heads of everyone else. I'll cut him some slack since he wrote that before I was born, though.

More importantly, I wish I had thanked him for protecting my first amendment rights (and yours) against Mattel in the case over Aqua's song "Barbie Girl." Mattel claimed that the song infringed on their Barbie name and sought damages. Kozinski ruled that the song actually did dilute the value of Barbie. That means that it did create a negative associate with Barbie, and furthermore it added a second thing that comes to mind when you hear "Barbie" whereas before there was only the doll. Regardless of anything negative in the song, a second entity with the same name does dilute some brand value, such as if a string of dry cleaners called "Harry Potter Dry Cleaning" were to become successful. Even if it had nothing to do with the books, the brand value of Harry Potter is still diluted.

BUT, even having said that, there are first amendment concerns here. Although the use of Barbie is commercial here (the song was sold for profit) it is also has a non-commercial use. That is, the song isn't *just* labeled Barbie for the sake of confusion. It makes a comment about the values the songwriters believe the Barbie dolls to embody. This social commentary falls under the non-commercial exception (even though the song is a commercial product) and Kozinski said the potential damages to free speech outweigh damages to the Barbie name here. If this type of thing were allowed to succeed in court, then companies would start to own the language and it would become impossible to even refer to, parody, or critique popular culture.

His famous closing words in his written opinion on this case were, "The parties are advised to chill." I like his style.
Thank you Judge Kozinski, and I hope your kids are enjoying Guitar Hero 3.

--Sirlin

Thursday
Nov012007

Virtua Fighter 5: A Little Rough Around the Edges

Virtua Fighter 5 just came out for Xbox 360. The gameplay is great as always, but a lot of features of this game leave me scratching my head.

Button Configuration
I think I have witnessed more players configure their buttons than any other US game developer. (Feel free to correct me if you know of someone else who tops me here). I watch people config buttons for hours and hours and hours as I run tournaments at multiple events per year, every year. There is a 100% rate of agreement among players that the best implementation is where the game lists the functions, then the player presses the button he wants for that function. So you highlight "jab" or "punch" or whatever, then you press the button you want to be assigned to that. This process does NOT require you to know that the button you presses is really X or Square or A or whatever else.

Virtua Fighter and many other fighting games STILL use the bad method where you cannot press the button you want to assign. You must highlight the *button* (not the function), then go left/right to set the function. So the game lists "X" then you have to look down at your controller, find the X button, realize that it should be kick or whatever, then go left/right until you select kick.

Believe me, this requires an extra mental step from players and it takes significantly longer for them to configure buttons with this implementation and as I said earlier, exactly no one likes it.

Still on the subject of button config, Virtua Fighter 5 has a major problem that I can't believed passed Microsoft's technical requirement checklist. I configured my buttons for player 1, then I played some matches online where I was the one creating the match. Things worked fine. Then I decided to *join* someone else's created match. I was put on the 2p side (fine), and my buttons were all messed up! I was now using the 2p button config! I can already sense the VF apologists trying to defend this with some kind of warped logic, but it's absolutely terrible. No other fighting game has this problem.

Online Player Match
Very surprisingly, after you play a "player match" (aka unranked match), you and the opponent are both kicked out back to the matchmaking screen. Want a rematch? Tough, there's no rematch option. You can't create a "room", much less with spectators, where you go around in a rotation like Dead or Alive and SF2: Hyper Fighting. Now, you *can* make a private room with someone on your friends list where you get to play them over and over (just them, no spectators or others in the rotation). This will lead to a lot of good players feeling forced to only fight people on their friends list just to have a logistically reasonable set of matches. Bad for community, because you want those players playing out in the open where everyone can challenge them.

Online Ranked Match
You are allowed to set whether you want to play opponents near your skill level or of any skill level. You are allowed to set whether you want arenas with no walls, low walls, high walls, or any walls. These options should not be in ranked matches. The premise of a ranked match in any game is that the player has as little leeway to affect who he fights or what the rules will be. It's supposed to be the same rules all the time and no ability to avoid opponents you're afraid of losing to.

Not only can you filter by skill level and arena type, but you can also see the opponent's name, rank, and exact win/loss record before you even accept the match. (Yes I know that you can see their names before the match starts in Puzzle Fighter's ranked matches. That is a mistake and will be fixed if there's a patch.) Anyway, you get an awful lot of info about your opponent before you even try to join his ranked match. This alone ruins the integrity of the leaderboards. I heard a rumor that disconnects don't count as losses, but I have no idea personally.

Character Selection
Virtua Fighter 5 does another strange thing that no other fighting game does: it tries very hard to get you to only play one character. Usually, character selection is part of the main loop, meaning you go back to it after every game. In VF5, after you play a player match (and are kicked out to the matchmaking screen, ugh), you are *still* tied to your character. You have to exit the whole online mode to switch to another character. Another character is basically like another account.

I of course know why they did this. In Japan, players tend to play just one character in a fighting game. In tournaments, they don't allow switching characters like we do in the US. Now, as a tournament player, I strongly dislike the Japanese method. If I can beat 70% of people in a tournament with character A and the other 30% with character B, I deserve to win the tournament. But anyway, let's not argue that right now. The extreme emphasis on sticking to one character in VF5 comes from how the game is played in Japan. That's nice, but I want to play Jeffry sometimes, Pai sometimes, and Lei Fei some other times. It's a real hassle to do this relative to every other fighting game. The designers are saying to me, "We don't really approve of you having that sort of fun" and it makes me sad.

As I said at the start, the gameplay in VF is just a technical and well thought-out as you'd expect and the online play is surprisingly unlaggy. That's what counts the most, but all the other rough edges are a bit of a downer.

--Sirlin

Wednesday
Aug292007

Evolution 2007 Finals

I did better than I've ever done before at our world finals event this year, taking 5th place in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo. I also got to test 18 decks of my Yomi card game, and got to lose Guilty Gear to Yossan, the #1 finisher in that tournament.

I won't say much about Guilty Gear other than having to relearn the strange lesson that my Potemkin gets much worse when I have to play under pressure against unfamiliar opponents, and yet my Chipp gets much better when I have to play under pressure against unfamiliar opponents. I call this the Curse of Chipp.

In ST, I made it to the top 8 without losing a single match. i tried this year to make an effort to "play the opponent" rather than "play the game." In my book, I talk about the player type called Planner. That's how I've always approached things, but the approach has weaknesses.

I've heard Seth off-handedly mention in his match commentary whether certain players "show no respect" for their opponents. He means this in a very particular way. He's not talking about sportsmanship at all, but instead whether a player does things within the game that a really good opponent should be able to counter. Seth isn't even giving an insult by saying this. He's just pointing out when a player is trying to get away with something that he might not try against a player he "respects." To be clear, you *should* do bootleg stuff that's easily counterable *if* you really think the particular opponent you are playing against won't counter it. That is what "playing the opponent" means, rather than "playing the game."

The toughest opponent I beat was Afrolegends. He's a rising star of a player. Determined and in practice. I think it's safe to say that he practiced at least 10 times more than me, if not 100 times. I invested nearly no practice time into ST this year, and instead have focused on designing STHD. Anyway, I didn't rely on practice or on scouting.

Here is what I did. I remember watching the match between Afrolegends's DeeJay and Graham Wolfe's Vega (claw) three weeks ago. I also remember playing the same match against Afrolegends right after that, and losing. Graham got hit by about 90 ducking medium kicks. Three weeks ago I tried very hard to avoid that fate, but still got hit by several. That match is on youtube, but I only watched it maybe 1 or 2 times casually. I'm honestly not trying to be arrogant about this, I'm just trying to point out all the things that I didn't do to prepare hat people probably expect me to do.

I decided to play the same character matchup against Afrolegends this time. I won't be bullied away from Vega just because of a damned ducking medium kick. So instead of trying hard to avoid it, I would just have to try REAL HARD to avoid it. To look into Afrolegend's mind and try to guess when he will do it, so I can slide a bit after. And just as important, try to guess when he will throw his sonic boom thing ("max out") so I know when I can go off the wall. I also factored in that I know he's sitting there waiting for me to go off the wall a lot of the time, so I have to avoid the temptation to do it when he expects me to do it.

I won this match by something like two pixels, so it's not like I dominated at all. It could have gone either way. But my point is that I got more mileage out of focusing on exactly when I think the opponent will do X or Y than I probably would have out of studying match footage or even actual practice. I should also point out that Afrolegends's tons of practice wasn't for nothing. He placed 3rd, which was two places higher than me.

To prove that I'm not just bragging, all this reading the opponent stuff went exactly the other way when I faced Graham Wolfe. After losing a game, I switched to Honda (a crowd pleaser!) and won one round, but in the final round of the match, Graham guessed right something like 4 times in a row. His final move was a ridiculous jumping strong with Balrog (boxer) that clearly proved he knew exactly what I was going to do, and when. Graham soundly beat me in that match, so my hat is off to him. He took 4th place.

My only other loss was to Tokido. I was very sure I would beat him. So sure that I knew overconfidence was probably bad, but I just didn't think he could be Bison (dictator) with Vega (claw). About four years ago, my friend first introduced me to the concept of Meyers-Briggs personality types and after a quick set of questions, he told me I'd be most likely to lose to a player who is capable of executing something in a game that I didn't think was possible or practical, so it wouldn't be in my "systems analysis" of the game. He was exactly describing John Choi's ability to custom-combo my Rose's low strong in SFAlpha 2. And, it turns out, he described Tokido, too.

There's something mysterious about Tokido's ability to go off the wall with Vega. Two different times, I saw his Vega touch the wall, then do the air throw just a bit earlier than I thought was possible. He also sometimes went off the wall then immediately attacked, just a tiny bit earlier than I thought was possible. Maybe more to the point, Bison can beat Vega if he can get close enough to do scissor kicks and stand roundhouses. It didn't really occur to me that Tokido would be able to run away well enough to avoid this for a whole match. I think I was one round away from defeating him, but he came back with his mysteriously good run away and off the wall tactics. He went on to defeat John Choi with similar antics, earning Tokido 1st place. I'm a little salty about it, but oh well.

Before signing off, I'd like to give my awards for strangest counter-character choices in the tournament. DSP was about to face Japanese Dhalsim player KKY. I asked DSP if he was going to win and he said "KKY's Dhalsim cannot beat my Vega." Pretty bold, but amazingly, DSP was right. KKY then switched to Blanka! Unexpected for a Japanese Dhalsim player, but nice move because it's counter-match heavily in Blanka's favor, in my opinion. KKY won game 2, but to DSP's credit, not by much. DSP could now switch to a new character in game 3. Luckily, DSP plays a wide variety of characters who have a big advantage here: Old Sagat, Balrog, and DeeJay for starters. But DSP chose to KEEP Vega, countering himself! I don't get it. It went down to the last hit and as KKY did whiff roll into bite for the final hit, both players physically leaped out of their chairs in excitement.

But this was not as strange as Alex Wolfe's choice. Let me preface this by saying that Alex Wolfe is one of the very best players in the US. He won 1st place at last year's Evo World Finals and just two weeks ago he and his brother Graham got 5th place in Japan. Anyway, his Dhalsim got absolutely destroyed game 1 against someone's Vega. It was really bad, but it happens. then Alex switched to ZANGIEF. Zangief vs Vega is an incredibly hard match and it's pretty damn crazy to intentionally play this match when you're 1 game from losing a tournament match. I guess his idea was that a good Zangief has a big surprise factor (and his Zangief is good), but Vega proved too strong even then.

I hope that gives you a taste of what the Super Turbo tournament was like. It was also a great opportunity for me to get feedback from the Japanese players about STHD...but that's all I'm allowed to say about that.

--Sirlin

Friday
Aug102007

My Street Fighter Match Videos from Evolution West 2007

talked here about the strategy behind my matches at Evolution West 2007. Now you can see those matches for yourself and get a sense of the crowd excitement.

First up, it's me versus Viscant. I'm purple Bison (the dictator) versus his Vega (claw). I mostly flopped around, loosey goosey because I was pretty sure that would be enough to win. Bison has natural advantages in this match and Vega must know exactly what he's doing to win.

Next is me versus the evil Darkside Phill (DSP). DSP won the mindgame of our initial double-blind character selection by choosing Blanka versus my Vega (claw). Watch this whole match carefully because it's definitely the best of the three in this post. You can stop watching at around 4:50 into the vid when the match ends; I'm not sure why the rest wasn't edited out.

Finally, check out me vs. Afrolegends. I start with Vega (claw) versus his DeeJay. In case you get confused about the technicalities of the match, Afrolegends accidentally paused the game at one point, which is a foul that caused him to lose the round and consequently, the game (but not the whole match). Afrolegends played excellently during this match and all his other matches. He's a rising star.

Thanks to James Chen for recording all this and to Seth Killian for the announcing during the event. Seth, you did a great job, but please, please learn the difference between a "round," a "game" (2 out of 3 rounds), and a "match," (2 out of 3 games). It's actually a bit hard to follow what the score is during these videos because Seth uses these terms incorrectly throughout. But let's not be too hard on him because he did an A job overall. I especially liked when he joked about me being one of the developers of the game (referring to my role on Capcom Classics Collection 2, the version we were using in this tournament) and his jab about how I died to one of the most worthless supers in the game during my match against DSP's Blanka. What can I say, it's true!

Hope you enjoy!

--Sirlin

Tuesday
Jul312007

My Evolution West 2007 Performance

Evolution West was at Comicon this year. I'll talk mostly about the Super Turbo tournament because it was a great tournament. Here's the results:

1) John Choi (Ryu, Old Sagat)
2) Afrolegends (Dee Jay, Balrog)
3) Jason Cole (Dhalsim)
4) David Sirlin (Vega, Honda, Bison)
5) Alex Wolfe (Dhalsim)
5) DSP (Dee Jay, Blanka, Vega, Balrog)
7) Antonio Diaz (Blanka)
7) Viscant (Vega)

My very first match of the tournament was against Jason Cole, two-time Evolution World Champion in Super Turbo. But more to the point, Cole and I were the #1 and #2 finishers at Evolution North, so it was weird to fight him straight off the bat, but we didn't complain, it's all good. Cole would definitely play Dhalsim, and I decided to pick Vega. I think I've played Vega vs. Dhalsim against Cole about 20 games or so over the last couple years. During the "normal fighting" part of the match, I have the advantage (I think). But eventually during each game, there is a part called "Dhalsim does noogie over and over and I die." This is especially hard for Vega to get out of. Counterthrowing is, for some reason, very hard for Vega in this situation. Jumping out is literally not possible if Dhalsim does a correct sequence. Vega can flip kick out (charge db, f+kick) but this is a tough thing to do. First, you only get one shot per loop because it's a charge move and worse, if you are charging you aren't shaking out of the noogie. This means a) you take full damage from the noogie and b) you telegraph that you are going to try to reversal flip kick out.

After losing game 1, I said out loud "fuck this match" and switched to Bison. Cole is too damn good at noogie trap on Vega. Bison in theory is just as screwed, but in practice he can reversal throw out more easily for some strange reason. Anyway, Cole beat me.

I went on to beat everyone else I faced that Saturday, including James Chen who I reminded the
hard way that you can't jump out of Honda's Ochio throw. I advanced to top 8. Meanwhile, Afrolegends ran the gauntlet facing Graham Wolfe, Buktooth, Valle, Choi, Graham again, and Watson. He had to beat all of them (except Choi) to advance to top 8. That's quite a string of top players, and that was just to get to the top 8.

The top 8 finals took place the next day on stage in a boxing ring in Capcom's booth at Comicon. There were hundreds of excited fans equipped with noise-makers and everything. It was a really great atmosphere to compete in. Looking back, I guess that could make someone nervous but I didn't even think to be nervous. I love being on stage.

My first match was against Viscant, a Vega player. I asked Choi if I should play Honda or something. He asked how the match goes and I said whoever gets ahead can mostly sit there or run away and it's hard for either character to make a comeback. He said it's too risky to play a match like that on purpose, so don't pick Honda. I asked about Vega and he said yeah, I have good experience with Vega so I should be ok. I sat down to play and the Ghost of Super Turbo told me to play Bison. Bison has like three ways to beat Vega pretty bad unless the Vega knows exactly what to do. I figured I'd be able to get away with at least one or two of those and it mostly worked. I won.

I then fought DSP (who had just lost to Choi, even though he beat both Valle and Watson earlier in the tournament). Given which characters DSP plays, I figured I'd be best off with Vega overall. DSP had a different way of thinking about his character selection though. I think he started by considering who *I* would think is my best chance overall given his characters and he also figured Vega would be my best bet overall. So he started with Blanka specifically to counter my Vega. Remember, these character picks are double blind, so he had to guess all that. I think he was one yomi layer above me there, and he got to play game 1 with a counter match in his favor. (Note to self: learn how to play Vega vs. Blanka.) Anyway, he won game 1.

I had a tough choice now. Vega was not working, so I needed someone else. I could play Bison, but Bison's scissor kicks don't quite work right against Blanka because of Blanka's hitbox while ducking. Also, Bison can't do anything once Blanka starts crossing him up with jump short. The match is probably in Bison's favor (I think), but there are a lot of ways to lose. I had a bad feeling about it (even though I won this exact same match (Bison vs. Blanka) against DSP in a previous tournament years ago.) I could be a little crazy and try Blanka vs. Blanka, but there's too many things I don't know about the match and I figured I should at least play someone I know what I'm doing with when hundreds of people are watching. Honda could work, though. Honda is good against Blanka but not so good against "excellent Blanka" who knows every detail of the match. I could probably pull it off though. But then I might be faced with Honda vs. Dee Jay in game 3, a very bad match for me. By this time I had to make a decision, so I decided to suck it up and win it with Honda.

DSP completely destroyed me first round. I think this confirmed everyone's fears that I had no idea what I was doing and that Honda was a terrible choice. Furthermore, I got hit by whiffed roll into bite and hop into bite. I think this must have looked like I was too old and had too bad of reaction time to stop it. Actually, this is not at all true. I knew he would jab roll into bite. I knew he would hop into bite. I can prove I knew because if you pause the game, then quit out to the main menu (of Capcom Classics Collection 2) then go to Street Fighter tips, you'll see these exact two maneuvers listed there, and I wrote it and took screenshots. Maybe DSP looked it up there! Ha. Anyway, I'm sitting there waiting for it, see it coming, and I have stored Ochio throw ready, and I mash on punches. And somehow, he got all the bites anyway. Ochio throw beats almost anything in the game, but Blanak's bite is so damn good that it actually beat the Ochio throw.

After the first round, I thought to myself "Hey, WAKE UP! You are one round away from being eliminated in a match you have every right to win! Don't just play mindlessly on instinct, THINK about it. Counter jump ins with jab headbutt. Jump or flying butt into Ochio, then mixup!" So I did. I turned off auto-pilot and did all those things and won. As expected, DSP then switched to Dee Jay and used the first round to demonstrate exactly what you do to practically perfect Honda. Ouch. I knew I had to break out of this pattern of being trapped at full screen by his projectiles, I did my best to get those next rounds off to a different start. That match is hard enough that I think I'll keep to myself what few tips I know about winning it.

I then faced Afrolegends, a man forged in fire. Now, I saw Afrolegends beat Graham Wolfe's Vega the day before. Afrolegends had magic powers with Dee Jay's low forward kick and probably did 50% of his damage against Graham with that move alone. Graham kept doing Vega's low strong, perhaps not believing that it could *really* lose to that stupid low forward kick, but it kept losing again and again. Armed with this knowledge, I was extremely careful to not get hit by it, and I did once right at the start of round 1! Then, ready for it, I tried to slide against it and I think I got hit by it anyway. I then even more carefully slid and actually hit him and carefully low stronged and actually hit him. But somewhere, things went really wrong and I lost big time. I turned to Choi, gesturing that I didn't know who to pick. Choi said "No more Vega," after seeing how soundly I was beaten. I agreed and switched to Bison (Even I'm not crazy enough to try Honda versus Dee Jay two times in a row). Game 2 was 1 round to 1 round and during the 3rd round, Afrolegends accidentally paused the game just as he was starting a crossup attempt. This foul means I win the round, and thus the game. Ouch. Afrolegends stuck with Dee Jay and showed superior knowledge of the match, and he won, eliminating me.

My two losses were to afrolegends (the #2 finisher) and Jason Cole (#3 finisher). Choi was #1.

Other highlights of the top 8. TWO people played Blanka (normally would be 0). TWO people played Dee Jay (normally would be 0). Someone played Honda. There were 3 double KOs, 2 in one game! This is more double KOs than I've seen in the last 5 years or so in ST. The two in one game was Jason Cole (Dhalsim) vs. Alex Wolfe (Dhalsim). First round, double KO. Second round, Cole won. Third round, double KO. In this situation (final round), the game automatically gives each player one round win total, meaning Alex Wolfe got a win marker even though he hadn't won a round yet! This was crazy stuff.

The tournament was topped off nicely with Choi pulling of several miracles versus Afrolegends, then Choi transforming into some kind of Korean Inferno against Jason Cole. By the end, Cole was completely thrown off his game and Choi dominated in a scary way. Later, Cole said to me "I can't believe he uppercuts at such risky times! Doesn't he know how risky it is! And he always hits. He's the luckiest mother fucker around, haha." Then Cole theorized that Choi actually conditions his opponents to act a certain way, then does his "risky" stuff only when he gets to a high pressure situation when the opponent is likely to play on instinct rather than thought. Later, James Chen theorized that Choi can "smell fear like a dog." Actually those were my words but Chen's idea. Anyway, he meant that if you make a mistake against Choi, Choi then puts pressure on you and tries to pressure you into making more mistakes. Maybe both theories are right. I had an alternate theory that if we could look into his mind, we'd see a rainbow, a floating panda and a Hello Kitty.

One last note about Guilty Gear: I hate team tournaments a lot and hope we're done with them.

--Sirlin