Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Some Guy Reacts to Month-Old News

About a month ago, Hideki Kamiya, director of PlatinumGames's upcoming Bayonetta, unveiled his game's "Very Easy Automatic" mode.

Players of Kamiya's Devil May Cry may remember "Easy Automatic" mode. In the original Devil May Cry, if the player struggled in the early stages, the game would make the one-time offer to switch over to "Easy Automatic" difficulty. "Easy" was self-explanatory, but "Automatic" was an additional setting that activated auto-fire on Dante's dual pistols. That was all.

With Bayonetta, Kamiya has gone quite a bit further to design an action game accessible to players of all skill levels. Not only does the easiest difficulty apparently feature regenerating health and pathetically weak enemies, but the new Automatic setting allows players to play with only one hand.

In the demonstration video, the player essentially just presses the "punch" button repeatedly, only switching to the kick for certain special attacks. The AI automatically homes in on enemies, even jumping when necessary, and performs appropriate combos. Noting that you can still manually take over movement or turn off Automatic mode entirely at any time, Kamiya describes it as like "a helping hand from an incredibly skilled expert in the game."

It sounds a lot like the theory behind the "Demo Play" feature that Nintendo has patented for use in future titles. Demo Play will supposedly allow players to hand off control to the AI any time a game becomes too difficult to get through manually. Nintendo hasn't provided any demonstrations yet, but I can think of any number of past games where the AI didn't seem to know how to play very well, so I'm intrigued to see how this turns out.

Some old-school gamers, however, worry that this will mean the end of challenge, or even interactivity, in video games. Bayonetta's Automatic mode at least is still run on the player's repeated pressing of the punch button, but it's clear from the video that the manual input is effortless, the engagement practically nonexistent, yet the onscreen action is highly complicated. To be sure, there could be ill consequences down the line to this catering to the lowest common denominator. But, for now, I'd like to just think of it as an extra option, and I'm additionally excited about the possibilities raised by Bayonetta's take specifically.

Just in the demonstration video, one can see the potential for Automatic to be utilized as a "live demo" mode. A player could play the game with one hand while using the other to point things out in real time. It would make for a much more natural presentation than having to stop and go constantly, or having a second guy doing the talking while the dude with the controller is stern-faced and silent in concentration.

That would really be more helpful for a producer than a consumer, but the idea could be further expanded in ways that I think players could have fun with. Remember the "cinematic camera" mode in Grand Theft Auto III? Set to dynamically cut to the most dramatic angle available to produce film-like camerawork, it could create for some striking shots, but it also rendered the game practically unplayable, since the most cinematic angle rarely provided the most informative view for gameplay. I think the idea could work, however, if paired with the simplified control mode of Bayonetta. With the AI handling most of the work, the player would be at ease to better appreciate the visuals and camerawork.

Taking the concept further, a developer could implement a full-blown "director" mode. Map all the normal gameplay actions to a single button, and don't even bother making the player press it repeatedly--just make it a "go" button that, when held down, tells the AI to play. Then the remaining buttons could be dedicated to enhanced camera controls. While playing the game with one button, the player could simultaneously rotate, pan, zoom, or cut to different angles. Why would you want a mode like that? Well, you probably wouldn't want to play a game that way, but it could provide a nice option to explore a game's visual assets in new ways. A player could use it to grab some dramatic images, or frame footage that could be edited together for, I dunno, a fan-made music video. It would be like the replay mode in sports games, except it would be even more dynamic, since you could act while operating the camera, instead of just reviewing recorded actions. Metal Gear Solid players could finally get those impossible gameplay angles that Hideo Kojima uses in his highly directed trailers.

I'm also thinking of the unlockable "audio commentary" in Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader. It sounded like a cool idea, but then I watched my brother turn it on. You could only run it during a mission, and, once in, my brother had to pause the game for the duration of the commentary, because he could not concentrate on both listening to the audio and surviving the action. That struck me as really lame, because clearly the point of having the audio accompany gameplay was to match the finished work in action with behind-the-scenes discussion from its creators, a la a DVD commentary. But my brother was pretty good at the game, so if even he was reduced to listening to it while staring at a static pause screen, then they probably would have been better off just making a documentary video. As it was, the best way to enjoy the commentary was probably to have someone else play the game while you got to listen and watch. Again, Bayonetta's Automatic mode would allow the concept to work much better. The talk could be appropriately synced to gameplay, but an AI assistant would let players devote more attention to listening, less to performing well.

Although, in theory, "Very Easy Automatic" and "Demo Play" are meant to aid unskilled or casual players, things like audio commentaries or a director mode would only be of interest to hardcore fans. I hope developers are considering options along those lines, because I think there could be plenty of promising applications to truly suit players of all skill and enthusiasm levels.

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