Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 2 of 2)

I was ready to finish this post back in September, but a lot of other things came up. Another interesting thing happened before I finished it; I decided I’m not going to get in on the Gran Turismo 6 bandwagon. Still, I feel obligated to finish this, especially since the first post did pretty well with respect to site traffic.

6. Better Driving Tutorials

Back on the PS1, the great tutorials offered in the License Exam segments really made the GT series stand out against other rivals. The License Exam segments came back in GT5, but in the context of the content as a whole, they weren’t adequate.

But for a game that really, REALLY prides itself on being such a simulator, GT5 did a very poor job at offering guidance in a lot of key areas. Major aspects of the game, like Formula One were not part of the licensing tests at all. The “NASCAR” academy was equally unsatisfying given how different and challenging the NASCAR segments of the game were.

7. Kill B-Spec

B-Spec should actually be a lot higher on this list. It’s not only that a major aspect of the game is frankly terrible, it’s that you’re positively forced to do so very much of it if you want to unlock some really important cars.

B-Spec operates essentially as a counterpart to the driving part of GT5, which is called A-Spec. You’re required to pick a rookie driver from a set of personality types, and eventually build a team of drivers who will go out and use your cars to win the A-Spec races. B-Spec seems like a simple proposition, but the execution is completely flawed. What B-Spec requires you to do is issue a very limited set of instructions to a bot that must gain experience using your cars.

There’s a whole bunch of problems with this system of playing. First, you’re required to do pretty much nothing to win races. At lower levels, drivers don’t really respond to your commands as it is, and the computer may lose even if it has a car that completely outclasses the other computer bots. This makes the actual races less like a coaching exercise, which I think is what it was supposed to be, and more like just a passive watching exercise. It’s boring. And there’s no tutorial or guidance on how to be proficient at being a racing coach. Generally you can tell your driver to speed up, or be conservative, or do a pit stop. That’s pretty much it. I can’t say skill or actively trying to manage the drivers really does much to outcome. Second, the game doesn’t offer any sort of time compression, meaning you’re watching computer race versus itself in real time. Unlike sports games which shorten the length of passive play styles, there are usually MORE laps in certain B-Spec races. I think practically speaking I used these long B-Spec binges as a great opportunity to catch up on my ironing. The AI for your race team is usually terrible; I guess this is because GT has always had pretty lousy AI anyway. But perhaps the worst requirement of B-Spec is requiring the player to build and level an entire team of racers at the same slow pace as A-Spec. Leveling the drivers usually just requires you to win the races, which isn’t especially difficult given you probably have the overpowered car you used in A-Spec to win the same series. The catch is that your race team only has a limited amount of “endurance,” meaning longer races the AI will basically just give up on driving and blow a huge lead. The endurance state builds up very slowly though, making multiple losses in endurance races necessary to get better. Remember, this is a game with the real-time endurance race “24 Hours LeMans.”

It’s not hard to see that B-Spec isn’t fun in any sort of way. It’s a driving game that requires no skill to complete, just an insane amount of time. That’s why is maddening that the game offers a gigantic number of cars that can ONLY be unlocked by winning B-Spec races.

To mitigate the insane time requirements B-Spec, a novel “Remote Play” feature was added in a subsequent patch. What did this feature add? The ability to manage B-Spec races taking place on your PS3 remotely from a PC. This feature doesn’t fix the root problem that you shouldn’t have to watch 500 hours of racing just to earn a car to do something in A-Spec mode. The B-Spec achievements shouldn’t be tied to A-Spec at all. A racing game shouldn’t put some much emphasis on waiting around. It’s anathema to the actual draw the game is supposed to offer.

8. Fix Formula One

Formula One, despite recent controversies and shaky financial support, is and likely will be the king of auto racing for the foreseeable future. Despite being the pinnacle of the A-Spec mode of play, GT5 offers little support.

One clear problem with the Formula One racing was the inability of GT5 to actually allow you to buy the car you needed. In addition to needing over $4,000,000 of race money in the game (average race payout maybe is $100,000), the Formula One car had to purchased USED for some reason. Compounding this problem at launch was that the used car inventory was populated randomly over the course of the game. Effectively, it was impossible to advance in A-Spec because you could never buy the next car. Eventually Sony corrected this problem by creating an “Online Used Car Garage,” which was prepopulated with the bottle-neck race vehicles that couldn’t be purchased new. Still, it was a sloppy execution and not necessary.

I suspect the problems with Formula One dealt with licensing issues. It’s not technically a Formula One car you’re buying anyway, it’s a “Formula GT.” Whatever. The lack of support in teaching you how to drive these cars though is perplexing. Although GT5 makes you appreciate the difference between a family sedan and a true sports car, the leap of performance the Formula cars make over even the Le Mans class racers is significant. If Sony couldn’t get the licensing issues, this feature should have been scrapped altogether. After all, would it have been so bad to just get Indy sponsorship and use similar Indy cars?

9. Create a Tutorial System For Tuning

Although most of the tuning aspects of GT5 and its predecessors is straightforward (spend as much money as possible to make your car more power and lighter), other aspects of auto-tuning were never adequately explained. In particular, the intricacies of suspension tuning are incredible. Without the exact right setup for even individual legs of racing series, it’s not possible to win at the higher levels. If this is such an important feature of the game, why not have some sort of instruction available? I’ll confess, the best way to figure out how to make a perfect tuning setup seems to be typing your car and “Gran Turismo 5” into Google.

Other aspects of the tuning system are equally perplexing. For example, in the customization section of the garage (which is NOT where you purchase upgrade parts for some reason) there is an option for something called “racing modifications.” Despite the 1000 cars in GT5, only a literal handful can receive these modifications. What do they do? Well, they make the car really good, but it’s hard to say exactly how or why. Most importantly, it’s not possible to see which of the cars in the game can be subjected to these modifications. I guess you can use Google to figure this out too.

10. Introduce Horsepower Limitations Into Single-Player Mode

The critical flaw in any game that has RPG or leveling style elements in it is that those run counter to the aspects of the game that require skill. This has always been a problem with Gran Turismo; winning races is based on having more power than the other cars on the track. But this doesn’t really let you learn how to race any better. It’s a big loophole that this game doesn’t address in single-player mode (multiplayer has such limitations though). There isn’t an obvious explanation as to why limitations on tuning aren’t implemented, especially because GT5 is usually very specific about needing a very particular car or limited set of cars for each race challenge.

Closing Thoughts

I could easily criticize the fact that Polyphony is releasing GT6 for PS3 when it arguably should be a PS4 game, but if the last console generation has taught us anything, it will be a long time before any next-gen console makes it into 100 million households. But given the phoned-in nature of GT5, and the fact that a lot of obvious improvements or design flaws weren’t addressed, I’ve lost faith that this installment will really take things to the next level. Going back to all those lost weekends where I was doing laundry and having B-Spec run in the background, I have come to realize that this franchise needs to some time in the penalty box. I expect the initial reviews for GT6 to be good, but that’s only because there’s always a release bias. I learned my lesson though. If GT5 is any indication of the way GT6 will be, I’ll be able to drive the exact same cars when they’re imported over to whatever the PS4 version will be anyway.

Top 10 “Needs Improvement” Areas for Gran Turismo 6 (part 1 of 2)

I feel a little nostalgic talking about Gran Turismo again; my first posts dealt with that game (and it’s significant shortcomings) way back in 2011. I’ve played all the main Gran Turismo titles and I’ve already come to the conclusion that I will almost certainly be playing GT6 when it comes out in December. Maybe it’s some sort of battered-gamer syndrome I’ve developed, but I’ll keep coming back to this franchise. Rest assured though, come December 6, 2013 I won’t bullshit you if this falls short of what it should be.

And GT6 SHOULD be Sony’s hallmark game.  Polyphony Digital is Sony.  It’s a subsidiary. So this is what Mario is to Nintendo. It’s a flagship franchise. It’s also coming out on a console that’s mature. There’s no reason to have a chunk of coal here. With that said, here’s what I think are the top “needs improvement” areas for GT6 (the usual five items turned out to be woefully inadequate unfortunately).

1. No Misleading Advertising

There’s a good chance you didn’t read about this in 2010, but the marketing with GT5 was incredibly misleading. Take a look at this commercial I managed to dig up on YouTube.  See that Subaru spinning out?  Super cool!

Here’s the problem though; that’s not in the game. At least it wasn’t when GT5 was released. The Subaru’s in the game, sure.  But that door coming off, the car spinning out like that? Not so much. There was basically no cognizable damage system in GT5 at launch. The fact that the commercial says there is “realistic damage” is a huge stretch. Here’s a video of some car crashes I found. You can be the judge as to how good the damage system works.

The problem is compounded by the fact that GT5 actually hides the damage features until relatively late in the game. Damage isn’t turned-on until level 20, a feat likely to take at least 50 to 60 hours to reach. It’s not fully turned on until level 40 apparently, an amount of time commitment likely to rival most part-time jobs given that the levels are usually exponentially apart from each other. Without the aid of Google, the conclusion for most players is that damage just isn’t in the single-player game until you’ve sunk in significant hours. Considering how long it takes to reach level 30, level 40 is just simply ridiculous.

Occasionally, and unpredictably, visible damage would pop up on a car after a bad hit. This is usually a hood dent or messed up lower spoiler. But GT5 doesn’t kick you out of races if you slam into the wall at 200mph. It arguably should; by not punishing huge mistakes the game doesn’t force the player to develop the driving skills you actually need to advance (regardless of whether you are “leveling”). I can remember an old Playstation 1 Need For Speed having both a comprehensive damage system for each car, and a cost of repairs deducted from each race winnings after every run. Although this was frustrating, it’s certainly doable.

I obviously understand why there is no comprehensive damage system in GT5, at least for non-standard cars (I’ll talk about that below).  Such a system would significantly increase the amount of work per car and would never be perfect. That Need for Speed game was able to get away with it because it had 10 or 15 cars and PS1 graphics. Certainly this falls short of Gran Turismo’s 1000 car standard. The cost of repairing the cars would be oppressive in a lot of instances too, especially during the Ferrari, Formula 1, or NASCAR events. I can remember having to an awful lot of farming in that Need for Speed too. These are legitimate design decisions here to leave these features out. What’s not a legitimate design decision is to put into advertisements a feature your product doesn’t have.

I think the gaming review industry really screwed up not calling out Sony on this back in 2010. It’s not like this was a feature in the game that everyone was excited about because of a press release or Q&A session at E3. It’s in the commercial! It’s not ambiguous as to what they’re showing. Polyphony put this issue front and center. I suspect that part of the reason the damage system is hidden is to cover up the fact that maybe it doesn’t work so well, and instead reflect the blame onto a player who hasn’t invested the time. It was obscured and basically unavailble at launch, and didn’t seem to work right after. The “you’re not ready for my game” attitude is paternalistic nonsense. This was both a bad design decision and a really bad marketing decision that the franchise managed to avoid being stained with. Honestly, I could care less if the door falls off my Subaru. Just don’t tell me that it might if it won’t.

2. No Imports

No, I don’t mean non-Chevy/Fords/Dodges, I mean imports from PS2. Part of the amazing roster of modeled cars in GT5 came from the fact that 3D assets were imported from prior Gran Turismo installments. Given that this was the first PS3 Gran Turismo (I think it’s fair to exclude the essentially incomplete version, Prologue), I can see that maybe the number of assets to be produced was burdensome. Would fans criticize GT5 if it had only 200 cars instead of the normal franchise setting 1000? To be honest, I think there’s a chance they might.

The solution that was developed was to recycle old body graphics, which clearly have lower resolutions and look out of place. What bothers me the most about this is not that Polyphony did this, but that they did it in a half-assed way. Key races needed to advance the main objectives in single-player mode restrict the player to the use of certain makes or models of cars. Take the “Tous France Championnat” for instance. At the early parts of the game there are only a few cars that are reasonably affordable that you can get to do this race. All are “non-premium” cars, meaning they have these terrible graphics. It’s jarring to buy this game which is supposed to be a quantum leap in graphics over the last installment, and be back to PS2 graphics that just look out of place. The pixels don’t look good and don’t respond to the lighting effects and other environmental image factors the way the premium cars do.  Simply put, GT5 delivers you GT4 graphics in instances you can’t avoid. These non-premium cars also have lame damage modeling (already a pretty low bar for GT5).

There’s some sort of tension with the Gran Turismo series as a whole as to whether it wants to be a complete car encyclopedia, or whether it wants to deliver a stock experience. It’s cool having the car you drove in high school in this racing game, even if its not very good. But at the same time, does it really add anything? Is driving a souped-up 1991 Accord or 1986 Corolla anybody’s fantasy? I don’t know. My only point here is that if you want to be known for doing a great job, you can’t do a great job half the time. Again, Gran Turismo got a pass on this. Those non-premium cars look terrible though.

3. Better Menus

A cardinal sin here. Thou shalt not have terrible menus! There are two huge problems with the menus in GT5: 1. They’re too slow, 2. They’re poorly organized.

In typical Japanese fashion, GT5 with all its statistics, custom-tuning options, and general philosophy of any-way-you-like it, means that Gran Turismo must be stuffed to the brim with menus. The load time on these menus takes forever though. It’s not so bad individually, if it wasn’t that you’re required to change so much at the higher levels in between races. Most importantly though, it doesn’t seem to make much sense as to why the response time is so slow. The graphics in the menus aren’t why people are clamoring to play Gran Turismo, and they’re not that impressive anyway. The slow speed makes the tedious process of buying each racing part option on a new car in the tuning menu excruciating (why can’t I just buy the car with the race parts on it to save me 15 minutes?).

A problem that is compounded by the slow load times on the menus is the fact that they’re poorly organized. Granted a home button has been added so you can get back to your digital garage if you’re trying to enter a race with the wrong car, but it’s a tedious process to have to go back to the start and then have to drill down all over again. Please, if you really can’t make these things faster, at least let me switch cars without having to go all the way out of the menu first. The menus become oppressive in late game where settings need to be adjusted with every different leg of a series of races. I honestly wouldn’t be so bothered by this if there was some sort of obvious reason why these menus are so slow. But they’re just menus. They should do their job well.

4. Improve Collision Physics

Gran Turismo has always really tried to pride itself on being a great simulator for all things driving. But one key area that this racing series has always consistently under-delivered on is car crashes.  GT5 is no exception.

You will know something is wrong the first time. Do these car crashes look right? There’s no way you can say yes to that. What that means is that GT5 is a great simulator, provided you don’t hit anything. The real problem I have with collision system is the lack of penalty imposed by making mistakes. Mistakes aren’t tolerable in the license test portions of the game, they probably shouldn’t be in the Formula 1 races or NASCAR races either. There’s no real downside to being super-reckless in these races. Moreover, multiplayer updates after the initial launch actually had to be aimed at introducing driver penalties because the administrators felt that players were using barriers in order to actually increase their lap speeds in some instances. In other words, the pinball physics were being used to cheat.

If there is any indication that the modeling isn’t right, it’s when causing an accident can be used to create an advantage. If Polyphony Digital wants players to earn the right to have damage and real consequences, it needs to impose at least some sort of penalty early on to prevent bad habits from forming. The lack of cars flipping over, catching fire, or otherwise being disabled is a gigantic blind spot for this series.

5. Dull Environments

I wish I could find a blog post I read back in 2010 on the Circuit de la Sarthe. Pausing the game during the very long straight-away on the track, a blogger took some images of the bushes on the side of the track. Now this is a real track in France. Sarthe is where they hold 24 Hours of Le Mans. The photos clearly show the same bush has been copied and pasted over and over again along the side of the straight. This is straight-NES BS. Granted, this a portion of the track you’re likely to be topping out at +200mph, but the poor attention to detail was right there in the photos.

It’s not just that bushes look bad, it’s that stands look empty, that crowds don’t come out for Grand Prix races, and that the environments look soulless.  There’s no activity going on in the background. Pit stops to change tires and refuel are uneventful. The AI doesn’t get desperate. There’s no sense of drama or urgency being conveyed to the player outside the ever-ticking clock.

I can remember the game Pole Position for Atari having a little blimp fly over head announcing race updates. And the Nintendo series Cruis’n’ USA game having scantily clad bikini girls wave the starting flag. This is the playboy lifestyle that’s obviously part of what we think about when when think about auto racing. Professional racing is a brutal meritocracy; a high-stakes game the well-off play that’s akin to professional football for the less physically inclined. The dangerous celebrity lifestyle of a dare-devil race car driver is drilled into our consciousnesses by mass-media. We think of superstars like Senna or Michael Schumacher. It’s inescapable when we see a $250K sports car drive by.

Gran Turismo has always eschewed from having any sort of excitement other than what happens on the track. I can remember the same kind of blandness from the Microsoft flight-simulator, or alternative from Jane’s F/A 18. There’s just no sexy in GT5, other than the beautiful cars. Gran Turismo doesn’t make you feel like a race car driver, it makes you feel like you’re grinding away in a basement playing an MMORPG hoping to get some magic sword. It’s all just stat tracking and leveling. Maybe the concern is that fans or funny pit crews would be distracting, or alternatively would sap precious processing power from the actual driving. These are fair points, but Gran Turismo is supposed to be fun and it often makes simulating a race feel like a desk job.

Rockstar Games: Masters of Suspense

I’m late to the game writing about the GTA:Online game trailer that dropped some time back, but I’m kind of glad I went over to Rockstar’s GTA5 launch site because they are apparently adding content on a regular basis.  Masters of suspense as always, the seven remaining tiles of content boasting as to the unique culture of the game remained locked, presumably unlocking one by one until the launch  slowly creeps closer.  The added content is much in the GTA style of humor is present, complete with riffs on California politics, legalized pot, new-ageism, and country club exclusivity.  I really hope they bring back the huge fake internet featured in GTA4.

But what does the GTA:Online trailer do?  Most impressively, it resolves all the obvious issues with the GTA franchise and promises to bring it back to the forefront of gaming.

First off, the trailer demonstrates exactly where Rockstar is on the spectrum of player control and narrative integrity.  The stories of the three main protagonists (as much as there can be a protagonist in a game that revolves around car jacking) appear to be well thought out.  But having great characters with personalities runs afoul of mass-customization.  These characters are maybe  so well thought out that that it threatens the very soul of the GTA:San Andreas legacy; the any-way-you-like-it style of game play.  GTA:Online is the missing link between this rich story mode (which also could cleverly serve as a very entertaining tutorial) and the RPG elements that GTA:San Andreas was based on.  GTA:Online is the Skyrim and open world aspect that the games have always, at least theoretically represented (although maybe with less clunky menus and a bloated inventory system).  Focusing on all the mass customization elements, it’s goal is clearly to have players addicted to playing the game long after the three main stories are completed.  And some sort of persistent online world clearly is critical to growing the franchise.  Having a character that is your own creates some of the incentive to continually improve (and therefore play) enhancing replay value.  This is the breakthrough the series needs; to separate the funny, satirical stories about lovable antiheroes from the otherwise king of the world sandbox experience.

The trailer also clearly shows off that GTA knows it needs to get with the times in terms of player interface.  The perennial third-person shooter looks a lot like an FPS during shootouts, complete with a weapon selection wheel.  Is this game finally going to bury auto-aim?  I certainly hope so.  The action appears more fluid, and as always seems to integrate shooting with some of the other mobility elements like parachuting or dirt-bike riding.  The menu interface seems to be intentionally minimalist.

One thing is certain: Rockstar is intent on making Online a phenomenon separate from GTA5.  It has its own trailer and is being prominently advertised separately on the PS3 home menu.  The trailer straight up tells you that in addition to custom player-created content, they are intent on updating regularly.  This could be another leap forward for an already well-storied franchise.

PS4 Poised to Win Next Round of Console Wars and Open a New Chapter in DRM

The Console Wars: Lessons to Be Learned

To answer the rhetorical question presented: YES.

Sony Likely To Gain Key Edge At Launch

Sony Likely To Gain Key Edge At Launch

It’s hard to say slashing prices is a brilliant marketing strategy (it’s actually the most generic business strat), but Sony just did the single best thing it could have done to get a huge head start on Microsoft later this year at launch.  Cutting ahead of Microsoft decisively on prices is exactly the right business decision for three key reasons:

1. Longer Console Life Cycles Support Up Front Investment in Customer Penetration

Even if Sony is offering significant subsidies to consumers by dumping consoles at below cost, the long term benefits of doing so clearly outweigh the $100 per unit cost difference.  Subsidizing customers is exactly what let AT&T pull ahead of U.S. mobile carriers at the launch of the iPhone.  The big difference between wireless providers and console makers is time.

The PS3 remained relevant in the information age for a full seven years.  The system predates touch screen smart phones, Instagram, and almost Facebook.  Back in 2006 HDTV hadn’t fully been integrated by the masses.  There is virtually no chance that you have any other electronics in your home that are as old as the PS3.  Up front subsidy costs to customers start to look a lot smaller when they’re amortized over 7 years versus two or three in the case of a cell phone.  Just imagine if AT&T was able to hold onto those early adopters for an additional 5 years?

Granted, consoles are unlike wireless carrier contracts.  Console buyers  are not contractually bound for two years at the risk of penalty and might reasonably choose to have both an XBox One and PS4 at home (who has two cell phones these days, drug dealers???).  But the financial hit for Sony is minimized now that online gaming is going to be tied to a PS Plus subscription model.  In this sense, Sony is really following Microsoft which pioneered the concept of charging for multiplayer online features.  The $100 discount to an XBox 360 versus a PS3 would clearly pay for itself in less than a year of a $10 per month subscription.  The downside just isn’t there in trying to compete with Microsoft on price if most of that can be recovered in royalties and subscription fees.

2. High Prices Didn’t Work

Sony has learned it’s lesson, system price is a significant impediment to customer adoption for a console.  This article reports that it took seven years to surpass the XBox 360 in total unit sales.  The 77 million PS3 sales are roughly half the total number of PS2 units sold globally.  Buying an  80gb PS3, an extra controller, and two games set me back a mortgage payment in December 2007.  That kind of staggering cost made me feel a little proud to lay down, but also was the big reason I had to wait a full year after the initial launch.  If anything is clear, early market share and customer adoption are keys to long term customer adoption, and also software product development attention.  Although both consoles have been reporting that they have exclusive titles lined up, an astute gamer knows that a significant number of major titles are offered on both systems.  I don’t see any foreseeable blowback from the argument that the PS4 will be perceived as inferior either, especially since both major rivals are being launched at about the same time.

3. The Revenue Pie Likely Won’t Be Smaller At Launch

One key factor that will differentiate a PS4 and XBox One buyer at launch day will be the extra $100 the PS4 user has in their pocket.  Customers aware of that savings are prone to dump it into an additional controller or extra game.  Either way, the money ends up on Sony’s side of the fence (either directly or through a game developer).  Greasing the palms of developers at launch in 2013 with double the number of launch game sales is the only way to ensure long term continued support from major designers faced with exploding budgets.

A Win for Users on DRM

More importantly than which gaming system will sell is what the next round of the Console Wars, Sony has made a huge 180 degree pivot in terms of customer DRM.  After nearly a decade of increasingly tightening standards on what consumers can and can’t do with their own property, Sony has finally said enough is enough.  We’ve been at a point for a long time where content providers can, from a technical standpoint, significantly curtail not just piracy, but also sharing arrangements.  Such contractual limitations have been unanimously been upheld as legal restraints on consumer rights.  Consequently, the doctrine of first sale, and the days of sharing a game with a classmate are ready to be thrown out the window.

Microsoft shot first here; indicating that it wanted to limit the used game market, either through restricting borrowing costs or selling unlock codes to used game buyers.  Sony could have completely killed sharing as well.  If both companies adopted this practice the used game market would be as good as dead overnight.

I initially heard an audio version of the NPR article noted above on the way into work this morning.  The broadcaster indicated that the crowd met Sony’s announcement that it was supporting used games with PS4 with applause.  No doubt Gamestop shareholders met the announcement with signs of relief.

This is a significant step not just for consumers, but for Sony as well.  First, it recognizes the growing evidence that sharing, or even flat out piracy, might actually help sales by allowing for greater product awareness.  In a world with games where the big titles have always been driven by sequels (Mario Bros. 3, CoD 3, Rock Band 3, Gran Turismo 5, Grand Theft Auto 5), maybe letting some more people play some old games will have a benefit on driving larger market participation.  I’m almost 30 and I don’t buy used games anymore, but I definitely know that borrowing Assassin’s Creed from my friend was the main reason I bought Assassin’s Creed II.  Sony’s decision here might actually make business sense, as opposed to appearing merely merciful.

The second big benefit is that it makes Sony look like the good guy.  Sony suddenly becomes less like Big Brother and more like, well, maybe a big brother.  It’s not that technology providers can’t lock this stuff up, either legally or technically, it’s an issue of whether they should.  Ultimately, the market should be making the determination as to what features game suppliers should be adding.  Sony gives that decision back to the masses.  Ultimately they will be the ones to decide whether used games are a feature worth paying for (or saving $100 for).  If only our American companies could get on board with the examples of freedom being set by a Japanese company…

Top 5 “Needs Improvement” Areas for GTA

As details are being slowly released to the public, we’re seeing a lot of the GTA that we’ve come to know and love since Vice City.  These include neurotic  characters, Hollywood-caliber action stunts, and the poppiest of pop music samples.  But this is only half the story of GTA.  On top of all the glitz and glamour is a game with some consistently poor controls and messy design layout. Here’re my thoughts on what needs to be fixed to make this great franchise even greater.

1. Replay Value

There is always a tension between the free-form aspects a sandbox world presents to a player and the structured, mission-oriented approach.  The GTA series since Vice City has understood that it needs to provide high-quality cut scenes and story in order to effectively compete with other media.  The problem with over-engineering the story is that it homogenizes the player’s experiences.  Fundamentally, this is what a sandbox game ISN’T supposed to offer a player; a homogeneous experience.  The more it’s like a movie, the less it’s like a game.  By having one story so central to so much of the game, GTA4 felt done once Niko Bellic’s story was resolved.  All the other neat things to do in Liberty City then felt pointless.  GTA needs to represent both a quality experience and player freedom.

Part of this has to do with the removal in GTA4 of some of the goofy and game-like aspects.  These included ditching large brightly colored neon icons for items for something a lot more subtle.  But little touches like stealing an ambulance to make deliveries from the hospital were taken out.  GTA4 made normal social interaction a bigger deal, as opposed to being some sort of crazy fantasy.  Taking some of these objectives out made the sand box part of the game feel hollow.

Three Protagonists = Three Stories

Three Protagonists = Three Stories

Fortunately, this area of weakness seems to be something GTA 5 has locked down.  From what I’ve been reading, the emphasis on three characters, and the fact that time is passing for all three regardless of whether the player is controlling them or not, is probably a huge step forward in solving this dilemma.  If only 1/3 of the story is being viewed by the player at a time, then logically there are two other stories and missions running around at the same time, meaning that a full three runs will be necessary to wrap everything up.  This should hopefully go a long way in improving replay value.

2. Inventory System

One glaring hole in the the GTA franchise is the lack of any sort of inventory system.  Part of this seems to be some sort of hatred of menus or minimalist philosophy on the part of Rockstar.  But on PS3, the fact that weapons and ammo can’t be bought separately seems kind of pathetic.

The famously inconvenient weapon selection process is parodied here in some sort of horrible resolution.  Some improvements have been made over the years, like eliminating the ability to carry 20 different weapons around at a time.  But there needs to be some sort of faster weapon selection process.

Another huge problem is the lack of storage.  If I have 10 RPGs, I want to hang on to them.  I don’t want to carry around everything I have on me like some sort of hobo-mafioso.  It would make SO much sense to be able to take additional weapons and drop them off at a safehouse.  Likewise, maybe my safehouse should have some body armor in the closet, as opposed to a bunch of sets of nonfunctional clothes.  Certainly with $1,000,000 floating around over head a reasonable gangster would be able to procure this.  GTA5 simply doesn’t have any excuses for not introducing some sort of storage system.

3. Health System

We were still scrounging for health packs in 2009, will we be doing it in 2013?  In the past two years I’ve definitely seen a consensus form in shooting games that health should regenerate over time, and that a “health pack” system should be phased out.

The health system in GTA4 introduced first aid kits hidden in long missions.  These were always placed in areas where a first aid kit would probably be found in real life, like in an HR office at a warehouse.  It made sense, but it’s arguably antiquated.  Then again, automatically regenerating health feels a little cheap in a lot of newer games.  I see room for reform here though.

4. Something to Do With the Money

“What can I do with the money?”  That was always the first thing someone would ask after playing GTA3 for 10 minutes.  Surprisingly, after using a similar format for the past decade, Rockstar has done very little to answer this question.

Obviously you can use money to buy weapons and ammo, but generally you get plenty of this by just outliving the guys shooting at you during the missions.  You can buy clothes, but frankly the fact that each item needs to be tried on one at a time makes this feel feature feel like a chore.

Originally, in GTA3 money was a bizzaro fiat for score.  Players accumulated money through the game’s missions, but also by moonlighting as a taxi driver.  Causing general mayhem by blowing up parked cars and gunning down cops, or going over crazy jumps also caused the player’s money to increase.  Money was like a rating of how cumulatively awesome you were.  Unfortunately, in real life it’s not quite that easy to earn money.

In Vice City, dollars were needed to make investments, both creating a feeling of running a criminal empire, but also were key to advancing the main story.  San Andreas had some of these features too, although they were inconsistent in the availability (I think there is a car dealership in San Francisco you can buy or something).  Buying fancy suits naturally fits into the crimelord motif.

GTA4 for some reason took a step back from having some actually useful things to do with the money.  I’m not sure why, but I half suspect this to be a deliberate statement about Niko’s journey; Niko was never in it for the money, but was instead singularly focused on revenge.  Then the inability to use the money could be viewed as some sort of personal condemnation of the things Niko has done.  Or maybe they just didn’t have enough time before it was released to get creative enough.

GTA5 needs to figure out some sort of way for a player to enjoy themselves that grows in proportion to the amount of money they have.  Sure there’s a strip club, but not a high end strip club for millionaires.  What about high-end escorts?  Bring back buying up property, even if it doesn’t do much.  Would it really be so crazy to create a legal title system and actually let a player purchase a car? (yes I realize you could just steal one by hitting the triangle button)

5. Better Menus/Customizable HUD

The year is 1986 and I don't know how fast I'm going.

The year is 1986 and I don’t know how fast I’m going.

The beauty of the menus in GTA3 is the simplicity.  In most games, getting into a car means populating all sorts of dials and gauges.  After all, this is what happens when we get into a car; we’ve got a speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, clock, climate control, radiator temperature.  Driving a car has just as many stats in real life as it would in a Japanese RPG.  Arguably top speed in GTA isn’t really relevant, you’re never on a race track and the only relevant speed metric is whether you can get away from the cops.  But still, shouldn’t a driving game give you some idea of how fast you’re going?  Initially I assumed GTA3 omitted the speedometer in order to emulate an earlier favorite of mine, Driver.  Driver was great because it was the first driving game about getting away as opposed to straight up racing.  It was also a lot more fun than other races out at the time.  But now I wonder why I can’t find out fast the Infernus is actually going on that straight-away. Interestingly enough, a speedometer is built into the game and your top speed stats are tracked, but you can’t look at it in real time.

It’s almost like Rockstar thinks menus don’t fit into what they’re trying to show you.  Kudos.  But when trying to get away from a police helicopter, a speedometer surely is more useful than an ever-present floating personal wealth statistic.  Driving is inherently based on collecting and digesting a ton of data.  Give me something here.  I think the best approach to addressing the stylistic rift is giving the player the ability to add or delete display items.  If I want to clutter up my screen with junk, let me.NOTE: I omitted the shooting controls from this post.  Third person shooters are becoming an endangered genre and I’m not sure I’m qualified to explain why or what Rockstar should do to make the experience better.  Ever since GTA3 the shooting system has improved though, and I’m optimistic it will someday be good.  GTA4 reminded me a lot of the James Bond Everything or Nothing game, but that’s not really a bad thing.

The year is 2013, will I ever figure out how fast I'm going?

The year is 2013, will I ever figure out how fast I’m going?

 

GTA 5: Returning to San Andreas With High Expectations

I’m really impressed by these three mini-trailers that were just released this past week.  No doubt that there is a strong correlation here between the impending release of GTA 5 and Rockstar parent, Take-Two Entertainment’s, stock price in the past nine months.

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

Majestic beauty featured likely in order to contrast inevitable GTA-style carnage

What’s most impressive about the three character approach is that it’s obviously meant to remedy deficiencies in the story-telling of GTA’s San Andreas.  San Andreas is a great game, but the narrative struggled with developing an identity for the main character, CJ.

This problem is partly due to the RPG and customization elements in the game that give the player the choices to make CJ look like a gang-banger, a CEO, or a construction worker (also there is that weird S&M outfit…).  San Andreas is such a big place, that after the first act, CJ just sort of feels out of place.  The entire San Fierro (San Francisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas) portions of GTA: San Andreas feel aimless.  CJ’s story starts and ends in the same place, his hood.  That’s the point.  After a very long detour at the end of the first act, the final mission takes you back there to confront characters you haven’t seen 100 hours of play time.  It’s incoherent.  Fortunately, the meat and potatoes in between are a lot of fun.

If San Andreas is 3 times bigger than it needs to be, why did Rockstar bother making all that extra stuff?  The answer appears to be an obsession with attention to detail.  San Andreas is LA, San Francisco, and Las Vegas because it’s trying as hard as possible to capture and satirize the Southern California 90’s zeitgeist, even if CJ’s world is naturally a little bit smaller.

I remember seeing GTA3 and just being completely amazed by the size of the game.  In the past 10 years there have been a lot of knock-offs of the GTA style of creating huge worlds, but all seem to suffer from the same flaw of confusing physical space with scale.  What you won’t really appreciate until you’ve run down every alley looking for hidden packages is that a gigantic portion of every GTA game is hand-made.  There is not a lot of 3D modeling copying and pasting.  There are no identical city blocks.  GTA4 even features a huge fake-internet.  It’s the attention to detail that separates GTA from every other massive game world.  Other developers just don’t do this, not even Bethesda.

Venice Beach?

Venice Beach?

GTA4 marks a big evolution over San Andreas, even if it isn’t as large and vast as its predecessor.  The major difference in GTA4 is the emphasis on social perspective, and I don’t mean multiplayer or or Twitter.  GTA4 lets Liberty City be defined through the eyes of its characters.  Activities open up depending on who you’re hanging out with and what you’re planning on doing.  And engaging with the people you’re working with is part of the experience as opposed to just getting a cell phone call and showing up.

And GTA5 promises to be somehow significantly larger yet again.  The obvious approach to reconciling South Central gang warfare, with pot growing up in the red woods, and the glitz of Beverly Hills is to tell the stories of those places through the eyes of separate characters.  GTA4 maximizes the story of Liberty City the same way, through different characters, albeit only through downloadable content, but the premise is the same.  The world of Luis Lopez, and the club scene of Liberty City is very different from Niko’s darker struggle to get revenge.  To tell the story of a heavily satirized California it is necessary to have many different perspectives, in the same way the DLC tells a broader story about Liberty City through its three characters.

This obsessive attention to making everything perfect is exactly why concerns about juggling three separate characters are likely to be unfounded.  Three times the characters makes three times the amount of narrative scope, and three times the opportunity to force interaction with a gigantic world.  It’s a very deliberate choice that is clearly a response to maximizing the incredible amount of content GTA5 will offer just because, well, it’s Rockstar.  I can’t think of any other series that is virtually guaranteed to get better with each installment, other than GTA.  Given the additional PS3 and XBox console penetration compared to 2009, GTA is again going to be breaking its own sales record come later this year.