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What Can't Indies Do?04:56 PM -- Tue January 31, 2012

Well, a lot, it turns out. Let me open this discussion with a game review:

Batman: Arkham City

I got this free with my new video card, which is awesome, because I desperately wanted it ever since I played Arkham Asylum. I was going to say who it's by (Rocksteady), but there are layers of publishers and middlemen such that I don't actually know who it's by, which is certainly something indies need not worry about.

AMAZING game! I absolutely love it, and I've been playing it obsessively and dangerously for the past week, to the point of ignoring much that I really need to be doing. I'll make up excuses like "Well, I implemented that. I deserve a Batman break!" I've been annoying my wife as I constantly pop up behind the couch and around corners saying, "I'm Batman." (Michael Keaton voice, the most ludicrous of Batmen. Then again, I never saw Clooney, and I know he had to face Arnie)

So, if you click on that Arkham Asylum up there, you can see me gushing over that game. This game is, no question, more of the same. A lot lot more. I finished the main story mode several days ago, and since then I've been playing maybe 4 hours a day, and I'm still not done just collecting the hidden riddles and doing the side missions. I haven't even started New Game Plus mode or any of the Challenge Maps. I am now riskily going to launch Steam to display my total playtime. Let's hope I don't start playing. It says 27 hours played, which is less than I thought. The game calls my current state 63% complete, though for the sake of my productivity, I won't launch it to verify that. I think I've got so much to go that it'll be something like 100 hours if I actually try to complete all the challenges. And fail. Those fighting challenges are murder later on (in Arkham Asylum, anyway, and I expect the same here).

So... in short, the story's great (with a fun twist), it's never too hard (except the stupid AR training missions, which are very frustrating), the fighting is awesome (better than before, thanks to the ability to quickfire your gadgets in combat, yanking guys around with your batclaw, electrocuting them, dropping explosives while doing a backflip, etc), the stealth is awesome (better than before, thanks to more new and exciting tools, and enemies with more unique threats to you from thermal goggles to radar jammers). There is no Killer Croc fight this time, no boss is ever painful to experience, though some are pretty tough. There's a scene, in the museum, that's almost a parody of the Killer Croc fight, in that it's some of the same stuff, but completely trivialized. There are hundreds (400 I think?) of Riddler Trophies to collect, and almost every one has a little 'puzzle' involved in getting it. Usually something quite trivial, but the variety is amazing. Some test your gliding skills, some are for your brain, some require assorted tools, and some just rely on reflexes and timing.

There's also Catwoman, which is definitely a little change of pace from Batman. She has roughly the same abilities (only two very simple gadgets to Batman's 12ish), but she's a lot faster, a lot less capable in terms of travel, and a lot more limited in her stealth abilities. But she can get to places he can't, and has her own Riddler Trophies to collect. She also has a tiny bit of story of her own. Not much for sure, just a few scenes and a (very nasty) boss to fight, but they're fun to do, and you can even level her up a bit.

If there is a minus to Arkham City, besides the patently unfun AR Training, it lies in being a little too complicated, over what Arkham Asylum did. I definitely spend a lot more time wondering which gadget to use and looking at the situation instead of playing, and in fights sometimes my brain freezes up just thinking about the sheer number of choices because I can't think of which one applies to the specific moment I'm in. Then they punch me. Sometimes I just plain hit the wrong button because there are too many functions to keep track of. So it's kind of the classic, "If this game has any faults, it's that it's too much fun", only with an actual downside.

So that's an easy 5/5 Yerfdogs from me. It's so great that such an amazing new game series has appeared. They are rare and precious jewels!

What Can't Indies Do?

Now to my point. Batman is what indies can't do. Oh sure, there's the license, which obviously no indie will ever be able to afford, but take that aside. Indies can't make a game like this. The gameplay particulars could be copied - an open world in which you zoom around and punch guys or go into stealth situations against them, that is all possible and it's all been done (maybe not in one game though?) - but this implementation is light years beyond what the most dedicated independent developer could accomplish. A significant part of the thrill in playing this game comes from the things that cost literally millions of dollars and hundreds of man-years of work.

When you push the punch button as Batman, there are dozens of different things that can happen, and every one of them is an animation that somebody motion captured (or created, I don't know!). You might just punch the guy, knee him, elbow him, jumpkick, do a flying flip to elbow drop on somebody across the room, grab the guy's face and slam it into a wall, and just on and on through little variations, depending on your proximity to him, how far into a combo you are, what's in the environment around you, and other nearby enemies. And all of these things have been animated. I would guess that Batman alone has nearly a thousand animations in this game. The fact that the "break the enemy's weapon" animation is different for a lead pipe and a baseball bat and a gun (possibly even different for different guns?) and a sword is mind-boggling. He only bends the pipe, which I would expect to make it still quite useful, but nobody picks it up anymore.

What blows my mind in terms of animation is one very simple thing I keep noticing: there's a situation in which you can press a button to interrogate somebody (a feature I quite enjoy, much improved over how Arkham Asylum handled the equivalent scenario). The first few times I did it, there was a basic animation: he picks the guy up by his neck, threatens him, the guy talks and struggles, and then he elbows him unconscious. I thought that was it, until I interrogated a guy next to a wall, and discovered there's a different animation where he throws him against the wall. Then there was doing it near a ledge, and he dangled him over the ledge with one hand! Those may be the only three options, but I don't even know that. The point is, they could've easily done all this with one simple animation, the basic grab one. It would work near walls and ledges just fine, since you're still standing on the ground. But they didn't do that. They threw in more animations just for the joy of seeing it. Of course, all these interrogations also draw from a wide variety of random voicework too, different threats and responses.

And that voicework! There has to be hours of voicework (very top-notch voice acting too) in this game, from all the random conversations you overhear that hardly ever repeat to the massive amounts of talking between the different heroes and villains both in cutscenes and during gameplay. It's really something that I don't press a button to skip hearing what the villain has to say to me when I die. The first five times.

The art is great too, but whatever. Anybody can do good art (although I could rattle on about the sheer amount of it, as with everything else. Tiny TINY details everywhere, that vary so widely from place to place).

The point is, it's a blockbuster. Indies can make great games, games that are more fun than the big publishers make. But they can't make this kind of spectacle. It's not a matter of time and heart and love and sweat, it's a simple impossibility. It's the same as in movies, but in movies that's a no-brainer (indies can't afford to blow up a building), while in games I feel like, as the indie bar keeps rising, people think anybody can do anything. Well, we can't. Batman is something only a big-money publisher could create, or would. They could've made just as much money with 1/10 the work. Batman really doesn't need 20 different kinds of punches, nobody would've complained if the punch button always threw a normal punch. But thank heavens for the hubris of the big-money fat cats, because without it, Batman would not be the spectacle and wonder that it is. Those 20 kinds of punches add a subtle thrill to the game that means something, even if it's something minor, nowhere close to worth the 6 months of effort from a team of ten animators that went into it.

So what's the conclusion? I suppose it's that I'm glad the big publishers and overhyped AAA games exist, and that they don't comprehend the concept of effort vs. reward. I like indie experiences, but I also want to see The Matrix sometimes. Don't worry, big publishers, I will let you continue to exist. For now.
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