Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Does LA Noire represent the next 3 years of AAA game innovation?

I started playing through LA Noire a few nights ago and am digging it thus far. As Red Dead Redemption taught me, the combination of Rockstar's immense game worlds and my limited gaming time, I won't likely finish it until sometime in 2012. Still there are a few initial thoughts I thought worth writing up.

The game doesn't have me *loving* it yet. Not in a Portal 2 (which I loved start to finish) kind of way, or even in a Red Dead Redemption (which I had 'moments of swooning' for) kind of way. That said, I think it offers some interesting hints on future direction.

LA Noire is very much a Rockstar game. Like both GTA and RDR, it offers a large 'open' world, many side-quests and missions, in-game mini-game type activities. The story is - so far anyway, I'm only five cases into it -more linear than GTA and RDR.

Still, there's no reason that this game needed to be anything other than 'Grand Detective Auto', just as many people labelled RDR 'Grand Theft Horsie'. It could have been the good-guy version of GTA, with lots of cops and robbers shootouts in a late 1940's setting. And they'd have sold tons of it.

Still Rockstar chose to take a couple risks in straying from the usual, in trying to make not a cops-n-robbers game, but a detective game.

The first is that the game has an element of point-and-click-adventure to it. Searching crime scenes, finding bits of evidence, writing these in your notebook, and then recalling them at the right time later to solve a puzzle - these are all reminiscent of the best of early 90's Lucasarts titles. More in keeping with the theme, and more unique in today's market vs the plethora of shooters.

The second, and bolder, risk they took was in making interrogation a core element of the game. The facial animation that's been much talked about, together with what must have been a massive spend on voice-and-mocap acting, were needed to add a more innovative - and thus risky element to the game. The game asks you to interview witnesses and suspects, and then lets you decide whether to believe, doubt, or accuse them of lying. Doing so requires that you look at the evidence you've got thus far, as well as reading the characters faces and body language. In doing so, it not only bumps into the uncanny valley - it throws the player headlong into it. Is it perfect? No.

I don't like the way this guy avoids eye contact!

The interesting thought to ponder here is where Rockstar chose to invest and/or innovate.

It certainly feels like we're near the asymptote on performance that can be extracted out of the current generation of consoles, and next generation isn't coming until (depending who you beleive) 2014.

That means another 3 years or more of making AAA titles, in which the publishers/developers need to garner interest in their titles, and they can't use screenshots alone to do it.

So, what do you do if you are trying to make money in this space. Well, for one, you focus on efficiency. Aside from that, you invest in content production (like all the voice acting in this case, and the more detailed facial models), and in innovations in gameplay (like the lie detection element; or the revisiting of point-n-click adventure).

I think this is a good indication of how others will be spending their money too. Production quality, art, and innovation in gameplay. I hope we'll see more big budget titles with experimentation along these lines over the next few years. Kudos to Rockstar for taking these risks.

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