Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Postmortem Review: Ben 10: Alien Force - How I Would Have Written It

   Ben 10: Alien Force is a Nintendo Wii game that is loosely based on the cartoon series by the same name. Developed by Monkey Bar Games, published by D3 Publisher, released on October 28, 2008, and thrown in the bargain bin shortly thereafter, Ben 10 was a quick cash-in on a semi-popular cartoon franchise. Following is a postmortem review that describes how I would have felt about the finished product of the game had I been on the development team. I start with the trailer.

The Good
Well Targeted

   We had one goal above all others with Ben 10: Alien Force; quickly make a game based on the license to cash in on the opportunity while the license was still popular. This went very well. The obviously intended target was young children, so we knew that we did not need to add much by way of diversions or complexity. We had a simple battle system which used only basic combos that was implemented across all characters. This kept the combos from becoming confusing to the younger audience. The game was short, but did follow a storyline. All in all, this game was perfect for the time frame we had to make it and the audience it was intended for.

Tight Controls
   There was not much to the battle system or other controls in the game, but what was there worked perfectly. There was some initial complaining about mapping the jump action to the "Z" button in the left hand of the player; however, after playing for a short while, the jump became natural. Fighting was simple, yet responsive. The moves were easy enough to execute. Choosing to keep the moves the same from alien form to alien form was a good choice for our audience.

Bug Free is the Way to Be
   All the hours I spent playing Ben 10: Alien Force during and after production made me proud at how cleanly the code executed. These days, big name games regularly release filled with bugs. It is shameful that this is an accepted practice in the industry. Everybody on this team should look back and be proud that they released a bug free product.

The Bad
Too Linear

   Nobody has to worry about getting lost in Ben 10. The whole game; in classic brawler fashion, is basically move from the left side of the stage to the right side of the stage. While this works well for kids, I have a hard time denying that even my own kids would be bored by this game.

Who Wrote This?
   The voice-overs were awful. The story was worse. While we wanted this to be its own story within the Ben 10 universe, we did very little to step outside what the audience already knows about Ben 10. To top off the ho-hum story, the ending was left wide open for a sequel. If we really wanted to do an independent story, we should have written a full story. We would have been much better off following the events of a couple or few episodes. The voice-overs that happened every time an alien change occurred was also a bad idea. The aliens say the same thing over and over again. Every time I hear, "Freeze...I always wanted to say that," I cringe just a little.

Very Short
   Part of not having a good story was also not having a long enough story. Total play time in Ben 10 was maybe a few hours. We could have easily extended it by making more puzzles which challenged the player to use different aliens to make it through the environment. We kept this to a minimal though, which I think was an awful mistake. We also could have had some sort of collectible system, but this was not added in due to budget and time.

The Ugly
Two Player or Not Two Player?

   Probably the worst thing we did in the project was add in two player play in which the second player plays the exact same character as player one. We did not even change the colors of the clothes or aliens on player two. This led to some confusing battles. Over and over in play-testing, we saw players randomly jump or turn a circle. When we asked why they would do this, they told us that they were trying to figure out which one they were. This would have been easily fixed. There was no excuse for it being left the way it was.

Can We Add Some Color?
   Ben 10: Alien Force had no shine to it whatsoever. There was nothing that looked good about it. Most of the alien forms were so darkly colored that you could not make out the detail. The very bland and dark colors did not help the gameplay in any way. Even the cartoons had more vibrant colors than this game. For a hand-held device, the color scheme would have been appropriate. However, this was the Wii. The colors and amount of detail we used made this game a disgrace to any high-definition television.

   This game was completely uninspired. We could have dropped in any character models, kept the basic brawler mechanics, and called it anything. It would have been the same game and probably sold just as well. The levels were not thoughtful. The gameplay never went beyond a Nintendo-age brawler. There was nothing extra. Playing as the different alien forms was not fun or rewarding. It is clear from the first time the player turns the game on that this is nothing but a generic knock-off of Double Dragon or Battletoads, only using a better known to today's kids license. We could have taken any handful of mechanics and made the game infinitely better. Unfortunately, the bottom line was the publisher wanted the game out on short order. We did what we were paid for, but even we find the game incredibly boring.

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