Tuesday, December 19, 2006

natural models for limited resources

One practice of game developers that sometimes annoys players is repetitive use of creature models. Art assets cost time and money. To stretch their value, developers sometimes apply a new color scheme and new stats to an old model, and voila! a new creature! It's not just a goblin now. No, it's a water goblin!

Well, with a little guidance from God's own handiwork, this method can be made more acceptable to players and perhaps augment gameplay at the same time.

Nature is full of encoded color schemes. Provided a game doesn't provide labels over the heads of its creatures like EQ, variations in color schemes can be used to reward player knowledge and create more depthful gameworlds.

One of the more famous models of real mimicry is the kingsnake/milksnake, which has a striped pattern very similar to that of the coral snake, only with the colors arranged in different order. ("Red on yellow kills a fellow. Red on black, ok Jack", if I remember right). The kingsnake's bite is harmless, but the coral snake is venemous. Thus, two possible mix-ups are if a person avoids the harmless snake for mistaking its color for the venemous snake, or a person might mistake the venemous snake for the harmless one and get into a peck of trouble.

Applying this situation to a game, players could be encouraged to develop an awareness of the gameworld's natural trickery (or paying for a companion with such knowledge) and opportunities are created for interesting encounters. Applied merely to unintelligent creatures, the player might get unwarranted scares or make deadly mistakes, like with the snake example above. Applied to intelligent beings, like a humanoid race, differences in appearance could inform players of community differences (it's the economy-focused Albek tribe, not the war-mongering Magori) which affect gameplay.

These differences could be more than just "threatening/non-threatening". They could inform the player of the best approach to different ends (Tribe A is susceptible to intimidation, Tribe B to bribery, Tribe C to foreign jewelry or weapons, etc). The coloration of some insects and amphibians informs birds that they taste disgusting or cause vomiting/sickness in some other way. Likewise, different colored species of one creature model in a game might inform the player that its hide produces poor tailoring results, that it cannot be eaten, or that this particular species can climb trees.

There may be any number of situational clues. An animal's rank among its pack/herd/whatever may be signified by its color pattern. Maybe taking out the leader first causes the others to flee or lose leadership buffs. Some species may be loners, others typically found in small groups, while others typically found in large groups. If a game allowed members of a creature group to dynamically stray short distances from one another, then coloration could add to the player's strategic repertoire by giving the knowledgeable players a means of determining how many allies a target creature is likely to have nearby. Coloration and size may denote the creature's sex, signifying dynamics such as aggressiveness... never mess with a mother guarding her young. =) With humanoids, apparel may signify profession...and thereby threat level, persuasion avenues, etc.

And then there's the obvious use of coloration: camouflage. I have yet to experience an encounter in any game in which camouflage made a creature difficult to detect or pinpoint while moving. Camouflage has many purposes in the real world, one of which is to make it difficult for viewers to focus on and determine the true shape of an animal. Translucent enemies in a few FPS games (ex: Halo) have demonstrated the fun than can be derived from enemies difficult to track.

There are countless opportunities available through stuff already modeled in the real world like this. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Another branch of nature modeling is stuff like a rattlesnake's rattles and the growling of dogs...tension-building warning systems.

Writers are commonly advised to write about what they know, a philosophy which has proven extremely effective for generations. The same advice applies to game developers. The natural world is limitless in models and lessons for environment and character design.

withering single-player market?

This might be a gross misconception, but an impression has been growing on me these past few months that the industry is becoming somewhat antagonistic to single-player gameplay, particularly in regard to console games. I say that without denying a number of recent, interesting solo-focused games... Oblivion, Mass Effect, Two Worlds, Fable 2, Alan Wake, etc.

But I've noticed that with Oblivion, Gothic 3 and other recent solo-oriented games, both professional and non-professional reviews have included a lack of multiplayer elements as a mark against the individual games. No longer are such games accepted for the sort of games they are and reviewed as such. They are instead held against a standard that suggests all games should have some cooperative or, even better, competitive elements.

And it seems that there is increasing pressure from publishers for the inclusion of multiplayer gameplay wherever remotely possible, and perhaps even some places where it would best be left out. All of the console publishers have emphasized their online capabilities so fervently, and now Microsoft seems to be doing the same with Windows Vista, that a failure of any game to employ those capabilities is perceived as negligent.

In hindsight, this trend appears to have begun with the tremendous success of Goldeneye 64's competitive multiplayer mode. Today, my latest Game Informer magazine's main article concerns professional multiplayer competitions.

I certainly don't perceive direct and indirect multiplayer gameplay as problematic in itself. I'm very excited about the proposed online elements of upcoming solo-oriented games like Spore and Two Worlds. But I do wonder if, in our continuing fascination with the still-novel and still-explorative internet, and with our explorative forays into the many possible manifestations of multiplayer gameplay, a hostility is amassing against solo game experiences that is discouraging the production and player-acceptance of solo-focused games.

Keep in mind, solo-oriented does not mean non-social, let alone asocial. As Mark Terrano astutely pointed out at the AGC this September, single-player games can have considerable appeal for spectators and the sharing of stories about individual experiences.

So what do you think? Is there a mounting tension directed against solo game experiences, on either the player side or the production side?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Predictability (Lessons from Monopoly)

How important is predictability to you?

My Bartle-type is heavily on the Explorer side, followed by Killer and Roleplayer, with very little Achievement thrown in. So, not surprisingly, my favorite games have been those with much freedom of movement, much freedom of choice, and a lot of surprises (both harmful and beneficial to my character). Diablo 2, Star Wars: Battlefront, Mario Kart (SNES)...these are some of my favorite games of my 20+ years as a gamer. So I'm very interested in an RPG that offers more control over the character's responses to experiences than control over the experiences themselves.

I think there are a lot of gamers like me (though most probably aren't as self-analytical as I am, and so they might not be able to define themselves as such a gamer). Those are some of the most popular games in the history of the industry.

Think back to Monopoly. The first time playing, perhaps you knew that some of the cards were good for you and some were bad, but you probably didn't expect the particulars, like "There was a mistake in your tax return. Pay the government $500". Ouch! That 500 bucks may have been the difference between being able to afford Park Place and having to mortgage Boardwalk. And who knows how the dice will roll? These unpredictable game elements aren't minor...they're the difference between biting the dust and puting your fellow players to shame.

So how could a similar unpredictability be applied to RPGs?

We could start by eliminating experience points as a guarantee for killing, as I suggested in Green's latest blog. Experience-rewarded kills are a major source of predictability in most RPGs. Over the past 20 years or so, a gaming culture has developed that is very mechanical and grind-oriented. Merely providing alternative ways to gain xp isn't going to dissuade players from grinding, and something else will become the grind if you just shift the optimal xp expediency toward some other source.

I'd like to see an RPG in which player progression is largely dependent on chance, as it is in Monopoly. In Monopoly, the dice decide what you encounter and the player decides how to respond and plan ahead. You may prefer Boardwalk and Park Place to every other property set, but you never happen to land on them to buy or you never happen to have the money when you do land there.

Now imagine an RPG in which skills/spells and equipment usually aren't acquired by going to a foreknown location and paying your dues. Instead, you wander wherever interests you and happen into encounters (people, places, things) that provide you with an opportunity to acquire something. Like in Monopoly, you decide whether to use your limited resources (some are universal currency, others are situational...like having what the NPC wants) to acquire the thing offered, or whether to hold onto that currency for the possibility of other objects.

In Monopoly, sometimes you passed up an offer you wish you hadn't, yet still had fun...and that would be possible here. What makes it possible is that your property still has regular "live" value, that it still has trade value, and that it has situational advantages. In Monopoly, the situational advantage is relatively unpredictable...your opponent just happens to keep landing on your property and having to pay you. Likewise, in an RPG, your weapon might be just so-so most of the time, but it proves to be the bane of a particular genre of creatures. For one example, think of Bilbo's sword Sting and how he only realized its magic when in the appropriate circumstances.

This system could be used to reward player knowledge, "lore" skills and encounters with wisemen/scholars by hiding an item's identity until researched, if not used. If applied to objects such as spells, there's a lot of unique fun possible. Imagine finding a scroll that seems to be some sort of transfiguration spell, but you're not sure what specifically it does. Without acquiring clarification, you have the option of taking a gamble by using it blindly, or on limited information. So perhaps you use this scroll, which bears a vague sketch of some four-legged creature, and your character is temporarily transformed into a small dog with little defense...or perhaps it changes you into a terrifying beast half the size of a cottage. Either way, you're surprised and a very engaging experience may follow (you have to run like hell or you wade through your enemies like water). Or you may cast it on yourself and nothing happens...perhaps it's a golem spell, using the metal of something in your inventory to create an automaton.

Going back to the skill/object acquirement by wandering... Such a system could be mixed with a clue system. Some measure of control could be sometimes offered to the player by providing them with rumors and other hints of what general direction an interesting object may be found at. Any number of degrees are possible with predictability.

Anyway, I could go on forever (and probably will, in my game sketches), but the point is that I wish RPGs offered less predictable experiences. I wish they did more to invoke my sense of wonder and inspire memories. "The time I accidentally changed myself into a small dog" is more memorable and fun than a particularly rough fight at the such-and-such camp (one of the 50 times I fought there).

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Great Escape

It occurred to me that it could be interesting to have a 3D game based entirely on movement, as Frogger and Joust (if i remember it correctly) were in 2D environments. Any number of movement variations and skill upgrades are possible now...creeping, sprinting, jumping, climbing, swimming, flying, rebounding, shoving, diving, strafing, etc. A game based entirely on escaping, and perhaps strategic leading (leading enemies into traps) and movement puzzles, could be a lot of fun. You could even add a multiplayer element in which some players attempt to escape while the others take the role of the hunters.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Games For Change

A re-post (or will be, whenever his site's working again) of my response to Raph's great talk given at the "Games For Change Conference" and available for listening on Raph's site here: http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/12/02/games-for-change-closing-address/

My main interest in game development is designing a didactic game through interactive allegory.

Allegory is a very tricky business. A difficult balance must be struck with the force and obviousness of the communication’s impression. It’s also difficult controlling the universality vs contextuality of the message. As you pointed out, Monopoly was once recognized as a statement on economic ethics, whereas now it’s just another fun game to most players. Conversely, with what idea did the poker variant “Mexican sweat” gets its name, and do many players make a connection between the label and its gameplay? (symbolism and allegory don’t always put forth positive messages)

A primary means of making a game didactic is sanctions. I think modern Americans in general, and perhaps most individuals of Western cultures, generally view any moral instruction from non-family as arrogant and unwarranted, but we do accept relatively-overt didactic sanctioning in some games while still perceiving those games as fun. In American football, a game which is appealing largely for its celebration of controlled violence (i say as a fan), there are in-game penalties for excessive celebration, unnecessary roughness, and tackles which endanger another player’s well-being. In every sport I played on a team growing up (and I played them all), the players of the opposing teams were required to shake hands afterwards and forcibly dissuaded from taunting other players. Yet we still had fun.

We call them “games", which seems to apply the ultimately goal should be “fun", but the word “appealing” is better. “Deep” stories and “deep” works of art are not fun, or not only fun...or even “entertaining” in the most common usage of the word. They are appealing; they attract us to them. The game developer doesn’t need to make the player smile, or tense with joy or anticipation; but instead just needs to make the player want to continue the game, and maybe even come back to it when it’s over (if it ends).

Work and play aren’t exactly exclusive of one another. I’m a Catholic. Did you know that a major consideration in the Church’s recognition of someone as a saint is that the person was joyful? A saint is illuminated from within during acts of service. Mother Theresa was famous among world newspapers for suffering to care for the suffering, but she was famous among those who met her directly as a lady who was always smiling and often joking while she tended to the sick and the hungry. Joy and work...joy and suffering even...are not mutually exclusive.

“Can you? Should you?” show the horrors of reality in complete honesty? The cultural majorities of the West (of all ends of the political spectrum) are against the idea. Even in media aimed at adults, the general consensus seems to be that utter truth is too much. I disagree. I’m of Flannery O’Connor’s bent in thinking “for the blind, you draw large and startling images, and for the hard of hearing, you shout". And besides that, truth is good, even when it’s most painful...people just need a guiding hand there for support. But even if I were at liberty to design a completely honest game, what are the odds I could get it published? I’ll tell you this though...regardless of said hesitation, many people respond positively to the naked truth when it’s offered to them at last.

Human beings long for truth. It’s why so many Normandy veterans went to relive the horrors of war in the movie theater with “Saving Private Ryan", despite remembering only too well that those memories would be more comfortably forgotten.

So... How best may we reveal truth and encourage action through video games? To that, I’ll just offer two brief thoughts:

Socrates offered wisdom by asking for it. Christ spoke in parables, because statements are take-it-or-leave-it (more passively accepted or rejected) and statements don’t grow with experience the same way. The strength of games is real-time feedback to player choices. You can let the players make their own choices, but sanction them accordingly; and remember that sanctions can be broad in scope.

For example: In an RPG, a young beggar girl asks for something to eat. The player can be generous with food, generous with money, generous with service (guiding the girl to aid) or ignore her entirely. If the player is generous, maybe the girl just smiles and thanks the player; maybe she joyfully greets and thanks the player everytime the player is in town; maybe she is re-encountered in better living circumstances (she's not only healthily fed, but is attending school too). But what if the player ignored her, and later encountered the young girl’s dead body emaciated (from hunger) at the edge of an alley? What if the town left the body there for days or even weeks, rotting and picked at by vermin, because nobody cares about beggars? Graphic and horrific, certainly. Fun? No, but appealing in the same way that “Schindler’s List” appealed to millions and received an Oscar award? It’s an appeal to the human longing for truth, and for justice (people need inspiration).

And lastly.. What does the game developer sacrifice? Great service (in the moral, not the economic, sense) is the reward of great sacrifice. What can we offer of ourselves? Can we be open, revealing our deepest frailties, so that others may not feel alone in inner darkness? Can we be strong, accepting years of criticism and headaches (political, financial, personal) for stubborn committment to truth, instead of security? I don’t mean to poeticize the concept, but I really don’t believe game developers can make great changes for good without sacrifices of some sort.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Video / Non-Video Games

Every once in a while, some nut suggests that we need to start calling them something other than "video games". At first, proposals for labels like "interactive [something]" struck me as just people taking themselves too seriously, disliking being pegged as "game" developers instead of something that sounds more artistic, serious, and publicly respectable.

But I'm starting to warm to the idea since a realization I had today. I admit to being slow and completely out of touch with the world sometimes, so I'm sure this realization hit others years ago.

It's very common in disputes about the quality or superiority of a "video game" for one side to point out that the graphics are not optimal while the other side points out that a game can be fun despite sub-optimal graphics. What's happening here is a problem of categorization. In a "video game", seemingly by definition, the "video" is a pivotal element. If a game places little emphasis on graphics, it's haunted by this label which demands a graphical standard. A better terminology could greatly benefit marketing and project proposals alike.

I was surprised when I first heard the term "graphic novels". It has become a common phrase, at least vaguely familiar even to those with absolutely no interest in the market. I don't know the history, but my guess is that either: 1) someone with a measure of public respect didn't want to risk their reputation by admitting to enjoying a well-written, even depthful, "comic book", or 2) a marketer of comic books thought he could fool people into giving particular comic books a chance, and succeeded. Which one of those (if either) was the prime mover is important, because the answer suggests to the game industry whether a new terminology for "video games" can come from within or must come from without.

As for what terminology... Perhaps games can co-exist under one term in overlapping categories, similar to movie DVDs. DVDs are divided into genres like horror and drama, as games are divided into FPS and RPG, but they are also divided into Widescreen/Fullscreen, and include cross-genres (action comedy, action horror, etc). I'm not sure if there's any benefit in hard-dividing "more video" games from "less video" games.

Anyway, if this is all boringly obvious, then I apologize for wasting your time.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

PS3 vs 360 Graphics Comparison

Gametrailers.com posted a graphics comparison video for Call of Duty 3: http://www.gametrailers.com/gamepage.php?fs=1&id=2650

I watched it carefully once and paused it at points. As far as I can tell, the only difference between the 360 and PS3 graphics are that the PS3 graphics are brighter (which actually detracts from the feel, in my honest opinion).

Sony consoles are notoriously difficult to design for, so I expect the PS3 will have more of a graphical edge in its shared games a year from now, when developers have a better handle on the hardware. But for now, this seems to confirm a point I heard made a few weeks ago: when games are designed for both the 360 and PS3, few developers will do more with the PS3's additional power than simply polish the graphics a tad at the end of the production process. The extra power will rarely be used for anything other than graphics and Sony's graphical edge will only shine on its exclusive games (and there are precious few of those right now).

So either Sony had better start churning out exclusive titles or they had better hope Blu-Ray wins out over HD-DVD in the home movie market.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cereal Games

So I open a box of Cocoa Crispies this morning and what do I find? a video game.

That's right, it's a little microphone-shaped console with an Xbox label, an on-off switch and a four-point control pad. The game is basically the old game of Simon. There are two dancer figures on the small screen, one being my avatar. The game is about watching the other dancer's movements, the lifting of a leg or arm, and imitating that with my dancer (the control pad's like the original Nintendo's turned diagonally).

The world is certainly turning. Between this and the Burger King showing up on my Xbox 360 arcade, I really can't imagine where video games will be in 10 years.

I should add that this is very smart of Microsoft. They're getting kids too young for the big console into games and familiar with the Xbox brand.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Delays and Ports

A couple random thoughts...

I noticed that S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is now scheduled for an early January release. When I first learned about it, I was really interested, but a year's worth of release date delays has allowed that intial enthusiasm to wane to the point that I'm no longer watching it. Had they waited until they were done to publicize a release date, I probably would have been caught up in the game's novelty and purchased it impulsively.

That's a common mistake, and I really don't see the upside of starting one's advertising campaign more than a month before release. Afterall, what good are word-of-mouth results if the effect has so long to fade into distant memory?

And then there's the F.E.A.R. port. Coming out so long after the original PC release, it suffers from the same thing. But there's one additional problem. It's so long after the initial release and has been modified so little that I've never been able to shake the bitter feeling like I'm being offered someone's leftovers. I'm a PC gamer more than a 360 gamer...I have no rival feelings against the PC, but the game still feels somehow cheapened by being offered to 360 gamers after such a long delay. I don't think it's a rational feeling, but it's a factor in my buying decision nonetheless, and I'm inclined to think there are probably others who feel the same way. This might be a significant consideration when releasing something cross-platform.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Weapon Foleys

I was just watching some gameplay videos of Hellgate: London. You can find them at www.gametrailers.com. Hellgate has been one of the games I'm most looking forward to for a long time now, but there's one thing about the videos that disappoints me somewhat: the sounds. Some of the weapon sounds are good, but many are weak and uncompelling.

Truth is, I'm not sure what there is to say about this subject, because I would think most concerns would be fairly obvious, but here's a ramble anyway.

There are two parts to the sound of most weapons: launch/swing and impact.

Just focusing on the impact sounds: In gameplay trailer 3, the ammo of the first gun shown sounds like weak or distant firecrackers. The fire-jet weapon sounds like a soft aerosol. The rebound-splash weapon sounds decent in that the explosions have a "thud" quality providing a feeling of true impact, but it is still unexciting. The sword with a shock effect seems to create only a shock sound with the sword's impact being completely nullified. And so on.

When making weapon foleys, there must be a feeling of violence/force. That feeling should be related to, but not entirely dependent upon, the weapon's appearance and animation. If the sound doesn't provide excitement by itself, when you close your eyes and it's not associated with any immediate cause, don't think it will become exciting once added to a visual event, because it won't.

So, for example, here's how I would change those sounds in trailer 3: In addition to the popping gunpowder sound of the first gun, there's should a sound of those bullets exploding flesh apart (a dull, wet sound). The fire-jet should be mostly fire crackling and roaring, with only a touch of the aerosol effect. The rebound shot should have some sound when the shot rebounds, and the explosions should have a searing sound added to the gunpowder pops. The sword should be heard in addition to its shock effect.

If a weapon has any sort of elemental or magical effect, be it fire, electricity or dark energy, the sound of that energy alone is not enough...there must be a sound representing what that energy is doing to the enemy body. The sound of hitting someone with a ball of fire should sound different than turning on my gas stove. The sound of bashing someone with an electrically-charged warhammer should be different than simply turning on an old buzzing TV.

Even if you're making a new fantastic sort of weapon, the sound of impact is important. If your weapon launches a screaming spectre at your foe, make a sound to represent its dissolution into or passing through the enemy's body.

The sound of the launch/swing is also important, of course, because it is a sound more immediate to the player's avatar; it more represents the character's actions. In his movies, John Woo demonstrates the powerful impact of guns cocking and clicking. Sounds of exertion are great. If I'm bringing a warhammer crashing down on the enemy's head, it's much more immersive if, instead of merely hearing the impact, I hear my character shouting or grunting with violent exertion. The tension of a taught bowstring adds emotional tension for the player.

Anyway, hopefully Flagship will revamp a lot of their sound effects to make Hellgate a much more immersive game. As demonstrated by those scenes in war films where the sound drops out or the music takes over, sounds play a huge role in how we perceive visual events. Nuances of sound lead to nuances of emotional appeal and interpretation.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Draw-style Controls

If you played the PC game Black & White, then you're familiar with the game's control system for enacting miracles. The player holds down the left mouse key and draws a symbol, with different symbols activating different avatar powers.

I was just watching the new Conan trailer, and I'm wondering why similar systems are not often used for combat-adventure games.

For example, imagine your character is just some brute with a sword.

  • Overhand Slash. Hold down the left mouse button (LMB) and quickly draw the very general figure of a half-heart, (left swing) starting at the enemy's left side, looping up and to the right, or (right swing) starting at the enemy's right side, looping up and to the left. The character will swing the sword down from his left or right shoulder.
  • Side Slash. Hold down the LMB and draw a line (left swing) from right of the enemy toward the enemy's midsection, or (right swing) from the left of the enemy toward the enemy's midsection.
  • Upward Slash. Hold down the LMB and draw a line from the side and below the enemy toward the enemy's midsection (right or left).
  • Overhead Slash. Hold down the LMB and draw a line from above the enemy toward the enemy's midsection.
  • Stab. Click the LMB on the section of enemy you wish to strike.
  • Slash Block. Hold the RMB and draw a line from the character's midsection to the quadrant or side you wish to block.
  • Stab Block. Hold the RMB and draw a line from beside the character toward the character's midsection.
  • Punch. Click the RMB on the enemy's midsection. This will punch the enemy with the hilt or dull edge of the character's sword.
  • Slam. Hold the RMB and draw a line from above the enemy toward the enemy's midsection. This will slam the pommel onto the enemy's head or body.

What I've just provided is an intuitive system by which a player can perform over 20 melee commands with only the use of a 2-button mouse.

And there are countless ways to augment this system. For example, scrolling up or down on the mousewheel could switch the player's character into magic command mode, by which all the same commands now enact magical, rather than melee, actions. And different weapons could have equally expansive but intuitive draw-command systems.

Not only does this expand and naturalize the user interface, but it provides opportunities to further immerse the character and add new, fun nuances to gameplay.

How much more fun would archery be if, rather than simply clicking a button or holding one to draw the bowstring (and only pretending you feel the tension), you performed a sweeping draw move that mimicked the real movement of an archer drawing an arrow from his quiver, nocking it and letting fly?

And what if a gamer playing a magician had to learn to keep calm during frantic battles, because the command for his fireball spell is a drawn spiral and larger spirals mean larger fireballs (at a greater cost of mana)? As an unexperienced player, he would waste precious mana because the situation was intense and he lost focus. An experienced player, like an experienced adventurer in real life, would know the value of maintaining focus. This would certainly appeal to competitive and achievement-oriented gamers, and a system that wasn't unduly harsh would appeal to more relaxed, self-paced gamers as well.

Basically, I see draw-command systems (DCS) as a wonderland of opportunity for all sorts of games, and it's a shame they're not taken advantage of more often.

I realize that accuracy of the player's draw movements (their accordance with the ideal symbol...and thereby the game's ability to recognize the player's commands) is a concern, so that's why the movements I suggested above allow for a wide range of error on the player's part. Great precision shouldn't be expected of the player.

Also, though DCS would be harder to implement on consoles, with a smaller range of possible commands and wholly different needs for accuracy, I think console games could make use of such systems as well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Expansion Content

A reprint of my response to York's latest blog: http://tatteredpage.net/archives/44

In regards to pay-for-play, I’m not a “customer is always right” sort of guy, so I don’t think gamers are owed anything. The developer decides for themselves what they think is the finished product, and you either accept that as being worth your money or you don’t. If you don’t, maybe the developer is missing out on potential revenue like yours (i.e., it was an adverse design decision), but you weren’t cheated of anything if you were never promised differently.

The ideal add-on content is content that adds replayability to the whole game…as opposed to one more quest, area, or similar expansion which is quickly breezed through. The player isn't owed that sort of content, and it’s not necessary for expansion content to be profitable, but it’s simply a much greater value for the consumer, more cost-efficient for the developer and a much easier sale.

Diablo 2’s expansion included a new Act (hours of new areas and story to explore) and two new classes (whole new avenues of gameplay to enjoy from the very beginning of the game through). That, by far, is the most valuable expansion offering I can think of for a non-MMO (which I would say is a somewhat different ballgame). The classes are the main attraction, because they represent hours upon hours of fresh gameplay. Not only the players, but the developers also, got a lot more bang for their buck that way than if Blizzard had only added the new Act.

I’d venture to say that relatively few games disallow expansions of that nature…expansions which refresh the entire game, rather than merely tack something onto the end.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Pacing in MMOs

Pacing is vital in any game, including MMOs.

For one thing, an adequate pace keeps the player focused on gameplay and disallows them the leisure to pick apart every flaw of your game. You're unlikely to notice that clipping plane being slightly off while your attention is on the madman running at you with a bloody axe.

Of course, an unbalanced pace can be bad too. All but the most obsessive action-gamers need some small breather between battles. Slow points also can allow players to absorb their experiences, qualify them and encode them into memory.

Pacing plays any number of roles... but to what degree can pacing be controlled in a non-linear game, like an MMO? It seems to me that there are methods of soft control, like player-travel control through enemy placement and environment design. But are there any hard/certain measures of pacing control in games like these? What could be done to improve control?

I'm asking this with the belief that gamers frequently spoil their own fun, unknowingly most of the time, and that poor pacing is a key way in which that can happen. We shouldn't just leave it up to the players entirely.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Accepting Setbacks

In his last blog (http://tatteredpage.net/archives/5#more-5), Chas does something I like to do, which is to try to pull lessons from something not directly game-related and apply it to games. In this case, he was looking at the ideas of adventure in the great movie Secondhand Lions. One of points Chas touches on is when Hub says "I've won and lost a dozen fortunes" with a sense of pride.

I really like the idea of players have ups and downs. But as Chas points out, in the typical item-centric MMO, "Losing stuff is bad. Losing valuable stuff is grounds for quitting."

Perhaps the reason that most MMO players won't stomach losing much of their fortune, gear, skills, and such is just because they've been trained to think of such games as wholly progressive (your character should always be moving forward, never back).

Lately, I've been really enjoying the RTS game Battle For Middle Earth 2. I always play the "War of the Ring" mode, which is similar to the Risk boardgame in some respects. It's not uncommon to lose territories and have to fight to win them back. Sometimes this means I'm pushed to the brink of utter defeat (losing the war, not just the battle) before I push back and win it all. Other times, I'm both winning and losing at the same time; as I'm gaining territories over here, my opponent is on the other side and taking my territories over there.

So here we see two types of player loss: whole and partial.

The death penalties of MMOs are usually (in the ones I played) just a hiatus in progression. The original Everquest allowed players to actually lose levels, and the skills associated with those levels. It also allowed the loss of attributes, through diseases and curses, until a cure could be acquired by the player (significantly, cures were readily available most of the time, so there wasn't a great threat of being weakened for long). It did not, however, allow the loss of items. Other MMOs I've played allowed items to become broken or unusable after a particular length of time, but the item decay was slow enough that item loss was rare or more valuable items were immune from decay.

I think the keys to convincing players to accept losses are hope and fun. Hope is the easier of the two. The player must have hope of either reacquiring the object lost or acquiring another object of similar value. The other ingredient, keeping the gameplay fun despite the loss, is more difficult, largely because of an inherent importance of optimization in current MMO models. In the player's eyes, it's not the character's circumstances which have been reduced; it's the character. If the player's character is merely a medium of power, then the loss of power is a loss of identity. The character is diminished, rather than the same character having to approach challenges in a different way.

Think about running out of ammo for your favorite gun in Halo, Goldeneye or some other first-person shooter. You probably cursed your luck and thought about how much more difficult the gameplay was going to be without that weapon. Maybe you were even asking yourself how long you'd have to fight with an inferior weapon before regaining your prized instrument of destruction. But you didn't turn off the console. Why? Because the weapon was just something your character was using...it was not representative of your character. Bond loves his PP7, but he's still James Bond without it. The Master Chief is equally the Master Chief with an assault rifle, pistol or needler.

What defines these characters in terms of core gameplay? The ability to kill the enemies in their path. Whether using a rifle or needler, the Master Chief can still kill Covenant aliens. Whether using a PP7 or grenade launcher, Bond can still kill Soviets.

But what happens when an MMO player's avatar loses his Grand Sword of Uberness or his Wrath of God lightning spell? He's no longer able to face the same enemies. He must fall back to less difficult enemies; he must fall back to a lesser level of gameplay.

The key to making loss acceptable in a power-oriented game is to ensure the player can accomplish core gameplay goals despite setbacks.

In a multi-dimensional game, the player can continue to enjoy the game by progressing in one way while regressing in another. Partial losses are possible only in a game with multiple, directly-interactive player goals. In BfME:2's "War of the Ring" mode, I have the goal of conquering new territories and the additional goal of protecting old territories. Thus, I'm able to experience the partial defeat of losing old territories while experiencing the partial victory of winning new territories, each as a subset of a unified gameplay experience.

In an MMO game with only the core gameplay goal of progressing to new objects (items, levels, enemies, etc), any loss is ultimately the same loss, a barrier to one path of progression. Many MMOs seek to provide an alternative to combat through artisanship or diplomacy (which are still, in a sense, presented as forms of combat, rather than creative or maneuvering [mental or physical] challenges), but these avenues of gameplay are typically too separate from the combat segment of the game to feel like different parts of the same gameplay experience. The artisan and combatant are essentially two characters, though topically one, rather than extensions of the same character.

Perhaps I'll come back to this to suggest paths for improvement, but I need to hop on other things for now. Feel free to pick up where I left off though. =)

Sunday, October 29, 2006


This might be a dangerous precedent for me. But since I've been so neglectful of my site of late and since this is related to something on another gaming blog (Raph's), I'm going to write about something not directly game-related. So...

Poetry: what is it?

Poetry must have at least one pattern which distinguishes it from prose. Typical patterns are meter, rhyme, rhythm, or divisions of line which reflect semantic movements. Sorry, but simply cutting your prose into lines of roughly equal length does not make it poetry, nor does speaking of something transcendental or using a lot of imagery.

"But it's beautiful, alluring language." Yeah, and prose can be that too.
"But it looks like poetry." Yeah, but it's an impostor. The best way to detect poetry is to speak it aloud.

Why? Well, let's look beyond our own convoluted culture and back to poetry's history. Through the vast majority of human history, going back thousands of years, poetry was expected to have patterns. Aside from playing with the music in and of language, those patterns aid memorization. They're mnemonics. Most of those really long poems you were probably exposed to in school were made up entirely in someone's head (or multiple heads) and recited orally before eventually making their way into print. Through all this time, poetry was intended to be spoken and heard, not read. It is only with the availability of printing and better writing materials that it became common for people to imagine poetry without any such pattern(s), because patterns were no longer needed for memory.

Poetry without pattern is only imagined. It's an illusion. It doesn't really exist. Such a mirage has become increasingly the dominant preference among university professors and literati over the past four centuries, but it is still just a mirage. I've taken numerous university courses concerning poetry to a greater or lesser extent, and the only one of my professors (a Creative Writing -Poetry class) who dared address the question "what is poetry" directly could only retreat to the bland assertion that poetry defies definition. The truth is that he was willfully clinging to a modernist view which can only say the sky is blue while staring at the ground.

Poetry has definition, and it's rooted in patterns. Note that this isn't just an easy way to clearly separate the categories of poetry and prose. Some prose is very poetic, like the "I have a dream..." speech of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which uses repetition of that phrase to great effect and employs many other musical patterns, including the intonation of its delivery. But, once again, we see memorization and oration playing a role...public addresses tend to be more poetic than other prose.

The point of defining poetry is not to keep it safeguarded from "corruption" by prose, or vice versa. It is not necessary to quarrantine the two; on the contrary, blending has presented us with some of the finest literature and rhetoric available; and some degree of blending is perhaps unavoidable. Personally, I believe Western cultures have long done themselves a disservice by obsessive separation of categories.

The reason we define things is to better understand them. You appreciate better what things are by learning what they are not. Absorbing prose as if it were poetry is to miss the beauty particular to poetry, the beauty of patterns. It's the same tragedy as mistaking noise for music, scribbles for art, or chaos for design. In the modern quest to dissociate objects from definite forms, many have chosen to devour an illusion which will ultimately leave them hungry and unnourished.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Inspired Gameplay

Sometimes graphics, characters and rules feed the player a specific story and environment, but they can also lead the player to a story and environment of his or her own creation. Gameplay can be inspired, rather than doled; from the player, rather than the developer.

If you tell an artist, a poet or a composer simply "make something", you'll probably get a blank stare or worried expression. I've been writing and composing for nearly 15 years now, and every year I have a stronger appreciation for inspiration. Everything we do in life is at its most enjoyable and most fruitful when we allow ourselves to be inspired.

My Asian Philosophy professor, Daniel Coyle, and I had many interesting discussions trying to pin down the Chinese concept of "wu-wei", which I've come to define as roughly "inspired action". Michael Jordan, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steven Spielberg...these people, some of the best in their fields, are known for inspired action. When Jordan went for a slam dunk or Hendrix soloed (swap him with Stevie Ray Vaughn or Louis Armstrong if you prefer), their actions seemed effortless and natural. When they were "in the zone", they didn't have to work at their actions anymore; they just played.

Everyone's familiar with the feeling of being "in the zone". It usually occurs only after warming up a while. That state of production doesn't have to accidental.

Inspiration isn't the sort of thing one can always call up at will, but it is possible to consciously create an environment which welcomes and attracts inspiration. The two components of inspired action are ability and peace.

  • Ability. A combination of innate and trained ability prepares one for inspiration. What good is an idea without the language and energy to adequately express/fulfill it? We are not all created equal in regards to aptitudes, but even the most innately gifted persons never cease to benefit from training, honing and expanding their abilities.
  • Peace. Countless obstructions can hinder one's capacity to accept inspiration. What good is an idea without the openness to accept it and the focus to truly know it? One usually gets in the zone only after warming up a while because warm-ups help us to ignore distractions and bring ourselves into harmony with our environment.


Of course, learning how to open one's self to inspiration is greatly beneficial to developers, but I think we should try to take it further. Developers can inspire the player, creating the gameplay experience indirectly by fashioning an environment in which players are likely to build their own experiences.

To do this, the developer must attend to encouragement of ability and peace, in addition to the source of inspiration. User interface, story pacing and combat pacing all play a role in the creation of peace. Gradual elevation in challenges and opportunities encourage the honing and development of ability. Too often, challenge is relativized (a conflict between a level 3 player and a level 3 opponent is equally difficult as between a level 10 player and level 10 opponent). Too often, the user interface is negotiable but not fluid and harmonizing (if the player has to try to remember which key or screen icon to press for a certain action, then movement toward "the zone" has been disrupted).

As for the actual sources of inspiration, they can be visual, audial, opportunities for action or many other things. As the real world proves, inspiration can come from just about anything, from a sunset to a machine to a paperclip. The trick is in asking of every object (visual or otherwise) in your game: What role does it play necessarily? What peripheral roles might it play?

For example, a tree might be one of many members creating the object of a forest, but it might also be a creature's home; a broken branch may tell the tale of a storm; a carved heart may tell the tale of lovers; dying leaves may speak of a dying land. A blacksmith might be just a blacksmith, but he might also have the look of one of those rebels you've been hearing about; a scar over his eye but a smile on his lips may send you searching for his history; the tune he often hums may be from a time when the culture was quite different, a time to which he is himself oblivious; his hammer may bare the trademark of a smithy of another town.

All of these are possibilities for little adventures which needn't be fleshed out fully by the developers...adventures which the players themselves have a hand in creating. There are countless opportunities for games to host far more fun than they directly provide.

Monday, October 16, 2006


To whoever's actually interested in this little amateur site, sorry for the long hiatus. Between schoolwork coming to a climax and a death in the family, I've been more than a little busy. Hopefully, I'll be able to start posting again next week sometime.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


I haven't had much time this week, but here's some old thoughts on tethering creatures in MMOs.

I like trains (even when I hate them ), and like that realization that I only thought I lost my pursuer. But I'd like to see more involved, in regards to tethering, than I've seen in past games.

  • Distance. The obvious condition. No creature should chase the player around the whole world, and creatures should have varying distances each is willing to go.
  • Focus. Some creatures should be more distractable from their pursuit than others. Some should chase anyone who crosses their pursuit. Some should be distracted only by players who attack them. And some should be completely indistractable, being overcome by insane bloodlust or solid purpose.
  • Barriers. A creature may not like mountainous terrain, water, or something else, and so will stop at that boundary. The boundary might be magic, psychic, by training or otherwise non-physical. The point is that many creatures should have comfort zones and doubt zones. Some won't leave their comfort zone. Some increasingly think of turning back as they gain distance from it. Also, attitudes might change dependent on where they are. If a creature has been lured to an area that increases its anxiety, it might become more or less effective in combat. It may become stronger or it may become sloppy.
  • Guards. Some guardian creatures should be lurable, while others are not. The creature may only leave its post for a limited time or limited distance (in this case, the creature is still watching the player, just not following).
  • Fear. Most creatures have a sense of odds. Only some will give chase when vastly outnumbered. Make them aware of how many of their allies are joined in the chase. And make them aware of the proximity of players without needing to be attacked or the players needing to be grouped. The group of players it is approaching may not be hostile, but how would it know that?
  • Sprinting. Some creatures could be capable of sprinting, as players often are. Some might be able to get one last attack or two in quickly, but their natural movement speed is much slower than the players; so if the player can survive a couple attacks when fleeing, he'll quickly be out of the creature's range. Sprinting can also work the other way, adding an interesting dynamic. Some creatures may be difficult to kill, not because they're difficult to fight, but because they are good at making an escape when low. I imagine this could result in some fun and interesting player group strategizing.
  • Fatigue and perception. The creature chases; the player runs; the creature sees that the player is a fast runner, so gives up right away. This allows for player types which excel at escape (like rogues). Maybe running a creature a bit and wearing down its fatigue will make it an easier fight.

Anyway, nothing much here really. I just wanted to get something up that would take an hour.

Monday, October 09, 2006

AGC registration going up?

So I just got an email informing me that "the CMP Game Group, the producers of Game Developers Conference (GDC), have acquired The Game Initiative, our conference family and our flagship Austin Game Conference (AGC)".

I remember a dev at the AGC telling me how much more expensive other conferences were compared to the AGC. Being a college student, I couldn't have afforded much more.

Does this acquisition likely mean that AGC registration will become more comparable to other conferences? If so, that's not very inviting to new blood.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

CoH, and Achievement vs Exploration

Thanks to Chas, I've been playing City of Heroes / City of Villains the past couple days using the free trial offer. This is my second time to try the game (I played City of Villains before as well). The first time around, I think I played for a month or two. I'm not going to touch on everything; just a handful. With so many things I enjoy with this game, the deal-breaker (achievement-oriented) is especially unfortunate.

Here are two of my old heroes, Stillblood and Dreamfast:

Here are my new characters, Revenot (villain) and Volcus (hero):

The visual character customization is obviously one of the greatest selling points of the game. I chose to create two dark characters, but the player can go light just as well. The visual style of the game is distinctive, easy on my 2-3 years-old computer, and probably able to continue into the next 5 years, at least, without any dire want of an upgrade.

One other visual plus is the ability to move the camera easily, take screenshots, then reset with a hotkey: http://img74.imageshack.us/img74/1035/volcusthrowbw2.jpg But it could be improved by allowing players to hotkey other angles than the default view. I really enjoy the view used in this screenshot, behind and just to the side of the enemy. Obviously, it's not viable in every combat situation, but can make my gameplay a more cinematic experience. If I was able to switch between several camera angles quickly and easily with hotkeys, then I'd be able to enjoy that cinematic experience more frequently and fluidly (i.e., my overall game experience would be more enjoyable).

Another great aspect of the game is tactics. I'm soloing only (I grouped the first time I played CoH, but it's been too long to remember my impression). The three aspects of combat that make it tactically more impressive than other MMOs are grouped enemies, movement and inspirations.

Grouped enemies often, though not always, encourage the player to think creatively. Depending on hit/misses, the mix of enemy styles (melee, missiles, healer, etc) and a number of other factors, I'm encouraged to judge spontaneously which enemy to focus on first, which to avoid, how I can mix up my DoTs, nukes and melee between them to best manage my limited energy, etc.

I'm encouraged to move, which makes combat infinitely more interesting than just standing in one spot and hitting hotkeys. My enemies charge me, or find ideal missile positions, or run away. Chasing an enemy can be, though isn't always, a lot of fun; particularly when he's jumping fences, climbing railings, using cover, etc. And CoH allows the player to use the terrain strategically and tactically.

Inspirations are consumable buffs, and they add an interesting dynamic to combat. When it comes to game buffs (often seen in games as healing and mana potions), I'm a hoarder; the sort of player who goes to great lengths to preserve my consumables for bosses and emergencies. But whether I use them often or sparsely, they add to my enjoyment of the game either way. It's having dynamics of advantages and disadvantages from fight to fight.

CoH proves that scripting can work as well as, or better than, real A.I. sometimes. I see cultists chanting and waving as magic works on their victim floating above in an eerie green light. I see a thug standing on a box and preaching, while his cronies sit fascinated in front of him. I see an NPC tugging on a lady's purse as she refuses to let go. And saved NPCs run back to thank me. It's all very immersive, despite its repetition.

This is another area where CoH shines. Not only can I choose between a variety of skill choices that make my blaster different than other blasters of the same general focus (fire, ice, sonic, etc), but they also give me a way to make my blaster significantly different from another blaster with all of the same skills (which is rare anyway): skill enhancements. As I level, I get to choose which skills I want to add more enhancement slots to. Then I get to choose what enchancements to put in the enhancement slots.

Do I want to enhance one skill with two slots or two skills with one? Do I want to increase accuracy, damage, distance, energy efficiency, etc? This method allows for balanced and unbalanced characters, to the player's preference. My tank, the first time I played CoH, was an exception in that he didn't have a taunt skill. In bypassing that skill, I was able to put choose a further damage skill instead.

This is where CoH/CoV loses me. It's made for the old gaming crowd, who are always focused on where they're going, never where they are. I'm not an achievement-oriented gamer; I'm exploration-oriented (mostly, of course; few gamers are pure one way or another). Already, after two days, I'm feeling the boredom that's typical of MMOs to me these days. I'm bored because I'm really just doing the same thing over and over again (killing NPCs), plus one more skill or set of enhancement slots, aimed at the next skill or enhancement slots.


Maxis has had a long history of phenomenal success with the Sim City series and The Sims series, and there's obviously a lot of interest in the upcoming Spore. Blizzard had tremendous success with the Diablo series, and Flagship's Hellgate: London looks not far behind Spore's popularity. Now, maybe I'm mistaken, but it seems to me that those games owe a large measure of their success, perhaps even the majority, to exploration-oriented gamers.

When I played the Sim City games, sure, I had the vague goal of a large and smoothly-run city. But I don't recall any point at which I was actually able to solve a problem completely (traffic went away, crime stopped, etc), and I didn't mind. In fact, I usually ended up calling in the tornado or Godzilla at some point. Mostly, I was just being creative in city design, interested more in explorative possibilities than conquest.

When I played The Sims 2, my enjoyment was in designing the buildings, furnishing them and watching the interesting twists of character interactions (ultimately, the game was too much like watching a soap opera or the WE channel for my tastes). Again, achievers' goals were there, but not the focus.

And then there's Diablo 2, one of my favorite games of all time. It was an action game...surely, it was achievement-oriented, right? Not really; or, at least, not exclusively. There were lots of goals for achievement-gamers, but the ultimate draw for me and thousands of other gamers was the dynamics that fed a sense of exploration. Again, the goals were often vague. I wasn't aiming for a particular weapon or armor. I was aiming for something cool I hadn't seen before. I knew the name of where I was going, but the map changed each game, so I didn't know which way to turn. The many dynamics made the game, which is why Roper and the other Flagship guys cite the dynamics as Hellgate's primary selling point.

City of Heroes is a good game. Cryptic did a lot with that game that deserves respect. It doesn't have to cater to gamers of my style to be a good game.

That said, I wish the MMO industry offered more combat-laden games that were not so lopsided toward achievement-oriented gaming. America is a culture heavy on achievement and competition, so I don't doubt that the majority of Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general, are most attracted to such games. But exploration-focused MMOs can do well too, without having to be peaceful or domestic (like The Sims Online or Second Life...from what I've read of them).

Star Wars: Galaxies came closest to this end. I spent a lot of my time fighting, but an equally great amount of time exploring the wilderness and taming strange creatures, or trying to creatively bioengineer animals to my personal preferences. But my hunger for exploration ran out of sustenance in that game after 6 months. The world was compelling, but not dynamic enough. In my opinion, dynamics is a key area of growth opportunity for MMOs.

It's difficult for me to pin down what exactly I'm trying to get at here. I hope that's clear.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Audio in MMOs

Some random thoughts from old discussions on Sigil's boards...

Most game music should be elevator music; that is, music that affects the listener without becoming the main attraction. Star Wars themes like the Imperial march definitely grab attention during the movies, but not enough to distract from the action.

One of the things that makes John Williams so great is his use of leit motifs. The heroes (Luke Skywalker, Indiana Jones) have their own themes. The villains have their own themes (Darth Vader, Valdemort). Each setting has its own theme. Then he goes one step further and adapts the themes a little bit to the situation. More and better use of this in games would go a long way in augmenting gameplay.

To ensure players truly feel that the different legs of an epic quest are part of a grander scheme, use a musical motif. The player hears that epic's theme every time they are engaged in some action that helps to complete that quest (usually combat). Think in terms of Indiana Jones. The main theme plays throughout each movie, calling up a feeling of adventure and getting you actively rooting for Indiana. If done with multi-legged quests, the player's feeling of grand adventure could be heightenend in the same way.

Truly epic mobs could have motifs. The music would be unique in that it is tied to the mob's movements and actions. When the epic giant, for example, raises his hammer, the music rises. When the hammer comes down, the music comes down and slams with the impact. If the mob casts a spell, then the music builds up while it's casting the spell. It creates a cinematic game experience. And , in a sense, it's tailored specifically to that group's unique battle experience. If they interrupt the mob's spell, the music is interrupted.

In places you're sure players will go, views you're certain they'll see, give those scenes their own wonderful theme. A road with high walls on either side might lead up a mountain. When the player reach the top, you give them a wondrous view of the valley below and a sweeping musical theme just for that spot. If the view was memorable walking in both directions on the road, then the top of the mountain could act as a trigger for the music, and would play regardless of whether the player was just standing there, admiring the view, or if they were walking down the other side of the mountain, looking as they go. Things like this create memorable moments for players...moments they share with other players and remember fondly long afterward, reinforcing a pleasant perception of the overall game.

Sometimes silence should be deafening, as the saying goes. A dungeon is a great example. A dark, damp dungeon might have creepy, nearly-silent music; or no music at all. You hear every drop of water from the ceiling, every crackle of the lamp, and get goosebumps when you hear movement around the corner. When the attack comes, a lack of combat music forces you to concentrate on the horrible sounds the monster is making while it howls and claws; or you might hear the necromancer chanting a curse, or a cleric praying for intervention, etc.

Divide environment music by semantic setting, rather than bland zoning. Don't just give a theme to the whole zone of Butcherblock or Mos Eisley. Have a main theme for when you're following the beaten path, a theme for woodman's shack along the road, etc. Change the theme expectantly as the player nears the goblin camp. If the music suddenly drops out, that will create expectation too.

If audio is used for cues and clues, you might make player actions and abilities affect the volume of sound effects. Perhaps one race has better hearing than another, so hear particular sounds when others don't. By keeping it about particular sounds, and not all sounds, it prevents players from just cranking their volume to hear as well (they still might, but when the sounds their character hears normally come around, those sounds would blare in their ears and discourage the player from trying to cheat again; they would be warned in the manual). Wearing particular shoes might lower the volume of footsteps. An archer power shot might make a louder thud than a quick shot.

In taverns and similar settings, I'd like to hear folk music. Folk music can take many forms (lively, laments, protests, etc), but it acts as a cultural and historical identifier. This might be something as simple as a lone NPC musician or there might be a full band of locals playing in a corner.

If you've seen Gangs of New York, you might remember the part where the Irish lady slowly walks by singing a sad Irish tale. Imagine having the occasional character like that in a game. The NPC might walk around town or they might walk up and down a road. You might even have the NPC following a road from one side of a continent to another. The NPC carries a sort of bubble of music. They walk around singing or maybe playing a fiddle or something; if you get close to them, then the environment music fades away and you hear that NPC's singing/playing. Then, when the NPC continues on, the environment music picks up again. It's a good way of making the world dynamic. A player usually walks by NPCs without a glance. But if an NPC is playing music, singing, then the player is sucked in. Such NPCs could include stuff like gypsy wagons rolling from town to town. Or it might be bards sitting on some steps, trying to win some coppers from passers-by. Or it might be a young boy whistling to himself as he fishes on a lakeshore.

Maybe you want to have the additional option of, or focus on, the player's own music. Then picture a system where you add tags to tracks, or download pre-tagged keys for songs (in addition to a standard set of genre tags like grunge, rock, rap, trance, classical, etc). You have tags for gameplay scenarios like exploration, combat, victory, conquest, etc, and an music player integrated within the game which would pull tracks that were contextually appropriate for whatever was going on within the game - cross referencing the music genre with the gamestyle. So someone that likes Metallica might get Enter Sandman as a musical backdrop to big battles. Someone who likes classical music might choose Flight of the Valkyries for their combat music. Of course, each music scenario could have more than one song to shuffle between.

There's a financial opportunity here as well. Assuming your game becomes popular, you can now contract with major record labels to create and sell scenario-music compilations; like a "best of [musical genre or era]" for combat, or for exploration, etc. I hope that's clear.

Use variations of ambient sounds to create, or enhance, the environment music. In Diablo 2, Matt Uelmen does this in the swamp town (the third starting town, whatever it was). You're walking along rotten wood, rope bridges and the music is done on marimbas and other wooden sounds. If you were actually walking in a swamp, I would probably use an oboe (it can have that murky sound) or a didjeridoo. If a player is walking a high mountain trail with shrieking winds, use airy flutes. Work in actual sound effects, if possible.

This goes for combat music as well. Combat music, if you have it, should vary in style like any other setting. Imagine something quick and eerie on a sitar while fighting a scorpion in the desert. Military encounters might include wardrums.

Games shy away from this, but it can be extremely beneficial at times. I want to hear understandable drinking songs, laments, hymns, etc. I want to hear reverent choirs. An ancient order might sing chants. There are dozens of choir styles (I'm particularly fond of Russian choirs). You don't have to hire professionals for this. Most people know at least someone with a decent voice, some of them quite beautiful or otherwise compelling.

Music and sounds can signal action or cause it. Belltowers signal time, and sometimes are the cue for events to begin. Ancient armies used horns signal attacks.

Audio cues like the environmental music dropping out in anticipation of danger can be made uncertain by false cues, like the music dropping out when there is no danger. Crying wolf too much will undermine cue music, but it might prove useful sporadically. True cues can be used toward many types of scenarios. A group might be wandering around a large, dark castle chamber in awe when a character passes by a hidden door and some noise, like the scuffling of a rat, hints at its location. The sound can be made subtle by occurring only the first time that character passes the door's location.

True cues can be made uncertain by the inclusion of false cues, like the music dropping out when there is no danger. Crying wolf too often can undermine the use of true cues, but it might prove useful sporadically. Also, music should not mislead players by having sounds that could be part of the environment. The best example I can think of is when I'm driving and the CD I'm listening to has a honked horn, causing to look around and see who's honking.

Sound effects should often not draw much attention at times, but it should at other times. The sound of the ringwraiths in LOTR was comprised of grating steel (gut-wrenching sound), little kids screaming (gut-wrenching sound), and dry ice among other things. For the Baalrog's roar, the foley designer mixed stone being crushed and fire. Innovative foley design for characters and creatures can be particularly important in creating immersion. Expectation plays a major role. If the player expects a beast to growl in a particular way and you offer just that sound, then that player might take no notice or might mildly think "cool". But if you offer a sound strange and far more terrifying that expected, the player's experience is significantly improved.

It would be cool to hear the muffled music of the tavern hall while I'm in the inn room upstairs. A lion or elephant can be heard from over a mile away. Imagine hearing something like that, knowing a fearful sounding monster is somewhere not far off in a particular direction. Do you go that way to see what is making that awesome sound? or do you head in the opposite direction, steering clear of danger?

Some animal sounds are misleading. Here, in the subtropical region where I grew up, we've got tons of birds and bugs alike. But an untrained ear often can't distinguish between some of the bugs and birds. Some bugs are as loud as a dog barking. Some birds make a bug-like, scratchy croaking noise. So imagine a player hearing a non-aggressive animal noise and thinking "you're mine!". But, when they finally find the creature making the noise, it's not something they want to mess with (too late!). Or vice versa. Players move the opposite direction from a scary sound, which is really just a small animal (you must hear a Tasmanian devil; those things sound truly evil). Or how about a mockingbird or parrot? Some creatures might mimick the sounds of other creatures to lure players or scare them away.

How many times have you watched a movie or read a book where the main character steps on something, moves something and hears that horrifying "click"....and they just know something bad's about to happen (a boobytrap, perhaps). Foleys like this can be very memorable.

There's other stuff I could talk about, like combat music shifting with the turn of the tide in battle, but I'll stop there.

Friday, October 06, 2006


This is a repost of my thoughts from Raph's site: http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/10/05/players-who-post-posters-who-play/

Mohanbir Sawhney (from Morgan Ramsay’s post) wrote: “As consumers have become increasingly empowered and demanding, marketing gurus have preached the benefits of customer-relationship management”

When I think of game forums, I’m reminded of my hometown, where a Home Depot and Lowes were bulit facing each other, their parking lots hardly separated, in a secluded lot (no other stores adjoining either)…a real showdown. The Home Depot was the first to be built, and everyone and their mother was a Home Depot customer for many years. They were heavy on customer service. Then the Lowes opened up, offered far less customer service and stole roughly half of Home Depot’s customerbase anyway. The general consensus among people in my hometown was that you’d get more service at Home Depot, but Lowes had the more inviting environment.

Again, “consumers have become increasingly empowered and demanding". Perverse consumer power creates an uninviting environment. It’s the perception (be it real or illusory) of power that makes flaming a viable customer option. Customers don’t ask for service anymore, they demand it. Afterall, they’re always right, as the saying goes (that saying dehumanizes customers and portrays them as commodities, by the way). Dramatic and selfish demands are generally rewarded, and so such behavior becomes more common among customers. Little “Mom and Pap” shops are more inviting, not just because they’re small and you can develop a personal relationship with the store owner, but also because the owners of such shops demand reasonable behavior and expectations from their customerbase. Yes, they lose some customers this way, but they gain more and have stronger customer loyalty. American consumers in general have been cultured to become selfish brats, but it’s not impossible to reculture them with the obvious appeal of a civil atmosphere.

Listening to your customers should be done privately, not among a crowd of people who should have been accosted for their vile behavior and perhaps even kicked out of the “store” long ago anyway. Have an easily noticeable and inviting feedback form on your game’s website. Inviting means more than just nicely rounded letters and a big “howdy!"; it means not asking for the player’s blood-type just to submit some simple feedback. In fact, you don’t even need to verify that the feedback is coming from a player, because you can likely tell where it’s coming from and anyone who shapes your reputation is a concern, customer or not, as Raph said (though playing defense against unreasonable accusations is often not productive).

If you don’t respond, then at least there’s not a flurry of flamers getting the customer riled up and disallowing that feedback from sinking into history; and the customer is encouraged to practice faith in the company. If you do respond (with something other than the typical robotic garbage most CS reps and systems churn out), then you’ve established a personal relationship…an impression that’s infinitely more difficult to create through a forum, because forums aren’t one-on-one dialogue.

A smart CS program would even keep a Gmail-type record system of previous conversations, allowing CS reps to quickly search for and review feedback from persons of the same email address. If you can create the illusion that you actually remember your customer from a previous engagement, then you’ve taken a large leap into a rewarding CS relationship.

In short, I think game companies should not sponsor regular forums of their own. They’re unnecessary to a strong CS program, they’re difficult to enculture; and, most importantly, they encourage players to think of themselves as part of something like a union, set distant from and often against the company, rather than a valued customer with a one-on-one relationship.

[and in further response to that discussion...]
Obviously, forum discussion has its advantages over live discussion in-game. But the developer benefits from forum discussions equally on a fansite forum as on a company-operated one…and without needing to identify himself or herself as a developer, which may seem beneficial at times.

An “us and us” mentality (as opposed to "us", the developers and "them", the players) is not beneficial. It does not help to essentially approach the player for design help, rather than simply listening and responding on an individual basis when approached (email and phone).

For one thing, this discourages players from enjoying the game as it is. When a player feels empowered to change the game, that player is no longer free to simply “play” and instead adopts a critical mentality, which diminishes both the degree and longevity of enjoyment. When I played EQ (my first MMO) and was still ignorant of the degree of interaction between developers and players, I was far less critical of my gameplay experience than I was later with SWG. This had a significant impact on my ability to lose myself in the game and my overall perception of the game’s appeal. Players should feel separate from designers.

An absence of a clear border between them also encourages developers to lose sight of their game’s core concept and philosophies, to undermine its essential definition (what makes it “this” game, as opposed to “that” game). It encourages the “customer is always right” attitude, by which can customers sneak into some measure of control and corrupt “The Vision". What people ask for and what actually makes them happy are quite often not the same. An “us and us” mentality discourages recognition of that basic fact, and the repercussions can be great.

Which is not to suggest that the company must think of itself as entirely separate from the players…a sense of community is definitley important. But official forums are the wrong way to go about ratifying that community.

[and still further...]
No, choosing to not directly invite customers into design discussions does not assume that the game is just fine. Instead, it encourages clearer distinction between petty and major customer concerns. If you have developed a semi-personal relationship with your customers, they will not wait until disaster to point out problems or refrain from providing creative and constructive feedback.

How do you create a personal relationship with customers without design discussions, before the customer has a concern (and, in a sense, it’s too late)? You do it the way business owners have done it since the dawn of history: you don’t limit your discussions to business. Modern economic theory has a bad habit of approaching business as separate from social life (which is why “it’s just business” is a common…and false..moral distinction in modern society). Though I have mixed opinions about Vanguard’s pre-beta forums, one certain and significant benefit of Sigil’s CS approach is that the devs’ many friendly (non-business) discussions created and strengthened customer loyalties.

Anyway, when one is encouraged to think of potentials and ideals only occasionally and naturally, then that person can typically enjoy what already is. But when potentials and ideals are considered constantly and responsively, that type of thinking commonly leads to dissatisfaction with the present. Without direct encouragement like official forums, players will continue to help developers improve, but they will do so with moderation, with temperance…without spoiling their enjoyment of the game.

Raph is correct that the border between consumers and producers is increasingly questioned in many industries, but that doesn’t qualify it as progress. Really, one might argue that this trend is more about culture than profit; that it’s merely the economic application of a cultural attitude which disfavors concepts of roles and absolutes.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Housing and friends

In Green's design challenge on player housing (http://www.psychochild.org/?p=216#comments), he wrote: "for all the care and attention I give to my place, nobody will see it....[or] appreciate it". That's a common problem in MMOs. How do you enable the player to share his or her home without boring friends?

Well, why do friends come over to the house in real life?

  • To share an interactive leisure (conversation, video games, board games, etc).
  • To share a receptive leisure (TV, watching the wildlife from your porch or patio, etc).
  • To share a constructive experience (building, fixing, working out personal issues, etc).
  • To share a design experience (landscaping, architecture, furnishings, etc).
  • To deposit or remove items.

Now, why at a house, as opposed to somewhere else?

  • It's a predictable (and safe) environment.
  • It's a personal environment.
  • It's a secluded environment.
  • It's where the desired items/service are located.

What did I miss? Anyway, there's a number of possibilities that can be drawn from that. (since I'm pressed for time today and I tend to drone on anyway, I'm going to try to focus on just pointing out areas of consideration, rather than coming up with solutions)

Yeah, an MMO home is a predictable environment, but so are many, if not most, other places in an MMO. These games aren't dynamic enough yet to regularly surprise even those players familiar with a given area. Predictability isn't going to keep players indoors by itself, of course, but it is a significant factor. If I can do whatever out in the middle of the road just as well as inside a building, without any fear of the unforeseen bandits, dragons or thunderstorm, then why not do it there?

MMO developers perhaps have a unique challenge in this regard. In real life, I prefer to have my personal conversations and interactions with friends away from others. Nobody likes the idea of strangers eavesdropping on their conversations, and we are easily distracted by voices and noises. If there's another conversation next to you or someone's music blaring in your ear, your own conversation can be difficult. So we take the conversation to a secluded environment...often a home.

In MMOs, you never have to speak above the noise. You can open up a private chat window so that other conversations don't disrupt your own. This a downside to non-localized chat (which is not to suggest that alone makes localized chat a better option). And though you may see nearby players occasionally doing stupid things or emoting in some way, you've likely seen it before and it's not a great distraction.

In real life, a home is usually not a static setting. You can turn on the TV to inspire topics for your conversation. You can turn on the stereo for background music as you shoot some pool, and occasionally grab another beer out of the fridge. In a sense, the house isn't just sitting there looking pretty as you do things. It's not just a locale...you're interacting with it to combine experiences and create new ones (like picking up a pillow from the couch and smacking your friend with it).

In real life, I help a friend build patios and patio coverings from time to time, and have helped with many similar projects since I was a kid. I enjoy it. For the owner in particular, there's often a great pride in recognizing a product as the fruits of one's own imagination and labor. A structure often means more to the owner who built it himself than to the owner who just bought it. But, as someone just helping another or building for a job, even knowing I'll probably never again see the thing I've constructed, I enjoy the conclusion and I enjoy the process...largely because I was working alongside a friend or family member. Obviously, cooperative game developers are well aware of this feeling.

In gameplay, it's more common to share a destructive experience ("die, worm!") than this sort. Sometimes there's strategizing on the part of the group or guild, though usually a strategy is already known and there's not much creative input needed. Up to this point, in the MMOs I'm familiar with, crafting and other contstructive experiences have been solo work. Sometimes there's sequential groupplay involved (the player constructs one part and then hands it the next person to construct the next part), but that usually permits players to act separately and demands only limited interaction between players. In EQ2, there was some socialization, but the reliance was limited, as I recall. Sigil's crafting system for Vanguard seems the most promising by getting players to really work side-by-side, in both the harvesting and crafting phases, but I'm not sure how it actually pans out.

Anyway, does that spark any ideas?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Nintendo's history and current strategy

Today, Raph provided a link to an interview in which Nintendo's CEO, Iwata Satoru, pointed out that each generation of Nintendo consoles has sold less copies (http://www.raphkoster.com/2006/10/03/how-the-wii-was-born/#comments). Satoru also references Nintendo's current strategy of skipping the high-definition bandwagon to build games more cheaply and perhaps encourage focus on gameplay.

I was raised on the Nintendo consoles, starting on the NES when I six or seven years old and playing each new console through Gamecube. I never owned a Sony console and I considered myself a Nintendo faithful all that time. Sure, I spent an entire summer over at a friend's house playing Twisted Metal 2 on his Playstation, but I was never convinced into buying a Sony console, and I had countless discussions defending Nintendo against my Sony rivals. Whether or not this lifetime of experience with the Nintendo consoles and games represents the common journey of Nintendo fans, I don't know. But, entertaining the possibility that it does, I'd like to explain why my interest in their consoles waned alongside their sales, and why their new strategy may or may not attract American gamers like me back into the fold.

With each new console, the number of available games got smaller, and the number of really good games along with it.

Two decades after playing an NES, I can still name 10 great games with hardly a pause for thought in between (Excitebike, Marble Madness, Mario Bros/Duck Hunt, Castlevania, Master Blaster, Paperboy, Ghosts 'n' Goblins, Contra, Final Fight, Double Dragon), and that's by no means the extent of that console's impressive games. With the SNES, I owned half as many games, though there were still plenty of great titles (Street Fighter, ActRaiser, Super Mario, Donkey Kong Kountry, Mario Kart, etc). With the N64, again, I owned half as many games as the console before it, with just a few stellar games (Goldeneye, Super Smash Bros, DK 64, Star Wars Pod Racing, etc). Finally, with the Gamecube, I played just four games (Luigi's Mansion, Resident Evil, Eternal Darkness, and Super Smash Bros Melee) and kept only one (SSBM) before trading it in for an Xbox and Halo. I had never traded in a console before.

During this time, as fewer and fewer Nintendo games attracted me, it became harder to justify my preference for Nintendo to my Sony fan friends. Sony had what seemed a monstrous collection of games...but I told my friends "yeah, but few of them are any good" (I didn't know, I hadn't played them).

That said, Xbox didn't seem much more attractive. I played the hell out of Halo, bought Halo 2 and returned it after a few days, but never bought another game (I rented many and didn't care for any enough to buy).

Another factor, though I'm honestly not sure how effective it was in my loss of interest, was redundant IPs. Mario's a cool enough guy, but I didn't think I was buying the Mario Game Console. I don't care how popular the original Mario Bros game was, most of the games on the NES that I played religiously were not Mario games. I wouldn't even call most of them cartoony. Yet, by the time the N64 had been out a year, the famous Italian plumber was in desperate need of a strong smack with his own wrench.

But, like I said, maybe that's a mistaken impression and it wasn't really much of a factor.

So now they're avoiding the high-definition war. Great. Hey, I love high-definition gaming. But if skipping that innovation allows Nintendo to get back to the old model of pumping out game after game after game, then I'll take it.

I bought an Xbox 360 last year. I enjoyed the hell out of Need For Speed: Most Wanted, Call of Duty 2, Oblivion and even Dead Rising for a while, but right now I don't own a single 360 game. Sometimes, I think of trading it in, but I keep it in hopes that next year will be different and offer a steady stream of great games (though Hellgate: London and Spore will have me ignoring consoles completely for a while, once they're out).

The point is that a steady stream of quality game releases is important to retaining customer interest and loyalty.

...but wait!
Of course, simply skipping over high-definition might not reduce the production cost of Nintendo titles enough to realize that revolution (as in the old definition of "returning to the good path"...you see, that name was better). For one, they've created a very new system with a significant learning curve for developers. And second, people tend to dislike saving money in practice, if not in theory. Is Nintendo demanding small budgets, rather than allowing everyone to spend the same high budgets in a different way? High-def graphics aren't the only drain money can go down, you know.

Even assuming Nintendo has the right business model this time around, they lost Rareware to Microsoft. That's huge. Rareware was behind some of the best titles ever released on Nintendo consoles (Donkey Kong Kountry and Goldeneye, among others). It was the first developer I ever really cared enough to research, long before I had any interest in a game design career.

More than just designing great games, Rareware understood how to design games for an American audience. I'll be the first to admit I simply don't understand a lot of Japanese games. I've taken college courses in Asian Philosophy, Asian Literature (modern) and have sprinkled knowledge of Chinese and Japanese histories, ancient and modern...but I just don't get their games sometimes. Looking at the games I've seen advertised for the Wii so far, I get the impression these games just aren't my style. If they go back to a model of extensive game libraries, maybe there'll be enough my style to suck me back in.

Anyway, long story short, I have a lot of respect for Nintendo still, but they'll need more than a fancy new controller to bring me back.

Monday, October 02, 2006


Some thoughts in reaction to the discussion of balance on Green's site this past week:

It's acceptable for one character template (class, skillset, etc) to be much more popular than another, provided the gameplay does not demand all templates to be present to conquer most encounters. Each template only has to be popular enough to justify its design cost. So half as many players might play necromancers as play knights, but that's alright if enough players enjoy necromancers to offset their design cost. It also must be acknowledged that templates can improve a player's gameplay without that player ever choosing to play that template himself. Just because one loves playing as a barbarian doesn't mean one doesn't appreciate the presence of clerics in the game.

Players can vary more like colors than hues. Templates do not have to be equally complex or equally difficult/easy, if the game is designed so. That's a restriction when every template is expected to engage in PvP, but the mere presence of trade professions in MMOs demonstrates this is not a universal expectation. The main factor that limits dissimilarity is player expectations, including in regards to fairness. Even though my fellow player is contributing as much to our group as me, should he receive an equal reward if his gameplay his simpler and easier? On the one hand, it's possible to train players to think "yes".

But it's also possible to reward more complicated gameplay with a more complicated reward system. Should all characters be bound to the same system of punishments and rewards? Perhaps not. Thinking laterally, we should consider the possibility of separate and incongruent avenues of gameplay contributing to a great whole.

In the real world, countless systems which are seamingly separate combine to form larger systems and, ultimately, a unified whole. Gravity, the shifting of Earth's mantle and crust, and the sun's blasting rays are separate systems of very different designs that combine to create the weather system of Earth. Movements in the arts and philosophy combine with movements in scientific research to create culture systems. The same principle may be applied to MMO gameplay. They can have vastly different goals and process, even largely ignore each other, while still combining into a unified world.

Of course, that begs the question: Can players disagree about the ultimate nature and purpose of that world, like people do about the real world?

It's acceptable for one template to be less popular among groups than others if the game is intentionally designed so. Grouping doesn't have to be a core, universal element of gameplay in an MMO. As I've pointed out before, there are a number of reasons solo players are often attracted to this genre, including the expansive worlds (which allow months-worth of exploration) and greater illusions of a living world (other players needn't interact directly with the solo player to improve his or her gameplay). Furthermore, the presence of solo players can improve the gameplay of group-oriented players. How many popular fantasies present one or more "lone wolf" characters as pivotal story figures? Games can be designed so that both types of players benefit more obviously from the presence of the other.

Look at it this way, an MMO is a virtual society. In real-world societies, loners benefit the masses without much social interaction, such as a web programmer or architect, on one extreme, and geniuses like Beethoven and Da Vinci, on the other. You don't have to interact with people directly to be a vital member of their society. As players are increasingly able to impact their gameworlds, the importance of soloers in virtual societies will become more obvious.

All of this is meant less as a critique of current MMOs than as recognition of some viable alternative methods.