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.