Monday, February 19, 2007

replayability = cost efficiency

The other day, I reviewed a video of Will Wright's presentation at the GDC last year. I've watched his walkthrough of the Spore demo many times, but I'm glad I went back and reviewed the version of the video that includes Wright's comments before the demonstration.

He pointed out, as many have, that the ratio of assets-to-gameplay leaned sharply toward assets when new technology allowed the storage of much more data. The storage capacity of floppy disks paled in comparison to that of CD-ROM, and game developers assumed that they should find a way to use all available space. The same situation has recurred with each advancement in information and computer technology.

Many game developers simply don't get the same amount of bang for their buck as in the good ol' days. Costs rise every year, but are the games becoming more engrossing?

Note I didn't say "fun". Like with films, different types of games can have different goals of appeal. Some types of game experiences have certainly achieved stronger effects over the years, but many productions are simply wasteful. I acknowledge the significance of each particular games circumstances, so this is just generally aimed.

Two games on the horizon are attempting to remedy modern problems of resource management, and in two different ways.

On the one hand, there's Spore. Spore uses limited assets, "procedural" (algorithmic) graphics and procedural physics to empower players to create their own worlds and creatures (which are shared asynchronously), and ultimately their own gameplay experiences. Aside from the media success this concept has already received, I think it's safe to say the game will sell like hotcakes and be enjoyed by millions for many years, much like The Sims.

On the other hand, there's Hellgate: London. Hellgate builds assets the old-fashioned way, but heavily employs randomization (with areas, gear-loot, enemy type and placement, etc.) to ensure player experiences are unique, unexpected, and replayable. This game has also received great media attention already. Like Spore, it has a fanbase established by previous titles of the same development team. In combination with widespread interest in the game itself, this makes great financial success and good longevity extremely likely.

So here we have (1) algorithmic modeling and creation-tools for players, and (2) the randomization of crafted assets. Is there another road?

One consideration is a mixture of both methods.

Unguided Character Creation, Guided Adventure
Could it be viable to combine a Spore-like procedural-tool system, which allows huge variety in character customization, with variants of traditional character-advancement methods and story-infused adventure?

In other words, imagine characters creating creatures (both humanoid and non-humanoid) of variety similar to that in Spore, but placed in a world with history, lore, and established conflicts. The main challenges here seem to be enabling players to interact with that lore, despite their characters' inhumanity, and offering avenues of character advancement that are plastic enough to accommodate non-traditional character models. Because of the vast differences between player-characters, traditional foci of balance would be moot (and replaced by others, I'm sure).

If the upcoming MMOG Trials of Ascension makes it out the door, then it might answer some of the questions raised concerning this idea's viability. That game is promising non-humanoid player-characters with a unique mix of PvP and PvE gameplay.

Ultimately, I feel pretty certain this could work. The skills available to each character would be largely determined by the unique character form, rather than any cumulative classification. Enabling non-humanoid characters to interact with lore can be accomplished by focusing on non-verbal lore presentation; characters see it and interact with it, rather than read about it.

Guided Character Creation, Unguided World
On the other hand, might it be viable to set an open-ended adventure game (like Oblivion) in a world with landscapes, creatures, and events that are procedurally generated?

This model presents two possibilities for application of the gameworld's procedural generation. (1) The world is generated only at the game's onset. (2) The world is generated at the game's onset, many world elements will remain present and/or constant (for virtual stability), but the game will continue to procedurally create new content during gameplay.

The main challenge for this model would also concern the lore. But, rather than difficulties in enabling players to interact with the lore, the challenge would be to ensure a fulfilling lore in a world not directly invented by the developer. This raises the fascinating idea of an emergent lore system...similar to emergent AI, but applied on a macro level and attempting deeper consequences. Such a system, if sufficiently broad and complex, would likely lead to one gameplay adventure being infinitely more dangerous and unpredictable than another, but that sort of variance would be found attractive by many (including me).

In what other ways might one combine few assets with great variability, character growth, and avoid an arcade impression which makes the game seem more like whack-a-mole than an RP adventure?

I originally intended to present a few examples here myself, but I've already delayed posting this several times. I'll try to come back to it.

Friday, February 16, 2007

LOTR Online: initial impressions

I got an invitation to the preview period yesterday, downloaded the game this morning, and have played on and off since. The NDA was apparently lifted last week, so I'll go ahead and express my disappointment here.

I have created two characters, a human minstrel and a dwarf champion, both level 4. Many would say that this is far too soon for any sort of review, but I disagree. If a game doesn't grab me in the first hour or two, it's unreasonable to expect me to submit myself to further boredom or frustration to reach the good stuff (and the fun at the high levels doesn't matter). With how many products other than MMOGs does the developer say, "Sure, it sucks at first, but it'll grow on you"?

I enjoy the moments when my character is frozen for half-a-minute as scripted events unfold before me. I was excited when my NPC companion shouted encouragement to Gimli as the hero faced a giant cave troll. I was excited when Gandalf turned the troll to stone later on. These events felt like genuine drama.

I like the various cultural backgrounds and settings offered for each race. My character isn't just a dwarf, but a dwarf of the Grey opposed to a dwarf of Lonely Mountain or three other options. Any extra depth the developer can offer to player characters is great.

The artistic design is plain, but impressive. There's a nice sense of scale, with a good range of elevation in the terrain. The visual customization for characters is limited, but better than WoW's.

The minstrels can apparently compose their own music (to a very limited extent). I'm not sure how legality plays into that, but it's great to see players being given a means to be so creative and productive.

The graphics setting automatically chosen for my computer was High. That lasted about 5-10 minutes before the first wave of horrendous lag. The lag still plagued me at Medium, so I eventually stuck with Low. Because of the graphical style (similar to WoW's), the differences between High and Low were hardly noticed. But the lesson is this: for the many gamers (unlike me) without experience in games and graphics adjustments, automatically selected settings should be more practical. Don't set the graphics based on the character selection screen; test the setting with moving objects and large render distances. The amateur gamer should rarely have to enter the Options menu.

Words can't express my disappointment that MMOGs are changing so little.

Like many veteran MMO gamers, my first taste of an MMOG universe (EQ) was glorious, but MMOGs since have been less and less able to hold my interest. I've played and tested almost a dozen MMOGs (Everquest, Shadowbane, Asheron's Call 2, Star Wars: Galaxies, Wish, Horizons, Everquest 2, City of Heroes/City of Villains, World of Warcraft, Vanguard, and LOTR Online). It's come to the point that I'm no longer interested in MMOGs; at least, not until there's a revolution (not just an evolution) in core gameplay design.

The "quests" are wretched. "Go kill X number of Y to change nothing and get the same reward I gave the last guy!".

The NPCs stand like PEZ-dispensers, waiting to honor every unique savior with the same trite story and promise of grey glory. I'm reminded of The Incredibles: "when everybody's special, no one is".

The combat is boring. "Auto-attack" may not exactly be jargon for "instant win", but it's still captures the essence of the experience. So many hotbutton-skill choices! yet all just waiting for players to find the perfect sequence and apply that to every fight. The really clever games include a "match this character action to this NPC action" whack-a-mole system. Yippee.

Creature locations are neatly divided into level categories and utterly predictable. Since when is predictability attractive in adventure entertainment? Perhaps that's my believe that true adventure was ever a goal.

Notice what I'm not saying. I'm not saying that LOTR is bad as MMOGs go. I'm saying that it's MMOGs in general that are the problem.

And, of course, the problem only exists if one is concerned with game quality and not just profit from the novelty of a virtual world. It's my long experience with MMOGs that has led me to this point of disinterest. I'm sure the basic idea of a virtual world can still suck in plenty of newcomers.

Eventually, I'll probably return to the genre. In the meantime, I'm going back to single-player adventure games. I hate to speak so pessimistically about anything, but I'm not seeing many reasons to hope here.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

subsurface education ... and stuff

I'm working on a project, for my Technical and Professional Writing class, in which I've been asked to brainstorm questions that would be relevant to closing a bridge for preservation and diverting a major thoroughfare in the process. It's much more complicated than that, actually.

I was surprised to realize that I'm instinctively using my Sim City experience as a model for the situation. For example, one of my questions is: "Is the thoroughfare/bridge in an industrial, commercial, or residential district?" I only played the original version of the game, so I can't call on the intricacies which are probably present in newer versions. Anyway, I realize now that Sim City did quite a bit to introduce me to the real strife of urban planning.

It makes me wonder how other games have affected my knowledge or perception of the world in small ways like that.

On a mildly related note: I reviewed a couple of old video presentations of Spore today. It's still the upcoming game I'm most anxious to play. In any RPG that offers character customization, I usually spend hours tweaking my characters to be just right. That part's a game in itself. So the prospect of an entire game built around that particular avenue of fun has me drooling to no end.

I also reviewed some Hellgate: London videos. That one's still in my Must-Have category, but I think the shine has worn off a bit. I believe a lot of that has to do with the underwhelming sound effects, as I previously discussed. I also hate seeing missile weapons (bullets, rockets, arrows, etc) that have no visible force of impact. The punch is important.

I noticed on Hellgate's site that there's a rough release date now of "summer 07". As pleased as I am that I don't have to wait until winter to get my hands on it (maybe... we'll see, right?), I'm irritated when any publisher or developer talks of release more than a month in advance. Even rough dates like that are so often false in this industry that early dates always sound disingenuine. Just tell me when it's done and on its way to manufacturing.

Speaking of false release publicity, here we are approaching March and Alan Wake is nowhere to be seen. I can't say I've ever been that excited about this one though. It got a lot of hype for graphics, but there's next to no information concerning gameplay. I'm betting that it will feel something like Condemned; good for a rental, but not worth buying.

On the other hand, Mass Effect has me more excited than I used to be. I guess I have more of an impression of open-ended gameplay now. KotOR, for me, was a rental. It offered some character customization, but the adventure felt linear. It's hard not to expect the same in Bioware's new work. I love depthful storylines and dynamics, but not at the expense of control. Make it fluid. Bioware started campaigning this too early as well. It makes me wonder if that's a tactic to estimate potential interest and attract further investment than is already secured.

And lastly, there's the game that dropped off the face of the Earth: Possession. There were a couple videos about a year ago, but I haven't heard anything about it since. It was a fun idea, playing as a zombie commander in an attempt to convert the whole city.

Anyway, back to my schoolwork. =/

Monday, February 05, 2007

grande finales and FPS wars

My brother and I finished our multiplayer"War of the Ring" campaign in Battle for Middle Earth 2 today. We both much prefer that Risk-like gamemode to isolated skirmishes.

Unfortunately, as usual, the final battle felt somewhat anti-climactic. In fact, we were able to "auto-resolve" the battle...meaning we didn't even play it, really. But even when we do have to actually play the final battle, and even in single-player WotR games, the battle is usually small and never as tough as some of the battles toward the beginning of the war.

In scripted campaigns, including non-RTS campaigns, the finale is typically the climax. It's just more fun that way.

So, it makes sense for a multiplayer RTS game to feature a mechanic that seeks to ensure difficulty in the final battle. It might be a morale boost for the defender(s), buffing stats. It might be a special ability tied into the particular game's lore (like the ability to summon the spirits of the ancestors for aid; or boosts to factory production). Or it might be an environmental effect that confounds everybody (think of the storm in the battle at Helm's Deep in the LOTR film...something that changes the mood or, better, the challenges particular to that battle).

This could also apply to other multiplayer genres, such as FPS.

Maybe it already exists and I haven't seen it yet. Maybe I've even played one but don't remember.

Anyway, it would be great to see a Risk-style mode, similar to "War of the Ring" in BfME:2, for an FPS game. Star Wars: Battlefront had something close (but shy), as I recall, but something more depthful and available in multiplayer would be a blast.

In fact, SW:B could be mixed with BfME:2 in a lot of ways to make a hell of a game. Imagine as many factions as the latter's being available to combine cooperatively with a friend against another alliance of factions. Imagine as wide a variety of unit abilities and bonus abilities (like the Powers of BfME:2) in an FPS as exist in the LOTR game.

I guess that's another concept I'll have to start fleshing out, but I hope someone tries something like that before I do.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

games for the deaf and blind

Thanks to Sara for pointing this out. I already had 1UP bookmarked, but I have too many sites bookmarked to keep up with.

In response to this 1UP article:

Some problems seem like they could be better overcome through hardware.

A mouse with a 4-point vibration system (forward, back, left, right) could indicate to a deaf person the direction of a sound relative to the player's character. Really, there's probably a lot of people with intact hearing as well who could appreciate such a device. A lot of people have poor sound systems. Others play at very low volume in the wee hours of the night, when family is sleeping. And still others have frequency-specific deafness, which can fool a person into believing he or she is hearing everything.

For the blind, a braille image translator (they're probably already available). I don't mean that it would translate absolutely everything in detail while the gamer is playing. One possibility is that it could translate figures' borders from the image during gameplay, so the blind person could feel with one hand while controlling his or her character with the mouse. This would not only give the person a general picture of the scene, but it would also simulate depth perception. Another possibility is for the blind person to access a compilation of detailed figure models, before starting gameplay, to learn at leisure. This system would work better with a braille machine employing multiple degrees of dot elevation.

I think an increasing amount of attention is being paid to game audio these days, which is great. But my impression is that it is still rare for foley designers to be present from the beginning of the concept-implementation phase. This is unfortunate for many reasons (for one, it disallows audio from helping shape video; trust me, it can), but it particularly affects the blind. An increased amount of well-crafted sound effects could go a long way in aiding the blind to imagine the scene and events.

I tend to watch DVDs these days with subtitles (a friend got me hooked). Often, the problem with subtitles is not that they are absent. The problem is that they are imprecise, unclear in meaning, set against a colored backwash which makes the words difficult to read, or (particularly in games) are too small. The last is particularly annoying, since one would think it is so easy to program a game to communicate with its console/PC, determine the resolution, and adjust the text size accordinly; or simply give the player the option of adjusting text size. A lack of semantic clarity and imprecision are likely the result of rushed inclusion of the feature or use of non-writers in translating audio to print. It's terribly unfortunate when important nuances, like voice (dialect), are lost in translation.

The deaf may not be able to appreciate music like people with hearing, but I am certain they can appreciate it in alternate ways. The three core components of music pitch, rhythym, and volume.

Rhythym can easily be communicated through touch. Alone by itself, it can be enough to give one a thrill. Preferrably, whatever hardware communicated rhythym would be apart from the keyboard, mouse, or joystick; but it may have to be located on relatively sensitive skin in order to express rhythyms of fast tempos and staccato. A pair of such objects might even be used overlapping rhythymic parts (melody and accompaniement).

Pitch can be communicated visually. I've been a musician all of my life, and a songwriter/composer for most of it. Music has a visual element for me. If I'm listening to music, I'll often "conduct" with my hand using visual representations of melody. That is... my hand rises with ascending notes and falls with descending notes, by degree. Smooth hand motions represent audial slurs. Jabs/punches represent accented notes. A graphic representation could be produced that follows the same logic, and perhaps even uses separate bars (or whatever) of different colors to represent overlapping notes or instruments. This representation could easily be designed to be noticeable but unobtrusive, such as on a framed border of the screen.

I am not positive that deaf people have a sense of pitch, but they might. They do feel vibrations, and perhaps the deaf are able to notice a "tonal" difference between vibrations of equal strength, depending on what object causes it. But, if the deaf don't have a sense of pitch, a visual representation would, I'm certain, still be appealing to them.

And, of course, volume can be communicated both tactilely and visually. Disney's Fantasia does a wonderful job of visually expressing volume. The brightening and bleeding of colors beyond their frame is one method.

I have a blind friend at my university. I'll try to remember to ask him sometime what his thoughts on this subject are.

I would certainly like to see games made more accessible to other disabilities. I had a relative with MS who was extremely limited in mobility during his last several years. I think he would have loved video games, had they been around.

Addendum 2/20
I spoke at length with my blind friend this morning, who has heard of video games for the blind and is interested in trying them. He has only been blind for about five years, so he could not speak for those who were born blind. However, he did graciously offer to speak with a local community of the blind about the subject of video game accessibility, so I might have more input in the coming weeks.

I asked my friend if he could recall any special difficulties with audio, but he couldn't think of any that don't bother sighted people as well.

He did like the hardware suggestions listed above, but there is one issue that would need to be resolved. In regard to text, he much prefers communication by braille text over computer vocalizations; for clarity, precision, and other reasons. That raises the question of how best to enable him to read chat dialogue, view the screen image (through the braille image translator), and control his character all at the same time.

unequal opportunities: a good thing

Just a brief reprint of a comment I made over at Sara's:

It is not necessary to offer every player the same range of available gameplay experiences. Look at the roles of individuals in real life and society. The trick for developers is to create and arrange possible player roles so that they interconnect and augment one another in compliment. One player’s experiences do not have to be as complex as another’s.

Among other things, this means that it is not necessary to force the amateur gamer to accept a pro’s control scheme.

Certainly per situation, if not on the macro level, it is alright for two players in an adventure party to have vastly differently levels of demand placed upon them.

For example: In reality, it's generally just fine with me that I'm driving and having to actively engage traffic while a friend is merely being an idle passenger or navigating. I still appreciate his or her company, despite that pressures upon me are greater than those upon my friend. And, of course, if I get into a wreck, my friend will get to share that, too. ;)
From the passenger's perspective, it can be perfectly entertaining to simply observe, converse, and be of only mild help to the driver.

I believe this works on the scale of extended gameplay as well, with one player's character being essentially different in range of expectations and capabilities throughout that player's entire gameplay experience than another player's.

In fact, one might even apply it to visual presentation. There is already tremendous difference in presentation between the gameplay experience of a player using a "High" graphics setting and a player using a "Low" graphics setting. In EQ2, alternate vision types were made toggleable for particular races; vision types like ultravision, nightvision, and infrared. If a game were designed so that alternate characters were encouraged, then it might be viable for a character to have such a vision-type permanently. In Oblivion, some races see better in the dark than others. Things like this that affect the very essence of individual experiences are a welcome addition for exploration-oriented gamers, like myself, if not most gamers.