Saturday, September 29, 2007

Halo 3 single-player campaign

I've had Halo 3 a short while now. Overall, it's a good game, though it certainly has its flaws. In fact, part of the reason I decided to write this review is because of how much the hype has slanted other reviews. I'm not going to bash it. I just want to balance the good with the bad. In fact, this isn't meant to be a full review so much as a taste of both the game's successes and its failures.

I'm just going to cover the single-player experience, because I haven't had a chance to play co-op with anyone and I only enjoy fragfests when my fellow players are in the same room and are good friends.


GOOD TIMES
The variety is incredible. I'm always pounding the table about dynamics, and Halo 3 delivers. There are so many weapons, weapon combos, grenade types, new types of equipment, vehicles, and so forth that there's a lot of combat replay value. There's a lot to experiment with, though I've found that my favorite tactic is one that I carried over from Halo 2: bashing people in the face with the bladed end of my Brute Shot. Of course, the good AI is much of what makes any Halo game fun.

Being able to break most turrets off their mounts and walk with them... priceless!

In one level, I'm in a Brute Chopper. I'm using its guns to shoot enemies out of their own Choppers, or using the speed boost to ram them and watch their Choppers explode. Occasionally, a Wraith starts lobbing mortars at me, so I drive straight up to it, exit the Chopper, leap onto the Wraith's front, toss a grenade down the hatch, then leap off and watch the fireworks. But the best part comes when all the enemy vehicles are down, I'm back in the Chopper, and some little runt starts firing at me from a turret on top of a large boulder. I ease up to the sloped side of the boulder, hit the speed boost... rocketing me up to the top of the boulder where I ram the turret, taking it out.

The dialogue, as usual, is excellent. Character personalities are interesting and well-delivered. More importantly, there are many more things characters (both fellow soldiers and enemies) can say on-the-fly. Many of the NPC remarks can really get you laughing and keep the gameplay fresh.

Before the game's release, I didn't think the graphics were different enough from Halo 2's to really matter. But there were some moments when I felt the need to stop running and take in the scenery. For graphical elements like enemy models, I really think the AI and animations have a much greater effect, but there's some great work all around. I noticed that as I am from right to left with a rifle, I can see the Master Chief's arms and shoulders bending and twisting realistically. I bet that a number of graphical upgrades like that improve players' immersion without us even noticing it.


BAD TIMES
The variety is great, but it's a little daunting to players who haven't touched a Halo game in months. I suppose this isn't such a big deal though, considering that you get to immediately retry from a recent save-point any time you die.

I can't count on one hand the number of times I went the wrong direction during my first time or two through the campaign. The levels are big, and there's often a number of areas that the player can go down but lead nowhere. It's easy to pass up a door, take the wrong corridor, or drive down the wrong path. The level design is great in some areas, and leaves much to be desired in other areas.

On a couple occasions, the game saved my progress at a ridiculous moment in the game. The first time this happen, I drove off a cliff (thinking that I was just jumping over a hill, which is half the fun of driving a Warthog). The game saved a checkpoint as I was going over the edge. Over and over, the game would start me off in the vehicle already rushing over the edge, where I would die again and the situation repeated. I had to start the mission over to get out of the loop. The second time I experienced this problem, the game saved me at half-health just a moment before a Wraith ran over me and killed me. This time, it only repeated the experience 4 or 5 times before starting me at an earlier position. I have a feeling I can expect this sort of thing to happen from time to time.

I see a gun I like, so I pick it up or trade my fellow soldier for it. Then I reach a checkpoint, and the game automatically gets rid of the weapon I just had and replaces it with the standard assault rifle. I don't want the damn rifle... that's why I traded it! A minor annoyance, for sure, but one I can count on happening every time.

The final level is ridiculous. I won't spoil it, though I will say it's very similar to another Halo ending. The past experience that it expands on was a lot of fun. This level, on the other hand, is more annoying than anything else.

The Halo theme-song is legendary, but there was a time or two in Halo 3 when the music caught my attention and I thought "what was he thinking?". In particular, there's a song that starts to a rock drumbeat that feels completely out-of-place.

The story is delivered fairly well, with much of it occurring in gameplay rather than during the cutscenes (which there are a lot of). But the story itself doesn't impress me. Each scene is well-written... it's the big picture, the main story arch, that seems pretty lackluster to me. Some of it, like the Master Chief - Cortana relationship, is interesting, but a lot of it's pretty standard fare or begging for backstory which isn't there.


Overall, I'm glad I bought it. I'm really looking forward to trying out the co-op gameplay sometime, but the single-player experience has a lot of replayability (though I wish more of the story could be skipped the Nth time through). It's a great game... worthy of most of the hype, though not all.

Any and all worlds

Over the past week, I've been wondering what type of setting I would choose for an MMO. fantasy? sci-Fi? real? gothic?

I asked myself... Should the world be designed around the gameplay? Or the other way around? Some of both must happen in any game, but which should take precedence?

More than a few times, I came up with something that initially sounded pretty good but ultimately either would cause problems or prevent me from including some of the features I'd hoped for.

Well, I finally found a setting that feels damn near perfection for what I want to do. I don't want to give the specifics just yet, but the general idea can be summed up by its two basic elements:
  • It's all genres/settings mixed into one.
  • It's not the real world, but it will include a great deal from the real world and is meant to illuminate reality.
Ok, a little confusing perhaps, so here are some examples to get the basic idea across.


All settings
  • Imagine something like a warg chasing after your '69 Chevelle.
  • Imagine your spaceship needing a little maintenance because some mischievous gremlins/goblins sneaked on board and played with the wiring.
  • Imagine casting an illusion spell on a dinosaur.
  • Imagine your group fending off a local vampire with a shotgun, a runed battleaxe, and a robotic companion.
  • Imagine walking from a medieval tavern to techno-pulsed nightclub, because they're on the same street of the same town.
I'm not sure how far I can push this, but I honestly think I've found a way to integrate all sorts of wildly different stuff into one world and make it believeable.


Illumination
  • See the ruins of a familiar real-world city and hear what the NPCs were able to discern about our society from archeology alone.
  • Make an impact in allegorical representations of real issues... real enough to feel important, but whimsical and imaginative enough to be fun (first and foremost).
  • Deep philosophical, psychological, and scientific questions posed in a casual, simple, and seemless manner.
The point of this (besides adding depth to the world) is less about teaching heavy-handed lessons than about encouraging players to regain a child-like sense of wonder and awe; to remind them of the beauty in simple, everyday things; and to get them musing on questions and considerations that don't come up in many people's lives. A psych test I once took identified "Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence" as my strongest "signature strength". This is about trying to share some of that.

Think of it as being like a well-made film, like The Matrix, which you enjoy mainly as fun but find yourself discussing at length with friends afterward, because it's both fun and meaningful. Games, also, can be both fun and meaningful. Developers interested in meaning usually fail by getting their ideas across by blunt force. I can do it more subtlely and seemlessly.


Anyway, here's hoping Metaplace will let me tackle something so ambitious one day (after a lot of practice on smaller games, of course).

Thursday, September 27, 2007

More than numbers

I've mentioned before how the whole "Shortword +1, Shortsword +2" design leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Oh sure, we're way beyond that now. Now it's "Shortsword: 1-11 damage, Shortsword: 5-16 damage" and such.

The problem with this kind of design is that the difference between the two shortswords isn't felt or experienced as much as it's known. One shortsword plays just like the other. The upgrade in damage-dealing probably doesn't even mean that your foes are going down faster, but instead works as an access key to stronger foes (the same odds against tougher enemies, but the fights feel the same).

It's not enough for gear or skills to be diffferent; they must feel different to have a significant impact on gameplay.

The step after that one was to invent different types of damage. This sword and that sword do comparable damage, but this one adds fire damage while that one adds frost damage. If your lucky, that means the game creates a red or blue flash upon the weapon's impact, and maybe a sound effect to boot.

Diablo 2 took it a couple steps further.

First, the different elements actually equated different playstyles. If you prefer reliability, then you might choose weapons with fire damage for fire's predictable damage range (3-4 damage on a level 1 weapon). If you're a gambler or don't mind minimal damage sometimes if it means you can strike truly devastating blows at other times, then you might choose weapons with shock damage for it's wide range (1-8 damage on a level 1 weapon). Poison damage could be regularly devastating, but it takes time to work (say, 12 damage over 3 seconds). I admire this about the game, though I still don't like the number-crunching it promotes.

Second, Diablo 2 gave frost damage (and, oddly, only frost damage) both a significant visual bonus and a non-damage tactical advantage. If you kill an enemy with your frost coated-weapon, then there's a chance the enemy will turn to ice and shatter upon the final blow. That's a visual effect that is really noticed and actively enjoyed by the player. The tactical advantage is that an enemy chilled by your frozen weapon moves slower for a second or two. Again, this is something the player really noticed and actively enjoyed.

In most games, skills progress numerically in the same way as weapons and armor, but they tend to have more interesting visuals and tactical influence. M&M: Dark Messiah added interesting physical consequences to some skills, like letting enemies slip on the ice you just cast onto the floor. There are plenty of skills in various games that do things like trip up the enemy, but the interesting thing about the Dark Messiah example is that the skill could be used in multiple ways.

Could weapons and armor also be used in multiple ways?

Anyway, Craig's got an interesting discussion going on his site about equipment in RPGs. Honestly, I'm not sure yet how I would design my equipment system. But I can say that these are some of my goals:
  • Each effect feels significantly different from others. If "Fireball" gets an upgrade, then the upgraded version will look different and do different things.
  • Old gear will exhibit new qualities when in contact with certain dynamics. Your "Bow of Lycan Hate" might act as a normal bow against most enemies, but it lights up and deals extra damage against werewolves... and when you run into a "named" werewolf/lycanthrope, it unleashes a devastating power you never dreamed it might have.
  • The number-crunching is entirely hidden from the player. The strength of gear is revealed in more general terms in the item description, and many items will have depth which can only be revealed through use. Combine that with the dynamics system mentioned above, and this means that one player might have a very different impression of an item than another player... before hearing stories about the item's capabilities. Like with other aspects of the game, a player's experiences with items will be somewhat unique and his or her stories will excite other players with hints at potential future experiences (similar to what Darren called the horizon).
  • Some skills/abilities will be awarded only through particular items. Find abilities which few, if any, other players have. I might even tie items and skills together in a way similar to Craig's idea in his comment on that article of his. Perhaps players will be able to invest in skills which increase the efficiency or otherwise alter a particular group of item effects. So if you acquire an item that offers shielding against fire damage, your skill might improve the shielding and even eventually reflect some of that fire damage back at the assailant... or transmute the fire into something else (like health).
  • Players may know where a particular item might be found, but loot will typically be a surprise. Generally, items cannot be sought out by players. As said before, my ideal game is one more about discovery than effort. Past MMO experience do not apply... this is a very different kind of game.

There's probably something I'm forgetting, but how's that sound?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

4-point meme

I've been avoiding this for some time, but now I can use it to delay the real article until tomorrow. =)


Four jobs I have had in my life:
-- grunt-work do-anything slave at a small oil company (relaxed job, cool and intelligent people)
-- Home Depot lumber associate ("lumber" officially, but sometimes I ran 3 departments, two of which I knew nothing about)
-- Hollywood Video manager (if any job will make you hate people in general, this is it)
-- builder of patios, decks, pergolas, etc (working out in the sun's great if you can do it at your own pace)

Four Movies I have watched over and over:
Patton
Fierce Creatures
The Hunt for Red October
The Ghost and the Darkness

Four places I have lived:
Spring, Texas (nearly all my life)
San Antonio, Texas
Slidell, Louisiana (I was born in New Orleans)
Mobile, Alabama (some summers)

Four Places I have been on vacation:
London (cool town)
Rome (not so cool)
Ireland (my favorite)
Perdido Key, Florida (formerly home to my grandparents' beachhouse)

Four of my favorite foods:
fried alligator
a juicy T-bone steak
beef fajitas
mint chocolate-chip ice cream

Four favorite drinks:
Barq's root beer
sweet tea
coffee
the leftover milk after a bowl of cereal

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Give up the reins

Sorry for the late blog today. I'm still getting situated after moving out of my apartment.

Today, I just want to expand on something I said over at Cuppy's. It basically goes back to the design element I always talk about: dynamics.


DYNAMICS AND SURPRISE
The point of including dynamics is often to provide surprises and a sense of discovery to the gameplay.

That's not always the case. Some dynamics aren't about surprise. The field choice in a football or soccer game (home field or the opponent's field) affects the gameplay, but nobody arrives at the field shocked at what they're walking into. In this case, the setting dynamic is mainly intended to alternate certain advantages between teams.

But dynamics are often included to deter predictability and enable discovery. In old boardgames like Monopoly and Sorry, even in PnP games like Dungeons & Dragons, the primary factor in success or failure was the roll of the dice. The player has at least a vague sense of the odds and exercises some control of his or her experience through other actions, but chance/luck is pivotal to gameplay -- and that's at the very heart of what makes such games appealing.

In Mario Kart, much of the fun was in not knowing what weapon would be awarded for crossing a weapon tile (meaningfully designated by a big question-mark). Where a player could find a weapon tile that hadn't yet been used was also generally luck. In Diablo 2, another title with blockbuster sales, loot was acquired from heavily-randomized loot tables, special "named" or "hero" enemies spawned randomly, and levels were rearranged for each replay to encourage some wandering.

Dynamics for discovery/surprise don't have to be so random as that game's, but a larger pool of potentials generally equals a stronger sense of surprise.


IN MMOs
I've always known that any MMO design of mine would generally take a radical step away from the predictability of current MMOs.

Rewarding effort
Current MMOs are primarily concerned with rewarding effort: "Here's the goal. Here's the path. Here's your playbook. Now, go do it!"

This model is essentially linear. It generally promotes active performance but passive imagination and limited character involvement. Non-character skills, like coordination and strategic planning, are rewarded. Character personalization and empathy are deterred by ideal skillsets, ideal gearsets, ideal group configurations, and such.

Discovery is subjugated to efficiency. Most players of these MMOs appreciate explorative gameplay, but the implicit direction of the games is funneled achievement; and players usually go where the game directs them.

Rewarding discovery
My MMO would be primarily concerned with rewarding discovery: "It's a dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road... and there's no telling where you might be swept off to." -- Bilbo Baggins.

This model is essentially open. Performance takes a backseat to reception; to absorbing, experimenting with and playing with (rather than merely employing/expending) the wonders of the world. It rewards tactics (reactionary planning) over strategy (planning before the experience begins). Characters are unique and personal because the majority of their gear, skills, and so forth were acquired unexpectedly. Unique characters reflect unique experiences... experiences which were chosen only indirectly (like encountering a grizzly bear because you chose to wander through the woods, though you were just as likely to pass through that forest without even seeing a bear).

In the words of Will Wright (who I respect more than perhaps any other game designer):
"By far, the most interesting stories I've heard from computer gamers are always the stories that they tell me about what they did in the game."
Rewarding both, but favoring discovery
Please note that I have no intention of completely shirking linear and achievement-based experiences in my game design. What I'm saying is that I would place the emphasis on the opposite end.

I believe the most rewarding affection of any game is a child-like sense of wonder and awe.

It happens when a Halo player sees his character go flying through the air as a rocket explodes beneath him. It happens when an Oblivion player climbs over a hill to be presented with an incredible view of distant ruins or a lush field of wildflowers. It happens when a Mario Kart player watches her green turtle-shell bounce off a dozen walls before finally smacking into her own vehicle. It happens when a Battle for Middle Earth 2 player watches the troll he just killed take out a few of his men in its death throes.

That's the sort of gameplay I want to design... the sort that makes your eyes go wide as you breath the words "Oh, cool." =)

Friday, September 21, 2007

The optimizer craze

Oakstout is absolutely right when he says that MMOs, including WoW, aren't easy by nature. In most big-budget MMOs, players can choose their own difficulty through simple and obvious gameplay choices. Even "solo classes", like the warrior, can be made difficult by choosing to fight more powerful NPCs or by choosing gear with more in mind than just number-crunching.


IT'S NOT THE GAMES
It's the player culture that has grown around the games. This culture expects players to optimize, rather than choose whatever class, skillset, or gear that entertains each individual most.

If you don't pick the optimal skills, the optimal gear, and so on, then other players give you hell about it constantly and sometimes even exclude you from their group/raid. If you're not interested in the quests with optimal xp and loot, you're probably going to be soloing... because odds are that nobody will want to come with you.

When I played EQ2, I used to hunt a lot in the Commonlands. I wasn't running back to town every 10 minutes to pick up another quest. I was just hunting; freely, without NPC guidance. Yes, that denied me the great quest xp, but it allowed me to play the game at a quicker pace and pick the NPCs I was personally interested in fighting. While other players were farming one type of enemy over and over and over, I was over in the savannah area... killing whatever came my way and enjoying a more dynamic experience (there was a greater variety of creatures there; and they wandered, rather than sitting around to be farmed -- meaning I actually had to watch my back for a change, which was fun).

I was enjoying the content my own way. Only twice was I able to entice other players into joining me. And they all commented on how refreshing it was to be able to wander and not be worried about the path some developer lined up for them. Of course, they did eventually feel the call of faster levelling awaiting them back with the quest NPCs.


ALRIGHT, SO IT'S PARTIALLY THE GAMES
Developers encourage players to optimize, to number-crunch, and to focus on meta-game information. If levelling wasn't designed to be such a dominant goal... if gear choices weren't designed to be all about upping the numbers... if quests weren't designed as merely xp-and-loot chests in disguise, then perhaps the MMO player culture would have turned out differently.

I'm sure we could all blame it on our D&D roots. There were a lot of things I really loved about that game when I played it over a decade ago, but the whole "Shortsword +1, Shortsword +2" nonsense was not among them even then. I understand why it gets repeated sometimes, but I have trouble believing everyone is still doing that because there's no viable alternative. There are other ways.


YEAH, YEAH... WHINE ON, ARMCHAIR GENERAL
Sometime next week, I'll start looking back over my blogs and notes. I'll briefly outline the many aspects of current MMO models that I want to see buried. No, let me rephrase that: beaten, bloodied, burned, and then buried. After that, I'll start laying out the tweaks and (perhaps more often) the replacement systems I hope to implement as soon as Metaplace comes around.

I'm going to be designing for me. I'm going to try to make the sort of game I want to play; and that's going to mean some radical movements away from past games. If I can get it right, maybe I can prove that player cultures can learn to enjoy MMOs without optimizing and number-crunching.


P.S. I'm moving out of my apartment this weekend, so don't be surprised if I'm a little scarce over the next few days. Though, honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if I put off all the packing I need to do until tomorrow night. =P

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Collective assets

Something else Areae's Metaplace has me wondering about is the possibility of shared assets.


What I mean
Bioware included a design toolset with Neverwinter Nights, but modules were limited to NWN assets and applications. I doubt they would have been very happy to find their proprietary NPC models or sound effects in a non-Neverwinter game, even if no profit was made from the game.

But the sharing of assets without such limitations on their use might be possible with Metaplace. Someone creates a model of a horse, and a dozen other users use that model in their own games. The horse might have been created for an RPG, but another user might make the model the basis of a horse-racing game. Someone records the sound of an evil cackle, and the audio asset spreads like wildfire.

Certainly, many users will only license out assets for money, but some (how many, I don't pretend to know) would certainly be willing to give theirs away. Perhaps, most of those would ask to be credited for the asset by name, but the use is essentially free.


What Areae must do
Or, rather, what it seems they must do. I'm not a legal expert.

If they want to this happen, Areae should facilitate the transfer of assets from one user to another through a simple and painless, but permanently recorded and easily accessed, legal agreement. Basically, it would be like clicking on a EULA before you start playing an MMO. After the two users have agreed to a moneyless transaction, they use the Areae tool to formalize the contract by both clicking on this agreement; thereby keeping the free nature of the transfer on record in case one party changes his or her mind. (Please note that this is just theoretical. Areae has suggested no such feature.)


The result
If users can comfortably use the assets other Metaplace users have created, then it opens up many possibilities. Areae's design tool will help amateur designers cut a lot of corners by not having to build the games' programming foundations, but shared assets could result in even more saved time and work.

For one thing, it would expand the Metaplace toolset's accessibility to would-be designers who are short on available time. More people would be willing to try their hand at implementing a Metaplace game.

It would also inspire some designers to tackle larger projects; to be more ambitious.

For example, I've always wanted to design a multiplayer RPG in which there are so many different weapon and armor effects that no one player will ever see them all; a game in which the item you loot from the monster is the only weapon in the game with that particular effect (such as a sword which gives you a ghostly companion or a frightening helmet that reduces the morale / combat effectiveness of most enemies). You might have read an old post of mine on how content doesn't always need to be experienced directly by a player to improve his or her game experience.

That sort of feature would never get into a professional game, because it requires the creation of too many assets. But if many different Metaplace users permitted me to incorporate some of their assets into my game, then a little creativity would enable me to build that game at a reasonable pace. I wouldn't be making the models; I'd just be looking at what other people have created and asking myself what sort of cool effect I could use it for.

Someone models a fire for their log cabin's fireplace... I make the fire appear in front of enemies when my players cast a Fire Wall spell. Someone models a candle... I enlarge it, change the hue, draw runes on it, and turn it into a pillar of an old ruin lost in the forest.

Collective assets would enable us to design as we designed when we were little kids. We can use our imaginations to rearrange the familiar into something new and wonderful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Teaching with Metaplace

If Metaplace is what I think it is and it turns out well, then I really want to help Areae advertise this one. It's the sort of thing that could help legitimize the game industry and accomplish a lot of good.

One way to help is to demonstrate the tool's diversity of possible applications. Educational games are a fine example. I can see a lot of potential in the general concept for designing games that are as educational and enlightening as they are fun.

So here I'm going to come up with an example. I'd really love to hear other persons' ideas for games which could educate kids; kids mainly, though educating adults is just as important (but harder). I might follow up with more educational game concepts later.

I went back after I'd described the game and added some section titles to make for an easier read, but I'm not going to reorganize and divide the sections properly.


MR. BONES
The first thing that pops to mind is an anatomy game. The game's purpose is to teach people about skeletal structures.

Goal and rewards
The player's goal is to look at a 3-D model of an animal from all sides (by moving the camera) and point to (or trace, though I think pointing would be easier, both to implement and to play) where each individual bone lies under the animal's skin. Correct identifications are rewarded with points, while errors cost points.

The player can try the same level again for a better score or move on (if they achieve a minimal accuracy requirement). The player's points from various levels accumulate to acquire badges, which can then be shown off on the his or her homepage (Myspace, Facebook, whatever) or included in group leaderboards (the group might be a group of friends or it might be a class competition which a teacher sets up for the students).

For all ages and types
The intended audience ranges across all age groups, kindergarten to senior citizens. Consequently, the game should begin simply, becoming more difficult and dynamic as the player progresses.

Choose the levels and options you prefer
It might make sense to begin with human animals. So the first level might be identifying bone regions (torso, head, leg, arm, etc) or identifying the bones of specific areas (the hand bones, for example). Regardless, players would have the option of playing the full game or just the human levels.

Teachers could toggle an option which provides bone labels at the end of each level (tibia, fibia, etc). There might also be more depthful information, such as an explanation of the human skull's crenulations (the skull is actually many bones fused together).

Escalating and dynamic challenges
In the complete version of the game, each new level is a different animal. This is where parents and teachers can really have fun with their kids (or by themselves), since most people don't have much knowledge of zoology.

Can you identify all the bones of a red-tailed hawk? How about a squirrel? or a raccoon? All of those are North American animals. Players might have the option to sort animal-identification levels by region. Try Amazon animals one day and North African animals the next.

There would also be "trick" levels. Can you identify the bones of a sea sponge? Yes and no. Sponges don't have skeletons like ours, but they do have thousands of triangular bones called spicules. Those spicules actually have to be hammered out before the rock-hard sea sponge can be made into the sponge you use to clean in your kitchen or bathroom. Another trick animal might be the nautilus, which has only one shell but adds new layers to the shell as it grows. Another example is sharks; they have only cartilage, not bones.

Animated rewards
Unless Metaplace makes animation easy, I probably wouldn't be able to reward players with animal animations, like I'd want to. But as a substitute (one which can be toggled on/off), perhaps I can use a link to videos (like YouTube videos) of real animals in action. Identify all of the lion's bones correctly and you get to see a short video of a lion. Get the lemur completely right and you can watch a real lemur.

This sort of thing would encourage players to retry levels so they can correctly identify all bones, rather than settling for "close". A possible alternative to an animation or video would be sound clips, like hearing the lion roar or the lemur chatter.

Fun facts
I might even include non-skeletal facts about each animal in a little bubble at the end of each level, like "A lion's roar can be heard a mile away" or "Some orcas (killer whales) have been known to massage their bellies on rocks."

Laugh it up
In any educational game, humor is a great way to immediately impress upon the learner that the game is meant to be fun. I'd squeeze in as many bad puns, funny facts, and other jokes as I could.

If I was really feeling ambitious (or had some awesome help), I'd allow the player to tickle each animal for a funny visual and audial reaction. Ever seen a bear laugh? If I can make a dog squirm, I'm sure their cousins (bears) are ticklish, too.


As you can probably tell, I enjoy teaching. I also love animals and know a lot about tons of them. So I'll probably make at least a couple educational games with Metaplace, if it turns out well.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Metaplace!

I have to admit, I've been pretty doubtful that Raph and Areae were going to go in a direction I like with their game; but I'm completely converted!

If you haven't checked out the basic concept of Metaplace, go do it!

If they can pull it off, I'll be churning out the games as quick as I can... actually able to put my ideas into action! I've been planning on eating and breathing Spore for a year, but that game might have to make room for Metaplace.

If they can pull it off, I can see this having a huge impact on the whole industry. Designers will be hired based on their Metaplace projects. Small-game developers will be able to not only build prototypes, but also get popular feedback on their ideas before investing further time and money.

... not to mention that you know everyone in our little blogosphere will be competing to design the best game. ;)

Honestly, I'm looking forward to collaborating on projects as much as building my own. I can see this being a great tool for Nick's project, especially.

And I bet a lot of folks are going to find out they're great designers when they had never even considered making a game before. People always surprise you with creativity when you give them just the right tools and setting.

There are three exclamation marks already in this post, and I bet that's never happened before (I'm a calm person). I'm really excited about this project. Best of luck, Areae!

Duel

Someone pointed out a pretty cool, free game called Duels the other day. It's a dueling game (surprise!) that combines card-strategy game features with RPG-style avatars and character development.

If you like it, let me know and we'll duel. Right now, I've got a level-3 human brute named Oske.

Good beta testing

Darren posted SUWT podcast #9 today, and it was definitely a good one. I felt the need to reply to every discussion they raised. Of course, two of my replies turned out so long that I decided to move them over here. So here's the first one, followed by the second tomorrow.

Sean made a great point about beta testers needing guidance. If you just let folks install the game and say "There, have at it!", you're going to be disappointed with the feedback (or lack thereof). Testers need to be directed and encouraged just as much as players do.

It's actually (winks at the SUWT#9 crew and listeners) pretty coincidental that the subject would come up now, since I happened to receive invitations to two betas today (I never thought that would happen).

Anyway, so here are some random thoughts on why many testers fail to test and how the situation can be improved.


FEEDBACK INTERFACES
First, you need to make it as painless and easy as possible for testers to submit feedback.

In-game tools
EQ2's beta had a great in-game bug reporting system. Testers are probably ten times more likely to submit feedback if they can do it right after the bug strikes or right after experiencing the content that needs tweaking. As I recall, SOE's tool automatically logged information like character location, too. The more automatically logged context, the better.

If you provide an in-game feedback form, allow players to select either a specific bug category (Inventory, Gear, Sound Effects, etc) or a general category (Graphics, Audio, Characters, etc). If you only provide specific categories, testers will often be unsure which to select. Aside from making feedback more complicated (thereby discouraging regular testing), this also results in feedback getting forwarded to the wrong place. There are always grey areas between categories, afterall.

Sorted forums
Just as important, SOE did a good job categorizing the forums into reports on different aspects of the game. The more focused the sub-forums, the more confident the tester is that his voice will be heard. Sub-forums generally mean that threads get pushed down (and seemingly missed/forgotten) slower.

Focused sub-forums also help testers figure out if a report has been made before. Sometimes the devs want reports to be repeated so they can get an idea of how common the problem is or how tweaks are coming along, but I'm sure there are plenty of folks like me who don't want to beat the devs over the head with known issues all the time. "Search" tools are imperfect, at best. They generally pull a lot of thread results that have little connection with the topic you were searching for, so a search tool isn't the answer. Too many forum categories can confuse the player, but smart divisions can really help.

Connect the two
If possible, allow testers to write longer and/or more generalized critiques and suggestions while in-game. The in-game tool can limit most bug reports by size. But it can also have a tab by which the player can choose categories for longer feedback, and it can forward that feedback to the appropriate sub-forum on the forum site. Class balance is an example of something that might be included on this tab.

The reasons are simple. For one, more complicated non-bug feedback, like class balance concerns, can be just as reliant on momentary experiences as quick bug reports. You want feedback while the tester's experience is fresh on his mind, such as right after a battle (when his necromancer was completed incapacitated by the cleric's Root spell, for instance). And second, again, testers are more likely to submit feedback if they can do it in-game. It's more efficient use of the tester's time, anyway.


EARLY TESTING VS FINAL TESTING
Another consideration is that it's completely different testing a game in alpha or early-beta than testing just before release. I've tested half a dozen games, and experienced both. They're very different.

For one thing, the newbie areas of the game are the first to get sorted out and polished. This happens for many reasons, two of them being that the testers are fresh to the game and that more testers have the time to pass through the early content than the endgame. This also benefits the developer because, as Damion Schubert recently noted, the early game is where hooking players is most vital; after they've invested time in the game, it's easier to make them want to play.

As a result, late-beta testers typically (hopefully) don't notice many bugs in the early areas. They have to progress further into the game to come across regular problems. So it's perhaps unfair and unreasonable to expect the same immediacy of feedback from these testers as you can expect from alpha and early-beta testers.

The final phase of testing should also be more focused on balance. The developer shouldn't be adding much (if any) new content in the final month or two. Every little addition has the potential for causing major conflict and implentation issues, and you don't want to undo much of your polish so close to release. Again, polish of the early game content is absolutely essential, because players' initial experiences will color their expectations of the entire game.

I'm sure there are other important differences, but for brevity's sake...

Monday, September 17, 2007

Doing vs Seeming to do

In Craig's article asking for feedback on SWG's Health-Action-Mind system, something interesting came up in the posts of Van Hemlock and Jonathon Stevens.

Hemlock said the HAM system bothered him in that it seemed like different team members were competing against each other during combat. One person would be using a weapon that damaged the enemy's Health, while another would be using a weapon that damaged Action or Mind. If any one of the three pools was drained completely, then the enemy would die. So if the first player was able to drain the enemy's Health before the other drained Mind, it felt like all that work against Mind was unnecessary and wasted.

Then Stevens pointed out that different abilities are linked to each of the pools. Each special attack drains one's own energy. To stun, you might have to spend Action points. To root, you might need to spend Mind points. So as you drain one of an enemy's pools, you also cripple his ability to perform certain actions. Different enemies favor different pools with their skills, so draining Mind might be most effective against one enemy while draining Health is more effective against another enemy.


THE RULE
Whether or not that SWG system is a good one, it highlights an interesting hurdle in most combat systems and game systems in general: a player must be aware of his or her success to take any pride and enjoyment from it. As in Van Hemlock's case, if the player does not notice the effect of his actions, then he will lose interest in performing those actions.

In psychology, this is known as extinction. The important nuance to note is that a person will cease to act if he or she believes those actions have no result, regardless of whether or not there actually is a result.

So, a game must not only give the player agency (the ability to affect events), but also ensure that the player is aware of that agency.


IMPLICATIONS
In the scenario Van Hemlock described, the game relied on player knowledge. He could see the Health/Action/Mind pool being drained. But to translate that feedback into an awareness of his being effective in combat, he had to know that (1) skills are dependent on a particular energy pool, and (2) which pool this particular enemy needs for which skills. The combat experience was unsatisfying because it failed to provide the latter information.

But the enemy's HAM bar would have shown the depletion of a particular energy pool as the enemy used its skills, right? If it was using a Mind skill, the player could see the Mind pool drained.

Ahh, "could"! There's the problem. The game was providing the necessary feedback, but the feedback was drowned out in everything else that was going on. Just because you put it on the screen doesn't mean the player is seeing it. If there's too much information (the player's HAM, each enemy's HAM, each ally's HAM, terrain/environment, the enemy's strategy, the player's strategy, etc.) and it's too spread out (seven HAM displays up top or in the corner, the enemies moving all around the screen, barriers and other relevant environmental objects up close and in the distance, nearby NPCs who will join the fight if you move too close, etc.), then some of that information will probably be missed.

In this case, the problem was largely with the user interface. But a UI isn't the only feedback system which must this sort of problem into account.


The other part of the problem was that many players don't want to merely maim or counteract an enemy; they want to be more directly involved in the enemy's death.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

XBL: I'll stick with Silver

Since I bought my Xbox 360 back in March, I've had a Silver membership. I'm not going to pay money to play a demo a week or two early, so the only question in considering purchasing a Gold membership was whether or not the online mutiplayer accessibility is worth it.

Gaming with strangers
I've never found multiplayer to be appealing when it's just with strangers. The fun of synchronous multiplayer is sharing an experience with friends or family. Asynchronous multiplayer (like high score competition) is cool, but not worth paying for. And there a few other concerns I have with multiplayer, one of which is outlined in my response to York's latest blog.

But I'm willing to be proven wrong, so I purchased a month's Gold subscription and tried out multiplayer to three games: Medal of Honor: Airborne, Catan, and Carcassonne. I would have tried out more if I owned more, but I trade most games in (few are still fun after a couple months). The only other game discs I have for my 360 are Oblivion and Destroy All Humans (Xbox). I have other XBLA games, but their single-player only as well.

Anyway, I'm not going to renew my Gold membership.

My Airborne and Catan experiences were as I predicted: I would have enjoyed multiplayer with friends or family, but I didn't with strangers.

Surprisingly though, the lack of any relationship with my opponents in Carcassonne wasn't as bothersome. It's because I was dueling; the games were one-on-one. Somehow, knowing my opponent wasn't as important for that reason. Still, it would have been better competing against folks I know, and it's not worth keeping Gold for.

But you play MMOs...
Yes, and alwas with strangers. I've only played with someone I knew from real life once, and only for days.

I've said this before, but here it goes again. I don't play MMOs for the multiplayer component. Take out the other players, and a traditionally-modelled MMO is still very different than any single-player game. Most of the time, other players contribute to my own experience only by moving around like unpredictable NPCs, fleshing out the world a bit.

I love MMOs for their massive size, their wide variety of gear and character options, and other stuff that let's me explore the game for months. I love them because of the open-ended gameplay (though it's really more linear than most developers admit).

Anyway, I don't want to go on a rant about that. I'm just pointing out that, even with MMOs, the multiplayer component is attractive to me only when I can play with people I know in real life.

Blogger Play for writers

Blogger started something called Blogger Play. It's a slideshow that randomly flips through images that have recently been uploaded onto Blogger sites.

I'm pointing it out because it strikes me as a good source of inspiration for writers. Looking at a picture or drawing and trying to describe what's happening is one of the easiest ways to start a story, for me. A completely random set and series of pictures means a wide variety of stories to be told and interesting combinations of ideas.

Friday, September 14, 2007

AGC: Damion Schubert

Odds are that you've already read something on Damion Schubert's Zen of Online Game Design presentation. So I'll point out some highlights and then list the questions and reflections I scribbled down during his talk.


Points of wisdom
First, some things he said that are worth repeating, even if they're old wisdom.

If your game is intended for long-term play, like most MMOs are, then the game's long-term potential should be obvious to the player immediately. The player must realize in his or her newb experience that the game is fun and will continue to be fun. If you expect players to work before they play, to hold off for fun later, many of them will quit before they get there. This also means that bugs have a more severe impact in the early game than later.

The more players have "invested" in your game, the more you can ask of them. As their characters are more developed, as they form more social bonds to other players, as they're increasingly engrossed in the story (not that it's ever happened in an MMO, but it could), players will become increasingly tolerant and sacrificial. Now, this can obviously sound bad -- many developers use this knowledge to manipulate players like mere money-machines and avoid the costs of quality. But a developer can also use this knowledge ethically in community management and considerations of the game's pacing.

Hardcore players are often the reason casual gamers enter the game. I'm a great example. My brother and cousin probably would have stopped gaming years ago if I, the avid gamer, didn't try to get them involved from time to time. Even after the sale, sometimes they play a game only because I'm playing with them.

Guilds (large-scale player communities) are powerful elements in the game. Helping players find the right guild is as important as helping them find the right adventure-group.

You "must control your culture." Developers can set the tone of player communities, through communal involvement but also through the game's design. Part of controlling the culture means ensuring that the hardcore players aren't exclusionary. Veteran players need to be inviting to newbs, or else you'll lose a lot of new players.


Questions and reflections
I'm going to try to be brief on these, and not try to answer them here.

One "exit point" (time at which some players quit the game) is the subscription renewal time. If renewal is always at the beginning of the month, could special events or other memorable gameplay experiences be planned for the end of each month?

Players shouldn't be expected to play for longer periods as they progress further into the game. It's true that a player with more invested in the game is more likely to be willing to play for a longer stretch, but no player should find that the game which used to fit his schedule is now hard to find time for. Early game experiences shouldn't disappear at the high end. Rather, the high end should involve additional gameplay opportunities, aside from the original avenues.

Grouping, raiding, RvR, reputation -- none of these gameplay avenues, nor many others, must necessarily involve a particular level of commitment to the game (casual, devoted, hardcore, etc.) or a particular place in the gameplay ladder. They can be provided for newbs and veterans alike, though it may be necessary to provide them differently for different audiences.

How do un-guilded newbs perceive guild leaders? How do people who are new to the MMO genre perceive them?

Is balance really more vital for "games" than "worlds"?

As important (or more) than cooperative and competitive gameplay is player interdependence. They shouldn't have to play together directly or compete towards the same goals to affect each other's gameplay.

Intrinsic rewards vs explicit rewards. Where and when does one make more sense than the other?

Ways should be found to make player communities a more explicit element of gameplay.

How can permadeath be designed to not break player communities? It seems that one answer is a health-power system similar to SWG's, in which newbs and veterans can group together.

How can certainty play into reward systems? Diablo 2 and fantasy football seem to prove that certainty of reward is not as important as many MMO designers think it is. What elements of a reward system are necessary to attract players? Must there be an explicit reward for everything? How predictable do those rewards need to be? How frequent do they need to be?


I almost raised that last question at Damion's talk, but it seemed like a long discussion and a little peripheral to his overall presentation. It was a fun and interesting talk. That's the second talk of his that I've been to and liked.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

AGC: Evan Skolnick

Ok, so back to AGC reflections.

Evan Skolnick used the original Star Trek series to hammer home a lot of theory that experienced writers should have already been exercising. That's good, because we all need reminders; and concrete examples help to clarify design theory. He made it enjoyable, too.

Some of the writing theory he covered was to look for clich├Ęs and spin them, to externalize internal conversations through characters and events (the Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy combo is an example of this), to be aware of classic story patterns (like the monomyth) while avoiding copying them exactly, to hook the audience quickly at the story's onset, to show and not tell, and to ensure the protagonist has some personal stake in the conflict. His main point is to avoid making the story completely predictable; to use the audience's expectations against them, though also keeping everythinig believeable.

Like I said, experienced writers should already know this stuff, though knowing and practicing are certainly different.

Now, here's a thought I had in response to his presentation.


"When everyone's special, no one is." -- The Incredibles
Many, if not most, MMOs fall into the trap that Pixar was describing in The Incredibles. The game portrays every player as a one-of-a-kind hero in quests and dialogue, while simultaneously undermining the player's every heroic action by negating any impact the player momentarily seemed to have ("Hurray! You've slain the dragon Smag! Oh, wait. There he is! Please, save us from the dragon Smag!"). In short, MMOs fail miserably at making anyone feel like a hero, though they try so very hard!

But we should try to make every player feel like the greatest hero ever to grace the story setting, right? Skolnick repeated the common philosophy that "Everyone wants to be Captain Kirk."

I'm not buying it. A decade's worth of MMOs have demonstrated that a large portion of players prefer support roles to lead roles in combat. Healers and trappers/buffers/debuffers epitomize this preference, but it extends to many more players who rarely lead or make the tactical decisions for their adventure groups. In fact, to force players into the tactical lead position would frustrate them.

Yeah, but that's just combat, right?

First, gameplay and story are not separate in a good RPG. Each battle is an important part of the story. Imagine if all the battle scenes in Star Trek were merely implied, behind the camera. Combat was a significant part of Kirk's life and fleshed out his character. In a game, everything the player's character does is part of his or her story.

Second, I believe many players would prefer support roles even in non-combat situations. Even in our extremely individualistic American culture, many people don't want to lead, and others imagine they want to lead but step back when the opportunity's presented to them (because they find leading undesirable, not because they lack courage).

Many gamers want to play Captain Kirk, but others want to play Dr. McCoy or Scotty or Spock. Most good stories succeed by different personalities coming together to augment each other, even as they conflict (Dr. McCoy was usually yelling at Spock, but they were a good team). Likewise, game stories succeed by allowing different types of characters, including the players' characters, to augment and conflict with each other. The humanity players bring into the game with them supplies much of this, but the gameplay must also incorporate it.

Current MMOs often offer quests which are designed exclusively for one class (type of character). A good MMO doesn't design all content so that any one player can experience it directly. A good MMO ensures that the actions and experiences of one player affect other players; like Spock's ultimate sacrifice saved the lives of his crewmates, or as Scotty was always able to contribute to the group's goals without being in their immediate presence.


Skolnick also got me wondering about the function of story villains, but I'll save that for another day.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

We all have many faces

I didn't know industry veteran John Watson, so I'm not going to talk about him specifically. But there's something that comes out in the remarks surrounding his suicide that I'd like to comment on.

As is often the case with suicides, nobody who knew him personally expected him to take such a tragic action. We should learn from that, because odds are that we will all eventually know someone who has contemplated suicide at some point in their life. In the hope that one of us might one day have a chance to turn someone away from suicide, but also so that nobody's feels like they should have known and acted but didn't, here's what I know about the subject.

Depressed doesn't equal suicidal
We don't expect it even when people are obviously depressed. When one of my sisters became bipolar (a family gene was triggered by a lot of stress), she didn't smile for over a year. It was devastating to watch. But even with such deep and obvious depression, our parents couldn't imagine that she would be considering suicide. She didn't try, thankfully, but the thoughts were often with her. When she finally admitted to our dad that she had thoughts not only of suicide but also self-mutilation, he was shocked beyond words.

A strong and recurring urge to commit suicide is something so foreign to common experience that those who don't experience it are always shocked. People often think it arises only after some tragic experience -- like a death of a loved one, a rape, bottoming out on drugs, or a war experience -- but many suicides aren't preceded by any great tragedy. Sometimes, it's the result of just looking back on one's life with regret and shame, looking forward and seeing no hope of a better life.

We're all judging our own lives by different standards. Our frame of reference is shaped more by our individual experiences than by experiences we know someone else, somewhere, has had. Don't believe that just because a person isn't experiencing tragedy on a deeper level than others that that person can't be more sad. Experiences alone don't determine our emotional reactions, but also our individual references and our individual ways of internalizing those experiences.

Lastly, keep in mind that a person only has to consider suicide once, and perhaps only for half-an-hour, in order to go through with it. The people who think long, deeply, and frequently about suicide are not likely to go through with it. Spontaneity is required to put those thoughts into action.

You don't see the whole person
I don't care how close you are to a person... you'll never know them completely. Different aspects of a person's personality surface depending on who that person is around, what that person is doing, and countless other conditions. If they're all smiles at work or school, that doesn't mean they're all smiles at home.

I've had deep, lasting thoughts of suicide and self-mutilation since I was at least 13-years-old (I'll be 28 in January). I know I was troubled even before then, because I had nightmares nearly every night into my teens. In hindsight, I can say it's mostly a reaction to my Asperger Syndrome (autism).

My family has always been very close, yet nobody -- not them, not friends... nobody -- had any inkling of my suicidal thoughts until I finally told them. And the only reason I told them was because my sister was new to those thoughts, while I was experienced, so she needed to hear that someone understood and that it could be overcome.

So if someone close to you does kill himself or herself, don't think that you should have known. It's likely that there were few, if any, warning signs.


Unfortunately, I think the most any of us can do to prevent suicides is to simply be open and available to everyone around us. And remember that even the smallest slights against other people can be very harmful if that person is already down.

Rest in peace, John Watson.

Copy or move on?

Kendricke wisely reminds us not to shy away from old ideas. If some other developer came up with a great idea, don't be afraid to implement it into your own design, even if you come close to duplication. Give the original designer credit if it's a new idea, and that designer should be proud to have contributed to the community's progress. I've advocated designing for yourself before, but that was not to imply that any goal should be completely self-centered. The surest path to helping yourself is to help others.

Still, I think Kendricke's advice should be qualified a bit. A good designer (of anything, not just games) doesn't just come up with new ideas but doesn't just duplicate good ideas either.

Perfect the good
First, no idea is ever honed to absolute perfection. Ludwig van Beethoven put it well:

"The true artist is not proud. He senses dimly how far he is from the goal, and though others may admire him, he feels sad not to have reached the point where his better genius lights the way like a distant sun."

We will always fall short of the ideal, but that's no excuse to quit reaching for it. In game design, reaching the ideal refers as much to finding which features fit best together as it does finding the best possible iteration of that feature. No feature can reach its full potential if placed into a poor context. A poor context might include many other great features... but the wrong combination of features.

Multiple goods
Second, there's rarely only one form that can capture an ideal excellently. Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and "Pretty Good Year" by Tori Amos (or insert whatever song and artist you prefer) both succeed admirably on many levels, particularly to communicate sadness, but they accomplish the same goal in different ways. In game design also, a design may have worked excellently before but there remain other ways to accomplish the goal.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But we shouldn't automatically steal any idea that works. Consider using that old idea, but also consider if there are other ways which better fit your overall design or which you, as an individual and unique designer, might be better able to realize.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

AGC: Matt Costello

Costello took the route of "cover less, but go deeper" in his presentation, which was part of the Writers track. I didn't have nearly as many notes from his talk as from others, but he made his points well and artfully.

His session also got me wondering about some things. In fact, this post will be probably be mostly commentary.


DRAMATIC TENSION
"Something has to be at stake all the time." That really stuck with me, because it hasn't been realized very well in many games yet. In most games, the stakes are limited to time. If the player fails, then he's returned to an earlier checkpoint/spawnpoint or regrets only wasted time.

One thing players could lose is a depthful companion. Companion NPCs don't have to be particularly useful to the player to be missed. Nor do they need to be particularly important to the story, or well-rounded characters. The character might simply affect the game's tone by being amusing.

If the companion NPC is always making some witty remark and the player appreciates the humor, the player will notice the NPC's absence as he continues through the game without those jokes to lighten the atmosphere.

Utility, narrative pull and a rounded personality can all but work, but the point is that there are many ways to make NPCs true companions and not merely tools. Companions are characters we share experiences with; tools are valued only for their usefulness.

Community membership, abilities, area access, reputation, safe travel, NPC welfare... many things can be placed in jeopardy by player actions to build dramatic tension without frustrating the player beyond enjoyment.


AN ILLUSION OF AGENCY
Shortly into the presentation, the magic tricks began.

Rather than waste time describing them (magic tricks should be seen, not read about), I'll just skip to the meaning. The difference between the two magic tricks, Costello explained, is that the audience member involved in the second one believed that he was participating. In actuality, the participant had no effect on the trick's outcome. Regardless of who was the participant, the trick would have worked the same way.

Costello's point was that players don't really have to affect a story's outcome to experience the thrill of agency (being an agent of change). If someone tells me to "push the big red button" and my compliance is rewarded with a huge explosion nearby, I'll experience a thrill from thinking I caused the explosion... regardless of whether or not I actually did cause it.

Though he didn't say, I believe what Costello was driving at was that letting the player truly affect the direction of the game's story generally leads to severe complications and a lot of extra expense. It's cheaper to just trick the player into believing he's changing things when he really isn't.

He's right, but illusion can probably only go so far. And when an illusion breaks, it's hard to fix. Also, true impact and dynamics are easier to design for MMOs than for single-player games, since the gameplay is much more open-ended and not so dependent on a single plot.


DRAMATIC IRONY
If I remember right, this was more something Costello mentioned in passing than spoke about at length. It's really surprising, in retrospect, that irony plays such a small role in game narratives, because it has always been popular in fiction and happens to be a cornerstone of American literature.

I spoke later with Erik Hyrkas about the possibility of dramatic irony in games. Dramatic/tragic irony is when the audience knows something that the character doesn't know. This can create enormous tension, because the audience wants to help but is unable to; instead, we must simply watch/read on and hope for the best. Erik reminded me of the obvious (that's necessary sometimes with me): in games, it's impossible for the player to know something his or her avatar doesn't know, unless you use a cutscene/cinematic (which I had already told Erik I'm not a big fan of).

He's right, of course. But the player can experience dramatic irony with peripheral characters. In fact, Middle Earth Online already does this with scripted events, and those impressed me more than any other element of the game.

Imagine running toward a bridge and the bridge collapses just before you reach it... but not before your companion has crossed. Now he must face danger alone, and all you can do is watch him fall in battle or flee with the enemies chasing him. Aside from the immediate tension they create, such events can also be used to set up later events. You might run into that companion late in the game and get to hear of his miraculous escape as he journeys by your side once again.

Dramatic irony isn't the only type of irony. All types deserve more frequent use in games.


IGNORANCE IS BLISS
Costello used a further magic trick to demonstrate the enjoyable tension that's born of being ignorant and then realizing your ignorance. We thought he was about to dump a cup of water on an audience member's head, but it turned out the cup was empty.

My creative writing professor used to say that clues in a story are great because "We [the audience] like to feel smart." We also enjoy some failures, particularly when we have someone to share them with. "Oh! I was so close! It was at the tip of my tongue!" How often have you heard someone say that with a smile? If you surprise readers without providing enough hints at the conclusion, the audience will often feel cheated. But if the reader fails to guess the conclusion despite there being sufficient clues, then the conclusion is still enjoyable.

More importantly though, more games could work at keeping the player on the edge of his seat, wondering where the story will go next. Resident Evil did a good job, but it's not only horror stories that should accomplish this sort of tension. But maybe I'm stating the obvious, so I'll stop here.


COUNTDOWN
At some point, Costello also mentioned the tension of time pressure.

It got me thinking that games rarely employ time pressure without threatening complete failure at the end of the countdown. If you don't complete the task in a given amount of time, then you must restart the level or quest. Developers should consider other penalties.

Another possible avenue is to give the player only so much time to figure something out before the situation changes and the player must reevaluate the situation. For example, an enemy might not adjust his tactics to counter yours immediately; but if you let the battle continue too long, he will. Or the player might have only so long to reach a shortcut before that opportunity is closed and he must take a longer, more dangerous route to the same goal.


I really enjoyed Matt Costello's session, though I do wish he had spent more time talking specifically about how his ideas might be applied to games. It was more enjoyable than a lot of other sessions, but there wasn't as much content.

Monday, September 10, 2007

AGC: Sulka Haro

Ok, so... AGC. There will probably be more commentary than news in these AGC-coverage articles, but this first might be an exception.

Let's start with the session I didn't plan on attending, but was glad for doing so: Sulka Haro and Habbo. Before this presentation, I had heard the name but knew nothing about Habbo. I still only know what was said at the AGC, so I'm afraid you'll have to get details elsewhere.


THE FIGURES
This is why Haro was invited, despite his own admission that he doesn't think of himself as a game designer. Over 7.5 million accounts... roughly 100,000 of those logged into one server at a time. There are currently 19 Habbo "hotels" in 30 markets. The Sulake Corporation made 50 million dollars last year in virtual property sales. If I remember correctly, Haro said transactions concerning Habbo virtual property made outside of Sulake's oversight amounts to over four times that ($200M).


WHAT IS HABBO?
In a sentence, it's crack for teenagers who have grown up never knowing the world before internet, who think online socialization is as basic and everyday as turning on the TV.

It's primary audience is teenagers, and it approaches them without enticing them into a world of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. In fact, now that I think of it, it's almost an embodiment of Disney's catchphrase, "It's a small world, afterall." Haro pointed out that teenage years are a time in which most are "building identity" and socially exploring, so there's a huge market for this sort of stuff.

A good question to ask here: How many such sites/programs can any one teenager be expected to subscribe to at one time? Many Myspace users also have accounts with Facebook and other socialization tools. So how does the success of one affect the others?

Habbo is basically a visual-based Myspace. In fact, it even has homepages similar to Myspace. It's not a game. Habbo is a virtual environment in which users can visually express themselves and buy virtual items to create a Sims-like home or business. Sometimes the user communities create games, but the gameplay is almost all of their making.


MISCELLANY
But enough with organized information. The random details are the really impressive part, so here are my notes.

At some point, Sulake moved from selling virtual furniture to virtual currency. Haro said there are "massive differences... [particularly] from the user perspective", but he didn't elaborate. He did point out that his audience, teenagers, don't frequent Ebay... so the selling of virtual property operates on a different level than with MMOs.

Eventually, Sulake introduced rare items, which were met with great success. They considered advertisements, but decided that banners and such are "boring for the users". Branded furniture has also been a hit. Haro's not sure why stamping a brand on something makes it popular, but it obviously does. Target and other real entities have been recreated in Habbo.

The Sulake Corporation interviewed 42,000 kids. They identified 5 major categories of users: Rebels, Creative types, Achievers, Loners, and Traditionals (meaning, basically, mainstream interests). The population distribution in these categories varies somewhat by culture. The U.S. has the largest Achiever segment; Japan has the largest Loner segment; Finland and Brazil have the largest Traditional segments.

They found that 70% of users want foreign friends, but only 47% think positively of foreigners. Sulka offered an example of users from Finland and Japan coming into contact. The Finnish folks flooded the Japanese hotel with high hopes of exploring Japanese culture, but the Japanese users closed their doors and avoided the Fins.

Contrary to popular belief, Haro pointed out that many, if not most, Habbo users are not casual. These users spend an absorbitant amount of time logged in.

And they can do some pretty amazing stuff with their time. Haro showed a picture of one user who had modeled his Habbo room to look like McDonald's. The user didn't stop there, though. Other users lined up in this place to buy "virtual burgers" and would emote both the transaction and the eating of the totally imaginary food. Think that's interesting? How about the "lots of armies and mafias" who have no capacity for simulated violence. Instead, all they can do is design uniforms, practice virtual drills and type emotes like "bang!"

Sulake has added items like pets and snow (yes, you can place your snow indoors).

Habbo is a sandbox like no game could ever be a sandbox. Its users invent the gameplay. Some users roleplay, like that McDonald's nut. But you think that guy's crazy? Just wait! Habbo has no model for horses, so some players pretend their human characters are horses, emoting every action and offering others rides.

They eventually did add some mini-games. One example is a sound mixer which allows users to combine melody samples to form music (like a dirt-simple FruityLoops).

Communities have invented ways to demonstrate community ties, such as the "spider-pig" symbol.

Sulka pointed out that the internet allows us to play childishly without social admonishment. In real life, adults are allowed to act childishly only with young kids and with pets. Habbo allows people to be as silly as they want in an anonymous environment.


SO WHAT DOES SULAKE DO AGAIN?
As I said before, the activities in Habbo or primarily user-generated. "Players don't have to wait" for content upgrades. The community invents content and that content spreads at a ridiculously fast pace. Fansites are self-correcting.

Sulka emphasized the importance of community management. Habbo may continue on just fine in most other respects, but he feels this aspect demands a lot of attention and work.

The advice Haro offered to developers was: (1) offer toys, (2) interaction should be intuitive, (3) set the mood, (4) support user-created goals, and (5) promote a shared social setting.


MY REFLECTIONS
I'm glad I went to Sulka's presentation and I admire what he's done. Initially, I agreed with Raph (who sat about five seats down from me and was smiling through the whole presentation) that it's a shame more developers were not there to listen to the session, because it's an insight into online communities and the possibilities of extending gameplay avenues. But now I worry about how closely many developers and publishers will follow Habbo's lead, considering its massive appeal and money-laden trail.

From game-makers to toy-makers
Habbo is not a game, in the strictest sense. Games revolve around rules and prescribed activities. Habbo is about combining virtual toys with Myspace-style social networking systems. With toys, the gameplay is mostly player-created and emergent. In other words, game developers who try to cash in on Sulake's system will effectively be transitioning into toy developers without realizing they're changing industries. They don't realize it because virtual toys are relatively new and undefined (I've never heard anyone use the phrase "virtual toys").

So they change industries... so what? Well, it's their choice. But expect such developers to continue to think of themselves as "game" developers and exerting influence over the design philosophies of true game developers. And if folks like Raph go that way, I'll miss them... I mean, the guy was behind one of my favorite MMO experiences, the original Star Wars: Galaxies. But hey, maybe Areae will surprise me by going a very different route.

Inspiration
Sulka's session did inspire a debate in my head about the relationship between character progress and player knowledge, but this post is already too long. I'll write that article some other day.

Please pardon me if I revise whatever typos in this article after posting it. It's taken a while to write, and I'm still trying to keep this blogsite a casual endeavor. [Sure enough, I had to edit.]

Sunday, September 09, 2007

MMO (the movie)

Yesterday, I offered to begin writing a script for a game-based film. So far, the IPs that show the most promise are Zelda and GTA. I'm still interested in ideas.

But I've already begun brainstorming for a movie about MMOs in general. For one reason, I wouldn't have to get a game publisher's approval before passing the script on to a film studio (though I don't have access to one, so that may not happen anyway).

More importantly, I realized that the setting opens up some unique narrative opportunities. For example, how will the protagonists distinguish themselves in world full of "heroes"? What's a believeable reason such adventurers would move on to greater foes before they've really helped save the villagers (NPCs) from lesser but serious threats?

In short, imagine an MMO-based film that doesn't adapt the setting to fit classic story formulas. Imagine being able to recognize things like camping, kill-stealing, mismatched gear, guilds of disparate mercenaries, etc. I won't abandon all of those old formulas unless I can come up with something that works as well, but I think I can do that.


Inspiration Requested
So here's where you come in. Regardless of how I might work them into the story:
  • What are some essential characteristics of classic MMOs? (camping, levelling, raids, etc.)
  • What was one (or more) of your most memorable MMO experiences? Details appreciated.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Game to film, you choose

Woody mentioned a thought that commonly goes through a lot of gamers' minds:
"I'm waiting patiently for that one director that takes a video game and turns it into movie gold. Surely someone somewhere has the skill and game fandom to do a title justice."

Well, I'm willing to give it a shot. I'm not a director, but I can write the film script. And I'm sure Woody or some of my fellow bloggers could help draw the storyboards (draw a template for each scene and camera angle, similar to comics).

Name 3-5 games you think had a relatively deep and intriguing story, and I'll flesh one or two out in a script over the next few months. When I have a draft done, I'll post it here on my site for all to critique. Then I'll revise it, and we'll keep repeating that process until we have a game-movie script that's actually worthy of being made into an A-grade Hollywood film.

Unfortunately, I'll have to ask you to limit your list to games on PC, Xbox 360, Xbox, original NES, SNES, or N64... because those are the only platforms I own, and I'll need to go back and play the game to be able to write a good script based on it.

Friday, September 07, 2007

AGC summary

Another cool AGC. I got a lot of ideas from the panels and presentations over the 3-day conference. I expect to be expounding on those over the next week or two, but here's a very general summary of my AGC experience for now.


THE FOLKS
Just as important as the presentations is being able to meet other folks in and around the industry. Unfortunately, I didn't make much headway there, as I let my AS get the better of me. I do just fine in conversations with just two or three people, but I tend to go quiet in larger groups when the conversation is more small-talk than intellectual stuff. What can I say? I'm a social-idiot.

Insiders
Though I didn't talk much with them, there were a few people who I was really impressed by while just observing them.

Seeing Raph Koster in person allowed me to see the side of him that's generally missing from his online persona. He seemed like a really cheerful and relaxed guy -- a gamer; not all business, like his blogsite sometimes makes him seem.

Sanya Weathers and Alan "Brenlo" Crosby really stood out as two very pleasant and intelligent people. They're funny as can be when put together, and both very friendly. Sanya was kind enough to strike up a conversation with me while I was in "quiet mode". She suggested that it probably would have been easier to remember where she knew me from (I've posted on her site and others she knows) if I had used my "hallower" screenname instead of "Aaron" when I post. Perhaps I should start doing that, but using my real name seems more personal; and I like to speak to everyone as a friend.

Unfortunately, I never ran into Brian Green or Cindy Bowens, both whom I was hoping to say hi to.

I got to talk a little shop with Erik Hyrkas, Brent's friend from Granite Games. Erik had an interesting perspective, as a director and programmer for an indie MMO project. His story sounded similar to some of Green's tales of start-up troubles and determination. He enlightened me to some of the ways indie projects tend to differ from big-dollar projects; like the challenge of recording and studying player-metrics when you're already bogged down with so many other things to do.

Evil forces conspired to keep me from Maggie Mae's (the AGC drinking party), or else I probably would have met more people. I still owe Brent and Tami some drinks (sorry, guys).

Blogosphere
I had multiple chances to meet up with Brent, Tami, Craig, and Michael. Cuppy's just as energetic in person as she is online. Brent seemed to be excited and in his element as well. I didn't realize he had worked on a game before. I think Craig and I are both the sort who are better at expressing our thoughts through slow and careful writing, rather than impulsive conversation in person. It's funny how quickly I turn into a muttering fool if I'm trying to pay attention to social cues while speaking. Michael seemed like a cool guy, though I didn't get much chance to speak with him.


THE SESSIONS
Predictably, my plans got rearranged somewhat between last week and the conference. Here are the sessions I attended, most of which I'll probably write about in the coming weeks (the titles are abbreviated):

Michael Morhaime: 10 Lessons
Evan Skolnick: Learning from Star Trek
Patrick Redding: Familiarity Breeds Contempt
Panel: Community Influencers
Anderson and Snell: Metrics

Sulka Haro: Habbo
Matt Costello: Story and Gameplay Together
Damion Schubert: Zen of Design
Panel: Alternative Media
Bioware group: Writing the Bioware Way

Chris Bateman: Narrative Guiding Players
Austin Grossman: Game Writing Can Improve

Last year, I enjoyed nearly all of the sessions I attended. This year's was hit-and-miss. Ironically, Sulka Haro's session was one of the most interesting, though I only attended it when the writers session at that time was cancelled. I've got to agree with Raph that it's a shame more developers were not there to hear it.

Anyway, the details will have to wait until tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Headed to AGC

I'm headed to Austin in a few hours. The conference is Wednesday through Friday. If I get a chance to post another article in that time, I will. It's more likely, though, that I won't post another until the weekend.

Bear in mind that the AGC, if it's like last year's (ownership changed, so who knows?), isn't about showing off games, previews and interviews. It's more about developer strategies, design philosophies, marketing strategies, legal issues, market projection, and business-oriented stuff like that.

So don't expect much big news. The articles everyone writes afterward will probably be more about who they met, what they did, design discussions and rants, etc. More than anything else, the reason gamers should be interested is the insight AGC offers into where the industry as a whole is headed, what the developers and publishers hope to accomplish in the next year or two.

Indoors, outdoors, no doors

Admittedly, it's not all that developed, but I've been keeping a list for some time of all of my favorite games (past or present) and the features that make them so great. I've got the list to help me find the connections, the variables I like, and so I can combine them in interesting ways. Combining elements of different genres can result in really cool concepts. For proof, check out the upcoming Endwar.

Anyway, so the most recent addition to my list is a feature from Medal of Honor: Airborne. I can't wait to get my hands on the full game, because I've played the demo at least a dozen times (I beat it on Expert difficulty using nothing but a pistol, last time through).

Of its many cool features, one struck me as being directly applicable to MMOs and RPGs: seamless movement and interaction between outdoors and indoors within the same environment.

Think about it. How often in MMOs is an adventure area, a combat area in particular, both indoors and outdoors? How often do indoor settings and outdoor settings directly interact?

To clarify what I mean, let me explain what it's like in Airborne. The demo level is urban warfare. You're ducking behind sandbags and the sides of buildings as you fight your way down a city street. But some jerk's shooting at you from a window of the building next to you. You shoot him, but then some other jerk takes his place and fires at you. Enough of this! So you run into the building to clear it out. Enemies have flipped over tables to use as cover. They hide behind beds, or around corners. But, man by man, you take 'em down until you're standing by a window. Pow! You get smacked in the helmet by a bullet from outside. Some enemies in the street below have noticed you at the window and are shooting up. And there's an enemy in a window of the building across from this one who's firing at you, too.

Seamless outdoor/indoor interaction. The guys outside interact with those inside, and vis versa.

Wouldn't this be a great experience to have in an MMO?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Reviving early adventure areas

Cameron called attention to how little incentive MMO players typically have to return to earlier adventuring areas, as well as the importance of "coming home" in hero stories.

This article was getting all jumbled, so I'm going to save the "coming home" bit for another day. Instead, I'm just going to tackle the problem of beginner areas becoming obsolete to players as they level up. A feeling of "home" can really help, but let's talk about that later.


PREVIOUS GAMES
Past games have included or proposed methods of what I call backsliding. Backsliding is different from deliberately returning to past areas because the player is forced to give up something and may not even want to go back. Some examples:

A character wipe waits until the player has progressed far before sending him back to the beginning without a character.

The cancelled Trials of Ascension proposed a system of limited lives (delayed permadeath, you might call it) and enough dynamics to keep replay fun. The player generally would not progress as far before being returned to the beginning, and individual player-characters would be wiped at different times due to the circumstances of their individual adventures. The world was stuffed with enough dynamics (including the results of player actions) that areas might feel different a second or third time through. They really had a lot of interesting ideas. I recommend browsing through this fansite's quote database in addition to the official site.

EQ-style backsliding allows players to lose levels, falling back just a step at a time with only the same familiar ground to be regained.

Richard Garriott's team has come up with an interesting model of character saves for Tabula Rasa, allowing the player to save a particular build of his or her character and return to it later (ex: go back and play your character before you chose one sub-class over another, thereby allowing you to explore alternate gameplay avenues without returning to the very beginning).

Another failed gamed -- I think it was Realms of Torment (later known as Mourning) -- proposed a bloodline system. Your character would have a limited lifespan, but certain traits and heirlooms would be passed down to your character's offspring. Trials of Ascension similarly allowed players to sacrifice their last remaining lives to create an artifact, which would appear randomly in the gameworld to be acquired by some other player.

In previous games, it seems that players seldom return to earlier areas without penalty for reasons other than social reasons having little to do with the game's design, such as helping a friend level up.



WITHOUT PENALTY
So what can entice the player to return to areas and really enjoy it?


Factions
In the past, progressing through a faction's available quests and other content occurred in a single area. You work your way up the faction ladder in a particular town by finishing quests focused on the surrounding area, and then you move on to the next (higher-level) town to work your way through its questline.

But what if there was no immediate jump between the guard captain's quests and the king's quests? The game could encourage you to move on to other areas, but later encourage you to return for different questlines/causes. If it's a level-based game, then the town might have quests for levels 1-12, 25-34, 56-70, but none for the levels in between. Of course, this requires an EQ-style cohabitance of low-level and high-level content. EQ's Oasis had both lower-level ghouls and higher-level sand giants, and players loved it...even as (because) they had to watch their backs and occasionally run for their lives. Breaking up faction progressions like this also helps to create an impression that total progression isn't easy. It's an adventure, a journey, that was months in the making.

There's also the Oblivion model. In that game, some factions exist in every city (Mages Guild, Fighters Guild, Thieves Guild) and progressing through those faction involves moving between cities frequently. You might complete only one quest (in an MMO, I would expect it to be something significant if it's the only one) before being directed to a faction official in another town. Encouraging travel this frequently has the benefit helping the player see the big picture (the world's lore on a macro scale) and can help keep gameplay fresh.


New visions and opportunities
In real life, returning to a place we haven't seen in many years can feel nostalgic, but we can also be surprised by all of the things that have changed. Or we might be surprised by all the things we didn't notice before or don't see in the same way, because we too have changed and perceive the world differently than when we were younger.

Obviously, the sort of dynamic worlds that MMO gamers keep hoping for might be capable of offering the player such surprises on returning to old territories. Not so obviously, some of those changes could call for input from advanced players. Consider the classic tale of Robin Hood, in which King Richard is off in the Crusades and the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham oppressing the people and trying to usurp the throne. In an MMO, this would translate into a situation of a once-content but now-oppressed town that needs the help of advanced players working cooperatively to free the people. Such situations don't have to be so dramatic and expensive for the developer, of course.

As for seeing the same place differently, that can be accomplished largely through dividing high-level and low-level content more sharply in towns. In real life, odds are that you noticed stores and venues at age 25 that you didn't notice at age 10... because you didn't care about the same things at age 10, and didn't have access to the same things. You might be more aware of the names and locations of pubs, for example. Similarly, if particular places and NPCs have little effect on or potential gameplay opportunities for players at early levels, then that area will feel different when they return to it at higher levels. Perhaps the NPC nobles or other leaders are only interested in higher-level players, for example.

NPCs can be revealed for very different characters than you originally knew, through knowledge the player picks up in other areas. Perhaps the village drunk seems harmless and really a good guy when you first meet him, but you learn later and elsewhere that the drinking is just a cover for the espionage he's performing for the hated raiders who sack the town every so often. By acquiring that information, it might open up new dialogue options and quest options with him. After you've confronted him, he might look at you differently as you pass by, scowling whereas he used to smile and cheer you with his beer held high.


What else might make earlier areas worth coming back to?