Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Is Hellgate an MMO? and why does it matter?

Well, the question has been raised again. But, this time, Cuppy took it further:
"Why anyone is wasting time on whether or not this is an MMO is beyond me."

How Flagship labels the game can affect how people perceive and approach it. It's like deciding whether to call an El Camino a car or truck. The label can affect how the potential buyer imagines its possible uses and compares its features against other vehicles. Should it have as much towing capacity as a truck? Should it have a sportscar's acceleration? What sort of vehicle should its gas mileage be compared to? A label of "car" or "truck" answers these questions for the buyer. Labels underline your selling points.

Flagship's decision to call Hellgate an MMO might represent an attempt to appeal to all the MMO veterans who have been anxiously waiting for the next good game of the genre. Hellgate might even help build interest in the genre, since many of folks playing it have probably never before played an MMO (the sort of games we usually associate with the label).

Originally, I didn't think Hellgate qualifies as an MMO, but I'm starting to come around. You'll never witness another player adventuring who is not in your group, for example. The only time you see other players outside your group is in the hubs (in which I've never seen more than 20 people or so). But you can communicate with people in separate instances across the server, and that limited interaction in the hubs is meaningful.

Anyway, in summary, the MMO label will have consequences. What those consequences turn out to be will be interesting, to the extent that we can discern them.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

No pause? Are you serious?

One of the greatest barriers to the growth of online gaming is the inability to pause.

For all but the most fanatical of gamers, our non-virtual lives take precedence. If the phone rings, we answer it. If a family member needs help with something, we get up and help. There are a thousand circumstances which might beg a gamer to stop playing, for a moment or for hours, and those things are more important than entertainment. Sure, we try to be considerate to the people we're sharing that entertainment with, but entertainment is almost always a low priority for responsible people.

Is it possible to break past this barrier? Is it possible to design online multiplayer games to be more forgiving of surprise breaks without making gameplay turn-based and avoiding real-time engagement?

Unfortunately, it seems there's no strategy that works for all games. Different styles of gameplay allow for different methods.


Time and penalties
Two methods are being adopted by an increasing number of MMO developers.

The first is to shorten play-experiences into smaller segments. Even the longest adventures can be broken into more accessible chunks. The problem with this solution is that it usually breaks dramatic tension. There's less time for build-up.

The other method is to reduce penalties for failure. To use an extreme example: if a player's character could simply be resurrected on the spot, after the character died during the player's absence, then the only penalty for "pausing" gameplay was the group being short a combatant unexpectedly. For games that primarily appeal to a sense of accomplishment (most MMOs), this undermines the strength of that accomplishment.


Focus on the moment
Another method is to make action its own reward. Consider replayable FPS games, like Halo 3 or Star Wars: Battlefront. There's certainly some appeal to accomplishment, but the heart of gameplay is the thrill of combat. There are enough dynamics that one battle doesn't feel exactly like another. The player's focus is usually on the moment, rather than the goal.

If the goal is secondary to the experience, then failing to meet the goal because you had to leave the game abruptly isn't such a big deal. If I die in Halo, oh well; I'll just try again. Obviously, the previous method of penalty reduction plays into this; but penalty reduction doesn't undermine gameplay as much when the conclusion of an encounter isn't as important as the encounter experience itself. Thus, I think it's ultimately a different method.

The main casualty of abrupt leave-taking in MMOs is grouping. If you leave suddenly, your group is left with the consequences. A focus on the moment reduces those consequences significantly, since failing doesn't severely affect the group any more than it affects you. But this is where the style of a particular game becomes important. In a level based game, you can't simply rejoin the group at any later time, as one could in Star Wars: Galaxies (not counting shuttle time).

As I said recently on Craig's site, I think the best games combine experiential gameplay with achievement-focused gameplay. More emphasis on experiential play is advantageous for a number of reasons, but one reason for the emphasis in multiplayer games is the leeway for pausing. Even if a game is based on levels and progressive goals, enabling the player to focus more on momentary experiences will helps for brief player-leaves by making the replay of an encounter less annoying.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Don't say you can't please everybody

It's definitely true that "you can't please everybody", but developers should be careful about repeating that saying to their potential audience. It's easy to misinterpret as a dismissal of people or a side-stepping of the issue at hand.

In the first case, potential customers might wrongly assume that they will not enjoy your game because they're not members of your primary audience. But it's common that, while primary features of a game don't appeal to a particular gamer, its secondary features are enough to satisfy that gamer. So you stand to gain by not being dismissive of gamers who seem to have found your forums completely by accident.

In the second case, you're preaching to the choir. Gamers already know you can't please everybody, and reminders generally aren't useful. Even under the most horrific deluge of forum rants, bringing up that saying isn't going to calm anyone down or bring perspective to the discussion.

In face-to-face conversations, a calm and genuinely-sympathetic tone helps to calm angry and frustrated people. Unfortunately, tone can't be communicated as effectively without body language, so calming people through writing is much more difficult. Emoticons (smileys) help. Jokes help, though too many can make it seem like you're not taking the issue seriously. Also helpful is using longer sentences. Short sentences often feel terse, like the writer is irritable or impatient. But genuine patience and sympathy goes farther than any rhetorical trick, because a writer's mood tends to bleed into the writing.

Just because something is true doesn't mean it's the right thing to say at any given moment. "You can't please everybody" is the sort of truth that should be kept under your hat whenever you're dealing with customers. It's a saying to repeat to your fellow developers, not to your potential audience.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The flying dumpster

And the award for coolest bug goes to....

Halo 3: the flying dumpster!

Friday, October 26, 2007

Episodic content

This GamePlayer article asks the question: What is episodic content? Well, defining things has always been a fun game to me (it appeals to the scientist in me), so here's my answer.

First, what does the "epi-" mean in "episode"? The epicenter of an earthquake is the surface point directly above the earthquake's origin/center. An epilogue is the last section of a literary work or musical score, usually intended to bring closure to the greater work and often reflective.In literature, the word "epic" originally referred to stories, like Beowulf or The Odyssey, which were long adventures told a segment at a time. In fact, epic stories like those probably represent the first form of episodic content.

Next, what sorts of things do nearly all people accept as episodes? TV episodes can be steps in a linear story, like 24 or Heroes, or they can be related only in their connection to a general setting, like Star Trek or Seinfeld. Certainly, there are episodes of the latter shows which are connected to each other more strongly, but many of them can succeed without any familiarity whatsoever with previous episodes. So episodic content doesn't have to be part of a linear progression.

What about the timeliness of delivery? Episodic content encourages, but perhaps does not require, multiple occasions of delivery; and the delivery doesn't have to be regular.

Take Beowulf, for example. From what I remember, I doubt most students who have to read that epic poem in school think of it as episodic. That's because they don't absorb the tale in sections; they read straight through (stopping wherever the teacher thinks the endurance of the students will fail). Dividing a tale into segments doesn't force an audience to perceive hard distinctions between sections. It's like reading a thrilling book and leaping to the next chapter with hardly any notice of the break. Beowulf was episodic when it was first delivered by a poet over a series of nights, but not so much anymore. By contrast, the break between the first Jurassic Park film and the second would be noticed even if one began playing directly after the other. Delivery is often a factor, but it's not always a necessary part of episodic content.

As for regularity, think back to epic stories. If the poet delivers a bit of a story every night, that's cerainly episodic. But if he delivers the story at random intervals, does that mean it's not episodic? I don't think so. The progression of Alien films could be called episodic, despite that they were not produced in regular intervals. Likewise, wouldn't the Everquest expansions count as episodic content? Afterall, each expansion facilitated the continuation of a single player experience. Couldn't a veteran player's experience, which spanned many years and multiple expansions, be rightfully considered epic? If so, couldn't that be translated as episodic in the same way as the epic stories of literature?

Honestly, I think there's room for reasonable disagreement here. But am I far off?

One last thing. Episodic content may not have to be story-related. There's some grey area there, because stories don't have to involve dialogue or absolute linearity. I frequently talk about player adventures as narratives when their experiences are unrelated to scripted stories. But my point is that maybe "episodic content" can refer to item-based, physics-based, and otherwise non-story additions to gameplay which are clearly an extension of some kind to an old setting. The extension doesn't have to be progressive, but the two must be obviously bound. Perhaps the series of Mario and Zelda adventure games are good examples of this. Each new Mario game contains similar characters, but those games are focused on mechanics. The gameplay changes from one to the other, but the general style of gameplay, the philosophy behind it (broadly accessible, upbeat, environmental puzzles, simple whack-a-mole action, etc), remains the same.

.... Really, I'm not too proud of this article. =/ But at least it's a good challenge, right? What do you think makes game content episodic?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cheating that's good

I think it was Nintendo that introduced the gaming world to acceptable cheats. A cheat code could be entered in Contra for a hundred extra character lives. Other games allowed cheats to be entered for invincibility, special characters, and dozens of other perks. The goal was to increase a game's replay value by enabling players to approach it in multiple ways.

Games like Goldeneye on the N64 changed the rules a bit. The developers probably didn't want players to cheat their first time through the game and undercut the game's difficulty, so they came up with a system of gameplay achievements by which players had to earn their cheats. Some were harder to acquire than others. The cheats were also more depthful than those in most games. Playing through the game with dual SMGs or a grenade launcher made every level feel different, but players were capable of switching cheats (from one weapon to another) or ignoring them (going back to normal weapons for that level) in the middle of gameplay. It was a very dynamic system.

Yesterday, I watched a video showing a few skull (cheat trigger) locations in Halo 3 and their effects. The player is encouraged to explore the environments; sometimes in remarkable ways, such as using a mobile gravity lift to spring to out-of-reach places. The cheats can have great replay value (like the ability to turn off one's HUD, which even includes the player's gun graphic) and unexpected results (like hearing a fellow soldier yell, "For Sparta!").


CHEATS FOR MMOS?
Every cheat I can remember for any game is for solo play only. Afterall, we usually don't want one player to have a great edge over another. And perhaps MMOs, in particular, generally require a more level playing field, because the cheater is a component of the non-cheater's virtual world. But could there be room for something similar in MMOs?

Permanent effects? No, I don't see much viability for those. Goldeneye's unlimited ammo cheat and Contra's extra lives are example of permanent effects, because they can last through the whole game.

But temporary effects? Sure! Reward players in ways that only temporarily offer some fresh gameplay experience.

Exploration rewards
Just as real explorers get a rush of energy from making a discovery, players could get temporary bonuses from discovering particular objects, locations, and even information (such as in a conversation with an NPC).

Such buffs are particularly enjoyable when they are unique and clearly explained.

Unique how? If I'm rewarded for a discovery with a stat bonus I could produce myself or solicit from another player (like a simple shielding spell), then I probably won't feel any pressing need to make use of my reward before it fades. Oblivion offers combo buffs (like health + endurance) for Ayleid well discoveries, but that's not much better. The bonus shouldn't last too much longer than normal buffs, or else a player might run from one discovery to the next to build up enough power to, for example, make a boss fight easy. It's better to make the reward unique by type than by duration. Do something truly unlike the player has ever seen before.

Clarity means not just placing a spell icon in the corner and making your player go to his spell journal to figure out what the spell effect does, ala Oblivion. The effect's nature should be briefly and obviously explained without the player needing to flip through his interface.

Of course, rewards don't have to take the form of stat bonuses or powers. Discoveries can trigger ghost NPCs to appear and speak with the player, trigger epic and/or unexpected battles, trigger environmental events (ex: the player moves something out of curiosity and a small hut collapses, to the ire of the nearby homeowner), or any number of other things. But I suppose buffs are more in line with the topic of game "cheats". Still, if one of those NPC conversations or battles resulted in a faction advantage or special gear augmentation, it might count.

Achievement rewards
Defeat an encounter under special circumstances (ex: in a remarkably short amount of time, or disadvantaged in some way) and you'll receive a temporary reward. Or repeat an act for Nth time, like slaying your hundreth orc (not all in the same place, hopefully).

Community rewards
The player might even be rewarded for community participation or services. Give an item to a lower-level player for the Nth time and receive a reward. Or start/join a group for the Nth time. Or spend so much time/money on community items, like fireworks.

Promoting charity among players is something I'd really like to see rewarded more regularly in online games. Through smart rewards, you can get at least a small number of players motivated toward selfless actions during gameplay. And if you can motivate a few, those few will motivate many more through example.


Honestly, I don't think I covered this that well, but you probably get the general idea.

An open mind

Until I can finish thinking through my real post for the day, here are some quotes to chew on:


"The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid."
-- G. K. Chesterton

"A mind genuinely open with respect to everything would, like a box with no sides, prove in the final analysis to be empty, quite incapable of containing anything, even doubts."
-- Trevor A. Hart

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

AI and realism

There's a brief and astute article over at Game Producer pointing out that a perfectly accurate simulation of human intelligence would require an artificial intelligence that can make mistakes.

It raised an old debate in my mind about how closely we should want game AI to simulate human intelligence. Would instilling NPCs with true human intelligence really make games more enjoyable?

Certainly, different levels and types of AI make sense for different games, but I think the ideal for even the most complex and difficult games would not be an exact simulation of a human mind.

I generally don't enjoy multiplayer fragfests. That's partially because, ironically enough, the addition of human intelligence (i.e., other players) often detracts from a game's realism. Without a complete and perfect environmental simulation, players don't simulate realistic character actions.

For example, players in FPS multiplayer games are constantly juking and leaping back and forth, like balls bouncing off walls. I've got no problem with a tactical leap out of danger or the occasional juke to throw off the enemy's aim, but that players do this constantly and without any penalty to endurance is a step away from realism and toward arcade whack-a-mole action.

Players often do things which are advantageous, which help them win, but are not fun. In Fight Night: Round 3, a boxing game, I would be more likely to win matches if I only threw punches after the other boxer threw a punch and missed; that is, if I only threw counter-punches and never tried to hit my opponent otherwise. That's because any other punch I throw can potentially be blocked and answered with my opponent's own counter-punch. While it's realistic for a particular boxer to rely heavily on counter-punches, imagine if one threw only counter-punches in a real-life boxing match. He'd be booed out of the ring.

But that's a sort of strategy that is commonly employed by players in video games. They do what helps them win, not what makes for engaging play or realistic action. Gamers don't simulate only real behavior through their characters.

In short, the goal of a game's AI should be to create fun gameplay... not to exactly simulate human intelligence. Sometimes, human intelligence is an adversary to fun, because it doesn't match up well with unreal environments. Any game AI should correlate with whatever gameplay environment it serves. AI programming shouldn't just be pushing forward, always aiming at more complex and realistic simulations. It should be adapting our cumulative knowledge into particular AI schemas for particular games; each schema with its own individual function and unique relationship with other game features.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Gamer's Heaven shop

I added a link to Heather's gamer gear shop in my sidebar. Check it out sometime.

I think my favorite item might be the coffee mug that "Binds on pickup". =)

Offline multplayer

More information was released about the upcoming Turok multiplayer. It's going to be online only. =/

I'm sure I can't be the only 360 owner who doesn't have any face-to-face friends (as opposed to online friends) who also own a 360 and subscribe to Xbox Live's Gold service. I'm even more certain that a good portion of console gamers still prefer gaming with their buddies in one room to gaming with them online. It's a very different experience. And for all this talk about bringing new gamers into the market, making online multiplayer exclusive surely doesn't help.

I have nothing against online gaming, understand. I just think a lot of publishers and developers are over-estimating its appeal and importance. Offline gaming is still big business. Offline multiplayer is still big business (just look at the Wii).

For some games (perhaps for Turok), online just makes more sense. Perhaps the UI doesn't function well when reduced to a quarter of the TV screen. Perhaps it's pivotal that one player doesn't know what the other is seeing/doing (though we managed alright with Goldeneye N64). But, please, give offline multiplayer it's due. Please, developers, keep asking if it's feasible for your game. Please, publishers, don't demand online gameplay elements from your studios, because sometimes that just distracts from the game's true heart.

I'm still a big fan of offline multiplayer. So are millions of others. We crave sustenance! And online multiplayer is not a suitable substitute.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hellgate: London preview

Judging from the beta, it's not a game that will knock your socks off, but it is cool enough that I kept my pre-order. Occasionally, gameplay will feel repetitive. But at other times, it gets truly intense and offers some gameplay elements you don't see very often.

On a scale from 1-10 (where 5 really does mean mediocre, rather than bad), I'd place Hellgate: London somewhere around 7.5 or 8. It's worth the money and will offer some experiences you won't find anywhere else, but it can feel redundant. If you tend to make a lot of alternate characters, like I do, try to delay your alt-making as long as you can. You'll enjoy the game more if you keep pushing through.

But it's not a game for everyone, so I recommend reading on to see how it suits you personally.


Near-FPS
It's not an FPS game, but it's close. It's close enough that, if you're an FPS fan (like I am), you're likely to be frustrated initially by the stats-based auto-aiming. It's particularly frustrating when you get your hands on a more realistic weapon, like a sniper rifle. A sniper rifle is one of my favorite weapons in any FPS game, so not being able to zoom in for a careful headshot is torture.
But I got used to it after a while. I bet that many gamers won't be able to set aside those expecations so easily, so please don't take this as a promise that you would get used to it. It's part of my personality that I'm quick to accept whatever comes my way. If you're not that kind of personality, you might never be able to get past your true-FPS desires.

The right-click menus will take some getting used to as well. You don't right-click to pull up a menu, then left-click your selection. Instead, you right-click and hold the right mouse-button down, move to your selection, and let go.

Overall, the user interface is familiar. It's nothing you haven't seen a dozen times before. The non-combat action you'll be using most often is dismantling items (instead of selling them).

[edit] The game can be twitchy, if you want it to be. You can dodge fireballs and other missiles. You can sidestep some attacks. Timing your blows and movements can make a big difference. For example, those little tadpole guys zap you after they're dead... but they won't if you kill them quick enough, by closing the distance and timing your blow right. When those leaping dog-like demons leap for you, you can time the swing of your sword so that you catch them right before they land on you. There's also some environmental play that's based on timing. You can maneuver so that demons have to run by barrels to reach you, then you shoot the barrels as the demons run by and they explode. Positioning enemies can often be a big factor in combat.

Hellgate actually has a lot of depth to its action that's only noticeable if you take advantage of it. But if you want to play more casually, you can do that, too.


Demons and Combat
Flagship did a fantastic job in coming up with imaginative enemies, each type with a unique AI personality and impressive visual design.

Just in the first ten levels (minor spoilers), there are snipers which try to keep their distance, flying demons which swoop in and then back away, charging berserkers (some with the ability to stun), slow creepers which will breathe fire on you if you wait too long to attack, little tadpole-like creatures which will occasionally morph into something much larger and formidable, stitched-together monstrosities that release other zombies and bugs upon death, demon dogs which leap at you from far away, monsters which burrow into the ground and could pop up anywhere, and on and on. Like I said... that's just the first 10 levels!

Flagship's creature design is a wake-up call to other developers. I often think of what a great true-FPS these sort of enemies could make. One demon has a quick stride that sends him leaping from side to side as he charges at you. In a true FPS, trying to aim at a creature like that would be difficult, and could force the player to strategically change tactics or weapons (such as to a shotgun, which has a wider spread). In a true FPS, those dog-like demons leaping at you would be even more fun.

Hero monsters are back! Occasionally, you'll be surprised by a demon with a "rare" or "unique" name color, signifying that this demon is tougher than its brothers and may drop some especially nice loot if you kill it. This is the sort of dynamic content I was really hoping would make its way over from Diablo 2, and it did!

The demons wander constantly. You often have to pay attention to what's going behind you as well as shortly off in the distance. You might still be trying to fight a few demons when more wander into aggro range and join the fight. And many of the levels are cleverly designed so that you have to enter hallways or other areas with demons on two sides (i.e., turning your back to an enemy is, at least momentarily, unavoidable).

You're almost always fighting multiple enemies at once. Sometimes, you end up with more than you bargained for, fighting so many enemies at once that you're completely sucked into the game and tense with adrenalin. When you catch yourself sighing with relief, you know you've just had an intense gaming experience. For lovers of intense action, I recommend starting with one of the pet classes -- the Summoner or the Engineer (especially the Engineer, since their drones are ranged fighters). Blood-pumping chaos is the only way to describe many of my Engineer combat experiences.


The classes
There's something missing from the melee classes. The strong kinetic feeling just isn't there. I don't feel like I'm really beating the hell out of a demon (pun intended). No matter what I'm hacking on, the sound effect and animation is the same. I swing my sword, the enemy dies, but I don't feel a strong connection between the two.

The ranged classes, however, and the pet classes in particular, are a lot of fun. While I have to admit that I'm a little disappointed in the skill selection, in that skills don't quite match the variety and fun factor of Diablo 2's skills, Flagship has repeated Diablo's success of allowing players to customize characters into unique representatives of their classes. As an Engineer, you might concentrate most of your skillpoints on improving the armor and firepower of your drone; or you might enable your missile bot to fire more missiles; or you might empower your inhibitor bots to slow enemies even more; or you might power up your focused attack. Between loot and skill choices, there will be considerable variety among players of each class.


Visuals and Audio
Like I said, the creatures are well-designed. But I agree with Bildo that the levels often look too similar to each other. The interiors of the levels are usually different from one another, but the buildings which form the borders are the same. This definitely affects the player's enthusiasm, but the new demon types, weapons, and skills are enough to keep things interesting during progression.

Equipment looks great. All gear that I've seen looks pretty cool. Weapons, too. I wish I had a screenshot of my Guardian's glowing-rune-covered cricket bat. When ranged weapons are upgraded with fuel canisters or ammo clips, you actually see the upgrades on the weapon outside of the inventory screen. Flagship cleverly included a "vanity cam". Just hit "V" on your keyboard, and the camera will slowly turn around your character.

Many players will be irritated when a new helmet completely hides his or her character's face, but this is more than balanced by the ability to apply the color of one donned piece of equipment to the entire set. So if your boots are natively blue, your gloves are red, and your helmet is black, then you can choose to apply any of those color schemes to every piece of equipment you're wearing. Wisely though, the selected color is just the basis of the color scheme. So if you chose brown, your character's clothing wouldn't be entirely brown, but would end up looking something like this.

The sound effects are better than videos had led me to believe. Sometimes they're great, but sometimes they're mediocre. Reverb is applied universally; so there's a slight echo everywhere, like you were always fighting in a tunnel. I assume Flagship's audio team thinks that adds to the tone of the environment, but I think it was foolish.

The music is alright, but not wonderful. The trailer music is better than most of the in-game music. Honestly, music doesn't play much of a role in Hellgate. I rarely felt like the gameplay was more intense or otherwise appealing due to the music. The sound effects are far more important to this game. I wish they had contracted Matt Uelmen, who composed the outstanding environmental music to Diablo 2.


NPCs
There's a lot of humor. Some testers think that it's too much, but I enjoy it. The lore setting is pretty grim, but Flagship doesn't take it too seriously. You'll meet madmen, a vendor who cusses like a sailor and openly admits to selling junk, a woman who's constantly trying to seduce you (regardless if your character is a man or a woman), cowards and wimps, and many other funny characters. There are some serious characters as well, but the overall tone of NPC dialogue is meant to make you smile. So far my favorite character is the madman in the very first level, who is constantly muttering nonsense like "Twelve galaxies, and all coming at me!" and "...but that's not how much milk goes into scalloped potatoes, sir!".


Subscription or not
Bildo says that non-subscribers will get only 3 character slots. That's definitely annoying. Diablo 2 offered more than that, and that game's character classes were more different from each other than Hellgate's. As an explorer type, I make alts all the time. Right now, in beta, I have 6 or 7 characters. I'll miss that.

But I still don't plan on buying a subscription. They'll have to convince me of the value.


Familiarity
I've you've ever been to London, like I have, that will act as a bonus to your gameplay experience. I've been to the British Museum, so being able to fight in a simplified but easily-recognizable version of the museum was a thrill. If Flagship makes an expansion or sequel to Hellgate: London, then I hope they pick a new city for the setting. It would be great if everyone could experience what it's like for a real setting with personal relevance to be included in a game and refashioned with an element of fantasy.


The demo
Since I've been in the beta for about a month, I don't feel the need to try the demo. But I strongly recommend that anyone who is considering the game judges it from the demo and not just from videos and preview articles. Much about the game can't be captured in any way other than by playing it. Honestly, the videos I had seen made the combat seem pretty bland and low-energy, so it was only by playing the game that I realized how intense and dynamic it could be.


I'm sure there's other stuff I could talk about, like the crafting system, but that should be enough for you to know whether or not you want to try the demo. If there's anything else you want to know, just ask.

Give characters a bit of mystery

One of the things missing from many characters of fiction is mystery. Often, authors reveal too much. They explain every action, every dialogue, every relationship and circumstance. It's generally good to flesh out a character to some extent, but a little mystery goes a long way in making characters interesting and believeable.

It's like the one locked door when all other doors are open. Curiosity is an attractive force. When we're denied access to an area, we want to know what we're missing. And when the light are out, our imaginations replace the light with guesses.

If a character refuses to talk about something, we wonder why. If a character momentarily acts contrary to his or her usual personality, we wonder what we're not seeing and our imaginations race.

Sometimes, it's good to build tension like that and then allow the audience to find out how truth compares to their theories. But real persons always have a little touch of mystery, and I think audiences connect most strongly with fictional characters that are never fully explained. The mystery has to be smartly placed... there are certain things the audience will feel they have a right to know. But don't give them everything, no matter how hard they plead.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Beautiful Katamari: I don't get it

Every once in a while, I hear a game being raved about for months, then finally get my hands on it and think there must be something wrong with me... because the game sucks. Beautiful Katamari is definitely one of those games.

So maybe "raved" is a strong word, but this game has definitely received a fair amount of attention for being representative of taking gameplay in a different direction. Its name has been passed around in more than a few interviews I've read or watched in the past few months. Well, I finally got my hands on the Xbox 360 demo.

So why don't I like it?

First off, the controls are terrible. My third time through the demo, I still felt like I was dragging a car uphill. I could control the ball well enough to eventually get it in the direction I wanted, but I always felt frustrated. I was constantly fighting the camera.

Then there's the king, whose dominion obviously consists of opium fields. After his psychedelic entrance, the king goes into four or five lines of pointless dialogue. I'm assuming this game is directly primarily at very young kids, in which case the inclusion of such dialogue is boggling. But, even if it's directed at adults, what's the point of the empty exposition?

The gameplay can be summed as novelty. It's new and interesting, but could it really be fun after the first week? The only goal is to get your ball as big as possible. Accomplish that goal and you get a little praise from the King of New Orleans as well as a string of meaningless observations ("Your katamari is as big as 50 rubber ducks!"), but nothing that affects gameplay in any way. The real rewards are just your own satisfaction in the size of your katamari and grinning mischievously as you roll over a human being or someone's dog (which, again, is a novelty and fades quickly).

It might be a good game for a 5-year-old, but the shoddy controls would probably frustrate even a toddler. I don't say it's a game for toddlers because of the simplicity. I enjoy Bejeweled and Frogger, and games don't get much simpler than that. I say it's a game for toddlers because there's no reward structure. It's a sandbox, but a sandbox with only one thing to do... which makes it a sad sandbox.

And, yet, every media site has given Beautiful Katamari a rating above 7.

So... What am I missing? What makes this game worthwhile to so many other people?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good vs Evil: races

Tobold points out that MMOs which divide races into good and evil nonsensically give both sides the same quests and goals. He goes on to say he would probably enjoy a game more if races were morally neutral and it was left up to the player to define his or her moral alignment.

While I agree that such a setup could be fun, it could also be fun to keep races divided into good and evil but make their alignments show up in differences of goals and tasks.

Originally, I was going to cover how I might separate good-race gameplay from evil-race gameplay in more meaningful ways, but just covering why racial stereotyping in games can have value turned into a full article. So I'll go into the differentiating the gameplay in some later blog.


RACIAL STEREOTYPING IN GAMES
First off, what benefits could possibly come from dividing races by moral alignments, ala LOTR?

Simple loyalties and goals
Well, one benefit is that most people like having clear enemies and, consequently, clear goals. Just look at the best-selling films and novels throughout history. Sure, there have been some complex and twisted stories that have received large audiences, but the largest audiences have always been achieved by stories with the classic Good-vs-Evil dichotomy.

Game designers often come from an artsy crowd which loathes traditional aesthetic models, but the smart developer acknowledges that those traditional models are still today the basis of best-selling entertainment. That's not to say that most people can't appreciate complicated and unpredictable stories. It just means that the classic model of absolute/personified Good-vs-Evil still resonates with most people and remains highly profitable.

Cultural allegory
But why represent Good-vs-Evil through races, like Tolkien's elves-vs-orcs, rather than sticking to individual heroes and villains? Well, there are probably multiple reasons this could make sense, but the one most obvious to me is that it allows the storyteller to address cultural morality, rather than just individual morality. It's an allegorical way of addressing issues which are more social than psychological.

The importance of allegory
So why speak through allegory? Why not address real issues in a completely real setting? The beauty of allegory, of reducing complex realities to simple symbols, is two-fold.

First, symbolism is an act of qualification. If a child is asked to draw a house and does so by drawing a triangle over a square, then that child is revealing which elements of the house's design he or she considers most essential... which elements most define a house in his or her perception. In this case, the child is highlighting the overall shape, the frame of house, as its most important element. If, instead, color was the most important feature in the child's perception, he or she would have started drawing the house by filling in the middle of the drawing with colors. If the child adds a front lawn before adding windows or a door, then playing out in the yard or admiring the plants each time coming home is probably important to the child.

We all learn through symbolism as children, but I assure you that adults think in symbols just as commonly. We just don't speak in symbols as often, partially because modern culture holds facts as more important than storytelling and disvalues intuition (thinking with a floodlight, rather than a direct beam).

Second, symbolism is an act of organization. A connection can be drawn between particular elements of reality by how they are associated in the simplified picture (the symbol). In Tolkien's mythology, every elf is good and every orc is evil. In his LOTR, elves live in harmony with the forests. The homeland of the orcs, on the other hand, is full of fire and industry. All trees have been cut down to fuel "the machines of war", as was done around Isengard in The Two Towers. In this way, Tolkien associates brazen disregard for the natural world with evil. Harmony with nature and respect for its beauty are associated with goodness.

In short, the orientation of elements in relation to each other suggests to the audience a particular way of perceiving them. Such associations are sometimes intended to be absolutely accurate (i.e., "cutting down trees is evil"), but they are often intended only as guides for deeper contemplation (i.e., "Under what circumstances is killing trees evil?").

Allegory doesn't exclude real complexity
Think back to the beginning of the first LOTR movie. At Bilbo's birthday party, not every hobbit is a pleasant fellow. There's that one fat-cheeked guy who scowls at Gandalf and is still ohnery and scowling at the birthday party ("Proudfeet!"). In the book, Bilbo's relatives greedily quarrel over who will inherit his home. At the end of The Hobbit, which precedes the LOTR story, Bilbo returns from a long adventure to find that those relatives have already tried to declare him dead and take the home.

But hobbits, as a people and culture, clearly represent goodness. Note that they love gardening, which means, like the elves, they are associated with natural harmony. Between their love for nature and their love for food, ale and pipe-smoking, they're clearly associated with life.

Tolkien combines symbolism with realism. The petty greed of Bilbo's relatives and uninviting personality of that one hobbit in the film doesn't compare to the malice of the orcs, so he is able to maintain the hobbits' basic goodness while simultaneously including the small failures that help make characters interesting. If a hobbit had murdered another during the story, that race would no longer be a symbol of goodness (Golum was "like" a hobbit once, but he's separated enough to not tarnish the symbol).


Dividing races into Good and Evil doesn't prevent depthful portrayals of individuals. And it actually enables depthful exploration of cultural and individual character in many unique ways. If I was designing an RPG, I would probably use the familiar setting of Good-vs-Evil, but I'd try to ensure that "good" and "evil" are felt and seen... that they're not just shallow labels.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Replayability vs narrative

Ken Levine of the Bioshock design team commented that the game might receive some horizontal content expansion via Xbox Live.

If you played the expansion for either Diablo 2 or Battle for Middle Earth 2, then you understand what horizontal expansion content is. It means that, rather than just tacking content onto the end of a game, the developer adds content within the original game so that (ideally) the original game can be replayed and feel like a somewhat new experience. Games geared toward dynamics and replayability are particularly conducive to this sort of expansion. And this sort of expansion can be an easy sale, because it represents a lot of bang for your buck (both the developer's money and the gamer's).

BfME:2's Rise of the Witch King expansion added a new faction to play with, tweaked old factions with new units, improved the AI, and drastically complicated the "War of the Ring" game-mode. Diablo 2's Lord of Destruction expansion added two new player classes (one of which represented a fundamental change to gameplay, by focusing on attack combos) in addition to the campaign expansion.


Linear narratives can disrupt replayability
Dynamics and replayability are a selling point of Bioshock as well. But I don't think expanding the content horizontally will have as much impact with that game as with the fore-mentioned games.

First off, I never bought Bioshock. I'm sure that I will eventually, but the demo I played and videos I've seen have convinced me that I'd rather buy it after this fall's bounty of great games has passed and faded a bit.

However, one thing is clear enough from the demo and videos: the player is sometimes forced to focus on the storyline. There are scripted events the player must watch and cannot interact with. The first time through the game, that might not be a problem. But it's certainly a problem the second time through.

Halo 3 (which I do own) does the same thing. After you've played through the campaign once, you can skip the cinematics; but you still have to put up with forced downtime (story-driven periods without action) and cutscenes.

Forced downtime for story immersion is annoying when you already know the story.

Bioshock's DLC will sell as well as Oblivion's, but it won't sell as well as Lord of Destruction or Rise of the Witch King. It won't because the static narrative, which the developers made so central to the game, will get in the way of replayability.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Headbangers, rejoice!

If you're a headbanger and don't already know about BrĂ¼tal Legend: Roadshow of Destruction, check it out!

I just got finished reading that Game Informer article and I'm not sure I've ever been this excited about a video game before. Obviously the combination of my two greatest loves, gaming and rock 'n' roll, is to blame. And the fact that some great rockstars are getting involved takes it to a whole new level.

A summary wouldn't do that article justice. If you don't get the Game Informer magazine, go to a bookstore and buy this month's copy (or read the article there).

This is like my moshpit/ rock adventure idea x 10. I would love to help build or augment this game, but I'd settle for a few hours of metallic mayhem!

All dragons ain't the same

Nick recently commented on a scenario in which the dragon that his group was all anxious about and ready to kill politely challenged them to a game of chess.

One thought his post raises is how differently people consider dragons. "Dragons", probably more than any other fantasy character/element, calls up vastly different assumptions from different people.

Even though my first image of a dragon was probably Tolkien's dragon Smag in the old The Hobbit cartoon movie, I prefer dragons to be just powerful and intelligent animals (like the one in the movie Dragonslayer - my second dragon experience)... creatures which can't communicate with humans. Other gamers would be extremely disappointed if a game's dragon didn't talk.

Expectations are tricky. That old cartoon also gave me my first goblins. Goblins there are big, powerful, ferocious and truly frightening (if dumb). I like EQ2's goblin models, but I would have preferred them to be more seriously toned.

What's the best way to handle the diverse expectations when dealing with familiar creature types?

Is it fine to rub against the grain; to expect gamers to push past their assumptions and accept the gameworld for what it is? Is it best to invent your own creatures, but make them resemble known creatures in name and in model? Or should the resemblance be visual only? Or is it better to invent entirely new entities which could only fit in your unique gameworld?

Honestly, I don't think there's one right answer that applies to all fantasy or sci-fi games. But I'd be interested in hearing what route others would choose.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Networking: non-linear faction

Today, Brian challenges folks to design a quest around an area which requires significant player investment to access. If the player had to work to reach the area, there had better be something worth going there for.

I suggested going with a faction reward. One of the NPCs in the more accessible gameworld is connected somehow with one or more of the NPCs in this offset area. By coming back to the mainland NPC with evidence of the meeting, the player would have a new faction standing only possible that way. It's not just the next leg of a questline. It's a faction relationship with ongoing benefits (quests, further networking opportunities, gear, etc)... benefits which can be added to or modified by developers at any time.

It occurred to me that what I was suggesting is a non-linear NPC relationship.

In current MMOs (and games in general), factions appear almost exclusively as ladders. They're linear. "Finish this job, and I'll give you the next one." or "Finish this job, and you'll be promoted (so I can give you the next job)." A few single-player games, like Deus Ex, offered branching questlines; the player could choose which branch to follow. But even those were basic; essentially about progression from StepA to StepB.

Another possibility is realistic networking. Networking reaches out, not just up. In a game that's less about levelling than about exploring and experiencing, ala Star Wars: Galaxies, networking is a viable and more engaging form of faction gameplay.

Let's use a Star Wars universe for an example. Hans Solo (a smuggler) knows Lando (a mine owner), Luke (a jedi) and Leia (a princess and military official). They're all bigshots, right? They're people with a lot of power or influence. But Hans and Lando probably also know some mechanics and small-time smugglers. Luke grew up on a farm, so he could point you to some farmer friends and maybe have some trading pull with the Jawas near his hometown. Leia... well, ok, so maybe Leia only knows important people.

The point is that those connections back to people of lesser power and fame can be just as valuable at times, even when you're discounting personalities.

And, perhaps more importantly, connections are personal. Players would take more interest in the NPCs they interacted with if they knew that not every other player (or every other player of their particular class) had the same relationships. It certainly takes more planning from developers, but more intricate NPC relationships could offer replayability and customization.

Maybe my character has strong relationships with a lot of rough and shady NPCs, while your character flirts with various NPCs with political interests (large and small). As I've suggested somewhere before, one player's faction can temporarily influence the group's faction. If my character's in good standing with Joe Roughneck and you have neutral faction with him, then he'll be somewhat amenable to you as long as you're grouped with me. On the other hand, if you stole Joe's money purse just last week, then Joe might not speak a word to me as long as you're around.

And, of course, faction doesn't have to take the form of an on/off switch. It doesn't have to be as simple as "Good faction = offer the player a quest / Bad faction = be rude and send the player away". Neverwinter Nights had NPCs which acknowledge more graded differences, like intelligence and appearance. Rewards can be as simple as different dialogue options, but they can go further.

If players had truly individual sets of relationships with NPCs, and one player's network of NPC ties could affect another player's gameplay, faction gameplay would be more fun and worthwhile.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The EA purchase will turn out well

So, as everyone now knows, Bioware and Pandemic were bought by EA. A lot of folks are talking like this is scary, but I want to talk about why I'm optimistic.

First, I recommend reading this coverage, since it's the only place I've read some important details. The most interesting point there is that EA doesn't have a history with open-ended RPGs, which is one of the main reasons they bought Bioware.

EA's got the money and the connections to market Bioware and Pandemic games on TV. Next time you lament the poor image gaming has in mainstream culture and your friend or family member's complete disinterest in your favorite passtime, think of EA advertising something like Mass Effect between CBS dramas or some Pandemic mayhem between TNT action flicks. This will help generate interest among non-gamers.

EA supposedly knows how to let developers be free. Of course, a Pandemic representative's going to say that after the purchase. But just look at the other developers, like Maxis [edit: can anyone find a link to a list of EA's other studios?], who have been with EA for years and continued to make quality games. EA certainly publishes some utter crap, but they know how to publish quality games as well.

And what form does their garbage usually take? Movie-based games. EA is more guilty than anyone else for putting out terrible games based on Hollywood IPs. This is where I have the most hope for the EA-Bioware partnership. Bioware's emphasis has always been on storytelling, and they've always gravitated toward the linear storytelling methods of films and literature. Honestly, I think the best model for a film-based game is an open world that only uses the film as a setting, rather than taking players down the film's linear adventure. But if the traditionally linear model is going to be applied, then Bioware's the best company to do it. I wouldn't be surprised if Bioware develops the first film-based game that's actually good.

It wasn't until this morning that I realized this represents a convergence of three companies which have each made one of my favorite games. Bioware made Neverwinter Nights; a game limited by the D&D license but full of meaningful customization and open-ended gameplay (in comparison with other games of the time). Pandemic made Star Wars: Battlefront; a wonderfully original game that was fast-paced and replayable for months. And EA made Battle for Middle Earth: 2; my favorite RTS of all time. All three games have elements which I hope to use as models for my own designs one day. These are all companies I respect, for different reasons.

So I'm hopeful about this EA deal. I don't expect we'll see any development effect until late next year, but this may lead to new innovations as each company coaxes the others into unexplored territory.


By the way, I know it might seem a little odd that I called Bioware's games linear and then praised NWN for being open-ended. I was referring to different elements of their games. Bioware designs relatively open-ended gameplay, but their storytelling follows more linear models. Mass Effect might allow for a lot of wandering and different dialogue-story branches, but it still makes the story the character's story more than the player's story. The player's choices essentially unlock dev-created stories, as opposed to the emergent and player-founded storytelling of MMOs and games like The Sims or Battle for Middle Earth: 2 multiplayer campaigns.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Permadeath and sacrifice

Brian made an interesting comment to his blog about the nature of evil:

"One problem is that games don't provide real opportunities for heroism, because there are no opporunties for sacrifice. Throwing yourself at an enemy in an act that guarantees your death is meaningless, because you're only "wasting" a few minutes of your time. This is one of the reasons I don't ignore permadeath arguments, because I think it gives people more opportunities for heroism and truly noble acts."

I've written before about heroism and sacrifice in games, but it's interesting to consider specific sacrifices being directly designed as possibilities.

For example, in a permadeath game, it would be possible to offer players specific skills/abilities which would be powerful enough to save one's teammates (or other entities) but ensure permanent death to that character. In other words... a true sacrifice.

Our whole group is near death and a new horde of enemies is just arriving to finish us off, so I call upon my Divine Charge ability... which I earned through a quest or some other trial. My character sprints toward the horde as I'm gradually surrounded in a blinding white light. When I hit the horde, there's an explosive flash of light and smoke. As the smoke clears, the enemies lie dead in a circle, and my character is gone forever. My groupmates, on the other hand, are saved.

How can sacrifice be designed for in a game without permadeath?

I'll try to come back with some ideas later, but I want to throw that question out there for now.


edit: Cameron's comment reminded me an example of non-permadeath sacrifice I proposed in a previous post:

"You've discovered an epic weapon which belonged to a great hero of the city Stoneridge. By removing the weapon from his bones, you have upset the hero's spirit. As long as the weapon is parted from the hero's tomb, his angry spirit haunts the city. Stoneridge citizens are angry with you for dishonoring their hero and causing the haunting. Do you return the weapon, despite its great stats? Do you abandon the town, ignoring the NPCs' troubles and the complaints of other players that some of the Stoneridge merchants are charging higher prices to people of your faction and/or guild? Do you seek out the ghost, and make a compact that allows you to keep the weapon if you'll use it to follow in the hero's footsteps as long as you possess it (such as keeping the city's surrounding population of bandits down to a particular level, perhaps with the aid of friends)?"

Does this scenario represent a player's opportunity for true sacrifice?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ideas and production

Something that often gets said, and in many fields other than game design, is the "put up or shut up" argument. Basically, this argument claims that production/performance is hard work, whereas "ideas are cheap", and then makes the further claim that your ideas and criticisms are worthless until you've experienced the trials of production and prove that you can produce/perform them into concrete objects/experiences.

There are three reasons this argument doesn't hold water.


#1: Ideas and production are separate, though related, skills which are often found in separate individuals.

Extremely few persons are masters of both detailing ideas and realizing ideas in concrete productions. Most people are much stronger in one endeavor than the other.

Many successful business relationships have been formed between individuals who represent the opposite extremes. A classic example is songwriters and performing musicians. If Beethoven never learned to play an instrument, who would care? Nobody. He'd still be revered as a great composer. I know exactly what it's like to be able to create music I can't perform, and I admire plenty of excellent performers who can't create. Architects and construction managers are another good example (a buddy of mine has been both).

Learning one helps with the other, but don't discount the folks who specialize in one end of the spectrum. Expecting all people to be proficient in both creation and production is just plain silly. Keep an eye out for the programmers and artists with technical mastery and no imagination; listen to the spacey dreamers who will never finish a project of their own.


#2: Ideas aren't always cheap, and production isn't always expensive or hard work.

There is such a thing as inspiration (Eastern thinkers might prefer wu-wei). Sometimes, ideas flow effortlessly. But deep and careful planning often requires a significant investment of time (which, as the saying goes, is money) and exhausting effort. Even if we're only talking about design theory, is anyone really going to claim that Aristotle's Poetics, the philosophical treatise on aesthetics still used as a literary guide millenia after its conception, was cheap or easy? And note that Aristotle never wrote a play, himself.

That it's an extreme example doesn't detract from the point I'm making: ideas can be expensive. Not every "armchair designer" is speaking off-the-cuff. Careful, deliberate thinking can be arduous. Most people know what it's like to give up trying to reason something out because it's too difficult and exhausting. Theorists and dreamers don't have it easy.

The flipside of that coin is that flow occurs just as often in implementation as with ideas. It's not only possible but common for implementation of ideas to flow. My main point, however, is that we should acknowledge and respect the hard work of both creators and implementors.


#3: The ignorant are full of wisdom.

Parents are often amazed by the deep wisdom that can come from young, uneducated children. Likewise, even idiots and hopeless idealists occasionally offer profound insights.

I have yet to meet anyone who didn't have something to teach me. If you're willing to talk about deep, specialized subjects with kids and adults with very little knowledge on the subject, you'll be surprised how often they say something or do something that really gets you thinking more deeply or broadly. The large and fragmented societies of our modern age have developed an obsession with experts; to highlight some simple clarity in the constant noise. There's much brilliance and beauty to be found inside the noise... if you're willing to be patient and tolerant; to keep looking and listening (to even the ones who annoy you).

I was gifted with a unique chance to learn that lesson, being autistic (which means I've always prioritized logic and truth over culture and social ease). I assure you: if you listen only to the experts, you're missing out.


...but they do have a point.

"Put up or shut up" isn't without an element of truth, of course. People often use the expression after they've heard a particular criticism for the hundredth time, in which case the words might not be any more meaningful than "damn!" (in other words, it's an expression of emotion, rather than logic). But the truth is that experience does matter, and confidence in ideas is sometimes due to ignorance. That realization, though, should be balanced with the realization that experience is not always necessary, and untried confidence is sometime soundly and rightly based.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Demo ramblings

Today, I'm just going to talk about what I liked in some demos I've played over the past week or two, and the ideas they've spawned.


BLADESTORM
Bladestorm isn't a game I would buy, but it's a very interesting game concept; something I hope inspires other game designs.

It brings RTS gameplay into a close third-person perspective focused on an avatar and one unit (swordsmen, bowmen, pikemen, cavalry) directly controlled by the player. You feel the battle from the more personal and chaotic ground-level perspective. I'd like to see more ground-view RTS gameplay.

Your units gain skillpoints and can be upgraded RPG-style. Most RTS games have upgrades, but they're based on "research" which is not connected to any unit's actions. RPG-style upgrades and customizations are based on the concept of growth from experience. How far could this be pushed?

Most of the gameplay is more tactical than strategic, but the game also has a strategic map. The map is dotted with all the forts and lands each army controls, and the player gets to choose which battle to fight next. Since I started playing Battle for Middle Earth: 2's "War of the Ring" (Risk-style war campaign) mode, I've been a huge fan of strategic maps in RTS games. It might be cool to see something similar in an FPS game, allowing the player to choose which area to fight through next.

The game's also interesting in that it's clearly an Asian developer designing in a setting of 17th-century Western Europe. Seeing a setting like that done in an Asian art-style and with Asian aesthetics is strange. Some of the game mechanics have an oriental flavor, too, like all the numbers representing damage that flash over NPC heads (sure, Western games do it as well, but it's something that was picked up from Nintendo and Sony... and something that's still done a little differently in each region).


CONAN
Another XBLA demo. Again, not one I plan on buying, but I'll probaby rent it sometime.

This game has the best voice-acting I've heard in a game yet. The adjoining animations could use a little work at times (the woman's eyebrows rise at awkward times), but the acting was superb. I'd be interested to know if this was all due to the actors or the developers and recording crew had a hand in it.

Being able to pick up a dead enemy's sword, throw it at someone, then pick up another enemy sword is pretty sweet. Fighting with one scimitar, two scimitars, and one greatsword all felt significantly different from each other.

I like the split-second opportunities that arise in combat. If you block an enemy's swing at just the right time, with some other factors involved that I couldn't figure out, then the game pauses for half-a-second as it offers you a chance to perform a special kill. I would take the arcade "push B!" message out of it, but the general idea is cool.

I like how the enemies strategically surrounded me whenever they got the chance. Some animations could have been tailored more to that scenario.


THE SIMPSONS
And another XBLA demo. This one feels mainly like a puzzle-solving game, but the humor is obviously the hook.

I loved the beginning of the demo, with the TV news reporter. I can't describe it, so you'll just have to play it. The reporter continues to comment on the game's events as if he's describing them to his TV viewers, and it's hilarious. He doesn't just comment when the gameplay moves forward (when you solve one of the puzzles). His comments occur at fairly regularly intervals regardless of progression, but those comments are also relevant to what's happening most of the time.

Comedic commentary and funny dialogue are great additions to many games; even serious war games.

Games masters and live events

GAME MASTERS
Even people who are not into fragfests sometimes lament the static, linear nature of PvE content caused by a game's reliance on computer, rather than human, intelligence. Game masters reintroduce the responsive creativity which only human beings are capable of. But it's important to note that there are many different ways a game master can provide content to players.

The little things
One way is for the GM to focus on creating relatively simple and brief experiences for one player or a handful of players at a time.

I've written before about using directly developer-controlled NPCs with little planning to provide what I call shadow content. This is one form of game mastering which I believe is very powerful and cost-efficient.

That Halo 3 video I linked to the other day is a great example of how one player's unique experience can catch the imaginations of thousands, exciting current players and inspiring them to continue exploring while simultaneously convincing potential players that the game can provide them with fun, memorable experiences. One video like this retains players and sells games. Ten videos like this (similarly unique experiences) convinces people that such experiences don't just happen to the very lucky; that influences the player's crucial long-term expectations (particularly vital to MMOs).

If tales of experiences like this are constantly being shared by word-of-mouth in your game and through videos on YouTube or elsewhere, then you'll have a consistently strong playerbase.

It's even more effective at player retention if you reward knowledge of such fleeting experiences. One of the great things about being a veteran of any community is being able to share stories from way back when. So, for example, a particular NPC is famous for her scowl and frightening disposition, but veteran players can remember how cheerful and kind she was before a particular incident (perhaps a whimsical scenario created by a GM with little planning, but recorded for future reference and possible use). As a result, veteran players can tout their memories, and veteran players are encouraged to interact positively with new players through the sharing of such memories (induction into the communal history -- an important element of socialization).

Full adventures
Another way GMs can provide content is through lengthier, more scripted player experiences.

These experiences would generally cost more time and assets to produce, but that is balanced by the fact that they can be repeated for multiple players. What sets these experiences apart from PvE adventures is that a good GM can slightly modify the adventure in response to particular player personalities and circumstances. They are thereby more rewarding to players and potentially more memorable experiences.

Conversation is the most obvious way this happens. A computer can only respond with rote messages and will miss many social and affective cues the players are giving. If an NPC is capable of pithy jabs and circumstantial comments, then interacting with him/her/it is infinitely more interesting.

Another way a GM can make a difference is to withhold and release information to players in response to their individual needs and preferences. Two players might both like mysteries but have vastly different prowess or skills for puzzle-solving. In that case, it makes sense to provide one with more/different clues than the other. The GM can also assess combat difficulties for players, giving a particular group an idea of how their unique combination of classes and gear will likely fare in a particular encounter, thereby helping players to find the difficulty level they're looking for.

Caution: There is a big difference between this type of GM content and shadow content. With the shadow content, any given player might expect to experience some of this content directly every now and then, but the player has no or little expectation of control over the experience (meaning both what happens and when it happens). Prescripted adventures, on the other hand, usually appear as selected services; it's like a themepark ride which the player may approach and expect a predictable experience from.

That means that, while the experience itself might not be very costly (considering that it is repeatable content), there are a number of peripheral costs. Because the player is promised a particular experience, the player may complain and perhaps expect recompense if the experience doesn't match expectations. The player may expect a certain level of accessibility, in terms of being available at regular times, in regular durations, and to equal enjoyment of all kinds of players. If you design the content to avoid these terms, then you must fight a battle of expectations.


LIVE EVENTS
Live events might or might not involve a GM, but they're generally focused at a game's entire playerbase or an otherwise large number of players.

Live events are shows. Players expect a spectacle.

You might think of the fore-mentioned GM adventures as being like going to see a movie in the theater. If the movie is bad, you'll probably be a little annoyed but not really get angry. Afterall, you probably expect movies to be hit-or-miss, you were able to join the experience by simply buying a ticket a couple minutes before the show started, and there are enough theaters around town that this one was close by. In short, you didn't plan much or invest much in the experience, and movies are common enough that one falling short isn't such a big deal.

Live events in an online game, on the other hand, are more like rock concerts. The experience usually requires more planning and investment from participants. And a good band putting on a big show near you is something that doesn't happen all the time, so you expect a truly memorable experience which you'll be telling your friends about weeks, months, or even years later. You're probably not even expecting new songs (analogous to a game's assets), but just expecting those songs to be used and augmented in a fresh and memorable way.

Live events generally require a lot of developer investment, but they can produce big rewards. These events stand tall in players' perception of your game. If the quality and polish are there, players will be talking about the experience for months. They'll excite each other about the game through memory sharing and speculation on future events. An event can even get players looking at old content in a fresh way. Live events are also more likely than regular gameplay to attract the attention of non-players. That's partially because participants are more likely to talk about fresh and big experiences; and it's partially because big events are more conducive to advertising -- it's easier for a themepark to attract people by advertising a new ride than by selling a new vision of the old park. Live events help keep the game fresh and feeling like a living game.

Live events also offer unique opportunities for testing and selling content. At rock concerts, multiple bands play together. It's common for attendees to go there for one band and "discover" one or more of the bands also performing. The supporting bands will thereby get feedback, publicity, and even sell a few albums. Likewise, a live event can include samples of future content. By doing this in the content's prototype stage (albeit, with more polish than a prototype would usually receive), developers can get feedback before more significant investment. Devs can also include samples of content from expansion packs, thereby marketing the expansions. If your game involves microtransactions, then the event can highlight some of those, like bands selling albums and paraphenalia at their concerts.


Anyway. A long article, I know. In summary:

---Small, unsolicited GM experiences are a shoe-in. Absolutely, they are well worth the expense.

---Scripted, solicited GM services can be costly. Manage expectations carefully. Ensure the quality of your GMs (patience, on-the-spot creativity, thorough understanding of both the game and social interaction, etc) and provide appealing avenues of feedback.

---Big events are great, but don't include them unless the quality is there. If the quality and polish are there, then good control of expectations can actually make these high-expense productions into low-risk scenarios (like rock concerts). They can be great testing and marketing tools. Just remember that games are about interactivity, so players should feel like participants and not just spectators.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Multiple faction conflicts

It's great to involve the player in an epic struggle through faction conflict, such as the Galactic Civil War between the Empire and the Rebellion in Star Wars: Galaxies. But that epic conflict doesn't have to be the only faction conflict, and players don't have to owe allegiance to only one community.

All persons have multiple allegiances. You might have loyalties to friends, to family, to your nation, to your local area, to a club, to a religious or political organization, and on and on. So if it's so common to have multiple loyalties and participate in multiple faction conflicts in real life, a similar situation certainly wouldn't feel strange in a game.

One way this can show up is conflicting loyalties, a dominant theme in most successful stories of fiction. If you played Deus Ex, then you might remember your character having to decide between his loyalty to his government employer and his loyalty to his brother (who the government agency claimed to be a traitor), with a strong consequence in terms of gameplay. Likewise, an MMO player might have to decide between a larger faction and a more local faction.

But it's also possible to allow a player to join multiple faction conflicts which do not directly relate to one another. The player might be a soldier in the epic war (pick a side), a crafter in a city's Traders Guild (which competes with other cities), a frequent military escort for a friendly local NPC (who the local bandit faction likes to target), a defender of the region's "Hadrian's Wall" (which holds back some really nasty monsters only so long as players continue to cull their population), and so forth.

Characters of any fiction are often more interesting when they have multiple loyalties, multiple goals and considerations; when they are not just stick-figures that look the same from every side. Aside from offering players a greater variety of gameplay options, allowing players to join multiple factions and on-going conflicts would make their characters deeper and more worthy of attachment.

Screenshots on the wall

Ha! And you thought I was going to miss a day here. =P I finally thought of something to write about.

I was browsing the .pdf manual for my recent purchase of the Rise of the Witch King expansion for my Battle for Middle Earth: 2. I go to the options and it says something about ordering a print. I'm sure it only meant a print of the manual, but my first thought was that EA was offering to turn one or more of my game screenshots into a print.

Ok, so if I doubted before that I'm a geek, I don't any more... the idea of turning a game screenshot into a poster sounds pretty slick to me! For this game in particular, but I can just imagine having one or two screenshots from every great game I've played stretched out across my wall.

My wookiee ranger from Star Wars: Galaxies with his spectral snake pet. My skull-faced, spike-adorned blaster from City of Heroes tossing a fireball toward the camera. My goblin horde overwhelming the enemy with some help from the dragon Drogoth in BfME:2.

The problem, of course, is that blowing up a picture is hard to do and maintain clarity, especially in spottily pixelated game screenshots. But I bet a screenshot taken in 1600X1200 on a high graphics setting could turn out great, if only with a little tweaking.

Honestly, I'm a little surprised I haven't heard of a business yet that does just that... tweaks and blows up screenshots for gamers. If any of you decide to take it up, I might order some prints from you. =)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Dynamics and Halo 3

A shining example of the huge amount of fun that the simplest dynamic can add to a game. This is the sort of experience a player can have just once and he'll be hoping for, half-expecting, a similar experience for months.

The simplest of dynamics...

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Graphics do matter

Not always. It certainly depends on the type of game. But I'm getting tired of hearing folks talk about entire genres of games (like MMOs) saying the graphics are not that important.

Half the fun of a Harry Potter movie is to be dazzled by the wondrous imagery. Likewise, in many RPGs and MMOs, much of the attraction is the imaginative visuals.

There's value in a text-based game that lets the player's imagination create the imagery. There's value in a Habbo-style presentation that gives players only a visual foundation from which to imagine. But there's also value in the big-budget productions that do most of the imagining for the players.

Games don't have to strangle your computer to present impressive visuals. One of EQ2's most attractive features to me is the cinematic graphics, but WoW's graphics also impress me. No, not to near the same extent (I probably took 10 times as many screenshots of EQ2 experiences than WoW), but WoW's are good enough that I'm experiencing the gameworld more than creating it in my head. It's a very different form of entertainment than something like Habbo or Puzzle Pirates.

That's basically what it boils down to: I want to experience RPG worlds, not create them (as a player). Good graphics enable that. I've tried many free MMOs, and one of the reasons not a single one has interested me is that the graphical environment doesn't suck me in. Honestly, if the graphics are there, I can go a long way in creating my own gameplay.

I don't prefer good graphics only because I'm part of the computer generation which follows each new wave of visual technology with enthusiasm. In the movie and TV industry, many works undeniably succeed largely in thanks to their visual quality and imagination. If your game is a video game, you can expect many people to care about the video element.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Class design: power vs responsibility

Often, if not always, roles are more about responsibility and function than about power.

There's no reason a store manager can't mop the floor or that a janitor can't help solve a customer's financial issue, but the roles (in this case, defined their job titles) represent who is responsible for what. Once your role is fulfilled, you can do things outside of role. So, to continue the example, the janitor can answer phonecalls and emails, but he's being paid for cleaning. If the store isn't clean, it doesn't matter much how he helped the store's customers in other ways. It's honorable when the store manager helps clean the store himself, but not if he neglects his duties in the process.

In other words, roles are not defined by abilities alone. Just because you are capable of doing something, that doesn't mean you should do it or are responsible for it. And just because you're responsible for a particular role, that doesn't mean your abilities should be limited to that role.

And there's the rub. In current RPGs and most games in general, roles are defined by abilities. Each role (class) has its own set of abilities which others are generally excluded from.


SEPARATING CLASS AND ABILITIES
A model which makes more sense to me is to open up all, or most, skills to any player and simply categorize those skills by function for informative purposes only. This way, the player knows what skills support what role, but he may approach that role in his own personal way. The player can choose, to a fine degree, how specialized or generalized he wants to be.

Build a character specifically for soloing. Or market yourself to groups as a specialist in particular situations, such as fighting ranged spellcasters. Be the crafter who can't build armor for his life but makes the best swords in the region. Or be the jack-of-all-trades, who can always find a group because you can fulfill any role... your lack of prowess in any particular role balanced by your ability to combine very different skills to great effect.

Like other features I've proposed, this doesn't make sense in a level-oriented game. In a game like WoW, with areas divided by the level of content within them, strictly defined classes allow the developer to control the pace of the players' progression and the difficulty of each area. If you can count on the player having a particular set of skills, you can design an encounter around those particular circumstances.

But a system like this does make sense in an MMO more similar to SWG, with a relatively open world in which a harmless rabbit and powerful giant might be found within a stone's throw of each other.

Factions and quests are better suited to providing roles than skills. Allow the player to choose what causes she will serve and what function she will play in their plans. Let the player explore and back up, to find his or her own path through experience, like in real life. Don't expect the player to plan a whole future in the first hours or even days of gameplay.

Monday, October 01, 2007

U-turns

How do y'all feel about gameplay changing dramatically half-way through a game?

MMOs usually do it at the high end. In EQ or WoW, the player is expected to focus on raiding. In Shadowbane, the high end switches to RvR.

A number of successful single-player games have done it, too. Half-Life switches from human and humanoid enemies to strange alien enemies. Halo switches from the Covenant to the Flood.

In MMOs, I don't want my game to be narrowed to a fine point at the end, much less a sort of gameplay that bears little resemblance to what I've been enjoying for months. In Half-Life, I didn't like the alien levels. In Halo, I didn't like the Flood levels.

The thing is... I don't believe a game must stay the same the whole way through. I'm not against new goals and new gameplay elements emerging late in the game.

I think my problem with this sort of U-turn in a game is that what I'm given and enjoy in the beginning is later taken away. That's what shouldn't happen. It's alright to broaden the players' options and experiences, but don't force players to give up the elements they've become attached to.

In the case of Halo and Half-Life, the problem wasn't just that my old enemies and environments disappeared; my combat options were reduced. The Flood are always rushing toward you, and they don't let their guard down. The Flood levels included fewer weapons, fewer vantage points. As a result, fewer tactics worked against them. It's alright to reduce options sporadically, such as a particular tactic being useless against BossNPC#22 but being useful in the fights shortly following that one; but gameplay options shouldn't be reduced continuously.

In MMOs, early options and avenues almost completely disappear. In particular, the games are designed so that levelling and skill progression is the primary focus, then that progression stops entirely until the next expansion.

In an MMO, I think a better model is to encourage goals to change but never cease to offer familiar content and gameplay. In a level-based game, that's near impossible to apply universally. But I'm going for a more SWG/Halo type of power system, so maybe I can do better.

Anyway, what do you think? What am I missing?