Wednesday, December 31, 2008


New Year's Eve is about anticipation. We know what's going to happen, and when it's going to happen. We watch the ball in New York, and cheer and drink when it hits the end.

We could use more moments like that in games: knowing exactly what's going to happen and when, squirming with excited anticipation.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Achievements and trophies

As I said over at Osbon's, the Achievements I enjoy most are the ones that reward lucky, odd, and crazy things. Crackdown has an Achievement for using the harpoon gun to pin three or four people to the same car. It also has an Achievement for leaping from the top of the tallest skyscraper and falling (harmlessly) into the bay below. Those aren't just accomplishments. Those are memorable moments. Trophies and Achievements can help preserve such fond memories.

Completing a level or chapter is often not a memorable moment. Every adventure game I play has Achievements for completing each level, but I don't remember many of those times. Still, having Achievements for the completion of levels is good, because it helps friends keep track of how far you are in a game and inspires friendly conversation.

There are ordinary moments like these that are worth commemorating (rewarding effort can be done in better ways). But, overall, Achievements should celebrate extraordinary moments. Those are the moments worth remembering. Those are the moments that gamers are most inclined to share, thereby promoting the game and aiding its longevity, among many other benefits.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

BfME2 and more

To anyone who has played LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2 on the 360 or another console, please try the game out on PC. I got the console version for Christmas, and it doesn't hold a candle to the PC version. The console version is alright. The PC version, with much better controls and the War of the Ring mode, is a masterpiece.

I've got a big family, including close extended family, so I always get a lot of presents around Christmas. This year, I got the console version of BfME2, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Fallout 3, and Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix... and I just bought myself Bioshock on the PC for five bucks through Steam (awesome deal!). And my sister bought herself a Wii, with Wii Sports and Wii Play.

I know I'm going to be obsessed with Fallout 3 once I begin, so I'm saving that 'til after I've put in time with the other games.

GH: World Tour
rocks! I had heard that real guitarists have trouble with it. But I've been playing for over 15 years and I find that my experience helps me. That's probably because I play a lot of games as well. There's not many DLC tracks yet, but I'm sure there will be soon. I'm disappointed that so many songs aren't available in Head-to-Head multiplayer (not at start, anyway... perhaps they unlock). And as a songwriter, I'm thrilled by the possibility of publishing some compositions of my own, but the recording studio seems to be unnecessarily arduous and ineffectual. It tries too hard to make the note sequencing simple and similar to the rest of the game, rather than just using individual buttons to act like FruityLoops. Anyway, this is my first instrument game, and they're definitely on my must-have list from now on. It's a great way to enjoy music.

I'm not sure how much I'll enjoy the Harry Potter game, but I do like the idea of wandering around a 3-D Hogwarts. I'm a sucker for elaborately detailed settings that are so rich in imagination.

Yesterday was my first time to play a Wii. My initial impression: awesome, but poorly introduced. We knew enough to play and have fun, but exactly how our characters played was largely be accident. It's fine not forcing us through long tutorials at the beginning, but give us the option to learn. Anyway, we enjoyed both games, but Wii Play was especially cool. The air hockey game is awesome!

Any recommendations for Wii games? Not for me, but for a woman who hasn't played many games since the original Nintendo. My sister loved the original Mario Kart on the SNES (who didn't?), so I'm thinking she'd like Wii version. Boom Blox also seems like a possibility.

Does anyone else have Guitar Hero: World Tour? A band might be in order. Unless I'm mistaken, the controller is compatible with Rock Band, so perhaps I'll pick that up sometime. The reason I never picked up a music game before is because they cost so much more than normal games.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

a love story

That's what Christianity is, first and foremost. This is the day when we marvel in awe of God's supreme act of love, the beginning of His promise fulfilled.

This is the day our God and King became our Brother, our Father, our guiding Spirit. Love is about being together. Christmas is the day we celebrate the joining of God and humanity in Jesus the Messiah.

So that we may know Him better, and more, He became one of us. Unlike any other creature, we do not merely exist; we must choose whether or not to become who we are intended to be. Jesus shows us how to be human.

And, like all humans, our King and Savior came to us as a child.

"Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it." --Mark 10:14-15.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

better matchmaking

So apparently Blogger posts a blog if I accidentally hit Enter after typing the title. Sorry about the blank RSS feed.

Anyway, some recent experiences in Left 4 Dead have convinced me that Xbox Live, and other multiplayer services, could use better matchmaking.

The first experience was trying to add someone as a friend and being told she's reached her friend limit. That made me think... it's a shame that I can't be more likely to play with someone without putting them on my friends list.

The second experience is having run into a lot of exploiters and jerks this past week. There's a Left 4 Dead exploit that involves blocking an elevator exit, so the survivors are trapped -- the game effectively comes to a halt. One of my teammates did it and told me he thought it's hilarious, even though he admits he hates it happening to him. Other strangers I've played with have abandoned their teammates to rush ahead, or constantly complained about greener players not playing up to their standards, or focused on particular strategies so exclusively that fun falls by the wayside.

Some of these behaviors really just mean a person with a particular playstyle shouldn't be matched with players who have very different values, strategies, and levels of experience. It's like the classic RTS playstyles: zerg, balanced, and turtle. Each player generally prefer play as and against one or another style.

What I'd like to see is a system that allows each player to privately rank others according to preference, affecting only the odds of those people coming up in game searches.

Such a system better takes into account that two players might not play well together yet neither of them is doing anything wrong; like an explorer and an achiever playing the same game with vastly different goals and interests. It doesn't separate players entirely, but the odds keep them apart enough to prevent frustration and boredom. This also encourages gamers to play with their friends, but not only with their friends... creating the possibility of making new friends and being challenged in new ways.

It also helps for each game to list classifications related to that game in particular. For example, RTS players would love it if they could choose when to play against zerg tactics and when to play against turtles. Every player will want play a game in different ways depending on mood, recent experiences, and other factors.

How else could game matchmaking be improved?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Hulu and YouTube

You might have already read by now that Microsoft is at least considering integration of web services like Hulu and YouTube into Xbox Live. I see this as a big deal.

First, Hulu has a different business model than Netflix. Users can view content (TV and films) at no charge, the shows being paid for by advertisements. It includes a number of triple-A and top-notch TV shows (like NewsRadio), and browsing them is simpler than with Netflix. Hulu even has an integrated tool for selecting clips and emailing them to friends. I love Hulu. I much prefer its quick and easy TV-on-demand service with relatively few commercials in lieu of a traditional cable or satellite subscription.

The first complication I see is that Xbox Live currently charges users to rent content which can be viewed for free (through advertisements) on Hulu, such as Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. My gut says Microsoft would screw us and not allow Hulu to show anything we're charged for now, but it's possible Microsoft would take the high road and allow us the paid-by-ads alternative.

Microsoft would almost certainly place its own ads in Hulu's content. That strikes me as the absolute best marketing tool the company would have for reaching XBL users. I bet most users are more likely to watch a good TV show or movie with game advertisements in them than to download trailers and video interviews for every game they might enjoy. Ads in Hulu via the 360 would reach more Xbox users than ads anywhere else.

And contracting with Hulu would be a major selling point. Yes, it's available online, but most people would rather watch free, on-demand shows on their television than on their computer. TVs can be hooked up to PCs, but that's not a mainstream practice (it's common among tech junkies only, who are not that big a chunk of society as a whole).

Hulu would benefit greatly by attracting more advertisers with the 360 user community. Their services would consequently expand and become more attractive to users and marketers. More film studios who currently contract with TV broadcasters might see Hulu as a viable partner. Because Hulu would finally be playing on the televisions of millions, rather than on computers, the company could finally become a direct competitor to subscription television.

Of course, if Hulu was ever big enough to compete directly with them, the Hulu business model would probably change; either they'd gradually increase ad interruptions, as TV broadcasters have over the years, or they'd start charging a subscription of their own. But we can hope their present model would stand for a while.

Videos of Halo and other games already cover YouTube. More gamers would watch those sort of videos if it could be done while already focused on games (engaged on their gaming console). YouTube integration would greatly facilitate game tutorials and walkthroughs. It might even make gaming tournaments more viable.

YouTube integration could significantly affect the design of many games. Community and Arcade games would use YouTube most frequently, but I'm talking mainly about the design of triple-AAA titles. And I don't mean like Spore either, which enables players to share their creature creations. No, I'm talking about dynamics. What makes games like Halo and MMOs so popular on YouTube is their room for fresh, personal experiences. It's the ability to still see new and exciting stories months or even years after the game is released. It's the revelation of personal preferences and personal adventures -- stories which are individually representative.

YouTube play-session stories are excellent marketing. Ads are more effective when they're recommended by friends. Videos of unique and exciting experiences encourage lengthy conversations between friends -- conversations which embed the ads to memory, inform, and stoke anticipation. YouTube integration could greatly increase impulse purchases of downloadable content.

Anyway, long story short, I hope Microsoft can work out satisfactory contracts with both YouTube and Hulu. Those deals could be as sweet for gamers as for Microsoft and advertisers.

Friday, December 19, 2008

short stories

They can be finished in one sitting. Their brevity encourages authors to be more precise. And the best ones are so layered and deliberately worded that readers can enjoy them repeatedly, always discovering some new detail.

Games like Left 4 Dead, Medal of Honor: Airborne, and Star Wars: Battlefront remind me of short story collections.

The heart of each is individual levels/areas, rather than some story created by the combination of those levels. Each level is self-contained, resolved without need of the others. This emphasis has lead to top-notch level design.

And because each level's conclusion offers independent resolution, games like Airborne and SW:B can be enjoyed briefly, periodically, and leisurely.

What other aspects of literary short stories might be applied to games?

I'd like to say a game could be much more diverse within itself (each level with a different aesthetic style, vastly different setting, different weapons, etc -- like a short story anthology). But graphical assets, programming, and play-balancing are unfortunately much more expensive than words.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

quick time events

I might have written about this before. I can't remember. But after two years of articles, I guess repeating myself occasionally is inevitable.

Quick-time events (QTE) should not appear in world-focused and character-focused games, as they often do.

The moment the buttons appear on the screen ("Press B! Press X! Press B!"), those commands completely dominate the player's attention. Everything else on screen, as well as any immersion in the world established by previous experiences, is shoved to the periphery and probably forgotten entirely. Climbing a giant monster by QTE, for example, is essentially a series of small cutscenes perforated by button-mashing mini-games.

QTE are arcade gameplay. They have no place in an RPG.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dante's Inferno: tread carefully

So the guys at EA Redwood Shores have announced their next project, and it's Dante's Inferno.

And that's great, but I hope they realize the importance of getting this one right.

Dead Space is a stellar game. I finally finished it a couple days ago -- great sci-fi, great horror, great gameplay. We can probably expect similar quality in the team's next project. And their recent experience with creating horror will undoubtedly aid them in recreating Hell.

But, still, I worry. At this point, you can't base a mainstream game on such a pivotal work of classic literature as Dante Alighieri's and not expect that to grab the attention of non-gamers. Mainstream news worldwide will take notice. How respectfully or carelessly the original work is adapted into gameplay will be widely reported on.

Those reviews, previews, and interviews could have a profound effect on how games and the industry is perceived for many years. If EA Redwood Shores impresses the greater public, it would be a big step forward. Otherwise, reasonable doubters and willful naysayers alike will have more fuel for their arguments.

I also worry because Dante's Divine Comedy is a faithful religious work, and game designers are not known for being pious or reverent. The only religion in Dead Space is wild and deadly fanaticism. Such fanaticism does exist and is scary, so I can only hopefully assume the lead designers don't perceive all religion to be so irrational.

The Judeo-Christian concept of good and evil is difficult to translate into gameplay. Evil is merely an absence or twisting of good, as darkness is an absence of light. Evil spirits, including Satan, are utterly powerless except as God allows (for the sake of our maturation and free will). Humans rarely battle demons directly, and even then (usually exorcisms) our power is prayer... appealing to and trusting in God's love for intervention. Angels and demons are far, far more powerful than humans. It is God and His love for us that protects and saves us. Prophecy, spontaneous healing, bilocution, stigmatas -- such powers come from God, not from us.

Dante's tale is more about viewing, hearing, and conversing than about interaction. So seeing Dante hacking and slashing his way through Hell raises concerns about sincere representation, though such gameplay could certainly be fun. Dialogue and prayer are difficult to translate into good gameplay.

Redwood Shores should also consider the meaning of Hell, the beliefs which shaped Dante's work. Hell is chosen by the damned. It is a willful separation from God's grace. We're all familiar with knowing what the right, loving action is and choosing to do differently. Many know God's love and reject it. Pain, sadness and anger occur when things aren't as they should be. When creatures made for love reject love, they embrace darkness and torment. Hell is punishment, but it is also self-punishment.

Part of the purpose of understanding Hell is fear. All parents know that toddlers can't be expected to always obey (to act justly, learn and grow) out of love and understanding. Fear is necessary. When children grow to be teenagers, they are more capable of love and understanding, but fear remains necessary as a fallback. Emotion and will often overpower reason, and in those moments we need fear. Even adults need fear of consequences, a fact which much of our legal system is founded on. God has revealed Hell to humanity because we need that fear to fall back on in those moments when we want to reject -- or merely postpone -- love.

Knowing Hell also illuminates God's grace and goodness. Hell is evil without a mask. In our world, evil usually take the form of corruption -- something good distorted into poison; slow death. If one can understand evil in its essence (Hell), and pure good as well (Heaven), then recognizing good and evil as they are entangled on our world is a more manageable task.

EA Redwood Shores is tackling one of the world's most respected works of literature, as well as a setting which is taken very seriously and believed to be real by billions of people worldwide. I'm very happy they're doing so. I hope they give the subjects adequate study and reflection, as well as respect in the finished product.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

sensible characters

Human beings don't make sense.

We like to think we do. In fact, a common criticism movie-goers make after a film is that some character's action isn't believable because it isn't sensible. Ironically, the criticized action, while not rational, is very realistic. Panic, for example, isn't sensible, but it's real. Each of us does things every day which are not completely logical.

Should story characters make sense?

At first, the answer might seem to be "yes". Afterall, I just got finished saying that movie audiences regularly criticize the illogical actions of story characters, despite being well aware that such actions might be realistic.

But complaints don't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes people prefer a thing even when they don't appreciate it, because they're not truly aware of the alternatives. In other words, they'll gripe and moan about something, but they'd gripe even more if that something was different or absent.

Honestly, I don't know what the answer is here. What do you think?

Monday, December 15, 2008


I finished a game yesterday which ends where it begins. I've written before about reflection in game stories. Coming full circle is a great way to encourage it.

People don't reflect automatically when they finish a game. Reflection needs to be encouraged. One method is juxtaposition of the before and after. Ending a game where it began is an easy and effective way to draw attention to things that have changed.

Fable 2 does this with Bowerstone, but in a crudely overt way. It's more engaging when you don't bluntly tell the player things have changed. Show, don't tell.

For example, suppose the main character in your game arrives with friends but leaves alone. You can have the character perform a particular activity with the help or input of those friends, then perform that activity again alone. Setting alone is not always enough to recall memories, but actions usually are.

What are some experiences from games you've played which encouraged reflection?

Friday, December 12, 2008


I don't know about you, but this is how I'm going to kick off the new year! LOTR: Conquest!

The first Star Wars: Battlefront is one of my all-time favorite games. Quick, fluid, dynamic action with lots of variation and using a classic setting. Conquest seeks to apply the same basic model to LOTR, and it looks like Pandemic has done a pretty good job. In fact, the game seems to have even more replayability than its predecessor. Considering I can still enjoy Star Wars: Battlefront after years, that's pretty impressive.

I'll probably pick it up on the 360 -- my primary gaming platform these days (PC being my other favorite). All modes are available single-player and multiplayer, offline and on. That includes split-screen and online co-op. The game includes both a good and an evil campaign.

I can't wait to play as a troll, ride an oliphant or warg, fire arrows down from Helm's Deep, launch a catapult, and wreak havoc with the Balrog!

Keep an eye on this one. It could be another classic. Pandemic's one of the more consistently good development studios.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

executive rationing

I grew up in an area with millionaire homes just a short walk from trailer parks. So I quickly learned that rich and poor people, excepting the furthest extremes, tend to worry about the same things: grocery bills, energy and water bills, medical bills, tuition, gas, etc. This occurs because most people, regardless of social class, live up to their means. If they have money, they spend money... much of it on fruitless activities and items.

This basic psychological pattern applies to all aspects of life, including production of both artistic and (for lack of a better term) pragmatic works. Whatever resources you offer, expect them to be spent. I was reminded of this as I put Christmas ornaments on a tree. The tree would look good with half the ornaments I had available, but I felt compelled to use every ornament.

It's good executive practice to intentionally limit resources. Doing so not only helps to bring costs down, but also forces craftsmen to be more careful and innovative.

For example, provide artists with less memory storage and RAM usage than they would like. You can also place aesthetic limits on them, such as forbidding particular methods or styles. Challenge them by saying their new work should not look like anything they've created before (forbidding styles and imposing styles are very different in effect, particularly regarding the artist's enthusiasm).

Demand miracles. All the great leaders throughout history accomplished what they did because they demanded the impossible of those who served them. All people are capable of more than what they usually commit to. Inspiring leadership goes a long way in helping them achieve greater things. Their greatest reward will probably be the moment the job is finished and they can appreciate the extraordinary work they've done, but some positive encouragement helps, of course.

Writers, especially, need limits. Generally speaking, words cost nothing... and writers love to spend (use more words, more characters, etc). And a bad story can ruin a game. So be sure to place plenty of limits on your writers.

Allow workers to help choose their own limits. This doesn't mean accepting exactly the limits they offer, but their input will help keep the limits reasonable and also make workers more willing to accept the hardships.

People tend to rise to expectations. Even unreachable ideals can be useful when expectations are reasonable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

data and perception

Figures don't lie, but liars figure.

I've always liked that expression, and it's a vital bit of wisdom. Raw data is rarely impervious to misinterpretation. Such misinterpretation is often willful, but innocent illusions are just as common.

Nowhere is misinterpretation easier and more common than in demographics. Demographic information is often talked about as if it contains undeniable truths. The reality is that nearly every demographic study raises more questions than it answers... which is why there's no substitute for intuitive wisdom. The decision-making process that any entertainment consumer goes through is usually too complex to be summarized in clearly-defined calculations and diagrams.

I point this out because there's a cultural attitude in the modern world that facts and figures are more insightful than human reasoning and intuition. This cultural pressure can sometimes lead to poor judgments. Great works come from human beings, nor from systems and processes.

Just for fun, take a look at these charts and try to discern a lesson or two from each. What can we learn from looking at the all-time US box office sales? Or what might be made of the discrepancies between the US box office and the UK box office.

I've argued before that film sales demonstrate that Americans favor entertainment which is open to all ages ("family" entertainment) and offers inspirational messages.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

best of 2008?

I'm reminded how utterly meaningless Readers' Choice awards like this are.

First, every participant votes on every category... as if the average gamer plays sports, fighting games, RPGs, RTS and FPS games all at once. Even if many gamers were so eclectic, who has the money? Who has the time?

And even within a single category, how many voters have played every game? IGN's "Best Platform Game" includes just three games: Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Mirror's Edge, and Prince of Persia. How many people do you think have played all three? And who in his right mind would consider those similar enough to be in the same category?!

"Best of..." awards like this are almost always popularity contests. And this one doesn't even hint at a game's popularity, because every single game's votes will be skewed by people voting for games they never played, voting in categories they're completely unfamiliar with.

And how did Left 4 Dead get left out of the "Best Use of Sound" category? I haven't played a game in years in which sound is so vital.

Monday, December 08, 2008


What happened here I don't claim to know for certain, but the Animal Crossing goof seems to highlight the need for care with dialects. Nobody will care if that word shows up in 50 Cent's game (at least, the people who play the game won't care). But if you take a cultural word or expression out of context, it can be confusing or misunderstood.

Used poorly, a dialect can accidentally depict characters as stick figures. If you dress a villain all in black, the audience is unlikely to perceive that character as having multiple dimensions. Likewise, if a Texan character says "I reckon", all sorts of stereotypes will be assumed.

Don't mistake my meaning - I'm not a fan of political correctness, and stereotypes usually contain some truth (sometimes a lot of truth). Case in point, as a Texan and Southerner, I often say things like "I figure". But I'd be careful when using such colloquialisms in a character's dialogue, because - regardless of truth - they are attached to many assumptions in common perception.

Write about what you know. That's one of the first and most important lessons of fiction. If you're not truly familiar with a dialect, then you probably shouldn't be using it. That seems to be how the Animal Crossing writer got in trouble.

Friday, December 05, 2008

DRM: the bottom line

The bottom line is this. Most DRM methods are ineffective because they only make theft difficult for a tiny minority. Only one person has to break a sophisticated security system. The rest can simply capitalize on that pirate's ingenuity.

It's like one person jacking a box of sunglasses and leaving the box open on a street corner. The people taking from that open box are wrong as well, but you're not going to scare many people from doing something so effortless. It's sad. Get over it.

There will always be someone smart enough, knowledgeable enough, and selfish enough to crack your code. So paying someone to invent a better code is fruitless.

It's the folks grabbing from the open box that should be the focus of developers and publishers. Be it through punishments or incentives, you'll have more success reducing second-hand theft than curtailing the savvy computer nerds who make theft possible.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

effort and punishment

I once read about a psychological study that compared the effect on children of praising intelligence versus praising effort. If a child is usually rewarded for accomplishment with phrases like "You're so smart!", then the child is likely to value intelligence over effort. Consequently, when the child fails at something, he or she usually attributes the failure to a fault in intelligence and is not very motivated to try again. If a child is usually rewarded for accomplishment with phrases praising effort, then he or she is likely to try again, believing any obstacles are probably surmountable through persistence and adaptation.

That's what I thought of when I read Shwayder's excellent post on rewards and punishments. Ryan talks about how lows and highs are relative to one another. Accomplishment feels greater when something is risked in the struggle (pride is always risked, but its power varies greatly from one personality to another). In the end, Shwayder emphasizes rewards for effort.

I'd bet that adequately rewarding effort makes it easier for players to stomach tough punishments. Perhaps, the more effort is rewarded, the harsher punishment can be without diminishing fun.

Think of sports. If your team loses a game, there's no replaying that game. You can have a rematch later, but that loss is still on your record, a significant memory (especially for rivals). If you have a good coach, he's going to point out both your mistakes and your progress. Losing is never a fun feeling, but it's more bearable when you receive recognition for admirable actions or improved performance.

In college football, players accrue individual stats independent of team performance. A good player on a losing team is often recognized for individual achievement. Replay highlights help to remind losers of their better moments, not just the bad. In Goldeneye64, a player might lose and yet smile at receiving the "Most Dishonorable" award. In LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2, the pain of losing a battle is sometimes offset by enjoying an epic event, like a Balrog setting dozens of soldiers aflame.

One thing that's rarely seen in games, because it's hard to program, is pointing out mistakes. The usual scenario is that a player can try a challenge over and over and over, yet always have to figure out mistakes on his own. Coaching mechanics still have a long way to go in games. Even in multiplayer games, you can't rely on players to seek out advice from other players, though highlighting good instructors in community resources can be good.

I'm certain that rewarding effort and coaching can help keep a game fun through loss and punishment. What I'm not certain about is how exact and predictable the relationship is. I'd play it by ear.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

mods for console games

I'm more of a console gamer these days, but I still enjoy games on both my 360 and my PC. Because my computer is old now and I like being able to lounge as I play games, I tend to buy the console version of multi-platform games. But one factor I always consider before making that choice is mods. When a game is popular with modders, then their creations can add many hours of fresh gameplay and even refinement of old gameplay.

User-generated content is increasingly common in console games (Little Big Planet, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Halo 3, etc). But console players are still limited to in-game toolsets, few of which are near as extensive as the Aurora toolset provided in Neverwinter Nights. Consoles have yet to see anything like this -- hundreds of mods, including graphical touch-ups, UI changes, new areas/levels, new skills, new items, and complete revamps. Total conversion mods, such as the Iron Grip mod for Half-Life 2, are unheard of in console games.

Now, I'm not denying that the inherent differences between current consoles and PCs matter in regard to modding potential. But if we can create console games from the PC, why can't we mod them from the PC?

Developers, do you worry about the resale market? While I generally agree with Gamestop CEO Dan DeMatteo, consider how much longer players would hold onto your game if a mod community could constantly refresh your game content at no charge to you. Modding can even improve game sales in general. I'm more likely to buy a game if I know modders will expand its replay value.

Mods for console games seems like a no-brainer. Shouldn't this be a goal?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

observation gameplay

When I was little, my parents gave me a book of observation, or hidden object, games. Looking at a detailed, black-and-white pencil sketch, I'd have to find dozens of objects hidden within the scene. It was much like this game, except the list of objects was printed small in the back of the book (meaning I was supposed to attempt to find every object without the list, then use the list to test myself). Where's Waldo? is probably the most popular hidden object game.

Observation is often a component of larger gameplay. In football, most of a quarterback's job is observation. He must try to read the defense's strategy. He must know how his line is holding up against the defensive linemen, know if the linebackers are rushing. The QB must be aware of how well or poorly his receivers are beating coverage, where the holes are, where the best players are on the field. Quarterbacking is the most difficult position in football because the quarterback must observe a dozen things at once and respond immediately.

Observation in detective games focuses on relevance and patterns. Why is a door ajar or a window unlocked? Does a tear or injury suggest a conflict? Not all visual elements and lines of dialogue are relevant in a good detective game, so the player must pay attention to everything and be able to remember details when something relative emerges. Most clues aren't clues until a related object or event gives them significance.

Timing is an observation skill. The player must recognize a pattern to adjust to that pattern. Firing mortars on a moving target has always been a lot of fun for me. It involves judging the speed of the missile, distance, speed of the target, obstructions, and likely adjustments the target will make to its current path. It's much like quarterbacking... knowing when and where the receiver will turn, where the defenders will be at release and where they can get to while the ball is in the air, as well as terrain slickness, wind, and other factors.

How else is observation included in games? Surely, it hasn't all be done before. What's some new play on observation a game might use?

Monday, December 01, 2008

last minute pitch

A techno composer once told me how his album had been postponed for over a year because the record label didn't want to release it into heavy competition, and competition kept surprising them (events, album release dates, etc). The publisher was delaying a finished product so long it hurt the designer, and was making no apparent progress in its attempts to time the product's release optimally.

I was reading today about how Amazon is already selling Spore for just $20 and about LittleBigPlanet's lackluster sales. And I had to wonder how timing has played into the sales of both. This has been a phenomenal season with exceptionally heavy competition for all games.

If a product must face unexpectedly heavy competition, what can either the publisher or developer do in less than a month's time to improve their odds?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

multiplayer stand-ins

Another aspect of Left 4 Dead which should be considered by all designers is the option for an AI stand-in during multiplayer.

Most gamers acknowledge that gaming takes a backseat to other things, including everyday distractions like phone calls. In most multiplayer games, gameplay cannot be paused; and when gameplay can be paused, at least one person is left sitting idly in boredom. Left 4 Dead allows a player to call an AI substitute, so others can go on playing.

It's not a perfect feature. Any AI is imperfect, and a substitution can mean someone is temporarily playing by himself. But I'd still recommend a similar feature for almost any multiplayer game (excluding MMOs).

I'm enjoying Thanksgiving out of town this week, but hopefully I'll be able to keep posting stuff here 'til I get back. My thanks to God for all our many blessings.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

a better roles model

Yes, roles model. That's not a typo.

MMOs and other multiplayer games could learn a great deal from Left 4 Dead, particularly in regard to combat roles. In Left 4 Dead, no person in the group is mysteriously regarded by all enemies as the tank, so all players have to keep an eye on each other.

"Grouping" hardly describes it. This is as close to real soldier camaraderie as I've ever experienced in a game. You have to constantly watch the backs of your buddies. They rely on you completely; they pay for your mistakes... not with minor injuries, but with their lives. You're sharing resources -- whoever needs a healthpack most gets it, regardless of who happens to be carrying one. You can only carry one at a time, so giving is always a sacrifice.

And perhaps that's the key component. More than any game to date, Left 4 Dead enables and encourages sacrifices for the sake of teammates. Sometimes you sacrifice pills or healthpacks. Sometimes you sacrifice your life.

I'm not stretching the truth. Among my friends in Left 4 Dead, it's not uncommon to see true sacrifices -- selfless acceptance of hardship for the sake of another. One person will speak into his headset, "Don't come get me", because he knows the rest of us stand a better chance of surviving if we don't chase his captured and pinned character into the middle of an unmanageable horde. Death means he is only a spectator for minutes at a time... possily a long time. Sometimes the player healing another with his healthpack is down to half-health himself, but he's chosen to help the person with the most need.

It's honestly pretty touching, and a phenomenon all game developers should take note of. With the unlikeliest of settings, a zombie infestation, a game has managed to contribute a deep and lasting lesson to gamers. People can learn more about being a soldier from playing Left 4 Dead than from most war games, and even many documentaries.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Agency Q&A: part 1

A while back, David kindly asked if I wanted to join him in interviewing the SOE Seattle team behind The Agency.

Of course, I immediately said "hell yes!" and sent him half-a-dozen questions. Then I realized that, not only was David going to use all of my questions, but he also used over a dozen questions of his own! Much to my surprise, SOE was willing to answer most or all of them, so this interview will be in multiple parts.

Anyway, here's the first part of the Q&A with Matt Staroscik, Game Designer and Lead Writer for The Agency.

(1) The Agency seems to break new ground for MMOs in many ways. But what aspects of the game might feel familiar to veteran MMO gamers?

"The persistent world, interlocking quests, team play and other social elements of The Agency will be pretty familiar to MMO veterans. Players will also work on building influence in the game world, another genre staple... There is also a crafting system, though the way you research and build things will be different in The Agency from other games. (You’ll be directing a team of Operatives, collectible NPCs, who do the work for you.)"

(2) You've cited 007 films as one inspiration for the game's setting and characters. What are some other key inspirations?

"The Bourne movies are up there, and so are the TV shows Alias and Chuck. Even Get Smart and Austin Powers provide some good reference for us. The Agency isn’t a comedy, but those properties show spies and supervillains with elaborate, global operations, and fancy headquarters to match their ambitions. We are all about that!"

(3) Many current MMOs are dependant on good social interaction within the game which is normally conducted via keyboard or voice chat. Has this made you consider shipping the game with a keyboard/headset?

"Nothing has been decided, but we do know that PC players already have keyboards, and if they enjoy voice comms, they’ve probably got a headset as well. Recently the Wireless Keypad and official Bluetooth Headset were announced for the PS3 and I’m sure these peripherals will lead to even more of our potential players being voice equipped from the beginning."

(4) PC & PS3 release but are you considering releasing on other platforms in the future? Will the PC & PS3 launch on the same date?

"The Agency will be exclusive to the PC and PS3, and we intend to launch both versions simultaneously.

I have high hopes that we will find some ways to put Agency-related content on the PSP someday. But please, don’t take that as a leak, it’s just me thinking out loud. We’re far too busy with The Agency to pursue any kind of spinoffs right now. "

(5) Are any of the team regular MMO players? Do you have any current favorites, current or past?

"Many of the team members, especially designers and developers, are MMO players. Walk around the office at lunch and you’ll see people logged in to lots of different games. We’re always talking about the latest betas and other industry news, too. It’s not all MMOs here, though. There are many different tastes represented among the staff, including board and card games, and I think that diversity is good for us.

Me? Well, one of the reasons I am so happy to be working on The Agency is that I honestly don’t care for the traditional EQ/WOW type of MMO. Oh, I’ve tried, but when you find a 10 second FPS respawn timer to be a long wait, as I do... the pace of most MMOs is unappealing.

I spend most of my time on single-player shooters or rapid-respawn multiplayer games like Team Fortress 2. Planetside is a good game, and I dabble in it, but have never been a serious player. I also log a lot of time in puzzle and strategy games on my PSP and DS Lite.

The combination of features in The Agency really makes it a game I want to play and I think that a lot of other shooter fans will come to feel the same way."

(6) What do you consider the main feature of any MMO that players look for & expect to see well done?

"Most players won’t see stability as a feature, but if the zones always come crashing down, it doesn’t matter how great the game is. You never think about stability until you don’t have it. Game balance is the same way. No one wants to feel the sting of the nerf bat.

Aside from that low-level stuff, the social tools in any MMO need to be well developed. You need to be massively multiplayer, not moderately multiplayer. That means good chat features, friends lists, and guilds. I think we should all demand good matchmaking services, too."

Thanks to Staroscik, and to Osbon, for the interview opportunity.

The Agency has been on my watch list for a long time now. Like Staroscik, the thing I like least about MMOs is the combat, but the RPG elements are still important to me. The game seems to have a nice blend of action, intrigue, and humor. And I'm a big fan of espionage stories, both tongue-in-cheek stories like Bond and more serious ones like the novels of Frederick Forsyth. Operatives sound fun.

And no, I haven't figured out yet if I'll choose ParaGON or U.N.I.T.E. The sniper rifle and shotgun have equal appeal to me.

Friday, November 21, 2008


Is game music still lagging behind film music, in general?

The work of composer John Williams in film always acts in a support role yet is always memorable. In Jurassic Park, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and countless other films, Williams' music manages to captivate movie goers without distracting them from the visuals and dialogue. We remember his music, but we remember the story too.

There are definitely inherent differences between films and games in the ability to predict audience experiences (timing, order, focus, etc). But some differences are not inherent.

Williams' scores are among the most memorable in film history largely because of the method he uses: leitmotifs. He ties musical themes to central characters, to recurring scenarios (such as Indiana Jones action scenes) and recurring images. How often do game composers attach recurring themes to story elements?

I've mentioned before that lessons are more deeply ingrained and more easily recalled when they are attached to strong emotions. Likewise, characters, events, and environments can be made more memorable by giving them their own musical themes.

Music can also associate things. If a cave and a mine share a musical theme, then the player will perceive them as variations of one environment. If a brother and sister appear separately in a game but share one musical theme, then family traits become emphasized over individual characteristics.

Conversely, music can call attention to differences. Attach a dark musical theme to a villain, activated by a sphere around the character, and attention will be dramatically focused on that villain wherever he or she walks. The player might be in a bright and cheerful town when the music takes a dark turn, pointing out the villain's presence in a powerful way. Another example is to give two similar-looking pubs vastly different music. Despite looking basically alike, the player will perceive them in wholly different ways if one has a slow, sad violin and the other a ragtime piano.

Leitmotifs are not always the best choice for game composers, but they should be in every composer's toolbox.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

board and card games

I've played a lot of them. In a family with five kids and twice that many close cousins, playing lots of board and card games is to be expected.

So I thought I'd run through a handful and briefly describe what features made each of them fun. The idea was brought on by Brian's ongoing community project.

Monopoly is, first and foremost, a great mix of luck and skill... with heavy emphasis on luck. Not only are your dice rolls and card draws random, but the order and timing of those rolls and draws matter as well. Monopoly also allows for personal strategy. Some people like the utilities or railroads, some the expensive properties, others the cheaper properties while are easier to build on. The game encourages verbal interaction through trading and rent payments. Though I'd guess that most Monopoly players have only played the original version, it's significant that the gameboard and cards can be tailored to different cities, universities, and other sources of pride.

Since Sorry!, many boardgames have used its basic premise of one player sending another back to an earlier position. Making one player the cause of another's setback is a great way to encourage social interaction. It's more fun when some reciprocity is all but assured. Later games, like TriBond, spuns the concept of setbacks so that one player could forcibly switch places with another. This was a great idea, because it means no player ever falls back so far that he or she no longer has a chance at winning. It's generally not fun staying in a game when you know you can't win.

Yes, it's a word game, but the basic gameplay is applicable beyond language. Scrabble is about building something out of randomly distributed parts. There are strategic elements, but it's mostly about seeing potential in a mess (Boggle plays off the same concept). Ironically, finding potential order in a mess often feels like creativity, even if all you've done is replicated words everyone already knows. Minor creativity is fun for all, but more heavily creative gameplay (like in Balderdash) has a smaller audience.

The war simulation game Risk emphasizes strategy. Unlike Chess or other strategy games of old, it involves enough chance to ensure variation between games. The beauty of Risk is how dependent gameplay is on individual players. Four or five different personalities with adaptive strategies mix to create a unique playthrough every time. Like Carcassonne, the player must make a strategic decision every turn without the benefit of knowing what the gameboard will look like the next time it's his or her turn.

The king of poker games is like Monopoly in that it's a strong blend of strategy and luck, but it's defining feature is bluffing. More than any other game, Five-Card Draw encourages players to hide their luck from other players (and, of course, reveal it once the round is over). Betting allows players to select their own levels of risk, and one player can pressure another into greater risk. Other games involve not knowing opponents' strategies, but Draw involves not knowing the opponents' resources as well.

100% luck, yet still fun. Each player gets seven cards blind (face-down). Each turn, you flip over your cards one at a time until you have a poker hand that beats the player before you. Turns continue until all cards are turned over. What makes this game great is the open betting. There can be as many as a dozen or more turns of betting, and each time you can bet however much you want... the others must match the bet or fold. The pots can be enormous, you're betting purely on faith in luck, and the game is full of intense anxiety as the cards are overturned.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

control standards?

Should consoles have standards, hard or soft, for which buttons on their controllers do what?

You don't have to play many games or play often to be annoyed by disparity in controls. One game uses Left Trigger to aim and the next uses it to direct squad mates. One game uses the Y button to jump, another B, another Left Bumper. It would sure make life easier for gamers, especially occasional gamers, if we could count on some familiarity in controls.

By the way, this is one of the reasons occasional gamers get discouraged from becoming regular gamers. Every game's controls are a challenge to learn, because little is familiar.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mirror Edge 2D webgame

There's a great 2D Flash version of Mirror's Edge over at Borne Games. You can immediately play through the beta at that link and offer any feedback to the developers. The full flash version will apparently be free.

This first level (surprisingly long) is fluid and fun, though I wonder why the developers chose the "S" and "/" keys for jumping, rather than the Spacebar, which seems more standard and is certainly more natural to me.

Publishers are definitely experimenting a lot these days with internet marketing. This Flash game does a great job of mimicking the Mirror Edge experience I had in the Xbox Live demo. The game encourages replay to try for the fastest, smoothest possible run. It's about momentum, and few games are.

I'm undecided on the 360 version of Mirror's Edge. Because the demo is only a training level, the experience is broken up. I can only guess that further levels have fewer story pauses and are more open to individual choices. The longer it lets me run, jump, and slide in one continuous experience, the more I enjoy it.

AI pushbacks

Something I've wanted to see in games for a long time is dynamic enemy AI with enough sophistication to shape a gameworld without overly frustrating players.

If AI characters each have a variety of goals and a variety of behaviors for achieving those goals, then gameplay can continually surprise and each player can have unique experiences to share. But even when games include such variety, they rarely enable AI to regain what the player has fought for. Player progress is rarely tentative.

In Saints Row and Saints Row 2, players seek to conquer the city neighborhood-by-neighborhood. After taking a neighborhood, there's usually a pushback. Whatever gang used to own that neighborhood tries to take it back. But no dynamics are involved in the event. Enemy AI don't move into the neighborhood while the player is away, but simply appear there instantaneously. Because it's a completely scripted event, there are no surprises in the fight to take back that territory. A fixed number of gang leaders of fixed strength and effect appear in fixed locations, which the player must kill to secure a zone with fixed borders. Judging from experience, each territory can only have one pushback.

LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2 involves more genuine pushbacks, in its War of the Ring mode. The setting is war, and wars can be lost. This is unlike a typical adventure game, in which it's assumed the player will win the war and only battles can be lost. In War of the Ring (similar to the boardgame Risk), strategic AI decisions are fairly predictable, but territory geography and limited resources combine to make simultaneous offense and defense difficult. To be strong enough to seize new territories, the player must sometimes leave old territories vulnerable to attack. Also, each territory awards particular benefits for ownership. These dynamics supplement relatively static AI to result in dynamic pushbacks. The player's ability to predict the place, time, and manner of pushbacks is limited. A pushback in a particular territory can be repeated multiple times, and the enemy's invasions can be devastating.

Now, The Godfather 2 gets its turn: "The Godfather 2 is dynamic and reactive, families react with complex "countermoves" based on the players actions and leveraging very human behaviors like revenge and coercion." Though the game includes a strategic map, The Don's View (shown above), "revenge and coercion" sound like ground-level interactions. I'm anxious to see how this turns out.

Monday, November 17, 2008

American football

American football is a unique game.

I can think of no other game in which players necessarily alternate between strategy and tactics at such a regular pace. Gameplay is equally balanced between action and turn-taking. Each turn begins with the two teams selecting competing strategies. That's not unique, but the need to then execute those strategies and tactically adapt is. Each turn element, strategy and tactics, occurs in only seconds.

I've played nearly all American sports in my lifetime. Other games, like basketball and soccer, have playbooks of sorts. But particular strategies come into play far less often in those sports. General strategies dominate. Only football relies so heavily on the playbook and so regularly alternates between strategy and tactics.

I'm pointing this out to show an opportunity for game designers. How might this style of gameplay be made into a new game?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Left 4 Dead demo

I tried the Left 4 Dead demo on my Xbox 360 last night. Wow! This game rocks.

Many features make it great, but none so much as the unpredictability introduced by the dynamic spawning. Brian and I played the demo for an hour or two last night, and every playthrough felt fresh... despite the environment and goal being exactly the same each time. You never know when or where the next attack will come, how many zombies will come at you, or what types of monsters may join them.

Once, we all died and so started back at the safe point. When we got to the area where before we had been overwhelmed with a huge horde of zombies, this time that area was completely barren. It was eerie. I remember Brian saying, "I've got a bad feeling about this". The areas just beyond were also empty. Then, of course, we got smacked by a couple dozen zombies.

Where you are when particularly nasty strikes come and what condition your team is in from previous fighting can make all the difference in the world. How many directions can enemies come from? Zombies can come from directions you just cleared (which the environment design makes believable, by the way).

Is there a defensible position (like a corner, in a train, or on top of a car) nearby? At one point, we were progressing through a subway train when a Tank appeared outside. When the Tank repeatedly slammed against the side of the train, leaped on and off the roof, I was certain he was too big to get inside. I was wrong. And yes, we all died.

Even reloading is a powerful dynamic in this game. In most FPS games, like Halo, enemies move slowly enough and there are few enough of them that you can run and dodge while reloading to avoid damage. In Left 4 Dead, enemies are quick and they often come in hordes. At exactly what moment you must reload your shotgun or assault rife is sometimes the difference between life and death.

The game adapts to how well or poorly you're doing. Sometimes you'll find extra weapons, ammo, health packs and pain pills. Other times, you'll be sorely disappointed. You can select a degree of difficulty at the beginning, but the game adjusts dynamically within that selected difficulty range.

Brian and I spent the majority of our time trying the demo on Expert difficulty. I don't know how many times we tried to beat that level, but we never reached the safe point (the level's end). On the last try, I was almost within sight of the end. I was the last survivor. All I had to do was run up a small flight of stairs and sprint a short distance to the safe room. But when I entered the stairwell, lo and behold, there was a Hunter waiting for me on the steps. I got a couple shots off before it lunged, but not enough to stop it from making a meal of me. Such is Left 4 Dead.

And that's just the demo: 2 levels and one multiplayer mode. I haven't tried Versus mode, but it sounds great. The full game includes 4-player co-op, 8-player online battles, split-screen, and 20 maps.

Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics. The variety and unpredictability is the most important aspect of this game. Left 4 Dead has quickly moved to the top of my must-buy list.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

military's AI in MMOs

The U.S. military is about to use MMOs as a testing ground for their latest human-simulation AI.

According to the Army's Director of Research and Laboratory Management, these AI characters "think independently, have emotions and speak in slang". In other words, these are far beyond the bots you might be accustomed to seeing in MMOs. These bots don't just grind. They will seem to converse with players.

There's no mention of the extent to which these Army bots will partake in gameplay. The focus is clearly on simulating social intelligence and personality, rather than combat prowess. I'm sure our military has impressive AI for that as well.

Unfortunately, I doubt the Army's test results and strategies will be shared with the game industry, though I could be wrong. If our military perceives such AI has having only training value, then they might share. But if they believe such AI has intelligence and counter-intelligence applications, as I expect, then they will guard their methods against enemy insights.

So don't expect this to lead to gaming progress.

But do feel free to make a mini-game out of identifying impostors! You'll be helping our troops in the process.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

exponential design

Someone emailed me a link to a flash program for creating virtual snowflakes. If you've ever made a paper snowflake ornament, then you know how this works. You fold a piece of paper five or six times, then cut out shapes with scissors or a knife. When you unfold the paper, the removed spots have been multiplied into symmetrical patterns.

It's ironic that in this virtual version, the unsteadiness of your cursor movements often contribute to the uniqueness and surprise of your designs.

Anyway, I think this snowflake program can be a metaphor for good game design. The best design is exponential. By that I mean that the player gets out of the game more than what the designer puts in.

A few examples:
  • The ability to throw a person in Saints Row 2. Some content in the game is designed specifically for this feature, but as much or more related content is emergent. The player can throw someone against a wall, in front of a train, onto a car, off a building, over a rail, into breakable furniture, into another person, into the ocean, down a stairway, etc.
  • The ability to change spell order in Fable 2. Though there are only a dozen or so spells in the game, the ordering and charge up of those spells, and their combination with melee and ranged skills, enable good variety. When abilities can be combined or linked somehow, those abilities often gain far greater affective power.
  • The encouragement of trade in Monopoly and Settlers of Catan. Because trade in those games relies mostly on human intelligence (individual, dynamic, reactive, etc) more than fixed rules, players are free to adapt gameplay to suit their own preferences and momentary desires.

Monday, November 10, 2008

warning for refurbished 360s

Unless some disaster strikes, today UPS should deliver my "repaired" 360 (replaced it with a refurbished console). Not a bad turnaround time, in my opinion.

But there has been a interesting twist in this, my second, 360 replacement experience: I can see who owned this refurbished console before me... along with his address, phone number, and email address.

At least, that's who I'm guessing the person is. Microsoft has been revamping the Xbox site in preparation for the November XBL update, the NXE. Presumably as a result, I was unable to check my console's repair status online through most of last week. That's fine. But as of Friday, my Console Management page shows a new console with some stranger's personal information in all of the fields when I click on "Request a Repair" (which I happened to check due to some random impulse).

I had to reiterate this a few times to the Microsoft reps I spoke with over the phone, because they apparently cannot see the problem at their end. We verified that we were seeing the same serial number next to the console name and icon, but Microsoft apparently can't see this stranger's information tied with my replacement console.

I have emailed the stranger (using the address on my account) to notify him of the mistake. Honestly, I don't consider address, phone number, and email address to be very sensitive information. It's not hard for that information to be found by someone on the internet. I don't have the guy's password, credit card information, or anything truly dangerous like that. But I figure he should still know.

I can only guess that this mistake represents a glitch in the site update. How common or uncommon this problem is, I have no idea. But I recommend clicking on "Request a Repair" on your own account to see if some stranger's information is there (don't worry, requesting a repair is more than a one-click process, so you won't start a replacement process by accident).

I don't blame Microsoft for the apparent lack of interest of the reps I spoke with. That's a mistake of individual employees, not of the company. But the company obviously does have an obligation to find the root of this problem, especially if it's widespread. If they can't see the problem from their end, then they're still obligated to find out why I'm seeing it.

I've received my replacement console from UPS. There's a letter included which explains that this is a replacement console. Also, the guy whose information I was shown has told me that his own console broke down a couple weeks ago.

So I'm all but certain now of what happened. This guy's broken console was repaired, then given to me as a replacement for my own broken console. When Microsoft registered his old console to me, they failed to purge his personal information from their records associated with the serial number.

In other words, it's quite possible this has happened to someone else, but I have no idea if its a systematic failure or a fluke.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

defining fun

Today, I'm going back to the most fundamental question of game design: What is fun?

This post is necessarily long, but I've tried to keep this as short and orderly as possible. I'm not completely satisfied with the following argument, but I believe it's stronger than others I've read.

Fun is a subset of entertainment. This can be verified by asking yourself two questions: Is all fun entertaining? Is all entertainment fun? The answer to the former is yes; to the latter, no. Fun is entertainment in which the audience actively participates. I'll go so far as to say that the degree of fun is related to degree of participation, though I don't believe the two are directly bound to one another. I'll get into this a bit more later.

Reading The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire can be entertaining, but few would call it fun. Reading Jurassic Park, however, can be fun for many. That's because most people are trained to merely absorb history, rather than to question, imagine, and explore it. Readers are more apt to participate in fiction by picturing the story, imagining themselves as the characters, questioning the story's themes, and so on.

Now I'm going to dig a little deeper. My premises here are debatable, but an avid game designer should have an alternative theory if he or she disagrees with what I propose. Game design fundamentally involves anticipation and manipulation of emotions, and one is better able to do that with a conscious understanding of what emotions are and how they operate. One can design a great game from intuition, as I'm sure many do, but deliberate understanding undoubtedly helps.

Entertainment is a subset of joy. All that is entertaining is enjoyable, but not all that is enjoyable is entertaining. Joy, or happiness, is emotional harmony. The less disparity that exists between seeking and having, wanting and being, perception and actuality, the happier we are.

Consider all the unpleasant things we enjoy. We voluntarily listen to sad and angry music, and enjoy it. We can enjoy sadness and anger because those emotions are right/accurate responses to some situations. Orderly sadness and anger (emotions can be disorderly, inappropriate) are responses to disharmony. Sadness is a response to separation (from desired companions, but also from desired situations). Anger is a response to injustice. Anyway, the point is that happiness can be found even amid disharmony when our response disharmony is correct (harmonious with reality).


Joy/Happiness --> Entertainment --> Fun

Now it seems I must modify an old point. You see, I'm not as stubborn as you think!

I've said before that games do not have to be fun, only entertaining. But if fun is a result of participation, then an interactive art must necessarily involve fun. So a more accurate statement would be: games can be focused on entertainment, rather than fun. Story-focused adventure games, particularly ones with a lot of cinematics, could be said to represent this maxim. The focus of some such games is not on interaction, but on reception of scripted experiences.

If a product's focus is predominantly on entertainment, rather than fun, then I would say it is more film or literature than game. The mediums are not cleanly distinct. There can be overlap (video games, in particular, regularly incorporate other mediums, such as art).

We tend to think of fun as being more purely joyful and entertainment as possibly including a wide variety of emotions, but non-joyful emotions can be integral to fun activities. For example, one might not only listen but sing along to a sad song. One might pretend a role of anger or sadness, as children often do. There is still a joy, a harmony involved, but that is not the only emotion at work. Emotions are rarely isolated in experience.

Developers I respect often say that play (engaging in fun) is about learning new skills. That's incorrect, but perhaps only because of the obsession with skills. Fun necessarily involves action, but skills are not the limit of action, nor the limit of learning.

Perhaps the joy we find in fun comes from learning and applying skills, knowledge, and wisdom (when, where, why, and how to apply knowledge and skills).

Wisdom is similar to a skill, but is not a skill. Critical thinking is a skill, but not wisdom. Wisdom is a consequence of good logic and accurate, and/or copious, knowledge. It's a form of knowledge; an object of information, rather than an action. So perhaps it should be lumped in with knowledge, but I'm not sure.

Fun from learning and application of knowledge can be seen in trivia games. Many popular trivia games, like Trivial Pursuit, offer no strategy (beyond picking teammates, if you're playing with enough people). All you do is roll the dice and answer a question. There's no skill involved, only knowledge and luck. It's the competitive application of knowledge, social interaction, and the thrill of chance which makes that game fun. Even without competing players, people sometimes enjoy reading the question cards to challenge themselves.

Speaking of which... How can the thrill of chance fit into a definition focused on learning? Dice, slot machines, lotteries... these activities feel entertaining and, many would say, fun. Which is it? Entertainment or fun? Perhaps it is the instinctual desire to find or create order in our world from which we find engaging. If so, what are we learning? After the hundredth or thousandth time of rolling the dice, surely the player is beyond learning that not all elements of experience are within our control. So what is the player learning?

Then, of course, there's the question of how boredom and learning can coincide. Learning is not always fun, so how can fun be the result of any and all learning? If learning is the source of enjoyment, then there must exist some qualifier that separates fun learning from not-fun learning.

I give up! At least for now. I haven't found a definition of fun I like yet, and there are certainly holes in this argument, but I feel a little closer. This is not a question to try to answer in a single afternoon! I won't post again until the weekend or Monday, so you can take your time with this.

Complaints? Questions? Where am I off?

By the way, I haven't yet read Raph's A Theory of Fun. My exposure to theories of fun is purely from reading comments of his and others' on blogs and industry sites. It's quite possible that most or all of this long musing is nothing new. Some developers have probably already provided answers to the questions I pose.

Don't worry, Raph! I'll buy your book eventually. :)

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

text size

It's the epitome of myopic design...

The developers play their game only on HD-TVs, so they make the short-sighted (or even deliberate) mistake of providing only one size for all the game's text: HD size (i.e., small). As a result, gamers with standard-definition TVs -- still the majority of gamers -- have to strain their eyes if they can read anything at all.

It's a senselessly common problem that has irritated me in many games. But this is the first time I've heard a developer basically tell the gamers with standard TVs that they don't matter.

Yes, HD is the future. But many of us aren't there yet. I realize that text size affects UI design. But is the difficulty really so significant that you're willing to exclude millions of potential customers?

This seems plainly ridiculous to me. Am I speaking from ignorance here?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

console MMOs

Playing off Tobold's insights, here are some thoughts of my own on the advent of console MMOs.

First, PC gamers should be excited about console MMOs even if they don't intend to play them. I agree with Tobold that console MMOs will necessarily be different from PC games. Yet they'll still compete with PC games since many, if not most, gamers who own a console also play games, at least occasionally, on their computers.

Any way it happens, the design concepts in console MMOs will bleed into PC MMOs. Each will affect the other design-wise. As a result, we might see more variety in PC MMOs. Certainly, console MMOs will more often focus on real-time combat. That's one feature which will bleed over.

Second, keyboards might not shame console controls in versatility much longer. Voice commands, ala Tom Clancy's EndWar, aren't very popular now, but they will be once a console maker comes up with a more comfortable headset. We could eventually see something as small as Bluetooth earpiece, and voice recognition technology will continue to improve.

All console manufacturers are also making headway on gesture recognition software and hardware. If a console can tell which way you're tilting your controller, which way your body is moving, where your eyes are directed, then that's further control which can be offered intuitively to the player. Advancement of such technology is certain, though intelligent use of it is not. I'm not saying this tech will greatly empower console MMOs, but it could.

Communication isn't a problem, though console communication must rely on voice chat. By next console generation, voice chat will probably appeal to more gamers due to exposure. And voice masking technology continues to improve, so by next generation no one will have to know whether your young or old, male or female, etc. Still, I won't say voice chat isn't without its drawbacks. For one thing, most people are particular about the style and quality of their voice, and those who don't like the available voice masks are likely to not chat at all.

As for payment, I'm sure multiple strategies are possible, including subscription models. People are already accustomed to paying monthly fees on top of their basic subscriptions to cable and satellite TV for additional programming (such as sports packages or movie packages). So paying a fee on top of a monthly subscription to Xbox Live is likely a feasible business model. Of course, Sony doesn't charge for the PS3 online service, so subscription MMOs might be easier for them.

Xbox Live already has customers accustomed to microtransactions, as does PSN. Many people have downloaded additional content for Oblivion, Crackdown, and other games.

Free-to-play models are possible, but I've never seen a free-to-play MMO of the graphical quality that the PS3 and 360 demand. The production costs such quality requires might not make sense for these games. If a free-to-play MMO were released on Xbox Live, I expect it would be released via the Live Arcade.

What other issues might arise in the shift from PC to consoles for MMOs?

Monday, November 03, 2008


Why don't we see them in MMOs?

There are two primary aspects to an arena: competition and spectators. MMOs fail to design for spectators. These games are full of battles and competitions -- PvE, PvP, RvR -- but audiences who can watch these battles while remaining outside the conflict are purely incidental when they do exist.

Predictably, my closest experience to playing spectator in an MMO was in early Star Wars: Galaxies. While sitting in a cantina so that an entertainer could heal my fatigue, a gunfight suddenly sprang up between a Rebel and an Imperial soldier. It was exactly like the cantina scene in the first Star Wars film: for the duration of the fight, the music and dancing stopped and all eyes were upon the warriors. When the battle was over, the music and dancing resumed; the audience returned to their socializing.

Here's where I answer my own question. Arenas have obvious potential for fun: imagine players rooting for and betting on their favorite fighters and favorite teams, or players capturing mobs to sell to the arena, etc. But we don't see arenas in MMOs because dynamics and skill are downplayed in the standard MMO combat template.

I'm fine with games being designed for gamers who are not like me. I have plenty of friends and family who can only enjoy a game if the control complexity and dependence on skill are less than I generally prefer. MMOs reach many people like this, among others. But it's sad that such avoidance of depth and dynamics in MMO combat so completely dominates the genre that features such as arenas are impossible.

But maybe I'm wrong. Do you think arenas are possible with current MMO standards?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween traditions

So what are your Halloween traditions? I'm particularly interested in what my foreign friends do for this time, if anything, but I'm talking about more than just jack'o'lanterns and trick-or-treating.

If my 360 wasn't shipped off for repair, I'd play Dead Space tonight. What other games are good for a scare?

My main Halloween tradition is listening to a handful of creepy tunes. Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain is excellent, as is the pencil-art accompaniment Disney included in Fantasia. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is another classic, particularly good when played on an organ. But my favorite Halloween music is the Astro-Creep 2000 by White Zombie! Wonderfully dark and creepy.

As for movies... Unfortunately, the only horror DVD I own is Frailty. It's a good one, but I wish I had more. I do own The Ghost and The Darkness, which is creepy for some but not for others. Some other random horror movies I like: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Event Horizon, Alien .... It's hard to think of good ones. There are so few.

Anyway, what do you do for Halloween?

shocks vs scares

A number of people have said they don't consider Dead Space and other horror games to be truly scary. These people point to the difference between startling someone with unexpected events and giving that person a lasting chill. It's a valid distinction.

As many have pointed out, the greatest barrier to evoking fear through games is emotional distance from the danger. Like any emotion, fear is rarely, if ever, pure. There are many types of fear, many mixtures. But any type of fear is basically a defensive reaction to perceived danger.

Some people are more sympathetic with story characters than others. A strongly sympathetic person can be affected deeply by fear through story, because there is not a great division between that protagonist(s) and self. But many others have a harder time connecting to characters. They do not feel much fear via games and movies because they themselves are not in any perceived danger.

So, obviously, the way to bridge that gap, to make a game truly terrifying, is to endanger the audience!

I'm only half joking. The best scary stories put the audience on edge long after the story has been told. This is generally, though not always, accomplished by making the imaginary danger seem real. The movie Jaws convinced a whole generation of movie goers that human-hunting sharks are real. Films like Child's Play and Poltergeist instilled fear of dolls in countless kids. And how many grown adults are uncomfortable in front of poorly illuminated mirrors because someone locked them in a dark room with Bloody Mary? The scariest tales live on in reality.

Is it cruel to instill such lasting fears in people? Not necessarily. The great American writer Flannery O'Connor used horror to communicate themes which her readers would normally be resistant to. In other words, she used fear as a form of mild violence to break past emotional barriers in her audience. In O'Connor's own words: "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures." The most impressive lessons in any person's memory are often those cemented by deep emotional experiences. Fear is one emotion which can ensure the questions your story raises are not abandoned the moment the player steps away.

Cheers to the things that go bump in the night!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

PC compatibility

The day a PC game tells me I have to uninstall other software to install the game... that's the day I stop buying games on the PC. Afterall, opened PC software can't be returned for a full refund when it doesn't work.

There's a point at which this anti-piracy nonsense angers the average consumer, and not just tech savvy gamers (as was the case with Spore).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

rigid pricing

This Christmas season, there's a ridiculous number of good/great games for both regular and occasional gamers to choose from:

Spore, Fable 2, Dead Space, Fallout 3, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Far Cry 2, Saints Row 2, Portal: Still Alive, Rock Band 2, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Quantum of Solace, Tom Clancy's EndWar, Gears of War 2, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Call of Duty: World at War, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, Left 4 Dead, Need For Speed: Undercover, Tomb Raider: Underworld

... and that's just two months and one platform!

This strikes me as a year which is great for gamers and not so great for game makers. The competition is simply too thick (for 360 and PC games, at least).

In other industries, pricing would adjust to the crowded market. But in this industry?

PC game publishers are only recently learning to be fluid, it seems, despite their products having little resale value. Less than ten years ago, a game that offered ten hours of gameplay was priced the same as one offering fifty hours of gameplay, regardless of quality. The situation has improved somewhat since then, but prices are still determined more by publisher fiat than by the market.

The prices of console games are even less fluid, because each console's publishing is monopolized. Microsoft controls all prices on the 360, Sony all prices on the PS3, Nintendo all prices on the Wii. I could be wrong, but I don't think console developers can adjust the prices of their games without approval from these publishers. If so, it's a tragedy, since developers have far greater incentive to respond to the market than these publishers.

Is there reason to hope game pricing, particularly on consoles, will become more dynamic in the near future? What might lead to more variation in pricing?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

relative pricing

All pricing is relative.

In other words, all prices will be judged by consumers in their relation to other prices. Your customers will compare the price of your product to the prices of other products. The big question is: what will they compare it to?

With expansion content, I always use the original game's price as my primary measure. Expansion content should not cost nearly half the price of the original game if it offers significantly less than half the amount of content.

But I don't assume that the majority of game consumers think like me in this matter. What do you use as your measure of fairness when considering the price of expansion content or full games?