Friday, June 27, 2008

contextual powers

One of the great movements in design right now is contextual powers.

Assassin's Creed is a great example. A single player-command during combat (block + timed prevention strike = counterattack) can result in one of at least half-a-dozen moves. Which counterattack is seen depends on the relative position of defender-to-attacker and perhaps timing as well. Climbing is also contextual in Assassin's Creed. Simply direct Altair's movement and he'll use whatever actions are necessary to climb or leap that way. It's simple, fun, and occasionally surprising.

Fable 2 apparently makes spell-casting and ranged combat contextual as well. I'm anxious to see how that will work, but it also has me looking ahead to games of next year and beyond. How else might contextual powers be applied?

Game events are often activated by invisible triggers placed in the environment. When the player crosses a particular threshold or interacts with a particular object, a scripted event is set in motion. Triggers could also be used to activate variations in AI. When an AI character witnesses a particular event, crosses a particular threshold or such, then a change in personality occurs.

In Neverwinter Nights, child NPCs are invincible. If you attack one, the child will follow and attack your character relentlessly, eventually killing him. That's the closest thing I've seen to what I'm talking about, but that's still not it. That's basically a scripted event, a simple action command ("Kill the PC"). If it had been a change in AI, the children's perception of your character would change, but a number of subsequent events would be possible due to different personalities, different environmental circumstances, and other variables which combine on-the-fly.

I've long waited for contextual items. Item reward systems can be a lot of fun. I think they can be even more fun if some items are not what they appear to be, and if some items receive bonus powers in particular situations.

A broad item reward system has never been combined with a contextual combat system. It would be ridiculous to attempt as many attack animations as Assassin's Creed had for every weapon in a Diablo-type game. But breaking weapons down into a small number of classes (sword, axe, blunt, etc) would make this combo possible. In MMOs, it can be fun seeing how different characters' combat actions mix, but how much more so if there was significant variety within each character's optimal repertoire?

We've seen weapons and armor with effects or resistances that make them optimal for engagement with particular enemies. That's not the sort of contextual variety I'm praising here. In those cases, each item offers a single animation and three degrees of difficulty dependent on the enemy (ineffectual, average effect, superior effect). What I hope to see is different animations and other visible/audible effect variations independent of enemy type. Beyond mere show, I'm hoping for variety in type within one weapon.

When a player uses a "Frostbane" flaming sword against arctic inhabitants, he expects the sword to be more effectual and, though he might take some mild pleasure from pride in being smartly equipped, the experience is basically the same as using the weapon in any other scenario. On the other hand, imagine that the sword exhibits an effect type when fighting those arctic creatures that it doesn't exhibit elsewhere. What if the sword looked rather plain most of the time, but it glows hot as the player journeys further into the cold setting? What if fire suddenly erupted from the blade and was hurled at the enemy the blade was destined to fight?

Experiences like that don't just make players grin and think "cool...". Experiences like that make us wide-eyed, exhilirated, and we tell our friends about it days or even weeks later. It's more impressive, and it's feasible.

One of the cooler concepts I've ever read was something the Darkfall devs suggested about their Alfar race early in production (I don't know if the game still includes this scenario). The Alfar are ruled their god in physical form as a king, and that god is literally insane. All of their magic comes from him. So the spellcasters of that race have unpredictable magic. As the god's mood and sanity shift from one moment to the next, so does the potency of their spells. Sometimes their magic will sputter and fail, while at other times it is excessively powerful and brilliant.

While that's an extreme example, I think there's a lot of hope for similar variety within any particular skill. Variety can keep games fresh and replayable. It would be great if a skill gained early in a game could still surprise its user near the end.

How else might context be used to make games more fun?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

coopting level design for AI

You might enjoy watching the NOVA special on the DARPA Grand Challenge, a desert race for robots. I was particularly impressed by Stanley, a robot by Stanford's AI Lab led by Sebastian Thrun.

Stanley combines laser input with a video camera's data. The laser scans terrain to detect flatness. Next, the AI compares that data to the video image. It guesses that the video-captured landscape beyond the laser's range will roughly match the landscape within the laser's range. The AI focuses on colors in the video image. So, Stanley assumes, if flattest terrain coincides with a general color (the color of the road), then wherever that color is seen in the video image is more likely to be flat terrain (useable road) as well. The laser data is the core data, but the camera data enables the AI to predict future input.

Needless to say, going to the link above and watching the show will clarify my description.

Making art part of AI
It occurred to me that similar systems could be used to improve game AI... only game designers have the advantage of being able to design environments to fit. Rather than design pathfinding programs to work in any game setting, why not work cooperatively with artists and level designers so that environments can directly inform the AI?

Stanley had to actively discern road by comparing two types of data, and with limited certainty. In a game, certain colors and textures can be exclusive to particular objects, thereby acting as perfectly accurate qualifiers for AI.

Script triggers and invisible rails for object movement are commonly seen in games, of course. But what I'm proposing (and perhaps this method is already used -- I'm not a programmer) is data included in environment/level planning that is informative, rather than determinative.

Such cues might take the form of marker objects, hues, line or object patterns, textures, or combinations. And they could be used for anything from pathfinding to personality simulations (ex: different game AI could prefer different terrain or abundance of cover).

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

out-of-game storytelling

EA Redwood Shores recently posted a fourth webcomic in anticipation of their game, Dead Space. I wonder how well this works -- relaying much of a game's story through external media -- and what spins might be made on the idea.

For one thing, I think it's possible to perform nearly all of a game's storytelling outside the game and still have it be integral to the game experience. Playing games based on IPs like LOTR and Star Wars, we don't need any in-game story to be immersed in the setting. If there hadn't been a scrap of dialogue in Star Wars: Galaxies, I still would have been framing my experiences within the Galactic Civil War and other story elements from the films.

A span of three full, top-quality films certainly added depth to those IPs that no simple webcomic is likely to add, but the main question seems to be how to attract a large number of gamers to the out-game story at all. EA's webcomics will probably enhance my Dead Space game experience, but I doubt even half of Dead Space fans will watch those comics (which is probably the main reason the comics are only a prelude to the game's full and self-contained story).

How might attention be drawn to external storytelling methods like this?

I'd like to write more about this, but I'm a bit distracted at the moment. I might come back and edit this article.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

some devs get it

Michael's got a series of interviews with Paul Barnett over at his site. I've said before that Barnett seems like one of the better developers in the industry, and it's comments like these that continue to reinforce that view.

"The only balancing you should do [post-release] is if there is something that fundamentally breaks the game."

He later clarified that comment here:

"There is no need to obsessively mess with the game. I hate the nerf train, I hate designers who just won't leave it alone they think they know best. I belive that you should only mess with these things when it is clear they are breaking the game."

In short, MMOs don't have to be the fickle, fluid blobs they are currently... looking completely different every 6 months. Among other problems, this invites players to hate the game because they're always thinking about what it could be, what it should have been. MMOs are not services. They're products with services necessarily attached. Finish the damn product and leave it alone.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

victory and combat

This is in response to an MMOCrunch article asking what motivates PvP in MMOs.

In regard to MMOs, my experience suggests that players who love PvP in current MMOs focus more on bragging rights and the rewards of victory than on the combat itself. All combatants want to win, of course. But MMO PvP is not like the PvP in Killer Instinct or Call of Duty 4, in which players are more likely to remember cool combos and surprising events than whether they won or lost a particular match.

It's important to recognize that the thrill of battle and the thrill of victory are distinct from one another.

They are generally separate, though they can be the same -- and that, I believe, is the ideal. By now, most developers are familiar with the concept of flow. Flow is when the end and the experience become one. It's when we become lost in the moment because the moment is completely fulfilling. The concept is thousands of years old, actually. In the past, it was called inspiration (God working through individuals) or wù-wèi (無為 or 无为, a central concept to Confucianism and taoism). Flow/inspiration is essentially communion with the "game". It occurs when the participant is able to accept the game (its rules, goals, setting, etc) without reservation and without struggle.

Repetitive actions are often (necessarily?) a key component. Repetition diminishes struggle by increasing familiarity with both thought and execution. It diminishes reservation by normalizing and internalizing the setting and goals.

I doubt that challenge is a necessary component of flow, as this graph suggests, because flow includes the elimination of challenge. When Michael Jordan "entered the zone", he wasn't trying anymore; he was simply doing. In my Asian Philosophy course in college, we never did come up with a perfect English translation for wù-wèi, but my best guess is "effortless action". It can occur with actions as complex as NBA basketball or classical guitar; it can also occur with actions as simple as gardening or swimming. Flow is not limited to challenging tasks.

Flow is not the completion of challenges, but the fulfillment of self. It's the realization of self by means of participation in something. And because it's the realization of self, different actions produce flow for different individuals (though some aspects of self are universal).

It can happen through exploration. I'm an explorer, so it's easy for me to lose track of time and all else while flipping through pictures (notice the repetitive action) like these or reading. It can happen through something as passive as listening to music or watching a movie -- simply absorbing something of personal relevance.

Engagement, rather than challenge, is necessary. The experience must fill the appetite. Perhaps engagement can take the form of challenge, but there is necessarily no struggle in flow (struggle and challenge are not completely synonymous).

Anyway, I didn't originally intend for this article to be about flow. =P

My original point is that victory and combat are related, but should be analyzed separately. Well-designed rewards won't always support poorly-designed combat; and vis versa. Each should be able to stand on its own.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Spore CC: addendum

Blogger won't let me edit my last post at the moment, so here are the additions I wanted to make. If I think of any other things I want to add, I'll put them in this post (assuming Blogger lets me).

There's an "Undo" button at the bottom-center of the Spore CC. It seems to undo an unlimited series of actions. So if you mess up in any way or something doesn't go as planned, just undo it.

Keep in mind while you're messing with the torso that the game considers one end to be the front even without anything on it. Which end it considers the front determines which way feet and hands will face, and which direction movement goes.

The CC does have bugs (no pun intended). Fins and other "details" often reset to an unwanted orientation whenever you mess with the torso. Non-detail parts might do this too, but I can't remember. This bug is annoying, but you can remove and replace the troublesome parts with little time or difficulty once you're finished adjusting other things.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Spore Creature Creator: intro, tips, thoughts

If you don't already have it, you can download the Creature Creator here. I've had the good fortune of being able to play around with it early, so here's an introduction, as well as some tips and impressions.

The Creature Creator (CC) is just a small slice of the full Spore game, currently dated for a September release (we'll see). Though it is just a slice, it's representative of a core aspect of Spore gameplay. Spore is largely about human creativity. Most of us are not great artists or animators, but we are all creative and capable of great feats when started with the right tools and guidance. The Creature Creator and other editors of Spore offer those tools and guidance.

There are two versions of the CC: a full retail version and a partial free version. The partial version has only 25% of the full CC's options... but that's still a hell of a lot! Here are the options in the full version -- every one of them able to be resized, reshaped, duplicated, and (many of them) placed anywhere on the body you wish:

1 morphable torso with as many or few vertebrae as you wish
40 mouth types
40 eyes and senses
12 arms
12 legs
28 hands
32 feet
24 weapons
40 details

... not to mention the color and texture options. There are 36 presets, or you can combine a base texture with a coat texture and detail texture (36 options each). Choose between 17 colors with 49 hues each (some more distinct than others).

Again, all of these options can be morphed and applied in interesting ways after they're added to your creature. The number of possibilities is astounding.

You'll notice DNA points at the bottom of your screen, as well as a creature complexity meter at the top-right. In the full Spore game, your creatures will have to earn DNA points through survival tasks (eat, mate, conquer, etc) to evolve into a more complex and efficient form. In other words, if your creature does well in its ecosystem and survives to the next generation, you can alter or add to the next generation with DNA points. Spore is about creativity, but it is also a Montessori-like learning tool to explore the basic concepts of evolution, biology, astronomy, and other aspects of the real world.

Basic parts offer basic abilities, like sight from eyes and grasping from hands. Beyond that, you can choose from a variety of abilities (or combine them) to create a theme for your creature. Abilities include charm, jump, sprint, sneak, health, glide, charge, spit, strike, dance, speed, pose, bite, and sing. Abilities fall under the categories of Attack, Socialize, Speed, and Health (brain power improves health... because smart animals are better at staying alive, I assume).

The mouth you choose determines whether your character is a carnivore (meat-eater), herbivore (plant-eater), or omnivore (eats anything).

Aside from Build mode and Paint mode, there's also a Test Drive mode (you can toggle between them at the top of the screen). In Test Drive, you can easily move your creature around, spawn baby versions to see what they will look like, and command your creature to perform any of 24 different actions (divided into basic actions, dancing, mate attraction, and moods).

In Test Drive, you can take screenshots, create an animated avatar (.gif file), and record videos for YouTube. If you change the background to black, then the background will be white in the screenshot. You will be automatically prompted to upload your video to YouTube, but you must have an account with YouTube to use that feature. If you do have an account, recording a video is as simple as clicking on the "Record Video" button once to start recording and once again to stop recording. Go to Options -> Settings -> Capture Settings to improve your screenshot and video quality. Screenshots can be emailed from the CC by clicking on the film icon above the screenshot command.

If the EA servers ever have trouble, don't worry... you can play offline. You just can't access Sporepedia offline.

Click on the Name panel at the bottom-center to create a name for your creature. There's a dice icon that can be clicked to randomly generate a name. Include or don't include a description as you please. Tags are used to help players find creatures of the type they're looking for.

At the bottom-left of the CC is the Sporepedia. This includes Spore news, a MySpore Page (your Spore account name, a picture of you or one of your creatures, the number of creatures you've made, etc), the Spore Catalog, and an encyclopedia of all creatures made by players around the world. In the top-right, you can search for specific creatures by title, creator, type, and time created.

Whenever you start the CC, it creates a randomly shaped and colored torso for you to begin with. This can act as inspiration. Begin a creature with the provided shape as your starting point, or keep clicking the "New Creation" button until the CC provides you with a torso you like.

Adjusting the shape of an object can be tricky and sometimes frustrating. The key is camera angles. Use your middle mouse button to adjust the camera. Generally, adjust it to be perpendicular to your action. For example: if you're trying to stretch a leg up or down, move the camera to a side view of your creature; if you're trying to stretch the leg width-ways, use an overhead camera angle.

Hold down the "Ctrl" key, click on an arm or leg, and drag it to remove a joint from that limb.

Hold down the "Alt" key, click on any object and drag it to copy that object.

In paint mode, there's an option at the bottom to "Paint Like" a creature from the Sporepedia. If finding the right textures and colors for your creature is becoming a headache, then just browse the paintjobs of other players' creatures and apply those patterns to yours.

Don't think you have to use every option type, or that you can only use one of each. If you want, give your creature eight eyes or three mouths. Or make a creature with no eyes, no arms, or no weapon. My creature at the top of this article has feelers instead of eyes.

Try counter-intuitive ideas... like placing ears where the nose should be, eyes on the knees, or antlers under the chin. You won't like every weird thing you try, but you'll eventually stumble on something interesting.

Pay close attention to mouth types. A particular mouth might fit visually with your creature, but remember that it also chooses its appetite (meat-eater or plant-eater). Are you creating a weak carnivore or ferocious herbivore?

For tags, I always include whether my creature is a carnivore, herbivore, or omnivore. You can also include distinctive body parts (horns, wings, pincers, etc) or general style (scary, cute, etc). I've also used tags like "short", "small" and "jumps" (one of my creatures can jump incredibly high).

Click on the "Guide" button at the bottom left of the screen (it looks like a "?") to access tutorials.

Overall, the Spore CC rocks (as I expected). At times, you might feel limited, but there's an amazing amount of possibilities.

Am I crazy? How can anyone feel "limited" with so many options?! Well, it depends on how you approach the game. I'm an artist (composer, writer, sketch artist, etc), so it's natural for me to dream up possibilities beyond what the CC offers.

For example: I tried to create a starfish-like creature with a mouth in the center (on top) and six limbs that acted as both legs and food-graspers. Unfortunately, Spore's procedural animation assumes that one side of the creature is its front, so my creature moved more like an ant than a starfish. The CC also has a hard distinction between legs and arms, so putting graspers on all "arms" resulted in a jittery, displeasing walking animation (apparently, creatures must walk on "feet", rather than "hands" -- though I could be wrong). My Haparu has horns on its tail, but won't swing them to strike (like an anklyosaur) as I originally intended.

I certainly don't hold it against the CC that it's not capable of everything I could dream up. But I think that basic situation will affect most Spore players at some point, whether they're very imaginative people or not. At some point, you'll probably want to do something with the CC that you can't do. When that happens, try to think of how wondrous our real world and imaginations are that such a great number of possibilities barely scratches the surface of all our knowledge and dreams.

You can glide, but you can't fly. That's going to bug a lot of players only because the CC includes wing options.

Development of your creatures is an emergent process. You generally won't know exactly what you're going to end up with, and you'll occasionally be pleasantly surprised by some emergent look or behavior. My latest creature, the Zacaren, can jump incredibly high. I hadn't even considered jumping when designing it, so I was completely taken aback when I clicked the "jump" command. When I first commanded my Isawk to laugh, I loved the way one of its heads would tilt back and chuckle before tilting down and letting the other side rise for a laugh.

The name generator apparently works procedurally (the names are created by an AI, rather than directly inputed). This results in a variety of name styles, but it also means that you'll occasionally get a real word or name (like "Molly", for example).

This is already long enough, so I'll stop there. If you have any questions about the CC, ask and maybe I'll have an answer.

All the pictures in this post are my creations. Post your own, and let me know what your Spore account name is so I can look up your creatures in the future. My Spore name is hallower.

Monday, June 16, 2008

simple yet lasting

This came up in my ongoing discussion with Scott in the comments of my last post.

When I was a kid, I used to wander around by a creek in the woods and throw rocks at sun-bathing cottonmouths (also called water moccasins -- a venomous snake in my area).

That's a simple, easily-repeatable experience that many kids might have had. It's such a small experience, yet I still remember it and include it in my personal story (the memories I choose to describe my life when reflecting) because it says something about my personality at the time (that I did things just for the hell of it, that I didn't think too hard about consequences, that I liked being outdoors, etc).

Small, simple experiences which are not inherently personal or deep can have great personal relevance and depth.

Friday, June 13, 2008

playing for someone else's story

I'm a writer. Since I was very young, I've written poetry, short fiction, long fiction, philosophy, analysis, and just about any type of writing you can think of. In fact, I'll be extremely disappointed with myself if I never publish a novel, a book of philosophy, and a collection of short stories.

So it's ironic, to say the very least, that story has never been my primary interest in a game. Games are about my choices... how I, as a player, decide to use and mold my character. I loved Deus Ex. But do I remember much of its story? No. Mainly, I remember the few times it let me decide what happened next. All I can remember of KOTOR is the robot who hates meatbags. In a game, any game, it's about my story.

So I'm surprised to find my mind made up about purchasing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed because of this video teasing about the game's narrative. I was, and remain, cautious about the game, because the thrill of playing with the physics technology could easily be short-lived (if LucasArts fails to include other dynamics or if they stage every encounter rigidly). But now there's no question that I'll be buying the game. I will. I'm buying it just to see what happens between Episodes III and IV in the Star Wars saga. I must know, and I don't want to simply read a summary or transcript online.

This begs the question: Are only Star Wars and LOTR capable of so powerfully compelling a gamer like me through story hints to buy a game? Could an IP not belonging to books or films entice me so strongly with story alone?

I don't know. But I can say this much: if such an IP is possible, it sure as hell ain't Halo or Tomb Raider. ;)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

accept limits

I just want to point y'all to a great post made by Sanya the other day.

Lesson #1: Design for the tech and audience you have now; not what you might have later.

Lesson #2: Be humble enough to really listen to experienced designers (hunt them down if you have to)... including when they're wrong! Whenever someone is wrong about anything, you can at least learn from asking why they believe what they believe.

Lesson #3: Artists can meet deadlines, too. Many deadlines shouldn't be written in stone, but they shouldn't be completely malleable either.

there are goals in combat?

As I said in response to Geoff's post about MMOFPS games, I don't think combat needs any goals if it truly is engaging.

I don't mean that goals are not necessary to gameplay. They are, of course, regardless of a game's genre and style. But good combat can be enjoyed for its own sake.

Halo offers players a clear goal: reach the end of the level to advance the story. Yet players are generally more focused on enjoying the battle at hand than moving forward. The same occurs in LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth II, Star Wars: Battlefront, Street Fighter II, Neverwinter Nights, and many other great games.

Sure, maybe your MMO isn't just about combat, and a depthful and dynamic combat system (which includes fun, dynamic enemies) requires a good bit of time and resources. Games like Halo and Street Fighter 2 can concentrate more exclusively on battle. But if the majority of time playing your game involves fighting (as in most MMOs), then there's no excuse for a lackluster combat system (as most MMOs have).

Grinding is the obvious result of focusing on goals to the neglect of the journey. When the journey is basically just filler between goals, I consider that disrespectful to gamers.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Liberty City hospital

The Game Dame recently pointed me to comedian Demetri Martin. One of Martin's many great jokes is that he wants to play a game that lets him act as medic to all the characters injured in other games, like the guy who was "shot 57 times in the head".

Thankfully, I'm not so far lost that I was wondering how such a game could be done while Martin moved on to the next joke. But I am wondering about it now.

And I feel pretty confident that the basic concept could be made into a pretty sweet game; fun, hilarious, and long-lasting.

The main requirement for such a game to be fun is that it must be cartoony. The boardgame Operation proved that surgery can be fun if you pay little mind to realism. And the only way you can include such ridiculous (and ridiculously fun) notions as a patient who's been shot 57 times in the head is to leave realism at the door.

The second element is a variety of goals and interactions. Include some over-arching track for progression to connect the smaller systems, of course. But don't try to pin down specific gameplay systems too early. Start with all the funny, ludicrous examples of game violence you'd like to fit into the game. Then divide the victims into categories and ask which types could be the foundations of gameplay systems that relate to each other. It's important that all the parts of any game contribute toward a unified impression.

That's unless you're basically offering a collection pack of mini-games; in which case, you shouldn't bother trying to contrive a shared foundation for them, because the player would rather jump to his preferred mini-games quickly, easily, and at any time.

The third element, to provide replay value, is variety within each player activity. For example: Lying next to the guy with fifty bullet-holes might be a guy who has been beaten into a shapeless blob with a baseball bat. Perhaps both victims are objects of gameplay that requires the player to rejoin fractured parts into a correct shape. In this case, they each represent an archetype with many possible variations, enabling an endless stream of victims for the player to fix.

Last but not least, the game must be funny! It would be easy to lose sight of the basic concept's humor while trying to design systems that fit each victim type. For example: the "rejoin fractured parts" system hinted at above might be fun as Bejeweled is fun, but could it keep the player laughing by somehow reminding him of how ridiculous the situation is? An alternative system might not stand as well on its own, but provides a better overall experience when mixed into a humorous setting and filled with rotated jokes.

What would a cartoon character look like, and what would he say, if he had been shot 57 times in the head? Perhaps he's happier than before he was shot, because he's certainly an "airhead", and "the happiest person is the village idiot". Perhaps by fixing him (putting his brains back in place), you're condemning him to misery, like the robot-genius in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Perhaps he talks while under anasthesia, and you're encouraged to laugh as his comments gradually shift from innocent contentment to enlightened depression.

What other archetypes of game victims might this game include?

Speaking of the funny and ludicrous, this mock footage of game developers in the 70s is hilarious!

Monday, June 09, 2008

classic stories vs mere entertainment

This started out as a response to Monique's article over at Write the Game, in which she stresses the importance of relationships in game dramas.

I think every classic novel and film is fundamentally about human beings and human relationships ( with others, with nature, with God, with past and future generations, with technology, etc). Classic stories are about us. Through the story experience, we, the audience, understand a little more about ourselves and how we as individuals relate to the world.

When we watch the movie Alien, for example, we're fascinated by the monster; but it's the human responses to the alien that make the story memorable. Otherwise, the Sci-Fi Channel's original movies would be worth watching. ;)

Consider this: Comedy (by which I mean "humorous narrative", as opposed to the literary critic's definition) has been around since the dawn of acting, literature (including oral literature), and art. Yet how many comedies are considered classics? The comedies that last beyond generations offer more than mere resolution. Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night's Dream explore relationships that cannot be fully defined or explained because they are truthfully-imagined human relationships, rather than mere stratagems in entertaining plots.

What attracts so many to Da Vinci's most famous painting every year, what is mentioned time and again in the countless critiques it has received, is the mystery of Mona Lisa's smile and gaze. The painting stands on its accurate representation of the beautiful subtlety and mystery of human emotion.

Entertaining stories leave us with answers; with certain conclusions. Classics leave us with answers, but also questions -- questions which, despite their universality or social focus, are deeply personal. Classics can be appreciated over and over again because we're never entirely sure of our own responses to them. We notice things the second time around that we didn't notice the first time. Classics grow with us. Our individual personalities and experiences, our cultural, geographical, and technological points of reference, our exposure to other artistic works -- these things change us, and so change what we see in and how we respond to those great stories. Every time we read them, listen to them, gaze upon them, play them... every time it's new, because we also are new.

Where does a soldier find the strength and immediately-present love to jump on a grenade so his comrades might be spared? What do you do when a child points a gun at you with intent to kill? Is it a betrayal of friendship to ask for romance, not knowing the nature of that friend's thoughts of you? When are you obligated to reveal your feelings, and when are you obligated to be happy or brave for another person?

Those are the sort of questions classic stories raise. They are questions without certain answers. We've been asking them for thousands of years, yet still we have only incomplete and often unsatisfying responses. Classic works often provide those partial answers. They hint at the truth we know, and motivate audiences to keep searching for the rest.

I believe that all human beings are called to perfection. None of us can be perfect, but each of us is capable of amazing feats. We should strive toward the amazing, reach for the miraculous. That calling is present in every aspect of our lives, and it includes making art. Few of us will ever create a masterpiece, but we should all aim that high. The place to start is within ourselves -- the questions that drive our lives and define our actions. We all ask classic questions. A master storyteller shares such thoughts in a presentation that does them justice.

Friday, June 06, 2008

more on IPs

Expanding on the topic of IPs, MMOCrunch wrote a brief article asking why WoW and Lineage 2 sold so much better than MMOs based on LOTR and Star Wars. I appreciate how the writer is careful with his conclusions, since it's definitely not a clear issue. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject, in response to MMOCrunch's article.

Using a film / book IP and using a game IP are different. The Warcraft RTS games had millions of fans, and asking them to try a Warcraft MMO was like asking fans of the Star Trek TV series to go see the first Star Trek film. The mediums are close enough for the audience to feel a relatively smooth transition, whereas book-to-game or film-to-game is generally not as fluid a transition. It's easier for a game to hook fans of a game IP than of an IP of another medium, because audiences don't participate in other mediums in the same ways they participate in games. There are similarities, certainly, but a game is a fundamentally different type of experience.

It's also significant that Blizzard has become a highly respected brand. A lot of gamers who would not have normally looked at MMOs tried WoW, or payed attention to its marketing, primarily because it's a Blizzard game. Company brands have much the same marketing effect as established IPs. WoW particularly benefited from this because Blizzard was made so important in Asia by Starcraft (which has whole TV channels devoted to it in Korea). And if Asia has more potential MMO customers than the Americas and Europe (I have no idea if that is so, but it's worth considering), then Blizzard's brandname takes on even more significance.

Yes, there's a difference between initial sales and continuing sales, but a significant portion of late sales are directly and indirectly consequences of initial sales. First, you have word-of-mouth. The greater the initial number of customers, the greater the spread of interest and the faster it happens (talk of any product spreads more quickly when that product is new than when it is old news). Second, retailers are encouraged by a product's strong sales to increase advertisement and availability of that product. WoW dominated a lot of shelf space and Walmart advertisements mostly due to its strong initial sales.

Another possible reason for LOTRO's and SW:G's lesser financial success, despite being based on more popular entertainment IPs, is likely due to the IPs focus on specific and individual characters. Sure, Warcraft III has interesting characters, but the Warcraft RTS games are more about armies than individuals. Though LOTR and Star Wars involve wars and other huge struggles, the emphasis even in the battle scenes is on the particular heroes who dominate the narratives. We follow Aragorn, Legolas, and Theoden through the battle at Helm's Deep. We follow Luke and Lando through the battle against the Death Star. Incidentally, the success of Stargate Worlds is likely to be limited by the same effect. The Stargate TV shows (I'm a fan of the Atlantis series) focus on specific heroes... the humor and choices that result from the interaction of those specific personalities.

Which is why Raph Koster and SOE made the right choice to make SW:G about the Star Wars universe and not Star Wars characters, and SOE was foolish to add so many jedi and interactions with famous characters later. That probably sounds like an odd thing to say, after just explaining that the heart of Star Wars was the characters. But what I'm saying is that the heart of the Star Wars movies and books was the characters, while the heart of a Star Wars game must be the world... because the players are the main characters in any game.

On the one hand, that means that, no, the developers cannot count on the films' success to equate the same degree of success for the game. The IP cannot be wholly transferred across mediums. But the game does receive a boost from the films, as it is an extension of the same experience. The IP offers the game an elevated starting point. Then the derived game IP can be developed into a new foundation for future games. The derived IP is, in some ways, separate from the original IP.

So, for example, (1) the LOTR books and films magnify my interest in LOTR games. If two games, one based on LOTR and one not, are designed with the exact same systems, I'll enjoy the LOTR version much more. I've played a couple LOTR-based console games before, but none impressed until Battle for Middle Earth 2 (now one of my all-time favorite games). (2) BfME2 has reshaped my interest in LOTR, helping me to reimagine LOTR as a gameworld apart from the novel / film characters. Legolas becomes less important than elven archers in general. Aragorn fades back into a mass of Rohirrim and Gondor pikemen. Experience with a great LOTR game has helped me make the transition to focusing on new characters in a non-linear adventure apart from the linear mediums. The derived IP has, I believe, made future LOTR games more compelling by separating the LOTR universe from the story's main characters to a degree, thereby enabling greater emphasis on my (the player's ) choices and adventure.

Hence, the first game based on IP should, in my opinion, be used as a stepping stone to a greater work. IPs coming from films or books into games run into big snags, but the transition can be very successful if the story world can be gradually divided from the characters. Just look at the success of the first Star Wars: Battlefront, which almost completely excluded the IP's main characters from gameplay.

wandering IPs

This new Saints Row 2 video is a nice summary of the main point I was making in my (admittedly piss-poor) initial impressions review of GTA IV. My argument was that Rockstar has veered so far from the original flavor of the GTA series that now the Saints Row series is more GTA than GTA. That original flavor was wild, free-form gameplay and downright silly shenanigans. The original tone and over-the-top gameplay of the series seems to have been slowly fading, to be replaced by different values.

I absolutely have no problem with developers changing style. People change. Interests change. And GTA IV is certainly a financially successful game that pleases many gamers. Rockstar did well.

But I do believe any series should remain faithful to the expectations of its audience... faithful to the basic style that defined the first product; for ethical reasons as much as marketing reasons. If you're interested in making a new sort of game, don't realize it by changing an established IP. Start a new IP. If you establish your company as a respectable brand (Blizzard, Bioware, etc), then you can use that to about the same effect as a game brand. Command & Conquer is another series that has wandered quite a bit, though at least they eventually divided it into subcategories (Red Alert series, Tiberium series, etc).

In this case, I think the GTA series has wandered too far from its heart. I sold my copy of GTA IV to a friend.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

interactive advertising

There's a lot of hubbub these days about the integration of advertisements into games. Many people think in-game billboards and such will fail for a number of reasons. I doubt they'll fail. The inclusion felt pretty seamless in Hellgate: London, and I expect to see several games over the next year that help advertisers without disrupting gameplay in a similar manner.

The key there is to allow only the right ads. Advertise only products that fit the game's setting, and demand that advertisers tailor their ads to the game and not just the audience. The Nvidia ad above is not tailored to the setting and so is jarring. The comics ad below (on the left of the screenshot) fits the game's dark tone, is a more reasonable size, and is more tasteful in general.

Another form of advertising that I think is genius, and far more successful, is arcade games designed around particular products. The Xbox Live Burger King game was priceless, and the Yaris game wasn't half bad for a glorified advertisement either. The former generated a lot of praise from gamers, and it probably endeared Burger King to many potential customers.

But the form of advertising that I haven't seen yet and think would be the most successful integration with games is a the possibility between in-game billboards and full games: playable products in-game.

GTA 4 could have secured advertising money to include real vehicles in Liberty City. Whether the vehicles move and control realistically isn't as important as whether or not driving them in the game is fun and somehow reflects their general styles (selling points). Most advertisments are less about facts than impressions and associations, anyway.

Lockheed Martin and Boeing sometimes advertise on TV. If the purpose of those ads is what I think it is -- to increase voter approval so they can win government and military contracts -- then they'd probably have more success by touting their products in war games. They should pitch to EA, Ubisoft, or Activision what makes their latest overt products innovative, and I'd imagine that those innovations might often inspire game developers to come up with some fun gameplay. F-19 Stealth Fighter on DOS was an awesome game, as was whatever game I played on DOS with the F-14 Tomcat.

Anyway, you get the idea. Make a product into a virtual toy that fits a game's setting and that interactive product exposure will have far more impact than just a static advertisment or an arcade game that is defined by advertisement (the general thought of "advertisement" annoys a lot of people, so ads are received better when mixed into something else).

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

exploration vs challenge

I've been playing Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows lately with my visiting sister. She's a very different personality from me, so it's been interesting to see that she appreciates the wandering hack-and-slash gameplay as much as I do.

Most significantly, it doesn't bother either of us that the degree of challenge doesn't increase as we progress through the levels. What makes the game fun is the non-stop action and personal experimentation in combat (nearly all the skills will work in most situations, so you just use whatever skills most interest you as an individual... and combine them according to personal preference). The game is very short -- easy to finish in a day -- but worth replaying.

It's Diablo-style hack-and-slash gameplay, but it doesn't have near the dynamics of Diablo 2. Of course, it doesn't last nearly as long as that game, but I think it does prove the viability of combat systems focused on exploration, rather than achievement. What we're fighting isn't as important as how we feel like fighting at any given moment.

I flip an enemy into the air, set him ablaze, then turn to sweep my axe through three oncomings foes. Meanwhile, my sister's character nearby is sending enemies in all directions with magical bursts. We're not thinking of goals. We're absorbed in the moment, savoring every kill and eagerly anticipating our next opportunity to let loose a new power.

Seven Sorrows isn't a stellar game. But I see in it a brief glimpse of a phenomenal possibility. Combine a healthy dose of dynamics and customization with dramatically-animated combat in a sandbox, and you've got a game of Diablo's dimensions (sales and lasting appeal).

Titan Quest
and similar games are fun, but they fail to match Diablo 2 largely by a lack of personal exploration, as opposed to general exploration. They place a little too much emphasis on the latter, and not enough on the former. Don't just let the player discover static treasures and flat skills. Make the player's choices between treasures and skills, as well as the player's use of them, indicative of the player as an individual person. Let the player interact with the world and gameplay in a way that is personal (and dramatic).

And, when making a sandbox, don't let worries about balance keep you from filling your game with dynamics that interact in unpredictable ways. In a game of this style, the degree and stability of challenge isn't nearly as critical as in other games, because these games are more about the player's designs than yours.

Monday, June 02, 2008

women and gaming

I'm feeling brave today.

A long time ago, after watching this GameTrailers interview and having met, for the first time, a woman who enjoys a Real-Time Strategy game, I decided to give my take on the question of women's place in the gaming world. Will games ever appeal to as many women as men? Do women want different experiences or have different expectations?

I forgot about this article for a while, but Brian over at The Weekend Gamer brought it back to mind by highlighting a new study. Incidentally, the scientist's conclusion (that gaming in general is more natural for males) isn't supported by his evidence (which suggests only that particular types of gameplay are more suited toward males).

Anyway, here are some semi-random thoughts on the subject. Much of the information about physical differences between men and women I learned from my youngest sister, who is a biomedical engineer, medical researcher at the National Institute of Health, and now training to be a physical therapist. I'm also fairly well schooled in psychology. And I grew up in a family with two boys and three girls, which means I've been having discussions about these differences all my life. The sister in medicine also happens to be the one who played games like Halo with me for years.

First, here are the things I'm sure of.

Women are destined for games, too
Every year now, there are new reports of the growing numbers of female gamers. For whatever reason, gaming has been more popular with guys for a long time. But a day is soon coming when a woman playing video games will be no more surprising than a woman going to see a movie or watching TV. Nothing about the medium itself, interactive entertainment, is exclusive or preferential.

And the cultural barriers that deter girls from trying out games in general are slowly but surely being eroded. Those cultural barriers might not disappear altogether -- male gamers might always outnumber female gamers -- but female gamers will at least become nothing to raise an eyebrow at. Groups like Frag Dolls (a group of women devoted to competitive war games) will always be exceptional, but girls will game in some form.

Some games are for us all
Many games are or will be equally popular among both sexes. In my experience, the original Mario Kart on the SNES is such a game. So are some classic arcade games and MMOs. The Sims series is popular with both sexes, as I'm sure Spore will be.

Some games favor one sex
The term "chick flicks" didn't come out of nowhere. Through the many decades of motion pictures, many films have been far more popular among women while other films have been far more popular among men. The same is seen in literature and every other artform. The same will be seen in video games.

Genre alone does not determine the audience. Though guys generally hate being dragged to sappy romance films, there are some romances that are popular with guys, too (French Kiss, There's Something About Mary, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, etc). Action flicks generally draw more male viewers, but some are popular with women (Speed, Rush Hour, LOTR, etc).

Here's the stuff I'm not certain of but think is likely.

Art Themes
Men and women have different ratios of rod-to-cone light-receptor cells in their eyes. This means that women tend to be physically more capable of distinguishing separate colors than men and have better peripheral vision. Men, on the other hand, tend to have better depth perception and form tracing. This probably affects women's interests in game art the same way it affects women's visual interests in clothing and interior design.

Women tend to have a greater appreciation of vibrant colors and cumulative design (meaning how objects fit together). Men are more attentive to shape and the structural layout of environments. The RTS that my female friend said she loved is Warcraft 3. Without suggesting that she likes it for the visuals alone, that game and World of Warcraft use vibrant colors and a rounded art style. Mario Kart and other Mario games, popular among women, also employ this basic style.

Spore could be a great instrument of study in this area. I bet patterns will emerge in the sort of creatures and objects men design versus what women design. Incidentally, a woman might be the better researcher there, because women more often notice patterns (focus on cumulations, rather than specific objects, is as much a part of female brain development as eye development; male and female brains form a little differently).

A woman's gait is naturally different from a man's gait; not because of different attitudes, but because of a number of physical disparities in things like center-of-gravity, shape of the knees, and shape of the hips. If a game's visuals are real enough that the uncanny valley is a concern, then this difference between sexes should also be considered. It might be the reason that something doesn't look quite right. But the difference is slight... easy to exaggerate into a seductive parody, so artists should be careful.

Women tend to be more socially attentive and cooperative than men. Both men and women are often bull-headed, but a man is more likely to insist on his own way, refuse help (instructions, driving directions, etc), and focus on individual gain. So I think women tend to favor cooperative multiplayer over independent multiplayer. That's not saying that women are not competitive... just that they like to explore and compete in a more cooperative way.

All three of my sisters played competitive sports, and it was obvious that they play in a different way than guys. Women tend to focus more on team achievement. Team performance is important to men too, of course, but individual achievement has more relative value for us. Star Wars: Galaxies and Star Wars: Battlefront are good examples of games which favor male-type cooperation. Players can act separately while contributing to a common goal. Everquest and Halo are examples of games which favor female-type cooperation. One player's character cannot survive without the other's direct participation and intervention.

Yes, mostly-male militaries around the globe are based on the latter sort of cooperation, but how many young boys playing war games pretend in a support role? Soldiers fight side-by-side because it's necessary to survive and win; not because it's their preference.

When I asked one of my sister's about psychological differences between men and women on the soccer field, she mentioned that teammates shout words of encouragement much more often on women's teams. In her own words, "women respond more positively to encouragement". So it would make sense to include such encouragement in a game for female gamers.

On the flipside, I wonder if men respond more positively to the harsh criticism that's typical when coaching men's teams. The warrior instinct might mean this tends to inspire men by challenging our egos. The only video game experience I can cite here in Crackdown, in which I loved the narrator's mocking commentary and challenges.

As I said before, genre alone does not determine whether a game is attractive to both sexes or one. But some genres are ideally suited for gameplay which favors one sex over the other, just as most Nora Roberts fans are women while most Tom Clancy fans are men.

We might as well start by acknowledging that the division in films and books will translate into games. Romance favors women. We haven't seen many romance games yet, but they're on the way. Mass Effect's choice-empowering relationship play is one hint at things to come.

Women like war dramas, while men are the primary audience for war action. In addition to other features, an FPS game might be made more attractive to women through more personal dialogue between soldiers and more exploration of the protagonist's character. Women might also be interested more in rescue missions and guard missions, since their goals tend to be more about relationships.

Horror seems like a neutral genre, though men might favor the "walk into the darkness" type of horror while women favor the "something is coming" horror (feeling trapped). Men tend to like plans (structure) and predictability, while women are more willing to accept and adapt. Thus, a game like Dead Space probably favors men, while the movie Alien is more a woman's style in this way (the protagonist is unexpectedly trapped with the monster and defends herself; she doesn't seek the monster out). I'm far from sure about this theory, though my sisters generally agree. Also, women probably like their horror more contemplative and relationship-driven (like The Ring and The Grudge), while men prefer battle-driven plots (Predator, The Ghost and The Darkness).

I think women more commonly choose light-humored entertainment than men. Perhaps it's those confrontational instincts. Men seem to choose dark and severe entertainment more often than women. Women seem more appreciative of silly jokes and behavior. I think that's one reason all of my sisters loved Mario Kart so much. Popular romances are more often comedies than tragedies, it seems (though, again, I could be way off on this).

These are things worth considering, but I have no idea how they affect women gamers or games for women. They are psychological differences, though, so I think there probably is an effect of some kind in games.

When women fight
Cat fights are notoriously vicious. I wondered if this might be a myth, but the women I know don't think so and its confirmed at least in my own experience. I have no idea what the reason is for this ferocity, but I can't help but think it must translate into gaming somehow. Do cat fights tell us anything about women's perception or approach to any element of gameplay?

Dealing with pain
When studying psychology, I noticed that there might be a difference in the way men and women handle emotional pain. Depressive disorders are more common among women, and aggressive disorders are more common among men. Men seem more likely to project their pain onto others, while women seem to focus their pain inward (perhaps one reason encouragement is so appreciated).

When a woman is approached by a friend with a problem (a non-emergency), she's likely to first respond with sympathy. Women seem to value emotions more than men, and when hurt or troubled like to know that a confidant understands the emotional distress. When a man is approached by a friend with a problem, he's likely to respond immediately with advice; to try to solve the problem.

Random adages on the subject
Men never forgive. Women never forget.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
A woman can say more in a sigh than a man can say in a sermon.

Is there anything else y'all can think of? Any other area of possible difference?