Wednesday, December 16, 2009

offline play

It seems as if offline play is increasingly forbidden. It's not enough that games features rely on an internet connection, like online multiplayer. No, the game must be connected so that the publisher can verify its legitimacy; otherwise, the game is crippled... even unplayable.

Case in point: I've been playing Oblivion recently and investing a lot of time into decking out my character's castle, a DLC addition to the game. The castle was my focus, for reasons I've previously described. Late last week, lightning fried my modem and severed my internet access for a few days. When I attempted to load my game, I was told some content is "no longer available" and would I like to load anyway? In a moment of naivety, I answered, "yes".

Well, I'm back online now, and you can probably guess what happened. My castle was part of that content no longer available. And when it disappeared, so did everything inside. Hours of gameplay lost. I had been stocking it with all sorts of items, including one-of-a-kind quest rewards and magic items. All gone. I even had to redo the quest to gain possession of the castle.

Had I known I would lose all of this if I loaded my save file, what were my other options? There were only two other options: to start a new character or don't play the game. In other words, I was cut off from all progress I had made in the game until I was online again.

This is far from an exceptional experience. Every time I'm away from internet access, half my Xbox Live Arcade games are not playable at all, and DLC is often unavailable.

How rare is it to be cut off from internet access? It's not that uncommon.

Many people have unstable connections. I have known many people who lose internet access for minutes at a time and have experienced that myself. Scott was telling me today that he can lose internet for just a few seconds and it means he cannot save the game he's playing because his DLC access was cut off during that small hiccup.

Many people travel to locations with no internet. I took my Xbox 360 to such a place over Thanksgiving and was denied access to many of the games I own because of this online verification nonsense.

Publishers, stop treating your customers like thieves. Somehow, every other industry has survived frequent thefts without placing limits on how and when customers can use the products they buy. Figure it out.

Friday, December 11, 2009

show player limits

A problem I seem to run into increasingly often in games is that I'm shown a goal my character doesn't yet have the skills or other means to reach and am not informed of this limitation. In other words, the goal/achievement is listed or shown somewhere, and I spend an hour trying to achieve it before realizing that I'm not supposed to try yet.

For example, The Saboteur has a Perks section in the pause menu. If the player accomplishes specific tasks (kill 5 Nazis with a scoped rifle, blow up 10 radio towers, etc), then a reward (extra ammo, less sniper sway, etc) is unlocked and the player can try to complete the next level Perk. One of those Perks challenges the player to blow up four train bridges. Well, I've been to a number of these bridges now, large and small, trying to figure out how to blow them up and it doesn't seem possible.

Apparently, some future mission(s) will unlock my ability to destroy the bridges. The problem is that I wasn't told that... and since I have been able to destroy every other Nazi target with dynamite charges, I had no reason to assume bridges are any different. So I wasted an hour or so trying to figure out how to do something I can't do.

Overall, I'm enjoying The Saboteur. I'm just using that as an example of a problem I've experienced in many games recently.

A developer has options. First, you can hide a goal/object/area until it is achievable. Second, you bluntly tell or show the player that the goal will become achievable later. Or you can ensure that it is impossible for the player to encounter the goal until it is achievable. There are probably other options as well. In any case, the problem is relatively easy to avoid if taken into account.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

home sweet home

Almost without exception, when a person walks into a home for the first time, that person will deliberately look around at the furnishings and decorations. The same can't be said for businesses, schools, etc.

A great but uncommon feature in RPGs is a place the player can call home and fill with stuff from his or her adventures. From Everquest 2 to Oblivion to The Sims games, player homes have been offered in many forms but always to great appeal. Gamers like to be able to share their personalities and experiences with in-game visuals.

The Sims games are rare in that player-created content is a cornerstone that enables endless variety. Most games aren't open to that, so I'll instead focus on Oblivion as an example.

Oblivion allows me to own multiple homes simultaneously in different cities. Those homes vary greatly in architecture and size. I prefer to focus on just one place, a castle I got through DLC (Bloodhorn Castle). I can't buy new wall textures or furnishings, like in EQ2. But that's alright, because the beauty of Oblivion's system is that it allows me to bring back items I find in my adventures and place them where I like. That includes weapons and armors, gems and jewels, clothes, quest objects, tableware, and even food.

So, for example, in one display case I keep all the gemstones I find. In another I keep jewelry I've won and stolen (my character's a thief). In yet another, I have the decorative breastplate and shield of the castle's former owner.

Every wall has a small nook, and in these nooks I place silver, pewter, and decorative urns. In the corners, there are helms and shields from the different enemies I've slain. On racks are various weapons and shields from quests and merchants.

The beauty of this is that it is truly my home. It reflects not only my preferences and aesthetics, but my experiences and desired memories as well.

Homes reflect their owners. They provide subjects for friends and strangers alike to discuss. And they provide owners with comfort and tools for reflection. In a game, that means players socializing and looking back to remind themselves of all the experiences that make the game worth playing.

Incidentally, Oblivion allows players to make considerable money through alchemy, so in my latest playthrough I haven't needed to sell any extraordinary item I find. I can bring these back as souvenirs. Of course, I can sell these at any time. My decorum is also my financial collateral.

The home is a too often neglected feature in RPGs.

By the way, I'd show you pictures of my furnished castle, but I play the 360 version of Oblivion. My PC isn't good enough to run the game.

Friday, December 04, 2009

competing for Awards

For many gamers, like myself, Xbox Live's Avatar Awards are still mythical. I have yet to play a game with Awards, because few games offer them. Perhaps that's because Awards are, at the moment, nothing more than visual Achievements. That's not bad, really, but there could be more depth.

Many people care about XBL Achievements and many don't. That's largely because it's an all-or-nothing scenario in favor of those with lots of spending money (to buy games with) and a long time owning the console. If someone has owned a 360 for a year longer than you, they probably have a higher Gamerscore.

Achievements are also impersonal. If you and I play the same game, we'll typically get the same Achievements for doing the same things.

But what if Avatar Awards were different? What if gamers could compete for them?

What if my friend JoeSchmoe64 and I could voluntarily wager that one of us will get a particular Award before the other? The winner gets the Award, while the same Award is blocked for the loser. The winner could be given the power to unlock the loser's Award for him afterward, or they could agree to permanently leave one with the trophy and the other empty-handed.

If the game included multiple Awards, then Joe might win two trophies while I win two others... and we'd each have something to show.

Keep in mind, Avatar Awards needn't all be complicated models or animations, like a train moving around an avatar's feet. They could be as simple as blocks stacked beside an avatar or a banner draped behind, each signifying a specific achievement.

Honestly, I haven't put much thought into this idea. But the basic idea is that Awards could be made more meaningful than Achievements by allowing players to bet them as stakes or otherwise making them reflect actions that set one gamer apart from others.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


It has become fairly common for games to include some sort of tutorial. Many incorporate the tutorial into actual play, as Halo and Assassin's Creed do. But there's still room to improve, of course.

One improvement would be to design a tutorial system specifically for reintroduction. Gamers often abandon a game for days or even months. They forget the controls, goals, interface, etc. It would be nice if there was an option for these gamers other than looking at a control map in the pause menu or starting over.

In most cases, a practice area would serve this purpose. Provide the player with an area where all skills may be practiced without great penalty or challenge. Allow the player to practice here without a tutorial, in case the player is able to pick it up quickly or is impatient. But also provide the option of instruction in the form of NPCs, signs, HUD pop-ups, etc.

Jogging a player's memory is different than teaching him or her new skills. There should be a different system for it, when time allows.

Friday, November 20, 2009

learning curves, options and challenges

Though I'm not a fan of every addition in Assassin's Creed 2, it is a lot of fun overall. In the beginning, it felt slow and confined. I knew that it would pick up and set me free eventually, but it definitely kept me on training wheels for far too long and held back much of what ultimately makes it a great game.

Learning curves make sense. It also makes sense that more complex games need longer learning curves.

But when your game has a lot to learn, the answer is not to restrict players to a little bit at a time. Rather, offer the player many options at any given time and restrict only how much is expected of the player by challenges he or she faces. Offer elite challenges, but only in such a way that they are clearly bonuses and not necessary to progress in core areas.

It's like teaching students. If one student is already somewhat familiar with a topic or picks it up quicker than other students, the solution is not to silence that student and prevent him from offering what he can, so that other students don't feel pressured. Instead, the solution is to allow that student to surpass normal requirements and provide special challenges that other students can happily skip and forget.

Players should never feel like they're held back... that they're offered too few options and opportunities. Players should never feel like they're waiting for "the real fun" to begin.

Making learning curves malleable enough to suit multiple playstyles and levels of experience should involve more tweaking of challenges and expectations than of opportunities.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

moving with NPCs

"Follow me!" the NPC says. So I do.

Well, I try to.

When I walk, the NPC is moving faster than me. I fall behind. When I run, the NPC is moving slower, and annoyingly alternates between walking and running because he or she is incapable of matching my pace precisely.

Why is this a problem? Why does it show up in every single game that has me follow an NPC or has an NPC follow me?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pandemic job cuts

It seems the rumor about Pandemic closing was largely true. About 200 Pandemic employees are being laid off today.

It's unclear right now what exactly EA's plans are for Pandemic. Apparently, some senior Pandemic employees will be transferred to EA's studio in Los Angeles. EA claims this is not the end of the "Pandemic brand", so those folks may get their own studio within the existing infrastructure there in LA.

Three questions seem to be repeating among my friends in reaction:
  • Is this really the end of Pandemic?
  • How does this reflect on EA?
  • Should I still buy The Saboteur?

First, assuming Pandemic remains in some form as EA suggested, what can we expect in regard to quality of future Pandemic games? I expect the same.

The sad fact is that high turnover is the norm all across the game industry, with few exceptions (Infinity Ward's Robert Bowling recently cited their good employee retention as a factor in the quality of their work). One might excuse this as the inevitable consequence of any project-based work or condemn it as something fiscally unnecessary, but it is the industry norm.

My point is that most of the development companies you admire switch out junior staff all the time. It is the leadership of senior staff and management which define each company's reputation. If Pandemic's leadership transfers relatively intact to LA, then I expect their high standards to transfer as well.

By the way, I mean no disrespect to the junior employees at Pandemic who have lost their jobs. The Saboteur seems like a great game, and that level of quality is not possible without talented and dedicated workers from top to bottom.

Next, how does this reflect on EA?

Many gamers think of EA as a giant, evil corporation that gobbles up the little guys and likes to churn out endless sequels to games that were once great. Five years ago, that might have been a fair reputation. But in the past year, EA's leadership changed, and I believe they've done a good job of improving the company.

Look at what John Carmack of id Studios had to say:

"I think there really has been a major intentional corporate cultural change there that came down from on high, that said, 'We're going to change the way things are done here.' "

Or just look at EA's recent games: Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Spore, The Saboteur, etc -- fresh, quality games. I wouldn't call Mirror's Edge or Spore great games, but they certainly excel in some ways and broke new ground. Some forget, but the studio that made Dead Space was called EA Redwood Shores when the game was released, not Visceral Games like it's called now. An EA studio was also responsible for a game I consider to be one of the best of all time, LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth II (the PC version puts the console version to shame).

Of course, EA could always return to their old ways, especially given a catalyst like our current struggling economy. I expressed worry a week or two ago on Twitter when EA made some remark about placing more emphasis on established IPs to protect themselves from the economy. It's hard to begrudge them that, considering Dead Space and Mirror's Edge certainly didn't sell as many copies as they had hoped. Anyway, I learned long ago that even the most reliable organizations can falter and the weak ones can grow stronger. I just accept them as they are.

Finally, should today's Pandemic news affect your decision of whether or not to buy their latest game, The Saboteur? I'd advise no.

Whether or not EA's mass layoffs were avoidable or even selfish, I have no doubt that the developers involved in The Saboteur want to see that the game they made is appreciated by gamers. If the game was shown lots of love on forums but no in sales, it just wouldn't be the same. That would raise questions about its quality, don't you think? The best way you can appreciate the fired developers is to buy their game.

Myself, I wouldn't buy it solely for that reason. I'm not saying go out and buy it to support those Pandemic folks even if the game doesn't interest you. I'm just saying, if it does look like a game you'd enjoy, don't let this Pandemic news stop you from buying it.

And, of course, you could also appreciate these folks by paying attention to the game credits and following their careers as they move to other positions and companies.

Anyway, what do you think? Does that all sound fair enough?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Modern Warfare 2 issues (360)

There are dozens of reviews out there that tout Modern Warfare 2's strong points. And they're right -- it's a great game. Infinity Ward took a great game and improved it in many ways. They even added a new mode, Special Ops (co-op missions), which itself provides hours of repeatable entertainment.

But the game does have problems, so let's talk about them. I can only comment on the Xbox 360 version.

First, as often as players avoided particular maps in the first Modern Warfare, and with a guarantee of millions of players, you would think it would have been a no-brainer for Infinity Ward to enable players to avoid those maps automatically.

Why not simply allow players to check/uncheck maps on a list? When a map comes up that the player doesn't like and has unchecked, that person's game automatically leaves the current host and searches for another with one of his desired maps. If the devs are worried players will avoid maps before getting to know them, the option could be withheld until a player has experienced a particular map five or ten times.

Next, grouping with friends seems to be more complicated than it needs to be and even, at times, impossible. Scott and I tried to group up four or five times in Ground War (which allows Live parties), but couldn't figure out how to get it to work. I used the game's Invite option to group up with him in the general multiplayer lobby (that much worked), but then he'd never show up in the same match player list or match. I'm pretty sure I've seen people grouped up (they shared a clan tag), so grouping is possible. But even if Scott and I were missing something, it begs the question: Why?

As for the story, Scott pointed out how strange and awkward it is that the player is thrust into helping Makarov slaughter civilians without any lead-up whatsoever. Are we really to believe that Makarov would include a stranger in such a wild action right away? If not, shouldn't there be at least some passing reference to the CIA agent's gradual infiltration?

Lastly, there's the problem that I knew would bother even before launch. Much has been said about the lack of dedicated servers for the PC version, but the void is felt on Xbox Live as well. The game now switches to a new host when the first lags, which means a pause of anywhere between 10 seconds to 40+ seconds (longer pauses are more common in my experience). This obviously disrupts the flow of the match and screws up firefights in progress at the moment of pause.

Ultimately, it's not that big a deal, but I have to wonder why the problem exists at all when we pay for XBL multiplayer access. Access to online multiplayer has always been Xbox Live Gold's primary selling point, and yet Microsoft doesn't even attempt to ensure connection quality during that multiplayer? Honestly, I blame Microsoft more than Infinity Ward for this.

Another problem I'll lay at Microsoft's feet is the apparent lack of a way to mute all and not have to manually mute every jackass that runs his mouth or makes inane noises on XBL. Apparently, there is a way to mute everyone except your friends, but it's hidden and that's why many XBL users don't know about it. From the Xbox Live Dashboard, go to Profile > Edit Profile > Privacy Settings > Voice and Text > and select Friends Only. Both developers and hardcore gamers often forget that not everybody lives on the internet and is skilled with search engines and forum searches. I recommend to Infinity Ward that they advertise this XBL option somehow.

As I said, it's a great game overall. But these and other issues can be annoying. Anything else you noticed? Could a patch fix the problem?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

progression through failure

I just want to emphasize a point I made the other day. Players can, and generally should, progress even as they fail.

You can see this in games like Diablo 2 and Borderlands. When you die, you don't lose the experience points you gained on the way to your goal (such as killing a boss mob).

That ensures, in a natural way, that players will eventually overcome any challenge. Failure doesn't mean reset. You're always progressing.

The frustration a player feels in response to failure is nothing compared to the frustration of being stuck. The player must always feel like he or she is making progress... even when that player is performing poorly.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

why I avoid Steam

I have used Steam on occasion, but only in response to exceptional bargains. In general, I avoid Steam, instead opting for services like Direct2Drive. The reason is that I can only play a game purchased through Steam if I'm online, so Valve can constantly verify the legality of my game copy. Why is this a problem?

Imagine that you buy a ball. Now imagine that the store you buy the ball from demands that you always play within view of the store, and that you return the ball there for keeping whenever you're not using it. Is it accurate to say that you completely own the ball? Or are you just renting/leasing it, albeit courtesy of a one-time fee?
  • having to run a 3rd-party program whenever I play
  • having to remain online to access offline features
  • having to re-register every time I reinstall (because of temporary hardware/software problems, because I needed the drive space, or because I simply lost interest for a while and later want to play again)
These are requirements which diminish my ownership of a game. It's not like a solid, self-contained product that I can box up in a closet and return to years later. It's not something that can be loaned or traded, transferred to another operating system or passed on when I'm done with it. No, it's something under contract. It's a lawyer's loan -- here today, gone tomorrow; ever under restrictions, the threat of change, and the threat of revocation.

When I buy a game with online features, I do not expect a guarantee that those features will be supported for free or forever. But I do expect that all offline gameplay be available to me as long as I possess the code on a disc or on any other storage device. I expect a finished product which I can use whenever and however I wish in my own home.

I don't deny that Steam is an admirable service in many ways, but I avoid it mainly for this reason. How about you?

As for Steam's recent deal with Infinity Ward to exclusively handle Modern Warfare 2's servers, I support D2D, Impulse, GamersGate and others in their response. It's obviously unreasonable to expect a retailer to sell a product that requires the consumer to use that retailer's competitor... and not just once, but every time that consumer uses the product.

Monday, November 09, 2009

fake emergencies

me: "Do you think anything is lost by the way games say "hurry!" and then let you dally all you want?"

Ysharros: "I most certainly do. It sets expectations (at least in me) that then aren't fulfilled. Yet almost every game I know does this."
I agree. If an NPC urges me to hurry, that urgency should be reflected in the events thereafter.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

gradual indicators (navigation)

Maps are the most common way to guide players around games. Other methods include beacons, landmarks, a compass, trails, and many other things.

Another option I rarely see is what I'll call gradual indicators. By that I mean, a visual feature becomes stronger/weaker or more/less common as the player nears certain places or objects of importance. These gradual indicators can lessen or even negate the need for UI methods which distract from the gameworld.

For example, elevation can be used in this way. In Rise of the Argonauts, the player knows whether he is running towards the palace or the docks of Mycenae by whether the path is sloping upward or downward. The same method can be used in any number of settings, including dungeons and roads. The degree of a slope can be telling, too. If two paths both lead up a mountain, one can be recognizable from the other if it is significantly steeper.

Vegetation can be a gradual indicator. Grass and shrubs might grow tall in one area and shrink or die out toward another. Oaks might dominate one area while mesquite trees dominate another. Both trees might habit an area, but the ratio between them could indicate to the player in which direction he is headed.

Architecture and objects can be used in the same way. The facades of buildings and their relationships to each other (such as how far apart they are) can indicate if the area the player is proceeding toward is wealthy or poor, old or new, damaged or undamaged (by war, weather, or graffiti), and so on. Statues and decorations can change in frequency or in subject through an environment. The type of shops or their names can change in style and tone.

Even audio can lead players. The roar of a waterfall or pounding of waves can gradually rise in volume as the player nears them. Likewise, the sounds of animals, the firing of weapons, the chatter and laughter or shouts of NPCs, or a thousand other things.

Animations and even environmental A.I. can guide players. As a player nears a battlefield, he might increasing notice NPCs crouched over and weeping. Or NPCs might be increasingly erratic and skittish... increasingly distressed as the player nears the source of that distress. The NPCs might pace, look around fearfully, or chatter to themselves. Think of the A.I. in Batman: Arkham Asylum and how the Joker's men act differently as they become more aware of Batman's presence and are afraid.

There are countless forms gradual indicators can take. The goal is to help players navigate environments without having to take their eyes off the gameworld or see anything that takes their attention off the story they're experiencing.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

rounded RPGs

While chatting with Scott about Dragon Age: Origins, we talked a bit about the different types of RPGs. Inevitably, I started describing what I've enjoyed in past games and what I hope for in any RPG.

I've always preferred Action RPGs, but the label can be misleading. Action RPGs tend to be light on story. I do love action, like Diablo 2 and Borderlands, but I also like richly developed worlds, ala Star Wars: Galaxies and Oblivion. I don't believe solid systems design negates the need for good graphics and audio. I like established stories, but I don't like a lot of cutscenes and tedious conversations which separate me from the world and interaction (play). I like archetypes and roles, but not having my path mapped out for me. I like loot, but not loot that's all about numbers and a strict hierarchy.

In other words, many RPG features I enjoy reappear from time to time in new games, but they seldom appear together. I love the RPG genre, but I ignore most of the games because they're so lopsided or jumbled.

Some have great settings but have gameplay that's mind-numbingly slow, complex and tedious. Some have great combat and loot but shallow settings and stick-figure characters. Some offer great dialog gameplay but require you to give up many freedoms to support it. Some are deep and free, but with ugly or rudimentary presentation.

I'm a realist. No game's perfect. Odds are, you'll have to make compromises and settle for limited resources when developing any game. And some features are difficult to fit together. But I'm also a Platonist. When I experience anything, I'm thinking not only of what it is but also of the ideals and potentials behind it. The RPG genre is full of untapped potential.

The main problem with the genre is the elitism of the various camps. Intellectuals scorn simple and fast action, demanding complex and turn-based games of strategy. They want to be told twisting stories and solve puzzles. Action gamers scorn slow and tedious systems, wanting to experience the fun immediately and always without having to jump through hoops. They want tactics and brutal warfare. World gamers want to explore, discover and be continually surprised. They hate character restrictions and being push along linear paths.

The solution is American football... metaphorically speaking.

American football is a game for both action junkies and intellectuals. It combines a plethora of deep and evolving strategies with on-the-ground tactics, finesse and brute force. There are hundreds of statistics for the number-crunchers. There are great histories and traditions for the lore-minded. There are many dynamic intangibles, like the effects of crowd support and the personalities of individual players. And football is a great social setting.

The point isn't just that football offers something for everyone. It's that all those elements are put together into one solid experience, so every fan inevitably experiences all of it at once.

RPGs can do the same. They don't have to sacrifice story for action, freedom for story, depth for graphics, etc. All of that can be in one game. All those elements can depend naturally on each other, rather than being separate things which the player experiences in sequence. I long for well-rounded RPGs.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

replayable quests

If there's one aspect of games that rarely has much replay value, it's missions/quests/jobs. At best, some games allow you to choose between dialog options or one of a few scenarios, but those dialog lines and scenarios are strictly scripted and play out basically the same way every time.

Let loose your iron grip, game writers!

I've said it before and I'll say it again: adventure is about the unexpected. Adventures often begin with well-defined goals, but they absolutely always involve unforeseen events and events of chance.

The best path for stories in games is reflection, not determination. Rather than determine exactly what the player will experience, provide a solid setting with many dynamics (including dynamic NPC choices). Then record and present special moments (not entirely scripted moments) for reflection at the end of the game or levels, areas, etc.

Setting and reflection, how events are viewed and fitted together, are the key elements of story in games. Don't feed me the story. Let me live it!

Monday, November 02, 2009


Lately, I've been going back and forth between Borderlands and Brütal Legend. A noticeable difference between them is the effect of music in Brütal Legend to make travel between missions less mundane.

Borderlands has good music. In fact, I've been surprised how many of my friends have mentioned it. But it's environmental music, accompaniment, rather than the rock songs of Brütal Legend which invite more attention.

Plus, Brütal Legend's landscape is full of monuments and amusing objects. There are trees made of exhaust pipes, beer bottle bushes, and giant stone swords sticking out of the hills. Stuff like this gives the player something to laugh and marvel at while driving around.

A little space between events in play isn't a bad thing. But it's good to offer the player something to enjoy in that downtime, so the player's enthusiasm never wanes. This is particularly important in games that are meant to be replayed.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

hardcore for casuals

I was happy to hear that Left 4 Dead 2 will include a sort of hardcore mode. Players can opt to give up aid from the interface, like being able to see one's teammates through walls by a surrounding glow.

Hardcore modes don't please only the hardcore. They also please casual players by getting hardcore players the hell out of their games.

For a casual player, there are few things more annoying than a fellow player trying to squeeze your every action into some achievement fanatic's model. It's like all freedom of choice is robbed from you as a tyrant barks out a strategy that he grabbed off some website for people who are more concerned about being the best than having fun.

I'm really not trying to insult hardcore players. I realize that winning is the definition of fun for some people, and that's fine. I enjoy victory and competition, myself, but I'm generally more concerned with the journey than the end; as are many gamers.

I'm just pointing out that providing a hardcore mode or customizable multiplayer scenarios allows hardcore and casual players to each enjoy playing the game their own way. A hardcore mode can be a good idea even if the hardcore are not a major part of your target audience.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Modern Warfare 2 opening

I've seen the opening level for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Normally, I'd suggest you stop reading if you don't want any spoilers, but this is an unusual case. This is worth spoiling, and I'll explain why.

The game opens with you, the player, as one of the terrorists who are gunning down dozens of unarmed civilians in what appears to be a shopping mall. The killers are calm and indiscriminate. It seems like the player might be able to choose whether to help the terrorists murder people or just walk with them as they do it. Either way, you're part of it. At the end of the level, your terrorist comrades betray you by shooting you and leaving you to die.

It's a powerful scene. And, honestly, I have mixed feelings about it. But I'm inclined to think Infinity Ward made a bad decision with this.

What is gained?

That's the most important and perhaps most obvious question. What did Infinity Ward hope to accomplish? At this point, I can only speculate. If they wanted players to experience this sort of atrocity first-hand, why not give the player control of a child or other unarmed civilian who could hide near the killers? If it is only the terror of the situation Infinity Ward wished to communicate, then the player's role as one of the killers is clearly unnecessary.

I have read a first-hand account of a similar atrocity, the genocide in Rwanda, by Immaculée Ilibagiza. The book is called Left To Tell. Immaculée's account speaks of thousands of regular people -- including her own neighbors and friends -- trained by culture to refer to persons of her tribe as "cockroaches" and exterminate them as if they were faceless pests, rather than human enemies worthy of consideration.

In Modern Warfare 2's introduction, we see similar evil. Perhaps a video game can offer exceptional insight to such a mindset, since we gamers are used to seeing simulated enemies as impersonal objects. Perhaps such insight is what Infinity Ward hopes to achieve with this level. Honestly, I don't think we'll know how necessary or unnecessary to their goals it is until this segment of MW2's story is contextualized by the rest of the game. Ultimately, I'm holding judgment until release.

But what can we know now?

One thing I know is that some gamers are never comfortable participating in play-evil. I have no idea how many gamers are this way, but I have known more than a few... and war games seem to appeal to the personality type. The same effect I mentioned with sadness occurs in scenarios that ask us to act in contradiction to our morals. Some gamers will have trouble mustering the will to play through this level even if they are not shooting people. Others could do it, but won't.

Another thing to consider is the politics which will inevitably ensue from Infinity Ward's decision. The non-gaming news will definitely pick up on this sooner or later, particularly since Modern Warfare 2 will be one of the best-selling, most popular games of this year and next. The controversy might just mean a lot of the usual noise about violence and games. But I believe it might also lead to political posturing from liberals and conservatives alike, Obama included. Again, Modern Warfare 2 is not a run-of-the-mill or indie game. This is a major title and the news agencies will respond accordingly. I'm not predicting anything specifically, but I wouldn't be surprised if this generates enough general public interest that politicians use it to create new regulations for video games, in America and elsewhere.

As I said, I'm going to wait until I play the full game to decide whether this level's design was a good or bad decision. But without clarifying support from the rest of the game's story, it seems like reckless sensationalism. Let's hope there's more to it.

edit: see comments

Friday, October 23, 2009

underwater RPG

Our oceans are so vast, so beautiful and full of wonders. Yet so little of that has been made into gameplay which reflects that beauty and wonder. I long for an underwater RPG.

Not an RPG with human beings and our limited technologies, with glass panels and wetsuits between us and the water. I mean an RPG that lets players experience some of what it would be like to be a true ocean-dweller.

Not just swimming through a lagoon or tracing a single reef. I'm talking about a game with many areas, many encounters... lots to see and do. Think of games like Oblivion or Fallout 3... immense worlds with months of content to explore and interact with.

So much untapped potential.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

incongruent pauses

I'm loving Borderlands so far, but it does run into a problem that affects all co-op RPGs. Each player must pause from time to time to select a new skill or compare items in inventory and switch equipment. The problem is that all the players in a group don't share that pause. One player is kept waiting while another makes choices.

One player levels up before or after another player. Because they don't level simultaneously, one player is waiting patiently (or impatiently) while the other looking at skills and considering which to select next.

One player loots a weapon that compares favorably to something already equipped. The other plays waits patiently (or impatiently) while he or she is comparing items and deciding what, if anything, to switch.

How big a problem this is depends largely on the personalities of individual players and the degree of familiarity between them. Some players think nothing of it because they're used to it. But it generally is a barrier to fun.

So what are some possible solutions?

One option, which I seem to remember experiencing once or twice before (in Gauntlet: Seven Sorrows?), is to set intervals at which all players receive their rewards (new levels, skills, and such) simultaneously. An advantage of such a system is that developers can keep the action flowing and the experience unbroken until a bit of respite would be ideal for players. Another advantage is that players do not feel pressured while making their skills/equipment selections and are likely to discuss their options with their fellow players.

A second option is to pool the experience points and loot in such a way that co-op players necessarily reach their goals (such as a new level) simultaneously. I'm not sure how most players would react to such a system in regard to leveling, but achieving this would a loot system would certainly be difficult.

Your thoughts?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

enemies with personality

One of the reasons I expect Borderlands to be a lot of fun is the dynamic comments that give individual enemies personalities:

The amusing outbursts of enemies makes them more than just faceless meatbags. The Halo series has proven how effective this can be.

Giving enemies dynamic outbursts does two things. First, it adds a personal dimension to combat, making it feel like your actually fighting individuals and not the Borg. Second, it adds variation and replay value. It can make one enemy feel slightly different from another despite both using the same model and the same AI.

This isn't only possible with human enemies. Individual dogs of the same breed can have different barks. Individual skaags or other beasts could have different growls, screeches, etc. Voice variation with animals and monsters has an effect similar to that with humans.

Nor does personalizing individual enemies have to be done only through modeling, AI, and voicing. There's also animations. Slightly different hand motions, ways of walking, relaxed and defensive stances, and so on can make enemies which are otherwise the same feel like true individuals.

Every aspect of NPCs changes the experience.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

MMO storytelling and NPCs

Storytelling in MMOs might be the greatest challenge any storyteller could ever face: trying to include hundreds or even thousands of audience members in one story, making it personal and meaningful for each of those persons, and then giving each person room to interact with and even affect the story. Frankly, MMOs are a writer's worst nightmare.

If I could change one aspect of MMOs to truly involve all players in the story and unite them, it would be to allow players to affect the factions, motivations and even moods of NPCs.

Some NPCs would be static, as is par for current MMOs. Let's call those characters followers. But other NPCs, particularly the pivotal characters, could be influenced by player actions (combat, dialog, crafting... all actions). Players could coax them to new goals and alliances, give them hope or cause them despair, give or remove the power to accomplish their goals, and more.

Crafters could be involved in both building and dismantling. They could create or destroy bridges, armories (imagine stealing resources by dismantling weapons and armor), repair or damage city fortifications, etc. What they do and to what extent they were successful could convince NPCs that certain goals are possible or impossible. Or NPCs might try their intentions regardless, thereby succeeding or failing due to crafters' efforts.

The dialog choices players make when interacting with these NPCs could affect how those characters treat the next players who interact with them. NPCs could have moods which gradually swing one way or another depending on the mission reports make to them, the news brought to them, or the subjective dialog selections players make. An NPC might be kind and courteous to you one time, even offering special aid or opportunities, but be irritable, dismissive or threatening another time. Some NPCs would change moods easily, while others are hard to sway.

Loyalties, too, could be affected through dialog. A somewhat mercenary NPC might change allegiances depending on where players make his life easiest (mood-affecting choices, bribes, news and misinformation, etc).

Combatants could make decisions that affect NPC plans. If certain resources are not gained, certain areas cleared of enemies or protected, the right or wrong enemy NPCs defeated (not necessarily killed), then it might change the sort of missions NPCs offer. It could change whether those NPCs speak of those plans with hope or despair, and how daring or timid their plans become.

The trickiest part of accomlishing this would be determining the numeric/code circumstance under which NPCs would be, or could be, affected. Most of it would likely be subjective. I would use percentages, rather than hard figures, as the points of change; relative, rather than definite, milestones. In other words, it's not "NPC changes once [x] number of combatants have killed [x] number of FactionA soldiers in battle", but instead what has been accomplished by one player's faction in relation to an opposing faction's counter-actions. It doesn't have to be an even balance between them, either. It's perfectly acceptable, even desired, that more players should choose one faction, class or other path than another.

Anyway, the specifics are not as important as the general goal I'm aiming at. I think making NPCs more dynamic and giving players influence on NPC behavior is a key way to strengthen storytelling in MMOs. There's already been some efforts in that direction, but it doesn't seem to have been a focus of many developers.

Monday, October 12, 2009

games at concerts

Brütal Legend releases today! I was surprised to see IGN give a score of 9. I expected good reviews, but that's great. Unfortunately, I didn't receive an early copy from EA and my money is tied up in other pre-orders, so I'm not sure when I'll be able to write my own review.

BlueKae said to me today, "I'm hoping Schafer finally gets a game where the critical and financial successes match up." My reply was that it will boil down to good marketing. EA has been doing a lot to spread the word, as has Jack Black.

I've thought of another, less traditional way to market the game. Advertise at concerts. Afterall, Brütal Legend has a number of rockstars with character roles in the game as well as a tracklist with dozens of bands. Don't you think those musicians would be open to idea of selling the game alongside the band T-shirts and all the other paraphernalia that usually gets sold at concerts? At the very least, posters could be placed at these concerts pointing out that the performing bands are included in the game.

Many games could do this, from music games like Rock Band to games with track lists like Crackdown or Saints Row 2. But even other games could advertise at concerts. People go to concerts to have fun -- they're on the lookout for fun. I'd bet that the vast majority of people at any rock concert are gamers (if only occasional gamers), and most rock musicians probably are as well.

It seems like a lot of untapped marketing potential to me.

Friday, October 09, 2009

high-speed stealth

In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare multiplayer, I use the UAV Jammer perk for all my loadouts. If you're not familiar, that means my character is hidden from enemy radar except when I fire my weapon (and not even then if I'm using a silencer). I don't just use UAV Jammer for sniping. I use it in combination with machineguns, shotguns, SMGs... everything.

I play Ground War mode exclusively, which means close to 18 players in every battle. The maps are small enough that you're likely to encounter an enemy or be shot every 10 seconds or less.

The result is an experience that I have had in no other game: high-speed stealth.

Stealth in games usually occurs at a slow, strategic pace. Opportunities might appear for only seconds at a time, but you can remain hidden from danger as long as you want... strike when you please.

In my CoD4 matches, on the other hand, stealth is pressured and tactical (the difference between strategy and tactics is that tactics is done on-the-fly, often in response to unexpected events). There is no place to hide where someone can't pick you off with a sniper bullet, a grenade, or knife in the back. Also, enemies are always changing position... and fast.

Stealth in Modern Warfare can mean nothing more than being aware that an enemy is around the corner while he's not aware you're there, allowing you a split-second advantage when you meet face-to-face and he's the only one who is surprised. Or it can mean coming up behind a whole group of enemies undetected while the rest of your team attacks from the opposite side.

This is an uncommon type of gameplay that entire games could be designed around. Try swapping your Stopping Power or Juggernaut perk in CoD4 with UAV Jammer sometime and see what I mean.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

controls vs navigation

Yesterday, I took Batman: Arkham Asylum over to my occasional-gamer friend's house for him to try. "Occasional gamer" is what I call someone who only owns one or a few games at a time and only plays once or twice per month (if that). Most gamers I know face-to-face fall into this category.

My friend loves the game. But, as always, I was surprised by the extent of his difficulties with things I've long been accustomed to. Controlling character movement and the camera in a 3D world is always tricky for occasional gamers. He voiced appreciation for the amount of practice Arkham affords him for the controls... though I expect he would have died against the first giant if I hadn't told him to stay away from it.

But what really shocks me every time is his failing sense of direction. In life, this guy can always tell you where North is and rarely gets lost even in completely foreign areas. In games, on the other hand, he's completely oblivious. After completing a very brief encounter, he'll head back in the direction he just came from instead of move onward.

It seems that the controls, the combat, and other things demand so much focus from my game-rusty friend that he doesn't pay much attention to his surroundings. He forgets where he is, where he's been, and what he's supposed to do because his untrained mind is overwhelmed with everything else. The map helps, but a map can't completely alleviate frustration from losing one's bearings.

This story has relevance for both occasional gamers and veterans. The more a player must concentrate on controls, the less of that player's concentration is available for other mental tasks, like navigation. Looking at another way... the less even an experienced gamer has to concentrate on controls and such, the more you can challenge that player in other ways.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

open world driving

I've never been a big fan of racing, but I do enjoy driving gameplay. Believe it or not, play-driving does not necessarily mean racing.

Track racing is fun once through, but there are so few dynamics. The setting and challenge are exactly the same every time. The player has few options, so the emphasis is on performance of a strict routine. Such gameplay has poor longevity.

I've played a number of racing games, since my best friend is a vehicle fanatic. But only two have seemed open and dynamic enough to coax me into buying them: Need For Speed: Most Wanted and FUEL. I enjoyed the former more, and traded both in.

The beauty of NFS: MW is three-fold. First, there's an open city with a variety of challenges (sharp curves, barriers, etc), shortcuts, and road types for exploration. Second, setting the game in a city with dynamic traffic adds dynamics to races and exploration alike. And third, the cop chase gameplay adds a dynamic, open-world challenge that doesn't distract from the core driving gameplay (as Full Auto-style weapons and Wheelman-style stunts can do).

FUEL really shines when you're dodging trees and jumping obstacles at high speed in a motorbike over varying terrain. It's a thrill I haven't found anywhere else. But, vast as its world is, FUEL becomes redundant quickly and offers poor competition. Varying, meaningful weather was a great promise, but a failed one.

Anyway, judging by the sparsity of such games, publishers seem to believe that gamers who don't like track racing don't appreciate realistic vehicles and vehicle physics. That's not the case. Just because we don't like marathons and drag straightaways doesn't mean we want cars with guns or cartoon go-karts (though I've got nothing against that either). Cars ≠ racing.

Many more people are interested in driving gameplay than are interested in NASCAR, Grand Prix, drift racing, drag racing, and so on. Make a driving game with good physics, a wide variety of vehicles, truly personal (rather than achievement-style) customizations, an open and dynamic world, and a variety of challenge types... and that's a game with broad appeal.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

roleplay isn't for nerds alone

It occurs to me that books and movies are basically an externalization of the roleplay all human beings naturally engage in as children.

In other words, we never really stop roleplaying as we grow into adults. We just rely increasingly on the imaginations of others... entertaining their adventures, rather than conjuring our own.

Instead of donning paper helmets and swinging wooden swords, shooting paintball guns and lobbing water balloons, we watch action movies, violent and competitive sports, and military documentaries. The girl who plays with dolls and tea sets might grow up to watch melodramas and "play" hostess at gatherings. It's still playing pretend, but why come up with your own fantasies when someone else can provide better ones?

If this is true, then it makes sense that video games would be tagged as childish, because the medium is a step back toward the self-directed roleplay of childhood.

It also suggests that role-playing games are not just for nerds. They're for everyone. If RPGs have trouble matching the sales of shooters, perhaps the problem isn't the genre itself. Perhaps the problem is a mistake in how RPGS are commonly realized.

It's not that RPGs are intellectual. Football has an abundance of rules and more strategy than chess. But football is also fundamentally about action. And there, I think, is the key. It's the poor presence and implementation of action that holds most RPGs back from broad appeal.

On the one hand, you have RPGs like Final Fantasy and Mass Effect which emphasize dialog and cutscenes over other elements. On the other hand, you have MMOs and D&D-derived stat-based combat systems in which the rules dictate more than guide.

I'm happy to see a lot of blending between genres these days; particularly between shooters and RPGs. I think developers will find that most people, and not just nerds or hardcore gamers, respond well to RPG elements when those elements don't slow things down to a crawl and allow players the freedom to direct their own experiences.

Monday, October 05, 2009

hidden objects

When I play a game that places meaningless objects all around the world for explorers to find, like banners in Assassin's Creed or intel items in Call of Duty 4, it feels like non-explorer designers throwing us a bone. They want us to play their game, but they don't really understand goals outside of achievement.

Exploration isn't about being able to walk off the beaten path, cover a lot of ground, or see every nook in a map. Exploration is about new experiences and creativity. The size of a game isn't as important as variation and dynamics. The number of skills isn't as important as how free we are to use those skills in fresh and personalized ways.

Hidden objects can be fun, but don't just copy and paste the same item into a hundred random places. Put some thought into it. Individualize the objects and place them in a meaningful way that tells a story.

In Star Wars: Galaxies, I once stumbled upon an ancient ruin in the middle of a forest, far from the cities. It was a great surprise. The ruin raised many questions in my mind. "What is it?" "Who did it belong to?" Unfortunately, there was no backstory to discover.

Arkham Asylum has two types of hidden objects. First, you have the Spirit of Arkham stones which unfold a story in a linear fashion. I finished that tale after beating The Joker, and it was the perfect way to end the game. But these stones were about achievement more than exploration. Second, there were clues related to villains not present in the game, like Catwoman and Harvey Dent. Those are a great example of what I mean by objects telling a story. Toys scattered on a bench, a campaign poster on a wall, a tea set -- stuff like that invites players to imagine how it got there.

Anyway, my point is that satisfying explorers involves more than just making us run around and find a dozen copies of some meaningless object.

Friday, October 02, 2009


Many games over the years have given particular enemies immunities to particular player attacks. In some games (often MMOs), this means the player must choose the right gear to take to battle. In other games (like Bioshock), the player must switch weapons, ammo, or combat stances on-the-fly; typically with a delay between one and four seconds. In still other games, the player can immediately respond with multiple options.

The first scenario is only good for games that strongly favor strategy over tactics, because you're screwed if you take the wrong gear. The second scenario can be annoying, but it does lead to tense moments while players slowly reload or adjust while bullets whiz by their heads.

The last scenario is my preference. Two games which act as examples are Batman: Arkham Asylum and Diablo 2.

In Arkham, knife-fighters are immune to regular hits until stunned. Flare-fighters must be jumped over and attacked from behind unless taken down with a grab. Crazies are immune to grab moves. These immunities make for fun tactical dynamics largely because countering them can be done instantaneously and in a variety of ways. For example, crazies can be taken out with a Ground Pound move, knocked down with a batarang, or knocked down by throwing other enemies into them.

In Diablo 2, enemies can be immune to elements (fire, ice, poison, lightning) or even to all physical or magic damage. Again, these immunities can be countered instantly and in a variety of ways. By the time the player encounters these enemies, he has acquired many skills. Whatever the immunity, the player has multiple skills which can get around it.

It's not a one-size-fits-all design strategy, but it has always felt more fun to me.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Brütal summary

For those of you who couldn't watch Double Fine's live stream for Brütal Legend, here are some notes. Maybe someone recorded the stream for YouTube so you can see Emily microwave her grandma's pathetically unmetal CD collection.

The devs expect Brütal Legend to appeal to many kinds of gamers. It has action, open world gameplay, a deep plot with lots of cutscenes, and the humor isn't all inside jokes. They say you don't have to be a headbanger to love the game.

Gamers into exploration should love it. It's full of emergent gameplay. "Roughly half the world is unlocked from the beginning" of the game. The rest is opened up as you progress through the story. You can continue to explore and interact with the world after you've finished the plot.

The world is massive... full of variety and wacky stuff. It's big enough that the game includes world map (I'm assuming in-game). Within the world are tons of cool mini-locales giving tribute to this or that, as well as "objects of power" to discover. You dig up buried metal to unlock songs and Deuce upgrades.

A wide variety of creatures, each with its own custom animations. One dev mentioned passing by some headbangers in the game and hearing them say "We're just running around kicking ass!" or something to that effect.

Through the game, you acquire upgrades for your axe (the Axe of Ormagoden), for your guitar and for the Deuce / Druid Plow (your hotrod). Guitar solos act as combat skills. One was shown that brings a fiery zeppelin crashing down onto enemies. Another literally melts the faces of enemies.

Erik Robson said that "as the game progresses, you take over territory.... It's not uncommon to see your patrols clash with enemy patrols.... Patrols grow over the course of the game".

Missions vary greatly, from racing in the Deuce to "helping a mortar operator aim his mortar". There was mention of "secondary missions that get unlocked as you progress".

Brad Muir is one of the devs who worked on Brütal Legend's multiplayer. He said Double Fine "took a page out of Blizzard's book" by first focusing on the wants of hardcore players, and then ensuring gameplay is accessible to everyone. The single-player mode builds up to the multiplayer, unlocking units and preparing you for the more complex systems. Competing players can choose the same faction. The factions were designed with "a high level of asymmetry", meaning that each feels very different from the others, like in Starcraft. It's "really an action game at its heart"... at least as much action as strategy, so don't think of it as RTS gameplay. Here's a multiplayer tutorial video from the game:

The game's characters and beasts were designed with a lot of displayed meaning, a lot of symbolism. For example, Eddie has the big hands of a roadie who is always working with them. Dark Ophelia is like a bride who was left at the altar, with a perpetual rain cloud over her head, clothes torn from walking obliviously through briars and such. A lot of it's pretty crazy, like an enemy who "vomits a bunch of rats onto the battlefield". One of Eddie's moves is a kick accompanied by a devil-horns rock salute.

All animations was done by hand... no motion-capture. There's a lot of detail put into Eddie's facial expressions. Tasha said Jack Black is "kind of a cartoony person" and showed how expressive his eyebrows and mouth are. She showed how cutscenes are made -- first with storyboarding, then timing out the scenes and figuring out camera angles using static models.

There will be an art book.

And that's all I've got. Rock on!

Brütal events

Rocktober begins!

Anyone who hasn't been able to download the Brütal Legend demo yet can do so today. There will also be a live stream of events from Double Fine at around 2:00pm Central Time (-6 GMT for you Europeans). You can watch the stream here.

Event Schedule (TBD):
· Welcome to the Dem-o-thon!
· A Message from Tim’s Bunker
· Drew shows how to make Brütal VFX
· Emily shares her 10 Least Metal Albums
· Lee reports from the field and share’s little known facts from the world of Brütal Legend
· Colin show’s how Eddie’s power grows in the Open World of Brutal Legend
· Erik reveals the Depth of the World of Brütal Legend
· Brad walks you through Multiplayer Stage Battles
· Levi draws a Brutal Caricature of one lucky fan while discussing Character design
· Nathan, Pete, Anna, Dan and Jon talk about programming Brütal Legend and crunch time at Double Fine
· Tasha and Dave take you inside white box animation
· Steve gives an Axe Lesson
· Forbidden Questions answered by a Special Guest

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

focus on setting

In literature and film, the most crucial storytelling element is the characters and interaction between them. Compelling characters make up for a lot of slack in plot and setting. Just look at the most popular TV shows -- they're all driven by interesting characters and the hooks involve those characters. Ask a person what they liked about a book, and they'll probably begin by describing a character or a character-defining action. In novels and movies, the audience experiences things sympathetically. We follow someone else's journey and think/feel with that character.

In video games, the most crucial story element is setting. No matter how good the plot may be, the heart of a game always lies with the decisions and skills of the player. The main job of the developers is to create a great setting, and to define how and why the player will interact with that setting.

That's true even in plot-driven games. Plot is undeniably important in the Halo series. But the primary purpose of that plot, effectively, is to make the player feel like a hero and anticipate escalating challenges. There are few exceptions... mostly Bioware games (which I often describe as a blending of mediums -- game and film).

Characters are important in many games, but they are typically used more in line with cinematic goals than gaming ones. They're actors in a script for players to receive, rather than set pieces for players to experiment with and affect.

As Raph Koster has stated many times, play is fundamentally about learning through action. Plot and characters should serve the setting. In a game, the primary value of any character is what the player can do with that character or how that character affects the setting. Plots in a game provide inspiration and change the rules of play (ex: now, you must go this way, use this weapon, etc).

I appreciate games mixed heavily with cinema, like Mass Effect or Ghostbusters, but it's important to recognize such games as a blending of mediums. Games are not about being taken along on grand adventures. Games are about going on the adventures, yourself... your own adventures.

Monday, September 28, 2009

screenshots for PnP games

One way computers could aid pen-and-paper games, like D&D, without getting in the way is to provide visual keepsakes of mostly imagined adventures.

The players use computer models only as visual aids. Gameplay takes place entirely on paper and in the players' heads, but a program allows the players to create visual representations of their characters and gear. Like The Sims games and Spore, players could share art assets with thousands of others, so they could represent their characters with precision.

Then, after the players' PnP session is done, the program could be used to create pictures of the adventure's greatest moments. The setting could be layed out in fine detail, with the aid of props and beasts downloaded from the community collection. Character bodies could be adjusted to any positions. Facial expressions could be set by clicking on icons, then tweaked with the mouse.

In other words, let PnP gamers enjoy the complete freedom that makes the medium so much fun, but enable them to create "screenshots" of those adventures. There are already plenty of modeling programs. What I'm talking about is a modeling program that's designed for non-artists -- easy use, easy asset sharing, with a robust site similar to this.

Business-wise, I'd make the program useful for all PnP games, rather than make it exclusive to a particular one. What do you think?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ormagoden's not happy

The only thing better than a heavy metal tribute game is a metal tribute that doesn't take itself seriously.

This coming Thursday, Rocktober 1st, Double Fine will be broadcasting live from the Brütal Legend site with interviews, giveaways, and everything metal.

Download the demo, or the world dies!

... which isn't necessarily bad, because everybody knows metal is stronger than death.

publisher subscriptions

Could games be sold like TV programming?

You subscribe to a particular publisher (EA, Activision, Sony, etc) or game package, like you would a TV package (like ESPN or Starz). As long as you're a subscriber, every game of that publisher or package is available to you at no extra charge. You lose access when you stop subscribing, just like with an MMO.

I'm not recommending this as a replacement... only as an alternative revenue model for publishers and option for gamers. There are already TV channels for arcade games, but I'm talking about big AAA titles like Modern Warfare and The Sims.

Would it interest you as a gamer or developer? Is there any reason it works for TV broadcasters but would not work for game publishers?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

game masters

Sometimes, technology is a boon to progress. I've been thinking about how technology could help Game Masters by facilitating speech and movement.

First, it would be great if GMs could speak to players through voice, rather than text. Imagine a GM speaking to players through voice chat and the GM's avatar simulates lip movement accurately. Animators already try to make characters lips move semi-accurately when they speak. If a program could isolate sounds in a GM's speech (like the "i" and "f" in "if"), then a slight delay between the GM and avatar could allow that program time to translate live speech into virtual conversation.

Next, you give the GM a headset which displays his avatar's view on a visor. The helmet works with a sensor in front of the GM to tell the game how he turns his head. The head movement is translated into avatar head movement, and the visor relays the avatar's changing view back to the GM. In this way, the GM's avatar will turn to look at the specific player the GM wants to talk to.

Together, I think these uses of technology could make interaction between GMs and players much more personal and immersive. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

creature depth

In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., dogs act differently depending on how many fellow dogs are around. When alone, they run away. In large packs, they will attack. And when the player kills most of the dogs in a pack, the survivors lose courage and run for safety.

This sort of depth, simple as it is, adds considerably to the richness of a gameworld. It could potentially add strategic depth as well. Notice that it's not just behavior but also goal priority which changes in that dog example.

Connecting AI behavior to stuff like population and environment is something I'd like to see more of.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

inspiration vs aspiration

I'm a Bama football fan. Bama's was starting slow and finishing well the first couple games. So Coach Saban talked to his players about inspiration versus aspiration. Inspiration relies on external things -- you draw enthusiasm from what you see or hear. Aspiration starts within -- you choose a goal worth fighting for and work toward it. Sometimes, you have to start with aspiration and rely on inspiration to keep going.

Do games take full advantage of both? Should they?

Monday, September 21, 2009

true tolerance

I'm still seeing articles about this nonsense involving Shadow Complex and Orson Scott Card. I haven't commented on it yet, and I'd like to offer my liberal friends some food for thought.

First, it is both possible and common to reject some portion of a person's behavior or beliefs without rejecting the complete person. When someone voices opposition to gay sex, that person is not necessarily saying anything about the value or character of gay individuals.

To assume someone is a bigot, that he or she is driven by hatred or stereotypes, just because that person says homosexual behavior is sinful or disordered is to exhibit one's own intolerance. I mean no offense. I only wish to draw attention to a habit of thinking that can easily be picked up from friends and never deeply reflected on.

Some friends of my family are Catholic and have a gay son. My family helped raise him, and his family helped raise me. When it became clear that he is gay, his parents explained to him that they did not approve of gay sex but that they continue to love him. They forbade him from kissing another man under their roof, but they welcome his gay companions into their home and treat their son with the same affection as always.

Homosexuality does not wholly define a person. Nor is it a trait that acts constantly in a person's life. Just as a conservative and a liberal can be friends while opposing some of each other's beliefs and actions, being friends with and loving to a gay person doesn't require treating gay sex as acceptable behavior.

Can homosexuality affect traits beyond sexual desires? Certainly. The father of that family I mentioned is one of those people who can seem gay but is not. He is flamboyant in gestures and exhibits a number of habits that one would not call masculine. Those habits are fine. The son is not asked by his family to act like a stereotypical man. Like myself and many others, they object only to sexual choices and requests to equivocate gay "marriages" with straight ones.

As a person with Asperger Syndrome, I know exactly what it's like to be asked to reject inclinations which are genetically encoded into my personality. Some of what bothers other people about me is strange but acceptable. But it is correct that some of what is natural to me is wrong or unhealthy. It is my responsibility to try to change, or at least to control my response to those instincts. Likewise, it is reasonable to expect gays to be critical of their own natural desires.

The words "tolerance" and "intolerance" get misused a lot these days, so let's clarify.

Tolerance implies disapproval. If I say I tolerate my wife's cooking, I am implying that I don't like her cooking. One cannot tolerate something one is in favor of. Thus, any reasonable measure of tolerance does not expect approval.

Tolerance is not a virtue. It is not always right to tolerate something. For example, it would be wrong for me to tolerate someone grabbing my grandmother tightly by the arm and yelling in her face. Tolerance is sometimes appropriate, sometimes not.

The term "homophobic" is a purely political term meant to silence and intimidate opposition. It is possible to object to gay sex and civil unions on many rational grounds, not limited to religion. Even if you doubt that, you should acknowledge that needlessly insulting the people you disagree with excludes any likelihood that you will convince someone of your views and make political or social progress. You cannot achieve justice through cooperation while treating your opponents with hostility.

Please, even if you completely disagree with me, even if my words have angered or frustrated you, take the time to deeply consider what I have said. I am not trying to convince you that people like Orson Scott Card are correct in opposing homosexual behavior and particular endeavors of gay advocacy groups. That's another discussion. I am only asking that you recognize and acknowledge that it is wrong to believe that opposition to these things cannot be driven by love and reason, rather than hate or fear; that to demonize such people and reject works simply for being influenced by them is wrong.

If you want to skip Shadow Complex or donate to gay advocacy groups, that's fine. But don't pretend you're combating hate or rejecting wickedness by doing so. Be tolerant. Offer a hand of friendship to those you disagree with.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

iterating early

Something great designers do is experiment and polish by iterating frequently. I wonder how early they start.

As a songwriter, I've learned that it becomes more difficult to iterate the longer I've stuck with a particular version of song or element. The more I play a song one way, the more linear my thinking becomes about that song. If I want to change a part, then I'm more likely to think of something similar to what I already have and not explore other possibilities.

The same is probably true of programming and game design. The earlier you can create something that even vaguely resembles what you're aiming for, and the earlier you can get 1st-hand and 2nd-hand feedback on that model, the better. Whenever you think up a new feature, get it into the game as quickly as possible.

Of course, sometimes feedback mistakes problems with a prototype for problems with the design it's meant to represent. Just because something gets booed early on doesn't mean it should be scrapped or reworked. Experiment early, but trust your instincts.

What do you think?

Friday, September 18, 2009

skills and appreciation

I mentioned to someone the other day that I think the fiery boulder spell in Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction is one of the best skills ever. It's great watching the boulder roll into enemies and knock them back.

The boulder lasts more than just a second, and I think that's a large part of what makes the skill so much fun. It's rare for players to be able to pause for a moment and appreciate an action they just performed.

The tranquilizer gun in Perfect Dark 64 is another example with lasting effect. I can recall laughing hysterically with friends as one of us loaded up the other on tranquilizer and watched his screen go blurry. It could get annoying. But, again, you had a second or two to appreciate your action.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

skipping tutorials

More than a few times, I've introduced someone who doesn't regularly game to a game and that person chooses to skip the tutorial. Sometimes, they skip the tutorial right away. More often, they start the tutorial, then become impatient and skip to real gameplay.

It mainly has to do with pace. A tutorial shouldn't be too much slower than normal play. It must be fun in its own right.

In some games, it can be better to start the player off with the full palette of actions among easier enemies and challenges. Allow the player to learn through experimentation, rather than overt instruction. That's not feasible in all games.

In any case, all tutorials should be true play -- not a precursor to fun, but actual fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

game heritage

Games aren't released in a creative vacuum. Other games have gone before, and a designer can shoot himself in the foot by ignoring the ideas those other games have already set in the player's mind.

For example, I was playing Mirror's Edge yesterday. Occasionally, a few birds will be resting on the edge of rooftop, and fly away if the player's comes near. It's apparently environmental... and that's the problem. Five years ago, those birds would have been fine. But Assassin's Creed changed that.

The gameplay of Assassin's Creed also involves rooftops and acrobatics. It also includes birds resting on edges... and, in that game, those birds signal a spot from which the player may jump and expect to land safely in a bale of hay. So, when a gamer plays the latter game before the former, that training becomes problematic. It's not a great flaw, certainly. But it demonstrates how a gamer's past experiences affect present gameplay.

Perhaps a better example is shooter controls. On the PC, you're a fool to abandon the traditional WASD movement controls, because that configuration has become instinctual for the majority of gamers. Unfortunately, there is less of a tradition with console shooters. Right-trigger is universally accepted as the command for firing a gun, but other standard actions (zooming, grenades, sprinting, ducking, etc) vary from game to game. The result is that it's uncomfortable for a gamer to move from one console shooter to another.

Anyway, I could provide many examples and they would all be debatable. The point is that gamers' past experiences matter. That a design decision makes the most sense on its own is not good enough reason to include it. It must also be asked whether or not that feature conflicts with players' expectations enough to become a distraction or burden. Like I said, games aren't released in a vacuum.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

bring back the fog

In the early days of video games, fog was often used to compensate for limited draw distance. Since that technical hurdle has been overcome, mists have gone out of use. It's a shame, because fog can be useful in other ways.

Often, weather can change the way we perceive our environment. It affects mood and focus. Trees and other objects take on different colors. Shadows from clouds can make a patch of forest dark and ominous, or make a stream of water cool and inviting. When a road is marked with shadows and not just one unbroken color, it can make the journey seem faster and more interesting (for the same reason rollercoaster designers place trees and other objects beside the tracks).

Fog, in particular, has a magical quality. Things often don't seem as real in a fog. People and animals become like ghosts. A boat on the water seems to glide on air. The world is full of sounds that the listener can't place and identify, inspiring the imagination to conjure fanciful explanations.

Bring back the fog.

Monday, September 14, 2009

audio palettes

Audio designers should consider the breadth of their "palette" of sounds, similar to how artists consider the range of colors and textures they will use. The number of different audio clips does not, by itself, define the variety of sounds. How greatly the sounds vary in pitch and in texture matters as well.

Humans rely mostly on their sense of sight, which is why players are more likely to notice bland or redundant art than bland or redundant audio in a game. Many players have complained about the drab and repetitive visuals of Fallout 3. I put off buying S.T.A.L.K.E.R. largely for the same reason. Players are less likely to pinpoint their displeasure if sound effects run together, but it can also be a significant issue.

Like with art, audio should have a general style. But shake it up. The sounds of weapons shouldn't just sound cool, but also be distinct from each other. The sound of footsteps is more immersive when the player can occasionally hear a creaky board, a puddle, a bit of hard clay, etc. Shouts and exclamations, like in Call of Duty 4 multiplayer, are more interesting when players hear a variety of voice of different depth and aggressiveness.

Shake it up. Dynamics are important in everything, including sound.

Friday, September 11, 2009

MMOs and motion control

When I read the title of this article, "The Secret World Might Be Microsoft's Killer App", I immediately thought of Project Natal. There's no mention of Natal in the article, but it got me thinking...

Has anyone thought about how gesture control systems like Project Natal could be used to design an MMO?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

separating skills and loot

A question came up while I was thinking about Borderlands. In a loot-driven game, must skills and loot be related?

I'd say no, they don't have to be. Yet they usually are, aren't they?

Weapon specialization skills are common. I've never been sure if I like them. On the one hand, specialization can give a character personality. In Diablo 2, I imagined my Barbarian differently depending on whether he fought with swords or with giant two-handed mauls. On the other hand, it deters players from using items they aren't specialized in, thereby reducing the fun value of other loot.

Overall, I think I prefer no specialization skills. That reduces the likelihood that I'll loot something I can't comfortably use. But a few games, like Diablo 2, do offer enough skill options that one can avoid those of specialization entirely.

The regular bond between loot and skills isn't limited to specialization, though. Magic users are often limited to staffs, wands and "focus" items. Incidentally, why must magic classes always be intellectual pansies who lob spells from afar?

Melee characters get skills that involve spinning, slamming, or jabbing. Ranged-style characters get skills for accuracy, long shots, and reload time. Many, if not most, skills in games rely heavily on whether a character is a melee or ranged fighter.

Anyway, I'd like to see some games consciously separate skills and loot... meaning any character can use any weapon or other item, and character types are divided by skills unrelated to what they're using.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

visual foreshadowing

Aside from MMOs, which are predictable to a fault, adventure games tend to lean heavily on surprise encounters. The player turns a corner and "Boo!" -- danger leaps out and combat begins... or a story character appears and dialog begins.

It doesn't have to be that way. An alternative is to show the player exactly where they're going, exactly what's coming, thereby building anticipation.

Think of LOTR. Frodo sees Mount Doom long before he reaches it. In fact, it's in almost constant view as he travels from location to location, inching ever closer.

Or what about when the heroes are guarding Helm's Deep. The enemy army doesn't advance on the fortress in a mad rush. They march slowly toward it. There's a lot of time for anxiety to build.

The player could be walking through a town and see an event or important character at the end of the road. It might be up to the player whether to go straight to the scenario or to meander through every building and conversation along the way.

A massive battle might loom in a valley ahead. Enemies or other content might fill the path leading down. While that content is engaged, the battle remains in sight and becomes louder with each step. As the player gets closer, new sights and sounds may appear. When the player gets close, stray arrows or bullets might land around him.

Surprises can be a lot of fun, but it can also be fun to know exactly what's coming.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

options on-the-fly

Adriann asked me today: "Do you think it would be at all possible to implement an in-game weapon customization system [in Modern Warfare 2]?" He would like to be able to change weapon options on-the-fly, rather than being limited to a handful of saved loadouts - like in the first Modern Warfare. It's not that the loadouts are a problem. It's that sometimes you want to make minor adjustments, like adding a silencer or switching to smoke grenades.

I think many games could learn from this screen in Frontlines: Fuel of War:

As you can see, two different option sets are included on one screen. The player can quickly and easily move between Loadout, Role or Deployment location by merely flicking the 360 thumbstick left or right. Then pushing the thumbstick down or up changes the player's selection within a set of options.

The player doesn't have to make a selection in one set of choices before having access to another set. The options are not tiered. They are displayed simultaneously. So a player can quickly change one without making a selection in another.

It's a very streamlined interface... worth copying.

Friday, September 04, 2009

fan feedback

Ethic from Kill Ten Rats said this on Twitter today: "Reading MMO forums sucks the life AND magic out of the games." I completely agree.

It's not just the rampant pessimism and bickering on forums. It's that approaching a game from a designer's view steals some of the fun. It's easier to accept or ignore flaws when you're not thinking about how the game could have been better, how it might be improved. It's more fun when you accept a game as a finished product.

That's a major issue with MMOs, but it applies to all games. These days, all games have forums and fansites. Developers of all games request feedback from would-be players. Feedback is great. It's important. But it's also a double-edged sword.

The more you invite players to be armchair designers, the more difficult it will be for those players to enjoy your game.

That said, feedback isn't the only benefit. If a fan community is well attended to and not heavily moderated, with developers interacting with fans directly, that fosters personal connections. And personal relationships can be a factor in whether or not someone decides to give a game a chance. Still, I think developers should be careful in encouraging players to take on the role of design consultant.

Let players be players.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

marketing secrets

I missed it. *minor spoiler ahead*

I did find the body of Ra's al Ghul in Batman: Arkham Asylum, but I didn't notice that it had later disappeared.

If you can fill your game with secrets, do it. Make some easy to find, and others near-impossible. Secrets get players talking about the game. The more secrets and the better they're hidden, the more talk there will be and the longer it will last.

Secrets can be a great marketing tool.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

combos with guns

Could a combo system somewhat similar to Arkham Asylum's be designed for a shooter game? Is it impossible to mix combos into FPS games?

I think it's possible, though a solution isn't obvious. Nothing comes immediately to mind, so I'm going to leave the question out there while I think of how to do it. Any ideas?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

body language

As I said yesterday, technology might soon enable game characters to respond to players by reading our faces. There's a flip side to that. Players could better respond to characters if facial animations and body language were improved.

The most basic benefit of this is obvious: improved empathy. A character's dialog and actions have more emotional impact when those actions correspond well with the character's physical expressions.

Another benefit is to replace dialog entirely. Animating is not simple, but it's cheaper and easier to refine than hiring voice actors. It also saves valuable memory space. Silent expressions often have the greatest effect. But I expect refining such animations would be very difficult, considering that even good actors have difficulty replicating some emotions, like despair and terror.

The use of animations that brought this subject to mind is translation. Having taken many linguistics courses in college, I know that not all body language is universal across the globe, but the basics are.

On the one hand, you have games like The Saboteur. The game is set in Paris, so one might expect some of the dialog to be in French, even if the majority is English with a French accent. A bit of dialog local to the setting can add flavor, and good body language can make that dialog more meaningful.

On the other hand, there's the inherently national nature of any game. Games published worldwide either pay translators to adapt the dialog or apologetically ask foreign players to enjoy the game as it is. Something is always lost in translation, and body language helps to counteract those losses. And while great facial animations won't allow foreigners to play a dialog-centric game, it can be pivotal in action and puzzle games for making environmental dialog bearable.

Anyway, the usefulness of better facial animations and body language in games seems obvious. What's less obvious is whether or not each developer must tackle this issue on their own. Might it be possible for a company to develop a program for such animations to be used in a wide variety of games by different developers, similar to something like SpeedTree? Or must representation of the human face evolve only as a collective effort, like the modeling of skin or eyes?