Tuesday, March 31, 2009

what RPGs could learn from CoD4

One of Call of Duty 4's best features is its encouragement of variation through the Barracks and experience points. You can rank up without ever using more than one weapon, but there are bonuses to be had in trying many weapons. I'm not usually an achievement-oriented gamer, but I try to get every accomplishment with every weapon in that game.

The most experimentation a typical RPG encourages is swapping between melee and ranged attacks. But they could use a model similar to CoD4's. Instead of making every weapon a separate skill path, you could just have weapon upgrades be unlocked through use and encourage (without demanding) the player to try something new from time to time.

That applies to single-player as well as multiplayer. But, now that I think about it, I'm surprised I've never seen a fantasy battleground game (ala LOTR: Conquest) with weapon and skill variety similar to Call of Duty 4. Instead of ammo, melee weapons could have durability stats and eventually break... forcing the player to either switch weapons or pick up whatever's lying on the ground where another player fell. It doesn't take much imagination to see how CoD4's multiplayer could be adapted to many settings and scenarios.

In any case, my point is that RPGs shouldn't always expect players to stick with a single weapon class. It's feasible for all skills (like Perks) to be gear-agnostic. The same player may prefer different weapons and gear for different scenarios. And, of course, variation can keep gameplay fresh and enjoyable.

Monday, March 30, 2009

AI companions suck

While I love AI as competitors, I don't like AI as allies. Pathfinding, accuracy and such are common issues... but that's not why I hate AI companions.

I generally prefer not to have an AI companion, regardless of implementation, because the AI acts independently of my playstyle and impulsive decisions... thereby interfering.

For example, I might want to be stealthy, snapping necks or sniping from afar. The oblivious AI draws the enemies attention by not hiding, even going in guns blazing.

To a degree, this is avoidable. But the amount of planning and coding (and trial-and-error) required for an AI companion to regularly recognize and adapt to the many possible player behaviors is daunting. And in most action games, all it takes is a moment's hesitation for a companion to disrupt the player's gameplay.

For example, say the player is moving forward when an enemy suddenly comes from around a structure and into view. The player immediately falls prone to avoid detection, but the AI must wait for the player to act to know if he will go prone or charge and shoot. That moment's hesitation gets them spotted and now the player is forced to engage. I'm sure you can imagine any number of similar scenarios where a second's hesitation is a second too long.

Of course, there is some hope. Neverwinter Nights let players choose basic AI behavior, in the vein of "Stay [x] far from me" or "Use your [ranged/melee] weapon". I'm surprised that sort of feature hasn't been included in many other games... particularly FPS games.

It's common in squad-based games for the player to be able to give direct orders like "Go there" or "Focus on that target". Being able to adapt an NPC companion's general style and/or gear would be nice. Yes, being able to select from different companions allows this to a degree. But that's painting in broad strokes. We can do better.

Friday, March 27, 2009

a better hunting game

Real hunting involves a lot of patience, unless you're on a game ranch. Hunting video games are apparently popular enough that they keep getting made, but I've never known anyone who has owned one (and I live in Texas). Such games aren't mainstream because they focus on realism while ignoring the simple fact that simulation lacks most of the same thrills (smells, buddies, physical exertion, rewards like meat and skins, etc).

So how would I make a more enjoyable hunting game?


Well, first, I'd make the setting a combination of real world and fantasy. By fantasy, I don't mean dragons and elves. The fantasy slant is important for many reasons.

For one, most animals larger than a housecat are well known these days. I would want to recreate the feeling of encountering new creatures... having no previous knowledge of their behaviors, speed, agility, defenses, or potential danger.

Monsters aren't real, right? Well, they used to be. The difference between an animal and a monster is only that a monster is mysterious and dangerous. Cameras, communication technologies, improved transportation, and other things have eliminated the most basic mysteries of wildlife. The invention of firearms, automobiles, electricity, and such have eliminted the danger for most people.

Which brings me to my next reason: being able to hunt animals which are now rare and legally guarded or recently extinct. I never heard a complaint about killing elephants in Everquest 2. In a fictional setting, some rules of reality don't apply. In my game, there would be no limits on what you can hunt or how many. It might include recently extinct animals like Australia's moa or Irish elk.

The third reason for setting the game in fiction is include the benefits of some modern technologies while removing the comforts of others, and even introduce some new ones. In my game, the player would be both predator and prey. Players would experience what it's like to be part of the food chain.


Unlike a typical hunting game, I would give this a game a storyline. Most of it would be emergent, but a backbone would be provided.

I'd probably start the player out on a recreational hunting trip or something similar.... something to hearken to the typical modern view of hunting. At this point, the player would be secure at the top of the food chain and have time to learn. Gameplay might not be limited to shooting either. If you've never seen the movie Hatari!, with John Wayne as part of a group that captures African animals for zoos, I strongly recommend it. That sort of non-lethal "hunting" is a possible side avenue for the game.

Then events would occur, perhaps gradually, to separate the player from that safety and ease.

The heart of the story would be when a dynamically-selected group of beasts, such as a pack of lions, begins stalking the player (ala The Edge) or burdening the player in some other way (ala The Ghost and The Darkness) -- both great films, by the way.

The main problem is what to do after that. In any case, a feeling of film-like adventure is one of the things lacking from past hunting games that has kept them from being widely popular. Providing this sense of story wouldn't be grounded in dialogue or text, but in play systems. That said, some narration or NPC commentary might be good.

When the player's adventure is done, if it ever is, the credits would roll in front of screenshots of the player's most memorable moments. Perhaps the player would take these pictures.


I'm a big fan of systems like the one in Turok, in which AI compete with each other and not just the player. I would have a food web, but also give individual creatures need priorities. That way, the player would see things like a cheetah hunting an antelope, but a starving predator would attack something outside its usual prey menu. Dynamic behavior.

AI would also create other familiar scenarios, such as the normally passive animal becoming aggressive when injured or trapped.

Well, I'm going to stop there so I can get a post up before it's too late in the day. What are your thoughts on this or hunting games in general?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

OnLive predictions

It's way too early to comment specifically on OnLive. But what it represents is of great interest and concern to everyone. I hear "cloud" gaming is a popular topic of discussions at the GDC. Here are a few predictions of my own.

First, I doubt this heralds the end of consoles. It's possible, but I'd be surprised if consoles ever disappeared. It doesn't matter if nearly all the games are the same. It doesn't matter if they share essential hardware and software features. Competition can flourish on things such as brand loyalty, familiarity, aesthetics, and ease of use. Look at automobile competition. Look at the PC-vs-Mac.

Second, OnLive sounds good for PC gamers. The greatest barrier to consumers interested in PC games has always been compatibility issues. And the costliest issues for PC game developers are compatibility and (arguably) piracy. If OnLive works as they say it will, those problems are eliminated.

Third, this isn't the end of traditional PC gaming. Modding has become increasingly popular over the years, and a person can't modify a game unless he has access to the code. Also, many consumers will want hard copies of games so that they don't have to worry about a service changing, provider-publisher contracts, internet access interruptions, etc.

What do you think? Where is cloud gaming leading us?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

AI support strategic gameplay

I've decided to let yesterday's question sit for a day, so there's more time for feedback. In the meantime, I'm going to revisit an old subject: how AI competitors can augment human competition.

AI can be more conducive to player strategy than player opponents. Strategy is only possible to the extent that things can be predicted. If you can't foresee something, then you can't plan for it. Of course, sometimes predictability includes the lack thereof (you expect that something unexpected will occur, though you don't know exactly what).

Playing against a particular "personality" many times allows the player to gradually adapt, to develop a strategy over the course of multiple play-sessions. In multiplayer, human personalities are often unstable... meaning that players have fluid styles (due to mood, learning, or battle scenarios), they make impulsive decisions, etc. There's also frequent personality turnover, meaning that you're constantly playing new competitors and there are long intermissions between battles against any one competitor.

AI in the form of "multiplayer" bots serve two main functions. First, they prepare players for facing particular strategies and scenarios. There's wide discrepancy between how much time different players need for this. Second, they can offer a fun alternative to unpredictable nature of human beings. Even players who enjoy the challenge and dynamics of human competition sometimes want a change of pace, a different experience. AI can act as a nice balance and prevent players from burning out.

There are other potential uses, but I just wanted to emphasize the value of AI for supporting strategic gameplay. Don't think of bots as an alternative to players. Interaction with bots can aid interaction between players.

And don't think that AI in a single-player campaign acts in the same way.

Monday, March 23, 2009

TV spectating: the question

The Sci-Fi channel has apparently taken the leap into game spectating. From what I've read, though, their WCG Ultimate Gamer show is as much reality TV as spectating. I don't like that idea, but it raises the question of what sort of show could make game battles popular on TV.

What elements make for compelling game spectatorship?

As I try to answer that question, it would help if we could identify games which already appeal to spectators. What games have you played that your fellow gamers and even non-gamers have enjoyed watching you play?

The most obvious example in my own experience is LOTR: Battle for Middle Earth 2. Non-gamers young and old have hovered over me, fascinated, as I play that game. A semi-gamer cousin remarked, "I could watch you play that all day".

Mario Kart is another one. In that case, it's as much the social atmosphere that it encourages as the game itself.

The more games we can identify that appeal to spectators, the easier it will be for me to identify traits that make those fun to watch. What do you think?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Godfather 2 interview: cut, cars, and crew

Once again, I made EA Associate Producer Wes Culver an offer he couldn't refuse, and he was willing to share a bit more about The Godfather II. The game's due out April 7th in North America and April 10th in Europe.

As I said last time, I enjoyed the first Godfather game and the sequel seems to have a lot more dynamics, among other improvements. So I'm hopeful.

What RPG elements are at play in The Godfather II? What room exists for replayability in terms of character developmment?
There are a good number of elements in The Godfather II where you can upgrade your character and family. Traditional RPG elements include the ability to upgrade attributes for you as well as all of the Made Men in your family. Example attributes include the rate at which your health regenerates, your weapon accuracy level, your extortion effectiveness, and Black Hand skills, among others. Additionally, you will be able to find new weapons out in the game world that you’ll be able to wield. Depending on the type of weapon license your made men start out with (as they vary), they may be able to wield upgraded guns as well. Don’t worry if they don’t have an advanced weapon license, because you can always upgrade it by taking your made men in online multiplayer.

In addition to being able to upgrade attributes and skills, you’ll also be able to earn extra-special bonuses by taking over Crime Rings. Such bonuses include incendiary rounds, armored cars, bullet-proof vests, and more. Less traditional RPG elements include being able to build up your family as the Don. You choose which made men (and their associated specialties) you want to recruit. You decide who gets promoted and who doesn’t make the cut. You can even customize the appearance of yourself and your made men.

In regards to replayability, that’s mostly up to each individual. Since there are so many different ways of playing GF2, it is extremely rewarding to go back and play it again using a completely different strategy that yields different results. For example, you can go back and decide you want to take out all of the rival made men for each family. While taking out rival made men can be very challenging, it’s also very rewarding because it has a big impact on the strength of the family. Conversely, you can choose to go in guns blazing while trying to eliminate a rival family with all of their made men intact. It’ll be much more difficult, but possible. Being an open world game, each person can create their own fiction and unique experience in the Godfather universe.

Is combat entirely real-time? What's the balance between FPS aiming and character skills?
It depends… Combat between you, the Don, and your enemies is real time. As is any combat you personally engage in as the main character of GF2. However, being the Don carries certain perks, such as being able to order your made men to perform remote attacks on businesses while you’re doing something else. You can also send them to defend a business that’s either vulnerable or under attack.

Your character skills have a very big impact on your aiming. There are three different weapon accuracy attributes (for different types of weapons) as well as varying levels of each attribute. Add the “Marksman” ability on top of that, and the difference between when you start out and being fully upgraded is huge.

Has extorting businesses changed much since the first Godfather game?
The core of the extortion experienced has remained faithful to the original Godfather game, since it was one of our most highly rated features from the first game. We did, however, build on top of and around that core extortion experience. A great example of this is using your crew to gain access to side, rear, and other entrances in order to get the drop on enemies. You can have your engineer specialist cut through fences or cut the power so your rivals cannot call for extra backup. Your demolitions expert can blow open side entrances or have your bruiser break down walls. In addition to this, the concept that every racket belongs to a Crime Ring gives you a greater purpose for planning and attacking. Instead of just going after the closest business, you can choose to attack ones based on other factors, such as breaking up a Crime Ring or getting your own.

Will we see more vehicles in this Godfather game? Has driving gameplay been modified at all?

There are significantly more (I believe nearly 2x) vehicles in The Godfather II, compared to the original. There is also a greater amount of variety between the cars as well, including cars based off of 1960’s era muscle cars, sports cars, sedans, pickups, etc. In regards to the driving gameplay, the cars drive much faster than the first game so the way they feel matches their updated look.

Can you tell us more about the Online Honors in multiplayer?
Honors are the rewards you earn while playing online multiplayer. There are about a dozen different honors that each player can earn and you may even be able to earn multiple honors in a single match. Examples honors include being the top scorer on the winning team, healing your teammates 5 times, etc. Earning honors goes towards upgrading the weapon licenses of your made men each time you take them online.

What's your favorite weapon? Favorite skill? Favorite crew member?
It’s so difficult to choose a favorite weapon, since I use all of them depending on the situation. If I’m forced to pick, I’d have to say my favorite weapon is the Level 3 Magnum because it’s powerful in short and long range situations. My favorite skill for myself is the marksman ability, since I like to go for headshots when battling with a rival family. Favorite skill for my crew is upgrading their proficiency in any given specialty, which greatly reduces the time it takes to crack a safe, cut a fence, revive me, etc. My favorite crew member is Tommy Cipolla, the unique made man you get by pre-ordering the game (everyone’s got their pre-order in, right? :) because he starts with two specialties, an upgraded weapon license, and an upgraded gun by default.

So there you have it. You have a couple weeks to practice your worst Italian accent and polish your Gatling gun. Culver's team has put the game's brief delay since last month to good use and created yet another multiplayer mode, so you'd better be ready for my crew to burn down your casino!

Thanks again to EA and Wes Culver for the interview. If you missed my first interview with Culver, concerning The Don's View, you can find that here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

localizing non-verbal language

Lots of companies localize their games these days. How good these localizations are I don't know.

Over the years, I've read about occasional quality problems in translations. Anyone who speaks multiple languages is aware that translating something literally is often a mistake, and that's the type of problem I see cited most often. Such mistakes are usually the result of appointing someone to the task of localization who is not a fluent speaker of both languages. Major publishers seem to have learned their lesson and avoid this mistake now.

So localization practices have improved, but I wonder about non-verbal language... meaning body language and similar things. How often is a lack of translation for that aspect of language problematic for gamers? Do designers pay any attention to it?

If it is a problem, can anything be done about it and be worth the expense? Afterall, we're not talking about text anymore.

For example, consider proxemics. Proxemics refers to the distance two or more people are expected to keep between each other when talking, as well as things like touching. How close you stand to someone and how you touch them communicates information, and what that information is interpreted to be depends on the culture of the observer. Two Iranian men are likely to stand much closer to one another as they casually chat than two American men would. It is also not uncommon in that part of the world for two men to walk down the street holding hands. A typical American is likely to interpret this to mean the men are gay, but it has no romantic connotation in the other culture.

Even within one country, this aspect of language can vary significantly. In rural areas of the United States, the act of shaking hands is often considered an essential greeting or seal to agreements, and a failure to do so can be taken as an offense or incite distrust. In some parts of America, women expect hugs even from strangers in casual settings.

Tone and volume are other points of misinterpretation. Many conversations between an American employer and employee would likely shock some foreigners because the employee is not being properly submissive in tone. Rich people often misinterpret a poor person's loudness as being obnoxious, whereas poor people often misinterpret a rich person's quiet speech as being snobbish.

Anyway, you get the general idea. Changing text is one thing, but changing non-verbal language involves extra voice-acting, extra animations, etc. Is this a problem worth dealing with?

Perhaps we should begin by simply asking how often it's a problem. Can you cite any examples in your own experience where a foreign game gave you the wrong impression?

For example, cutscenes and voice-acting in Asian games often seem melodramatic to me. Some of that's due to poor scripting and acting, but I believe some of it's due to cultural differences in loudness, tone, pitch, etc.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

when friends are enemies

Writers learn that characters can be flat or round (stereotypical vs complex, mythical vs factual). But conflict is seldom discussed in terms of flat or round. A round character has both good and bad aspects, and the audience is expected to consider both. A round conflict similarly invites the audience to pick a side without wholly rejecting or supporting either.

Many stories involve friends who become enemies or enemies who become friends. Few involve characters who remain both enemy and friend. The movies Heat and Gangs of New York are two examples. This rarity is understandable, since it's not common in reality. Human beings are emotional, and it's difficult to openly struggle against friends or associate with enemies; so few do so. But, as those films demonstrate, unbreaking juxtaposition of love and opposition can be a powerful story element.

A milder example is the relationship between Mal and Inara in the TV series Firefly. Their relationship is charged with romantic attraction, yet at the same time they are distanced by Mal's disapproval of Inara's whoring and Inara's occasional undermining of Mal's authority as ship captain. A similar example is the relationship between Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in Master and Commander.

I have no problem with the use of myths -- stories using straw figures purposefully and well. But I would like to see more games involving plots that are less about good vs bad than about the inevitable conflicts which arise from differences in values and perspectives.

Challenge yourself to write a story in which all the main characters are essentially good but conflict arises anyway.

Monday, March 16, 2009

the game must go on

Last night, I played LOTR: Battle for Midde Earth 2 (RotWK expansion) with a cousin for the first time in months. Neither of us had played in all that time, and we knew we'd be rusty. We started a war... and, sure enough, we lost the first battle. But we were back in the swing of things by the third battle.

A benefit of the form, a non-linear series of challenges, that a player can fail and not feel discouraged. Had my cousin and I been forced to replay the exact same scenario until we beat it, returning to the game after such a long hiatus would not have been as fun.

In general, it's good for players to have options and variety even when they fail. Reward success by means other than level/story progression.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Check out Peggle, if you haven't already. I think it's one of the best arcade games on Xbox Live, and the PC version is currently selling for just five bucks.

It seems to use billiards for inspiration. You try to aim precisely, to anticipate how the cue ball will ricochet, to hit some targets before others, and there's even a moving pocket at the bottom. In fact, it's almost like a marriage between billiards and pinball.

Unlike billiards, you get points for everything you hit. And though the formation of targets is the same every time on any particular board, the placement is different. The goal of the game is to knock out all of the red targets with ten cue balls (you can win extra balls through points or special green targets). In addition to targeting your cue ball, you also have to time your shots. If you ball is picked up by the moving pocket at the bottom, you get it back. Other times, the targets are moving.

Much of the fun is in believing you know what's going to happen when you shoot your ball, and then being sadly happily mistaken. Sometimes your ball will ricochet a dozen or more times before finally falling.

The other big factor is dynamics. As I said already, the placement of red, green, and blue targets on the board is different every time. This is huge, because it means you must use a different strategy each time you play the same board. Also, depending on the board, hitting the green targets does different things (adds pinball flippers, splits the ball into two, guides your next shot, etc), and you can eventually select which effect you want the green targets to have. There's a wide variety of boards, including ones with moving targets and obstacles.

I'm not going to review the whole thing. I haven't played the Challenges or multiplayer yet, but it's worth the price even without those modes. I've been frustrated a couple times by not being able to reach some targets (because I aimed earlier shots wrong or just bad luck), but the experience has almost always been enjoyable. So, as I said, check it out.

I've come to really respect PopCap Games. Feeding Frenzy and Zuma are also among the best arcade games on Xbox Live, and Bejeweled is a nice go-through-the-motions stress relief. I'll have to try some of their others.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

CoD6 suggestions

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare is one of the best games on the 360. But no game's perfect, so here's some changes I would make for CoD6. I'll also throw in some ideas for the campaign.


American troops and our allies are stationed all over the world at any given moment. So how about some settings we're not used to seeing (southeast Asia, north Africa, South America, etc)? If the Middle East is again the focus, then possible settings include the caves of Afghanistan or a battle within a single building, such as a school or ampitheater.

Weather is a major factor in warfare. Hell, it has outright won or lost battles and even wars. Show us. Gusts of wind can displace tossed grenades and spread fires. Tropical rain can disrupt vision, slow movement, and make ways impassable. A sandstorm could trap enemies together

Soldiers don't just work and interact with fellow soldiers. Make civilians, combatants and non-combatants, a part of gameplay. In fact, you might include one level in which the player goes on a light-hearted hunting trip with a local civilian, to bind the player emotionally to the town or whatever he later defends and remind the player that war isn't always constant battles. I suggest hunting because that is a civilian activity based on the same basic gameplay (shooting), requiring less scripting and new assets.

Introduce friendly fire and civilian casualties. Both are a part of every war. If well implemented, this could get more emotional investment from the player.


Take your cues from Left 4 Dead. As I've said before, that game has the best representation of dependence and sacrifice of any game I've played to date. Brotherhood is a central theme in every branch of military, and cooperative gameplay is where that needs to shine.

Sacrifice is key. Enable the player to give to fellow players and companion NPCs in ways that hurt his own character and his own playtime. Regarding NPCs, I've written before on empathy. Regarding fellow players, consider the example in Left 4 Dead of one player telling others to leave him or her behind to save themselves... a request which means the person is no longer playing for a while, only watching and talking to the other players (sometimes feeding them valuable intel)... though obviously it's usually better if all players remain playing.


Every time the player goes to the "Select Class" screen, show a number by each class to indicate how many allies are currently playing each class. That will allow versatile players to fill in the gaps; help us see which roles are needed at any given moment.

Allow us to mute players without having to go to their gamercard screen.

Again, weather. If it was different from battle to battle (the same map), that could make for a fun dynamic.

You might be able to encourage a better social atmosphere by enabling players to vote each other up or down in a leadership ranking, separate from combat ranking. Real militaries do not promote soldiers purely for weapon skills and combat prowess, but also for exemplary social actions... like taking risks for other players, going back for injured comrades, helping others to improve, offering inspiration, and basically providing for the needs of others. How exactly to reward players for such behavior, I'm not sure. But it would definitely be worth it to promote sacrifice and philanthropy in the multiplayer community through tangible rewards, similar to a Purple Heart or Silver Star.

Again, sacrifice. Allow a player to give ammo to an ally, thereby depleting his own resources. Or allow a player to "cry for help", making his icon on allies' maps blink, to indicate he could use backup when he finds himself the only one guarding a flag in Domination or having run out of ammo.

What are your ideas?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I'm surprised the movie Crank hasn't been made into a game. Well, it has, but I mean a big AAA 360/PS3/PC game.

If you've never seen the film, the gist is that the protagonist has been poisoned and his heart will stop if he doesn't keep adrenaline running through his veins.

Imagine a game where you can't stand still for long. You have to constantly be sprinting, speeding, shooting, tumbling, or keeping the pace up in some other just to stay alive. The basis of the game is that the pace is almost always intense.

Adrenalin does warp a person's concept of time, so I suppose the game might be perforated with moments of slow-motion. That might be a reward for maxing out adrenalin, or it might occur at specific moments of the game (such as a gun battle involving many enemies or a squeeze through European alleys with a sportscar).

It could make for some fun multiplayer, too. Imagine how hectic a battle would be if player's couldn't afford to poach or pause long in cover. In fact, it might make for an interesting multiplayer mode in other games.

Monday, March 09, 2009

real-time rewards

One of the coolest features in Call of Duty 4 multiplayer is the way players are rewarded for getting so many consecutive kills without dying. Kill 3 enemies without dying and you can call in recon (see where enemies are on the map). Kill 5 enemies without dying and you can call in an airstrike. Kill 7 enemies without dying and you can call in an attack helicopter.

Why don't we see this sort of thing in single-player and co-op modes?

Friday, March 06, 2009

if it ain't broke...

I agree whole-heartedly with Daniel Clancy that a game doesn't have to be innovative to be excellent.

That a game offers nothing new is not necessarily a strike against it. A game can alternatively excel by honing old ideas or combining the right elements.

I've written somewhere before that slapping together only top-notch gameplay elements does not always make a top-notch game. Some elements are individually great, but don't fit well together or fit better with others. And sometimes it's the recognition of compatibility between elements that usually appear separately, or the ordering and emphasis of elements, that makes a game phenomenal.

Don't be afraid to repeat something that's tried and true. Things are often become tradition or the most common of their kind because they're simply the best. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

personal integration

I downloaded a jigsaw puzzle game the other day called Puzzle Arcade. I haven't spent much time with it yet, but I know I will... especially since it's something my non-gaming family can enjoy when we get together during the holidays. One of the game's cooler features (which I can't use yet, since I don't own an Xbox Live Vision Camera) is being able to upload your own images for puzzles. Apparently, you can't save those custom puzzles if left unfinished, but it's still cool.

I love the idea of players introducing unique, personal content in such a simple way.

I've said before that MMO designers should move screenshot viewing in-game.

Audio integration, such as enabling players with mics to record brief clips for character use (warcries, taunts, jokes, etc), is another possibility.

Another example is linking game audio to a gamer's mp3 library so that particular player-selected mp3s are triggered by particular events. It could be as general as this song for combat and that playlist for driving. Or it could be as specific as playing this song when I equip my two-handed maul, playing another song when I equip my bow-and-arrows, another song when I hop on my horse, another when the sun sets, etc.

Face-mapping isn't easy, but seems possible. Allow players to upload a photo of their own faces from a particular perspective. Software finds certain points on the face (nose tip, bridge width, eye spacing, etc), and then recreates the same characteristics in the character creation system. Note that I'm not talking about overlaying a character model with the actual photograph. I'm talking about using a photo as reference for a virtual representation using a creation system like that of Everquest 2 and Saints Row 2.

These personalizations require minimal effort from the player and don't require active input or feedback from developers (past initial production, I mean). What are some other possibilities?

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

keep mood and tone dynamic

A friend suggested that Fallout 3 is "too soulless for its own good". I have to agree. It's a great game, certainly. But the relentless dreariness works against it.

Dynamics in mood and tone are vital for any RPG, and games in general. This is particularly true for visual presentation.

Fallout 3's environmental design is really impressive, particularly due to the scope and level of detail. But it's bleak, almost without exception. That certainly fits the story and the overall tone of the game. However, too much consecutive bleakness ultimately has the same effect it would have in true life -- it drains enthusiasm and motivation.

With a game so big, there are undoubtedly factors at play which differ from player to player. If you initially focus on wandering and sidequests, as I did, then it can be a very long time before you enter Tenpenny Tower or the wooded sanctuary. For perspective, I've spent dozens of hours in the game and explored much of the world, but am hardly beyond Tenpenny in the main questline.

In any case, it's good in any RPG to offer a variety of environments with different color palettes and tones, as well as missions/quests and encounters with a variety of moods. Dynamics provide freshness, which is necessary to maintain momentum and excitement. This is one of the reasons I think color palettes and elegant designs like World of Warcraft uses are the best visual design option for the majority of games.

I still enjoy Fallout 3 (though I haven't played in a while), but the different areas and experiences of the gameworld started to blend together after a while.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


I finally got past rank 55 in CoD4 multiplayer, which means that I've entered Prestige Mode. Prestige means that all of my weapon and Perk unlocks, and all of my Challenge completions are undone, but my stats remain intact and an icon by my name tells everyone of my accomplishment.

This is an awesome feature. Gamers have always been able to start games over, but it's rare to be rewarded for doing so (unless you count accomplishments for higher difficulty levels). CoD4's system offers only bragging rights. I'd like to see games with more tangible rewards for restarting.

Diablo 2 might have the best reset system. After completing the five-act adventure, the player has the option to replay all quests and areas while retaining all skill, attribute, and equipment progress. It's the same adventure taking place under very different circumstances -- a powerful player-character, powerful NPCs, more loot and more skills.

An MMO that never really materialized, originally called Realms of Torment, had a concept of character generations. The player's character would slowly age and eventually die. In that time, the character would marry, which would produce a child. The player would then start over as the child, but the child would begin with some of the former characters equipment and a blend of both parents attributes and skills. Theoretically, the marriages could take place in different parts of the world, thereby allowing each player-character to begin from a different location. And the cycle repeats.

Another failed MMO, Trials of Ascension (one of my favorite game ideas), also allowed characters to die permanently. But in that game, each life of the player would have tangible effects on the gameworld. And the player had the option to sacrifice some time to leave an artifact behind. The artifact would be an item with extraordinary power, and possibly an associated legend, hidden randomly in the gameworld for another player to discover.

There are many ways to reward players for starting over and keeping that replay fun. I wish games would do so more often.

Incidentally, this gives me a very general idea for a game. Imagine a single-player adventure with automatic saves and no manual saves. Throughout, there are many choices, some with far-reaching consequences. There are many possible endings to the game... not just plot possibilities, but which characters end up alive or dead, successful or defeated, etc. Each time the player beats the game, he can do it all over again with knowledge gained from experience, shaping new choices.

The gist, and the hardest part of the game's design, is to make it difficult for the player to find a wholly satisfactory ending. In other words, the player is encouraged to keep replaying until he achieves the "perfect" playthrough. If many of those choices are not as simple as right/wrong or happy/sad, then the player might sometimes change a decision and realize the first was actually better. Anyway...

Monday, March 02, 2009

unstable XBL hosts

I played a lot of Call of Duty 4 on my 360 over the weekend. One thing that has always bugged me about that game is how often matches are cut short when the host leaves/ends the game, presumably because of an interrupted connection most of the time.

That such interruptions occur from time to time is understandable. What isn't understandable is how it can happen repeatedly to the same host.

I'm no techie, so perhaps I'm missing something. But it seems this could be fixed if hosting was automatically switched to another player's console whenever the current host repeatedly suffers connection problems or continues to manually end games (not counting private matches, of course). Is this not possible? not feasible?