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 BrĂ¼tal 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?