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