Friday, November 20, 2009

learning curves, options and challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

moving with NPCs

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

Well, I try to.

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pandemic job cuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next, how does this reflect on EA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Modern Warfare 2 issues (360)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

progression through failure

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

why I avoid Steam

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 09, 2009

fake emergencies

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

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

Thursday, November 05, 2009

gradual indicators (navigation)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

rounded RPGs

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

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

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

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

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

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

The solution is American football... metaphorically speaking.

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

replayable quests

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

Let loose your iron grip, game writers!

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

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

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

Monday, November 02, 2009


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

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

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

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