Friday, December 12, 2014

"Narrative Echoes" and Recasting

Recently I've been talking about implicit sharing - the idea that players create and refine content as they play, and in turn that content is automatically merged into other player's worlds. I've also been talking about how that content needs to be something with emotional meat to it. It needs to be more than just a ship with specific stats - it needs to be a story, a character, an interaction.

There's not really any existing tools or approach to allow for that kind of development, so new tools have to be created.

My first stab at it is "recasting".

Any kind of game can use recasting, but it does require a very specific kind of play format. It needs to be:

1) "Open approach": issues and challenges can be approached via a variety of means. For example, social, technological, or physical. These approaches aren't simply pass/fail, but require time and multiple attempts in order to get success.

2) "Ally NPC": Players need to be able to create and direct allied NPCs to perform tasks, including open approach tasks.

3) "Enemy NPC": Enemy NPCs can be directed inside limits if compromised: convinced, threatened, seduced, coerced, whatever method.

These three concerns basically form a system where NPCs can interact with other NPCs in a repeated, prolonged manner. The system also allows for open-ended plot lines, since you can lay down a series of plot beats and let the player traverse them using open approaches.

The recast system requires all those elements, because the idea is that different players keep playing through the quest line, but from opposite sides.

It might be easier as an example.

You're a cop (A). There was a drunken brawl and it turned deadly. You're hunting for the survivor (B), who went into hiding.

Your avatar is nerdy, so you take a technical approach - tagging his phone, looking for credit card purchases, perusing security cameras. Your success is limited, so you call in a support NPC (C) - a social cop who is assigned as your partner. He gently interrogates barkeeps, relatives, known friends... and that approach gets more success. You eventually learn that he's staying at a friend's house (D). The friend is a big bruiser of a guy.

You can tackle this however you like, but that bruiser ally makes it dangerous to just pop in and arrest him. Since you've got a social ally, you convince the bruiser to help you safely arrest the perp rather than go in guns blazing or wait around for days for him to slip up.

Mission over. Pretty simple. Everyone gets XP.

Now the mission is recast.

The next player is a cop. You're tasked with defending a witness. You start with a partner - a big bruiser kind of a guy (D). Your avatar is a social cop, an investigator (B).

You quickly learn the details. A mafia agent is hunting this witness down. He's a nerdy sort of mafioso (A), so you expect he'll use technical searches. So you take proper precautions, largely going off-grid and getting people to help you out so you don't have to use phones or credit cards. Unfortunately, the mafia agent brings in a specialist, a greasy, fast-talking knifeman (C). They interrogate the people you were relying on, and seem to be narrowing in on your position.

You decide to go on the offensive. You try to talk to the nerdy mafia lead, looking for information or even an outright ally. You don't realize that the knifeman is threatening your partner even as you speak. Even as you're trying to convert his boss, their social goon is doing the same to your team. You never realize the partner you left behind to guard the target is being compromised.

In the final, climactic scene, you are betrayed by your partner. But the mafia leaves you alive, since the nerdy lead has come to like you. You're sure she'll show up again some other mission - all these characters will.

Mission over. Everyone gets XP.

Now the mission is recast.

The next player is a cop. You're tasked with hunting down a pair of killers. You built a big bruiser of an avatar (E), and your partner is a nerdy guy (A). You decide to hit the streets - you track and intimidate the people who might know anything, and quickly get a bead on the targets. They were using social techniques to stay off-grid, but your techniques didn't involve the grid.

The two are a slick, dangerous "dame" (B) and a knuckledragger (D).

On the second day, another cop approaches you. A social specialist with a good record (C). He tells you that he was assigned this case with you, and that you should work together. He says he can convince the knuckledragger to fold, although you can tell him not to. Even as you're working this out, your partner is being seduced by the dangerous dame... do you notice in time?

You might have figured out the basic algorithm.



See, the NPCs don't really have any algorithmic personalities or behavior. But you give them commands that make sense for them - do these things, interact in these ways. Then the next player plays from the opposite side. Even as they give their own side commands that make sense, they see the NPCs you originally commanded doing the things you directed them to.

This isn't quite the same as two players directly opposing each other simultaneously. Each player is playing a one-player game. But the NPCs remember and continue to act. The steady drift in the situation as more NPCs are introduced and refined introduces a feeling of personality.

For example, at this point there is a dynamic where the social defender (B) seduces the technical offense (A). As more characters are added and the situation changes, that behavior may not make a whole lot of sense. In some cases, one or the other could even be recast as a player character again! But the two characters are now locked together by "fate": the technical offense "wants" to be seduced by the social defender, and the social defender "wants" to seduce.

So even if you are the social defender and choose a radically different approach to the setting, the instant you meet the technical offense they will fall in love with you. Similarly, if you play the technical offense, you're not going to be able to resist the social defender, no matter how good your stats are. That's your personality.

It's also important to consider continuity between missions.

No mission starts clean. All the characters you created for last mission are used in the roles of this mission. The very first player - he created a social partner (C). That social partner will be recast into another social specialist role in the next mission, and in the mission after that. This leads to tense moments where your long-time allies are caught in a dangerous web. Enemy NPCs work the same way.

In a different setup, it'd make sense for it to even be player-linked. That dangerous dame might be the funhouse mirror version of the player that created her, and therefore her progression and activities could reflect that player's ongoing activities. That player could even find that there is a funhouse mirror version of you in their world, reflecting your behaviors and actions.

Anyway, as a first stab at a system, this seems like it'd work. I haven't built a working prototype yet, though.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Exploration Needs Implicit Sharing

A lot of people are chatting about No Man's Sky these days, although there's not much hard data. The general consensus seems to be "WHOA! Uh... what do you DO, exactly?"

I've played a whole lot of exploration games. No Man's Sky is hardly the first. Hell, Noctis is hardly the first. I used to explore randomized worlds built in Traveler, and even that wasn't the first!

I can safely say that No Man's Sky isn't pioneering a new genre. It's simply a very shiny example within that genre.

But here's the thing people often forget: exploration is only half a game.

Right now, virtually every exploration game is a combat-survival game, which is what No Man's Sky will be. Minecraft is like this, too. I don't much like combat-survival gameplay. Not only is it overplayed, it also damages and flattens the exploration elements. Exploration is boiled down to "what resources and enemies are in the area?"

There are a lot of things we could replace combat-survival with.

The most likely replacement is creation. I think there's a lot of room to allow players to create as they explore.

The line between creation and survival is sometimes a bit thin. I mean, isn't Minecraft about creation? And if you can build your own ship to your own specs in No Man's Sky, isn't that creation?

I draw the line on the other end of the content. It's not about how well you can create things, it's about how well you can share them. See, that feeds back into exploration: if you can uncover fragments of some other player's story, that lends a lot of power to the universe.

Most games like this have some kind of explicit sharing. Share craft files, share map files. Manually download and plug in. Even if there is no actual creation at all, exploration games can get the same kind of creative sharing by sharing specific locations that have extremely interesting features, such as when people share specific random seeds for Minecraft worlds.

Explicit sharing is clumsy. It's like scribes. It's time for the printing press. It's time for implicit sharing.

Pieces of your creations will be embedded in other people's experiences automatically.

Sharing ship layouts and bases is fine, but that's the most boring possible thing to share. Instead, these games need you to share personal stories and hooks leading to more content.

For example, I build a ship knowing it'll be shared automatically with other players. So I crash it into a planet. Now I know it'll be shared as a crashed vessel. So I do a survival run - building shelter near the ship, creating basic tools and clothes from the local wildlife, and so on. Now I know that anyone that stumbles across the vessel will also stumble across my survival attempt. This is becoming a story - someone crashed and survived. Who?

That's where the story ends if you're doing combat-survival gameplay. There's no in-game method for going any further with the shared content. But in a creation-based game, you could go so much further. Embed NPCs. Embed log files. Talk about a dangerous local disease and - bang - it exists. Talk about a plot that caused your ship to crash and - bang - it exists. Set up a plot line and watch visitor's party members get caught up in it as if it were their own. Set up a culture with new customs and traditions... they bury it under 10,000 years of sand.

This kind of creation is not something you see in modern games, because it's rather difficult to achieve. I honestly don't think it's any harder than allowing us to build our own space station. It's just that we've gotten so used to building our own space stations. We know exactly how to program that tool and polish that environment.

We don't know how to allow players to create stories. We don't know how to program that tool, and we don't know how to set up that environment to be compelling.

But... I think we will discover that. Soon.

Monday, December 01, 2014

NPCs and SCREEEEN TIIIIIME

I've thought a lot about NPCs in games, and one thing I tend to forget to mention is that there are some very simple guidelines. Follow the guidelines, you tend to get great NPCs.

The most basic thing to keep in mind: in order to care about an NPC, you have to see the NPC do things.

More basically, "screen time = appreciation"

There are a lot of games where the NPCs don't have much screen time, and you are expected to "choose" who you like best. Who you want on your party, or want to talk to every day in town, or whatever.

This is really the wrong approach. If you show a bunch of options and ask someone to choose, they have to choose based on stereotypes.

It's better to never give the player a choice.

Wait, let me explain a bit more.

"Screen time = appreciation" is a powerful concept. Let's look at Final Fantasy VII, since most people will be familiar with it. Let's think about which woman your teenage-boy self had the biggest feelings for. Just bear with me if you weren't a teenage boy, the point is easiest to make like this.

The three prospective crushes are Tifa, Aerith, and Yuffie.

After playing the game, Aerith was the one everyone remembered and felt most fondly for. That's not because of her design: a painfully quiet girl in a demure dress can't visually compete against the lure of Lara Croft. I mean Tifa. Even in terms of personality, Aerith has nothing going for her - she's got no personality at all. Tifa and Yuffie both have personalities - one reliable, one annoying, both better than the play-doh brain of Aerith.

But the player's preference for the NPCs doesn't come from their visual design or their personalities. It comes strictly from how much screen time they have.

Aerith has the most screen time by an order of magnitude. Also, the quality of her screen time is very high. Not only is she usually the core focus of the cut scene, the cut scene is also usually about her. Tifa, on the other hand, often participates in cut scenes as one of the group rather than solo, and is often focused on resolving the current situation instead of building herself up.

"Yuffie has solo screen time, and everyone hated her!"

Yup! Her screen time was followed by a long stretch of the player having to wade through annoying shit with the only reward being a return to status quo. So players hated her.

But although the setup made people hate Yuffie, they did remember her. They did care about her. They did appreciate her in line with her screen time. It's just that their appreciation was of the "arrrgh youuuuuuuuuuu" nature, rather than the more positive feelings assigned to the others.

...


All the characters in all games follow this same basic rule, as you can easily find out just by looking. The reason I used FFVII is because of the clarity of the situation: Aerith is worthless as a character. She has no personality, no arc: you could replace her with a lamp and the story wouldn't change in the slightest. But she was suuuuuper popular.

Because of screen time.

Similarly, Yuffie was quite unpopular.

Because of screen time.

Obviously, the design of the character does matter some. As does what they are actually doing on screen. Also, they have to actually be doing something of their own volition: just having them participate in battles doesn't really count.

Anyway, this basic assumption can be used to really change how you design characters, and you can see that in, say, the Dragon Age games.

Dragon Age games feature a lot of incredibly uninspired character designs, but everyone likes the characters because they feel real. You know why they feel real?

SCREEEEEEEN TIIIIIIME

The characters banter with each other on the road, say character-specific combat lines, and spend an inordinate amount of time talking about their backstory if you go to camp. Combine this with a selection of character-specific missions, you have a good amount of screen time for each character. There's a lot of little details that turn "passive time" (wandering around, battle moments) into small amounts of screen time, which is powerful.

Moreover, you have a balanced amount of screen time.

Unlike FFVII, Dragon's Age gives every character a specific amount of specific types of screen time. Maybe there's 130 lines of banter dialog for each. Maybe they each have 3 sidequests. Maybe they each have 13 backstory conversations, all paced identically. Maybe they inject an identical amount of personality into their combat shouts.

Because of this balance, everyone appreciates a lot of different Dragon's Age characters. I even found myself appreciating characters I doubt I would have cared about in another game, such as the painfully generic templar or the old lady sorceress. Similarly, I found myself siding against the characters I would have picked as my favorites if I was just shown a picture and a catchphrase.

Why?

Say it with me-

screentime

The characters have balanced screen times, so I have an appreciation for all of them.

This does falter a bit here and there. You still tend to settle into one primary combat party (a huge flaw in all modern RPGs), and that affects your affections. Also, there's a ton of really dumb backstory. While it does give them more screen time, it is distractingly stupid.

But those are flaws I think could be addressed.

Anyway, that's my rant on screen time.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Creepy Closeups

Recently, a lot of games have gotten really creepy. Not because of any challenge in their gameplay, but because of the way they look when you talk to them face to face. This has always been an issue with 3D games - it was particularly groteque in the Elder Scrolls games, where they would stare flatly at you for hours. It was also notable in the Mass Effect games, where they used the same bizarre, robotic "we're done talking" animation for all three games.

These creepy interactions are only getting worse as the faces get more detailed.

At first I thought it was typical uncanny valley stuff, but it's not. Because there are many games where it's not creepy at all.

Yesterday, I finally figured it out. They're not creepy because of the number of polygons or the textures or whatever. They're creepy because they're four inches from your face and ignoring you.

When you talk to someone at close range, there's a natural rhythm to your body language. Your eyes meet and wander at a particular pace. Your faces are pointed at them or off-center or even off to the side at various times. There's a subtle action to the eyebrows, the small motions of the muscles around the eye, the corner of the mouth. These are all negotiated: depending on how comfortable you are with each other and each other's natural inclinations, you will get different pacing.

Of course, there's no way to know what sort of things the player's face is doing. Short of playing with a webcam, the game cannot react to the thousands of social cues the player is giving off. The NPC just bulls through with whatever animations are hardcoded.

This is very creepy to me. I think it's because it feels like I don't exist to these NPCs: they are talking for their own self-satisfaction and have not even the slightest care if I'm hearing them at all, let alone understanding them.

I think a lot of devs know this, because they have found a good way around it. There are many games which are not creepy despite their high-fidelity faces. The trick?

Proper cut scenes.

I know, I know. Cut scenes are cheating. But by moving the camera to the side, you let the NPC converse with the player avatar. The player is not being stared in the face - instead, the player's avatar is being stared in the face and the player is simply watching from the side. The two characters are animated together, and they react properly to each other. At the worst, they might appear to be stomping over each other's social cues, but they aren't stomping over YOUR social cues.

This has the added advantage of putting the player's avatar on-screen, up close and personal. Being able to see your avatar is great, especially if it's highly customized. It also has the advantage of showing us the player avatar's social nature - how they interact with the people they talk to in subtle ways. This makes the avatar feel like they exist as a person in that world.

Anyway, if you have detailed 3D faces with detailed 3D facial animations, think about not pointing them straight into the camera. It's creepy.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Connecting With Science Fiction Settings

When most people talk about creating a science fiction world, they're mostly concerned with which aliens inhabit it, what kinds of technologies exist, maybe what the visual aesthetic is. But there's another aspect that goes largely overlooked: how to connect the audience to the setting.

This is actually more fundamental than you might think, because there are a lot of ways of doing it. How you approach this will change your character design, your plots, your visuals, your pacing... it will make your universe feel solid and distinct if you think about it ahead of time.

Let's learn by example.

Star Trek

Star Trek is distinct from other big science fiction IPs because it is fundamentally about living in space. Not fighting in space, not adventuring in space, just living there. Sure, as time goes on it becomes more about grimdark explosions with shakycam, but the fundamentals of the universe, laid out by the first few series, are about people living in space.

More specifically, it's about the experiences of people living in space. Large and small.

Because of this, rather than being about huge vistas and epic moments, Star Trek is mostly about small moments. Rather than trying to show the audience something, Star Trek usually settles for showing how the characters react to something.

For example, if the characters are trapped in a cave, the camera doesn't generally set up any long shots of desolate isolation - just a few simple shots to set the scene. The majority of the scene takes place inside the cave, right up against the faces of the crew as they shiver and talk it through.

Similarly, when ships are hit by phasers, there's rarely any shots of the ship being damaged in any significant way. Instead, we see the crew shaking, or some person getting shocked by a bursting console, and we hear the concern in Worf's voice as he reads out a number. When there's a fight, it's not blood and awesome kung fu - it's two dudes randomly staggering around and grabbing each other. However, the fight is always full of close-ups so we can see their panic or anger, and we can always hear their shouting and gasping breath. And, of course, the overly excited music stings.

This is not a weakness, because that restraint actually pays off when Star Trek does want to do something epic. When they do show a ship destroyed, or a violent fight, it has much more impact because it's not normally seen.

If you look at it like this, Star Trek is entirely constructed to let us see the characters experiencing things. The major technologies - warp drive, shields, transporters, holodeck - are all devices which give the characters more chances to go more places and see more things with a minimum of big effect shots or plot explanation. Virtual Moriarty comes alive with literally one line of explanation? OK, sounds fine. Everyone done reacting and experiencing? OK, technobabble the plot to a halt.

Star Trek is also about small experiences in a literal sense. People give recitals, play poker, hang out in the bar, hold hands, exercise, and spend quiet moments together. Not just major characters: minor ones as well. We are made to appreciate this universe because everyone we are introduced to appreciates this universe.

Most of the plot points are also about people experiencing things. Aging and deaging, being trapped alone, being trapped together, facing authorities, meeting alternate versions, getting drunk/stoned, dealing with family, dealing with sickness... Even things like being split in two: "evil Kirk" and "good Kirk" are not literally about a man split in two. They are about a man with two very different approaches to living his life.

Rather than relying on big sights or scary noises, Star Trek is mostly about showing how the cast reacts to what their character is going through. It is character-driven in a literal way: the only thing that matters is the look on the characters' faces.

Cyberpunk/Noir

Cyberpunk is sort of the exact opposite of Star Trek - people live their life in Star Trek, people die like dogs in Cyberpunk.

A lot of genres here share a very similar approach to experiences. Detective noir and samurai films both have the same basic approach.

The idea is that the main character is very "flat". Not necessarily unemotional, but one-note.

It's hard to get invested in such a flat character, so what the director does is show them going through things we know. When Deckard is stuck in the rain, we know how that feels because we've been stuck in the rain. When Deckard gets punched, we know how that feels. When Deckard faces his abusive boss, we know how that feels.

Deckard's flat responses to these events are different from the expected response, so they are, in fact, not flat at all. Instead of thinking "Deckard's a really flat character", we think "Deckard's kind of a badass because he can take all this in stride."

Where cyberpunk stands out from similar genres is that cyberpunk is full of weird shit.

This is where Deckard's flatness works in the opposite direction. The audience is introduced to something new and bizarre - an emotion test, a vat full of eyeballs, an apartment 500 stories above the ground, a flying car. We don't know what to think of these things, because we don't know how they fit into the universe.

Deckard gives a flat response to them, and we think "oh, okay, it's pretty commonplace."

If Deckard saw a vat of eyes and went "HOLY FUCK EYEBALLS YOU SICK FUCK!!!" then we would think of the eyeball man very, very differently.

In Star Trek, we see what the characters feel. We see them reacting to experiences and situations.

But in Cyberpunk, we do the opposite. We are shown the situations and experiences, and asked to extrapolate why the characters are reacting as they are. This is powerful with flat characters, because it allows us to fill in the large gaps that their responses leave.

Star Wars

Star Wars is based on samurai movies. We mentioned before: samurai movies are about flat characters. We are shown things that happen to the samurai characters, and are asked to imagine what the character must be feeling but not showing. That's why most samurai films feature a whole lot of "commonplace" events, such as the samurai buying and eating a snack.

Star Wars characters are not flat, not ciphers. They are very vibrant, although often very stereotypical.

As you might expect, Star Wars shows us almost no ordinary sights. There is no need to show ordinary things happening, because our vibrant characters would react in an ordinary way.

In most samurai films, the samurai buys some food and eats it. We can "calibrate" off of this: the samurai's flatness contrasts with a known event.

We don't need to calibrate Han Solo, so Han is never shown buying some food and eating it. When we show him in a bar, we show him not eating or drinking or playing cards, but negotiating with a deadly bounty hunter.

Basically, Star Wars does the other half of the cyberpunk equation: it shows us amazing, bizarre things, and lets the characters comment on it. Instead of responding flatly to tell us we should take it in stride, the characters respond energetically to tell us we should be excited and amazed. The variation between the characters and their personalities and preferences allows each to step forward and show us different kinds of things, and make us excited about different things in different ways.

It's often said that Luke is a "window character", which just means he's an incredibly dull idiot that doesn't know anything. That's true: his purpose is to introduce us to the universe by being introduced to the universe himself.

But from our new perspective, all the characters are "window characters". They all try to get us excited about things. Even when C-3PO is just complaining about being lost in the desert, he's actually telling the audience how to care about Tatooine: the desert is dangerous, the sandpeople are dangerous, the jawas might be dangerous, the droids are in danger, this is a very big deal.

And the camera is showing us heat and dust and endless dunes, so we can feel what it's like to be in that desert. It's "look at this amazing thing! Do you know what it is? Well, here's a robot to tell you how amazing it is."

Star Wars shows characters reacting to extraordinary things, but rather than telling us those things are ordinary, they tell us things are amazing. Even when the characters are quite flat, such as the stoic, prickly Princess Leia, she tells us things are amazing by putting her life on the line, or demanding other people take things more seriously.

This is easy to overdo. Jar-jar is an example of a character that did exactly what I'm describing, but adults found him too obnoxious to live. Kids didn't generally mind him as much, and I think the reason is obvious: Jar-Jar reacts like a child. He tries to get the audience excited about things adults are pretty used to, and does so using the most basic kind of emotion possible. He tells us driving fast is scary. He tells us poop is smelly. He tells us that getting lost is not fun. All of these judgments are below the adult audience's level: they already have more advanced responses to these commonplace things.

Anyway, the idea is sound: use vibrant, opinionated characters to tell the audience to get excited instead of bored!

Games

A lot of science fiction IP is either making the transition to games, or is starting as a game. Mass Effect, as an easy example.

When building a game-centric IP, you have a problem in that the characters and the audience aren't nearly as distinct as they are in a movie. In some games, the distinction is pretty clear and remains clear - the avatar you control has a distinct personality and you can live with that.

Buuuuuut... in most modern RPGs and FPS games, we expect the avatar to be malleable.

Whether I decide to play as Saint P. Dungeonhealer or Bloody Monster Monster Sith, I expect the character to react in specific ways because I have decided they should react in specific ways. Even if I'm theoretically playing a real character - for example, Gordon Freeman - it's easy to overwrite their intended personality with one of my choosing.

Most games with this kind of situation have chosen to have an empty lead. The avatar has no personality worth mentioning. Their judgement is so basic and thin that it couldn't possibly interrupt the judgment we've decided they should have.

Unfortunately, this is not a very good way to connect to the universe.

To get around this, most such games have started to add in NPCs that operate close by and give you continuous feedback. You get NPCs like Cortana. She literally exists to talk at the player. She has no gameplay presence. She just comments on things that happen. Her flat personality allows you to take weird things (Ewok gunmen, 10-mile-long bridges, holographic displays) in stride. And when she does get a little serious, it tells you to take this particular weird situation seriously.

So she plays the same role as the main character in the cyberpunk genre. Even though she's not the main character.

You have games with larger rosters, like Mass Effect (or any fantasy RPG). These all use vibrant NPCs to comment on the world - typically during their introductory missions. After that they typically have very little presence, usually just doling out backstory. Despite that limitation, it's clear they play the same role as characters in Star Wars: vibrant responses to amazing things.

I think there's a few more tricks we can use.

I think it's a bad idea to leave the main avatar hollow. I think it should be feasible to let the player choose their personality at the beginning of the game, and use them as either a vibrant or flat character to help the player connect with the world continuously, over the entire course of the game.

One IP that does something like this is the Saints Row games. Although the plot is quite linear and you don't have any particular dialog choices to display personality, you get to choose the avatar's voice. And the voices are all very distinct personalities - they have strong accents and their lines are given different intonation or even changed completely. None of these voice actors blend in: they are all very strong personalities.

While the voice acting definitely makes each playthrough more distinct, Saints Row also allows the player to express themselves with their avatar very deeply. Mostly by dressing them up.

This seems really shallow, but it is actually absolutely critical for one big reason:

The player can always see the avatar. Especially in cut scenes.

Seeing someone dressed up in a suit, as a clown, or in nothing but slime makes the exact same conversation feel very different to the player, because the player is processing it. The player is processing a conversation where someone is dressed as a clown.

The player isn't processing "the dialog as written", or even "the animated scene". They are processing the final result, and that result contains someone dressed as a clown and speaking in a heavy Russian accent. It's not the same event as you intended them to experience, and the way nobody in the scene notices makes it even funnier.

What I'm trying to say is that there may be a way to connect the player to the world by letting them change the world. Or, at least, letting them change their specific experiences within the world.

Rather than trying to figure out how to make the avatar both interesting and nondescript, maybe we should try to figure out if the avatar properly allows the player to adjust the lens they see through. The avatar isn't just a character: their characterization is less important than how they let the player control how they see the world.

If the player has too much control, the world loses cohesion. For example, if the player could dress every NPC up like a clown, then they would lose distinctiveness and the reactions wouldn't be as asymmetrical. It'd be funny for one or two scenes, but lose its bite quickly.

If the player has too little control, you don't get the frission. for example, most games only give you a few pretty basic choices of costume. Even though you can see the avatar in every situation, the difference between "casual uniform" and "tank top" is not enough to make for a new angle on the world.

Well, those are my thoughts this week.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Complexity and the Non-Genre Game

I've been thinking about gameplay complexity. It's a big question for me, because most of my games are not strict genre games.

Genres acquire a lot of complexity - players become familiar with the standard play and that lets you add more complexity on top of it. A good example of this is any recent Street Fighter game: cancels, partial supers, half-dozen bars that go up and down arbitrarily, gem power-ups, counterthrows, tag juggles, dizzy mechanics...

Street Fighter is a good example of the issues involved, because fighting games are something everything thinks should be easy to understand... then they try it out and they don't even realize that a "throw" is a thing, let alone a partial-super-rolled-into-a-cancel-quick-throw-followed-with-a-tag-juggle-into-a-full-super-filling-a-gem-quota...

When you are building a non-genre game, everyone is that person who thinks it should be easy to understand. There are no people that already know the rules.

You can design a simple game. It is possible to make a compelling, simple game. Threes and Triple Town both use very simple, approachable mechanics. These are great designs, but they are simple games. They use randomness and tight constraints in a very tight loop.

Another reason to go simple is to have a smooth curve, and introduce more complexity as the player gets used to it as it is. This leads to half your game being a tutorial, but more than that, it's not a very good way to do things.

In every game, you'll hopefully be exploring a particular kind of experience or play. If your game is a genre game, you can build off of genre play to explore something at the fringes. A good example of this is the proliferation of 'shtick platformers' where you have all the normal platforming play plus one trick.

But in a non-genre game, there is no base foundation of "platforming". Whatever your core experience is, it's going to be what you're exploring. If you try to explore that and then make it more complex, that's not a good formula. You're trying to create a genre in the first part of your game, and that's not going to work out. Not least because your player simply can't internalize a genre that fast.

That isn't to say all non-genre games have to be simple!

There's a lot of power in complexity. However, you need to be careful when you approach it. If you want a non-genre game that has progression and is kinda biggish, there are two approaches you'll probably think of, three you might not, and a bad one.

1) Width. This is when you add more kinds of the same play. For example, in an RPG you add enemies with different stats, you have several different modes of attacking, you have several different numbers that need to be optimized, etc. In TripleTown, you have many different kinds of combinable resources.

2) Constraints. This is when you vary the constraints to pace the player and guide them through the experience. In an RPG you move from town to town, each one with different enemies, different equipment, different visuals, even different party members. The most common constraint is randomness: Threes and TripleTown both use randomness. RPGs typically have random battles.

3) Emergence. Emergence is a bit complicated because it's very easy to think you have emergence when you don't. RPGs almost never use emergence because they want a tight grip on the pacing and progression, and it's hard to predict exactly how things will emerge for each player. Still, it's valuable: Threes uses emergence because the player's previous accomplishments leave ever more high-number tiles clogging the board.

4) Construction. When the player creates something, it creates an effect on how the other parts of the game play. Examples include leveling up a character, building a rocket, forming a party in WoW, etc. This can be tightly or loosely controlled, so it is important to know how much freedom to change the world you should give the player.

5) Multiplayer. Allowing players to compare themselves to other players or incorporate other players' choices can be very interesting. Sometimes synchronous (perhaps even local) multiplayer is the answer, but don't overlook asynchronous or implicit multiplayer if your game involves creating content. Dragon's Dogma does this reasonably well.

6) Maze of Actions. A lot of games aim for complexity by simply being incredibly complex. An example of this would be Street Fighter, which has a massive number of different elements in play all the time, making it almost impenetrable for a new player. None of the kinds of play are variations on a theme - each is a completely different thing to consider - gems, counting events, canceling, supers, block-breaking, throws, tag teams... they do combine into one experience, but it's convoluted as hell to understand all the pieces that flow together.

In general, using several of these is a good idea, as each is more or less effective for any given player.

The reason I'm talking about this in such detail is because I'm coming at it from both sides today.

I read an article about "simplifying" RPGs - removing most of the numbers from them. And I'm also considering how to build my xenodiplomacy game, which isn't a genre title.

When it comes to simplifying an RPG, you need to consider all the complexity that RPGs have built up over the years. Most of an RPG's complexity comes from width and constraints. Balancing stats is one of the core play elements, although it's made interesting less by being hard and more by being wide: there are dozens of stats and hundreds of equipment options that affect various stats in various ways.

If you were to remove that or dumb it down, you would be removing one of the core complex aspects. This would make the RPG easier to approach, but it would also reduce the long-term complexity of the game. To deal with that, we would need to add meat somewhere else in the title. Perhaps widen another kind of play (the interpersonal conversations?), introduce some emergence/deeper construction, or add in some multiplayer elements.

This is far from being a theoretical problem. Dragon's Dogma did exactly this. It radically simplified stats and talent suites, and added in a mild asynchronous multiplayer element in that half your party was made up of characters other players had designed. Dragon's Dogma also widened the combat system, having three kinds of intertwined combat (melee, ranged, and anti-titan) plus support rather than just one plus support.

Well, what I'm trying to say is that removing complexity from a genre title makes it more approachable, but you need to be careful. The balance in a genre game is very carefully grown from decades of experience, and hacking off bits willy-nilly results in a really awkward result.

On the other side of the spectrum is non-genre games trying to add complexity.

I have a xenodiplomacy game brewing in my mind, but it's difficult to have the right amount of complexity. Too little complexity and the game grows stale. Too much complexity, nobody can figure out how to play it. This is made more complex by my insistence on having social characters - that is, characters you can get to know, can affect, and that can affect you.

As normally considered, socializing is "non-core". That is, it's not really gameplay: it's a pacing system. As the player progresses through the core game, they steadily have more opportunities to socialize with their allies. But in order for that to work, the core play needs to reflect those characters and reflect onto them, so that they matter. See: every Ubisoft RPG.

In general, this is handled very badly. The concept of an "open party RPG" is deeply flawed, because I don't know anyone that uses a majority of the characters: everyone settles on their favorite party and that's that. This means that all the other party members are almost completely detached from the core gameplay. Same problem as a dating game: you're supposed to ignore 90% of the characters.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of ways around this. Have only 3 NPCs. Force the player to cycle NPCs. Allow a tactical role for every NPC. Etc.

The other solution is to do the opposite. Make the socializing core.

This is an interesting challenge because it's not really the approved approach. Even in dating games, it's not usually about socializing. It's about grinding for stats or cash or whatever. The socializing is just canned dialog -> A, B, or C choice -> stat/item check.

Creating social play is a really interesting challenge, and in a xenodiplomacy game it might actually make a fair amount of sense. It's not about simulating a conversation. It's about two aliens trying to make each other more comfortable, even though they have almost no method of communicating directly.

Social play doesn't have to be about jabbering face to face. It can involve base-building (a comfortable habitat), body language, creating customized gifts (not buying canned gifts), planning safe and interesting events... Or, of course, it can be some kind of simulation of painstakingly mistranslated conversation, whatever.

Whichever way you take it, though, the social play is non-genre. This means that if it's very complex, the players will feel extremely lost. So if I do make social play more than "choose A, B, or C", I have to take a very careful path towards complexity. Width, constraints, emergence, construction, and multiplayer are all on the table, but it's up to me to figure out what the hell to actually DO.

Even if I back off and make it non-core, I still need core gameplay that ties into them. That's going to be complex, so it might be best to steal a genre for that part so the players don't feel lost.

Well, my instinct is that the social play is the same as the diplomatic play, just with a different set of constraints. But that's as far as I've really gotten so far.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Characters in Noncombat RPGs

Last essay I wrote about a mechanic that can be used in noncombat RPGs. Because the noncombat conflict gameplay is so slow compared to combat, you need to have a tighter relationship between it and other kinds of gameplay.

But there is another big problem with noncombat RPGs: stakes.

To be more clear, players judge the characters in an RPG based on how they face death and challenge, how they respond to threats, and what they want to accomplish. Most NPCs are brought together to try and save the universe, and that's a big part of why the player can respect them. There is usually one NPC that's on board for some other reason (money, escape, duty, simple friendship), but their motives are usually considered "lesser". In fact, their character arc is almost certainly to develop the same world-saving impulse as everyone else.

Well, in our NONcombat RPG, you probably aren't trying to save the universe. It's possible to cram universe-saving into the setting, but it usually ends up feeling rather hilarious: "saving the universe by repairing damaged factories!" "Saving the universe by dancing!" It's, uh... pretty forced.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be about saving the universe.

I said before that we should look at our standard game stuff and try to figure out what it accomplishes, so we can find other ways to accomplish the same things. Typically, I explore different kinds of gameplay. But the framing of the narrative is also a piece of the game. It also accomplishes something.

It gives all of the characters the same moral and thematic backdrop. Because we can see how they respond to the same questions, we can see their distinct nature.

Nearly all of the characters in Mass Effect echo the central conflict of the Reapers. Tali's species created the Geth, then tried to exterminate them before they could become a threat. Mordin chose to keep the dangerous Krogan suppressed, and explores the ethics of that. Garrus explores the nature of laws and law enforcement, which first appears to be an echo of your human culture's interests, but then appears to be an echo of your larger fight against the Reapers. Liara's endless hunger for information and gradual descent into amoral infobrokering mirrors the Reapers' own hunger for new information. Ashley's racism reflects the Reapers'... well, it goes on.

It could be that the Mass Effect designers didn't realize they were doing this kind of echoing. If they were obsessed with oppression and the nature of power, their own obsession would have been reflected into the characters. It's hard to tell just by looking whether it was on purpose or on accident.

Dragon Age is similar. The characters are all meditations on the nature of undeserved/corrupting power. Again, it's hard to tell whether it was on purpose, or just because the devs were obsessed with that concept.

This is common. In FF6, the characters were obsessed with the concept of identity. In Chrono Trigger, they were obsessed with the nature of change and endings.

The overarching plot explores this concept as well. It is a capstone: all the characters shine their lights on the concepts in their own way. You pile them up and the capstone makes them hold together.

The fact that it's a save-the-world plot is just a wrapper. It's a convenient wrapper, because it A) gets the player a bit pumped and B) allows you to pull a bunch of characters together without too much effort. It's the "you're all in a tavern when..." of computer games.

The question isn't "can we make a noncombat game about saving the world". The question is "can we create a plot with a theme that holds the characters together, and make sure the player finds it compelling?"

The answer is yes and yes, but it requires some thought.

Let's think about our tiny little game design about people who run around and repair broken space stations. Due to the nature of the conflicts, our theme would probably be best as "complexity is a tradeoff". In turn, our characters would explore this concept in their own way.

This could be as simple as "this character has OCD and is obsessed with organizing minutiae", but that's a poor way to design a major character. They aren't just sticking to a theme: they're exploring it. So they generally have an arc related to it. Sometimes an arc works as "they reverse their issue" - cowardly to brave, loner to team player, etc. But those are traits everyone empathizes with, so it's easy to get inside the character's head. Obsessing over details is typically a distancing trait, actually pushing the character further away from both the audience and the other characters. Therefore, the best arc is not "stops being OCD", but is instead something that directly relates them to other characters. For example, goes from having an obsessive crush on the robot party member (no bacteria! No fluids!) to a more gentle romance with a completely different character.

This kind of arc explores how obsessing over details and minutiae affects his or her life. This is how the most compelling characters are created.

All the characters need to have that kind of thought put into them.

And the game's overarching plot also needs to have that kind of thought put into it.

As the capstone, the whole universe needs to be exploring the tradeoffs of complexity and simplicity. It could start small: many of the causes of breakdowns are bacteria that are really hard to get rid of, bacteria that constantly adapts to changing environments and eats plastic, rubber, glass, buckyballs, whatever.

This should be combined with a civilization groaning under its own complexity. Millions of trade agreements and billions of trade routes. Cultures with complex rules of interaction to keep people safe from each other. Governments that sign budgets, laws, and treaties into being but literally cannot understand them, as they are far too complex and apply too broadly.

The culmination would be a coup against the government. However, rather than being on one side or the other, the player party is just trying to keep people alive. By this time, the player should be able to "read ahead" and tell what kind of breakdowns are going to occur, and show up with just the right goods to repair everything. The civilization becomes largely cut off from itself as things collapse, but the player can tell various settlements to ship various things to various places, dragging the fractured system back into alignment, restoring everything to how it was. Then end on some kind of hopeful note.

This is a relatively good theme. Moreover, it gives us an easy chance to recruit NPCs by the bushel. Any NPC that lives anywhere where anything breaks down could have an interest in signing on to your crew, as well as anthropologists, entertainers, wannabee politicians, explorers, merchants: all have some interest in joining your ship.

And all of them have something to say about the tradeoffs of complexity.