Thursday, September 22, 2016

Building From the Inside

Base-building, on my mind again.

Recently, I was playing Fallout 4. One of the expansions gives you access to this massive underground space where you can build a vault using vault modules. There are a lot of weird limitations and missing pieces, but the idea is interesting enough: build a vault yourself!

This is something I am really interested in, since building a vault and building a space base are fundamentally similar. So I set about with gusto!

It's a shallow mechanic, since it's not the focus of the game. But sometimes you can learn the most from stuff that's just hacked together.

Most base building games are from bird's-eye view. You can cleanly and clearly build the base, manage the little ant people as they wander around, and so on. This gives you a lot of visibility, so you can expose the complexity of designing these systems. Which, in turn, means you can increase that complexity and create some serious depth.

Fallout 4 is kind of the opposite. Just like other first-person construction games (like Medieval/Space Engineers, Minecraft, etc), you can't see the whole base. Since you can't see well, the systems have to be simplified.

And so I dismissed the idea.

I was wrong. There is a lot of power in limiting the player.

Free to Fly
Not being able to see very far makes basic layout a huge issue. Verticality becomes a fun challenge and opportunity.

Normally, verticality is poison in a base-building game, almost impossible to track. Most people prefer to build out rather than up, simply because they can still see the whole base when they do. Building vertically obscures the lower floors, and dealing with that is a huge annoyance.

But now the base is already obscured. Being on another floor isn't any more or less obscured than being down a hall. Managed correctly, it's less obscured: rather than a maze of twisty passages, just go upstairs in the sunny atrium and walk ten feet. Suddenly, verticality is a powerful shortcut and grounding feature instead of a serious problem.

Basics Aren't
Infrastructure that was easy from above is very challenging when you can't see it. Radically dumbed-down infrastructure provides just as much grist as more complex infrastructure in a bird's-eye game.

I think this is a place where much better visibility wouldn't hurt. Rather than trying to hide the infrastructure outside of the visible space (exterior piping, buried power cords, etc), I would run it inside. Along the ceiling, the floor. This gives the player the ability to easily track it, makes it obvious how it's serviced, and also introduces some much-needed floor height alterations (IE, running floor piping underneath a raised area breaks up the flatness of the facility).

There's always an urge to introduce complexity, but with this kind of setup the opposite is better: simplicity is king. You don't need to worry about if you have enough air pressure in your vents or if the load on this particular electrical line is too high. Instead, just the fact that they've been piped in is enough.

This is because the players will want to push themselves to create more epic layouts. Bigger rooms, or lots of smaller rooms. How do you provide power, air, heat, water, whatever is needed in spaces too big or small to easily run cables through? Especially if outlets take up set space: can you make a tiny bathroom if you need air, water, and power outlets taking up their required chunks of space?

More complexity can be added by having specific systems require specific supplies. Data cables, pneumatic tubes, fiber optics, high-tension lines, whatever. Just make sure there's a reason to put these better systems in shared areas, so those new cables have to share the space.

You also need to think about how those cables can be interrupted. For example, how does a door work if you're running cables across the wall? Maybe you can move them to the ceiling, but only one type of cable per meter of hall? Rules like this are easy to understand, and the player can simply walk along a cable if they're not sure what's going on.

The key is to start simple and get steadily more dense, since the limits of the visible space are what you're highlighting. Sure, run cables along both walls... but don't expect to have any doors!

Lifestyle
A lot of base-building games feature lifestyles. Like The Sims. These games use time compression to make it very expensive to do anything. Going to the bathroom takes hours. This isn't useful for a first-person base-building game, since A) you won't see it happen and B) the punishment for having to walk is having to walk.

This was a sticking point in my thoughts until I made myself a personal bedroom in Fallout 4 and tried to sleep in it.

I could clearly hear the slot machines from one level down.

Now to me, the player, that's pretty insignificant. There's no impact on my ability to choose "sleep" from the popup menu.

But for lifestyle... why not have that matter?

Rather than having the residents walk around and have that eat up their schedule, just look at where they live, where they work, and where they play. Calculate various good and bad factors based on either radius or simplified LOS. Congrats, they now live in a place and can wax poetic about it.

While things might statistically be good, bad, or ugly, I recommend having only a few things that are clearly good or bad. Make most of them just notable. This is because making notable things will give the base personality, while making them clearly good or bad will simply make the player optimize the same way as everyone else.

For example, you have an apartment above the main air filter. It goes "RRRRHMMRMRMRMMMMMMM" all night. You might want to lump this into a generic "noise is bad" set, but I think the people above it should grow to accept it. Like how people grow to be at peace with the sounds of traffic whooshing by, or hilariously loud rain on a tin roof. It's a marker of home, and if people feel at home in your base, you've built a home. That's pretty powerful.

It's much easier to show in first person than third person, because you'll experience all the things they experience. If you go there, you'll hear the RRRRRHMRMRHRRMRMMMMM. And they'll talk about it amongst themselves, so you hear about it as well as hearing it directly.

See-Through
A huge problem with building in first person is when you run up against things you can't see. For example, you can't extend that hallway because there's a rock pillar in the way, or because you have a perpendicular hallway blocking it, or whatever.

In Fallout 4, the standard is: you have to rip away the wall to build out, so you'll be able to see whatever is that way. I don't think that's good enough: there's no reason not to show a faint hologram of the rest of the base. That would allow you to build out without manually ripping things up and then putting them back down.

The hologram could even be limited to showing only in a patch near your head as you approach a wall in build mode. It wouldn't be distracting at other times.

Keeping the base in mind when building is a big deal, especially since the default method (a map) is 2D and suffers hugely from the verticality you're putting in.

Expensive People
One big issue is that people are expensive.

In bird's-eye games, your residents are pretty small. Whether 2D or 3D, they are too tiny to need much detail. But in first person, your residents can fill the screen, and they have to feel like they have personalities.

This means that you will need a pretty robust, high-quality character system that makes your residents feel very distinct and personable. This is a price we're just going to have to accept: for a base to feel lived-in, it needs to be lived in.

The upside of that is simple: you can make your base feel real and lived-in. This is something that's very hard for other games to do.

This became very clear when playing Fallout 4. In comparison to games like Space Engineers or Minecraft, the vault felt inhabited because people were wandering around doing things. Sure, the stuff they were doing didn't make a lot of sense, but it was lively.

Games like Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld feature lively characters, but because they're indistinct and small, it takes a lot of effort to feel that they are alive and personable.

While this is a cost we are forced to eat, the payoff is arguably the best reason to make this kind of game in the first place!

Other Thoughts
There are a lot of things that matter a lot more in first-person games. Decorations. Lighting. Cleanliness. Clothes.

Variation is critical, but don't limit it to the obvious things like lights and wall coverings and chairs. The shape of the interior is also critical, and you want to have that vary as well, so the player wants to strive to build more interesting, complex rooms and layouts.

For example, having large, open rooms is fun, but if the floor is flat, it'll feel really awkward. You can provide tools to break the space up: stairs intended to be placed near the center of such rooms, raised flooring, large decorations like trees or verandas. Also, walls don't have to be completely solid. Not just windows vs doors, but also open-plan halfwalls, supports, etc.

These are enough to give the player the chance to make something interesting, but it may also be worthwhile to incentivize it. Raised floors give social bonuses to those on top, and you can run cables underneath them. Columns can have cables run inside them. Open-plan halfwalls are a free standing table to hang out at.

Simply making the NPCs hang out in ways that highlight the player's constructive choices seems like it'd be incredibly powerful feedback. Even if there's no statistical benefit to a raised floor, if the NPCs gather to watch someone standing on top of it, it automatically becomes a stage.

Sim Savings
Another big advantage of this kind of base is that we don't have to simulate anything in real time. Because the player isn't watching the whole base, you can just stuff residents in wherever the player goes. There will always be NPCs hanging out or working or sleeping or whatever. This is a great way to A) save on expensive simulations and B) make the base feel densely populated even if there's only a few NPCs.

We can use these sim shortcuts to allow for other kinds of gameplay. Since we're not actually monitoring where people are at all times, we can simply track where they tend to be. In doing this, we can easily determine who they're likely to have relationships with. We can throw together convincing relationship growth by making up a situation that happened offscreen at a specific place and having both sides reference it. "Oh, we met at the pool!"

This can even be turned into sidequests or governing missions.

These people hang out in the atrium after work, when they're exhausted. But these people don't have those jobs and come to the atrium to play. So now you, the governor, must determine the rules: is the atrium intended as a party ground, or a quiet park?

... anyway, those are some thoughts I have on first person base building games. What do you think?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Adjusting the Five Phase Play

Last essay I analyzed open-world games a bit, and mentioned the "five phase play" these games rely on:

1) Approach a dangerous area
2) Scan enemies
3) Maneuver for engagement
4) Engage
5) Deal with response

As I mentioned, these provide a smooth tension curve. Each mechanic is optimized to run in a particular tension range, and to help amp the tension up to the top of that range. Players shift up and down as the situation demands, like a stick shift driver.

I'm happy to create a game that uses those steps, but I need to understand them well enough to put them together. And I have one big issue: I'm fundamentally a stealth player. In most open-world games I default to sniper (or archer) because the stealth doesn't really work. You can sneak, but the fail state for sneaking is catastrophic, leading to save-spamming and eventually deciding it's just not worth it. Moreover, stealth characters can't really secure a location unless they sneak up on every single enemy in a location and murder them in cold blood.

I've been thinking about phases 2 and 3. I think these are the problem, because they have very rigid, nasty fail states.

If you screw up scanning or maneuvering, you are dumped straight to phase 5: dealing with the enemy response. Worse, the maps are very funneled, so your ability to maneuver is very limited. Go out the door, you'll run into another enemy. Run across the parking lot, they'll shoot you from behind.

Every aspect of the encounter is massaged to make these failures less severe. We introduce several "soft fails", like the second it takes an enemy to realize there's movement worth investigating, and then the time to realize the movement is an enemy. We also introduce hilariously forgetful guards, because the player can't move freely enough to adapt to alert guards. The funneled movement also means we have to allow players to leave the mission zone entirely if they completely flub it, without having to worry too much about being hounded by enemies at range.

While these tweaks make the game playable, they create a nasty disjoint between the stealthy phases (1, 2, and 3) and the open phases (4, 5). It's easy to shift up and down within stealthy phases and open phases, but once you've gone from phase 3 to phase 4, you can't go back except by crawling into a corner and waiting a really long time.

I think we can fix this by opening up more movement routes, allowing the player to continue moving while guards are searching. More ways of moving through the area. Here's a few:

Floors
Probably the layout that makes the most sense, we can have our facilities be multiple stories tall. The key here is that floor switching needs to be easier than it normally is - not simply locked to staircases. Postapocalyptic ruins do this well, with lots of holed floors, piled-up rubble, and knocked-down walls. But you can also do this by introducing ledges and making the player athletic enough to climb them. Whether it's an atrium or porches or even just exposed windows, allowing the player to freely move up and down can help the player to find a lot of alternate paths. Keep in mind whether enemies can see the player moving up and down - even if they can, it can buy time, but you need to keep it in mind.

The biggest problem with this kind of verticality is that it's "blind". The player can't keep track of where the enemies are, and it's easy to lose your way, get lost, and forget where the objective is. Generally this is solved by a HUD of some kind marking out known enemies and destinations, but I'm not sure that's a good way to do it. Mirrored layouts might be better, and also facilitate the vertical movement. For example, if each floor is arranged around a central atrium with an asymmetric main hall, it's easy to know where you are relative to other floors, easy to move to other floors, and you can also spy down through that atrium towards the other side of the floor below.

Soft Barriers
While going to other floors is an option, it's got a lot of limitations - poor visibility, limited access, etc. An alternative is to tear the roof off. Low walls, fences, rafters, etc block movement and/or vision, but can still be climbed over or run along. In stealth mode this is good - being above an enemy makes you harder to spot. In open mode this is useful because you can navigate over/along these soft barriers faster than they can, allowing you to navigate to new areas when chased. Wire fences, pits, and hurdles are another option, creating navigation hurdles without blocking line of sight. Trees can be arranged to offer a variety of options like this.

Soft barriers are normally found in postapocalyptic games, since ruins are a great excuse to have a mostly-collapsed roof. However, even in intact worlds there are a lot of elements you can use to do this. Inside, arrange furniture into broken rows of 3-4 meters instead of islands - IE, store shelving should be long shelves, not islands. Office cubicles should be in rows, not islands. Consider making interior walls half-height open-plan walls. Kitchens should have a long counter and at least two exits.

Outside, there are many barriers, the trick is to arrange them into formations that offer cover. Streets should have cars parked bumper-to-bumper on the curb. Parking lots should be tighter and more packed than in real life. Fences around houses, parks, etc should be more common than usual. Bushes should be arranged into hedgerows. Trees can have low branches that require ducking to get under. Using these methods to introduce soft barriers should allow players to move freely away from enemies without being overly funneled.

Crawling
This deserves exploration on its own, even if it has a lot of similarities to soft barriers.

The idea is not that you can hide by crawling: it's that you can safely move through a space by crawling. This is normally useful when you're in stealth mode, as you can hide behind relatively minor barriers and then duck to the next one when an enemy looks away. To accomplish this, you can use typical soft barriers, but you can also use general-purpose debris. For example, a sofa, a chair, a table. These are "islands" that are really no use as soft barriers, but are handy for crawling.

The trick is that the player needs to be able to move freely by doing this. In enclosed spaces, exits are scarce. Interiors should be as open as possible to allow for this kind of stealth: doorways instead of doors. Doors which are open or ajar by default. Windows that are open and unscreened. Or... alternate methods of getting through walls.

The "island" approach is only useful if you're undetected. If a guard is searching for you, they can quickly and easily look behind random debris. Low soft barriers are a good alternative, as is areas where you can "open crawl". The gap under a house, or above a drop ceiling. Beneath cars and trucks and trains. These layouts are useful both when in stealth and when trying to evade guards.

Hidden Doors
All of these approaches work best in large, open areas. When we're inside a house, or office, or any other place with several enclosed rooms, we're still stuck with a funnel. There's only one or two doors, you're going to end up walking straight into another enemy if you try to leave.

Well, we can introduce a lot of "hidden doors".

Probably the most obvious one is windows. You can leave through a window, whether stealthily or loudly, and get to a more open location. Guards will have a hard time following you, too. In addition to typical exterior windows, there are interior windows that look from one room into another, or from a room out into an atrium or factory floor. Windows on the outside of a building are interesting because if you dive through you'll fall who knows how far, but if you slip through you can cling to the outside and climb on the outside of the building. Hope nobody's looking up from below!

Another option is air vents. Air vents you can slip through are quite a conceit: even if the duct was large enough for a person, you'd be hilariously loud. However, for our purposes that conceit is fine. For some reason, nearly every room needs a big air duct, and the player can slip through. Arranging air ducts is an interesting level design challenge, but as long as they are fairly open, they can de-funnel us. Guards need to be smart enough to try and both search the air ducts and arrange guards at the exits. But not so good at it that the player feels trapped - it's more that they need to move to a suboptimal exit.

There are a variety of magical solutions as well - various kinds of wall-phasing. That may not fit with your game idea, though.

And, of course, the option to simply smash down a wall. Not very stealthy, but if you're running away...

Alternate Movement Modes
Swimming, flying, bounding, gliding, phasing, grapple-hooking, sliding, teleporting - there's a lot of alternate movement modes. Some of them are built into the map in obvious ways: swimming requires water. Some are built into the map in subtle ways: gliding requires a high place and a place designed to be fun to glide into.

The problem with these modes is making them accessible while moving through a facility. How many buildings have a river running through them? How many places can you run through by gliding?

Radically enhanced fundamental mobility is possible: superhero-style jumping around. This would radically change our map design and other gameplay mechanics, but it could be fun. Not likely to be stealthy, though.

One worth investigating more carefully is grapple hooks. Being able to create overhead cables to move along might feel kind of Tony Hawky, but it could allow players a lot more freedom on how to move across terrain.

Non-Avatar
So far we've talked about ways to negate the funneling using the player avatar. We can also give the player powers outside of their avatar.

For example, calling in strike teams, assault helicopters, mortar strikes, and so on can be useful both in stealth and open mode.

Alternately, allowing the player to switch to a new avatar will allow the old avatar to lead the guards on a merry chase, or surrender and be captured to similar effect.

Clearing Zones and Engaging Enemies
Once we've destroyed funnels, we have a lot more freedom to design our maps and our enemy responses. But we still have a fundamental problem: most of these open-world games revolve around clearing areas. Other methods of clearing enemies need to be introduced, and the easiest one is to simply make it so that the enemies have a reason for being in a particular area. Resolving that reason will make them leave, whether that involves killing off their leader, stealing the treasure from under their noses, or revealing the traitor they're hunting.

Making this goal-based rather than murder-based will allow us to clear zones without requiring us to murder absolutely everyone. It also opens up opportunities to interact with enemies in other ways - bribing them, recruiting them, putting them to sleep, revealing their secrets to their team-mates, etc. Many of these can be codified rather than written special case, allowing us a lot more freedom in how we do things.

Buuuuuuut

The fourth and fifth phase involve engaging enemies and dealing with their response. If we focus too much on stealth, those will never engage. We'll be ignoring the upper 40% of our tension range.

Well, the zone clearing can require taking people out, either as a primary goal or because they're just way too in the way to avoid. We can allow nonlethal takedowns, there's no problem with that.

Classically a good take-down doesn't alert anyone, that's the point. What we need to do is create a "soft response". This is already a thing, and it's why stealth games feature body-hiding. I think all we need to do is amp that up: rather than just noticing a body, we want to have a variety of responses depending on the type of enemy.

Technologically adept enemies might have heartbeat monitors, GPS tracking, and so on. You can't generally hide the takedown, at least not without compromising their main server, but you have a certain amount of slosh. It takes a few moments to realize something's gone wrong, another little bit for someone to investigate, and so on. During that time, tension will continuously rise as you try to accomplish your main goal and escape.

Less technological enemies will stay more aware of each other. Dogs will smell when you down someone. Bandits will get curious when things get too quiet. The undead will instantly sense the re-death of another undead, etc, etc. The idea is that after a takedown, you're on the clock and you really don't have much time.

This isn't all bad. You can take someone down, then run off to do your actual goal, leaving the guards to get distracted and drawn to that location.

It also has a fun failure state: open combat or running across the map in a desperate escape attempt! Or both!

In any case, the point is simple: we absolutely have to keep our upper tension range intact.

Anyway, those are the things I've been thinking recently when making my prototypes. What are your thoughts?

Adjusting the Five Phase Play

Last essay I analyzed open-world games a bit, and mentioned the "five phase play" these games rely on:

1) Approach a dangerous area
2) Scan enemies
3) Maneuver for engagement
4) Engage
5) Deal with response

As I mentioned, these provide a smooth tension curve. Each mechanic is optimized to run in a particular tension range, and to help amp the tension up to the top of that range. Players shift up and down as the situation demands, like a stick shift driver.

I'm happy to create a game that uses those steps, but I need to understand them well enough to put them together. And I have one big issue: I'm fundamentally a stealth player. In most open-world games I default to sniper (or archer) because the stealth doesn't really work. You can sneak, but the fail state for sneaking is catastrophic, leading to save-spamming and eventually deciding it's just not worth it. Moreover, stealth characters can't really secure a location unless they sneak up on every single enemy in a location and murder them in cold blood.

I've been thinking about phases 2 and 3. I think these are the problem, because they have very rigid, nasty fail states.

If you screw up scanning or maneuvering, you are dumped straight to phase 5: dealing with the enemy response. Worse, the maps are very funneled, so your ability to maneuver is very limited. Go out the door, you'll run into another enemy. Run across the parking lot, they'll shoot you from behind.

Every aspect of the encounter is massaged to make these failures less severe. We introduce several "soft fails", like the second it takes an enemy to realize there's movement worth investigating, and then the time to realize the movement is an enemy. We also introduce hilariously forgetful guards, because the player can't move freely enough to adapt to alert guards. The funneled movement also means we have to allow players to leave the mission zone entirely if they completely flub it, without having to worry too much about being hounded by enemies at range.

While these tweaks make the game playable, they create a nasty disjoint between the stealthy phases (1, 2, and 3) and the open phases (4, 5). It's easy to shift up and down within stealthy phases and open phases, but once you've gone from phase 3 to phase 4, you can't go back except by crawling into a corner and waiting a really long time.

I think we can fix this by opening up more movement routes, allowing the player to continue moving while guards are searching. More ways of moving through the area. Here's a few:

Floors
Probably the layout that makes the most sense, we can have our facilities be multiple stories tall. The key here is that floor switching needs to be easier than it normally is - not simply locked to staircases. Postapocalyptic ruins do this well, with lots of holed floors, piled-up rubble, and knocked-down walls. But you can also do this by introducing ledges and making the player athletic enough to climb them. Whether it's an atrium or porches or even just exposed windows, allowing the player to freely move up and down can help the player to find a lot of alternate paths. Keep in mind whether enemies can see the player moving up and down - even if they can, it can buy time, but you need to keep it in mind.

The biggest problem with this kind of verticality is that it's "blind". The player can't keep track of where the enemies are, and it's easy to lose your way, get lost, and forget where the objective is. Generally this is solved by a HUD of some kind marking out known enemies and destinations, but I'm not sure that's a good way to do it. Mirrored layouts might be better, and also facilitate the vertical movement. For example, if each floor is arranged around a central atrium with an asymmetric main hall, it's easy to know where you are relative to other floors, easy to move to other floors, and you can also spy down through that atrium towards the other side of the floor below.

Soft Barriers
While going to other floors is an option, it's got a lot of limitations - poor visibility, limited access, etc. An alternative is to tear the roof off. Low walls, fences, rafters, etc block movement and/or vision, but can still be climbed over or run along. In stealth mode this is good - being above an enemy makes you harder to spot. In open mode this is useful because you can navigate over/along these soft barriers faster than they can, allowing you to navigate to new areas when chased. Wire fences, pits, and hurdles are another option, creating navigation hurdles without blocking line of sight. Trees can be arranged to offer a variety of options like this.

Soft barriers are normally found in postapocalyptic games, since ruins are a great excuse to have a mostly-collapsed roof. However, even in intact worlds there are a lot of elements you can use to do this. Inside, arrange furniture into broken rows of 3-4 meters instead of islands - IE, store shelving should be long shelves, not islands. Office cubicles should be in rows, not islands. Consider making interior walls half-height open-plan walls. Kitchens should have a long counter and at least two exits.

Outside, there are many barriers, the trick is to arrange them into formations that offer cover. Streets should have cars parked bumper-to-bumper on the curb. Parking lots should be tighter and more packed than in real life. Fences around houses, parks, etc should be more common than usual. Bushes should be arranged into hedgerows. Trees can have low branches that require ducking to get under. Using these methods to introduce soft barriers should allow players to move freely away from enemies without being overly funneled.

Crawling
This deserves exploration on its own, even if it has a lot of similarities to soft barriers.

The idea is not that you can hide by crawling: it's that you can safely move through a space by crawling. This is normally useful when you're in stealth mode, as you can hide behind relatively minor barriers and then duck to the next one when an enemy looks away. To accomplish this, you can use typical soft barriers, but you can also use general-purpose debris. For example, a sofa, a chair, a table. These are "islands" that are really no use as soft barriers, but are handy for crawling.

The trick is that the player needs to be able to move freely by doing this. In enclosed spaces, exits are scarce. Interiors should be as open as possible to allow for this kind of stealth: doorways instead of doors. Doors which are open or ajar by default. Windows that are open and unscreened. Or... alternate methods of getting through walls.

The "island" approach is only useful if you're undetected. If a guard is searching for you, they can quickly and easily look behind random debris. Low soft barriers are a good alternative, as is areas where you can "open crawl". The gap under a house, or above a drop ceiling. Beneath cars and trucks and trains. These layouts are useful both when in stealth and when trying to evade guards.

Hidden Doors
All of these approaches work best in large, open areas. When we're inside a house, or office, or any other place with several enclosed rooms, we're still stuck with a funnel. There's only one or two doors, you're going to end up walking straight into another enemy if you try to leave.

Well, we can introduce a lot of "hidden doors".

Probably the most obvious one is windows. You can leave through a window, whether stealthily or loudly, and get to a more open location. Guards will have a hard time following you, too. In addition to typical exterior windows, there are interior windows that look from one room into another, or from a room out into an atrium or factory floor. Windows on the outside of a building are interesting because if you dive through you'll fall who knows how far, but if you slip through you can cling to the outside and climb on the outside of the building. Hope nobody's looking up from below!

Another option is air vents. Air vents you can slip through are quite a conceit: even if the duct was large enough for a person, you'd be hilariously loud. However, for our purposes that conceit is fine. For some reason, nearly every room needs a big air duct, and the player can slip through. Arranging air ducts is an interesting level design challenge, but as long as they are fairly open, they can de-funnel us. Guards need to be smart enough to try and both search the air ducts and arrange guards at the exits. But not so good at it that the player feels trapped - it's more that they need to move to a suboptimal exit.

There are a variety of magical solutions as well - various kinds of wall-phasing. That may not fit with your game idea, though.

And, of course, the option to simply smash down a wall. Not very stealthy, but if you're running away...

Alternate Movement Modes
Swimming, flying, bounding, gliding, phasing, grapple-hooking, sliding, teleporting - there's a lot of alternate movement modes. Some of them are built into the map in obvious ways: swimming requires water. Some are built into the map in subtle ways: gliding requires a high place and a place designed to be fun to glide into.

The problem with these modes is making them accessible while moving through a facility. How many buildings have a river running through them? How many places can you run through by gliding?

Radically enhanced fundamental mobility is possible: superhero-style jumping around. This would radically change our map design and other gameplay mechanics, but it could be fun. Not likely to be stealthy, though.

One worth investigating more carefully is grapple hooks. Being able to create overhead cables to move along might feel kind of Tony Hawky, but it could allow players a lot more freedom on how to move across terrain.

Non-Avatar
So far we've talked about ways to negate the funneling using the player avatar. We can also give the player powers outside of their avatar.

For example, calling in strike teams, assault helicopters, mortar strikes, and so on can be useful both in stealth and open mode.

Alternately, allowing the player to switch to a new avatar will allow the old avatar to lead the guards on a merry chase, or surrender and be captured to similar effect.

Clearing Zones and Engaging Enemies
Once we've destroyed funnels, we have a lot more freedom to design our maps and our enemy responses. But we still have a fundamental problem: most of these open-world games revolve around clearing areas. Other methods of clearing enemies need to be introduced, and the easiest one is to simply make it so that the enemies have a reason for being in a particular area. Resolving that reason will make them leave, whether that involves killing off their leader, stealing the treasure from under their noses, or revealing the traitor they're hunting.

Making this goal-based rather than murder-based will allow us to clear zones without requiring us to murder absolutely everyone. It also opens up opportunities to interact with enemies in other ways - bribing them, recruiting them, putting them to sleep, revealing their secrets to their team-mates, etc. Many of these can be codified rather than written special case, allowing us a lot more freedom in how we do things.

Buuuuuuut

The fourth and fifth phase involve engaging enemies and dealing with their response. If we focus too much on stealth, those will never engage. We'll be ignoring the upper 40% of our tension range.

Well, the zone clearing can require taking people out, either as a primary goal or because they're just way too in the way to avoid. We can allow nonlethal takedowns, there's no problem with that.

Classically a good take-down doesn't alert anyone, that's the point. What we need to do is create a "soft response". This is already a thing, and it's why stealth games feature body-hiding. I think all we need to do is amp that up: rather than just noticing a body, we want to have a variety of responses depending on the type of enemy.

Technologically adept enemies might have heartbeat monitors, GPS tracking, and so on. You can't generally hide the takedown, at least not without compromising their main server, but you have a certain amount of slosh. It takes a few moments to realize something's gone wrong, another little bit for someone to investigate, and so on. During that time, tension will continuously rise as you try to accomplish your main goal and escape.

Less technological enemies will stay more aware of each other. Dogs will smell when you down someone. Bandits will get curious when things get too quiet. The undead will instantly sense the re-death of another undead, etc, etc. The idea is that after a takedown, you're on the clock and you really don't have much time.

This isn't all bad. You can take someone down, then run off to do your actual goal, leaving the guards to get distracted and drawn to that location.

It also has a fun failure state: open combat and/or running across the map in a desperate escape attempt! Or both!

In any case, the point is simple: we absolutely have to keep our upper tension range intact.

Anyway, those are the things I've been thinking recently, in making my prototypes. What are your thoughts?

Friday, September 16, 2016

Open World Analysis

I've written a few essays mentioning the "hub exploration" play style in passing. It's caught my attention pretty solidly. I've made a few small prototypes, but the "open world" part of the prototypes is pretty lacking. Maybe they're overly structured. Or maybe I'm just too knowledgeable about how they're laid out.

So let's analyze what makes open-world games fun!

First, we have to split the group. Randomly generated worlds and static worlds are very different kinds of games with very different priorities.

I think my hub exploration idea fits better with static worlds like Fallouts, Elder Scrolls, GTAs, Saint's Rows, Assassin's Creeds, Sleeping Dogs, etc. So today we'll focus on those.

Core Play

The core play of these games is almost always action combat. The exact nature varies widely, but the core experience is typically split into "approach dangerous area->scan for enemies->maneuver to ideal engagement position->engage->deal with enemy response". This five-phase approach seems to be by far the most common setup, supported by the threat of ambush if you handle the early steps sloppily.

Other kinds of play are probably possible, or even polishing that kind of play with other phases. But that five-phase approach works well, and it's obvious why it does: it creates an extremely smooth tension curve.

Each step switches out the game mechanic, and each mechanic is built to ramp up the tension within its specific range. As you approach a dangerous area, the tension starts out at nothing. But you are literally getting closer to danger, and so it naturally ramps up as you start looking for and angling around entrances, defenses, hidey-holes, and so on.

The other steps do the same thing within their ranges, and the edges are blurry enough that the player can shift gears depending on their intent, like a stick shift. At what point do you start scanning for enemies as opposed to approaching a dangerous area? How about moving from scanning to enemies to maneuvering for engagement? You may switch up and down that line half a dozen times depending on the layout you find, your resources, your chosen approach, even just your mood at the moment.

These inflection points, the moments when you choose to shift up or down, are a lot of what makes each game feel distinct. Fallout has no qualms about randomly scattering monsters in your path, so if you want to avoid ambushes, you might grind along in the scan-for-enemies gear even though you'd be more comfortable in the approach-dangerous-places gear. GTA rarely surprises you with enemies. You can casually skate along with almost no tension for long periods of time, giving it that characteristic laid-back feel.

Codifying the play like this can lead to oversimplification, but it can also lead to new approaches. It's fun to think about how I might make my prototype feel good and unique within these constraints.

Other factors which affect tension may also affect this five-phase system, which is probably worth considering. If a player is already sweating from the high stakes, how does that change the performance of the phases? How does it affect the gear shift moments? Can your system handle that - or even be optimized to take advantage of it?

Nav

Nearly every static open-world game features a slow avatar.

The reason is obvious: hand-made maps are denser and smaller than generated maps. If you let the character move too fast, they'll reach the edge of the map too fast and miss too much. By traveling slow and limiting view range, you can make the player take "small bites". Perfect for hand-made maps.

Pedestrian navigation is typically quite stiff, too. The world is arranged so that you get a lot of different views by moving stiffly from one place to another, but there's rarely any kind of skill challenge to go someplace.

Assassin's Creed has some level of complexity to their movement, including plenty of verticality and jumping. This seems to make the views chaotic enough that Ubisoft just gave up on using wayfinding/signposting entirely. Well, I think there might be power in worlds with complex verticality like that.

Although modal movement (swim, vent-crawl, stealth, etc) seems to add a lot, it's clear that map design is the most important facet of navigation in these games.

But hand-made maps like these typically feature a lot of backtracking, or at least a lot of criss-crossing. It's not bad if the player is exploring, but if they have a strong goal... well, a slow player trying to reach a distant location is going to get pretty grumpy.

Many games use a fast-travel system to let you return to where you have already gone. I'm not a fan of this, though, because it "crushes" the map as you leave: you'll never cross that space again, never see any of the other locations in that space. You've effectively thrown it away.

Other games use vehicles.

This has wide-ranging effects. Vehicles are very high speed and need to see a long ways, which changes how your map can be laid out. Most vehicle-using games effectively separate the vehicle play from the pedestrian play, meaning that there are big stretches of low-density "vehicle" map dotted with patches of high-density "pedestrian" map. Moreover, the vehicle map normally has no enemies on it, since there's no easy way to replicate the five-phase approach when you're speeding along trying to move from point A to point B.

The act of moving from point A to point B is pretty boring, even if there is a challenge to driving fast through twisty roads. Various games spice this up in various ways. In GTA, vehicles are given lovingly wonky physics. This gives you an interest in pulling off stunts and silly self-directed adventures. Most other games don't bother, and instead just put a variety of annoyances on the road to interrupt your travel.

I have a suspicion this is waiting for a revolution, because as it stands the use of vehicles is very disconnected from the pedestrian stuff, and actively works against it in many ways. At the very least, the more island-like map design makes the first phase of the five phase approach either extremely slow (running along a road on foot) or extremely sharp (driving into a gang hideout).

We can constrain the use of vehicles easily enough. For example, only the roads between your settlements are maintained and safe, so that's the only place you can reasonably use vehicles. However, reducing the scope of the vehicles means they are even less integrated into the game than normal. At that point you might as well replace vehicle play with a limited version of fast travel.

We could go the opposite direction, and try to integrate vehicles into the five phase play.

That's what Fallout 4 did with power armor. It takes fuel, but you could use it in tough situations. However, the power armor was not very good at being a vehicle. The vast majority of its fuel was burned just slowly moving from point A to point B... which was the thing vehicles were supposed to help with in the first place.

Another example is Subnautica, which has a variety of vehicles of varied sizes, all of which are about moving more quickly. They do have limited battery life, but batteries are something you can recharge and create, unlike the limited-feeling fuel in Fallout 4. However, Subnautica's main play is not the five-phase play. It's mostly scavenger hunt. By slowing down the vehicles (2-5x as fast as a player, rather than 10-100x) the player can still keep an eye out for signs of good salvage.

It may be that slower vehicles can be integrated into the five-phase play, or at least into certain parts of it.

In the end, this is something that requires a lot of thought. Vehicles generally serve the purpose of shortening the time spent meandering meaninglessly, but the effort to integrate them into the game typically screws up the map, short-circuits the five phase system, and/or creates a whole new category of play that is completely tangential to the main play.

Phased Implicit Goals

Open world adventures can get me into flow state really fast. The second they stop with their distractingly bad intro and give me controls, I'm on my way to flow.

But maintaining that state is tough, since everyone's mood shifts over time.

So we constantly have other goals in sight. As we are moving towards a goal, we see other potential goals. A dungeon entrance. An abandoned shack. A plume of smoke. A broken wagon.

Unlike the five phase core play, this adapts to the player rather than shaping them. The player will choose to sidetrack to other goals on their way to their main goal, and adopt nearby goals when their goals complete.

This requires a light touch, and that's the challenge. If you tell the player to walk to the next town along the road and there's a broken-down cart in the road, that's a very heavy hand. Players probably won't ignore that, even if they are in a hurry or bored of talky missions. In turn, this can actually break flow faster than having an empty road!

The typical trick here is that the road doesn't really go where you want to go, and so most players will dive off it into the wilderness at some point, creating a less structured adventure. Some games, like Fallout 4, actively shatter the roads so none of them go anywhere useful, forcing every player to wander the wilderness.

Even on the road, most hooks are placed well back from the curb so the player can choose whether to recognize them as hooks. That little side road leading up to the mining village - well, maybe later.

Wilderness encounters can be optimized as well, using intermittently-visible landmarks to lure players in. This is Skyrim's approach - you can see that ruined castle on the hill, you can see that glowing thing in the gully. Some games have a hard time with this due to chaotic lines of sight - for example, it's difficult to properly seed landmarks in Assassin's Creed, because the player could be on the ground, on the roof, on the wall, creeping along camera-down, looking at rooftops camera-up...

HUD icons are invaluable if you can't lay out the map to clue the player in. Nearly all open-world games show HUD icons as you get close to places of interest. I don't much like this practice, so I'd like to avoid it: the only HUD location icons I want are the ones you manually set on your map. Therefore, I may have to give the player an unusually long, clear sight line so they can see my landmarks pretty well. Skyrim-style.

Supporting Player Narrative

The majority of these games allow the player to be whoever they want. Even in games with specific main characters, the characters are easy to reinterpret through the player's preferences.

Allowing the player to approach the challenges of the game in a preferred way is the foundation of allowing players to create their own narratives. Further, a lot of that is in the pressure the game puts on them to play in another way, pushing them to find solutions, compromise their style, and struggle to keep their personal preference intact.

As an easy example, challenge runs. Playing Skyrim as a martial artist or a pacifist is possible, although in both cases a lot of content has to be avoided. Struggling to move through content that shouldn't be possible is a big part of the fun, to the point where there are mods and exploits that are considered a core part of a pacifist play of Skyrim.

Normally, things are more nuanced. Play Skyrim as a thief. A mage. An archer. A swordsman. A summoner. These kinds of roles were created by the devs, put into the game on purpose, and the content caters to them to some extent. There are still situations where the content becomes very rough - the mage runs out of mana, the archer is stuck near some enemies, the swordsman faces archers at the top of a wall... how you deal with these challenges is what makes your character and their story unique and fun. Does your swordsman sneak up the wall? Charge up the stairs? Switch to a ranged weapon? Use your companion as a distraction?

Designing your encounters to serve these needs is probably a big part of it, but the player narrative is not just how they choose to play moment-to-moment.

Who the player chooses to associate with, who they help, who they hinder, how they shape the world... these are all large factors.

Most such games program these paths in ahead of time. This is the good path, this is the bad path. Here are the people you can help. Here are the people you can associate with.

The problem is that these tend to lock you in for huge lengths of time, asking the same question over and over. Once you've specified that you're "good" rather than "evil", all the choices you make are almost certainly going to go the same way. That's not a player narrative, that's a dev narrative.

Player narratives involve assembling a story out of smaller parts, parts that interact.

For example, in Fallout 4 you can take any one buddy. While there are differences between them, mechanically there's not usually a significant reason to pick one or another. Instead you pick the ones you want to take with you.

Adventuring with the nosy reporter is very different from the nerdy robot or the grizzled gumshoe. Even if they have very little to contribute to your adventures, your adventures are 'with them', and that's a part of your narrative.

More deeply, there are plenty of times where you feel that one character or another 'would feel' a specific way. For example, dragging the nerdy robot into the high-tech robot facility feels more natural than dragging in the punch-happy brawler. The reporter probably has something insightful to say about this corrupt meat-packing ring. Maybe they'll change their minds about something. Maybe they'll feel something.

That's never really programmed into the game. Sure, they often have one or two lines of dialog they spit out in suitable places, but there's no real dynamics to the characters beyond "steadily increasing trust rank". There's also no dynamics to the place - whether you go alone or take any given person, the result will be the same.

Despite that, these pieces are still part of the player's story.

Similarly, chopping up things like "the good path" into tiny chunks allows the players to have more nuanced opinions. Rather than simply always choosing "the good option", the player might end up siding with robots against gangsters, or visa-versa, and that will be reflected in their internal narrative. They didn't choose good or evil, they chose something in-character.

Each of these choices will be remembered to some extent, and the player will slowly build an internal narrative around it. For example, in the Mass Effect series, Tali was my favorite NPC and augmented my favorite character build perfectly, so I tended to favor her whenever I could. But in the third game, I evidently didn't read the devs' mind well enough and a scenario forced me to make a completely idiotic choice between saving her species or the geth in a situation that was about 80% her fault. That was part of my narrative, a major sour note that ruined a three-game friendship.

It wasn't necessarily bad - it is something I still remember. I would have preferred it to have made sense, or arose in a meaningful way, but even as plot-holey as it was, it was still very memorable.

I wouldn't have gotten that invested if Tali was "the good path" or "the evil path", or even "the Tali path". It's the fragmentation that made that slowly growing fondness possible.

That is the other factor, here: the people players spend time with are going to be the biggest influence on the player's story. Right now there is a tendency for each character to be a personal arc and a walking arsenal.

Instead, I think it makes more sense for each party NPC to represent a particular worldview. By choosing who to associate with, the player is fundamentally adopting specific worldviews, and the NPCs will push things in those directions. You can create the world encounters with the assumption that those worldviews matter, and bake them into most of the mission options.

For example, if you take Solus with you, he'll have a lot to say about trying to do pristine work in messy environments, and taking responsibility for your actions even if you never intended to create the problems. In turn, a lot of elements in various quests could be written with these thoughts in mind, even if Solus is not with you.

Rather than "good" or "evil" (or "paragon" or "renegade"), you have the option to push someone to take responsibility they don't feel they should, or shoulder it yourself, or shirk it... this is a much more nuanced set of questions with endless variations and potential for long-term ramifications.

Using these techniques, I think it is possible to "chop up" the world. The player never feels like they're playing out the dev's story. They create their own story by synthesizing play style, friends, and paths throughout the game.

A good example of this is Fallout 2, which kept track of your various escapades and had a ten-minute-long ending sequence explaining the outcome of each. Rather than judge you as "good" or "evil", it simply remembered what you did and reminded you of it.

Map Re-Use

One thing to keep in mind is that no player will see all the content in your maps in one go. In fact, even if they play hundreds of times, there are some things they'll miss just because their patterns don't take them out that way.

Good or bad, that's how it is, and we need to take that into account.

Replays that stumble onto new content are fascinating, because you realize the world is so much larger than you thought. They give you fresh new grist for your personal narrative, and let you spin your character off in new-feeling directions.

A good example of that is in Skyrim, where it's easy to overlook so many things. For example, just behind the starting ruins is a massive bandit base. The next bandit base along the main path isn't until several hours in, after you've defeated a dragon!

Of course, content you know about can be optimized for your new character, like when we get power armor in the first ten minutes of Fallout 2, or when we take the taxi cart in Skyrim to a city we theoretically don't know anything about just to join the thieves' guild ASAP.

I don't have any really strong ideas on how to make the most of these features, but I do know that we want to push the player to take wobbly paths. Sticking to roads will make replays really dull.

Multiplayer

A lot of people really love multiplayer, but most of these games don't support it.

Multiplayer requires very specific tweaks to the mechanics to make it feasible, which can be really tough to design and still make work in single player.

For example, the five phase play? As described, the gear shift moments are very per-player, depending on a lot of factors including specific position and mood. If several players are cooperating, the first one that shifts up a gear will leave the others in the lurch, like someone stick-shifting without a clutch.

Because of this, most multiplayer in these games happens on a more straightforward level, using flatter gameplay and relying on the players to get each other hyped to the proper degree.

Good example: GTA. GTA multiplayer largely involves stunt challenges, which are controlled by the players and therefore can be orchestrated pretty solidly. Even if they cooperate to go on missions, the missions tend to be pretty frenzied, skipped the first two phases and starting with "maybe find some cover before shooting".

There are many kinds of multiplayer, though. Asynchronous multiplayer or massively-singleplayer are both possible, and probably easier to program. Hm.

...

Wow, this essay got long. I guess I should stop analyzing.

I've been considering these things and how to make my hub exploration prototypes "feel right", and I think this offers a lot of meat to chew on. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Local Plateau

We are in an era of flat games. Let's talk about it.

Content has a reliable return on investment. You pay more, you almost always get better content. Better models, better materials, better shaders, better levels, better quests, better music, better sound, better writing, better voice acting.

This reliability means that many devs are focusing mostly on that content. The gameplay is carefully flattened down so that it properly serves up the content.

For example, the "string of pearls" approach Mankind Divided takes. You enter Golem City. You can take it on with any variety of combat or stealth, siding with anyone you want, but in the end you finish the segment and it always works out the same way. So the devs can focus on creating Golem City, not worrying about long-term entanglements. Even the long-term gameplay is nerfed so that players won't be too strong or too weak as they move through the area.

The gameplay gives the player a tour of Golem City. That's its main purpose.

It's not just big games, either: almost everyone does it.

For example, both Cities: Skylines and Project Highrise have a 9/10 on Steam, and they're both programmed "flat". The gameplay is simple statistical dependencies that serve to unlock more content. How you play these games doesn't really matter: the progression is programmed right into the content, and doing better or worse just means slightly faster or slower progression.

I'm not going to assume you need to game dev "better". Flat games sell well and give reliable return on investment, and the fact that nobody plays them a week after launch is probably not a major concern to many studios.

Still... let's talk about how even small mechanical changes can make these games pop.

Fallout 4 is an extremely flat game, and although it sold well, a big complaint was the deeply uninspired gameplay that left it badly scarred in user reviews. It's clear that every element of the game world was designed as a self-contained pearl: you can approach most sublocations in any way you please without affecting the outcome. Similarly, the long-term play of stats and traits was nerfed to the point where it was clear it didn't affect much. The approaches you can take to any given piece of content are largely coded into the content.

However, Fallout 4's survival mode is an overhaul that disables saving, disables fast travel, and forces you to drink, eat, and sleep. This radically amps up the side effects of each sublocation and requires you to constantly go back to a settlement to resupply. The gameplay now involves cautious exploration out from your settlements, and actually rewards you for creating new settlements because it's a new hub that you can restock at. It's far from perfect, but the experience of playing the game is now radically different.

In vanilla F4, you would encounter a house full of raiders. You'd quicksave and then try a couple of things, muddle through, and then heal up and save again. But in survival, every bit of damage you take is a threat and dying will reset you to the last place you slept - which may have been an hour ago. Every success means more, and every tiny expense costs more, and it adds up. You're left agonizing over whether to push forward a bit, head back now, or head back along a detour to get a bit more of the map explored en route.

Can we codify the differences, here? Can we talk a little bit about what this means, how to use it to make better games?

Fundamentally, the best games are more than the devs created. What the players bring to the experience makes it bigger and more interesting than the content seems to indicate.

Easy example: Rocket League. The main game mechanic in Rocket League is "the soccer players are annoyingly hard to control", which doesn't sound like it'd sell well. But Rocket League was very popular and well-regarded, even though the content was limited to a few stages and cars. Well-polished, sure, but not even as much content as a single settlement in Fallout 4.

Multiplayer is kind of cheating, though: the focus is different. What's about single-player?

It's not just about player creation. Skylines and Highrise are flat, although the player can create a lot of content. Hm.

In order to make the player's content memorable, the content has to be recontextualized.

That is, the player has to make your content their own.

There are a lot of ways of doing this, let's cover a few of them. All of these involve making simple gameplay adjustments. In fact, in a lot of cases they are so small that they could be turned on and off in an options menu.

Avatar Personalization
Probably the most common method, the player will adopt your content as their own if they're allowed to personalize it. This is why so many games have adopted RPG leveling systems and costumes, or even allow players to create their own character.

That's effective as long as the customizations don't betray the player. In the old days you could spend precious skill points on things like "animal husbandry" or "tarot reading"... and they'd never come up. That feels bad.

Avatar personalization can be difficult from a writing/voice-acting standpoint. The more freely the player can customize the character, the more different approaches will have to be encoded... or the less the customization will be represented. This is why games with completely open character creation tend to have very generic encounters. IE, in Skyrim your character never "feels" anything and social encounters are extremely basic, while in Sleeping Dogs you have complex relationships with a dozen NPCs and they all feel believable.

This issue can be mitigated by having proxy avatars. This is Bioware's approach: your party members have established personalities, and those can be used to write the nuanced, directed social stuff. The main character never has a real personality outside of the player's head, but because they constantly take Wrex and Garrus with them, they get a lot of anarchist, end-justifies-the-means social stuff. While the player avatar doesn't have much to say, Wrex and Garrus can say a lot and are presumably chosen because they reflect the player's interests. In turn, members of the party (including the player avatar) get adopted and recontextualized into the player's adventure.

Home Personalization
Some games want you to personalize your home. Obviously, Animal Crossing and The Sims are examples. So is Fallout 4.

Personalizing homes can easily fall flat, just like having to choose between animal husbandry and tarot reading during avatar creation. None of the options are bad... but they feel pointless if they aren't integrated into the game.

In order to really get the player to adopt this home, you'll need to make those customizations have mechanical effects.

This is where Fallout 4 falls short. The settlements have no real role in the game, aside from "get attacked and force you to annoyingly run home all the time". Customizing them initially feels amazing, but then you realize that it's all just visual fluff. None of it matters in the game world.

Contrast The Sims. Customizing your home directly affects how well your sims can perform. Layout affects how quickly they can get things done, and more expensive toys let them advance more quickly. Gardens reduce food costs and can even make you immortal. Pools increase fitness, allow for pool parties, etc.

Fallout 4 could have done this, and they could have integrated it fairly well without requiring too much effort or distracting from the core gameplay. For example, allowing you to tag large objects in the field as salvage targets would make the quality of the settlers matter: they can salvage further, faster, safer if your settlements are set up well. Allow the player to radio for resupplies and reinforcements, in a subtler way than calling for cannon fire - again, in ways where the state of the settlers or the settlement matters. Sidequests within the settlements would have been cool, too, like playing matchmaker, helping raise kids, getting in trouble for building a walkway someone fell off of, etc.

Even small details could have gone a long way, like the locals reacting to the player as they come back, or having procedural giant bins full of melons as the melon harvest comes in, or having the locals decorate designated areas as they prefer instead of forcing the player to do it.

Any way you cut it, the basic idea is the same: the player's customizations and activities must have an in-game result.

Adventure Personalization
And then there's the nasty one. How can the player take control over the story being told? Make it their own?

We're not talking about theoretical algorithms for generating stories. We're just talking about gameplay tweaks and level design tricks.

We're going to skip the level design tricks. That's outside the scope of this essay.

For gameplay, we have to understand the overall pattern that the player will follow through the game. In a linear game, this is pretty obvious: if you play Mankind Divided, you will go through Golem City, and you will do it at this exact time in this exact context and come out of it here having had this experience. Linear games are a bit like rollercoasters, and pacing is a core part of the experience.

Nonlinear games such as open world RPGs or construction/exploration games have no rollercoaster track. How can we shape the player's adventure?

We need to create a pattern of paths the player will follow, and then arrange content to be properly paced along those potential paths.

For example, in survival mode Fallout 4, you will strike out from a settlement in an arbitrary direction, probably moving straight for a while, then curving back, or visa-versa. When designing locations, how far they are from a settlement determines how on edge the player is. You can use this to put "lure" locations (multi-section dungeons, etc) at places reasonably far from home, to make it more stressful without needing to actually raise the difficulty.

The smaller encounters nearer the settlement would be encountered either on the way out (low risk) or on the way back (high risk). Well, here's the thing: you know the direction the player is going. So if the player is moving away from the settlement, the layout should be a provocative, gristly head-on challenge, suitable for softening a player up. If viewed from the other side, the encounter should be easier to see and safely approach, giving the player the option of avoiding it while also luring them in with a slower, softer layout.

It's only possible to think like this if the gameplay creates these "safe hub" patterns of exploration. Vanilla Fallout 4 doesn't do this - the hubs are nearly worthless and the player just wanders wherever. Therefore, Fallout 4's world design is about presenting absolute barriers - putting raiders on huge elevated platforms, putting up massive walls of impenetrable buildings to funnel you into a challenge, etc. Those are also valid techniques, but the formlessness of the player's exploration means it's impossible to know how tense the player is unless the layout actively forces tension by being really long and dangerous.

"Safe hub" exploration is certainly not the only kind of gameplay that forms reliable patterns, but it's the example on my mind this week. It's a pretty small gameplay change - you can only get healing items and ammo from settlements, and they're heavy. Other than that, it can use exactly the same polished game mechanics any open-world game uses.

While it is "undirected", you can see how a player's explorations through this kind of game world would naturally form tense, interesting personal stories. Without any magic algorithms or expensive voice acting.

...

That's my thinking on tweaking gameplay to let players bring more of themselves into your game. Content is a good investment, but small tweaks to gameplay will serve to both highlight your content and allow the player to enjoy it much more personally.

What do you think?

Friday, September 09, 2016

Heartbeat Gameplay

So, Project Highrise came out. I can't get into it. Let's talk about it!

Back when I first heard of Project Highrise, I said SimTower's strength was its elevator simulation. I mentioned that most SimTower wannabees failed because they didn't have that. I hoped Project Highrise would have it. Spoilers: it does not.

When you're doing this kind of ultra-focused simulation game, it's absolutely critical to establish and maintain flow. The player has to want to go for just one more turn, just one more day. SimTower did this through the ebb and flow of people: the morning rush, the lunch rush, the evening rush, the quiet of the night...

Project Highrise has the same rushes, but they're not noticeable.

SimTower surfaced these elements because Sims line up and wait for the elevators. During each rush, you see your building chew on the flood going one way or the other.

In Project Highrise, elevators are magic doors, there's no lines or impatience. Instead, Project Highrise focuses on keeping systems balanced. Power cables, water pipes, oil meters, phone banks, storage depots, repair depots, copy centers, bottled water centers... keep the costs balanced with the payments of the clients.

Unfortunately, the spreadsheety game mechanics do not have any of the meaty feedback that angry sims lining up for elevators gave us. It's hard to maintain flow.

Spreadsheet game mechanics aren't inherently bad, or even inherently something that exists as its own thing. You can boil any game mechanics down to a spreadsheet: how well it is integrated into the gameplay determines whether we see it as a spreadsheet or just as gameplay.

The mechanic of using services to support a widening variety of clients is inherently disconnected from the gameplay of putting things in specific places on a map.

In order to create meaty gameplay out of those mechanics, you have to somehow palpably connect the clients to the services. Since this is a game about laying out a physical space, that means the connection would be best in physical space.

In Highrise they attempt to do that with wires and pipes, but this is a pretty tenuous connection and only applies to a few services. It could have been pumped up by having something like service radiuses, or perhaps having services connected to specific service elevators and only serving near those elevators.

But I would argue that's not a great use of the play. SimTower had a good use, that's why it's fondly remembered: there's a strong, natural connection between installing elevators, installing things people want to use, and people getting on elevators to reach those things. Adding visible queues and color-changing people makes it even more obvious. It's a very natural entanglement.

How many people want to enter/leave a region at what times will be determined by the things you place on that floor. You can use this to optimize your elevator service or, alternately, optimize the floors to lessen the peak load on the elevators. But that's just the beginning.

Some things like being in areas of high traffic, some in areas of low traffic, and the placement of elevators/clients determines how much traffic passes by. Some things might have secondary requirements or objectives which make them come on line at different times during your play, giving you the option of having a sub-par layout, spending cash on redoing those floors, or leaving huge, weird gaps in your building during the early game.

Optimize for weekends or weekdays, winter or summer. Add in alternate elevator tweaks that kick in on holidays. There's a lot of complexity waiting to be mined.

There are limits on how intricate this can get, because there's only one "juice pipe": the people waiting for the elevators.

SimTower chose to add flavors rather than new pipes, adding in express elevators and service elevators and so on, each with different parameters and serving different roles in your building ecology.

SimTower could add a lot of complex dependencies and services, but none of them would feel solid to the player because there's no strong feedback showing their state and relating to their physical space. They could have added another pipe - perhaps a statistical overlay of some kind - but then the two pipes would fight for player attention.

They decided a single pipe would be enough, and they were right: nobody has really replicated their success since.

In the end, I don't think Project Highrise is much like SimTower. It looks the same on the surface, but the underlying mechanics are completely different. To me, Project Highrise has a serious flow problem: the gameplay feels disconnected from the mechanics.

I know people are giving it sky-high reviews, so who knows if I'm right or wrong.

Well, we'll know in a month.

...

Those are my thoughts on SimTower and Project Highrise! What are yours?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Compound Grinding Engines

I've been thinking about how some games are compelling even when in barely alpha states, and others don't become compelling until nearly the whole game is complete. And I think I know the answer: compound grinding engines.

Most games burn content for play. An RPG, for example, requires the devs to create characters, monsters, maps, equipment, stats, skills, scenes, all this content. This is essentially a steam boiler: throw content in the hopper and the player bubbles.

In order to keep the engine going, you have to keep burning content.

But in the beginning, the devs don't have much fuel. They haven't created much content, and most of their content is placeholder assets. There's not really any point to bringing players in right now, so the devs usually show off their art instead of releasing demos.

There's nothing wrong with this, but clearly the game isn't playable out of the gate. Players would just be disappointed.

On the other hand, some games are substantially more playable even in primitive states. Simulation games, mostly. Physics sims, life sims, empire sims, any kind of sim game seems to have some kind of pull that makes it fun even when it's very primitive. What is it?

Well, "simulation" is the key word. The player sets something up and then watches it unfold. The player is creating content out of the initial content. We can extract a lot more heat out of this content because it forms secondary content, maybe even tertiary content.

Rather than just a single steam boiler, we're building a compound steam engine.

This isn't quite as straightforward as putting together an RPG. It requires less content, but the content needs to be carefully fitted together because a leak in the first "chamber" will make the other chambers break. Right now, it feels like most games that get it right are either accidents or instinct, so let's take a closer look.

Games like Besiege are basically double chamber engines. The devs provide some physics content, the players arrange it and have fun going to town with it.

It requires some care. For starters, allowing the players to build whatever they want with no guidance is not going to work, at least not as an initial play style. You need to give the players something to strive for. Something that a beginner can figure out how to do and an expert can hook additional constraints to. IE, "knock over the tower" can turn into "with a giant mech" or "using only sheep" when the expert players decide to try.

There's the core fitness test - the fundamental constraints. These should vary so that the players can explore different variations. In Besiege, that's the various levels. This has the advantage of being something that can be churned out in huge quantities later on. In Space Engineers, the constraints can be fine-tuned during world creation. In Kerbal, the constraints vary across a huge map and you can choose different destinations to engage different constraints.

There's also the self-challenge constraints. These typically arise from the components you allow players to build with.

Usually, physics simulations have a variety of parts that have different physical characteristics. By playing this up both statistically and visually, you can easily create self-challenge constraints. These typically arise from either holding back (banning specific systems such as liquid fuel rockets, explosives, pilots) or hilarious overstretching (mecha out of a joint block, using extendable landing gear to flap wings, using stacked explosives to drill out a five hundred meter shaft, making an 8-bit processor out of redstone). Both of these approaches can be predicted based on the components, the way they interact, the way they interact with constraints, and how clearly they are demarcated visually and systemically.

That's worth talking about, but we're going to instead move on to a much more straightforward example of multi-chamber systems: NON-physics simulations. For example, life sims, empire sims, farm sims, etc.

That is... grinding.

Today we'll defining grinding as designing a system that takes some player time in order to change a parameter in some way.

The first half of the equation is taking player time. Typically this is done via a static constraint: the game simply takes some time to interact with. Making selections, moving from place to place, etc. However, in some games specific tasks have an additional time cost, typically paired up with stat costs. IE, watering each plant takes a small amount of energy and plays a two second animation, or boxing someone requires you to play a minigame for thirty seconds.

Anyway, to me the second half is important: parameter change.

This is the "content". This is what the player pays attention to. However, without context, it's useless.

These stats often carry some context over from their real-world implication to start. For example, in Cookie Clicker, there's the initial context of "hah hah cookies how funny". Then additional context is overlaid based on the way systems interact with that 'stat'.

Similarly, in a life sim you might grind your sports stat or your intelligence or something. The initial context of "I'm sporty" or "I'm brainy" is decent, but you absolutely must layer systems on top of it in order for it to pull the player in.

It's tempting to just add "things that happen when you reach N points of stat". This is popular in dating games: to date the jock you need N sports points, to date the nerd you need N intelligence. But this is "single boiler" content, the same way marching through a dungeon or buying a new sword is content in an RPG.

To get a "multiple boiler" setup, we need to have compression and decompression cycles. I know, I know, stretching the damn metaphor.

Most of the compelling prototypes I've played feature only a small amount of "real content". Whether it's a composite VN with only one character or whether it's a space empire game with undifferentiated planets, the key is that our grinding gets "spent".

IE, we don't just get research points and have ever more of them: we gain research points in order to spend them on a technology.

The technology is the content, but the whole point is that you're going to have to go back to the previous chamber and grind there again in order to get the next technology. This means that each research grinding is done with a purpose: you're grinding specifically
to get tech A or B, not to just get a higher research rating. Mid-term goals built right in.

MMORPGs use a grinding system based around "fonts" and "sinks": kill monsters for cash, that cash drains away to upgrades, shops, etc. But that's not what we're talking about.

Ours is more of a piston-based approach. The player focuses on injecting high-pressure gas into the chamber expecting a single "pump" of the cylinder. It's true, you are gaining research points, but the intent is for that single sweep of the piston: BAM, you have a new tech and that chamber is now spent.

Whew, that metaphor is stretching pretty thin. Let's leave it behind.

The point is to create a series of asynchronous, parallel, interlocking grinding systems that the player will use to obtain specific results which will then reset that system.

The player isn't just grinding to improve tech points or gain intellect, they're grinding to spend those points on something.

This can easily be interwoven and daisy-chained. The player grinds industry to build a bigger city that they can use to grind tech more efficiently so they can unlock a new mining rig to let them grind industry more efficiently...

You're going to have long-term state. That's how the player knows they're making progress. But the point is that the long-term state feeds back into the grinding most of the time, rather than simply being a content reward. Content rewards are expensive and don't chain well, so I think of them as the final link in the chain.

A fun thing to do is to make the long-term state conflict, so you can only optimize in one direction and then need to un-optimize to go another route. Alternately, you can add in states that cause unusual mutations in the flow of grinding. For example, if the player builds a police state, then half of all research points become spy points. Yeah, the citizen unhappiness that results is not great, but if you are pumping out a lot of research, you can power through to the spy expenditures you want to achieve and then dismantle the state...

Another fun thing to do is "soft limiting". For example, you have a max research cap of 50 points of research, regardless of how you grind. But unlike a hard limit, this is a soft limit. Even without upgrading your facilities to get a higher cap, you can exceed that limit in a specific, limited way. Maybe the cap is applied at the end of each month, or you lose 50% of that overage each day, or you pay $10/day upkeep for each additional point, or each point requires an additional scientist. Each soft constraint will inspire the player to create a plan to exceed it in a different way, so think it through.

These kinds of capabilities are what separate a powerful compound grinding engine from just another newbie sim game. A relatively small amount of content can have vast effects and keep a player coming back hour after hour before you've even added art.

In theory.

I have a lot of thoughts on this, especially in regards to setting up and maintaining flow at the same time, but this is more than long enough. What do you all think?