Friday, June 16, 2017

Level Design Theory

Mark Brown released a new Game Maker's Toolkit, which you can find here. This is largely a response to that video.

The basic premise is that the "Nintendo approach" to level design is to take one core challenge and follow the same set of progressive difficulty enhancements: safe introduction, slightly less safe thing, unsafe thing, then a few dozen twists to change the challenge somewhat.

He uses the design of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze to offer a counter-example, where ideas and themes are largely mixed together in clever ways. For example, sawblades don't just threaten you, they also carve out platforms. This level has leaves and horns, etc.

... Those are the same design philosophy.

There are differences in implementation, sure. Mostly because the mainline Super Mario games are extreeeeemely tired.

Tropical Freeze seems to be more creative in their theming, using a broader variety of themed challenges and better spectacle setpieces. This is probably because they A) have better technology and B) aren't exhausted and tired like the mainline Super Mario games. Other Mario games like Paper Mario, Mario Galaxy, and Mario Sunshine tend to have more creative levels with strong theming - comparing their best levels to Tropical Freeze's seems more evenly matched, with levels where island rise from the water, exploding volcanoes, collapsing buildings, and so on being far more common.

It may sound like I think the video is baseless, but I don't think that's true. I simply think he's comparing bad and good implementations of the same level design philosophy.

It's good to discuss pacing, and the limits of theming. Unfortunately, that's not how the video was pitched, at least not to my ears. It sounds like he's talking about things "Mario doesn't do". Mario doesn't do them in the mainline games because those are tired, not because they're not part of Nintendo's arsenal.

I'm not arguing that the basic idea of themed rising challenges mixed with spectacle is good or bad. It's one approach, and it's a fairly well-understood and robust approach. There are lots of other approaches with other priorities, and they're not mutually exclusive: an open-world game would have a hard time sticking to this formula, but they can certainly use the formula as a foundation to pace the player's entrance into a new area with its new themes and challenges.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Base-Building Games and Worlds

Let's talk about fairly advanced game design topics for base-building games. Games like Rimworld or Dwarf Fortress or Evil Genius or Minecraft or - in this case - Oxygen Not Included.

Nearly every base-building game has some kind of progression. You start with the lowest-level stuff, and unlock higher-level stuff over the course of the game. For example, you typically unlock better methods of heating and cooling your building, or better crops, or advanced building materials, or all three.

The question is: how do you unlock them?

There are a few basic unlocking methods, and we can show them by example.

You want to build a fridge/food storage room in Oxygen Not Included. At the beginning of the game, there's nothing like that. So what do you do?

1) Research a fridge.

2) Build your fridge room in a part of the map that's cold.

3) Scout around for cold-creating plants and replant them back at your base.

4) Use the physics of gases to create a carbon dioxide trap, which is considered a sterile environment by the game.

5) Evade the question and micromanage your food production/create pickled foods that can be stored on a shelf.

There is no "right" solution: which tactic you'll take will depend on your goals, your resources, and your world map. This makes for a very flexible, deep game, so it's worth examining these in detail.

1) Point-centric solutions involve spending time and resources on generic "points" to unlock a new method. This is almost always a research desk, often one with multiple tiers. For example, a fridge requires a tier 2 research desk in ONI. This is a very typical approach and pushes the player to make a "high functioning" base that has enough spare effort to build up those points. Unfortunately, this can backfire: once a base is high-functioning enough to spend time on research, you will need to introduce new challenges and complexities to keep the player struggling. Typically this is done through ever-increasing supply chain complexity with ever-increasing manpower demands. All told, this approach focuses on building a base that can function smoothly and efficiently.

2) World-centric solutions involve building facilities in parts of the world that fit your needs. This is often a random biome situation, which means that the player will examine the regions around each new base and figure out what biomes can be exploited. In other situations, this might be non-random biomes - for example, if you build mines at a certain depth in Minecraft, you know you'll get slimes. In some cases it's sort of halfway between the two - for example, it's technically random whether you have an aquifer below you in Dwarf Fortress, but you're told up front and it's extremely common. Anyway, world-centric solutions push the player to expand their base and create satellite facilities, and make rapid transit/cargo systems valuable.

3) Scout-centric solutions involve going out into the world in search of small amounts of specific resources. In terms of gameplay pressures, this is similar to a points-centric approach: is your base running efficiently enough to send people away? A few notable differences: points-centric is predictable and not random at all. Preparing resources for those that will go scouting is often more expensive than feeding the researchers. Monitoring the explorers and clearing their path eats more player attention than letting researchers research. Also, the resources found in the world are typically limited but cheap to deploy, unlike the unlimited but expensive unlocks from a research base. Having both a scout- and points-centric solution to core problems means players can weigh a variety of tradeoffs and make a choice unique to their current base instead of always having a best solution.

4) Physics-centric solutions involve constructing things such that the base generates a solution based on its layout. For example, in ONI, carbon dioxide sinks below oxygen. It's relatively easy to create a carbon dioxide trap by simply laying your base out properly. This is more commonly seen in "dungeon-builder" games, where various monsters can cause various effects and you can level them up or get better monsters based on what neighbors they have. These are typically "high skill" solutions, but it's risky: be careful not to allow them to become the dominant strategy, or advanced players will not need to take any other approaches.

5) Evasion solutions allow the player to simply not take that path by having a build that doesn't require it. You can play almost any base-building game without a fridge if you orient your food chain around not needing one. This allows players to develop radically different kinds of bases, and is a highly recommended option to include.

These five approaches, used in tandem, allow for amazingly deep gameplay that never repeats. When I saw the tech tree in ONI was so sparse, I got a little annoyed... until I realized how diverse the alternate approaches were. I don't think ONI's balance is quite right, but the ideas are all there: competing methods to get the same result, meaning each base has new and unique tradeoffs.

This is especially critical when there are timers involved. If you have infinite time, a sub-par approach will just take a little longer. The timers are necessary to produce stresses, although obviously it's best if they can be tweaked for different kinds of players.

As an example of where I don't think ONI does it quite as well, let's talk about the most brutal timer I've seen in a while: the oxygen in Oxygen Not Included.

Your people breath a lot of oxygen. Huge amounts. The main method of creating oxygen involves burning algae, a substance which seems common when you get started... but as your rate of consumption increases, you'll suddenly find you've run out. This scales with the number of people in your base, obviously, which means as your base expands oxygen becomes more of a pressure.

1) Technology. Since this highlights a smoothly-functioning base, you'd expect this to be a "set up oxygen with your algae, then research a replacement while you can still run smoothly". However, the technological solutions are pretty rough. One involves inefficiently burning a rare resource (slime) to get algae. Another involves burning a limited resource (water) to directly get oxygen. Another involves generating large amounts of poison oxygen, then converting it into regular oxygen. Of the three, only the last is a permanent solution: the other two are interesting ways to get you to use the world in a new way, but they're... not very good.

2) World-centric: there are slime/algae-rich biomes. Most bases start with one nearby. However, there is no biome which actually generates algae or oxygen, so those locations will get mined out. Technology levels unlock more options, but they feel anemic. There are areas of the map which have oxygen in them, but none have enough oxygen to matter. There are special stones which emit oxygen, but it seems they are never fully contained, so within a few days they have all burned out everywhere in the world.

3) Scout-centric: about the only oxygen-related things you can scout for are slime puffers. These (slowly) cycle poison into slime. Normally, that slime re-emits the poison, forming a permanent cycle. You can painstakingly herd them into farms and use alternate poison sources to create slime, but herding them is extremely laborious and each one doesn't even seem to support a single person's breath after all the conversions are factored in.

4) Physics-centric: because your team can hold their breath and will walk to where there is oxygen to breath, it is possible to save on oxygen generation by only filling the top layer of your base with oxygen, reducing the loss of oxygen through secondary costs such as being absorbed into rock or lost through an airlock. This is, however, marginal. I would love to have a physics-based solution for creating algae, or even directly creating oxygen.

5) Avoiding it: your crew can breath poison, at least in this update. They really don't like to, but they can. Poison sources are extremely easy to find, to the point where avoiding them is a big part of the game. Instead, embrace the filth and you don't even have to worry about it.

I hesitate to offer "solutions" to what I consider to be a weak game element. After all, this weak game element is the core timer for the entire game, and there are a number of interesting routes you can take... it may be that small balance tweaks would be enough to satisfy me. But with that said, let's talk about how I might have chosen to set this challenge up.

In my magical imaginary version of ONI.

1) At higher tech levels, I think we would be able to exchange time, space, work, and condition management to create an alternate algae or oxygen source. For example, what about an "algae box"? Needs irrigation, a dense carbon dioxide atmosphere, and a high temperature. With effort, you can now grow algae - but it takes carefully building your base to do so. How about an even more advanced science for creating oxylite out of massive quantities of hydrogen or natural gas or something?

2) World-centric. I would like a biome that generates oxygen, water, algae, or slime in quantities high enough to live off of. Right now we do have steam geysers, and water can be turned into oxygen, but the geyser doesn't provide that much water. We also have slime biomes, but they don't produce slime. Puffers live in them, which can give the illusion of slime production, but no slime is actually being created. Perhaps a coral biome which slowly emits oxygen? Cutting the coral destroys the oxygen-emitting elements, so you just have to live there, or perhaps create a long gas pump.

3) Scout-centric. I like the puffers. I want to be able to tie a rope to them, or maybe stuff them in a sack, so they can be moved into farms more easily. I also think the puffer's rate of poison-eating should depend on the density of the poison in a very big way - if I can get them into dense clouds of poison, I want one puffer to support at least three people's breaths.

4) Physics-centric. I would like physics methods for creating slime, algae, or oxygen. Perhaps something like "boil poison water to get slime" or "pure water flowing through dense natural gas turns into algae" or "plants turn carbon dioxide into oxygen". Not sure why that last one isn't a thing.

5) Avoiding it. Right now the only method for avoiding oxygen consumption is to breathe poison. I can think of three other ideas. A) Make building a base with a low headcount viable. B) Oxygen booths which don't emit oxygen, but can be visited when you need a breath. C) Breathing poison or some not-quite-oxygen mix simply causes their learning to shut off - no skill growth, no research, maybe a stat penalty.

In the end, I like ONI.

I don't think they used this "five approaches" technique on purpose, but it's worth thinking about the best base-building games you've played, and what you enjoyed about them. It's certainly worth expanding the options within your own base-building games: the cost is typically much lower than you think.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What are yours?

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Structured Open Worlds

I really like open worlds, and games that let you play them in lots of different ways.

A lot of people make fun of the idea, and talk about how bland these worlds are. Well, that's worth talking about, too: what makes those people think these worlds are bland? Can anything be done about it?

Let's focus on the structure of open worlds, because open worlds are the only things that have this structure.

What's so special about it?

Well, it's all about loose-weave challenges.

In a linear game, the challenges are all carefully braided together. You are swept along at the pace the game allows, in the directions the game allows. On the plus side, that gives you a much tighter experience, which is why a lot of people probably feel the open worlds are bland. The loose weave doesn't intrude as aggressively.

In a generated open-world game like Minecraft, the challenges are largely unwoven. They don't really lead anywhere or connect in any meaningful sense, it's just a bunch of random things near each other by chance. This is too loose for my taste, since it's impossible to plan out a mission profile. It always devolves into a resource hunt, at least for me.

With a loose weave, you get clusters of optional entanglements. They are similarly themed and connected in meaningful ways, so you can immerse yourself into the region, plan out a plan, and understand the sorts of experiences you're likely to get while you're here.

To be crystal clear, let's give an easy example: the starting town in Skyrim.

In a linear game, the starting town would be rigidly woven together. You would be drawn into the story of the shopkeeper and his sister, the blacksmith and his family and the survivor from the dragon attack. They would have meaningful dialog and some touching moments, and at the end of their arcs there would be strong resolutions before you moved along to Whiterun.

In a generated game, a town serving the same purpose might exist, but it would be occupied by randomly generated inhabitants. There wouldn't be a strong sense of theme or progression. Quests, if there are any, would be limited largely to fetch quests or kill quests. There would be no sense of community or feeling that these people actually live in a town together.

In a loose-weave game like Skyrim, the characters are all defined and feel like they live in the town, but their plot arcs are left loose and unresolved. If you do their missions, at the end they say "huh! Funny, it looks smaller than I remember!" and that's that.

Obviously, this isn't as emotionally affecting as if they were tightly written and had proper character arcs. But because it is loose, the player can engage in a lot of different ways. Instead of doing the main plot, the player can choose to rob or murder, settle down and smith for a while, sell wildflowers to the shopkeep. With mods, you can try to recruit or date the various villagers, change and upgrade their houses, see if they survive a monster attack, defend them from a monster attack, be regarded as a bandit by them, and many other kinds of interactions.

To me, the replayability of these worlds is key: you're not talking about things the player "might do", you're talking about things the player will definitely do as they replay the game over and over. Mods are very useful here, since the player can change which mods are installed, but the fundamental loose-weave framework supports those mods by providing a foundation of sensible world design.


There are a lot of details to discuss. For example, each piece of loose-weave content does have to be woven, linked to other content. They also have to be clustered by theme and pacing, so the player knows what to expect and can choose when and how to engage.

The weave also has to be made of "playable thread" - these characters and buildings don't just exist to serve a plot element, but exist as physical and social objects in the game world. This allows the player to engage with them in any way they please. Ideally, the way the threads are arranged will produce lots of interesting challenges for a player that wants to try various kinds of play style. You have a hard time robbing the village shop because both the shopkeep and his sister are standing right there, as opposed to a shop in Whiterun where there's just one person and a shop full of corners you can abuse to hide from them.

The deep strength of this approach, to me, is that it creates a world I can be in. All the people and places make sense and are on-theme, from a bucolic little village to craggy abandoned forts on a mountainside to spider-infested swamps to an ancient town cut out of the rock itself.

This means that any thread I encounter leads to other, similarly-themed threads. If I find a bandit-infested ancient ruin, I know there will be other, similar challenges down the road. If I find a corrupt policeman, I know I'll face other corrupt individuals and those suffering from corruption if I keep moving forward. If I find an ancient barrow full of screeching skeletons, I know I'll find more of them. Moreover, for all of these things, I know I'll find some core element that "powers" them all.

This works both large and small. On a large scale, I get familiar with Whiterun and quickly learn that the "core" is the yarl. All of Whiterun's characters and buildings share a theme that is guided by and inspired by the yarl. On a smaller scale, I find a bandit encampment has a progression to it, too, ending with a bandit leader and their simple plan to rob travelers.

And it all makes sense. The yarl acts that way for a reason, so all his town acts that way for a reason. The bandit leader robs travelers because you're near a major road, and therefore that plan makes sense and all the bandits hanging around here make sense.

If you juggled the yarls around and put the corrupt boy yarl into Whiterun, it wouldn't make any sense. The center wouldn't hold. Similarly, if you stuck the bandits in a swamp, the player would raise an eyebrow at the supposed "heavy traffic" they're raiding.

This isn't simply an eyebrow-raise, though. Without the core, the player won't feel that the threads are all reliably on-theme. They won't want to go to place X, because it's just a bunch of random nonsense.

I can't overstate how important this context is. These are worlds which make sense, at least to some degree. They hold together, and as you drill down into them, you find some reasonable reason why things are where they are and do what they do. These reasons radiate out, so you know roughly what you're in for if you decide to chase down a random thread you've found.


I kind of rambled, here's the summary:

The loose weave of an open world allows me to approach it in any way I see fit, including ways that are not part of the main plot.

The weave is organized in patterns that make sense, and if I follow a thread I will find more, similar threads that all make sense together.

Replayability is key: the loose weave responds differently when you play with it in a different way, and a player will probably play it a dozen different ways.

Can this be generated randomly? I'm not sure, but replayability would go out the window just by definition.

Can it be made "flavorful" for the folks that think open worlds are bland? Probably, if you can make them adaptive: a lot of these worlds are very static, which I think is the heart of their complaint. If there were big events that permanently changed things on a really deep level, I think that would help. It would also be a lot harder to program.

Them's my thoughts!

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Green Energy and Actually Being Useful

There's a lot of noise about the Paris Agreement these days! Dozens of mayors across the US have pledged to adhere to the goals of the agreement anyway, and I figure a lot of them probably don't know some of the details of implementing a green energy solution.

Here's the three points I think a lot of people miss:

1) Green energy is getting cheaper all the time, but don't forget that you actually need to see if it's working. Unmetered systems are often installed wrong and are basically a waste of cash. Especially for large systems, make sure monitoring and emergency alerts are part of the spec!

2) A lot of people are upset that green energy doesn't produce on a perfect schedule. For now, there's plenty of low-hanging fruit: green systems can supplant normal power grids when they're working, and the grid can fill in when they aren't. Later on, when you have peak green energy above your power usage, you can start thinking about complicated things. That's not any time soon for most of you!

3) There's obviously no space for a ten-acre solar farm in the middle of New York City. Your green energy installations will have to work within the city footprint. That mostly means rooftop installations. Most rooftop installations are smaller, and therefore your incentives should be aimed towards small installs. Local cooperatives and programs already exist in every major city, look yours up and chat about their successes and failures.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Obsessive Worldbuilding

I regularly see people talk about worldbuilding best-practices, typically with a warning against simulationist or overly detailed worlds.

The idea is to have interesting stories to tell in that world, right? So focus on that, rather than endlessly detailing how many centuries ago the elven court left for the high hills.

There's a few things to talk about here. The first is:

Yes. That is good practice. To me, the most critical thing about a world is how well it supports on-theme stories. That said...

Obsessive, detailed worldbuilding is fine.

We're talking about worldbuilding as the process an author goes through, not as the world is revealed to an audience in the final product. Obviously, including lots of dumb details in the final product is bad writing... but those details aren't necessarily bad worldbuilding.

One reason to worldbuild is to experiment with the boundaries of what's possible in the world. When developing a world, it's often unclear what the unique elements of the world allow. If you have a special kind of magic, or an unusual technology, or even something as simple as just a slightly deep dive on a particular social issue, it's often unclear where it will lead.

So you explore it. You detail out all the things that seem interesting and unique about this world. In the process, you realize there's something unique about the way this culture evolves, or an interesting take on the theme of family, or whatever else you can dig up while you're rooting around.

Filling the stories you tell with details nobody cares about is bad writing. Similarly, sticking to a fiction you've invented when you can replace it with something more powerful is bad writing. But those are bad writing, not bad worldbuilding.

When some obsessive worldbuilder shows you a ream of notes on the world they've invented, they're not showing you a finished story.

Maybe that's not how you work. Maybe you don't need to explore those ideas, because you already know where you're going to go 100%. It's a different process, but one doesn't invalidate the other.

Like a cartoonist with three pens talking to a painter: the cartoonist doesn't rag on the painter for their endless paint supplies and brush variants. It's understood that the two have completely different approaches.

Sure, the painter might suck.

The cartoonist might suck, too.

Another reason to worldbuild is to fill up the author's "working imagination": to make the world feel real to them. Some make the mistake of thinking that the notes they take can give someone else the same "working imagination", and then they get yelled at for misunderstanding how writing works.

... That's not writing. That's worldbuilding. I'm sure they regret bringing you into their process.

The next time you see someone excitedly building a world in a way you don't like, consider that they're searching their world for new ideas, new variants, and trying to leave a vivid impression in their own minds.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wondrous Random

One of the problems with generating content for games is that it always feels prosaic and dull.

So generative games are seeded with wondrous details. The generative content is used as endless filler.

Let's talk about wonder.

It's certainly possible to generate wondrous things. Here's a twitter bot that generates endlessly wondrous planets.

But these aren't suitable to put in video games. The biggest issue is the lack of interaction: a video game's strength is interactivity, right?

Let's consider sci fi, since I'm a sci fi nerd. So let's talk about a few wondrous moments, whether they're interactive, and whether these moments could be generative.

When I considered wondrous moments, I realized they are all either introducing us or bidding us farewell. They are transitions. They are exclamation points. They are a hello or a goodbye.

For example, a rocket launch is amazing. It's wondrous to launch a rocket.

But if we show every rocket launch in a game, the player will get truly bored no matter how pretty it is. See Mass Effect: Andromeda for details.

Instead, we would focus on the rocket launches that take place during notable transitions. When we are saying goodbye to a beloved planet and hello to the stars, that's when we put in a loving shot of the rocket launch. Even though the player has undoubtedly seen a million rocket launches in their life, this moment is wondrous because it comes at the right moment. Just when we're saying goodbye, just when we're saying hello.

Obviously, there are also things that are rarer. Ancient obelisks. Forgotten planets. Derelict space ships. Strange aliens. The sight of your ship being split in half while you're inside it.

These also have the most impact if they happen when the player is saying hello or goodbye. Timed poorly, these amazing things will feel as mundane as having to shut off your alarm and get up for work.

As an example of this, in Mass Effect you spend a lot of time discovering new planets. It's incredibly boring. Discovering new planets is boring! ... because it's part of your daily tedium.

On the other hand, in Stellaris you inevitably discover another alien star nation. This feels surprisingly powerful, because the game leads up to it with popups about how there's no intelligent life even though you're searching for it. Things are just starting to slow down for your star nation, you're ready for a change, and then BAM - a new civilization calls. And then another and another!

There's not much fanfare in terms of selling the illusion. A few lines of text before, one extra line of text afterwards. But because it happens at the right time it feels thrilling. Say hello to a new era!

Well, half the time the pacing is off. It's not a perfect game. But when it works, it works - even without the majesty of long edits and low camera angles.

Later on, discovering a new species feels dull and pedestrian. You're already in that era, and there's no transition happening, so it's dull and pedestrian.

So... let's discuss some techniques we can use to make this stuff shine.

Understanding the Phases of your Game
Rather than discussing how to generate wondrous things, the critical thing is when to generate them. By guiding the player through distinct chunks of game, you create moments where wondrous things fit, and even mediocre wonders will play well in those moments.

The difficulty is in making the chunks feel sharp and clear. For example, in Mass Effect you might go visit the Citadel and spend three hours doing side quests. This is a phase. But there's no "punch" to the beginning or ending of the phase. Mass Effect does play a little video of you pulling out of space dock, but it's perfunctory. It has to be, because the staging isn't heavy enough for the player to put up with more.

How can we build up these phase as things that feel real and heavy?

There are two factors here: the construction of the phase and the transition moment.

Constructing the Phase
The biggest things that add weight are events and characters tied to the specific phase, with a focus on them being left behind when the phase changes.

For example, if it's a visit to The Citadel, you can have the player solve various problems... but have the characters wait on the way to the docks to wave goodbye and say thank you. This doesn't interfere with the player - the player can just run right past - but it does make the player realize they're leaving a place that they've affected.

There are plenty of other, heavier ways. For example, the player knowing they'll never return makes those goodbyes more intense. The player knowing the place is about to sink into a fiery magma pit also punches things up.

Adding play on the exit is also valid: in order to get off-world, the players have to fight through the local thugs and decouple the dock lock-down locks. When considering where to put these kinds of fights, the answer is "before the wondrous thing" - so if our wondrous thing is the launch, then we want the fight to happen before launch, not in space.

If you're creating a linear game, this can all be added in manually. If we're talking about generating content, it's clear we have to generate these heavy elements. The wondrous launch isn't the thing we have to generate: we have to generate the thugs and the teary children waving goodbye and the battered old robots throwing flowers.

We have to generate the context. The meaning.

This is something people talk about a lot, but I think they generally discuss how to create long chains of content. Our focus is different: we don't need complex, evolving narratives. We need short, punchy narratives that fit within this phase of the game and have a clear "goodbye" state.

You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello
Transition moments can be on the "goodbye" side or the "hello" side, and there can be scenes between those sides.

For example, when we leave The Citadel we can linger on our ship going through the relay and let the weight of our passing slowly roll through us. Orrrrr we can show an exciting shot of us approaching a new planet, slamming aside the purple clouds as we burn down on a re-entry.

But we can't show both.

I mean, we do show both. But only one will count as wondrous. The other will count as just a long shot.

Which one do we focus on? Well, which phase is heavier? Is the phase part of a longer chain of similar phases?

For example, leaving The Citadel is usually not a huge deal, because it's a hub world and you visit it a lot. In general, goodbyes are going to be weak from places you're revisiting... unless it's the last time you'll ever visit them. The last goodbye from a hub world is extremely strong.

Similarly, if you are leaving a world exploration phase and immediately entering another world exploration phase, the goodbye is going to be weak and you'll want to play up the new elements with a strong hello.

In theory.

Either way, it's probably best to pad some time between the goodbye and the hello. In a video game, this usually consists of world map navigation, although that's less than ideal. Useful non-phase activities such as party chatter, inventory management, and so on are probably better.

Repeated Majesties
Whether you're generating them or seeding carefully-created content, you're going to have some kind of amazing thing in your universe. You'd like it to not get boring.

An example of this is the relays in Mass Effect. Ancient technology that lets the folks travel great distances without much effort! Amazing!

But in Mass Effect they quickly become so mundane you just want to skip any scene involving them.

Why? Because they are mundane. They are part of the ordinary play of the game. They are not at a start point or an end point. They do not say hello or goodbye. They just happen over the course of your day-to-day affairs.

That's fine, to an extent. Not every encounter with them has to feel magical. But we want the player to be aware that they're playing with something potent every day. So we should try to tie our transitions to them whenever we can. Rather than showing a rocket launch, we would show a relay launch.

They become a "staple wonder", used whenever we need a wonder but don't have any specific wonder in mind.

The issue is that you only have so much space for these. For example, our ship is, itself, a staple wonder. Loving shots of our ship are also a major repeated theme. But is there room for both the ship and the relay? It'd dilute the shots if you played up both the ship and the relay in the same scene: wonders need to be punchy.

There are plenty of times when the ship can be used and the relay can't... but are there any times when the relay can be used but the ship can't?

These are the questions I want writers and devs to ask themselves when they're designing their universe. Not "are relays cool/plot-important", but "when we show cool stuff with relays, are we getting in the way of showing other, more important cool stuff?"

Please note, generative elements can work here just fine. For example, the "deep monsters" in Dwarf Fortress could easily be re-used in different games rather than regenerated from scratch each time - until you defeat this one, you won't get a different one.

Epic Generation
OK, OK, what about actually generating epic, wondrous stuff?

Well, there's a few categories of epic stuff, and presumably they'd be generated with different systems.

For recurring touchstones such as "your awesome ship" or "the bloodthirst armies of Throckwoodle", those are likely to be specified by the dev, then slotted in as appropriate. As discussed, "generating" those is more like generating a reason for you to use them.

The idea of generating some amazing scenario is also appealing. How do you generate an amazing scenario?

Well, that's a book on its own, but in general you have to remember to make the "hello" connect to the play. The deeper the connection, the better.

In general: the hello needs to tell the player why they're here.

For example, let's say you roll the dice and come up with a pirate base on a mist-covered moon. The wonder is the mist-covered moon - it feels still and epic. But the players aren't here for a mist-covered moon. They're here to tangle with the pirates.

How do you set that up? Well, you can show a shot of the pirate base within the mist, or pirates on motorcycles in the mist, or whatever. You can have an event where the pirates burst out of the mist to capture or ground the players. There's a lot of options: a battered merchant ship half-lost in fog, for example.

These are not too hard to generate, because you can largely just use category matches. The fact that it's a foggy moon is not important to the algorithm: it's just considered "MASK category GRAVITY FIELD category", and so it would have the same set of options as if you were on a smokey volcanic planet, an acidic Venus, a snowy ice moon, even an artificial-gravity planetoid covered in silver clouds.

Besides making the hello introduce the play, it's also valuable to have the play reference the hello. For example, the pirates can explain that they set up base here because the mists are an excellent cover, or they can have tactics derived from the mists, or they can have problems and keep getting lost because of the mist, or maybe they have mutant winged wolves that the mist has created... again, these aspects don't have to make too much sense, as long as they're not actively nonsensical.

The other kind of wondrous event I tend to want to create are the action-packed transition scenes where things turn. For example, your ship takes direct laser fire from the megacannon and is ripped in half with you aboard, now you're staring over a spiraling debris field struggling to get to the megacannon before you run out of air. Or there's a chase in the jungle as speeder bikes race for safety. Or you have to trick the zorgblat to smash down the walls of the alien zoo so you can escape...

These moments are dangerously close to talking about "generative plots", so we'll leave them mostly in the background for now except for one important fact:

These are transition scenes.

This is a moment when you say goodbye to where you were and hello to someplace new.

And that's considerably more important than whether they are simulated correctly or whatever.


Anyway, them's my thoughts. Tell me what you think.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Intense Gameplay Balance

Let's talk about unscripted, intense moments in a game.

Something that happens organically, as you play.

A lot of games are good at this, and it's the reason why roguelikes are still so popular. It's why Kerbal and Space Engineers have such a long-lasting following as well.

There's an adage: "failing is fun". These games rely on trying, failing, and trying again as a tight iteration loop.

I think this mixes two things. There's the tight iteration loop you get from failing and trying again, but there's also the fascinating and fun loop where you struggle to work through the realities of a situation not going quite according to plan. AKA, "plans-awry" play.

I don't think plans-awry play needs to fail in order to be fun. Struggling and succeeding is often more powerful, because it means your efforts were good enough.

For example, these days I build my Kerbal Space Program landers to survive hard landings. Those would have been failures when I was starting out, but now my landers survive because my planning has improved. That's a potent feeling: "uh oh oh noooo- whew, good thing I planned for that possibility."

I turned a failure into a success.

Fundamentally, this is about a learning curve. A player steadily plans better, sets things up better.

The "failing is fun" theory arises from a learning cliff that the devs sprinkle with glitter. It seems to me that self-directed missions can offer lower bars for success and turn this cliff into a slope. Allowing for smaller final goals, and allowing them to degrade gracefully can make failures into at least partial successes.

Thinking a while, I came up with seven factors I think turn learning cliffs into learning curves. Seven factors that make plans-awry play work.

1) Design refinement/mission arrangement. You need to be able to choose a mission and prepare for any mission you feel like doing in enough detail that you'd prepare differently for the same mission once you know more. For example, choosing different loadouts in Kerbal depending on your comfort in getting to orbit and landing on the moon efficiently.

2) Skill play. As the game unfolds, use your steadily improving skills to navigate challenges to your plan. This might be better ship handling in Kerbal, or knowing how to identify potions in Rogue, etc.

3) World state recognition. As your vision expands, you learn to plan further ahead and understand the world state at greater ranges. For example, orbital exchange windows in Kerbal, or understanding how long you have until a boss fight in the Binding of Isaac.

4) Composite/recursive planning. Allow the player to challenge themselves by trying several missions at once, or help themselves by planning a support mission ahead of time. This allows a player to adjust their plans to serve their skills: if they feel like visiting every Juul moon in one go, they can do that. If they aren't that good at fuel planning, let them send a tanker to Juul first to make it easier. Their choice.

5) Exploits/cheats. In single-player games (or friendly multiplayer), exploits and cheats are a core part of the fun. Exploits and cheats frequently turn into fun high-level challenges and opportunities. For example, the understanding that a torch holds up sand in Minecraft: torches can be washed away by water. Water can be blocked with sand. This is a basic setup which allows people to build a switch! Before redstone, it was the only way to build mechanisms, and even now, it's still used.

6) Cool factor. Allow players to do things that are cool because they are cool. Not everything has to be driven by mechanics. To this end, make missions much more open-ended than you ever expected, especially the low-level missions. For example, in Kerbal the lowest-level mission is theoretically "reach space", but it's so unenforced that people happily build slingshots and see how far they can fling Kerbals. Having a soft, unenforced fail state is a powerful tool.

7) Share-ability. Make it easy for players to share with each other. This partly includes things like screenshots and video: make it easy for players to take good-looking footage. But it also includes things like resharing blueprints, packaging up mod lists so everyone can import things without struggle, and very easy imports of levels, challenges, etc. Perhaps even automatic content sharing within some parameters.

These seven things seem to be really good at giving the player something easy to nibble on at the beginning, when they barely understand anything... and then letting the player just stretch their legs forever as they get more and more skilled. 7) is questionable, I suppose, but I definitely argue that it's part of the same concern.

Now, this isn't just theory for theory's sake.

I'm making a game. How does The Galactic Line do these things?

1) Design refinement. This is probably the most challenging for any game, because you have to come up with gameplay that makes refining your designs deep enough to carry the whole game, but easy enough that a newbie can approach it.

For TGL, I plan to do this by focusing mostly on the crew. A newbie understands the idea of putting people on a ship, they can focus on who they want to put on. They'll just choose whichever stock ship they like best.

This will naturally lead to them understanding how the crews and ships work, as they watch their story unfold. Critically, complete failure is unlikely. While chunks of ship get shut down and people start tearing their hair out, the stock ships will be well-designed enough to limp home even after a disastrous starting mission.

They'll hopefully feel the natural impulse to make their own ships, try longer missions, larger crews, etc.

2) Skill play. In TGL, the skill is mostly about optimizing for longevity by arranging the crew and ship modules. For example, when someone stresses out and something on the ship breaks, you have three options: leave it busted, repair it by salvaging another ship module, or dedicate crewmembers to massaging it into function 24/7. These options are about resource management and planning ahead.

If you do them well, you'll have "slack". You can use this to optimize hobby rooms and relationships, arrange for experience gains or career advancement, or optimizing ship modules for better performance in the next zone. This combined with the use of "redshirt" crew members gives players a lot of ways to manage things live in a skilled or unskilled way.

3&4) World state recognition/composite missions. The player will be faced with a lot of options as to what they want to do, but the most obvious pressure will be from "bounty" missions where people request specific resources from specific places. For example, "get me 30 points of astrophysics data from Beta Sirius". Those will be calibrated for the capabilities of the ship, but there's nothing stopping you from randomly gathering as much data as you want. It has some value.

Understanding how long those missions will take and what resources they'll require can allow you to do several missions at once, either in serial or parallel. If someone wants data from Beta Sirius and another person needs you to pick up five passengers from Gamma Draconis, maybe you can do them both in one run. If things go well.

4) Recursive missions. The game encourages the player to meddle with the affairs of non-space-ship folk using a simple colonization system. Hopefully this will not only allow the players to push through map choke points/extend missions, but also feel invested in the universe they're building.

5) Exploits and cheats. Not sure about this quite yet, but the plan is to make the game moddable and I'm not aiming to prevent them.

6) Cool factor. In addition to trying to let space ships look cool, a lot of the fun stuff is going to come from the way you can make custom crewmembers. As The Sims has shown, there is an impressive appetite for putting all sorts of random people in the stew-pot in different combinations. Want a ship crewed by your favorite band? Your friends? Vampires?

From the other side, colonies can also be made cool. Want to terraform a planet? Want to cover a moon in a huge city? Want to start from just one starving industrial colony on a barren world?

7) Share-ability. This one't a bit tough because it doesn't actually exist yet. The big challenge is that I'd need some kind of central database. Once I have that, automatically downloading ships, mods, stars, and world states is fairly straightforward. It's intended to be a "massively single-player" game.

In terms of making it fun to record/screenshot... I have to think about that some more.

At the end of the day, the plan for The Galactic Line is to focus on plans-awry play with a minimum of actual failing. We'll see how that theory works out in practice.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.