Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Humanizing an Empire

As you may know, I really love games where you build things. And what is the biggest thing you can build?

An empire.

When I was younger, I was obsessed with 4X games like Civilization, Masters of Orion, and so on. As time wore on, their shine wore off. These days, I still play those kinds of games on occasion, but I prefer games where I build smaller things.

The reason is simple: those smaller things are more people-centric.

Recently, games about building empires have tried to become more people-centric. Civ animates their iconic rulers with loving care. Stellaris gives you a bunch of people with personal traits and names and asks you to assign them to colonies, star ships, factions. Everywhere, people are becoming more common.

The problem is that these games aren't about people. They never were, and they can't be: the structure of the game is oriented around nation-building, not personal dramas. This means interactions are all about bowing to the will of the empire.

Games like Crusader Kings II push this as far as can be reasonably expected, tracking hundreds of distinct individuals throughout lifetimes, letting you push them into service, crush them, or exploit them. This appeals to a certain kind of fantasy, I'm sure, but it's not really very good at letting me build something that means something.

This actively interferes with my enjoyment of these games. Civilization VI isn't about building a nation, it's about beating Alexander the Great as he weirdly and obsessively declares war against you every decade for a thousand years. It's humanized to the point where I don't think of that territory as another nation - I think of it as Queen Victoria's house. Vickie's front yard.

We've been humanizing these games for eons. Everyone remembers Gandhi's words backed by nuclear weapons. Everyone remembers the personality-filled cockpit views in Star Control. But these were very shallow, passive efforts - the difference between anthropomorphic tags and being a person.

Basically, when something is tagged, you can easily slip a personality onto it and ascribe a mood or emotion behind its actions. The Ur-Quan dreadnaught fighting the Spathi? It becomes the grumpy, remorseless Ur-Quan hunting down a hilarious, cowardly Spathi.

When something is portrayed as a person, things are different. The easiest example is Stellaris: a few minutes into the game, you meet a pirate faction made up of your own species in order to inject some kind of military action into the early game. You choose an admiral for your fleet. Do you pick Sara? She has a bonus to attack and a neat haircut. Doug? He learns fast and is wearing a space baseball jersey. Veronica? She can move the fleet faster and looks appropriately grumpy.

Whichever you choose, it's a person, not just a vague indicator. Instantly, you start thinking of your fleet ops as part of their career, part of their personal story. So you go to fight the enemy.

... and they have a fleet commander, too. A person. With a unique name, unique appearance, unique powers.

You kill them. You never learn anything about them. Ironically, you never even have enough info to give them a personality. They are the same species as you, so there's nothing distinctive enough to make you assign them the personalities you give to the other aliens you might meet.

This is distracting. Players naturally gravitate towards densely simulated things. You've taught the player that individual people matter, each one is simulated and tracked independently. Then you show them a person, as dense and complex and promising as the one they chose... and just kill them. Wordlessly, effortlessly, pointlessly.

Worse, the alien species cultures are largely randomized. When you do meet an alien, the anthropomorphic tags they bear don't correlate to their actual characteristics. This turns the emotional responses into mud. You've trained the player to respond to individuals, but then refuse to let them interact with individuals. You train the player to not care about species, because their appearance is unrelated to their traits, but then force them to interact with species.

Civ VI doesn't do as many things wrong. It has very, very strongly personified nations, but they have the correct personalities and feel reasonable. Unfortunately, you can't really interact with those people. You can only interact with their nations. Even that is in a vague, impersonal way.

On the other hand...

Let's say I make a game about building cars. There's a bunch of NPCs, they want cars that suit their personalities and needs. I build them a car. They go "whoaaaa! NICE!" They go drive it. They come back. "It was great, did X really well, thanks a ton!"

The scale is small enough that it feels like a personal interaction even when I don't do social things. The response is personal, about something concrete and part of their life. The choices I make are much more centered around facets of their personality, because each NPC can have wildly different taste in cars without becoming unbelievable.

It is already much more deeply personal than Civ VI, even if the NPCs are just a doodled pixel portrait.

Honestly, even if there were no NPCs, building the car is still more personal than building an empire in Civ VI, because I can easily imagine how someone would use and enjoy the car. That's a big part of why Space Engineers is fun! There's no NPCs, no personalities, but imagining how people would live in space, use my ships - that's fun!

In my mind, 4X games can't survive in this awkward place. They will naturally have to become either more humanized... or less.

"More" seems to be the trend, so how would that go?

The two basic paths are the Civ VI path and the Stellaris path, which is why I used them as examples.

The Civ VI path focuses on a few, highly detailed, carefully designed NPCs. Further down this path lies a game where you can interact with those NPCs in more detailed, complex ways. Expanding your empire probably matters less than establishing a good relationship with your neighbors. This will generally take the focus off the militaristic side of things and play up more complex interactions.

The easiest way to do it would be to make the lands of the empire play the role of the home and body of the other ruler. Rather than negotiate with the ruler as a lump sum, you interact with specific cities or lands in a wider variety of ways.

There's not really any way around this. We can't continue having a bleak, war-focused set of interactions if we keep humanizing the other side. I already have no interest in going to war, even with the relatively weak personalities in these games today.

The other direction is to track an impressive number of people. Rather than the ruler of each nation, you track everyone. Politics constantly evolves and changes who is in what positions. The rulers of each nation come and go.

I have a suspicion this is definitely going to spawn a genre, but I don't think I'll like it much. That many people means that each person will be disposable, temporary. That's not going to scratch my itch.

At the very least, I hope all these people have personality tags, so I can easily assign them a mood and emotion as they do things. At the moment it's all undifferentiated mush, and it's very hard to establish any deep connection to the various NPCs. It'd be interesting to try to improve that connection while still having a large number of randomly-generated NPCs. Maybe use some techniques to inject personalities into the flow of the game.

But right this instant, I have a car-building prototype to create.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Stats, Classes, and Fantasy Races

In Ye Olden Days of RPGs, you would roll stats straight. Only then would you start thinking about who the character was. You would choose a class to leverage whatever decent stats you had, and you might choose a race to push your understrength stats into a viable range. So the races and classes were less about building a character you wanted to play, and more about coping with brutal random chance.

These days, we build our character stats along whatever paths we want. There's no need to cope with randomization, but we still have the same fundamental structure. We've gotten used to it, but it's pretty bad. The added complexity doesn't serve any real purpose aside from making the game's high-level play be almost entirely about knowing which stats and classes and races interact in which ways.

If we want to make our game more approachable, that is a useless kind of skill. We want our players to excel at playing the game, not excel at setting it up.

This is a common concern, and many modern RPGs reflect this tendency. We've begun ripping out stats or classes or both.

But there is power in the gap between stats, classes, and races. The way they augment each other is quite dense and interesting. Just ripping out those cornerstones means you lose all that depth!

Without the resonance between the layers, you end up with a very shallow approach and extremely straightforward builds.

Easy example: Skyrim. No stats or classes, just a few skills. Worse, improving any skill is incredibly expensive, since the enemies scale with the number of skill points you earn, not your maximum combat skills. This means your approaches are going to be both extremely basic and extremely focused. Moreover, many approaches seem viable at first but at midgame peter out entirely - for example, pure archers don't end up working out, and having to fall back on melee means you're better off just building a melee character.

A few recent games have tried to keep the complexity of stats, class, and race, but they tend to end up feeling mishmashy and sodden. Pillars of Eternity is a good example: their attempt to make all builds viable results in all builds feeling largely the same.

Statistically speaking, that's what they have to do. Otherwise you're back where we started: learning to minmax would be the primary player skill, rather than learning to play.

Is there any other approach?

Sure! Here's a simple idea:

Stats and classes, basically normal setup. However, the stats don't give bonuses. Instead, they are capacity.

For example, if you have 8 strength you can carry 8 points of gear. Say, leather armor (6 points) and a broadsword (2 points). 10 intellect? You can focus on 10 points of passive skills. Say, detect hidden (3 points), monster lore for crits vs monsters (4 points) and deflect criticals (3 points). 6 points of spirit? You can equip 6 points of spiritual gear/enchantments/spells. Magic deflection (4 points) and a ring of sparks (2 points).

This is just one idea, but the core here is that stats don't have to offer statistical effects. By splitting the class and stats into orthogonal concerns, we can give both a much wider range. A magician with a high strength might seem like a waste, but in practice it allows her to carry 3 staves and 4 wands. She can just pull the right one out in any given situation!

It also allows for midgame optimizations. You want to shave a point off the strength price of that spear? It might be more important than giving it a magical +2 damage bonus! You want to merge a bunch of magic rings into a single artifact set with a lower total spirit cost but ruin them as separate objects? Sure, sounds good!

Races? Sure. Lower the price for specific categories of gear. Elves get bows one point cheaper. Dwarves get armor one point cheaper. Maybe you have a family heirloom? It's not great, but it's super cheap for you alone. No need to modify the stats!

In addition, I find this just flat-out makes for more memorable characters: their equipment variation will be cleaner and sharper.

If you're only controlling a single character, this kind of approach is a bit iffy. If you make it light enough for a beginner, it will usually be uninteresting after a session or two. Make it heavy enough, and people will forget their setup after a week away. But if you're controlling a party, it's very easy to make it work out.

The lightweight approach combined with gear serving specific roles means that players can tell who a character is and what a character does at a glance. Even after a week away, the gear will still be easy to see and you can slip right back into the flow of things. If you're worried about stagnation, a steady trickle of new gear variants or abilities that change the prices will keep things swirling nicely.

Anyway, I thought I should mention it.

Stats vs classes vs races: it was originally built for a completely different purpose. It's ok to not do things that way. It's ok to reinvent the wheel.

Just make sure your new wheel turns, or you'll end up with an oversimplified pile of mush.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Stars of Stellaris

Remember Stellaris? No? 4X space game that kinda flopped a little?

Time to learn some game design. Let's examine why Stellaris is flawed and how to fix it.

Oh, no, we're not talking theory. We're talking mods.

This mod.

All the mod does is make your starting "warp" drive travel at light speed. In normal Stellaris, a journey takes around ten days. With the mod, it takes a few years to get anywhere. A year charging up, a year charging down - it represents light speed travel.

And the result?

Stellaris is suddenly fascinating. Absolutely amazing.

There's a lot of moving parts to examine, so let's get to it.

1) The stars are not our friends
Stellaris' normal play feels... anemic. One big reason is that space itself feels anemic. The number of stars you can touch is immense, only bounded by random enemy empires and beef gates. Similarly, the number of stars that can touch you is immense. Enemies are always less than a month away, and most star empires seem to want to wage war across those stars.

There's no sense of mass, or slowness. You can reach out and touch ten different empires. At an instant, your fragile empire can be taken away by an enemy so far away that their stars are tiny points of light in the sky.

By limiting things to light speed, all of those problems go away. Every star you explore is a multi-year expedition. Every star is a treasure, and the shape of your empire is stamped deep in your brain because of it. Empires are easy to talk to, but wars take years to unfold - easily time to mobilize your defenses.

This gives your empire a sense of mass and weight. It also makes every jump matter, and you quickly learn to schedule predictive jumps. It's a radical change that, yes, slows the game down.

2) Planets are our friends
Now, in most 4X space games, this would make things unbearably slow. But Stellaris is fundamentally well-made and powerful. There are other systems which pick up the slack and absorb the pacing change - and also end up making your empire feel more real and weighty.

The on-planet options you have for managing your empire are deep and interesting. Constructing buildings, managing populations, installing space station modules, expensive building upgrades. Add in some of the additional mods allowing for more complex populations, more complex resources, and buildings with adjacency rules, you have a lot of really interesting literal world-building to delve into.

That said, this is an area that could be improved a lot. Not to blame Stellaris: it was never intended to carry this much of the gameplay load. But there are a few tweaks that could be made to make managing your empire even more interesting and rewarding. I might go with more variations within the population and a lot more on-world events, along with actual environmental evolution based on industry/geo-engineering projects. Interplanetary stuff might also be a lot more interesting and fun, maybe with "micro-bases" on moons and such, managed on the same screen as your main base's population.

All well and good, but all that stuff is theory. What's actually in the game works reasonably well.

3) Look at your hands
The basic result here is that Stellaris goes from being a mediocre game about endless conquest to a really interesting empire-management game. The change in focus arises from a simple change in pacing:

Stop giving the player stuff. Instead, make the player struggle to get anything new. Make them value what they are already holding.

This makes the player value what they have quite highly. As long as the play is dense enough to make that interesting, it makes everything meatier and more important.

Yes, you can make a billion random stars and a trillion random planets. But they only matter if you make them matter, and that means making the player value each one. Easiest way to do that is to make each one very expensive.

4) Moral of the story
The worst part about this story is that these mods are really unpopular.

Almost nobody plays Stellaris with the mods that make Stellaris fun, because most people think "more power = more fun". Millions of mods that make interstellar travel faster, or give you a higher colony cap, or add "sexy space babes"... but the mod that actually improves the game goes unnoticed.

As game designers, this is the heart of the problem. Every part of a player's feedback is going to be about how they want more, faster, stronger. When we take this to heart, we end up with vanilla Stellaris: a game that gives players far too much, far too fast.

Instead, consider that impulse as a source of power. If a player wants more stars, make the stars twice as expensive. If they want more ammo, make the ammo half as common. At least experimentally, for play-test purposes.

Because their urge for more is what makes them value what they have. If they want more stars, that means they think the stars are valuable. Condense that. Put that energy into fewer stars, and they'll treat each one like a priceless treasure.

That's my theory, anyway.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Directed Sandbox (Planet Coaster)

Let's talk about Planet Coaster's gameplay. Let's really, deeply examine it, and analyze its place within the overall genre of "games where you build stuff".

First things first: Frontier Developments is a company that has been pumping out literal theme park games for decades. Most of their dozens of games are about either zoos or roller coasters. Because of that, I'm going to assume they crafted Planet Coaster exactly as they wished: no accidental elements.

The core gameplay of Planet Coaster is quite straightforward. In the first phase, you build a park out of canned rides and shops. This involves laying things out, hiring and training people, balancing the budget. There is a fair amount to learn: it took me five hours before I realized you could train people.

This "early game" of Planet Coaster is a logistical challenge, but it's largely pass/fail. Once you understand enough of how the park works to get a reasonably good layout, balance of canned rides, and sufficient employees, you're done with the early game and move into the late game.

In the late game, the park runs itself. You have a steady stream of income and no distractions. This is typically the phase where you start to build coasters and track rides, although you might build one or two small ones earlier on. Since you have no particular constraints, you are free to slowly work out your coasters and express yourself.

Moreover, the progress you make on your coasters doesn't much change the dynamics of your park. You don't need to change the number of shops or the number of trash cans or any of that stuff. Minor tweaking, at most. There's no distractions such as fires breaking out or Godzilla attacking. You can do as you like.

I call this a "directed sandbox".

The directed sandbox lets you do as you like, but also comes with some useful time-based constraints. This means you're likely to build low-tech coasters first, then grow into more advanced coasters. I think this is a good progression. Even when I'm familiar with the range of options and how the high-performance coasters work, I still like "warming up" by pushing the constraints of the starter coasters and the initial layout constraints.

Planet Coaster has caught a little bit of flak because of its easy late game. This contrasts with classics like Sim City, where as the game progresses more concerns are introduced. Requirements such as police, pollution management, and outright disaster response are phased in to keep the challenge alive.

It is true, Planet Coaster does not do that. Fundamentally, the game is not about managing a park: it's about creating a park. Expressing yourself.

However, if you simply hand someone a toy like that, most people aren't going to be inspired. They'll feel lost, like what they're doing is pointless.

So Planet Coaster gives you some friction up front. Plan the park. Tend to the employees. Make the park feel like it exists, even though it's basically busywork. This will get you interested in the nature of your park, deciding on a theme, building a virtual experience you can feel in your bones.

Then, when the time comes to express yourself freely, you'll have a foundation to build on.

You won't be faced with a blank page. You already have a sketch.

Planet Coaster does have a pure sandbox mode. I don't really like it, the unstructured construction ends up with an untextured park whenever I try. Nothing wrong with that, but the directed sandbox is actually more freeing for me.

I think we can learn a lot from this. Games like Kerbal and Space Engineers are directed from the other side - they have goals you work towards instead of foundations you build on. I think both approaches are viable.

But I would like to talk about one of the big weaknesses in Planet Coaster - one shared by many base-building games. Decoration.

Decoration is a big part of making things feel lush and lived-in, but left on their own, players will focus on mechanical elements and leave decoration aside. Some games try to embed decoration into the mechanical elements to insure the end result is decorated. For example, in Evil Genius not only are the various rooms automatically decorated, but adding decorations creates a stat boost in a radius around them.

Planet Coaster does this by simply making everything have a decoration rating. The rides are the most obvious example, since they have a rating stapled on their summary, but under the surface the characters constantly think about it everywhere they go. Their thoughts reflect this if you click on them.

My issue with Planet Coaster is that this short-circuits. The now-famous "surround everything with flamethrowers" approach is the fastest and easiest way to make this max out, and so many players simply have a theme park that looks like hell, both literally and figuratively.

Clearly they made this choice on purpose. I'm sure they tested other methods. The fact that flamethrowers are cheaper than a ratty old cart shows they clearly wanted to make them dominant, for some reason. But let's talk about some other methods.

One of the things that goes into actual theme park engineering is theming. Much like a roller coaster, the experience of moving through a theme park involves a variety of experiences paced to pull you in. The actual beats are different, and it's not as linear, but it's a well-understood arc. They build casinos using the same methodology.

It would be possible to allow the player to construct a theme park experience in a more explicit manner, where the themes in each area and the experience of walking through it are combined into a final "feel". Rather than theming the whole park as "pirate", there's a lot of ways you can refine that. This area is about high-seas battles. This one's about shipwrecks. This one's about desert islands and searching for buried gold. This one's about the scurvy port town. This one's about being in a prison. This one's about pirate ghosts.

It would be relatively easy to spam through these as well. "Oh, I want to get the points for a pirate sub-theme, so I'll just stick ten thousand cannons here in a huge pile." This is why I might recommend that the experience unfold in much the same way as a roller coaster's arcs do. People are moving through the area. Things that are close have a greater weight, things that are far away matter based on their height and visibility. This can be simplified or made complex as you like, but the point is that the actual walking along a path has an emotional pattern to it.

It sounds nitty-gritty and annoyingly obsessive-compulsive, but that's what designing a real theme park is like. Yes, they agonize over whether to use gray brick cladding or red brick cladding. They agonize over whether to use real-world branding for their food services, or just put up a sign saying "grog". This is what it's about.

There are a lot of different things you can do with this, things that are every bit as deep as a roller coaster. For example, you can use a monorail to move people from one area to another, but you can also use the monorail to reset their expectations and rest them up, so they're ready to tackle the new area. Correspondingly, you can put the energetic and terrifying rides beneath the monorail, in the area the monorail skips. Excited teens will ignore the monorail and move into the high-energy area, while tired families will hop on the monorail and get rested up.

Anyway, Planet Coaster's pretty good if you understand that it's a directed sandbox and not a game with a beginning, middle, and end.

What do you think about their approach?

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Soft Sci Fi is Hard

This is about Mass Effect.

There's a lot of ways to portray science fiction. In most people's minds, you can split it into two categories - "hard" sci fi and "soft" sci fi. And they theoretically judge this based on whether the science in the fiction is sciencey enough.

In practice, the situation is not about how sciencey the science is, but about how much it overshadows the people.

"Hard" sci fi is usually about lives buried beneath machinery. The technology is typically shown to be big and clunky - obvious mechanical arms, giant ventilation systems, big explosions, death any time a machine hiccups. It's easy to be "sciencey" when the machines are so clunky, because you can dedicate so much of your story to them.

On the other hand, "soft" sci fi is usually about lives lifted up by machinery. The technology is typically almost invisible, appearing or disappearing at need. The stories that get told tend to be about how people live when they are allowed to be who they are.

Neither of these approaches is inherently more or less valid, more or less sciencey. And there are a lot of other variations that can be analyzed in this way, like the ever-more-popular military sci fi. It's not particularly realistic, but it does talk about people living lives buried beneath machinery.

Because of this, rather than "hard" and "soft", I might prefer "heavy" and "light".

Clearly, oldschool Star Trek is king of "light" sci fi. You need healing? Here's a smartphone and an injector the size of your thumb, all better. Need to go from A to B? Here's a patch of floor to send you wherever. Need an epic space battle? Turns out your house is armed with lasers and shakes delightfully when struck. While there are massive pieces of science, their impact on daily life is either invisible or entirely supportive: the cool space station lets people do super-cool science, but is otherwise basically an office building.

Mass Effect is a prince of "light" sci fi.

Well, no surprise. Mass Effect was an attempt to modernize 60s pulp, and it largely succeeded. Computers literally appear and disappear out of thin air. Space stations and ships all have artificial gravity and huge windows. Healing is even faster and easier than in Star Trek, and guns fire magic bullets.

The clean curves and crisp edges of the designs highlight this. While there is a lot of detailing, there's no clutter. This is true of interiors, exteriors, clothes, armor, even guns.

The stories are about people living lives enabled by technology. Sure, there are still desperate people, dangers and evils. The technology is used to highlight and isolate those stories so they can be told crisply and cleanly, unburdened by the expectations of the real world or the forced clutter of heavy science fiction.

Those things can be introduced. Whenever it'd be useful. But we can use the freedom of soft science fiction to tell the stories exactly as we want to.

Moreover, this affects the ambiance of the civilizations we find. Things like armor or even jackets are likely to be rare, and we're likely to meet a lot of people delving into their own interests instead of being desperate to make enough money to survive. There are still likely to be poor and desperate people, but those elements tend to be downplayed. In ME, even the destitute colonists are portrayed as hopefuls building a new life.

People usually live a rather minimalist lifestyle in soft sci fi. They don't need clutter, not unless the story demands it. They don't need pockets, not unless the story demands it. They don't need medical conditions, not unless the story demands it.

Whichever angle the devs choose, it's supported by the soft technologies. If we need the colonists to be worried about the power supply, here's a box they are fussing with, and here's the side quest where you help them in some arbitrary way. If there's monsters attacking, here's as many or as few automated defenses as the story needs. If someone is corrupt, here's a technology that highlights and enables that. If someone's sick, here's an arbitrarily convoluted technology for treating them.

And... this is something authors simply don't understand.

They inherit a great story, and they want to tell more stories in that universe. They want to punch it up a notch, even. So they take the supporting elements that people will remember, and they make them permanent. They begin to clutter up the stories even when they aren't needed. The whole series trends towards "harder" sci fi, more and more clutter, and the genre changes.

I call this "calcification". Turning "soft" sci fi into "hard" sci fi - or light into heavy, if you prefer.

This happens all the time. It happened in Star Trek, which gradually became military sci fi. Hell, it even happened with Batman and Superman.

It's happening right now with Mass Effect.

I think this is why science fiction IPs tend to become grimmer and grittier. Not because everyone thinks grimmer and grittier sells better, but because if you let your stories build up clutter, you have to start telling stories about people being crushed by that clutter.

Don't fall for it. You can keep your stories uncluttered. You can even tell grim and gritty stories.

Keeping soft sci fi light and flexible is difficult, but it's key. When your science fiction can't touch its own toes any more, you've calcified and need to limber up again.

Monday, October 31, 2016

A New Sci Fi Game Genre

Games like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic are fantastic games. I've replayed most of them a few times. Each time I do, I get drawn to something that's not quite in the games, something I can almost taste.

Not sensawunda or nostalgia, but a whole missing genre.

Let's design a Mass-Effect-style game with Star-Trek-like ideals.

Old Star Trek was about being a mature civilization in a universe full of amazing marvels. Basically the opposite of a coming-of-age story, Star Trek was about adults finding the universe contains unending wonders. This is not the theme of any RPG I know of, but it could be. We have the power.

First let's focus on "wonders". To be honest, we already create wonders for the player in these kinds of games. We just don't play them up enough to have it register.

An example of this is Mass Effect. In this series you'll visit dozens of different hostile environments, hundreds of different classes of ships and space stations and planetary settlements. You'll see caves, plant monsters, psychics, ancient alien hive-minds driven mad by abuse, creatures so old they eat a galaxy of life forms in one bite, artificial intelligences struggling to work out how and if they should live, and so many more things.

Most of these sci fi RPGs and many horror games use the close-third-person camera. This tool is so powerful that I don't even think they know why they chose it. They chose it just because it always worked before... but there's a reason it's evolved to be such a core part of these games. It's the most powerful camera for showing us wonders and immersing us in amazing places.

1) We can see our window character. Both how they look in comparison to the area, and how they interact with the area/are interacted with by the area. Because we can see how our avatar compares, we know how to feel about the area.

2) We are still zoomed in pretty close. This allows us to make out all the details, as well as get a real sense of scale. When your camera zooms out too far, it's hard to feel like you're inside this wondrous place, and you can't make out any details of how other people feel about being there.

3) We can use standard cinematic techniques to draw focus and change mood. Slow pans, zooms, depth-of-field, shaking, tilt, and many more cinematic conventions can be flat-out stolen, and they'll work fine. Moreover, the camera is flexible enough that it can become first-person or bird's-eye as needed, giving us the best of all worlds.

By understanding the advantages the close-third-person camera gets us, we can play those up to create a more powerful and distinct sense of place, scale, and wonder.

For example, if we land on a world full of toxic electrical mists, our main character wears a heavy suit. We know it's a toxic environment because we can see our character plonking around in this heavy suit. Even the dialog has a tinny radio sound, and we can hear the KKkzzsshshhhh of sand blasting against our visor. We can punch it up by making the sound vary depending on the direction you turn, since the wind is blasting in one direction. When the electrical mist gets bad, we can see the flickering purple sparks on the skin of our suit, hear the radio break into static. We can even adjust the camera to a lower, hunched-down angle when the wind picks up.

Virtually every "amazing new thing" can be done using similar methods. If we discover a new species, how our avatar physically interacts with them will tell us how to feel about them. We can see how the locals react to us as we wander around in various costumes and deal with places built for creatures of alien proportions. If we find an ancient, damaged space station, we'll watch our avatar duck and crawl through shattered hallways, float across zero grav areas.

This is more work than just using the same walking animation all the time and simply making each level with new arrangements of the same meshes, but I feel like it's worth the price. A lot of the techniques can also be re-used - for example, the wind-blast sound pattern can be reused in the vents of a space station, or during a hull breach, or in a dock when a ship fires retro-thrusters, or even in a humorous way when your admiral is chewing you out for blowing something up.

Basically: if we radically increase the immersion of each new place, we can make each new place feel more amazing and new.

Those optimizations need to be backed up with some serious changes to how the game lets us interact with the location/have our interactions moderated by the location. This is where the "adults" half of "adults discovering wonders" comes into play.

We can argue over what being mature means, but for the sake of this design, let's say it means appreciating peace and life, and accepting that nothing is perfect. That is at the heart of a lot of my favorite Star Trek episodes, so that's what I'll be using as my measuring stick here.

That doesn't mean having a pacifist game. It might be possible to make one, but for now let's assume the game is still largely like Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic: you are fundamentally gonna get in a lot of fights.

How can we make maturity part of the game, despite that?

It's about allowing the player to appreciate the complexities of the places and situations they are in, and taking actions which take place within that complexity rather than just cutting everything apart.

1) Show people living in these places, show their joys and hardships, let them do things besides just sit around and repeat one line. It doesn't have to fit into a large algorithm or anything, it can be pretty basic, but focus on their concerns and their joys. Nearly all dialog, subquests, and exposition can be made part of some NPC's life, so obviously do that.

2) Show that things falling apart is bad. As lumpy as local society might be, anarchy would be worse. Ideally, show it in reaction to the player's choices: if the player takes too heavy a hand, chaos forms in the vacuum they leave. Many of the player's missions might be to try and help in places where this has already happened, which will keep it from being too blunt.

3) Party members. Have several party members along, or even have them comment over the radio. If each party member embodies one particular theme of the game (as is pretty common), they can comment on the things they see and the player will be able to easily understand the context of the comment. Of course, they can also drag the player into the local mess.

4) Recurring NPCs. Other mobile NPCs can visit many places and can bring their own nuanced chaos into the mix. Working with or around these NPCs and their factions can add a solid foundation to build on for the player's own nuanced interactions.

5) Refining choices. This one's a bit complex.

Basically, the first time you encounter a choice, you don't have much complexity to your response. But you keep revisiting the situation, and each time your options get more refined.

For example, a seedy space station has a problem as to whether it's being run by the locals or by the barely-inhabited planet below. When you first arrive, you can choose to side on one side or the other, or neither. You'll learn more as the situation unfolds, and your choices get more nuanced: you can try to put pressure on one side or the other to implement reforms or switch people of power in and out. You can gather intelligence and make surgical strikes or robust defenses. You can choose who gets a captured warship... even who gets to pilot it.

Writing these kinds of nuanced trees can be a little daunting, but there's methods that can help us out. We can lean heavily on either algorithmic or re-usable plot events, especially if we're making an open-world game.

We have to be careful, though: it's easy to end up feeling flat and formulaic if you lean too heavily on those approaches, and that would completely kill the tone we're going for.

In the end, the tone we want is one where the player can go anywhere in our universe, stop, and just enjoy the ambiance. Whether that means their squad of three is hanging out on top of a methane glacier, in the heart of their starship engineering section, or in a bar on any given space station. We want the player to think "this is a place worth protecting".

Or, at least, "it could be worse!"

There's nothing fundamentally new about these suggestions. Really, I'm just hoping to punch up specific facets that already exist in most sci-fi RPGs.

When those elements get punched up enough, a new genre might emerge. One about existing in a sci fi world, rather than murdering your way through one. But I can't see the end product right now.

I can see making wonders feel wonderful and adults feel mature, though.

I think that'd be a fun start.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Video Game Endings

So, I read this Gamasutra article by Jason VandenBerghe, and I basically want to argue the exact opposite.

Endings are extremely powerful. Arguably the most powerful part of any story, with the only close competitors being the opening and the main twist. A good ending can leave your audience in stunned silence for minutes, or screaming and bouncing off the walls. It leaves a deep and indelible mark in your brain.

Not all games need endings, but if your game has an ending, it should probably have a good one.

That said, Jason's article is not wrong. Most players don't finish games. And most games have shit endings. And... I know this will be a shocker... most games are just badly written.

For example, Bioshock is brought up. Bioshock and its successors have fantastic art direction, great voice acting, and a powerful sense of place. They are good places to be. But, in terms of writing, they're barely high-school level. "Would you kindly" is a shadow of a twist, and the ending is a few still images and a narration.

I won't say that the writers are bad. The problem is not how skilled they are, but in how the games are written. Budget constraints, convoluted development schedules, and boardroom interference can turn an excellent script into porridge... or a festering garbageheap into porridge. Either way, you get porridge.

Jason was right to enjoy the play of Bioshock and not give a shit about the ending, because that's how the game was built. But it's not how games must be built. We can use endings.

This is a two-step process.

1) Have a good ending.

2) Increase the percentage of players that reach the ending without making the game "too short".

Good End
Having a good ending is obviously a bit of a challenge. There are a lot of classes and tutorials about how to write one, but in our case we need to focus on techniques which allow the ending to retain its power even through the chaos of an ordinary development cycle.

The chaos of how a player plays your game is a similar concern. Some players pay more or less attention to different aspects of the story, or have different maturity levels. They may be in a good mood or a bad one. Maybe their kid starts crying halfway through your lead-up. All of this chaos!

How can you build an ending on sand?

Well, I can't recommend a twist ending.

Twists are easy to screw up. A twist is something the audience doesn't see coming, but when it happens they feel like it was both inevitable and mind-blowing. That requires a lot of lead-up to set the stage, and that lead-up will be ruined. Players won't notice, or they'll be smarter than you expect and notice it way ahead of time. The dev cycle of the game will cut a level out and exclude a critical clue. Someone will post a spoiler on Reddit and it'll get a billion reshares before the game even goes live...

Now, you can put twists into a game. But I would put them near the middle of the game and make them simple progression twists instead of a perspective twist. By these standards, killing Crono or letting Kefka blow up the world were good twists. You can't misunderstand them, you can't overly predict them, and it doesn't matter if the level leading up to them is cut or badly damaged during the dev cycle because there's no critical info in it.

For an ending, I recommend thematic echoes, a straightforward epic setpiece involving sacrifice, and a post-ending wind-down.

Thematic echoes are good because they don't require any one plot point to exist and don't require the player to be consciously paying attention. The easiest thematic echo is to look at what the player accomplished and then leverage that for catharsis or drama.

For example, if the player spent the game gathering squadmates, now the player must spend those lives to protect the world... or let the world rot to protect the squadmates. If the player has protected the townsfolk, now those people show up to protect the player. If the player killed a bunch of slimy aliens, now the player has to protect a bunch of slimy aliens - or be one, who knows. The point is, the player has been doing stuff, and they'll have an attachment to that stuff even if they don't consciously remember it in detail.

Epic setpieces are an obvious element of a good ending, but you'll need to add an element of sacrifice to really show that this is not just another boss. This is the end. You want that tingle to crawl down the player's spine when they suddenly realize that the story is going to end here. Things fall apart. People die. The main character loses an arm. These losses need to be of the sort where the story cannot continue as it was. This is the last stand.

The wind-down is also critical. Too many people just put up the ending and then ditch to credits or a pop song or something. It takes a little while for a good ending to finish crushing people's brains, so leave that ending scene uncut for at least ten more seconds than you might think you should. Nobody's in a hurry to see your end credits or hear you pitch your next YouTube video or whatever. Let them process what you've just given them.

Good wind-downs may also serve as follow-ups. For example, in Suikoden and Fire Emblem, the wind-down tells you how each character spends their life. It's very well-done.

These are just my suggestions, but I hope you can see how an ending built around these principles can survive the chaos of development and a wide variety of erratic players.

The End
You want players to see your ending.

To me, the ending is like a tattoo needle, and the rest of the game is like ink. Yes, players will end up randomly covered in ink as they play, and it'll leave a mark. But the needle is what gets it under their skin forever.

The problem is clearly explained in the article Jason wrote: games are long. People have different amounts of time, investment, and interest.

Fortunately, there are a lot of methods we can use to deal with this.

One way is to move content to after the ending. Post-ending content is a fun tradition, and there are three basic varieties.

1) The game continues. Somehow you continue to run around the world doing stuff even after the end.

2) Last-save options. You can always load up that save just before you commit, and go play in the Gold Saucer for a decade.

3) New game plus. Things unlock if you play again.

Just be sure not to make people think new game plus is required to get the "true ending". Crono Trigger did this right: you get the true ending when you play it through. The endings you find in new game plus mode are just fun alternatives. The ending they get is a tattoo. Don't let them think you gave them a shitty tattoo.

Another method is to use "multiple endings". Rather, you should think of major arc events as things that will be "endings" for players that stop early, and the next hour or so of play would be the wind-down from those endings.

A good example of this is Final Fantasy 6. Kefka blows up the world in the midgame, and you spend the next few hours seeing how your friends are surviving in this new world of ruin. From a story perspective, this is an excellent midgame twist. From our perspective as game designers, this is simply "ending A". People get to see the epic setpiece where the world is destroyed and everything comes undone, then get to wind down. It's a "downer", but that's not bad. It's just a skull tattoo instead of a heart tattoo.

It's not the "true ending", but you didn't do a bait and switch so it should be okay. It's just a memorable moment that can serve as an ending for rushed players.

Another method is to use "stretch content".

Most of the time we think of optional content as "completionist fodder". Like, do you collect every Pokemon? Take every picture? Level every item? Find the secret smooglesboogs?

But it's so much more flexible than that. Optional content is an incredibly powerful way to let the player tell you how much time they have, how tense they are, and what they care about.

For example, loyalty missions in RPGs. A lot of players will only do one or two loyalty missions for their favorite party members. Others will do all of them.

Why not just... extend that?

Major characters in these kinds of games usually represent a core story aspect or theme. So the story elements you planned to put in the main game to stretch it out... stick them in the appropriate character's repertoire. Not one loyalty mission per character, but maybe one loyalty mission per character per world, or perhaps a loyalty mission for every given pairing of characters.

Since your ending is built with our resilient approach, how much of this stretch content the player uses is largely unimportant. As long as that ending is still the "true" ending - too many games require you to do the side quests to get the "true" ending, and that's the opposite of what we want.

Content like Disgaea's item dungeons or Final Fantasy's optional bosses can also extend play time. It's not thematically integrated very well, though: I prefer the character-driven side missions, since the characters are thematically integrated.

Either way, the point here is to be vultures rather than tour guides. We push the player to feel things and control the tension, but we allow the player to tell us how they feel and how tense they actually became. The chaos of a game is impossible to predict, so we need to allow the player to control their own experience with a bit more adaptability.

Anyway, those are my thoughts:

Endings are powerful. They take the raw experience of the rest of the game, and push it under the player's skin. A good ending will use that ink to draw something cool, and the player will remember the game forever.