Friday, November 14, 2014

Creepy Closeups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proper cut scenes.

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

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

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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Connecting With Science Fiction Settings

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

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

Let's learn by example.

Star Trek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyberpunk/Noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, those are my thoughts this week.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Complexity and the Non-Genre Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Characters in Noncombat RPGs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Designing Noncombat RPGs

In my last essay I talked about parts of the RPG experience I love. In the one before that, I talked about how we can put aside standard gameplay tropes if we understand what player experiences are created by that gameplay and do it another way.

Now I'm going to combine the two and talk about a noncombat RPG.

There are few "noncombat RPGs". They are never very good, because the entire idea of an RPG is based around combat.

Sure, all the gameplay loops orbit the concept of combat. Even above that, the way we consider fantasy worlds is through the lens of combat.

For example, I can simply swap combat out with something that is almost mechanically identical. Poker, for example. But the RPG will still end up bad, because the concept of poker players saving the universe is laughable. It actually runs deeper than that: our concept of travel within a fantasy world is linked to the idea of combat. How we judge the merit of characters is based on how they face danger and death, not how well they play poker.

You could make a comedy RPG like that, perhaps. A dance-off RPG. But if you want a reasonably serious RPG (not necessarily dark, but not a straight comedy), you need to deal with this weakness.

As tempting as it is to swap out combat for, say, cooking, you can't do it. You have to rebuild your experience from the ground up. You have to start with cooking, then think about how to build the loops, how to build the experiences, how to build the interactions, how to portray the NPCs...

Let's design a Mass-Effect-like. A game which "feels like" Mass Effect, but has completely different core play.

Our noncombat Mass Effect is about making the horrifyingly complex systems of the science fiction future work. The party repairs, plans, retrofits, and extends infrastructure. They work for the Central Planning Office. We'll call our game CPO for the moment.

The core loop is dealing with specific problems. Rather than cement everything too early, let's just mention some categories of "enemies" you might face: damaged parts, missing parts, misconfigured systems, incompatible hardware, incompatible software, archaic software, daisy-chain failures, missing procedures, and annoying people.

Right away, I can see four basic categories: hardware wrangling, software wrangling, red tape, and people/groups. I can also see various kinds of challenges within those categories: something broke, something crashed, something's missing, something's misconfigured, two things are incompatible, something failed because something else failed (detective work), etc.

Can this be made interesting?

Well, mechanically, anything can be made interesting. The question is whether it can be presented in a meaty way. The big draw of combat is that everyone can feel it. Even if it's presented like an oldschool RPG where someone steps forward, moves slightly, and then steps back, you still understand that there's a monster getting whacked.

There are two things we need in order to make CPO's core loop interesting.

The first is a good presentation. I think this is quite possible. Watching large machines turn on, lights come back, vents start working on the clouds of smoke, water start spraying... these are actually pretty good. You can really feel a sense of accomplishment when you repair a broken thing. This can be further punched up if lives are at risk - genuinely at risk, not just some color text. If you do badly, people will get injured, die, become homeless, or otherwise suffer. Work fast!

The second thing we need is a flexible system. It's easy to make a puzzle game out of this kind of situation - you have a bunch of pieces and you need to arrange them. However, the strength of an RPG's combat system is that it is very flexible. A variety of team builds can take on a variety of challenges in a variety of ways. Even if something is sub-optimal, the team can pull through if you spend a few more resources.

So this isn't a puzzle. Instead, the compromised systems are like enemies to be pounded. You don't just replace a component of a damaged factory: you assault it with ongoing repair attempts. If you have suitable components, it's like having an elemental advantage and your assaults will be much faster/more effective. If software is incompatible, attack with with programming hacks until compatibility is established.

Moreover, in most cases there's cross-compatibility. If software is incompatible, replace hardware modules until you find one with compatible software. If hardware is missing, write software to rebalance outputs and route around the missing piece.

Although I like the realtime combat systems we see these days, it makes more sense for these actions to take many hours or even days. While the player can wander around in real time, the "combat" turns are much slower. This means the exploration loop is actually tighter than the combat loop, because you can explore a whole space station in far less than one turn of "combat".

This is obviously a bit of a concern. Normally you would have combat be the core loop and you would fall into it many times during the explore phase, each time executing a complete combat.

We require a bit of a different approach if we want to do it this "slow loop" way... and we definitely want to do it this way. Aside from combat, there are very few immersive activities that take less time than walking around. Figuring this out would let us build a huge variety of "inverted RPGs" where the core activity iterates more slowly than the support activities.

To make this work, we have to create offramps from combat into exploration, then from exploration back into combat.

Functionally, this means that as you explore a place, the details of the place change. This is obvious: you are changing the place with your repairs. Moreover, the people who live in the place (or the weather or whatever) are also changing over time as their condition progresses.

Exploring becomes less about discovering new terrain, and more about discovering and taking advantage of these changes. Did someone regain consciousness? If so, you can ask them how the vent systems work, and get an "extra attack" in your combat against it. Did one of your people score a "critical hit" on some incompatible software? If so, use partial compatibility to help fuel your assault on the reactor repairs.

Exploration is no longer exploration, it's "resource management" - finding new resources.

With that in mind, we can expand it. Resource management includes blunting or evading new resource drains. It includes deciding to spend resources in a new way (for example, giving a colonist expensive medical treatment if his condition worsens). It includes moving resources - bringing supplies to your NPC team mates, or switching out which shipboard reactor you're using so you can swap out the nuclear core...

In turn, we begin to see this double-loop emerging. There's a lot of resource management happening on the "fairly fast" level. Perhaps each "combat" turn takes four hours, and at the end of each turn you can choose to wander around if you like. The resources supporting you may change a bit, but the big issue is the very predictable ongoing consumption of resources. Power from a limited power bank. Oxygen from a limited life support system. Food from a limited cabinet. These are resources you will wrangle between turns - negotiating for more oxygen, switching to backup power, going on limited rations...

By changing how our resource management system works, we can completely change the feel of our game and get a really good heartbeat going.

For example, we have a bank of 3D printers to print hardware components for us. Hardware work is therefore limited by the max output of these printers. However, you can also "prep". A turn (4 hours) spent prepping will add output to the total, allowing you to stockpile parts for really big job. These parts cannot be kept: they are special-purpose. So most of the time, you'll be working within the constraints of the printers, but it's flexible if you have time and good planning skills.

Hackers will want to combine their efforts with that of the shipboard computer. But that's a limited resource. Programmers only require a computer assist when using an advanced move, such as password cracking or database filtering. Rather than being a specific cap amount that is available, using the computers aboard the ship takes electricity - and not on a linear progression. Getting 10 points of computation is much more than 10x as expensive as getting 1 point.

Of course, electricity is obviously also a component. You have two shipside reactors, but the power output isn't fantastic and you need to keep swapping out fission cores, which takes a turn (4 hours). It's obviously nice if you can pull power from the facility you're repairing - colony reactors are much more powerful. But if the problem is that the colony's power is not working right, well!

But maybe the colony has computers, or 3D printers. Maybe the colony has batteries that you can charge up.

You can see - we can mix the resources you bring with the resources available on site. And they change in predictable ways turn to turn, so you can optimize your efforts.

It's beginning to sound like a fun game to me. You land at a dark space station, go aboard with suits. One party member spends every turn ferrying oxygen to the others, while they struggle to repair the power systems. One is elbow-deep in the reactor, the other is underneath the main breaker, swapping out conduits. The power system comes up, and you watch their faces look up as the lights shudder to life. They high-five.

The station is full of smoke, which causes the newly-resurrected life support to seize up. You use the station power to hack the central database of users, so you can program a new "smoke compatible" life support mode - one turn per action.

Twelve hours have passed, and you can finally take off your life support suits. You're all pretty tired from your twelve-hour shift, so maybe it's time to sleep. Some other party members from your ship step in to keep working while your "A" team sleeps.

They discover some colonists in cryo pods...

That is the basic format: turn-to-turn resource management combined with extended activities. You don't even need a hard party number cap, because party members use resources. It's self-balancing.

In current RPGs, resource management is long-term. You horde potions and mana and health over the course of a dungeon. We've inverted that: the resources are short-term. Each turn is a question of how to arrange them, how to refill them, how to spend them.

The way the two loops relate has been changed. Previously, the combat loop only had one "off ramp" - combat ends, you go back to exploring.

But our combat loop is slowed way down. Our players will take too much time to loop through until completion.

So we have to offer many off ramps. Combat doesn't "end" in exploration. You shuttle back and forth between the two.

The connection between the loops is much tighter, which should make the game quite immersive.

And that's the start of my design.

Dissecting the RPG

One of my big interests is RPGs such as Mass Effect, Dragon's Dogma, etc. But these days, I find that the gameplay is seriously getting in the way of the experience - for example, Dragon Age is poisoned by its slavish adherence to standard RPG gameplay and progression.

When I break down what I like about various RPGs, it resolves into two things.

Pacing

First, I really do like the pacing of RPGs, especially with the modern realtime combat systems found in every big-budget game since Oblivion. There's a really powerful pull to this combination of exploration, combat, looting, and optimizing.

I've done a lot of work trying to figure out how to get that same feeling "on the cheap", and I've discovered that there are very specific systems you need to implement. Obviously, you need all four loops. You can actually use as many variants as you want. Most RPGs have three exploration systems: dungeon, overworld, and city. Most also have several kinds of optimization - gear, leveling, skill/spell, item use. Dragon's Dogma, known for its particularly tasty combat, has three kinds of combat situations: free-for-all, anti-titan, and magic. They are actually very different - not different roles within the combat engine, but fundamentally different kinds of combat.

That's not enough.

I've made loads of prototypes with those constraints, but they didn't keep me in the groove. It turns out, what you need is hooks between them. You can't just drop the player from one to the other without warning, and you can't totally rely on the player to switch loops when they get a bit bored. Instead, what you do is set up a world where you are more likely to switch loops (or want to switch loops) if you do a specific kind of thing in this loop.

For example, if you're exploring a dark cave, that's exploration-loop. As you peek around a corner and see a crowd of cave spiders, you know that the combat play is not far away. You can choose to engage combat - and normally you will. But you can also prep, sneak around, back away, choose a first strike, try to pull just a few...

Even in a game like FF6, with random encounters, you would plan your explorations based around the number of steps you were taking. You headed for a tough boss? Don't waste a step. You trying to level? Wander around the entrance, run home when you run out of magic. And everything inbetween. While the encounters were random, the pattern of encounters was not.

Basically, the player can switch loops, but it's only at off-ramps. It's not just that one loop changes the stats in another: it's that when and how you set up your loop changes is gameplay. Perhaps the most important gameplay.

Characters

Well, Rogue has that same gameplay, and that's the reason it's got such longevity. But I like Mass Effect better than Rogue. I enjoy RPGs where you have party members. The more personality they have and the more interactive they are, the more I like the game.

I like Mass Effect because I like hanging out with the team. Dragon Age has some of the dullest gameplay and character design around, but I like it because the characters are all very interactive.

There's a combination of elements. One is that the NPCs are quite distinct, and feel distinct all of the time. In Skyrim, you can get NPCs to follow you around, but they don't have any significant personality. In Mass Effect, every NPC feels very distinct: distinct personalities, distinct visual designs, distinct voicework, and distinct combat roles. You never forget who you have in your team. You never mistake racist human lady for psychic human lady - they feel completely distinct.

Another element that makes me care is that the NPCs have social interactions - with you and with each other. They are not only distinct, they also exist within the world. Classically this has been backstory exposition, but I think that's an unnecessary holdover. I think social interactions and judgments are far more efficient and effective: Mordin's singing makes more of an impression on the player than his history with krogan genetics.

Social interactions are largely unexplored. At the moment, the three types we have are backstory exposition, random chatter, and loyalty/romance quests. I think there's a lot of room to add in more kinds of social interaction, but it needs a light touch. This is not core gameplay.

The last element that makes me care is the feeling that I can shape them, and perhaps that they can shape me. The most obvious example of this is leveling and gear selection - changing how they fight. But there is a lot more potential.

Part of it is the potential of the character. The path you choose locks away a path you did not take, and just knowing that other path existed makes it clear you've affected their life.

In Old Republic, nearly every character has a very distinct light side and dark side path. I can't play dark side, it's just too badly written, but just knowing that there was a dark side path made me feel that their light side path had more weight. The characters felt more important to me because their lives were changed because of me. Not "oh, the HERO changed their life", but "oh, the PLAYER changed their life."

These big forks are probably not necessary. I think small things are probably more important than big things, although we haven't really gotten that far. Let me give an example:

In Mass Effect, nearly every character is a potential romance target. But once you have chosen a lover, nothing really changes.

Imagine if once you chose a lover, they would ask you to be a bit different. For example, they might steadily redecorate your quarters. They might ask you to wear the NC-7 helmet because it looks soooo good. They might be more upfront about asking you to take specific side missions, or give you optional objectives that are substantially harder. All based on their personality.

For example, you go to explore a new world and Tali might ask you to avoid getting shot: if you get shot, she has to acclimatize to that planet's bacteria. Garrus might ask you to wear specific armor he likes. Liara might ask that you not make anyone angry in conversation, because it gives her an empathic headache. Doing or not doing these things would have no real statistical effect: this is to make hanging out more interesting, not to give you statistical perks.

If all of the NPCs made these kinds of requests, it'd be annoying to try to play the game. However, at this point you've shown that you like a specific NPC enough to spend your fictional lives together. That's permission to be a bit more aggressive with their personality and interests.

Notice, none of these are "loyalty missions". They're not linked to the core plot progression. They just make hanging out a little more interesting.

Anyway, there are a lot of options on how to make NPCs more interesting using these kinds of ideas.

I needed to write this essay before I could write an essay on redesigning the open-world RPG, so that's this essay done. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Boring Play

Recently I've been in a bit of a war with myself about game design.

I create a lot of prototypes - typically at least one a week. For a long time, they were mostly about exploring some gameplay idea - a particular tweak on poker rules, or a feel for the timing in a brawler.

As time passed, I became steadily more interested in themes. Pick a theme, then craft the rules out of the giant backlog of gameplay I explored. Fit them together.

In the end, there are only a few kinds of play that are considered "valid". If I come up with a theme such as "fluffy bunnies in the woods", it'll have to rely on the same challenges that every other game relies on.

Movement and timing. Pattern recognition/optimization. Choosing the right option out of an ever-changing crowd of options. Luck.

There are some games that people barely consider games. For example, Gone Home.

But Gone Home still uses these mechanics. You move around the house looking for things to click on. You put together the pattern of the story in your head. The least gamey game is still reliant on the same challenges as the most gamey game, just with very different pacing.

What about Animal Crossing and similar games?

Well, there's a lot of pattern recognition and optimization in Animal Crossing - gathering valuable things, hitting the parts of the town you need to hit, tending your crops, finding jobs and sidequests. Those are all pattern recognition and optimization.

There are some things peeking from the shadows, though. Creating your character involves picking from a list of options, but unlike an RPG battle or math-teaching game, none of the choices is right or wrong. Similarly, in Gone Home the challenges are all about movement and clicking just like in a shooty game, but none of the movement or clicks could really be considered "bad". You can't lose at Gone Home - the challenges just serve to to indicate which way is forward so you can control your own experience a bit more clearly.

In both cases, the "challenge" (picking an option, moving and looking) is there to allow the player to control their own experience. In both cases, the game tells you how to move forward specifically so you can linger or move on as your preferences and mood dictate.

OK, with that in mind, let's back up a little bit.

---

Gameplay is really boring.

Oh, it can keep your mind entrained. I play Kerbal and Skyrim and so on. The mechanics keep me thinking, keep me looking towards the next step.

But when I look at it, there's nothing to the mechanics at all. My outlook on life wouldn't be any different if I couldn't choose the right amount of fuel and thrust to land on a fake moon, or level up my sneak enough to stab a fake skeleton with a fake knife.

There is some value in these games, though.

Through Kerbal I learned a lot about the mechanics of space flight. While the lessons are stilted and simplified, they further my interest in and my understanding of real science, real space flight. By giving me a cartoonish version of something real, the game lets me hold it in my hands, twist it, hold it up to the light, and start to understand.

Skyrim is not so positive. The cartoonish thing Skyrim lets me hold is the culture that formed it. It's a very manly-man Tolkien fantasy with a lot of serious issues. But it serves: when I hold Skyrim in my hand and start gluing other people's pieces onto it, I can see all the weaknesses in that culture, and explore my steadily-increasing distance from it.

Even if you don't read into it as much as I do, Skyrim's strength is the setting, not the mechanics. High-fidelity fantasy world you can wander around in? That's what you'll remember about Skyrim. You won't fondly remember the lockpicking puzzle.

So, why do we do it?

Why do we slap useless gameplay into these things?

1) Pacing. By keeping the mind engaged, players can remain interested in the world even when their preferences aren't lining up and they aren't interested in the bit of setting they're currently looking at.

2) Engagement. By allowing players to choose how they approach the game, we also change how they approach the setpieces. This helps players grip the concepts in the world and hold them up to the light.

3) Synchronization. By giving all players the same emergent tools, we allow every player to have their own unique experiences with the same foundation. Sharing those experiences with other players (or themselves in the past), we allow players to have conversations about the concepts in the game. Even if it's just bragging about headshot counts.

Thinking about gameplay from this perspective is very freeing.

Instead of thinking "what kind of gameplay do I want in this game?" maybe we should think -

1) How do I pace the game so that the player remains interested even when their mood drifts out of synch with the setting?

2) How do I let the player explore the ramifications of change in this world?

3) What commonalities do I rely on to help players understand each other's experiences and choices?

...

I haven't gotten any further than that, yet.