Monday, January 26, 2015

Suitably Casual

I've found that playing RPGs on the phone is nearly impossible.

Well, to be more precise, it's extremely easy to play them when I have the time. When I was stuck in my parents' house for holidays, I could play RPGs quite well - long stretches of nothing better to do. So this is not an interface issue, it's an issue of time. My normal play habits involve ~20-30 minutes stuck on a train. Too short and too loud to get immersed into an RPG.

Instead, I play casual puzzle games such as Threes.

I like Threes well enough. But I miss the depth of character and world that comes with RPGs.

On a computer or console, the RPG is structured with a specific kind of pacing. We've polished that pacing until it sparkles, but it's becoming clear our standard RPG pacing won't work in small bursts. At least, not for me.

Rather than creating "a casual RPG", I'm thinking about ways to deliver the same characterization, world weight, and personalization that RPGs offer. But in small bursts.

One way to do this is Animal Crossing. The casual play of Animal Crossing and every game like it is compatible with short play sessions, and as you play you will slowly come to know and have feelings for the various other citizens of the town.

The play of Animal-Crossing-style games is largely maintenance. That is, there are various timed resources and you wander around collecting them. In some of these kinds of games, the timers are realtime. If you want to play for a long time, you start to explore areas you usually ignore. In some games, the timers are in-game, and the game world can easily be advanced - for example, farming games. In this case, the play is broken up into chunks of your own choice.

I prefer the latter idea, because I know how long I have to play. If I have a lot of train ride left, I might decide to tackle two days. Or, I might decide to do the maintenance stuff and then spend some time wandering around doing optional things. If I have less time, I'll naturally be able to focus on what I need to get done, and then end off naturally by going to sleep as my train arrives at my stop.

This player-selected duration is powerful, because not only does it allow me to pace myself based on the time of my travel, it also allows me to pace myself based on my current mood. If I'm impatient, I can push from day to day. If I'm feeling dreamy, I can wander the world without advancing time at all.

Fundamentally, maintenance-based gameplay is not the style of play I feel compelled by. In addition to not feeling as interesting as I'd like, maintenance gameplay is also contextually limited: it doesn't feature any significant travel or change, so the world can never be pushed into my head. It can make me enjoy characters, but the world will always feel tenuous because I'm stuck in a single spot where nothing really changes.

A game like Threes takes another approach: it's a skill-based puzzler. The puzzles are 2-5 minute affairs, and you just keep repeating them.

I believe the concept of a puzzler can be adapted to allow for character and world development. But it can't be pure. A pure puzzle (like Threes) can't really have characters and worlds hung behind it. The pure puzzler doesn't entangle easily: it has nothing to do with other characters or specific places. It's pure logic.

So there are impure puzzlers. "Fuzzy puzzlers".

For example, Phoenix Wright games feature extensive character development and are a lot of fun. They are not ideal for commutes because their pacing is too heavily structured: I can't deviate from the pacing depending on my mood or my allotted time, and the viable break points are too widely separated. Also, the world development is pretty scarce, largely because it's just not a focus.

The core idea is good. A puzzler that involves interacting with weirdos as its core mechanic. Phoenix Wright has terrible gameplay, all considered: there's only one path forward and it's basically a test of how well you can read the developers' minds. But the terrible gameplay is simply a gating mechanism to pace the content. It makes sense to have a strict linear progression when you exist solely to show off your fun characters.

That style of gameplay doesn't allow for customization, though, and that's a core piece of what I want from my theoretical game. It's either going to need generative questlines or an open world. Or both.

In an RPG, the fundamental pacing idea is good. You have several different gears in your gear box: safe exploration, tense exploration, grinding, pushing... each can be entered and exited depending on my mood and my judgment of how my customization is going. Maybe I need to grind a bit more before I push forward, for example.

The choices given to me are not absolutely perfect. There's no maintenance cycle, and the exploration segments are limited by the maps and scripted sidequests available in a region. For example, tense exploration turns into grinding, and no more tense exploration opens up until you push past the next boss. That's actually good in a console/PC game, because it keeps you moving forward. But in a casual game?

Well, there are some games that are a hybrid. The Rune Factory games are RPGs with cyclic maintenance and almost unlimited exploration sections. Huge worlds, low endurance, and lots of NPCs that actually change over time give them a good longevity. But Rune Factory is not what I'm looking to make. The customization is too low, and the worlds are underdeveloped. In addition, the days pass with alarming finality, so it's difficult to adjust a cycle to fit your mood and allotted time. Lastly, the actual interface is not very well suited to phones.

Interface is very important for pick-up-and-play games. Awkward interfaces are fine if you've got at least an hour to let your fingers remember what's going on, but in a commuter game you've got to have an interface that feels really easy. This is true both in how the player interacts with the game, and in how the game presents itself.

RPGs tend to be "local focus". That is, you are an entity in the game world and you can interact with things inside a given radius. But a phone is fundamentally a "global focus" - everything on the screen is as easy to tap as anything else on the screen. This is a big change. For example, a Rune Factory field is full of random plants you've chosen to plant. You plant them by walking to the specific meter of dirt you want and then plopping them down. But on a phone, planting a field would feel more natural if you just tap the meter you want. In turn, this means your fat fingers have to be able to accurately tap a specific meter, which means displaying fewer meters...

Normally, RPGs just accept their sub-par controls and have shitty controls on phones. I'd prefer to go with global control. So there's a challenge to create something where you have global control AND customization AND interesting character development AND interesting world development AND flexible play.

... I don't really have an answer, yet. But I'm working on it!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Backstory as Characterization

So, I'm making an RPG thing, let's talk about NPCs!

99% of NPCs in video games are "backstory as characterization" NPCs. This is easy to illustrate.

In Dragon Age: Inquisition, you go outside your castle and there's a yard. In the yard is warrior lady, a bunch of random trainees, and first game guy. If you talk to them, your only real options are to ask about their oh-so-complex pasts.

In reality, if you wanted to become friends with people in a situation like that, you'd share the situation with them. You'd bullshit about the new recruits, tease them about something, roll your eyes with them. It's ripe for complex interactions because there's three people with personalities (including you) and a bunch of minor NPCs. There's loads of details that could happen but, of course, don't.

You can occasionally choose some minor local detail from the drop down or see it mentioned briefly. For example, you tease warrior lady about needing a new practice dummy. But it's so... one-off and scripted. It's not even vaguely organic, and flows roughly as well as Joe Biden rapping.

The biggest dialog path is asking about backstories.

This is a great way to get to know someone. See what they went through, how they acted, what they think of their past selves. Yup. You can really get to know these characters.

But knowing someone isn't even vaguely associated with being friends with them.

There are lots of people you know and don't want to be friends with, and there are people you become friends with even though you barely know them.

This is because friendship arises from interacting with each other in a shared situation.

For example, you chat with someone because you're both at a boring party. You play video games with a group and hit it off with some of them. You have a cooking class with people. You're stuck on duty for 8 hours, so you chat with the other guard. Whatever. You're in the same situation, so you can interact with a meaningful context.

That's how you become friends. Not by knowing their torrid past, but by get along in a shared situation.

Why don't games do that?

Well, firstly, backstories are cheap and easy to pace.

More importantly, "shared situation" is a loaded word. See, in games, the only "situation" that the player can "interact" via is the gameplay. For example, the combat.

If the NPC has a lot to "say" in combat, that usually means they're derailing the player's plans. Basically, it's an escort mission.

Ah, escort missions. Some of you may not even remember the era where those existed.

"Wait, wait, there's loads of games where NPCs support you in combat and aren't annoying or derailing..."

Yeah, because the AI has been blunted down to the point where the NPC is less like another player and more like a tree or a rock. They exist to support you, not to interact, not be themselves, not to share the situation. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, if you give two characters the same abilities, they will perform precisely the same way in combat. Because it's not about them being them, it's about them being reliable.

Bioshock Infinite was a huge example of this, where the Disney Princess character was theoretically in the same situation as you, except she couldn't be hurt, trapped, sidetracked, or in affected by combat in any way. Similarly, rather than having the same goal of "killing dudes", her goal is to pick doodads up and toss them to you.

She's not sharing the situation. She's just in the same place.

Over the decades, we've become experts at removing the character from characters. They never do anything characteristic in gameplay, because that'd screw up the player's agency, make them annoyed.

In turn, the only way they can distinguish themselves as characters is through dialog snippets. And king of the dialog snippets is the backstory.

Well, that's no good.

Dragon Age actually has a partial solution: if you can't make the characters express themselves while sharing the combat situation, how about while they share a less pressing situation, such as wandering the map? While you explore, they'll chat among themselves!

Not a bad idea. There are plenty of low-stress gameplay moments in RPGs. Why not allow the other characters some freedom?

But dialog snippets just aren't going to cut it, not least because the player can't respond to them. Pausing the game for a dialog popup would interrupt the gameplay and be just as annoying as a character doing something dumb in combat.

In order for this to work, we need a way to allow the player to subtly and fluidly interact with an NPC's characteristic actions, and we'd want to have more characteristic actions than simply chatting.

A big part of this is to spread the work. If your party members interact with each other a lot, you can get a feel for who they are without being interrupted. They are obviously able to respond fluidly, since they're programmed to do so. No need to pop up a response tree.

When they do interact with you, or you need to interact with them, a very simple, fluid response system would be best. Rather than potential lines of dialog popping up, I'm thinking you just have a few different "moods" - maybe just two. Neither is "wrong" or "right": the choice doesn't matter in any grand sense. You're just interacting with them in a simple way to drum up a relationship.

Alternately, that idea might be fundamentally the wrong direction. Instead, how about every time you go to a town or whatever, you actually deploy your party members to go shopping or exploring or looking for people or whatever. They keep coming back to you with progress reports, and you can interact at that time.

Altalternately, you can play down player control or introduce intervals where the player doesn't have to keep tight control. If the player isn't interested in maintaining control over a situation, then the NPCs can inject their own choices into it without screwing the player over.

Altaltalternately, you can have the NPC be the one providing the play and therefore also responsible for how it unfolds. By putting the NPC in control over specific facets, you can trade off control with the player at regularly defined intervals. For example, the NPC might pull you from place to place, but in combat be reliable and staid.

I don't have a good answer, but I can tell you one thing:

NPCs in my game will not have important backstories. They will be defined 100% by interacting with you, and 0% by dictating their past to you. At least that way you'll be involved.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Science Fiction Corridors

I've been trying to up my science fiction interiors game for a while, ever since I learned to model interiors. So I guess it's fortunate that I stumbled across this and this and this.

It's a corridor-centric bunch of links, so let's talk about corridors. We can talk other kinds of interiors on other days.

The first thing to realize is that science fiction corridors rarely exist in a vacuum. Or, uh, I guess they're technically more likely to be in a vacuum than any other kind of corridor, but what I mean is that they are modeled on existing visuals.

You can try to create a corridor which "makes sense" for your science fiction environment, but in the end you're creating fiction. You have no specific physical constraints. Your corridors could be made out of Cheetos. But, because your environment is trying to have a specific feel and specific implications, you try to make your corridors make sense for your setting.

In some cases, this is a physical thing. The corridors in 2001 were the inside of a spinning disk, a unique structure that captured the physical idea of spinning space stations. Similarly, the lower decks in Alien's space ship looked just like steam tunnels because they were supposed to be steam tunnels. The organic tunnels in the alien ship in the same movie were that way because it was what organic tunnels would probably look like.

Normally, science fiction interiors (and corridors in specific) are instead designed to feel right. They aren't physically reflecting a physical role in the physical reality of the setting, they're physically reflecting an emotional role.

For example, some corridors in Alien are octagonal, with a lot of weird, puffy striations. It's nonsense to have padded tunnels, but I don't think anyone ever complained, because it fit. It was a disquieting feeling - claustrophobic shape combined with unsettling geometries. Just enough to make everything creepy, not so much that it felt unreasonable.

With this in mind, many science fiction corridors clone from existing architecture a lot more aggressively. Some feel like bureaucratic office spaces from the fifties. Others feel like libraries, or industrial complexes. By punching up real-world architecture, you get both a believable layout and an implicit emotional connection to the source. Later Alien movies used this a lot, not to keep talking about Alien all the time.

Emotional connection is the word of the day, and that's why the actual shape of the corridor is only one of the pieces of the puzzle. Lighting is another big piece. If possible, sound, motion, and interactive bits are also useful in establishing a good emotional feel. As an easy example: sunlight streaming through a big side window can make a hallway seem extremely pleasant, even if the rest of the hallway is unimpressive. A small, blinking console on the wall can give a sense that a hallway exists in the universe for a reason, and is tied to the rest of the ship or station, and actually moves through time with the rest of the universe instead of simply being a prop.

That said, let's discuss some of the basic corridor philosophies.

Basic Shape

In the most general sense, the default corridor is rectangular, like every corridor you've ever seen. With normal proportions, these corridors don't inspire much claustrophobia. It is common to stretch them a bit, which typically makes them feel claustrophobic or restrictive. These kinds of stretched rectangular corridors are frequently used for rigid, authoritarian ships and stations to make them feel unbending.

Because any stretching on any axis tends to make these hallways intimidating, a lot of designers use asymmetry to break up that intimidation. This is typically a canted ceiling on large hallways or rooms. It makes it feel more like an airy loft than a dour government facility.

Tilted walls, both symmetrical and asymmetrical, are sometimes used. By angling the walls outward, you create more space at the top of the hall. Angle them inward for less space. Angling them in will feel claustrophobic, while angling them out will theoretically feel less claustrophobic, but in practice it feels a bit weird. This is why so many corridors in Star Trek are canted inwards, even though that theoretically makes them more claustrophobic, it makes them feel less authoritarian.

Vaulted ceilings are sometimes used to add extra headroom and make a hallway less oppressive. However, keep in mind that these are specifically vaulted, with struts and indents. A smooth curve at the top of the hallway has a very different, organic feel. We'll discuss the difference in more detail later.

A more common technique used a lot is to create bevels or angles on the walls. The secret to these is that the shoulder-height wall, ceiling, and floor all need to be orthogonal, but everything else is open to fiddling. By folding the tops and bottoms of the walls inward, you can create an octagonal hallway. By folding the top of the wall sharply outwards and then upwards again, you can create spacious headroom. Any combination of folds can be used for a variety of results, but in general these either make the hall feel more claustrophobic or less claustrophobic.

Probably the most common technique is to add organic curves to the walls.

It's pretty rare to use circular corridors. In reality, a lot of underground facilities use circular corridors, but in a movie or video game it feels pretty unnatural. Instead, the walls are typically parabolas of any arc you please. Most of the time, these parabolas are both vertically and horizontally symmetrical, with their widest point halfway up the corridor, but that's not required.

The three examples of organic curves on your walls that I would use are:

The Alien ship: a very organic look with large corridors that look like an esophagus or rib cage. You can use organic shapes to get an actual organic look, like this.

Star Trek wobbles between using inward-canted walls and organic curves depending on the set designer, but they both serve the same purpose: to make the corridors seem less authoritarian. This is necessary because the corridors are not decorated, and would appear spartan if they were square.

Many classic 60s movies such as Starcrash actually used angles that were wider than a circle would be. These create a slightly surreal look, and although it's arguable as to whether they create the same impression with everyone, to me they feel like they are under pressure, at the bottom of an ocean.

Wall and Ceiling Struts

Your basic hallway shape is not what you think it is. That is, nearly every science fiction corridor is made alternating segments - the wall shape and the "strut" shape.

There are plenty of science fiction corridors that don't have struts and are simply the wall shape. But these are typically oppressive, nightmarish corridors, and are designed to give no texture to the human eye. They aren't even utilitarian: they are flatly oppressive in the most aggressive way possible.

This is why nearly every corridor alternates a long and short shape - we'll call them "wall" and "strut".

The best example of this is the Star Trek corridor. Whether rounded or canted, all Star Trek corridors have struts. These are fairly subtle, usually the exact same shape as the wall, but simply scaled inwards a bit. If they want the ship to feel a bit more oppressive, the struts are more like supports, angled inward more aggressively at the top. This gives those corridors a heavier, more armored feeling. Either way, the struts are typically colored slightly differently from the rest of the hall - enough to give the hall texture, but not enough to make it feel candystriped.

As a side note, doors in Star Trek are typically flanked directly by struts, which is part of what gives Star Trek doors their unique "strong yet unobtrusive" feel.

Not all struts are what we might recognize as struts. Some corridors simply have two alternating hall segments of similar length - you can do anything you want.

But one thing to keep in mind is that the struts don't have to be the same shape or impression as the wall. Many corridors use struts to even out a more exotic hall shape. For example, if you have a weird, canted-out wall shape, you might use struts that don't cant out, and maybe even create a smooth line for the roof. In this way your alien-feeling primary shape is blunted by a more familiar secondary shape.

Even if you do have an unusual shape, such as a smoothly curved "keyhole" roof, you can make it feel less aggressive by breaking up the profile. To do this, you can simply make the struts a slightly different size.

You can also make the struts noncontinuous. For example, you might use heavy, padded grips as your "struts". They serve the same purpose, even though they don't exist as a separate structure. You could push out the struts, so that your primary walls are actually more narrow. There's a lot of things you can do.

In the end, though, remember that the struts are intended to be part of the hall. If you make them too aggressive and obvious, the hall will feel all chopped-up.

Direction, Connection, and Breaks

It's not just the cross-section of the hall that matters. It's also how the hall feels as you look down it.

Many sci-fi sets use rigidly straight halls because they're easier to build. Similarly, a lot of them use "fractured straights" - halls that go straight for ten meters, then suddenly end in a door. This is because indoor sets can only be so large. We're used to this, but let's discuss some alternatives.

Star Trek pioneered the use of the gentle curve. By creating curved hallways, they made it so that there's rarely more than 10m of hall visible, but rather than end, it just continues on at an angle you can't quite see from here. These gentle curves also made the ship feel more organic and less authoritarian. This is probably also the reason that the doors are always braced between struts: a flat door and a curved wall don't generally mesh very well.

An option that's hard for movies but easy for video games is the vertical curve, as seen in 2001. This curve upwards or downwards also keeps the halls from stretching very far on-camera, but it feels extremely alien.

Of course, this being a game, we can make our halls stretch on however far we want to. We can have miles of hall. But most people are not comfortable with how this looks, since we're not used to indoor areas that large. Even in real life, airports break up their long halls a bit.

One trick here is that our strut placement is typically a function of our maximum view range. In Star Trek there are struts about every 2-3m, because you can never really see more than 10-15m. In longer corridors, the segments are stretched out to give your eye the same amount of texture - otherwise, you lose your visual grip. So as you are walking down a long airport corridor, you'll see the "wall" areas (moving walkways with endless windows) interspersed every 80m or so with a "strut" area (a 5-10m 'room' with no moving walkways). Even though these strut areas serve no real purpose, they give structure to the long corridors.

The same thing is true in sci fi. If you have a 100m long steam pipe tunnel and you can see to the end, then your breaks are going to be spaced out much longer - pipe support braces every 15m, perhaps.

Providing structure to your hall is a critical part of the concept of struts, but struts are also not the only thing that provides structure. Another structural element are "wall breaks". These are areas which break your hall up by radically changing the profile. An example of this might be a rounded sitting gallery, or a glass veranda to let the sun in, or a small arcade. You can also clamp inwards, although this is a bit claustrophobic: computer towers, rubble, lowered ceilings, stairs leading up to a door in the upper part of the hall.

You can also break up your hallways with connections to other pieces of architecture. One handy trick is to simply have an intersection, either a T or a cross. Don't feel the other hall needs to have the same size as your hall: you can have it be much larger or smaller as your needs dictate. But large doors are also possible. Small doors break up the monotony, but large doors are landmarks as long as they are clearly visible. Security checkpoints are also a good way to make intersections seem more prominent - you can turn left, but there's a booth and a dude with a gun and a scanning checkpoint.

Anyway, the point of this is that you need to make your hallways seem like they exist. Long, unbroken hallways are extremely unwise. Use some kind of alternate hall structure (a "strut") to break it up and, if that's not gonna work, use wall breaks and intersections. These are also great ways to give your ship or base a real personality.

Sound

Sound is generally not discussed much, but I'll mention it in brief. There are three kinds of sound to consider.

One is ambient sound. What kind of sound do the ship's engines and generators produce? What about the life support? It's surprising how distinctive these sounds can be, and if you like, you can even vary them based on where you are in the ship - engineering has a distinct rattle due to its proximity to the generator, while the quarters has just the quiet hum of air filters. The noise of other crew members or active machinery should also be considered.

Another is footfall sound, or more generally the sound of moving through the space. In general, the louder the footfall sound, the more frantic the player will expect play to be. This is inherited from movies, where if you can hear people walking, it means you're hearing them run from monsters. We can relax that constraint a bit in video games, as the sound of your avatar's footfalls are pretty immersive. But you can go the Star Trek route, where the sound of uniforms rubbing together is louder than the actual footfalls. vip vip vip vip vip vip

The last one is the acoustics of the area. Most shows have studio acoustics because, uh, they're done in studios. No echo or blurring at all, unless it's some kind of cinematic setting. But in our video game, we can easily apply audio effects to create gentle environmental clues. Blurring or echoing is great, as is "wind whipping the words away" and other such effects. You don't have to apply them aggressively, just enough to make the hall feel like it exists.

In reality, footfalls and acoustics are the result of the shape and material of a hall. In video games, however, they're emotional triggers and you can play fast and loose.

Decorations

Decorations are what the walls are actually made of.

While some hallways are blank and flat, this is usually too oppressive and doesn't give the audience's eye anything to grip onto. Instead, most hallways have a variety of patterns that are applied to various walls to give the audience a visual grip.

In Star Trek these are fairly minimal, consisting of some gentle paneling and an occasional touchscreen. But there's more to it than that, because there's also lights, and most of the Star Trek corridors are defined mostly by their lights. Some corridors are aggressively blanketed in lighted panels from just above eye level all the way around to the other side. Others have recessed lights and LED strips. Either way they have studio lighting: we're not talking about the actual amount of light in the scene, but instead about the fact that the lighting panels themselves are a major component in the decoration of the hallways.

Most other science fiction franchises are more aggressive. Nonfunctional decorative doodles are frequently used, such as complex tile work, lots of touchscreens with different things randomly displayed, random wiggly padding segments, and so on. This sort of noise is easy to forgive, so feel free to play around.

Some harder sci fi franchises try to use functional or semifunctional decorations such as pipes or wires. Lockers, drawers, and other storage units are also very popular decorations, sometimes even being opened or accessed. Older shows frequently have speakers/PA units, button-pads, electrical switches, and other very functional parts, but modern science fiction tends to Apple it up and hide that stuff behind panels and in touchscreens.

One of the things a lot of designers overlook is the importance of giving depth to a hallway. You can get some depth out of your struts, but it's also quite possible to get depth out of your decorations. Grated floors and ceilings are probably the easiest, most fundamental method of doing this. Lights that protrude into the hallway are another way to do it, either hanging from the ceiling or tipped out from the top of the walls.

Grates in general are a powerful tool. If they lie flush with the wall, they imply that there is something behind the wall - air ducts, perhaps. But grates can also be a layer of wall in and of themselves. There's a lot of excuses to put grates in - you can hang wires through them, mount small equipment on them, protect delicate equipment behind them, and grab on to them if gravity fails.

Perhaps a more powerful tool is protrusions - for example, hand rails or similar. These rarely need to have any excuse to exist, and can be either horizontal or vertical with no problems. They can be bare or they can be integrated into the hallway in complex ways, such as supporting wires or having a "rotate to open" lock system attached to them.

When decorating, keep in mind that decorations are repeating themes, but aren't intended to completely saturate a hallway. Especially if your decorations are aggressive, consider alternating them out with other decorations. for example, not every Star Trek hallway segment has a touch screen. There are several varieties of subtle paneling and several kinds of doors it gets swapped out with. Similarly, sometimes they use eye-level variation and sometimes they use floor-level variation.

Even aggressive decorations such as steam tunnels don't simply repeat over and over. The pipes swap in and out. Sometimes you'll have patches of unusual piping. Never enough to confuse, but enough to give the player's eye some traction and sense of depth.

Also keep in mind the difference between square, vertical, horizontal, and akimbo decorations. Star Trek relies mostly on square decorations: nothing too aggressively vertical or horizontal, nothing diagonal. This gives it a regular, reliable, gentle feel.

Something like steam pipes or railings is aggressively horizontal (if running along the hall) or aggressively vertical (if punching vertically through the hall). These affect how the player perceives this stretch of hall. If things are mostly horizontal, the hall feels like a place to move through. If things are mostly vertical, the hall feels like a place to be constrained by. Keep that in mind, because there are definitely parts of your levels you won't want the player to feel like he's just going to move through.

I use the term "akimbo" for decorations that run in any other direction, whether it's diagonally or across the hallway horizontally or any other direction. I don't really have any solid opinion on them, except that they are a lot more aggressive than other types.

There's rarely any need to feel constrained by decorations. They don't have to serve much of a purpose, they just have to fit into the basic idea of the hallway.

Lighting

Lighting is probably the most important element of science fiction settings, but it's rarely discussed much. Let's talk about it.

In my mind, there are three different schemes of lighting science fiction interiors:

1) Ambient Lighting, AKA "studio light". This bright, soft lighting scheme is ideal for places that should feel inhabitable. It's mostly notable for lighting backgrounds as brightly as the actors, and therefore has a low-drama feel. To see the difference this can make, compare an episode of Star Trek TNG with a movie from the same era. The dramatic lighting in the movies gives the ship a completely different feeling - tense and aggressive. Not all ambient lighting needs to be comfortable: you can do ambient low light, or washed-out ambient brights, or even something like ambient red lights, but any way you cut it this tends to play down the punch of the actors in favor of the sets and scenario.

2) Dramatic Lighting. AKA "movie lighting". In movies, this kind of lighting is typically used to play up the most important element of the scene (typically the actors) while leaving the rest of the set downplayed. In video games, this typically involves light that actually comes from lights and highlights the main avenue of play while leaving much of the rest in shadow... but contrary to movies, darkness is often when draws your attention, instead of brightness. Either way, this lighting is not intended to actively conceal gameplay items, it's intended to create drama and variation. It can involve colored or blinking lights to play up that drama even more.

3) Schtick Lighting. AKA "Doom lighting". This is when you have aggressive light sources that dominate the scene. For example, it's dark except for a flickering, swinging ceiling light. Or except for a light behind a slowly-revolving fan, casting bright wedges of light along the hall. Or even just a game where there's light here and pitch darkness there. The difference between dramatic lighting and schtick lighting is that schtick lighting affects the gameplay: at the very least, the darkness is deep enough to be hard to see into. The light may also indicate something, like the classic of the corridor having intermittent blasts of exhaust fire or whatever, and you have a schtick light to indicate that.

In general, ambient lighting is often considered passe these days, only used for places that are supposed to feel ethereal. Most first-person games use dramatic lighting for the bulk of their game, combined with a small amount of schtick lighting.

Don't forget that brightness and color of light matter. You don't have to put in a bright red light if you want colored lights: gently tinting the light slightly blue, yellow, or red is enough to make the scene feel different. With dramatic lighting, light brightness is a bit of a battle, because it can be a bit difficult to get the light to feel bright at the right distance without washing out the scene near the lights - this is because it takes several bounces to get "good" dramatic lighting, and most engines don't support real time bounced light... well, it can get pretty annoying.





Anyway, that's me thinking to myself about science fiction corridors.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Retro is Poison in Large Quantities

I love me some zeerust! Get me some zap guns and silver suits!

I love me some pixel art! Get me 16x18 sprites and palette-swapped wolves!

But it's not enough.

I know everyone has something to say on the topic of retro. Here's mine!

People get sucked into retro as a concept. It's enticing: it's less impossible than cloning one of today's big-budget games and less depressing than cloning one of today's grimdark scifi settings.

But, for some reason, ideas tend to stop at "retro". Because it's retro, that's all that it is.

A good example of this is every retro game ever created.

Wait, let me try again.

You have to want to say something. If you're making science fiction, you have to want to talk about society, about people and their place in the universe. If you're making a game, you have to show some interesting idea, some meat for a player to sink their thumbs into.

When people start from the idea of "retro", they rarely have anything interesting to say. There are a few reasons for this.

First, it's easy to think of that as a "concept" rather than a "constraint". Retro stylings are a constraint upon which your concept can be built, a "foundation" for your "house". But if you think about it as a concept, it is instead a house for you to decorate. You can still express yourself while decorating the house, but it has a lot less impact than designing the house.

It's easy to see this in RPGMaker games, most of which are literally the same game with the same graphics, just arranged with different color text and maps. While it can be a good exercise, it's not going to be an interesting game like that.

Second, even if you do create a unique concept, it's often mired in the old concepts from that era.

For example, there are a number of RPGMaker games that have slightly unique battle mechanics or setting ideas. However, because they are mired in turn-based "blob" combat and flat grid maps, the uniqueness is drowned out. The only people that can see the distinctiveness are people who have played so many RPGMaker games that they can no longer see the tint of RPGMaker itself.

Similarly, many people who make retro scifi comics or stories get mired in the concepts of the cheesy zeerust. Maybe we're talking about 5-crew cigar ships and zap guns that never kill anybody. Maybe we're talking about 10,000 crew superdestroyers and people that die at a moment's notice. Either way, those concepts weigh heavily on your story, and it's easy for your story to get lost in them. Especially if you lay it on heavy - for example, throwing in famous tropes and references to your favorite stories. Your unique, personal concepts are pale shadows.

Worse, many of those old concepts are extremely tired. For example, the idea of "magical, mystical elves" is painfully tired. When you put such elves into your setting, you are creating a bare spot in your setting, salting the soil so it'll be hard to grow anything of interest.

To be honest, I think these problems are what "Cerebus syndrome" stems from.

"Cerebus syndrome" is when a comedic story turns overly serious. It's common in webcomics, but also in Japanese manga/anime. For example, Fairy Tail is an anime that started off lovely and lighthearted, but turned slow, serious, and dark as it continued. Eventually it turned into a humorless version of Dragon Ball Z.

While Cerebus went dark because the author broke down, I don't think that's why most stories get grim. I think they get grim because they have to escalate. Escalation typically means exposing the characters to more severe challenges, which naturally results in darker stories. And they escalate because they've run their core concept dry: they can't "unfold the concept" any more, so they need "more of the same".

Fairy Tail's core concept was mostly "retro plus fun character design". That makes a great splash, but it runs dry pretty quick. So the escalation begins, and it gets dark.

A similar anime, Slayers, shows that this is not always the same cause and effect. Slayers has several series, and nearly all of them wobble unsteadily from light to dark and back again. This is because the fundamental setting has a lot of powerful concepts in it, but the concepts cannot be easily explored in "comedy mode". So it's not just escalation that causes darkness. Sometimes the core concepts are dark.

Still, all of that mumbling aside, the result is that you have to be careful when creating retro-flavored games or stories.

You can do it right. Shovel Knight is an excellent retro game that explores several fun concepts.

But you have to have a concept that you can build on top of the idea of retro. You can't simply take retro as a concept and decorate it. You need to consider what parts of "retro" support your concept, and what you need to cut away so you don't sabotage your idea with tired ideas and loud distractions.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Narrative Echoes" and Recasting

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

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

My first stab at it is "recasting".

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

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

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

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

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

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

It might be easier as an example.

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

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

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

Mission over. Pretty simple. Everyone gets XP.

Now the mission is recast.

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

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

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

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

Mission over. Everyone gets XP.

Now the mission is recast.

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

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

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

You might have figured out the basic algorithm.



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

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

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

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

It's also important to consider continuity between missions.

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Exploration Needs Implicit Sharing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 01, 2014

NPCs and SCREEEEN TIIIIIME

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

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

More basically, "screen time = appreciation"

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

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

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

Wait, let me explain a bit more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...


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

Because of screen time.

Similarly, Yuffie was quite unpopular.

Because of screen time.

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

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

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

SCREEEEEEEN TIIIIIIME

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

Moreover, you have a balanced amount of screen time.

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

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

Why?

Say it with me-

screentime

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

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

But those are flaws I think could be addressed.

Anyway, that's my rant on screen time.