Monday, July 05, 2010


I'd like to talk about the difference between Pikmin and Overlord. Not the obvious difference in the fact that one is about a seven-foot warrior god and the other is about a tiny, middle-aged alien with no weapons.

Underneath that, the games are very, very similar. The primary gameplay in both involves ordering around large hordes of multicolored henchlings. The gameplay is actually almost identical. In both games, you order your henchlings one by one (throwing in Pikmin) or in hordes (using the thumb stick to control them independently). Your henchlings pick up and carry upgrades back to your base, the upgrades requiring a certain number of henchlings... when killed, you can get new henchlings without much difficulty if you return to your base, which is positioned at a specific point in each level, but not at a specific point on the world. Even the function-color of your henchlings is similar: reds are fire-based, blues are water-based, and you can squint to see many other similarities. Perhaps it's simply because those colors and powers are obvious. More likely, Overlord is fundamentally based on Pikmin.


But there is an important difference between the two, and I want to talk about that difference specifically.

In Pikmin, you have a very high camera angle, a birds-eye view. Your attempts to command single pikmin involve throwing the pikmin, and you throw it a certain distance. Your pikmin-tossing influence is therefore a circle around your avatar, and you can change your focus to any point on that circle very rapidly.

In Overlord, the camera swings way down to a just-over-the-head cam. Instead of commanding your troops to a specific point on a circle drawn around you, it's a linear command: your avatar points in the direction the camera is facing and the troops race off on that direction until they find something or have to come back.

This difference may sound a little bit unimportant, but that difference is actually what makes me like Overlord in spite of its many flaws. I'll tell you what really caught me as I played:


The way that, as you run around, you point your finger and your minions go off, smash the pots, and retrieve the goodies. Or kill the sheep, or smash the house, whatever needs to be done to whatever you're looking at. Especially great is when there's fifteen or twenty goblins streaming out, smashing things, retrieving things, a continuous stream of intelligent force.

This is somewhat similar to the effect that a standard first person shooter has: you fire your gun at something downrange, and it dies. Actually, it's even more similar to the gravity gun, where you can reach out and affect things besides enemies, and do fairly interesting and intelligent things with them.

But it's got some differences. One is that the goblins are intelligent on their own, capable of doing fairly complex things ranging from retrieving valuables to smashing targets to upgrading their equipment. Another is that, unlike the gravity gun and the bullet, goblins are an active effect that lasts several seconds. The moment you dispatch them, you can turn and dispatch more to other targets while they continue to do what they are doing.

The "stream" effect was very pronounced for me, it felt very smooth and immersive. To the point where the actual wrangling of the individual goblins and colors felt irritating and nitpicky.

So I began to think about this effect in particular, separate from the idea of having multiple colors of goblins. I couldn't really think of anything else with that feel. Some of the closest ones are things where you can set up streams. For example, ChuChu Rocket. But those aren't the same: they're clunky, slow, and not very intelligent in comparison.

Unfortunately, my quick and dirty prototypes seem to indicate that it's only possible to get this kind of feel in over-the-shoulder cam, which is absolutely the hardest kind of game for me to prototype.

Do you know what I'm talking about, and know any games that do it?


Aaron said...

Very interesting post. I think I know the feeling you are describing, but it is hard to distill and pin down. I am struggling to think of examples myself, and I have come up with three that I feel give some of that feeling of power, but not in quite the same way. I think intelligent interaction is a part of it-- as well as a sort of fire-and-forget mentality, where you make your decision and have some confidence in how it will influence the environment so you can move on to the next while your plans play out. This is still elusive and fuzzy so I’ll just spit it out and hope for the best.

The first is a first person shooter as you mention. In my case Quake 2 back in college. Occasionally when I was really in the zone and embodied walking death I could get some of that feeling. But the weapons were important. I could see someone running by in the distance, bounce three grenades off a couple of walls and down a hallway, and just know that they would connect. Confident the first would die I would walk away and turn to my attention to someone else who appeared. Fire a rocket where they would be in three seconds, knowing they would turn a corner and jump some steps, and turn my attention to the next. The thing is you don’t get the feeling so much with guns. With guns it is more about coordination and you have to concentrate on the task until it is complete. With grenades and rockets it was a decision. Predict how the players will behave, calculate trajectories, execute, and walk away. In this case the munitions were more like the goblins, but I had to supply the intelligence.

The second is a fighting game which I played on the Dreamcast called Powerstone (which I absolutely loved). The game had two fighters in a small arena viewed from behind and above with a fixed position camera. What set the game apart was that instead of simply giving you attacks, the game gave you a large array of actions, many of which involved interacting with the environment, such as walls, stage props, poles, and weapons. Every action the opponent took could be countered, if you could predict what they were trying to do. It was possible because much of the fighting was more indirect via the environment, so you could watch them and infer their goals. Again, when playing well, I could almost just walk towards my objectives, and any attack the opponent used I would predict and counter then move on. Sometimes this might be picking up a chair and throwing at just the right time so they jump off a wall into it. Or it might be moving aside just as they decide to jump kick and then throw them when they hit the ground. I think this game brought up that feeling through prediction rather than watching actions unfold after the fact. If I knew what the enemy was going to do ahead of time, I would decide how to handle it from a broad array of tools, and be thinking of what to do next. When the opponent actually did what I predicted, the decision was already made so executing wasn’t the primary focus. The feeling was very akin to superhero movies (like The Matric, or Watchmen) where the hero just walks down the hall and effortlessly takes out all the enemies that fly at them from the sides.

The third is Tetris Attack, a match three puzzle game for the SNES. The interesting thing about Tetris Attack was that matches took time to clear and the blocks to fall. During that time, you could build more matches off how the block would eventually land and chain together massive combos if you could keep it straight in your head. When playing well you may be matching four or five moves ahead of the blocks actually falling. This definitely had the fire-and-forget aspect. I would make a clear decision on how to match, and then move on confident that all sorts of points and explosions would happen behind me. A really good game chaining fifteen moves together could make you feel very masterful.

Aaron said...

The thing is, all of these games only bring that feeling about through very skilled high level play. Overlord does is much more easily with the AIs. I think feeling unstoppable and really exerting your will on the environment through decisions has a lot to do with it. Sweeping a flame thrower can have a similar level of impact in many games, but without the decision making it just feels more shallow. All of my examples are through the actions of a single player agent as well, and I couldn’t really think of any involving more dispatched AIs. If you distill this down further I would like to hear what you think the core components are.

Mory said...

The troop-ordering mechanic you're describing sounds identical to that of Little King's Story. But I understand you're talking about the feeling you get from it rather than the gameplay itself.

Craig Perko said...

Your examples are very right!

It's exactly like the feeling you get from certain kinds of very high-level tactical play. Maybe it's appealing because it makes you feel that same way, gives you that strong sense of mastery.