Sunday, June 30, 2013

Where Starships Fear to Tread

I've played more than my fair share of starship combat games, so I thought I'd talk a little bit about cinematic action combat INNNN SPAAAAACE.

Specifically, let's talk about Star Trek Online's strength: their starship combat. While I wouldn't say it's actually superb, it is at least more fun than any other MMORPG's starship combat.

The big strength of their starship combat is the exposed angles system. You have four shield quadrants that take damage separately, and you also have arcs of fire which are distinct depending on the weapon. The result is that you're constantly jockeying to angle your ship so that your intact shields take the brunt of the enemy fire, but also so that your weapon arcs can fire on the enemy. This can get quite hectic depending on the cycle rates of your weapons, how many enemies you're facing, and how fast your turn rate is compared to their speed.

Of course, the topological challenges of trying to put your ship in the right place are only part of the fun. The other half are the long-cooldown/one-use special abilities - usually granted by officers. This isn't like a shmup where your bombs are there to get you out of a tight jam: your officer abilities are part of your core gambit. You go into the middle of the enemy fleet knowing that your engineer can do a shield overcharge and keep you relatively unharmed. You knock down an enemy's facing shield knowing that you can fire an overcharged torpedo down that gap for massive damage.

I was thinking about it. What if we were to build a similar game, but with a bit of my design preferences instead of what they went with?

First off, the vertical maneuvering seems halfhearted. If it was actually part of the gameplay, you'd have dorsal and ventral shields so it could be made part of the orientation play. I think that adding dorsal and ventral shields would complicate things, so what I'll aim for is more like Star Control - a 2D system. The camera will be full 3D, but the space combat happens on a 2D plane. This also allows players to keep a sharper eye on complex tactical situations such as fleet battles, and allows us to overlay arcs on that 2D base plane so you can clearly see who is in what arcs.

This camera/play leaves us with two options: a faster play (like Star Control) or a slower, more tactical play. For cinematic's sake, let's go with the slower play. What's the slower play?

Well, the angle play needs to be more ponderous and predictable. So what we'll do is we'll make it so that your engines have two settings: driving forward very fast without being able to turn much, and not driving forward much at all, but able to turn fast. Switching between the modes leaves you with the worst of both for five or so seconds.

This means that your maneuvering is significantly "heavier" without actually making it any slower. In fact, we can make it feel more fast-paced than STO's movement, even though for our purposes it is tactically "slower", because you can only really adjust position or angle, not both. It also leads to some ships preferring a "torpedo dive" and others preferring to stick and shoot.

The other half is, of course, the shooting. In this I'd propose using the mouse to click on the part of the map you want to fire on. Your fire angles are clearly displayed, so you just click on a ship within one of those firing angles, and you'll fire all those weapons at it. Maybe left-click for one weapon type and right-click for the other.

Rather than have distinct regen cycles, I would propose that you can hold down the mouse key to perform sustained fire - whether this means a continuous beam of energy or a long slew of torpedoes. However, sustained fire will quickly shake, heat, or drain that weapon, meaning it gets weaker or less accurate the longer you fire the shot... and takes longer to recover to full afterwards. So it's always a tradeoff - do you prefer lots of little stings? Is it time to go in with a barrage? Are you close enough that the lower accuracy will be okay?

This allows starship captains to have more control over the timing of their weapons - instead of a simple counter where you're wasting time if you aren't firing them every three seconds, this lets captains choose to hold their fire in the heat of battle and gain a benefit: better/longer firepower when they need it.

Now, about those crew.

The heart of any cinematic starship battle system is, in my opinion, how you work the crew in. Human faces are critical. Even in STO, you never see them... even though in Star Trek OFFline, every battle is at least half faces. Here's my suggestion:

Every crew member generates a tactical option at a specific rate, depending on level, specialty, stats, and exhaustion. This rate is never very fast - at fastest, you're looking at 30 seconds. Once a crewmember has generated a tactical option, they are ready to use it, and will recover exhaustion slowly if you wait. Using the tactical option, of course, creates loads more exhaustion.

When you tap a crewmember (presumably linked to the number keys), you are telling them to take their tactical option. They are clear about what they can do up-front, so you always know what tactical option they've generated. When a tactical option enters play, the battle freezes (or slows to a crawl) while the top half of the screen is replaced with a view of that ship's captain telling that specific crew member what to do - it's maybe five seconds at longest.

IE, I tap my navigator. The screen pops up with me saying "Sulu, microjump behind the Defiant, let's end this."

During the time the cut scene is playing, other ships may trigger their own tactical options. This isn't first-come first-served - out of everyone who taps a tactical option during the scene, the one with the highest priority (closest to target ship) will happen.

So if you see my cutscene playing, you can counter by, say, tapping your weapons officer. "Mzikk, they're coming in for a taste, give them the full course!" This means that my cutscene on the top half of the screen is shunted to the bottom-left, and your cutscene takes the top screen... but the tapping could continue, each time squeezing the original cutscenes down.

"The Enterprise is walking into a trap. Put us between them." Same kind of maneuver, but because the cutscene makes the tactical situation transparent, the system adapts it to be better aimed.

When the cutscene chain finishes, there is a quick few seconds of automation while the involved ships perform their various maneuvers (each only takes a few seconds, and often happen simultaneously). Then battle resumes.

Another key element is that you can tap different crew at the same time. For example, if I tap Mr. Sulu and command him to get behind the Defiant, before that cutscene is up I can tap my weapon's guy and the cutscene continues, cutting to me turning slightly and saying "Then, Lt., give us a full salvo right up his backside!"

At no point is the battle actually removed from the screen - it occupies the lower-right quadrant at all times.

Anyway, I think it sounds like it'd be fun!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Scary No-Monster Game

Thinking about scary games without monsters in them.

I think my current idea is for a 2D game rather than a 3D game - 3D models, sure, but a 2D playing field. The reason for that is because I want to radically change the scope of the game.

In most games, the areas are scaled-up versions of real life. This is because realistically-sized rooms and hallways feel cramped and are difficult to maneuver in. Even in horror games with cramped environments, such as Dead Space, it's still all scaled up.

I got to thinking: how could you scale it down? How could you make a game where the interiors are actually more cramped than real life?

Well, the easiest thing to do is get rid of the 3D and make it 2D. That lets players see the whole environment around their character and, in turn, lets them understand the layout of the room even if it is cramped. Since we're not using monsters, we don't need to hide monsters off-camera. No loss there. It also gives us an additional bonus: it lets the players be aware of their character's full body in a very precise way. An over-the-shoulder 3D view makes it difficult to determine your exact center of balance, the exact position of your feet, the exact range across the gap.

This is important because what we're doing with this game is making the "platforming" into "slithering". The jumping is rarely needed and kinda dangerous.

I'm thinking of kind of a "slurpy" control, something that feels more like controlling a blob of slime than a person. So you'd just hold your mouse above her head, and your character would smoothly grab opportunities to ascend - starting with the desk and moving easily on into the air gap above the room. Shloop, you're in the air gap. Keep moving, though, because the weak plastic grate that holds the ceiling tiles will steadily buckle under your weight.

The movement should feel easy and "clingy". For example, if there's a pipe across a gap, you can just hover your mouse over the pipe and she'll grab it and shimmy easily along - the low gravity helps. If there's a mostly-closed bulkhead, sweep your mouse beneath and she'll slither beneath.

This isn't to say there are no challenges. There are loads. For example, what if there's a gap beyond the bulkhead and a ledge on the far side of the gap?

Well, you have a few options. One is to just try to slither across the gap - she'll gamely reach across for the ledge and, hey, if she can reach it before her center of mass is over the pit, no problem!

Another is to pull her upright on the gap side of the door and then have her jump. Jumping is accomplished by right-clicking. When you release the click, she jumps towards wherever the mouse point is. This is important to master, because it happens on release instead of click. This is critical because if you move your mouse over to the ledge and then right click, she'll already be reaching for the location and falling into the pit. So you right click on her as she clings to the door, then drag to the ledge, look at the traced path, and let go if you think it'll work out.

Challenges of timing exist, too, and the right-click jump is important for them as well - because it's a dash if there's no jumping to do. So there's a steam vent? Right click on her, drag past the steam vent, then wait until the vent stops steaming and release. It's also important for building up speed: if there's a big gap just past the steam vent, you'll want to right click AGAIN on the far side of that hole before she finishes decelerating from her dash. If she decelerates, she'll just do a standing jump instead of a dashing jump.

You can see where some challenge is beginning to arise. However, this takes place in a complex world that you're trying to escape and/or repair. We haven't even mentioned the left click yet. The left click grips (if held) or interacts/obtains (if clicked) or drops (if clicking on yourself while carrying something).

For example, if you find a broom, you can grab it by clicking. Now you'll cart it around. By holding the left click, you can stop in your tracks and, just like with the right click, you can move the mouse without moving the character. It does, however, move the broom! So you can poke around at whatever you can reach, or jam it into a crevice so you can walk across it, or whatever. By right-clicking while holding the left button, you'll fling the thing you're holding at the target, allowing you to do some long-range interactions or just royally jam it in. Tapping left-click on yourself will drop the broom.

Alternately, there's a cord whipping by. Left click and hold to grab it and get taken for a ride. There's a console nearby. Left click to use it, or left hold to hack it. There's a door. Left click to open it, or left and hold to press up against it and listen.

There are many topological challenges here. Your body is not made of goo - it has a size. So you might find a gap too small to fit your body through, but large enough for your hands. What can you do with it? Well, you can interact with things on the far side. You can throw things through. You can push a broom through and whack at things on the far side.

More complexly, there will be "tight" gaps. These are gaps you can get most of the way through, but then your butt (or toolbelt, whatever) gets stuck. You can only get through by then dashing, and the result is that you karoom into the space beyond in a predictable but uncontrollable manner.

It's not just topological challenges. The starship is a starship, and therefore has many complex things happening. You can run into areas where there is no air, areas where surfaces are burning hot, exposed steam venting, electrical shorts, even areas which have drifted apart due to the damage. But, in turn, you can use the devices of the starship to help you - consoles to open doors or activate machines, controls to let you use cranes, screens to let you seal areas, redirect power, restore airflow, seal hull breaches, cut off fuel... The big idea is that the player can build ships and then try to escape or salvage them when things go south. The devices in each kind of module are an important part of how it will interact with the disaster.

But no monsters.

New Era Brawler Combat

I was thinking about beat-em-up games a bit.

Classic-style beat-em-ups are rare these days, limited to only retro games like Scott Pilgrim's beat-em-up or Castle Crashers. Castle Crashers is also arguable due to some unusually shoot-em-uppy mechanics. Speaking of which, there are still some shoot-em-ups, but that's a different genre. Not talking about Alien Hominid, here. Talkin' bout Streets of Rage.

By and large, classic beat-em-ups have been disbanded in favor of new mass melee combat systems. This is largely as a result of moving to 3D, where the beat-em-up is quite difficult to do properly. So designers adapted.

A few decided to dumb down the distance control and amp up the timing control, because navigation and NPC movement in 3D space was always a little bit less transparent and predictable. The big example of this is God Hand: distance control is still important, but it's clear that the big focus of the game is on timing. Timing your chains so that your disengage lets you avoid the next enemy. Deciding whether to knock back, combo, stun, taunt... it's all about controlling or responding to the rate at which the various enemies will approach you. It worked well, but its not a genre because nobody else ever did it again. Because people are stupid. But I would call it a "timing fighter" if it did have a genre.

Most 3D combat games drifted towards ranged attacks, because the camera is good at looking in the same general direction as the PC. So there were an abundance of shooters, yes, but also a growing abundance of "ranged melee" games, or as I call them, "crowd control" games. Some people would call them "spectacle fighters" - I dunno, I almost think that should be reserved for games where you mostly press X to tear off an enemy's head with a fifteen-second animation. Either way, in these games you're a "melee" fighter, but your "melee" weapons reach ten, fifteen feet. The idea is to keep the enemies under control while you whittle down their health. Examples: every 3rd person brawler you've ever played. Devil May Cry, Prince of Persia, God of War...

Again, because navigation in those games isn't as crisp and it's harder to remain aware of where all the enemies are, the developers decided to focus on a different aspect. The timing fighter largely ditched distance control in favor of timing, but the crowd control fighter doubled down on distance control and simply gave it a different mechanic so that it was less about movement.

However, these two methods are not the only options. As 3D marched on, our control over both the camera and the enemies grew. Now we have a new breed: the New Era Brawler, or what I would more explicitly call a "chain brawler".

The sterling example of this is the recent Batman games, such as Arkham City.

The core of these games is the idea that you CAN see all the enemies you're fighting. Even though it's 3D, there's never going to be anyone attacking from "off screen" unless something's gone very wrong. This means that the core problem with 3D brawlers - the limited camera - is largely waived.

Unfortunately, you can't easily go back to the original brawler mechanics, because they were all about understanding attack vectors. In 3D space, attack vectors are a lot more complicated due to the concept of "heading". Enemies are no longer simply facing left or right, but are now facing any which way they please, which makes it difficult to really slip them well. The "up-down" part of the brawler navigation is gone, and in its place is a very complicated second horizontal axis. So you can't just use the original brawler mechanics.

Instead, they focus on timing, similar to God Hand. But God Hand had a close camera and featured very precise and delicate close combat based around it. The long camera we use to get all our enemies on the screen makes it difficult to read the timing of individual enemies. So, um... PUT A GIANT BLINKING THING OVER THEIR HEAD!

Obviously, the giant blinking thing makes each individual enemy a lot simpler to time against. So instead of doing much fighting against single enemies, you tangle with a single enemy only briefly. They are like lego pieces and the combat is made of many of them, rather than each enemy being a challenge on its own.

Hence the name "chain fighter".

Anyone who's played Arkham City knows how these fighters play out: your position does't really matter much at all. In fact, your movement only matters in that it allows you to attack a specific enemy by pushing the stick towards them. Every combat is a combination of chaining attacks and counters. You can pound a specific target, or split your combos up between targets - but either way, you need to be sure you're not in the middle of a combo when an enemy starts flashing its timing warning. You need to be available to press the counter button - or use a combo that moves you out of that person's range, perhaps.

That's the heart of the combat. The offensive combos are actually the big way to control your spacing, because most enemies only attack when they're withing a specific range. By pounding on the enemies in one direction, enemies in the other direction are left out of position and unable to attack. But don't get cocky, ranged attackers exist. Similarly, you can just stand around and wait to counter the enemies, but you'll never finish anybody off that way...

There are other elements to the combat, of course. Grenades, glide-in attacks, and ranged attacks of your own, for example. But those aren't the heart of the combat, they're just spice and some glue to tie the combat to the stealth elements.

The chain brawler is kind of fun... but I think it's nascent. I think it's still in its clumsy baby phase, like Double Dragon was a clumsy beat-em-up compared to the D&D beat-em-ups. The big problem I have with the current iterations is that they feel a little herky-jerk.

In the original beat-em-ups, there was a lot of the same features - choosing whether to knock back or if you had enough time for a combo or whether you could pull off a good crowd-control move. That part is very similar. But it was tied together with a simple and effective maneuvering system where you briefly jockeyed for ideal range while shifting lanes to limit enemy attack options. You largely controlled the enemies by moving out of their range, both within a lane and between lanes.

The new system has replaced that with a countering system, where you largely control enemies by countering effectively. Sure, just like the original beat-em-ups you can control them at least partially by attacking and there are annoying enemies that can't be controlled easily using the primary method. But, at its heart, maneuver-to-control was replaced by counter-to-control. This is, at least as implemented, a weaker solution.

The biggest reason it's weaker is because it doesn't allow you to "pre-control". It's all reactive control. With maneuvering, you'd change lanes and move towards another enemy. This would give you time to attack your target enemy while the other enemy counter-maneuvers to close in on your lane and position. But with countering, you don't really have that option. You can do this somewhat against melee enemies by simply chaining your assault away from them, but ranged enemies have no concept of lane and pretty much attack as they please.

This lack of a pre-control system means you have to constantly react, wait on your enemies. It also means they have to have unrealistically rare attack patterns rather than realistic assaults.

But there are some options for adding pre-control back in.

One option is to add in stun attacks as a much more central theme. Whether we're talking about throws, leap-overs, leg-stabs, or flicking pennies at people, if you can pre-control them by stun-attacking, that's something that can free you up to launch a serious combo without interference. Don't equate this to Lollipop Chainsaw: that also had a stun vs real attack system, but for a completely different purpose.

Another option is to add in much more powerful terrain features. This can be a bit touchy with the camera, unfortunately, but by adding in simple opaque terrain you can allow the player to pre-control ranged attackers by simply taking the fight to the other side of the wall. This adds in the original maneuvering flavor, except that now instead of controlling range, you're controlling cover.

Another option is to make enemies opaque. Right now the standard approach is that ranged attackers can fire through their allies without any difficulty. If they won't take a shot unless they're sure they won't hit an ally, you can use the melee combatants to control the medium- and long-range combatants - again, through maneuvering.

Another option is to make the counters disable the enemy for a long time - five, ten seconds. This means that you wait to counter, but then have freedom to fight within that window afterwards.

In all cases, maneuvering would be done less by actually walking around and more by attacks and attack chains which move you. You wouldn't simply maneuver so that the melee enemies were between you and the ranged enemies: you'd perform a driving punch chain that cuts through five of them and leaves you on the other side.

Anyway, I like brawlers, and it's fun to think about the evolution of the genre.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Design Talk: Poison Pawns

So I recently came up with an idea for a game I call "Poison Pawns". It's a computer game intended to showcase the avatar creation system, so it's got lots of people and not much action.

In the game you (and everyone else) are particularly corrupt intergalactic senators, and the point of the game is to gain control over various places and factions in a shared game universe.

Vying for control works with you and at least one other senator (maybe a player, maybe an AI) getting together for a short game. This can be live or highly asynchronous, depending on the specifics.

Pregame, there are 30 or so "cards" on the table arranged in rows. Each row is a different kind of thing: a plot, person/people, place, or thing/faction. You take turns picking cards until everyone has a specific number - around 7 or 8. The cards don't vanish: they are just marked with the face of the player than chose them.

After selection is done, each player turns cards into scenarios. Plot cards are defined with a number of slots, and players simply fill those slots in. So you might have chosen the plot "Person X rigs election for place/faction Y to get person Z elected as president". Then you might fill it in: "Bill rigs the election on Newplanet to get Suzy elected president". While you can only use plots you chose, you can fill them in with any card on the table, even if someone else chose it.

If you play that scenario and the game ends with it intact, then whoever chose Suzy would end up with control of Newplanet, and the steady trickle of wealth and power it produces. The president's stats do matter, augmenting that.

The game proceeds backwards in time, each player having the option to play a plot of their own and change the context of all the plots that followed.

For example, if you take control of Newplanet, I might then play the scenario "George fines and over-regulates the shipping industry". This nets me a lump cash payoff and also significantly degrades the economy of Newplanet, perhaps even taking it into the red. (Not all assets are positive, and landing someone with a bad asset can be a victory in itself.)

On the other hand, maybe I don't want you to control Newplanet. So I play "George implements reforms across Newplanet". Alone, this plot actually improves Newplanet slightly. However, it automatically works to counter any subsequent plot with competing interests. So George catches Bill's attempt to rig the election, removing Bill from play and canceling that plot. This only works if George's interests aren't compromised. If George is owned by you, or if I had assigned Suzy to implement reforms, then the election rigging would go ahead just fine, because those characters would be okay with it.

If you saw that I might do this and wanted to control Newplanet, you might have picked the "Person X has a price..." plot early in the selection system, and then tried to guess who I would use. This plot changes someone's allegiance, but it costs money depending on their stats and whether they are neutral or aligned with someone. Since you have to choose ahead of time who you are going to bribe, this can be difficult to use. Normally, you'd use it to cement the allegiance of your most important character. However, if I felt confident that you'd use either George, Suzy, or Bill to spearhead the reforms, I could set it up so that two of them are participating in my election plot and the third is covered by this plot as insurance.

All of this leads to a system where you know exactly what plots each player can use and the people, factions, and places they'll want to score with. It's a complex system of predicting what the enemy predicts you'll predict...

The game takes place in a shared universe, but once claimed assets remain "locked" to their new owners for a certain amount of time. Perhaps a week. During that week, other players may pay their own level in coin to sign up for the battle over it. Up to four players may get involved, at which point the list closes. At the time the asset elapses, those players show up and play. If players aren't available, unless it's set to asynchronous mode, they just don't get to participate and are out the entry fee.

The requirement for players to pay their own level in coin means that it's not profitable for players to target weaker assets. If Newplanet is a tremendously valuable property, maybe level 200 players will jump at the chance to pay a billion tons of platinum to compete for it. But if Newplanet is just some rural planet worth almost nothing, they'd lose out even if they dominated. Players have the level of their highest-level asset, as well: so if Newplanet is rank 200, then whoever owns it will automatically have a minimum level of 200. If that's too high and they can't afford to pay billion tons of platinum all the time, they might cede Newplanet or just not show up at the reclaiming battle (which they get to enter for free).

Since the game is intended to show off the avatar system, your avatars and clothes are a big focus. The galactic senate is a very fashionable place, and senators always spring for the rejuv treatments... and, of course, you could just stick to your own little senate quarters and spend all your time dressing outrageously and inviting people over for parties.

Anyway, that's the design of "Poison Pawns".

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Quest for Epic Loot first reactions

So, I was selected for a beta key for The Mighty Quest for Epic Loot, the newest game from Ubisoft. I've been slow on playing it for two reasons. First, it involves Uplay, which makes my skin crawl. Second, even though the game doesn't look particularly complex, it eats my graphics card and there is a worry of it overheating and causing my computer to hard-crash, something that I normally only have to worry about with cut-rate games from the early 2000s that don't understand the concept of a frame rate.

Oh, dear, I've started bitching already. That's, um... that's kind of the sort of review it's going to be. Sorry.

I actually don't think I can put much of the blame on the Ubisoftians for the things I don't like about this game. It's clear that what they've created is simply something that isn't aimed at me. In fact, it's aimed at all the things that piss me off. It's essentially casualified Diablo III mixed with Farmville.

My first real annoyance is that their cash shop is pretty much fucking your ear from the first screen. I'm not kidding: the character select screen is two generic white guys, or a third generic white guy for cash. And every loading screen comes pre-equipped with an ad and a shortcut key for their cash shop. And their preloader/patcher contains ads for their cash shop. Before the game even begins, you've been subjected to three screens demanding money. And, of course, nearly every other screen in the game also informs you that you could be spending money to just win this shit without slogging through the treadmill.

I guess maybe that's the way of things these days, but it gives the whole thing a cheap and chintzy feel. I would only be moderately annoyed by it except for one detail: THIS IS A CLOSED BETA. It's a closed beta, and their cash shop is already demanding your coin. Moreover, beta testers don't get any kind of cash shop bonus so they can beta test the cash shop stuff... it's just so... grasping.

The second major problem with the game is one I've already alluded to. You get to pick one of two generic white guys or buy a third generic white guy, at which point a generic white guy narrates a story and then another generic white guy sells you castle and takes you through a tutorial. The first non-generic-non-white guy you meet is a goblin.

The whole game is deeply uncreative and anchored in super-safe vanilla fantasies. There are no women, no black people, no children - just endless rows of white guys killing safely and cheerfully inhuman monsters such as chickens, skeletons, and goblins renamed to something so you won't call them out for complete uncreativity.

Some of the monster designs are kind of fun at times, but even they feel super generic because they take place within the scaffold of the game's battle system... which is super generic.

It's a bit like Diablo if you really dumbed it down. The skill system is painfully bland, the "stats" are more or less nonexistent... gear pours in, but there's not really any deciding to do, it cheerfully tells you which piece of armor is the best and expects that you'll just equip optimally constantly.

The fighting is a bit like Diablo in that you click to move, click to shoot, click to use special powers... but the tactics involved in a game of Diablo are completely muted. You can tell the instant the game starts that it's going to mute the tactics, because the camera is about four feet above your head. You can't see enough terrain to use the terrain. The archer's range is approximately nine feet, with the total view range maybe being 12.

It's not completely brainless, but it is very casual. And, of course, loot piles up and you grab it. The dungeons might get creative later, I don't know, but in the beginning they are strictly one-room encounters where there's some arbitrary combination of traps and enemies and you just deal with it strictly inside that one room. The Diablo equivalent of Call of Duty's regenerate-between-every-skirmish design.

Your castle serves as a modular home base, but there's not as much depth to it as you might hope. Most of your base serves to host generic shops that you have to place - not sure why. There's absolutely nothing interesting or significant about how you can place them or use them. You might as well just hop down to a shopping district.

You can build a variety of modules for making money or fighting off adventurers, which is where the game starts to feel like a Farmville clone. Of course, whenever you buy anything, it reminds you that you could be buying it using real money instead of gold... and after you've bought it, it builds nice and slow so as to prod you to pay some real money to have it skip the construction delay.

There may be some complexity to the base building, I don't know. I haven't gotten far enough into it to be sure. But I would be a bit surprised, because there's really no creativity or complexity anywhere else in the game.

But... here's the thing: I think it'll do fine. It's exactly the sort of bland, repackaged casual garbage I've come to expect from casual games, but dolled up in a package of ADVENTURING! So I expect a large number of people will be happy to sink their teeth into this dolled-up casual game and pretend they are eating meat instead of chugging soda.

"It's not a casual game! It's got a preloader and doesn't run in the browser and has 3D graphics!"

Well, it's too casual for my taste.

We need more base construction games, but this seems to distract the player with shiny baubles and mirrors rather than offering actual play. It's doubly poisoned by its omnipresent cash shop.

Theoretically, it could radically pick up in the later game. That really seems kind of unlikely, but even if it's true, the first few hours are full of predictable blandness and a very loud cash shop.

The Spore Challenge

So, today's thought experiment: How can you make the game Spore fun?

If you've played Spore, you've probably already thought about it. Very cool content creation tools yet to be matched by anyone, but no gameplay. None. The designs don't matter, the game phases have no complexity and almost no meaningful play. It wasn't even made into a casual game: it was made into a non-game.

So the question is: how do you make Spore fun?

I can see why they removed making the designs matter, as the freeform design makes it a really concentrated skill challenge. Not only would players poor at design have a rough time of it, but also any player that didn't want to spend a week tweaking their character design would come out worse than the "standard". Similarly, there is both a learning curve and a strict optimal set of designs when things like complex gaits are involved.

When you stop and think it through, you can clearly see that free design is a very high-skill kind of play. While I would love that, it would make your first playthrough of the game your worst, which is generally a bad idea.

What solutions can you come up with?

My solution is to make it more like real evolution. That is, once you make a change, you can't ever change back. All you can do is keep building off the choice you made.

For example, you start off as a simple worm-like water creature with a spine and a mouth. You can, if you like, turn one of your vertebrae into joint-bearing vertebrae, and you can steadily refine that into fins, arms, legs, wings, whatever you like. But you can't revert it back to a raw vertebrae, or move that formation to a new vertebrae.

Of course, you can extensively reshape everything within those constraints.

There are many things you might want to assign to a vertebrae. Ribbed chambers are useful, but they do strictly limit the size of the organs within. Pouch chambers are great if you want room to grow, but there's no structural support or armor. Leaving the vertebrae raw could be useful down the line: you'll never manifest a full set of arms out of nothing, but you can start the painstaking process later if you decide you need more arms.

The opposite happens, too: you can wither away the limbs or chambers you've specialized into until you can't even see them (although generally you'd just reduce them to structural vestiges rather than spend the evo points to completely diminish them). While they no longer have the function they would have had, the vertebrae is freed to maneuver as if it were raw and no real energy is wasted on generating them. And, of course, later you can evolve them back into existence step by step by step...

The same kind of sequence series thing works in terms of neural setup - evolving sensory organs and cogitation in the same way you'd evolve limbs and chambers. Organs, too, within the chambers...

All in all, this setup should make designing easy to get into right at the beginning, and let you grow into the more complex designing features iteration by iteration, never having to spend too long designing at any one time.

This one's just a simple setup, but it could theoretically possible to be a lot more complex and free while you do this. But it'd take a long time to explain, so this'll work for now.

Does it sound fun? What would you do?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Disjoints as Art

So, every kind of medium has certain kinds of disjoints in it. The way it presents the viewer with its contents varies from default human experience in some way. Most mediums make good use of those, and it is what sets that medium apart in terms of how it conveys messages.

That sounds complicated and intangible, but it's pretty easy to understand when I give examples.

In a TV show, the camera angle is constantly changing, the scenes are constantly moving from place to place, person to person. Obviously, this is not something that happens in our daily lives: we don't suddenly teleport across the room, or have our head tossed into the sky for a crane shot. But we aren't usually confused by the camera and scene changes - we stitch it together seamlessly in our head. That's because there's a language to it, a complex set of rules and expectations that let us put together the pieces flawlessly. However, the language doesn't exist to hide the camerawork: it exists to free the camerawork. Camerawork is a very important part of TV shows, and using your camera wisely allows you to present the audience with extremely nuanced information. Long establishing shots, closeups of someone's face as a single tear rolls down their eye, a newspaper tumbling past a desolate street, or even just the work-a-day camera flicking to make it clear who's talking in a conversation.

TV shows take advantage of their disjoints to give the audience an experience unique to video. The point isn't to take "realistic" shots that are all at eye height and never cut. The point is to use the camera as best you can, and the language has evolved to allow us to do that.

On the other hand, in a book the author frequently takes it upon themselves to tell you what characters are thinking or feeling, or throw in phrases that establish the background and history of a situation in one or two sentences. "...And there was Jayne, standing under a street light, holding the same damn rifle he held ten years ago on the smuggler's moon..."

Giving the audience insight into things they couldn't possibly have insight into is a powerful tool which sets books apart from other mediums. We've got a language of meta-writing to allow for it: we have lots of shorthand, best-practices, invisible padding words (like "said"), and so on. These all allow writers to quickly leverage the disjoint inherent in text and tell the audience things.

But books sometimes try to use movie conventions, and movies try to use book conventions. This almost always ends up shitty. Remember the original Dune movie? All those actors whispering all the time, all that narration? That's what happened in the book, but in the book it was completely transparent, because in the medium of a book is suitable to say things about what characters know or think.

In games, we more or less inherit all our stuff from other mediums. AAA games tend to inherit from movies, with cutscenes and static progression. Indie games tend to inherit from comics, with moment-chunk dialogues and the ability to flip to whatever "page" you want after you've gotten through it once.

But like the original Dune movie, both methods end up feeling heavy-handed and clumsy.

Like the early change from just filming plays to actually filming movies, it's time for games to stop being interactive movies (or comics) and start being games.

The question is: what kinds of features go games have, as a medium, that can be used to set games apart?

Well, in all the other mediums, the things that they can leverage are also the weaknesses that keep them from being ideal. You have to tell the audience everything in books... but in turn you can tell them ANYTHING. The audience is stuck looking through your camera in a TV show, unable to move their head or shift their attention... but in turn you can move their head and shift their attention in any way you want. The audience is forced to assemble a narrative from standalone moments in comics... but in turn you can make those standalone moments stretch and contain things no real moment could ever contain.

What do games offer?

Well, games offer a level of control over our actions inside that game world. Unlike passive mediums, we have control. However, beneath that is the weakness that the game worlds are limited. Some are very limited - in Tetris, your control is limited to moving a brick slightly. The limits of the world we interact with are our disjoint, our weakness.

And our strength.

Our world has to be built out of concrete interactions... but in turn we can make those concrete interactions contain more meaning (or way different meaning) than the same actions would in real life.

For example, one of the emergent things you could do in Halo was grenade-launching your Warthog using sticky bombs. How high could you launch it? How long could you keep it aloft? While the interaction is pointless - the Warthog suffers no damage, no points are gained - the constraints that the world put around the situation gave the situation value. An action which was objectively valueless from every conceivable angle became a fun fad because the way the world was assembled.

This is just one small example. Every game contains these kinds of situations. The values in the world are constructed not just out of context imported from the real world, but also from context internal to the game. Obviously, this is possible in every medium, just as you can say what someone is thinking within a movie, or describe the details of someone's facial expressions in a book. But games are the best at it, because games allow players to rapidly explore and construct context as a core part of their experience.

In most games, the context is limited to skill challenges. We appreciate combos, trick jumps, speed-runs, and high scores because we know how hard they are to achieve. Similarly, we prize glitches and bugs because we understand how unusual they are and how difficult they are to uncover. Games are entering a more social era in no small part because skill challenges like these are best when someone else can stare in awe.

However, with that in mind, let's think about how we can leverage this kind of rapid, fine-grained contextual construction in other ways.



Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ten out of ten

So, I thought I'd look at the games that tend to get all the press and great ratings and see what threads they have in common. I've divided them into two basic groups, each of which has three things that make it stand out.

Group one:

Good graphics
Lens flare
Letting the player choose type and quantity of badassity

Group two:

Good graphics
Lens flare
A cute female sidekick with special powers that tries really hard but never seriously challenges your dominance

There we are!

Gonna go make me a hit by making a game with BOTH.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Games I Like

I have recently noticed that whenever I pick up a game everyone loves, I spend the next two weeks bitching about how games all suck, especially that one that earned a unanimous 10/10.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I'm just a whiny asshole. Well, I am. But I'm also someone who likes games. That's right! I like them!

So let's go over some games I like, and what I like about them.

I like Valkryia Chronicles a little... but I like Valkyria Chronicles 2 for the PSP a lot! While the tactical gameplay is sometimes a bit dodgy, their home base mechanic is really exquisite. It combines the grind rewards of leveling up and changing classes with a participation reward of advancing soldier character arcs a bit after they participate in a few more battles. None of the soldiers are individually very interesting, but unlocking their arcs bit by bit is a fantastic way to do things. There is also a beautiful synergy where you get a unique mission related to their story arc every half dozen episodes or so - these missions are not usually significantly different from the norm, but it's enough to really make the characters and the progression gel into a crispy, crunchy whole.

I like Saints Row III a lot. A lot of people hate it because it's fundamentally kind of a dumbed-down version of Saints Row II. But I find myself returning to Saints Row III more than Saints Row II whenever I need a fix of dumb people causing extremely unlikely catastrophes. While nothing in the game particularly stands out, all the pieces mesh well with good timing so it's easy to just roll along from mini-event to mini-event. By the time you're starting to get bored of driving around, you run into a gang shooting. By the time you're getting a little bored of that, you get a paycheck and have money to spend. By the end of that you've noticed a pickup you didn't get and are now on a helicopter expedition...

I like the new XCom game. It's chunky and tactical enough to have some bite to it both outside and inside combat, but it never feels weighted down by the extraneous complexity most other tactical games (including earlier XCom games) forced on us. It moves well, swapping out between combat and base-building at just the right speed.

Those are all old! Do I like any recent games?

Well, let's look at 2012 game releases and see which ones I liked.

I actually liked Binary Domain, although most people didn't seem to. It's a relatively lightweight shooter, but with the addition of having to juggle your party members and their goodwill towards you. I liked that addition. It gave me some knobs to fiddle with over the course of the game, unlike most shooters where you just march from A to Z. In addition, the social soundbytes the characters give both as part of and independently from my interactions with them added a feeling of personality to the game world and the squad. Normally I get pretty bored with these kinds of action shooters, but in this case there was a glue that held my attention throughout: the other characters. It wasn't perfect, not even close, but it was more compelling than the Halo games to me.

As always, I liked the most recent Disgaea. I do have a problem with Disgaea where I get bogged down in details, so if I leave for a week I basically have to start over because I feel so lost. But while I'm playing, there's a great flow between fighting, managing warriors, and interacting with the base. The great character-driven plot moments are also very juicy, although I feel they are more useful as changes of pace than as actual plots. They don't make me care about seeing the next one - they just entertain me for a few light moments to break up the tactical weight of the rest of the game.

Obviously, I loved Dragon's Dogma. It has a good combination of self-directed exploration, leveling, and quests. The game was horribly flawed in many ways, but it was also fun to play. Like many such games, I never beat it. It's just too long. But for the 100+ hours I played it, I thoroughly enjoyed it, bugs, boring plot, and miscalibrated balance aside.

Believe it or not, I really liked Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. Talk about a pointless, shitty game. But I love rhythm games like that, even though I'm crap at them. This one emerges from the pack because it has a lot of complex progression - earning characters, skills, items, new tracks, and so on. Classic RPG grinding style mixed in with rhythm-based gameplay made it perfect for my train commutes. I wouldn't want to sit and play it for 100+ hours like Dragon's Dogma, but I played it for around 40 hours, 20-30 minutes a day on commutes.

Borderlands 2 was one of the few long games I actually managed to beat, I liked it so much. Extremely fluid play, both within the running gunfights and in terms of the pacing of rewards, exploration, level-ups, and character quests.

The common thread between the games I like appears to be pacing. These games all have really excellent pacing. They hand off between various elements of play with good timing, neither too fast nor too slow, and rarely if ever force me to do something at the game designers' whim. They have long-cycle and short-cycle gameplay intermixed well, and alternate between heavy and light nicely.

On the other hand, many of the games that the world considered to be the big winners last year, I didn't like. I didn't like Dishonored or Batman: Arkham City, for example.

These games tended to have very, very good graphics, animations, sounds, voice acting... but I found them really boring to play. No flow.

So, yes, I like games. I just hate all the games everyone else liked.

A World's Heartbeat

One of the differences between open-world construction games such as Minecraft and closed-world construction games such as Bridge Builder is the world. In an open-world game your actions are within a larger, more complex world. The challenge is not simply to construct something to a specific target objective, but to exist within the larger world.

The texture and "beat" of the world obviously matters a great deal. In most such games, days and nights come with regularity, and your constructions are often oriented around that cycle. Of course, then you delve into the dark caves and it's always night...

So when I began to build my little space station game, the texture and beat of the world became something of a concern to me.

See, unlike something like Minecraft, my game takes place almost entirely indoors. There are things which happen outside - mining, scanning the planet, hacking a genome, perhaps some kind of defense grid thing... these are equal parts exploration and action, and they should be fun. But they exist to support the base. The base itself has to feel alive and interesting.

One key to this is NPCs: NPCs facilitate your outside operations. So you bring in miners and researchers and pilots and so on. Half the time they are away working, and half the time your base is full of them. When they are at home, your base is lively, full of chunky little space explorers having fun on their day off. When they are away, your base is cavernously empty, a good time to build or to manage their work duties by directing their activities (outside base operations).

This gives your base a heartbeat. If I can, I'll create some kind of eerie or super-mellow ambient noise for the quiet times and have the activities of the base NPCs actually produce melodic sounds during the busy times.

This heartbeat is different from the day/night cycle. I've decided that workers are away for one day/night cycle, back for another. The day/night cycle affects a lot of other things - solar power, if you have any. Visibility (no natural light). Native life activity.

This means your base actually has a four-beat heart. Quiet day, quiet night, busy day, busy night, quiet day...

Another big aspect to a world that feels alive is being able to reach out and discover things. Explore and discover!

Well, you're stuck in a base. But that's on purpose: I think coupling your base to your ability to explore hampers your ability to explore. How often have you built a base in Minecraft and then realized you'll never really explore very far from home? The other dimensions (nether, most commonly) are simply a patch to make it so that you can open up new things to explore near your house as you develop your house.

My design assumes you'll want to explore the planet, but that you'll also want to keep your cool base. So you do it by proxy.

For example, you'll launch satellites almost immediately after you build your base. These satellites are able to scan the planet's surface for various things. You can control them via a control panel, which whooshes you away from your base and into a satellite explore view. NPCs are similarly controllable while they're away on their jobs, so you can explore from the perspective of a miner, meteorological terraformer, genetic evolution mapper, biome manager, farmer, factory manager, etc.

Basically, every kind of exploration/job is two fundamental kinds of interaction, with the joy and complexity coming from how they collide. Since they are two fundamental kinds, other jobs often share one of those two kinds, and therefore two people working different jobs may end up in the same "space" but with a different interpretation and interest.

For example, miners explore into the depths of the planet in a simple 2D tile map. That subterranean map is one basic kind of interaction, allowing the miner to find and mine various deposits while keeping a watchful eye on disasters-in-waiting such as caves, aquifers, and lava flows. The miners' other interaction is a load-optimizing system as they mine specific things.

But the geologist has the same tile map interaction, delves into the same spaces. She doesn't care about the mining, and instead cares only about the specific incidences of "layers" - which includes caves, aquifers, and lava flows, but also the several varieties of "useless" rock that the miner drills through. Whenever she sees a new layer, she gets a point of geological theory - a data point which can be used to improve your ability to detect and mine materials, enhancing either your satellites or your miners... or your geologists, or anyone else with the same tile diving system.

Geologists and miners can sort of get along, but they have completely different intentions. Miners want to avoid dangerous layers and harvest the good minerals they find on "safe" layers. A geologist, however, mostly wants to drill straight down so they can see tons of layers as they go by, then leave and find some other location.

On the other side of the fence, the layer-hunting mechanic is also used by evolutionary mappers. They scout the surface of the planet rather than its depths, but after they discover some new entity they dive into its genetics hunting for "layers" - markers that are shared by other branches, denoting a shared common ancestor. These produce genetic theory data points, which can be used to enhance the ecosystem of the planet, the hunt for local life forms, adapting farms to the planet, and so on.

I think this multifaceted exploration will give the world a dynamic feel, as each character you explore with can see the same kind of thing as someone else, but with a completely different spin on it. Going back through a mined-out region with a geologist would be as interesting as mining it out in the first place.

These are the sorts of things I'm thinking about as I design the game. I need the world to feel interesting and explorable, even though the whole game takes place in your base.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Survival" Horror

Okay, I give up. I'm not going to complete The Last of Us, although I think I'm in the final chapter. I think it's probably my last ever purchase of a survival horror game.

The problem I have with TLoU is the same problem I have with any other modern "survival" "horror" game, and it's gotten so bad that I think I have to give up the genre.

To me, survival horror is about knowing that you can't win if you try to fight straight on. It's a struggle to survive on the outskirts of the monster's attention. You scrounge up resources, avoid fights, and plan things out carefully.

There are actually a large number of games like this. Obviously System Shock II, but also the early Resident Evil games and a bunch of "strategic" zombie flash games where you have to recapture a city. Also: games like Minecraft.

The problem I have with the modern "survival "horror" game is that you aren't skirting around the edge of disaster. The writers just toss you into the disaster and... you find it's not really that disastrous. It's just some tedious quicktime events to not die, plus some running around. Don't worry, in the likely event that you can't muster up the energy to try to survive, it'll happily respawn you a few seconds earlier so you can try again.

What part of that is "survival"?

Well, they have the "horror" down, I suppose. Forcing me to fight human characters in incredibly gory cutscenes so I can watch humans torture each other. If I was even vaguely allowed to actually act on my own recognizance, I would just jump out a window like the hundreds of windows I've jumped out of before... but, no, these windows are the mysterious "have a little bit of a wood plank across the outside" variety, and therefore cannot be jumped through.

The railroading is painfully obvious. You know exactly when the writers have decided that you need to have an "exciting" sequence, because you suddenly lose the ability to actually play the game. All your avenues of exploration are closed off, all your mobility is locked in, and you are funneled politely into a batch of stupid. Even in-game, the characters clearly know that they are walking into a trap.

Then... why? Just leave.

Just leave.

Just go away and survive.

In earlier generations, I could allow for the funneled-in boss fights and encounters, but those were the days when the world was coarse and simplistic. You could forgive scripts that spawned enemies to ambush you, because you knew that was the limit of the technology.

But in these new games, the world is vast and beautiful. You can go so many great places. All the potential threats have hearing and vision and pathing and all sorts of wonderful simulations that make them actually interactive. And just as you begin to revel in it - WHOOSH, all the windows are replaced by decals and you're on a rickety bridge one foot too high above the dry riverbed to jump down. And enemies pop into existence!

This is not only a cheap holdover from earlier times, it's actually even worse. Few of those early survival horror games ever featured cutscenes where you torture people, or people torture you. They didn't really have the ability to show humans being ripped apart in quite that much detail, so they were forced to actually have gameplay.

So I keep buying survival horror games hoping to find a game where I try to survive, but all I find are action games where surviving doesn't matter and you're just tossed into the horror straightaway. And, of course, you find that the writers have "added depth" to their game by taking control away from you and rubbing your face in torture porn.

It's a crappy genre.

And what really gets me - what really makes me mad - is I could literally just wander around in the world doing nothing.

These are amazing set pieces. These are astounding works of art. They outshine all the classic masterpieces of canvas and sculpture - detailed, varied, gorgeous. Everything - light, color, sound... it's all masterful and it would be great to just dwell there. Live there. Just sit around in that place and I dunno, play the guitar.


Playing The Game vs Playing A Game

Ready? Let's talk some MORE about this week's favorite topics: comparing The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite. This time, we'll focus on the gameplay. No story spoilers, so don't worry. Some gameplay spoilers, though.

When I was playing Bioshock Infinite, I was annoyed by people who found the combat to be interesting or exhilarating. See, even on hard mode I found the combat to be a cakewalk. I looked at the difference between how they played and how I played, and I found that they didn't use any of the exploits I discovered ten minutes into the game. People kept saying "swarm of crows is great, it distracts people" and "if you combine X and Y then Z happens" and "those giant mech men are really dangerous!"

To be clear, I never found out any of that, because I just used possession against crowds, flanking against minute men, and strafing against mechanical men. These three tactics made combat extremely easy. I only died when the game changed the rules on me, usually without explaining. I discovered the exploits and it made the game's level of gratuitous violence boring in addition to disgusting.

Now, in The Last of Us, I am dying a lot. In fact, in most of the significant encounters, I literally plan on dying, and use my first few lives just scouting out where the arbitrary trigger events are. I've gotten so sick of The Last of Us' instant-death failure states that I just assume, any time any combat starts, that the game is going to kill me over and over until I memorize the proper routes. Each time I only lose perhaps 30 seconds of effort thanks to the incredibly forgiving autosave feature - which frequently autosaves in the middle of a sequence and will actually reset me to a more advantageous position than the one I was actually in. Dying can actually be advantageous.

This totally ruins the game for me. I understand the theory that zombie apocalypse gameplay needs to feel tense, and therefore your characters should perhaps feel fragile. But simply resetting ten seconds means that there really is no gameplay. It's just bang your head against the wall until you do a nearly perfect run. It's really fucking boring.

But I got to thinking: what if there's people out there who are acing TLoU the way I aced Infinite? Where I get attacked by two runners only to be instant-killed by a clicker and the respawn screen helpfully insults my intelligence by telling me to move slower, another person might have already figured out the proper use of bricks and molotovs to make the encounter easy. I'm sure there's some possibility there, because I'm constantly wandering around full on every single resource except bullets, so it's clear I should probably be using them. But my method of play is "how about - no, respawn, fuck this. What about - no, respawn, fuck this. If I - no, respawn, fucking borrrrring. Okay, got through. blah."

So I began to think in terms of whether people are playing the game they think they're playing... or if they're playing some other game and cramming that into this game's framework.

My play of TLoU is essentially Metal Gear Solid. I am playing Metal Gear Solid with a zombie skin on it. But that's not TLoU. TLoU's actual play is probably quite different, and perhaps there is some depth that I'm not seeing. I'm not seeing it because TLoU's shitty framework allows me to keep forcing Metal Gear Solid into the framework when it should be taking me aside and saying "hey, um, this game is about using resources wisely, not acing every encounter. Maybe use some of that perpetually-full inventory of molotovs and nail bombs?"

On the other hand, my play of Infinite was basically oldschool Doom combined with god mode (possession). Infinite doesn't need to take me aside and tell me how to play: Infinite needs to put up barriers against my using exploits. While I'm struggling with TLoU and need guidance, in Infinite the game needs to say "you haven't fired any bullets in four hours... maybe there's an exploit I need to nerf so you need to actually play the game."

Everyone plays a different game. Even though the game runs on the same engines, through the same levels, the framework people build up in their mind is different, especially among more casual players. The game they think they're playing is probably a combination of the game that the designers intended and some game the player played last year. This is especially prevalent in open-world games. I don't think I've ever seen two people play Skyrim the same way. Everyone approaches it from a radically different angle... and some glide through on exploits the developers didn't think of, while others hit insurmountable brick walls the developers didn't think of. It's only after you've tried to play through a few times you actually understand the course the game designers thought you'd take.

There's something to be said for the player taking the time to try and understand the game as it is rather than as they assume it will be... but there's even more to be said for the developers making it clear what the game is and not assuming everyone will understand the exact play they had in mind. There's also a lot to be said for developers understanding the range of play styles players might bring in and allowing them to at least partially follow such paths, while still offering your own unique play.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the matter.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Rating and Enjoying Games

I'm having a rough time of it this week, because I'm playing The Last of Us. Like Bioshock Infinite, it is a shitty game whose gamey gameness and shitty story execution gets in the way of a beautiful world. Like Bioshock Infinite it's basically adulated by everyone. Everyone loves this objectively shitty game because it has a great world.

... Maybe this started with MMORPGs. Maybe they made it acceptable.

Anyway, I don't like these games, and a big part of why I don't like them is the story. I don't like the gameplay, either, and to me the two are linked... but let's focus specifically on the story as written rather than the story as ruined by bugs and horrific murders to make the game "fun".

I have come up with a five star rating system, which I hope you will enjoy considering. Every star is its own star, rather than just being part of a numeric total.

Star 1: Are you playing as the most interesting character?

Many games introduce interesting characters, then make you play as the grimdark white guy. Now, when we say interesting, we mean across several axes. Both the character's story arc and their actual gameplay need to be considered. Also, the constraints of the story and game must be taken into consideration. For example, you can't say that Marcus from Gears of War is a bad choice because you would rather play as a helicopter or an alien brood queen or whatever. You can only say that Marcus is a bad choice if there is another character that could go through the same game world and overall plot, but have a more interesting time of it.

For example, in The Last of Us, you play as the exceedingly boring Grimdark mcNeedsNewGoldfish. He is so boring and his character arc so trite that the only thing that makes him vaguely interesting is his voice actor. In this game I can say, without a doubt, that he is the most boring choice of main character. Both socially and in terms of gameplay, he has the most boring and typical interactions. Given the extensive reliance on instant-death failure conditions, stealth, and ranged sniping, I think almost any other character could have walked the same world and plot arc without straining credulity. In fact, it would have felt scarier and less annoying if you were playing as a child instead of a big strong man that instantly dies and respawns to try again all the time.

So The Last of Us gets no star here.

On the other hand, in Bioshock Infinite the character you play is Grimdark mcNeedsNewGoldfish. Although identical in basically every detail, he is linked into the story at a pretty deep level. The plot would have to be changed considerably if you were going to play as someone else, and his nature as the destroyer of the floating city requires him to be some kind of big horrible combat monster. On the other hand, several characters are introduced that would have been more interesting to play. The same game from the perspective of the broken old commander, the leader of the rebellion, or the giant monster-bird would have all been at least as interesting gameplay-wise and more interesting in terms of characterization and novelty.

So I would give Bioshock Infinite half a star, here.

Star 2: Are you playing the story?

Most games have a serious problem with story/gameplay segregation. However, in this case we'll let some amount of that slide. We don't need the player to have control over the story in all aspects. But what we do need is a story that doesn't clash with the player's actions. For example, in Final Fantasy VI, you can't stop the world of ruin from emerging, even if you win every single fight. But nobody feels personally offended that it happened, because it was framed such that the player's actions couldn't possibly have prevented it.

On the other hand, in Mass Effect III you keep running into Grimdark mcSelfinsertninja who always arrives and leaves in cutscenes, making your characters look impossibly inept and only escaping because the game literally prevents you from firing at him. This is building a story on false pretenses: if you have to ignore what the player would do or did in order to make your story beat work, it doesn't work.

In Bioshock Infinite the story really railroads you, but there's only a few places where I felt the game was ignoring me. In The Last of Us, it was the same way, although I've not yet beaten it and they could drop the ball. In both games, you are actually playing the story, rather than playing a game while a story is dictated to you. The gameplay often makes zero sense, but I guess that's par for the course.

Star 3: Is the story culturally relevant?

Games are not known for their cultural relevance. Most games are, to put it lightly, willing participants in our culture's childish weaknesses. Putting it less lightly, games tend to be sexist, racist, ultra-violent, nationalistic, Madonna-fetish horrorshows. Like, um, Bioshock Infinite. The Last of Us isn't quite so bad, as it has some very believable women, children, and POC.

You can argue that there's nothing wrong with telling those stories, and I'll agree. But one of the things a professional story-teller does is understand the culture they are giving the story to. They don't have to make every story a counterculture masterpiece, but they do have to understand the sort of things their target culture is going through. A good story echoes the culture in such a way that it touches a part of the audience they didn't really realize they had.

This is the reason so many older books and stories don't interest young people. It's not because young people are uncultured - it's because they are in a different culture. The version of Snow White where the witch dances herself to death wearing red-hot iron shoes was something that spoke to the culture of that era, but in our culture it tends to make people go "uh... who are the good guys, again?"

In terms of cultural relevance, both Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us get half a star. They touch the popular culture with some interesting thoughts, but drop the ball by blindly perpetuating really boring white-bread machismo.

Star 4: Do people behave like people?

In many video games, people are only there to serve the needs of the story and be killed as required. They don't act like people.

Believe it or not, in most first person shooters, this is done well. While BLOPS characters have all the depth of cardboard, they are believable people. Most people also have the depth of cardboard, I guess.

On the other hand, in Bioshock Infinite only one person behaves like a person: the female lead. Everyone else in the game behaves like a caricature. Even if you argue for one of the zanier interpretations of the game world, it's bad writing. Nothing pulls me out of the game like someone randomly deciding to kill you because, um... you need to fight every single person you meet? So no star for Infinite.

The Last of Us had much more realistic people. I really felt these characters as people. They were pretty good. Even the faceless villains that you mow down because you're mysteriously incapable of climbing over a chest-high wall instead all felt like people. The only gotchas were the numerous bugs that resulted in people behaving in truly bizarre ways (strangling nothing, knocking over invisible vases, etc). But that's not a writing problem, that's a programming issue. So they get a star.

Star 5: Is the world immersive?

In both Infinite and The Last of Us the world was immersive. In fact, the only non-immersive thing about these games was their gameplay.

So they both get a star here.


So on my five-star story quality chart, Bioshock Infinite gets 3 stars and The Last of Us gets... 3 stars. That wasn't on purpose, but they come out roughly equal.

Notice all the things my stars don't include. Quality of writing. Voice acting. Coolness of plot twist.

Well, half of those are polish-related rather than part of the core story, and the other half are so subjective that they can't be rated. For example, I found Bioshick Infinite's "twist" painfully banal pseudo-philosophical fluff. So I don't include it.

Instead I explicitly frame the story in relation to the target culture and game, and ask questions about how well it performs in that specific situation. The answer for Infinite and The Last of Us is... better than average.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

2D vs 3D Construction Games

Recently I've been pouring out the Minecraftlike prototypes. I've tried all sorts of shticks, but the one which has the biggest effect is whether the prototype is in 2D or 3D.

More specifically, it's about freedom of movement and scope of comprehension. 2D vs 3D is just the easiest example to draw.

If you have a 2D game like Terraria, the camera allows you a huge amount of situational awareness. You can see all around your character, through ceilings and walls. On the other hand, if you have a first person 3D game, your situational awareness is extremely limited. This leads to good immersion, but it also makes it difficult to build things and manage large, complex worlds and structures.

As an example, in Minecraft people tend to build interior rooms that are either excessively tiny, extremely large, or very open-sided. All of these are because ordinary-size rooms feel weird and claustrophobic in first person view. This is actually true of first person shooters as well, if you look at their level design. This camera limitation also means enemies can sneak up behind you, or even simply be spawned in behind you reasonably.

None of this is true with a long 2D view. Aside from manually blacking out the parts of the level your avatar isn't actively looking at, you can easily "see" the map and most of the monsters nearby. Even implementing fog of war only somewhat reduces this effect. So you can have moderate-sized closed-off rooms, because you'll never feel "trapped" in them. Monsters have a rough time sneaking up on you, and so on.

Now, this isn't actually because of 2D vs 3D - it's all about how the camera and your avatar are related. For example, "2D" could be a top view or a side view or an isometric view or even a full 3D view where the camera is far enough away to see all around the avatar. Similarly, there's an element of whether the camera is world-anchored or avatar-anchored. For example, in a Terraria-like game, the camera is always square on the same orthogonal axes. I made a Terraria variant where you're on a planetoid, and the camera always had "down" be the center of the planet. That really screwed with situational awareness, because the camera's frame of reference was constantly shifting.

By changing the range and behavior of the camera, you can tweak the player's level of environmental awareness. In general, the more distant and "world-anchored" the camera is, the more the game will be about the world rather than the character. But the details matter.

For example, I created an over-the-shoulder Minecraft clone. Being able to see your character at all times really increased player awareness of their character as a game world entity (rather than as a roving camera with a bag). But the range wasn't large enough to really get good situational awareness in terms of maps and terrain. That was on purpose.

Another version with a longer camera gave good situational awareness, but whenever you turned the camera panned with sickening speed because it was so far away from your character. So this is a fundamental weakness: it's good to anchor the camera orthogonally and not respond to the avatar's turning when you get very far from the avatar. However, this is not a very good choice for 3D worlds, as they fundamentally require an adroit camera to see around walls and down holes and such.

Moreover, even a small distance from the avatar makes it almost impossible to have interior spaces in a 3D world. Either the camera has to give awkwardly low, off-kilter angles, or the camera has to strip away the ceiling so you can see through it. Both of those options are pretty crummy. In a polished video game featuring a third-person camera like these, the levels are designed such that the camera doesn't have to do anything awkward except when the designers actually want it to. The floor above you is rarely even in the game, the ceilings are all nice and high, the doors are oddly huge, and even then the camera gets tight over the shoulder on too many occasions.

In a game where constructing the world is the key, those are not really very good options. So we go with a 2D plane. It gives us better awareness without getting confusing. It does limit us to two dimensions, though, which is the major downside.

A "surface" plane is generally considered the best for base-building. This is any typical mostly-flat environment, such as a Starcraft map, early Final Fantasy, Evil Genius, Chess, etc. The reason a surface map is often ideal is because it offers the most unweighted layout complexity. Houses can be and often are one floor deep in the real world. The vertical depth of rug, chair, table, TV are irrelevant to human experience, so you can just abstract them out with a tile system. The people in your world can move up, down, left, right with equal abandon, giving you two axes of basic design freedom.

On the other hand, a "side" plain like Terraria or Mario is a bit wonky. The problem with a side plain is that the vertical axis is no longer the same weight as the horizontal axis. Now you only have one axis of basic design freedom, and one axis of limited design freedom. Kind of "one and a half" axes.

To show what I mean, imagine you're playing on a surface map. You build a living room, and then put a bedroom to the north and a kitchen to the east. It's all easy to navigate, it's all on the same plain. But now imagine it from a side view: you build a living room, then you put a kitchen to one side and the bedroom above. Now entering and leaving the bedroom probably involves stairs or jumping or some madness.

But side plain views do offer some advantages in terms of complex relationships within space. A surface plain's physics are going to be "flat" - they propagate evenly across the map. However, if you are building vertically in a side view, you can have much more interesting physics involving stress on the lower floors, heat rising, smog, and whether things from outside can reach high enough up the side of the building to reach that location. Also, a side plain can feature a lot of structures or effects which propagate differently vertically and horizontally, while it would be difficult to justify them propagating only east-west vs north-south in a surface view.

Of course, both can support other layers - just because it's 2D doesn't mean it has to be a single layer of 2D. The surface plane can have basement levels, or perhaps just an "under the floor" system for power and sewage. The side view can similarly have doors leading to rooms "behind" the side view, and can also have wiring "in" the walls. All this stuff can be added to give a 2D game more complexity and interesting goings-on.


Ramble ramble ramble.

What I'm saying is that I'm going to try to make some more 2D Minecraftlike prototypes. There's a lot of play I want to explore.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Slow Construction

I was thinking about games where you build stuff. There's a lot of games where you build stuff.

One of the core elements of a Building Stuff game is the limits that get put on your ability to build stuff. As an easy example, if you look at a video of a castle in Minecraft, you might go "oh, I guess that looks rather nice".

Then you find out he did it in survival mode on hard and your opinion changes to "holy shit that's insane".

Sometimes these limits are on the materials you have available to you, as in our Minecraft example. You have X resources of type Y today. Then the game tends to actually be more about obtaining more resources - the building stuff section is usually pretty flat in such situations. This is often extended to be a more complex gating system - you can't even obtain the Z you need to build Q until you scrape together N pounds of L. This kind of progression-based system makes for a good self-directed open-worldy sort of experience.

Sometimes the limits are on the scope available to you. For example, you only have a certain limited amount of space, or you have to work within a specific topology, or so on. These are typically level-oriented games like Evil Genius rather than open-ended games, because fundamentally having a limited scope means that you'll want to change scopes sometimes. (IE, change levels.) Of course, many games combine the two kinds of limits.

A third kind of limit that we tend to overlook is how much effort is required to build something. For example, in Minecraft, even if you play in creative mode it's going to take a lot of time to put things together. You have to place every brick, even though you technically have all the bricks you'll ever need. This is also very popular with social games, where it simply flat-out states that you need to wait N hours before you can build something. Often combined with the other limits.

Aside from all of these limits are the final goals you can aim to achieve.

In most such games, self-expression is a major goal. To keep bringing Minecraft back into the equation, 95% of the cool things constructed in Minecraft are self-expression on top of a small kernel of functionality. This is a good goal, but it's just one goal, and you should have others.

Another goal is expansive capabilities. Allowing your constructions to help you in the game world is a major benefit. "Expansive" sounds militaristic, but in this case it can and often does mean exploration and resource creation. A farm is an expansive construction because it produces valuable resources that you'll use. A minecart transport system is expansive because it helps you get around the world easier. A classy outfit will allow you to enter the high court regions. And, of course, a massive cannon you can carry around with you is expansive because it helps you kill monsters. Building "stuff" does include non-buildings.

Expansive capabilities can be a bit of a limited appeal, though, because they more or less transparently target specific game elements. For example, allowing the player to build a better gun is normally not going to involve any kind of self-expression. They just choose the next gun up the tier and shove resources at it until they get an exact duplicate of the same weapon everyone else is using. Similarly, farms tend to have a few optimal arrangements or even simply be reduced to a tile labeled "farm". To allow players to have extended fun with these expansive things, you have to make every expansive thing have a large number of tweakable elements to it. Think Borderlands guns. There is no "best" gun, because every gun has a variety of strengths and weaknesses, special effects, and ammo preference. You can implement this for everything, making every construction unique.

Another goal is defensive capabilities. How well the things you construct hold up to the rigors of the game world. In Minecraft and Terraria, this would be how well your house keeps monsters out. But it can be made a lot more complex. For example, building a space station might involve how well it survives asteroid strikes, alien invasions, power failures, and so on. Sometimes these are simulated events - IE, they don't actually damage your construction. In other games, your construction actually gets damaged and part of the game is building it up again after every challenge. Bridge building games are a good example of the simulated kind of defensive game.

More games are starting to come out with defensive constructions as core gameplay. However, these days there is a twist: the defensive play is often aimed at other players rather than at some set game world challenge. So other players get to invade your fortress and try to get your gold, or whatever. I think this is great, but I don't see why it is limited to defensive play. Just hold onto that thought while we move into another goal:

The last goal I want to discuss is complexity. Having complexity in how your constructions can work is really fun.

As an example, in Minecraft there is little complexity in your constructions. It's a struggle to even have doors that automatically open. Structural integrity is not important and not calculated, so you can have floating floors. There's no NPCs simulated, and creating reactive elements is quite difficult.

On the other hand, there are a lot of games where complexity is actually an issue, and I think we're going to see more and more of them. For example, in a bridge building game, every element is physically related to every other element. Bad design in one area can cause the whole bridge to collapse.

Similarly, designing dungeons for other players to explore (or NPCs) means that the interconnectivity of the rooms is as important as what rooms you have. Actually, even choosing what stats and skills to get as you level up in a MMORPG is this kind of complexity, as certain skills and stats work better together than others.

One problem with complexity is that it creates optimal builds. This is really clear in MMORPGs where a character you build to express yourself turns out to be awful at actually playing the game. Similarly, there is a specific optimal circuit for putting out redstone clock pulses in Minecraft, but at least there you don't have players tying their self-expression to the circuit design.

Keeping complexity from stagnating is always going to be a challenge. The basic rule is that if there is a pretty obvious optimal pattern, it either needs to encompass all the variability so that players can express themselves, or it needs to be done automatically so players don't think it's supposed to be complex. For example, if you're laying down power relays, assuming that terrain isn't much of a factor, it might be best to simply allow the player to "paint" the region he wants to put power relays in and then automatically plant the relays for him.

This brings us to a few paragraphs ago, where we were talking about defensive constructions used to defend against other players. Why don't we use that for offensive, self-expressive, and complex play as well?

Let's posit a game.

You have a world of your own. It's a crap world, uninhabitable. You got it on the cheap. You live in a little bunker on the planet. Your job is to build the planet up as you prefer - or you could just focus on yourself, your bunker, interstellar politics, hacking other players, etc.

The construction is both large and small. You will often build up your bunker, of course. Not only to change the interior to better suit you, but also to have better resources for managing your world, increase the number of NPCs in your domain, etc. But you'll also spend a fair amount of time building on a larger scale, just popping down roads, factories, mines, launching pads, relay towers, terraforming centers, clone labs, NPC villages...

The key here is that the things you want to construct don't really cost resources. They cost effort.

If you want to put down a farm, you just plonk it down. But before it becomes functional, you get assigned a busy-work quest whose length is roughly equivalent to the value of the farm. Busy-work quests vary. For example, depending on your luck you might have to clear the farm out of space-arachnids that settled in the instant it landed. Or you might have to weld together the eight leads connecting the farm to the power grid. Or you might have to hack the farm's mainframe and replace the misconfigured software modules. Or you might have to rewire the nearby relays to accept the farm's slightly wonky notification protocols. Or you might have some combination of two or more - "space spiders knocked the nearby relays out of alignment..."

So a new player could plonk down five million acres of farms - just click "farm" and then highlight a whole continent. But he'd have millions of years of busy work to bring them on-line.

Obviously, a character's build would be all about the kind of busy work they are best at. If you're largely going the solo route, you might prefer to be moderately good at everything. But if you have some friends, you might make it so that each friend was good at a particular kind of work. If you plonk down the farm and it needs a software upgrade, you just go and handle it yourself because you're the hacker. But if you put down the farm and it's covered in space spiders, you might ask your friend the space marine to deal with it for you, inviting him on to your planet.

One key to this is that you can post these quests as publicly available, with a reward and priority of your choosing. This kind of farm might be a half-hour quest aimed at level 7 characters, and you might offer $200 space gold if someone comes along and does it. A person or group can accept and attempt it even if you're off line and have never met them before. They can't screw up your world (and they probably can't access your bunker unless you're unusually permissive), but they can see your planet and how you've got it set up.

As you grow to have a lot of construction, you may actually end up plonking down millions of acres of farms and then just posting those jobs with a $1000 reward each, relying on the willingness of people to come over and do that work for you.

All of these things are connected via topological connections. That is, the farm is connected by a road and a power relay system and a data relay system... unless you've specifically built the more expensive self-contained farm. So how you build your world matters as much as what buildings you put on it. Similarly, all the structures and computers and outfits and whatever all have a lot of cooperating statistics to them, like the guns in Borderlands. This farm doesn't simply produce X carbohydrates per day. It requires or produces a variety of soil-related chemicals, it requires a certain amount of energy, it generates a certain amount of heat and pollution, works best with a certain amount of sunlight or rain, and so on.

Of course, there's actually a whole part of the game involving data, science, and research as well. So you're not just building things to ship out, you're also building labs and computational resources and bandwidth to the shared galaxy network... which you can then use to unlock or customize things, or hook it together with your friends for a more powerful (efficient) network, or hack the galactic web or whatever. You can alter the characteristics of the blueprints you have or retrofit existing constructions by using these resources...

Well, it's a nice theory, anyway.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Battle Poker!

On G+ I had a brief conversation about phasing decisions to increase tactical play. Basically, poker.

The fundamental decision of poker - how much to bid - is a relatively simple one. If the game was just "draw, bid, show", it'd be pretty dull. Instead, poker breaks the decision into multiple phases, allowing you to draw and bid several times, and get a feel for how all the others are drawing and bidding. Only after several of these phases do you show - and you can even opt out of that.

I was thinking about fighting games. I love innovation in fighting games, but the fighting game genre is dying. And my reflexes aren't as good as they used to be. So I got to thinking: could you create a completely new kind of genre out of the ashes of the old? A game with very unusual but easily understood features?

As a design discussion, let's slow down the fighting game. Take all of the player's reaction time out. What are we left with?

It's a complex discussion about range, priority, domination, and damage/effect. The players are constantly negotiating these four elements. Which ones matter most depends on the situation, and fluctuates from moment to moment. For example, if your enemy has a short-range super-move available, range may become a high priority for both players, as you strive to stay out of his range or position yourself such that you can step out of range with a higher priority than his super... and he strives to close range or dominate/stun you so you can't retreat when he pulls it out.

The importance of each element is determined by the abilities of the fighters and the state of the element in question. In a one-on-one fight, the weighting will generally be very similar between the two fighters - any action your enemy can take is an action you have to take into account. This doesn't make the conversation boring, though - the weight isn't the only thing that matters. What you say is equally important.

Still, many fighting games add more complexity to the game by adding in more characters. A tag-team fighting game gives you the ability to switch in or gain support. A free-for-all of 3 or more characters means that your discussion is actually split into three or twelve ongoing discussions where your actions are statements in all of them simultaneously. And so on.

Let's consider a fighting game where we use phased decisions instead of reflexes. IE, poker.

Rather than have a concrete "clashes with three phases" sort of thing, let's go ahead and make it just an ongoing thing.

We'll say there are four basic techniques - we're talking basic balance here, so let's call them "rush, flurry, throw, and blast". Every fighter will be rated on them - 1, 2, 3, 4 in whatever order you like. They are elemental - rush beats flurry beats throw beats blast beats rush.

Both fighters tap one - just one - button for their turn. It resolves - winner wins, loser loses the winner's stat in health. If it's a tie, whoever has the higher stat in their element wins, and the difference is dealt as damage.

Here's the key: the clash boosts the fighters' stats in that category, doubling them. But every turn you don't use that tactic, that bonus fades.

So if Anna and Barry both rush, Anna might win with her 3 rush stat against Barry's 2. Barry loses 1 health.

For the next round, Anna has a 6 rush stat and Barry a 4. Now the mind game begins. Will Anna rush, to take advantage? Barry should blast in order to prevent that. Barry's interest in rushing is fairly low, since he has another stat of 4 and a stat of 3, so that rush of 4 isn't terribly appetizing. So he should blast, right?

Well, maybe Anna should throw, then, and let her rush stat decay to 5 while doubling her throw. Or maybe she's okay with Barry using a blast against her - she'll take the 3 points of blast damage happily, because it will double her rush stat to 12. Now she's built up a tremendous rush stat and can take some rounds off to use other things and still have a massive rush stat waiting in the wings. Three damage is a small price to pay... although then Barry's blast stat will be 6, so he might blast again the round after that...

This leads to a complex interplay of build up and decay. You may end up losing a round on purpose just to boost yourself to an impressive and dangerous level. You may let your stat decay a bit knowing that the enemy's associated stats will decay just as fast, so the delta will be the same...

Moreover, it's easy to program.

Like, really easy.

Maybe I'll whip a prototype up tonight.

The FUN part is where you can take it. Free-for-all battles. Tag teams. Sacrificing stats for super-moves...