Monday, September 09, 2013

Mods and Modules and Content

One of the big problems facing the next generation of games is ordering and categorizing content. The amount of content in these games is growing, as is the variation of content from player to player.

Examples abound. Back in the day, you had The Sims - everyone would create individuals and houses. A lot of people also created clothes, household items, skins, and other customized pieces. Organizing these was not easy, and if you were a very explorative player you might find yourself paging through a hundred options before getting the one you actually wanted.

Spore was similar, and if the modding scene had ever really taken off it would have been very difficult to handle the variations available to you. They actually gave up and simply hid away the vast majority of the content, just randomly spamming it into your universe most of the time.

Saints Row III & IV have the ability to mod in clothes pretty easily, but the result is an ever-longer list of clothes you can buy at every store (or just have available in your wardrobe). The number of clothes right now is pretty pathetic, but if they take off, you may find yourself drowning in options. There are some built-in categories, but the biggest built-in category goes unused: clothes could be available in only one of the particular stores, rather than all of them. Then you could add clothes to Let's Pretend but not to Planet Saints, and you'd be able to handle the explosion of options a little better.

Kerbal has a swamping problem as well, as the number of parts grows astronomically and there's no easy way to find them. Even with Spore-like tiny menu icons, I still page through half a dozen screens before I find the part I'm looking for.

And, folks, this is just the tip. This is the very earliest sign of what's to come: a massive proliferation of player-created content. Games will live or die based on how well they can harness player content.

I was thinking about this for my Astrophobia game (and any other games I make), trying to come up with a decent solution.

What I decided on for Astrophobia was to use catalogs. Since the design phase is supposed to feel like the sixties or seventies, hunched over graph paper, scribbling away at your blueprints, I figured catalogs made good sense.

So you mouse up to the top of the screen and it pans up so you can see your bookshelf (essentially a pull-down menu). Each shelf is designated with a category. A shelf for finished module designs, for module core components, for add-on items, for astronaut gear, for complex system mods, for misc... each has books on it, with a spine clearly labeled. The game, of course, comes stocked with several catalogs full of the various vanilla parts. You can also make your own catalogs out of the modules and astronaut packs you create while playing the game, and even send them to friends.

Your book gets added to the shelf - "Doug's Capsules" or whatever you name it. The subtitle can even have a version number, if you think you'll be releasing it ongoing.

If you download a mod or a content pack or whatever, it gets added to the shelf. "Bio research pack", "ADVENTURE INC PARTS", etc.

The basic idea is simple enough. Most of the content you get is going to have a context. Not just a role the various included pieces play, but a context. If you download an aerospace pack, you're probably going to want to use a lot of those parts in tandem - even if the parts are technically different menu categories. The context of the pack is actually more important than the category of the pieces within the pack.

Most of the old approaches to letting a player handle content come from the perspective that all content has the same context: it's general game content. And our menus and lists are built with that assumption. But that assumption is wrong, and makes it difficult to handle content which depends on other content.

If the only thing in the content pack is a shirt with a particular logo, then sure, put it in the "shirts" category. But if you've built a "NASA uniform pack", we want to be able to select all the various pieces easily and quickly. Instead of looking for the NASA hat and the blue NASA one-piece and the NASA shoes all in separate categories, you just want the NASA content pack floating there for you to click on.

That is what I'm doing. Technically, many of the components in these books have completely different roles and cannot be selected at certain times. For example, if you want to put stuff in your capsule, then having a capsule hull material or a hardpoint machine in your list of selectable things is useless. But here's the key: it's less useless than having five hundred selectable things that having nothing to do with what you're trying to accomplish, especially when the unselectable things are on a different page of the menu. And when you switch modes, the content you're likely to need in the new mode is right there, in the open book, ready to be clicked on.

Obviously, you want to be able to switch over to a combined mode where you just look through everything, but that should be a rare situation where you're searching for something you can't quite remember. In the day-to-day playing of the game, this approach should leave you "closer" to the items you're looking for than a big list, even a categorized big list.

And that's the concept.

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