Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Character Personalities

I had a conversation last week about the nature of character personalities in video games.

This is kind of a complicated topic because it's a huge mix of cultural norms, assumptions, and practices adopted from other mediums. I had to think for a while before I could write something short about it, and even the "short" thing is still quite long. Sorry!

First let's talk about the fundamental reason characters exist: they exist to get the audience to care about the situation. Even if they drive the plot by acting, their actions are designed to make the audience care about the new situation. Primarily, they seem to appeal to the audience in three ways.

1) The character is fun to watch.

2) The audience cares about the characters, and therefore the things that happen to the characters matter. This includes villains, of course: "care about" can mean "hate" in this case, or any other significant emotion.

3) The characters judge the situation, and the audience therefore understands how they should feel. This doesn't require the characters to be important to the audience, but it does require that the character be easy to read.

These uses are often mixed into each other because of the dynamic of how stories get told, but they are different facets. You can see a clear example of this in children's films, where close-ups are often used to show the character's emotional response really clearly. This is true in nearly every children's film, but the easiest example might be shonen anime, such as Dragonball Z: they frequently cut to every hero's face in turn, so that you can see their terrified or amazed expression. In turn, the children understand that something scary or amazing is happening.

This is used in video games too, of course. The King in Katamari Damacy judges your work at the end of each stage, and his reactions tell you how well or poorly you did in a way that carries a lot more emotional power than simply giving you the numeric rating. So, in the case of video games, the character's reactions can actually make us care more about the gameplay. We don't necessarily feel the same emotions as the characters, of course - we're just informed by their emotions. The King's ridiculousness softens his judgments so that even his harshest condemnation is not actually going to depress us.

In Kerbal, the reactions of the astronauts don't actually reflect any kind of reality - they're always just amazed or scared, regardless of what is happening. Despite this, their expressions do add a lot to the feel of the game, giving it a bright and vibrant human feel even though it's entirely about hurling large chunks of metal through the air. Even though they are not linked to the game in any significant way, their gaping mouths tell us that whatever is happening is amazing. It works.

Not every closeup or emotion is used to tell the audience how to feel. In many cases it's used to make the character important to the audience, so that when things happen later, we'll care about whatever happens to them. There are a lot of theories on how to maximize emotional investment in a character, but things are complicated by the way games regularly cross between story and gameplay.

For example, a game designer might develop a character using movie mechanics - cutscenes where the character is shown in a positive light, with touching background music and cheerful humor. However, this can be ruined in five minutes if the character then gets a really annoying gameplay segment, such as an escort mission. Alternately, a character developed by movie methods can still fall into the background if other characters are chosen in the gameplay segments.

There's a temptation to reduce the characters' gameplay effect to very minor positive elements, such as Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite. This allows you to develop them in a movie fashion without much interference from gameplay distractions. Personally, I think that's a bad habit, but I'm not sure how much detail I'll go into about it. Basically, it's something we've developed by relying on what we already know and not pioneering anything new.

The last thing characters accomplish, fundamentally, is that they are fun to watch. This is really common in movies and comics, of course: bizarre, cute, or hilarious characters are used to make the movie more interesting to watch. The "comic relief" character is an example. So is any sexualized character, although of course that only appeals to a subset of humanity.

The use of these characters (or scenes) in movies is an art form, used to tweak pacing and control emotional pressure. In games it's not very carefully done, although it is still used. For example, the ridiculous King in Katamari Damacy, or the background events in Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan.

Video games can do a lot more with this, though, and it's starting to show. Dressup is a growing part of many games. Interior decorating, too - they're cousins. Whether we're talking about dressing up your badass warrior or your cute little animal person, this is something that games can do that other mediums have a hard time with. I'm sure that this can be gracefully integrated and perfectly paced, although I haven't seen it happen yet.

These three elements are the core things that characters do in something like a movie, but games have the concept of an "avatar". Characters that do what the player tells them to. And this is where a lot of our assumptions and fears arise.

I mentioned that you can make a character cool in the cutscenes and then screw it up in the gameplay. That and the reverse are a million times more true for an avatar.

For example, in Mass Effect 3, there was a self-insert ninja character that the devs reaaaaaally got off to. To make him seem like a badass villain, they had a lot of cutscenes of him dominating the player. The problem was that in the process, they had to make Shepard reaaaaaaaally suck. So we got a lot of scenes of Shepard standing around looking confused, missing easy shots, sauntering into obvious pitfalls, and so on. In addition to not making me care about Ninja Fanfic Boy, it really made me lose respect for Shepard. They spent dozens of hours getting me to respect Shepard's power by letting me use it, and then ruined it in five minutes by showing Shepard being totally useless.

Obviously, this dislike is easy to accomplish by making the character do really stupid stuff related to gameplay, as mentioned. However, there's a sneaky second problem: if the avatar and the player feel differently about a situation, there is the risk that the player will begin to dislike and disrespect the avatar.

Because of this, we've hollowed out our avatars: they aren't allowed to feel anything other than smoldering determination. No matter what the player feels, the avatar's emotions are neutral and do not clash. The avatar also makes no judgments. The avatar has no political leanings, no unusual moral stance, no thoughts on the ethics of the ruling class. They can only make absolute mainstream standard responses, and even then they have to be very mild.

Even in situations where there is a judgment to be made, it will normally be made by another character, and only adopted as a cause by the main character when the secondary character dies. It's safe for an avatar to decide to help a friend, but not safe for the avatar to actually make an ethical choice. Well, unless the ethical choice is mainstream and purely reactionary, such as rescuing drowning puppies.

Some avatars have been given personalities, but normally they are joke personalities. This allows us to dismiss the avatar's judgments when we disagree with them. For example, Guybrush's often-bizarre preferences and self-destructive behavior can be waived away as zaniness, as can Sam and Max's screwy behavior.

Another option is to give them "wrong" personalities - that is, set them up as believing something that is obviously wrong, and the obvious character arc coming down the rails is that they'll grow out of it. This is most common with characters that start out on "team obviously evil", but can also apply to characters like Laharl, who believes that love is poisonous.

Either way, these approaches allow us to dismiss the character's views as being wrong when we disagree with them.

But I'm not sure this is necessary.

That's a tactic born out of fear, fear that the player will hate their avatar for disagreeing with their personal worldview. But the problem is that the game itself has a personal worldview. Even if the avatar is an unspeaking empty vessel, the very world shouts out the opinions of the creators.

The most prevalent example is sexism: a lot of games have extremely sexist universes. Even if your personal avatar is never overtly sexist, the universe itself is. Every time you run into another mostly-naked lady love interest, it reminds you of this.

Even the actions of your empty avatar reflect the assumptions of the game devs. How many times have you wished that the empty avatar that "embodies" you would actually do what you would want to do in the same situation? The empty avatar allows us to form our own emotional responses, but then prevents us from actually acting on them, and instead forces us to go along with whatever the universe was scripted to do.

My thinking is that an avatar with a personality would be a better choice, because it would allow us to have a more aggressive, judgmental, active character. The character's emotions would help the player understand what actions would be suitable in-world, and the character would of course be scripted to allow for those actions.

Basically, since we devs are injecting ourselves into the game world anyway, we should do it in a powerful and authentic way instead of a fearful way.

There is a risk that the player will hate the avatar, that's true. However, I think this fear is overblown, and I also think there's a few powerful safeguards we can use.

First, we can be careful to explain the foundations of each emotion and judgment. This is a character we're playing, so seeing inside their head is acceptable. If we know that the character's parents were killed by the king's knights, we won't get upset that they are badmouthing the military. This requires a fair amount of insight into your own presumptions, though - often, devs will write in judgments without even realizing that they are judgments, such as the utter lack of nonstandard romance options.

Second, we could allow the player to choose between several different personalities, perhaps with only minor differences between them. Giving the player a choice means they'll be more accepting of things that seem to descend from that choice.

Third, we can provide support from non-avatar characters. The two basic kinds of support we can offer are to agree and to disagree.

Characters agreeing with the main avatar's choices will provide peer pressure against the player's own judgments, and may reduce the severity of their gut reaction.

Characters disagreeing with the main avatar's choices will provide an outlet for the player's own disagreements, while their acceptance of the avatar's leadership even through the disagreement will help the player to see the avatar as someone who should be respected even through disagreements.

In both cases, there is a risk of characters becoming annoying or marginalized because their own opinions or actions fall into the trap that the avatar would have fallen into without their help.

Well, I can't claim I know the perfect route. But I do ask that we stop acting out of fear.

Let's write some characters that have emotions! Let's use our characters in a lot of different ways and make games feel deep and interesting!

No more empty avatars. Let's find something besides "smoldering determination".

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Games as Waffles

Waffles. Syrup delivery platforms. Tasteless but readily supports a whole stick of butter.

Okay, I'm being silly, but I thought I'd talk a little bit about games as content delivery platforms rather than as games.

Many games - including some really good ones - have basically no gameplay. Instead, the game simply offers context and pacing for the content of the game. For example, Gone Home has no gameplay in it worth mentioning. Most AAA games these days don't have open gameplay, but a very closed, gated, linear gameplay that offers the player no real freedom and requires no real skill. These games instead focus on giving you art, sound, music, dialog, mood...

And I think that's okay.

Even in games where the gameplay reigns supreme, there's a lot to be said for giving context and form to the art half of the experience.

For example, in Kerbal the game is definitely about building rockets. The physics limitations are the most interesting part of the game. But even then, the artistic side of the experience is enabled and highlighted by the gameplay. The epic scene of a sun setting behind a distant planet, the heavy feeling of separating stages, the raw fire of re-entry, the delicate bounce of a ship landing, and of course the visual appearance of the ship. It's difficult to separate it into "this is gameplay, that is aesthetics" because the two end up bound so tightly.

It's easy to look at a first person shooter and talk about what is aesthetics. Music, textures, level models, lighting... most of the things we would talk about have little direct connection to gameplay. There are things like shot sounds that are linked to gameplay, but they are still distinct from gameplay. This makes it easy to separate the two elements, and that makes it easy to use the gameplay to gate the art and visa-versa.

But in a constructive game, the aesthetics are much more tightly bound because the player is the one building the things they see. Moreover, the weight of context is very heavy. The more someone plays, the more refined their aesthetic sense becomes in regards to the aesthetics of the game.

For example, I built a very cool-looking rocket in Kerbal yesterday. To people who have not played much Kerbal, it would look amazing. But to anyone who's played a lot of Kerbal, they would sigh about how overbuilt it was. The day before that, I built the opposite kind of rocket: it looks dull to the average person, but to someone who's played a lot of Kerbal it looks very elegant and interesting because of its ground-docking function.

Of course, not all of Kerbal's aesthetics are rocket-based. No matter how long you've been playing Kerbal, shots of the natural beauty of Kerbin's star system are equally appealing. It's only the aesthetics related to the mechanic that are complex and generative.

Moreover, the aesthetics of Kerbal's rockets are fundamental to the mechanics of Kerbal. Even if you download a lot of other part packs, the fundamental visual pattern remains more or less the same. The only time the rockets begin to really feel different is when you download elements that change the fundamental layout of the rocket, such as downloading cargo bays.

I began to think: what if you make a construction game like Kerbal, where you construct a physics-limited device of some kind... but the construction engine was calibrated and engineered to give a specific kind of beautiful aesthetic? What if I took inspiration from the coolest looks Kerbal could give, and used that to create a new construction game?

The challenge here is that the construction would have to naturally give rise to this kind of beauty. Unlike many of the most modern games with starship creation, we're not choosing elements that look cool because we think they look cool. Instead, the fundamental gameplay will naturally give rise to something that looks cool.

What looks cool? Well, here's some samples. There's a lot of variation to show the kinds of things I'm talking about.

The first thing to notice is that STUFF is important. The only thing all of those devices have in common is that their surfaces are broken up by things, rather than simply being a centralized chain of major shapes. In some cases the stuff is quite minor, just the remnants of a separation stage or the texture built into the core shape. However, sometimes the stuff is extravagant. Either way, "stuff" is worth considering in detail. For example, can you put surface junk on top of other surface junk, or can you only put surface junk on top of core shapes? Kerbal only does the latter, but there's nothing stopping us from doing the former in a new game.

The second thing I notice is that the core shape is always interestingly lumpy, and usually in a fairly graceful manner. So I'm thinking a graceful, lumpy core shape covered in stuff.

The third thing I notice is contrast. This isn't a pile of gray on gray. The patterns of light and dark are pretty punchy, and I think that's important. Far more important than the colors involved. Not only does the stuff contrast with the surface tone, but the surfaces are frequently striped. In fact, whenever I identify something I think is ugly, it's almost always because the shade is too uniform!

This really shines when using concave shapes such as landing bays, where the interior of the ship is shown (see the LLL Sundiver image). I think this is because I always light concave areas, so the shading of the interior devices naturally forms stripes, pools, and bars.

In addition to simple light-dark contrast, there's also contrast between "empty" and "crowded" space. Nearly all of the ships have simple areas and complex areas, spindly areas and heavy areas. We don't want the ship entirely covered in high-density cruft, but instead we would prefer to have high and low density regions. Interiors can really shine here, because at range they can be closed and therefore be low-density, but as you zoom in they can open and reveal a new high-density region even as the zooming itself turns the previous high-density regions into low-density regions.

Lastly, almost without needing mention, symmetry.

So, when we build something, we want:

A graceful but lumpy "core body", with tapering or rounded size transitions and nacelles. These elements should have some low-grade stripes to give them a bit of texture. The stripes should be horizontal (that is, around the 'waist' of the body) since most attachments will run vertically.

A set of "extension wings" that can gracefully extend a considerable distance, for mounting solar panels or landing legs or whatever. Not intended to connect two core body elements. Some might be static, some might have joints, and some might extend or untwist.

Attachments, many of which should run a considerable distance along the body, or connect two body elements. Attachments can have different modes that change how they look, such as radio dishes unfolding. Rather than sticking solely to Kerbal functions, attachments should be a more core part of the experience - for example, running pipes along the body should be very common, along with things like processing nodes stapled to the outside. Much of the functionality of the ship should pass through attachments.

Interior spaces that can be filled with a lot of small tubes or the like. This can be as simple as interior space variants of exterior piping and modules, but it would make sense for many modules to be "summaries" of interiors. For example, a "battery" core body element is full of individual battery modules, and the player would stuff as many in as they wanted, trading off for things like safety, weight, backups, repair access, and so on.

Because of the nature of interior spaces, while exterior spaces are radial it makes more sense for interior spaces to be symmetric across only one axis. The reason for this is that bay doors make radial symmetry extremely annoying. Let me explain.

If you want a bay full of sleeper pods, if the bay is flat you can store the sleeper pods by butting the foot of them against the wall and pointing the heads towards the center. You end up with a striped "ribcage" of pods. It looks great and it's easy to understand. You can also store them running along the axis, creating a sort of "pinstripes" situation, which also looks great and is easy to understand. The bay door opens, you see the pods. This works because you have a static set of walls that you can work against.

But if you have a radial setup, there's no "base" to attach to. The walls are the parts that open. If you attach the pods to the walls, then when you open a bay door you either see the backs of the pods, or you actually yank the pods out of the bay and leave them attached to the doors. In order to get a radial bay to work, you need a central column of stuff that doesn't attach to the walls, and that wastes a lot of space and makes no structural sense. It also lights badly and doesn't look as sharp.

Well, there is one more option - force the player to attach to the parts of the bay that aren't doors. However, this is very difficult to manage both in terms of the player sticking things in and making it turn out beautiful when she's done.

The best option for interior spaces is linear symmetry, which does mean some wasted space. However, this can be okay because space doesn't have to be a critical factor. If the real constraints are weight and complexity rather than space, it's okay if interior spaces waste some space. Also, it could lead to interesting setups like a cargo bay actually being three linear-symmetry cargo bays arranged in radial symmetry, which would look neat!

Anyway, that's my thinking on the matter.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Problematic Culture

So, I just saw some early peeks into "Lightning Returns", which is a spin-off of Final Fantasy that is by the Valkyrie Profile team and is basically Valkyrie Profile 3: Final Fantasy Crossover.

The problem is that Valkyrie Profile was fairly progressive for its era, while Final Fantasy is astoundingly regressive for its era. Valkyrie Profile has tremendous respect for itself and its characters, while Final Fantasy is so disrespectful in its pursuit of the almighty dollar that the characters can only be described in terms of their appearance plus one adjective, if that much.

To me it feels like the creeping stink of Square Enix is poisoning another good franchise.

Let me explain.

In Valkyrie Profile, when you leveled up your characters would become better people. You would increase their bravery, their kindness... decrease their bloodlust or greed. Their personalities were embedded so deep into the gameplay that where other games would talk about +2 magic power, Valkyrie Profile would talk about +2 kindness. In a game with dozens of characters, they all shone brilliantly and clearly every second you played with them. In fact, the main plot was about growing your personality and independence!

In Final Fantasy, the characters are treated as containers for stats. Their personalities are suborned to ever-changing combat roles and, if they are women, to the clothes you make them wear. This is especially true in Lightning Returns.

The worst part is that they actively destroyed one of the least objectified women in the franchise. They chose one of the few women that existed as more than a fanservice romance target, and made absolutely sure to destroy her specifically. Obviously her personality should depend on the costume she wears! Obviously!

Ugh. Dressup isn't even inherently that awful. They've made it awful by aiming at the worst target and killing her with it.

As an example, there are many western RPGs where you can dress your character up however you want. Many people dress their character up very sexy. It's unsuitable, sure. It's sexist, yeah. But the character has no predetermined personality. The only personality these characters have is the one you assign to them. So when you create a character that dresses sexy all the time, you've created a person that likes to dress sexy. Sure, it's a shitty, sexist character. But you didn't objectify someone to get your jollies. You created someone that likes to help you get your jollies.

Hopefully the difference is clear.


I hate Square Enix. Their culture is awful. They poison everything.

It's nice that the Valkyrie Profile team are trying to pull them out of the quagmire they sank into... but the result is that the Valkryie Profile team is sinking into the same shit.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On Ludonarrative Babytalk

There are a number of people I really want to respect, but sometimes they make it hard.

Oddly, it's nearly always nerdy white guys around 30 years old. They (we) all seem to make the same damn blunders at the same damn time.

One of those blunders is the bizarre pushback against the term "ludonarrative dissonance".

Now, I understand the term is extremely pretentious. I wouldn't coin it, myself. But even as it is, it's significantly easier to say than typing "gameplay sabotages the story, tone, and mood of the game" over and over.

The pushback seems to be about how pretentious it is, given that the pushback is almost universally making dismissive, babytalk versions of the term and simply saying it over and over.

The actual situation is a little more complex.

The only time the term "ludonarrative dissonance" was really used much was in analyzing Bioshock Infinite. Even if you like Bioshock Infinite (another screwed-up opinion held almost exclusively by nerdy guys around thirty), you have to admit that it is an extreeeeeeemely pretentious game. If pretentiousness was really what these people were against, they would hate the game as much as the term used to disparage it.

Nope, I'm pretty sure they hate it because it was aimed at something they like. Dismissing the term is much easier than trying to defend Bioshock Infinite, so we hear people like Jim Sterling and David Gallant [EDIT: evidently not in the context of BI] dismissing the term with a literal volley of babytalk. If you haven't experienced it, go take a listen.

The problem with this is obvious: if we're analyzing games, we need to talk about the various merits and flaws of games. One of those flaws is that the gameplay often makes no damn sense in the context of the game.

With Bioshock Infinite, there were a spate of people who said "Bioshock Infinite would be cool if it weren't so damn violent", and then there were a spate of people saying "Shut the fuck up it's supposed to be violent". But the term "ludonarrative dissonance" can be used to talk about that and many other aspects of gameplay. Watch, I'll give a demonstration.

Did the violence diminish the story of the game any? Not in particular, the story is about a phenomenally violent walking murder factory, so the gameplay backs that up. I would say that the violence in the gameplay is not ludonarratively dissonant.

I would not say "ludobibble disblooboogoob! Booboo bloobi bloob!" I would say it's not ludonarratively dissonant.

However, there were many aspects of BI that were dissonant. For example, searching through trashcans for discarded apples. Elizabeth's immortality. The final boss battle. These all detracted from the narrative and tone of the game in an attempt to make the gameplay more fun or interesting.

How important you consider that to be is up to you, obviously. Many people are just fine with gameplay that actively undermines the tone and story of the game. Many people aren't.

From my perspective, the game was clearly about a homeless paranoid schizophrenic. The gameplay undermined the narrative to the point where, for much of the game, I actually thought that was going to be the twist.

I would also say that even though the violence was not ludonarratively dissonant, there is room to complain about the violence. The game world was beautifully rendered, and the music was great, but the simplistic ultra-violent gameplay limited the appeal. While I don't think BI should have been nonviolent, I do think that I would love to see that kind of gorgeous world in less violent games.

Perhaps some people used the term "ludonarrative dissonance" to wish for a less violent version of the game. I didn't read anyone saying that - I only saw people talking about eating out of trash cans. But even if they did misuse the term, it was those people using the term wrong, not the term itself being useless.

Of course, you don't need to embrace my view on the matter. If you think the term "ludonarrative dissonance" is useless, you can argue that. But to just dismiss it with babytalk shows a depressing lack of interest in actually discussing games.

EDIT: To be clear, I specifically mentioned two people who I otherwise respect quite a bit. In particular, Gallant read this post and took offense to it, but then was careful not to bring any heat down on me until after we chatted.

Apparently, Gallant was making fun of the term, but NOT in the context of Bioshock: Infinite.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Refining the RPG Battle

The RPG Battle is one of the oldest, clunkiest relics of game design still kicking around today. Originally born out of hardware constraints, the setup allowed early games to have world maps that tax the hardware to the limit, and battles which tax the hardware to the limit, and switch between them via a flashing epilepsy screen.

Of course, it's rare for that to be necessary these days, but we've gotten used to the idea of a battle scene that's distinct from the world scene. And it makes sense in certain situations, where we would be switching from real-time to turn-based anyway, so if the mechanics undergo an abrupt shift, the visuals changing to mark it is actually helpful.

But that doesn't change the fact that the battle scene is really outmoded as it stands. JRPGs feel clunky because they are clunky. Maybe you like that, but let's pretend we'd like to change it, and make the battle more interesting. Since I'm developing a prototype with battle scenes that happen "inside" the books you read, it's a good opportunity for me to fix it up.

The first standout element of the standard RPG battle system is not the fact that it is separate from the world map, but the fact that it's a spreadsheet stat mill. Nearly every RPG is driven by the quest for loot and levels, and the battles reflect that by being mostly a matter of throwing stats at stats.

Sometimes games shake this up to some degree. The Persona series has it so you can get extra turns by exploiting weaknesses (or they can exploit yours), which definitely adds a lot of nonstatistical meat to the battles... but for some reason it's still 99% stat grinding. Radiant Historia has a cool combination of turn order and simplified position/AOE elements that make every battle part puzzle. It's also pretty stat-grindy, but less than many JRPGs.

To make the system less spreadsheety, the easiest way is to add in puzzle elements. Weaknesses, manipulatable turn order, simple positional puzzles. Okay, let's take that into account and try to limit the spreadsheety treadmilly part of the game.

Eliminating the treadmill is easy and fun: just make it so the player can change their level whenever they want. Of course, you need to have some kind of limit on it, but it's not one of wasted player time. So let's say that every level you increase increases the amount of game-world time you have to sit out. If you stay at level 1, you can read every book. But if you go to level 2, you have to sit the next book out. Level 3, sit the next 3 books out. Level 4, sit out the next 7 books. And so on. This also means that each level is a lot more powerful and important, of course, and your characters will automatically level up if an attack would 'kill' them.

With that in mind, we can talk about the weaknesses, turn order, and positional elements we need to add. Understanding that our roster will be constantly shifting means our puzzles can take into account that the player will have sub-par and awkward parties a lot of the time. The challenge to the player is to solve them at the lowest levels they can manage, and which characters to level up in order to break through. Obviously, this is going to be tinted a lot by which characters the player is okay doing without for a few stages.


Let's start with the concept of position. I'm thinking of a typical battle, where the player characters are all on one side (say, the left) and the enemies are on the other (say, the right). I'm thinking about having vertical positioning matter.

For example, you can only attack enemies that are on your row, and visa-versa. So obviously you can change your row by simply dragging the characters up and down. The enemies, too, can shift rows. This is normally a free action, because there are some constraints.

The biggest constraint is that when someone performs a melee attack, the two combatants move towards the center of the screen and are locked together on that row. Neither character may move, and an ally can only move through them by actively wasting a turn to switch places with them.

People are not solely limited to attacking on their row. AOE attacks and chain attacks make it possible to attack people on other rows.

This combines with adjacency attacks of various sorts, disengage techniques, guarding adjacent characters, mobile characters that can roam without switching places, and so on.

In addition to enemies, the battlefield may also be littered with stuff. For example, there might be a boulder in one of the lanes. The boulder would make ranged attacks against that lane impossible, but whoever performs the first melee attack will leap on top of the boulder and have a statistical advantage against the enemy below. This adds further puzzle elements into the battles.

Turn Order

Turn order is one of the great unused elements in RPGs. It's a shame, because even complex turn orders aren't really using turn orders very well. Turn order can be made an intrinsic part of the gameplay at a much deeper level, and that's part of this design.

Turn order is displayed across the top of the screen, and the player is allowed to rearrange the turns - they can drag their own turns backwards as they see fit.

The reason to do this is because when the player party gets a turn, all of the characters in a row take the same action, each one more powerfully than the last.

This is easy to describe if it's just Anna: if she manages to line up three turns in a row and you pick "attack", she'll attack three times, each more powerfully than the last.

However, it really begins to shine when you have multiple characters. First off, each subsequent attack hits targets in every previous target as well as your own. Because all characters take the same category of action, this will never result in a melee attack hitting everyone that got hit by a fireball: it's AOE after AOE, or melee after melee.

In addition, at higher levels characters gain secondary attributes to their attacks. For example, Anna may use electrical attacks that 'stun' her targets, moving them down one spot in the turn order, while Bob might use a 'smash' that knocks all enemies above him up a row vertically. You could combine these to create quite a string of attacks, much longer than you might normally think is possible, and then lock the enemies in melee so they have a hard time getting down to the vulnerable party members below.

It is literally impossible to give a hero in a chain a different order. So there are lots of times when you'll want to break the chain manually, so you can give a different order to a different hero. Chains are not always the best option - for example, if you have a healer, you often won't want a chain of heal attempts, and you also won't always want your healer to jump forward to participate in a melee.

In addition, mana is shared between all characters in the chain. Characters charge energy by attacking/being attacked, and they have advanced attack options that take up 25%, 50%, or 100% of their max mana charge. Because all characters in a row take the same action, all characters in a row combine mana pools and split the total cost of all of their actions between them. If Anna has 90% charge and Bob has 10% charge, they could perform a 50% mana attack regardless of who goes first in the chain.

The enemies are the same way, of course. Three wolves in a row will all take the same action. The enemies will manipulate turn order as well - not at any particularly cunning level, but like you they will want to break up chains to allow different classes of enemies to use different kinds of techniques. A boss monster doesn't want to get locked into a basic attack chain, for example, and probably doesn't want to waste his mana on shitty mook special attacks... but a mook with a lot of spare mana might get into a chain with a boss specifically to allow the boss to perform a more powerful mana attack!


The two previous elements combine well to create a canvas of exploitable weaknesses. The question is: what do you get for exploiting an enemy's weakness, and what do they get for exploiting yours?

I'm thinking that anyone who has a weakness exploited has two things happen to them. First, their state changes, typically to a weaker state - knocked down, shield bashed away, and so on. Rather than being general states, this is specific per enemy and per character. Not every enemy can be knocked down. Not every enemy can be shocked.

Second, next round they are unable to use any advanced techniques, and are limited to attack or disengage.

Third, their turn is moved back one slot - and usually again for every subsequent attack against them until their next turn. If they have multiple turns in the queue, only the first one is moved back... but it's still a very powerful technique that means the target won't get a turn until they have two turns in a row queued up. Contrarily, it also means that when the monster gets back up, they'll have two basic attacks or disengages in a row.

In the early game, weaknesses are less important. But as time goes on weaknesses take center stage, since you want to keep your level low. That means you have more weaknesses, and you need to aggressively exploit the enemy's weaknesses. The problem is that, at low levels, you probably won't have the firepower needed to directly exploit an enemy's weakness. Instead, you'll need to use priming or the limited magic attacks.

Priming is a matter of changing the battlefield conditions to allow you to use more powerful attacks. Typically these are techniques which do little things, in terms of combat. For example, causing it to rain, or slowly regenerating everyone. Once the battlefield is primed with a "half point" of elemental affinity, the basic attacks that normally have a "half point" of elemental affinity combine to create an elemental attack.

This is middle to late game stuff, though - basically, it makes exploiting weaknesses a more cumbersome thing to do at low levels, and also requires you to clearly break up player character turn strings so you can make many different orders. Balancing this against the power of the enemy's offense will be fun.

Of course, sometimes the enemies (and maybe the players) will have special attacks which cause a state change independent of any weakness. For example, a squid boss might be able to grab players and hold them, which really limits their options when it comes to be their turn. It doesn't delay their turn, but you may want to manually delay their turn until someone frees them. While this isn't exactly exploiting a weakness, it is the same kind of tactical, puzzly situation.

Titanic Enemies

The last thing worth mentioning is that boss monsters don't have to simply occupy one row. You can have monsters that occupy multiple rows, and their pieces count as distinct targets. How these are related can be quite complex: a giant might take up one row for upper body, one row for lower body. The lower body might always have to be exactly one row beneath the upper body, and the upper body might be the only one that attacks. That's quite different from a squid whose tentacles can swarm over any row they like, even submerging and re-emerging somewhere else without worrying about melee locking.

Similarly, the different parts of the boss could have different weaknesses, different weakened states, different parameters of all sorts.

Titanic enemies add a lot of complexity to the battles because it's an excuse to create an intricately linked engine of combat.

If you are reading this line, you're very patient.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Parties and Mechanics

One of the most interesting little ecologies we've evolved in the game industry is the concept of a party, and the roles each member of the party can take on.

Most commonly this is part of an RPG. Nearly every RPG has the same core set of roles, although the boundaries can be a bit fuzzy as the game tries to make everything fun for everyone.

For example, the idea of a tank. In every RPG various characters are more or less frail, and it makes sense to have the most durable characters take the brunt of the damage. The tank is simply a class built to absorb all the damage, usually by "pulling aggro" and then soaking the damage. This has been true all the way back to the beginning, with the original tabletop RPGs. Warriors take the front line and soak the damage.

The problem is that the tank's role is fundamentally a passive role: get attacked more than the rest of the party. To make that more interesting, the tanks are typically given secondary roles such as being a mediocre attacker, mediocre support character, or having a really intricate aggro management mechanic.

Similarly, the healer role is one which rarely involves the enemy - you stand around and support your allies as they get torn up. In the old days it was the role assigned to the least interested member of the team, typically someone's brother or girlfriend, with the assumption that they wouldn't get into the good roles anyway. That's kind of backwards, though - those are the people who should be given the most fundamental and straightforward attacker roles. Well, either way, the role of support is pretty dull, and therefore they are typically given secondary roles such as mediocre attacker or mediocre striker (mage).

Modern games, tabletop and MMO alike, tend to actually spell out what each class is good at. Generally I lump them into various kinds of attacker (glass cannon, artillery, steady DPS, etc) and various kinds of defender (support, tank, debuffer). This obviously isn't perfect - a pet-using class, for example, is a bit tough to categorize.

And that's the point I'm slowly working around to: the roles in the party are not static. They depend on the game.

In many cases people think of roles as being something fundamental and all games tap the same well. There's "always" a "rogue", there's "always" a "tank", etc.

That's just because everyone's used to combat being modeled in very similar ways in every game.

Let's consider the two boring classes: support and tanking. These are dull because they don't involve accomplishing the primary goal in combat - murder. However, there are other roles that are good at murder, and they're more fun.

There's no reason to try to "trick out" the tank to make them fun. Polishing a turd is not going to give you much. But there are several other approaches that you might consider. They all involve completely changing out the mechanics.

The easiest solution is to simply write out the boring roles altogether. Everyone has the same durability, there's no tanking class. Nobody can heal during combat, there is no support class. This doesn't simplify combat, because combat isn't a static concept. You can always add more complexity at any level you like, and make a multitude of complicated offensive classes that play a variety of important battlefield roles.

For example, that approach would work well with a game based around a fighting anime, or a sentai series, or a magical girl thing. All the characters support each other, but they don't go around casting boost spells on each other. They do sometimes do combination attacks, or put up a barrier, but by and large all of the characters are offensive combatants. Setting aside the inevitable power imbalance, of course.

Another option is to change the core mechanics of combat such that those roles (or similar roles) are part of the densest part of combat. Instead of combat being oriented around damage output, you could make combat oriented around terrain control, morale, claiming pieces of a limited stake, and so on. Now the attack-oriented classes are on the sidelines and the control classes are the core classes with the most complex interactions.

This would work well in, say, a Harry Potterlike game about wizarding school. The students wouldn't be fighting for their lives, they would instead be fighting for morale and house points. So a tank equivalent would be someone who can soak up point loss by giving the teacher puppy-dog eyes, while a support character would be someone who always comes in with a smile and reassuring word. You could also have a class that excels at hiding fallout or minimizing evidence, a class that excels at inspiring people, a class that excels at scrounging up on-hand resources so you don't have to risk being fined for premeditated mischief... and that's not even getting into the magic side of things.

Even the nonmagic things can be quite complex - something like "coming in with a reassuring word" sounds pretty passive, but it can be intricately linked to the fundamental experience. Reassuring someone takes a certain amount of time, during which they can't be doing other things. Obviously reassuring your own side can keep your people on their A-game even when times are tough... but it's also an offensive tool for taking an enemy out of rotation for a while by spending time reassuring THEM.

This brings us to the big point. The classes in a party are not drawn from a magic well of static class templates. They exist to fill roles in the mechanics of the game world. Everyone uses the same damn combat mechanics, so everyone has very similar combat roles. But you don't need to.

Doesn't it sound kind of interesting, this magic school game? By creating mechanics carefully, your mechanics can enable your worldbuilding and message. The students at a wizarding school don't need to roll 1d20 to hit and deal 1d8 damage. Instead, you should come up with mechanics that support what you want the game to be about. In my case, I think mechanics based around timing are probably best, as it gives a good feeling for the alternating annoying-fast and glacial-slow pace of school life. So a lot of the mechanics would be about changing the timing of things - for example, moving certain events to a faster or slower pace, hiding certain actions for certain lengths of time, delaying teachers for certain amounts of time. Since that's the mechanic I've chosen, my "combat" classes will all vary based on how they move things within time.

Which would give me some interesting classes!

For example, the "cuckoolander" class exists solely to slow things down or derail them. Being weird and confused is actually a viable combat class in this game.

Anyway, stop using the typical mechanics, they're boring.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Skeptic/Atheist Community

As some of you know, I'm a strong atheist and science-minded skeptic, meaning I don't believe in gods, magic, or homeopathy, but I do believe in global warming and dinosaurs.

One persistent problem with skeptic and atheist community is that it basically doesn't exist as a community. It's a problem we've had for a long time, and one that comes up a lot: a church provides a strong community base. Attending a weekly service isn't simply a way to show faith, it's also a way to be part of a community. We generally play down the importance of community these days, but it is important, especially to people who have complex schedules or difficulty making friends. Social interactions and safety nets are part of being a happy human, so let's not underplay their value.

There's been some attempt to address this - there are skeptical and/or atheist meet-ups in most major cities, usually monthly.

The problem is that they happen in bars.

I don't drink, and I can't take the volume of noise in a bar. It's actually unhealthy for me to join the skeptical or atheist communities in Boston.

I was thinking: this is a chance to create a useful community. Maybe we should try to make it useful. Literally good for us.

So, um... why not gym?

Nearly every skeptic and atheist doesn't get enough exercise. In the same way that the religious go to church every Sunday morning for their spiritual health and to solidify their community, why not have atheist groups that go to the gym every Sunday afternoon? An hour of exercise at whatever level you feel comfortable with. You could go to the bar before and after if you like.

I know there are gym groups, and many are very social and fun. But the point isn't simply to go to the gym. It's to create a community for skeptics or atheists. The gym wouldn't be the only thing the community would do, but it could be a cornerstone or foundation in the same way that sitting in pews is a foundation for most religions. In the same way that a religion would accept the existence of god, we could accept that our bodies need some attention or we'll all die rather young.

There doesn't even need to be a proper gym. We could just go to the park, or a big open warehouse space with some mats. We can unworship our crappy bodies basically anywhere.

Hey, it's backed up by science.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Feedback Scales

I was watching Vlambeer's screenshake video and it made me think a bit about feedback. Obviously, his talk is a lot more useful, because he actually shows some stuff. But I thought I'd talk about it from a more theoretical standpoint.

The thing I noticed about Vlambeer's approach is that a lot of the feedback he uses is immediate, but a lot of it is prolonged. I don't want to put up super-clear lines, but I do want to try and categorize it a bit so that it's easier to discuss.

One kind of feedback is related to player inputs. Something like kickback is immediate feedback on a direct input - you press a button, your character moves backwards, or walks right, or jumps, or the menu opens, whatever. There is also conditional feedback on inputs, such as the gun lag as you jump - it tells you an ongoing, modal bit of info about how the game is currently interpreting your inputs. Something like walking, strafing, or jumping might be considered gameplay rather than feedback, although the line is just semantics.

There's also feedback on the game state as a direct result of player action - showing success or failure. Here's where the classification starts to get tricky, because there's so many options. Well, let's talk about some variations anyway, to help understand them a bit.

The visibility and animation effects on your bullets are a highly reliable ongoing feedback mechanism. You press a button, and you get big, juicy bullets. The sound effect is also a feedback effect, but it's really not an ongoing thing - it's "immediate" instead of "ongoing". The discarded shells that show your firing are a permanent (or long-term) feedback effect. In both cases, they are a direct result of your action, so we'll call them "first order". First order feedback.

Enemy hit animations, explosions, bullet holes, and so on are also a result of what the player does, but there's a chain of causality. The player presses the fire button and, if she's in the right spot and the enemy is in the right spot, a short moment later the enemy gets hit. Since the player causes an event which causes an event, we'll call these "second order" feedback. By the way, catching a ledge, jumping into a powerup, and getting flung from a cannon are also second order events that require second order feedback.

Things like enemy death are third order. That is, you fire a bullet which hits an enemy which causes their health to finally run out. If your enemies are all one-hit kills then it would be second order, since there's no "injury" event, just a "death" event.

But normally something like a dying animation would be an immediate third order effect. Corpses lying around would be a long-term effect, as would smoke hanging over exploded robots or whatever.

All of these are about communicating state. The more removed (higher order) the effect, the more you need to clearly communicate state changes and modes, because it's "further away" from the player and is harder for the player to directly grasp. On the other hand, the stuff "close" to the player is something they'll quickly grasp and repeatedly cause, so it should be something that doesn't make the game annoying with its size or excessive clarity - IE, a prolonged screen flash each time you fire a machine gun (first order) might be excessive, but might make sense every time you set off a grenade (second order).

Well, you want to communicate some state immediately, to tell the player exactly what is going on in the game world. However, sometimes you want to tell the player about things that already happened, or even about things that haven't happened yet, such as allowing the player to see through a security camera or out a window or something. It's important for the player to feel grounded in the game, so telling them what they did is a great way to do that, and that's why bullet holes, broken robots, smoke clouds, shell casings and so on add so much to a game. Some reminders will be relatively short-lived, such as smoke clouds that take ten seconds to clear. Others might be permanent. Either way, their role as gameplay is probably minor if it exists at all. They exist to remind the player what happened, not create gameplay.

But not all feedback is to communicate state to the player. A lot of feedback exists simply to make the world more exciting. For example, bullet scatter or random enemy death animations don't communicate much state to the player, if any. Instead, they add spice to the way the game communicates. Normally you'll want to avoid making this "spice" actually screw up gameplay. For example, you don't want the player to jump a random height when they hit jump. That would simply interfere.

And, of course, even though I dryly talk about feedback as supplying information, that's a pretty iffy way to consider it. Sure, some kinds of feedback are mostly about supplying information, such as good camera work. Other kinds are clearly less about "communicating information" and more about "hammering it in really hard", such as momentary pauses, strengthening bass, etc.

Anyway, these feedback ideas can definitely be extrapolated to nearly any kind of play. Any game with a complex, changing state could think of the same kinds of categories and maybe come up with some good, juicy ideas.