Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Constructive Construction

For a long time I've been thinking Deeeeeep Thoughts about construction games. I've written about a dozen essays that I never published, and here's another one!

I think there are several categories of games we're just overlooking completely. They require a completely different approach to their gameplay, pacing, and monetization, which is why so few get made. The category I find myself most interested in is the construction games: games where you build stuff.

Obviously, there are construction games out there in the wild. But I think that, for the most part, they are not very good at being construction games. Nearly all of them are "face this challenge" games. You have to do X or survive Y, build yourself a setup that can do that.

Even Kerbal, my flat out favorite construction game, is like that. Kerbal is a bit more interesting, though, because the player can define the challenge however they want before building something and going on the mission. This is one key to the puzzle.

Another construction game that's quite interesting is Minecraft. Not survival mode (usually), but creative mode. Vast cities, castles, artwork - players expressing themselves via bricks and blocks. Their creations are rarely "functional" in any particular in-world sense, because there are only a few functions that Minecraft's universe actually cares about. But they are very functional out of world: players view these creations, play around in them, and enjoy them. It lies somewhere between creating art and creating levels, exactly where depends on the creation itself.

That's the other key to the puzzle.

The heart of this situation lies in players ability to both express what they want to express and explore new things to express.

If you give players something that lets them express what they want to express, you've given them a tool rather than a game. For example, Twine.

What I'm focused on instead is the idea that a game and its environment can push players to not just express themselves freely, but also explore new concepts and frameworks that give them a scaffold to continue to do so.

That's the strength of a construction game.

See, few players have something interesting they want to say really badly. There's always a percentage, sure, but it's very low. Rather than simply providing a tool for that tiny fraction of a percent, a proper construction game can lure the rest of the players into wanting to say something.

You can see this with Space Engineer and the bundle of recent space games that let you build starships. Players have to build a starship. It's so freeform that they can build more or less any ship they want. Unfortunately, the majority of starships built in these games are very poor, just functional frameworks with a few dull attempts to build something vaguely hully. The majority of the rest are clones of starships that exist elsewhere - the Enterprise, for example. Neither of these kinds of constructions are very expressive.

The problem is that the construction is too desynched from the game. The construction has turned into a tool rather than a game. The players who have built their functional frames with halfassed ship stuff stapled on are people that have chosen to not use your tool. The people who have built replica ships have chosen to use your tool to express something, but it's nothing particularly personal or interesting. There will be the small percentage of users that use your tool deeply, as mentioned before. And some of the replicas may verge on that - for example, a room-by-room, deck-by-deck reconstruction of the Enterprise.

Now let's compare that to the way Kerbal lures players into rocket construction.

If you look at various screenshots and videos of Kerbal, you can see that even among high-level players there are very, very different schematics being used. The launch platform is usually one of three specific concepts, but the actual payloads are so wildly varied that sometimes it's hard to imagine these people are playing the same game. While some of these launches are clones of existing spacecraft, that's usually reserved for parts mods rather than in-game construction.

Instead, the reason for this high level of variation is because of the high level of variation in mission objectives and procedures. A player that decides to land on the mun has a massive variety of possible steps. For example, do they return from the mun? Do they stop at several locations to gather science? Do they drop rovers or science pods? Do they have an orbiter they re-dock with? Is it crewed or drone or half-and-half?

Even if two people have the exact same mission parameters, they can still end up with very different ships because of their personal approach to the physics of the situation. The lander - is it attached to the top of the rocket, or in the middle somewhere for a skyhook-style drop? Is it affixed to the main launch platform via a central column or via a radial attachment out at the edges of a wider base? Does it have enough RCS and SAS to land with a small footprint, or has a slightly easier-to-land approach been taken by giving it a wide, flexible landing base with plenty of legs? Is the crew capsule on the bottom so the crew can just hop out directly onto the dirt, or is it on the top and there's a bunch of ladders? How have you laid out your solar panels?

There are specific mission objectives, and all the parts attached to the lander play a role in that. Their exact position and interaction with neighbors also plays a role: just attaching another rocket engine won't help any. You need to place it so that it makes sense physically.

This gives players less freedom than if they just select modules and place them wherever they like (like in Minecraft or much of Starship Engineer), but that's not a bad thing. Within the constraints lies a secret, and that secret is this:

Nearly everyone feels proud about their rocket design.

Not every rocket design, obviously. But the big missions? Yeah. People think "I built that cool freaking thing and it worked except for this part where it exploded, and it was cool."

Sure, people might feel that way about a Star Trek Online ship they've bought for real cash, or a WoW character with a rare armor set... but not nearly so deeply or often. And the reason people feel proud is the same in all these situations: they feel proud because they have found a good solution for the challenges they face.

The difference in the amount of pride can be explained by simply looking at how many aspects the player has control over. In Kerbal, you control the mission objectives, the mission structure, the piloting, and the construction. In STO you just control which prefab mission to go on, which ship chassis you own, and which slots have which gear in them. Moreover, rather than having several complex options to choose from, you normally just strive to use whatever has the highest stats. There's way less freedom.

But people do feel proud in games like STO and WoW. Very proud. The thing is, they generally don't feel hugely proud of their avatar: they feel hugely proud of their performance.

Oh, did you solo a team boss? Did you go on a 50-hero raid that worked out? Did you bring your team back from the edge of death with perfectly timed heals? Those are things that make you glow with pride.

... Look at them.

They involve choosing your own objective, choosing your own path to reach it, playing the moment-to-moment game through the mission, and making sure your character and team are properly set up to accomplish it.


All of this leads me to believe that we have a deep, deep well of creative power lying untapped. However, this is just the surface, just the marker we can look for to see that it exists. There is a lot of power hidden deeper in this concept, where today's games rarely go.

And that would be the part where you choose your own mission objectives.

See, most games are starved for mission objectives. Even Kerbal has about six, and you just point them at various planets and combine them into chains. But people often launch mission objectives that have no in-game reason to exist.

Starbases in Kerbal never had any reason to exist until recently. Despite that, people created them. Vast complexes that the astronauts could float around, even though it accomplishes absolutely nothing in-game. It is a self-made mission objective that the game cannot even see. The game cannot judge how well you accomplished your mission, because it is impossible for the game to even understand what you are trying to accomplish.

Kerbal's strength is that all of its few mission objectives are "physics judged". Kerbal doesn't say "you want to land on the Mun, you need this and this". Instead it says "this is how landing works, in terms of physics. There is a mun over there." Then it lets you try whatever you want and judges you by simply executing physics. This allows the players to judge how well things went for themselves, and also to combine complex objectives in chains and parallel missions.

Minecraft is the same way in creative mode, except that the game physics play a much smaller role. The players judge their own creations and the creations of their friends according to what they think the player was trying to accomplish. This cool castle looks neat. That giant picture of Mario is neat. Mission objectives: cleared!

All told, I think there is a lot of value in having physics-bounded objectives like those in Kerbal... but I think Kerbal doesn't do it very well. I think Kerbal does it very clumsily... and yet even that faint, wafting scent of physics-bounded self-directed missions is enough to make the game insanely good.

The question is whether you can build a game where that is at the forefront.

A game where players choose their own (usually physics-bound) mission objectives, chain and combine them in complex ways, and accomplish them using constructions where the elements are combined in relational ways? Ideally, we could even lean on mods to add more possible in-world phsyics-bound objectives, like Kerbal's communications mods.


To me one of the biggest missing elements are people. Not the concept of people, but individuals. I think there's a limit to how much people will care about something that isn't alive in some sense. Even in Minecraft, many of the constructions sort of pretend there are people around, even though there aren't any. In Kerbal, there is always a lot of chatter about making the astronauts more important, more interesting.

Just think of the Sims. It was very popular even though it was an awful game. The people in it never made even the slightest bit of sense, never behaved even vaguely like people... but because they had human faces and could be customized, players would happily feel that their house had people living in it.


... Maybe I'll publish this essay, even though it's a mess.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Dystopian Topiary

A lot of games have strong dystopian settings. It's very popular, mostly because dystopia gives us a lot of opportunities to blow things up and murder people, which is what most games are about. However, a proper dystopian setting should reflect on the fears and trends of a culture, and few video game settings bother to think that carefully. Most video game dystopias are either inherited from last century, or are so glossed over that they are less dystopias and more set pieces.

I was thinking about creating some new dystopian settings - or elements of settings - and seeing how that felt.

In my mind, the dystopia we need to explore is one where technology and weather collide. There's lots of dystopia about weather (flooded planet dystopias, dust-bowl dystopias, ice-age dystopias, etc), and lots of dystopias about technology (basically all the rest), but there's not really any that explore how the two interact.

If we talk about a weather dystopia, the one that makes the most sense for our era is one where droughts become the norm, storms lash endlessly against the less-dry regions, and salt water rises. You could make a total dystopia out of just these elements, with humankind scavenging for survival - but the most compelling dystopias are those where humans are still in power. This is where technology comes in.

The technology to pump, store, and purify water exists. In the future, it's only going to get more pronounced. Water laws are some of the most complex in any society, and they only get more complex as water becomes more scarce.

Let's presume a future where our infrastructure becomes ever more adaptive. Water, power, internet, gas, and even roads are all sent wherever they need to go, and the flows are tweaked moment by moment as the whole grid shifts. It's much more efficient... but it's also vulnerable to hacking. Even if a node isn't technically on the internet, it is connected to every other infrastructure node, so a hacker in the middle of nowhere tapped into a minor transformer station can screw with the whole network, at least to some extent. In theory it's possible to make this secure... in practice, the lowest bidder creates them.

In this world, you and your team are agents of the SLMA: the Secure Last Mile Agency. Think of Ghost in the Shell's Section 9, except with a focus on infrastructure. You start the game going up against terrorists - people seeking to simply destroy infrastructure for whatever reasons. But as time goes on, the corruption and insufficiency of the grid begin to show. Whole states abandoned to dust, political maneuvers that drain rivers dry, rounding up the number of gallons transferred, and even flat-out stealing other nation's water. Initiatives for much-improved desalination and storm harvests find their facilities blacked out and even outright attacked. It's dystopia, so of course the ordinary people suffer from the excesses and oppression of those in power.

The core of the game is, of course, rather violent. The flavor of your operations is a bit GITSy: you are cybernetic/robotic operatives that can shoot guns, leap long distances, pilot mechs, and sneak around. It's not a proper shooter since there are no waves of endless enemies. Instead, it's more of a hunter's game: you're trying to entrap your enemies in your net without letting them know you're on to them. So the focus is more on carefully positioning your squad members so that whatever shit goes down, goes down perfectly.

The real strength of this concept comes from the role that the infrastructure plays. Not everything physically revolves around infrastructure all the time, but even if you are just watching some people talk to each other over coffee, there is infrastructure in the area. Power, water, gas, data, roads... perhaps even hackable local hardware such as thermostats, doors, windows. By accessing them, you can alter their behavior to give yourself an advantage. Of course, the enemy can do so as well. And either side can look at a hacked unit and try to suss out who is in the area doing what, when.

You take your flying mech to hide on a nearby rooftop, then tap into the local power grid to get a fast recharge for your now-spent mech. While it's recharging, you watch the coffee shop. You send a video feed to HQ via a secure transmission.

The enemy might have seeded the local power network to watch for unusual drains. They might have already compromised the local cell tower to identify unusual communicators - perhaps even spoof or block them. They may even just have a bunch of aerial drones looking at the nearby rooftops.

In turn, you might have seeded the local power network instead, to be on the lookout for the drain of illegal desal, or the supercomputers used to abuse microsecond fluctuations in the data grid, or a mech recharging. The data grid can show you the transmissions of those aerial drones. Either way, you'll also have to deal with the noise passing through those nodes, and constantly be in the dark about whether a particular anomaly is from your targets or another government organization that would be happy to end your little investigation in order to keep their own secrets secret.

So the game would be half about going places in person and doing things, and half about setting up the terrain all around you to work in your favor. Curry favors with other organizations to get better intel on the ground, order the police around, and then leap from building to building to chase down a mech carrying exobytes of stolen data.

As the dystopian elements are slowly revealed, using the local system becomes more and more risky. In the early game you rely too much on your personal performance because you haven't figured out how to use the local infrastructure well. In the late game, you rely too much on your personal performance because tapping the local infrastructure may get you noticed by enemies within the government.

Combine with a fair number of specialty missions such as black-tie parties, dust-bowl termination missions, yachts, and underground maker-fests, you could have a spectacular AAA game.

Reduce the scope and you could probably do a pretty decent indie game. Hm.

Anyway, I like the idea of giving the player a lot more control over the local situation, but also giving enemies that control. The result is both dystopian and offers deep mechanics.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Games About Relationships

The place where games fall shortest is how they handle relationships.

Putting aside fully scripted relationships, there are a lot of games where relationships are part of the gameplay. For example, getting team mates to like you or performing loyalty missions or giving a cartoon cat a comfy chair.

The problem with all of these approaches is that the relationship is a gating mechanism. You move through the relationship to get the reward, whether it's stats or a cut scene or whatever. In turn, the interactions are all rather stilted and transparent. It's made considerably worse because the relationships are not very interesting to move through - you use a variety of extremely basic dialog options or gifts.

Basically, the relationships suck because they're so transparent and flat.

One option to make relationships more interesting is to accept their "level-like" nature. If you're going to move through a relationship, set it up the same way that you might set up a level in a platforming game. Let the player move through its complexities using a more open-ended method of interacting. Fill it with interesting challenges and moments of beauty or terror as things unfold.

The other option is to stop treating relationships like levels. Instead of "using dialog to move through a relationship", you "use relationships to move through dialog". Or whatever else you want to move through. The point is that instead of being equivalent to the level, the relationship is now equivalent to the act of jumping, moving, shooting, building - whatever actions you would take in another game. Instead of being content to burn through, relationships are actions you take to burn through content.

As the most basic example, if you play a father or mother that's going to have a rough week at work, you might spend a few hours playing around with your kids. That'll relax you and give you the determination you need to push through the week.

While your relationship with the kids might change slightly because you spend time with them, the point would be to navigate the challenges of your life by spending time with people. Whether this is an emotional benefit or whether they actually help you with your problems directly, the relationship is largely a stable object, like shooting a gun in a first person shooter. You might change guns, or run out of ammo, or use alt-fire, or it might overheat - there's lots of ways to add complexity, but fundamentally you can rely on a gun to do what it is obviously intended to do.

Anyway, I think both options are interesting. The real issue here is in the objective. Why do you relationship? Whether the relationship is action or terrain, there has to be some reason to play. Hm!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Player-Created Cities

I came up with a fun crafting system, but it has the downside of requiring quite a lot of assets to be pre-built. I'm going to describe it and see if I can get the requirements down.

The first thing to realize is that, as a crafting game, there's not really any violence. This both limits and frees us, and it's our foundation. So we'll start at the bottom: the individual avatar that the player uses.

The big issue with noncombat games is that the statistical elements tend to suffer. Basically every RPG and MMO is built on the stat treadmill. Your character is a bundle of combat stats - eight gear slots, a bunch of skill slots, six stats... you incrementally upgrade them as you grind through the game.

This kind of stat treadmill is not inherently bad - it is a well-understood method of pacing gameplay. So it makes sense to preserve it. Unfortunately, taking out combat takes out the concept of weapons and armor, the concept of battle techniques, spells, regeneration, etc. We could reintroduce that complexity by forcefully adding combat-like elements into the game, but let's not. Let's keep things fairly simple.

However, keeping things simple while still using the statistical treadmill leaves no room for self-expression. You might offer the player ten thousand options, but if they are all simply "+1 to this stat", then there's no bite to it. There has to be both visual and statistical bite to all the choices the player makes, all the things the player crafts.

As an easy example, let's say that the clothes you wear matter. You equip various clothes and get various bonuses to various stats such as intelligence, endurance, charisma, etc. Whatever the gameplay, these are important bonuses.

Even assuming the clothes were complex enough to support interest, it has some serious disadvantages because it turns into "gear slots". You have a hat slot, a gloves slot, a shoes slot, and so on. It's in your best interest to keep them kitted out at maximum, so everyone runs around overly haberdashed and nobody ever changes clothes except when a clear upgrade is in the works. There are ways around this - clothes that degrade, for example - but it'd end up being annoying for gear the player crafted to degrade away, and it wouldn't really solve the problem.

The solution is that the player doesn't usually control exactly what the avatar is wearing. I mean, they can, if they go home and access their wardrobe. But in general, whenever the player logs in the avatar is wearing a random assortment of clothes from the active wardrobe.

The wardrobe is just a piece of furniture that can contain maybe thirteen pieces of clothing. As long as all the clothes you're wearing are from that wardrobe, you get all the bonuses from all the clothes in the wardrobe. Knowing you have access to that gear is the same as wearing it, because this is not gear that actually has important physical characteristics. As long as there's a hat of +3 intellect in your wardrobe, it's okay if you're not wearing it: you still get the bonus because you're the sort of person that bought or made such a hat and considers wearing it every day.

Of course, you may randomly be wearing it when you log in, and if it looks silly you may decide to take it off - but that will either require a trek back to the wardrobe or moving the hat to general inventory (and removing the bonus entirely).

Similarly, there may be some clothes that have modes - for example, a jacket might default to "unzipped", and that's the stat bonus you get when it's in your wardrobe, unworn. If you are wearing it, you can either leave it unzipped or zip it up, in which case the default stat bonuses are canceled and you get a different set of bonuses (such as cold weather resistance).

It's hard to proceed to the city-building part until you fully understand this concept: your stats include things you don't currently have equipped. Simply having something available to you changes how you look at and interact with the world. And you can have a dozen wardrobes, each with a different set of characteristics for facing different challenges.

Now, let's consider NPCs. NPCs are important in our game. One of the things you can do is kit out your NPCs with a wardrobe, the same way as you'd kit out yourself. This obviously gives the NPCs the bonuses from those clothes. It may also change their personality or job preferences somewhat. And, of course, a proper named NPC may have several wardrobes that they use at different times.

Now, let's consider a city. What makes a city unique is more than just the arrangement of the buildings: there's a city culture that makes your city distinct from others. There are a lot of ways to create and shape a city culture. One of those ways is by how the locals dress.

So you can create a shop in your city, a shop with a specific set of clothes for sale. A certain percentage of your population will shop there, and they will have a wardrobe that is the same as the shop's clothing assortment. Therefore, by putting a shop in your city you are defining a whole segment of your population - their stats, their preferred jobs, their personality. This happens to NPCs you meet in the street, sure, but it also happens when simply considering the statistics of the city population as a whole.

You can manually create shops. Design each article of clothing and painstakingly aim for exactly the kind of population you want. You might even make a small profit off of it.

Or you can create a branch of some other player's shop. You won't make the small profit, but chances are that the shop has very well-designed clothes in a perfect assortment for a given kind of job or culture. Other players have the incentive to make their shops branchable because they'll get that small income. Random cities can use player-created shops and come out feeling a bit more planned and up-to-date than if they stuck to stock shops.

I've been focused on clothes because that's the element with the clearest chain from individual player avatar to city scales. The same technique applies elsewhere, though: if something is available, it doesn't have to be concrete to give a bonus.

For example, in a small sci-fi village, a building might contain both living spaces and functional areas (such as power plants, 3D-print shops, comm systems, etc). You can manually put NPCs into the living spaces and they'll work the functional areas. They may even customize all those spaces with their personal style, if there's enough time to put those assets into the game.

But that's a village. A city is not a place where you can assign each NPC, or even see every NPC. In this case, you can put down "pure function" or "pure habitation" buildings. Instead of choosing who lives in them, NPCs automatically populate them. Not in any kind of concrete way - there are no specific NPCs that live in apartment 3-A. The apartment building simply supplies a fuzzy number of citizens. If you stood outside the building and watched people entering it, you'd eventually see a wider variety than can possibly live there, because every citizen shown to your watchful eye is randomly generated according to the rough price estimate the apartments have.

Similarly, fully functional buildings don't have specific workers. The NPCs manning the stations inside are just randomly chosen, and if you come back day after day you'll find another batch of randomly-generated NPCs, their only similarities being that they shop at whichever shop has the highest rating for their job requirements and is in the right income bracket.

Both pure function and pure habitation buildings are the same as a piece of clothing in a wardrobe: they exist, and therefore the city has slightly different stats. You don't need to know that 8 people from building A work at building B - the simple, archaic Sim City approach works fine. If you have a lot of high-paying jobs, you have one kind of city. If you have a lot of cheap places to live, you have another type of city.

This same method can be used in every situation. Cars? The one you're driving right now obviously has specific characteristics, but in terms of the population of the city, they drive a car from a specific dealership, and the city's stats reflect that dealership's car options.

It also works on the small scale. Your clothing wardrobe defines your stat bonuses, sure. But so do your friends and NPC associates. Even if they aren't actively hanging out with you precisely at this moment, the knowledge that they are available to you leaves you free to go out on a limb, knowing you can call on their support. So your "circle" gives you bonuses based on whoever is in it, regardless of whether they are actually teamed up with you at the moment.

This approach creates a very craft-friendly environment: there are a lot of spots to stick crafting. Unlike most games, if you craft an outfit your options aren't simply "wear it" or "sell it", but to carefully consider whether to add it to one of your wardrobes, or an NPC wardrobe, or a shop in one of your cities...

Unfortunately, it's an approach that requires an annoyingly huge amount of content. I'll have to think some more about how to do it with almost no content and still have it be compelling to play.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Small Stages

Recently I've been thinking about creating settings for video games. I don't mean world design in the large sense, but in the smallest sense: individual buildings, small stages. I want to take it smaller because I have a hard time actually creating the assets for levels. Most of my games use abstract, low-asset settings such as space, tiles, maps. I want to stretch a bit and create a more immersive environment with things like wallpaper and chairs.

Except, of course, I hate wallpaper and chairs. That is, I can't gather any enthusiasm for it. I like designing characters, and I like designing settings/worlds. Those are the things that classically drive the mechanics and the narrative and the overall feel of the game I'm trying to build. A big reason I do so much sci fi stuff is because you can scale down the setting until it's just a single building: a space ship, a small space station. If the entire world is small enough, I can build it while still feeling excited about the world.

But I think it's possible to go the other direction. Rather than scaling down the world, I can scale up the characters. Building "a house" is painfully dull because there's nothing to grapple with. But if the game has a family, building the house is a way to extend their personalities and relationships. The kitchen looks a certain way because that's how the family tends to cook, and it is an opportunity to show the pressures between whoever tends to cook dinner and whoever tends to just scavenge snacks. All the rooms let you show who is dominant in what ways, what their approach is to that part of life, and what their personality is through the decorating choices they've made. Even if those decorating choices are just whether there are toys and clothes strewn around.

This is a sound enough idea. Obviously, if you have a big game, you'll probably end up with a lot of houses. You'd probably end up re-using a lot of content house to house. That's not the case in this kind of ultra-small-scale thing, so the house can be pretty uniquely customized.

The problem is gameplay.

Fundamentally, most games use levels to throttle gameplay. Each chunk of gameplay takes up some amount of physical space. For example, you move into a new building to continue your gunfight. Even in a game about building things, space is still linked to gameplay in that a given tile does specific things.

When you try to make the whole game happen in less space, you have to think about how the gameplay can be condensed to take up less physical space.

There have been a number of games set in mansions, but these are huge buildings. For example, Gone Home is just about the smallest of the mansions. It has only a few hours of gameplay, and the mansion is 4 floors and dozens of rooms. Huge. Gone Home condenses gameplay by making small objects "expand". You find a tape, it contains three minutes of music. You find a sheet of paper, it fills your screen with text. You find a cabinet, it contains a dozen things that can be randomly strewn around as you please. You can think of this as "zipping" the gameplay up, like into a zip file, and it is extracted into gamespace as you interact with it.

This method isn't unique to Gone Home. All mansion games do it, as well as any game where there's a significant amount of indoor gameplay. Even huge games do it - accepting a quest from an NPC is a method of tucking content away until the player decides to unzip it.

But I'm working with almost no space. Could I make a game that takes place entirely within just a few rooms? A small apartment?

There are games like that. Typically they are small Flash games about escaping the room. These games are not really very interesting to me, because they're really constrictive puzzle games. You don't actually exist in the room, it's just a set of screens you can click on.

I'm thinking about rooms that your avatar actually exists in - you can walk around in them, interact with stuff.

First thing first, fewer and smaller rooms mean the typical method of navigating is too fast. The avatar needs to move slower, with finer control, because space is denser. This requires a third person camera, because the avatar's fine state has to always be changing to represent the fine, dense space. In most games navigation is part of the challenge, even if it's just "you can't walk through walls". A big part of what distinguishes each level is the contrast of what you can see vs where you can walk.

When the map is tiny, you can't do that. You're going to be traveling on the same tiny map the whole time.

You could just write off navigation as a challenge, make it super easy. However, then you're no better than a locked room puzzle game - you've taken the avatar out of the reality of the room. Instead, it might be worth trying to think of how to make the very limited navigation space more interesting.

The only way to do that is to make it polymorphic. The goals, conditions, and navigation capabilities need to change pretty regularly even though the map is the same. For example, one day you might want to sneak around without being seen through a window. Another day, you might want to keep direct line of sight on a toddler while you do your chores. Another day, you might be looking for something, lifting and tipping and crouching low - but be careful not to let anything slide off the top of the furniture! Another day, you might be managing the seemingly endless power and video cords connecting everything in your apartment. Another day, you might be sick, so unable to control yourself very well. Another day it might be dark, or hot, or cold, or slippery...

Thinking about the possibilities, I've come up with a brief list:

1) Evading/minimizing line of sight via stealth. Crawling, dashing, closing curtains, pushing furniture. Also: you might be able to alter yourself to "stealth" through specific lines of sight. For example, if you're trying to sneak from the shower to your bedroom without being seen, if you have a towel on its okay to be seen by your mom (but still not through windows).

2) Maintaining/maximizing line of sight. Waiting for the target's movements, rearranging furniture, putting up mirrors/monitors, moving the target manually, and working rapidly to minimize lost LOS are all viable play elements.

3) Minimizing toe-stepping. Since it's a shared space, people will get upset if you screw things up for them. No matter what the objective today, mom will get annoyed if you move the couch or break a dish. Your sibling will get upset if they find you on their side of the room, and so on. This is partly line of sight stuff - obviously they'll get upset if they see you do these things. But it's also about not leaving traces, or about earning permission to do these things.

4) Easter-egg hunting. Lots of nooks for the avatar to examine closely. The player can control the avatar's eyeline and hands by right-clicking and dragging to cause the avatar to move their head relative to the right-clicked area. Basic level: looking under things, behind things, closely at things. Moderate level: groping around someplace trying to feel what's going on. Advanced level: getting the proper combination of head and hand angles to allow for seeing while fumbling around. Extra: combine with other challenges, such as tethers and line of sight.

5) Tethering. Character has specific movement restrictions. For example: can't set a foot on sibling's side of room, or must keep stirring a pot while continuing to do other things with your other hand, or having to keep a grip on a toddler's leash.

6) Lighting. For example, you (or an NPC) are scared of the dark. Alternately, you'll wake up completely if you go into the light, and you want to get back to sleep. Light glinting of hidden things, communicating silently via flashlight flashes, telling scary stories with moving shadows, shining lights underneath things so you can see...

7) Limited furniture rearranging. Moving furniture around to clear floor space or crowd floor space, block doors, make something unusuable, create forts, look underneath, etc. Many pieces of furniture will have debris on top, which makes it more complex.

8) Debris. Things are everywhere. Scattering them, rearranging them, moving them, accidentally knocking them over or off of a surface. Many of the things have a function which can be used either as a primary objective or as a step towards a primary objective - for example, setting an egg timer so that your sibling will go check it out and leave their post.

9) Diminished nav. You are tired or sick. The floor is wet and slippery. Wind is howling in through a broken window - maybe there's even glass on the floor! Accomplish other objectives while having a hard time of it.

10) Interpersonal interaction. Talk with the other residents in a gameplay-related way rather than a quest-related way. Ask them to move because moving actually changes things considerably for you. Ask them to change clothes, or bring them a bite to eat - they follow specific rules and can therefore be used to change the situation in predictable ways.

11) Customization. Wearing different things gets different responses from different people, and may even change whether their line of sight is problematic. Not just wearing things, though: hang posters on the walls, change which drawer forks are in, tune the radio so that your kid's favorite station is on, build a cushion fort, put a hat on your dog, pick which things are plugged in where.

12) Hiding and revealing. Hide things so other family members won't find them, or look for things hidden by other family members. Communicate with specific family members by hiding things in spaces you know they'll look.

13) POV control. Switch to a different family member for different capabilities and objectives.

14) Zipped gameplay. Turn on the TV, open the fridge, turn ingredients into food, play a video game, play various minigames or skits by interacting with NPCs and devices.

Anyway, just thinking aloud.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Imagination and Fidelity

Yesterday I saw this video where game designers talk about graphics. Some of them have interesting things to say, some of them I agree with, but a lot of them are falling into the most common game design trap of all:

Nostalgia goggles!

Every time a game designer implies graphics leave less room for imagination, I punch a kitten.

The simple truth is that they played those games as kids. They had wild imaginings because they were kids.

It's the same today. My extended family is quite large, and there are always kids growing up. I get to see them play their games. It doesn't matter what level of graphics the game has, they always imagine new conversations, sounds, personalities, challenges.

The common opinion that graphical fidelity requires less imagination comes almost entirely from comparing the most memorable games of your youth to the least memorable games of your adulthood. Well, we can easily reverse that.

Compare Cool Spot to Gone Home, or Yo Noid to Dragon's Dogma. Obviously, the modern games have better graphics. But which inspires your imagination more?

Do you really use 'more' imagination when playing Yo Noid than when playing Gone Home? That's nonsense.

Obviously every game varies. Some games are rich in opportunities to imagine. Other games are paced or framed in a way where imagination isn't given much chance. It has nothing to do with graphics and everything to do with pacing. Everything to do with giving the players a rich foundation for imagination.

Please don't say low fidelity "requires more imagination". I'm starting to feel bad about this big stack of bruised kittens.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Player-Guided Time

I'm still thinking a lot about how time affects how games play. This is something that's becoming more important. We still categorize games by genre or system, but in truth the most distinct differences seem to be about how they approach player time, and how they monetize because of that.

That's not really what this essay is about, though.

Mostly, I was noticing that a growing sector of games revolve around giving the developers control over time. Things take longer or less long as the developer wills it, and in turn things take longer or less long depending on how much cash the player bribes the devs with. I'm not a fan of this kind of approach, because the player always loses.

I was thinking about turning this on its head. What if our game was about the player deciding how much time to spend in what ways? How would that work? And, briefly, how might it be made profitable enough to keep the devs eating?

Let's assume that we're pulling an EA. We're making Mass Effect 4, The Mobile Game. But we'll make it as bizarro-world EA, a business that respects their players and IP.

Rather than thinking about things in terms of slowing players down, let's assume that the players have a specific amount of time they want to spend and our mission is to make them enjoy that time and feel a solid sense of accomplishment at the end of their session. Of course, to pace for that, we'll need to know how long their session is going to be.

I think the easy approach is to flat-out ask them.

Most players know roughly how much time they want to spend. Maybe it's 5 minutes. Maybe it's an hour. Ask them, then present them with a gameplay arc that fits comfortably within that time. You can balance it either long or short - if it tends long, then the players will tend to have to stop a few minutes before the arc finishes, and that may pull them back into the game world. If it tends short, it makes sure they get a full experience and then can spend some time tweaking things like inventory and character levels and stuff. Which is better might have to be determined through long-term playtesting.

Anyway, what kind of gameplay would scale between 5 minutes and hours? Well, RPG gameplay actually already does. You have short-cycle battles, medium-cycle dungeons, and long-cycle hubs/towns. If you set it up right, you can easily play an RPG for five minutes - just poke around one floor of a dungeon, get in a few fights, then stop.

Unfortunately, RPGs have two big state-related problems. The first is that they tend to be very 'RAM heavy' - that is, there are a lot of things to remember about the current state of the game. Just an overnight break and you might forget where you were in a dungeon, or what new technique you just learned. Take a weekend off, you'll forget which character was leveling for what build, what boss you were pursuing, and so on. Obviously, this varies from person to person, but since our game often works in short bursts the problem is amplified.

For example, let's say you play for an hour and start hunting down a boss in a space station. However, after that you spend ten minute sessions just battling a few fights in a bit of level here and there. Days could pass. You'd be "playing", but when you reach the boss you'll think "oh, uh, right. That guy." As if you hadn't played at all for those days.

The other problem is that RPGs tend to have a persistent state that leaves you mid-adventure. For example, in Mass Effect you might be stuck in the middle of a "wander the citadel" bit of gameplay, and that can take hours. If you just want to pop in for a fight, you have to spend a full ten minutes just getting back to your ship and heading out for an adventure, and even then there's at least another ten minutes of tracking down an adventure to have. While the gameplay can theoretically be chopped into tiny chunks, in practice it takes forever to get from one kind of gameplay to another.

Addressing these issues is part of our core play. We need to be able to arbitrarily create chains of gameplay without much delay, and have days pass without losing track of state. To do this, let's actually approach the game from the other side of player time: time between plays, instead of time playing.

At the end of a session, we can let the player determine how much state they plan to "forget". This is our version of leveling, and we couch it as the amount of time the character spends on their own.

If we just played a session with Tali, we might choose to let her tend to her affairs with the home fleet. We choose how much time she spends away - six hours, a day, a week, whatever suits our needs. During that time she is not available to be in our party, although we get occasional status updates from her to help remind us that she has a personality and exists. When she comes back, she's lost some skill points from all her skills but also gained more than that in new available points. This is a combination of level-up and respec, and allows us to integrate Tali back into our party in a new way.

You can do the same thing with your space ship or even space station: close a certain area down for "maintenance", and when it reopens it's been respecced and upgraded.

Now, this gives us a big opening into the other half of our design: the stuff that actually happens when the player sits down to play.

See, since your crew will be spending a fair amount of time separated from your ship, short adventures could be playing as a member that's away. You want to play for five minutes? Drop the player into Tali's shoes. She's away on a home fleet mission and we're not keeping close track of her, so it's perfectly fine if we just jump straight into a conflict. Get her a little bit more experience, some cash, some gear, whatever.

Want to play a longer mission? That'd be a more normal adventure where you land on a planet or whatever, choose a party, and so on. I think you'd be able to choose between a number of "open requests". The longer you make the request take, the more complex and fruitful it will be... but the reward is reduced by the amount of real time that passes, so you shouldn't make them so long that days pass before you finish. There may be chains of these, though, so you might end up with an arc made of a dozen requests that does last for days or weeks.

Of course, there's also all sorts of general goofing off you can do - wandering around your ship, playing minigames against crewmembers, talking to people on the Citadel, playing dress-up, whatever. These fill in the moments when you don't particularly want to try to start a request - a "wind down" before you put the phone aside, basically.

By allowing the player to choose how much time things take, you can allow them to balance their preferences and schedule on their own.

Now, how would you be able to make money off of this?

Well, obviously you could go the Mass Effect route and sell massive scads of dull as paste DLC, but this is bizarro-world EA, so we like our players and don't want to abuse or disappoint them.

There are a few other obvious things - you could sell costumes, special ship wallpaper, and other cosmetics. But let's consider how to integrate it with our concept of timed play.

The biggest opportunity we've created lies in the player choosing how much real time play a mission should take, vs our penalty for real time passing. We could easily sell forgiveness - pay a buck and the fact that you took three days to complete a mission will be waived and you'll get the reward as if you completed it in on session. Alternately, allowing leave or maintenance to be cut short.

How ethical you think that is, well, that's up to you. It's more ethical than most FTP games, though.

Another option is to allow you to expand slots in your roster. This doesn't get you access to new crew members, but it allows you to have more crew members at once instead of having to choose which ones to recruit and which to leave behind.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting idea. How we handle player time is at the core of today's game industry, so it's fun to consider alternative approaches.