Monday, October 31, 2016

A New Sci Fi Game Genre

Games like Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic are fantastic games. I've replayed most of them a few times. Each time I do, I get drawn to something that's not quite in the games, something I can almost taste.

Not sensawunda or nostalgia, but a whole missing genre.

Let's design a Mass-Effect-style game with Star-Trek-like ideals.

Old Star Trek was about being a mature civilization in a universe full of amazing marvels. Basically the opposite of a coming-of-age story, Star Trek was about adults finding the universe contains unending wonders. This is not the theme of any RPG I know of, but it could be. We have the power.

First let's focus on "wonders". To be honest, we already create wonders for the player in these kinds of games. We just don't play them up enough to have it register.

An example of this is Mass Effect. In this series you'll visit dozens of different hostile environments, hundreds of different classes of ships and space stations and planetary settlements. You'll see caves, plant monsters, psychics, ancient alien hive-minds driven mad by abuse, creatures so old they eat a galaxy of life forms in one bite, artificial intelligences struggling to work out how and if they should live, and so many more things.

Most of these sci fi RPGs and many horror games use the close-third-person camera. This tool is so powerful that I don't even think they know why they chose it. They chose it just because it always worked before... but there's a reason it's evolved to be such a core part of these games. It's the most powerful camera for showing us wonders and immersing us in amazing places.

1) We can see our window character. Both how they look in comparison to the area, and how they interact with the area/are interacted with by the area. Because we can see how our avatar compares, we know how to feel about the area.

2) We are still zoomed in pretty close. This allows us to make out all the details, as well as get a real sense of scale. When your camera zooms out too far, it's hard to feel like you're inside this wondrous place, and you can't make out any details of how other people feel about being there.

3) We can use standard cinematic techniques to draw focus and change mood. Slow pans, zooms, depth-of-field, shaking, tilt, and many more cinematic conventions can be flat-out stolen, and they'll work fine. Moreover, the camera is flexible enough that it can become first-person or bird's-eye as needed, giving us the best of all worlds.

By understanding the advantages the close-third-person camera gets us, we can play those up to create a more powerful and distinct sense of place, scale, and wonder.

For example, if we land on a world full of toxic electrical mists, our main character wears a heavy suit. We know it's a toxic environment because we can see our character plonking around in this heavy suit. Even the dialog has a tinny radio sound, and we can hear the KKkzzsshshhhh of sand blasting against our visor. We can punch it up by making the sound vary depending on the direction you turn, since the wind is blasting in one direction. When the electrical mist gets bad, we can see the flickering purple sparks on the skin of our suit, hear the radio break into static. We can even adjust the camera to a lower, hunched-down angle when the wind picks up.

Virtually every "amazing new thing" can be done using similar methods. If we discover a new species, how our avatar physically interacts with them will tell us how to feel about them. We can see how the locals react to us as we wander around in various costumes and deal with places built for creatures of alien proportions. If we find an ancient, damaged space station, we'll watch our avatar duck and crawl through shattered hallways, float across zero grav areas.

This is more work than just using the same walking animation all the time and simply making each level with new arrangements of the same meshes, but I feel like it's worth the price. A lot of the techniques can also be re-used - for example, the wind-blast sound pattern can be reused in the vents of a space station, or during a hull breach, or in a dock when a ship fires retro-thrusters, or even in a humorous way when your admiral is chewing you out for blowing something up.

Basically: if we radically increase the immersion of each new place, we can make each new place feel more amazing and new.

Those optimizations need to be backed up with some serious changes to how the game lets us interact with the location/have our interactions moderated by the location. This is where the "adults" half of "adults discovering wonders" comes into play.

We can argue over what being mature means, but for the sake of this design, let's say it means appreciating peace and life, and accepting that nothing is perfect. That is at the heart of a lot of my favorite Star Trek episodes, so that's what I'll be using as my measuring stick here.

That doesn't mean having a pacifist game. It might be possible to make one, but for now let's assume the game is still largely like Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic: you are fundamentally gonna get in a lot of fights.

How can we make maturity part of the game, despite that?

It's about allowing the player to appreciate the complexities of the places and situations they are in, and taking actions which take place within that complexity rather than just cutting everything apart.

1) Show people living in these places, show their joys and hardships, let them do things besides just sit around and repeat one line. It doesn't have to fit into a large algorithm or anything, it can be pretty basic, but focus on their concerns and their joys. Nearly all dialog, subquests, and exposition can be made part of some NPC's life, so obviously do that.

2) Show that things falling apart is bad. As lumpy as local society might be, anarchy would be worse. Ideally, show it in reaction to the player's choices: if the player takes too heavy a hand, chaos forms in the vacuum they leave. Many of the player's missions might be to try and help in places where this has already happened, which will keep it from being too blunt.

3) Party members. Have several party members along, or even have them comment over the radio. If each party member embodies one particular theme of the game (as is pretty common), they can comment on the things they see and the player will be able to easily understand the context of the comment. Of course, they can also drag the player into the local mess.

4) Recurring NPCs. Other mobile NPCs can visit many places and can bring their own nuanced chaos into the mix. Working with or around these NPCs and their factions can add a solid foundation to build on for the player's own nuanced interactions.

5) Refining choices. This one's a bit complex.

Basically, the first time you encounter a choice, you don't have much complexity to your response. But you keep revisiting the situation, and each time your options get more refined.

For example, a seedy space station has a problem as to whether it's being run by the locals or by the barely-inhabited planet below. When you first arrive, you can choose to side on one side or the other, or neither. You'll learn more as the situation unfolds, and your choices get more nuanced: you can try to put pressure on one side or the other to implement reforms or switch people of power in and out. You can gather intelligence and make surgical strikes or robust defenses. You can choose who gets a captured warship... even who gets to pilot it.

Writing these kinds of nuanced trees can be a little daunting, but there's methods that can help us out. We can lean heavily on either algorithmic or re-usable plot events, especially if we're making an open-world game.

We have to be careful, though: it's easy to end up feeling flat and formulaic if you lean too heavily on those approaches, and that would completely kill the tone we're going for.

In the end, the tone we want is one where the player can go anywhere in our universe, stop, and just enjoy the ambiance. Whether that means their squad of three is hanging out on top of a methane glacier, in the heart of their starship engineering section, or in a bar on any given space station. We want the player to think "this is a place worth protecting".

Or, at least, "it could be worse!"

There's nothing fundamentally new about these suggestions. Really, I'm just hoping to punch up specific facets that already exist in most sci-fi RPGs.

When those elements get punched up enough, a new genre might emerge. One about existing in a sci fi world, rather than murdering your way through one. But I can't see the end product right now.

I can see making wonders feel wonderful and adults feel mature, though.

I think that'd be a fun start.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Video Game Endings

So, I read this Gamasutra article by Jason VandenBerghe, and I basically want to argue the exact opposite.

Endings are extremely powerful. Arguably the most powerful part of any story, with the only close competitors being the opening and the main twist. A good ending can leave your audience in stunned silence for minutes, or screaming and bouncing off the walls. It leaves a deep and indelible mark in your brain.

Not all games need endings, but if your game has an ending, it should probably have a good one.

That said, Jason's article is not wrong. Most players don't finish games. And most games have shit endings. And... I know this will be a shocker... most games are just badly written.

For example, Bioshock is brought up. Bioshock and its successors have fantastic art direction, great voice acting, and a powerful sense of place. They are good places to be. But, in terms of writing, they're barely high-school level. "Would you kindly" is a shadow of a twist, and the ending is a few still images and a narration.

I won't say that the writers are bad. The problem is not how skilled they are, but in how the games are written. Budget constraints, convoluted development schedules, and boardroom interference can turn an excellent script into porridge... or a festering garbageheap into porridge. Either way, you get porridge.

Jason was right to enjoy the play of Bioshock and not give a shit about the ending, because that's how the game was built. But it's not how games must be built. We can use endings.

This is a two-step process.

1) Have a good ending.

2) Increase the percentage of players that reach the ending without making the game "too short".

Good End
Having a good ending is obviously a bit of a challenge. There are a lot of classes and tutorials about how to write one, but in our case we need to focus on techniques which allow the ending to retain its power even through the chaos of an ordinary development cycle.

The chaos of how a player plays your game is a similar concern. Some players pay more or less attention to different aspects of the story, or have different maturity levels. They may be in a good mood or a bad one. Maybe their kid starts crying halfway through your lead-up. All of this chaos!

How can you build an ending on sand?

Well, I can't recommend a twist ending.

Twists are easy to screw up. A twist is something the audience doesn't see coming, but when it happens they feel like it was both inevitable and mind-blowing. That requires a lot of lead-up to set the stage, and that lead-up will be ruined. Players won't notice, or they'll be smarter than you expect and notice it way ahead of time. The dev cycle of the game will cut a level out and exclude a critical clue. Someone will post a spoiler on Reddit and it'll get a billion reshares before the game even goes live...

Now, you can put twists into a game. But I would put them near the middle of the game and make them simple progression twists instead of a perspective twist. By these standards, killing Crono or letting Kefka blow up the world were good twists. You can't misunderstand them, you can't overly predict them, and it doesn't matter if the level leading up to them is cut or badly damaged during the dev cycle because there's no critical info in it.

For an ending, I recommend thematic echoes, a straightforward epic setpiece involving sacrifice, and a post-ending wind-down.

Thematic echoes are good because they don't require any one plot point to exist and don't require the player to be consciously paying attention. The easiest thematic echo is to look at what the player accomplished and then leverage that for catharsis or drama.

For example, if the player spent the game gathering squadmates, now the player must spend those lives to protect the world... or let the world rot to protect the squadmates. If the player has protected the townsfolk, now those people show up to protect the player. If the player killed a bunch of slimy aliens, now the player has to protect a bunch of slimy aliens - or be one, who knows. The point is, the player has been doing stuff, and they'll have an attachment to that stuff even if they don't consciously remember it in detail.

Epic setpieces are an obvious element of a good ending, but you'll need to add an element of sacrifice to really show that this is not just another boss. This is the end. You want that tingle to crawl down the player's spine when they suddenly realize that the story is going to end here. Things fall apart. People die. The main character loses an arm. These losses need to be of the sort where the story cannot continue as it was. This is the last stand.

The wind-down is also critical. Too many people just put up the ending and then ditch to credits or a pop song or something. It takes a little while for a good ending to finish crushing people's brains, so leave that ending scene uncut for at least ten more seconds than you might think you should. Nobody's in a hurry to see your end credits or hear you pitch your next YouTube video or whatever. Let them process what you've just given them.

Good wind-downs may also serve as follow-ups. For example, in Suikoden and Fire Emblem, the wind-down tells you how each character spends their life. It's very well-done.

These are just my suggestions, but I hope you can see how an ending built around these principles can survive the chaos of development and a wide variety of erratic players.

The End
You want players to see your ending.

To me, the ending is like a tattoo needle, and the rest of the game is like ink. Yes, players will end up randomly covered in ink as they play, and it'll leave a mark. But the needle is what gets it under their skin forever.

The problem is clearly explained in the article Jason wrote: games are long. People have different amounts of time, investment, and interest.

Fortunately, there are a lot of methods we can use to deal with this.

One way is to move content to after the ending. Post-ending content is a fun tradition, and there are three basic varieties.

1) The game continues. Somehow you continue to run around the world doing stuff even after the end.

2) Last-save options. You can always load up that save just before you commit, and go play in the Gold Saucer for a decade.

3) New game plus. Things unlock if you play again.

Just be sure not to make people think new game plus is required to get the "true ending". Crono Trigger did this right: you get the true ending when you play it through. The endings you find in new game plus mode are just fun alternatives. The ending they get is a tattoo. Don't let them think you gave them a shitty tattoo.

Another method is to use "multiple endings". Rather, you should think of major arc events as things that will be "endings" for players that stop early, and the next hour or so of play would be the wind-down from those endings.

A good example of this is Final Fantasy 6. Kefka blows up the world in the midgame, and you spend the next few hours seeing how your friends are surviving in this new world of ruin. From a story perspective, this is an excellent midgame twist. From our perspective as game designers, this is simply "ending A". People get to see the epic setpiece where the world is destroyed and everything comes undone, then get to wind down. It's a "downer", but that's not bad. It's just a skull tattoo instead of a heart tattoo.

It's not the "true ending", but you didn't do a bait and switch so it should be okay. It's just a memorable moment that can serve as an ending for rushed players.

Another method is to use "stretch content".

Most of the time we think of optional content as "completionist fodder". Like, do you collect every Pokemon? Take every picture? Level every item? Find the secret smooglesboogs?

But it's so much more flexible than that. Optional content is an incredibly powerful way to let the player tell you how much time they have, how tense they are, and what they care about.

For example, loyalty missions in RPGs. A lot of players will only do one or two loyalty missions for their favorite party members. Others will do all of them.

Why not just... extend that?

Major characters in these kinds of games usually represent a core story aspect or theme. So the story elements you planned to put in the main game to stretch it out... stick them in the appropriate character's repertoire. Not one loyalty mission per character, but maybe one loyalty mission per character per world, or perhaps a loyalty mission for every given pairing of characters.

Since your ending is built with our resilient approach, how much of this stretch content the player uses is largely unimportant. As long as that ending is still the "true" ending - too many games require you to do the side quests to get the "true" ending, and that's the opposite of what we want.

Content like Disgaea's item dungeons or Final Fantasy's optional bosses can also extend play time. It's not thematically integrated very well, though: I prefer the character-driven side missions, since the characters are thematically integrated.

Either way, the point here is to be vultures rather than tour guides. We push the player to feel things and control the tension, but we allow the player to tell us how they feel and how tense they actually became. The chaos of a game is impossible to predict, so we need to allow the player to control their own experience with a bit more adaptability.

Anyway, those are my thoughts:

Endings are powerful. They take the raw experience of the rest of the game, and push it under the player's skin. A good ending will use that ink to draw something cool, and the player will remember the game forever.