Sunday, May 31, 2009

Aces, Tarot and Dead Men

I was talking about The Burrowers (which, incidentally, is fantastic) with a coworker earlier in the week and we ended up talking about horror-westerns. While quite ripe with potential, it's a crossover genre relatively unexplored in both film/TV and games, which actually blows my mind considering how perfectly the building blocks of good horror are present in the frontier. Aside from The Burrowers, there are a few great films and one great tabletop RPG, Deadlands (I believe there was also to be a Deadlands game, but I think it withered on the vine). Our conversation rolled across all these things and left me thinking about how well all those entries set themselves apart.

Deadlands especially is notable for how it uses mechanic design decisions to reinforce its theme. E.g. gambling, especially poker, is pretty quintessentially western. Creating your character in Deadlands begins with drawing cards from the full player card deck to determine their various statistics. Beyond that, there is a type of character called a Huckster, a gambler that uses cards to create magical hexes. By gambling with spirits and Fate itself, Hucksters can coerce supernatural forces into altering the world. The casting of hexes, rather than being resolved by a roll of dice with modifiers, is resolved by the player actually drawing a hand of poker. The better the hand, the more effective the hex. Not only does this create a tangible bond between what the player and the character are doing, but it has both the story and the rules working toward the same purpose.

About a year ago, I ran the 3.5 update of the classic 1st edition adventure I-6: Ravenloft, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. Similar to Deadlands, I began the game by using tarot cards for attribute creation. Anyone who's played either the classic or updated Castle Ravenloft adventures knows there is a tarot reading scene in the adventure that can dramatically change the plot of the game. I also ran this with a full tarot deck, letting the players draw all the cards (minus a few I palmed in to ensure they'd be drawn first). Again, the direct connection between the rules and the in-game actions made this one of my favourite moments of the adventure. It reinforced the theme of the game congruently with the mechanics.

Just last week I ran a 4th Edition Living Forgotten Realms adventure for some coworkers (Core 1-3: Sense of Wonder, which is excellent). There is one puzzle in the adventure that features a 1-100 dial, four levers, some wires and two coloured gems. I constructed some really simple props out of a d10/d100, four folded index cards, some pipe cleaners and some coloured marker stones. Even though it was extremely low fidelity, it made the encounter not only much easier for the players to visualize and understand, but much more enjoyable to solve.

It may be that since tabletop RPGs are more abstract, this kind of theming is easier to incorporate and has a greater payoff. The final tabletop example is the remarkable detailed slang that was created for the Planescape D&D setting, specifically for Sigil. Called "cant," this slang made the setting feel foreign and bizarre without resorting to nigh-unpronouncible fantasy tropes featuring too many apostrophes and not enough vowels. I believe cant involved a lot of real slang that had merely become archaic.

"Aye cutter, I know one that can show you the dark on getting to Ribcage, if you're truly that sodding barmy. But she's a cross-trader and will peel you or worse if you give her the chance."

Doesn't sound like ren fest, does it?

Digital games both do more and less of this kind of theming. Given all the work that goes into visual presentation of the game, often the theme of a game is more explicit through its art. Yet, there are still a lot of opportunities for theming that are not executed. Contemporary or futuristic games often merely emulate contemporary language and culture. Interactions are abstracted unnecessarily.

Games are often at their worst when they are talking at the player, be it through cutscenes or otherwise. Being more subtle and focusing on reinforcing theme in ways beyond monologue/dialog can relieve some of the informational burden and make its presentation less ham-fisted.

The constraints of tabletop RPGs make reinforcing their themes through gameplay and setting content easier than digital games. But I cannot help but think opportunities are being missed that shouldn't be. I think there are lessons to be learned from the theming of tabletop RPGs and I'm going to keep looking for chances to execute upon those lessons. And above all else, more people should play Deadlands, because it's really freaking great.

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

About That Player-Generated Content ...

One of the most oft-discussed trends in technology in the last five years or so is user-generated content. It took a little while to spread explicitly into games, but player-generated content has recently become cited by analysts and other ostensibly informed outlets as a "hot trend" in games. To be fair, Little Big Planet and Spore have done well as torch-bearers of player-generated content.

Despite the rosy predictions about the coming age of player-generated content, as always, there is no silver bullet. There are a lot of issues with player-generated content, more than even experienced studios seem to realize. The most recent example of this is Paragon Studio's "Architect" expansion to superhero MMO City of Heroes. Perhaps best summarized by Wired's headline, "Handed Keys to the Kingdom, Gamers Race to Bottom," this update gave players the ability to create new missions in City of Heroes. Unfortunately, some players created exceedingly easy missions and facilitated farming of rewards. Paragon has begun cracking down on such players with severity.

Player-generated content is nothing new, especially in the realms of PC games. Modding has been a pretty fundamental part of PC game for well over a decade. Some of most popular games of all time, e.g. Counter-Strike or Defense of the Ancients, are player-generated content. Hell, the multiplayer shooter's bread and butter, capture the flag, started as a mod. But mods are distinct from City of Heroes Mission Architect in that they actually work in a meritorious "free market." Mods that are unfair, too easy, too difficult, etc. simply won't be played by many. Their utility is entirely internal. A player's only incentive to engage with a particular mod is that mod's reputation as enjoyable.

Tabletop RPGs are similarly self-correcting in this respect. The infamous "Monty Hall" campaign may be problematic, but only if the players don't enjoy it. It's almost certainly unsustainable in the long run, but until the players stop having fun, there's no issue. Taking characters from one campaign to another is a concern, but in private games, it's something the importer and new hosts will have to resolve. Organized, convention-based RPG play, like the RPGA network, has strict guidelines on how much reward a character can receive for any adventure. Combining that and a tracking system resolve most of the possible issues.

Incorporating player-generated content into an existing digital game is far more problematic. The first major concern is the hard truth that a lot of player-generated content just isn't any good. Creating a mechanism so that unengaging, dull content can be easily sorted from gems is vital. Fortunately, the rise of user-generated content in non-game media has given us a lot of systems to emulate (and avoid), so this isn't very formidable.

The second issue with incorporating player-generated content is filtering inappropriate content. Basically, this boils down to finding a way to combat the unwashed Internet masses' primal inclination to write and draw penises on everything imaginable. As the flood of Sporn clearly demonstrated, given the chance players will do so. But it looks like Paragon put a lot of thought into how to address this problem without needing to hire hundreds of customer support staff, and I don't have any reason to think they weren't successful in this either.

The final major concern with incorporationg player-generated content into existing game systems is one relatively unique to games, and even then, to specific types of games. This has to do with rewards granted by engaging with this new content. In most games, the reward is simply whether or not said content in enjoyable. But some games provide rewards that are external to the content, at which point it becomes very problematic. E.g., the Trophy levels in Little Big Planet or the class Achievement servers in Team Fortress 2 allow players to earn external rewards far easier than they were intended to be accessed.

As someone who earned all three of the Pyros unlockable weapons without spending one second on an achievement server (thank you very much), I confess I was a little irked that those who did had access to that gear faster and easier. But beyond that, their consequences to the game at large are not that severe.

Similar problems in City of Heroes, however, are quite severe. First, because a perception of unfairness is toxic to an MMO. Nothing turns players off faster than the perception that someone else earned the same reward for a fraction of the effort. It also diminishes the game from a business perspective, as the game's future relies on players to continue paying to play it. Players that max their characters are more likely to stop playing. Progression through the game is also essential for it to remain appealing in the long term, as more social connections are made, the game's systems are better understood and, to be honest, there's a bit of Skinnerian reward condition that needs to sink in. Whether or not that's ethical is a separate discussion, but I will say that far fewer people would be playing World of Warcraft if you started at level 70 never progressed beyond that.

This post was inspired by Michael Abbott's post on the same. I'm a bit shocked that Paragon didn't expect this and build in a few more safeguards. I do not want to second guess, of course, but I was thinking of more elegant ways this kind of abuse could be prevented.

The most obvious thing is not give equal access to the Mission Architect to all players. Make unrestricted content creation a privledge that must be earned. Everyone has equal access to a number of "templates" that define encounter strength, rewards, etc. I assume these guidelines are more or less known already, since Paragon's internal level designers must use them to create balanced missions. Tabletop RPGs also communicate encounter guildelines well. As a player creates more content that is highly rated, they can earn the right to create with fewer and fewer restrictions. Additionally, with fewer missions being created carte blanche, it would be easier to discover possibly abusive content.

Additionally, incentivize creating quality content. Perhaps a handful of missions would be selected (or their creators solicited to create new missions) that would be available in the game proper, or perhaps as part of a new content update. Instead of having all player-generated content be equal, allow content creation to feel somewhat competitive. Valve's decision to include one or two community-created maps in their official updates must inspire some creators to produce work of the highest quality. Plus, if a creator was interested in getting a job in the game industry, saying that Paragon selected their mission to be official new content sounds pretty compelling in an interview.

Now don't get me wrong, I think the idea of incorporating player-generated content has a lot of merit. But as I said above, it's not a silver bullet and it comes with a host of seriously difficult problems. It's not a way to "crowdsource" game development and save money, nor is it justification for creating only a skeleton of a game and letting the players "fill it in." There is a great deal we have to learn about the dynamics of player-generated content and until we do, I expect we'll be seeing a great deal more penis monsters and farm missions.

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Readability Compilation, Now With Bonus Article!

This post is primarily intended for me to be able to easily link to the entire readability series I did over the past month-ish. However, for tolerating such cataloging so kindly, I've added a link to my May contribution to GDAotM as a bonus. I can already hear the gleeful intake of breath resounding across the Internet. Links follow.

On Readability

The introductory post on this topic:

The Importance of Readability in Games

Some examples of readability issues and how they contributed to the decline of adventure games:

Without Readability - The Decline of Adventure Games
Toward Better Readability in Adventure Games

Ways in which we can evaluate and improve readability:

Improving Readability - Empathy
Improving Readability - Data

Finally, my contribution to May's Game Design Aspect of the Month, which relates readability and unintended difficulty:

Meaningful Simplicity

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sequel? Nay, Season.

With the TV season drawing to a close, my mind has been on a couple of excellent finales and the renewal of a series I'm quite enjoying (not ubiquitous, I realize). In general, it seems folks look forward to the next season of TV show they enjoy more than a sequel to a film they've enjoyed. Film sequels tend to be regarded with skepticism, and often, rightly so. It seems game sequels are regarded in the same way, but I'm starting to think it might be more accurate to think of them more like TV seasons.

Games are software, soup to nuts, and I think if the audience at large would think of them in that context first and foremost, we'd be better off. Some developers, e.g. Valve and Criterion, make it patently obvious they think of their games as software, with frequent updates and iteration. But if we have to think about them in terms of other media, game sequel as another season seems the most appropriate.

Obviously, some games lend themselves to this comparison readily, such as annual sports franchises or Telltale and other's episodic games. But this comparison seems to make sense for other sequels as well. Film sequels often feel pandering or unnecessary. Some equal or surpass their originals, but I'd say it's probably around 10-20% that do so. With games, the odds are far better. I'd say you've got at least even odds, if not better.

There's a mountain of examples, but far more think of Warcraft II than Warcraft. Thief II is often cited as the best in the series. Between Fallout and Fallout 2, folks seem split about 50/50. I'll say that Burnout: Paradise is the best entry in the series, hands down. Halo, Fable, Civilization; the list goes on and on. There's obviously contention and disagreement, but with film sequels, consensus that it's "not as good as the original" is the status quo.

Additionally, games have a large business/development incentive to create sequels that films do not. A great deal of the cost of any game is in the creation of the core technology (engine, toolset, pipelines, etc.). Sequels can hopefully avoid a lot of the core tech cost and focus on content.

With film, there's little connection between the cost of making an original and making its sequel. Pirates of the Caribbean more than doubled its production costs between its first and third entries. But game sequels ought to be cheaper than originals, unless the developer is doing something completely daft. I'd be absolutely shocked if Bioshock 2 cost anywhere as much as Bioshock and its production time was certainly shorter.

There's lots of awful, pandering game sequels out there, don't get me wrong. And there are some long running series that should probably be put out to pasture. But unlike films, game sequels seem to surpass their originals at a decent rate. I think everyone would benefit if game sequels were approached with a little less derision and a little optimism, as we often approach new seasons of TV.

Or maybe I'm just drunk thinking about Lost's final season. Quite possibly.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

E Pur Si Muove: Beautiful Simplicity

Move left, move right, jump. Rotate the world 90° clockwise, rotate the world 90° counterclockwise, rotate the world 180°. These are the six actions that comprise the entire suite of possible interactions in And Yet It Moves. And from these arise sophisticated and clever gameplay. AYIM is a shining example of how to embrace constraints and how to succeed by doing one thing really, really well.

AYIM won the 2007 IGF Student Showcase award and saw full commercial release just over a month ago. Most immediately identifiable is the game's unique aesthetic, namely a world created from ripped pieces of photographs. As is often the case, this arose out of necessity.

The game was developed by four computer science students from the Vienna University of Technology. Without a dedicated artist (and given the quality of most programmer art, mine included, this is a necessity), they needed an art style they could produce. Rather then seeing a lack of art talent as a limitation, they were able to turn it into an advantage that made AYIM distinct and immediately recognizable.

The core gameplay mechanic is the rotation of the world and the rest of the game works to support that. The checkpoint system is quite forgiving, allowing for much more experimentation with the foreign world rotation mechanic, instead of making the player leery about failing and dying. There are very few enemies in the game and they're more animate puzzles than actual malevolent foes.

Even the music works toward this singular purpose. As brilliant as Kyle's soundtrack to World of Goo is, something that sophisticated would feel out of place in AYIM. The music is simple and ambient, but significant. There are several sections later in the game where various platforms appear and disappear in time with the music. For just a few moments, it almost feels like a rhythm game. But instead of being jarring, it still feels totally congruent with the rest of the game.

If you're interested in more informational morsels, Alec Meer conducted a great interview for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. And of course, at least try the demo. For as much talk as there is about taking a single feature and doing it really well, maintaining that focus is challenging. When it's executed as elegantly as Broken Rules did with And Yet It Moves, the experience is simply sublime.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Toward Better Readability in Adventure Games

The problem with adventure games wasn't ever their content. These games featured some of the most compelling characters, interesting settings and best humour in the history of interactive entertainment. Given how often the absence of these in modern games is criticized, clearly something else was responsible for their decline in popularity. Gameplay was the downfall of adventure games.

Telltale Games are the modern flagbearers of commercial adventure games. Looking at their games, it's clear they sought to address some of the readability issues older adventure games had. In the Sam & Max episodes, there is only a single contextual action that can be performed on any object. Inventory items are removed when all their interactions have been performed and there are no red herring items (items you can pick up but are never used). Additionally, by creating shorter games with smaller still scenes in each of those, the amount of possible interactions is made more manageable.

But the most commendable improvement was adding an in-game hint system in the form of Max. There was an option slider to turn hit frequency from never to often. This allowed the player a way to move past being stuck without having to resort to GameFAQs (which, once used, becomes very easy to return to). But as successful as Telltale has been, I wonder if there are some fundamental limitations on how most adventure games are structured.

Adventure games still have linear, unchanging stories. They're not very meaningfully interactive. Some amount of story will occur, the player will be gated until they can solve a series of puzzles, the next bit of story will be parceled out. Repeat until conclusion is reached. If all you want to do is create a linear story, then you're wasting your time trying to make a game of it. Film, theatre, literature; all these do a far better job of telling linear stories and honestly, I think they always will.

For many, I don't think the payoff for adventure games was the interactions as they were implemented. If the payoff from old adventure games really was using verbs with sprites and managing an inventory, then they're not worth saving. But if the satisfaction came from them being non-violent, intellectual games with compelling characters and settings, then there is something there worth preserving.

The notion that most needs throwing overboard is the designer saying the player will move through their story jumping through hoops X, Y and Z. This model leaves no space for interesting dynamics to arise. We need to scuttle this thinking and instead look to create a smaller set of mechanics they can be utilized in interesting way. The Last Express is a very good example of how to create a non-linear adventure game without sacrificing an engaging story. I could write this much again just about it, but to avoid abusing your eyes further, I'll redirect to Chris Remo's excellent write-up on Gamasutra.

This is the empathy I was talking about before. We need to understand that while a great linear story may be interesting for us, there's no guarantee it will similarly engage the player. And it certainly doesn't play to the strengths of our medium. Why must adventure game puzzles only have one solution? Why must every one of them be solved to continue? Why must the player's agency be wholly illusory, with them being unable to make any impact on the story? Adventure games succeed despite their gameplay, not because of it.

The other component is making sure new adventure games don't fall prey to the poor readability of their predecessors. Playtesting games without clear skill progressions (i.e. non-combat games) is doubly important. In his GDC talk about puzzles and interaction design, Randy Smith presented what he called the > 99% problem. Namely, the combinatorics of puzzles make it so that the puzzles need to be solvable by nearly everyone. Some might naively think that having any puzzle in a game solvable by 95% of players is satisfactory. The problem with this is at each puzzle 5% of the players are being lost, such that even if a game has only 4 puzzles, a per-puzzle 95% success rate means almost 20% of players won't be able to finish the game. To have a game be solvable by most players, each puzzle must be solvable by >99% of players. But it must be solvable in the way that makes the player feel clever, rather than feeling like the designer assumed they'd be too stupid to get anything that wasn't blatantly obvious. Testing and iteration are the only way to ensure this threshold is reached.

It's clear that adventure games, of both the text and graphical variety, have fallen from the prominent position they once occupied. Many blame the audience, saying they're lazy and stupid, and they only want bigger explosions and more guns. This is cynical bullshit and there is no way less crass to put it. If the audience is not interested in our games, we have failed to engage them.

If we want to bring these experiences to a larger audience (and this seems to be what nearly everyone wants, there's enough of a niche for free IF/adventure games), we need to create experiences that are readable and engaging. Sure, a sizable portion of the audience is only interested in bombs and boobs. But there are enough thoughtful gamers out there that would appreciate and support a new wave of intellectual, non-violent story-based games.

We're not reaching them through marginally interactive linear story games though. Reaching this audience requires creating games that focus on a smaller set of meaningful mechanics that give rise to interesting story-based dynamics. Providing understandable relationships that allow the player agency and decisions with consequence.

If we are not willing to create readable systems to support adventure games, I fear we will always be talking about the adventure games we played, rather than the ones we are looking forward to playing.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Without Readability - The Decline of Adventure Games

At long last, we have arrived at something tangible. Dispensing with hand-waving theory, I'm going to discuss how the murky readability of adventure games contributed to their falling from prominence. In retrospect, I should have presented this sooner. If this series is compiled into a set of links, I'll likely pull a C.S. Lewis and renumber this as part two and follow it with the posts about empathy and data.

Before I launch in, I need to reiterate that I have a great fondness for adventure games. Some of my fondest gaming moments came when playing adventures. I want to be able to share those experiences with folks who haven't, rather than pine for halcyon times long past.

It's clear adventure games, of both the text and graphical variety, have lost their once prominent position. There are a number of reasons for this, but one that seems largely ignored is the poor readability of the gameplay systems of adventure games. Sometimes this will be addressed by people saying, "they were too hard." But that claim is actually quite misleading, especially given the notions most have about difficulty in video games.

Adventure games suffered from poor readability. Full stop. The mechanics of adventure games provided a truly colossal number of possible actions, but with no real relationship to each other. There was no systematic way to understand or improve at playing adventure games, beyond learning that you should try to pick up every single thing in the game that isn't nailed down (and those you'll probably just have to pry up).

As a quick terminology note, Jesse Schell mentioned this very issue in his book when discussing player actions as a game mechanic. He identifies "operative" actions as distinct from "resultant" actions. The former would be fundamental actions the player can execute at any distinct moment, while the latter are broader strategies or behaviours that emerge from understanding how the game's systems inter-operate. This is remarkably similar to the mechanics vs. dynamics distinct in the MDA framework, and it seems both are describing the same phenomena. I'll be using the MDA terminology here.

Back to the readability problems in adventure games. Take the quintessential LucasArts/Sierra adventure game. The main interactions in the game consist of using a number of verbs (e.g. push, pull, pick up, talk to, use, etc.) with various objects in the environment. Additionally, your character likely has an inventory that allows you to move some objects from one place to another and use them on other objects.

Unfortunately, they way these verbs operate is based on a carnival mirror version of the real world. Pushing object X does nothing, but pushing object Y will get you closer to a solution. Trying to pick up one object results in the player's character saying "I don't want that," but the character is perfectly happy to pick up a different object.

This provides the player with a tremendous number of possible actions to perform, but no way to understanding how they work in conjunction (because they almost never do). There are a lot of ways to use the game's mechanics, but no enjoyable dynamics arise from them. If the player isn't able to infer the designer's intentions, their only option is trial and error. But the permutations of the various mechanics result in a truly colossal number of actions, only a tiny fraction of which have meaningful outcomes.

As a hypothetical, say there are six areas a player can go during a certain stage of an adventure game. On each screen there are an average of eight interactive objects. The player has five possible verbs they can use on any object. They also have seven items in their inventory, all of which can be used on any object. This means that at any given time, the player has 768 potential actions to perform.

Text adventures (or interactive fiction, whatever your preference on terminology) exacerbate this problem, as the limit to possible verbs is literally the player's vocabulary. When stuck, the player becomes a thesaurus, struggling to find the right combination of words to execute what they think makes sense. But as it's impossible to know when an action is incorrect due to logic or just due to the parse, the player can never be certain their solution was fundamentally incorrect, instead of just linguistically incorrect.

Compound this with the truly absurd logic of some adventure games (see Old Man Murray's discussion of Gabriel Knight 3) and it's really no surprise that adventure games fell out of favour. The dynamics of adventure games are not enjoyable the moment the player falls out of sync with the designer's intentions. Coming full circle, adventure games have a readability problem. With all that being said, this definition of readability should make sense:

Readability is a measure of how easily a player can understand a game's dynamics.

To provide contrast, Braid is a good example of a game with a small number of mechanics giving rise to rich, understandable dynamics. Some criticized Braid for requiring the player to guess the designer's intent. While this is true, the mechanics in Braid number in single digits. Personally, I was never particularly frustrated with Braid, nor did I ever feel like a puzzle was obtuse or unfair. Upon solving, my reaction was universally, "Oh yeah, that makes sense." I cannot say the same for needing a cat hair and syrup mustache to impersonate a man that doesn't even have a mustache.

This post has become much longer than intended. In the interest I've brevity, I've broken it in two. Wednesday's post will discuss some ways in which adventure games can be made more readable.

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