Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Instancing Emotion

Last week, I considered this quote from Ian Schreiber's summary of SIEGE:

Instead of saying "I'm going to create a game that causes a particular emotional response in the player," start the other way around: find existing game moments that produce your desired emotions, then extrapolate to figure out what mechanics can cause those emotions.

Likely you were unsatisfied by the hand-waving (I was), so I wanted to look at more concrete examples this week. First, an instance of a game that executes on the above principle to great success.

Left 4 Dead creates one of, if not the, best sensations of cooperation and interdependence. And that experience grows up organically as the game develops. Mike Booth gave a talk at GDC '09 discussing the how Left 4 Dead was built for co-op from the ground up (it's summarized here, among other places).

The core of Left 4 Dead isn't about points and kill/death ratios, like nearly all other multiplayer FPSs. As Booth said during his GDC talk, "The game is not really about killing zombies, it’s about your teammates."

By focusing on specific emotional experiences, Valve was able to determine quickly through playtesting what components of the game were evoking those emotions and which weren't. It was unclear from the talk whether the initial designs included the special Infected, but it was clear that their roles and abilities evolved through prototyping. The Hunter utterly disables "lone wolf" players that stray too far from their teammates. Smokers can do this as well, but the Hunter's quick pounce makes them especially well suited for this role. The Smoker pulls characters out of formation and breaks defensive positions, not only disabling one defender but requiring (at least) one other Survivor's attention to rescue them.

The Boomer is especially interesting because it places all the Survivors in jeopardy if any one of them are too jumpy on the trigger. If someone shoots the Boomer too soon, either they only coat themselves and require the other Suvivors to keep them safe, or they've covered everyone in bile and placed the whole team at risk.

Even being incapacitated from normal damage doesn't immediately kill a Survivor. Teammates are able to rescue them (and because of the above dynamics, they would be foolish not to), but the fallen can still provide covering fire from the ground. The relationship isn't one way, with the fallen player waiting idle for someone else to pick them up. They can still contribute. again, pushing interdependence and camaraderie.

The sharing of pills, the application of medical kits to other characters (which could have just as easily been just giving the medical kits, but it wouldn't have felt as helpful/supportive), the NPC context-aware barks that provide simulacra of the players' collaboration (hopefully, anyway) through their avatars; all of these things may be minor by themselves, but all of them produce greater feelings of cooperation than functionally equivalent alternatives. And nearly all of them emerged through iteration and continuous feedback.

Most importantly, they did this without creating any explicit rules forbidding "uncooperative behaviour." At no point are players forced to flip four switches at the same time, or be instantly teleported closer together if they're too far apart. Constraints don't change behaviour, merely prevent it. Valve realizes this and nearly every aspect of Left 4 Dead provides an incentive to work together, and in doing so creates some of the most poignant moments of interdependence and cooperation I've ever experienced in a digital game.

Last time, I mentioned I'd also discuss an example of where this doesn't work. But thinking about it more, I realized there are lots of examples and most of them are plainly obvious. I'll mention one, but be brief.

At least at the beginning of Grand Theft Auto 4, protagonist Niko Bellic expresses hesitation and concern that the life of violence he thought he had left behind might prove to be inescapable after all. But from the first moment the player has a gun or a car, they can murder literally hundreds of random, innocent people. The game tells us Niko might feel some remorse, at least at first, for the things he has to do, but the gameplay provides no support for this. Worse, it facilitates and even encourages the exact opposite emotions from the ones the player is supposed to feel when empathizing with Niko.

It's easy (and I'd argue very common) for the player of GTA 4 to be going one way, the story going the other and never shall the twain meet. For most people, the sandbox experience and action movie moments are the core GTA experience. I'm not sure how well this is supported by going on dates in between bouts of vehicular homicide.

While playing Left 4 Dead, you know you must depend on your friends. But more importantly, you want to. Everything about the experience says, "Live together or die alone." And that experience was only possible through Valve determining the set of emotions they wanted to evoke and iterating again and again, cutting those things that didn't support the emotional goals and buttressing those that did. That focus and dedication to a single set of objectives is difficult, but admirable and vital to crafting a truly emotive experience.

(As an aside, if you're going to be playing Left 4 Dead 2 on Steam and aren't a complete misanthrope, I'd love to play with fewer deranged/incompetent Internet strangers. My Steam profile is here. I'll watch your back and promise I won't leave you behind when rescue comes ... probably.)

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Deferred Germination

I meant to post this last week, but have been absurdly busy and it slipped. It's now woefully outdated, but I'm posting it anyway.

Scott and Jorge discussed my games as TV post on episode #47 of their plenteous podcast. As a bonus, they have Justin Keverne as a guest (but they loved me first dammit, they loved me first!).

The conversation drifted a bit too much toward episodic games, which often gets conflated on the rare occasions when people talk about games through the lens of TV. My post didn't do a particularly good job of separating these issues either though. That's instructive for the future. Next go, it will be "Games are like having a season of a TV show on DVD." That doesn't flow nearly as well though, eh?

It's still a great conversation, especially Justin calling out The Cradle from Thief: Deadly Shadows as the best format breaker in a game ever. And he's totally right.

Give it a listen, it probably won't rot your brain.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Designing for Emotion from the Bottom Up

Ian Schreiber recently posted a summary of the Southern Interactive Entertainment & Game Expo (SIEGE). One bullet point in particular seems a brilliant encapsulation of things I've tried to enunciate in the past:

Instead of saying "I'm going to create a game that causes a particular emotional response in the player," start the other way around: find existing game moments that produce your desired emotions, then extrapolate to figure out what mechanics can cause those emotions.

Basically, build emotional experiences from the bottom up, not the top down.

I find designs (both for games and software in general) often get mired with excess structure and stumble when trying to find robust solutions without understanding the full space of the problem. There are simply too many details, too many subtle complexities. Spending a lot of time and effort on the initial solution, only to discover some aspect of it doesn't work, means even more time and effort will be needed for revisions.

I realize this is nothing new to anyone familiar with the ol' waterfall vs. agile chestnut. And even though agile has become more prevalent, at least on the software side of things, it still seems that too many experiences are built from the top down. Designers imagine a profound moment that will provoke an emotional response in the player and then steam toward that. If it's later discovered to be less poignant than intended, various components need to change to move closer to the desired response. But by the time this is discovered, there's already a ton of content (models, environments, dialog) that has already been created and probably other design dependencies. Only so much can change and likely that desired response will never be reached.

The net result of this is evident in countless games. There's a character the player is supposed to empathize with and care about, but instead of organically building rapport, the game just beats the player over the head. For all intents and purposes, there's a giant arrow and flashing neon sign saying "Care about this person!" Of course, we usually don't. And we end up with things like the discovery of Dom's wife in Gears of War 2.

The solution, or at least a step in the right direction, is what Ian's summary captures- find something that works and build upon it. Ideally, those seeds will be in your own game already. But if you have to bootstrap off a similar moment in another game, that's fine. The point is to get something, anything, moving you in the right direction.

Once you have something that works, build upon it. Figure out why it works and how similar moments can be created. In attempting to evoke emotion, there are so many variables it's difficult to predict what will and will not be successful. Rather than (somewhat arrogantly, in my opinion) assume you know what will create the desired response, there will be more success in remaining dynamic and humble.

I'll keep harping on the importance of iteration, prototyping and playtesting, and it's because it has dynamism and humility built in. Realizing you're going to get lots wrong and end up throwing a bunch of stuff away is fine if you're building cheap prototypes and learning from each one. Constantly having those prototypes evaluated and discovering what comes up short will definitely come with a hearty dose of humility.

Obviously you want to have enough foresight to not paint yourself into a corner. A design that's just a constellation of provocative moments without any latticework holding it together will feel disconnected and shallow. Perhaps a few people do possess the vision and intuition to get it right from the onset. But that's a very small number of people and many more think they belong to this cadre than those that actually do. I know I do not possess those necessary qualities, and thus, I cleave to iterative, bottom up design.

Editing this, I realize it's pretty vague and hand-wavey. Rather that transmute this post into Bigby's Unsurmountable Wall of Text, I'll follow this up next week with at least a pair of examples of where this technique worked, and where avoiding it did not. In the mean time, if you have any thoughts on bottom up emotional design and where it has/hasn't worked, I'd be curious to hear it.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Window Dressing for Free

I've been playing a bit of Arkham Asylum recently, behind the main swell as I opted for the PC version. To add to the echo, yes, it's bloody fantastic. But more importantly, it's quite possibly the purest example of how exactly to take a license and make a game that captures the license's spirit exactly.

Many deride licensed games, and fairly so. But the condemnation is often categorical, both on the part of developers/publishers who churn out uninspired rubbish for the lowest cost possible, and audiences who assume anything licensed is terrible until proven wrong. This leads to self-fulfilling prophecy and the licensed ghetto continues.

There are still plenty of excellent licensed games (even going back decades). Their excellence is largely due to two characteristics- they allow players to inhabit an interesting world and craft their own story. The latter is doubly important. So often, license adaptations are merely translations of some existing story (usually, a movie). This basically robs the player of almost everything interesting about games: agency, exploration of the new space, suspense, etc. Recreating the footsteps of a big screen protagonist is the last thing most players want.

I don't think it's any coincidence that some of the best licensed video games are licenses of other game properties. D&D, Vampire: The Masquerade, Warhammer 40K; these properties are built expressly for allowing players to craft their own stories. And this includes the best licensed game ever made, and one of the greatest games ever. Planescape: Torment worked in part because Chris Avellone had all the richness of the setting to draw upon. But Black Isle didn't just recreate an existing Planescape adventure (and there were plenty of excellent candidates), they created a new journey through Sigil and the planes.

For those familiar with the setting, we were getting to see familiar things through a whole new lens. The first cranium rat, the omnipresent razorvine, the rebus speech of the Dabus; all of these evoked both familiarity and appreciation. For those new to the setting, they were able to marvel at the depth and diversity of content.

This is where Arkham Asylum succeeds as well. For me at least, Batman has always been about the villains (and part of the triumph of Burton and Nolan's Batman films was finding ways to make Batman himself interesting). Rocksteady fully embraced this and found ways both overt and subtle to make the villains the primary backdrop of the game. Mark Hamil's Joker, with his constant boasts, taunts and straight madness, is fantastic. More subtly, small moments involving the other villains, even ones not featured in the game, give Arkham more substance and atmosphere. Seeing Catwoman's equipment in a glass case or seeing Hush's name on an X-ray are great nods for those more familiar with the Batman setting.

The Batman of Arkham Asylum is fantastically boring, but as a cipher for the player, this actually works rather well. The gameplay focus on the experience of Batman, rather than the character. Between the plethora of gadgets, relatively single but incredibly fluid combat, reasonable use of stealth and the extreme vulnerability to firearms, Arkham Asylum nails the feeling of Batman. And it's far more rewarding than watching some 3D model in a cutscene tell you what it's like to be Batman.

One of the hardest parts of creating a new IP where setting and character are central is simply getting people to care about your world at all. Creators very, very often fall dangerously in love with their own creations. It's the quintessential DM who has written tomes about his world and carries on about "the impacts of the Third War of Succession due to Prince Bakolar's betrayal of the Treaty of Darkfall," oblivious to his players being bored to tears.

Game designers working on new IP can easily fall into the same trap and avoiding this requires great discipline and restraint. Probably the most telling acknowledgment of this is when Ken Levine said "Nobody wants to reading your fucking design document." He wasn't condemning the work that should be put into background worldbuilding, but rather that what actually ends up in the game should be relevant to the player. The rest is a latticework the team can use in creating environments and interactions that are consistent and rich. Bioshock was commendable in its restraint. I didn't have to listen to three minutes of audio diary explaining how Andrew Ryan made his money, because that doesn't really matter. But a 15 second anecdote about how he'd rather burn down a forest he owns rather than grant it to the government to make public? Telling and pointed.

At the end of the day, a great deal of licensed games are still drek. The economics of releasing a game in coordination with a major movie more or less encourage cutting corners whenever possible. But there are lots of excellent licenses being wasted because developers are trying to hard to recreate an experience, rather than allowing the player to have their own. My sincere gratitude to Rocksteady for delivering the best use of a major license and demonstrating it doesn't have to be pandering garbage. A few more successes like this and maybe we'll see a few more minds opening toward some of the truly excellent licenses out there, just waiting for treatment like Arkham Asylum.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ending Up Back in the Arcade

Are we returning to a ridge of quarters sitting at the bottom of the screen?

Apologies if this seems a bit scattered. This is definitely thinking in progress, and I imagine working 70+ hours last week isn't helping either. But it's something I've been trying to understand and articulate for some time now; consider this the first foray.

Simply, I'm deeply skeptical of mobile and social games.

Often the future of gaming is presented as being dominated by this pair. But I can't help but feel that would basically be leading us back to the arcade, with all its weal and woe. In my youth, I had many good times at Jackson's Fun Stop arcade. But these times were meaningful because of the friends I played with and the stories we created. The games themselves were not terribly substantive. No offense to Mortal Kombat or Darkstalkers, but they could (and were) easily replaced by Primal Rage and that awesome six-player X-Men cabinet.

I look at the vast majority of iPhone and Facebook games, and I can't help but see basically the same thing. They're touted as the future so often, but in terms of almost all meaningful qualities, they're a step backward. They're largely shallow, they're amusing because they're played with others and they're all about collecting your quarters (or convincing you to click on ads and/or use real money to buy fake things).

I worry this reinforces the antiquated notion that games are diversions, things meant to provide quick amusement and pass time. As mentioned briefly when discussing the surprising sophistication of contemporary television, increasing complexity is the hallmark of sophisticated media. Max Injury and Bejeweled 2 are not that. I'm not sure they could move beyond just being "fun." (Indulgent self-referencing ends here, btw)

Now, I'm fine with games providing only amusement and social reward. I cannot enumerate the good times I've had with friends over Rock Band, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart/Party, World of Warcraft, Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Arkham Horror, etc. Some of my fondest gaming moments have really been about the people I was playing with.

But there is also my time with Planescape: Torment, Thief, Fallout, Far Cry 2, Little King's Story, and so forth. Experiences that would be unreproducible if shared with others or if consumed in small bursts on a tiny screen. And this is why I worry about mobile/social games "being the future." They're perfectly capable of producing amusing, shared experience. But the rich, deep, atmospheric one? I'm not so sure.

The vast majority of people don't engage with mobile content like they do other entertainment media. It's sporadic, low-attention engagement. The race-to-the-bottom pricing of the iTunes app store creates a perception of value (or lack thereof). Even the best iPhone game had to make their message a secret. I know less about interacting with social browser games, but I doubt they're that different.

Games of this nature facilitate meaningful interactions between people. But in and of themselves, they are not meaningful and do not create meaning. And that's why I cringe every time I hear "mobile/social games are the future!" As a Trojan horse, showing people that games are not just bombs and boobs? Sure. But are these platforms simultaneously the point of departure and final destination for new gamers? I sincerely hope not.

Games had to move out of the arcades to become something more than basal amusements. By asking us to put the arcades in our pockets, can we really expect the games to be different? I'm extremely curious about your opinions on this. Is there untapped potential here, or is it just Farmville, as far as the eye can see?

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