Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Maker's Lens

This post is a little more personal and less pointed than many previous. But it's an observation that's been vaguely bouncing around my head for a while and my wife (and talented editor!) helped crystallize it last night, so I figure now is as good a time as any.

It feels like my perspective on games changed after I started making them professionally. It's not for the better or for the worse, merely different. I've seen how the sausage is made. The process is a little unnerving, but damn, it's still delicious.

What I gained was an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. Even the simplest of games has a tremendous amount of interlocking pieces, nearly all of them inter-dependent. At times I'm amazed games get made at all.

I am able to better recognize the components now. I see how the components can be built into systems that challenge, engage and emote ... or at least attempt to. It's a little disheartening at times, like touring the set of a favourite movie or TV show and seeing there is no ceiling and only two walls. The vast, vibrant world you imagine really looks something like this.

It's not a negative perception though. In some ways, it's even more fascinating, both on the part of the creator and the player. The creators provide just enough substance for the player's imagination to take over. The player doesn't need to try to sneak a peek past that unclimbable wall, because they believe the city continues outward.

I am now more aware of what's beyond the wall though (nothing). It's very similar to when I read The Design of Everyday Things and started noticing how nearly every door in the world is poorly designed. But it also helped me recognize and appreciate instances of really good design. Games are not much different.

I will notice clever tricks with lighting to guide the player's eye. Seeing an NPC behave strangely, I start guessing at the logic bugs in his state management that might have caused this. I'll note the way certain abilities drive particular behaviour. The different ways enemy AI behaves has become especially noticeable.

But when a game is so engrossing that the developer lenses come off for a while, I cannot help but admire it. All the various gears and levers recede and it's just about the experience. Rather than appreciation of various components, it's the whole artifact that's engaging. Weirdly, it makes me take notice because of all the things I'm not noticing. Eventually, I'll probably start trying to peer under the hood again. Although this time, it's likely to try and understand how all the bits fit together so well and how I can replicate the same.

One interesting side effect of this is I feel more empathy for other developers. I have a lot of difficulty completely lambasting a game, because I realize there were dozens of people not too unlike me who worked quite hard to bring this thing into existence. Mistakes are not absolved, but I find myself asking, "How can I avoid doing this?" rather than frothing about the developers' intelligence and parentage, as the howling hordes of the internet so often do.

I've always been pretty dogmatic about finishing the games I start. But now, I finish games because I want people to finish mine. By finishing games, I feel as if I'm fully appreciating the efforts that went into them. I've probably sunk some unnecessary hours into games that peaked early and I understand why others would bail early. If there's just some smaller interesting facet I want to examine, I'll grab a demo. But as soon as I've laid down cash, I feel compelled to finish.

There likely aren't any stunning revelations here. It's just interesting for me to reflect on how the way I see things has changed over the past couple of years. I'm curious to hear if your perspective on playing games has shifted as you started making games, playing different kinds of games or even just playing more/less.

More than anything else, I have found it very valuable to recognize that I don't see all the exact same things others do. This makes their perspective invaluable. Find these people, be they team mates, playtesters or just other games, and let them help you see things with a different set of lenses.


Monday, June 21, 2010

The Best Disguise

Author and journalist Tom Bissell recently had his book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter published. In concert, Michael Abbott recorded a fantastic interview with Bissell. It's one of Michael's best and I highly recommend giving it a listen. I have Bissell's book on my desk, but haven't had a chance to dive into it yet (the fantastic Darwin's Bastards occupies my limited reading time at the moment). Hopefully the topics addressed in their conversation are borne from sections of the book though, as Tom has an interesting perspective on a number of subjects.

One such subject, and this ties into this series on perception, is how game systems are presented to the player. As games have modernized, certain games have attempted to disguise or justify familiar gameplay tropes within the game's fiction. Bioshock explained the game's checkpoint system via the Vita-Changes that rebuild the protagonist from his stored DNA should he be killed. Most likely, you completed Bioshock not with the original protagonist, but with his umpteenth clone.

Bissell praises the Disguise, referring to Jon Blow's claims that the needs of a game's narrative (progress with good pacing) and the needs of a game's challenge (hold the player back until some goal is achieved) are inherently opposed. By cleverly utilizing this concealment of game systems, it's possible to ameliorate or even exploit this conflict. Portal and Dead Space are cited for their superb execution in this regard.

I cannot disgree with that either. The narrative setup in Portal allows the challenges to make complete sense while still leaving room for GLaDOS' excellent characterization. Dead Space makes the entire game's HUD endogenous, greatly closing the gap between what the player is meant to experience and what the protagonist is. Elsewhere he praises Mirror's Edge for other reasons, but I imagine its minimal use of unjustified gameplay tropes contributes to its acknowledgement.

He decries the coffee thermos collectables in Alan Wake, a condemnation I wholly agree with. Rather than attempting to integrate that collectible into the game's fiction (which is doubly absurd considering there already was a different collectible that did fit into the game's fiction), the thermoses exist exclusively to provide supposed challenge and give the player "more to do." Poor use of the Disguise like this reeks of design-by-committee: "(Game X) had collectibles and it did well, so we need to find a way to add collectibles to our game."

The conversation on this topic is great, but it does fail to acknowledge one thing I feel it should. Bissell speaks at length about "games," but most of the time, he's really referring just to single player, story-based games. There's no problem with this, of course, but I hope his book either calls this out or discusses other types of games.

That omission is notable because the Disguise can apply equally to multiplayer or games not based on story. There's no question the aesthetic and characters of Team Fortress 2 give the game much more appeal than the generic soldiers of the original Team Fortress. The promotional comic for the free Solider vs. Demoman update is more compelling than the entire narrative of a good chunk of games. But TF2 doesn't use the Disguise just for charm and personality.

As each class in TF2 has dramatically different abilities, being able to recognize them quickly based on silhouette alone is very important. By creating unique characters for each TF2 class, their highly readable silhouettes are reinforced by the fiction. As each character literally has a unique voice, their barks are immediately recognizable. In most modern-day military shooters, every "Tango down" sounds exactly the same. But there's no difficulty telling the difference between the Demoman belting out "Medic!" in Scottish brogue and the Heavy's thick Russian cries. These are just a few examples. Valve elegantly utilizes the Disguise to present information about the TF2 classes without needing to explicitly explain anything.

It's also the case that a great many games don't need the Disguise. Games where story isn't important shouldn't care about justifying their gameplay. Mario needs to find stars because ... I guess it helps save Princess Peach, who has inevitably been kidnapped again. But really, the stars exist because it's a serviceable objective in the challenge to navigate fantastical and dizzying environments. No more is needed and even that thin veneer could probably be lost without doing much harm to the experience.

It is really about being clear on what you're trying to make. As critics and consumers of games, we ought not to tolerate brain-dead artificialities that exist only to provide "challenge" while doing great harm to a game's story. Conversely though, we shouldn't condemn a game for lacking these things if that game is built to be about the challenge and the narrative is, at best, a little colour. The Disguise can be a powerful thing and those developers that know how to utilize it correctly have produced some of the engaging, immersive games seen to date. But perhaps the important aspect of the Disguise is knowing when to use it. Rather than timidly flitting between both sides, having the clarity to know when such things are necessary would demonstrate the focus necessary for a project to have a shot at being great.

Don't forget, read the book and listen to the interview. Both are definitely worth your time.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Make a Perception Check

I think the readability series I wrote over a year ago is still one of my favourite pieces on the site. I think the connectedness has an advantage over the more reactive, "here's what I'm thinking this week" writing I tend to do. So it's time to roll out another, this time about "perception." The connections may be a little more tenuous than the readability series, but I'm hoping to keep the focus on how different methods of constructing elements of a game (or even wholly different forms of games) can significantly affect how players act.

Out of the gate we're going to talk about one of the fundamental actions in tabletop RPGs: "Make a Perception check."

For those unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, a Perception check is the mechanical representation of your character's senses. Different systems have different parlance, but the basic action is nearly universal in some form or another. It determines whether or not you sense something intentionally concealed or merely notice small details. Most systems allow eagle-eyed characters to improve their sensory skills. And therein lies the complication.

Tabletop RPGs almost always involve a group of players. The GM will ask for a Perception check and then every player rolls. But in the vast majority of situations, only a single player needs to succeed. The result is conveyed to the group as a whole, no matter how much effort is made to rein in metagaming. This dampens that limelight moment for the keen-eyed player. And it feels very game-y when the group always sees with the best set of eyes. Possible alternatives, like passing notes to those that succeed their check, can work but are logistically infeasible to be frequent.

This also ties into the other major issue with Perception mechanics in tabletop games, namely that Perception checks without interesting outcomes for both success and failure are probably not worth having. Asking for a Perception check and then responding with "You don't see anything" immediately sets the players to sniffing out what they missed. In the worst case, they'll begin scouring every square foot of an area, probably ignoring whatever situation was previously demanding their attention. Making checks for the players in secret is a possibility, but it somewhat robs them of their ability to make interesting decisions. Or at least know the consequences of prior decisions made, like whether or not they chose to improve their Perception skill.

I'm becoming more and more convinced that Perception mechanics are strongest when they have immediate, readable outcomes. If everyone in the group is rolling, the consequences should apply for everyone. E.g. failing a check means being surprised by the ambush and losing a turn. Calling for individual Perception checks is almost far more interesting (does the character walking ahead of everyone else notice the old rotting floorboards before he steps on them?) when there are immediate outcomes. I haven't really pushed on this methodology enough to say if it has any unfortunate consequences (like always making the most Perceptive character take point), but I'm going to be more rigorous about it in the next game I run and see what happens.

Digital games often reverse the presentation of player information, with very little perceptual information being shared between players. Naturally this only applies to networked multiplayer games, as local multiplayer games naturally share their information, since everyone is looking at the same screen.

Any avatar-based game will naturally facilitate each player having a different perception of the game world. Usually the degree of sharing is driven by function, e.g. can I see my teammates' position on a map, know their statistics, etc. The perceptive skills of each player are symmetrical and their ability to share information is limited to meta-game tools (i.e. text and voice chat).

A few games have really experimented with the idea of offering different perceptive abilities. Chromehounds, a mech combat game released in 2006, featured a fascinating commander role. The commander player had a very lightly armoured mech with limited combat abilities. However, their perception abilities outstripped every other player. They could see further, have better radio control, affect the minimap, etc.

Other games have attempted the same, notably the commander role in the Battlefield series and more recently, in Sony's MAG. Savage, released in 2003, took a somewhat different tack and attempted to blend RTS and FPS gameplay. One player was given RTS-like control of the base, build tree, etc. while the rest of the players served as soliders on the ground. In actuality, I'd say none of these were as successful as Chromehounds in creating a role where differences in perception abilities are meaningful and rewarding. I think they largely fall down because the games are simply too big.

It seems the thinking behind commander roles in games like Battlefield is to simulate real-world coordinated military action. However, they lack what makes a commander on a real battlefield work- a chain of command. With games like MAG supporting 128 players per team, you're guaranteed to be playing primarily with strangers. Strangers who have no interest or incentive to listen to the commander. Without actual threat to life, or even just court martial, coordinating 127 strangers is basically impossible.

Chromehounds supported only 6 players per team, meaning there was a good chance you'd be playing with five friends. Even if you weren't, convincing five people to work together is possible where having over 100 do so is unthinkable. Given that co-op gameplay (along with motion controls, seemingly) are what's vogue these days, I'd love to see further exploration of the path Chromehounds started. A pure co-op experience where significant differences in perceptive abilities were built into gameplay from the ground up could be striking. Left 4 Dead demonstrated expertly that players, even strangers, will work together well if the mechanics ask them to.

And of course, this is only in a cooperative context. The interplay between shared information and hidden information is at the core of a great many competitive games (everything from texas hold 'em on up). That's a whole other post (or series even) that I may not delve into. But it's clear there's a lot of space to experiment with just what players can see without even needing to dive into what the players can do.

Now what happens when what I see informs what you do? I'd hazard it would be something very interesting indeed.

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Alan Wake Is Too Much Game

I like Alan Wake, despite it being composed of numerous things that could easily be disliked. Unfortunately, those were usually the most game-like parts of the experience.

There have been many criticisms of Alan Wake discussing how the game isn't "scary enough." I think this is a misdirected criticism. Rightly or wrongly, that wasn't the game Remedy was trying to make. Hell, on the box it says "A Psychological Action Thriller." And while I'm not convinced games should need to dress up their covers with vague genre potpourri, I think that is indicative of the experience Remedy was trying to craft. To me it seems misguided, at best, to criticize a game for not being what you wanted it to be, rather than what its creators were intending it to be (of course, there often isn't an easy way to determine that).

In Alan Wake, Remedy has crafted a fantastic environmental atmosphere. I grew up in an extremely rural, heavily wooded area (just south of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming). Simply, going into the forest at night is unsettling. With naught but starlight, or at best a flashlight, there is no question you feel unwelcome. No matter how many times you've been in that part of the forest, you know there are things out there that are far more familiar with it than you will ever be. There is a quiet menace to the forest at night and Alan Wake captures that very well. Combine that with threatening industrial spaces and believable abandoned structures, and the resulting environment hits its tonal marks well time and again.

As an aside, I don't usually care much about cutting edge visuals in games (versus having an interesting art direction), but god damn, the lighting in Alan Wake is stunning. Obviously it ought to be given that it's the central theme of the game, but it's still staggering. Alan's flashlight, a road flame, car headlights; all of the light sources have a varied and tactile feel. Conversely, the facial animations and lip sync are poor to the point of unsettling. But as long as you're looking at Alan's back instead of watching him conversing, the game's visuals greatly enhance the atmosphere.

There is a sizable weakness to Alan Wake's environments though. While the spaces are dressed and lit excellently, their actual physical layout is at times downright bizarre. The areas are weirdly sparse and empty. Usually there will be a direct path through an area with massive open stretches on both sides. But only one time in three will there actually be anything to find off the path, even with the numerous and well-derided collectables. The indirect path is rarely safer, as the heavy brush gives enemies more cover and disguises their approach. So as often as not, you're blundering off the path, shining your flashlight everywhere, only to discover after scouring half an acre that there is nothing to be found. Yet, in the next area, there will be a coffee thermos inexplicably purchased on the far edge of a boulder.

Alan Wake is positively bloated with collectables, a great many of them pointless. There are the now infamous coffee thermoses (David Lynch homage or no, they're awful). There are 100 of the things and literally, the only purpose they serve is to award an achievement once you've found 25 and another once you've found all 100. I'm well convinced objects without any endogenous value in a game should be banished. Period. The manuscript pages of the novel Wake himself has/is writing, that describe events happening in parallel or just ahead of the story, are more tolerable but still too numerous. Beyond the manuscript pages (some of which are only available on the hardest difficulty that is only unlocked when you've finished the game once) and thermoses, there are also can pyramids, radio segments, TV shows, supply chests and signs. Achievements are awarded for each, of course.

Aside from the can pyramids and thermoses, which are just daft, any of these things in isolation is fine. I actually found the "Night Springs" knock-off of the Twilight Zone to be pretty darn amusing. But combined, the sheer volume of stuff becomes way too noisy. It completely derails the game's pacing and atmosphere time and again. Leigh wrote about Alan Wake being too well made to be successful. While she said it "isn't all the scary," I think she is just observing how often the atmosphere is pierced by Alan Wake's design screaming, "HEY, DON'T FORGET YOU'RE PLAYING A GAME!"

The excessive collectables are the most egregious, but the wholly unnecessary yet persistent mini-map and objective marker plastered on the HUD certainly doesn't do any favours to the aesthetic. Aside from the weird spaces off the path, the levels themselves are quite linear. And given the game's heavy thematic leaning on light, I cannot imagine making a highly navigable space would really be that difficult. The mini-map and HUD feels like the number of playtesters who circled 3 instead of 4 or 5 on the Likert scale response to "I felt like I knew where to go at all times" passed some ostensibly vital threshold. And, as Leigh noted in her piece, the presence of enemies is telegraphed to an extreme that torpedoes the ambiance.

It's a real shame too, because there are actually some really interesting things going on with Wake's character. It's buried under a mound of Stephen King paperbacks and VHS cassettes of Twin Peaks, but it's there. Wake has been wrestling with severe writer's block, but it's only noted once (late in the game and in passing) that Wake had written a long successful series of serial detective novels only to have killed the main character in has last book. Now he's seemingly unable to produce anything since. And if there's anything the games industry is familiar with, it's being unable to walk away from past successes.

And I'm only half-kidding with that. Becoming a victim of your own success and being unable to truly get out of your own shadow is something very successful creators (e.g. Douglas Adams, Andy Kaufman, etc.) have wrestled with. It's certainly something I've never really seen addressed in a game before, despite it being pretty well in the background of Alan Wake.

There are interesting things going on in Alan Wake, without question. It's just a shame that Remedy's design ending up being so diffident. It's almost as if they were afraid the experience wouldn't be good enough on it's own, so it had to be filled out with "more things to do." But rather than be filled out, it becomes bloated and unwieldy. There's an extremely compelling atmosphere and even some interesting themes, but it's been buried in an avalanche of pointless collectables and excessive hand-holding. It's possible the DLC episodes might be more stripped-down, and if so, they could be real solid. We'll just have to wait and see, but in the mean time, I do suggest giving Alan Wake a try. There's some good stuff in there, if you can peer past all the gunk.

Oh, and getting an achievement for watching a god damn Verizon commercial in the middle of the 4th area of the game? Inexcusable bullshit. Sorry, I can't pretty that one up.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Level 20 Gunslinger

Red Dead Redemption may be one of the best RPGs to come out this year.

Stop and think about it for a minute. When it comes to creating a place that feels legitimate and tangible, it's pretty hard to argue with New Austin's expanse. And RDR certainly has characters and dialog in spades (no poker pun intended).

If you really consider it, what differentiates an "RPG" from another kind of game? In days long past, when we were measuring Final Fantasy against Contra, having a large, free-roaming world was a novel and unique feature. Obviously that's no longer the case. Sandbox games may have actually surpassed the majority of RPGs in presenting a large, freely navigable continuous space.

Similarly, nearly all AAA single-player games are character-driven now. It used to be that the only RPGs contained characters that would speak to each other in nothing but the most cursory of fashions. Again, those days are long past. While the stories might not always have been well-crafted, they're certainly prominent in nearly all big-budget titles. Even the notion of player choice (nearly always good vs. evil) has been used in all manner of games.

With world and story no longer domain of the RPG, what remains are mechanical distinctions. The most prominent mechanics, i.e. level, hit points, etc., were inherited from tabletop RPGs. Stat-modifying equipment is a natural consequence of this, but not really a distinct feature by itself. Some RPGs have focused intensely on this portion of the genre, most notably Diablo and its more modern offpsring, Torchlight. Of course, as is evidenced by Modern Warfare (and seemingly every other yet-to-be-released shooter), experience and levels is a system that can easily be co-opted by other genres.

Another large distinction is being able to control a party of characters, rather than just a single one. However, we have seen this diminish as of late (especially in western RPGs) from having full, symmetric control of all the characters to embodying a single character and directing AI companions. Some recent RPGs, like Alpha Protocol and Demon's Souls offer no companions at all.

Having a robust dialog system with many conversation options is part of the western RPG tradition, but rare in Japanese RPGs, so this may only count for half. This quality is shared with adventure games as well.

There is something of a question of content and setting, given that many RPGs skew toward wizards-and-orcs style fantasy. I'd consider this also a result of their tabletop heritage rather than anything intrinsic, especially when some of the best RPGs around explore different territory.

With all that boiled away, what then is the difference between Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption? Is it just statistics and a dialog tree? I think there is one final difference, also inherited from the tabletop ancestry, that's most important: classes. While their specific implementation may vary, the high-level goal of providing distinct playstyles is pretty fundamental to the RPG. The classes may be spread amongst characters (in Japanese RPGs) or a choice offered to the player, but they're almost always there.

I'd say this is really the heart of the RPGs. Playing Red Dead Redemption, the player is always John Marston. When you're placed in a situation where you have to shoot, you shoot. When told to race, you race. When told to mosey and rustle, well, you get the picture. The player has very little choice in how to address a situation. Even with the greater freedom afforded in a game like Just Cause 2, sooner or later, you're going to be blowing things up. It's just a question of whether or not to buy two grenade launchers or steal a helicopter.

I'm not convinced that the low-level mechanical trappings of RPGs are what make them interesting and special. I don't think Morrowind or Arcanum would be poorer games if they didn't have levels. In a single player game, the notion of level is largely illusory anyway (and in the case of Oblivion, barely an illusion). The numbers get bigger, but the game rarely becomes radically more difficult as you advance in level. It works at conveying a sense of progress, but there are other ways to do this. But the choice afford by the best of RPGs is unparalleled.

Are we going to see a convergence of RPGs and sandbox games? Perhaps. Take away the leveling and we're more than halfway there, I'd say. Imagine a game with the playstyle freedom of Deus Ex and the grand, sprawling world of Just Cause 2. Sandbox games with rich, emergent worlds succeed in providing small moments unique to each player. Great RPGs offer the ability to make large scale decisions that fundamentally alter how the player approaches the game. Putting those things together would be quite the challenge, but the payoff would be astounding.

I'm not sure who would make that game, but I cannot dispute that I would play the everliving hell out of it.

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