Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cold As Ice

Frozen Synapse is a indie game in just about every sense of the term. It has a stylized abstract aesthetic, it's a style of gameplay rarely seen in mainstream titles, it has an extremely steep learning curve, it's extremely rich and deep, its servers buckled from traffic come launch day, it has a built-in IRC channel and its tutorial is terrible. All but the last make the game fantastic (well, the servers being bunged up ain't great, but it means a lot of people are playing the game, which is awesome for them).

If you haven't heard of Frozen Synapse, it's a turn-based tactical squad shooter developed by Mode7 Games, which I believe is only three guys in the UK. If you took just the combat from Jagged Alliance or X-Com (except Frozen Synapse deliberately makes your soldiers faceless), this is basically what you'd end up with. It's the kind of game that self-selects quite a bit, but if this is up your alley, it's really up your alley.

In addition to being built upon a very solid foundation of game, Frozen Synapse goes the extra mile in handling multiplayer. All matches are conducted online and complete asynchronously, meaning you and your opponent can be issuing turns hours apart and the servers simply process and report each turn's results next time you log in. While not quite as deliberately paced as an online wargame like Warlight, I can imagine easily handling a half-dozen or more games of Frozen Synapse at once.

The tricky bit is understanding the game enough to want to play a half-dozen matches simultaneously.

In an all too common refrain, where Frozen Synapse falls down is its tutorial. In indie game fashion, the tutorial is just a handful of very canned micro-missions that tell you what to do and then have you do it. The problem here is threefold. One, all you are asked to do is perform rote mimicry. The dialog prompt says to click here, drag there and twist here, and you do it. It breezily explains what that all meant, but as long as you're able to translate text into simply mouse/keyboard input, you can pass the tutorial. The problem is, you're never required to demonstrate any kind of understanding. The scenarios aren't presented as "explanation-then-demonstration."

Without being required to demonstrate any kind of understanding, you're merely following prompts without realizing why doing so is important. And then the first time you're dropped in a proper mission, you have little recourse to understand why your dudes keep getting their heads emptied all over nearby walls.

The second problem with the tutorial is that it's all frontloaded. You get a deluge of contextless information, being presented with the "how" well before the "why." Without any kind of proper mental model for the game, it's very hard to synthesize the information you're being bombarded with. And the worst part is, this wouldn't be that hard to fix. Rather than a bunch of canned explanations, providing simple missions meant to teach a specific skill would likely ease players into Frozen Synapse far more successfully. The challenge scenarios in Starcraft II do a pretty good job of bridging the gap between the duvet coziness of singleplayer and the Russian prisonyard of Battle.net. Imagining something similar for Frozen Synapse isn't hard at all.

And of course, the final issue with the tutorials is they're just missing information. Probably the most important mechanic in the game, how combat between two characters is resolved, isn't explained in the tutorial at all. The rules that govern these outcomes are actually quite simple and involve just four simple factors: direction, stillness, aiming and cover. But I didn't get that from the tutorial, I got it from a supplemental tutorial video.

Not to give the wrong impression, I like Frozen Synapse quite a lot and I can easily see it being the lunchtime go to game at work for a while. But yikes, if I had to introduce someone to the game, it would come with some caveats.

The ideal way to learn to play Frozen Synapse seems to be: play the tutorial (it ain't great, but it's a start), play a few singleplayer missions and then watch this YouTube video tutorial. The video clarified a ton of things for me, but it probably won't make much sense unless you've played at least a few matches.

Given that Frozen Synapse isn't meant to have broad appeal (not multi-millions, anyway), these problems certainly aren't damning. And it is a bloody brilliant game. But with changes, I imagine those first five minutes with the game could be exquisite, instead of just bewildering.

I quibble about the tutorial only because Frozen Synapse is an excellent experience with (for some people) a big ol' wall around it. Pulling out a few of those bricks would open the game up to folks who would just walk away shaking their heads right now.

Oh, and note that in multiplayer, you can issue your opponent's men faux turns to test out possible scenarios. Work great for visualizing outcomes, not so great if you confuse which dudes belong to who, issue your opponent's guys bunk turns and fail to do anything with your own. Doing so in your first multiplayer match ever leaves quite the taste of shame broth upon your lips. Don't be like me, and we'll all be better for it.

And if you want to order your dudes to shoot my dudes, drop a line! I've been playing on the UK3 server, but I think the plan is to collate all the servers soon anyway. I'll hopefully be seeing you on the Plains of Manshoot.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rapier and Hadouken

For the last 9 months or so, I've been taking classes at a fencing school here in Vancouver. Back in undergrad at the University of Colorado, I did a few years of kendo which I rather enjoyed and wanted to seek out something similar up here. What the school teaches isn't Olympic sport fencing though, it's Renaissance era swordplay. Basically drawing on all the sword masters mentioned in the fight between Wesley and Inigo in The Princess Bride, especially Capo Ferro (although the actual fight choreography in the movie has almost nothing to do with what those masters would have taught).

Having practiced for a little while now, it's interesting noticing some game-like properties of what we've been learning. Being that it's not sport fencing, there aren't strictly defined rules per se. The "rules" (beyond the stipulations explictly for safety's sake) are just the techniques that work well and help you not get stabbed as much. But there are still things that emerge out of the constraints of what your body can do and the desire to not get stabbed. Obviously a duel-like swordfight is not dissimilar from fighting games, given that's what those games meant to simulate anyway. Some of things I've learned in swordfighting are directly analogous to things in 2D fighters, but they can apply more broadly as well.

In Capo Ferro's fencing manual, he discusses a notion of "tempo" which basically describes opportunities to strike one's opponent. There a four tempos described by Capo Ferro.

First Tempo (primo tempo): As the opponent is first entering range or generally before they've taken any action.

Half Tempo (mezzo tempo): During the preparation of an opponent's action, our attack finishes before his can become threatening.

Counter Tempo (contratempo): As the opponent attacks, we respond at basically the same time (but with a slightly faster action and superior positioning or strength).

Two Tempos (dui tempi): An attack that takes two actions, the first of which constraints or inhibits the opponent somehow.

In the context of video games, obviously things like attacking an enemy while they're in the wind up for an big attack is something that's been done for ages. But these same actions can easily exists on a high level of tactics. A contratempo response to an advancing enemy force in Starcraft II would be to force the engagement onto a ramp where your forces have a superior position. Or to allow your forces to engaging their main attack host, but quickly slip Stalkers into their resource line, crippling their economy and rendering any possible success of their main attack moot.

One of the common challenges I find in design is finding ways to provide good structure to the the game's mechanics. Structure provides patterns and models, and those make mechanics easier to teach and learn. An action or strategy game that provides meaningful ways to act in all four of those tempos would probably have enough depth to be interesting.

I suppose the broader point is find ways to structure your game's mechanics and be open to seeing structures in places you might not expect. That structure could prove to be tremendously valuable, not just for developing your game's mechanics, but for conveying them to someone who doesn't possess intimate knowledge of them (and this is honestly one of the biggest design challenges for any game).

And if you live in Vancouver, come check out Academie Duello. You can try any class you want at no cost. Certainly more enjoyable exercise that hefting metal disks, at the very least.

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Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Joy of Stasis

Our project continues to be tremendously busy (positively so, but still, great labours), but I did want to put down some thoughts about Dawn of Discovery. I continue to find the game tremendous satisfying and I want to parse out more of why I feel that way. I think I've got it identified and in a word, it's stasis. Dawn of Discovery is about bringing systems that, left untended, will trend toward chaos back into balance. Obviously a great many sim games, from SimCity onward follow this model. But Dawn of Discovery in particular has made this readily apparent.

Dawn of Discovery structurally is familiar to anyone who's played a game of this ilk. You have a home island, money and a population. That population pays taxes (income) and has certain needs that must be fulfilled. You construct buildings to fulfill those needs (sometimes indirectly, like need a field for to grow hemp and a separate structure to weave it into clothes) and to gather resources for building more structures. Once you have a happy and large enough population, you unlock a new tier of buildings/needs/resources and continue. Obviously there's a lot of nuance here, but at a high level, that's the basic progression.

The interesting dynamic in DoD is to grow, you have to put your economic system out of order. Buildings cost money to maintain and growing you city means more overhead, both in terms of your population's needs and simply the amount of money required to keep them. Your singular most valuable resource is (effectively) a balanced budget and you have to nudge it back toward the black once it's too much toward the red. As soon as your economy is humming nicely, you'll expand further, again putting your system out of balance and it will need to be corrected again.

The satisfaction really comes from keeping the machine running smoothely. Building some more lumberjacks here, adding another mine there, building a few more houses for tax revenue- it's all about making small changes, seeing their effect and further tweaking accordingly. It's a big balance sheet and it produces a kind of satisfaction rarely found in other games.

Games focusing on 1st/3rd person avatar control isolate your input to a very small aspect of the world. But at the same time, almost always, that avatar has a total monopoly on agency in the world. If you don't act, nothing changes. The world is in stasis until you do something. No matter how suspensesful or dramatic the game wants to make a situation seem, until you touch the mouse/controller, nothing will change.

In contrast, Dawn of Discovery continues marching along with or without you. Your job is just to keep things pointed in the right direction. It creates a feeling that you're really very much in control of things, in that you genuinely must act to shape the outcome of the world. The world doesn't wait patiently for you to come to it. Its gears will keep turning with or without you, which means you must act to make a difference. I'd love for that feeling of consequence and importance to be manifest in more avatar-based games, but it's obviously a bit complex to incorporate. But that's not an excuse not to try. Even the harsh progression of time in the first Fallout added great weight and consequence to your actions. It just really sucked to end up on the wrong side of consequence.

Like many economic simulation games, Dawn of Discovery augments that core satisfaction of keeping things balanced by ensuring there are lots of levers to tweak and no optimal decisions to be made. To raise capital, it's at the player's discretion to grow cash crops and sell them or advance quickly to attract more citizens who'll pay higher taxes. Having the ability to make meaningful decisions that directly and obviously impact the state of the world is exactly what I want, at least from this kind of game. Add a fantastic olde timey setting and I'm sold, hook, line and sinker.

Games are interesting because they are made of systems. Simulations like Dawn of Discovery create a truly potent feeling of agency and consequence in the player by allowing them to be an agent within those systems, rather than transcendental being that the game's systems simply exist in service of. That feeling is a profound one, and impossible to reproduce in nearly all other media. It's a tremendous asset for a designer to have at his disposal and one we ought to utilize any chance we can get.


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Skip Week for Indigo

It's a mulligan this week. I was hoping to write something this week, but inundation with work continues. Turns out creating something that nobody has really done before is complicated and difficult! A true ephihany, I know. It's still tremendously satisfying and I couldn't be doing it with a better batch of people. But yes, consuming.

And those few spare moments I have that aren't consumed by thinking about our current project have been consumed by trading indigo. I'd heard The Thumbs espousing the virutes of Dawn of Discovery (aka Anno 1404 in the olde worlde), and I purchased it on a holiday Steam sale, but hadn't actually had a chance to play it until last week. Now all my days are consumed with thoughts of spice routes, glassworks and breweries. It's a real-time city building game with a heavy emphasis on economics. One of my coworkers remarked that it was a "PC-ass PC game" after I explained it to him. A wonderfully accurate assessment, I think. It reminds me of Caesar III, which I played the hell out an era ago, except Dawn of Discovery is sodding gorgeous. Unfortunately, due to Ubisoft apparently not patching the Steam version of the game, it's not available to purchase on Steam currently, but it is on Impulse and Direct2Drive. Heartily recommend it.

I'll try to get the writing back on schedule this weekend. Assuming I can stop trading rope for indigo, at least briefly.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Those Other Indie Games

I've mentioned before that I'm hugely fond of non-digital games. There are a lot of interesting mechanics and types of interaction that don't get explored very often in digital games. Unlike video games, where the presentation elements can sometimes compensate or at least obscure what's going in the game itself, analog games are basically game laid bare. These games live or die solely by their merits as games.

These analog games include complex and interesting board games (*cough* BSG *cough*), but I think there's also value in looking at tabletop RPGs. Wizards of the Coast's D&D is obviously the one everyone has heard of, or maybe White Wolf's Vampire or Werewolf games. While certainly interesting, these types of RPGs tend to be presented in encyclopedic multi-hundred page tomes, thick with graphs, tables and formulas. They can be plenty enjoyable, but they're a bit difficult to get into unless you really have someone already familiar guiding everyone else.

However, much like digital games, there's been a recent upswell in indie table RPGs. Simpler games exploring novel new mechanics and offering experiences that don't really exist amongst the old titans. I've got a group of friends that get together for weekly gaming and we've been chewing through a bunch of indie RPGs lately. Some thoughts on four that were particularly notable.

Lady Blackbird: The most similar to other tabletop RPGs, Lady Blackbird is commendable for being tight and streamlined without feeling hollow or anemic. The entire game, everything for the players and the GM both, is maybe 15 pages long. Mechanically, the player characters each have a collection of "Keys." They're basically rewards for acting in a way appropriate to your character. It's an interesting way of using the game's systems to reinforce characterization from the players.

The other thing I really like about Lady Blackbird is it only provides the roughest skeleton of a fiction. It's roughly a sorta steampunk version of Firefly. It's enough constraint to get people thinking, but it's almost completely open to where the players and GM want to take things. It's also really easy to imagine adapted the rules to almost any setting and fiction. If you've played other tabletop RPGs, this is an easy leap to make and I'd highly recommend taking a look (and the entire game is free on their website in PDF form).

Ocean: Ocean is a GM-less game, meaning no one player is responsible for setting the stage, providing a challenge or anything else. Because of this, playing Ocean feels as much like an improv game as it does a tabletop RPG (as I mentioned before, improv and games go well together). The conceit is everyone wakes up wearing hospital scrubs with complete amnesia in some kind of facility. You soon discover the facility is underwater and there are some kind of hostile creatures in the facility. The players' communal task is to discover who they are, what the facility is and what those creatures are. Oh, you know, and then escape with their lives if possible.

Overcoming challenges (or failing to do so) provides other players with "credits" they can cash in to reveal a clue about one of the above three unknowns. And by reveal, I mean make the entire thing up. Getting three clues reveals the truth of the thing and answering all three questions means the survivors, if any, can attempt to escape. Because it truly is collaborative storytelling, it really is like improv where you have to say "Yes, and ..." to the other players' contributions. Pulling everyone's disparate ideas together can be a bit tricky, but we managed to pull it off more or less in the game we played. That sensation of taking someone else's idea and building upon it in your own way is very interesting and satisfying. Vaguely reminiscent of shared construction in multiplayer Minecraft except it's stories instead of structures. More abstract than other tabletop RPGs, but also uniquely enjoyable.

Fiasco: Another GM-less game, Fiasco is set up to create small-time capers that go horribly wrong. Think Fargo or Burn After Reading. The difference being each month the designers put out a whole new setting for the game. They range from being aboard a Transatlantic steamship in the 30s to the Reconstruction era American South, from a simple university campus to a sunk WWII submarine with something scratching upon the hull. The play goes simply by describing scenes about one particular character, with the person playing that character being able to either a) describe how the scene is setup or b) control whether the scene ends well for them or poorly. The entire point of the game isn't to "win" or survive, it's just about telling an interesting story. Halfway through the game, the Tilt occurs, which basically means some number of things go really wrong and now those consequences have to be dealt with.

The most interesting part of Fiasco is the game begins with providing a handful of adjectives that describe the characters and the relationships between the characters. Similar to Lady Blackbird, it's just enough of a fictional skeleton to start providing characterization and get people's creativity in motion. All the games are supposed to be played in a single 3-4 hour session too, so there's no expectation of weekly continuity that must be maintained at length.

Dread: There is only a single mechanic in Dread- a Jenga tower. Dread is a horror RPG where the players (there is a GM) accomplish almost anything by pulling blocks from the Jenga tower. If the tower falls, their character is "removed from the game." This usually means dead, but it could mean being driven mad by horrors from beyond the stars or simply being arrested. They are never obligated to pull, and if they don't their character won't die, but whatever they were trying to do will fail. Tension in the game increases more or less in-line with the teetering Jenga tower.

Character creation is done by answering a series of 10-12 of customized questions for each character. In what is a reoccurring theme now, there's already a vague notion of a character, but it's more to get people thinking than telling them who their character should be. We only have played one game of Dread so far and it was a bit abbreviated, but I liked the direction it was going on.

For brevity's sake, I'll spare a lengthy epilogue. But if you're at all interested in tabletop RPGs, I heartily recommend checking out any of the above. There are a lot of good design lessons to be had in addition to generally being a novel and enjoyable way to spend an evening. And come on, how can anyone say no to a game of Jenga where you die when the tower falls over?

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