Saturday, June 25, 2011


One of the things I like most about working at Klei (and not to be a douche, but that is a pretty long list) is working with some incredibly talented animators. All of our animators come from cartooning, and the perspective they bring is something I find consistently interesting and refreshing. It has had the side effect of turning me into a horrible animation snob and I find myself noticing poor run cycles and ugly poses where before it just would have been unremarkable (not unlike when I started noticing poorly designed doors everywhere after reading The Design of Everyday Things). I'm sure I'll manage somehow.

I've been getting our team together for informal lunchtime talks every couple of weeks. It started with me talking about MDA & Amnesia, and has broadened from there. A few weeks ago, one of our animators talked about the 12 Basic Principles of Animation. They're basically the canonical guidelines for animation, derived from 50 years of work from leading animators at Disney and elsewhere. While I was aware of them before, hearing our animator explain them and then seeing how they're applied in the animation in our games was quite illuminating.

Interestingly, with a slightly different perspective, some of those same principles can apply to design. I may talk about more of them in the future, but today we'll focus on Exaggeration. In the context of animation, it means magnifying characteristics while still remaining connected to reality. Animation that tries to perfectly replicate life ends up dull at best, and often downright disturbing (e.g. creepy Tom Hanks in The Polar Express or all those mocap animated features that somehow think they'll be the ones to beat The Uncanny Valley). There's also a more general lesson in here for the drab and uninspired conclusion that awaits the legion of grey-brown manshoots that hold "realism above all else" as their holy grail.

In the context of design, what does exaggeration mean? It means providing clarity in individual mechanics and contrast between mechanics in aggregate. The role (purpose) of a mechanic is clear. Obviously from the player's perspective there may be experimentation, discovery, etc. But from a design perspective, what purpose a mechanic serves should be clear and should be distinct from other mechanics.

To illustrate, Klei's founder and I were having a discussion about the weaponry in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. There are a half-dozen different kinds of melee weapons in AC: B- longswords, greatswords, daggers, axes, spears and hammers/maces. The differences between these categories of weapons are clear and immediate. Different sets of animations, different timings; basically, they feel distinct. They are well exaggerated.

But in any individual category of weapon, each weapon has three properties (damage, speed and deflect) rated from 1-5 in each. One kind of axe may have damage 3, speed 2 and deflect 2 while another has damage 4, speed 1 and deflect 3. The distinction between individual weapons is not exaggerated. Aside from saying "it has more," I imagine the vast majority of AC: B players could not explain the difference between a sword with a deflect rating of three and one with four. It's not even clear if the ratings are relative to that category of weapon (i.e. does damage 4 mean something different for a sword vs. damage 4 on a spear?).

And the further complication is most people want to play optimally. If I get a new weapon that looks interesting, but its ratings are poorer than the weapon I've been using, I'm disinclined to try the new thing I got. At the very least, I know I'm making a decision that is an intentional handicap. The player's desire to express themselves (through selecting how they appear) is now at odds with playing the game "well."

Our founder's contention was that having these properties allow the developers to add more content without needing anything more than a new weapon model (quite cheap) and a new line in a spreadsheet somewhere. While I understand the purpose of this quantification is to give a sense of progress, I said AC:B would probably be better served by finding another way to accomplish that goal.

In a Diablo-esque game (or most RPGs, really), where the game is fundamentally about equipment and the stat differences between different pieces of gear, this kind of granularity is well suited. But Assassin's Creed isn't about that. It's about Ezio and what he can do. The fluidity of his movement, his ability to parry and counter, to outmaneuver his opponents. The game isn't strongest when the player is asked to make micro comparisons between different pieces of gear.

The ability to recruit and dispatch apprentice assassins fits well. It makes Ezio feel like a leader and provides the sense of being connected to a larger group of people. Pushing more of the progress into that system and leaving the weapon selection well exaggerated and more open to player expression would probably suit the game better.

Jamie Griesemer gave a talk about this at GDC '10, in the context of the sniper rifle in the Halo series. He's been posting it piecemeal on his blog and it's a very good, in-depth look at the topic of role and contrast in designing mechanics.

This is a relatively minor quibble in the context of Assassin's Creed, but it's been far more impairing in other games. Especially since the designers understand what the distinctions between different features are, they're likely to see the contrast as being larger than the players will. It's vital to be mindful of this. How something feels is usually far more important that what the differences might be under the hood. Ensuring those two things are in alignment will result in a clearer design and ultimately, a game that better realizes its intentions.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Skip Week For Riots

Sorry folks, no time to talk about video games because I was busy looting Sears!

What took place last night was actually pretty heartbreaking. The douche featured above got exactly what he deserved. Tragically, there weren't sufficient flashbangs for every crotch involved. I wasn't affected personally, and seeing the clean-up and outpouring of support this morning was pretty heartening. Still, it's almost impossible to put into words how frustrating it is that the hundreds of thousands of awesome people that live in Vancouver couldn't do anything to stop a few hundred assholes.

Also, we moved last weekend and only today is our place finally unpacked. So yeah, no post this week. I've got something rattling in the braincage for next time though, about positive and negative design space. We'll see if that makes any kind of sense when proper rigor is applied to it.

In the mean time, watch that video again. It really is something quite amazing.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Love Your Niche

"Sometimes, the customer isn't always right. Sometimes the customer is an asshole." I lifted that from some site linking the above video, so I can't claim credit. If you haven't seen it, it's brilliant and hilarious (although it's got some NSFW language). If you can't watch it, basically the Alamo Drafthouse threw out, without refund, a patron that wouldn't stop texting during a movie. The exceptional part isn't that the Drafthouse did this (they're apparently vigilant about enforcing their no talking/texting policies), it's the ejected patron's frothing response.

But equally exceptional is the Drafthouse themselves for actually enforcing this policy. As I'm sure anyone that's been to a movie in the last half-decade is aware, this is something you'd almost never, ever see in a chain megaplex. Not only would enforcing this kind of policy at a big theatre be difficult at best, but it's not at all in the theatre's interest. They're basically the default movie destination and rely on accessibility and volume. The Drafthouse could not be more different.

Rather than attempting to compete with the giant megaplexes, they're trying to cultivate a very different audience. Single screen theatres, holding hosts of special events, good food and drinks standing in stark contrast to $4 sodas and greasy popcorn (seriously, look at this bloody menu); the Drafthouse is trying to be everything a megaplex is not. And that includes throwing out undesirable customers who would disturb the type of patrons they're actually trying to court.

Essentially, the Drafthouse knows their niche and they're creating an experience that supports it almost exclusively. Rather that trying to beat billion dollar corporations at their own games, the Drafthouse decided the best way to win is not to play. And that, three of a half paragraphs in, is why this is very relevant to games.

I look at this year's E3 coverage and I see titanic corporations throwing tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours all trying to creating the best experience of shooting some men. And don't get me wrong, I love to shoot me some men every now and again (and a few, e.g. Bioshock Infinite, appear very genuinely ambitious), but they can't all be the best. And more importantly for me, there's effectively no way for a smaller developer to compete with that.

So I ask, why even try? Working on smaller downloadable games almost by definition means you're making a game for a niche (and in the great scale of culture and entertainment, games are already a niche). The more successful downloadable games sell maybe 300,000-400,000 copies. The towering successes, of which there have probably been less than ten, just break a million. For most AAA games, 1/3 of a million sales is an unmitigated disaster. Smaller downloadable games are afforded tremendous freedom because they are small.

In terms of actual development, much as the Drafthouse can toss unwanted customers, smaller games can afford to be inaccessible to some players. If you need to move 5 millions units, you have to appeal to a broad swath of players, with different skill levels, goals, etc. If you need 1/20 of that, it's far easier to say, "This game just isn't for them."

All too often, I hear talk of "the player" (and I fall into this trap myself) as if there's some Platonic player that all games should be made for. The truth is, you need to understand who your target audience is as well as who they are not. There are a variety of techniques for this, e.g. user stories, but it's really about having a clearer understanding of who you're making this game for beyond just "the player."

I groused about Frozen Synapse's poor tutorial last week, but the truth is, if a trichromatic, asymmetrical turn-based squad shooter where every level looks literally identical and you can control your squad's actions to the tenth of a second sounds appealing, you've already self-selected. I'm not sure how many folks are on the fence there.

Small downloadable games have tremendous potential to do things that larger games simply cannot do, because the experiences hit too small of an audience. And the Alamo Drafthouse will never grow to compete with Cineplex (or whatever theatre chains exist in the States, I don't even remember now). But they don't really intend to. They know who their audience is and they just want to ensure they're well served and they keep drawing in like-minded souls. Keeping that lesson is mind is something I intend to do so more and if that means kicking out some insane lady for texting, so be it. If nothing else, it sure does result in a lot of Internet fame (beyond, you know, just being so totally badass).