Friday, February 26, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.3: The "Experience"

To set the stage for the rest of my Demon's Souls discussion, I'm going to take a guess at the experience its designers wanted me to have and the lens through which design concepts were created. I have no privileged information -- I may be wrong -- but it will help describe my experience and illustrate a hypothetical example of how strict focus on a game experience can drive interesting gameplay.

The Experience
If I had to, I would guess that the design of Demon's Souls was born from an intense focus to rationalize death in an internally consistent way within a game world. Why would we respawn from death? Would we be trapped in limbo, cursed to repeat the same pointless exercise? Is there any escape? Are other people trapped as well? Why? How would a world look haunted by so many with no ability to pass on? And if death is treated with realism, how are other game oddities explained, such the affect of attacks on NPCs, and the strange knowledge players have in a foreign game world?

These are the interesting questions I would guess the developers asked, and Demon's Souls was Atlas' best answer to these questions. More to come!

Poost

I apologize for the lack of post today. I spent far too much time on a new one because I wanted to be careful with it and the whole endeavor crapped out. Sorry about that.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Detour

I'm taking a quick break from Demon's Souls because my game "reviews" typically go out unchallenged, but it looks like Assassin's Creed 2 will be an exception, which is cool. Elias is someone that's made a few comments on this site, and this time he posted some thoughts in response to my AC2 rants on his blog. Since this is the first time something like this has happened, it seemed worth linking to it.

I got the impression from his thoughts that he enjoyed the game -- and the story in particular -- more than I did, but it reminds me that my "reviews" might sound too negative when I focus on deconstruction over recommendation. I really did enjoy AC2, but like other humans, become agitated when there is a disconnect between my tastes and popular opinion. (Why?)

The only comment he made that I felt like following up on regards the "competence" of the band of assassins. Like Ethan, I was comfortable with the idea that each member had a different role and skill level, but the scene where all of them met at the top of a tower and took turns leaping -- arms outstretched and head first -- 100 ft. downward into the hay (presumably) really blew up that feeling.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.2: How It Works

I hate having to spend a post just describing how the game functions, but it's unusual, and required reading if I'm going to explain how it affects the Demon's Souls experience. Most reviews will explain the concepts, but I'll take my own crack at doing it succinctly, and without story spoilers:

Dead or Alive
There are two major states-of-being in Demon's Souls: alive or dead (a phantom). You can progress through the game in either state, and each has different multiplayer options available to it. The advantage to progressing while alive is health because health is capped at a percentage when dead. It may seem obvious that being alive is advantageous, but you can progress as a phantom, and how you resurrect is up to you.

There are three ways to resurrect. The first is to defeat a boss while dead in your own game world. The only way to do this is alone, with a fraction of your life.

The second and third involve entering the world of a living player. You can enter as a "blue" or "black" phantom. To enter as a blue phantom, you place a marker in the world. If a living player sees it and summons you (only living players can), you will join his world. If you or he dies, you return to your world with full health and only lose time. If you live long enough to help him defeat a boss, however, he will move on to the next challenge, and you respawn at the beginning of your level, alive, and with the knowledge of how to successfully defeat the boss (and potentially get past other challenges along the way), as well as summon blue phantoms of your own.

If you choose to enter another world as a "black" phantom, it picks a random living player and you invade his world. He gets a message that warns him of the event. If you hunt down the player (with a limited life bar, mind you) and kill him, he respawns dead, and you respawn alive. If he kills you, you stay dead (I don't know if there are other disadvantages). Living players cannot prevent an invasion, but they will see a message notifying them of the invasion, and may have tools for banishing you or making it difficult to defeat them.

Demon's Souls
Everything you kill gives you souls. Souls are your only currency, used to do everything from buy equipment to level up. When you die, all of your souls are dropped where you fell, but the level (yes, including enemies) is reset. And since only one pile of souls can exist at a time, if you die while returning to recollect your pile of souls, a new pile is dropped, and the former disappears forever. This also happens a lot, and is really painful.

Those are the two unusual systems I want to describe as reference to the experience they create, so I can in turn describe why they seem important.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.1: Overview

Demon's Souls has been difficult to get writing about because I have a lot to say about it, and my opinion keeps changing. I don't dive into these reviews with much planning since this is hardly my day job, but I've mentioned before how much I miss having a dialogue about the games I play. So to prod myself into action, I'll start with an overview, and follow it with a quick brainstorm of things I'd like to talk about.

An Overview
When I began Demon's Souls, it seemed like something that only patient gamers could enjoy, and perhaps only because of the rule that, the greater the pain involved in overcoming an obstacle, the sweeter the reward (didn't reviewers have to finish it)? But even though the first sentence of this paragraph is completely true, I believe Demon's Souls does everything in service of a very specific, very immersive experience that might not exist without these elements.

Like a great but exhausting movie, Demon's Souls is an excellent but difficult experience. It's something you wrack over, hesitate to recommend to Joe Public, and do not readily seek to experience again. Even now, the game arouses conflicting feelings in me regarding accessibility and atmosphere that I hope I can describe in upcoming blurbs. Here is a list of topics I am thinking about covering in the days to come:
  • How It Works
  • The "Experience"
  • Confusion
  • Fairness
  • Multiplayer
  • The End
More soon.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Concentrate!

As a designer, I often heard how disruptive it can be to interrupt a programmer's concentration. Though I doubt I was good about it, I tried to foster the habit of giving programmers time to "finish a thought" before we began talking, and the disruption began. Now that I'm scripting, I find it interesting to experience a taste of that focus.

Though I'm sure a proper programmer would have it whipped up in no time, this random level adventure really twisted my brain in knots, and I was always surprised at how exhausting it could be. I remember the same thing happening after all-day design meetings, where my brain simply couldn't squeeze anymore juice out of it, and I felt a physical exhaustion from it. But grappling relentlessly for hours (my mind won't let go!) with a logic problem goes beyond physical exhaustion into physical pain.

I wonder about what, if any, exercises programmers develop to manage this. I find if I jot down a bunch of comments about my train of thought then it is much easier to redirect my attention. I also find that taking a break frequently results in an overall time efficiency via a sharper mind. Sometimes I have difficulty sleeping if a problem still haunts me, and staying up to finish is worth it for the sleep, but woe be unto me if I fail, staying up late getting nowhere with a weary brain. And it seems so hard to start a new task after being so satisfied completing the previous. So interesting.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Random Levels!

I finally have my (simple) random level creator working for my prototype, and even though it's only making "2D" levels based on blocks with up to 4 exit directions, the logic behind making it error-proof had my brain busted for a few days. And it was built in a way that should only take a minute to adapt for 3D and 6 directions and just a bit more if an automap is needed. Exciting stuff (for me, at least)!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

LOLCatmull

At my last job, there was often chit chat about an idea that Ed Catmull pushed at Pixar that "people are more important than ideas." The thought always pleased me, and I hoped to one day hear about it straight from the horse's mouth. Sadly, I missed one of his visits to Utah, but the other day I bumped into a video of him talking about it and thought it would be fun to share.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Deafin' it.

Today, instead of making exciting progress on randomizing levels, I get to troubleshoot why the hell my audio stopped working. Are my speakers on? Check. Is the volume up? Check. Does the computer show audio playing? Check. Is it detecting something plugged into the audio jack? What if I unplug the headphones from the speakers? No sound. What if I plug the headphones directly into the card? No sound. Blerg.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Happy V-Day

I hope everyone has some nice Valentine's plans, and a good weekend. Maybe even one with less working involved? I know that sounds nice for a little bit, at least.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kwedit Wating

I browsed through an article the other day about a new service called Kwedit. If my reading comprehension (skimming comprehension?) worked, it's a service that works with 7-11s to offer a new kind of credit line so various online game addictions can access the cash of an increasingly younger audience (13+).

If I were a teen, being able to pay for a service without my parent intervening via credit card would probably be a nice thing, but it was interesting to note my negative emotional reaction to a new business that "gets kids hooked on credit." But even if my simplistic reaction is appropriate, credit will likely be a part of their adult lives; maybe it gives them time to sort it all out...?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Earth Rings

I've been focused on other things, and didn't have much time for text, but I've been sitting on an inspiring vid that I'll take this opportunity to share. CG rarely gets me very excited, but the following video -- featuring hypothetical images of our day and night skies if the Earth had Saturn-like rings, set against famous landmarks -- is just the right mix of science and awesome visuals to really inspire me. This is another one that I would have gone out of my way to share with the design and concept departments at my old job. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Borderlands Impressions, pt. 2

My Borderlands impressions have improved somewhat, and there are a things not-mentioned yesterday that impress me, including:
  • Claptrap, a type of robot in the game, has so much personality. I wish I was the claptraps' hero instead of some bounty hunter seeking a vault I as a player care nothing about. In fact, if the claptraps wanted the Vault for [insert reason here] and I was helping them, I might actually be interested in the vault.
  • The sound effects work in the game is excellent. I think most of my movement, shooting, etc. sound really solid. I wish they felt as solid as they sound.
  • The quest system integration in co-op is really spectacular. It feels so effortless, and is really quite fun to play with. Basically, all initiate quests for all others, and collect for each other, and turn in quests for each other seamlessly. If you already did the quest, it says so, but you can still see the hosts "active quest" and participate in getting it done for the others that haven't finished it.
I decided to just mellow out about aiming and care less; the experience was more enjoyable once I quit trying to aim with my sniper rifle (ha). Actually, I turned down my sensitivity so I can't turn as quickly, but sniper aiming has improved. Now my biggest gripe is running out of ammo with the sniper rifle. I can carry a million guns in my inventory, but not 100 more bullets? Blerg.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Borderlands Impressions, pt.1

I have a close friend that I enjoy playing co-op games with. We've played Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead, Gears of War 2, and more recently, Resident Evil 5 together. But he left Utah to pursue opportunities in another state, and playing games is a nice way to keep in touch. Borderlands is our most recent venture, and rather than wait to review it, I thought it would be nice to share thoughts while I was playing, since I wish I had done the same with Demon's Souls).

Day One
"What You Can't Control" may be a more apt title because I was sick during my first evening playing and I'm unsure how much it flavored my rather negative experience. My head seemed in a fog, and there was too much to absorb in the game, so I disconnected really fast and just found myself chasing my buddy, doing a bad job killing things, and being indignantly confused. Not a good start.

Now that an impression has been made, who knows how it will influence future sessions? I honestly have no idea. I'm going to keep plugging away, though, hoping it improves. I know a lot of gamers enjoy the game, but I worry that, like Assassin's Creed 2, it boils down to nut-gathering more than great gameplay.

Below are some knee-jerk reactions to my first night of playing. Is this anything like your experience?
  • The controls feel bad. I'm playing on the 360. I remember Halo (original) being the first shooter I enjoyed on consoles because it seemed like they had worked a lot with reticle control or the way auto-aiming worked (I never dissected so I can't confirm) to make aiming feel smooth. But I picked a sniper, and for the love of god, I have the hardest time getting my reticle to land on a distant target, having to do the, "get the reticle Y position set, then move on the terrain and hope it plays nice to get the fine-tuning I need to pull off precision shots"-approach. It's just too hurky-jerky, like I'm stammering instead of aiming in this game. Yuck. I wish I was playing it on the PC.
  • And unfortunately, when I do fire, there's a complete disconnect with shooting and hitting. I thought this might have to do with lag, but I experienced it again playing offline the day after. I upgrade my "aim" to "+25% accuracy" on sniper rifles with 95%+ accuracy to begin with. I take forever stammering my aim around and moving to finally get the reticle exactly and only on the center of the head of my common human bandit opponent and fire. It either whiffs or I get no critical hit. Seriously? This reminds me of the original Mass Effect (sequel still unplayed), where they made me put points into "aim" to get rid of random misfires. No matter how much developers want to convince players their avatars have bad aim, they need to give players better information to prevent a total disconnect with what they are doing with the reticles you give them. The best way around this is to at least allow some "accurate over time" interface that slowly hones in and blatantly shows you your current margin for error. Maybe they do and I missed it.
  • Or maybe it's just lag. My pal is in Seattle, and assuming there is no dedicated server, and he was the host, I may just have a crap time being a sniper with that much lag. Bullet hits didn't look instantaneous, or helped in any way with prediction (e.g., as with Team Fortress 2), so I had to lead my opponents in weird ways. But honestly, playing it alone the next day, I truly felt the same problems.
  • Their interface for sorting loot will always be more complicated in a shooter, but there's a lot of little things about it that irked me throughout. The biggest of which is having "Hold X" equal both "absorb all nearby money and ammo" and "exchange holstered weapon with the one on the ground." I felt my buddy being impatient with me (he had already played through a chunk of the game) so I was pressured to move fast. I want ammo quick (when do I not want ammo and money?) so I get in the habit of holding X on things, only to replace my held weapon, and have to go into the inventory to sort it all out.
  • Also on loot sorting, I like being able to compare items, but hate that as best as I could tell, I couldn't re-select the shop-item I was comparing, or that I have to leave the shop interface to compare items in my own inventory. I don't know what quick fixes there are for the latter.
The net result was feeling disconnected from the experience. I eventually did a bunch of studying online, figured out how to best improve my effectiveness with my character and dug around to find how to re-sort spent points (that was kinda dumb-hard to find) and appreciated that I could. I played the game a bit on solo to see if lag was the problem (it was still jerky controls and required awkward leading to hit), but spending points "correctly" brought a calm and understanding that I hope guides my next evening of co-op play. So far, it seems bleh. The appeal is clear (nut gathering and customization) but I hate that the interface for my core gameplay feels so clunky.

And because it's so Diablo-meets-FPS (the music even sounds similar, and for some reason (unlike Torchlight) this grates on me, it makes me wonder why this has been so successful while Hellgate seemingly fell flat. I haven't played Hellgate (the reviews didn't seem positive, and it seemed like it was released among a lot of other things I wanted to play), but did the devs think it was a marketing thing, a release thing (no console release, seriously?), or something else that would make Borderlands succeed where Hellgate didn't?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Up Late

My last post was late, so why not go early this time? I'm just up late and restless, and wouldn't mind blathering. I should be diving into scripts and doing more "mind-reading" but conversation is fun and having this out of the way will grant more focus in the morning.

As I keep mentioning, I've been impressed with the things I've been able to do with scripting in Unity, and with the speed they come along, but there are many times I wish it was still faster, or when my focus wanes. This is especially true with a consuming game (like Demon's Souls *shakes fist*), but it also wells up from limbo occasionally, and makes me wonder about my routine. My work gets intense in a way that probably lends itself to cabin fever, and more purposeful breaks to the world of the living might grant more productivity via balance. If you know me in the real world and have time for lunch, give me a ring and let's do it.

I avoided it this week, but I need to get to these other reviews. Demon's Souls really got me spinning, and I should decipher what's in my head. Truthfully, there are aspects of that oft-aggravating game that remind me of my current design endeavor, so it's even more relevant than most. But I find too much thinking can get in the way of passion, and I like to keep my eye on the prize when shaping a game experience.

There are days when I wish I had more time to blab. The daily post is extremely important to me, but so is getting stuffs done. Like going to bed, dammit.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Trouble Thinking

Another blurb, today, and a late one at that. I've been working on what I used to refer to as a "mind-reading" problem, trying to get a targeting system to do what a user might unconsciously expect it to do in the most situations possible. I always find mind-reading interesting in game design (and it often applies to targeting), where you want to land either on the simplistic-and-cheap or expensive-but-usually-satisfying side of the spectrum. The thing that interests me is how developers typically start down the latter path assuming that just a few tweaks will get things to work nicely, but it almost always takes an extreme amount of work and testing to reach the level of kinesthetic happiness you need for a great game. Take any action-adventure game with melee combat, for example, and study -- just study -- what the character does to orient towards the right enemy on button press, even if it has an aiming system, and you will likely walk away impressed with the amount of mind-reading going on.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Citizen J

I'm taking the day off to celebrate my special lady. She joins the American ranks today, and knowing why makes me appreciate yet again how lucky I am to have her in my life. <3

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Glass Desk

I used to own a giant starship-sized geek desk but replaced it when I moved into a smaller apartment. The new desk was purchased with a glass top so it could be kept clean with a little Windex. The other day, while penciling in notes in my notebook to conceptualize how my in-game camera was working, and how vectors could be used to get the effect I wanted, I realized that it had another use, as pictured above (click). Dry erase markers on my desktop? Awesome! I'm pissed I hadn't thought of it sooner.

Monday, February 1, 2010

He's dead, Jim.

Now, not only did I bother to finish Demon's Souls, but I bothered to pass it on the unlocked harder difficulty immediately afterward. Why?! A friend justifiably noted that I "can't really say that I didn't enjoy it," but the emotions behind the second playthrough were weird; like I had "killed the game" but the only way to "twist the knife" was to pass it on "Hard." Don't tell me about a higher difficulty, if it exists. Just let me be done.