Friday, April 30, 2010

Experience First, pt.4

Resident Evil (1) is another example of gameplay some would call "bad" helping a game. In RE, controlling your character feels like driving a tank. You use L/R to rotate and U/D to move forward or backward, and must come to a complete stop when aiming rotating your gun up and down in front of you without any effective cue to mark its position in 3D space. To make matters worse, it all goes to hell with a single jump cut of the camera. Supposedly, you play a special-ops agent, but you feel more like an epileptic Roomba.

And it helped the experience because I was terrified to encounter anything. I walked down halls in utter terror that I would have to fight something -- turning awkwardly, dying while I tried to get a bead on it -- jumping at every audio cue, and practically fainting at the notion of a boss fight.

On a side note, "bad" controls only helped because someone hadn't done it better yet. Once someone improved control in the survival-horror genre, it became like an arms race between decent controls and designers' ability to maintain a sense of fear. Resident Evil 4 features better controls, but still locks you into place when you aim, making the paradigm palatable with nuanced and innovative shooting-gallery gameplay (e.g., hitting specific points at certain parts of enemy animations to defeat them). When control limits are completely removed, like in Left 4 Dead, the agility and numbers of enemies are scaled significantly to maintain their status as a threat. Could the lumbering of zombies of the original Resident Evil exist in a game that gave you player control like Left 4 Dead?

But if the original RE creators prioritized control, would more important elements have suffered? If you experienced Resident Evil before other modern survival horror games, you might remember how scary it was to walk through those halls, with the twisted camera angles only increasing your fear, and realize "bad" control helped make a classic. One more example, tomorrow... [1][2][3][4][5][6]

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Experience First, pt.3

When I say that design is sometimes less important than other disciplines, I just mean that (a) an experience can thrive without improved design, and that (b) sometimes "bad" gameplay can help build an amazing experience.

Less Important
Over the years, one of the most frustrating things about point-and-click adventure games like King's Quest, Space Quest, Grim Fandango, etc., is how seemingly random combinations of inventory and location were required to progress in the game. The designers had clear ideas of the scenario they want to play out, but rarely seemed to care how unclear this action would be for a player. Looking at it strictly through the lens of mechanics, expecting someone to assemble glue + yarn + paper clip and "use" it on the snail in the cave going on little-to-no information might seem like a poor idea, but Monkey Island, with similarly awkward conventions, is an experience many gamers would place in the hall of fame, and still enjoy today. Sure, there's room for mechanical improvements -- information and clues have evolved with the genre -- but if more time was spent on clue cues and interface than on the visual style, characters, and dialogue, would it still have been a classic?

"Bad" as Good
And is it bad design when it benefits the experience? In Monkey Island, failing to guess correctly often led to hilarious commentary from the protagonist, and being stuck meant exploration that led to other awesome character moments. Would the experience be as lauded if the "bad" gameplay never existed? More examples, tomorrow... [1][2][3][4][5][6]

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Experience First, pt.2

Players don't play games for mechanics. Ask a player what they like about a game, and they usually describe driving in a getaway, slicing opponents to smithereens, or watching an enemy flip end-over-end through the air. Ask them what they look forward to in a game they want, and they'll talk about being a badass, or being afraid, or exploring a new environment. A few people might describe loving a game because of how its inventory system blended with advancement, but even designers that sometimes play games purely for mechanics more often than not go into games for the sum experience. Players don't love games for their art, technology, audio, or design, alone. What they seek out and remember is a sum experience.

So why are games so often built mechanics-first? How often does a designer choose gameplay x as the basis of development, asking the story team to come up with a wrapper for it, and the artists to create art that highlights it, and programmers to build technology around it? Why is x the core when players care about the experience? Gameplay is a critical component, but just like audio, art, and programming, design (regarding gameplay mechanics) is no more important than other disciplines in their potential to influence an experience. Sometimes, it may even be less important. More on this tomorrow. [1][2][3][4][5][6]

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Experience First, pt.1

Several years ago, when the PS3 and 360 were on the verge of being released, I attended GDC and noticed various game disciplines having discussions about how to overcome the challenges and take advantage of the possibilities of the new consoles. The exception to this rule was design and designers, who screamed about the death of design, and perhaps the world as we know it, because the cost of other disciplines would make publishers averse to trying new ideas.

It made sense, but the alarm seemed excessive compared to other disciplines', who were having reasonable discussions about how to overcome new challenges instead of declaring about the end of the world. And the sheer volume from my peers made me wonder about my discipline. If our audience wants it, they buy it, and publishers demand it, so is it really the end of the world? If our heyday is behind us, why didn't we leave our audiences wanting more?

Now that time has passed and design still thrives, it may seem like an odd thing to bring up, but I remember that moment because it made me ask, Does design think too highly of itself? Thinking about this guided my philosophy as a designer. More on that tomorrow. [1][2][3][4][5][6]

Monday, April 26, 2010

Home Alone

I thought I'd share a personal note about the trickiness of working at home alone. For my first 5 months-or-so, the raw enthusiasm of turning game ideas into something real, mixed with the anxiety of leaving the security of a very real, very secure job was a potent combination, and I feel like a lot of progress was the result. If you follow the blog, you know that I set up a website, a blog, and Google Apps; did write-ups and overviews of the different ideas on my mind, picked up scripting, toyed around with one game direction to push scripting further, and eventually settled on a yet-to-be-named project that features harsh death penalties. In it, I was able to test out core controls, create randomized levels, add enemies to kill, and some rough scoring and loot mechanics (non-permanent) for feeling nifty and refilling ammo. All in all, it seemed like a pretty amazing zero-to-something process for an artist / designer.

But then I got used to being home alone, and regardless of my excitement -- before bed the night before, thinking about the things I would do the next day, or sitting down knowing just what to implement at my desk in the morning -- it became too easy to follow news, videos, and emails, browsing the web until another day had rushed past with nothing to show for it. Nothing might be harsh -- I made small progress here or there, and always made a point to update this blog -- but productivity was taking a curious dip. Choosing smaller tasks worked briefly. Promising not to browse the web until work was done only worked if my fingers weren't crossed. It wasn't until I decided to send daily reports that things began turning around.

Now I spend time describing my goals and progress to peers that understand my work. It keeps me focused because it juxtaposes dreams with reality. Imagining what my work looks like through their eyes, I find myself pulled from the trees for a look at the forest. Whether I get feedback is less important because I'm the real critic. I do it every day because it makes it difficult to spin details. I want to tell a good story about my life, and telling it often keeps it honest and motivating. I hope it continues to be.

Now back to randomized boss spawns.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Spawn Bombs

Will you help me celebrate my non-programmer victories? I've had random levels working for awhile, but all of my baddies spawn from one point in the environment, lazily pursuing you. I wanted to implement random spawning, but wasn't looking forward to establishing several spawn points in each randomized block, partly because I presumed the system would change down the line, and then I'd have to go from block to block, deleting all of the potential locations an enemy would appear. My solution was spawn bombs.

One spawn bomb is placed in each random block, and at level start, "explodes" raycasts in random directions, dropping enemy points wherever a hit is detected. Enemies spawn at these points as the player walks through the level. Now I enjoy random levels with dense populations of randomly positioned baddies, and all it took was one bomb per random level block. Yay!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Minimizing Abrupt Loss

Yesterday, I posted some videos about how malleable our memory of past events is. I was particularly impacted while watching Daniel Kahneman speak at TED about how patients that terminated painful treatment while in heightened pain reported how much more suffering they felt than those who endured the treatment for a much longer period of time, but whose treatment was eased before it was terminated.

I'm working on a game where death carries a high cost, intentionally, for the sake of group immersion. You can acquire various assets during the process of play, but dying pulls you out of your game session with friends, who happen to have strong, reasonable motivations to continue without you. The high risk is appropriate to the experience I want, but it had me concerned because the thought of dying and returning abruptly to a menu seemed so negative; not unlike a colonoscopy patient ending treatment at the height of his pain. It was obviously preferable to minimize such bad memories of their play experiences.

What made the TED Talk intriguing was the notion of "winding down" death. What if abrupt death was followed by post-mortem activities that unlock new assets for future play sessions? Spending time and attention on the acquisition of reward eases the suffering, especially if additional preparation is possible between rounds based on the assets you earn (e.g., after earning a rare Magic card (equipment), you spend time adjusting your deck (inventory) to get the most of it). It may even leave you excited for the next round, anxious to see how your preparation pays off. Or so I hope.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lead Up

Moving on from irresponsible critics...

Ideas are not as important, in my view, as the skill and elbow grease that goes into realizing them, but I still feel anxious about revealing the details of my current project. That said, there are certainly smaller design challenges and solutions that would be fun to share. I want to talk about one of them, but only after a bit of brainfeed.

First, let me share this video from This American Life, to introduce my discussion point, which is the effect memory has on our experiences.

Second, let me point you to this thrilling article about the malleability of memory. Thrilling, because as I mentioned a few days ago, I love being aware of traps in human perception.

Third and last, a video from TED (links to a particular part of the talk, but do rewind and enjoy the whole presentation) that inspired a design solution to a complicated problem that I'm excited to implement. More on that tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

It itches.

I'm not sure why this whole Ebert thing has me so hot and bothered, but I thought Santiago's response was a nice ointment. Meanwhile, the comments below it get me flustered all over again. I think discussions about "whether x is 'art'" when using "art" as an indicator of quality is a button. Being the art police on a Picasso sounds no different than this. Now you know my secret. Feel free to go *boop*.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Why I Care

Oh, Roger. There are probably a million game blogs with a million better-written opinions about your recent article, "Video games can never be art," but for better or worse, I won't be content without adding my own.
"Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?"
The short answer? Because it affects the growth of our medium. The long answer begins by pointing out how useless a subjective definition of art is. Useless, because two individuals can merely disagree about whether they are moved and accurately claim that something both is and is not art.

By contrast, the Wikipedia definition, "Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions," is useful because it prioritizes the act of creation above its wildly subjective effect. By this definition, an earnest conversation by a friend, a meal from Mom, or a dance with a lover would be considered art. And why not? Did less emotion drive the words of a friend than the pen of Shakespeare? Or push the spoon with less heart than a master chef? Or move the feet of my lover with less passion than a dancer? What resonated more strongly with me? If an audience is necessary, how many people must be moved? If da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa for himself, would it be art? What if no one found it?

This less subjective definition casts a wide net, making the role of critic more important. A good critic connects us to art we may find compelling and exposes why it compels us. Whether the critic personally likes a piece (or calls it art) is less important to us than how well it informs our own preference. Critics help audiences find artists, and artists hone their messages, paving the way for the next da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Welles.

Game players and creators also argue over the definition of art, but no one questions that the rules and setting of a game affects senses and emotions. Games like Chess put us in the role of tactician, exposing us to the vast possibilities of the human mind. Football puts us on the battlefield, aligning fans and team alike in a battle against the enemy. Perhaps these rules don't apply because the games are too traditional, or the emotions too easy. But millions were just as immersed in hell as a lone gunman oppressed by evil forces in Doom. Still too easy? Hundreds of thousands felt "brotherly" love protecting a "sisterly" innocent from a paternal force in Ico. Still too easy? Thousands felt the struggle between self-expression and child-rearing in Gravitation.

Notice the number getting smaller? The more nuanced the experience, the smaller the audience, so I want critics that engage us in discussion and help audiences connect to these experiences. I want more creators exposed to what does and doesn't work so they reach wider audiences or surprise us with something from left field. I care less whether baseball and basketball are considered art because the experiences they offer are not struggling to reach an audience. I care about the fledgling voices pushing us towards new horizons.

And I care about a movie critic using his influence to push us out of the clubhouse. Doing so hinders connection, adds fuel to the fire of politicians seeking censorship, and excuses cynical executives for silencing important voices. It's ironic that a critic would do this, more so without expertise in the medium, and even more so under the guise of defending art. Designers faced enough challenges advancing the medium before Roger Ebert turned blowhard.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Perception

In college, I was exposed to a book called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that had a lot of impact on me. In it, the author drives himself mad questioning the concept of "quality." What made it influential wasn't any particular idea or philosophy, but how relentlessly the author question his actions and beliefs. Just reading it and putting myself in his shoes initiated an attempt on my part to challenge the notions by which I live, no matter how innocuous or useful they seemed. I only bring it up to explain my passion for exploring the difference between perception and reality, overcoming those biases, and considering how they affect design.

For no great reason, this bit of brainfeed from TED inspired my post.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Between the Lines

Have you seen this yet? I wish it was a game. I love it as an example of the sad limits of avatar expression, and how game narratives skip the less-interesting (and realistic) bits. Enjoy.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I can has gaemz?

I don't know why this video of a cat playing with the iPad seemed so amazing. You've probably already seen it, but if not, do watch. Why does this inspire me more than humans playing with it?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ninja May Cry

I read in a Kotaku blurb today that the Heavenly Sword devs might be working on Devil May Cry 5. It's all rumor-mill stuff, but it got me thinking. The thought of Devil May Cry being made with a similar, "framerate-be-damned, animation-over-responsiveness, combo list" mindset depresses me because responsiveness and kinesthetics are such a huge part of what I admire about Capcom, and the Devil May Cry series is still the only 3D melee action I can think of with an intuitive combo system that offers meaningful choice in combat. Sadly, the inaccessible targeting of DMC gave birth to combo lists that developers use as a crutch to this day, prioritizing accessibility over player expression. Even Kamiya did it with Bayonetta (consider its loading screen).

Accessibility rules, but if DMC expression falls to another stifling combo list, it would be ironic, especially since there's no reason why both systems don't live together. A moot point if Ninja Theory's new game makes Heavenly Sword a bad reference point, or the rumor's untrue.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Speaking of Routines

What is it with Mondays that make me space updates now? This is the second Monday I almost missed. So with the ME2 review a full week away, and things still too incomplete to share my secret doings, I'm thinking another review might be incoming. Any requests this time? I had fun with the last one. Possible choices include: Cave Story, God of War III, Bayonetta, Borderlands, Bioshock 2. I feel like I'm missing some, so feel free to throw something out there and see if I've played it. Hell, throw out an old game you've played, like Metroid (NES), and I recall fond (or un-fond) memories. (Actually, Metroid's one of those games I like pooping on to surprise people.)

Friday, April 9, 2010

Routine

Amidst all my fun, I've become quite the hermit. Since leaving my job to pursue mah dreams, human contact has been somewhat limited, and I've noticed my brain losing track of the day-to-day. A casualty is some fat appearing around the midsection, but the scale curiously hasn't budged. Uh-oh.

So the gym is getting obvious. It would be a nice break in my schedule, help me touch the real world, get some of that muscle I'm losing back and prevent fat. But now that my mind is made up, I'm having a difficult time actually motivating action. I found a nice gym with a pool, toured it, bought some goggles, and only have to get a pass and swim, but that last step is confounding me. Arg.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Speeeeed

I have an itch to move quickly today. Speed speed speed speed. It keeps passing through my mind. Perhaps its a reaction to my PowerPoint focus, lately. My project is not very far from becoming "a game," at which point the "innovative design" gets implemented to see how it holds up. But there are a lot of different ideas floating around and I wanted a more narrow view. Creating a PowerPoint pitch seemed like a nice way to hone down the ideas into something digestible and compelling, but I get obsessive about presentations, and quickly find myself tangled up in minutiae on what are basically moving targets. A little half-assing would be welcome at the moment. Speeeeed!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lyre, Lyre

My relaxing posts continue with reverence for nature's amazing creations. Most of you are probably already familiar with the lyrebird via Attenborough (who could narrate poo and keep me utterly riveted), but a newer video, courtesy of Adelaide Zoo, offers another awesome glimpse of the bird's awesome calls that shouldn't be missed. Its distantly recognizable English is especially curious; it makes me wonder if all of its interpretations are pitch-perfect, sometimes heard under fuzzy conditions, or if they are close-but-not-perfect approximations of sounds that seem "perfect" because we aren't tuned to catch its discrepancies, somewhat like an American accent used on jibberish.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Subbing

While I'm still burned out from bigger posts and sitting on various brainfeed, I thought I might be forgiven for more hand-waving in lieu of discourse. I'm late to the party, but love this example of technology trying to outdo itself. Adorable.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Whew...

A sigh of relief. I really didn't expect to have so much to say about ME2, but the ride was fun. The only downside was breathing so much relief that I forgot to post today. Ho look! Isopods!

Friday, April 2, 2010

ME2, pt.14: Critical Praise

Mass Effect 2 has a whopping score of "96" on Metacritic, a score that indicates a level of polish and novelty greater than I had. ME2 was simply fun, improved in some ways while weakened in others.

Where ME2 shines is first in its simplification and polish of combat systems and second in the continued approachability of story through dialogue-driven gameplay, enhanced focus on the stories and characters in my team, and a narrative more sophisticated than games typically present. It deserves praise for these things.

But my sense of immersion with Shepard was weaker, and perhaps because the story and dialogue standards of BioWare are familiar, or because I have such profound respect for the goal of emotional engagement, I found myself curious about the obstacles between my entertaining experience and the transcendent one suggested by critical review.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

ME2, pt.13: Team Control

The design team did an impressive job with a complicated set of control requirements. Controls take time to master but when that mastery comes, they avoid having to mind-read player intent at all (a big win) and keep players' fingers in the right places. Without the full knowledge of the design team, my quick suggestions will look half-assed, but control design is too fun not to at least try one as an exercise, warts and all. And since warts are likely, let me be clear about the purpose of the attempt:
I wish that the mental map of my controller made me think of "commanding a team."
This is my only boxing parameter, and below is my wild swing at meeting it. Try reading it with an Xbox controller in hand.

Control Alternatives
  • LB/RB (tap) = L/R ally acts on reticle target (goto / duck behind / fire at)
  • LB/RB (hold) = L/R ally uses power on reticle target (game paused) (same controls as current power menu, but limited to that particular ally)
  • Right Analog Stick (click) = Shepard's power menu (game paused) (click again to execute)
  • D.Pad U/L/R = select weapons for Shepard (U)/L/R allies
    • weapon menu springs from character portraits
    • B = exit menu
    • D.Pad = make selections
    • A = equip weapon/ammo
    • X = change ammo of selected weapon (shortcut)
  • D.Pad Down = regroup
The idea behind this exercise is to bring your team to the forefront by making LB/RB "Command Left/Right Ally" instead of "Weapons/Powers." In theory, it would make it more natural to issue commands to your allies since LB/RB is easier to access in combat than D.Pad, and still allow for pause-game aiming. If characters had only one unique power, it would additionally mean not having to muck with ally power menus (but the game could still pause as a "dilation of time" than an exercise in menu juggling), and Shepard could access his/her single power with Y (Right Analog Stick (click) could still exist as a simple pause from which you could still issue commands).

Problems
But I won't let myself get away that easily. Some problems:

You can't control your Left Ally (LB (tap)) while zooming with Left Trigger (LT). In the default controls, weapons are relegated to LB because chances are slim that you'll want to be zoomed in and change all your weapon settings. But if LB/RB is the core idea, what options are there?
  • Tough it out
    • Players testing the system might not notice or be bothered enough by the limitation.
    • Players can still control allies sans zoom; if your view over cover is a problem (?), try lifting the camera when looking at ground directly in front of you.
    • Players are more likely to notice this limitation when commanding allies to attack a zoomed-at target; if the attack target functionality remains unchanged (both players attack the target), RB (tap) could still command both to attack (however, the new control scheme might make this behavior seem out of place).
You can't use a Left Ally power (LB (hold)) while zooming with Left Trigger (LT). A similar problem, but more likely to rear its head.
  • Auto-zoom while holding LB/RB
    • Could choose a "middle zoom" between "no zoom" and "sniper zoom"
    • Could adjust zoom based on the distance between Shepard and the reticle target
      • Instantly zooms back
      • Gradually zooms forward
      • Zoom back may disorient
Using D.Pad to regroup is weird since LB/RB control ally AI
  • LB+RB (group), or LB/RB (double-tap) (individual) could also be used to regroup

Final Thoughts
I'm sure more problems are lurking in there, but I hope the exercise was as interesting to read as it was to write. Control design can get complex fast, and other problems hide until implemented and tested. Looking back at screenshots, it's clear that the design and interface team tested a lot different approaches to combat control presentation, but I think they did a good job juggling complex design requirements. I think reducing the number of requirements would be good for the controls and experience overall, and realistic or not, still wish that combat felt like more of a team effort.