Wednesday, April 2, 2014

On works in progress

Wednesday, April 2, 2014 0
A friend was reticent to post about the game he was working on. This was my response, tapped out on my phone:

never mind the dorks, post that shit. the longer you wait to post anything, the harder it gets, the more precious your work seems to you and then you start making endless excuses and moving goalposts for when it's properly ready to show. I did that shit for years and try very hard to beat the impulse.

because when you post early, and keep posting, people might not pay attention, or they might jeer, but they have a baseline that you are most certainly going to clear, because everyone gets better at what they do. and then one day you'll post something dope becaus you'll have been working hard enough on it, and everyone will be cheering you on because to see the work in progress, even subliminally, gives them some small stake n it getting better. you'll be proud when the work rises above piece of shit status, and so will we, and you might get some decent advice along the way.

or, you could wait until it's "ready to show" (the most impossibly arbitrary distinction, at least among peers) and get really disheartened because everyone cracks on it anyway, even if it is pretty good, because people are selfish at heart, and if they have no stake in something the easiest thing to do is make fun of it and move on. enfranchise them early in the process and you avoid that, as well as avoiding the looming tidal wave of "ready to show people". 

I never expected to be happy about having a smartphone, but brevity is an unexpected payoff.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Legacy skills through the Looking Glass.

Friday, September 21, 2012 11

I didn't know what he looked like either.
To a late 90's Looking Glass fan, the following quote from an interview about Dishonored would seem perfectly ludicrous:

http://games.on.net/2012/09/dishonored-interview-arkane-on-stealth-ai-player-choice-and-much-more/

GON: When I was talking to the guests, they all just started shouting at me to go upstairs immediately and check the diaries. So I resolved that I wasn’t going to do it, just to spite the game.
Julien: (laughs)
GON: Is that something that you find people doing? I expected the clues to be a bit more vague. Did you find this doing playtesting? Did you put it in because people didn’t know what to do?
Julien: Yeah. We try not to lead the player by the nose, but at some point we found that if we don’t give a little information, people just get lost and don’t know what to do. It’s just overwhelming. So we tried to add this element that gave just a hint, to help a little. But we try to do it as little as possible.
GON: It’s cool because there’s a lot of ways up the stairs, but it still felt a bit railroad-ey. What did people do before you put these clues in?
Julien: People would just walk around. They didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even go upstairs because a guard told them they couldn’t. They’d say “Okay, I can’t go upstairs.” They wouldn’t do anything.

Even from a modern vantage, it's easy to look at the above passage and laugh. But what's really going on here? Are players that stupid, or are a whole younger generation of shooter fans unconditioned to meet  to even modest exploration/decision making tasks?

I would say not likely--given there is a related and hugely popular set of sandbox games that revolve around exploring and deciding all you want. Something else is at work here. Is it the legacy skillset of current shooter fans working against them?

It's taken for granted that legacy skills (keyboard&mouse/two stick aiming) are required for first person shooters now, but what has now been completely bred out of an entire generation of shooter players is any desire to explore or not follow strict orders. I think a whole lot of young shooter players out there don't know how to play a single player shooter and not take shouted orders from a COD NPC Bro.


What do we expect, if it's all the diet FPS players have had for the better part of 6, 8 years? In COD and BF3, you get an abrupt mission over if you should deign to stop taking orders from your NPC comrades, sometimes even if you hesitate for a second. Shooter players are now conditioned to obey NPCs, in exchange for a jarring and sudden mission failed screen.

Taken in this light, the above quote seems a reasonable response from a tester. An NPC has just told me I can't go upstairs. I'm enjoying this game so far, do I really want to slog back through a load and the last checkpoint, just because I want to try, in utter futility, to push past my given bounds?

But in a game like Dishonored it isn't futile. You should be trespassing and trying to find your way out and around in spaces you're not usually allowed. The trick is to prompt the players who have been conditioned with swift punishment for straying off a linear path into accepting their widened freedom, and to encourage them to take advantage of it.

A small observation I know, likely not worth the space I've devoted to it here, but it struck me that legacy skills involve what you might also call legacy expectations: what kind of affordance have I been given in all the shooters in the past 5 years, and why should I expect any different of the game presently in front of me?
It seems to me a call to developers to take the poverty of modern linear shooters and reignite the expectation in players for better things, more decision making than which real-world analogous shotgun or LMG to pick for a multiplayer loadout.

There have been a lot of people pessimistic about Dishonored despite it giving every appearance of being a return to form for developers who have always believed in this kind of approach to games. I don't think it's fair to criticize them for having to re-educate a vast majority of their potential player base what it is like to call your own shots in a shooter environment.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dog name theory

Sunday, April 29, 2012 7
When talking about independent game development, the question of names comes up a lot. Names for projects, names for companies, names for engine tech and so on. Since nobody asked me, here's how I feel about the question: it doesn't matter.

That's not true; in fact, "it doesn't matter" nearly always pains me as an answer to a question as it's a thoughtless response. It matters, but I will argue it matters far less than people think it does. 

Maybe not the best dog name


I liken naming a game to naming a dog. As with a dog, you can name your game just about anything, with a few common sense provisos. A dog's name should be short, have a good consonant sound in there, and probably not be vulgar or obscene. Bonus points if the name seems to decently fit the personality of the dog in question, the more so the better of course, but a standard dog name is nothing to worry about.
So long as it isn't actively problematic, most any dog name will work. At the end of the day, the name means nothing, insofar as it is a vessel into which we pour all of our emotional connections, memories and associations of that beloved pet. The stronger the attachment to the pet, and it's unique personality and quirks, the stronger the name will seem.

Counter-Strike. 

Nobody familiar with CS can see those two words adjacent without a strong association--imagery, memories of particular matches, exultation or frustration. It's an above-average name choice that at least connotes some amount of shooteriness (and fittingly, some degree of sportiness), but to any player of the game, it doesn't feel generic at all. Not because it's a great name, but because of the rightful, arguably inextricable association of the game's character with the name.

Which is why it made me laugh to discover that Minh Le (of Counter-Strike fame) would name his new project Tactical Intervention, an only slightly more specific game title exactly in the vein of Counter-Strike. 
I laugh because it seems goofy and generic now, like a friend naming a dog a completely boring, standard dog name, but I know that with time the players' associations with the game will make that name seem like anything but. Games named in this fashion--the Unreals of the world in response to the Quakes--still tend to rise or fall purely on the strength of the game, rather than because of a particularly apt title or it's clear association with another game. 
Nobody really thinks of the three letters of MOH in the same way as COD, even though the latter title came later, as a clearly analogous naming choice.

Maybe this is all obvious, but I keep seeing independent developers agonize over this kind of decision. Build the game, and the game will fill the name with all the meaningful freight. 
So long as it isn't too cutesy, overlong, or embarrassing to speak aloud in mixed (or multigenerational) company, your game and company name are just fine.

Ask yourself: "does the name I am considering sound like a Dejoban title?" So long as the answer is a firm negative, you've chosen well.





Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Design Primer: Askhat's minotaur

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 7
On Christmas Eve, 2006 I was in Akita, a sleepy town in northern Japan, and posting on the internet.

I know this because yesterday a friend from polycount emailed to thank me for the advice I'd given him over the years, and he highlighted one thread in particular, which bears that date. While I'd like to think that him re-reading old posts of mine to his threads has to do with the endless wisdom one can glean from my writing, the truth is more prosaic. Askhat Mizambekov, aka conte, is an fellow game artist and polycounter (I particularly like his concept art) for whom English is a second language.
 He emailed me thanking me for advice I had given him five years ago that was a little outside his grasp of the language then, and so wanted to thank me after the fact. Other than this being quite a thoughtful gesture, it was also an interesting little window into my own artistic/design thought processes from five years ago.

Other than removing a number of exclamation marks ("An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke" wrote Fitzgerald) and elaborating on a point or two, I present my same post from five years ago as a short primer on logically refining a character design, relevant for artists and game designers both.

Pictured: my illustration for this article about Askhat's minotaur,
not actually his (or my) concept of a minotaur. Wouldn't be very useful as a concept,
 now would it? Where's the rest of him? Is that the star brush from Photoshop?

Sorry Askhat, I am currently in northern Japan and have no access to a scanner or Wacom tablet. Luckily for you, Eric looks to have been on a rather inspired painting streak and has provided some good input on designing the armor and some coloration ideas. Nice paintover, Eric!
I'll do what I can, though: One of the best (and easiest) ways to refine a concept is to think it through logically. Ask what this Minotaur is all about. Where did it come from? Is it a dumb beast, or intelligent in its own right? Does it have a master? If you give yourself an answer to a few of these questions, you can make your concept a whole lot more interesting. Form follows function, right?
Let's take an idea and then just run with it, see where it takes us.
Let's assume that this minotaur is a spin on the ancient Greek myth about the Minotaur, placed in the Labyrinth. Now, without getting into the particulars of the mythology and turning this into a Greek style monster, we'll assume this: there's a Labyrinth where victims/"the hero" are trapped and the Minotaur kills them/tries to kill them.
A Minotaur in a Labyrinth killing stuff is cool, but it still doesn't give us anything interesting to go on. So we introduce a design constraint (often the best way to generate new ideas): in order to really make it difficult for whomever's trapped in the Labyrinth to win, let's say the entire Labyrinth is completely dark. Pitch black.
But the Minotaur has great hearing and sense of smell, so it still manages to catch people in the darkness.
We could also suppose, just for fun, that the Minotaur's hairs covering his body are very sensitive to heat--so if the  hero or victim that's trapped in the Labyrinth is foolhardy enough to carry a torch, the Minotaur will be able to find him even easier. Maybe this is just silly and we'll discard it later, but it's worthwhile to entertain different possibilities, especially in the beginning of this process.
So let's look at what we've got now:

1.) Labyrinth where Minotaur hunts down "the hero"

2.) Labyrinth is completely dark.

3.) Minotaur has very good hearing, smell, and heat sense.


Okay, that should give us more than enough to design the minotaur in an interesting way.
One approach given the lightless environment would be to pull a "Gollum", and make the Minotaur like a slimey, albino cave creature with very little pigment. But that suggests a long time spent evolving in that environment, and frankly  runs contrary to the strong suits and essential character of the Minotaur. Still an option, though.
But let's just assume that while the Minotaur hunts people in the dark of the Labyrinth, it does get some exposure to light intermittently. (Or maybe they turn out the lights during the hunt, because it was getting too easy for the Minotaur to kill people.)
So the Minotaur isn't a cave dweller by nature. The next natural choice would be for it to have a blindfold of some sort, or better yet, some blinders, like a horse. If you go with that, you can create a visually interesting sort of  blinding-helmet, which functions to blind but also protect the Minotaur's eyes and skull. So that's an idea.
Going along with that, the armor should protect him well in this dark environment. He's got a great sense of hearing,  but he can't echolocate like a bat (or Daredevil), so let's say he navigates the Labyrinth because he's memorized the entire layout, from years of hunting people in it before they turned the lights out. But even though he knows the whole  layout, he still needs armor not only to protect him from whoever he's fighting, but also to keep him from injuring  himself too much if he would happen to charge into a wall or otherwise run into an obstacle. Does he keep track of his steps on some kind of counter, like a string of Tibetan prayer beads?
Now you've got a helmet and an interesting possibility for armor/equipment. How about a weapon?
If he's trying to kill something in the dark, he's probably not going to use a particularly precise weapon, either. This suggests maybe a nice big club or warhammer, something really big, blunt, and suitable for a monster in a maze to  use. Something big and capable of withstanding an accidental striking against stone, like the floor or a wall. And it's left in the dark of the Labyrinth, without cleaning or maintenance, so it's probably pretty nasty.
Or maybe it's ritualistically cleaned by cult retainers devoted to the care of the Minotaur, since a dirty weapon would interfere too much with the Minotaur's highly developed sense of smell. Do the retainers/cult members have a supporting role suggestive of gameplay?
Does the minotaur consume the heroes he bests in the Labyrinth after killing them, or simply retire to his lair. And if he doesn't eat the corpses, who does? Is the Labyrinth covered over in beds of fungus in the dark that sprout among the corpses? Some kind of parasitic/carrion feeder food-chain that subsists on the victims of the Labyrinth?
Finally, just to spool out an idea related to the heat-sensitive business, you could give him a really long pelt on his back or around his neck or something, specialized sorts of hair tufts that react to heat. Like cat whiskers or something. That's a pretty bizarre idea so you may or may not be able to do anything with it visually, but it's still a potential feature.
There you go: starting with just a few basic "how about" sort of scenarios, we've been able to come up with a  potentially novel approach to a minotaur design. This methodology (one of many possible) is also nice because it suggests a  whole scene, complete with the Labyrinth and the hero character, and possibly even a game mechanic. Maybe the hero has a torch, but has to throw it around in order to mislead the Minotaur? Maybe the hero uses the Minotaur's memorized knowledge of the Labyrinth against him, and uses something to trip him up unexpectedly?
Blinkered creatures aren't particularly new in games (those wolverine guys in RE4 come to mind, for instance), but it could still make for something that gets beyond just another well-made, but fundamentally uninteresting, obvious Minotaur character.
I apologize for the lengthy posts, but it'll do in the place of my inability to give you a paintover. Maybe even better, since you're able to draw just fine yourself it looks like :) I hope this idea-generation technique proves useful for helping you flesh out this character and future ones.

Radiator Yang's Interview with yours truly

There have been mild suggestions that I update this blog. Such efforts have resumed.



In the meantime, Please enjoy this interview piece by Robert Yang wherein we discuss a whole host of designerly things, if you didn't catch it on Rock Paper Shotgun.

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/11/01/level-with-me-jack-monahan/

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Missing what might have been: a thought about meta-spoilers

Saturday, February 12, 2011 7
An 8 year old sketch. A pretty decent
Geoff Darrow bite if I say so myself.
The neologism "meta-spoilers" is intended to get after that peculiar issue common to both game developers themselves and hardcore game fans: nostalgia for the path not taken. For game developers it is a constant companion, sometimes threatening to grind game production into endless series of retrenchment, feature creep, muddled design, etc.

But because I am pursuing a policy of open development, modeling after the pioneering work of Mount & Blade's development and current peers like Wolfire, this also applies to fans. I think open development is absolutely the best policy for small developers, and might actually do some big developers quite a lot of good as well, if they could only wrest their freedom to speak to fans back from their marketing departments. But there are some downsides as compared to the traditional model.

Meta-spoilers don't even require knowledge of the game development while in progress. I know a lot of people who appreciate Half-Life 2 very much, but have effectively meta-spoiled themselves by perusing that Raising the Bar book once too often... a game that triumphantly exists is overshadowed by the knowledge of what might have been. And quite honestly I have exploited this very dynamic explicitly with my Design Reboots.

Open development means sharing the heartbreak. In the coming months my posts will not be lying to you--if I discuss ideas here, or post concepts, or respond to a suggestion with "hey that's a really good idea" I am not blowing smoke if it doesn't end up in the game.

Rather, it's just a part of how games happen, or get caught in an endless loop like Duke Nukem Forever's original development cycles. There's no way out from that trap. At some point the game must collapse down from the more attractive, purely hypothetical realm of possibilities into a finite game that actually is.

I am really looking forward to people getting to know what's been inside my head for a year or more, but I thought this should be said first.

Also, with some mulling it over, I will be posting devblog updates to this site, rather than spinning off into yet another page to maintain (and sooner than later stop updating as a result). All posts will be tagged, so a simple filtering will allow you to view exclusively the development updates.

Discuss this post in the forums



 
gausswerks: design reboot. Design by Pocket