Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Design Reboot: Clive Barker's Jericho

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Note: To clear up a common confusion to newcomers to the site: I did not work on Clive Barker's Jericho; this is the hypothetical/speculative work of an outsider to the game's production, as are most all of my posts.

Arcade Fire - My Body Is A Cage

Jericho was good enough to get itself into trouble. Most people seem not to take issue with unremarkably bad or uninspired games, but games with enough good ideas to spark a wistfulness for what could have can be upsetting. Glancing blows with greatness--really, it's these sorts of games that inspired this site.

We might not care about Jericho, had Clive Barker (an admitted non-gamer) not first lent his ideas and name to Undying, a horror FPS that found a cult audience following initially poor reception. Jericho may share some elements of the game's atmosphere, but the inspired mechanical depth of that title is unfortunately lacking with Jericho.

Peruse the rather over-detailed wikipedia summary for a plot synopsis: Jericho is about a supernatural SWAT-team of seven characters out to re-trap God' first creation, the Firstborn, in a sort of time-anomalous ruin in the middle east called Al Khalil. In order to do this, they travel back through dimensional pockets back through time.

To say the game doesn't live up to it's potential is facile to the point of meaninglessness, despite how oft-repeated the criticism is of games it's applicable to all but the most perfectly scoped and executed titles; rather we will point out the major issues, and more importantly the kernels of good ideas and expand upon them.


Jericho's largest faults lay with the dearth of challenge in uniquely videogame terms. Yes, some of the fights are difficult, but all puzzles are solved for you (anything blocking your passage will prompt you immediately which team member is needed to clear it), and logistically the game is lacking any depth with the employment of both regenerating health and regenerating ammo.

There are absolutely no items, power-ups, or collectibles to be found in the environment and very little to interact with. This makes the straightjacket-linear levels, convincingly rendered as some of them are, completely dead to the player; much player involvement is lost when there is no need to investigate surroundings.

Level layout typical of the original Jericho. Linear, with nothing to collect.

There were bright spots however--the early game twist of your stalwart, generic white male hero player character getting killed and becoming a ghost is one of them.
From that point you can possess the remaining team members at will, imbuing them with the character's own healing powers.
There is one other character (Father Rawlings) capable of resurrecting characters so there is a reasonable depth to battles where you must ensure that the squad stays alive by way of resurrecting fallen teammates. With no one left alive you lose and must restart to the last checkpoint.


This gameplay concept is what's worth expanding on, with the attendant hooks in the world fiction. The most obvious problem solving would be to re-activate the world in terms of interest. The player and his squad need to be able to look for supplies and feel rewarded for it; the player also could use level layouts that actually provide some tactical depth.
Longer engagement distances (allowing the player to set up and use Black, the sniper character, effectively), and more varied enemy attack patterns other than straight forward suicide charges or stand-and-fire would also be important additions.

Proposed level layout style: multiple approaches, some which require certain squad mates to still be alive to access, items/collectibles, differing engagement distances.

As covered in the redesign of the game's characters, I think an essential element of a horror atmosphere is the vulnerability, humanity of the team themselves; introducing ways in which they might deteriorate in a decidedly un-videogame-like fashion could be very interesting.

There was an Apple II game, the name is lost to me, that involved rescuing hostages. There was a "practice" and a "for keeps" mode--if you played in the latter and lost a hostage, that hostage's profile was deleted permanently off the 5¼-inch floppy disk.

I thought about this in combination with an element from Hitman: Contracts. In that game, there is a collectible weapon in plain view behind a locked door, the key to which is only acquired in the second to last level. The player needs to get the keycard and then re-play the first mission to get the gun, which like any of the collectible weapons, can then be used in any other mission.
This may just be an aspect of the game's fiction setting up most of the missions as being replayed in 47's memory, but I don't think the framing device is necessary; these sorts of things keep to game-logic, and that is enough. It is unique to the medium and therefore should be used freely, as it is something that is ours alone.

Where I'm going with this is a change to the core mechanics of Jericho that would follow, in terms of achronological game logic: we'll say that characters can be resurrected, as they could be in the original game, but with a price.
There is some toll extracted, shuttling to and from the mortal coil such that after a certain number, teammates will become listless and withdrawn, though their combat effectiveness stays roughly the same. I am thinking of the slow graying, darkening of Wander, the player character in Shadow of the Colossus.

The "death counter" increments regardless of save state, the only way to reset it is to start a new game. This means that together with some more conventional restorations to the gameplay--more interesting levels, item collection, non-regenerative healing/ammunition--the game takes on longer-term ramifications. After say ~20 or so deaths (the threshold number would change based on chosen difficulty), a team member is no longer themselves, a short of walking shadow of their previous selves--so you have the option of leaving them to die permanently. Final team makeup and their death counters figure prominently into what kind of ending you receive, but also the choices the player makes in the narrative.

The idea being that as you progress in the game, there are real cost/benefits to how you fight the battles, who you use or push harder. You can rez your teammembers indefinitely if you don't care about them as characters, but at the end of the game you end up with a set of shadow-men, ghostly revenants. There might be inherent conflicts of interest--unlike the original game we'll say that the Priest and the guy with the fire demon possessing his arm don't exactly get along.

You might let a few of the squad members take more hits than others, and sacrifice them later in order to smooth out team dynamics--say I don't care for Church's ninja-style abilities or how she bickers with Black, so I use her as cannon fodder until late in the game at which point I let her die.
Like the original game, there would be roadblocks that would require a specific teammember's abilities to pass--but they would either be alternate paths/shortcuts/access to secret caches instead
A sketch of ending patterns as follows, many of them can be achieved simultaneously:

  • Shadow King: all teammates revenants (50+ deaths) at end
  • Alive Alone: all teammates dead save one at end
  • The Vocation: Father Rawlings (not player) handles all rezzing; no revenants at end
  • Rude Mechanicals: only Delgado, Black, Cole alive at end
  • Get Behind Me: Delgado survives fire demon exorcism
  • Preservation Society: End playthrough with all original squad weapons intact
  • The Loss of Ross: game ends with team leader's ghost lost forever
  • Sun King: No revenants, all teammates survive end
  • The Story is the Same: team agrees to sacrifice themselves containing Firstborn
  • The Story Changes: team defeats Firstborn
My only nagging concerns with this concept is that they fall into the same traps of other titles with multiple endings, being that one ending above all others is considered the "best" ending, whereas others are "bad" or less preferable. I'm more interested in games with narratives centered on player actions, holding a mirror to how the player makes sense of the world and their choices, rather than stale, one-dimensional moralizing or cheap counterfeits of storytelling in other media.
What, dear readers, do you think are ways to resolve this issue?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Visual Clarity in Character Design (Part II)

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In Part II we'll consider the key characteristics discussed in the first entry--silhouette/scale, color/patterns, and materials/detailing, and see if we can't make an existing set of less than optimal characters "read" more clearly in gameplay situations.

The very gothic Jericho Team.

For candidates, I looked no further than a game I had finished playing just recently: Clive Barker's Jericho.
It was not well received and mostly for good reason, but there are some inspired concepts running through it. It's ideal for our purposes because you control a larger than average team of six characters, and it's tactical enough that identifying characters different squad members at a glance makes a difference.

Hanne Lichthammer, an undead Nazi boss character in the game, seen out-gothing the Jericho team by a wide margin.

Trouble is, the game revolves around a decidedly goth-leaning, melanin-challenged (even the black man of the team is ghostly pale) supernatural special ops team with a fondness for shades of black.
With the exceptions of Delgado (the big chain-gunning fellow) and Church (the small-framed ninja), this is a large group of friendly characters that are difficult to tell apart in combat and/or low light levels--both of which recur regularly, often together.
Here's a collected image of the original characters and their names, so you know who I'm referring to for the rest of the article:

Where to begin? Many of the problems with the team extend further than just visual appearance and into their broad, even offensively stereotypical characterizations.
Delgado is the sass-talkin' latino, Father Rawlings is the deep fried southern preacher-type, Black is the militant lesbian sniper, etc.
(I think the game interesting enough that the follow-up to this entry will be a full-fledged design sketch.)

For now we'll stick to their appearances: in keeping with the gothic, spooky ambience befitting a Clive Barker game, the entire team is pale and black clad. This ends up as a significant issue in two ways.

The call is coming from inside the crypt.

First off, from the point of view of player investment and interest, these six characters are a hard sell--they walk into this hellish landscape overpowered with magic and arms, imminently well-qualified to deal with the problem, and the game mechanics as well as fiction hold that the team can both resurrect members and resupply them with ammunition indefinitely--so why do they need my help at all?
What's horrifying about these gothic sulks having to deal with the end of the world, aren't all their own apartments furnished in the same style as the oozing rivers of blood and hellscape they now traverse? In other words, the team seems to be lacking dramatic contrast to their environment. Far from being put out and suggesting fear and terror as appropriate responses, they seem at home.

Second, even if I did feel invested in the obnoxious stereotypes, I often have trouble seeing them at all, certainly in telling them apart at a glance. A few of them are attired in shiny black catsuit-type material, which improves their visibility somewhat in low light conditions, but not enough to be helpful. Most of the characters are designed with a kind of runic filigree covering their suits, presumably as a replacement for lack of shape or form differentiation, but it's none too successful.

At left is a sample palette of the game's environments, derived from pixelated averages of a few representative screenshots.
The game is heavily atmospheric--fog, smoke, fire predominate to good effect. Mounds of sloughed off rotting flesh and rivers of blood show up as with any self-respecting time-fragmented hellscape, so the general palette of the game tends to run to warm, flesh and earth tones, and generally very dark.
While thankfully the Jericho squad isn't wearing blood-red catsuits, which really would make for unfortunate camoflage, the black suits don't really help visibility, especially for the extended sequences shrouded in darkness (perfectly appropriate for a horror game).

So as we begin, we'll identify the specific issues we wish to solve: shape/silhouette differentiation (for when color information is not present), visibility of material and detailing in warm colored and low light situations, and finally player sympathy/horror game appropriateness of the character designs.

First things

The temptation for me as an artist is to get to drawing and painting characters immediately, but this isn't actually that helpful when I could end up with a lot of wasted time for a redesign of such a large team of characters. So we'll stick with a consciously simplified approach--not only does it keep artists from pouring too much effort into a design before it's well considered, but it's simple enough that little or no drawing ability won't stop someone from using the same process.
We begin with a simple diagrammatic layout of the team divided into their control squads, Alpha and Omega.

Like the L4D color comparison in the first entry, I'm using simplified representations for the characters in order so I do not distract myself with painting and rendering too early.
A well drawn character can mask design flaws that don't manifest themselves until it's too late--the model and texture are done running around in the game. Revisions at that point are extraordinarily expensive in money and man-hours; far better to squash as many problems before they ever happen when revisions are as cheap as the point of an eraser, the point of a pencil.


So now we've got three men, three women in simple outlines. The scale relationships of the team originally are a good starting point, so we'll stay fairly consistent to the original team designs.

Cole is the "medium" female, Jones the "medium" male, Delgado the largest of all characters, Black the tallest of the females. We'll make Rawlings a narrow, vertical form, while Church is the diminutive ninja form. Like so:

If it seems simple, that's because it is, but take the time, foundations are critical.
It's also instructive to do this kind of designing with all characters visible on a sheet--small as it is, this workflow reinforces the necessity of cross-checking all the character designs against each other as much as possible.


The biggest change here is giving Black a sort of Ghillie suit/dress, instead of the black catsuit that appears in the game (and makes her look very similar to Cole). Otherwise, most of what I'm paying attention to here is a simple factor of how much skin is visible. Something tells me tacti-shorts are right out when rethinking a supernatural tactical response team, so I'm mostly looking at collar cuts and sleeve lengths.
Though it's not pronounced at this stage, I'm already thinking of exaggerating Cole's augmented reality visor's scale in order to giver her more of a Daft Punk head silhouette (added bonus of hugely reflective helmet), whereas Jones gets a high, protective collar, almost like a bomb technician. Rawling's duster/great coat remains largely unchanged.
(There's evidence the development team ran into these issues, as the concept art for Church doesn't have the large suit cut-out panels. Either they realized the difficulty of recognizing the characters in the dark or needed some sex appeal--or both.)

Patterns and Colors

Knowing that most of the game's environments are in ruddy/earth tones, I swung to the complementary color on the wheel: green. Olive drab, more specifically. I considered this in tandem with my problem with the game fiction and player identification issue: even if there are potentially world-ending supernatural threats out there, I have a hard time believing that the government would actually give decent funding for their super secret "Department of Occult Warfare" were it to exist.

This gave rise to the thought of a second-rate secret force, a kind of discount BPRD: what if the team didn't get all the latest gear and an unmarked Blackhawk helicopter to deliver them to jobs? Still saving the world, but without commensurately magical budgets, because who would honestly believe them, anyway?
Certainly would help make the team less invincible-seeming, more personable, and helps free me from having to straightjacket all of the characters into the same vaguely high tech gothsuits.

I'll explore these concepts later, but for now it means that the characters end up more irregular military-looking, rather than pale and black everything. The black character in the group gets to actually be black, a small kindness.

I've also given the different squads identifying armbands with associated colors. Here again is some surprising vestiges of discarded decisions from the original team: if you look closely at the set of six original character designs, you'll notice that only the Omega squad (bottom row) have red armbands.
Looking at the original Mercury Steam concept art for Delgado (above and right), you can see a blue armband. I can only infer at some point, Alpha squad had blue armbands to go with Omega's red armbands, but in the continuing quest for true gothification, these were discarded, with the assumption that you only needed armbands for one of the teams, making the other team distinct by nature of having no armbands.

The fact that it took partway through writing this very article to discover that Omega squad only had the red armbands should be proof enough that this is less than successful. I can only think that the earlier thought of red and blue-coded squad armbands was the better choice, and in my redesign it is one I have reinstated.


Here's an animated .gif of the above stages, showing that it doesn't take a lot of time or even drawing ability to take a large group of characters and make them distinct from each other. And if you are an artist, it's a smart step to take before you launch into fully-detailed sketches. Time is money, or rather time is what you're wasting toward the end of the day when the art director comes over, sees what you've drawn, and asks for a complete revision.

Finally, the completed concepts, with accompanying revision notes (reference the laughably game guide-esque Wikipedia entry character bios for comparison, before they get scrubbed):

I made sure to exaggerate her defining feature, her helmet. Otherwise, her stance is the other major defining feature of her silhouette.
Instead of the nervy rookie presentation, Cole's bulbous augmented reality helmet (retrofitted 60's astronaut equipment as it happens) keeps her at a quiet remove from the rest of the team. Her modified FAMAS rifle scope feeds into the helmet HUD; it's 5.56 rounds are shared in common with Delgado.
Poise: shoulders back--professional and assured, high rifle carry.


Jones is reconfigured as a player surrogate, the most "normal" character for a shooter player; gear trappings like that of a modern soldier or PMC.
Though still a telepath, he treats his power with a matter of fact sensibility (reminiscent of Miles on Lost). He carries an old school M14, which can share rounds with Black's sniper rifle.
Poise: hunched combat glide of a trained, experienced modern soldier.


Delgado is still the heavy weapons man, but stripped of both the distractingly overt power armor and stereotypical mannerisms. While the onyx sheath on his right arm was interesting, his former man-portable minigun was distracting and over-powered. The whole get-up distracted from his humanity, any sense that he might actually be vulnerable to attack.
Delgado pulls the glove off his right hand to unleash his pet fire spirit. He carries a vintage Stoner 63 machine gun.
Poise: casual swagger, nerves of steel.


Black retains the coarse manner, but ideally without the ill-timed and obnoxious barks. She's unhappy that she couldn't plan ahead with a hell-colored Ghillie suit--though even in the infernal backdrops of Al-Khalil, once her Ghillie suit is zipped up and hooded she makes for a hard target. She sports a bolt-action CZ 700 sniper rifle, which means she can share .308 ammunition with Jones, but he's not likely to get any of long-distance-balanced handloads short of begging.
Poise: crouching, furtive gait of a sniper out of position.


Father Rawlings is redesigned as a non-combatant--as glorious and hideous as his double deagling was before, it makes more sense with his priestly vows and deepens tactical considerations that the healer/resurrector of the group cannot directly defend himself.
He's considerably moodier and sardonic, less drawling southern; the missions of Team Jericho have initiated a long "dark night of the soul" for the priest.
Poise: hunched and glowering.


Church is still the ninja of the group but with a more elegant strain to her bearing. As a blood scribe, she wears a mysterious tattoo covering much of her back. She carries the coffin-magazined Italian Spectre M4 submachine gun, in addition to her katana.
Poise: strictly ninja.

As the modified dossiers suggest, another update will feature a wider critique of Jericho and a matching illustrated design sketch.
I feel as though I haven't explained my re-design choices all that well in terms of justifying their enhanced visual clarity, but this entry is getting quite a bit too long already--what say you?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Visual Clarity in Character Design (Part I)

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With the release of Left 4 Dead 2 coming up, let's talk about visual clarity in character design. Valve has learned quite a bit about doing it right in recent years, so it's worth dissecting a few of the lessons they've learned.

We'll start with some background, and then cover three main concerns: silhouette/scale, color/patterns, and materials/detailing. In another update, we'll apply these lessons to less than successful character designs in another existing game and see what we come up with.

The L4D Survivors before and after major reworking, after Turtle Rock Studios' absorption into Valve proper.

Valve's visual bravura arguably dates to Half-Life 2. But HL2 was more of a breakthrough in terms of memorably drawn characters, rather than a variety of pragmatic concerns we'll be discussing here--a single player game with invincible/high health friendly NPCs is not the same as designing for team/co-op multiplayer.
By pragmatic, I mean the kinds of things that have a direct impact on gameplay. For this, we'll look at Team Fortress 2.

Players may remember that TF2 was originally--circa 1998 or so--going for a more realistic visual and gameplay style (seen at left).

Thankfully while in development, in they were soundly swooped by a number of different games, most notably the Battlefield series of games.

TF2 was ultimately redesigned closer to the original Quake mod roots of the game, but with a clean, stylized look harkening to the work of classic 20th century commercial illustrators.

We see the particular stamp of Moby Francke's visual style, which from an outsider's perspective seems to be the strongest artistic voice on where TF2 would end up, visually. (I have no doubt this greater movement toward visual clarity in character designs was due to others artists as well, but Francke's work seems the single best artist at the company I can point to.)
Prior to his work on TF2, witness his Counter-Strike: Source model sheets (below and to the right).

While the character designs had already been more or less decided with the mod version of Counter-Strike, notice the presentation of the model sheet itself. Major shapes and silhouettes are emphasized over detailing or texture.

This is a crucial concept governing much of the successfulness of TF2: a clean, uncluttered, "readable" look. The CS:S models are not hugely different from the original CS characters, but they are an iterative improvement and a step toward what would become TF2.

Below, one of Moby Francke's character designs for TF2. Same presentation for the model sheets as for CS:S, but with the style of the game he's able to work in more memorable silhouettes. Simply by considering the various TF2 characters with relation to each other you can reverse-engineer most of these lessons--but let's talk about them more in detail.


Even some of the most casual players are probably aware of silhouette design issues. This is perhaps the single most important factor when designing any videogame character. Look below--do you have trouble identifying any of the characters below solely by their silhouettes?
With TF2, Valve realized that the more quickly the player needs to identify other characters and act on that information (friend or foe, what class the other player is) the more important it becomes. The demands of a hardcore, team-based competitive multiplayer game helped drive the visual style for TF2 to not only be attractive, but also transparent to the needs of the gameplay. This transparency would be honed and show up again with L4D 1 and 2.

Character designs can be placed on a spectrum from the naturalistic (L4D) to stylized, to the almost completely abstract (say, Space Invaders). Above, these characters are all nominally human, but their silhouettes vary wildly. The more stylized the game, generally the more wiggle room you'll have to play with in terms of defining through silhouette.

Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics has a very useful lens to consider this concept--the "Pictorial Vocabulary"--that applies equally as well to videogames as it does to comics. (A more detailed version with examples of this is available here.)

As games become more abstracted either up or to the right of this triangle, the more dramatic the differences in silhouette (may) become. Game mechanics tend to track similarly, though it is not strictly correlated. (There are a lot of games with somewhat realistic graphics but highly abstract mechanics and world.)
Start with a normal human silhouette, think about the various different messages it sends--height, weight, gender, age; the interrelations of shapes (held weapons also count a lot for unique silhouette), the character's most common postures, style of animation, etc. Silhouette is one of the most identifying factors so long as the character in question is not significantly occluded visually, or they can be clearly discerned from the background.

It's worth noting that for L4D, silhouette will also communicate important information like being gravely wounded--once a player has very low health they transition to the stooped, wounded stagger in place of a normal gait.

The natural corollary to silhouette is scale. A silhouette may identify a character well, but introduced together with scale variation, a character's readability is boosted considerably. With L4D, all characters are realistically scaled/silhouetted human characters (no giants, no dwarves, and no spikey anime hair) and yet the characters are all well differentiated on these grounds.


This is one of the least appreciated aspects of good visual character design. Clear, simplified application of color and pattern can be one of the best ways to create well differentiated characters--and it is here that arguably the L4D character designs are strongest.

Let's look at character concepts for both L4D1 and L4D2. Then consider the color schemes, divorced from all other aspects besides color by applying them to the same Lego minifigure-like template. Players familiar with them will have no trouble naming all 8 characters:

Simple, strong combinations of colors in different arrangements can by themselves create memorable, easily differentiated characters that can be IDed by the player under duress reliably, which is the holy grail for functional character design.


Out of all concerns, materials and detailing are some of the most difficult to explicate, but still crucial to overall presentation. Material choice--say, a glistening bright shine on armor or a weapon vs. a matte finish--can go a long way, especially when other information isn't available to the player.
Extremely low-light conditions will strip players of color information, leaving only silhouette cues and in many cases not even that. Extremely reflective materials, on the other hand, will still "read" differently than matte ones in low light. (Which is part of why most real-world military firearms feature some manner of matte finishing, parkerizing and the like--so they won't reflect sharply in the dark.)

The associated problems here are why we've got the single biggest crutch for videogame character design: glow-y bits. Everyone from Sam Fisher to Marcus Fenix can orient themselves easily in a pitch-dark room, thanks to gratuitous glow-y bits. Your future power armor design lacking that necessary punch, or clarity? Glowing tech-bits are every lazy s.f. concept artist's best friend.

The slippery slope.

Detailing is a sort of catch-all description for other concerns too numerous for the scope of this article, including the overall visual complexity of a character. As such it should be considered carefully, as should the overall visual complexity of your game, as it relates to your gameplay.
Marcus Fenix and the other COGs in Gears of War are deceptive cases: with careful deployment of certain techniques, in combination with more overt ones such as glow-y bits, you can still maintain fairly good legibility--even if tastefulness remains elusive.

Color-overlay shaders reveal a breakdown of basic visual clarity in UT3.

But it can be tricky--Gears of Wars' near sibling Unreal Tournament 3, despite a very similar aesthetic, fails almost completely in terms of clarity of visual design. Busy, techy character designs against busy, techy backgrounds mean that in team games, characters and vehicles (!) at mid-to-long distances are overlayed with a red or blue shader shell, in order that they're readily perceptible at all.

I apologize if some of these concepts aren't fully explained, but with Part II we'll be applying all the lessons to some existing designs in another game. In the meantime--what are your favorite examples of visually successful and spectacularly unsuccessful visual designs for videogame characters?

Further viewing: Illustrative Rendering in TF2 Presentation

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Level Design Primer: Keep It Wide

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I credit this rule to a friend of mine, Drew Risch. Mr. Risch was a professional architect for some time before going on to do level design on such titles as Planetside, designing several of the base layouts. Since then, Drew has recovered his sanity and traded in level design for effects work--but his design mentoring always proved invaluable.

This rule comes from the early days, where FPS players lept and bounded like strange, violent gazelles. Our younger readers may not know how different the early games were; for example, the running speed of the original Doom Guy in real terms is said to be about 60 mph. He could keep pace with a rocket fired parallel to him.
With so much play centered around mobility/maneuverability, a fun level was one that gave you enough space to work, but not so big as to be slack. You need room to circle-strafe, clearances to rocket-jump to. We may not be doing much of that in modern FPSes, but it's still important as ever to give the player room.

Boxed In

Recall the refrigerator box: the player is more unwieldy and blinkered than he thinks he is. Because of this, the level designer is called upon to build spaces around him that appear realistically scaled, but also tailored to mask the player's shortcomings. The simplest formulation of this design maxim? Keep It Wide.

This is to say, give the player room to maneuver/direct fire, and give enough space for clear visual navigation. A necessary corollary to this: the more players that play together in a space, the more room is necessary. Like all design rules, there are good reasons to violate this rule which we'll get to, but consider it good general practice.

Let us consider two scenarios--one from Valve's own Left 4 Dead campaign No Mercy, the other an excellent work in progress custom campaign, Highway to Hell.
Both campaigns begin in an apartment complex, but there are some crucial differences.

No Mercy: Bill is puzzled that the apartment's hallways are so generously sized, but knows he's got room to maneuver.

Highway to Hell: the survivors tend to see more of each other than zombies in some hallways. No place for a shotgun.

The setting and quality of set dressing are nearly identical, layouts very similar. One of the few small differences is that in Highway to Hell's apartment building, there are some extremely tight spaces for 4 players to fight through effectively. In L4D all players can freely clip through each other, which eliminates a lot of common related issues of this kind, but not all--friendly fire is still dealt. Which is exacerbated if players don't know the common practice of crouching if out in front.

No Mercy: Maybe a little oversized for the kind of mid-level apartment it would appear to be, but it gives room to play. No one joyfully shouts "this is so realistic!" when they're not having fun. (Outside of ArmA2 players, of course.)

Play through the beginning of No Mercy, paying attention to horizontal space. Most areas are built to accompany at least two abreast at any point--meaning if the two forward most players kneel, this is clearance enough for all four players to fire forward.
Not only does it make the game's stated emphasis on co-operative play viable, but it makes navigation easier as well--the more spatially restrictive an area is, often the harder it can be to clearly navigate. (In another update, I'll elaborate specifically on navigation considerations.)

The above shot is perhaps the diciest example from Highway to Hell. Most of the way through the map the survivors will wind their way through a meticulously recreated gas station.
The sense of place is very real, possibly to a fault: this communicating hallway is narrow and has a whopping six doors connected to it--to the front of the store, the back door, the break room, the restroom, and so on. While this is laid out realistically, suggesting it was all modeled on an actual gas station, it's also a death trap.
It's deceptively hard to move around in and direct fire, and if the Director throws down on the players through one of these connecting rooms--as it is wont to--the players might have a very hard time escaping, much less as a group.

I haven't had the pleasure of playing this map in actual co-operative play, only with bots, so I can't speak to whether the experience of it is panic inducing or annoying. The rub is that these two kinds of experiences live in very close proximity to each other.


This brings me to exceptions to the rule. Valve violates "Keep It Wide," that they otherwise strictly observe, in several key points throughout L4D. There is a storm drain sequence where it's obvious the players will only be able to advance in single file, a dangerous proposition in a world of zombies.
The above communicating hallway layout from Highway to Hell may also be an exception: despite being uncomfortably narrow to move and direct fire in, it is also small, and well connected, and veteran players should be alert enough in such a tight space. (Designing with the 360 version in mind would mean this area is simply out of the question, however.)

The more I think about it, the more I'm inclined to think it is an exception. Though I would note that the navigational issues (difficult to orient in such a nondescript corridor with so many doors) would be helped by introducing orienting details: restroom decal and possibly some chinsy art hanging on the opposite wall.

But the truth is, like every design decision made, you won't know until you get playtesters. If this area is consistently panicking players or making for some tense little shootouts, it's worth keeping, but if it's producing disproportionate casualties or an untoward difficulty spike, then it's worth revising.

Any design decision that violates best practices for level design in your game must be carefully considered. Is it breaking a rule in a fun, tension-inducing way, or is it doing it in a completely unfair, obnoxious way? You won't know without playtesting.

But rest assured that you'll address many aggravating issues with playtesting before they start if you remember "Keep It Wide."

[This was by no means intended to pick on the designer "Unlawful Combatant." Highway to Hell is absolutely professional quality work, and once its polished and completed it will rival or surpass a number of the original campaigns in the game; readers with L4D should check it out and see just how many of the previously mentioned Level Design Primer concepts they can spot (hint: basically all of them).]

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reboot Reboot: 1-800 HOW'S MY BLOGGING?

Monday, October 19, 2009 41
If you're reading this, I consider you an important part of the site, some element of it's now-forming nucelus of commenters/contributors.

Articles have been posted over the past months but I consider the site newly live and active, and it's time for some critical assessments and adjustments.
Your input on the following is greatly appreciated:

1.) Nomenclature

Some of you may have noticed by now that the title term "design reboot" gets flung around an awful lot, but the majority of the content I post is not actually about doing a "reboot" of a francise or IP at all, it's spinning out a new idea using the old game as a point of departure. What should I call these? design sketches?

I reserve the right do to "proper" design reboots, I'd just like to clarify things. Should I just tag the posts with design reboot/design sketch and just title them differently?
"Design sketch" is a lot more accurate for what most of these posts are about, and likely will be in the future. I don't like starting off every post title with "design reboot," it's redundant information if that's how most of them start. I'll just better use of the tagging system.

(I still think "Design Reboot" is a perfectly good title for the site so don't worry. I'm far too lazy to go about redesigning that beautiful header--and hopefully there will be more content that is worthy of the inspiration for the site's name)

2.) Content

People seem to be interested to read the game comments, but the level design primers and other design discussion related posts seem to draw interest as well. What is your favorite content? What would you like to see more of?

What about update regularity--would you prefer more frequent updates, as they are now, even if the writeup isn't all that thought through, or would you rather see more developed write-ups?

As I just hinted in at in the comments section, I think I'd like to start "iterating" on design posts. There are so many interesting and worthwhile ideas posted in the comments, I would leave the original posting up, and then periodically revisit it, probably with additional artwork, with the commenter ideas factored in and elaborated.
This could then in turn spawn fresh discussion which, with enough momentum, gets rolled into another update later on, and visitors at that point can click back through the idea at different stages.

3.) Tone

This is one of these things I'll probably have to iron out on my own, but input would be appreciated. For instance take the most recent update. It makes fun of Alone in the Dark and then segues into an original idea. I'm concerned that this comes off as glib or disrespectful, especially in close proximity to a game idea writeup--I'm not trying to give the impression of superiority or "knowing better."

It's confusing because it's not a reboot and is labeled as such (see item 1), which has lead some people to think I'm disrespecting the talent and ability of those that worked on the games I'm re-imagining. Nothing could be further from the truth; the one major title to my name is Darkest of Days, a game that was not received charitably. I don't need to be adding to the general pile of flippant remarks posted on the internet. It's not what this site is about.

I guess there's not much of a question here, so much as a resolution to be careful about tone. I like to be funny, but it's bricks and glass houses when I'm talking about other developers. I need to keep my deprecatory comments limited to my own work, and address criticisms of other games more respectfully.

4.) Presentation

The other issues I wanted to bring up would be the formatting for the game idea posts. I've received comments that the hypothetical Metacritic ratings are distracting and the youtube embeds come off as amateurish--what do you think? The youtubes came from initially wanting to just embed some music for certain posts, and I got that all wired up but I didn't have a solution for hosting the mp3s. I agree that the embedded youtubes are probably distracting.

Are there any elements to the regular design write-ups you'd like to see? More art, even if it's rougher sketches?

DIAL 1-800

Any and all comments would be invaluable. If you enjoy this site, take this as the Public Broadcasting "viewers like you" moment.

And if you've made it this far: tune up all your gripes about fantasy gaming tropes and dust off those melee combat paradigms, because we'll soon be exploring the overripe world of western fantasy RPGs.

Design Reboot: Torch

What to do with Alone In The Dark?

Pictured: catwalk over electrified sludge, spider enemies, pipes.
The original was of the very first survival horror games. It went through increasingly abstruse sequels, until suffering the double indignity of an Uwe Boll movie adaptation and then a high profile reboot that was the most overstuffed hot mess of a game I can think of.

A short list of crimes:
  • control shenanigans
  • inventory system designed via divination/casting reptile bones
  • camera shenanigans
  • "cinematic" storytelling
  • mysterious powers
  • spider enemies
  • tentacle goop with mysterious powers
  • "cinematic" driving sequence
  • NYC-centrism
The game can't be faulted for a clear and admirable desire for innovation, despite its control issues. On the other hand, it's a posterchild for modern, multiplatform bloatware that overreaches in just about every category (if I want "cinematic," I'll go to the movies). Alone in the Dark seems like an ideal candidate for the "back to basics" treatment.

Jack White, of the White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather, is a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to making music in the studio. He's outspoken about wishing that bands were forced to make their first album on nothing more than a 4-track--and while with any such sweeping generalization it's easy to think of reasons why it's not the best idea, I find it an aspirational sentiment. Something about nailing the basics before you get fancy.

Disparition - Timi┼čoara

And in that spirit we frame today's design reboot: Torch. Take away the crawlie things, the Powers, mysterious past, the glowing tentacles that grab NPCs in scripted sequences, fixation on another medium's way of storytelling, scrape it all out and rinse with the garden hose--until you are only left with being alone, in the dark.

Torch is a game about delving deep into our most basic fears. Home invasion, kidnapping. There are no cutscenes, no long dialogues with celebrity voices. You play a string of characters that need to survive the worst night of their lives.

[A key inspiration: the film The Strangers. In his directoral debut, Brian Bertino takes a small cast, a single location, and sets about wreaking havoc with little more than mounting dread and suggestive framing. (Do not watch this movie with anyone who is even a little bit scared of home invasion.)]

Just as horror movies benefit from minimalist production, maximalist dread, Torch would be built from the two titular elements of survival horror. Probably near-third person or first person, set in small but densely constructed and detailed levels. The control layout would be adequate but unfussy, but this would be offset by a positively austere use of HUD elements (ideally none).
The game opens directly from the desktop with a black screen while loading, no splash or title screens. A text-only menu on black background. Players choose from a branching list of progressively worst-night-of-my-life scenarios of various ordinary characters, given first names only, a one or two word bio. Ellen, homemaker. Alex, dentist.

One of the first stories presented is being at home at night during a break-in. Barring aggressive play, it should be reasonably easy to "win," but the player has been given a taste of the atmospheric dread to come--NPC assailants vary their numbers, start locations and motivations on every playthrough.
Other early scenarios are a walk home at night, finding the car in a dim parking garage. A laundry list of sequences based on exactly the things we're most anxious about in life.

Through the shorter introductory scenarios, the player masters the essential survival skills: the flashlight, the small combat sequences (dictated by the abilities and identity character they're playing and weapons available), but mostly the timing/decisionmaking, situational awareness. Learning to take careful cues from the environment to survive. Running.

Soon the most difficult scenarios unlock. Waking up in the den of a serial killer (tonally dark but without any overtones of sexual abuse) with all but locked doors and needing to escape--you can try the phone, but how do you tell the police where you are? Violent home invasion, and the like.

Upon it's small, PC digital-only release, Torch is judged with a very favorable 83/100. Critics enjoy the freshness of the back to basics, no-frills approach to harrowing situations. The game doesn't take many hours on paper to complete, but played with headphones and the lights off, most players voluntarily take their time savoring the panic.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Design Reboot: Flatlander Woman

Friday, October 16, 2009 10
"The mission will require us to do more than frighten the NSF
with our baggy coats that make us look bigger than we really are."

For the ice queen, Gyges' Ring.

The Knife - Silent Shout

It seems legitimate to assume that an elite assassin who can turn invisible would equate morality to a single question: did anyone catch me? And of course, Anna Navarre has never been caught. Not yet.

Consider Flatlander Woman: a stealth game where the years of training, mechanical augmentations, and the cloaking device ensure that stalking prey is only as sporting as cat and mouse.
Killing isn't the hard part, but it is the problem: like most FPS players, Anna prefers to resolve her issues with a liberal application of violence. It also happens that there are no unkillable NPCs in her world.

The game is structured to anticipate/accommodate Anna killing any character in the game, so the question becomes whether the player is, too?

Think of the extended sequence in Nikita (right) where the cleaner played by Jean Reno does damage control by increasing the bodycount. Now replay those same scenarios as the elite Anna Navarre--you're not limited by how many you can kill, but how many kills you can get away with. Like the high stakes tension of a body-hiding sequence in a Hitman game, but compounded over the game's length. The emphasis is slightly less on the deed itself and more the constant cold-blooded calculations of what any given murder will or won't do for Anna.

There could be unforeseen consequences; there could be blowback.
Especially if Anna disappears someone back at headquarters (not just a target, and the target's family, and all the first responders while on a mission). There are a lot of possible reasons for this--the game could feature a "catch the spy" subplot, a whodunit with randomized suspects, and Anna needs to be sure the mole is dead. Or maybe just someone didn't refill the coffee maker after the last cup, and Anna/the player really wants to see how many people they can kill. Pushing it as far as they can without a killphrase getting invoked, or SWAT teams descending at night on Anna's bunk.

There are obvious structural snarls that would come with building a game like this, but the payoff is something of a freer form Hitman experience. Navarre still has her targets on missions, but back at headquarters she exercises Darwinian fitness in protecting her own interests, as well as her one soft spot for the well-being of Gunther Hermann. It's a rolling assassin's gallery, where the killer's own reflexes are what get her the most into trouble.

On release, Flatlander Woman and its paranoid super assassin bloodbath rate 77/100 on Metacritic. Despite carefully meted tutorial content, casual players find themselves bewildered by having too many possible targets, or being frustrated by what they feel is not clear enough explanation for the consequences of impulse killing sprees. Critics are warmer but anyone not already a part of 47's congregation is not impressed.
gausswerks: design reboot. Design by Pocket