Saturday, October 24, 2009

Level Design Primer: Keep It Wide

Saturday, October 24, 2009 11
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.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Design Reboot: Laputan Machine

Thursday, October 15, 2009 35
"I am not a machine."

This is a Darth Vader story.

Skip the part about the screeching kid and the Oedipal overtones and the retroactive ruination of a classic film trilogy--skip all of it save the image of a man in black, eaten up with machinery. That's Gunther.

Portishead - Machine Gun

In Deus Ex (2000) Gunther Hermann is mostly a punchline: a psychotic dinosaur, a mechanically-augmented agent rightfully fearful of being made obsolete by the new-model nanotech Denton brothers.

But picture a prequel centered on Gunther's descent into monsterhood. Start with a well meaning field agent with the deck stacked against him. End with an echo of a man, steeped in blood, pleading for a clean slate.

A friend once told me what they wanted out of games was feeling "like I had just jumped out of an airplane with no parachute."

Laputan Machine is about that suicidal freefall: a series of choices between bad and worse, how a man's moral compass is broken by way of desperate self-preservation.

The game starts with a fully human Gunther Hermann on his first major field op. It is a disaster, a bloodbath, the wounded Gunther barely escaping with his life. While convalescing he is talked into receiving his first mechanical augmentation.

At first he is elated; the young agent is given a bulwark against mortality, an easy upgrade to dramatically increased operational fitness, the player behind him given a seemingly familiar route to more mayhem (shadows of Syndicate's classic agent upgrade system, pictured right).
But here also begins the central conflict/negative feedback loop of the game: balancing Gunther's mental stability/grasp on humanity with the dehumanizing necessity of mechanical augmentation. (Perhaps implemented something like the "sanity" system of Lovecraftian horror games.)

The more indiscriminate the killing, the higher the bodycount, the more unstable Gunther becomes and the more he gives in to the mech-augs enabling the bloodshed, dimming his conscience and humanity. Give in to the machine too quickly, or kill too many and Gunther loses it, the game ends prematurely with the first major alternate ending: Gunther being put down like a rabid dog by his disappointed handlers.

As in the original Deus Ex, the game may be completed with predominantly non-lethal tactics employed for most missions. This limits Gunther's recourse to mech-augs and eventually earns the second alternate ending of Gunther finishing with his mind mostly intact, possibly even leaving the newly established UNATCO, but this is an ever increasingly difficult path.

The player is in Gunther's shoes: ultraviolence by way of mechanical augmentations is the easy way out, but also the road to lost humanity. Do you take the increasingly difficult moral high road, or does Gunther give in to the machine?
Going the full mech-augs/1,000 killcount scenario earns the ending that places Gunther as he is at the beginning of Deus Ex, with the revelation of where Gunther's childlike psychosis stems from.
Conflicted over his lost humanity and psychopathic killing, Gunther begs his handlers to finish what the mech-augs have started: memory erasure/ personality augmentation. He loses most of himself, even losing the cherished memory of the final stage of mechanical augmentation available in the game: the skul-gun aug.

The game encompasses the classic cyberpunk question of humanity eclipsed by technology, but is also centered on the questioning the moral ramifications of an action videogame protagonist's typically guilt-free mass murdering sprees.

I personally love IO Interactive's Kane & Lynch (2007) for most of all the reasons Jeff Gerstmann famously hated it: the characters are exactly as ugly and unredeemed as their actions would dictate. There is no mystifying disconnect between the character and their actions in the game. I think it's an idea worth further exploration.
[For me this is the major cognitive dissonance in Uncharted--Drake efficiently killing swaths of men, then gets back to effortlessly chucklehorsing around with the cute blonde in cutscenes. Uncharted is hardly alone in this, but the extremely high quality of the storytelling heightens the dissonance above most other games.]

Upon release, Laputan Machine earns a Metacritic score of 69/100.
It slowly builds a following from Deus Ex fans, but many critics and gamers are off-put by the frank, "un-fun" depiction of violence and gore; the game's themes are judged too heavy handed, the story too much of a downer. Who wants to get their nose rubbed in the violence they're complicit to?

Check in tomorrow for the companion piece: Flatlander Woman.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Design Reboot: Invasive Species (Part II)

Sunday, October 11, 2009 18

Homelife - Scrivener's Waltz

Part II on Invasive Species is an overview of the major players and variables in the world:

The first major variable is the roughly eight or so escaped convicts: they're unpredictable, amoral bastards (just like an FPS player). Each has a certain profile, habits and goals, though most want to escape the planet as well. Every playthrough a couple of them die at random in the crash and their starting order (time at which they escape from prison ship wreckage) also randomizes, which increases replayability.

This is partly inspired by the uncompleted Black Isle Fallout 3 design (Van Buren). Chris Avellone posited that the most dangerous force in the world as other player characters and their parties. The player is always the prime mover in games--what if NPC characters were given the same volition?

The second variable is the deathgrass: the crash will scatter the spores somewhere different for each playthrough, which may hurt or hinder its chances of growing, and alter the local geopolitics considerably when it does. While the crashed ship is always in the same location, the deathgrass is not. As the playthrough progresses, the deathgrass is more and more a factor, moreso if it's not dealt with early on.
Deathgrass, contrary to it's name, is not strictly lethal. But it hurts and will impede movement. To a healthy player it's scarcely an issue, but to find oneself in a firefight deep within a field of deathgrass is asking for trouble.

Third variable is the local population. Unlike in Unreal the Nali are not a stock alien slave race/noble savage stand-in. They can and do fight the Skaarj regularly.
The Skaarj on the other hand are feral, bestial race of hunter gathers who rule the majority of the considerable jungle/forest areas in the game. They are far more difficult to gain trust/alliance for the player, but it is possible.
An alliance with the Skaarj will net basically no new technology or supplies other than basic food, but will allow safe travel through considerable portions of Skaarj back country as well as some helpful friends for certain fights.
Depending on your character's diplomacy and/or xenolinguistics, you may ingratiate yourself with either side, or be the bane of both by raiding food and supplies. Other convicts coming into contact with either side before you do first will also change things.

The final variables are the other crashed spaceships on planet aside from your prison ship, including the pursuit ship. Skiptracers are out for what they think is easy money when their ship crashes; other ships crashed and have been marooned for centuries. In them might be dormant aliens or powerful weapons, but like other factors in the game their location and presence are not reliable.

If it sounds like a too-busy free for all, good. Nothing worse than a neat game environment with nothing to do in it, or replayability reduced to nil because of strict linearity.

If you think it vaguely resembles S.T.A.L.K.E.R. if you cock your head at an angle and purge enough radiation from your system with GSC vodka, you're right. That game reaffirmed my believe that you don't sweat player choice if it's not really that tough to let them have it, all else being equal. And you can let them have a lot more choice than most, if you plan from the start to allow for it.

Invasive Species becomes about what the player wants it to be: the stated goal is to escape, but there are no forced failures if they decide to stick around. Myriad 360/Steam achievements are wired in to recognize various player-set goals: capture all other convicts to bargain for your own release, kill all other convicts, King of the Nali, King of the Skaarj, I Survived 200 Game-Days of Deathgrass spreading And All I Got Was This Achievement, and so on.

On release, Invasive Species receives a Metacritic rating of 83/100. It is roundly praised for the extensive replay value and the variability of one person's playthrough as compared to another. Gaming forums have multi-page discussion threads where players recount specific playthroughs and their attendant unexpected gameplay moments. Other players dive into their own new playthroughs in an attempt to reproduce such scenarios.
And so by request a patch is produced that allows players, upon a single successful playthrough, to start a "New Game +" that exposes a number of otherwise hidden variables for seeding the gameworld.

Design Reboot: Invasive Species (Part I)

Unreal (1998) was Epic Games' first FPS. Compared to their blockbuster Gears of War franchise now, Unreal was rough, unfocused, and ponderously long; but it was also immersive, fun, inventive and visually stunning. A proud moment for a company that has come a very long way in the eleven (!) years since.

The famous waterfall (give 1998 a break, OK)
Players will likely remember a key handful of scenes: the prison ship introductory level that opened up into an impressive waterfall reveal, the first Skaarj fight as the lights turn off, the four-armed Nali and their healing fruit, the "Big Man," and the Sunspire (if they got that far).

Start with the same premise and extrapolate from what you remember best and fondest, not what was. Stir in exploration elements and some Metroidvania while you're at it. Put it all together with the rigor of modern design methodologies--but stay with the neophytic verve that informed the original.

Invasive Species starts again with you as a prisoner on a prison ship. Expand the vestigial kernel presented at the beginning of Unreal (a choice of male or female character model/sound set) into a full blow character selection. Multiple options for character appearance, and more critically, a selection between archetypal backgrounds which dictate starting abilities and conversation options.
(It's time to stop with the silent protagonists already.)

Discovering the deathgrass
The prisoner emerges from the prison ship wreckage to find a breathtaking alien world: exotic and fecund, though the flora seems close to a Earth-tropics analog. The player's objective is simple: escape the planet and evade re-capture, should anyone come looking.

Complicating factors reveal themselves in a sort of spiraling cascade:

1.) Someone does come looking

2.) That someone also finds out the hard way that the planet has an atmosphere/magnetic field etc. that likes to crash spaceships, a sort of planetary Bermuda's Triangle

3.) Yours is not the first ship to fall to the surface

4.) The other convicts from your ship are loose and have a headstart on you

5.) The indigenous Nali are locked in a decades long war with the Skaarj, both may very well be hugely xenophobic

6.) The crash of your ship has introduced an invasive species of hivemind fungiform deathgrass, which is going to wreck the planet's proverbial shit

What the player gets is a planet-wide Battle Royal, with all manner of jockeying for position and shifting alliances, and a running day/night system by which new developments are doled out--say between day 7 and 10, the pursuit vessel crashes. Around day 15 the deathgrass spreads enough to become self-aware, and so on.

Check back tomorrow for the Metacritic score, more illustrations, and a breakdown of the various factions/wildcards of the game world and plot outline.
In the meantime, anyone have a better (and hopefully pun-less) title for this one?

name changed from "Lost In Space Marine" to "Invasive Species" courtesy of Design Reboot regular Johnnyburn.
Additional reading:
Screenshots of classic scenes
Interesting tech demo/beta Unreal screenshots and gameplay footage
gausswerks: design reboot. Design by Pocket