Thursday, December 23, 2010

Against Dilettantism

Thursday, December 23, 2010 14

I've redrafted this about four times now, but J. Shea's combined forum and blog output (recommended reading) have shamed me into rewriting it fresh and just getting it out there. Blog posts that are up are always better than the perfectly drafted ones that never get posted.

So here follows the closest thing to my manifesto--if not that, the guiding principle of my current design philosophy:

Designer, know thy shit. 
The less pithy formulation being that the onus of expertise lies with the designer.
 I suppose that's a little opaque; I am suggesting that a more research-driven approach benefits all game design, that it is central to sustaining the creative lifeblood of the form. And what's good for the form is ultimately good for the business. 

I know what you're thinking already. "Yeah research is cool and all, but I'm not trying to make a simulation," or that perfect chestnut, "it's not about realism, it's about fun." 
Let's approach the latter point first: I'm not the first to point out that the semantic breadth of the word "fun" is so huge and varied as to make it next to useless. Jonathan Blow, in a recent public talk, gave a much more eloquent criticism of game design being driven by "fun", whatever that means--and you'd better believe it means very different things to different people. 
Another developer and thinker I respect is Chris Bateman, who has done excellent research and elucidation of play styles based on the work of Roger Caillois. It should surprise no one that there are greatly differing concepts of fun, some in active opposition to each other. A lot of videogames limit their markets by assuming competition/triumph over adversity as the only model. So if we are going to keep talking about fun, which we ought to, let us be more exacting in our terminology.
But it still can't be the only driving force behind a game, this amorphous conception of "what's fun." To address the former point: the idea that somehow research-driven design is going to end up with dry, simulative games because surely that's the only way we can model reality. Research does not equal realism. 
Research allows us awareness, inspiration beyond our purview, and when the vast majority of game developers are still some stripe of middle class white men, perspective-taking ought to be a serious consideration. Certainly we need more diversity in our designers, but diversity here will only go so far if new voices in the industry arrive only to join the hivemind chorus--making and remaking the same terrible AAA-model titles chorus, their diversity often little more than a potential marketing ploy.

A few examples are in order of what I mean by a research-based approach.
Take one of our earliest and best designers, Lord British (also known as Richard Garriott, I suppose). The man had an enormous influence on the earliest forms of CRPGs, and Ultima series stand as a unique set of games both in startling freedom of gameplay and expression, but also in world lore. Like virtually everyone operating in some aspect of the fantasy realm, he was enamored of J.R.R. Tolkien. 
The difference between Garriott and most other authors or designers in love with the Lord of the Rings is that Garriott didn't just read Tolkien in order to understand what Tolkien did, Garriott researched all the things that Tolkien researched
This dodges that fatal generation loss that comes from making your own copy of a good thing--which is that it is worse for being an imperfect copy, a copy of a copy. The foul taste in your mouth when you play most AAA videogames today comes from knowing you've had this meal before, and better--it was a lot better before it had been digested and excreted several times in succession. Garriott followed his idol correctly. If you want to be like Tolkien, immerse yourself in the primary sources he used to create his definitive fantasy world and synthesize your own influences as well; simply reading Tolkien and changes place names or plot points won't cut it.
A quote (from here): "Designers tend to be gamers who want to fix what they think was broken in the previous game. But that's not the way to be a great designer."

Jenova Chen and thatgamecompany are also a worthwhile example of research-driven design, if a less obvious one. Their acclaimed projects are not only built on innovative control concepts, but also on exploring novel emotional spaces in games. There is a research here that is experiential in nature. In order to say, "this game is giving me the sense of childlike joy of playing in a windy field on a bright summer's day," presumably one would have had the experience in question in order to know if the game is evoking the same emotions. Maybe this is obvious; maybe not. Most game designers I know are constantly considering the world in terms of gameplay mechanics, gauging their daily lives in terms of it's potential "game-ness," and most things in life have something going that could be extracted, abstracted mechanically. The key point here is that you need to have had these life experiences to draw upon, experiences occuring somewhere other than in front of a glowing screen. (Turn off the computer and take a walk, weirdo. And stop reading blogs, geez.)

A related anecdote: Takeshi Kajii, producer of Demons' Souls, quoted an unlikely point of inspiration for the game's highly unusual but praised multiplayer component. In the game, players cannot speak directly to each other and seldom even exist in each others' worlds fully, usually appearing as phantoms--but nonetheless rely on each other by leaving messages in the world, warnings or tips. The designer said the kernel of inspiration was getting his car out of the snow with the help of strangers. "I wondered about things like whether the last person made it home, whether I'd ever meet the people who helped me again... Maybe if I'd met them somewhere else, I would've made friends with them... Many thoughts crossed my mind."
 Here but for the impasse at hand these people would have no interaction at all, but they are forced into collaboration; Kajii has as chance encounter with anonymous strangers banding together to get back on their way and the memory stays with him. 
The intended illustration is that varied life experiences are grist for the mill for any creative person--from poet to filmmaker to game designer. 

The final and probably most straight forward example of research informing game development is JE Sawyer's lead design work on Fallout: New Vegas. Sawyer has been rightfully ascendant as an RPG designer--first on the fabled Van Buren, and later FO:NV. As project director Sawyer has been responsible for the more gun-savvy elements of New Vegas, notably the portrayal of firearms and the reloading bench system.
Since my own initiation into researching and collecting firearms (much to the general annoyance of friends and loved ones), games have seemed maddeningly obtuse in their depiction of guns. Which seems strange, when first person shooters focus on little else than the gun in your hands shooting other people and things--and most haven't bothered to get that right. FO: New Vegas redresses that in a game that most thought unlikely to do so. It both deepens and corrects the flawed gun combat in the original FO3; no mean feat/
 Not that games haven't already had their endless share of gunplay-related mechanics, but so many of them are invented from whole cloth. In a laudable display of a designer's private interests informing his public work for the better, Sawyer's initiation into the world of firearms made an considerable impact on how the game can be played. Peppered throughout the world are reloading benches--essentially crafting stations for ammo, that just happen to actually exist, too. Sawyer understood the myriad "game-y" mechanics all around him with firearms, and the game is both more grounded in the way firearms actually work and also far more distinct in the series of Fallout games. It is not suddenly "realistic," but it incorporates enjoyably "game-y" elements from reality quite admirably.

So what does any of this have to do with the quote at the beginning of the article? It's from the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and has echoes in my mind again and again over the years as an admonition of humility in intellectual endeavors. First have to admit you don't know as much as you think you know--about guns or space or marines or swords or knights or what have you--and then you can start learning. And once you're designing from a position of knowledge, rather than of ignorance, you're free to make calls as you see fit, informing your design work with some sense of authenticity, rather than as some interchangeable gloss or slight reworking of the last big game you played. 
Game design will gladly continue to regurgitate and eat itself forever, much in the same manner as film and television does in such a bald and ugly fashion, if we don't strive for fresh material to process. The best way forward I know is research. 
More games need to be built from a position of knowledge, not simply lateral cannibalization with some kind of new conceptual hook slathered on top.

Discuss this post in the forums (please do, it's rather interesting in there.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

GAUSSWERKS / DESIGN REBOOT forums

Sunday, October 10, 2010 6
Now open to the public. I would like to say that I have been tremendously fortunate to attract exactly the kind of thoughtful, intelligent commenters to this site that I was hoping to--so first, thank you all, and second, please let's continue to deepen the kind of discussions we have in the comments more thoroughly in the forums--see you inside.

Design Reboot one-shot: Oni


Oni is a lesser-known title from Bungie, released in 2001. On a few points it was ahead of the curve: mixed third person melee and gun combat, tentative efforts at real-world architecture, and that ever so popular anime style that the kids all love now, but was quite a bit more niche nine years ago.

Rather than a full design reboot here I decided to only play with Konoko's character design and see what happened. I ended up with a kind of Franka Potente in Run Lola Run vibe combined with the original  Major Kusanagi/Ghost in the Shell riff, while keeping the distinctive haircut. I was less interested in the kind of high tech armor/bodysuit deal she sported in the original (seen below)--a theme you may notice through some of my other character redesigns, I am trying to keep with more moderate, normal clothing for characters while retaining an iconic color palette.

If Konoko is going to be running around in a game doing a lot of martial arts type stuff it seemed appropriate to have her outfit light, sporty, and practical. Pictured is the point early on the game where she abandons her more cumbersome SWAT-style equipment. As for a few comments on the possible gameplay redesign, Oni seemed to anticipate a lot of what would be done later with Mirror's Edge--emphasized speed and agility over traditional shooter action. Certainly a bright, impressionistic rendering style would be appropriate here as well. What do you think?

Be sure to discuss this in the newly unveiled GAUSSWERKS / DESIGN REBOOT forums.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A dog's life

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 7
(Mild spoilers follow. Like you even care, Dad.)

All puns intended, Kane & Lynch 2 is for the dogs.
Admire the poor creatures' appearances in the game itself: briefly and unremarkably, they show up to be gunned down.  They inspire none of the visceral fear of the dog packs in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or COD4 (or the loathsome retread of the same found in World at War).
They come running toward you and you ventilate them with bullets, and then you wonder briefly why they were included at all. Tellingly, the last two interlopers to attack you right before the game's abrupt non-ending are dogs. The game is nasty, brutish and short, and squarely centered on the de rigueur cover mechanic.

Why would IO put out a game so blind to the company's own best strengths?


Are they so keen to distance their other games from the consistent brilliance of Hitman I wonder? Pressure from Eidos, and then new owners Square Enix? I finished K&L2 on the PC shortly after release, but continued to ponder the design decisions that shaped the game.
Kane & Lynch 1 was chiefly remarkable for the title characters. There was a rare sense of parity between the amoral chaos the duo causes both in the cutscenes and in the gameplay. The game also claims partial inheritance from Freedom Fighters (a well received former title of IO whose IP rights stayed with EA), with a good degree of the gameplay verbs given over to basic squad management. One could swap weapons with anyone in the crew, or resupply ammo; occasionally ordering your crew around made a difference tactically.
Despite the game never really delivering on the HEAT-inspired heisting that it seemed to promise along with the HEAT-inspired gunplay (which it mostly did), there was an admirable sense of belonging. Much of the game's action was centered on working alongside in crew of professional criminals, of which the title characters were in the lead. HEAT was the clear exemplar, as has been repeatedly noted: one only needs to watch the justly vaunted bank robbery scene to see why. Cops and robbers, high-power mayhem among hapless bystanders. In my mind, this counted for a lot of the first game's appeal.



Yet IO chose not to revise and hone that gameplay; it is as if they actually believed everything said about their game and proceeded to rip out all the good along with the bad. Choosing to erode core gameplay until there was nothing but an equally meager and punishing cover shooter subsistence left.
I find this puzzling because well observed iterative design is what turned the Hitman series into such a towering success. There were missteps and false notes in each game, which were gradually corrected until the most recent Blood Money: a classic, highly polished and deeply replayable game with mass-market appeal, strong cross-platform sales. (Hitman is also a remarkable case of a console-centered control makeover making life better for PC players, too. Remind me of that comment for another post sometime.)

So what's with the lobotomy on an already slight game? Virtually all of the heisting and any crew-centric verbs or gameplay/story concepts disappeared. Also missing were the highlight spectacles of the first game--a non-violent ramp-up to a set-piece (the Collateral-inspired club sequence) as well as big shootouts occuring in public with numerous bystanders.
It seems as though in the effort to correct what was critically and popularly reviled about the first title, they trimmed out much of what made the original game admirable.
To be sure there are perfunctory nods to expanding the multiplayer component, and the online co-op and revamped visual style are to be commended. But there again--why so much effort into a multiplayer mode condemned to be a ghost town shortly after release, as most non-CoD or Halo releases are?

The essential relationship between the two misfit lead characters also goes under-served. Despite a lot of the anti-cinematic rhetoric evident in my personal design philosophy I am not against a game that tells a good story, by whatever means appropriate. I like hearing these characters connect--or fail to, seeing as how they are both emotionally crippled, horrible men.
IO have taken time to establish these characters through extraordinarily nuanced choices--the costuming choices throughout the game are frankly industry best--and give us well directed cutscenes only in order to serve up variations on the same template: Oh shit, we're in another firefight. Oh Kane, oh Lynch, we've made yet another poor decision involving a shady underworld boss' daughter getting shot by one or the both of us. Is this really the only plot point IO writers can avail themselves of? Why go through the trouble of drawing the characters so vividly when the player behind them is availed even less expression than the first, "casual"-centered action title?

The game seems to have gone in precisely the wrong direction. Reduced and pared down where it should have expanded; reined in where it should have extended. It succeeds in giving us wall-to-wall action, but isn't that where all the biggest blockbuster titles make their money? Why beg the comparison?



I want to finish by talking a little bit about interstices and infrastructure. The former is where the game misses out, the latter is where the game profoundly disappoints in a way that we see over and over again in these kinds of games.

By interstices I mean the space between things; in the case of Kane and Lynch I am referring to both the gameplay and the gamespace. These interstices are suggestive of all the possible gameplay variation the game so desperately needs, as well as the connective tissue to the story.
 In a key sequence, teased from the very first viral video for the game (though the video promises far more variety than the game delivers), Kane and Lynch have been savagely tortured and must escape, naked and wounded. It is one of the game's startling high points, if only for a moment. In short order the two are re-armed with found weapons and the game proceeds exactly as a few minutes ago.
Surely, the extraordinary circumstances might offer variation, but no such luck. Not even a darkly comic sequence of these two tortured men A) in some back alley stealing ill-fitting clothes off clotheslines in the back alleys of Shanghai, weaponless, and then perhaps B)breaking into a hospital or clinic to seek pain relief or other supplies.
Instead we have another perfunctory albeit in-the-buff shooting sequence exactly like the rest of the game, and cut to Kane and Lynch walking into their next ambush/firefight already with their mismatched clothes on and hasty bandages.
If IO meant to place us in panicked, caged-animal feeling of these two men in their attempt to escape Shanghai with you-are-there immediacy, surely the game would have benefitted from more careful attention to the nuts and bolts of that escape. Instead we are treated to the traditionally jarring videogame cut-to-next-level, all promise of those tantalizing interstices erased. Just press fast forward.

More often than not, the scene we fast-forward to is some kind of lazy level design staple: industry and infrastructure. It makes sense in more strictly military-minded games--after all, American warfare is increasingly fixated on attacking and defending infrastructure for sound reasons.
But this does not excuse most action games forcing us through an endless gauntlet of industrial or infrastructural spaces. I do not mean to single out K&L2 solely for this offense, but to underscore how endemic it is to many videogame level designs.
In K&L2 there are some interesting, highly evocative and quintessentially Shanghai-type locations, but there are also all the old favorites. Over the course of the game we visit a parking garage, a construction site, several warehouses, a shipyard/drydock, a rail yard/depot, a skyscraper's HVAC workings, and finally an airport's hangars and baggage handling.
One cannot help but yearn for the thousand times more interesting and mayhem-filled action to be seen on the other side of the walls one is cattle-gated through. It is appropriate to the story--Kane and Lynch are rotten bastards, trying to escape from this city at all cost--and it is also a highlight from the first game bafflingly left un-revisited in the sequel.
If only there were the checkbox on the application to work at a UPS warehouse, [X] Yes, I have played most action games over the past fifteen years and am therefore an expert in virtual warehousing (specialty in demonic warehousing). [X] Yes, I do know my way around containerized shipping, I have spent close to a month in real time around virtual shipping containers, shipyards, and commercial shipping vessels.

Much as one finds in relationships, one cannot help but feel as though while it may not strictly provide a positive portrait of what is the right path ahead in game and level design, our past nevertheless continues to furnish us with example after example of what not to do: what we have done again and again and hate ourselves for and swear we will avoid next time.

Please let my action games have breathing room enough to admit gameplay beyond shooting.
Please let my action games be set in places other than industrial/infrastructural areas.
Amen.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Open world issues Part 3: trust and the player-driven narrative

Thursday, April 29, 2010 23

I confess that every previous attempt to write this third installment has been met with some manner of derailment. Anyone unfortunate enough to have contact with me in casual conversation or on message boards on the subject of games will find me increasingly the ideologue. Any discussion about games seems to lead back inexorably to a few pet topics: the scourge of "cinematic" gaming chief among these, player agency and narrative.

As with the other two articles I hope that in identifying shortcomings in game design principles, in asking the right questions, I will have answers worth considering.

The player-driven narrative

The player in an open world wants to be in the driver's seat, literally and figuratively. I personally would like an open world to be just that: not an otherwise linear game whose mission order can be scrambled, but at the cost of endless shuttling to and from mission locations (AKA the pizza boy syndrome). As with GTA this is where the conversation always seems to turn back to cutscenes and movie-style story content because it is necessarily cost prohibitive and static. Either the movie conforms to the game (enormously expensive even to offer small choices in the main narrative), or the game conforms to the movie, which is how most games end up. Aspirations to "cinematic" games are a dangerous trap because in order to get those movie-like experiences we undercut what make games worthwhile on their own terms.
This suggests that cinematic-style high cost content--cutscenes and their related animation and voice work--have a higher impact on the quality and actual player choice than most people assume. If players and designers free themselves from the increasing fixation on the trappings of the disparate medium of film, likely it will be far simpler to allow the player farther-reaching choice and consequence in the game world.

Armed with ability

If we are to commit ourselves to greater player agency outside the bounds of movie-styled static content delivery, then we may find ourselves looking around for something to do. I do not criticize GTA's increasing emphasis on mimetic/lifestyle fantasy elements because there are fascinating, unique experiences allowable within that context.
An example I give that is similar to other stories I have heard about playing GTA4: once I had just fixed myself a sandwich but also wanted to play the game. I started GTA IV and then hired a cab to a mission destination across town, and simply did not skip the ride. It was an oddly inspired, unique experience to sit within the POV of the passenger, looking out on this well-realized virtual city traveling in real time, and eat a sandwich. While passive it was an experience I chose, one that made me reflect on various cab rides in cities in memory--unlike much of GTA4 it was not a movie-inspired element.
This is not to suggest that I want to play a slow boat to China simulator replete with various 1920s socialite passengers as the boat travels in real time (scratch that: now I do). But there are very strong elements in GTA, as with the other open world games, that are somewhat overlooked but do more than their share to immerse the player in the world.
Replacing the cinematic with the experiential would seem a critical step in vitalizing open worlds. Far Cry 2 is a game I otherwise enjoyed tremendously, but for the general shallowness of what I needed or could do within the visually lush environment. Tie my character further into the socio-economic fabric of the world he inhabits--not in order to simulate, but to create play economies, interactions with an otherwise static world.
In FC2 I am a mercenary who outside of the inspired malaria mechanic sought only weapons, ammunition, and morphine. What other needs or mechanics would serve to deepen both my immersion but also the playability of unique environs of the game?

Player input required

I would like to close with a contemplation of skill and performance. Not as an appeal for so-called "hard fun," or a return to outrageous difficulty ramps/endless trial-and-error gauntlets, but as an appeal for games to recover a capacity for the player to use their wit and intelligence. Both in rewards and in penalties.
Perhaps this marks me as too old-school of a PC gamer (or an inveterate hoarder) but I feel this is deeply intertwined with above concepts of agency, of choice. In order to let players be extraordinarily clever, I suppose it means you might have to let some players lose.
A story to illustrate: I remember playing Gears of War and first encountering the Hammer of Dawn weapon. It was enormously powerful, but clearly restricted by the vagaries of a weapon that called down an attack from a satellite. In the game Marcus can only carry two weapons, so it seemed a very clear moment of choice to me: do I drop the Hammer in favor of a less powerful gun that I can use frequently, or do I give up that second slot on the chance that later on I will be able to use the Hammer's enormous damage? I chose the latter--I was carrying two weapons of a similar performance profile so I decided it might come in handy.
Sure enough, it did come in handy later--but when I needed it there was of course another Hammer, lying conveniently on the ground just before an encounter with an enemy who could only be defeated using the Hammer.
I felt cheated. As a designer, I understood what had happened: if the player was to experience an interesting special encounter (we've got to get this enemy out in the open and then use the Hammer), they couldn't risk the player not having the weapon handy. But in making sure anybody playing the game had access to the Hammer when they needed it, the game also removed any sense of reward for my own initiative to keep the weapon.
Certainly I don't suggest that players just be screwed over with an unwinnable encounter without the Hammer--but couldn't the encounter (or similar encounter) be structured to reward cleverness or foresight, while still allowing other players an alternate, possibly more difficult solution to the problem? Say if you didn't keep the Hammer, you might still be able to whittle the Berserker's health down conventionally, or there might be another entertainingly "hardcore" method of dispatching it, like crushing it with a boulder.

 Choice needs to come with its own realm of variable performance. In order that there be real benefit to cleverness, to foresight, not all players can reap the rewards.
A positive example is in RE4, with the multi-part treasures: if Leon held off on selling what looked to be components of a larger whole, he'd make considerably more money later, once he had assembled all the pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this element has been "streamlined" out of RE5. Sooner or later we'll get to "streamlining" most anything resembling a conscious decision or choice out of mainstream games, but it doesn't have to be this way.

***


To restate the above points: the essence of a game apart from traditional media is the player's interaction. The more a game allows the player to choose, to drive the story, the more it is a game and not a counterfeit of filmic experience.
If the player is to drive the narrative, he will likely require a greater range of possible interactions with the world--something to do that replaces the "cinematic" straitjacket of before--and these interactions will comprise much of the meat of the game, moment to moment.
If then the player is in the driver's seat and has an array of skills and interactions available, the final step in adding depth to the play experience is to take the training wheels off, allowing variable performance beyond rote or mechanical. Hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Open world issues Part 2: the Bethesda model

Wednesday, March 24, 2010 28

Comments from yesterday's article prompted me to write a second update to discuss Bethesda's approach to open world games, since they're the other major player and take a markedly different approach worth discussing. We'll save the final discussion for where exactly we might like to pitch our own vision of an "open world" style game for a third installment.

The most obvious difference between Rockstar and Bethesda's approach to open world games is that the former makes action games and the latter makes RPG games. Where GTA has flirted memorably with light character mechanics with GTA:San Andreas, it's easy to see how far different the worlds are because of the RPG traditions of character creation and role assumption.
Not only am I naming and controlling the appearance of my character, the game assumes I am choosing a moral stance as well as preference for archetypal playstyles: warrior, rogue, or wizard, in the broad strokes, and all the flavors and subclasses in between.
As players we can assume much of the game/world content has been built to accommodate this spectrum of different player abilities and approaches. Tommy, CJ, or Niko we pick dress up clothes for but their stories are not ours; the traditional RPG focus of Bethesda's games assume a far greater stake in both role-creation and role-playing. We're expected to make decisions.

I explain the painfully obvious aspects of an action game character vs. an RPG character because I think it's important here in how their respective worlds are designed relative to player input. An action character has a set, narrow verb set but with generally greater resolution in those verbs, whereas RPGs take a broader approach, with a loss of fine resolution typically in action-style combat mechanics (though it's interesting here to note the hybrid forms in Mass Effect 1/2).
One key concern here is that Niko has no method to of interaction with other characters in the world, one to one, other than violence. He may play games, pay vendors for food or clothing, go on dates or hire a prostitute but these are only available contextually. Walking on the street with his girlfriend, his cousin, or past a police officer we are allowed either passivity or violence. This is why the otherwise incredibly well realized world of Liberty City seems so flat by comparison to much smaller-scoped, but more richly detailed games.  We may not encounter nearly as many citizens of whatever fantasy realm as pedestrians in Liberty City, but we can be assured we have at least some shallow, non-violent interactions with most of them.

 I am less an admirer of most fantasy settings; lesser still impressed when games lack an emphasis on finely tuned movement and combat mechanics, which I think has arguably been a weak point in Bethesda's games. So as with Part 1 I will use a post quote to enable discussion, this time from Internet scholar Liesmith:

    I think if you talk about the Bethesda model you should talk about the Daggerfall -> Morrowind -> Oblivion spectrum. Daggerfall is really innovative and provides a ton of stuff for the player to do, but it's overwhelming and specific towns + dungeons are bland because of the random generation. Still stuff like the item rules, where you trap souls and each soul has specific properties which it adds to your items, that's awesome and really ambitious.

Morrowind is a varied experience with really cool shit to do, and the best stuff is exploring a sweet ruin or tomb that no quest pointed you to, and finding a great sword or a book in dwarvish that needs translating. At the same time the quests are a lot of fun, especially since you have to seek them out rather than having them thrust upon you. It's a little scary at first though because gamers aren't used to so much freedom. Also fast travel is resolved in-game, with silt striders, teleport spells or boats.

Then Oblivion is a game that fails in exactly the opposite way as Daggerfall. In order to ease the new gamer's fear of the unknown and lack of direction, they made everything bland and introduced an insulting quest arrow. Fast traveling is similarly dumbed down, and at every turn it feels like they made the safe choices.


There's a lot to unpack here, but I appreciate him introducing a basic spectrum to talk about complexity of the world and correspondingly the emphasis each game places on the player's own will to conquer or explore. This seems consistent with what I have experienced of each title.
Daggerfall is almost punishingly vast in scope, perhaps crippled by overarching ambition for its period; Morrowind is a balancing act of reduced scope but greater specificity in how locations are realized; Oblivion narrows scope further for better graphical fidelity as well as ease of play considerations. Popularly speaking, it seems that Goldilocks picked Morrowind, though Oblivion was by no means unpopular.

Generally speaking I find that Bethesda's approach to open world design is a lot more winning than Rockstar's, in terms of response to a player's desire to play the game by their own rules. Least of all because of this sort of thing, again from Liesmith:

Also in Morrowind, you can kill everybody. This is a pretty crude measure of freedom but it's important. Some people will break the plot if they die, and it will tell you that you have done so after you kill the god Vivec or whoever. But it lets you keep playing because the main quest isn't a big deal.

I think this is an important element because of what it means about the overall character of the world and the designer's esteem of the player.
One of my greatest issues with the GTA experience is that the free play/story mission bifurcation makes me feel as though I am a child allowed to play in a consequence free environment until I decide to "behave" and do the story missions, and over time I'm rewarded with progress in the game world: more of the city becomes available, safehouses, money, etc.
 A game like Morrowind, by placing even important story characters "in the world" and at the mercy of the vengeful player suggests greater trust in the player's intelligence and desire to shape his own experience. If I begin my game and I decide I would like nothing better to do than to exterminate every character I come across, I could go a very long way toward this goal. This is a lauded feature of other classic RPG franchises, such as Fallout. Is this simply revealing how much we value mass-murdering in a game? Or is it an act of good faith by the designer?


To me it says the designers realize the player understands that if they kill the guy handing out all the quests, they're probably not going to be able to get to the golden castle high on the ridge that's at the end of all of this. Or maybe they will, but not the way they would have if they'd done the quest. But instead of considering this a gamebreaker and flatly disallowing it, it assumes that it's meaningful to the player that even quest NPCs are mortal; that there might be clever alternate solutions, ways to game the system.
In the end the game's respect for me as a player ends usually spells how much respect I have for the game in return. How much leeway as a player to do I get toward making my own fun?

How important is that to you as a player? Watch for part three for further discussion.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Open world issues Part 1: the Rockstar model

Tuesday, March 23, 2010 19


Many designers and players consider the open world design a kind of ultimate, one that trumps more traditional forms.
I would argue that this simply isn't true; if only on the grounds that no one genre or design style can trump all others. (Chess is likely not improved by changing the board from 64 squares to 128.)
Yet it remains a kind of holy grail. The success of Rockstar's GTA series seems to prove there to be a valid, stable model for open world game design. But how successful is it? Certainly it makes money, but I question the coherence of the structure. Not only do open world designs open up new and typically unresolved design problems, they inherit longer-standing design issues with linear games.

The main criticism of GTA was so well formulated by Internet Rockstar Dr.Pwn that I will quote the relevant post directly:

The actions of the player character in GTA4 can best be described as the actions of two separate characters, one who reflects the player's decisions during normal gameplay (run over a sidewalk full of people, kill a bunch of cops), and one that is unilaterally imposed through scripted sequences. (Look at Niko as he shows that he loves Kate. Look at Niko as he feels bad about crime.).The game privileges the "choices" of the second over the first, even when they're in direct contradiction. The game's insistence that the player character, say, loves Kate even when the player has indicated the opposite, makes Niko defined by player choice the "fake" one and the one defined by scripted interaction the "real" one.


And therein lies the problem. Few open world games truly commit themselves to the operative paradigm. What at first appears to be a coherent world in which the player has surprising free agency turns out to be rigidly separated spheres of "fake" and "real" play. Our player Niko, "fake" Niko, drives around, dresses, and acts as psychotically as he pleases, even on dates or outings with friends, where he might endanger their lives any number of times. He may only express himself in terms of infantile rage or excess, but here he is wholly under player control.
But none of this makes the permanent record. Cops shake their heads and say "aw, shucks" to the preeminent mass murderer of the city, who goes by the hospital to pick up his cousin Roman who forgives him for the tenth or so exploding or sunken car he was abandoned to.
 When we want to advance the story, we trigger a mission cutscene and re-inhabit "real" Niko, who despite being our player character we exercise little to no control over; it is as if the three hours or thirty hours we have spent running amok in Liberty City have not happened at all.

It says to the player, look: go ahead and have fun, but nothing you do will impact the true story of the game, which resides in the hermetically sealed parallel world of the story missions. Once the player acquiesces and begins a story mission, to their chagrin they are now in a linear, scripted mission with fixed consequences as one would find in any other game. And this is a "sandbox" game?
Despite the story missions taking place in technically the same world as the player's free-form antics, they are governed by the old rules. We watch cutscenes where Niko emotes in a manner often inconsistent with how we have played him. He wears the same clothes as our player-Niko, but otherwise might as well be an entirely different character. We are handed down the real story of the game in film-like format, though designers may stoop to allow the player ruling on a paltry MORAL CHOICE (please read Clint Hocking's revelant comments on this if you haven't already).




It is an elaborate charade stemming from the desire to emulate the entirely dissimilar medium of film and its emotional hallmarks. Except games are not film, and so the farther games move toward emulating film production, the farther player agency will necessarily close down.
It is exponentially prohibitive to create motion-captured, voice-acted movie-like content for all the many possible actions that player-Niko might choose. So instead of devising and building story content that might suitably conform to player agency, the designers choose instead to cripple meaningful player volition to conform roughly to that of film.

A typical scenario for GTA4 mission:
Introductory cutscene (1), which gives plausible set-up for what will invariably end as a chase sequence since Niko must kill NPC X. Player then drives to designated point, and is treated to/mocked with another short cutscene (2) where we meet colorful NPC X, who usually outwits Niko before we regain input control. At which point NPC X hops into a car or onto a motorcycle and is generally invulnerable to damage until chased successfully to another location, where he might taunt the player again (3). There we fight a number of armed goons, conjured ex nihilo, until finally we meet NPC X in yet another cutscene (4), possibly with the explicit prompt of a MORAL CHOICE to kill him or not, which means a short final cutscene to render this verdict (5a and 5b).
At several points during this mission a clever player might think of various ways to kill NPC X well before the end of the mission, but this is generally not allowed because how will the player A) watch the great cutscenes toward the end of the mission or B) know that he has a MORAL CHOICE in whether or not to kill him? (Nevermind the 20 or so dispatchable goons who stay alive as a result of NPC X and the player not arriving at the second location.)
I profess admiration for the incredible army that create several minutes worth of cutscenes that show up with every mission. But these nougats of film-like content are what hobble the player from making any serious choices for Niko; they are ultimately a trap.
Because once all that time and money is spent, those that are involved become increasingly unwilling to relegate the content to optional, possible outcomes of player choice. What if like many players I am singularly uncharmed by Kate and my version of Niko never voluntarily hangs out with her? Then we lose the entire ham-fistedly tragic arc she is involved in.
"No," says our hypothetical producer, "if we're paying for the voice-acting and the motion capture for all these sequences, they're going to be seen." Or if there points in the story where the player can make significant choices, they must be limited to key points, in order to keep costs down. Cutscenes, a technique that might have been initially deployed as an aid to player investment or immersion, ultimately end up crippling player agency.


Dr.Pwn (a real, accredited medical doctor and professor) continues:

I then looked at the "world" of GTA4 in a similar manner. Parallels can be found if one views GTA4 as an overworld, collection of mission-worlds, and number of scripted sequences (a scripted-world, if you will). The overworld is a flat, uninteractive, and basically empty place in which the mission activation beacons can be driven to by the player. It is neither host to nor reflective of any meaningful player action. The actual action (as well as all of the unique NPCs and conversations and objectives and such) are found in the missions. Unfortunately, these bear little relevance to the story, which is defined almost solely through uninteractive, scripted events. This isn't good and they should stop doing this.

I agree wholeheartedly. I'm not completely against games that rely heavily on cutscenes, but I want to make sure that they are not understood as the only and certainly far from the best way to make games.
 It is as if I am reading a book and am asked to queue up a DVD or youtube clip, at the end of which I return to the book. A novel that employs such a technique might be well regarded, maybe as an entertaining novelty, but likely not considered a superior example of the form by very nature of its reliance on another medium. This is how I feel about games with cutscenes: invariably most of their energy is going toward aping a
dissimilar form. The games I have fondest memories of employed cutscenes infrequently, if at all.

But what are the solutions? What might an open world game look like when we eschew cutscenes as both an emotional/story crutch? How far propagated might player agency become, and is there such a thing as giving the player too much influence? How do we activate the play space of an open world in a way that does not rely predominantly on canned, linear-style missions?

Tomorrow we'll look at the solutions we might plausibly consider to resolve these design issues. In other words "stay tuned," cutscene fans.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Level Design Primer: Notes on Playtesting

Friday, February 12, 2010 11
Playtesting is like working out--you can go a long time telling yourself you don't need it, and then when you finally get around to doing it it will hurt so much you'll probably stop again for too long.
But resist the temptation to quit. Understand that testing is an inextricable part of good design; what you're making is for the player after all.


You Are Not Your Work






I feel a little silly parroting this again, but it's worth it if gets through to just a few more people. Remember the lesson of every teary-eyed critique in art classes the world over--you are not your work.
It is of you, but it is not you. While you may be deeply invested in it, once you have made something it is out there in the world and separate from you. No matter how coarsely phrased a criticism may be, remember it is a reflection of the work and not you personally.
There are creative professionals that get by without learning this but boy does it cause them no end of grief. The pride and joy of creation I think must necessarily follow with detachment; a distanced, even clinical appraisal.
While I've found this kind of professional detachment also tends to shave the peaks of euphoric highs during development, it's more than worth it by pulling out of the gutting lows. You can be still be passionate and excited about your work without taking the emotional rollercoaster that comes from not being able to separate your work from yourself.


Conducting The Test



[This is assuming you're using what Will Wright calls a "Kleenex tester," a player without prior experience with the game who will likely not test again, rather than a professional or regular tester.]

Make sure your tester feels comfortable enough to talk freely, but do not get too friendly with them. Exerting the social pressures of a new acquaintance (or invoking your friendship with someone you know) means getting polite answers instead of useful ones. People will likely downplay or politely lie to your face to avoid an uncomfortable situation.

I usually start with a very short capsule summary of the game and it's premise (no more than a few sentences), along with any mission-critical info if they they're playing a level that's not the beginning of the game. I also make sure they are able to set any control preferences before they begin (though I don't know why we tolerate your kind, EDSFers. Go back to the Moon.)

Then it's time to prime the tester to think outloud. I'll say something like the following:

"What I'd like you to do is say anything that comes to mind while you're playing, things like "I'm frustrated," or "this part is cool."  Don't worry about offending me. If something is really bad you're doing me a favor by mentioning it, it'll help make the game better. Ask questions if they come up while you're playing, or if something isn't clear say so and I'll respond to everything--but after the test is over. While you're playing just enjoy yourself, pretend I'm not here."

Be very aware of how much physical positioning factors into the tester's comfort level. Grab your notebook and sit several feet back, as far back as you can off to the side and well outside their peripheral vision. Making sure they don't feel like you're hovering is important--nobody likes that feeling, and testing can already feel a little weird for most people already. Giving the player headphones can also help them feel less self-conscious. You can still come up and fix a show-stopping flaw or restart the level as necessary, but generally try to make yourself invisible for the duration of the test. You're there to observe.


Slow Motion Trainwreck



And here comes the hard part. Now you get to see all your brilliant plans laid to ruin as what you thought was simple and straightforward to the player is anything but. Try to take it in stride; now when I playtest I almost feel like a classic Freudian analyst, or a scientist regarding a lab trial. Clinical detachment is useful here.

Once the level is out of your hands there's nothing you can do to help it if something goes wrong. So if during the playtest something does happen (such as the surprisingly common scourge of "player error"), short of a crash or other complete show-stopper, you're just going to have to grin and bear it. This can be one of the most punishing aspects of a playtest but this is your lot. What's hardest to take often ends up the most useful information.

So pay close attention. Get impressions down immediately, but make as many notations about specific problems as you can. Missed cues, objectives that are ignored or unseen, key dialogue that doesn't seem to be heeded, horribly unfair firefight, collision problems, the player wandering off the map--all of the above might happen in a single test.
    This is your chance to see your world through someone else's perspective, so keep your eyes on the screen and write down any comments they make. Make a mental record of where they're looking--if there's an important element that never crossed their sightline, why or how did it happen? Did you misjudge the clarity of your layout?
As we talked about in the previous LDP article, no one tester's word is law, their experience necessarily represents just a single small data point. Yes, a single test can reveal a lot of issues that obviously should be fixed, but generally speaking you're looking for patterns from multiple sessions; reworking too much based on a single test can be very counter-productive. Balance your observations with instinct.

***

Regular testing will likely result in a greater knowledge of your own bias/hyperawareness of the level. What you feel like is "really overdoing it" might just be noticeable to the player, and the touches you consider "subtle" will probably escape notice entirely.
So test early, test often--it will get easier, and you'll have to redo so much less work if you get playtesters in at the earliest opportunity. Your sense of what works and what doesn't will naturally sharpen. You'll find yourself building level elements that anticipate typical player behaviors, rather than having to come and fix them after a test.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Level Design Primer: Starting A New Level

Thursday, February 11, 2010 7
When a modern FPS level takes weeks or months of production time it's probably a good idea to approach a new one with care. What follows is a summary of the six most important lessons I've learned so far about starting new levels.

1. Plan On Paper

"It is important to use your hands, this is what distinguishes you from a cow or a computer operator."
- Paul Rand



Shigeru Miyamoto and his team first designed the classic Super Mario Brothers levels on long paper scrolls. I find little hope of building a space as sublime and iconic as World 1-1 by bringing technology to bear too early--so don't open up the editor just yet. Start on paper. Try to give yourself (or beg your superiors for) enough time to think and to plan; it will pay off later.
Apologies for sounding like your gradeschool art teacher, but your most important tools are that piece of paper and your imagination. Especially in a production environment, some notes and a whiteboard or a few simple drawings can launch incredible ideas. A hundred different scenarios can be suggested and discarded before a single BSP brush snaps to the grid. Run with the ideas that intrigue you and don't worry too much about technical constraints just yet.
Get comfortable with thinking on the page; write down and sketch your internal dialogue. Don't trust that just because an idea is so awesome it means you'll remember it, or remember it in the same way. Buy a notebook or sketchbook if you don't already have one. As I point out in my article on character design, there's no need to get hung up drawing quality. Everybody can draw well enough to help develop layout ideas--simple lines and boxes will do just fine.
Brainstorm your approach to the level, specific sequences you might build around, hooks that make the experience of your level unique. Record them and then set them aside as you work. We'll cover the discipline of ideation in another update, but the important point is to not get married to the first ideas that crop up. You want to do enough thinking and doodling that you have the pick of the litter of many ideas in layout and encounters, not just being forced to execute on a small handful.
Try to complement this early planning stage with talking through your ideas with others. Kick them around with friends and coworkers whose sensibilities you trust. Try to get some feedback during all stages of development, even (especially) from people who you don't always agree with. George Lucasing it up with your own troop of yes-men is more comfortable but will ruin the work over time. Ideas get better--or at least the bad ones flushed out faster--once you try them out.

[We'll also leave out talking about research for the time being, but suffice it to say I am a strong proponent of research-driven approach to pre-production.]


2. Establish Scale



As you begin to rough in your level layout in the editor, one of your first priorities will be to establish scale. There's a reason why development textures for many games will have real-world comparison measurements all over them: you'll want constant markers and reference points to register the scale of your space.
With Darkest of Days there were several levels I sculpted the initial terrain for or also did a good amount of set-dressing, but did not script, and these are the levels I am most disappointed with because they are simply too large. The size of and therefore pacing of the levels are intrinsically distorted because I did not pay close enough attention to scale.
Terrain/outdoor spaces make it especially difficult to keep a grip on scale. You may think you can judge the scale of that hill you just raised, but in the abstract space of the editor it could be 20 feet or 200 feet.
For their part, indoor spaces also tend to require exacting consistency in calibration. Failure to do so will make for levels that will at best feel slightly "off" to the player, even if they can't articulate why.
Once you have created a terrain mesh or set laid brushes for your floorplan, immediately place objects in the world that you are intimately familiar with. Use the player character or as close to person-sized NPC as is available, cars and trucks, anything you know well. The closer they are to real-world objects the better, in order that you can fix them and your level in relation to real-world scale.
Here the first person perspective can be deceptive. your level can look normal sized while moving around in it alone because of no comparative cues--so be sure to place NPCs. In a pinch even a box, scaled to 6 foot high or so, will prove useful.
I recently did some work in UDK which was very interesting, because the tutorial/demo content is based off of Unreal Tournament 3. When a game is based on a traditional multiplayer deathmatch environment, double-jumps and all, objects and space are usually blown out a little to make room for the action.
A chainlink fence asset that I assumed to be about 8 feet tall turned out to be nearly 20 feet tall, skewed to the needs of UT3. Get to know your game's scale conversion between in-game units and the real world, so you can more accurately judge size relationships as you work.
Resist the temptation to leave obvious problems or faults in that "you will fix later." You will regret it. Small oversights become catastrophes with time. Once you're farther into building your level, recalibrating scale may become difficult or impossible without completely rebuilding.



3. Play and Pace



Play your level constantly, paying close attention to how the layout feels.
The map is not the territory, even in a virtual world. What you see or think you see while floating around godlike within your creation has little if anything to do with the experience of the player, which is all that matters. As soon as you've got anything to walk on, place scale references and start playing it.
Pace through your entire level's playable area/intended player path in real time. Do not cheat. However long your level should take to play through to completion, you should spend close to that amount of time pacing through every moment, every fight and puzzle, long before they exist to anyone else.
Go so far as to play out mock firefights, even with no enemies and nothing but a platform separating you from the endless void. Look at the outline of your level and consider the ramifications. Is this run-up too long, too short? Does the player have enough time to appreciate the clever visuals you have planned over to the left there--in fact, will it cross their sightline at all?
Changes that come from this initial read of the layout are critical. Over time, a level begins to harden and set like concrete. The accretion of set-dressing, scripting, sounds and AI behavior steadily freeze what at the start is fluid, so take advantage of it while you can.
The further into the process you get, the harder major changes become. As with planning, do not be afraid to make sweeping changes or start over. At this stage it costs a fraction of the time and energy it will to change later on.

When I build levels I pace through them obsessively, over and over; imagining the player's line of travel through the level as a kind of furrow I dig with my feet. As I walk through the level over and over, the furrow deepens and widens into a path, graded and accommodating.
When the player arrives the level will be "paved" in this way, suitable for him to travel and puzzle and battle in. Problems are anticipated and corrected by tirelessly pacing through the world at every stage of development, reducing the likelihood of playtesters discovering unknown corners, snagging on jagged edges unencountered by the designer. You built this world, you should know it better than anyone else.



4. Build Up The Canvas



This advice is also rooted in experience of making art. When painting it's very easy to get excited about a particular detail--an eye, an ear of a portrait--but then find yourself stymied, lost for how to finish the rest of the piece. You have a single excellent detail drawn but now you are worried because it doesn't seem to fit with the rest, you have no idea how to proceed--worse yet you've been captured by preciousness, wanting to preserver all the hard work you've just done, scared to ruin it.
Level designers reading this may recall similar experiences of building a room or a particular sequence to perfection, and then stare at the rest of the unfinished level with dread, unsure of how to continue.
To combat this, remember to "build up the canvas" equally. In painting, this means to develop the whole picture to roughly the same detail level in successive passes.
In level design, this means resisting the temptation to build, script, light, texture-align and set-dress a single room to finished quality and then move on. To be sure, some successive room-to-room building will occur but try not to. Your work will go more smoothly by building with successive passes, increasing the resolution of the entire design as evenly as possible. Not only will this help keep you from stalling out, but it increases consistency and makes practical sense in a production environment, allowing for more representative playtests sooner.
This principle is also applied to marker rendering techniques taught for product designers. Say your boss or your client suddenly wants the design now, not tomorrow or next week. By building the detail of the piece in successive passes, you can rest assured that if asked for early (or if it takes longer than expected) while it may not be overall to the finish level you wanted, it will be consistent and look equally "done" to the client.

Using this strategy the level always close to progressively higher states of "done". This will help you from getting caught setting a slower pace for building your level than you'll be able to complete on time.



5. Track Moment To Moment



Once you have the broader strokes, the pace and rhythm of the level right, you can step in and refine and develop the details. People remember and relate in terms of stories; refining the moment to moment narrative of your level is an excellent way to make it memorable.
By this I mean you should consider how a player would narrate, in simple terms, discrete events in your level. "I sniped the officer, crossed the bridge, set fire to the gas tank and saw some cool jets fly over, then got inside the mech and blew up a building."
A minute of gameplay is a year, three minutes of any one activity seems a lifetime. Breaking down your level in terms of these smaller sequences will identify problems and help suggest more discrete moments and encounters, avoiding tedium or repetition.
Clarify specific experiences within the level you want the player to have. where do they take cover? if they take time to look around, what details are they rewarded with? What might be found by carefully searching the scenery? Levels will often have a dialogue script, but what is the action script for the player like?

Take a look at your level and see if you can construct a basic narrative from the experience. Does the scenery blend together a bit too much? Ask your next playtester to briefly describe in basic terms what they did/what they saw, and see how easy it is for them. The more discrete moments or sequences they can recall, the better.


6. Factor In Testing



This is one of the most important aspects of level design, of game design as a whole: test early, test often.
Other people playtesting your level needs to happen almost as much as your own in-game appraisal of the work. The level is ultimately to surprise, delight, and challenge the player, not to hold a mirror to your shining glory and genius. You will have no understanding of how successful your level is--or how potentially rotten and recycled--until other people play it. Often the difference between good and great levels are just how much more thoroughly tested the latter are.
I feel the need to qualify this carefully given the rise of a certain perception of playtesters end up "dumbing down" great levels and mechanics, particularly for console games. There is a kernel of truth to this; occasionally games have been altered for the worse by improperly factored testing.
We must remember that the designer is not the player and the player is not the designer.
I could expand this key concept--a variation on what Warren Spector considers the "co-authorship" of games--into an entire article on its own, but the point is that we cannot let player feedback alone override good sense and instinct.
The player is not the designer. Playtesters are usually filled with a lot of worthwhile suggestions, but these should be considered with care. Watching a player play, monitoring their action directly says far more than they will tell you went wrong or right.
When you observe playtests you are looking for patterns, the larger and more varied the sample the better; unless hugely positive or hugely negative, no one single playtest should too strongly skew your perception of your level design.

But there again, the designer is not the player. There is no greater criteria for a level's quality than how well the player enjoys it. All that we do comes to nothing if it is not done with the player in mind. Developing good habits and remaining acutely aware of how your new level is taking shape can take a lot of the pain and frustration out of a long and sometimes maddeningly complex task.

***

Tomorrow: the playtesting bonus round. Detailed description of my own methods, an argument for playtesting protocols, and why conducting disciplined playtests will make you a better designer. Quoth Aubrey: GET PUMPED.
 
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