Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Design Primer: Askhat's minotaur

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.) Labyrinth is completely dark.

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

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

Radiator Yang's Interview with yours truly

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

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

Saturday, February 12, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discuss this post in the forums

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Duty Calls: Kettle Ops

Thursday, February 3, 2011 23
As a part of a campaign to promote the upcoming People Can Fly/Epic game Bulletstorm, we get the following elaborate send-up of Call of Duty games, Duty Calls. I thought it was funny. But who's really the butt of the joke here?

It is not my nature to be peevish or small about this kind of thing, but there's a kind of mean-spirited angle to the parody here that actively courts it.
So here's a point by point dissection of the above from a developer's perspective very keenly interested in issues of FPS level design. (Also, just watch the video, don't bother downloading, lugubriously installing 768 megabytes for a 4 minute spoof on Call of Duty. There's a metatextual joke about the install size/gameplay time ratio in AAA games here, if only I could find it.)

  • @0:33 COD's leaden pre-mission voiceover cinematics are also there to disguise loading--once the level is loaded you press a key to jump right into the mission. It's interesting to point out that the Unreal Engine masquerading as COD, at least in this configuration, isn't able to manage the same; we get a second (albeit brief) loading screen after the pre-mission voiceover/satellite spoof. I think it's interesting that only by way of doing a direct parody does the engine beg this sort of comparison and here, fall short.
  • @0:36 Gunhaver tic: having the M4 have the wrong ammo count seems intentional, but it's only off by a little bit--what's the joke here? That we wish we had two more rounds for an in-game M4, or rather a single extra round past 30+1? That the Bulletstorm developers think it is silly to know how many rounds go into a STANAG magazine? 
  • Also, the BUIs (back-up iron sights) are folded down, giving the weapon no rear sight. The game gives no option to sight-up on the (missing) ironsights, another COD gameplay hallmark. Or is this not present in the parody because Bulletstorm also features ironsight aiming, like everyone else chasing COD's crown?
  • @0:38 The voiceover is consistently funny, to me--but what's the joke about sticking the objective in the player's face? Are we saying that Epic isn't as thoroughly guilty of technobabble comm traffic about MacGuffins in Gears of War, or more pointedly, that we will be free of this in Bulletstorm? The "Story and Characters" trailers seem to suggest otherwise. An easy joke to make but harder to follow through on--leading the player by the nose with objectives is de rigeur now; does Bulletstorm offer an alternative?
  • @0:52 nice gag about gated gameplay areas... but once again, who is this directed toward? All Gears of War levels are rigidly gated this way, and I find it hard to believe Bulletstorm is bucking this trend either.
  • @0:56/throughout: an excessively linear slalom of obstacles where enemies appear at random intervals. Again, if the developers of Bulletstorm are suggesting that their game is something other than a very pretty linear corridor slalom with spectacles or special scripting at interval, consider me elated.
  • @1:01 I laughed at every one of these leveling up messages. But here again--really? Are we taking a swipe at one of the most successful leveling mechanics for competitive multiplayer games? Not that it isn't worth very serious questions about, as well as a good bit of fun-poking... yet Epic is one of the leaders in this kind of thing. Gears of War 2 features multi-stage Achievements that you grind like any other experience point system, in order to unlock arbitrarily gated content.
  • @1:05 I also laughed at the "b-b-b-bloody screen (so real)" gag every time it came up... but again. I guess the joke here is that COD pretends to some kind realism that is undercut by a regenerative health mechanic. Little argument from me on that point... but from what I understand Bulletstorm will, like Gears of War, also feature a regenerative health mechanic? (In COD the effect only vignettes the screen--Gears of War sees fit to place a bloody COG emblem dead center of the screen.)
  • @1:12 The M4 is not fun to shoot. The gun is limited to semi-automatic fire at a glacial pace, with a tired "boring" intoning with every shot. How is that fair? COD is king because they have gotten certain details very, very right, and one of those is exquisitely responsive gun handling. People love to shoot these virtual guns, for hours on end. Bulletstorm can potentially get a lot of mileage out of its colorful set of outsized science fiction weaponry, but the 'negative campaigning' here so to speak seems deeply wrongheaded.
  • @1:31 "You have picked up a small meaningless stick. Congrats." Incisive for most shooter games but again, Epic's own headlining franchise is equally as cut down here. Intel briefcases in COD single player games are exactly the same as COG tags in Gears of War titles.
  • @1:40 a funny cutscene--but aside from the gag about the slow-mo, the same criticism also applies to Gears of War.
  • @2:40 Serpentine linear layouts are equally damning to all shooters.
  • @3:00 "you cannot shoot me because this a cutscene." Also equally damning to most shooters, and I defy Bulletstorm to do anything with their Story and Characters that is beyond this paradigm.
  • @3:28 A player-openable door? Gasp. Everyone knows your COD hero player character, no matter the era, is completely unable to open doors themselves--they can press a context key to plant breaching charges, but not use that same key to open a door. So I guess this is one of the first legitimate criticisms that applies only to COD here?

And that's all of it. Exhaustively nitpicky? Reading too much into all of it? Yes and yes. Even I was tired at the end of this, and surprised at how long of a list I had gathered so quickly. 
But a good parody is about nailing details right: people laugh at a very good impression of say a president or a movie star because he or she nails key elements; offhand mannerisms, vocal cadence. Looking past the wisdom of the stunt of releasing this as playable instead of as a youtube video in the first place, it's hard to see this as an effective send-up of COD when it is so slop. COD games make me very, very angry about certain design practices its developers espouse. Along with Halo, it's the biggest shooter out there. 

This parody seems more than a little backhanded to the fanbase you are no doubt attempting to market Bulletstorm to. "Hey Dicktit (or other such vulgar portmanteau favored by the game's protagonist), we think the game you love sucks! Buy our game instead!" 
Yet at the same time, attempting to have it both ways--vide the "Story and Characters" trailer again. (Or better yet, don't.) Bulletstorm has been very effective in marketing a loose and easy sense of humor, albeit a sophomoric one. Are we meant to deride COD for all its hoary tropes and then buy another Epic game of huge bros and (newly more modest) chicks in glowing armor on bloomed out exotic science fiction worlds and expect it to be this aware of how terrible shooters are now?

If this is some deeply coded message about how People Can Fly and/or Epic are renouncing their endless reliance on movie tropes, spectacle and extrinsic motivators strung through linear levels then I applaud them. 

More likely it is People Can Fly retrenching their position as purveyors of false nostalgia--shooters dumber than the games they claim to harken back to. By which I mean Doom still has more interesting and challenging level design than most shooters of the last ten years--but we always seem to come back to on-screen monster counts and player running speed instead.
If there is a retro backlash in the works for shooter design, let it be an appeal to that lost design craft, not to some wistful desire to mentally regress to the age we were when we played the shooters we loved so much.

I look forward to your comments on the topic in the comments below or in the gausswerks forum.

gausswerks: design reboot. Design by Pocket