Friday, September 21, 2012

Legacy skills through the Looking Glass.

Friday, September 21, 2012 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Dog name theory

Sunday, April 29, 2012 9
When talking about independent game development, the question of names comes up a lot. Names for projects, names for companies, names for engine tech and so on. Since nobody asked me, here's how I feel about the question: it doesn't matter.

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

Maybe not the best dog name

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


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

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

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

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

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