Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A little less conversation, more vegetation please

Conversation writing has taken a little bit of a backseat to the level design process over the past couple of days. I've individually placed and adjusted over 4100 trees, shrubs and grass tufts, making sure that none of them are floating above the ground and all of them are "just right".  So here's the requisite "show-off screenshot" to demonstrate a small segment of the now fully-decorated level.

Running in a winter wonderland

In other development news, I've completed another significant portion of the main quest line of the game. This was a particularly time consuming task, as it involves numerous choices which can greatly affect the way events can pan out. My current rough progress for a few key items looks like this:
  • Level Design: 45%
  • Main Quest: 35%
  • Side Quests: 30%
As such, there's still quite a way to go, but there's already a lot of content and material for players to experience. Keep in mind that this includes many decisions that can be made which have a real and powerful effect on the story, its characters and the ultimate conclusion and aftermath. Death, betrayal, love and triumph may all play a part in The Shattered War, but it will be up to you to determine how these events play out and whether you will pursue a path of kindness or vengeance.

Shoryuken bear

I'll leave you with the above gem that I took while trying to grab a screenshot to showcase my vegetation placement. It doesn't really show off the level that well, but it does show the intrepid hero in a little bit of a trouble...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Professional failures

Modders sometimes draw outrage for not producing content that is quite "up to scratch" when compared with commercial games. However, sometimes I feel like professional developers need to do a bit better. With the recent bonanza of steam sales where games have been going on sale for ridiculous prices, I've made a few purchases. There are two titles that have raised my ire.

The first is Prince of Persia 2008. I'm not going to complain about the disconnect with the Sands of Time Trilogy, the new art direction, or anything like that, in fact I'm not actually qualified to talk about that, because I've barely played it. My complaint is technical, pure and simple. I fired it up and was presented with an entirely invisible world.

That's the prince in front of a cliff... supposedly

None of the textures appeared. They were all invisible. Having a Radeon 4850 with 512Mb DDR3, I was a little confused, as it should have more than enough texture memory to be able to cope with anything the game could throw at it. However, the shameful thing here was when I went searching for technical support. Ubisoft's support section had no articles whatsoever associated with the game. None. I've never encountered a game with no bugs, so I was more than a little surprised. So I sent a message to their technical support to find out how to rectify the problem.

Aside from the usual "update drivers/DirectX" suggestions (which I'd already addressed in my request) I was told that the game was not officially supported on Windows 7 (though it is on Vista) and that I should try to fix the problem using compatibility mode. It didn't work, but really... Windows 7 unsupported? I eventually "fixed" the problem by turning anti-aliasing off and dropping the graphical quality to "medium" instead of high... I'd be curious to know what differences that makes to the quality of the graphics. I suppose at least I can play it now, but I'm more than a little disappointed.

The other game I need to level a complaint at is Burnout Paradise. This one is simple. Let me exit the game. Pressing the ESC doesn't bring up a menu that allows me to quit the game. It brings up an information window. I don't care if you're porting a game or not. When the player hits the ESC key, they should get the main menu of the game, allowing them to do things like:
  • Resume the game
  • Save/Load the game (if applicable)
  • Configure controls
  • Configure sound/graphics options
  • Quit the game
Instead Burnout gives you this:

Huh? Where is my menu?

So based on that screen, you have to somehow realise that pressing F1 and F2 will rotate through different screens - apparently the small arrows next to the F1 and F2 keys are supposed to indicate this. Nevermind that you get a message down the bottom saying "F2 Burnout Store" as though hitting F2 will always take you to the Burnout store. It also takes at least three key presses to get to the "real" main menu, and you have to wait for each new screen to flip and display completely before you can move to the next one.

Yes, these are small things, but they add to the failings already present to cause some moderate aggravation. Navigating a UI should not be time consuming. It should be as quick as possible so that the player can get back to doing what the designers should want them to be doing - playing the game. I'm afraid I don't see any acceptable excuse for UI design this bad. Hitting ESC should give you a main menu. It's that simple.

Monday, December 20, 2010

An IGNoble disgrace

Regular readers of this blog will know that I hate console wars or console versus PC zealotry. Each platform has its own strengths and weaknesses, and using individual games to compare them (and say "this one is the best!") is something I generally consider to be a sign of fanboy postulating. So when I saw a "professional game website", which IGN claims to be, doing a (please don't click this link, for reasons I will explain) head-to-head video comparison of Mass Effect 2 on XBox360 and PS3 and sparking a raft of "PS3 is so much better" claims across various other websites, I was a little disappointed.

A still from the video (PS3 left, XBox360 right)

You can click the two images in the post for a higher resolution image. But, just taking a quick look at the above shot, it looks like the PS3 version has better contrast and colour saturation. That was my overall impression from watching the video, which struck me as an odd thing. Now, there might be some graphical differences between the two consoles but I knowing the Unreal Engine and its precalculated lighting for static surfaces, I wouldn't have thought the differences would have been quite so noticable as they are in this video. I would have attributed to the game being run on a different television, but I would hope for IGN's sake that they created the two videos using the same television so as to remove such bias.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure that I can even give them that much credit, because their comparison seems to be wholly unreliable. Check out the screenshot below.

What is that? (PS3 left, XBox360 right)

Now, aside from the slight difference in the position of the frame for both the screenshots here (that's right, they're slightly out of sync), there's some serious frame-blurring present in the picture on the right. If you take a screenshot from a game, it shouldn't end up blurred - and particularly not to the great extent that can be seen in this shot. Go pause a gameplay video from a console game and see if you get blurring. If it's a high quality video, you won't. If it's not... well, guess what can happen?

This "comparison" appears incompetent at best, and blatantly biased at worst. It appears that these are two videos of different quality placed side-by-side in a console comparison - if IGN demonstrated that they produced these videos on the same television using the same video resolution and compression, I'd happily retract this post. But as it stands, their video appears to be nothing more than a shameless attempt to garner website hits by provoking a console flame-war.

I expect more from gaming sites that claim to provide "video game journalism", as should every person who relies on these sites for a supposedly unbiased and objective analysis of games.  Shame on you, IGN.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Narrative needs more than gameplay

So before reading today's blog post, I'll direct everyone to watch this video.

Done? Okay, now I have to say that I pretty much disagree wholeheartedly with their argument.

Admittedly I was fairly young when I played missile command - I believe I actually played one of its clones on a BBC Micro rather than the original game itself, but the mechanics were exactly the same. Now, the creator might have intended the game to be a reflection on the futility of nuclear war, and impart the gravity of the situation on the player, but I didn't get it at all. And funnily enough, I could go back now and have exactly the same reaction. If that was the intention of the creator, then all credit to him, but I'm afraid it didn't work.

As far as I was concerned, I was protecting moon bases from being blown up from alien attack. There was no moral dilemma inherent in the game of me deciding between whether to sacrifice the lives of the few versus the many or protecting civilians versus missiles bases. The game for me was reduced entirely to an arbitrary defense game that had no grave moral implications or story, and certainly didn't make me go away feeling emotionally beaten at the harsh reality of fighting a losing battle. I typically came away frustrated because I'd lost or failed to shoot down a particular incoming missile. That was it. Any stress or tension was only borne out of the mechanics themselves rather than any narrative behind them.

I don't argue that narrative can't be assisted by gameplay mechanics, but I would argue that it is impossible to provide good narrative solely through gameplay mechanics. Gameplay does not tell a story, it allows a player to tell their own story - which may be vastly different from the story that the designers had in mind. Obviously there were vast technical limitations in Missile Command's day that meant that it wasn't possible to deliver the same level of storytelling that we can today. But could we read a similiar amount of story into Asteroids? Geometry Wars? How about Minesweeper?

I maintain it is not possible to deliver a consistent narrative purely through mechanics. Without some supporting evidence, creator is providing a framework for interpretation, not a narrative. What is the narrative of The Mona Lisa? Or the Venus de Milo? How about a photograph of Omaha Beach?

This might tell a story, but a different story for everyone

If a "narrative" is delivered by gameplay alone, the designer is not telling a story, they are letting the player tell their own story - and this is an important distinction. While the latter situation could potential make the player feel more involved in the game because they're using their imagination to make it more personal, this is not because of the designer's skill in delivering narrative - because that's exactly what they aren't doing. A designer can't tell a consistent story without stating some things explicitly.

A player can fill in a lot of gaps in a story, and generally when the player is told less about a story within a game they'll "fill in the blanks" more between the pieces of the story they are told. The human brain loves stories, and likes to string events together using them, but in order for this to happen the players must be told some story. This must be done if the designer wants a solid and consistent narrative to be delivered to their audience. Without any sort of explicit narrative, the player is just playing a game to achieve goals rather than as part of a story or more cohesive experience, which I'd contend is just about as far away from art as one can get.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sharing is Caring

One thing about creating mods for games is that it really heavily relies on the game's player and modder community. Without players, modders would not exist.  It's that simple. Most modders love the creative process of modding, but if there is no player base to experience their content, then the endeavour will ultimately feel flat.

But a modding community also relies heavily on the modders themselves sharing and supporting one another.  By providing support to other people attempting to create content for the game, they often discover possibilities that the designers themselves may not have explored, or workarounds for issues that may or may not have been present in the original workflow of official designers.

Barcode trees. I bet BioWare didn't have to deal with these.

They can also help advertise and support the publicity of other modules - some modding communities have modders attacking or openly criticizing one another, which typically just ends up fracturing the community and resulting in lower quality modules being released. I believe the adage goes: If you hate something, tell the creator, if you love something, tell everyone.

It also allows people to share content to help modders create their own works.  This has been the case with Semper's level pack, which contained several level areas ready for modders to use.  Having previously released my own hillside village for the first Community Contest, which has since been used in the Dirge of Coldhearth module, I'm a strong supporter of helping other modders.  Semper's level pack is a fine example of this, and his village level immediately took my eye as something that I could potentially use for The Shattered War... it meshed beautifully with some ideas I'd already had for one area.

So let's get down to the bit that everyone wants to see... it's screenshot time!

Exploring the modified town

I've done a substantial amount of retooling, modifying structure, appearance and the general layout and accessibility of the level, but still spent far less time than what I would have had to do if I'd made the level from scratch. There's still some additional work to be done, and I haven't really added the population of the town as of yet, but it is definitely a great addition to The Shattered War.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Achievement Hazard

Achievements can be an interesting means to encourage player dedication, albeit at the severe risk of alienating and annoying your player.  They inspire the desire to "achieve" by earning that digital stamp that indicates you've managed to meet certain requirements, but occasionally all they do is infuriate.  Just tonight I've fallen prey to that exact failing of achievements.

The Great Steam Treasure Hunt is an ingenious marketing invention to encourage people to buy games on Steam and general encourage players to sample, buy and persevere with games.  However, my current ire lies with an achievement called "Beat it", which is earned from playing the game Beat Hazard. I'll happily admit that this post flies fresh from the anger of playing the game, but given that it's inspired such an emotional and annoyed response from me, it's definitely done something wrong.

Beat Hazard is what you'd get if you crossed a psychedelic asteroids (say Geometry wars on acid) with Guitar Hero. Enemies, weaponry and even bosses are all generated based on the music that is playing - be it the included music, or that which you have on your hard drive. On the surface, it does appear to be a fun, albeit challenging game, and I might tentatively recommend it as a cheap buy for someone looking for a game in that vein. However, the game's steam achievements, the treasure hunt and a few design aspects have inspired a severe dislike of the game for me this evening.

Yes, it really is that gaudy

The steam achievement for the competition requires that you score 3,770,488 or more in a single "survival" game, where tracks continue to play indefinitely until you eventually run out of lives. You've got three lives in which to achieve this score. I expected this to be a bit of a challenge, but surely nothing that I couldn't manage. Most of the other achievements have not been overwhelmingly difficult, and I couldn't see this being any different. Having a look at the game's steam achievements, you have ones for scoring 1,5 and 10 million, and surviving 5,10,15 and 20 minutes in survival mode.

Unfortunately, there were three problems that I encountered:
  1. The game itself is not entirely stable. There appears to be a known issue with the ATI48xx family of cards in which the game will crash to a black screen, and require a reboot in order to recover. Not exactly ideal in the middle of a lengthy survival game.
  2. The game has a "level" system, where the player has a rank based on a cumulative score that unlocks rewards to add extra multipliers, bonuses and lives.
  3. The score 3.7 million appears quite challenging to achieve - I managed an 8 minute game that netted me a score of 1.5 million.

Now, I don't expect every achievement to be easy to obtain, but the combination of factors involved here have caused me to get very annoyed at the game. Stability issues requiring a hard reset in order to fix are pretty much unacceptable, even from an indie game.

So I could kill this... then crash a minute later

But I'd argue that the "rank" system is the worst design flaw involved. When each game is most definitively stand-alone, having an on-going tally that rewards you simply for perseverance is not good game design. This is grinding at its worst. It's grinding to gain "bonuses" that realistically would be required to achieve some of the more demanding steam achievements with the game - and most likely the achievement for Steam's competition itself.

Grinding points simply for the sake of being able to grind more points is the completely wrong way to go about achievements. Achievements are supposed to be fun, and you shouldn't ever feel like you must play a game in order to be able to play it properly. Bonuses should be unlocked for doing something special, not simply for playing the game for long enough. Moreover, and bonuses provided by achievements should be definite bonuses, not merely something in order to make the achievements that are posed with the game attainable. Rewarding skilled players is very different from punishing new players; it gives a sense that you're making progress because of your skill. Beat Hazard unfortunately does the opposite, making you feel somewhat ostracized for not having played it enough. 

However, the absolute worst choice that was made that exemplifies how achievements should not be created are the utterly terrible achievements that are granted for playing the game for 1, 5 and 10 hours. These should never be achievements because a player should never ever be made to feel that playing a game for a set period of time is an achievement. If you're having to encourage a player to persevere with your game by adding such time-based achievements, then you absolutely need to reconsider the design of your game.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Side Quests? (Part 2)

In my last post I discussed the potential drawbacks of sidequests within games. Again, nothing that they are almost exclusively an RPG phenomenon, let's look at the ways that they can be used to enhance a game.

Provide Rewards
People love getting presents, and rewards in games are presents for achieving something. You mastered a gameplay skill? Reward. You completed a difficult task? Reward. The game gives us something for achieving a task, and because of that, we want to achieve more. Now while this is useful technique to keep players engrossed in a game, taken to extremes this can actually destroy the player's enjoyment of the game. How many people find monster-killing grinding in an MMO fun? I'd imagine not many, but it's the reward of new levels and loot that keeps the player going even though the actual activity itself can feel very tedious.

Done right, rewards are a great benefit of sidequests. They make the player feel like they have achieved something, and give them the power to deal with situations with slightly less difficulty than they otherwise might. Having more experience or better weapons to dispatch enemies makes the player feel like their efforts were worthwhile in the long term as well as giving them the immediate benefit of a reward.

The Big Metal Unit - A series long sidequest to "become" a golem

Add Depth
Sidequests are great for fleshing out additional characters or the gameworld in general. For those that care to get involved in the fiction and reality of a gameworld and its people, these are an excellent means to explore aspects that might otherwise be relegated to simply text in a codex entry/journal/book. Providing the player with an interactive experience that allows them to see this content first-hand can be infinitely more powerful than simply reading about it.

In Morrowind, the player could find read about the importance of creatures called Kwama to the economy of the island. Alternatively, they could experience the trials and associated dangers directly by accepting a quest to cure a Kwama Queen of blight. By getting involved in this quest, the player got a far greater sense of the stakes involved and the potential effect of having an infected Queen.

An infected Kwama Queen - she's bad for business

Allow Choice
Presenting a counterpoint to the importance and consequences relating to sidequests, providing the player with choice is actually a great benefit to a game. The core plot of a game has to have a relatively linear plot, because a completely free and branching story would either take far too long to create or likely have a weak narrative. As such, sidequests are where the player should get a lot more leeway in terms of dealing with situations and taking matters into their own hands.

Take the Paranoia quest in Oblivion, where a man named Glarthir is convinced people in the town are spying on him. You can refuse to help him, have him attack you by denying all his accusations, kill the "spies" for him, turn him into the guards, or even watch as he attempts to kill each of the people he believes are spying on him. This wide variety of options for dealing with the situation makes the quest an interesting proposition (above and beyond that provided by Glarthir's insanity).

Explore Creative Gems
As a designer, side quests are the perfect outlet for "creative gems". These are the little ideas that designers have that they want to try out or explore, but they aren't substantial enough to warrant a full plot. A melting pot of mechanics and stories, sidequests can offer a great deal or variety and interest to a player's gaming experience. Anyone who has ever enjoyed playing an RPG will have sidequests that they remember fondly. Whether besting Sir Roderick Ponce von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard in a battle of wits in Jade Empire, or causing havoc in a "Murder Mystery" in Oblivion, there is an enormous amount of fun to be had from sidequests.

Sir Roderick Pon... err, John Cleese.

So now we've had a look at both side of the coin - examining both the good and bad about sidequests. They add a lot to RPGs when they are done well, but can detract from the experience if implemented poorly. Knowing the benefits and potential drawbacks allows designers to maximise the impact of their sidequests to improve both a game's narrative and mechanics.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why Side Quests? (Part 1)

Side quests are a staple of the RPG genre. Optional quests to get extra experience, items or gold or to learn a little bit more about characters or the game world, they are almost considered an essential part of the RPG experience. But why? They typically don't exist in other genres. You rarely have a sidequest in an FPS that gives you a new weapon or extra ammo. You don't get asked to fetch an optional item in a platformer. RTS games might have optional objectives that are somewhat akin to a sidequest, but this is definitely the exception rather than the norm. So why do RPGs need sidequests?

For the purpose of the discussion today, I'm going to look at all the weaknesses relating to sidequests.  I'll cover the benefits in a subsequent post, but focus entirely on the ways sidequests can impact negatively on a game.

Diluting Narrative
An RPG often lives or dies on its core narrative - the main plot or conflict of the game which the player is trying to resolve. This isn't always the case, but this is generally the major drawcard of the game. The main questline will have a continuous story that affects the main character in signficant ways, its NPCs will be the most complex (and use the big name voice actors) and generally will be the core means of setting the "tone" or "theme" of the game.

Is the theme "Everybody is dead, Dave" ?

If the game's core theme is dealing with an eternal struggle between two opposing forces, how does doing a menial task for a character completely devoid of any relation to that struggle further the development of that theme?  What about if we have a glib character making one-liners while we're dealing with impending doom?  Now, I'm not mandating a need for everything to tie into the game's core plot. That would feel incredibly artificial, and would make it feel as though the entire world was revolving around our character. That is hardly believable in the vast majority of circumstances.

The important point is to not have so many sidequests that your player gets distracted from the main thrust of the game. They should not forget the goal they are ultimately trying to achieve because they get bogged down with completely unrelated quests. For example, in Mass Effect 1, there were quite a lot of different side quests, but many of them tied back into the current threat of the Geth or other elements related to the main story (e.g. Thorian Creepers and Rachni). While these their own separate stories, they were still able to tie in and support the main plot rather than detract from it. This avoided what otherwise could have felt like a chore of doing a lot of quests the seemingly had nothing to do with the main story. Compare to Mass Effect 2 where most of the side quests related to one of three mercenary companies and bore no relevance to the game's core plot. Those sidequests did not add to the core narrative, and in doing so made the game's plot feel less cohesive than that of its predecessor.

The only good Geth is a dead Geth.

Inspire Boredom
We all know the apathy that we feel when we as a player are asked to bring back "a pair of leather gloves", to deliver "5 healing plants" to someone, or "kill 10 rats". This is not the stuff of excitement or adventure. It's the essence of humdrum.

The Oblivion Gates in Oblivion were able to support the main narrative of the game to an extent by constantly reminded the player that Tamriel was under siege because of them, but they failed miserably on this point. After closing a handful of Oblivion gates, you quickly knew the various layouts that were possible, and became sick of going through exactly the same routine to clear each gate. They were not an inherently boring quest like "fetch me a healing potion from the store", but they became boring because they became tediously repetitious. No one likes to do the same thing over and over again, and this is exactly what the Oblivion gates demanded of you.

Oh, another Oblivion gate. Yay.

Add Design Work
From a design perspective, everything takes time and resources. Every side quest requires time for writing, scripting, testing, voice recording, and so on. This translates to a longer (and more expensive) development period and more potential bugs. Every development has things cut, and each side quest means that resources are stretched further. Adding too many sidequests can result in an unpolished game, or one that feels shallow and lacking direction. Even if your aim is to make a sandbox for the player to explore, you don't want to have quantity at the expense of quality.

Removing Importance
Since I'm a big fan of choice in RPGs, I advocate decisions having some meaning. Yet when you deal with sidequests, so often those choices you make feel like they are insignificant and ignored. The consequences from rescuing or saving someone in an individual sidequest is never referenced again, making the player wonder what the effect their choices are actually making.

I rescued Big Town... Big Whoop.

This is particularly the case when characters involved allude to some greater consequence or impact due to the player's actions. If there is some threat directed against the player about future reprisals that never eventuate, what was the point of making that decision that caused it? Admittedly this comes down to the issue of time and resources mentioned above, a multitude of sidequests that have no effect or relevance apart from when they are experience potentially exposes the artificial nature of the game world rather than making it feel alive.

Of course, sidequests can add a lot to a game, and there are many positive aspects that they can contribute. Some of these issues even have counterpoints that actually make a game better. But without being mindful of the pitfalls and potential shortcomings relating to sidequests, designers are in danger of producing content that hampers their game rather than improving it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Generic Antagonist

My previous posts on antagonists have primarily dealt with games that have a strong focus on individuals, looking at enemies that you get to know somewhat personally to give you a motivation to defeat them. Most of these have been RPGs. But what about games where you're placed in a situation where you're not dealing explicitly with one enemy? What about when you're fighting against a massive faceless horde? For example, Gears of War pits you against The Locust, Half-life has you fighting the combine, Just Cause 2 has you shooting at... pretty much anything and anyone who gets in your way. These games are all popular and manage to successfully install a desire to win and "defeat" your enemies on par with many of the successful antagonists I've previously discussed.

I'm not about to advocate that these games are masterpieces of story-telling, but despite their varying cinematic impact and strength of writing they all are quite successful in making you feel like you're in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards you and your actions. As a player, you're very concerned about surviving your next encounter and getting to do the next thing of your list of objectives. They give you a great sense of wanting to "just play a little bit longer" or "I really hope I can take this enemy down".

On three, or three and then go?

Admittedly all three games have characters that serve as some sort of figureheads for the hordes of the generic enemies you fight, but they're typically far removed from the action until the very end of the game. They're typically not given the same sort of weight that an antagonist is given in an RPG. They might have some influence on the troubles that the player is facing, but in general I'd say they aren't fully realised characters with depth - at least not depth which is exposed to the player in any significant way. So why are these games so successful in making the player want to keep going, and why can't RPGs deliver in the same way?

Perhaps some of the reason is that RPGs rely heavily on narrative to provide player interest. Or rather, rely on narrative delivered in the specific form of dialogue in text or speech form. Of course, if we're dealing with narrative in computer games, there are so many more options available to a designer than text and speech. Take Half-life or Gears of War and see how their narrative is delivered in many different forms: scripted events or cinematics, combat scenarios, art style, the player's environment, sound, music, and so much more. Sometimes they are able to do so much more with one line of dialogue than an RPG ever could...

We don't go to Ravenholm...

One simple line sets the scene for Ravenholm, and all the visuals sound serve to reinforce the eerie and foreboding delivery of Alyx's warning. Gears of War pits you against increasing tough enemies as the stakes of the battle rise, and Just Cause 2 sees the army becoming increasingly tense and quick to send everything they have after you. By not having a single specific antagonist to focus the player's main ire upon, each enemy and sequence poses its own challenge and interest in a way that other games don't capture.  Compare the threat of fighting a group of locust in a set piece in Gears of War to yet another darkspawn battle in the Deep Roads of Dragon Age.  Which is the more exciting and engaging piece of the two? I love RPGs, but if I had to pick which of the two was more likely to get my heart going, I'd have to choose Gears of War.

I don't believe having an "epic story" makes fights around the henchmen or grunts of the "great enemy" that you're faced against inherently boring. There simply appears to be something in RPGs that frequently causes these "trash mob" fights to become repetitive or otherwise uninteresting. Have RPGs become too reliant on explicitly telling the player everything through dialogue rather than letting them figure things out for themselves? Has this dependence then made every fight that is not accompanied by relevant dialogue to give it a direct context and meaning becomes dull or potentially pointless to the player? Or perhaps it is that RPGs simply need to experiment with attempting to provide narrative in the same way that it is done in a more action oriented game.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Forced Loss

I was recently contacted by a reader and asked for my opinions on a few issues of game design. Yes, I do read messages that people send me, and I definitely appreciate anyone taking the time to suggest items I can discuss in future blog posts. If you're interested in discussing a particular subject, or want me to address it, let me know and I'll try to get around to it at some point. With any luck, you, I and other readers might get some more food for thought.  But getting on to the subject at hand, the thing that I want to address is the concept of the player making a "wrong" choice.

In a game, our fate is predetermined.  There is a set goal laid out for the player, and there are certain things that we must achieve in order to reach that goal.  We can't make a choice that means that we "break" our game. We can't, say, choose not to spray LeChuck with root beer in The Secret of Monkey Island. It's not possible to let 343 Guilty Spark live in Halo 3. We can't decide to not save the Princess from the vizier in Prince of Persia. What about in Dragon Age, where the player joins or is conscripted into the Grey Wardens? They do not have any choice in the matter whatsoever, and in order for the game to work, they cannot. In many cases, the player faces death if they are not conscripted. Could or should the game allow players to make the choice to refuse and then immediately suffer death? Should designers allow players to deliberately make a "bad" choice and immediately suffer the consequence of permanent failure?

What if I don't want to join you?

I actually attempted this in Fate of a City. At one point the player could refuse to work with one of the core plot characters. After the player indicated they did not wish to work with her, she threatened the player with certain death. If you player refused a second time, she attacked the player and would always kill them. Some players actually complained bitterly about this choice, because it drew attention to the fact that they had no choice in the matter and had to go along with helping her.

In this case, which is the lesser of two evils? Is it to give the player the option not to follow the pre-determined path and immediately kill them if they do so, or is it to eliminate the possibility of them making this choice entirely? Game design principles would tell us that the latter is the better option, because players do not like being "wrong". Worse still, players might believe that it is possibly for them to "win" a situation that is designed to be impossible, resulting in significant frustration and aggravation as they continually fail to beat an invincible enemy.

Modern game design is such that players do not expect to be put in situations in which they cannot win, at least not without very clear and obvious meta-game information telling them so. In World of Warcraft this is achieved by having creatures with a skull instead of a number for their level. Any game putting the player into un-winnable situations would need to do something clear and obvious like this to let the player know that they've made a "bad" choice.

Skull = death. Simple, no?

There are certain instances where a player can die instantly from failing to act in an appropriate way. If you make a wrong jump in a platformer, you can easily fall to your death. If you don't get out of the way of a boss's super attack, you'll quite likely die. An active choice by the player trying to circumvent or get around the mechanics of a level or fight frequently results in instant death - you can't shortcut the level by driving across the lava field. Why is that if the player told multiple times that a particular choice in terms the story would be bad or result in their death, this is somehow unacceptable game design? Provided that the punishment for that decision occurs immediately (just as it does with bad "choices" regarding a game's mechanics), is this any worse?

I can see arguments both ways. On one hand, this presents the player with the grim reality of their situation: that some choices will result in their death. This tells them "no, if you try to refuse the destiny that the game offers, you will die." However, this also reinforces to the player that they are playing the game. It highlights the artificial nature of their experience and that they do not limitless freedom, no matter how much we as designers try to convince them otherwise. Worse still, would such options potentially make the player resent the game because it does not allow them to fully explore some of the choices it is presenting to them.

In this case, it seems better not to present the choice at all. Simply make your player so engaged and drawn into the story and the cause you want them to pursue that they won't even think of doing something else. That is good game design.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Motion (mis)control

In recent times I've seen calls by fans for games to cater for two technologies: 3D and motion control.  Some gamers apparently believe that having these two things will help make games "better". Now I'm not mindless against 3D, and I think done right, it can actually add a fair amount to movies.  I think there's also the potential for it to add to games, though I'll have to confess that after seeing Gran Turismo 5 in 3D, I was wholly underwhelmed. However, when it comes to motion control, I'm of the belief that currently it destroys immersion more than it adds to it.

Firstly, let's deal with the fitness issue. Now before everyone gets out their stereotype cards and starts calling me an overweight nerd, let's get a few things straight. I eat healthily, have a lean figure, and exercise a couple of times to keep fit. I'm not an elite athlete by any means, but I'm no slob constantly sucking down soft drink and chocolate bars who can't get off his couch. But if I go around to a friend's house and play Wii boxing or tennis for an extended stint, I'm going to get pretty exhausted. Funnily enough, I can probably be less exhausted from 30 minutes having a hit on an actual tennis court with a friend than 30 minutes of Wii tennis. Pretending to play the game is more exhausting than playing it for real? How does that work?

At least I don't have to suffer this

For one, with tennis it's possible to have a casual hit with a friend. Even if you do play a match, you're likely to intersperse it with some casual hits back and forth to warm up or cool down or possibly even to relax between games or sets. On the Wii, you don't get that. You can't just hit back and forth because every single point is scored. The game does it for you automatically. Computer games are designed to create tension and excitement, they're designed to draw players in and make them engaged with the game. This means that players will "get into" the action and become more active and animated, because the game rewards winning. That happens even on a "casual gaming platform" like the Wii.

The game also ditches "dead time" from the real life experience. You don't have to fetch the next ball from the back of the court in Wii tennis. The ball just magically appears in the server's hand after a point is finished. Breaks ruin immersion, so they have to go. Everything is designed to keep the action going and to keep players active. Let's be honest with ourselves here, we don't play video games for a physical workout. Sometimes we come home from a hard day at work/school/whatever and just want to relax and unwind with a game. The last thing we want is to work up a heavy sweat from playing the beat-em-up through a vigorous motion-control workout.

Which brings me to the point that video games are games. They are fantasy. They allow us to do things that we cannot possibly do in real life. Can you wall-run like Prince of Persia? Can you do Chun-li's lightning kick? Can you backflip-spin-double-twirl-triple-sword-slash like Ryu Hayabusa? I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that you can't. In this case, how do you get your character to perform these unbelievable and amazing moves? How can players act as someone extraordinary in a believable fashion when there is a huge disconnect between their actions and that of their on-screen avatar?

How do you propose to motion control this?

I have nothing against Kinect or Moooove or the Wii controllers, but if people are just using them for the sake of using them, then they're nothing more than an (expensive) gimmick. Just like 3D. Making people motion like they're swinging a sword that they aren't actually holding is going to break immersion, not add to it. Let's go back to the Wii example to prove that motion control breaks immersion rather than adds to it.

When I play Wii tennis as a new player, I'm mimicking the actual moves required to perform the action in real life. Swinging the controller like I would a tennis racket. However, as I continue to play, I come to the realisation that I can achieve better results with less realistic actions. Eventually my action to play Wii tennis becomes so centred around the controller that the way I play the game doesn't resemble playing real tennis at all. As a player, I have reduced the motion control down to the simplest and most basic action centred around the control device itself, because then I can more accurately and consistently reproduce the "ideal" action for hitting the ball back across the net.

A sedate Wii tennis player is a skilled player

This is the core reason that motion games at the moment aren't actually making games better. In essence, we're still dealing with a controller, and because of the limitations of the current motion hardware, "mastery" of the mechanics of the game actually lead to our actions diverging from the reality of the actions of the on-screen character. By getting "better" at the game, we're returning to the original gaming paradigm of merely "using a controller" to manipulate our avatar, rather than having them mimic us as a player. Motion control merely highlights the difference between our own actions and that of our in-game persona, which is far from engaging.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What's your purpose?

Today's post is going to deal with writing for games, and making sure that people pay attention to an essential element: purpose. This works on multiple levels, for you are concerned with your purpose for this dialogue as a writer, and the speaker's purpose in terms of their long term and immediate goals. We will examine these in turn, focusing primarily on dialogue, as that is the means by which a significant amount of a game's story is delivered.

A Writer's Purpose
Whenever you're starting to write a particular piece of dialogue, ask yourself "why?"  Why does this particular piece of dialogue need to be written? Is it to progress the story, provide the player with essential background, develop a character, or something else? What you are really asking is "what does this piece of writing add to the game?" If you can't answer that question, then you've either got a problem, or you don't need to do the writing.

Keep in mind that there are many more reasons you could have dialogue that the few I've listed above. What about "adding some humour into a dark scene", "reinforcing the danger of an adversary", "telling the player their next objective", "warning the player about the faction they're about meet"? All of these are valid reasons for dialogue, and there are many more besides.

Morrigan vs Alistair... The witch wins again.

The other reason for working out the purpose of the dialogue is to help you as a writer define what should and shouldn't be included.  If you're trying to impress upon the player how dangerous their current situation is, you shouldn't include a witty one-liner, because that's not the tone or atmosphere that you're trying to instill. Likewise, telling the player about their next objective generally should include some very clear and direct speech or facts that say exactly what must be done, because you're trying to provide the player with some direction about what to do next. Make sure you provide that direction rather than getting mired in vague directions and allusions.

A Character's Purpose

While you as a writer must have a purpose for a piece of dialogue, you must remember that dialogue is delivered by characters, and characters have their own agendas within the reality of the game world. If they don't, then you'll likely need to give them one.  This means you need both a broad "general" aim of the character, and their specific aim within this dialogue.

In a general sense, a character has some over-arching desire that drives them.  They might seek fame, power, revenge, "a hero's death", or "a peaceful home with a loving family". There should be some ultimate goal or general sense of purpose guiding the character and their actions, as for any character of significance, this is what will drive their actions. Loghain from Dragon Age was driven by patriotism, the Transcendent One from Planescape: Torment was driven by a desire for peace. These driving forces caused a great many other actions, but these were key elements of these characters.

We live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded...

However, in every interaction, you should also consider what the character is attempting to do right now. They may have their overall driving force, but in each specific dialogue, what are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to romance the PC or get to know them better? Are they imparting information to the player? Are they desperately begging for help? Are they trying to manipulate or deceive the PC? Note that this will reflect the aim of the dialogue as a whole, but the character's intentions will put an individual spin on the information being delivered.

Let's look at a specific example, where the player is just about to head into a big battle. There are two NPCs that the player can choose to talk to before taking to the battlefield. In both cases, the aim of the dialogue from the writer's point of view is to impress upon the player the danger of the forthcoming battle. This is to raise the stakes of the game and make the player feel invested in achieving victory and maybe even a little anxious or apprehensive about the forthcoming battle.

A few extra soldiers would be very useful right now...

However, the aims of the two NPCs are very different: One of them is trying to assist the player and tell them of the (difficult) strategy required to win the battle, but the other might be a traitor and attempting to instill the player with fear. Think about the differences in the speech of the two characters as they communicate with the player - they could potentially end up delivering almost the same information about the upcoming battle, but the tone of their delivery will be markedly different.

Of course, these things can be applied to writing in general, not just writing for video games.  However, in video games, there is more than one way to give information to the player. When considering your purpose, also keep in mind that might be a batter way to deliver your message to the player than through dialogue.  A journal entry, on-screen tip, visual cues or even gameplay itself might help to better fulfill the purpose you've identified. For example, how do you convey an atmosphere of tension through dialogue? What about player controls, or hints as to the solution of a puzzle?

A video game writer can and should use more than just dialogue

By using purpose to define the means and style of writing by which you communicate with your player, a video game writer can produce more engaging material. When all the text helps support the current atmosphere of the game, each dialogue helps to reinforce the personality of the characters speaking, when all the writing is helping to draw the player into the game and the gameworld that has been created, then you have been successful in the task of being a video game writer.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's time for your input...

A quick post to tell everyone that I'm calling up readers to give their opinion in my latest poll.

I want to know how much people use cosmetic mods like Pineappletree's Vibrant Colors (I hate spelling that without a "u") or Don't worry, be hairy. So far I've stuck with the default options for hair styles and eye/hair colouring, but I want to know if players have these mods installed by default and won't stand for the small selection available in default.

The reason I ask is because these mods have the potential to modify the appearance of existing faces from the default or as I have created them...

Those eyes suddenly look a little different...

This might be a minor thing, but I don't want a character to suddenly look out of place because of an external mod. So I want to do the right thing by players and if they are using one (or multiple) appearance changing mods, I'll install those mods during the creation process for The Shattered War and make sure that all the characters have the appearance that they are "supposed" to have.

If people could go one step further and identify the specific mods that they use, I would definitely appreciate it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Shattered War: Character Interaction

In my last post I promised I'd give some information about characters in the Shattered War, so that's exactly what I'm going to do today.

In The Shattered War, you take upon the role of a soldier investigating darkspawn in the Frostback Mountains. Set after the events of Dragon Age: Origins, the adventure sees you acting as part of a larger force to deal with the problems in the region. As a result, you will be called upon to talk to those who live in the area, as well as allies and enemies seeking to help or hinder your cause.

It will come as no surprise to any regular reader that choice will be a key consideration in The Shattered War. There will be many situations where you will be called upon to make difficult decisions, and in some cases there will not be an option that allows you to save the day without consequence. Before the player reaches the end of the adventure, there will be deaths on their conscience, no matter the path that they choose.

You will be called upon to take sides

Party members will react differently depending on how you treat them, but there will not be undue penalties simply because you do not agree with a particular party member. Leadership can take on many forms, and you will see the effects of your relationship with party members, be it one of friendship or enmity. The worst thing you can do as a leader is to inspire indifference, for in The Shattered War your party members will perform better if they like you or hate you.

Of course, there are other characters you will have cause to talk to repeatedly during your campaign, and your behaviour with them will affect future interactions. If you mistreat a particular individual or otherwise anger them, you might find yourself at odds with them later in the game. There are a number of characters that can go from ally to adversary or vice versa, so carefully consider any decision to grant or withhold your assistance.

Be prepared for some frosty receptions

The Shattered War will present you with characters you will love, and some that you will love to hate. Your interactions with them will help define the outcome of your adventure, and even have wider implications for the region. Choose your words wisely.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Interesting Characters

Interesting characters are vital for any sort of narrative, and video games are no exception.  I've always tried to make characters that are a bit different from normal, and The Shattered War is no exception.  The means for making characters interesting are many and varied, and I couldn't try to list all the possible ways that you might try to do this. But here are a couple of general pointers that I like to think of when going through the initial process of creating a character:

Introduce Quickly
Give your character's name, position and emotional reaction to the protagonist as quickly as possible. Ideally you'd give all three within the first line or two, but you might choose to withhold an identity for dramatic tension or plot reasons. Players generally shouldn't be left wondering who they are talking to.

Cameras have establishing shots, dialogue should have establishing lines

What does this character add to the game? Why have you added them? If you can't answer this question, then you've got a problem. Are they for background flavour, to allow the player to overhear a conversation, give the player a quest, or are they an ally or adversary?


Resist the temptation to fall into stereotypes (the typical tough guy) or counter-stereotypes (but he's really a softie on the inside), or if you do, give them a quirk that gives their personality some additional depth. If you've got an established lore, see what roles this character can play within that, and how they might buck some of the trends set by it.

People have an emotional reaction to situations, especially when there is something at stake. If there's nothing at stake... well, you're doing something wrong with your game's plot! How does a character react to their current problems or predicament. This should come through in their attitude, expressions, movement, tone of voice and vocabulary.

He doesn't look particularly happy...

Desired Reaction
What do you want the player to feel when interacting with this character? Are you trying to get the player to sympathise with them, dislike them, want to show them up? Not all allies have to be likable, and not all enemies have to be completely hate inducing. Imagine if you can make the player empathise with a villain and then be forced to decide whether to kill them or spare them despite probably future danger and/or betrayal.

Don't be afraid to try and manipulate your player. Some of the best characters are those that people love to hate. If you can inspire an emotional reaction in a player such that all they want to do is see a character brought undone, then you've achieved the goal of making your NPC memorable.

In my next post, I'll give a few hints about The Shattered War and what players can expect from interactions with characters during the adventure.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The 180 Degree Rule

Sometimes when reading or watching something, you can identify that something isn't "right", but you're not exactly sure what that thing is. I recently did a small amount of reading about cinematic techniques which demonstrated something I was doing completely "wrong".

In one particular sequence for The Shattered War, I was breaking a film-making guideline known as the "180 degree rule". This states that two characters in the same scene should always have the same left/right relationship to each other, unless there's a specific camera movement "crossing the line" and presenting the subjects from the other side.  If this is done, it can be disorienting and jarring.

This is one of those funny rules that is totally obvious, yet I couldn't work out why a particular scene just did not work. Maybe I'm just not observant enough when it comes to cinematography, but as soon as I read about the 180 rule, I immediately knew what was wrong. As a result of this realisation, I made a new generic stage to use for conversations, where the cameras are positioned on "the other side" of the line. By default, Dragon Age always has the player on the camera's right, but now I have a stage with the player on the camera's left...

Now for something completely different...

As a result the transition from my cutscene to dialogue isn't jarring any more. This might be a minor thing, but it made the whole sequence a lot more pleasant to watch. Film techniques and film editing are the means for making good movies, and as such, they are also essential for making good in-game cinematic sequences. Now I know I must do research into film-making and directing techniques to make my cutscenes more engaging - yet another vital skill that must be added to a modder's repertoire. Any recommendations for source reading/watching material would be gladly welcomed!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Standalone Complex

A continuing trend across many games genres is a tendency towards every combat encounter within a game being its own discrete entity, and with no real continuity in terms of resource management across these encounters.  Okay, I used big words there that make this sound more confusing than it actually is, but I'm trying to be specific. But let's quickly make it simple and take the example of a first person shooter...

This has resource management continuity

Health was a finite resource in Doom. You started off with 100 health, and every bit of damage you took subtracted from that total, but you could restore health (and even exceed your starting "maximum") by picking up items. If you did badly on a particular section or particular group of enemies, you began desperately searching for medkits to get your health back up to a safer level.

Jump forward to modern titles like Modern Warfare, Gears of War, Mass Effect or Uncharted 2, and you don't have a health number. When you get injured, your screen goes red (to varying degrees) indicating you've taken damage and need to bunker down to recover. When you finish one encounter, you're effectively at full health again and ready for whatever might come your way.

Dragon Age attempts to introduce a small middle ground, by penalising characters who fall in battle with "injuries" that hinder their performance in combat until the player uses an "injury kit" or returns to camp to heal. But for the most part, these injuries don't make a big difference upon a character's ability in combat. Maybe people who play on nightmare difficult might notice a more significant penalty, but I never really noticed any appreciable difference in fighting prowess as a result of injuries.

So a party member is injured. Do I really care?

Each system has it's own strengths and weaknesses, so let's take a look at them. For Doom, it's possible for one bad encounter to turn the tide for the entire level. A player gets through the first few fights and finds them really difficult and so has very low health as a result.  The remaining fights in the level might be significantly easier, but the player can't get past them because they can't avoid being hit entirely, and they simply don't have the health to survive.  This is bound to lead to frustration for the player, as they might try dozens of times to get past the level before realising they'll had to load up an earlier save (providing they actually have one) to do the first bit of the level again. It's generally considered poor design to get the player into a situation where they can't win, and that's effectively what this kind of system does.

On the flip side, this kind of system actually makes the player care about each individual combat scenario more. They know they have a limited amount of resources/health available to them, and hence will be more invested in every encounter with the enemy, because they know it will have an impact as they progress through the level. Some could argue that ammunition provides a degree of resource management for a game, but unless the designers are being unfathomably stingy with ammunition, this isn't really much of an argument. I'd also contend that if as a designer you're being that stingy with ammunition, you're probably making a game that many players are not going to find fun.

We don't play First Person Shooters to go ammo hunting

Now let's look the game without resource management. As a designer, it is easier to make every encounter more balanced and achievable for the player, because you know exactly how durable they are coming into the fight. You know they will have full health and how much damage they can take before dying. There's no need to consider the effects of previous encounters within the level on their current state, and thus it's easier to precisely manage the difficulty curve for the player. This is great in terms of pacing, as it allows the designer to do things like giving the player some easy encounters to make them feel good about themselves before throwing them in the deep end by putting them in a really tight spot. It's easier to provide a balanced game experience, and reduces the possibility of players getting stuck in a situation in which they can't possibly prevail.

However, the main weakness of the system stems from the lack of continuity, in that each individual combat scenario can feel different. If you're simply gunning down enemies with little resistance and the combat feels like a procedure rather than exciting gameplay because the player is never in any danger, then the game has become dull. Because the player's performance in one battle doesn't affect what comes after it, the player can become somewhat nonchalant about the encounter, because once the enemies are dead, they don't matter. The player simply walks along and is quickly 100% ready for the next bit of combat, thus somewhat trivialising "ordinary" encounters that quickly come to feel like "filler" to pad out the game's playtime.

More fighting. Yay.

I touched on Dragon Age's attempt to take something from both styles. Health and stamina/mana (used for special abilities or spells) regenerate very quickly outside of combat, effectively meaning characters fully recover between individual sections of combat. However, anyone that falls in battle "comes back" (I guess they got better) once the fight is over, but with a small penalty to their statistics, making them less effective in subsequent fights. This is perhaps an interesting step in trying to get more continuity across encounters, but it fell somewhat flat from my experience. Besides, as long as a character isn't "killed" completely, even if they survive on the smallest sliver of health, there is absolutely no "penalty" given to them at all.

I'm not sure I like this trend for everything to be standalone. From a design perspective I understand the desire for it, but it reduces the tension for "ordinary" encounters with enemies, and makes them somewhat tedious. In a strange conundrum, resource continuity might allow designers to be lazier by adding more "filler" encounters with generic enemies, but at the same time, makes every such encounter more meaningful and interesting for the player because they provide actual consequences should the player perform badly. This is why the "random encounters" with creatures in older RPGs actually meant something, because you were potentially already low on health and mana and forced to fight for your life against a paltry band of goblins (okay, three half-ogres in this case)...

You have been waylaid by enemies and must defend yourself

If you restore a player to full fitness between each encounter, it might be easier to create balanced "special" encounters, but it is actually more demanding of the game/combat designer, because more sections of combat must be "special" in order to keep the player interested. Standard combat against generic enemies quickly becomes as bland as it sounds, because it simply doesn't matter to you as a player.

In trying to simplify their work by removing ongoing health meters, game designers have actually made their job (and that of the rest of their development team) harder because there have to be more "standout" sequences that are made unique by the mechanics, enemy AI, scripted events, the level design, or any other of a number of factors that combine to make a combat encounter. Without any sort of ongoing consequences, there has to be variety in most encounters in order to keep the player engaged and give them something to care and think about.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What has story cost us?

I frequently laud the power of story in video games and how they are an amazing medium for interactive storytelling.  However, there's a flipside to this argument that deserves analysis. What are we losing by having an increased focus on story in video games?  What negative impact is storytelling having on games as a medium for pure fun and entertainment?

Firstly, let's get address that by raising an issue like this, some might argue that I'm calling into question the whole "video games can be art" argument and proving that "video games are just for children/entertainment". But in that case, every "action blockbuster movie" that requires you to check your brain at the door does the same thing for films. Not every book or movie can be considered "art" nor does anything spectacular for their medium as a whole besides pure entertainment. There is nothing to say that an artform can't also purely provide entertainment at times.

Just turn off your brain and enjoy the ride

So with that aside, let's look at how storytelling has modified games. Games now frequently feature a narrative, albeit of greatly varying coherence and quality depending on the particular game. As a result, we also get characterisation and cinematic presentation to help facilitate that story. Good level design dictates that events within a level will help communicate the story and force the player towards their goal.

So what do we get when we combine all these factors to make a game? We have to have a plot that makes sense and motivates the player, and we need to amazing set pieces, either gameplay or non-interactive cinematics that progress the game's narrative. And if we're talking AAA titles, everything has to be pretty and the characters probably need voice acting, and our cinematics need good camera work, and the player shouldn't miss any of them, because then they're missing out on content that took lots of time and money to create, and we don't want to waste it because many players will only play the game through once, if that. So when we combine all these things... well, let's compare the map for an old FPS to a new FPS...

So... which one is supposed to be better, again?

I can't take credit for this picture (though I had seen it before pigeon's comment the other day), but it's somewhat brutally accurate. As much as we can applaud Half-Life for the effect it had FPS gaming, its success and critical acclaim have in no small part led to the situation where players are effectively being herded down a narrow corridor that does its best to not look like a narrow corridor. We've been forced to sacrifice freedom for the increasingly cinematic presentation of our gaming experience. Yes, we get incredibly moving and gripping cinematics or scripted sequences that we experience as the player because of this enforced non-linearity, and each of these has more potential impact because there's a steady pacing of narrative to keep the player engrossed and attached to the story. But we're on rails.

Compare this to something like The Bank Job in Thief 2: The Metal Age, where there were about half a dozen different ways just to get inside the building. The player could freely run around the building and thus "experience" the entire level, but they wouldn't necessarily work out all the different ways they could enter the bank. Even this very start of the level, where the player is merely trying to get inside the building helps reinforce the setting, the aim of the level and the character of Garrett as a master thief. He's so good that there isn't just one way into the building, there's several, and he has the ability to pick whichever one he wants!

Is this time spent creating wasted content? I'd argue not, because in providing a wider level, you give the player a real feeling of choice and empowerment, because not only are they choosing how to break into the building, they can visibly identify other ways to get in that present different level of challenge and risk. In the Half-life series, as well created as it may be, as a player you see one way to reach your goal, and you can easily identify that it is the only means to reach your goal.

I can just go in the front door?

I might be starting to sound like a bit of a broken record to regular readers, but I'd like more non-linearity in modern games. In Doom a player could explore side tunnels on most levels, but they'd eventually end up flicking the relevant switch or grabbing one of the three necessary coloured key/skull to get through the relevant door. If we applied that to modern gaming, we could easily have three sections that every player would be guaranteed to experience within the game, but the exact path they used to get there could be slightly different. We do run the risk of creating content that players may not necessarily see (which is an ongoing argument in itself between big-name game designers), but I feel increasingly constrained by being forced down "the one true path" in many modern games.

I imagine some people will stand up and say: "But we have non-linear games! They are sandbox games like Morrowind, Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption!" These games definitely have non-linearity, but they introduce this non-linearity by adding a lot of (dead) "transit time" getting from one location to another. I love exploration, but I'm not personally so much a fan when exploration (or traveling) turns into one of the primary mechanics of the game, at least not without a massive variety of landscapes or some other driving force (preferably a narrative force) to push me to explore. Games should "skip the boring bits"... commuting is one of those "boring bits".

Commuting is not fun

Where is the balance between these two extremes? Why does it seem like we've mostly fallen into games/levels with linear paths (albeit with attempts to disguise their linearity) driven by story, or completely non-linear games with very little story to drive us? More importantly, where is the happy medium that allow players choice while still keeping them driven by engrossing narrative? No one appears to have quite nailed this balance yet. It does appear that some developers are attempting to do so on a macro-level, i.e. across the entire game, but the idea of doing it within a level appears to have fallen somewhat out of favour, which I would argue is something of a loss for games when it comes to creating engaging levels.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How to improve your levels

Today I'm going to talk about how budding level designers can help improve their level design. If you're not interested in making your own levels, you may not find this terribly useful, but it may cast some light on why the process of level creation is so incredibly time consuming.

This part is easy, and your homework for this is to go play some games. Really, it's that simple.  However, you need to be paying attention and you need to look at games from more than just your chosen genre. If you want to learn about how level design can and should support gameplay mechanics, go play some multiplayer-centric first person shooters. Look at maps from Counterstrike, Unreal Tournament 3, or Team Fortress 2. There are some great examples from these three games, but feel free to look at other maps as well. Moreover, consider maps that both work and don't work, and then take the time to decide why. Why do particular maps result in stalemates or levels that are mostly empty apart from one frenetic killzone? If you're not as experienced in level design, make sure you consider the use of height differences in the level, as this is an area that is frequently overlooked and/or misunderstood by beginners. Breaking down level design is an interesting but very complex subject, so for the sake of brevity, I'll leave it as a topic for future discussion.

Don't fire up your level without putting pen/pencil to paper first. Sketch out your level design! In professional game studios, concept artists create draft images of particular "shots"  that they believe should be the game to help convey the setting or instill players with that "wow!" feeling they get from looking at an amazing level. Even if you can't draw well (and I am terrible at sketching images), you should at the very least have an overhead map of the functional aspects of your level. Where are the trees/buildings/rocks/stairs/etc? You don't have to fill in every detail, but you do need a basic idea of how the level is going to play out.  An overhead map should allow you to concentrate on how the level is going to support and enhance gameplay mechanics, and should help you quickly help identify areas that could annoy the player because of repeated backtracking or a sense of being railroaded.

It doesn't have to be complex. But do it.

Do it. It's that simple. Make up a mock of your level in bare terms as quickly as possibly. There's no need to fill in the space, or even necessarily have the space exactly how you will in the final level. The main idea is to get an idea of level flow, size, and spatial considerations. Ask questions like: Is a hallway too long, too narrow, too straight, or too steep?  Is the level too linear or too non-linear? Does the player have enough space to move around? Can they see or work out where they are supposed to be going?  When doing a prototype, focus entirely on function, not on form. Don't even bother texturing, and only add lighting so you can see what is going on in your level. Make sure the level "works", then start creating in earnest.

I'll make a Dragon Age specific note here and say that you should make sure that you include at least one model in your level before trying to do the process of building lightmaps and using "Post to Local". I had a protoype level without a single mesh model that appeared to cause an infinite loop during the post process.

This goes hand in hand with prototyping and revising your levels, but you need to make sure that they are fun. You want your players to have fun, right? Then you should make sure that when you're playing a level you've made, you're having fun. If you're building for a multiplayer game, try and get a few friends to help test as well, even if the levels unfinished. If you can't do that, put in bot-pathing and test if yourself. It's not perfect, but it's better than nothing.

Good multiplayer maps require lots of testing

Throw Away
At some point, you'll end up creating something that doesn't work. It's that simple. Every level designer has done it. Any level designer that claims they haven't, isn't really a good level designer. IT might be a long section where the player feels unnecessarily herded down a linear path, it might be a level where 50% of the mapis never visited by players, or it might just plain suck. Don't get disheartened, but instead realise what is wrong with the design and then ditch it to create your next level. Do not fall into the temptation to try to continually patch up a level whose core design doesn't work. You'll end up with a level that feels like it has been patched up, at least not without likely spending more hours to fix it than it would have done to create a new, better level from scratch.

Budding writers are told that their first few books are always terrible, and they need to get the first few out of the way before they can actually write something good. As a level designer, take that same approach. Prepare to throw away your first few levels, particularly if you're new to level designing or the particular toolset you're using for level creation. On that note, if you're working on a new mod or game, do not start by creating the first area that the player will enter. The first level (or at least one of the first levels) should be very visually appealing to grab the player's attention. Delivering them your first attempts in level creation for the game is not a good means of doing this.

These are a few small tips for improving your level design, but there are plenty more ways to get better. Still, all the theory in the world means nothing if you don't practice. So get stuck into that level editor!