Sunday, October 31, 2010

Rehearing the old times

I must confess to having a great soft spot for old video game soundtracks.  I've still got a selection of old MIDI files from games including: Ultima Underworld 1 & 2, Doom 1 & 2, Hexen 1 & 2, Descent 1 & 2, Warcraft 1 & 2... Hey, what's with all these old sequels?!? 

The problem with old MIDI soundtracks is that they sound horribly dated when you compare them to the wonderful orchestrated pieces of game music we get from modern titles. There's no denying that MIDI files sound hideous, and every year makes them sound even worse. Unfortunately my lack of knowledge and skill when it comes to music creation and mastering means that I lack the necessary skills to turn these files into modern sounding masterpieces.  I don't even know where to begin, nor do I have any idea as to what software I could use to do so.

So today, while listening to this terrible quality music made palatable purely by nostalgia, I decided to search to see if anyone had recreated/updated some of these tracks with modern technology.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a link to a website featuring redone versions of the old midi files from Doom, Heretic and Hexen.

These might not be to everyone's tastes, but for me, these recordings breathed new life into old melodies that I've listened to on many occasions.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What's in a face?

The human brain is fantastic at recognising similarities when it comes to things like human faces.  Which means when we're dealing with computer games that show people and faces in any sort of detail, designers have to be somewhat particular about the creation of individual characters. Faces can assist in portraying age, personality and even give information about a character's life, so should be created with some thought.

When people are walking down a crowded street, it's easy to pick out the faces of people they know, and this translates to the interactions a player has with characters in a game. Individuality must be a major factor when creating faces and characters because people are so good at recognising faces, so multiple characters that all have the same generic face will immediately break the illusion of reality for the player.  That said, if a player never sees these "generic faces" up close, then the problem is not that significant.

Oblivion suffered partially from "generic face syndrome"

In Dragon Age, like many non-first person games, you don't get a particularly close look at the faces of many individuals unless you talk to them and subsequently get a close-up camera during conversation.  In first-person games there's frequently the chance to get a close look at people's faces, which will translate into requiring a few extra faces needed for the "extras" within the game. However, the most effort should be invested in a game's major characters to make them memorable and distinctive. So how should designers work on creating NPCs and facial appearances that will help to create individual and unique characters?

In computer games, designers have many tools at their disposal to communicate to the player, and portraying the personality of characters is something that can be done in numerous ways.  There's overall appearance and body shape, facial apperance, their speech (both in terms of vocabulary and VO delivery), and things like their ambient behaviour when they're not interacting with the player. A designer should be abke to use all these tools to help convey and reinforce the personality of characters, particularly when it comes to major NPCs like crucial plot characters or allies. Some characters might pace incessantly, sit and meditate, read a book, and so on. This helps convey their character before the player even talks to them.

You know this character's profession from a single glance

When it comes to appearance it is ideal if a character's face can help reinforce their personality, even if in a stereotypical manner. People will associate certain facial types and structures with particular personalities, so the gaunt faced character will serve better as an older or more world-weary person, whereas the character with a larger or rounder face is more likely to be jovial or amicable. This isn't to say that characters should conform entirely to stereotypes, but designers should utilise these to help convey key aspects of character personality when create overall appearances and faces.

So if we're dealing specifically Dragon Age head morphs, there are a lot of things to consider. Skin, eye and hair colour, hair style, skin complexion, then various tattoos and makeup considerations are the basic superficial features that can help convey a character's background. As an example, a particularly flamboyant of flirty female might have strong makeup, perhaps bright red lipstick to attract attention. A character who spends all their time outside might have skin type with more wrinkles but less not an aged facial texture. Consider the shape of the character's brow and whether the corners of their lips are naturally raised or lowered as these could suggest a basic friendly or unfriendly disposition for the character.

This character's face suggests friendliness

Facial structure itself is a little more difficult to define in terms of how it relates to someone's personality, but there are some general sort of rules you might be able to follow. A squarer and more prominent jaw will help suggest a bulkier and stronger character, whereas a more narrow and pointy jaw will tend to make players think the characters is perhaps more dainty or lithe. Consider other facial features: high cheekbones may indicate a more confident or authoritative figure, thin nosed characters might tend to be fussy or annoying, small button noses might be used for more happy or shy people... I'm sure there are many other stereotypes that you can think of to help support character traits.

Ideally a face should just be another means that help support and convey character personality and history. Thus for important characters that have a personal involvement with the player, a designer should try to make those faces as individual as their dialogue and personality.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Character Preview: Commander Norvac

The Ferelden militia in the Frostback mountains needs an able leader, and Commander Norvac is a capable and veteran warrior. He is in charge of the Frostback Militia, the only military force in the area, and has a reputation as a stern man who instills iron discipline in his soldiers. While he has respect for his men and the people he protects, he is always mindful of his duty.

"We are not here to mother everyone who comes begging for help."

Norvac participated in numerous skirmishes against the Darkspawn during the blight, including the defense of Denerim. He is ill suited to a life without conflict, and is a proud warrior.  He cares little for diplomacy nor dealing with the general troubles in the Frostbacks, but recognises the need to maintain cordial relationships for the sake of discipline and moral.

However, the troubles of the region seem to be affecting him more than usual, and his normal stoic demeanor has sometimes been replaced with visible worry.

"No wars are won without sacrifice. You will learn that soon enough."

Only a significant danger could cause a seasoned leader like Commander Norvac such concern.  His assistance and advice may be crucial in overcoming the troubles in the Frostback Mountains, whatever they may be...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Shattered War Map

Thanks to the extremely useful map tutorial by TimelordDC on BioWare's toolset wiki (and his blog post on the subject), Dragon Age modders are able to implement custom world maps for their modules.

Since The Shattered War is designed to give players the "full Dragon Age experience", this means that I had to implement a world map. Which is exactly what I've been doing today!

The world map for The Shattered War

This map shows some of the locations that players will visit during their adventure. I would have taken an in-game shot to demonstrate, but then I might be giving away a few things!

The map has the same frayed edge look as those within the original game and uses a portion of a high resolution (6680x5010) Thedas map as the source image.  One thing that I could not locate is the original font used by the game. Instead I decided to use the Gabrielle font, which seemed to be the best fit of the fonts that I could find. The hours I spent on this probably could have created quite a lot of extra dialogue for players to experience, but in my opinion the small details like this really help to make a mod special and give it a professional feel.

Make Content Accessible

In general, it is good if content is as easy to access as possible for the players. What do I mean? I mean that much of the content and gameplay within a game should be found as a matter of course, and not require the player to go searching for it.

To demonstrate, I'll refer to two characters from the original Baldur's Gate. Alora was a particularly cheery halfling thief that you could only get to join your party if you happened to go to Hall of Wonders at night. Alternatively, there was the character Skie, where you had to traipse around with a bard named Eldoth (who was somewhat annoying) and take him to a particular location to get her into the party. For Alora, it required that you be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right to get her to join your party. For Skie, you had to keep Eldoth around and potentially travel with him for quite some time.  How many people really would have ended up using these characters?

Alora and Skie, rare party members

The point here is that content in general should be made fairly accessible to the player. I have no problem with content being located in an obscure location; say, I have to visit the abandoned building off the market at midnight. But, there should be something (maybe a book, scrap of paper or an overheard conversation) that I could reasonably encounter as part of my ordinary adventure to indicate that I have to follow this set of steps to find this additional content. I'm not saying that everything should be handed to the player on a silver platter, and there should be some content that players must search for. That content is a reward for the dedicated player, but typically should be a relatively small amount of content. Perhaps the only exception might be if you're playing a sandbox game where exploration itself is a major part of the gameplay.

We should be careful not to confuse content that comes around as a result of consequence with content that comes about because of exploration of a location in obscure circumstances. The two are completely different things.
Compare and contrast:
  • A sidequest with two alternate paths of content because of a choice the player makes, each amounting to 2 hours playtime each. 95% of players will experience this content, and the two alternate content paths are experienced by approximately 50% of that player base.
  • A sidequest with one linear path amounting to approximately 5 hours playtime. 95% of players will not experience this content because it can only be discovered through an obscure series of events.

Both might take approximately the same amount of development time, but the former offers far greater value for the player base in terms of average hours of gameplay per hours of developer time.

Miranda will be unhappy if you don't do her side quest...

But designers must also not confuse easily-accessible with optional.  Some players explore every nook and cranny, talk to every NPC and generally try to exhaust every available option within the game. However, these players are not the norm. The statistics for both Dragon Age and Mass Effect were that approximately 50% of people finished the either game. That's right, only half of the people who played the games finished them. Content that is extremely difficult for players to find is probably only going to be experienced by a very small percentage of the player base.

I'm not arguing that content should be stripped down to cater for the lowest common denominator, but designers have to understand their audience and what will make their game popular. If content is not accessible in a reasonably straightforward manner, it will be missed by a large proportion of the player base. Designers should reward the curious player, but they have to keep in mind that if they only cater to 5% of their potential audience when making AAA titles, they're probably not going to be making a commercially successful game.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Adventure Game Problems

If you design games, you should play games.  It's that simple.  Not just the genre you create, but other genres as well.  I'm perhaps guilty of playing too many RPGs, but over the past couple of months I have also played Alan Wake, Just Cause 2, Serious Sam HD and Tales of Monkey Island (and a few others) between my modding sessions. The last is something I've been playing recently, and as a result I have been reminded of the frustrations of adventure games.  They can be really fun, but they have a few problems that arguably make them less enjoyable when compared to era in which they were among the best games around. There are three significant ones that come to mind...

Arbitrary Solutions
Frequently the means to solve a puzzle is not obvious, or completely unintuitive.  Now it could be argued that this is part of the fun, but it's not particularly enjoyable to randomly try combined items in your inventory until something works, or attempting to use every single item in your inventory with an object until you find the right one. Part of the enjoyment in an adventure game is the problem solving of coming up with the solutions. Solutions can be as crazy and off the wall as the designer likes, but there should be some means for the player to identify a solution.

Guybrush escapes from a crazy doctor using only his feet

Tales succeeds in some cases (like escaping from a crazy doctor while strapped to an operating chair - above), but fails in others (smashing glass unicorns by firing a cannon pointing in the wrong direction). Of course, a game can't always get it "right", but it can be frustrating for the player when they had no real way of identifying the correct solution beforehand.

Pixel Hunting
To this day, I remember my frustration with playing the original version of The Secret of Monkey Island. The particular puzzle that stopped me for a long time was getting past a group of vicious piranha poodles guarding the Governor's mansion.  I could feed them a hunk of meat, but this would not occupy them for long enough.  The correct solution was to use a yellow flower on the meat (or to place it in a pot in which you stewed the meat) which would then send the dogs to sleep. This gave you the amusing message: "These dogs are sleeping, NOT dead. No animals were harmed during the creation of this game."  The problem was you had no real way of knowing you could interact with the flowers unless you happened to move the mouse over them and noticed the status bar change text. They were also found in a forest that you visited for completely unrelated reasons, which also ties back to problem 1.

Monkey Island's sleep-inducing flowers

Identifying which objects you could interact with was a significant problem in older adventure games. Tales of Monkey Island goes some way to fixing this, by allowing you to press a key to "highlight" interactive objects. However, sometimes there are multiple objects with which you can interact within a single highlight, which can lead you to miss important object that you need to use.

A Single Path
Adventure games are typically fairly linear.  This is because they rely on story (and frequently humour) in order to keep the audience engaged.  This is a good thing because it helps the narrative, and also prevents the player from getting into a situation where it is impossible to beat the game - yes, that is A Good Thing.  But this does result in problems when the player wants to pursue a particular task but they are unable to do so because they need to complete something else first.  Generally there is no easy way to tell the player the exact order to do tasks in. Moreover, doing so would feel very heavy handed and likely annoy players with blatant railroading. As such, sometimes you can be stuck trying to solve a puzzle that is currently impossible.

The only way to lose Monkey Island

All these problems can potentially be fixed, but do those fixes come with a cost?  The arbitrary solution that initially makes no sense can turn out to be hilariously wacky and amuse players. Pixel hunting... actually, I think we can safely ditch that entirely. Highlight all usable objects in the scene, using a specific outline for each object if necessary. The designers can even throw in a few red herrings if they want to avoid making puzzles too easy. The single path is perhaps the hardest to address, as a linear story will almost certainly be more entertaining than a non-linear one, and the story and humour are probably the two major reasons for playing adventure games.

Of course, it might be interesting to discuss the adventure game genre as a whole, why it fell into decline, and why it has only gained attention again in recent years with the episodes of Tales and Sam and Max, but that's probably a post for another time...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Let's add a little character

What do you think of when you hear a game's name? What images comes to your mind when I say Mass Effect, Halo and Mirror's Edge? I'm going guess something like this...

The poster children

Recognisable characters help with the marketing of a game. Everyone can identify Mario, Lara Croft, Gordon Freeman, Sonic the Hedgehog or Pacman. Lead or likable characters that stick in the minds of players help raise interest, spark curiousity, and make people love the game. Take Duke Nukem Forever: if it were not for the love held by fans for the lead character from games over 10 years old, the idea of finishing the development of the game would have been ditched long ago. This is the kind of loyalty and dedication (though it could be aruged it's now delved into the realm of pure stubbornness) that game developers would love to be able to incite in fans for every character they create.

We've all experienced our share of games with bland main characters, but even with characters that on paper might seem the same inspire different reactions. Why is it that Gordon Freeman from Half-life was popular, whereas Isaac Clarke from Dead Space was bland? Both are silent protagonists (though Isaac does give the occasional grunt), but Gordon for some reason has charm that Isaac does not. Is it because of the way people react to Gordon compared to Isaac? Is it because Gordon is a regular man in an amazing suit? Arguably Isaac is the same.  Or maybe it's simply because of Gordon's ridiculously manly beard?

There is no chin behind Gordon's beard. Just another crowbar.

So what is it that makes a character likeable or memorable?  What is it that makes a character a hit with fans?  In games we don't often get to have the protagonist develop as a character which frequently endears people to someone as in a book or a movie. Video game protagonists are frequently static in terms of their character and behave in exactly the same manner from start to finish (even if they become more powerful or dangerous as the game progresses), though there are exceptions to this rule. Take Altair from Assassin's Creed, who goes from a self-centred egotist to a somewhat humble character trying to make up for past mistakes, and I'm sure you can think of others.  Of course, this isn't to say that a static protagonist is bad.  Duke Nukem and Gordon Freeman aren't changed by the events they experience, neither is Ryu Hayabusa from Ninja Gaiden nor Master Chief, and Guybrush Threepwood is still a bumbling wannabe pirate throughout all his adventures. Yet all these characters are endearing, fun, or just plain butt-kicking-for-goodness-awesome in the minds of the players who have played their games.

Characters have to be unique and have less time to sell themselves to players (or potential players) than in other media. There has to be something that immediately says "I'm interesting", or marks the character out as different or worth our time.  Garrett from the Thief series is a master of his craft and a gravelly voiced cynic to boot, April Ryan from The Longest Journey is a art student struggling with life, Alan Wake is a troubled writer who ends up fighting zombies, Ryu Hayabusa is a death-dealing ninja without equal. Of course, there also the problem that so many characters and protagonists are white males, but that's opening up a whole different can of worms. Regardless, there are plenty more individual characters that are immediately recognisable without having to resort to low-grade tactics...

Do we really need to see video game characters like this?

Do we really demand our characters be physically attractive in order to get players attracted to a game?  Are video gamers really that shallow that sex sells in a wholly interactive medium? Surely we can have a lot more variety in the characters within modern video games, and surely developers owe it to gamers to provide that? Of course, it's also up to players to support developers when they create something that doesn't conform to the norm. That said, there are certain things that can be difficult because games are an interactive medium, like for example an unlikeable protagonist.  There are certain movies where the viewer does not find the main character(s) particularly endearing. Try The Godfather or District 9, where generally viewers don't particularly like the main character for most (or all) of the film, yet typically they still want the character to succeed. If in a video game and you're playing a character you don't like, the chances that you're going to simply stop playing the game are fairly high. This is totally undesirable.

So video game developers must make characters likable yet not blatantly sexualised, have an individual personality yet one that is quickly accessible, and recognisable yet not stereotypical. In each of these aspects, creating characters for video games is much like creating characters for any medium. But developers have the means to convey characters in an interactive medium and can allow players to shape character development according to their choices. What if a player could actually help redeem an initially unlikable protagonist, or be the push that sends a noble character tumbling down the slope of morality? Or does creating a character that is mutable based on a player's choices actually dilute the strength of their personality and hence potentially weaken the strength of that character's persona?

I don't know the answer, but I look forward to playing games that explore these possibilities.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Gothic IV Demo Impressions

Today I tried playing the recent demo of ArcaniA: Gothic IV, and found it a somewhat interesting experience. So, here are my impressions based on the short stint it gives you within the game.

The first thing to hit you upon starting ArcaniA (What's with the second capital "A", anyway? Did reality become like eXistenZ without me noticing?) are the beautiful and vibrant graphics.  It seems to me that certain studios could learn a thing or two from Spellbound Studios, because this has got to be one of the more attractive games I've seen in a while.  It looks pretty. There are some graphical issues like bushes disappearing when you get too close to them (yes, you did read that right), but the environments are pleasing to the eye and have a vibrant feel that you just don't get from the bleak or gritty atmosphere present in so many games.

For example, when I compare ArcaniA to the Dragon Age 2 shots that have been shown so far, I can't help but think that BioWare's next offering is going to feel a little bit drab.  And this isn't even anything to do with the model detail or the texture quality, I'm talking simply about the colour palette. The worry I have is that DA2 is going to feel like the original Quake did: using a computer that can show millions of colours to show every single shade of brown. Now, I know that I'm being unfair to Dragon Age 2 because I'm going on the only area of which screenshots have been shown, and there's most likely more colour diversity in the game as a whole. However, from a marketing point of view, I must confess I really can't understand why potential players haven't been shown more interesting scenery. If I had to pick between the two based on visual impression only, I know who would be winner...

Wasteland versus lush island. Not exactly a fair comparison.

Once I'd stopped staring at the scenery, I went into the local village to talk to the people. The character animations and subtitles within conversations quickly left something to be desired, because they didn't entirely match the words being spoken. Yes, that's right, the subtitles and the actual lines being spoken aren't the same. I'm not sure if this was the cause for the poor lip-syncing of the characters, but it was a bit of a weakness. Or maybe I've just been spoiled by AAA titles to expect good lip sync, but characters giving a full bellied laugh with their mouth closed just didn't quite work for me. They also called me shepherd, because apparently that's my profession. If people are saying "Shepherd", then I'm going to hear "Shepard" and expecting my character to be an awesome space soldier. Sorry ArcaniA, but Commander Shepard trumps a nameless sheep herder.

However, one thing I thought was excellent about the dialogue system was the way that certain dialogue options were treated. If an option would pursue a quest and move the story forward, as opposed to being purely for investigation, the dialogue line was presented in green. This way a player will never accidentally pursue dialogue at the expense of asking more questions and finding out more information should they so desire, but also, it allows a player to ignore all "extraneous" dialogue choices if they choose.  I imagine some RPG purists might argue against this mechanic, but I really think it's a excellent mechanism.  Much like Mass Effect's dialogue wheel placing its "investigation" nodes on the left hand side of the wheel, it allows players to get as much or little information with simple yet elegant UI design. I'd actually like to be able to implement coloured text like this in Dragon Age: Origins for The Shattered War.

A little touch a colour is a definite touch of class

Then we reach the game's combat, and I really don't know what to make of it here. It seemed interesting enough to begin with, a simple click-to-swing system. There seemed to be a slight speed increase if I timed my clicks "right", but I couldn't be certain. You can also right click with a direction to roll out of the way of enemy attacks, which is generally what you want to do when the enemy starts to light up with a fancy particle effect letting you know they're about to do a "super-special big attack". The problem is that this effect gives you so much warning it's ridiculous. If you thought you got a bit of warning with the lightning bolt markers in Batman: Arkham Asylum, then you've got years to react in ArcaniA. You can easily get in a few extra hits and still have time to get out of the way. If you get injured it's probably because you decided to go for that one last extra hit before dodging.

Before the end of the demo you did get access to some spells, which could either slow enemies, set them on fire, or electrocute (stun) them. This really didn't help the combat much at all, because it quickly became a trivial process of: Stun enemy, smack enemy with weapon, repeat until enemy death. Groups make this slightly more difficult, but it was still a fairly straightforward process to dispatch enemies, simply time consuming. It also seemed to be giving you more powerful weapons and enemies than would seem reasonable for how early it was in the game, but rather than endearing me to the trappings of being a mighty warrior, it made me feel like "high-end" combat would be tedious rather than exciting.

Super Saiyan Telegraphing Attack

Overall, the demo for ArcaniA: Gothic IV piqued my interest in the game, but I'm unsure whether it is worth a purchase. Unsurprisingly, they don't give away a lot of plot in the game, but I did get to find out that I'm an orphan apparently with some kind of latent power. Classic RPG cliches like that don't fill me with much hope for a gripping main plot. I can see the combat getting repetitive very quickly, and if a large portion of the gameplay is dull and uninteresting, then that doesn't really bode well for the game itself. But I still feel like I have some interest in the game because it's trying to do something that requires more interaction for player combat, it's the fourth installment in a series I've never played, and I'm an RPG fan. That said, I suppose I still have The Witcher to go back to. Plus, do I really need another distraction keeping me away from modding?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Personal Review: Quests and Consequence

A few days ago I talked about learning from past mistakes I'd made in my modding creations. I'd like to continue in that theme again today, this time concentrating on quest design. I'll be discussing my Neverwinter Nights 2 (NWN) mod Fate of a City again, but also referring to Alley of Murders.

Fate of a City (FoaC) had a few problems with the quests I'd developed, particularly the sidequests.  The most notable weakness of these was my tendency to "extend" quests further than players initially expected.  A simple quest to talk to someone to solve a problem would never be that simple. There would almost always be new information that would force the player to talk to yet another person in the chain and then potentially return to one (or both!) of the original people involved within the quest. While this is fine to do on occasion, repetition of this can frustrate players.

For one, the begin to feel like they are getting the run-around. They begin to realise that every quest is not going to be straightforward and there is going to be something to throw a spanner into the works. They start to become jaded - it's like watching a M. Night Shyamalan movie - you know there's going to be a twist. Worse, if the player has to traverse areas in order to talk to person a, then person b, then person a again, then back to ... you get the idea. This quickly becomes tedious. In case any game designers or modders haven't got a message they should have heard long ago: backtracking is not fun and should be avoided whenever possible!

Force Speed: Making backtracking (slightly) less painful since 2003

Backtracking is whenever you're covering ground you've covered before. Walking back over the same territory quickly becomes tedious, and doubly so if there's nothing new to make the journey interesting. Commercial games seemed to have learned from some past mistakes. The original Halo made you backtrack for almost half of the game, simply with different enemies. KotOR involved a lot of backtracking for quests that force speed helped make bearable. The Witcher "investigation" has a hideous amount of backtracking. Morrowind used silt striders to help eliminate backtracking to a degree, but it still proved tedious at times. But even Grand Commute Auto, I mean Grand Theft Auto IV had far too much menial travel with little real enjoyment - some people still haven't quite got the message. I tried to reduce backtracking tedium in FoaC by using a world map, but there was still "dead" transit time involved. Backtracking can tend to give people "courier/fedex syndrome", where they feel like a messenger running back and forth delivering or collecting packages. This isn't enjoyable, and it certainly isn't heroic. People don't play games to feel like they're doing a day job.

The issue isn't when you have quests that have twists or are lengthy and complex. The issue occurs when every quest is like this.  Quests should vary in both content, length and pacing, just to keep the player guessing. Two of the most popular quests (and probably my two most favourite) were very different in style and length. One involved exploring and finding a set of clues to lead you to a deadly "Shadow Being", one whom you had to defeat in a puzzle style manner rather than combat.  The other involved a daughter complaining about strange noises in the night, which eventually led to the discovery of two creatures having inflicted a death sentence on the father and the daughter unless the player intervened.  It started off as an investigation, resulted in a short combat, sent the player on a quest to find a cure, and finally deciding how they wanted to resolve the quest. The player had a variety of solutions, ranging from the noble path of spending exorbitant amounts of money to saving both their lives, to fleecing the family for their money and their lives.  The two quests were very different in terms of style and length, providing interesting variety for the player.

A family's fate in your hands

However, the latter brings me to another point, specifically that of unexpected consequences.  If the player chose to kill the family, then later on in the main quest one of the NPCs would choose to limit the assistance they provided. I also implemented a similar consequence in Alley of Murders (AoM), in that if the player helped an elf in one quest, it would result in someone's life being spared in another.  In FoaC, the NPC in question directly tells you that you previous actions are why she will not help you, whereas in AoM the link is only hinted at. But in either case, the consequence cannot be predicted when the player makes the initial choice.  It exists so as to enhance the cohesive nature of the world and demonstrate that actions have consequences, but the player cannot possible foresee the long-term effects of their decision.

This raises the question: Are unexpected consequences a bad thing?  Should the player's progress potentially be affected in unforeseen ways because of decisions they made in quests that seem unrelated to their current actions? One issue of concern is whether to ensure that the consequences do not penalise the player when dealing with such choices.  In FoaC, the NPC provided help in a reduced form, but this did not have any significant impact on the rewards the player received in terms of experience or money, but it may have increased the difficulty of battles at the game's climax. In AoM, the potential death of the NPC had little real effect on the player. The player received a minor monetary reward if the NPC remained alive, but otherwise had little effect on the game's mechanics.

One of these templars will always die, but the other might live

Is having unexpected consequences fair on the player? Should players be expected to have a clear understanding of the consequences of their actions in order to make a reasoned decision, or should they potentially be penalised (or alternatively be rewarded) at a future time due to past decisions? In a way this is somewhat of an argument of the visibility of mechanics versus the verisimilitude of the setting. To an extent, I must confess that I'm more of a fan of the latter because I love being presented with choice in games, but I understand that a balance must be struck between the two. The designer must strive to reinforce the basic mechanics of choice in the majority of cases, for too many decisions that result in unexpected consequences will not only serve to frustrate the player, but also ruin those special moments when the player realises that their previous decisions have come back to haunt them.

The main take home message is to ensure variance in a player's experience. Presenting the player with something unexpected will get their attention and usually make them remember their experiences, and creating something memorable and enjoyable is what designers should constantly strive to achieve.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Update: Small Changes

This is just a quick post to say that in the little spare time that I've had for modding has been spent working on some minor changes to Alley of Murders.  These have mostly been cosmetic changes to improve things "around the edges" so to speak: giving it a custom icon within the game's main menu, having accurate text if the player decides to save the game in the area, and a few other cosmetic changes.

I'll be putting the update (hopefully the final version) to both the BioWare Social Network and DANexus before too long.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Personal Review: Alignment Roleplaying

Something I have to consider as a modder and aspiring game developer/designer are my previous creations and the design choices that I made for them.  In this post, I'm going to concentrate entirely on my Neverwinter Nights 2 (NWN2) module Fate of a City and discuss a core part of its design philosophy.

Fate of a City (FoaC) was highly roleplay focused, in no small part due to my initial idea for the module being entirely roleplay based. I'd first imagined it being more like an adventure game than anything else. I figured this probably wouldn't actually be terribly popular amongst the NWN2 community, so ditched that idea, but instead decided to focus heavily on alignment based roleplaying. D&D has two separate alignment axes, good and evil versus law and chaos. It is also possible to be neutral in either axis, giving a possible 9 alignments.

D&D's alignments meet Batman

In light of this, I decided to base most conversation choice around 5 possible options: Good, Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic and Evil. These options were presented in that order each time (thus giving the player some meta-game information about the tone of their choice), and every choice would modify your character's alignment in that direction to varying degrees. This did not extend to conversations where the player was simply gathering information or other factual situations - only conversations where the player was expression an opinion about a subject or making a choice. This was a core part of the module as a whole, almost every significant action or choice that the player could make was able to be tied into one of these alignment categories

This system allowed me to have players make a decision, but provide an emotional or thought process behind each choice that they could roleplay. There was a difficult balance in making the choices apply to the specific alignment while not prescribing an exact reason for a decision. Even better, because of numeric system of 0-100 in each axis used to implement alignment within NWN2, I could let the player know exactly how far they were modifying their alignment to let them know if they were perhaps drifting away from what the player considered to be their "core" alignment. I was also able to use the alignment to dictate how people in the city reacted to the player in general - a character who had an evil alignment would have an equivalent reputation because this would almost certainly be as a result of their misdeeds within the game. The alignment even affected the overall outcome at the end of the game, as the player's demeanour had a significant effect on the ending of the game also taking into consideration their other actions within the game. I'm going to pick on Fallout 3 again and say that it probably had fewer endings than FoaC, or more accurately, fewer meaningfully different endings.

Using different pictures is not providing a different ending

However, while this system had a great many benefits, it wasn't perfect. Some players did not agree with the "tone" of some of the decisions, and I received some complaints about the severity of some of the alignment swings that could occur as a result of player actions. I feel I could happily defend my choices (I think murdering people in cold blood should demand a fairly serious alignment change), but it doesn't change the fact that some people disliked them. However, more importantly, the some of the reason for this dislike is that some class choices demand that characters adhere to specific alignments: Barbarians cannot be lawful, druids must always be at least partially neutral, Warlocks must be chaotic or evil, etc, etc. By tying choices to alignment, it meant that I was tying specific classes to particular roleplaying choices within the game.

There were plenty of choices to modify a player's alignment during the game, allowing them to quite easily go from one end of each axis to the other and then back again. However, some players may have been stuck making decisions they weren't necessarily happy with because I was forcing the D&D alignment system on them and forcing them to adhere to it. While this is arguably sticking to the spirit of alignment as it is used in D&D in that it forces players to adhere to those limitations, they are precisely that: limitations. By implementing choice within alignment, I was effective limiting player choice. From a setting and D&D system point of view, it was somewhat purist, but this doesn't work as well within the context of a computer game because of those limits you are placing on the player. Sure, it prevents the paladin player from going around kicking puppies, but it also potentially prevents the warlock having a slight benevolent streak without penalising them.

Is forcing alignment a bad idea?

In hindsight, it may have been better to implement two different axes of "reputation" or something similar to keep track of the player's decisions (in a general sense rather than dealing with specific choices), and have NPC interactions be affected by these scales rather than those that could actually have an effect on core game mechanics. It is an interesting case of setting/lore consistency versus gameplay enjoyability, and one that I may have been better erring on the side of "fun" rather than the side of "mechanic correctness".

To highlight this in the context of a commercial game, a similar argument has also been raised in regards to Mass Effect 2, where players have voiced concern about being forced to pursue either the renegade or paragon path in an almost exclusive manner if they wish to be able to use the associated speech skills to obtain desirable outcomes during conversations. Players who attempt to cover their bases or maintain somewhat of a middle ground will actually end up being unable to persuade people, including party members, which will potentially result in squadmate deaths. Is this a bad thing, or is it simply providing consequences for the choices the player is making?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Extra Credits on Day 1 DLC

A short post today commenting on the recent episode of Extra Credits and their discussion of Day 1 DLC.  While I've found the series quite good, I must say that I feel they missed the mark horribly with this discussion. Some of their suggestions for improving or removing Day 1 DLC, selling more games and making gamers happier:

Reducing the cost of games
This doesn't work. If it worked, then people would be buying new games in the US. What do I mean? I like in Australia. We pay typically $90-100 for a new game. This might drop to $80 after the game has been out for 6-12 months.  For anyone complaining about paying $60 or $50 for a brand new game... I am afraid to say that people living in America have virtually no right to complain about games being too expensive.

Recently Fallout: New Vegas was available for pre-order on Steam for $49.95. After a while, someone realised that this price was not the "norm" for Australia, and immediately increased the price to $89.95. This is game being digitally distributed. One that does not cost the publishers any more to have transferred to prospective buyers in Australia compared to anywhere else in the world, and they are being paid directly in USD, so why should Australians have to pay a $40 premium for exactly the same product that everyone else is getting. This is a disgusting practice. I'd like to support Obsidian, but I cannot stomach being ripped off in this fashion by those in charge of setting the price.

Selling multiplayer separately
Now, this is actually something I'd be happy with.  This could potentially be a nightmare in terms of technical implementation, but I'd actually be content with it.  Of course, it does raise the question of what a title does when it is entirely a single player experience.  Hrm, guess it has to be full price again... And if players then can pay $30 for a multiplayer title or $60 for a single player only title, then I imagine single player titles would become even harder for developers to justify to publishers.

Including content on the disc

Now, this might not be the case with all Day 1 DLC, but sometimes it's not on the disc because it wasn't ready by the time the game went gold. It wasn't available to be put on the disc when the master copy was being made. I imagine it also wouldn't happen on PC, because the potential for piracy of DLC would be too high for a publisher to be happy about it. And I'd probably say that's a fair call.

But, I'm sure people disagree with me in my comments here, so I guess everyone has different tastes and opinions.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mass Effect 2: DLC Done Right

Part of the reason I discussed DAO's DLC was not only to lament that it could have been so much more, but also so that I would have a good counterpoint when analysing the DLC released for Mass Effect 2. So let's give a quick recap of each of its (playable) DLC and discuss why they've succeeded in a way that Dragon Age's offerings have not.

Roughly equivalent to DAO's Stone Prisoner, it adds a new party companion with a personal quest.  Perhaps a little less content than Stone Prisoner, but Zaeed has a group of dedicated fans for being one of the toughest characters in space.

Normandy Crash Pack
This was a bit of a let down, although it appeared to be mostly for nostalgic reasons and closure regarding the destruction of the Normandy and the deaths of its crew members. It was effectively a treasure hunt.

Firewalker Pack
This was another shallow DLC, but free. It was basically designed to introduce the Hammerhead, a new land vehicle to replace the (unwieldy) Mako. This was largely a bit of platforming/driving with the Mass Effect universe, and while it did not receive overwhelmingly positive reviews, it did do something different.

The Hammerhead: Agile and Fragile

Stolen Memory
Adding the master thief Kasumi to Shepard's crew, this DLC offered a few interesting things.  A new weapon got many players excited, as did Kasumi's new combat abilities. The mods also featured an investigation sequence where the player had to determine how to get into a locked vault. While the solution could be pursued in a mostly linear fashion and was fairly straightforward, it did offer something different in terms of gameplay.

Project Overlord
Overlord took the Hammerhead and showed its true potential, and delivered a nice story in addition. Turning the Hammerhead's exploration into an interesting game element, including a set piece fight in the vehicle and "frogger-like" sections. It also featured "regular" ME2 gameplay, wit a surreal cutscene and an enjoyable set-piece boss fight for its conclusion, not to mention a great moral choice.

Lair of the Shadow Broker
While it was always going to gain attention and sales because it reunited Shepard with Liara from Mass Effect 1, Lair of the Shadow Broker was the real deal in its own rights. While it started with another clunky investigation (arguably worse than in Stolen Memory) it soon hit its strides.  Combat sequences featuring enemies using Kasumi's Flashbang Grenade, followed by a car chase sequence, a defense segment and two set-piece boss fights all combined to make the gameplay really enjoyable.

Hold the line!

So what is it that makes ME2's DLC successful and popular, whereas DAO's wasn't as warmly received?  For starters, ME2's DLC took more risks. There was no Warden's Keep or Return To Ostagar which just offered "more of the same" as had been given to the player in the main game.  The firewalker pack consisted entirely of flying around in the new vehicle, and none of the standard combat present in the main game. So while it was fairly straightforward, it was a testbed for what was truly to come in Overlord, which really put the new vehicle through its paces and showed that it was capable of integrated smoothly into the main game as a viable alternative to ME1's Mako. The flying vehicle section of Lair of the Shadow Broker (I'm going to use the abbreviation LotSB because that name is simply too long) was another out-of-the-box bit of gameplay, which was fun despite not being terribly difficult.  It perhaps erred on the side of being too easy, but it was really well implemented because you really felt under pressure, and combined with Liara's "encouragement" it really felt like you were taking charge of a chase scene in a sci-fi movie. It was fun.

LotSB chase scene: better than a silly pod race

Stolen Memory tried something different when it tried to integrate an investigation into the game, but unfortunately it amounted to little more than moving around and talking to people. It was almost as though it was trying to bring an adventure game playstyle in Mass Effect, but there wasn't a whole lot of thinking the player had to do, meaning it didn't quite work. This was reduced even further in the beginning of the LotSB, amounting to little more than hunting for the interactive items in the level. This was probably the weakest part of both respective DLCs, but again, it was experimenting with something different. I imagine it could provide an interesting diversification of gameplay if it were more enjoyable and required a bit more grey matter. 

Mention should also be given to the set combat pieces of Overlord and LotSB that help make them standout, and truly showcase that Mass Effect 2 has managed to bring its gameplay mechanics on par with actual Third Person Shooters. Hardline RPG fans might decry this as an example of how it is no longer an RPG, but I'd argue that the genre need not be constrained to mechanics that rely purely on character leveling and the luck of invisible dice rolls. But that's a digression I could spend a whole post on... in fact, I'll probably do that in the future.

The point is that ME2's maturity and mastery of its mechanics as evidenced in its DLC brings with it more challenging and more interesting fights within the game. Putting the player into new situations not only makes for increased variety and interest, but it makes the game more fun. No one wants to do the same boss fight over and over again. Simply shooting or attacking an enemy until it dies doesn't really make a fight feel special. It just makes a game repetitive and repetition leads to boredom, which is something a designer never wants their players to feel.

We just need to kill 65,340,285 boars

The reason that ME2's DLC have worked better than DAO's is because they not only fully integrated with the main game (only 3/7 of DAO's DLC do this), so that they contribute to the overall storyline of the series and the game itself in a coherent fashion, but they also experiment with new gameplay. Not simply choosing to present the same gameplay from a different perspective (Darkspawn Chronicles), or the same gameplay to act as a hook for the sequel (Witch Hunt), ME2's DLC changes the gameplay dynamic significantly. It takes risks.

It is doing something even better because it's using the existing player base as a test bed for potential new gameplay styles and sequences that could be adapted for use within the final chapter of the series. Taking fans of the series and giving them a cheap way to explore new types of content for a low cost allows the developers to see what works and what doesn't and then use this to inform their decisions for future games.  They don't have to spend time creating a full game for millions of dollars that could potentially be a failure, but instead can dedicate time to producing a small amount of content for an already established and eager audience to see how it is received. If something works, then it can be taken and used in a sequel as part of its gameplay and fans will be happy. Similarly, if a particular mechanic does not work, then it can either be tweaked to correct the issues and potentially get another test run in a second DLC, or it can be ditched entirely.

Kasumi's "heist" didn't quite work, but the DLC still did

In my opinion, this is a good use of DLC. This is what DLC should be used for by commercial studios. Using DLC to test out the mini-games and new gameplay styles that the developers are contemplating putting into the next installment of a franchise. Using them to push the boundaries of the game and see if players would like to have a taste of a slightly new direction in addition to the core gameplay that they've already demonstrated they love by buying the game in the first place. But it should not replace the existing content wholesale, as that's not what players want.

This is exactly why Firewalker wasn't well received, as it wasn't until the Hammerhead was combined with the original gameplay that players loved it. Admittedly, in Overlord the developers had already experimented with the Hammerhead once before, but this only reinforces the point. They didn't get it quite right the first time, but on its second outing, the Hammerhead was a lot of fun. It still needs a little bit of tweaking, as it feels as though it has less firepower and durability than Shepard does on foot, but if we see it in yet another DLC or even in Mass Effect 3, I imagine those issues will be addressed.

Frogger minus frog and cars, but with bonus molten lava

While DLC has been maligned by players at times, it offers both players and developers a means to improve games. The ideal DLC isn't a new weapon, outfit, vehicle or map. ME2 has these as well, but they don't interest me. These are micro-transactions, or just regular transactions if you're milking people for $10 for maps they've already played before - yes, I'm looking at you Modern Warfare 2! (I know I'm making a small habit of attacking MW2, but it did so many things wrong that it's hard not to come back to it) The ideal DLC also isn't simply a mini-expansion offering an hour of gameplay in the same vein as the original game, which is where the Dragon Age: Origins DLC suffered.  They act as small improvements to a game, but they're not the best use of DLC to benefit the game itself.

The ideal DLC adds to the game as a whole, developing it and any franchise it might be a part of into something better. It should help explore what the game can and cannot do, and how it might improve or modify its gameplay. Ultimately, the ideal DLC will serve to make the core gaming experience more interesting and more engaging for the players.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

DAO DLC: A Missed Opportunity?

DownLoadable Content aka DLC has become an increasingly popular phenomenon, and Dragon Age: Origins happily ascribed to this methodology of providing new content that players can pay for after the release of the game.  While its DLC is enjoyable, I'd have to argue that it hasn't done enough to push the Dragon Age experience forward. Let's take a quick look at the individual bits of content to explain why...

Stone Prisoner
Arguably the best of the DLCs, but arguably that's because much of it was developed in concert with the actual game, but it simply wasn't ready by the time the game went gold. A fully integrated companion with a full repetoire of interjections and opinions on events within the game, Shale has been compared to HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic. The DLC also features two quests, and when combined with Shale's hilarious pigeon-killing desires, it feels like a part of the core game.

Inquiry: Shall I crush the bird for you now, master?

Warden's Keep
This DLC prompted complaints from players because of the in-game advertising of adding a person to the player's camp (which they go to frequently). This person had a bright exclamation mark indicating that they had a quest to give, but this required the player to purchase the DLC to accept it and hence get rid of the exclamation mark.  Marketing furore aside, Warden's Keep was a fairly standard "dungeon" crawl (set in a keep). Cutscenes featuring ghosts to explain the history of the keep gave it a weird cinematic touch, and it added some interesting points to the Dragon Age lore, and more importantly for some players, a chest to keep their belongings that they weren't using.

Return To Ostagar
I can't comment too heavily on this, as I haven't played it.  However, by all reports, it was a fairly standard dungeon crawl featuring some quite powerful equipment as a reward at the end.

Darkspawn Chronicles
This odd stand-alone DLC gave the playet the opportunity to play as Darkspawn, and attempt to kill all the citizens of Denerim.  While it offered plenty of combat, it didn't actually do a whole lot that was terribly new.  Playing as an ogre was similar to the abilities of a golem, though you did get to use a shriek to turn invisible and taking out ballistae operators so you could bring the rest of your darkspawn party around. As such, it offered a small tactical variety in combat, but otherwise was fairly similar to what the player had already experienced. This was one review summary: "More than anything, The Darkspawn Chronicles is plain and simply fun. There’s none of the dialogue, the decisions, the weight of destiny hanging over top of you. The end result is exhilarating, and I heartily recommend that all Dragon Age fans try The Darkspawn Chronicles out for themselves." I think that this reviewer should not be playing RPGs, because they're obviously missing the point.

Hurlock angry! Hurlock smash!

Leliana's Song
This was perhaps the most original of all the DAO DLCs. Characters were introduced with their own "splash screen" during the middle of gameplay, which initially felt a little surreal and out of place in Dragon Age, but it gave the DLC a very unique feel.  Combined with Leliana being a voiced protagonist, it had a definite "cinematic RPG" flavour albeit with a stylised delivery that reminded me of Zombieland or some equally fourth-wall breaking title. It also starts off trying to encourage you to avoid combat, though it hits a section of almost pure combat as it approaches the end.

Golems of Amgarrak
Another heavily combat focused mod, this delivers probably the most difficult combat scenarios within the Dragon Age franchise thus far. It definitely succeeded in pushing characters to their limits and putting them through the combat wringer.  The story was somewhat weak, though credit must be given for utilising a weird "reality phase shift" (ie alternate realities of the same area) to implement backtracking in a relatively small level layout without actually making it painful. While this isn't something I'd like to see repeated regularly, it was an interesting technique that deserves a mention.

Golems: They're big, hard and angry.

Witch Hunt
Again, I've not played this one, but I instead watched a youtube video playthrough of the mod.  Despite being pitched as a "meet up with Morrigan" mod, Morrigan is in it only very briefly at the end, and raises more questions than provides answers.  Again, it's mostly a dungeon crawl with lots of fighting. There are a few pieces of intrigue, most notably regarding a talking stone statue, but the mod on the whole seemed to be trying to pose questions to potentially be answered by Dragon Age 2 rather than bring closure to the story of the Warden in DAO.

So having listed all that, it's clear that the DLC for DAO has been quite heavily combat focused, though there were attempts within Golems of Amgarrak and Witch Hunt to push forward knowledge of the Dragon Age world of Thedas somewhat, albeit in vague terms with unfinished answers. While they delivered stories that were complete, they raised peripheral questions regarding characters or monsters that were left wide open with only the smallest snippet of information given to the player. I understand the need to leave hooks open to provoke interest by curious fans, but this should not be done at the expense of providing a narrative that feels complete.

Why do statues always have to speak in riddles?

While the DLCs were mostly enjoyable, there's something that they just didn't quite do right. Expanded dungeon crawls with many recycled areas comes across as a little lacklustre, even with a small $8 price tag. There is a lot effort involved in producing content, that's true, but apart from the inherent polish required by commercial releases, I'd possibly argue that most of these DLCs could have feasibly been produced by a team of modders in a slightly longer timeframe.  Now, polish does take a long time (and of course, there were the issues with the initial release of Witch Hunt), but I can't help but feel that Dragon Age's DLC could have been so much more.

There's some really great content within DAO, and there's some good content in its DLC, but with perhaps the exception of Leliana's Song, the DLC didn't push the boundaries of the DAO experience. It didn't try hard to give players new gameplay experiences, a different slant on the gameworld, or develop the overall lore of the Dragon Age setting in a palpable form. Allusions are great because players will get to see and understand the correct interpretation when DA2 comes around, but they leave players feeling a little hollow in the meantime. This is why Golems and Witch Hunt somewhat lack a powerful punch that they otherwise could have delivered to really spark excitement for DA2.

Leliana broke the fourth wall and the mold of DAO DLC

DAO's DLC is enjoyable, but ultimately combat focused and simply delivering "more of the same" as what the player experienced within the original game. This isn't to say that this is a bad thing, as DAO was fantastic, but it was perhaps a missed opportunity to really push the buttons of players and get them even more excited about the Dragon Age franchise by exploring new territory with its DLC.