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!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Level Design 101

Level design is crucial to a game in so many ways. It delivers the environment for the gameplay mechanics, helps storytelling, provides atmosphere, and it looks pretty. Now levels, do more than this, but I'll just focus on these aspects in order to limit the size of this post. There is a lot more to each of these subjects and I could go into a lot more detail on them, but let's just try and cover a few key points in broad brush strokes for now. If I get a lot of interest from people about one particular subject (or all of them), I might dedicate a post (or more) to it.

Looking Pretty
Let's start with the superficial (but important) value of the "wow! factor" when creating a level. Creating gorgeous looking levels is something that players will really appreciate, because they'll admire the scenery and look at the glorious vistas that you've created for them. As much as you get people complaining the "graphics aren't everything", big titles that don't look aesthetically appealing will get lambasted for their lack of visual quality. There is a reason that games advertise using the most gorgeous screenshots they can find: it's because those screenshots attract attention. Memorable landscapes (particularly near the beginning of the game) help to draw players into the the fictional reality created by the game.

Crysis. It's pretty.

Providing Atmosphere
Atmosphere increases player immersion and their engagement with the level. It's the surroundings, the lighting, the sound, the visual effects, all the things that combine to evoke an emotional state in the player or provoke an emotional reaction. If you've ever jumped because of a scary moment in a game, felt your heart racing because of the action or tension, or felt a sense of wonder and admiration, then you've experienced good atmosphere. Atmosphere reinforces the dramatic force of the level or the current actions of the player, their allies or enemies.

Helping Storytelling

As atmosphere reinforces the player's emotions, the levels can also help increase the player's cerebral engagement with the game and reinforce the setting. This can be signs that reiterate the setting, whether it be a billboard sign for a majestic location (which the player will visit later in the game), or a destroyed building to let the player know they arrived at their location too late. Clever level design can be used to push the plot forward without any dialogue or text. Let's make an example: A player is told that they will be able to receive help overcoming their adversary from a nearby village. Upon arriving at the village, the inhabitants are missing, but the player finds the corpse of one of their enemies. This is good because it helps tell the story, but also raises questions: Are the villagers dead? Were they captured? Are the enemies still nearby? I'm sure you can think of more questions, and each question and possibility can help make the player more interested in the level and the game.

You don't need Alyx to tell you something strange is happening.

Gameplay Mechanics
Overlook this aspect at your peril, as it really needs to be considered in order to keep a game engaging. Make sure your player has enough room to maneuver during any combat that might occur. Try to avoid situations where the player will face instant death if they make a wrong move, because that is a recipe for player frustration and hence anger. If the player is supposed to move about stealthily, give them plenty of hiding spots and shadows so they can. If the player is supposed to rush at the enemy all guns blazing, make the level open and provide "incentives" to keep them pushing forward. Make the level help the player to achieve their goal, or even better, actively encourage them to do so.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I've kept all these of these comments very brief, because there's a lot that could be said on each of these subjects. But if you're making a level, try and at least give some thought to each of these aspects and how your design will help support each of them.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Why the stigma?

Let's pose a hypothetical situation that you are meeting a person for the first time and they ask you about what you do in your spare time. If you state you are a hobbyist director, writer/poet/screenwriter, visual effects artist, or something similar, there is typically a moderate amount of respect commanded by such an admission.  However, stating that you are an amateur video game creator would likely result in a less than favorable perception by a large percentage of the population. Why?  What is it about video games that immediately elicits the reaction that it is a childish or wasteful past-time?  How is it that games have such a stigma associated with them?

This is perhaps even more strange that if you're a modder working with a modern game title, you actually cover all the names roles above. A modder directs cinematics, creates the levels and environments for the characters, and writes the plot, setting, and dialogue that make up the story that they wish to tell. So what is it about games that means they are viewed with a sense of derision when compared to movies, television, books or other artistic/storytelling mediums? Even when you're dealing with a poorly received movie compared to an extremely popular game from within the same franchise, in the general population, the game will receive more ridicule. And that's even the case when we're talking about a movie franchise known for its obsessive fans like Star Wars.

One of these has a horrible story. The other is a video game.

Computer games are an entirely new storytelling medium.  Scriptwriters and novelists have been asked to contribute to it, and have proven that they don't fully grasp the consequences of an interactive medium. This isn't to say they've done a bad job, but they don't have the necessary skills to excel at it because they don't appear to understand the subtleties required.  Creators of cinematics in video games are taking their cues from film directing, mapping the techniques directly from cinema into video game cutscenes to assist their storytelling capabilities. Games like Half-life pushed the interactive boundaries, having few real cutscenes that remove player input entirely, but instead using design tricks to coax the player into following the action that is presented on screen.

For example, take the opening sequence of Half-life 2.  At one point, the player is herded down a corridor with an interrogation room on their left.  The player has complete control over their actions, but the combination of lighting and sound mean that the vast majority of player stop and look through the small window slot in the door. There is nothing forcing the player to do this, yet because of the game design, they do. How can the skill required to create this sort of scenario not be considered worthy by the public at large? How can the skill of creating a situation that almost guarantees a certain response despite giving the player complete control over their actions be ignored?

Who didn't look inside the first door on the left?

So creating games takes a lot of skill, and draws on and even extends from media that are considered "acceptable" and the people that create them are considered talented.  Yet still many people are reluctant to admit that they play video games, and I don't even want to speculate on what the general opinion is of people who create video games. If someone suggests a party to play video games, responses will typically not be positive.  However, if at a party someone suggests playing games like Guitar Hero or something on the Wii, then generally people are more than happy to get involved.  There appears to be a definite stigma associated with the concept of playing video games as a past-time rather than something that simply happens. Yet very little is said of those people who visit the movies three times a week, or spend a dozen hours or so watching reality tv shows.

Isn't it time that the people who play and create games stood up and stated that they are creating a medium of entertainment every bit as worthy as books, art, music, television and film? Does the creation of video games not require people who have talents that could be applied to one more of these other mediums? Surely the people who enjoy video games can sensibly state that they enjoy an artform that has merit? We need not sit on an evangelical high horse and attempt to convert the populace en masse to the church of video gaming, but at the very least, we can declare that this thing that we enjoy takes great skill to create, and that it does not deserve to be treated with contempt.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Call of Duty, Black Ops and Sniper Design

Unless you've been living in a bubble separated from all video game related press, you've heard of the Call of Duty series. Modern Warfare and its sequel both sold phenomenal amounts of copies, and Black Ops, the latest in the series, had pre-orders in the millions. I'm not going to review the game and tell you it's good and bad points. The game delivers a game typical of the current style of the series: a short high-octane single player campaign supplement by its multiplayer component. However, there has been a significant amount of discussion regarding a particular design element of Modern Warfare and its change in Black Ops. That issue is quickscoping.

Quickscoping (also "quick scoping" or "quick scope sniping") is a mechanic in Modern Warfare 2, whereby using the "Sleight of Hand" perk and the aiming assist mechanism of guns with a sniper rifle, a player is able to pull off one shot kills on other players in medium to short range. There is some skill involved in terms of the aim and the timing, but it makes a sniper a dangerous proposition even at closer ranges. A quick search will turn up video demonstrating the mechanic and countless kills using it.

Why scope when you can quickscope?

In released Black Ops, Treyarch (that's the developer - they share the series with Infinity Ward, who were responsible for Modern Warfare 1 & 2) has taken steps to counter quickscoping by introducing error into the aiming assist mechanism, meaning that when you zoom in you won't lock directly onto exactly the location you were looking at before you zoomed in. In this way, quickscoping is not really possibly, because you'll need to correct your aim before being able to fire a killing shot. As a result, proponents of quickscoping have decreed that snipers are worthless in Black Ops.

I'm sorry to anyone who believes that, because it is a truly ridiculous argument. Snipers have instead been switched to the role that they are meant to fit: a long range combatant. Funnily enough, this is what they do in real life. Of course, the immediate counterargument to realism is "but this is a game and it is meant to be fun". I wholeheartedly agree, but because it is also a game it should therefore be balanced. Take a leaf out of the book of MMOs, or heck, even Team Fortress 2.

The scout: fast, agile and squishy

Balance implies that there are multiple roles within a game, and there is no one class or player can perform all roles well. This is where quickscoping completely fails the test of good game design. Snipers are the only class that can perform effectively at long range. Other classes can score hits, but it comes down to luck more than skill. Therefore they have a distinct advantage over other classes in that role, and game design dictates that if you had an exclusive ability (or at far better at it than anyone else) then you should have an equivalent shortcoming. But quickscoping means that snipers are almost as effective as people equipped with assault rifles in medium range, and even at close range, they've still got a reasonable chance of pulling off a single shot kill against someone using a shotgun or sub-machine guns. This completely breaks all rules of balance by allowing a quickscoping sniper to excel in virtually any situation, which is the epitome of bad game design.

There might be those that argue the quickscoping made sniper rifles more viable by allowing them be used at more ranges, and thus reducing the likelihood of camping. This is an even worse argument, because this overlooks the fact that generous killstreaks in Modern Warfare 2 made a defensive camping style of play more attractive than sniper rifles ever could.  Even ignoring this, making sniper rifles more useful in close combat does not make camping less attractive, it just makes a different style of play more lucrative rather than solving the initial problem.

Modern Warfare's Wetwork. Hello snipers.

The truth of the matter is that campers and the act of camping isn't the problem. After all, we've been told it's a legitimate strategy. The problem that we're dealing with here isn't the fault of the designers of the gameplay mechanics, nor the players. In this case we actually have to lay the blame on the level designers. It's level designers that create layouts that allow snipers to have highly defensible positions that are extremely difficult for people to reach. It's level designers that create sniper hideouts with an extremely large field of view to allow them to pick off people with ease. It's level designers that don't create balanced maps to set each style of play on a relatively even playing field.

That said, I know they have their work cut out for them in creating such levels. It's not an easy task, but I can't help but feel that the level designers for the series need to improve their tradecraft in this regard. The realism and aesthetics are usually fairly good, but the mechanics of some of the levels simply don't work. I found that Wetwork degenerated into a combination of sniping and countersniping, or explosive spam in the centre of the ship. I'm sure you can think of other levels that suffered similar weaknesses in terms of repetitive gameplay, although it's certainly not a problem exclusive to Call of Duty.

Of course, I could mention other design issues in like combining Danger Close and One Man Army or elaborate on how killstreaks promote camping, but I imagine I might attractive enough hatred from FPS players with this post without covering that ground as well. Maybe I'm not "pro" or "semi-pro" when it comes to FPS games, but I understand game balance. In that regard, quickscoping does nothing to support game balance thus getting rid of it can only be a good thing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Voice Acting and Games (Part 2)

Let's take yesterday's discussion about voice acting and constrain it to the voice acting of characters that the player meets and talks to during the game.

If we've got a character with a small portrait and text without VO, then it's up to the player to infuse that NPC with personality as they see fit based upon one small portrait and their interactions. There is generally a lot of leeway for different players to have a different mental image of that character. This relates to the point I was making in my Nostalgia Reviewing post some time ago.

When we compare portrait & text to a fully voiced and animated character, we're dealing with two entirely different means to engage the player. The former style was all that could be used in older games due to the technical limitations of the time. This meant characters were left more as a blank slate for players to read their own thoughts into the personality of a character based on a single image and the dialogue within the game.  In some cases, I imagine that the personality of those character did not match the personality as it was envisioned by the writers/developers. But no doubt the same is true of books.  And in this way, comparing portrait & text to fully voiced and animated characters is like comparing the difference between a character in a book and a character in a movie.

Is this exactly how you imagined Aragorn from reading Lord of the Rings?

Compare and contrast characters from old RPGs like Ultima Underworld or Infinity Engine games against something like Dragon Age. If you asked players to describe the personality of specific characters, I imagine you would get significantly more variance in the description of characters from the older games. In newer games the characters that players meet have more tightly defined personalities because of the extra details we get in appearance, gestures, expression and voice. The older games allowed us to fill all those details in because it wasn't possible to show them to us.

So with all this extra information that we are being provided, surely we are getting a richer experience from interacting with these characters? We get to see and experience every nuance of our interaction with them on a level that is beginning to approach exchanges that we experience in movies or real-life, all within the context of a video game. All the extra information that the designers can convey to players is phenomenal, allowing them to emotionally manipulate players through cinematic visuals and audio. We can hear the fear and sorrow in the voice of Alyx Vance (Half-life), the indignation of Loghain (Dragon Age), and the snarky exchanges between the Prince and Princess (take your pick of the Prince of Persia games). These give us a real sense of the personality of the characters in these games, allowing us a greater ability to truly understand and hence empathise with these characters.

This scene would not pack as much emotional punch without voice acting

However, while we might be getting an impression of the character that is more closely aligned with that of the people responsible for creating it, does this really help us become engaged with the game in the best possible way?  In a way, while we can become more emotionally engaged with the characters that have been created for us, we become less engaged with our own personal perception of the characters and environment. If everything is shown to the player in minute detail, then a game risks that every player will have exactly the same experience because they are not engaged with the game through their imagination.

For older games, players were almost forced to use their imagination to give characters extra depth simply because it was not possible to give that complete picture of a character. The experience arguably was more personal for older games, because it was up to the player to infuse the game they were playing with the extra personality that was lacking. Just like reading a book, everyone's image of the individual settings and characters was slightly different, providing an individual experience for each person within the set boundaries of its plot.

Have players become lazy and simply demand that they be shown every single thing in games nowadays? Are players losing their imagination as a result of the increasingly cinematic approach to AAA games? Or has the desire to have believable gaming environments created a gaming market in which pure text is no longer acceptable in order to maintain the illusion of reality?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Voice Acting and Games

The addition of voice acting into games is pretty much standard nowadays for big titles. Players expect characters to be voiced, and moreover, they expect the people delivering those voiced lines not to deliver hackneyed performances. The gaming community is no longer content to put up with overacting or flat line delivery. And beware the collective opinion of your game's audience should it have a small number of voice actors like Oblivion.

We can safely say that voiced games are not going to disappear any time soon, and if anything, they are going to become more popular and prevalent.  Now that games are attracting famous actors to provide VO work for titles, acting seems set to be increasingly important.  Keeping in mind my gaming preference towards RPGs, this post could easily head towards the topic of Dragon Age 2 and the effect that a voiced protagonist will have on the game compared to Origins. However, that raises a whole different can of worms that I don't want to play with right now.

Hawke, Dragon Age 2's voiced protagonist

Instead, let's focus on why voiced characters have become so popular and what they add to games. With the realistic graphics of modern games modelling characters, their movements and facial expressions accurately, it is only natural that a player will want to hear these characters speak as well. Compare the impact of a static character portrait with a line of text next to it against the scenario of watching a character's face close up as they deliver every word with matching facial and tonal emotion. Games are giving us a cinematic experience almost parallel to movies at times, so the impact of those visual scenes would fall flat if characters were not voiced.

It has been suggested that when communicating with people in person, 55% of communication is non-verbal (facial cues, body language, gestures, etc), 38% voice quality (tone, speed, etc), and 7% the actual words. If a game only gives us text for dialogue of characters, then we are potentially missing around 93% of the content associated with those words to give context to them in real life. If we are able to see characters within a game in full 3D, complete with animations, facial expressions and the tone of their voice, then the experience of our interaction with that character more closely mimics our real-life expectations and increases the player's level of engagement. Anything that brings characters to life makes the interactive experience of a game more engrossing, which is the designer's ultimate aim.

A face can speak a thousand words

While the benefits of voicing are clear, is it always necessary? Can games get away without voice over work and use other methods to convey their story? Would a game's budget in terms of money and disk space be better spent providing additional playable content for the player to experience rather than voice over work for a reduced amount of material? There is something to be said for games who decide to ditch VO for the sake of additional content, reserving communication entirely via written text. The potential increase would be significant once the cost of hiring a studio, recording, re-recording, mastering, lip-syncing, facial animation/capture, animations, etc, are all taken into account.  Providing voice content is not cheap. Moreover, if dialogue is delivered badly, it can actually be more grating then were we just to read the lines as text. Bad voice acting or continually repeated voice cues or lines can quickly aggravate the player. Virtually all players of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. quickly became annoyed by the line "Get out of here, stalker."

The question that remains to be asked is simple: Is it commercially viable to create games with large amounts of text? Planescape Torment did not achieve significant commercial success despite critical acclaim and its transition into RPG "cult classic" status. Games are not books, and to remove the audio-visual cues that games borrow from cinematic presentation greatly reduces their potential impact. A game could describe a scene with text on a black screen, or simply present the scene and deliver it in a matter of seconds.

Is it easier to describe or see this scene?

This is not to say that text cannot be used effectively in games, but if it is, then a balance must be struck. Anything that the player has to interact with arguably must be seen, because they will have to see it while playing the game. Pure text can be used to deliver other information, whether observations to augment the visuals, backstory delivered through the game's user interface (as opposed to in-game elements) or any in-game elements that would not be voiced. If a player find a book or paper in the game world, then allow them to read it. Plain text can be used to enhance the believability of the game environment every bit as much as voice acting can.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Area Preview: Patren's Wood

Level design is something that I want to be a highlight of The Shattered War, and for that reason, a lot of effort goes into creating each area.  Aside from being able to support the story and the gameplay, the levels must also be unique and have their own individual feel. This is one thing I believe will help make it an enjoyable and original experience for players.  Recently I've been working on a new level, and I thought I'd have a brief showcase of it in this post.

Patren's Wood

Patren's Wood is a forest high in the Frostback Mountains, and is both beautiful and dangerous.  In winter it is blanketed in white, but in spring and autumn merely flecked with snow among its rocky gullies. Its lush surroundings often fool travelers into thinking that they are in tranquil surroundings, but bitingly cold evenings have been the death of more than one unwary visitor to the area. The creatures of the forest are no less benign and aggressive bears are commonplace, at least according to those who are fortunate enough to leave the forest alive.

Walls of Stone and Wood

The level is still in the early stages of development, currently standing at around 20% complete. As such, there will still probably be changes to the sections of the level shown in these two screenshots.  The level creation process is time consuming, but it will be worth it when players finally get to play The Shattered War.

Here's something I forgot earlier...

After my last post regarding Dark Times, I realised that I failed to mention another significant modding release for Dragon Age that occurred recently.

The mod in question is none other than Baldur's Gate Redux, a project designed to re-imagine Baldur's Gate 2 within Dragon Age. This release of the mod covers the beginning of the game, allowing the player to explore and escape from Irenicus' Dungeon. I believe they have plans to try and do the entire game, which will be a mammoth undertaking!

The team have put in a lot of effort to recreate the experience of BG2 and to bring some of the benefits of Dragon Age's engine as well.  I was lucky enough to try it out as part of beta testing, and I was definitely impressed.  So if you're looking for a bit of nostalgia-inducing gaming, or want to get a feel for what the fuss over BG2 is all about, then go check it out now!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Long Road (Dark Times Released!)

A quick post today to point readers and Dragon Age players in the direction of Dark Times: The Confederacy of Malkuth if they aren't already aware of it. This has been in development for quite some time, and it's good to see another gameplay mod released.

This is a fairly large add-on to the single player campaign of Dragon Age, and can provide a good many hours of additional gameplay to the game.  It's been a substantial undertaking of numerous modders from the Dragon Age community, and at the moment it's the largest and longest module available (probably by a fair margin, too).  I did some beta testing for the project, so I've had hands-on experience with the mod, and I even contributed my voice to one of the characters. That's right, the mod is also fully voiced.

So I know this mod has been in development for some time, and it has reminded me of how much work I still need to do in order to get The Shattered War done. Short answer? A lot. Anyway, based on recent feedback, it appears there are still some bugs being ironed out of Dark Times, but given that it's a very large module, that's not entirely surprising. Regardless, if you haven't looked at it already, I'd recommend that you go grab it!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Remake the old games I like!

As much as I decry nostalgia regarding old games as a bit of a curse because of its tendency to let players sugar-coat their past experience without the context of modern games, I still have a soft spot for some of my old time favourite games.  So this post is dedicated to two game series for which I want to see a fourth installment.

The first is a game that has actually been announced: Thief 4.  Thief was a superb game and I still possess the CDs for all three games in the series, which follow the exploits of the master thief Garrett.  The thrill and tension of working out the perfect way to break into somewhere, steal the valuables inside and then get out again is something that Thief did amazingly well. The atmosphere instilled by various levels throughout the series is nothing short of spectacular, including highlights like a haunted cathedral, a highly secure bank and the scariest orphanage of all time. To top it off, no other game has really managed to pull off a working stealth mechanic as successfully as the series.

The deliciously scary Shalebridge Cradle

While the AI is relatively simplistic and quite visible to the player, this actually serves to make the stealth system work. Guards were either unaware of Garrett's presence, suspicious, alarmed or aware, and each state was associated with various audio cues and animations, allowing the player to discern their level of danger almost immediately. While this might not be the most believable mechanic in terms of character behaviour, it was a happily accepted mechanic in that it made the game enjoyable and gave the player immediate feedback in a fashion that still felt part of the game world rather than some arbitrary mechanism:

A flashing indicator is not immersive stealth

Since Thief: Deadly Shadows was released in 2004 there's really been nothing else significant in the "stealth-em-up" genre.  Splinter Cell let you play stealthily for the most part, but would then force you into action sequences despite that it really wasn't suited to that style of gameplay. It was also a little too linear compared to Thief's open level design. Alpha Protocol allowed stealth to some degree, but for the most part simply was unable to deliver stealth with the same appeal and style.  There were a few levels where you could complete the mission without killing a single person (the G22 hideout being the most enjoyable of these), but other times you were forced into fights even if you were a master of stealth. In one case, I broke out of a mansion without firing a bullet, yet the level-ending cutscene showed me leaving its grounds as I tossed out explosives and walked out without a modicum of subtlety.  For me, I'm hoping Thief 4 will be a breath of fresh air into this genre that I love so much.

The other thing that I'd love to see is a shooter that sets itself apart from Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and the countless generic first/third person shooters that inundate the game industry. I don't have a wanton dislike of them, and I remember the excitement of playing titles like Wolfenstein 3D, Ken's Labyrinth, Doom, Half-life and Unreal Tournament when they all came out. However, as much as I loved all these games, there's one shooter that many didn't play or found too difficult. And it's the one that I would love to see brought back. That series is Descent.

Descent turned up the heat for shooters

Descent was a First Person Shooter with a difference - you were piloting in a ship in space, or more accurately, in zero-gravity mines filled with psychotic excavation drones. This meant that you had full 360 degree movement and you weren't stuck to the floor for the whole game. There would be loops in the level that would result in you re-entering a room you'd previously visited... only this time you would enter through the roof. Navigating could become a challenge, and many players gave up due to being disoriented or feeling plain nauseous from the curving tunnels combined with fast movement and the potential need to rotate the ship to get your bearings.

The sequel introduced a guidebot to help players navigate more easily, which solved the most significant problem for many players.  The level design was also far improved, which assisted player navigation further as well as making the levels more interesting and aesthetically pleasing. The new robots, including the highly aggravating "thief robot" that would use hit and run tactics to try and steal your weaponry helped to make the experience more varied as well. Descent 3 featured greatly improved graphics and the ability to go outside rather than being constrained by mines, which changed the feel and dynamic of the game somewhat. However, there were still plenty of enclosed sections to maintain the "original Descent feel", and the game definitely lived up to the bar set by its predecessors.

Did this set Descent free?

Now while I thought Descent was pretty much dead, apparently Interplay re-registered the Descent trademark in October 2008 (which that had let lapse in 2002), so maybe there is a faint hope that there will be a fourth installment. Though I do foresee one small problem... how do you map the controls of a true 3D game to a console controller? Would it have to be a PC only release?

I'm being selfish here, but these are the games that I want brought back. Isn't it time someone tried to breathe life into these games given the advancement in technology since the last outings in these two series were released? I'd love to see what can be done for Thief and Descent with the current generation of hardware.