Monday, January 31, 2011

Game difficulty (Part 1)

Some people love a challenge in their games.  Some people delight in pushing their skills, tactics, management and reflexes to the limit when they play games so they can have a sense of satisfaction when they overcome the great difficulty of a game.  This is why we have games like Super Meat Boy, Ninja Gaiden and Demons Souls'. These games have a difficulty above and beyond the standard fare of games around, and there are players who flock to such titles with glee. On the other end of the scale, you have gamers who really don't have the patience to perfect their skills, or the dedication to learn and study complex tactics. They're playing the game for the fun of the entertainment medium, and possibly to experience the spectacle and/or the story of the game. And of course, there's a whole gamut of players in-between.

Now, nowhere should a judgment be made on what type of game or type of difficulty is "best". There should be games to provide entertainment to cater for all tastes. Some people simply wish to play the game for fun, whereas others play for the challenge and to push their own mastery of the controls. Designers (and players) should not denigrate a player no matter their skill level. So to any elitists out there, that's right, even n00bs have a right to play games.

Ninja Gaiden: Designed to be difficult.

So here's a little message to players: Don't be abusive to other players in a multiplayer game. If you don't like them or they aren't very good, instead of unleashing a tirade of vitriol, how about you help them instead?  Players of DotA, and its clones like Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends, please heed this - these communities are among some of the worst and most obnoxious players when someone on their team is new. In the case it does disadvantage all players on the team, but just remember, everyone was a n00b once. Screaming or typing obscenities at other players only serves to reduce the amount of players in your game of choice, not to mention helping perpetuate bad stereotypes about gamers. Don't be an Angry German Kid.

Okay, so with the community service announcement over, it is important for designers to consider what can be done to make a single game appeal to lots of different people on this "desired difficult curve".  No matter how difficult you make a game, some players are going to complain that the difficulty is not right. Some players insist the Nightmare difficulty in Dragon Age is too simple, while others struggle on normal. Some declare winning a game against a computer opponent in RTS games like Starcraft ridiculous, yet skilled players can handle multiple computer opponents this with ease. Keep in mind that when you're making a game, you're never going to make everyone completely happy about the difficulty of your game.

Yet this doesn't mean that designers shouldn't try to cater for players. Instead, they should help the player select the difficulty level that is right for them. As a designer you want to make your game fun for as many people as possible, and allowing players to better select their desired difficulty is an extremely effective way to do that. Over the next few posts, I'm going to discuss the implementation of difficulty in games using gameplay mechanics, covering the good, the bad and the ugly.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Technical difficulties

Updates might be a little more sparse than usual over the next few weeks, as I'm currently being forced to use Internet through a tethered phone connection due to my current place being without any sort of telephone line or landline internet connection.

I've also been facing some problems while trying to do a little bit of gaming in between stretches of modding. My computer has taken to behaving unreliably, and erratically (and unpredictably) having the monitor go into standby mode into the middle of a game and be unable to recover. I have to do some troubleshooting, but the prime suspects at the moment appear to be either the video card or my power supply.  Fortunately I haven't (yet) experienced a crash while doing playtesting for The Shattered War, and haven't faced any difficulties while carrying out modding itself.  Fingers crossed I'll be able to identify the problem and get myself the necessary replacement part(s) in order to get back up and running at full capacity.

I will be aiming to keep up with updating every few days as I have been doing for the past number of months, but posts may be a little shorter and feature less pictures for a little while. My apologies for this, but rest assured that the amount of time I spend modding will not drop because of this!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Level prototyping

Today's post is for modders and budding game designers, and I'm going to tell you to do something that is generally considered common sense for many game development studios. I'll be the first to admit that I don't do it as often as I should, and I know its value. Sometimes even professionals don't do it properly. As the title of the post suggests, that thing is prototyping. I'll specifically be talking about level design prototypes in this post, though the principle can be easily applied to other aspects of a game. Doing level prototypes for level design can save a lot of work, and often doesn't cost you a lot, if anything.

So first, let's discuss exactly what prototyping involves for level design. In essence, you create a level with the functional qualities of the level you are going to be working on. Don't decorate. Don't take time doing complicated lighting. Don't bother applying texturing (except for functional purposes). Get the core shape of your level created as is required by the gameplay it will be supporting. As I discuss previously, levels must support the game. If we're talking about a multiplayer FPS, levels practically are the gameplay. So get a level prototype up and running and make sure that your design is functional from a gameplay perspective.

I don't care if it's ugly, it's functional.

The aim should be to have the level so that you can put in the interactive objects that will provide gameplay. If there's a time limit, make sure the player has enough to get from point a to point b. Is the flow of the level right? Will it be sufficient to support (or create) the desired experience that you are trying to deliver to the player? The prototype is your key to identify major flaws with your planned design. It's your key to determining whether the idea you had for the level is a good one or a bad one.

The great thing is that there are no real downsides to this. If the level works, you've got a base from which to start creating the level properly. If it doesn't, then you've saved yourself hours of effort creating a polished level that doesn't support your gameplay. If you're working in a team, you create a prototype to the rest of the team for them to get working on the associated items, scripts or gameplay elements. They use this basic outline to test whether those elements all work together, and can use them to either provide feedback on how the level needs to change, or identify how other mechanics for the game might need to be modified.

The main thing is to use the prototype as a learning exercise. If something is wrong, do not persevere blindly. Work out what needs fixing and change the prototype or the game mechanics. If you've identified that something isn't quite right, try to fix it now rather than "polishing the level" as it is. Prototypes are created to be thrown away if they don't work. If the level was a bad idea or the game mechanic isn't suited for it. Ditch it for the time being. It might work for something else at a later date, but don't try to fit a square block into a round hole.

Even this contains unnecessary detail for a prototype

As I said, I'm not perfect in doing this for level design. The above level was something I was recently working on to get a basic level up and running to test a scenario. It's too detailed. You can see the effort I went to increasing the tesellation level to create an overhanging cliff. There's various texture work scattered about the level. In an ideal situation, I'd have sculpted the terrain into a rough shape, established the walkable area of the level, and then marked the edge of the walkable a non-walkable area with a wide-band of rock texture. That would be all that is required to get a basic, working level prototype.

This level took about 3 or 4 hours to produce to get to this point. Sure, it's a good start for my level, and at this stage it looks like it will fit the purpose I intended. But I probably could have produced a functional (albeit unattractive) level with the same characteristics for gameplay purposes in under an hour. This means I would have wasted a couple of hours of work if the level hadn't worked.

So prototype your levels. It's a good way to save yourself potential headaches and wasted time. Just don't be afraid to throw those prototypes away if they don't work.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The necessity of variety

In my recent post complaining about Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, I mentioned that in much of the game, you seem to end up driving at or very close to your maximum speed for a lot of the time. My only assumption is that this was a conscious attempt by the designers to give the player a sense of great speed and excitement, and to have the emotional reaction of thinking how great it is to drive so fast.

Unfortunately, I'd argue this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the racing genre, not to mention of games in general. Of course, I could also discuss the game's shortcomings further in how it promotes drifting around hairpin corners even in a McLaren F1, but you've already heard my view that the game has a multitude of flaws. The issue at hand for today's post is that without some variance in gameplay, the player won't receive the same heights of emotional reaction to the events with a game.

To demonstrate this point, let's take the example of games with horror elements, games that are meant to scare the player. Games like this should not be filled with enemies if the player is to be truly scared by them. Familiarity does breed contempt. This is why Dead Space failed so miserably at maintaining horror and tension throughout the game, because you got a good look at your enemies on a regular basis and often in very bright light. After a couple of hours, the horror element and the tension that it tried to build were completely lost because you had faced and dispatched so many of the necromorphs. It effectively became another generic zombie shooter. That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable, merely that it failed to deliver continued tension.

Oh look, more space zombies. How... not scary.

If you want to see horror done properly, play The Shalebridge Cradle from Thief: Deadly Shadows, or try Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The Cradle had you scurrying around without sight of any enemy for quite some time. The absence of an actual tangible enemy made the very building itself seem like a threat to you - a threat that was actually realised as part of the level and its story.  Amnesia demonstrates a similar understand of how to generate tension, as it relies heavily on what is not present to generate the feeling of grave danger when the player actually sees a real physical threat.

It's like the difference between a a psychological horror film and a schlock/gore horror film: the latter tends to have more moments that make you jump, but the former is the one that really builds the tension and when it finally gets around to delivering its "instant scare" moments, they have a lot of impact.

We can apply the same logic to speed in racing games. If you want a player to truly get a sense that they are traveling at ridiculously fast speeds, then this needs to be offset by segments where the player is not driving at the upper limits of their vehicle. The player truly feels overwhelmed and exhilarated by phenomenal speeds when they've just experienced having to travel more slowly before hitting some segments of road that allow them to travel at top speed. The principle can also be applied in reverse, but having the player reach top speed on long straights, and then force them into extremely tight and narrow corners while attempting to maintain that speed. Previous city-based outings like Most Wanted and Undercover managed this well to have the player struggling to make it around 90 degree corners at high speed.

When every car is super... none of them will be.

The take home message here is that variety is a great means to make games interesting. If the designer simply has the player doing the same thing over and over again, they are liable to become bored. It's why platform fighters introduce new combat moves and combos, it's why FPS games introduce new weapons and scenarios, it's why RPGs give you new abilities and spells. Increasing the variety of gameplay serves to make the game more fun and also gives it more depth. Does a player use new skills and abilities, or can they adapt their older skills to suit the situation?

The key point is to not make the player do the same thing over and over again. This is why many players found the Deep Roads in Dragon Age: Origins to be tedious, because it consisted of many hours of combat with little significant variation. There were a few set pieces or boss encounters to provide variety, but these were few and far between, forcing the player to hack their way through dozens of encounters until reaching something different.

More fighting. Yay.

Now this might sound like it conflicts with my previous post on Mirror's Edge regarding its gameplay, and to a certain extent, it does. Mirror's Edge would have likely been boring if it had only contained the parkour elements on the rooftops. It needed something to break up those segments, which it did to a degree. Segments requiring more precise timing and convoluted paths were contrasted with the segments where faith was being chased and needed to flee. The designers obviously knew that it needed more than one type of gameplay, it was just unforunate that the combat mechanics it used were lacking in terms of polish.

By giving variety in gameplay that supports the overall theme and experience provided by your game, you not only help providing a more interesting experience for the player, but also work towards accentuating the feeling of excitement for each individual aspect of the game, if that variance comes through simple dialogu. The player who has just unraveled the mystery masking true identity of a killer will feel much more engaged in their defeat, and the player who has spent hours conversing with their ally will feel a keen sense of loss and anger when that ally betrays them. Variety is the spice of life, and of gaming.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Your game experience

In this post I'd like to discuss another design lesson that can be learned from Mirror's Edge. One essential thing to know when you are creating a game for a player is to keep in mind the time of experience that you are trying to create. The game's major shortcoming was in not being more direct in the type of experience it was trying to create. This in no small part stemmed from its combat mechanics.

Before I begin, I must state that the combat controls in the game were unwieldy, and in this case the first person camera really was a shortcoming of the game design. Martial arts fighting from a first person perspective in games simply doesn't work, because a key point of martial arts is having a very clear picture of the position of your body (and its limbs) in relation to the person you are fighting. But the clunky combat mechanics were not the only problem that they presented to the experience presented by the game as a whole.

This was not a good idea

One part of the problem with the combat in Mirror's Edge is that it was never entirely clear how you were supposed to deal with enemies. At certain points you would be told "You gotta run, Faith" or "You'll need to take them out if you want to keep going", but at other points you were on your own. The problem was that in many of these cases, the game really wanted you to make a decision one way or the other, but it frequently took a few deaths of trial and error if you made the wrong choice.

In some circumstances, the enemy was too spread out and too numerous for you to tackle. A few deaths later, the player would (potentially) come to that conclusion and simply make a break for it. If not... then it either took a good amount of luck or more deaths before they could move on. In other situations, the player was forced to take down their enemies because the level design required the the police or guards be dispatched before Faith could make it to her destination. These situations occurred often enough that it could cause a reasonable amount of frustration for the player.

Fight or flight? I don't know, the game won't tell me.

Adding to this was the trouble was that Faith wasn't made to fight, and she certainly wasn't portrayed as a ruthless killer who would happily pick up a weapon and gun her way through enemies. There wasn't even any sort of ammunition counter, and Faith moved noticably slower when carrying anything apart from a pistol. If you attempted to play Faith as a semi-pacifist who would only use non-lethal means to take down her opponents, some segments of the game were extremely difficult. The loading screens within the game and the information presented to you suggested that using Faith's runner and martial arts abilities were the ideal means of dispatching her opponents.

Some may argue that I'm reading too much into this situation, but Mirror's Edge gave you a pre-defined protagonist. Faith wasn't Marcus Fenix from Gears of War, and wasn't presented as a character who would kill everyone in her way, even if the gameplay allowed the player to do that on occasion. Again, it's an issue of consistency, and the Faith that we're presented with as part of the game, and the Faith that the player can potentially play come across as two very different people.

Faith even tries to save someone who just tried to kill her...

The problem with Mirror's Edge and combat is that the game wasn't sure what it wanted to be. It succeeded at being a parkour platformer with a reasonable amount of style, but the combat interludes made the game feel clunky and unpolished. The game tried to spread is content too thinly across the ground, and failed in the area that didn't match up with the overall theme of the game. Had it tried to simply stick to what it did best, it might have been more favourably received by players.

Game designers can learn from this. Know your audience and know your core mechanics. You need to know what type of experience you are trying to deliver to the player and make sure that the various gameplay elements that you are creating support that experience. If you're making a first person shooter, your gun mechanics should be spot on, and your environments and scenarios should represent the style and setting of the game. If you're making a fighting game, the character moves should be smooth and responsive. If you're making an RPG, should offer the player a variety of skills and tactics for combat, and give them an interesting story befitting the hero the player is controlling.

Don't let the player be confused by your game. Let them know what they are getting, and use every tool at your disposal to give them that experience. Your game will be better for it, and the players will appreciate it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Shattered War: Origins

As I've stated previously, one thing that is vitally important to me in mod development is staying true to the world in which the game is set. This has a profound effect upon every single aspect of design for a mod, even down to the simple process of creating a character.

As such, even the character generation process has changed from the defaults presented to the player by Dragon Age: Origins. Upon starting their adventures for their new hero in The Shattered War, the player is presented with one of four different origins for their past: Circle Mage, City Elf, Surface Dwarf and Human Commoner.

A new adventure means new choices

Just like in the original campaign, your chosen race and origin will have an effect on how some people interact with you. Of course, even though initial impressions may have some effect on how others treat you, your actions are likely to dictate their attitudes. Help is scarce in the dangerous Frostback Mountains, and even those with prejudices will put them aside when their life is on the line...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Franchise Death

I've been a long time fan of the Need For Speed series of racing games. Sure, it churned out what I'd consider to be a few lemons in Carbon and Underground 2, and even Undercover started to push the boundaries of what I felt was staying true to the series.  Occasionally that last game felt a little too much like I was driving a slot car as opposed to something real.

Need for Speed has typically been more on the arcade side of racing, though the original game was slightly more unforgiving than all subsequent outings.  However, I'm sorry to say that the latest offering by developer Criterion has left a very bad taste in my mouth. The reason is simple: You can't drive with a manual transmission. For me, this is perhaps one of the most grave flaws a racing game can have. I understand that many people play with automatic transmissions in racing games, but as far as I'm concerned this is a fundamental aspect of a driving game that should never ever be removed.

I seem to be missing an option here... Where's "manual transmission"?

There a few problems that arise with the game design as a result of this change. For one, it implies that the physics models are less realistic, not taking into consideration the effect of high revs on your car's ability to accelerate through corners at great speed. Now you are frequently expected to slide or drift around the corners, even long sweeping bends. What's more, it seems that even if you could use gears, there possibly wouldn't be a whole lot of benefit to being able to do so because of the sliding, and that fact that a lot of the time you seem to be driving at or near your maximum speed.

Then there are the "action sequences", slow-motion camera shots of "exciting moments" within the game where the camera jumps to something other than the player's default view to "showcase the action". Frequently this shot doesn't even have the player's car in frame. When you're driving at phenomenal speeds, a fraction of a second makes all the difference between navigating a corner successfully or crashing spectacularly. These "showcase moments" are more akin to "annoyance moments", often causing the car to go somewhere you don't want it to go. What's worse is that just like that automatic transmission, you can't turn them off.

Piled on top is these problems is the fact that you recharge your car's nitro boost through "dangerous driving", an idea that is exactly the same as in Burnout Paradise, but it is another highly undesirable change. Yes, it's designed to promote more "exciting" driving, but all it does is draw attention to the artificial nature of the mechanic. In a game like Burnout, that's perfectly acceptable. In the NFS franchise, it's not.

Will driving towards oncoming traffic refill my petrol in real life?

The problem is that these represent a fundamental shift of what the Need For Speed franchise offers. NFS was always about the driving, the skill involved in getting the optimum line. Even in Most Wanted, there was a very significant role that your gears played in squeezing every last ounce of performance from your car to augment your steering.  Now that is gone, and the reason this is such a crime is because it has changed the fundamental essence of the franchise.

NFS: Hot Pursuit would be more accurately titled "Burnout: Hot Pursuit". Criterion's influence on the game is overwhelming, and everything that they've changed makes the game feel completely unlike any other game in the series. Now, while I'm all for innovation, franchises typically have a core feel and style to which all titles within them should adhere. Imagine if a new Mario game came out where Mario carried a sword and decapitating his enemies, a Grand Theft Auto game that wasn't a sandbox, or a Call of Duty game which was entirely about stealth. Sure, these are extremes, but Criterion failed in a similar fashion in their attempt to produce an NFS game.

This isn't necessarily to say that they've made a bad game, but they certainly haven't made a game that should bear the name of the NFS franchise. As a result, I won't view any new NFS-labelled game with the same amount of interest I previously did. And from now on, I'll have to check every single racing game I'm interested in to see if it has the ability to use a manual transmission.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Levels must support gameplay

As I mentioned in my previous post, I feel there a few lessons to be learned from Mirror's Edge in terms of game design.  The first of these pertains to the gameplay design and mechanics of a game, and how a game's level design should support these mechanics.

First, one the best things about Mirror's Edge was its parkour gameplay. Running as fast as possible across various cityscapes, leaping off buildings, running along walls, performs leaps and slides to quickly bypass obstacles were the core "fun" of the game. That's what the first person camera (which I discussed in my last post) was designed to augment, so that's what the core gameplay should deliver to the player.

Run, Faith, Run

Unfortunately a significant culprit in stopping this aspect of the gameplay was the level design.  In certain cases, you were forced to stop and analyse your surroundings in order to determine where to go next. Some instances made it quite difficult to actually work out where the next jump was or how you could reach your desired destination. One case that springs to mind is a level inside a mall where you had to made your way upwards while being chased by armed police. At one point, there was only one corner (at least that I could find) from which you scale the walls to reach the next tier of walkways. This resulted in numerous deaths while I ran around trying (and failing) to find a means to progress. The threat of death in this case does not add excitement for the player, it merely adds annoyance.

The player expected to have to think where they needed to go when there was no time pressure involved, the level generally involved sections required more precise or well-timed actions. Timing leaps between jets of steam or a delicate series of jumps to navigate a building under construction were done without the threat of imminent death except for at the player's own mistake. In some cases they did feel a bit like a poor man's Prince of Persia, but there was still some genuine fun in navigating the heights (or depths) of a modern/futuristic city setting. The almost vertigo-inducing first person perspective accentuated the feeling of height in these more relaxed situations when compared to its third-person camera counterparts.

For me the most memorable example of breaking flow was early in the game, where the player is on the run and has to make their way down a giant vertical storm drain. The player must leap onto beams suspended over and inside the drain before leaping onto the walkways around its edge.  However, in a sever failing of level design, the player must actually pause their run in order to wait for the second set of beams to drop and turn. The player is under time pressure in the threat of police and a helicopter bearing down on them, and the level design demands that they stop running in order to make the jump cleanly. This is entirely counter-intuitive to the situation at hand, not to mention the gameplay mechanics that have been introduced to the player at this point: both of which dictate is that speed is all-important. Even the momentary pause required in this situation disrupts the flow of the game, and resulted in numerous deaths on my part as I tried to reach my destination at the break-neck speed that the game implied was necessary.

The player should not have to stop here

Level designers must keep the core gameplay mechanics in mind when creating levels. They must remember the aim of the game itself in making a level.  Imagine the Thief series of games with linear and brightly lit levels. Thief was about the player finding what they thought was the "best" means into a location, whether it be through the basement, a window, or through the roof. The player was given the choice of which of the many corridors and rooms they would use as hiding spots to avoid detection by their adversary. They could choose whether to hide in a separate room, or whether to douse a torch and hide in the patch of darkness that created. The Thief series stands as an excellent example of the gameplay being not only supported, but in fact created by the level design.

"The Shalebridge Cradle" wouldn't work without shadows

The parkour gameplay of Mirror's Edge was based entirely on level design, and this was where it shone. However, sometimes the gameplay and the level design were at odds, and these cases almost certainly result in the gameplay losing out, which inevitably resulted in player frustration. Level design is not simply eye candy. No matter the game genre, elements of level design can assist and enhance gameplay. For a truly great game, they must do this.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Camera Analysis

Recently I've been taking a little bit of time off modding to actual play some games. It's good to actually put some time into playing games rather than creating them.  However, I still find myself considering game design aspects while I'm playing them.

I recently started (and finished) Mirror's Edge.  Well, I finished the story mode, anyway.  There's still a whole bunch of races that I need to do, but that will come with time.  Now, before I get started, I'm going to say that I enjoyed the game quite a bit. It definitely suffered from some issues, but for all the bad press and reviews the game suffered up its release, it actually tried to do something new and innovative. Sure, it's got a length somewhere in-between the campaigns of Modern Warfare 1 and Modern Warfare 2 (it took me about 6 hours to finish), but it was still fun. And if I come out of a game thinking it was fun, especially when I found myself cursing aspects of the design periodically, I'd say the game has succeeded for me.

Poor Faith, she got some bad press

I feel like there a few different aspects that I could address with this game, and I might do that, but I'm going to use it as an example to discuss something unusual - the player's viewpoint. For those who don't know, it's a first person parkour "shooter". It's not really a shooter because Faith (that's the female protagonist pictured above) only gets weapons when she grabs them from enemies in a disarm manoeuvre. The rest of the time you're leaping from rooftop to pipe to hanging bar or the nearest object to get to your destination as quickly as possible.  And you're doing this in first person.

Now, some decried this as stupidity, denouncing situations where you're clinging to a pipe the side of a building and getting a face-full of wall as a result, or declaring that you need to make a leap of faith (ergh, no pun intended) every time you need to get somewhere quickly (which is most of the time). That said, if you had a third-person camera, a la Prince of Persia, you would not get the same sense of vertigo, speed and height as you do in Mirror's Edge.  And the game would be less engrossing if it were to go down that route.

Jumps like this are where you love the camera

At times I found myself wishing for a third person camera, but as I played through the game, came to realise that it wouldn't work. The main two reasons you want a third person camera in a platformer are:
1) Visibility of the player so you know exactly when to jump, and
2) Visibility of the route the player must traverse.

In Mirror's Edge, both of these points are handled (with varying degrees of success) through other design means. The levels are more forgiving than a standard platformer in that you don't have to be pixel perfect in order to make a jump. Even if you fall short, generally Faith will be able to grab onto the ledge anyway and pull herself up. Only if you're attempting to get great times in race mode will you need greater finesse and timing on your movement, and at that point, you're signing up to try and achieve that perfection.

Route visibility is handled in a few different ways. First and foremost, useful items within the scenery glow red, letting you know where you can (or should) go. Next, holding the "alt" key will turn the camera in the direction that you need to go. Often, this will not point you directly to your next leap target, but merely your ultimate destination.  Lastly, and perhaps this is the weakest point, is the level design itself. In some cases, it does an excellent job of giving you implicit directions to your next location, but at other points you're left wondering where you could possibly be trying to leap to.  The latter situation tends to happen more during indoors levels, and in some cases, it occurs while police are trying to gun you down. These were the times when I was cursing the level designers for their incompetence and wishing for a third-person camera.

Do the police realise a few cans of red paint would really mess with the runners?

I did realise, however, that my frustrations would not have been fixed by a third person camera in these situations because of the somewhat cramped setting, and if anything, could have actually exacerbated the situation by forcing me to deal with a less reliable and controllable camera. The spaces in Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed are wide and expansive for a reason: it allows the third-person camera to work properly. The level design of Mirror's Edge, especially the cramped office block interiors, would stifle the camera and force it to be so close to Faith that it would likely provide less useful visibility rather than more. Given these cramped interiors are probably a necessity given the setting of Mirror's Edge and Faith's parkour abilities, the first person camera was the right choice.

Mirror's Edge definitely has some flaws, which I imagine I'll discuss in future posts to raise some general game design issues, but the camera isn't one of them. For the game that Mirror's Edge is, I'd say that anything other than a first person camera simply would not do.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Maintaining consistent voice

Once thing I have noticed with some mods is the writing for characters tends to suffer somewhat. Now, some mods have issues with spelling and grammar, but even beyond that a frequent problem is having inconsistent speech style for a character, or worse still, a single style consistent across all characters. This is obviously something that all writers must consider, whether it be for novels, play, film, any form of writing that involves characters and dialogue. That includes video games.

To demonstrate my point, let's take some extreme examples from Dragon Age.  On one hand, let us consider Alistair, a wise-cracking and somewhat insecure warrior, who perhaps struggles with the hand that life has dealt him. This is reflected in his speech, his choice of words, his ability to make a joke even in dark circumstances, and so on. It comes through in his dialogue.  Contrast his character with that of Sten. Sten's dialogue consists of very words, and he typically interprets everything you say literally. He is direct, has little time for humour or wit, and is driven and focused. They both have very distinct and different styles of speaking, with their words, tone of voice, pace of speech, and every aspect of their dialogue.

Player: What were you doing in that cage?  Sten: Standing.

If you had to write dialogue between these two characters, it probably wouldn't be difficult.  But what about if you're writing dialogue for other, less well defined NPCs? Perhaps minor quests givers whose motives you haven't fully defined? (In that case, you need to give them a purpose first!) Even so, it can be difficult to have a fully fleshed out character with a detailed personality, and in the case of minor NPCs, this sometimes isn't necessary.  However, what you must make sure of is that characters have a distinct voice.

Ensure that every character does not sound exactly the same. Each person will have their own favoured words, or manner of speaking. They could be quick to anger, suspicious, treat the player with disdain, be in awe of the player... there are countless options.  The main point is to ensure that you have a clear picture of their style of speech, keeping in mind the words they would use given their upbringing, social status, and their standing in relation to the player.

Don't make lots of NPCs feel like carbon copies

One suggestion I would make to modders to help them maintain a consistent voice for a character is to try and "get inside their head" as it were, and make sure you have a clear picture of the type of thought process and speech patterns.  It may help to try and write NPC dialogue in large chunks for individual NPCs rather than trying to write for many characters in a short period of time.

For exmaple, if you are writing a quest that involves talking to multiple NPCs, it may help to write all of a character's dialogue for that quest without switching to another character. By this, I mean that once you have defined your quest completely, write all the dialogue for each NPC in turn.  If you have defined the various states and interactions that the player can have with each NPC (and if you haven't done this, you should!) you can write all of the NPC's dialogue without switching characters.

While experienced writers can switch between characters without difficulty, modders often run the risk of having all their NPCs sound almost identical if they switch back and forth between them while writing a quest. If you have done your planning, put it to good use by letting it help you write strong and believable individuals within your work.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Slow going

Recently I feel as though I have been discussing mods more than actually modding, and to be honest, that's probably correct. This has been in part to attempt to address a major problem for Dragon Age mods - publicity and visibility.

In short, it simply isn't there.  Many players are convinced that mods simply consist of: sex, nudity, overpowered items, lore-breaking content, or any combination of those four things.  This couldn't be further from the truth, yet getting players to understand this and then to actually try out some of the content that is available is an extremely difficult task.

Modders can't get good advertising

Some of the suggestions made by players to advertise mods are already in use, but apparently not visible enough to be seen and provide the spark of encouragement for players to try them. As time passes and Dragon Age 2 approaches release, it seems that modders will need to undertake some serious advertising efforts in order to get publicity for and awareness of their work.

Still, it seems the best publicity around is word of mouth. Thus I would implore any players to spread the word amongst your friends about the mods available for Dragon Age. Modders make them for you, now we just ask that you help others to find them as well.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Who is the audience?

Recently I was posed an interesting question by a player: "When you created Alley of Murders, did you think of yourself first when creating this mod and then decide to let whoever else wished for your excellence to enjoy as well as yourself?" This was a very interesting question, and raised questions which I had answered almost without thinking because of my mindset in creating Alley of Murders. However, I did explicitly deal with this question when I was working on Fate of a City for Neverwinter Nights 2.

I had originally planned for the mod to revolve entirely around dialogue with perhaps some problem solving aspects. The idea was for it to be an entirely roleplay focused module with a vastly branching story. I felt that such types of adventures were sorely lacking when it came to user released content for NWN2, as I found the majority of them to be extremely combat focused.

As I continued to work on my mod, I came to realise that while I found it an enjoyable experience, it deviated too far from the in-built expectations of the NWN2 player community. Many of these players are longstanding fans of the D&D ruleset, and have a great passion for building characters and fighting against monsters in combat to test their mettle and skill in designing a new build. In wanting to create something that did not exist at all, I realised that I was making a niche mod that would lack appeal for many players.

Everything is better with zombies, right?

As a result, I had to rework some of the content I had already created in order to fit with a new vision for the module which would both cater to my desire to make a heavily branching story but maintaining the strong ties with the D&D ruleset and universe. My mod made heavy use of D&D's in-built alignment system in order to deal with the players actions and use key decisions in concert with their alignment to produce vastly different outcomes both during the game and its climax. Admittedly some players still had issues with the system, but I've addressed that previously. Regardless, this change allowed me to not only produce the type of game that I wanted to make, keeping it on track with my vision of creating a choice-dependent player experience/story, but also to appeal to the desire of the player base at large.

Choice: my favourite RPG drug... when it's there.

However, as I said at the start of this post, I did not explicitly consider this problem perhaps as closely as I could have done when creating Alley of Murders. But that is in part because I had answered it by default through my three goals for creating it:
1. Learn how to use the Dragon Age Toolset with a small project.
2. Demonstrate to the Dragon Age community (both modders and players) that creating quality modules with full VO to integrate seamlessly into the game was possible.
3. Create a "Dragon Age" story befitting the style and tone of the main campaign.

As someone who has been making levels for games even before Doom came out I know I have matured significantly as a modder. In my earliest days of modding, I did not even have an audience beyond myself and arguably a few friends with whom I could give my work to via floppy disk, as I had no internet (or even bulletin board) access at the time. Since that time, I have been increasingly mindful of the purpose of my mods, and identifying that mods are for the players.

Players wanted more for their Warden to do. Alley of Murders provides that.

As a modder, I love the creative process of producing a piece of work that players can enjoy. I love writing stories, dialogue, creating levels/visual effects/cinematics, scripting and even playtesting. I love that act of creation, but at the same time I know that I must keep in mind the fact that I am creating something for players, and in many cases, I am playing within a pre-defined world that people love and have analysed (and over-analysed) at great length. Knowing this, I feel it is my responsibility as a modder to conform to that world that has been created and to match it in tone, history and style. This is even more important when creating mods that add to the main campaign of the game.

As a modder I am telling a story that is uniquely mine, but if I am creating a story within a pre-defined world, then I must respect that setting. Before Dragon Age was released, I had many ideas for quests (both sidequests or main plot lines) that I had a desire to create as mods. After I played the game and read all the lore contained with the codex and other official sources, I realised that some of these stories could not be told within the Dragon Age world because they simply did not fit the image of Thedas as created by BioWare. Maybe one day I will get a chance to tell those stories, but as a modder I will did my utmost to ensure that Alley of Murders matched the vision of the official Dragon Age world.  I intend to do exactly the same thing with The Shattered War.