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The Particle Trilogy

As a little break from Caper Corp., I finished a making a new video game this weekend. This one is called In the Wind. Much like Balance and Doubt, In the Wind's entire visual style is driven by particle effects. Well 2D text too, but that's only because making particles to represent text looked ghetto at the size I needed the text to be. In the Wind brings an end to the particle trilogy style of games I started back in December. This game would have been completed back in January or so, but unlike both Balance and Doubt, In the Wind was started more because I liked this color composition:

Unfortunately, that was really all I liked about the game that I was thinking about making, so it never really got beyond some movement physics, a wind effect/simulation, and the tree. My goal with the game was to always convey a "natural economy," in that everything in the game was able to act because of the energy the center tree provided, and the player's goal was to just feed more and more energy into the tree. It was an okay idea, but I never really had the thematic commitment to it that I did for the other two games. My goal with the particle projects was: no more than seven average days of work (so an hour or two after work and then maybe a weekend afternoon) and a set of systems which mechanically conveyed a single, coherent theme. For Balance and Doubt, I had the theme and the systems down for what I wanted to convey and, between the two, Balance is the only one that really succeeded as a fun little project (though I still have some love for Doubt, despite that). For In the Wind, I never really had that and, as a result, despite the second wind I got that drove it to completion, the game kind of waffles. The other problem was that after a night of work on In the Wind, I was already prepared to go back to work on Caper Corp., so it was this weird divided interest.

Still, I was able to get In the Wind done in a fashion very similar to the other games in the series: a Saturday after returning from a run I realized I had to scramble together all of the final elements (usually some systemic touches, audio, and a starting/ending screen), upload it to my site, post to Twitter, and get some quick feedback, incorporate those changes into a new build, and voila. New game.

Working on these three games with the self-imposed constraints under which they were worked on was a fun little endeavor. It was nice to do something a little bit different and to establish a visual style that was (hopefully) uniquely mine and explore some one-off systems. And now it's back to Caper Corp., which should have another entry forthcoming at some point in the next week or two.

Final games in the particle trilogy (because they're not real games if they're not part of a trilogy):




GDC 2010 Wrap-Up

Today was my last day at GDC and, at that, it was quite a short one. While I was waiting outside of my first session, a woman came up to me and announced she was a speaker and asked if she could borrow my Mac cord. I said sure. She said I saved the conference. I said "I do what I can."

My first session of the day was one which I, quite honestly, attended solely to write-up a mocking article later on. The session was Richard Rouse III's "Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry." And, if you check out my write-up on the session, you might notice a lack of mockery. This is a result of Rouse handling the topic far differently than I originally intended. I still think it's an absurd topic for a session and handling the material somewhat well doesn't change that fact, but it's not the source of humor I expected going in. Rouse gets extra points for showing the Mad Men scene where Don Draper demonstrates the advertising campaign for Kodak's Carousel.

Immediately after that twenty-five minute session, I went on over to "Designing Shadow Complex" with Donald Mustard. It's unfortunate that this equally short session had to be so abbreviated, because Mustard was not only an incredible speaker but also was showing some amazing procedural tidbits regarding Chair's approach to developing Shadow Complex. Most fascinating was that Mustard and the Chair team used Adobe Illustrator to create an entire 'paper' graph of the world map of Shadow Complex. It was divided into the squares/screens that divide the actual game's world and included various guards, pick-ups, blocked doors, ladder, and, seemingly, a level of clarity for the full game world that was completely fascinating at such an early point in the game's development. On top of this, Chair developed a "player legend." This is the size of the player, the way he can charge in either direction before he hits critical speed, how high a single jump goes, how high a double jump goes, and the maximum height of the player's hook shot. The team then dragged this player legend around the map to get an approximate idea for how Shadow Complex's planned game world would play out.

Once the team was happy with it on a paper level, the entire game world was blocked out in Unreal Engine in BSP and with some pick-ups and enemies and very basic cover. This allowed the team to get into the game with and iterate on and perfect the core gameplay loop. Mustard said handling the development of the game this way allowed them to add more and more weapon functionality that really worked together with the world to create emergent strategies and functionalities. It was a fascinating look into the game's development on a level that I would have adored to see in, say, the Uncharted 2 post-mortem. I asked Mustard how they handled changes once the BSP world had been made, and he said that once the game world block was in the engine that all changes were made directly to the BSP layout (which makes sense) and also that the original BSP brushes formed the basis of the game's collision volumes in a lot of cases. Lee Perry's prototyping talk the day prior had as imilar level of depth and behind-the-scenes to actually aid developers as well.

I ran out of the Mustard's session once I had my process question answered and ran into a nearby lecture hall to get my MacBook power cord back. It was here that I realized the woman who asked to borrow it was Christina Norman, lead gameplay designer at Bioware on Mass Effect 2, and had just finished giving a giant speech on the design refinements between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. So that was awesome. Next up on my rushed attempts to get back to the hotel and head to the airport was a quick meet-and-talk with Manveer Heir, lead designer at Raven Software. He was talking to Michael Abbott when I came to say hi, so it was great to briefly talk about Manveer's talk with him and once again thank Michael for organizing last night's dinner. And this brought an end to my first-ever GDC.

GDC was, quite simply, a totally fantastic week. I'm not a quiet person, but I am very shy about introducing myself and meeting people, so it was totally great to meet all these super friendly people who I've talked to online about games in various forms for years. And listening to five days of sessions gave me some great insight into various design processes as well as some ideas of my own both for my independent work as well as my work on our project at LightBox. My one regret is that there were some people I met that I didn't get to talk to in much detail, but that's just kind of a thing that's bound to happen at a ginormous conference like this.

Here's a wrap-up of my daily GDC write-ups. It's also worth noting that I didn't do full write-ups of all of my sessions as I don't complete hate myself enough to do that, so there are analyses and summaries of various other sessions buried throughout my daily write-ups. Day One Day Two Day Three Day Four Day Five Day Six And here's a list of all of the live write-ups I did on various sessions/lectures throughout the conference. I can't stress enough that these are very rough, but I felt it was more important to get them up for people who wanted the information than to spend a lot of time on polishing the writing. This is why I'm not a real journalist. Abusing Your Players Just for Fun Increasing Our Reach: Designing to Grab and Retain NinjaBee's Top Ten Development Lessons Indie Solutions to Design Savvy Somethings Uniquely Ruthless: The Espionage Metagame of EVE Online The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry Thanks to GameDev.net and LightBox Interactive for making this whole trip possible.




Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry

Richard Rouse III, a narrative director at Ubisoft Montreal, begins his talk with a slide: "Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry" and the image of a woman wiping away a tear from her right cheek. He opens it with the EA ad in 1983 "Can a computer game make you cry?" and pointing out that a lot of great works of art, like the Mona Lisa, do not make you cry. Our industry commonly makes the mistake that people cry due to melodrama/tragedy rather than any other emotion (which he believes is false).

Rouse displays a slide with the quote which will define the theme of his lecture: "Weeping is an interesting touchstone because it assumes that melodrama is the measure of narrative art." Janet Murray, George Institude of Technology, Hamlet on the Holodeck. Steve Meretzky said the crying debate is "so 1993." Richard Rouse says he crieda t the end of Titanic. Also a General Hospital montage in the mid-90s. Also a Rush concert because they're "so awesome."

The first way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen, with the text "This Was Your Life" in big, bold letters that fill the screen. Rouse shows a music video of Johnny Cash's "Hurt" which shows various clips of Johnny Cash's life, his family, his present, and other images were obviously important to him. So a montage. I was kind of hoping for a clip of the General Hospital one. Rouse says "the sort of flashback looking back at the life technique is a powerful technique used in a lot of tear-jerkers" as covers of the Titanic, The Notebook, and Away From Her are shown on the screen. Rouse then goes on to discuss the importance of long-term characters in The Sims. He then references and shows a clip of the end of Fallout 3, which had an ending that showed a montage of the player's accomplishments throughout the game. "I don't know if this is necessarily tear-worthy."

The second way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen is "Amplification Through Abstraction." I think: oh, come on, Richard Rouse, is showing a clip from the hyper-sad Grave of the Fireflies really, really necessary? Come on. That was completely tragic. Rouse says that the movie being an anime/cartoon allows for a level of abstraction that the viewer projects a person onto the little girl, rather than dealing with the barrier that a real actor would create ("poor performance" or "too specific"). Rouse now shows Jason Rohrer's "Passage." "I think the reason this works at all [...] is because it's just these two little pixel-y characters and not this photorealistic person" so the player projects his life onto these characters.

The third way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen: "The Weak Shall Inherit (aka Transformation)." Rouse cites It's a Wonderful Life, which he then summarizes because it's such an obscure, unknown movie. George Bailey goes through life all philanthropic-like until he has his moment of crisis at which point he is shown how great it was and he begins to appreciate the life he led and then at the end everyone comes together to help Bailey out. I hate you if you haven't seen this movie, by the way. "It's interesting we're crying at the happiest part of the movie, not the saddest. Which is a recurring thing with crying," Rouse said. He goes to the game example with Bioshock which he details his player experience where he saved all of the Little Sisters throughout the game ("because [he is] sappy that way"). The "touching moment" is when the Little Sisters come in and band together to kill the bad guy while the player is weak. Let's face it, a bunch of little girls stabbing someone to death with Adam really is a lot like the end of It's a Wonderful Life.

The fourth way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen: "Don't Know What You've Got Until it's Gone (aka Loss & Recovery)." Rouse displays a clip of an old silent movie where a husband took his wife on a trip where he planned to kill her, but in the end he can't do it because she's too important to him. She runs away and the man is forced to realize what he had. Eventually the two accidentally meet in a church with a wedding going on and the man cries a lot, the girl realizes maybe he really does care, and they re-fall back in love. And at the end of the movie the woman dies in a boat accident. Then, I guess, a woman found the man's wife and she really wasn't dead. Or something. Moral of the story: "it's only through losing it that you realize what you had." Rouse then brings in Portal and the confrontation against GladOS where the player destroys her individual personalities one by one and one of them begs for its life and it's this bittersweet moment. Now... Nintendogs! Rouse describes his dog in the game that, eventually, his daughter took over playing with. When Rouse was away on a business trip, his wife called him and said that Rouse's dog in the game is "gone." Rouse describes his sadness regarding the loss of his dog in the game until he came back to the game when he returned home and the dog came back and he was brought to tears by this joyful reunion.

The fifth way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen: nostalgia. Rouse brings in Mad Men and the COMPLETELY AMAZING scene where Don Draper demonstrates the "Carousel" to Kodak. Draper displays a very emotional, meaningful slide show of his life with his family, causing Draper to rethink his current state in life. So we're back to montages again, basically. "Nostalgia -- it's delicate -- but potent [...] nostalgia, in Greek, literally means 'the pain of an old wound'," Draper says in the clip. Even I'm getting weepy here. It's so good. Rouse goes into the love between two children in Ico, the attachment to Rapture in Bioshock, the lives we never had in The Sims, or simply the experience in Rohrer's "Passage."

Richard Rouse concludes by pointing out the sentimentality in relationships with people and characters in games, rather than in tragedy.




GDC 2010 - Day 6

I'm kind of a big fan of this whole game development and game developers conference thing. This is especially true since the main conference started on Thursday. The Indie/Serious Game Summits are both fantastic, but the lectures and sessions in the main conference are just so good. And it's hard to deny how awesome it is to see people you respect and who made great games talk about a topic they're passionate about.

After the normal, at this point, morning in the Marriott lobby writing about the prior day, I went on over to the conference to attend Richard Rouse III's "Environmental Narrative" talk. Coincidentally (or not?) enough, this session took place in the same room as the excellent Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch talk on environmental storytelling on Thursday. This means that there was a significant amount of people who wanted to get into this session in one of the smaller rooms of the conference that were unable to fit in. Rouse's lecture went through a series of examples on various types of objects/scenarios that can be used to both convey a story in the environment as well as aid players in navigation through a level via visual cues and flow hints. Much like Smith/Worch's talk, Bioshock was frequently cited as a brilliant recent example of a game with a very carefully and effectively designed environmental narrative. Once Rouse had gotten through a series of techniques and practices, he used his work on The Suffering (a superb game, by the way) to demonstrate ways that he and the rest of the development team handled the game's design. One of the more interesting examples is that, despite gathering an abundance of information on prisons through the internet, The Suffering's development team did not actually get to visit a real prison until late in the game's development. This trip gave them several ideas as to how they could make a more cohesive, believable prison (such as using awful shades of paint to visually separate various wards of the prison), but since it was so late in development a lot of the more interesting discoveries were unable to be used.

While Rouse presented some solid level design techniques and ideas, I feel like the entire presentation failed to make the leaps in critical thinking and design methodology when it was so close to doing just that. And this was actually an issue I discovered with a couple sessions throughout the day: a seeming unwillingness to attempt to draw general design lessons from experiences or to think critically about why (and where) a given design technique "works." Going up to the podium to talk about how a game handled its approach to level design is interesting, but failing to think critically about why that design approach works is a step I consider both incredibly useful to a wider audience of designers and necessary for a compelling lecture. Granted, it's hard to think critically about why the practices and techniques we employ as designers "work" (or don't), but it's the effort put into that thought which should define our role as designers. When I think about the talks/presentations I've heard from GDC either in-person or ones which have been archived online, they're the ones that make that extra logical leap to answer "why?" When Clint Hocking gives a talk inspired by one of his games, he talks about the design lessons (such as intentionality vs. improvisation, simulation boundary, etc.), he does not point to a feature on a game, show the audience a video, and then cap it off with "so we did that." The Worch/Smith session from the day earlier, for instance, covered how people, in general, "fill in the blanks" of a situation by going through an elaborate series of events to, ultimately, come to a conclusion. Worch/Smith then take that extra step to explain that this player-initiated investment into a situation not only enriches the environment they're in, but brings that player closer to the game as a whole. I'm not intending to single out Rouse's talk for this rant (because it's actually inspired by another session that I won't mention), but Rouse gave a very solid lecture that just came so close to that last necessary step.

Next up: Sid Meier's keynote, "The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know is Wrong)." I had been told by several people throughout the course of the week that, generally, the keynotes are generally a letdown. Supposedly this is due to the incredibly large, diverse audience of people and disciplines that keynotes have to appeal to, but I was hoping that, being Sid Meier, this wouldn't be the case this year. Unfortunately, it was. Sid Meier took audiences through a series of explanations as to why things that seemed "cool" ended up being received poorly by players. The primary example that Meier cited was that of "Mathematics 101," which he exemplified in the display of Civilization Revolution's pre-combat information. When the aggressor had an attack rating of 1.5 and the defender had a defense rating of 0.5, Meier said this was a fairly self-explanatory display of the odds (3:1): the aggressor would win three times out of every four attempts. Players, he said, did not interpret it like this and, instead, assumed that their number was higher so they should win. He then took the audience on a few iterations of this concept in what I actually took to be somewhat of a condescending manner towards the players. In essence, the combat in Civilization Revolution evolved because players couldn't get the "mathematics 101" of the game, so Meier went on several iterations to make the ratio representation make sense to the player as well as to take into account how prior battles fared so that if the attack:defense was 2:1, then players wouldn't lose two fights in a row.

One of Meier's strangest examples throughout the keynote was that of flight simulators, though. He feels the genre started out by being "accessible" and "easy to play." Then as they went through iterations they became more complex and more realistic and "pretty soon the player went from 'I'm good' to 'I'm confused'. My plane is falling out of the sky." Then, Meier said, "the fun went out of it." He wrapped up this analogy by saying "keep your player feeling good about themselves." I thought this little anecdote actually put me off from a lot of the rest of the keynote: who is anyone to say that the evolution of the flight simulation genre was a bad thing? It's a definite niche genre, but that doesn't make the genre bad or completely invalidate the design evolution it took. Then again, it's an anecdote, so I'm probably over-thinking Meier's intent.

After meeting with some old friends from Stardock for a bit, I went to the "What Color is Your Hero" panel featuring Mia Consalvo, Leigh Alexander, Manveer Heir, and Jamin Brophy-Warren. Without even a doubt in my mind, the panel was one of my highlights of GDC. It was an intelligent, insightful, and important conversation about the role of diversity in both video games and in the game development community. I wish I had some of the stats that Consalvo presented at the beginning of the panel, but alas. Heir championed the idea that utilizing a character's racial/social background can enrich a game experience in ways that most all video games fail to realize; specifically, Heir cited the Native-American protagonist in Human Head's Prey. The lead in Prey was ashamed of his background, wanted off the reservation, and was completely uncomfortable with who he was, but through the course of the game he learned to "spirit walk," talked to his ancestor in a vision (which took place at what looked like a burial site, if I remember correctly), and so on. This feature of Prey's narrative transformed what would have otherwise been a game about dudes shooting aliens into somewhat of a Native American spiritual journey.

Alexander, in a discussion about the role of the developers and creatives in creating a more diverse cast of characters in their own games, raised a very noteworthy point: Resident Evil 5. In the case of Resident Evil 5, there are developers who were attempting at diversifying the characters and settings of their game and this, essentially, completely blew up in their faces. Alexander went on to say that it is understandable that a culturally homogenous development community would be nervous about attempting to portray a non-white character and subsequently screwing it up. She went on to say, however, that it can be done, the cultural/gender research just has to be done. The Wire was cited as an example of the work that series creator/writer David Simon did to present a wide variety of characters in a responsible way (though the series did take fire for its presentation of women). This was a great panel which gave a proper kick-off to some very necessary, important conversations.

My final session of the day was Lee Perry's "Prototyping Based Design: A Better, Faster Way to Design Your Game." Perry, a senior gameplay designer at Epic Games, took audiences through Epic's process for game design starting with Unreal Tournament as the studio moved forward to the bigger, more cohesive project that eventually became Gears of War. The studio had a very design document-heavy and haphazard design process which was yielding poor results for what needed to be a more well-designed game than the studio's prior projects. Kismet, which was an unrelated tool and "smaller problem" at the time, was being developed around the time when design documents were being tossed around the studio. One day Perry mentioned that he was screwing around with Kismet and tossing scaled-up shoulder pads on this big monster in order to, in a way, get this buff, big dude in the game. He tossed some "boom" speech bits on the character, showed it to some people, and eventually this little prototyped monster became the Gears of War Boomer.

Perry took the audience through the transition in design practices that occurred after this prototype was done; this involved the change from "design bibles" (very large, unwieldy design documents) to very active, designer-driven prototypes in the Unreal Engine using very basic Kismet parts such as elevators, triggers, and so on. Perry indicated the need for a designer to be more of a Chef, actively involved in the creation and iteration on a design, rather than a Food Critic, a designer who writes a doc and waits for the plate to be prepared by someone else before providing feedback. Perry's session was a very practical, thorough, and well-presented lecture on the importance that rapid iteration and quick prototypes when it comes to showing everyone in a studio an idea. The importance of feedback (blood, audio, camera shake, etc.) to a prototype was also stressed; regardless of how quick a prototype is, the prototype must sell everyone in the studio on the idea and, as a result, it needs to properly and effectively communicate that idea.

Immediately after this session ended, I went on over to the IGDA/GameDev.net mixer being held at Jillian's in the Metreon. I was held up at the door momentarily since I didn't have the proper "IGDA Party" ribbon on my badge, but then I flashed my badge at Joshua Caulfield at the door and say "I'm GameDev.net" and was let immediately in. I felt powerful for approximately five minutes. And that was a fun little power trip.

Finally, I ended the day with an immaculate dinner organized by Michael Abbott. I met people like Matthew Burns, Simon Carless, Borut Pfeifer, Chris Dahlen, Krystian Majewski, and oh my god the list goes on and on and on and on. It was an incredibly couple of hours filled with the kind of fascinating conversation you'd expect from some of the most insightful writers in the game industry. It was a great 'end' to GDC (as I only have a couple sessions on Saturday and then I'm off to the airport).




GDC 2010 - Day 3

Being from the Central Time Zone, I'm really digging the fact that I actually am waking up early by local standards throughout the week. My morning office consists of a couch and table in the back of a hotel that I'm not staying at:

My plan for the day was to attend the Game Design Workshop since, well, I am a game designer, so it seemed to fit. After a couple hours of correspondence and writing I met up with Scott and Tim and we all walked all scrawny nerd pack-like over to Moscone North. After getting lost once or twice, I actually successfully ended up in the Game Design Workshop and took my seat near the pack because new people scare me.

Then I got kicked out because media badges weren't allowed.

Since I actually planned out my schedule for the week well and didn't rely on my normal amount of organized disorganization, I actually had an entire day of Indie/Serious Game Summit sessions lined up throughout the day. The first of these sessions was the Indie Game Summit kick-off lecture by Ron Carmel: "Indies and Publishers: Fixing a System That Never Worked." This is the kind of topic that has been coming from game developers and publishers of various sizes over the last few years but the primary focus of Carmel's talk was how the newly-proposed Indie Fund could potentially fix the publishing system for smaller, digitally-distributed games. The talk wasn't anything particularly new or insightful (especially since the Indie Fund had been announced well prior to the lecture), but it was the perfect tonal kickoff for the summit.

The lecture immediately preceding Carmel's was given by the indie-famous Cactus whose hyper-prolific development habits have yielded several gems of games over the year (including Tuning, which is a finalist in the IGF awards this year). Cactus delivered the kind of message which more indies should be giving and more developers (as a whole) should hear: imbue your own sense of style and character into your games with little regard to design conventions. Cactus also played one of the best scenes of any David Lynch movie by putting the Lost Highway party scene on display for the entire room. So, you know, props for that. This talk was my first attempt at live-writing up a lecture and, as a result, it has a bunch of grammatical and tonal oddities (I'm pretty sure I switch between two or three tenses at random), but it was a fun first one. The write-up, like all my other material is at my development journal.

The new couple of hours were a lot more subdued. Not being used to this whole sort of thing, I quickly discovered the limitations of my MacBook's batteries and the lack of any real area for people to just sit down and charge/use their laptops. There is always the press lounge, but for some reason the lounge is in a tiny, incredibly crowded room with a dearth of seating available. As a result, we asked for directions and for some reason the GDC photographers felt this should be in the GDC 2010 gallery (check out my rad flip-flops; they're so floppin'):

The next series of talks that we attended were all focused on the more social aspects of game development; the first of which was a talk on marketing and PR ("open development") by John Graham of Wolfire Games. I went into this talk incredibly skeptical regarding the validity of "good marketing" claims by a company who has yet to actually release a game. It seemed, to me, that a well-marketed game is one which does well once it has been released. Graham, however, made a very compelling and interesting case for the way that Wolfire is handling the marketing of Overgrowth (their in-development game). Graham promoted being open, making friends, and staying in contact with their personal game's community as well as the large game development/game-playing community as a whole, but the real take-away from the talk that Graham didn't explicitly mention was the benefit of being completely earnest and honest throughout the development process. No one will know whether the Wolfire marketing style will yield long-term success or not (and how much it takes away from active development time), but, for now, it appears to be treating them well.

The next major session of interest was the Independent Game Summit keynote from Tiger style's Randy Smith (Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor). I already did a somewhat lengthy write-up of his talk, but I'm still not entirely sure what I thought about it. Smith seemed to add an unnecessarily divergent meaning to what designers/gamers typically refer to as "depth" in a game by conflating "depth" with "meaningful content" rather than the traditionally-used definition of mechanical depth. I appreciated his focus on immediacy/"depth" and the importance of utilizing the strengths of a platform like the iPhone. What I wasn't as much of a fan of was the exceptional amount of time that Smith spent on analyzing his case study games; both Spelunky and Captain Forever were each talked about for about ten minutes each. While both of these games are fantastic and deserving of analysis, it's not something I would expect in a keynote speech (nor would I expect to hear Smith's ideas for improving those games). Smith's incredibly random shot at mainstream games by indicating his apathy for Uncharted 2 (which he admits is an incredibly tuned, polished, and iterated-upon design) and following it up with the joy of being indie. Not only is this not a bad message to deliver -- especially at the Independent Games Summit -- but burying that message in the last five minutes of a speech came off entirely as a crowd pleasing oration trick rather than a meaningful point.

I also discovered that Randy Smith is, like me, an incredibly fast and energetic talker which not only makes live-writing his speech difficult but makes me have sympathy for everyone that has to listen to me on a daily basis.

The rest of the night was filled with the enormous, multi-course GameDev.net dinner followed by the group of us ending up at a Mexican restaurant. I also drank my first margarita. So that was fun. And salty. And delicious.




GDC 2010 - Day 5

Yesterday I learned the meaning of the oft-heard phrase throughout the early part of the week: "GDC hasn't even really started yet." It appears that the Summits/Tutorials make up only a fraction of the total GDC audience once the main conference has started and the expo floor is opened up. All of the parts of the Moscone Center that I've gotten used to navigating have approximately three times the amount of people as they did during the days prior. The other main difference is the kind of people you just randomly see; I left a session a yesterday and ended up pushing through a crowd of people right behind Reggie Fils-Aime. That was kind of a random thing.

I started off my day with the typical write-up and catch-up on my MacBook at the Marriott Lobby across the street from my hotel. At some point during this phase of the day I realized that my first session was at 9:00am, instead of the 10:00am start time for the summits/tutorials, and quickly packed up my stuff and booked it to my first session of the day: "The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design" which I somehow failed to realize was a presentation by Peter Molyneux. The session was, fundamentally, about Fable 3 and about 50% of the presentation was irrelevant as a design talk, but I still managed to get some really great insight into why the changes between Fable 2 and Fable 3 were being made.

Immediately after Molyneux's talk I went over to check out what I felt would be one of the best sessions of the conference: "Uniquely Ruthless: The Espionage Metegame of EVE Online." One unique aspect of this session is that it was given by a player, not a developer. That said, this was also one of the most complex talks that I attended over the course of the entire conference thus far (and for some reason chose that one to write up). The speaker was Alexander Gianturco (The Mittani), a director-level member of SomethingAwful's EVE corporation: GoonSwarm. Over the course of the talk, Gianturco illustrated all of the crazy depth, time, and subterfuge that makes up EVE's espionage metagame. I already wrote-up the talk, so I won't go too much into it, but this talk was far and away the most original of all of the GDC presentations of the year. I pointed this out in my write-up, but it was just mind-blowing that such an infamous EVE player actually plays the game very rarely these days. Most of Gianturco's work in EVE is the management of the espionage metagame versus ICQ, Jabber, and forums.

Unfortunately, I made the poor decision of switching from my planned attendance of "Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3" to the Uncharted 2 Post-Mortem by co-lead game designer of Naughty Dog Richard Lemarchand. This wasn't a bad presentation by any means, but it was a completely sterile, typical post-mortem. Very little in the way of behind-the-scenes information or nitty-gritty design details were presented throughout the entirety of the talk. One interesting studio practice, however, was Lemarchand's discussion of the sole deliverable of the studio's pre-production process: a macro game design. Unlike some studios, Naughty Dog treats the macro game design as a somewhat high-level, abstracted spreadsheet of the entire game's progression, gameplay, story beats, characters broken up level-by-level. I would have adored to hear Lemarchand talk in more detail about how this document was created and what its level of granularity was (all that could be seen was a small screen shot), but that was apparently not in the cards.

While the EVE talk by The Mittani was fascinating, the absolute best session of the day was Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch's "What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling." This talk was given from the perspective of level design in first-person games and how to imbue non-critical small vignettes/stories into the environment of FPS levels where normally a designer would just mindlessly place props. Smith/Worch focused on the active process of thinking through a series of events and how intelligent prop/asset placement in a game environment can create interesting stories that the player can connect the dots with in his head. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics was cited as saying, paraphrasing here, that the most powerful part of a comic is what happens in between the panels where the reader bridges the gaps in his own mind. The idea here is that inviting players to use their own minds to figure out what happened in a given scene and, in doing so, these players become more invested and more interested in the game world as a result.

It was at the point where Smith and Worch began discussing systemic environmental storytelling techniques where my glee hit its ceiling (well, that's not entirely true, but more on that soon). The pair brought up an example of the user of decals in Half-Life 1 where a player would shoot walls to make smiley faces out of bullet holes. This player did this two or three times in the same hallway. A bit further into the hallway, you see the dead body of a player right below a half-finished bullet hole smiley face (which has a bunch of other random bullets strewn around it). The story that arises from this is that there was this player just completely screwing around with environmental "damage" and he was so invested in creating his 'art' that he had no idea someone was right behind him when he/she shot him in the back. As the viewer, we saw none of this occur in real-time, but we put the pieces together by looking at the scene. Since multiplayer games entail players going through the same map over and over and over in a circular progression, systemized environmental storytelling was the long-term persistence of decals/bodies/shell casings (and anything else that is the result of a player action) which persists in the world to create an overarching narrative of player actions. I can't even convey how much of a nerdgasm I had throughout this talk. And then Clint Hocking asked an insightful question and then my glee level hit the ceiling; Clint Hocking action shot:

The sessions for the day ended with a psychology-focused analysis of the role that achievements play in video games and whether their use as external motivators for tasks is "harmful." The talk was given by the super intelligent, fast-talking, quick-thinking Chris Hecker and was a very responsible look at the role that these external motivators factor into our psychological development as we play games. It's hard to properly summarize the talk, but the general message is that while rewards for tasks are generally "bad," the closer they are to endogenous awards (thematically/media-appropriate/related) the less damage the reward does as a Skinnerian conditioning technique. Achievements, however, are not endogenous whatsoever and, therefore, become a completely abstract reward which damages a player's intrinsic motivation to do what should be an inherently fun task.

The night ended with my first-ever attendance at the Independent Games Festival/Game Developers Choice Awards. Over the course of this event I got to see Cactus deliver a hilarious acceptance speech, Warren Spector, Will Wright, Gabe Newell (introduced via a very earnest and fantastic speech by Chris Hecker), and John Carmack. Overall, the day was like a nerd heaven. It also ended with a meal involving margaritas and chicken flautas, so, I mean, an all-around win, really.




The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design

Peter Molyneux's "The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design" was first and foremost a talk about Lionhead Studio's current project: Fable 3. Behind all the talk about the new game, though, are interesting design discussions. The game aside, the theme of Molyneux and lead designer Josh Atkin's presentation was centered on this statistic that the company learned through Microsoft research: "more than 60% of players understood less than 50% of [Fable 2's] features."

Lionhead took this statistic to heart with the development of Fable 3. Molyneux started his talk by citing the statistical number porn of games like Wizardry, Ultima, and Fallout. Using Fable 1 and Fable 2 as a baseline comparison for all things, Molyneux detailed how the team was reworking the franchise for the third iteration on their overarching design. They started by identifying what was core to the Fable experience amongst which are: character morphing, choices, drama, and emotion. These qualities, along with a few others, are absolutely core to gameplay experience and should be evolved, not cut, as the team ventures forth on a new project.

As an example of the evolving design paradigm is the way that Lionhead is handling character morphing for Fable 3. One of the problems that Molyneux cited with the original game's character morphing was the oft-heard unfortunate-looking body image that female characters saw as they played through the game. The other primary problem was that all of the character morphing happened as a result of leveling-up which occurred in Fable 2's 2D UI rather than naturally in the game world as a result of player actions. The solution that Lionhead found for both of these problems involved mapping all character visual changes to in-world player actions. If a player uses a sword, his muscles will get bigger, and if a character uses a giant hammer (also a melee weapon, but a heavier one) the character's muscles will increase at a faster rate. Using ranged weaponry will result in a taller, more athletic character. Using magic will yield a character whose complexion looks like that of a heavy-duty magic user. The more followers a player has, the more "powerful" his character will look.

The way that Lionhead solves the problem of the character statistical evolution/leveling up is by giving "experience" an in-world currency. This currency, in Fable 3 is that of "followers." Followers are characters which, uh, choose to follow the player as he ascends to power and royalty. Molyneux said the inspiration for this came from his experiments with Twitter and the feeling of having internet followers and interacting with them over a long period of time.

Another major change that Molyneux is bringing to Fable 3 is changing up the "hero's journey" which a number of games (and both prior Fable games) and movies and books and films all employ as a character progression structure. Granted, Campbell's "Hero's Journey" was originally used as a means of critiquing and analyzing literature, but whatever. Instead of Fable 3's full narrative arc covering the entirety of the player character's journey from lowly street-rat to full-on hero, Fable 3 will have the player ascend to royalty (kingship or queenship) halfway through the game. The last half of the game, then, will allow the player to play from this place of power in the game world. More interestingly, the promises that the player can then make good on the promises made to the people of Albion as he rose to power. Molyneux said one of his inspirations for this mechanic was Obama's campaign versus his presidency.

Molyneux then showed Fable 3 and, well, it looks pretty amazing. The industry setting looked absolutely incredible and provided a nice change of pace from the theme of most games.

And, most importantly, the dog is back.




Uniquely Ruthless: The Espionage Metagame of EVE O

"So apparently you really wanna hear about spaceships, I don't know why" says the representative of The Mittani, mittens [CHEATER], finally, Alexander Gianturco whatever you want to call him. Gianturco, as he says, is a lawyer, not a developer.

"What is a metagame?" Gianturco asks. "The purpose of the talk: description of the hidden aspects of EVE gameplay. Analyze EVE's metagame for application in other environments. Convince attending devs to create more games with vibrant espionage gameplay." The example of a metagame is, as Gianturco says, if you were i a tournament, telling someone that you slept with his wife, had him punch you, and therefore forfeit his space in the tournament. Gianturco's goal is to convey what the "key" is to having a "vibrant espionage metagame."

Gianturco goes into the disaster that afflicted the GoonSwarm alliance which was a result of not paying the necessary bills. Also GoonSwarm's chief financial officer (who ran off with their money) is named "Rapetrain." This is all that matters.

The birth of espionage in MMOs: the "Dark Ages: lootable PK MUDs - DartMUD and camera code and breeze code on MUSHs." Camera code allowed people to spy on people who weren't actually present and then use that information to mock them. After that it evolved into the early PvP of MMOs like Ultima Online, Everquest, and Shadowbane. Ultima Online, as Gianturco said, is the "granddaddy" of all PvP which allowed you to kill person after person and take their stuff. Everquest eased the ruthlessness a bit, but brought about the idea of "corpse camping.

Going forth, Gianturco cites: EVE Online, Global Agenda, and Darkfall as the three MMOs which feature solid "espionage." Gianturco's point in contrasting these three games is how completely different they are and how varied their settings are. Gianturco says the benefits of an espionage metagame are: "Free media coverage [which are] a dramatic recruiting tool. Players can use cunning as an in-game skill [and] espionage is the ultimate in [user-generated content]." There are "very few arenas in gaming where you can actually use the fact that you're a manipulative ass" as a benefit and marketable skill as a character/player quality. Allowing for player-based espionage can also ease the burden of a lack of high-end content.

The "hazards of an espionage metagame" are: "impact of espionage is completely unpredictable, outside of Dev control," it "offends sense of 'fair play'," and "customers dislike losing or being cheated." "One of the unfortunate things about being a human is that everyone loves winning and no one likes losing."

"Three key attributes of an espionage metagame are: player-created factions, significant consequences and risk of loss, supportive mechanics & dev environment." Gianturco draws a specific difference between developer guilds/alliances in games like World of Warcraft, but there is always that strict, forced segregation (Horde versus Alliance is cited, amongst other games).

One important key in player-create faction is that "Espionage requires a personal commitment which is a meaingless without player engagement in a conflict, most MMOs force players into fixed factions, limting the level of player engagement." People identify much more strongly with their faction because it's something that player chose and these hard ties enhance the sense of competition and comaraderie. The involvement in factions "the more personal the struggle, the more intense the espionage gameplay becomes." Gianturco cites "the Great War" in EVE Online as the pinnacle example where EVE's "Band of Brothers" assaulted a system of newbies called GoonSwarm for over two weeks.

The second important key is that of "consequences and risk of loss, espionage cannot exist in an arena where nothing is risked." Gianturco cites the loss of durability if you wipe in a raid in World of Warcraft, however if you lose a titan in EVE Online you lose the equivalent of $4,000 USD in in-game currency. Gianturco then goes into convertible currency and real-money trading, whose existence raises the stakes in the game. "Earn a living by selling isk" in EVE is a viable possibility. There are people who are rich in EVE Online who have spent over $100,000 in real-world currency on in-game currency.

The third key is "supportive mechanics and dev environment; must provide opportunity for espionage gameplay in the client itself. Must have 'clean' dev environment with rigorous policing against corruption, and laissez-faire attitude toward fates of players." As an example of the "'clean' dev environment" Gianturco cites that CCP has an internal affairs department to handle the metagame in EVE Online.

Two additional factors that Gianturco does not believe are complete necessary are: "shardless environments which is not ar equirement for espionage, increases the risk of less and player engagement, and 'nowhere to run, nowhere to hide'." And while that is not required it is important to "avoid player segregation" for the reasons of "MMOs with most vibrant espionage lack a level-based system, EVE, UO, Darkfall." "[Leveling] reduces the relevant population or player factions. New players can contribute immediately in non-level-based games, helping factions grow."

Gianturco says "now we're going to actually get to the spy-craft" and someone in the audience giggles like an excited little girl. I love it.

The first component of gameplay is "intelligence gathering" where "agents gather information to remove or create an element of surprise." Gianturco talks about a secret agent who is hired by various factions in EVE Online to completely subvert people and gather information for his clients. The importance of intelligence-gathering in EVE Online can completely change any situation; when it succeeds, people can destroy other people's large, titan ships due to information about that player's titan to people who used it against him. Intelligence gathering "allows 'pure meta' gameplay, entirely separate from game client. [And] vibrant external metagame has several benefits: reduces game load [and] increases player involvement." Gianturco takes this further by raising the "sticky issue of hacking:" there is the "classic divide [between] human vs. signals intelligence." There is also "player agents vs forum hackers" and "competitive espionage in the alliance tournament."

The next component: sabotage. Sabotage i "dramatic, slash-and-burn events," "theft" which involves "stealing corporation/alliance assets." This theft can be used to retrieve assets from formerly-owned territory; Gianturco cites a situation where their agents used jump freighters to ferry cargo to-and-fro from a system "over eighty times." There is also "strategic sabotage [which is] altering the course of a war." Finally, there is "diplomatic sabotage" showing a slide with the text from one of their faction's players with his infamous line: "YOUR ALLIANCE IS A PIECE OF SHIT." The given example is that of a player taking money from people who didn't want to be branded as "evil metagamers" and taking the public position as the scapegoat for taking a large portion of their assets.

Gianturco talks about the "Band of Brothers disband story." During the "Great War" there was a period of stagnation that had been going on for two and a half years. One member of Band of Brothers was going to send an "unknown alt" into the worlds to see what the other side of the system was like. He took an invitation into GoonSwarm with a fake recruitment used to let the BoB man think he was legitimately recruited. GoonSwarm took all of his stuff and said "haha, you've been scammed." The Band of Brothers member, Hargoth, came back to GoonSwarm and was, actually, a fan fo GoonSwarm and was willing to defect and use his position as a director of Band of Brothers to essentially screw them over. Gianturco talks about a hectic series of meetings used to plan a way to smash-and-grab Band of Brothers using the information from Hargoth (the Band of Brothers defector). Gianturco talks about a eureka moment where he realized that he had an executive character in Band of Brothers and, therefore, could disband the entire alliance and kick everyone out of the alliance, take their name, and make for the biggest scam in EVE Online at the time.

Gianturco summarizes his story as the paramount example of "counterintelligence." He calls it "spy versus spy type stuff." "Spyhunting vs witch-hunting" is "when at risk, agents will always try to provoke a witch-hunt. Without technical knowledge, spyhunting is just torches and pitchforks." Inciting a witch-hunt is used to divert attention from the spy to the less intelligent, less informed loudmouths. Counterintelligence is the "bleeding edge of the metagame." Gianturco talks about an active private investigator who works as a counterintelligence agent for GoonSwarm. It actually entails computer forensics: "collecting IP addresses and geolocation," "timestamps: forums and teamspeak," "signature bugs," and "honeypots." "If you find yourself in a war against a bunch of people who are Finnish suddenly it becomes quite obvious" when your enemies are trying to subvert you, because you just look through your forum IPs for anyone from Finland. Gianturco talks about feeling bad for any legitimate member of GoonSwarm from Finland because, well, it's persecution. Gianturco talks about the "signature bug" of using an image to gather information about forum users; the "mittens signature" collecting the IP addresses of anyone who used it/loaded it. He then talks about the IP addresses of everyone in a given corporation through timestamped posts and using this information in any war against another corporation (essentially giving the faction an entire member list of the corporation).

Gianturco wraps up the counterintelligence section with the phrase "Honeypots are hilarious." He talks about the most recent use of honeypots who had a spy in GoonSwarm; GoonSwarm started "lying their asses off" in a specific public forum and spending a lot of money in a specific tower in a backwater system. Eventually, a fleet started attacking his tower and GoonSwarm sent a fleet themselves to engage them. Gianturco said, in the channel, that he was going to "send his titans in" which was an indication to any enemies that their fleet needed to escape and send in ships which could capture the titans. By this point, Gianturco said he had captured enough timestamps and sussed out who the spy was (a guy anmed "CaptainMutiny" who "surprisingly didn't start out as a spy"). Once this all happened, the enemy fleet revealed that "hey, you got the wrong guy; you got the wrong director-level agent" which told Gianturco and GoonSwarm that, essentially, they had a director-level agent and to keep spyhunting.

The talk wraps up with Gianturco talking about the role of fraud in EVE Online. The most amusing example is that of a person who ran a bank in the game where people "deposited" over 600 billion in ISK and then ran away with all the money. This is particularly absurd because each player in EVE has a "Wallet" which is a completely safe, completely unique, infinite storage place for currency.

My favorite reveal in the entire talk is that Gianturco rarely actually plays EVE but, rather, actually works the forums and various communication media more than anything else.




GDC 2010 - Day 4

Despite being my first GDC, I actually feel like I'm kind of getting the hang of things. I started another morning in the lobby of the nearby Marriott by writing up the day prior (much like I'm doing right now). Unlike the last few days, though, I have 9:00am sessions to make rather than 10:00am ones, so my attempt at writing up the day is going to be much abbreviated. Which is unfortunate, because these little daily things are my favorite thing to write up.

Day 4 was all about indie. I was in the same session room (Room 135) all day long listening to what were, primarily, all superb sessions. The day was kicked off with Kellee Santiago and Robin Hunicke talking about "How to Manage an Exploratory Development Process." Despite there being far funnier, even somewhat more insightful and original talks throughout the two days of summits and tutorials, the Santiago/Hunicke talk was a marvel. It's so completely rare, especially in this industry, to hear a talk from people who are not only genuinely passionate but optimistic and who preach the emotional relevance of a team development atmosphere. The pair revealed (namely Santiago, as Hunicke was not, I believe, a member of the team at this point) that at the end of Flower's development cycle, Thatgamecompany was on the verge of self-destruction. Santiago said that if the team kept along their path at that point that they would not have lasted past their three game contract with Sony. Robin Hunicke was brought on that this point as a producer and, as she took the stage, talked about all of the lengths she went to in order to get a better, more comfortable, less anxious team dynamic. The pair ended their talk with the promotion of optimism and happiness because if the "five years to burnout" stat was true, the pair, they said, would not be able to play "your" games. It was a rare sort of talk for this industry and conveyed a mood and message that this industry desperately needs.

Next up was a talk by Mark "Messhof" Essen and Daniel Benmergui about "Control Inspiration" where the two talked about their various visual and interactive inspirations for their games. It was an odd talk given by a pair of incredible designers/developers, but it was unfortunate to see how scatter-shot Messhof's presentation of his material was. I know, indie, etc. Benmergui, however, took the audience through a completely interesting evolution of his remarkable game Today I Die. He talked about how the game's "poem mechanic" evolved over time from something simple, to something very cool but incredibly complex, to the final version that was in the game. Benmergui ended by showing off the iPhone evolution of Today I Die which looks promising.

As I was leaving this talk, I ran into Ben Abraham and Nels Anderson. These are, really, the first of a group of incredibly smart game critics/developers that have inhabited a special circle on the Internet. As someone who grew up in isolation of the game industry as a whole, it's always completely amazing to meet people you've interacted with frequently online. Unfortunately, as tends to be the case, I was already late for a lunch thing so I couldn't talk nerdy game stuff, but there's an entire dinner for that later in the week.

One of my favorite moments of the day was in the "Minimalist Game Design: Growing OSMOS" where Eddy Boxerman and Andy Nealen. Boxerman gave what was, largely, a somewhat uninspired and disinterested talk about the game's evolution over the two-and-change years of its development. Boxerman showed off OSMOS at various stages of its development talking about what worked and what didn't and how they maintained a minimalist approach to its design throughout its development. It was neat to see, but Boxerman's portion of the lecture paled in comparison to when Andy Nealen, a developer on the game and a professor at Rutger's University took the stage. For the next six-eight minutes, Nealen talked about the tenets of minimalism in game design from a somewhat academic/game theory approach. Nealen stole the afternoon with this incredibly abbreviated, dense, and insightful speech on "economy" and "coherences."

Immediately after the OSMOS talk was "Indie Solutions to Design Savvy Somethings" by Adam Saltsman, Alec Holowka, and Andy Schatz. I already wrote this talk up, but it was incredibly sad to see each of these three incredibly intelligent speakers cut short by time. Adam Saltsman was, for instance, only able to get about ten minutes into what looked like a twenty minute talk. The gist of this talk was promoting what was inherently indie about indie game development as opposed to the AAA style of game development. The best part of this talk was that all three speakers managed to laud the benefits of indie development without feeling the need to slag on AAA game development (because they're completely different beasts, neither bad).

The final two sets of presentations were an art panel with Derek Yu (Aquaria, Spelunky), David Hellman (Braid), and Edmund Mcmillen (Gish, Time Fcuk). It was a worthwhile panel overall, but, for the most part, it largely felt awkward and stilted until the panel started getting into more personal, process/artistic conversations.

Shortly before the next session I was able to meet and talk to Chris Remo, the incredibly talented and passionate gamer, writer, and podcaster. Once again, this is a person I've "internet known" for years and have had the pleasure of talking to online many times, but have never actually met in person. These kinds of meetings/conversations are one of my favorite aspects of GDC so far (along with the sessions themselves).

The Indie Game Summit ended with the "Indie Gamemaker Rant!" This is a series of five-minute rants by prominent individuals in the indie game community such as Robin Hunicke, Randy Smith, Adam Saltsman, and about eight or nine more speakers. As with any ensemble session, it was a mix of great and not-so-great. One ranter talked about her game's demise and eventual completion, showed a clip of her game, and then a slight plug for more funding/publishing which, indie or not, seemed in poor taste. Then there were the rants by Robin Hunicke and Brandon Boyer. Hunicke ranted about the completely lack of diversity in the game industry, both lamenting it and preaching to the audience to compose their teams of more varied types of individuals. The rant was passionate, true, and completely necessary and I really hope people took something away from it. Brandon Boyer's rant was about sorry state of the game press which, yes, we all know and acknowledge, but more important Boyer ranted on the unnecessary amount of snark in the press (and community as a whole). It was an earnest, heart-felt rant that everyone in the industry, press or not, should heed.

And, with that, Day 2 of GDC and the end of the Summits & Tutorials section of the conference game to an end. The rest of the day was occupied with eating and partying. Here are some awful pictures of Gamma IV (which I will hopefully write about in further detail later).

Also check out my totally rad dinner:




Indie Solutions to Design Savvy Somethings

Adam Saltsman opens up the talk with a slide reading "Indies Rule, AAA drools!" He voices this slide's meaning by saying: "[this is] not a rant about how much Uncharted 2 sucks. Because that's negative discourse. And" as Saltsman changes to another slide "It's not AAA's faults." "If you have a large team, that's a lot of intertia; it's a lot of shit to steer. [...] And if you have a large budget you're putting millions and millions of dollars on the line." Saltsman puts up another slide "Game Deisgn is already pretty risky, isn't it?"

"Freedom, or Constraint?" says the next slide, as Saltsman talks about the difference between AAA and Indie and the troubles that both types of games face.

Alec Holowka takes the microphone by talking about his "fractured selves" due to social awkwardness and all sorts of different parts of his life (family, friend, church, games, etc.). He asks "What are games? They are a [subset of] interactive multimedia." Holowka goes on to point out "We don't review movies like we review games." He lists off of how game reviewers would take Citizen Kane into cinematography, gameplay, special effects, and how absurd that would be. He makes a similar statement about how games should not be split into their individual components, but rather taken as a whole (and how it relates to "holistic design"). "Games right now are still the Wild West. They are a vast, largely unexplored space." Holowka then talks about the unnecessary subdivision of "games" into Mainstream Games, Indie Games, Art Games, Not Games, and joking that "Poo-Poo Games" is about "as mature" as "Not Games."

"I want to ask you as game developers: what is the basis for your games? For the games you create that you are most passionate about, what is the starting point, the seed that grows a great oak..." He lists potential examples like films, books, images, memories, emotion, and so on. "Many different opinions + inspirations = a good thing" says the next slide. For Alex Holowka, it's a character and a world that motivates him. He defines "storytelling" as "meaningful connections between the mediums to form a cohesive experience that draws the player into another world." He also answers the question of "Are stories important to games?" and provides the context of Super Mario Bros. as being integral to the integrity of the game. "Tasty, tasty context adds so much to basic gameplay. [...] Players see more than just the raw components."

Holowka tackles "Emotion Spaces" next; "like a level is a designer-crafted context for physical exploration. A story framework can be a designer-crafted context for emotional exploration." Using an example from Marian, "is world context a metaphor for gameplay?" To which Alex says "No." Then talking about the advantages of storytelling in indie games: "small teams, auteur theory ("hear the voice of the creator"), more personal, affecting, diverse ("able to avoid the marketing committees"), and meaningful connections between medias ("not just a big-budget film story slapped on some boring gameplay.")

Schatz takes the microphone now with a slide saying "ANDYTRON UNITE." "AAA vs Indie Design Process" as he talks about his AAA background from 1998-2005, then going to web games during 2000-20001 and ending with his transition into indie games from 2005 to the present. Schatz asks the question "What's the main difference between AAA production and indie game production? Team size." Citing how incredibly different games with two-hundred-plus people teams working on a single game over a number of years versus a smaller, more focused team. [...] Why does team size matter? When the team gets large, you have to keep your pipeline full. You end up doing concurrent work in order to keep the team busy rather than finding the shining gems and building upon those." Working as an indie allows developers to focus on niche audiences; Schatz cites "kids games, non-violent games, strategy games, and new platforms."

Schatz changes the topic to "Designing an (Indie) Game." It's "best to approach the design differently than one would a AAA game." Starting with the AAA approach to game design for comparison: "Make a Sims-Killer." Elaborating, he asks "why is this not feasible for indies? Most likely the other guys will just release a sequel with more money and an existing fan base (this rarely works for AA studios either, CoD notwithstanding)." Something that indie and AAA studios can both do: "design a game around a way to build an audience, create a customer, make money. Both big companies and small ones do this [but it's] probably the subject of another talk entirely." Similar to this is an approach for indies: "Sometimes it's possible to design a game around a market that is currently unfulfilled. This can work for indies because you are not competing with existing products."

The "Theme/Character Based Approach" allows developers to "design new, creative mechanics around a theme or character. Your central theme or character can act as a great touchstone for ideas and a central, guiding premise to the design. AAA studios avoid this because it can be a blind approach -- it's hard to describe to publishers or [executives] what the game will feel like." Schatz cites the work that Dan Paladin does (The Behemoth) does in his/their games and it allows designers to build a fully unique and personal game by basing their design on the personality and features of a specific, original character. Schatz uses his work on Venture Africa as an example where he looked to nature for inspiration.

The "open-ended approach" is "the equivalent of stream of consciousness, game design style. This one is dangerous [as] it's easy to confuse the 'exploration of design' approach that the Experimental Gameplay Project espouses with the concept a design without direction." Schatz says he hasn't had much luck with this approach but "to each his own."

Now Adam Saltsman, creator of Canabalt and Gravity Hook, now takes the microphone once again to talk about indie game developers and small team size. "Novels, symphonies, operas, plays, paintings, sculptures, screenplays, albums, restaurants..." says the slide as Saltsman said "all of these things have a small group of people behind them; usually one, two, or three." "Some of the largest game companies that make some of the best games break themselves up into teams" (citing Treasure, Valve, Blizzard, Pixar, and id Software").

"Why?" Saltsman asks. "Communication -- we're all pretty bad at it. [...] Think about how hard it is, you've got this idea in your head that you're trying to communicate... [...] and you're making typos or you can't find the right word. Basic communication is really difficult" especially, Saltsman says, when dealing with a new, interactive art form. "What you could do is hire Robin [Hunicke], she makes everything really good but I can't hire her." Next, Saltsman lists "responsibility" as to why small teams work. "The stuff you do has to matter or else you won't feel good about it, you won't enjoy it, you won't put effort into it." And, finally, "design." "You won't figure out how to make your game work when you have forty people throwing their ideas at it." Saltsman wraps this up by saying "Focusing on systems (vs. content) makes this much work."

"The logical conclusion is the one-man non-team" as a sort of "frictionless design environment." Saltsman also says "so man is an island." Unfortunately, Saltsman runs out of time and tries to find a single, conclusive thought halfway through his lecture. His thought: "Learn to do everything you can yourself, not so you won't collaborate anymore but so you don't have to."




Top Ten Development Lessons

NinjaBee's Brent Fox starts off his lecture with his "top ten development lessons."

Lesson 10: "DLC doesn't make any money." Outpost Kaloki, a previous NinjaBee Xbox Live Arcade game, had two pieces of paid DLC and both had an 18% attach rate. DLC release has a small impact on full game sales. These numbers skewed by retail disk sales. At one point free DLC downloads more than full game sales. Band of Bugs, another NinjaBee game ("one of [their] least successful games") had six pieces of paid DLC. The lowest attach rate was 1% while the highest attach rate was 19%. Similarly to the Outpost KalokiK DLC, "DLC release had a small impact on full game sales."

"OK - I changed my mind.... DLC only makes money on popular titles." A Kingdom for Keflings, an XBLA game that was the first to use Microsoft XBL Avatars in-game, had two pieces of paid DLC and each had an attach rate of 6% and 7%. Since the game was bigger than NinjaBee's other games, though, that percentage yielded far more overall sales. "Comparable results to [Ninja Bee's] other games" would have had a 30-70% attach rate. "DLC release almost tripled full game sales." "So despite the fact that I told DLC was a bad idea to do financially, I think that it depends on your game. This particular game was a big success so we're going to keep looking at it."

Lesson 9: "MS Avatars get attention but they don't sell games." Despite being the first game to use Microsoft avatars gave Kingdom for Keflings, gamers won't pay money unless the game is good. Fox contrasts A Kingdom of Keflings with Band of Bugs which patched avatars in after release, but "conversion rate improved only slightly."

Lesson 8: "Build relationships with platform holders." Fox elaborates on this saying developers need to "play nice" with their publishers, "make friends," and "help meet [the publisher's] goals." "It's great to be indie and stand up for your principles, but [ you have to be] palatable." Dude goes on to say that making a publisher look good, it helps them a lot and that benefits everyone. NinjaBee then goes on to talk about Doritos: Dash of Destruction, which was a free game that was very good for NinjaBee's relationship with Microsoft. "Microsoft needed it done, wanted it done" and they got to work closely with Microsoft and learn more about the platform and benefited the team in many ways down the line.

Lesson 7: "'No' doesn't always mean 'no.'" Editorial insert: I'm pretty sure you may want to reword that slightly. NinjaBee cites the Band of Bugs level editor, Microsoft said no, but NinjaBee did it anyway, and MS still said "that's really awesome, but you still can't do it." MS drew a penis on the ground with the level editor and then said "that's why you can't do it." NinjaBee kept pushing on the feature over and over, and eventually Microsoft caved and changed their policies so that NinjaBee could ship with the level editor. NinjaBee went through a similar pattern with the greenlight process on their prototype for Ancients of Ooga; it was initially red-lit, but NinjaBee went back and improved on it and eventually got it approved.

Lesson 6: "A picture is worth $1M." "The industry is very visual and people are very visual," he says. "Visuals matter a lot," he says as he indicates that NinjaBee does mock-up screen shots so that the screen "looks like the game." It doesn't matter whether or not the everything in the screen shot is fully in-game or not (and, in the example, it was a pure mock-up) to help sell the look of the game. NinjaBee sold Microsoft on their capabilities of doing avatars in their games with mock-up screen shots. Similarly, Fox says, videos are super important for conveying the purpose and viability of a game.

Lesson 5: "XBLA is 'hit driven.'" Fox points at the best-selling list of XBLA games on the XBLA site. The difference between page one of the best-selling and page two of the best-selling is substantial. "Give it a little bit of extra effort to be that hit can make the difference." I'm not sure that's how it works, personally, but okay.

Lesson 4: Focus testing is huge. "We bring people in, they play the game, [we ask them questions] and we made a lot of changes, then we bring in 'em in again, and we make a lot of changes." Fox says this yields great results and he doesn't "think that's an accident." "We are, as an industry, pretty immature [regarding] trial experience."

Lesson 3: "Plan to go over-budget and take more time." "Now what I'm not talking about is 'add a cushion to your schedule'." Fox says it's still going to go longer than even that cushion and when you go over schedule that you, as the company, "won't die." "Once you've done one and you think you've got it down, guess what? It happens every time." He displays a slide that says: "It doesn't get better on your second game or third game or fourth game, etc."

Lesson 2: "View everything as a sales pitch." He displays a slide saying "It's easy to miss an opportunity to present yourself, your ideas or your company. These opportunities often come at unexpected times." "There's just a ton of places where being enthusiastic about your game can bring you great results."

Lesson 1: "The game industry is always changing." "The rules change all the time. You need to be ready!" the next slide reads. "I don't care if you're sleeping iwth someone at SONY who knows the approval process who can tell you which games are approved and which are not, it'll change." Just because marketing tactics or strategies work for one game does not mean that those same tactics and strategies will work for the next game. "Just know that even if you get good advice does not mean it's good advice next week.

Fox then goes on his "crystal ball" to say that: "Digital distribution is the future. I predict that 4.5less than three years stores taht rely primarily on retail game sales will be out of business or drastically changed." He shows a slide with: "EA - Pandemic - $300M + Playflish = NO GameStop." He quotes John Riccitiello as saying that digital games will "overtake the console market by next year." "2 weeks ago... GameStop CFO quit." Fox then goes on to cite more examples of EA's changed game portfolio as it increasingly shifting to digital games. "However don't despair," he says as he puts up his final slide "Don't let them take over YOUR domain!"




Increasing Our Reach: Designing to Grab and Retain

"Hi, I'm Randy."

Randy Smith from Tiger style games starts off his GDC keynote with an aptly-titled series of slides.


"NOT INDIE." An EA logo is displayed.

"ION STORM." Flashes to a slide with the infamous "John Romero's about to make you his bitch" ad.

"NOT INDIE." An Apple logo is displayed in a bed due to Randy Smith's involvement with iPhone games.

"NOT A KEYNOTE." Image of Sid Meier with a red X over his head.

"WARNING: [hopefully] GOING TO RULE"

"BRIBES." Because why not?

Randy Smith then goes into the design focus of his talk. His focus is: "immediacy with depth;" sucking the player in with the first ten minutes of awesome gameplay that has the depth to retain player over time. He also harps on the fact that he's not trying to change things. And then Randy Smith pokes fun of various Atari 2600 works of Ian Bogost.

"What is indie?" Randy asks, going further to say that it's "about the rules." "Paint by numbers game design" is done in mainstream game design and where the "unique one or two features" that set a game apart fill out the rest. This is in stark contrast to indies where designers figure out what works best for them and their style. Smith makes the point that independent game design does not mean it's bad game design.

"A more powerful indie through better design."

IMMEDIACY: Surface layer appeal. Player can jump in, learn the basics, and start accomplishing goals. Smith then goes through a series of games asking for audience participation with clapping as indie games display on the screen. The games that are displayed are those which excel at both provide immediate enjoyment Canabalt, Flight Control. Randy Smith then details the "affordances" ("stuff you can do") in these games. Crayon Physics Deluxe and Scribblenauts are then displayed on the screen as displays of true affordance.

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor is then presented as a game which utilizes a series of important affordances with respect to immediacy and depth. Strong affordances are a "large impact on the game state." A strong affordance would be jumping between buildings without dying whereas a weak affordance would be jumping up and down. Learning affordances requires minimal effort to experiment with. The design focus is on being forgiving and providing clear feedback to players -- especially early on. World of Goo is then displayed as an example of "juicy gameplay [and affordances]." The entire game works together to provide a clear view of the gameplay and visual style; there is a lot of energy and a lot of attention to detail. Randy Smith shows the iPhone game Gomi and the Nintendo DS game Scribblenauts as games who lack the immediacy necessary for a positive gameplay experience. Scribblenauts is especially notable as it provides tutorial after tutorial after tutorial to show players how to play the game and what happens rather than having players simply playing and discovering the game for themselves.

Randy Smith shows Spider again as an example as to how he and his team improved the immediacy of their game: "minimize clicks until play" and "show player the controls, but let them explore to learn their uses." Spider is presented as putting the player in the game immediately, letting the player screw around with the controls himself, and then, after some time, popping up a tutorial dialogue showing the bare minimum of necessary instruction.

Smith summarizes the concept of immediacy: Controls: Simple intuitive
Affordances strong juicy
Clear feedback clean display
Forgiving high threshold for failure, and/or low cost of failure.
Minimize obstacles to play, let player learn while playing Smith summarizes all of his immediacy rules into the idea of the "Game-Toy." Spider's game-toy is the basic sandbox where all gameplay is present in its simplest form. The depth, Smith elaborates, is the additional bugs, levels, and other content that makes up the body of the game. Smith calls this type of game design approach the "game-toy with depth."

To editorialize for a moment: I don't consider Randy Smith's definition of "depth" in Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor to be content, not depth. Depth, to me, is mechanical in nature.

The idea of "depth on demand" is one which Smith illustrates through the example of level progression in Spider. In Spider, a player can advance through a given level with a relatively low required percentage of bugs "collected" until the next level opens up. The "depth on demand" is that the mastery of each individual level is purely optional for players that seek that out.

Randy Smith then splits gameplay into "Low Level Loop" and "Mid Level Loop." Low level loop is the second-to-second gameplay that players engage in as opposed to the mid level loop being the more high-level strategies and player goals. Smith then indicates that one of the faults of Spider is that the gameplay wasn't really intentionally split the gameplay and structure into these loops. As a result, Smith indicated that Spider (and the game-toy with depth approach to game design) results in somewhat same-y gameplay over time.

"Depth Through Content" is the game design approach of just tossing a large quantity of shallow content at the player. This content is typically in the form of levels, units, and so on that provide more basic gameplay scenarios and situations for players to play through. This content does not necessarily introduce radically new mechanics or anything, but just provides players more opportunities to play through new content. One game mentioned with this design approach if the indie darling VVVVVV. Smith demonstrates this game with his many, many, many deaths.

"Immediacy and Depth from Same Gameplay" is the design approach which combines both immediacy and depth from a small set of mechanics. Tower Defense Games (Fieldrunners is cited) and the iPhone game Galcon are represented as games which have very simple mechanics whose depth evolves out of the depth (content).

Smith surmises his definition of "depth" as: "player skill curve, lots of ways to use affordances, goals worth pursuing, supports different play styles, simulation, [and] mid level play loops." Randy Smith cites the importance of depth as combating the primary detriment of games whose enjoyment doesn't last past ten minutes.

A slide is then displayed with big, bold green text "TWO AWESOME INDIE GAMES." The first game cited is the completely amazing Captain Forever. Captain Forever has a solid low level loop of basic ship combat, but an incredibly strong mid level loop of building ships and seeing those news ships built in real-time (and fighting other similarly identifiable ships). Salvaging parts from destructed enemy ships allows players a very quick feedback loop as they play the game and evolve their ship. The end of the game allows players to look through all of the ships that the player used throughout his life and, during this phase, players can save off certain ships for later use. Randy Smith then displays one of the best, most recent example of depth with immediacy: Spelunky.

Randy Smith wraps up with the fact that "Immediacy of Depth" is just one of many possible game design lenses with which to work with. Also that Derek Yu should make a quarter of a million dollars from Spelunky ("which isn't all that much [...] really, I'm just trying to keep Derek Yu in his place"). Randy Smith also, for some reason, decided to end his speech where he presented the concepts of "depth" and immediacy and went through a few game case studies with a few pot shots at a game like Uncharted 2 for being "the kind of game that [he's] played before."




Abusing Your Players Just For Fun

Hyper-prolific independent game developer Cactus, less commonly known by his birth name of Jonatan Soderstrom begins his presentation with: "why you would want to be mean to your players when you make a game."

Cactus then adds an additional warning to anyone prone to seizures may want to be careful in his speech. Moments later, he spews colors and flashy graphics all over the presentation screens. Cactus then discusses why developers should be "mean" to their players: games are too easy, it's fun for the developer, it provides more freedom in the game design, and in making the design difficult developers will find new players.

Comparing game development to movies, Cactus feels that David Lynch became famous for making very cryptic movies and not letting on to what the movies mean. This requires viewers to go home and reflect on what the movie was about (citing Eraserhead, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway). Cactus then played a clip of the party scene from Lost Highway; you know, the one with the greatest scenes in all of cinema, starting with with the infamous: "We've met before, haven't we?" Oh, that Bill Pullman.

"Give me back my phone."

Cactus then finds David Lynch's closest game industry comparison to be Suda 51's Killer 7 (and, to a lesser extent, the more MTV-inspired No More Heroes). He went on to discuss the influence that El Topo had on Shadow of the Colossus... If Studio Ghibli had also somehow played into the whole equation. Cactus also referenced the Playstation 1 game LSD due to its crazy, edgy imagery.

John Holmstrom's quote which states punk rock is music by people who aren't good musicians but who still like music. Cactus references Klik & Play or GameMaker as a means to make games if you don't have the skills as a programmer necessary to make them. Cactus said he was attracted to this because "you didn't need any coding skills to make a game." Non-programmers could make interesting games if they had the chance to make them. As such, these non-programmers could make interesting games and the games they would like to see be made. This results in games made by people who aren't gamers and, therefore, aren't beholden to the standard design conventions that gamers internalize.

Cactus moves on to talk about developers he feels are interesting. Mark "Messhof" Essen is cited as Cactus' "idol" due to making very hard, simplistic, and strange games. Messhof uses simplistic, symbolic graphics to create a unique universe within the game that can be interpreted by the player. Messhof's Punishment is referenced as a game which disorients the player; the player is also punished for making the slightest error. Cactus highlights the continually changing level orientation and pickup-altering control schemes as a way to mix up the gameplay formula that players are accustomed to. Messhof also references Punishment 2, Randy Balma, More Balma, The Thrill of Combat.

Cactus then goes on to talk about JPH Wachesky, another GameMaker game developer who uses a very unique visual style. Blinking, rotating, patterns, psychedelic imagery are all techniques that Cactus uses to make a "very annoying" visual style for the player.

Logics don't work, outside the box, experiment. Cactus then puts on a game that utilizes logic that doesn't work, "outside the box," and experimentation (as he calls it, "Abusing Gameplay"). The game is like Wolfenstein, except it features arrows on the ground that, if followed, lead you in a complete circle. It is only once you disobey the arrows that you come across a door. "My whole I've been training untill I stand it all. Now I know everything" says the man with the monitor on his head in the game on display. Cactus cites "fresh puzzles," easy development, and "variation" as the reason to use strange gameplay logic.

The next game that Cactus puts on display is a game featuring bunnies that jump along with the player and if the player touches them, the player is killed. It is only once the spikes in the initial stage are used to kill the player character that a stronger secondary character is playable who can just punch through the bunnies. Cactus goes on to display that this strange gameplay logic can lead to scenarios which are "too random" and "too difficult."

Cactus goes on to discuss the the purpose of "insane" difficulty in games; it can elicit unexpected responses from player actions, players (and developers) don't know what's going to happen, and it allows for developers to be very creative in how they work. I Wanna Be the Guy is demonstrated as a game that represents this insane difficulty. The game, Cactus said, is a test of skills, not completely unfair, uses difficulty as puzzles, and it has slapstick atmosphere that combines to make a very good, unique game.

Someone runs up to Cactus and he talks to her, through the microphone, and says "I gotta go? Oh, no problem" and stops the presentation.




GDC 2010 - Day 2

Like every good day, Day 2 began with the sound of the guy in the bathroom of the room adjacent to mine gargling with mouthwash.

San Francisco is one of the most strangely organized cities I've ever seen. It's like the settlers of 1776 were looking around the Western reaches of this new territory, saw this incredibly hilly terrain and thought "this will work." And it does work, it's just hilariously ridiculous looking. Tim, Ian, Scott, and I did the tourist thing early in the day which means, of course, the old school cable cars had to be used. As we traveled up the steep hills of downtown, every single side-street we passed had some sort of gorgeous cityscape to behold. I can't even begin to imagine how much of a ludicrous pain in the ass it is to drive through the city, though.

Of the touristy things that we saw was the home of the 1996 Michael Bay epic cinematic film entitled The Rock, starring Hollywood's Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. Enjoy this tiny iPhone picture of Alcatraz (LOOK HOW TINY IT IS):

So that was fun and stuff. Without a doubt, though, the highlight of this little excursion was Newspaper Man. Newspaper Man was a made wearing a suit made out of the comic strips of newspapers sitting on a lone chair along Fisherman's Wharf. As the four of us were walking by, Newspaper Man said "Why do French people like eating snails?" We all looked at each other, somewhat confused, until Tim said "... No, why?" at which point Newspaper Man triumphantly proclaimed "Because they don't like fast food!". This man was poised to become my new best friend... Until he revealed that his face was covered in clown make-up.

On our way back downtown to pick-up our press passes, I discovered that cable cars are dumb. And they have hard seats.

Going into the Moscone Center for the first time, even though it was almost completely empty when we were there, was definitely something. This is a large building. As I remarked on the enormous size of the Moscone building nearest our hotel, I discovered that it was just one of the building that make up the "Moscone Center." Big cities are a weird thing. And check me out:

And behold the poster boy of the Game Developers Conference:

At night the GameDev.net crew (myself included) all went over to the GDC Kick-Off Cocktail Hour, hosted by SparkPR. It was a rad little shindig and we talked to a bunch of great people, but the most astounding development of the night was the discovery that Tim 'nes8bit' Barnes moonlights as a bit of a poolshark.

The night ended with some of us going to a super random, out-of-the-way Asian Fusion place called SO near the Cocktail Hour. Also an endless bowl of noodles that made anyone serving a dish look incredibly intelligent. Incredibly.

Quote of the night goes to Tim: "I don't own a motorcycle, because then I couldn't drink and drive."




GDC 2010 - Day 1

I'm not much of a traveler. I don't dislike it, I just don't do it much. Going to the Game Developers Conference this year is something I've wanted to do for ages. Back when I started getting involved in game development when I was a tiny little fourteen-year-old kid reading the forums at GameDev.net for ideas on how to make the world's next major RPG. Yeah. I was that kid. I was the super energetic bastard who thought that getting a team of complete strangers together to make this super cool video game was a smart thing to do. And, luckily, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to look at that post while writing this and be reminded at just how dumb I amwas.

So that's a thing.

A group of us got into San Francisco last night around 6:00pm PST, which is especially fantastic given that when entering a new city I'm not entirely unlike an easily-distracted puppy dog attracted to shiny objects and big buildings and people on the streets doing the robot. After Ian, John, and I all rocked BART to our hotel near the Mascone Center, we all met up at an Irish pub for Oscars, drinks, and food. At some point in this there was a guy ghost riding around out hotel who made it two blocks before being arrested by San Francisco's finest. Being a newly-minted resident of Austin, Texas who needed a new driver's license, I have the fortune of displaying my ghetto, out-of-state paper ID as a means to get alcohol. Which means I don't get alcohol. Which means me and San Francisco aren't off to a great start.

These are a bunch of nerds.

The night ended in a befittingly extravagant way: going back to the hotel room and forming my schedule for GDC. Which is reprinted here for filler.

Tuesday (3/9)
Game Design Workshop (all day)

Wednesday (3/10)
This really depends on how my first day with the Game Design Workshop; if the workshop is awesome I'm probably going to rock the second day as well (since the Game Design Workshop is a two day thing). If the Game Design Workshop is not awesome then I'll probably rock the Level Design Workshop (all day thing).

Thursday (3/11) happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birrrrrrrrrrrrrthday to meeeeeEeeEEeeeEEEe, happy birthday to me.

The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design: 9:00am - 10:00am

Uniquely Ruthless: The Espionage Metagame of EVE Online: 10:30am - 11:30am

12:30pm - 1:30pm

Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3
One-Page Designs
What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling: 3:00pm - 4:00pm

Achievements Considered Harmful?: 4:30pm - 5:30pm

The 12th Annual Independent Games Festival: 6:30pm - 7:30pm
The 10th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards: 7:30pm - 8:30pm Friday (3/12)
9:00am - 10:00am
Environmental Narrative: Your World is Your Story
GDC Microtalks 2010: Ten Speakers, 200 Slides, Limitless Ideas!
The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know Is Wrong): 10:30am - 11:30am
Creating the Active Cinematic Experience of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: 1:30pm - 2:30pm
3:00pm - 4:00pm
Designing for Co-Operative Play in an Open World
The Connected Future of Games
4:30pm - 5:30pm
Multiplayer Level Design in Red Faction Guerrilla
Prototyping Based Design: A Better, Faster Way to Design Your Game Saturday (3/13)
I'm not doing much since I'm flying out in the afternoon, but:
Five Ways a Game Can Make You Cry: 9:00am - 9:25am
Designing Shadow Complex: 9:35am - 10:00am
Make 'Em Laugh: Comedy in Games: 10:30am - 11:30am And that was pretty much the first day. Also there's a window in my hotel room bathroom which opens up to a window in the adjacent room's bathroom.




Magnetic Butterfly

Magnetic Butterfly is now finished.

After a development period of about a month and a half spread over the last six-seven months, I'm finally cool with "launching" it. I started working on the game on January 25th/26th while sitting on a couch at my parent's place in Northern Michigan while visiting for a weekend. Further development was done at random spots near Detroit, Michigan. And I'm finishing it while sitting on a bed in my hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The launch is purely symbolic, of course, as the game has been completely open to anyone to try at any point in it's development. This reduces the effectiveness of saying: hey, everyone, here's a game, play it! It did, however, greatly aid in the design and iteration on the primary control scheme, among other mechanics. For a game design that revolved around a very frustration-prone method of controlling the player's character, this iterative development was pretty invaluable. I didn't quite get to the level of input ease as I was hoping for, but it came pretty close to my expectations. I'm still not sure whether messing around with the player's primary control mechanism for a game is a smart design decision or not -- a lot of what I take from this project will be based on post-release feedback -- but it was a fun experiment (even if I don't do something like it again).

This was my first project with Unity 3D and, all things considered, I absolutely loved working with it. It's the best rapid prototyping toolset I've ever come across, the support is superb, it is constantly being updated, and the web plug-in is fantastic. The ability to work on some features in script, alt+tab into the editor, drag-and-drop appropriate objects to link them to the script, and instantly test everything out within a matter of seconds is one of the most astounding development work-flows I have ever come across. I had the basic gameplay for Magnetic Butterfly setup within a matter of days; everything after that was tuning and the addition of some small features here and there. It was great to be able to sit down with my MacBook and make some progress on the game in a matter of minutes; the number of features I developed sitting at waiting rooms across Michigan is actually kind of astounding (almost all GUI features were done at a local Discount Tire).

Despite being an arena-based game design (much like Asplode!), Magnetic Butterfly was my first step to a different approach to game design: a primary idea and mood established from singular concepts and emotions. Rather than the fairly blatant Geometry Wars vibe that established Asplode!, Magnetic Butterfly sprung out of a goal to experiment with a somewhat unique control style (not directly controlling a character capable of doing or taking damage) and a tonal focus on life and death. Forcing myself to adhere to these two criteria made the actual development decisions and the general style direction far easier than I would have ever expected it to be. Whether or not either of these concepts comes through in the gameplay -- and my pointing this out already taints the ability for anyone to judge that "effectiveness" -- is unknown, but for me it was a great aid.

Also, huge thanks to my buddy Josh Jersild for his work on the sound effects and music tracks for the game; these weren't added until very late in the game's development (earlier this week) and their addition really helped the project come together. Also thanks to Goran Grce who, upon hearing me lament my own attempts at modeling a butterfly (and being unable to animate one with my current tools) took it upon himself to hook me up with the perfect model based on some of my provided references.

One decision I made early on was to not bother with multiple graphics settings. I didn't feel this game was large enough to really deal with numerous graphical settings and a bunch of performance tweaks, so I got the game looking and running how I envisioned it and if it didn't bog down my MacBook at any point in the duration of a given game then I gave it the thumbs up. I'd be interested to hear how many people (if any?) have any issues with the technical presentation of the game, as that feedback will impact how I utilize Unity going forward. If a browser game has to deal with settings then, in my book, something is wrong.

All things considered, this has been a super fun project. I never really got tired of working on it and playing it here and there has always been fun for me. The super casual approach to development that I was able to take with Magnetic Butterfly is a testament to the usefulness and power of the Unity feature-set, and although I won't be using it for my next project, I'll definitely be coming back to the engine in the near future.

Going forward I'm going to try out far more focused game projects (using Flixel for the appropriately lower player install overhead) that can be taken from concept to completion in a matter of weeks, but Unity is going to remain my go-to solution for any 3D projects.




Revisiting Halo 3

Bungie's original Halo, released for the Xbox in 2001, was a landmark console game. Aside from giving Microsoft's freshman entry into the console arena a system seller and a uniquely Xbox cultural character, Halo was the best first-person shooter to be released on a console since the days of Goldeneye and Perfect Dark. It had intelligent single-player gameplay consisting of varied enemy encounters in open terrain, solid gunplay, support for 4-16 player local multiplayer, and a perfect control scheme and input response. When Halo 2 was released three years later (with an astonishing increase in visual fidelity over Halo), the campaign remained largely the same but the multiplayer took advantage of Xbox Live and quickly became the multiplayer game of the console generation.

Halo 3's predecessors made for a pretty rough act to follow. Aside from being the first Halo game on a new generation of consoles, what could Halo offer to the series that would have the same gravity as Halo 1's general existence and Halo 2's standard-setting multiplayer? The non-ending, second game in a trilogy sort of ending that Halo 2 had didn't really leave Halo 3 much room as far as story and game universe goes; Halo 3 had to continue the saga of Master Chief, the Covenant, the Flood, the Brutes, and so on. As such, the single-player campaign for Halo 3 was left to gamers' minds as a foregone conclusion: there will be more Master Chief, the loathsome Flood would have to come back, something about Cortana, the come-uppance that the Prophet of Truth has coming, and all of those other story threads that exist within the Halo universe as established by the first two games.

And that's exactly what happened. Halo 3 is the kind of game that everyone expects to be excellent, polished, and all-around amazingly-crafted game experience. And it is. The problem with the single-player portion of the game is just that: it's as expected. The original Halo came out in 2001 and its core design principles are still heavily intertwined into every fiber of Halo 3's existence. It's a game where none of the weapons have an iron-sights aiming mode, where players can run and shoot their assault rifle without noticeably increased bullet spread over standing still or crouching, and where players have one movement speed with no spring or stamina. In some ways, Halo 3 echoes of first-person shooters of yore, which focused on action, cool weapons, and input simplicity. Halo 3's core mechanics are focused in a completely different area than so much of its competition.

What Halo 3 does is to provide a series of wide-open and interesting encounters for players to utilize every strategy, play-style, and tactic they have in order to complete the encounter. Halo 3's best "levels" are not the ones with the most awe-inspiring scripted events or action-packed shooter segments. Halo 3 is at its best when a level is composed of a series of discrete encounters that span wide, open outdoor environments (which is in line with Bungie's "30 seconds of fun" mentality). It's a game about surveillance, execution, and reaction.

When a player first enters an encounter space, the enemies are almost always unaware of his presence. If there are marine AI entities following the player, they will stand still and remain inactive until the player makes his first move. During this time, the player is free to wander around areas which are very clearly outside of the enemy's viewing range. Players can get an idea for enemy groupings and patrols, what kind of weapons they're rocking, any hidden snipers, and valuable mid-battle weapon caches that will be of use once the encounter starts. The caches are particularly of note because regardless of a player's first move: the resulting battle will never end with a swift, tactical execution of actions. Halo 3 is not a game like Rainbow Six where the best room entry is one where all enemies are neutralized simultaneously; Halo 3 is a game where players have to weigh the threat level of every enemy and attempt to take out as many high-threat targets in the first phase to ease the difficulty of the ensuing chaos.

A high-value target in the game is very dependent on circumstance. In some cases, the high-value targets will be vehicles or turrets which, if a player is on foot, are almost always more deadly than any single enemy soldier. In the absence of vehicles, the high-value targets are group leaders. Halo 3's AI is organized hierarchically so in the absence of generally dangerous vehicles roaming the battlefield, the high-value targets for players are the leaders of a group. A group of Grunts will have a Brute as a leader and while that leader is alive, the Grunts are an organized and somewhat formidable arrangement of enemies. Once the leader is dead, though, the grunts are scatter-brained, frightened, and prone to just running away and hiding. I am unsure if group AI exists within a formation of higher-level enemies like Brutes, as later in the game there is a clear "Brute Leader" in a given pack.

Once the player has his plan of attack internalized, the execution phase begins. The player's first action will be to take out the high-threat targets that he noticed during his surveillance; if he's lucky, he can get maybe a fraction of what he had intended (the reality of his plans will become more clear through trial and error). At that point, all of the enemies in the battlefield are actively engaged in combat and will act within their series of groups.

And everything after the initial attempt at execution is, essentially, the reaction phase. When every enemy is in battle, players have to constantly be reacting to the death of squad-mates (who are only sometimes useful), the movement of enemy groups throughout the entirety of the encounter landscape, and the player's own shield. A player's shield can't take much of a beating before it sends players into what feels like a near-death state when the shield bar is flashing red and the player feels like just one more hit would kill them. This is an interesting phase since, really, even up to Heroic level diffculty, players can actually take a surprising amount of punishment in the near-death phase. Halo 3 just makes that phase feel like near death to signal that players need to find cover imminently. At this point players will move from cover to cover -- as Halo 3 is a "loose cover" game unlike the "hard cover" of Gears of War or Killzone -- as they attempt to eliminate enemy by enemy on the battlefield.

Also during the reaction phase is the concern of weapon type, ammunition, and vehicle usage. One of Halo 3's most prominent and important design principles is the focus on player motivation/movement through resource scarcity. Since no single weapon ever really allows players to fully "stock up" on ammunition, every player has the constant goal of finding ammunition or new weapons to use mid-battle. This forces players to adapt a roving point of attack throughout the duration of an encounter. Aside the inherent tension and urgency this gameplay feature adds, it forces players to see an outdoor environment as more of a "level" than simply an unnecessary, although attractive, vista. And the utilization of Halo 3's incredibly fun and well-implemented assortment of vehicles lends an entirely new layer of complexity and replayability to the encounter as a whole.

The entire surveillance, execution, reaction concept is, essentially, the idea behind Far Cry 2 design Clint Hocking's intentionality and improvisation idea (presentations: Intentionality and Improvisation). Which is that a well-done game based on emergent gameplay design allows for players to spend time formulating a plan of attack and then have a given game turn that plan upside down and force the player into a quick improvisational phase (reaction) where he forms a new plan of attack based on his new situation. It's an excellent way of keeping players continually immersed in their combat experience by, essentially, tossing a wrench into the innards of what they thought was a well-laid plan. For most players, the fun of combat isn't having everything go according to plan, but rather adapting to a plan gone haywire as a result of external factors.

Halo 3, like its predecessors, breaks down when this gameplay model is violated for the sake of narrative continuity and "variety." Unlike the complex AI that governs the Covenant forces that players fight throughout most of the Halo games -- the heirarchal AI that is incredibly easy to recognize by any player due to its human-like behavior in combat -- Halo has always had "The Flood" come into the game at some point. The Flood are savage, unintelligent, and incredibly aggressive enemies that follow no real recognizable AI patterns other than: see human then attack human.

This strategy would entail its own set of player strategies and reactions if handled properly, but one of the issues with the Flood in the Halo games is that their introduction into the game world is almost always coupled with terrible, confined, indoor-heavy level design. The most egregious offense of which is the "High Charity" level in Halo 3 where players enter a Flood-invested ship from Halo 2. In this level, the entirety of the aesthetic is an orange, red, and brown-heavy color scheme coupled with thick murky atmospheric effects, and a constantly feeling of claustrophobia. This level is also incredibly confusing to navigate and results in numerous points of player confusion due to a complete dearth of recognizable interior landmarks and an overly organic architectural style which is not conducive to any player-recognizable sense of flow.

The Flood's issues run further than any given level, though. Bungie has valiantly tried three times to make this alien race more palatable to its players, but the issue each time is simple: the Flood are visibly-brainless creatures in a game which has no need for them. The foundation of one of Bungie's most talked-about design principles is the "30 Seconds of Fun." I can't find a definitive reference for this, but the gist of this principle if Bungie can make an encounter or scenario as fun as possible for thirty second bursts, then they can string together those scenarios back-to-back for an enjoyable gameplay experience. If this is the company's approach to Halo 3 -- a game which has a six-to-seven hour long campaign -- why is there the need to add an entirely different enemy type which provides for a completely different play experience more than half-way through the game?

Hypothetically, a game's campaign from a ludological perspective is the slow progression of a player's mastery of the game up through the ending, which is the culmination of all of the player's skills in some glorious ending segment. If we take this as the case for Halo 3, then the player learns the ropes of the game in the first level, runs out of new content for his primary toolbox around the half-way point, and is then required to think about everything he was taught in new, more profound ways as he is pit against increasingly difficult combinations of enemies as he nears the end-game.

The introduction of the Flood is essentially forcing a completely different style of play on Halo 3's players just as those players are interested in taking everything they have learned about the game up to that point into bigger, more dangerous battles. Instead, they are forced to play a simpler, more run-and-gun play style against a variety of enemy who are strong and stupid in some of the game's most uninteresting and traditional level designs. It's a strange, undesirable thing to force upon a player who is, at that point, feeling like they "get" the game and are looking forward to applying their mastery on an entirely new level of encounter complexity.

This is all made worse by Halo 3's treatment of the Flood being a surprisingly complex one. While the basic operations of the Flood are to attack the players with absolutely no care for their own well-being, the Flood this time around -- and I didn't play Halo 2 as much as the first or third game -- are an incredibly dynamic, ever-changing enemy force. There is one Flood enemy that, from its base form of a squirmy, crawling Spore-like creation, can turn into a turret capable of mounting on any floor, wall, or ceiling or, alternatively, can turn into a hulking beast with enormous strength that's incredibly hard to take down. And, while all this is happening, Flood spores are roving around the level looking for new bodies to infest and breathe life into that, but if the player manages to kill all of the spores then there will be less enemies to deal with. It's a completely different type of enemy than the human-like tactics of the Covenant that the player sees throughout the other 80% of the game.

It's hard to definitively say whether or not a Flood-less Halo 3 would have made the ending stretches of the game a repetitive, painful endeavor to complete. At the time of writing, I have played through the entirety of the Halo 3 campaign three or four times and I have played through the gorgeous, intuitive, and and well-paced introductory handful of levels a couple more times than that, so I know my response to that scenario. The Flood levels aside, a number of Halo 3's more wide-open levels (some from the beginning and some from the middle) have always stood out in my mind as being some of the finest examples of what an action game can be if games open up their levels and expand the capabilities of their AI a little bit.




The Power of Powers and Purpose

A number of AAA open-world games were released in the last month and, coincidentally, two of these games are based around the concept of the player's character possessing superhero-like powers amidst a major metropolis. It's the video game industry's own Armageddon/Deep Impact, A Bug's Life/Antz, The Prestige/The Illusionist, etc.. The first of the super-hero games to be released was Infamous (inFAMOUS, technically) and it's a game by Sly Cooper developer Sucker Punch and it puts players in the electrified body of Cole McGrath in the fictional Empire City. Radical Entertainment's Prototype casts players as Alex Mercer, a biological experiment gone wrong whose sole goal is determine what happened to him while unraveling a "government conspiracy." The release of these two games within such a close time frame (mere weeks apart) almost naturally makes for a number of comparisons between the two titles. The two elements I'm interested in are how each title attempts to have its game mechanics and atmosphere inform a player's sense of purpose and how the two games treat their protagonist's powers/abilities.

Infamous' protagonist, Cole McGrath, is boosted to superhero status when an in-game event bestows a host of electricity-based abilities to him. The concept of electricity isn't just a random power that was assigned to the player, though; smartly, Sucker Punch chose to have electricity inform every aspect of the game. Movement through the city is eased by metal electric lines and the rails that define the elevated train track. Metal objects can be electrified to harm enemies who are overly-reliant on metallic cover (and apparently give no regard to the fact that all of their opponent's powers revolve around electricity). Any electric object throughout the city can be used by the player to harvest energy and this concept creates a very reliable cause-and-consequence relationship between what a player thinks would conduct or react to electricity and what would not. Even the feeling that an open-world game will eventually rely on cars or guns is discarded in an opening scene between Cole and his best friend as they discuss why Cole can't drive cars or use guns. What Cole can do, though, is fire controlled bolts of electricity (or a long-range, very precise bolt), "sticky bombs" of electric energy, an electric cannon ball projectile, arc lightning, summon a huge roving thunder bolt capable of destroying everything in its path, and a couple other abilities along those lines. Sucker Punch clearly thought very carefully about their super hero and what he could and could not do and the result is a game that so thoroughly engrosses itself in its premise that, if nothing else, the result is truly impressive.

When a player opens Infamous' ability sheet for the first time, there is a horizontal list of all abilities along the top of the screen (though most are a mystery, as they get unlocked with progression through the story). There are, maybe, a dozen high-level abilities available to the player throughout the game. About three-fourths of these abilities can "level-up" to become more damaging, be more grandiose to execute, or offer new side-effects entirely. Each ability, though, has an entire section of gameplay designed around it when the player first unlocks it. The ability-unlocked section is a bit formulaic taken within the scope of the entire game (as it is executed in roughly the same fashion a handful of times throughout the game), but the purpose of each segment is to both familiarize the player with the basic operations of the new power along with some "advanced uses" before throwing the player into the game proper with it. This section also, though, allows the player to truly integrate the power into his existing play-style; this quickly breeds both familiarity and character.

Prototype doesn't have quite the same focus of intent. Alex Mercer is a character that appears to be the result of a biological experiment gone wrong and has the following abilities: The ability to run and jump up buildings as if they're a typical ground plane.
Automatically-executing parkour when sprinting.
A gliding ability, charged high jumps, and a limited number of air-dashes.
An ability to consume people and take their knowledge/skills.
The ability to take the form of any person that he consumes.
The ability to transform his arms into claws, whips, huge muscular arms, wrecking ball arms, or a giant blade.
Access to devastator abilities which, essentially, create a block-wide genocide via sharp thorns.
A host of melee moves and throws.
A host of air moves like karate kicks (which can take down helicopters) and elbow drops (which can take out tanks).
An ability to generate a shield or transform his body into a layer of armor.
Special vision modes to determining body heat.
The ability to pilot APCs, tanks, and helicopters.
The ability to karate kick a pedestrian and use their dying body as a "surf board" for approximately two seconds.
He can use any weapon -- be it an assault rifle, machine gun, grenade launcher, or rocket launcher -- that the military uses.
Alex Mercer has just a few abilities. The arsenal of powers and moves gets absurd to the point of the game assigning certain abilities to a simultaneous press of the left and right face buttons at the same time. This is, as far as I can think of, one of the most uncomfortable and error-prone button combinations imaginable for the Xbox 360 controller and, yet, it's just one of a few dozen combinations that are meant to be employed in the incredibly fast-paced combat environment that Prototype promotes. A combat encounter with a human enemy lasts anywhere from an instantaneous explosion of gore to about one second (the execution of one ability).

Prototype's problem isn't simply a case of "too much." It's a case of too much, too unnecessary, and too unfocused. This is a game about what is, essentially, a super hero. Why should a player that can karate-kick a helicopter ever need to actually pilot a helicopter? Every move being a charge-able attack is nice for consistency, but almost always unnecessary and flow-breaking. The need for melee combat is minimal after the first half-hour of the game and, consequently, the introduction of a handful of melee abilities alongside abilities which enhance the player's new, devastating arm-blade is confusing. This all results in an enormous libraries of special abilities which seem to want to flesh out individual combat scenarios like Bungie's "30 Seconds of Fun" but, instead, are too scattered and quick to provide players with any real opportunity for the kind of experimentation such an array of abilities and encounters necessitates.

As would be expected, each game handles its approach to civilians/cityscape and a player's interaction with each game's primary narrative differently. Prototype's story is, essentially, about a man who woke up with strange powers one day and is hell-bent on figuring out who was involved, why whatever happened had to happen to him, and what he could do to stop those involved. The story progresses through Alex Mercer's "consumption" of key figures in the conspiracy -- mapped to an interface element called the "Web of Intrigue" -- and getting that person's interpretation or perspective on relevant current events. The player has no agency in the progression of Prototype's narrative and, on top of that, Radical Entertainment focuses pretty heavily throughout the game on this story. The first hour of the game is constantly interrupted by a series of three-five minute cut scenes which jump back-and-forth between disparate events in the game's time line. This is all compounded by what seems to be the most angry, humorless, impatient, and generally unlikable protagonist that I've seen in a video game in years (but he's right at home in Prototype's equally melodramatic, humorless, and angry universe).

The primary theme that runs through Infamous is how the introduction of super-powers into the life of a normal guy, Cole McGrath, affects his outlook on the city and the goals of his future actions. The game is constantly throwing ethical choices at the player that shape the progression of the entire game's atmosphere and high-and-low level narrative. The ethical choices are often silly in their extreme polarity ("do I make dozens of people suffer or have a bit of tar splash in my face"), but the changes in both atmosphere and game mechanics are fantastic. A good Cole will run through the streets and have people snapping pictures of him with their cell phones and talking on their phones to friends saying how crazy it is to see Cole just walking through the streets. A bad Cole will inspire people to run away, throw rocks at him, and so forth. Players can inform their morality progression by blowing innocent civilians up, using civilians as a source for health/energy, healing the sick that adorn the streets, or other various actions throughout the game. There is no real point to ever going good sometimes and bad other times as the game rewards players who go pure evil or pure good, and each path has a surprisingly different play style as players customize their powers. An evil Cole will have far more explosive, bombastic interpretations of the same powers (save one pair of alignment-exclusive powers) as a Good Cole's more subtle, stasis-based versions of those powers.

There are never penalties or anything for harming massive amounts of civilians in either Prototype or Infamous (though all actions have a morality impact in Infamous), but Infamous does one thing that Prototype does not: infuse civilians with personality. In my Good Cole play-through of Infamous, I actually started feeling somewhat bad whenever I accidentally killed/hurt a civilian. For reasons I can't explain, I actually found myself doing penance by running up-and-down streets healing sick people whenever I accidentally killed a group of people with my highly-volatile powers. This is largely due to the effort the game goes through to frame the after-math of the disaster that occurs in the introduction along with the random interactions with civilians that play-out while exploring the city.

In Prototype, there is a mission where you have to drive through the city in a tank. While a player is in this tank, it's impossible to do anything but run over hundreds (yes, hundreds) of innocent civilians and at no point does the game indicate to players that they may be doing something terrible. And, for the most part, the game rarely makes any effort to frame the struggles of a civilian amidst major government and military intervention into a city where an infected group of monsters are tearing through the streets. A civilian in Prototype is nothing more than a tool for the player to consume for a 2-5% boost in health. Due to Prototype's focus on narrative over Infamous, the resulting game for me was playing as an angry, unlikable protagonist fighting for himself with little-to-no care for those around him against an enemy whose portrayal seems to want to invoke both the Nazis and Blackwater at once.

Where Prototype missteps, it feels like Infamous succeeds. Infamous is a much more enjoyable than I would have ever imagined going in. It starts off as an exploration-focused open-world game where players are encouraged to experiment and as it gets further along its narrative progression and the player's ability library expands and his mastery with his powers improves, it smartly becomes more of an action game centered around large encounters. It's a testament to Sucker Punch that each of the game's abilities was unique and useful without ever muddying up the game's central control scheme; every button has a definite and consistent use. Infamous' greatest quality is the focus of its application of the game's central premise, an electrically-charged super hero, to every aspect of the gameplay and game world. It's a pretty stark comparison to the jack-of-all-trades approach that Prototype took, and Infamous is a better game for it.





When I was finishing up what ended up being my second-to-last semester at the University of Michigan, I knew I was going to be a High School English teacher. That was my goal. The forthcoming summer was the first summer since my freshman year that I didn't have to take two terms of summer classes. Since I was already pretty massively in student loan debt, I figured I'd a get job for the summer. The summer after my freshman year, I was scheduled to take an internship as a game developer at Stardock Entertainment but could not accept the job due to a lack of a car of my own (and no money to get one). I ended up working as a game journalist while also doing programming for the University of Michigan's Space Research department. Luckily, though, I was still in contact with friends at Stardock and we ended up organizing an internship for that summer after my senior year.

Now, two years and a few months later, I'm leaving Stardock Entertainment and following a superb opportunity to work as a Game Designer with LightBox Interactive. LightBox is composed of a large portion of members of Incognito Entertainment who, most recently, released the superb Warhawk. And Warhawk is a game that, to a large extent, was the reason I bought a Playstation 3 in the first place. Every single person I've met and talked to at LightBox has been incredibly friendly and amazingly knowledgeable in regards to their work. To say I'm excited about starting there is a bit of an understatement.

One of the unique aspects about taking this job is the opportunity to live in Salt Lake City, where LightBox is currently located, for the next two and a half months and then move to Austin with the rest of the studio to settle down. I have lived in Michigan all my life, so while the move may be sort a sort of logistical nightmare, I'm eagerly anticipating the fact that I get to check out Salt Lake City -- which is gorgeous from what I saw when I was flown out for my inteview -- and then head to Austin just a couple months later. And I'm sure my ferocious tiger cat will enjoy the road trips to each place. I've lived in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area since I came to the University of Michigan six-ish years ago (and have lived all around Michigan before that), so the geographic change alone seems like it will be pretty amazing.

Most importantly for me, I'm incredibly excited to start working in the capacity of a Game Designer as it's a change I've been wanting to make some time. Game design has always been one of my primary interests in the game industry and after working for the last couple of years in a programming-focused position, I'm pretty psyched to get to work in a more creative capacity that more directly impacts the gameplay experience that players engage in. And one of the things that stood out to me about LightBox was the breadth of knowledge and clear passion for games and game design that LightBox's Lead Game Designer, Josh Sutphin, conveyed in my phone interview with him. Which is a good thing because, as anyone who has read this site is aware, I like video games and game design a little bit.

I have had a pretty great time these last couple of years at Stardock. Since I've been here I've worked on The Political Machine 2008, contributed some work to Galactic Civilizations 2: Twilight of the Arnor and Demigod, and put a lot of time, work, and love into Elemental: War of Magic. I have met some truly great people and worked alongside some crazy intelligent developers in the process, and I'm extremely thankful for the opportunity to work here. Had Stardock's Vice President not suggested that I take an internship here way back in January 2007, I would probably be an English teacher right now.

So, I have about three and a half work days left at Stardock. And as I go through my final week in Michigan for the foreseeable future, it's really strange to be making such a major change. I'm packing a small amount of absolute necessities for the temporary stay in Salt Lake City (so, you know, clothes, consoles, computer, cat) and "looking forward to" what is probably a twenty-four hour drive spread over three days across one giant freeway through the middle of the country.

And, yeah: crazy excited.




Challenge in Games: Everyone Hates Nathan

Resistance 2 is a first-person shooter which doesn't seem to understand what era it was released in. There are moments in the game where a player, in the role of Nathan Hale, is walking through a forest, the screen will shake and some loud footsteps will occur for about a second, and then an enemy will break out of his camouflaged state and deal one brutal swipe to the player, killing him instantly. There are platforming segments where falling in the water (water that can be swam in) will result in instant death due to an invincible alien dolphin that eats players. Worse than all of this, though, are the numerous combat encounters where the game will attempt to constantly "raise the stakes" by throwing more and more varied enemies at the player at once in a large set-piece battle. One big, bad, challenging spider robot was done an act earlier, so now the player will be tasked with killing three big, bad, challenging spider robots all whilst killing the various grunt enemies that litter the battlefield. Once spider robots one and two are down and the rocket ammunition is gone, then the final spider robot must be killed while swatting off drones that hover around the "safe area" that seem to do more damage than most of the other enemies in the game. There may or may not also be aliens using a weapon that can shoot through walls, making any cover from the spider robots and the dozen drones useless.

There has always been a fine balance in gaming and game design between challenge and frustration. As game designers, we want our players to constantly feel like their personal level of expertise within the confines of a given game or genre is always put to the test without allowing the player to fail that test (or at least to fail it often). If a player is playing a game as intended and isn't missing some fundamental gameplay principle or mechanic, we don't want to frustrate that player for playing the game as intended. The ideal scenario is that we want to challenge gamers, not frustrate them.

Challenge is a term that the gaming and game development collective all use and practice, but is theoretically relegated to some nebulous understanding. Challenge is the intentional introduction of gameplay forces that work against player progress as a means of encouraging skill growth or adding meaning to player achievement. If challenge is thought of as a force that impedes player progress for purposes that are beneficial to the player, then a primary reason would be enforcing a certain skill requirement that forces players to either learn new mechanics or think of new strategies of play. Designers don't want players to necessarily feel like they're better or smarter than the game at all times, or else we're ruining a player's sense of interest or accomplishment by constantly diminishing the meaning of their actions. And since challenge is the intentional introduction of frictional forces between play and progress, frustration can be a byproduct of the unintentional or undesired application of challenge elements into a game.

In Resistance 2, the player's progress through the game is marked by increasingly more "epic" set-piece battles where the game attempts to out-do its earlier efforts. This boils down to there being more and more varied enemies in a given battle that generally takes place in an increasingly large arena of battle. This is not in and of itself a problem for the player; in fact, it's generally an accepted method of progression to task the player with increasingly more dangerous and difficult scenarios as he makes his way through the game. The main issue with Resistance 2 that makes these set-piece battles is that enemy awareness for the player's presence completely defies expectations in its sensitivity and focus. When a player enters a major battlefield passively or peacefully in an attempt to get to cover before taking major action then his perceivable consequence would be one where all battlefield actors continue what they were doing when the player entered the arena -- if an enemy was attempting to kill one specific allied unit, that enemy would continue to engage in this activity. When a large quantity of enemies actively appear (because appearance is what matters, if a player does not and cannot know the reasoning for an action then it is irrelevant) to break off their current activities in order to target the player, the game instantly becomes an consequence-defying experience.

Theoretically, the distinction between challenge and frustration is pretty clear: challenge is good, frustration is bad. Practically, the difference between the two concepts is anything but pronounced and can either be a result of poor balancing and design or simply a player who has an unexpected style of play that the game is unable to course-correct. In the case of Resistance 2, the frustration comes out of a game which relies on cheap enemy tactics to unnecessarily supplement the intrinsic difficulty of the scenarios that the game supplies.

Do games still need need to be difficult? A great deal of the up and coming game developers and designers, myself included, are of the mindset that the games we all grew up playing are more intentionally challenging than a majority of current games. This is kind of a straw man in and of itself solely due to the fact that anyone who was around to play the games ten or twenty years ago has undoubtedly increased their gaming skills over ten to twenty years of playing games. Though, with that said, there is a still a truth the claim: older games were harder, but not necessarily because they were more challenging. Take the beginning of Super Mario Bros., the NES original, as an example. The very first few seconds of the game charge the player with bypassing a goomba enemy. Within the scope of the game, this event requires the most trivial of actions by the player, but if, for whatever reason, a given player was having a hard time bypassing this enemy and died three times, then the game was over. If the player died twice and had one left, then that player's progress through the rest of the game is going to be more difficult than a player who progresses past that first goomba with all three lives. Should the game be challenging because one player didn't know the necessary gameplay mechanics and lost one of his starting three lives in learning that he has to jump over or stomp on the goomba to pass a certain area?

The concept of giving a player a finite number of "lives" with which to progress through a game has gone by the wayside for genres of games that don't intend to thrive on a sense of retro gaming or nostalgia as part of their appeal. In general, this is for the best. Arbitrarily limiting a player's attempts at gameplay progression (a concept born out of coin-operated arcade machines) is a design ideology that is no longer required to challenge players and, instead, simply frustrates players. Games that requires players to manage lives, eventually, caused players to continually abandon their progress through a game because they could get past a leg of gameplay without losing one of those finite lives that would come in handy later in the game. If we're making a game that aims to challenge players, this is not behavior that we want to have challenged. We want to challenge a player's skill at the game, not their ability to perfect an early leg in the game so that they had more attempts at later levels or bosses.

A lot of games are attempting redefine the way in which players are challenged. Far Cry 2 encourages player experimentation amidst challenging scenarios by offering the player an in-game buffer through a mechanic that allows a player's "buddy" to rescue him/her when on the brink of death (thus eliminating the player's need to reload or restart from a checkpoint). The recent Prince of Persia game eliminates death entirely and the challenge in the game comes from performing a series of gameplay elements more fluidly. Fable 2 allows players to die but instantly resurrects them, creating, as Jonathan Blow coined it, faux-challenge. Flower makes a player's actions important and meaningful purely through the way the player reacts to the game world and the sense of flow that is earned through skillful gathering of flower petals; the game does not even provide the player with a failure state.

Challenge is not a bad quality of games, but it's given the success that the aforementioned recent games have had at changing player perception of challenge it is not a quality that all must possess. The worst way to foster player creativity and experimentation in games is to actively work to punish them when they go off-script. There is no reason that games should attempt to limit a player's ability to progress simply because that's how designers and players are trained to think of games. By rethinking the way that games challenge gamer skill, new attempts at making a player's interactions with their games meaningful can arise.




Magnetic Butterfly Progress

After I finished up with the second gameplay section of my Call of Duty 4 level, I decided that Magnetic Butterfly would probably only take a few more weeks of work to get to a decent place. I don't intend to finish it during this development sprint, but my goal is to work on most of its gameplay mechanics and systems and get the game, as a whole, to a relatively feature-complete state where most of the rest of the work will lie in making some new assets -- since most of the game is place-holder right now -- and tweaking various object properties and physics.

As it stands right now I have the proper game flow in the game and working (main menu to game to game over back to main menu), the player can die when the life bar runs out, enemies will damage the player, point spheres will damage the player, and there is a pretty basic score-keeping and combo/multiplier system in place. At this point, the work on the game is a matter of finishing various systems, polishing others, and fixing various physics bugs that are cropping up after a player dies or a new game is started. I'm currently focusing on two primary features right now, one of which is the feedback that the player experiences when he/she is hit and when he/she uses the wrecking ball on any one of the game entities. There is the purely kinetic feedback that the player can see whenever a collision occurs, but that's not really enough. Despite it kind of doing against the more minimalist style that I've been aiming for thus far, I'm currently just tossing in some particle sprays that will emit from the point of a collision and then collide with the world geometry over the course of five-to-ten seconds. I really am digging the the look of these particle sprays as they collide with the arena plane and persist for a few seconds. When I was brainstorming some of the visual styles for Magnetic Butterfly, I really was aspiring to have something akin to the flow and tranquility that Flower presents through the game's beautiful grassland; the combination of flowing grass blades and simplistic particle sprites was gorgeous. It just wasn't something that fit in with the scope of this game's development, but the feedback particles that will persist for about ten seconds really remind me of that early goal.

As of right now, one of each type of enemy is being spawned into the game arena when a new game starts, but no more will be spawned in. The other focus right now is getting in the enemy spawning and gameplay segment "rating." There are four enemies: anger, envy, sadness, and sloth. Anger is a fast-moving enemy that is focused on attacking the player. Envy attempts to knock the point spheres out of the arena on its own. Sadness slowly moves around with no real goal in mind. Sloth just... Well, it sits still.

A session of Magnetic Butterfly is designed to last for a finite amount of time (this is not in yet either as I'm waiting on my friend to do the musical track for it), so in that mindset I'm splitting the gameplay into discrete sections. The player is rated on their performance for each section and the number and type of enemies that spawn are entirely dependent on that player performance. If a player does a great job for a given section, then anger and envy enemies will be prevalent. If a player does poorly, the sloth will spawn. If a player falls off the edge a lot, sadness will spawn. This may be an unnecessary design, but it's one I grew kind of attached to during the early phases of the game and am looking forward to getting into the game to see how it plays out. The player's performance will be displayed as a histogram in the "Game Over" screen (or, maybe, somewhere in the main game UI but I'm doubting that).

One of the aspects of the game that I'm constantly tweaking and rewriting are the core player movement mechanics. The concept of the game is a butterfly attached to a giant wrecking ball, so some degree of unwieldiness is to be expected, but I don't want the game to suffer as a result of this mechanic. My best estimate as to how to do this is to make the manipulation of the butterfly itself pretty simple and responsive and to lay the burden of difficulties on getting the ball rolling (so to speak); once the ball is moving along with a decent force, the magnetism should be able to ease the player input significantly. The biggest problem with this whole situation right now is the tail that connects the butterfly to the ball; it's either too stiff and inhibits player movement or its too loose and stretches like a weak rubber-band.

Anyway, I'm constantly updating the publicly-available build of the game, so feel free to try it by clicking the link below. Any feedback is appreciated. There should actually be a proper site for Magnetic Butterfly going up at some point in the next few weeks too, so that's rad.

Play Magnetic Butterfly!




Early "Escape"

Over the course of the last month I've been juggling a few projects, one of which is Magnetic Butterfly which I have already discussed a bit (and isn't my primary project for the time being). I have also been working as a designer and consultant on an as-of-yet unannounced iPhone game that, hopefully, I can talk more about a bit later.

My primary project lately has been the design and implementation of a mission for Call of Duty 4. The mission is called "Escape" and it places the player in the position of waking up in a holding cell within an enemy-controlled building. The door to the cell has been left open and a silenced USP pistol has been left on the dresser. From there on out, the player simply has to escape the city as a war wages around him. Once I got comfortable with the development tools and realized what kind of scope I wanted to shoot for, I drew up a basic level sketch in SketchUp:

When I started working on the mission, I knew I wanted the first gameplay segment to be a sort of "stealth" segment; the player is unexpectedly let loose in an enemy-held building, so it made sense to allow him the element of surprise. Once the player passed through the two stories of this building into the streets of the city, then the mission would get more intense pretty quickly (especially as a siren will ring out once the player makes it out into the open or makes too much noise escaping the building). At this point, the player's progression through the city uses a large communications tower as a visual anchor amidst the cityscape. The assumption for getting to the communications tower, in this case, is that the player was part of squad of soldiers tasked with taking the communications building and that getting there was his best course of action.

Coming off of a bunch of level work with Unreal Tournament 3 (I released an alpha of DM-Artifact a couple weeks ago), I was looking forward to getting used to a game toolset that was geared towards single-player design. I loved Call of Duty 4 something fierce, so when I first found out that Infinity Ward released the game SDK (allowing for map-making with CoD4Radiant and scripting) I was kind of confused as to why I haven't heard anything about people utilizing it for single-player mission and levels and such. I figured there wasn't much of an interest in making custom single-player content for PC games outside of Epic's crazy mod community. And, while that may be a great deal of it, the main problem with the Call of Duty 4/5 toolset -- coming from a crazy amount of resources with Unreal Editor 3 and its amazing community -- is the lack of much documentation or a community presence. The Infinity Ward Wiki was a good resource for about an hour's worth of introductory material (with no screen shots, which were pretty heavily relied on by the text), its scripting resources as far as single-player AI, enemy spawning, and so on are non-existent. A few days later I found Treyarch's Wiki for creating content and missions for Call of Duty: World at War which, thankfully, shared a lot of the same principles and ideas as Call of Duty 4. Unfortunately, though, while important topics such as color groups are covered, the reinforcing of color groups is left with an incredibly mean tease.

And to compare scripting in UnrealEd versus scripting with Call of Duty 4 (granted, one makes a light bulb flicker and the other is guiding the entire flow of a level, but let's not split hairs here):

Despite all that, though, I really enjoy working with the Call of Duty 4 toolset once I'm able to put some facts and processes together on my own. And I manged to get some surprisingly decent work done on the first two legs of gameplay in "Escape." The Call of Duty 4 desktop screen shot on the right (above) actually shows the level as it exists in the editor now, and here are some stills. As a note, I am focusing on general design and shelling of the level right now so while there are objects in these rooms, they are all objects relating to gameplay. I won't make a proper detailing pass of the level until I have the whole thing "finished" as far as its gameplay is concerned. This is a verbose way of saying that things are kind of ugly right now.

And here's a bit of gameplay footage from the first few minutes of "Escape" (which I couldn't seem to embed into this entry): ">CoD4 Escape - First Two Gameplay Segments.




An Economy of Fun

The average video game, as it is thought of by both mainstream culture and even most gamers, is a heavily-authored gameplay experience with a discrete beginning, end, and climaxes strewn haphazardly about. At this point in the life of the video game, gamers are essentially conditioned to think of games as self-explanatory adventures with a very specific premise, purpose, and linearity. On a fundamental level, the way that gamers approach progression and purpose in a game like Call of Duty 4 is the same way that gamers did back in the mid-1980s as a pudgy plumber tasked with saving a princess. In Call of Duty 4, the set of tools will change from mission to mission, but the player will continue along a carefully-scripted path with intent and focus until that mission's terrorist princess is found and rescued/executed. This method of game design essentially keeps the gameplay bound to the whims of a script or plot, but it provides its players with very well-crafted and well-paced entertainment.

The gaming industry has taken a number of its cues from film. This is not a slight (in the slightest); as an initial influence for narrative form, gameplay pacing, and general presentation, the role of movies have played a significant part in the development of video games. A number of the industry's most popular and enjoyable titles have a great deal of cinematic qualities to them, one of which is the Call of Duty series. Call of Duty has always given players very tightly-designed set piece battles interspersed with in-character/perspective narratives in a manner which, for the very first title in the series, seemed heavily influenced by HBO's Band of Brothers miniseries. Then there are games like Quantic Dream's Indigo Prophecy and forthcoming Heavy Rain which place the foundation of their game design on emulating the experience of cinema through a very limited and constrained set of player actions. These games are, quite literally, interactive movies that ideally take the best aspect of a movie and combine it with the most enjoyable features of a video game. In practice, these games are typically interesting for a single play-through (if that) and allow for minimally-interactive gameplay over a sub-par cinematic experience.

Emergent gameplay is a game design methodology which severs the gameplay management power of narrative, making a video game and its narrative presentation more in line with the benefits of an interactive medium. It is a method of game development which allows game designers and developers to craft a game world and a set of rules and constraints by which a player's actions are governed. The thought (and hope) is that a unique and consistently fresh and interesting game will spring within the game world from the mechanics by which it is governed. The impetus for this is that a game which is governed by its mechanics (and maybe its micro-narratives) is one which serves to empower its players and inspire creativity through experiment. This stands in stark contrast to having the will of a designer govern the path and intent of the player on a situation-to-situation basis, an emergent or open game design places the player within a world to define and experience their own fun.

A game which is wholly designed around the power of dynamism and emergent mechanics is one where a player is his own gameplay experience director; a player manages pace, narrative, difficulty, and any number of other components which make up the specific game. The game's designers abandon total authorship in favor of promoting interaction through player creativity and experimentation. In order to make this methodology work, though, a given game must have a thorough system of game mechanics which has the ability to actively promote and encourage player interaction in meaningful ways while dynamically balancing the game world. It is, in a sense, an economy or ecosystem of "fun." It's an approach to game design which results in a true gaming sandbox, turning the game into what is classically understood to be a "toy" rather than a video game. The difference between these two terms can be seen as nothing more than a linguistic bait-and-switch, but there are some who consider the contrast to be a legitimate differentiation: a video game is a game which provides discrete objectives in a traditionally authored manner and a toy is an interactive sandbox with "no real point."

Labeling a video game as a toy (which often seems to be used in a derogatory sense) then leads to the informed sect of the gaming mass asking: where's the game? This is a question that serves as a plague for the existence of truly open-ended games like Keita Takahashi's recent Noby Noby Boy. Noby Noby Boy, quite literally, gives its players a playground in which gamers can just experience the game mechanics working in harmony with each and the game world as a whole. If you're unfamiliar with the game, I suggest ">watching a random person play around with the game (the game's site is unique as well). It's almost completely incomprehensible, but it's clear that that the game has some sort of ecosystem in which the player is an agent of... destruction? The purpose and intention of the player's character erm--thing is left entirely up to the player's discretion. Noby Noby Boy is, in this sense, one of the truest examples of a dynamic, emergent game design; however, there is no proper economy of gameplay mechanics. It's a playground where there is no repercussion for player wrong-doing, no presented reasoning for advancement, no rewards for experimentation beyond the absurdity of the basic situation; in short, there is no real reason to play or continue playing Noby Noby Boy. And that's a problem.

Video games aren't toys, but video gaming as an entertainment medium already present players with a number of toy-like qualities such as the promotion of player creativity and experimentation such as the kind of player ingenuity that flourishes in the confines of something like Spore's creature creator. Games can also provide an open playground for entertainment like the aforementioned Noby Noby Boy or, for an example that is representative of the traditionally-held notion of a video game, Real Time World's Crackdown. The problem lies with the fact that video games are not toys. Toys are something that are real, persistent, easily accessible, and provide an instant gratification and tactile response for people. People of all ages are drawn to the allure of toys, especially ones which inherently promote creativity such as LEGO and Play-Doh; there is no complex instruction manual (unless you're going for a specific LEGO model) or no confusing interfaces or control mechanisms, the toy is just there for playing. Games have no such luxury of simply existing in our common, shared physical space; they're complex pieces of software that are designed to be as entertaining as possible but typically have a high barrier of entry in terms of console or PC hardware, monitor or television, controller or keyboard/mouse, and the actual twenty-to-sixty dollar game itself. And after all of this, it's not enough for a game to simply present itself as a toy.

Where the completely open-ended gameplay of Noby Noby Boy went wrong is in its inability to present its players with meaning, purpose, and profundity. This is an area where the cinematic influences in video games have very positively influenced game design: the message model of meaning. Constructing a game world governed by the most well-balanced system of mechanics and then filling it with all manner of interesting micro-narratives will mean absolutely nothing on its own. A player can approach that world with no semblance of emotion or purpose and subvert the intention of every developer and designer on that hypothetical game's development team because that player has no reason to willingly submit himself to the game or become immersed in its world. It's in following a cinematic method of storytelling, then, that games have squeezed out their model of narrative presentation. Which is a topic unto itself, but the notable aspect for this piece is the way that cinematic storytelling imbues meaning on a player's actions in games.

Consider Naughty Dog's recent Playstation 3-exclusive action/adventure game Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. In a lot of ways, it's a very safe, by-the-books game. It has a scruffy-looking and witty main character, his older and more experienced wise-cracking sidekick, and a cute and precocious romantic interest. In this game, the trio are involved in a multi-locale trek to uncover the secret of Sir Francis Drake's fortune and the whole story has this very Indiana Jones-like atmosphere and whimsy to it (despite the main character killing thousands of people over the course of the day). What was remarkable about Uncharted was not its plot or its gameplay, but rather it was the game's ability to infuse its entire cast of characters with more personality than most games ever approach for even a single lead character. Every cut scene in Uncharted was a reward for the player completing a segment of gameplay and these cut scenes expounded on the life and depth of each character in such a way as to continually build upon each character's meaning and contribution to the game. Every time a cut scene aired in the game, the player was drawn a bit more into the world of Uncharted through the game's leading man and woman. And when the player is drawn more to his in-game avatar, every in-game action is more impacting, every scenario is more meaningful and understandable, and the integrity of the game design is strengthened.

At this point, the goal becomes allowing for the creation of an open-ended game with its emphasis placed on the emergent scenarios produced by its game design to reflect the same sense of meaning and purpose in its dynamic sandbox as a game as heavily authored as Uncharted. To a large extent, Maxis had a great deal of success with The Sims series in this regard. The Sims games are primarily sandbox gaming experiences that charge players with the sole goal of running a successful household of sims. These games have the mechanics to promote a game design which consists of surprisingly deep strategy gameplay while simultaneously allowing players to treat the game as nothing more than a high-tech doll house. The Sims manages to create exigent circumstances solely through the nature of its source material: if there's something that every gamer in the world understands, it's the pressing needs and minutiae of the daily life of a human being.

The Sims fosters the kinds of player narratives that, as of now, are the most intriguing form of narrative to be told within the gaming medium. That is, if we as game developers don't want to rely on the method of storytelling dictated by years of film and cinema, then fueling a dynamic narrative that is left up to a player's interpretation may be the best option. With the exception of maybe a really well-done cut scene here and there, the most memorable aspect of games that players tend to take away are of the "scored the winning goal in the last remaining seconds" variety. These are stories that players can construct from in-game events and mechanics that may or may not line up with what a design would expect a player to experience. In a game like The Sims, a designer would anticipate a player growing attached to one of his sims and then that sim dying from a chance oven explosion in the kitchen. What a designer may not necessarily expect, and what a player would potentially find endlessly hilarious and intriguing, is that a player can starve a sim to death by isolating a sim from the rest of the family and then going into building mode and build walls around that sim and isolate him from the in-game resources and social growth he needs to survive.

If only it was simple to "open up" existing game genres and fill them with an economy of self-balancing game mechanics. Far Cry 2, for example, has some of the most brilliantly designed and implemented combat I've seen in a video game in years. Players are given their tools of destruction and then are, in the short term, tasked with the elimination of enemies. The game populates the world with various factors: grass, huts, ammo depots, propane tanks, and so on. The way that combat unfolds is dependent on all of the game's mechanics working together to create a dynamic, unpredictable combat scenario that generates a player narrative that is a combination of what the game's designers intended and what the net yield of the system of game mechanics created while the player worked to resolve the combat situation. And as well as Far Cry 2 worked to create these emergent gameplay experiences, the game took an enormous development team years to create; over it's forty-three months of development, the team size peaked at 65 people for year one, 105 for year two, and an astonishing peak of 268 individuals for the third and final year of the game's development.

Does an emergent game design work on both a small and a large level? Noby Noby Boy, despite its inability to create intent and purpose, works as a very well-designed playground where its players can just experiment with a working ecosystem of mechanics. As this model of game progression scales upwards, though, the challenge in properly developing, balancing, and testing is sure to rise at a far faster rate than that of a more traditional game.

Putting the reality of development complexity and cost aside, the real question becomes: do players really want the power (responsibility?) to play a game and determine what they find fun within a given playground? Video gaming's adoption of a cinematic flair for storytelling has led to games which possess a number of movie-like qualities, but no one would ever argue that a game like Call of Duty 4 is bad or not enjoyable because of it. For the high price of an average game, though, we should be offering players more than a heavily-authored single-player campaign that is only interesting for one play-through.




Resident Evil 5

In Resident Evil 4 there is this great feeling that you're going to have to face an enormous giant (El Gigante) as you explore one particular area of the game. Eventually, El Gigante makes his appearance in the middle of a rainy night filled with thunderstorms. As Leon Kennedy runs from tiny shack to tiny shack, each one being swept effortlessly aside by El Gigante, the player begins to contemplate the futility of shooting this enormous, hulking monster with a pistol.

In Resident Evil 5, El Gigante appears once again. This time around, Chris lets loose with his mounted machine gun while Sheva unleashed a torrent of bullets with her minigun. Both characters are confined to these Jeep-mounted turrets and cannot move. Dodging El Gigante's atacks is now a mere quick-time event.

The Resident Evil series has been a mainstay of the game industry since the original Resident Evil was released for the Playstation in 1996. Since then, the series has spawned eight additional games (not counting remakes/re-releases), three live-action movies with Milla Jovavich (the best video game inspired movies that have been made to this point), and one awful CG animated movie. As I read up on information about the series before writing this piece, I discovered there was also a movie released in Japan in 2000 entitled Biohazard 4D-Executer. This movie had a budget of approximately $10,000. It exists on the Internet.

Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2 are both considered to be the shining stars of the series' early years. The predominant method of character control in these early Resident Evil games was a model where all input was handled from the character's perspective despite the player's view being dependent on fixed, cinematic camera angles that were dependent on a given environment or scene. This worked stunningly for the time but as anyone who has played the games recently can tell you: it doesn't hold up. And Capcom realized this after the release of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, and Resident Evil Zero, so they gave the series a little nudge in a more modern direction with 2005's Resident Evil 4. Resident Evil 4 was a long game, especially by the series' standards, but it was remarkable for its superb gunplay, entirely new setting, and enemies. More than any of that, though, Resident Evil 4 was a game that truly understood itself and had a pace and atmosphere that comes from such a profound understanding of its own design.

In the list of mechanics or changes that I thought Resident Evil 4 needed in order to make it a better game, you would not find any of the following: enemies with AK-47s, enemies on motorcycles, an abundance of daylight, turrets, a cover system, or a game design that placed cooperative gameplay at its forefront. Clearly, Capcom's idea of Resident Evil 5 was markedly different from my own.

The African setting for Resident Evil 5 is one which could have worked in the series' favor so well. It could have imparted feelings of loneliness, despair, and weariness with a setting of a ravaged African village filled with a not-quite-zombies-but-not-quite-people-either populace. This fictitious game could have gone for the harrowing, conflict-ridden setting that a game like Far Cry 2 chose to have, focusing on the natural beauty of the environment while, at the same time, letting its inherent danger and desolation be the primary atmospheric qualities that are never explicitly called out.

The African setting for Resident Evil 5 is one which is almost entirely devoid of Africa. The introductory village (and the level or two immediately following it) are the only hints whatsoever that the game takes place in Africa. After that players are treated to an oil foundry, ancient ruins, a giant tanker out at sea, a volcano, and so on. Resident Evil 5 is a video game with a lot of sunlight, an almost entirely black cast of enemies, and very little environmental meaning or significance. The constant presence of sunlight (a big deal for the series) doesn't, by itself, diminish the atmosphere and tension of the game, it just does nothing to help the dearth of "mood" conveyed through the sorts of locales and levels that oodles of video games have done to death.

Maybe atmosphere and purpose aren't of paramount concern for Resident Evil 5. This a game that sends its players into an African village with little purpose or reason, just that a fictitious military group is staging some sort of mission there. Players are then introduced to an aggressive pair of presumably infected humans shoving a parasite into someone's mouth, then witnessing that person's transformation into an angry, angry, infected person-thing. About an hour and a half later, players are put onto the back of a vehicle, given a turret, and tasked with blowing up legions of these infected humans on motorcycle and trucks. Why am I being attacked by this enormous throng of angry, infected Africans? Why am I even progressing forward? A vacuous, video-gamey reason is later presented, but the player's motivations for progression are never particularly interesting (Resident Evil 4's storyline was far from great, but it imbued a sense of purpose and reason). Players are often ushered from one act to another and one setpiece to the next.

Resident Evil 5 also does a lot to promote a chapter-by-chapter progression method; there is no longer a mid-mission checkpoint where players can anticipate cool new items through interaction with the Resident Evil 4 item dealer ("What a'ya buyin?"/"What a'ya sellin'?"). Players are now given a very meagerly-presented inventory and item purchase screen in-between missions or after deaths instead of a neat way of integrating this gameplay mechanic with the game world. This change from RE4 to RE5 is a seemingly superficial one, but when playing the game it reinforces the chapter-by-chapter progression rather than a natural evolution of the story and gameplay. There is also less for players to look forward to mid-mission; there may be a random piece of loot or a new weapon amidst the level architecture, but there is longer the assurance in a player's mind that "Hey, there should be the item dealer guy coming up sometime soon!"

Despite all of these criticisms, Resident Evil 5 still has enough of what made Resident Evil 4 fun to play to end up being an enjoyable, if uninteresting, game. As a pretty big fan of Resident Evil 4, that's about the best thing that can be said about the game. The control scheme, a subject which received a great deal of flak, works excellent within the context of the game and is one of the things that makes the core gameplay unique.

There are some "unforgivable" missteps that the game makes which are not particularly interesting to talk about, but fun to condemn, though. The foremost amongst these grievances is the one bit of fuel that the control scheme folks can add to their fire. The last couple of acts in the game feature, quite predominately, average (and boss) enemies that can utilize firearms. One of these is the minigun boss from Resident Evil 4 who is a challenging opponent the first time you see him and the subject of extreme rage when he brings along his own cooperative friend for the second bout. The worst of the firearm wielding baddies, though, are the grunts who are capable of wielding AK-47s. Resident Evil 5 expects players to utilize a cheaply-implemented cover system to take out these enemies and it is at these moments that the game calls attention to the fact that the control scheme is not from Gears of War. It is during these frequent end-game battles where gamers will be, in my mind, right to chastise the inability to move while firing because that's the kind of gameplay these moments in RE5 encourage.

Resident Evil 5 is at worst when it draws attention to its attempts at recreating the memorable moments of Resident Evil 4. Or when it wants to bring more Gears of War to Resident Evil 4. In my eyes, that you can tell your friends about "that Chainsaw guy" or "that big giant dude" is the biggest criticism that can be thrown at the game. It's imitation through recreation without meaningful innovation while tossing in a constant real or AI buddy at the player's side.

Actually, no, the fact that you can tell your friends there is more than a single turret sequence in the game is the largest criticism that can be tossed at the game.

And the abundance of quick-time events.




The Game Industry's Twitter

So, I'm on Twitter.

I'll assume for the moment that you've never heard of Twitter. First, that would mean that my mother has beaten you to knowledge of something related to technology. More to the point, though, Twitter is a service that connects people and limits communication between them to 140 characters per message -- no more. Beyond that, it's hard to find a decent explanation of what the service is actually used for.

As a result, mentioning Twitter will often yield a response best qualifies as a loathsome "Why would I care about what someone is eating for breakfast or when they are taking a shower?" Mentioning Twitter to someone familiar with the service, though, will often yield a surprisingly positive response. In my informal and completely non-empirical study, I've talked to people who have embraced Twitter as a simple, informal means of communication with people that were loathe to utilize other "revolutions" in social networking like MySpace, Facebook, and so on. The primary difference between Twitter and these other services is the informal and simplistic nature of adding new people to your feed; adding someone new isn't a major commitment, you don't have to worry about protocol for "following" them (your follow list is a list of people you'd like to see updates from). If you follow someone, unless they disable the feature, they'll get an e-mail saying that you have followed them and then that person can look at the kind of updates you write and decide for themselves if they want to reciprocate.

A quick usage note: there is a tendency for people to follow anyone who follows them out of courtesy; I recommend against this as a blind rule. As soon as you start adding people who write about what they're having for lunch or what color the sky in their neighborhood is in the morning, the usefulness, and subsequently your enjoyment, of the service will start to dissipate. Twitter's purpose is highly dependent on what you, as the user, want to make of it. If you add everyone you can in a rush to try and increase the number of people you're following with the hope that people will suddenly follow you and you will have made your experiment with the service a success, the only thing you're going to likely see is a sea of vapid and uninteresting updates from people you have no connection to.

When I started using Twitter more than a year ago, I wasn't really sure what kind of mileage I would get out of it. It was basically a service that allowed me to broadcast 140 character messages to a bunch of my friends at once. As I discovered more and more game developers, journalists, and gaming sites/outlets on Twitter, though, my feed started transforming into a legitimately useful source of up-to-the-minute news and information from all around the world. Once that started happening, my personal usage of Twitter went from a couple messages every few days to numerous messages in a single day whenever I had a few minutes at work and home depending on what I was working on, what game I was playing, what news story I just read that I wanted to comment on and share with people, and so forth. I switched from using the website to using an actual client (Twhirl and Witty are my favorites) at some point and once I did that, I had an outlet for random thoughts that I'd condense into 140 characters and broadcast to anyone who was interested. I've just been doing this almost every day for the last year, accumulating new people to follow, having new people follow me, and not only getting exposed to a bunch of really random and new stuff every day that I may not have ever seen otherwise, but casually met a whole bunch of cool people within the game industry. Examples:
Jonathan Mak (Creator of Everyday Shooter): "made new entities to be more musically controllable with respect to gameplay. SH says "not only does it sound like music, it IS music.""
Steve Gaynor (Game Designer at 2k Marin): "file under 'more signs that new games need to be less expensive at retail' http://is.gd/lVOr"
Duncan Fyfe (Columnist for GameSetWatch): "So on my lunch break today I managed to walk face first into a street sign. I look like I was in a knife fight."
Tom Francis (Editor for PC Gamer UK): "Running out of ways to end quotes. X says, says X, X enthuses, X laughs, X vows, X bellows, X howls, X sobs, clawing at my face."
Andrew Weldon (Level Designer on Natural Selection 2): "Scanning UT3 levels and packages for the right content... There continues to be a lot of content."
Chris Remo (Editor-At-Large for Gamasutra): "The ESRB and other associated entities are really overstepping their bounds with the neverending game site/media age-gating. Truly absurd."
Lee Winder (Technical Manager of Blitz Arcade): "Building one of our smaller games to look into a problem they are having. So nice not to have to build gigs and gigs of data :)"
A lot of these people are game industry figures that may or may not have their every comment and thought echoed by the gaming press in enormous, blinking text. They're people in the game industry who have interesting or entertaining things to say about game development, game journalism/writing, playing games, or any other random comment that they may decide to echo on Twitter. The service is a superb way to get information about facets of the game industry on a moment-by-moment basis -- as opposed to in a formal article or forum post -- from some of the less well-known figures that make up the industry. It's also a great service for having impromptu conversations, as succinct as they are forced to be by the 140 character limit, between people that may never have found out about each other if not for the loose network of individuals that forms out of usage of Twitter.

A few months ago, Sam Houston of GamerDNA decided to put together a list of game industry figures and companies that were using Twitter so that anyone interested in game industry happenings could have a one-stop location for a huge list of people and Twitter names that they could add to their personal feed. That project turned out to be such a successful idea that he ended up making a site out of it and he appears to be updating the list of people regularly. The site is: Game Industry Tweet.com.

I encourage anyone who thinks any of this sounds interesting to follow some of the individuals listed on the site. The companies and community managers that use Twitter aren't inherently less interesting, but I like to think of (and use) Twitter when the people I read updates from are not doing it as part of their job description. It's a bunch of people who, presumably, are interested in the same things that you are, and with a little bit of searching and customization, Twitter can end up being an oft-updated feed of information or thoughts from people who share your own interests.



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