Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Crafty Blocks

Credit to Penny Arcade. Had me laughing my ass off.

I've found a game that's reconnected me with my childhood obsession of Lego and building things. It's an indie title called Minecraft, created by Markus Persson, recommended to me by a fellow developer. The most popular game mode is a single player sandbox mode. When I say sandbox, I mean quasi-literally a giant box of an open world where you build things and play. In a nutshell, your avatar is alone in a large world completely formed by a 3D grid of blocks. The only interaction (in this mode anyway) is destroying and placing these blocks. There are about 40 to choose from ranging from natural materials like wood and stone to more elaborate things like obsidian, glass and even bookshelves, as well as small decorations like torches and flowers.

The clean, polished, retro art style does a lot to complement the simple, move, jump and build mechanics. That being said, the real charm of play comes from the emergent gameplay experiences one can have while creating all sorts of cool structures. When the world is so aesthetically simple and limited to large details, you're allowed to follow suit and create blocky objects and structures. You feel like a kid with an unlimited supply of building blocks! However, in my opinion, the one critical mechanic is that you have to be fairly close to a surface to build on it.

For instance, if you want to build a tower, you need to create scaffolding so you can reach the higher parts of your structure as you go. If you want to build roofs quickly, you have to build rafters so you can more easily reach the various surfaces. In addition to this, the underground world is massive, allowing a player to build large networks of caves and tunnels. As well, water and lava conform to rudimentary physics. If you're not careful, you can flood your entire network of carefully built caves, or, if you are careful, irrigate your virtual farmlands.

While it is free to play, the sneaky catch is that to save your game, you have to pay for a premium account (a very modest 10 Euros). Rest assured I had my credit card out and building by childhood dream castle block by block the same day I discovered it. A game like this may not sound like much and you may think me crazy for dropping the money, but consider the following facts:

-This game has been in development for only a little over a year
-It was developed by a single person (plus audio guy Daniel Rosenfeld)
-It has over 220,000 users with an 8.37% conversion rate averaging over 60 sales a day
-I really doubt Markus had the marketing budget to push the game through any high-traffic web channels

Those are rare stats for an indie developer, he must be doing something right!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

On a Legend that was Brutal

Penny Arcade of course.

Ahh, Brutal Legend. I was pretty excited for this title, mostly because I've been waiting for something "original and unique" for a long time and I got swept up in the "Schafer Hype". I'm also a huge fan of heavy metal, and a hater of impure metal.

I'll admit the writing was clever and funny. . .for a video game, the more unique gameplay elements were fun and interesting. . .for a little while, and the art & sound direction was phenomenal. . .it really was. But, in the end the same thing happened with just about every other Xbox title I've been told to play and enjoy. I dropped $80 CDN, and got about 15 hours of enjoyment out of it. If I wasn't trying so hard to enjoy it, that number would be closer 5-10 hours.

With regards to the "RTS" sections (by which I mean, the elephant in the room), I learned to enjoy it once I got into the swing of how the game was "supposed to be played". You have to admit, there is something off about a great game designer's opus needing to issue a press release to tell people how to play the game. Now, whether this is a matter of the game being poorly developed/rushed (not enough playtest cycles IMHO), or people walking into the game expecting Starcraft and being disappointed when their mental models of RTS gaming don't match up with the actual game they're playing, is a matter of debate.

I think the fault lies on both sides of the coin. Gamers, like those who enjoy certain genres of film, music and literature, have to learn to walk into their entertainment with an open mind. Walking into a movie or seeing a new band with skepticism or rose-coloured glasses is going to have a huge impact on what you get out of the experience. Games are no different, yet public opinion seems to think otherwise.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Originality Curve

XKCD again (there will be more)

I've fallen in love with Prototype for the 360. Like most Game Designers out there, I am bitter towards the triple AAA market and the ratio of originality vs. resources. Although I really think that modern game development conforms to this curve:

Now, while Prototype is not terribly original, it is a good game. Why? Because it doesn't try to do anything cute, fancy or ambitiously original. It's just an action-packed, in your face game that we all wanted to play when we were little tinkering with the Doom level editor. In the words of Penny Arcade "You can karate kick a helicopter, WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT?". The amount of crazily cool stuff that you can do is beautifully executed, polished to a shine, and, barring some very annoying timed mission mechanics, a blast to play.

This is exactly what AAA should strive to do, every time. Leave originality to the indies who can afford to screw around with new ideas and produce their diamonds in the rough. Let the AAA find the golden ideas, and make them awesome and actually worth 80 dollars.

Originality does not equal fun, and what's fun and entertaining does not necessarily have to be original.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On Lateness and Game Design

I just recently discovered xkcd, shame on me.

Okay, seriously, this whole mechanic of "complete objective X in Y time" needs to stop and die for good if designers cant learn to implement it right. I am getting so sick of playing games where the ending feedback is "well, you survived and completed the objective, but you were .783 seconds too late so you fail. . .try again?". Come on, I was right fucking there. How often does this ever happen in most Movies? Tabletop RPGs? etc. Sure it's realistic, but the ultimate goal of good game design has never been "make it realistic". It's a means to an end.

When I have no feedback on how I could have improved my time beyond "do it faster" and the core mechanic doesnt encourage/reward completing your objectives as fast as possible, AND there are factors that randomly impact your ability to reach your objective, then why would evaluating the player's performance based on time make any sense? It's just frustrating noise in the patterns of play.

Racing games, it works. Why? Because the whole game is built around doing an objective (racing around a circle) as fast as possible, and that's generally how the racing genre works. There are a ton of factors that go into calculating that time, all of which are available to the player at least for observation.

Strategy Games, it doesn't work most of the time. Why? Because even though a lot of war is very time-dependant (and I can respect that), players generally play strategy games to engage in territory aquisition and discover how complex systems of unit strengths, territory and resources work together as a model for warfare, not to see how fast they can do it. There is a place for those kind of timed goals, and they work if the player wishes to engage in them. So at the very least, give the player some control:

An enemy officer has been stationed at a nearby military base, we need him captured. However, if the enemy detects a large enough military force, they will send emergency evac which will arrive in 15 minutes. However, if you can keep the location and size of your forces quiet, you should be able to flank around and capture him in a surprise attack.

-Choose one-
A: Capture unit Z without your forces being spotted
B: If your forces are spotted, you have 15 minutes to complete objective A

At the very least, the player has some degree of control over the timer and, they get clear feedback on just how "stealthy" they were based on objective B triggering.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Experimental Gaming

From a t-shirt I saw somewhere, not sure where the original credit belongs.

I got into a discussion with a fellow designer/good friend of mine over the lack of games that take experimental risks with regards to narrative. While I've always been one to take the side that mechanics should lead player engagement, I do enjoy a good story told through a game from time to time, and judging by the vast majority of Triple-A content, so do most publishers.

When I say experimental, I mean stories that are rooted in ideas for the sake of exploring them, not necessarily reliving the Hero's Journey for the millionth time as he is destined to crusade over a hidden evil. It's as obvious as it is in film why this sort of gaming never reaches mainstream. However, I've found that even the indie scene is very dry of these topics, topics that touch on philosophical contexts and are intended to spark discussion and debate.

But why bother communicating these experiences through games when such ideas can be more easily told in Film and Literature? Because I believe, the experience a game can provide is totally unique from film and literature, and will impact the player on a deeper level since the story is (if good design principles are followed) a direct result of the player's actions. What better way to explore new mental territory than by probing and experimenting?

Take Silent Hill 2 for example. A darkly-themed adventure/survival/horror/etc. (did I mention I hate genres?) with multiple endings based on how you play the game. There really is no happy ending, and plays with the concepts of sanity, making you think about what you actually would have done in the character's place. Mature for the sake of being emotionally mature, not guts, gore and colourful language*. And where are my psychedelic games?!

You may say "There is no market for this kind of gaming", I say:

-You don't need a big budget to make a game profitable and fun
-Creating value to sell to an undeveloped market is the core function of entrepreneurship

*I have to credit this wording to my friend and colleague

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Office Casual

Yes, it's a lazy photoshop, the summer heat is starting to drain me.

I've been playing a lot of Plants vs. Zombies lately. It's a shining example of casual game design and has really hooked me in:

Jump in and out
Like most people my age (23 at the moment), I don't have the same time to commit to gaming as I used to. Getting home from work after staring at a screen all day long doesn't make sitting in front of another screen for hours at a time an attractive option. Playing for a few minutes while I wait for dinner to cook or riding the subway to work is usually the most zen time I have to play games.

Plants vs. Zombies not only supports this (as you can drop out of a game mid-level), but encourages it. There is a feature called a "Zen Garden" where you tend to a set of plants and meet their demands in real time. My routine this week has been to get up, water the plants, and arrive at work to see my Purple Marigold needs to be watered again. It's little things like that that make dropping in and out more satisfying (ignoring the plants carries no punishments either, only rewards!)

Core Mechanic
A staple of good game development is to prototype a core mechanic/concept, and build your game around that feature. You can tell from a mile away that that's exactly the approach the developers took. Every Level, Mini-Game and Puzzle is built on the same idea, strategically choose defenses to counter a threat in a given environment with given resources. I get the feeling the designer wanted to make something rather gritty and "military defense" but had to reshape it to fit Pop Cap's Casual market (you have to play it to see what I mean). I like the game for how it plays, but I love it for it's charm and addictive nature, even if it does turn into a bit of a grind later on.

I'll also say, this game has a TON of content despite the deceptively simple gameplay and price point (~$20 at the time of release)

Epic Boss Fight
Of course, what game wouldn't be complete with a nice climax to cap it all off? Unless you've played the game, you wont know what I'm talking about, but causing a hailstorm of fruit and veggies to rain down on an evil zombie-robot brought back that long lost "oh-snap!" gaming moment I haven't felt for a very long time. Good job Pop Cap, or at least, good job to your amazingly small development team on this project!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fallout Frustrations

The final comic from Penny-Arcade's contribution to Fallout 3 promotions. I'll own up to the fact I didn't play the original Fallout 1 and 2. I wasn't much of an adventure gamer, I spent most of my early years in the Eastern market playing the (at the time) Squaresoft and Capcom titles. However, I know the worlds they are set in, and anything post-apocalyptic is my bread and butter.

Fallout 3 is a great game with very strong connections to it's adventure/RPG roots. However, there are still crippling game design problems that drive me batty when trying to play it:

Loading/Saving features are a fundamental game design problem, strongly evident in many RPG, FPS and Action/Adventure titles. While the two latter genres have (somewhat successfully) overcome this problem with checkpointing and crafty level design, non-linear RPGs have a much tougher time. I'm against gamers quicksaving/loading to ensure a perfect performance yes (because of the disconnect with immersion), but I am for putting a certain degree of freedom in the gamer's hands because no game can have a perfectly shaped experience. It's very dangerous territory to tread.

I certainly don't enjoy being forced to live with certain consequences, because I love to experiment with certain actions. But, I really hate being punished by losing an hour or two of progress because I simply forgot to dislodge myself from the immersive grasp of the game and hit a few arbitrary buttons in the main menu.

Console FPS Controls
This problem mainly applies to the xBox 360 version

I'm deeply afraid of the day those kids that were raised on Halo using sticks, will beat out the ones raised on Counter Strike. First person shooters on the console (using dual-analog sticks) are tricky to play, especially for newcomers. A lot of tricks and "hacks" have been put in games to assist players such as adding camera decay or auto-aim features. Unfortunately, Fallout 3 has nothing of the sort, at least not that I've seen.

It's very frustrating to not be able to shoot a guy hitting you with a bat because you can't put a reticle over top of him, whereas in real-life you would just point for the nether regions and unload. The shooting controls are clunky and annoying and just not that fun, especially for a game that puts combat fairly high up on the feature list.

Maybe I should just get the game for PC?

I love the atmosphere and world that Fallout is set in, there's just so much in the way of me actually connecting with it, and enjoying it.