Saturday, September 27, 2008


Credit to Perry Bible Fellowship.

World of Warcraft attracts a lot of attention from the game industry. Why shouldn't it (and I'm not just saying that because I'm a recovering addict)? It's a massive title with a massive following. Regardless of how you feel about it, nobody can deny that it has (and will continue to for many years) a huge influence on the game industry. Every seminar that I attend and a frighteningly large proportion of articles that I read reference it in some capacity. Love it or hate it, it's here to stay.

On the topic of MMO design, I came upon an interview of two very bright developers: Ed Stark and Dave Williams. Some very good points arise, including just about every RPG gamers wet-dream: being able to have a "discernible, integrated" (Credit to Rules of Play) and persistent effect on a persistent world. Being able to actually destroy a town in an MMO, slay a world leader, or save a captured champion for good.

From the traditional model of game design: Create content and watch your players consume it in a fraction of the time it took to make, this seems impossible. As always, times are changing. I believe that player-generated content is the next major leap in great game design. Second life has taken a step in the right direction, but there is a long way to go. With a push in the right direction, and game designers providing the right tools, environments and motivations to players, these games can have, effectively, infinite content (what publisher/investor doesn't get turned on by that?). Keep an eye out for the next indie MMO that does just that. Heck, maybe it's already out there and I just haven't found it yet.

Edit: I know a lot of designers out there disagree with me. Good storytelling needs to result in change, which is a total nightmare in the MMO world, pretty much to the point where a true MMO narrative cant explicitly designed by the development team. Have faith in your fans designers, I'm going to trust my instincts on this one.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Core Mechanics at Play

Credit to Perry Bible Fellowship.

It's about time a big name in the game industry finally made the statement. I think the western game industry as a whole is understanding more and more that great games are not defined by their poly count or their shaders, but by the bottom line experience, so much of which is typically in the hands of great core design. Well, honestly this has been a long time coming anyway, it's just about time it came to the mainstream. I'm not saying the hardware drivers don't have their place, but good technical design should serve to ramp up the "sex factor", not the hardware requirements. Blizzard has followed this model from day one and look at where it has gotten them. When they wanted top end graphics (Please note the distinction between the high-end technical sense of the word "graphics" and visual design), they left it to their cinematic team to blow our occular minds.

Take a title like Castle Crashers for example. $15.00 US, phenomenal gameplay experience IMHO and (at first glance) looks like something you would see on Addicting Games. Who said there was anything wrong with that? Great art wont sell a game*, great experiences do. Thankfully LIVE's business model has done wonders to facilitate bringing these games to the mass market.

*On reflection, I take this statement back. Art + Hype = Sales.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Fetch Boy!

Pilfered from Penny-Arcade. Great point they touch on, I’m not saying that narratives in MMO questing are a waste (especially when such games have a strong focus on statistical character progression) but you can’t deny that the “fetch the magic word” quest is poorly implemented in most objective-based gameplay. Ironically, when properly integrated (whatever that entails!) into the game, it becomes transparent enough to immerse the player into the narrative and the system still works as strongly as ever. Sadly, I see a lot of games that fall short on this, people, get in touch with your writers! They are a treasured resource not to be squandered!

There’s a fantastic collaborative game design project in progress called the 400 Project. It’s an ambitious attempt to get input from many game designers to create the 400 rules that all designers should follow to create great games. I’m waiting for the day it’s published into some type of book or yearly release. In my opinion, I think a lot of the best content may get lost in the scope (400 distinct informational entities is a lot to keep track off), so hopefully it will get condensed or adopt a “top 400” format.

Today, I’m going to take a somewhat extended look at the game Lotus (The Board Game).

Lotus is an abstract strategy board game for 2 – 4 players. I’m still trying to lock down what the full rules of the game are for certain (haven’t actually bought the boxed game yet), but the materials are simple enough to play using a prototype kit, or even a piece of paper and a pen.

This game is another prime example of seconds to learn, a lifetime to master. I have to admit there is no experience like two novices sitting down to a game, having no idea how to play, and then 10 minutes later locked into intense focus trying to outdo one another.

Incidentally, the purpose behind playing this was to gain enough of an understanding of the game to develop an AI for a digital version. Wish us luck!

Friday, September 5, 2008

My Skin Hurts. . .

Credit to VGcats. You know what really sucks? Poison-Fuckin-Ivy. I am bandaged and drugged up waiting for it to pass right at the start of school . . .fun. . ., At least I have an excuse to sit and play games for a week or so ;).

One game I was really looking forward to, Too Human, has the gaming community viewing it as a disappointment. Assuming this article is telling the bulk of the story, it's quite a tragic turn of events. So much potential lost. I feel like an idiot saying this without even playing it, but the multiple reviews and trusted sources all point to me not spending $70 on it. If only they had been given more time to work through the issues, I'll bet the game would have been a home run.

Any aspiring game designer should be on the lookout for common design flaws other games may have made. One really great source for such flaws is the "No Twinkie" articles written by game designer and consultant, Ernst Adams. While many of these points seem obvious, take the time to read and understand them, you'll be surprised how much you can learn.

For now, I am taking a look at 2 games, Dungeon Keeper and GrowRPG.

Dungeon Keeper
: is a unqiue RTS/God-game where you construct a personal dungeon and manage it's denizens against plundering heroes and spread the taint of evil. Hidden beneath it's Real-Time Strategy exterior lies a sand-box game (an element further explored in it's sequel) which became the main reason I enjoyed it so much. If you want to build a dungeon full of traps and terrors check out this game and it's sequel.

GrowRPG: Another very unqiue title that has the player craft a world one piece at a time, then sit and watch the RPG story unfold. Choosing the correct order of pieces rewards the player with victory. Failure hints at the proper order of objects. I have to note on how well the designer captured the typical japenese-style RPG world in such simple terms. It's worth the 5 minutes to check out one playthrough.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Negative Feedback

Credit of course to the guys at Penny Arcade. Now, I'm all for tradition, but fucking with it is just so much more interesting!

It's funny how a game can have a totally differant play experience despite having the same mechanic. For example, take these two tiles: Blocky and Little Farm. The former is a free to play web game, and the latter takes the same core mechanic, gives it a narrative, some progression elements and asks nicely for you to buy the full version. Hard to tell which one I enjoy more to be honest, sometimes a game that stands strong on it's core needs only to be stripped down to that mechanic and polished for the sake of actually realeasing it for play. The amount of effort put into story, art and extra code almost feels like a waste when I play Little Farm after Blocky. In all honesty, it's a web game, not something I'm going to invest precious couch time in.

In a way, this raises the issue of big budget vs. indie games. Speaking from experience, I have been very disappointed in the titles I've actually dropped fifty bucks on compared to smaller titles that I'll play to meet the same ends as their richer brothers intend to. Maybe the marketing has built them up too much or I'm too indie-biased, but I just cant get into the big budget titles these days. I see that Eschalon was generally spearheaded by one guy and Mass Effect had a multi-million development team. But, I cant even finish the latter because I'm so bored with it, this situation is very unsettling. something is just not right here. The experiences both games offer are differant, granted, but this is just one of the many examples out there.

This week's three games are: Exile/Avernum series, Gomoku, and Warhammer: Dawn of War series

The Exile/Avernum series is a classic computer-style RPG where you lead a band of adventurers through the subterranian depths of Exile. What it lacks in polish, it more than makes up in it's massive scope that can take in the realm of hundreds of hours to finish (the series that is). One of my favourite games to play when killing time on my laptop. Get the demo here.

Gomoku is a strategy board game where the two player's take turns trying to line up 5 stones while blocking their opponent, the same core mechanics as tic-tac-toe (the two are likely historically related). This is a classic example of a solid core mechanic being the sole driving force behind gameplay. Seconds to learn, limitless complexity and the list goes on.

Warhammer: Dawn of War is a series of computer-RTS games adapted from the tabletop version (Warhammer 40,000). The series has a stronger focus on strategy and less on the economics behind the resources (in a less obvious fashion as World in Conflict). It's connection with the tabletop is what gives it such a unique flavour no matter how framilar you are with most RTS games.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Oh shit! Iterative Design!

. . .At least, that's the reaction designers seem to get from people with money. While I beleive there is no "right" way to make games, the principles behind iterative design are a step in the right direction. Any designer (or publisher) who thinks that they can write a game on paper, plan it, develop it, and expect it to be awesome without refinement is going to be the one doing the running. Gameplay is a lot more than the rules that define it, no designer can hope to understand what a play experience is going to be like based on the rules they create. Iterative design is a framework that helps create (but does not guarentee) a higher quality game in a realistic, practical setting. You have to be ready to accept that, while your idea may be wicked on paper, without some kind of feedback, your taking a much bigger risk than using a traditional project management method.

As I touched on, iterative design is far from the be all and end all of development systems. A lot people like to throw it around without truly considering the implications. Agile development in itself has this unfortunate history. This article is a good start for understanding some of the common pitfalls of the Scrum methodology (an agile development approach).

This week's three games are: Eschalon: Book I, Kings, and Donkey Kong Country.

Eschalon: Book I is a turn-based, isometric RPG set in a classic fantasy world. The design makes a strong attempt to recrate the traditional computer-style RPGs of the 80s and early 90s. Having played the demo, despite the weak magic system, this game definetly hits the mark, I just today have purchased the full version. Get the demo here, support your independant developers!

Kings is a common drinking game where players draw cards, and act based on the card they drew, usually drink. What's so unique is that the rules manage to be flexible (as dozens of variants exist for each card) and customizable during the game! Failing to remember these rules results in corrective behaviour that ensures the players will remember better next time . . .or pass out. Personally, my favourite game when alcohol is involved.

Donkey Kong Country: A SNES platformer classic, hands down. I recently played it through one rainy day, and was blown away at the quality of the level design, like abstract art, it was as intricate as it appears to be simple. If you are developing any type of platformer, you owe it to your game to pick up on the lessons DK has to offer.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Does story end with the pipe?

Saw this one and I couldn’t resist posting it (Credit to Original Author here). Also, it looks like my neglected 360 will be getting some love soon. Too Human (August 19) and Spore (September 7) aren’t far around the corner! Even though it is Will Wright, I feel like I’m committing some horrible sin against gaming by buying it, EA has tainted far too much in my opinion.

I have to say, Rules of Play is a wicked book so far. I can’t even hope to deliver the lessons within as well as the authors have. So instead, I’ll point out quotes that really stuck with me in hopes that you’ll pick it up some day, or at least read the sections through Google you cheap bastard.

Meaningful Play (Page 34):

Meaningful play occurs when the relationships between actions and outcomes in a game are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game. Creating meaningful play is the goal of successful game design.

Discernable - The player can perceive the immediate outcome of an action
Integrated - The outcome of an action is woven into the game system as a whole

Uncertainty (Page 189):

Uncertainty is a key component of every game. If a game is completely predetermined, the player’s actions will not have an impact on the outcome of the game and meaningful play will be impossible.

This sounds obvious, but I’ll be referring to it here and there as I blog, for example:

Storyline in a video game, the narrative drive that gives the character (but not necessarily the player) a reason to continue, has always been an well-debated issue in game design. Not surprising considering some games do well treating it like a 3-act movie, some like an epic work and others with no story at all. I’m not referring to the ludology vs. narrative debate, I’m pointing out the purposely defined and hand written events that get character X from point A to B. This aspect of design is most commonly limited to video games, especially big budget productions, and an interesting article by Duncan Fyfe has surfaced pointing out some concerns that come with storyline in games.

One issue they point out is that the narrative structure of games that are so heavily inspired from film and literature roots (ironically quite detached from the roots of gaming itself) lacks “an intuitive metric: it’ll fall between one and one hundred hours”. What they mean is, you can easily see how far you are in a book, feel how long you are into a movie, and the dramatic tension usually flows in a structure within that metric. Games typically lack that sense of common structure and give the player no scope in which to frame their progression, and thus, have no idea what to expect. As Fyfe puts it: “Expectations frame experience”, and as a designer, the game experience is everything. If the player has no idea if the boss they just killed was a grunt in the scope of the story or the final boss itself, there is little meaning to be found in that victory. As I pointed out from above (once again, credit to Salem & Zimmerman), without meaning, play breaks down.

3 games I’d like to point out this week are: Machete Chamber, Life & Dino Run.

Machete Chamber: Essentially an action-based “dodge the bad things” & trivia hybrid in a gameshow setting. Correctly answering questions grants typical prizes such as shoes and cars. Poor performance usually results in jeers from the crowd and dismemberment. I felt the need to mention this game simply because losing limbs seems to have a real emotional impact on a player, try it for yourself and see how you feel after losing an arm or a leg.

Life: Life (as I’m sure many of you know, and if not, shame on you, go play it) is a linear boardgame where players compete to make the most of their lives, typically through acquiring financial assets and collecting unique “once-in-a-lifetime” events. While a sunny family game indeed, I began to wonder (as my dark twisted mind tends to do) what it would be like if a darker, more mature version was made as a satirical look on western culture, emphasizing the negative events life throws at us. I wonder how players would value their experience if instead of landing on a “Baby Girl!” tile, it was “You got a girl pregnant at a one night stand, deal with it”. Humour can cause smiles just as easy.

Dino Run: A simple but fun platformer where your little dinosaur tries to outrun extinction from a meteor impact’s wall of death. What I find is really well done is how well the designer conveyed the sense of impending doom and cranks up the tension the closer the wall of death gets. Try it yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Checkmate & Teapots

A funny comic from a great webcomic site: The Perry Bible Fellowship, if you are into dark comedy and random humour it's worth a few laughs.

I recently picked up a great book on game design: Rules of Play. Instead of trying to define and cram the field of game design into one conceptual model, they approach it from multiple angles like emergent gameplay or games as information systems. For example, if you were to define what exactly defined teapot, would you go by how it was used? How it was built? What it looked like? Salem & Zimmerman approach the "Teapot" of game design from all these various angles, providing a very solid toolset for game design. I'm working my through it when time permits and will post the particularly juicy bits that I find.

Gamasutra featured an interview with Paul Sams, COO of Blizzard Entertainment, besides the usual Blizzard "Wait and see, we love making great games" treatment, I have to note one really intesting point he made reflecting the topic of making games outside the male 18-30 demographic:

"Our feeling is that if you're going to have people put a number of years of their life, and they're going to put their blood, sweat, and tears into the development of the game, they better believe in it, and want to play it, and it's going to be a passion of theirs. And if it's a kid's game – unless that's what they're really into – then it's not going to be great."

You can probobly tell where I'm going to go with this, but essentially, how can we expect development teams to make great games outside the common market when the vast majority of those developers are found in that same market? There probobly arn't very many developers who would like to work on Barbie Horse Adventures their whole career barring one very special web comic author.

On the gaming front itself, I've been playing 3 titles lately:

Gemcraft: A well-polished tower defense featuring RPG elements and a light storyline. You can find many hours of gameplay that, while somewhat repetitive, has great spins on the traditional Tower Defense model. Difficulty, while actually dynamic and left in the player's hands, still manages to be challenging and rewarding. A must play for TD fans, period.

Pandemic II: A unique sim that has the player engineer and evolve a lethal pandemic with the goal of wiping out the human race. Now who doesn't love that? Despite the somewhat dry gameplay and tricky learning curve, it's still quite a bit of fun to make your infection suddenly cause diarrhea and then watch the ports close. The interface is clunky in the sense that it is difficult to tell exactly what your actions are doing on a global scale, but still worth the time to check out if you enjoy a good power trip.

Battlefield: Bad Company (Single Player): Hoo boy, this game has everything you can expect from a professional budget title. Great graphics, great sound (outstanding actually), mediocre gameplay. The single player campaign is nothing special, good for some explosions and the occasional laugh, the ending is disappointing and not worth the 20 hours in my humble opinion.

I get the feeling EA wanted to release this game as a way of showing off (and an excuse to make) the frostbite engine. The defining feature of the engine (besides the epic sound design it can offer) is "destructable environments" which boils down to a handful of extra features:

-The ability to knock down trees
-The ability to obliterate outhouses and other small structures
-The ability to create small craters in the ground
-The ability to reduce sturdy houses to sturdy frames of houses

While it's fun to literally blow the cover of a pesky enemy trooper (and usually the enemy himself), to be able to decimate a brick wall and do nothing to the 4x4 holding the 2nd floor up, ruins the immersion for me and reminds me I am still playing a video game. If you are going to build a million dollar game around a feature, you should probobly make sure that feature stands rock solid.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

First Post eh?

I love games, I love making games.

I love board games, card games, video games, collectable games, retro games, video games, live action games, and the list goes on. Is there nothing better than opening up a new rulebook, game manual or sealed set and savouring that anticipation of good things to come?

Ha, I have other passions, but if I could dedicate my life to something, it would be creating the ultimate gaming experience that everyone could participate in and enjoy, really bring gaming above and beyond the level of film and music, renew mankind's oldest passtime of play. Children play, dogs and cats play, why dont we adults do it more if it made us so happy?

Now that I've firmly established that, Hi, I'm Tyler, a 22 year old aspiring game designer from Canada. An adventuring hard-working metal-head gamer trying to make a name for himself in the games industry. It's really all I've ever wanted to do. I can remember when I was 8 years old designing weapon ideas for an Eastern-Style Console RPG at my cottage up in North Ontario. I can remember when I was 12 and discovered emulation and ended up going through dozens of SNES games in a summer. I remember when I was 16 and downloaded RPG Maker, trying to make the next big hit for myself to enjoy. Trouble was I knew where all the hidden chests were.

I can remember watching the behind the scenes VHS for Donkey Kong for the SNES and being blown away at people being payed to play games. I remember opening my first booster pack of Magic: The Gathering. I remember watching the animated Legend of Zelda series. I remember seeing the Live Action Super Mario movie. I remember playing Risk with my cousins and designing maps on the Warcraft II Map Editor.

With the end of university just around the corner, now the real fun begins!