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.