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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Sorry, nothing funny today, just a quick post.

The ending "gameplay" to Condemned: Criminal Origins is brilliant.

That is all.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Old Skool RPGn'

Oh, did I ever mention what a Final Fantasy addict I am/was?

I really fell in love with the job system in the 5th title of the series (Which I'm replaying through right now). While it could have used some balancing and possibly a more dynamic way to gain abilities through job selection, it was still excellent for it's time. I love how the elements of character customization was directly linked to the core gameplay, if only the concepts of jobs was just as linked to the game plot.

I'd really like to see some newer JRPG titles released today with a splash of updated 2D art without sifting through piles of indie crap. A side project I'd like to explore in the future is creating some episodic content for an RPG style game using the RPG-Maker "Engine". The one major design focus I'll be investing time in is how to improve the existing combat system from a stat war (which I find are all often poorly done since the balancing is a nightmare) to something a little more polished and involving than choosing from an ever-growing list of actions.

Creating a brand new combat system from scratch is certainly an option, but I like challenges, and I like constraints even more. Using Jesse Schell's advice, my problem statement would be:

"Using a traditional Turn-Based JRPG model, how do I keep combat interesting and challenging while keeping the number of action options per turn to less than 5."

Why 5 actions? I find that when there is a large number of options to choose from, players quickly become overwhelmed, and those evil optimal strategies appear far too often. With a limited action set (likely dynamic and uncertain which will be available per turn) player's are forced to get involved and think every turn rather than hitting "Fight Fight Flare". I think a type of card/deck system might be in order.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New Books

PBF. Don't ask me how this connects to this topic, I just think it's funny.

With my Xbox and Laptop out of commission the last two weeks, I've had a lot of time to catch up on my reading:

Scott McCloud - Understanding Comics
I kept hearing this book recommended by designers of all walks of life. I enjoy the odd graphic novel, but I wouldn't consider myself close to a fan, I don't even own a single comic book. However, what makes this book relevant is how it so effectively analyzes and breaks down it's own medium, but also provides a very useful perspective on all media. One could use this book as a "how to" guide for connecting with your audience/player. Plus, it's a damn comic book, who wouldn't have fun reading one to learn ;)

Raph Koster - A Theory of Fun for Game Design
A short and sweet summary of what games do for people, and generally why we go about playing them. It's a refreshing read and an accessible book for us Short-Attention Spanned types. Informative as it is brief, and overall, I highly recommend it to just about anyone who is involved in games.

Jesse Schell - The Art of Game Design
For once I'd like to read a game design book that bridges the high-concept theory behind game design, and the practical side of what an actual game designer "does". This book is the answer and easily the best I've read on the topic by far. Not only is it comprehensive, but accessible.

A feature which makes it so interesting, is how Schell has managed to implement a game design mechanism into the book itself. A major goal of the book is to communicate the mind map that is Game Design (what does it mean, and what are the goals?). Each chapter introduces a new chunk of mind map. Gradually, as you read through the book, this mind map is developed right in front of your eyes like a dungeon map one might develop as they play through a game of Zelda.

He even manages to take a poke at the old annoying debate of "what defines a game". Ha.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Canada Is Not That Big

Being a metal-head, this is only appropriate. I'm not sure who did it. I would be playing GH: Metallica, but my Xbox is out of commission sadly.

I don't get as much time as I would like to play board games, but I'm happy I got to try Ticket To Ride. A really fun game that reminds me of Monopoly in terms of how quickly friendships get destroyed, except this game actually ends. Colourful, clean, and elegantly designed. I hear some people ask why there isn't a Canadian version, honestly, they've pretty much got the bases covered:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Looking For Artists!

The shot above is the final look I went for a polished prototype. It is the building in the upper right hand corner (see below). The gameplay* is solid, and I'm satisfied with it, but I'm sure I'll always be refining it. Right now I'm looking for an artist who wants to create the final art assets. You're more than welcome to keep the rights to your artwork and share in a % of the sales when it sees the light of market, but it's really something to be discussed. If you're interested, comment below with your email address and I'll get in touch. If I really like your work, I may be willing to offer some informal pay in the $250-750 range depending on what you can do.

Assets I need would be (any work would be appreciated):

-Art for the game board
-Art template for game cards
-Art for the game cards (75 unique pieces needed)
-Design for tangibles such as player tokens

Or, if you have had experience in board game materials, I am very much open to new ideas.

The game itself is very Romero/Max Brooks zombie apocalypse survival. 4 survivors, 1 zombie player, 24 turns, no demons/occult/fast zombies, just classic zombie faire. Getting the game published is a goal, but not a priority. Right now, moving to Toronto is the priority :P

*Why do all my spell checkers hate the word "gameplay" it is one word right? not "game play"?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Another Preview

Another preview shot! I've finished the video, now just have to secure some domain/server space.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Back from the Dead?

Wow, it has been far too long loyal readers!

Now that school is over, I finally have the time to get my portfolio together the way I want it. The image above is a sneak preview from my first board game prototype "City of the Dead". Be on the lookout for my portfolio website featuring the full rundown of the game, including a video preview of how the product went from concept through the testing phase!

I recently got back from a week at GDC where I was volunteering for the CA program. It was, career wise, the greatest week I ever had. I went there to get my finger on the pulse of the game industry, and left with hundreds of contacts, dozens of new friends, and a new level of confidence about myself as a game designer. There is a lot I don't know, and I cant wait to learn it! If you are an aspiring developer or even an industry vet, for the love of god, sign up for this program (goes up late-November I believe).