Friday, March 26, 2010

Style Points

Apologies for the absence, March moves faster than I could believe possible.

We know artists have a particular style, from Picasso's abstraction to Andy Warhol's consumer commentary to Van Gogh's impressionism. We can pick out, or give a pretty good guess, who did these works almost immediately. The same applies to books, from the minimalist works of Raymond Carver to the Dickensian way of using tons of intricate characters, and movies (Tarantino, anyone?).

In gaming, who gets the style points?

Hideo Kojima is known for his really detailed, long stories and attention to plot. Will Wright makes social simulators, but can I look at the Spore and The Sims and know it was designed by the same person? How many others can we name, and how tenous are the connections between their games?

Games are not created by a single person. It's easier to reflect a certain style in your work when you are the only one doing it, but if a director of a multi-million dollar movie can do it, why can't a gaming designer, or at least, why can't more?

We may be able to point to certain studios for elements they tend to continue to emphasize in their games: Bethesda and open worlds, Bioware, moral decisions and polished and traditional RPGs, but there's no real style yet established, just reoccurring game devices.

First Question: Are gamers buying titles based on the designer responsible?

My guess is, for the most part, no. Aside from some of the bigger names I've mentioned earlier, I would argue the majority of game purchasing is determined mostly by the reviews/trailors/marketing campaigns of a particular game (assuming the game isn't a sequel).

Second Question: Do we need this?

Do we need designers we can look to for distinct styles? If you're talking about industry recognition, by all means I say yes. You want more games to start getting pointed out for their artist merits and liberties, or creativity? Designers and style need to start becoming distinct. I don't know if this will sell more games, but I think it changes the cultural view of games in a positive way. Genre-blending is getting more popular, making it harder to differentiate games in terms of categories, so distinct styles and designers could be the next way to go.

I do think we are starting to get on the verge of distinct styles, Heavy Rain seemed to open up the door for commentary on this; the story was too controlled and carefully managed (each moment) for an overarching designer to not be in the discussion. Someone brought all the pieces together and made the game he had a vision for, and this is something I see more of in the next ten years.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why (most) Fantasy Sucks

As my return to this whole internet thing (I am back from real life, rejoice), I was writing about New Vegas. Unfortunately it was some questionably-interesting wanking, and really what we're trying to do here is be interesting while wanking. So I'm shelving that in favor of a simple proclamation: fantasy games are largely shit.

Now let me clarify. I like fantasy. A number of my favorite RPGs (which I was quantifying as part of my New Vegas wank) are fantasy. I do not hate fantasy. However, fantasy as a game genre is being shit upon every day by designers who have no imagination, publishers who won't give money to people with an original thought in their heads, and research/assumptions about the audience which are completely fucking wrong and anyone can prove them wrong with half an hour's investigation.


Let me tell you a story. Long ago in the dark days of the early 90s, some game designers played D&D. They enjoyed the setting they'd come up with for their campaign and thought it would make a great computer RPG. So they stripped out the D&D and made a game out of it. It was a good game, people enjoyed their world, and it spawned a sequel. Then another sequel.

This third game took place in a particular part of their world that was different. Very different—this sort of setting had never been seen before. It was still fantasy, but didn't rest on cliche. The wildlife consisted of giant insects. The land was dominated by blasted volcanic moonscapes, with patches of plains and grassland, swamps and forests of giant mushrooms. The locals were xenophobic assholes who never really accepted you, even if you were of their race. It was a great game.

This land was part of a big empire, and the capitol province had always been a looming presence in the lore. It was based on Rome, but only sort of; it was a jungle, full of ziggurats. The capitol city was like this, pyramids in a jungle with rope bridges strung about, combined with a Roman imperial culture. It seemed pretty interesting and everybody wanted to see it. The fourth game in the series would be set there.

And they retconned it into a whitebread bog-standard medieval fantasyland, stripped to the bone with every bit of imagination forcibly extracted, probably with pliers and a rusty steak knife. It was still well done, but it made me wonder how they'd gone from such an interesting setting to something so mundane.

Those of you versed in RPG lore know I'm talking about the Elder Scrolls here, and the bizarre transition from the alien landscape of Vvardenfell in Morrowind to the remarkably unremarkable Cyrodiil of Oblivion. Somewhere between the two, Bethesda decided that an interesting setting was somehow a bad idea and they would be better served by going back to the well-trodden land of elves and knights and thatched roofs. What the fuck? It's not that Bethesda can't do interesting. Morrowind proved it, then Fallout 3 proved it. Admittedly they were building on Black Isle's work when they did Fallout 3, but it still takes talent to pull that off—they could have very easily lost sight of what made Fallout interesting and shat all over the property. But they didn't. Fallout 3 isn't perfect by any means. However, as far as understanding the setting, treating it with care, and producing the proper atmosphere and feeling in the player, they did it perfectly. They know how to avoid boring.

It's not a Bethesda problem. Bioware promised us a George RR Martin inspired dark fantasy, a different kind of world, which at first looked like it owed more to the Arabian Nights than Tolkien. Then Dragon Age actually came out and proved they were full of shit. Again, it was well done (and it portrayed a medieval England-esque setting better than most do), but it was the same old shit. There are hints of more interesting places in the setting; only hints, we never see them. The cavalcade of Forgotten Realms games have the same problem. Yet again, the Realms have interesting locales, but mostly we stay to the more traditional, approachable areas of the Sword Coast. The most interesting of this field, Mask of the Betrayer, takes us to the rarely used and exotic lands of Rashemen and Thay. World of Warcraft did the same thing as Oblivion, wrenching every bit of interesting out of the Warcraft setting. Think through the fantasy games you've played recently. How many of them had a really different, compelling setting? Ten percent?

Why is a fantasy game with a good setting such a rarity?

The answer I always hear is that it doesn't sell. People are dumb and like familiarity. Look at Planescape: Torment, they say. The best RPG ever made, it should've sold billions, but the Planescape setting was so alien that it drove everyone off. If you want to move copies, you make Tolkien.

This explains why Morrowind sold approximately a bazillion copies. The Xbox version's sales were comparable to Halo, eliminating another possibility—that console gamers aren't sophisticated enough to handle interesting. The fact is people can handle an interesting setting. Somehow it's become common sense that the opposite is true.

Laziness is a possibility. As obvious as this sounds, it takes more effort to make an interesting setting than to regurgitate another pseudo-England sorta-medieval thing. I find this explanation very unsatisfying. Mostly because of things I've already discussed; many of these companies who make shitty generic fantasy have also made better products with better settings. Bethesda did Morrowind, Bioware did Mass Effect. Does it make sense that they'd spend a lot of effort on one game and then turn lazy for another? I suppose it's possible, but eh.

The other big possibility is it's not the fault of the developers. Publishers take the "weird doesn't sell" dogma to heart and won't fund a game with giant bugs instead of horses. Again, possible, and there seem to be examples of it around, but it's also a little convenient. Publishers get a ton of shit. Many of them deserve a ton of shit, however it doesn't change that people are a little too quick to blame everything on the publisher. It's the boy who cried EA. Sometimes publishers do fuck up a good thing (see: Knights of the Old Republic 2), sometimes the developer did it (see: Oblivion).

Thus the anti-climax: I don't know why fantasy sucks. I don't know why developers feel compelled to make something interesting and then shit on it in the sequel. I don't know why you get a game like Planescape: Torment, with nearly universal acclaim and a presence on every "Best RPG" list out there, and then no one ever tries to do anything like it again. Shit's all crazy.

I do know one thing: I want all you risk-averse developers to start challenging yourselves. You're not always going to succeed, but the successes are well worth the failures.

And for christ's sake make more non-fantasy RPGs.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Exposition & Objectives

One of the real advantages movies and games have over books is in their power to quickly explain character background without, well, explaining it. It can be enough to pan over a character waking up and showing his room to give a lot of backstory and character: is it messy, clean, full of collectibles, full of hot girl posters, does he slap the alarm or throw it across the room, does he sleep with a brother, in a bunk bed, a race car bed...all of this information is given during a very small period of time and it is something that just can't be done as easily in a novel.

I was thinking about dialogue-driven exposition, especially in novels. We are told that this is generally not the way to expose what needs to go on, because it feels unnatural: If John and David are needing to go to the store, it doesn't sound natural to have the conversation sound like:
John: "Hey man, I need to go to the store."
David: "Oh yeah? For what?"
John: "I need to get some bagels."
David: "Okay, let's go."

The conversation fits for functional purposes, but in terms of developing character, it does absolutely nothing. It can be easier and a lot more effective to restrict dialogue to character (and a small bit of exposition) and leave other clues for exposition:

John stands up and grabs the list off the fridge. A big red "Do this TODAY, John" is written on the bottom.
John: "Shit. She always makes me do this crap."
David: [glancing at the list] "Mom's really have no idea what's important."

We get basically the same information, minus the bagels, and we also get bits of each character. John's mom is clearly annoyed, or controlling, or tired of John never doing anything. John is tired of running around doing her errands, and we get a taste of the way he talks and thinks about his mom. David, in the same way, tells us that he thinks like John in not understanding his mom. We know so much more about their character.

I think games can get the movie-style of exposition down, in terms of placing helpful clues about background in the scene, and dialogue that reveals character, but when it comes to game objectives this almost entirely flies out the window. I understand, games, that you need to tell the player what to do, but surely there is a better way than just telling the player what to do every single time. Find 10 fairies, destroy the water silo, infiltrate the base and take the doctor's uniform.

Games should be turning, in a lot of areas, to letting the user do more work, or even less work. A quest-giver can be more character driven, only mentioning in passing that the house he has been staying in his haunted, and leave it up to the player to figure out the rest, or explore there if he wants to explore. It doesn't count if you do this and then it pops up in your journal "Go to the Haunted Westing House," either. Oblivion was pretty good about journal entries and quest-giving. On the flip side, I liked the ability Wolverine had, where he could turn on his feral senses and then see the direction to an objective. Army of Two had this as well. Why jerk the player around by making them switch to a map screen and seeing a bright "Objective!" marker on one end?

So I want either a very direct-press a button and follow this line-objectives or very vague, player driven options. Or, do both: Why highlight the movable statue in blue when you could drop a dialogue hint a mission back where a native mentioned how the ceremonial statues were often moved to create complex rituals? And if the player doesn't get it, let them push a button to see exactly what they need to do. This doesn't hold back from the gameplay, and it allows dialogue to be used for more detailed and character-driven exposition. Why throw players right in front of the door they need to kick down (with objective "breach the door!") when you could have the player wander around the town, full of tension and not sure which door has all the baddies behind it, and if they don't like this, give them the straight line to the door. Just don't waste dialogue on it.

Certain games work differently, and the way I'm suggesting is not entirely conducive to an action-packed get-me-to-the-next-thing-I-can-kill game, but designers really ought to be playing around with the way they expose objectives and give players direction. What if you were told by your commander your primary objective, but only by looking at the papers on his desk when he walks away do you discover some secondary objectives, and less clear directions on how to achieve them? What if you weren't told to "Head to the Science Building to Rescue 5 Captured Soldiers" but heard their screams over the comm as they were ambushed, and you were only aware of where they might be, and

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Less is More-derlands

I like Borderlands. I haven't finished it, but each time I played I had a great time, and I think this is mainly due to its simplistic nature and its quirky in-your-face approach.

The game is as addictive as Diablo when it comes to loot dropping-there is always a better gun or set of armor, and it's never that far away. This triggers every wonderful gaming endorphin I've collected over the years and keeps me sated.

I don't want to start slipping into a game review here, so I'll keep things short and classy: I like Borderlands because it's simple.

The story is simple; characters are introduced quickly, the plot falls out of the picture for long periods of the game, and I am left in a desert filled with mad-max road punks looking to take me out. I can get lost in the game because the game allows it. This is all survival in the wasteland really needs to be--finding the next gun, and being able to kill the person or mutant that tries to kill me. Maybe stopping for a breather now and then.

The characters that populate this place are vivid and eccentric--see first boss Nine Toes (Also, he has three balls) and come and go quickly, but remain memorable. It's a funny game, but part of what makes it funny is that the jokes it attempts are spaced far apart, and never come forced. This game never tries to be anything it isn't, and that's why I like it so much.

The core mechanics work and the loot system is powerful, what more do I really need? This is a great way to kill time and play with a friend, because Borderland provides a platform for running and gunning, and just enough juice to get you to the next boss.

Designers can learn a lot from the appeal of a game like this. What Borderlands does is not necessarily brilliantly innovative or outstandly technically perfect--it just does everything in a very solid way, and it never takes itself too seriously.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

In Defense of the Ancients

For those who haven't heard, Defense of the Ancients (or DotA) is a custom map for Warcraft III.

If you have heard this, you may not know that this custom map is played nearly as often as Warcraft III is.

If you have heard this, you may not know that DotA is so balanced and competitive that it has become an official game at the World Cyber Games.

If you have heard this, you may not know that professional companies are attempting to use a similar formula to create a DotA-like game they can sell for profit.

Heard of Demigod, League of Legends, or Heroes of Newerth? All inspired by DotA.

This game is so popular and has caught on so effectively for many reasons, but I think it comes down to balance, simplicity, and replayability.

In Warcraft III players did typical RTS tasks, from gathering resources to building a base camp. DotA gives players only a hero, and the game becomes, for most purposes, an RPG. 5 players square off on each side, with nearly 40 heroes to choose from, each with four nearly-unique abilities. There are three "lanes" per side, divided in half by a large river. The objective is to push through any lane to get to each side's final tower, and destroy it.

For me, this is characterized by variability. The game offers an endless amount of combinations, while always starting in the same way. I'm reminded of chess, with more complexity. Each game involves different heroes, uses of skills, item purchases, and the matchups of heroes in each lane. The goal of the game is simple, but there are multiple ways to push towards the final tower and this is what really fosters the sense of replayability. I've been playing for five years now and haven't seen the same game twice.

This is a game that has infinite combinations, but like any lasting sports game, the core rules are very simple. It's what a player, or coach, or team chooses to do that makes the game extremely complex. A hero only has four skills, and a maximum level progression to 25. One of the four skills is an "ultimate" that typically has a longer cooldown but does more damage/chaos/anything than a normal skill. Each hero may also carry a maximum of 6 items to give various bonuses. There are only three lanes, and some woods, that make up the map. Push to the other team's tower, destroy it, and win. The end.

The heroes are divided into strength, intelligence, and agility heroes. Roughly stated, intelligence heroes are the best initially, with powerful damaging spells, agility heroes are the most fragile but offer some of the most potential for late in the game, and strength heroes are a decent hybrid, with additional survivability but also late game advantages. Heroes can be ranged or melee, chasers, support, stunners, damagers, tanks, summoners, crowd controllers, AoE, snipers, and it's all balanced. There are millions of hero and item combinations, going across 10 different players on a single map, and the game manages (for the most part) to keep balanced. Every hero has a downside. Every hero has a counter hero, or counter item. Each item has a cost, with better ones costing more, that require a stockpile to build up. If you die, you lose part of that stockpile. Risk/reward for better items.

This reminds me too much of chess. It establishes an early game, a mid-game, and a late game. It has pawns (AI controlled "creeps" that give money on death and encourages players to stay in lanes to defend against the creep push, and gain gold from killing creeps) and pieces that are useful early, and some that gain their power late in the game. It has a piece that can't move, but on destruction that's the end of the game, and it doesn't matter how well you did otherwise. Every game starts the same, with players at their home bases, and then with each decision a thousand different games are spawned. There is attacking, defense, and counterattacking. It flows as much as any competitive sport or game, and it does it in such a highly polished and well established way that it makes it easy to come back to.

I really think that DotA is a fantastically effective game due to these above traits, and its what is keeping this game afloat and spawning so many other copies, some (Heroes of Newerth) is very nearly a direct clone with enhanced graphics.

The only real problem this game has is its extremely steep learning curve. If you are new to this game, you will be destroyed over and over and over again. Then you will start to figure out why you died, and then you will die over and over and over again. Only when you learn which items to buy, and what every hero can do to you, and what you can do to them, do you have any sort of chance. And then you will still die for a while, but you may start getting some kills while you're at it.

But if you can get past this, you're looking at a very detailed, complex and balanced game that is consistently challenging and entertaining. I've played a whole lot of games over the past five years, but I'll always come back to DotA for a few sessions, and I don't see myself stopping any time soon.

Curious? Heroes of Newerth is a near-perfect DotA clone, lifting the same balanced heroes and items from the original Warcraft III version. Right now it's in open beta, so grab a key and hop on.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Make With The Funny

To me, the most egregiously overlooked aspect of gaming is humor. Funny games are a rarity; games that attempt humor and miserably fail are a bit more common. Still, typically the only attempt at humor in any game is an easter egg or reference to something funny that already exists outside the game. Yet, for something so neglected, humor is one of the most effective writing tools available to designers.

I think there are two basic reasons why humor gets so little respect:

A) Writing humor is surprisingly difficult. A little quip now and then isn't too hard, but consistent humor is. There are only a handful of real humor games, humor books are extremely difficult to do well (this is why most break the material up into small chapters that aren't related to one another—that's easier), and comedy movies have a huge failure rate. It's a tough subject. Yet, for some reason, people tend to view humor as much easier than it actually is.

B) Writers are afraid that humor will undermine the rest of the story. This is a legitimate concern; badly done humor can kill the seriousness of the subject matter as well as pulling people out of the world, and it's easy to fuck up humor. On the other hand, well-done humor can actually enhance both of these. The paper shortage joke in Battlestar Galactica was probably the funniest part of that dark, ultra-serious series, but I bet all of you remembered it verbatim when I mentioned it.

This topic came to me because of, surprise surprise, Mass Effect 2. It's a very funny game, much more so than its predecessor, even though the subject material is quite dark for Bioware. And I think it shows the main reason humor can be so effective: it makes characters better.

This is exploiting a basic psychological phenomenon. We automatically like people who make us smile and laugh more than we would otherwise. It's the difference between the guy you know who's just a dick and the one who's a lovable rogue. Both of them can be bitter assholes, but the one who's a bitter asshole in a funny way will be likable in spite of it.

Other genres have understood this for a long time. Mal Reynolds in Firefly comes to mind—if you look at his character objectively, he's a terrible person. But he's funny about it, so everybody loves him. Meyer Landsman in The Yiddish Policemen's Union is the same way. These principles apply to games just as easily, making the player remember the character and empathize.

Let's go back to Mass Effect 2. The consensus I've seen is that the cast is strong all-around, but everyone's favorite character is Mordin. Purely on character merit, he's a good choice. He's a Salarian scientist and commando with plenty of depth, backstory, complex motivations, unclear morality, all the good stuff. That alone would make him a solid character, but Bioware also made him the funniest party member, elevating him above the rest in most people's minds. His combat shouts are funny, his dialogue is great, he makes quips at characters during other scenes, he has a few amazing bits where he's giving sexual advice or doing opera.

This isn't the first time Bioware's made a character stand out with humor. HK-47 is everyone's favorite from Knights of the Old Republic (and in KOTOR2, even though it's a much better game, HK-47 isn't as funny and people didn't like him as much). Baldur's Gate 2 had enough potential party members to have an entire comedy team—Korgan, Edwin, Jan Jansen, Minsc. Then there are the rarest of the rare, actual humor games. Anachronox is the shining example; a serious story, with excellent writing and character work, while also being the funniest game I've ever played. No one's ever mixed it as well.

By the way, if you've never played Anachronox you've missed out. Go find it.

The lesson in all this is developers should not be afraid of humor. If you can't do it well, then by all means leave it out—no humor is better than bad humor. But a little bit of it, used properly, can elevate any character and, by extension, the game as a whole.

There is one caveat: humor has to fit into the game. If you just throw in a joke that doesn't work in the setting, it will undermine the character and story. It takes some effort and care to craft humor that is as internally consistent as everything else in the game's story, but it's absolutely necessary to make it work. Writers should know this already, but if you've hit bad humor in a game that pulled you out of the experience, more than likely they were violating this rule.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Smarter Better Faster Stronger Mini Games

J's post made me think about mini games in most games now, especially RPGs. I used to be a huge advocate for them; back in the days of Asheron's Call I longed for a crafting system that wasn't click. click. click. fail. click. click. click. succeed. Mini games, I thought, were the way to go.

But as games are starting to implement these things all over the place, it seems like all mini games are doing is breaking immersion. The pipe game in Bioshock wasn't terrible, as far as mini games go, but it didn't really enhance the game in any real way for me.

Crafting in particular seems to be at an impasse. No mini games means a whole lot of mindless, boring combinations (Oblivion uses this and so does WoW) and using mini games can be annoying and especially painful when you fail. They keep you better occupied than watching a progress bar, but not much.

I think one possible option to improve crafting is to establish a meta-game, where the real game is in researching and discovering where rare plants or minerals are located, as well as inventing the combinations for them yourself. Oblivion does this pretty well, and I think there is a certain pleasure in discovering your own recipes (until they are all posted online). To keep this method interesting, the progress bar needs to be axed, hard. There's no use putting your players to work finding materials and researching recipes only to have them wait patiently. Oblivion removes the progress bar, and is a good poster-boy for a crafting meta-game. Kudos.

But I'm not ready to pull the plug on mini games just yet, especially for crafting. Consider these options:

1)A crafting game, nothing mini about it.

In this system crafting could be just as involved as actually fighting. Crafters could have spells and abilities hotkeyed, and need to press them to successfully create an object, with each spell or ability allowing different traits to be passed on to the creation or keeping negative things from occurring. As an example, what if...

...a game's setting involved manipulating some magical forces in the air, creating order out of chaos (etc). The actual finding of materials involves things that allow you to better do this, and the game sets up a good way to "fight" you as you craft; the sword you are trying to make starts to pull apart, it starts to rust (as the horrible forces of chaos move to keep you from asserting order!), and you use your abilities to both improve the sword and to prevent these negatives that occur. Hit it with an invulnerability shield just before you add the lifesteal. "Heal" the sword as it starts to break apart.

2)A mini game.

Something simple, with timing: I'm crafting a sword, a mini hammer zips back and forth over a -------- 0 --------- line, and I have to time the hit to get it as close as possible to the 0. The closer I get, the better the item, or the better the chances of it creating with some extra bonuses. If I want to add more bonuses, I can do this again, but the hammer moves faster, or my sweet spot is smaller, or if I screw up I lose the original bonuses. Done. Next item.

Either way, I think it's important to never, ever destroy the materials on creation. Nothing frustrates me more than failing on a craft and losing all the stuff I worked for. I think a player needs to come away from crafting with something, even if it's a plain old sword. At least I can sell it back for 1/25 of the price of the materials for a small piece of my pride.

Mini games need an overhaul, and I think crafting is a great place to start. Either make things way more engaging, or use a mini game to allow a small advantage. Either way, keep me from getting frustrated and bored. But honestly, I'm just happy the industry is experimenting with mini games. They'll get better.