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Archive 4: Analysis of Diablo 2

This article was written out of necessity back in 2005… I was looking for a new gig and one studio asked for, as part of its application, a paper analyzing one of several possible games. Diablo 2 was on the list. Great timing! I had gone from X-Men Legends, where I learned the ups and downs of action RPG’s to working on Lord of the Rings Online, where discussions of scope and the feasibility of various online choices was the topic of the day. Both games set a lot of speculation stewing in my head about what could be done with the Diablo formula and why it was successful in the first place.

Analysis of Diablo II

by Patrick Lipo

Introduction

When the first Diablo was being previewed in 1995, most people (myself included) were blissfully unaware of its all-out potential. “I played that exact same game on mainframes 10 years ago,” we’d say, patting ourselves on the back. While we were congratulating ourselves, we had forgotten how those games had something that kept us playing and playing.

Blizzard could have simply created a polished copy of Rogue, Moria or Hack and done well, but they managed to refine the experience even further. Diablo was about giving gamers what the wanted, or perhaps what they needed, whether they knew it or not. Building off that success, Diablo II was able to add significant new features without spoiling what the original did right.

What Was Done Well

Simple World Presentation

2D may be “dead” to some, but the use of a 2D field was key to Diablo’s initial accessibility to millions. Everything the player needed to know about his surroundings was right in front of him. North was always up, just like a map. Yet, the isometric view and the 3D-rendered sprites kept the game from looking old. The Sims made a similar choice, and enjoyed similar ease-of-use.

Simple Controls

Click where you want to go. Click what you want to attack. What could be simpler? What Diablo I & II offers is a intuitive, rhythmic, and even mindless player experience at the lowest level. This allows the game to transcend the moment-to-moment battles and make people think about longer-term goals, such as completing the dungeon or gaining the next level. They could have added more moves to the player character (as Blade & Sword attempted), but would have clouded what worked so well, and pushed the emphasis to abilities and loot.

Frequent Rewards

From the very first Quill Rat slain, the coins spew forth, highlighting the strong cycle of rewards in Diablo II. While combat with a single opponent is simplistic, each enemy carries its own surprise contents. Who cares if a tiny Fetish unrealistically explodes like a piñata filled with gold, weapons and armor? Each and every kill feels different and rewarding because the player gets the pleasure of collecting new spoils, and rooting through a full inventory of randomly-generated items can be like a miniature Christmas morning.

The level progression curve is equally rewarding. While an MMO or pen-and-paper derived RPG such as Baldur’s Gate must space level advances with huge sessions of play, Diablo II manages to reward the player often, beginning at about five minutes and smoothly progressing towards around an hour. These frequent level-ups give the player yet another gift-unwrapping session of choosing which skills to acquire or advance. And while another game might provide finely-granular skill points to allocate, each Diablo II skill improvement is noticeable, with a beefy jump in damage, number of minions, or power duration.

Identifiable, Overlapping Goals

A major force in Diablo I and II’s long-lasting appeal is their presentation of goals. The player’s quest objectives are bold and easy to understand, such as “go here”, “find this” or “kill all of X in this area”. Beyond quests, the player can easily identify personal goals for his character, such as “level up”, “get this high-level spell”, or “become powerful enough to wield this weapon”. All these objectives are dangled in front of the player like carrots on a stick… You go into a highly-populated dungeon and you know what to do. You look at your skill tree and you see what prerequisites you need to summon an Iron Golem. Check your inventory and you see that sword that you just need three more points of strength to wield.

Coupled perfectly with this is the way that all of these goals overlap. In some games, the completion of a level gives the player an opportunity to catch their breath and consider quitting their session. In the Diablo series, the completion of a dungeon may bring you most of the way to earning another level, encouraging you to finish it off. However, once you earn that level, you might be halfway through another dungeon, drawing you to player just a bit longer to finish that up… And so it continues.

My first awareness of this dynamic came from playing the original Civilization, which had a similar loop of drawing the player from completing one more unit to finishing up that last attack before quitting for the night. Encouraging this sort of compulsive play behavior is not desirable in every type of game… Tetris’s strength comes from the ease of picking it up for a quick game, and massively-multiplayer games become more expensive to host if their players are active for 16 hours a day. However, for games such as Diablo II and Civilization, the goal structure had the effect of keeping people playing until the light of dawn began streaming through the window…

Randomness and Repeatability

The random generation of items and dungeons in Diablo II is something that outwardly sounds like a nice bullet-point for the sales flyer, but ultimately is integral to the series’ enduring presence. The dungeons have enough variation to make successive plays through (with the same advanced character or an entirely new class) different enough to keep the sense of discovery, but they are not so random as to make the dungeons appear “patchwork” (as seen in the PSP release of Untold Legends). The monsters have a sliding-scale difficulty that helps them remain challenging throughout your replay curve. The items have a fantastic, smart variability that provides statistics and powers that are interesting at the times you really want them. That last feature is something that Dungeon Siege had difficulty replicating (where you often saw Colossal Two-handed Mallets of Wisdom™ or Magic Wands of Excessive Strength™).

Integration of the Meta Experience

The effort that was put into making Diablo II replayable was exploited to the fullest in providing a metagame as well. Once the player completes the full story, it wraps almost seamlessly into the next play-through at a higher challenge level. The advancement curve is such that multiple completions are needed to fully experience everything a class has to offer (and even then there are other classes to explore). This embrace of the player’s experience above and beyond a single telling of the game narrative is something that more games should incorporate.

Minimizing Dead Playtime

One final element that helped give the Diablo series appeal was its conscientious reduction of dead time at any cost. Most RPG’s have some measure of uneventful busywork or travel, but elements such as the Town Portals virtually eliminate any dead travel time in the game. RPG purists doubtless were infuriated at this break with “reality” and “world sense”, but this addition had a far, far, far more positive effect on the player experience than a negative one. Diablo II added sprinting and item highlighting that identified and alleviated tedious bits that existed in the first game, showing that the developers considered this issue important to track down and solve.

What Could Be Improved

More Random Side-Quests

The randomized content of Diablo II is inspiring, as is the simplicity of their quests. One thing that I would do to maximize the value of such a powerful and versatile system is create far more simple side-quests than the game originally provided. The content structure and world layout of Diablo II makes a natural potential for creating hundreds of quests with variable properties that an industrious (and thorough) character can embark on. The component-based map structure allows the game to sprinkle quests into almost any map, each with a named monster and a rare or unique drop, so that adding new dungeons to a previously featureless play zone can provide an entirely new feel. There could be only a limited number of quests available for each play-through, so that it might take the player dozens of characters to see all of the possibilities.

These side-quests could also work with Diablo II’s replayability. By tracking the player’s completion history with different characters, the game could open up specialized quests on subsequent run-throughs. Complete the paladin on the hardest difficulty and your next character might get some holy artifact. This could bring more long-term goals than Easter eggs like the cow quest already provide.

Feedback for Hit-or-Miss

A difficult issue with real-time games that use to-hit rolls is what to do when the character misses his attack. Typically, a miss is shown as a normal hit with no effect or sound. Diablo is this way, allowing the player to click frantically at an enemy, but with only some percentage of the attacks resulting in damage, the rest passing through uneventfully. The player feedback on this is weak, resulting in a little bit of mystery around what is a “good” or “bad” attack total.

Having taken on this issue in the action-RPG X-Men Legends, there are a few things that can be done to help better represent it to the player. The first is to play a “dodge” or “parry” animation on the opponent that shows that player why damage was not done. This can be exciting, adding in new motion to the interaction, but it must be done carefully to avoid confusing the player (for example, big dodging motions might make the player think that the AI is doing something to keep away from him, as though he is doing something wrong). It can also put new pressures on the character animators, particularly if you wish to synchronize the animation with the incoming attack (although this is less necessary with Diablo’s smaller characters). Finally, in a game with many attacks coming into a single target, deciding which ones to respond to can become almost arbitrary.

In X-Men the above was impractical due to memory and manpower limitations, so an alternate approach was taken. A failed attack roll is deemed a “weak hit”, with almost no effect and an unsatisfying “thup” sound. For successful hits, an effect is selected from a set of increasingly intense impacts, depending on how much the player’s attack totals exceed the enemy’s defense. In addition to the hit sound, a secondary “rumble” sound is mixed in to give extra “oomph” to powerful hits. The result of this tactic is that when the player first meets a new creature that is fairly tough, he does weak hits, but as he begins to gain experience and outclass it, he is rewarded by much more powerful effects to go with his increased damage-dealing.

More Dungeon Interactivity

Diablo dungeons are very good at providing exactly what they need as far as functionality. Their interactivity needs are very simple… a key may unlock a door or trigger an animation, flipping a bit in the dungeon and little else. This makes “what you do” in the dungeons fairly limited. By adding a few moving elements such as sliding walls and mobile platforms, certain situations could gain more of a time element, such as protecting a caravan or moving through an area before a wall crushes the player.

Also, if destructible structures and walls were added, player spells could have much more tangible impact on the world, and monsters would be able to smash their way through obstructions for dramatic effect.

Encounter Generation

At this point I’ve given suggestions on content, presentation and technology, but played it fairly safe (any schlep can say “more quests!” or “break stuff!”), so I’ll add something that might have more impact on Diablo II’s gameplay. The standard play structure of Diablo II involves creatures that sit and wait for you to clear them out, after which an area is empty until reset. For the sake of contrast, this could be enhanced by creating encounters that come to the player instead. These could be used to occasionally liven up travel through a cleared-out area, or add tension to certain objectives with ambushes, retaliations or pursuits.

These encounters would need to be generated with the same care as the rest of Diablo II’s randomized content, fitting with the appropriate biome, challenge level and terrain features. They would also have to be provided at carefully timed moments, so as to not betray the feeling of accomplishment that a player feels when walking through an area he devastated. A useful technique would be to let the player in on exactly what is happening by announcing the attack with a battle cry or even a special title (“Raptor Vengeance!”) when one is triggered.

In the case of random quests, these encounters could greatly enhance the sorts of events that can occur. Finally, generated encounters could potentially provide the game with the feel of hand-crafted content without the manpower and testing challenges typically experienced by heavily scripted games.

Conclusion

I hope that this analysis of Diablo II was not so drawn out that I lost you two pages ago. The game at its core is so simple, yet it did so many things right. It is amazing that more games haven’t benefited from the lessons it brought to the industry.

Archive 3: Hail to the Prince

This was the second article I wrote for Joystick101 in Spring 2004… Sadly enough, around that time, the site was pretty much dying on the vine. It tended to be down a lot. Since blogs and blog sites weren’t really too common yet, this was the only outlet for this content, so my participation in that forum pretty much died with the site. Again, when it was resurrected in 2007 it was relaunched with a WordPress backbone and the old content and community was reset.

Play Appraisal: Observations of a Developer
By Patrick Lipo
March 2004

Hail to the Prince:

When I heard about the development of the most recent sequel to Prince of Persia (PoP: The Sands of Time), I along with many others indulged in skepticism. I loved the original and really enjoyed the second one, and look back at them as the absolute best in action-exploration. I do recognize some of this feeling as nostalgia, however, since they were also excellent examples of gameplay that was common 15 years ago… a 2D world filled with death-defying jumps and quick, easy deaths. Having tried the third title in the series, PoP 3D, it was easy to think of that game’s limitations as evidence that the series could not be updated to a modern 3D presentation without losing its spirit. That third title unfortunately had a very difficult time with establishing a working control scheme and camera, but in addition it focused on giving the player more choices and weapons for fighting (as a gamer might expect in one of today’s games), rather than considering PoP’s pedigree as a game of exploration.

When considering the difficulties that PoP 3D had, I cannot help but appreciate the core elements of the original’s design, and how bringing them to today’s game-playing audience would be quite difficult. For those that have not played the original Prince of Persia, it was a side-view exploration game, where your character progressed through various screens and overcame a variety of death traps in order to continue. It was a fairly brutal game, with sparse checkpoints and unforgiving traps that had to be overcome, including long falls, spring-loaded spikes, slashing blades, collapsing floors, and other instruments of serious peril. While the player did have a health bar to absorb damage from short falls and the occasional swordfight, running afoul of a trap generally meant instant, gory death.

Rube Goldberg:

While it is easy to categorize the Prince of Persia games as exploration mixed with sword-fighting and jumping challenges, after a period of time playing, you find an unexpected game buried within. For example, while some platformers rely on split-second timing and twitch abilities to accomplish their most advanced moves, each of the Prince’s leaps, crawls and dashes are fairly easy to accomplish. In fact, the famous wall-run created for PoP: Sands of Time is so forgiving that it almost feels as though the hero is guided along a track. It and most other of PoP’s moves (most notably in Sands of Time) are actually difficult to do incorrectly assuming you chose the correct time to use that move. Some hardcore gamers bash Sands of Time for that reason, stating that the game strays too close to playing itself rather than providing the player with sufficient challenge. To dismiss the game for that purpose is to miss an important aspect: Once the player has a general understanding of the moves and the obstacles that each move is capable of overcoming, the game becomes as much of a relationship with the classic game The Incredible Machine as Super Mario 64.

In The Incredible Machine, the player is given a set of pieces that each exhibit a certain behavior and accomplish a task by applying them to the level’s game board. In Prince of Persia, the player is trained to use a library of moves that can be used as tools to bypass obstacles, after which he is challenged to accomplish a task (typically reaching the exit) by applying them to the presented environment. In addition, the presentation of Prince of Persia has two other elements that are required to allow the player to approach an area as an intellectual challenge rather than a test of reflexes. The first element is that the player has a clear set of predictable properties that he can draw from. This is his “toolkit,” as it were, that he can draw upon to complete a given level (while Sands of Time was admirably seamless, each area was definitely presented as a stage or level to overcome). The Incredible Machine had easy-to-understand physical devices such as treadmills and rolling balls, whereas PoP draws from a set of very predictable moves. The “forgiving” nature of the wall-run that puts off the hardcore player suddenly becomes an asset because the player can look at a wall and immediately know whether he can clear that space with the move. The challenge, then, was not in executing the wall-run flawlessly, but rather figuring out when to use it.

The second element that makes Prince of Persia playable as a puzzle game is its ability to present the player with a clear view of the level for planning purposes. The original 2D versions could easily present “the game board” in this respect, as the viewpoint revealed all elements to the player. Nothing was hidden completely… even the collapsing floors in the original PoP could easily be revealed with a quick jump in-place. This gives the player the ability to plan and mentally execute the solution before committing his hero to it. In taking this formula to 3D, Sands of Time provided very grand, open-aired spaces for the hero to navigate. This had a fabulous impact in presentation, giving the feeling of very large spaces, and locations so high that a real sense of vertigo can be experienced. In addition however, it also provided a clear view of the elements that would be navigated, going so far as to provide a specially-placed camera that the player could always switch to in order to see the challenges ahead of him. Since the player was able to plot his route, if he were to die, it was always clear that it was due to some flaw in deduction rather than an arbitrary timing mistake or unfair “gotcha”.

A Ticking Clock:

Binding this puzzle-oriented gameplay together in the original Prince of Persia was an unusual method of limiting the player’s deaths. Instead of a set number of lives, the player is given exactly one hour to complete the entire game. Being killed simply meant some time lost from retracing one’s steps from the last checkpoint. This gives the game some urgency but also presents a tangible but relatively small penalty for taking risks. This penalty, however, grows naturally as the player progresses towards the end, since the amount of remaining time is constantly dwindling. The player will of course run out the clock many times over before he can even come close to the end of the game, but with each attempt he will improve his speed, and reap a quantifiable reward from increased prowess (additional seconds on the clock when starting each level). And naturally, as less time is spent in the early levels, the comfort zone where the player feels at ease with experimentation migrates into later areas of the game.

In addition, time in the game becomes a resource that the player wields with complete control. The player comes to understand that each time he fails the overall mission (runs out of time) it was due to his own actions and his general performance while playing the game. Conversely, as he improves, he saves time and gains security. Of course, once the game has been completed (within the allotted hour), the next challenge for the player is to complete the game in as short a period as possible. Since the hero starts out with very few health points and can only gain more by finding hidden potions, the best way to do get a low time score is to ignore the health-increasing potions and attempt to complete the game without the benefit of the extra health. The increased health mainly serves to give the player an advantage while swordfighting, so by leaving his health low, he must also put his faith in his fighting capabilities as well.

These aspects of Prince of Persia provide an intriguing meta-challenge to the player’s experience. Not only does he compete with the traps within the game, but he must look at a game session as a whole and determine how each early decision will affect the clock situation later on. He must also make decisions as to how much assistance he needs to complete the game without dying, rather than to take every gift offered him. The high-level “game” that continues in the player’s mind through multiple sessions of play is a puzzle all its own.

Let’s Do The Time Warp Again:

The choice to put a ticking clock in the original PoP added an excellent high-level playing experience, but when thinking about how it would be updated for the modern console audience, one must consider how it was built on an old-school approach to game challenges. The hero is quite vulnerable, and the player must endure multiple abrupt deaths as well as play through areas repeatedly after having to continue from a checkpoint. This sort of repetition and the inability to save games was familiar to gamers of the eighties and early nineties, but I am skeptical that this sort of approach would be accepted by the more casual gamers of today. However, to “fix” Prince of Persia by implementing infinite saves and higher character survivability could easily have destroyed the game completely. The very nature of death-defying jumps requires instilling fear and the risk of some sort of penalty. If there is no significant downside to poor performance, the player could become encouraged to blindly stumble through the challenges rather than to take a moment and plan his approach. Bringing in the timer from the original would have had its own raft of problems as well… The requirement of starting over from the beginning of the game repeatedly to make progress would probably have been seen as an extremely outdated mechanic and could have quickly driven away players. And to be fair (since I don’t consider modern players to be less worthy in any way), being stripped of one’s achievements again and again can truly feel frustratingly harsh.

In updating the series, The Sands of Time removed the meta-challenge of the time limit and relied on the more traditional approach of checkpoints and save games. This act brought the PoP series into a progression framework that fits modern players’ expectations, which was probably a wise choice. However, it still needed to address the issue of character mortality, which I would contend was necessary for the game to function as a puzzle game. With such deadly traps, the game could easily have become incredibly frustrating to play. Loading one’s savegame again and again would have been necessary to complete a difficult challenge (or to experiment with possible solutions to a level’s “puzzle”). The designers of Sands of Time, knowingly or unknowingly, were in a very difficult position. Either the game could retain its purity and risk being considered too hardcore, or it could have become too forgiving and transformed from a puzzle game to an action game. It is at this point that its predecessor, PoP 3D, most likely faltered.

The choice that was made for PoP: The Sands of Time to address this was an amazingly innovative one. In the final game, a limited resource of sand gives the player the power to rewind time at any moment, allowing him to retry any misstep. Essentially, it takes the player’s act of loading a savegame (which can be considered a “feature” that allows a player to retry any section of the game) and folds it into the game mechanics itself, going so far as to dedicate a controller button to that function. In most other games, when a player is forced to load a savegame repeatedly, the overall experience is diminished. In Sands of Time, the sand is a resource that is acquired through continuous adventuring, so the game becomes richer when players are forced to use it to retry a challenge. The interesting result of this strategy is that since the player is rarely forced to return to a save point, the game can present extremely difficult challenges while avoiding the seemingly inevitable frustration. Even more intriguing, the mechanic allows the player to almost continually experience new things and overcome new challenges, rather than retracing the same steps taken many times before. This choice may have taken a decidedly hardcore game type, an old-school platform-jumping title and restored its viability.

Crossing Swords:

While the Prince of Persia series has always had swordfighting, it would be foolish to think of fighting as the primary element (excluding PoP 3D, which focused a great deal on combat). In the original Prince of Persia, the guards blocking the hero’s way often acted as yet another puzzle piece… There were times when an opponent had to be dispatched in a certain way because he was located so he could kill the hero outright before he could draw his sword. However, in The Sands of Time, the fighting is more or less a pure interlude. This provides spikes in the game’s pacing but also simply sells it as a cinematic Arabian adventure. Luckily in SoT, the fights contained a few simple behaviors that provided a reasonably different experience than a typical brawling game.

The enemies in PoP: The Sands of Time are essentially undead, which means that they will always rise after each knockdown, until the player can reach a downed opponent and strike the killing blow with his dagger (which takes a short amount of time). The challenge of the combat then becomes buying time with repeated knockdowns, and trying to separate a specific enemy from the pack so that he can be dispatched without the player being interrupted by other enemies. The tactics then rely on the hero being very mobile, keeping away from the pack of enemies until he is able to dart in and strike at an individual. This mobility-centric behavior builds on the game’s technical strengths beautifully, since the game is very impressive when the hero is moving about, completing dodges, flips and rolls.

Conclusions:

  • The traps in Prince of Persia each have moves that can overcome them easily, but the real challenge is to deduce the series of moves that it will take to accomplish an entire area, akin to a puzzle game.
  • The overarching timer in the original Prince of Persia provided urgency, yet allowed the player to experiment heavily in the early game without significant penalty.
  • Allowing the player to get an even higher score (e.g. a lower time) by avoiding powerups allowed the player to choose their own risk and confidence level.
  • The time-rewind feature of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time allows a very unforgiving set of traps to be viable in design.
  • Time-rewind more importantly means that the player can always be working on something new, rather than retracing steps time and time again.
  • The predictability and forgiving feel of the special moves serve a purpose of allowing the player to focus on deducing the moves rather than executing them.
  • The combat in Prince of Persia is simple, but in Sands of Time, the simple addition of a killing move allowed the fighting to become more about motion and looking cool than a single fight.

Playing through Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time recently taught me a fair amount. By looking back at the decisions the designers made, and examining how an older style of challenge was brought into a modern game, it allowed me to look back and understand how I experienced the series as a whole. The result is a series of conclusions that I hope will enrich how I look at other games as well.

Archive 2: Observations of a Developer

This article was the first one written for the website Joystick101.  I actually wrote it because I wanted to get into GDC in 2004…  This was a few months before I left Raven, so it was natural that they couldn’t pay for me to go that year.  My compatriot Nathan McKenzie (also at Raven during that time) and I both wanted in, and we knew some of the folks who started the website (including Kurt Squire, who is now well-known in game academic circles).  After we each did an article (sadly the original postings were erased as Joystick101 got relaunched in early 2007), and with some other credentials, we were able to travel to San Jose on our own dime and have an incredibly educational (and enjoyable) week at GDC.

 It was interesting posting to that crowd…  It was a group that was pretty academic-heavy, so getting content from a developer was a rather novel thing.  As a result, I kept this first article rather general.

Play Appraisal: Observations of a Developer

By Patrick Lipo

March 2004

Vincent:
A few months ago I celebrated my tenth anniversary at Raven Software. My first reaction to this milestone was predictable, “wow, ten years already?”… However, after the amazement wore off, I began reflecting back on the path I took to get here. I looked back at the young, ambitious programmer I was ten years ago, almost like he was a different guy… In fact, I’ll treat him like another guy, and call him “Vincent”.

Vincent definitely was passionate, with a head full of crazy ideas, and wide-eyed at the concept of learning how the experts made a real game. This was back before the Web, before mods, when most of us were as likely to know how to make Circus Peanuts as we would a game. What Vince did know was that he was dissatisfied with almost every aspect of how games were made, and (with inflated ego) considered himself a champion, crusading to bring new concepts to gamers everywhere. If you asked his co-workers, they could recall how he got into a lengthy design argument with his boss during his first team meeting… It’s amazing he survived the week. Of course he was pretty clueless as to how to live up to this ambition. Vincent just had drive and a really hard head.

Now that a few projects have come and gone, and that person has evolved into myself, I’d like to think that I’ve learned a few things and gained a better understanding of the big picture. I discovered that there are ramifications of each design decision made, risks and tradeoffs, and the need for focus and goals. However, looking back at the past ten years, I started to think about Vincent and the way he thought about things. The belief that it can always be done better and the drive to learn… without them, we’d still be making clones of Space Invaders (“We’ve got it, Mr. Molyneux, this time the aliens can move along a curve… And get this… they’re orange!”)

Nathan McKenzie and I have recently had lengthy discussions about the choices various games have made, and the effects that those choices have on the player experience. As a result, we thought it would be fun to look at some of the games of the past and present and bring away as many lessons as possible from them. The only rule is to stay constructive… If anyone wanted rants, they could visit one of a hundred message boards to find them. The goal is to recognize achievements of past and present games and identify how each design decision ultimate affects the player. Comparing play patterns across games and genres (and eras) can provide some interesting food for thought.

Evolution:
In honor of Vincent, and to illustrate some of the things that differentiate him and me, here are a few things that I quickly came to understand over the years. Some of these are dead obvious, but if anything they show that lofty ambitions don’t automatically spawn fantastic games.

* Reality is (usually) not the ideal that games aspire to
When I came to Raven, my first project was Cyclones, a shooter in a sci-fi setting. One of the earliest weapons I was assigned to implement was a grenade launcher… With it you could shoot around corners, which (since this was a few years before Quake) was pretty cool. When I got done implementing it, others complained that the weapon was difficult to use because when they would shoot their target directly, it would continue to bounce until the fuse ran out and it exploded, often back at the player’s feet. I really was stubborn about changing it, because of the way I felt the weapon would have operated, and considered the weapon’s use to be a matter of a learned skill. Unsurprisingly however, nobody ended up using the weapon because it was too difficult to use.

At the time I thought that games were heading towards reality, and at some point becoming completely realistic would be the ultimate achievement. I wasn’t alone… I commonly hear requests for a more realistic approach to guns, AI, player health, vehicles, or other elements inspired by real life. True, realism has a definite place in simulations or hardcore military games, but it is important to realize that we still have to define an experience as a “game”. And real-life is not fun (most particularly war).

* The player doesn’t always need (or want) complete control of everything
Micromanagement in games was something that I really enjoyed back in college. With games like Civilization, I could control small details of every city in my fledgling nation. That was cool, and catered well to folks like me that had a lot of time on my (pre-developer) hands, but at the time I wanted even more. Why not build your cities building by building? Why not provide more interaction with your armies during combat, rather than relegate the results of the fight to a simple roll of the dice?

Since then I have seen (and implemented) the results of many game mechanics that attempted to present the player with too much. Intricate power control systems for the hero’s armor… Complicated weapon loadout rules… Pinpoint control when swinging a Jedi’s lightsaber. All of them provided the player with interesting choices, but unfortunately they were drowned out by dozens of other more meaningless possibilities and actions. The ideas had merit, but the lesson learned was that without directing the player’s focus on the fun stuff, it can be lost in tedium and frustration.

* Game developers do not represent “average gamers”
It has crossed the minds of more than a few people who have made games, and it certainly was in my head ten years ago. “What defines the ultimate gamer better than a developer?” Sure, not only do we love games enough to learn how to make them, but we devote their lives to making newer and better ones. “I am my own target audience,” is a quote I once read from another developer. Possibly not coincidentally, his company is no longer around.

Not surprisingly however, game makers are far from normal. We are freaks… gamer-mutants. It takes a healthy amount of obsession for someone to bring one’s pastime into their lives full time, and it permanently changes one’s view of games after a surprisingly short amount of time. Developers often don’t purchase games for the same reason as gamers, and they sometimes have difficulty enjoying the newest game. Often they don’t have time to play many games at all, or to finish more than a tiny number. After finishing only one game, I realized that making games only for myself was close-minded, and certainly not profitable.

* One person cannot do it alone anymore
I came to Raven in 1993 with my head filled with visions of Richard Garriot cranking out Ultimas in the eighties… one man with a story to tell, and a vision of how it would be told from start to finish. I knew that teams had already exceeded 10 at Raven when I started, but remember that I wanted to save the world. I wanted to do it all.

The eighties are over. A single person is not going to be solely responsible for the success or failure of a game anymore. The idea that a single person can maintain vision on design, programming, art and sound on a modern mainstream game and convey it to others in a useful way is rapidly fading, if even such a possibility still exists. A strong team is paramount to making a great title nowadays, with good leadership binding the team together and guiding them in the right direction. As such, communication is becoming more critical than ever, and collaboration is necessary to bring a lofty concept to a satisfying conclusion.

Conclusion:
Okay, so in this article we did not get around to examining any specific games, but we’ll get to that in subsequent ones. However, I wanted this introduction to serve as an explanation of my goals in writing these articles. If there is anything I have learned so far is that there is a lot to know and there will always be more.

Archive 1: Kingdom Hearts Review

Over the past 15 years I’ve written a bunch of stuff, public and private, that I was looking for a repository for.  Right now I only have a few articles, but I’ll be growing this as I uncover material and write more.

 Anyway, I figured I’d start out light…  This is a review of Kingdom Hearts that I wrote for internal distribution at Raven.  If anything, it gives a feel to the style that I use.

Game Developer Review: Kingdom Hearts

By Patrick Lipo
February 2003

Kingdom Hearts was released in September 2002 to a reasonable amount of fanfare. The first effort of its type and scope, Disney worked closely with Japanese game giant Squaresoft to create an epic RPG that fused the world and characters of Disney with the concepts and design of a Square game. This no doubt was a true leap of faith for Disney to entrust such a large chunk of their closely-guarded properties to any company, much less one of an entirely different culture and perspective. Reportedly the new, Japanese-styled characters that were created for this game will even become part of the Disney mythos in Japan. The game certainly has the production effort to match the scope of the partnership. Vast armies of artists, animators, programmers and voice talent were brought to bear to bring the game to fruition. It went on to ship over 3 million copies worldwide as of December, and I believe that even now it is in the top 20 overall selling games. Gamerankings.com has already collected the reviews for a respectable
average of 87%.

The Disney tie-in:

Rating: Surprisingly cool. The story revolves around Sora, a boy who lives on a little island which is consumed by a black scourge known as the Heartless. Sora is thrown into another world where he meets Donald Duck and Goofy, who join forces with him and journey through various Disney-styled worlds to deal with the mounting threat. The cinematic sequences initially feel surreal to watch; seeing your character conversing with Goofy about such grave circumstances seems ridiculous at first, but quickly becomes quite natural. The explanation of all the different mythos of Disney being part of this multiverse seems a bit forced sometimes, but it goes together reasonably well in the end. Tying everything together was certainly a big challenge for the art staff, bringing together the more realistic forms like Snow White together with the more stylized characters like Tarzan and the all-out cartoony characters like Goofy and Ursula the octopus, not to mention the anime-styled original characters. Overall they did good work with this by blending the looks for the original content, by blending stylized forms with more cartoony clothing, or by adding splashes of color to some of the more dreary environments. However, I can’t guarantee that the mixing of styles will please you, as I have heard enough online grumbling from those who just couldn’t accept it.

All-Age Appeal:

Rating: Pretty good. Kingdom Hearts is rated E (Everyone), and definitely seems to want to have something for young and old. The grave subject of a black terror devouring worlds seems to defy the for-kids feel of the game, but everything is softened slightly by a Disney wrapper that gives even the shadowy Heartless a place alongside Alice and Minnie Mouse. Villains feel dangerous, but there is an element of whimsy to them to keep from really scaring kids too much. There’s a fair amount of gameplay depth, and the story is reasonably involved. I’m not really a huge Disney fan, and in general I believe that an older or hardcore gamer enjoy playing Hearts, although possibly in fear that their friends will somehow find out that they are spending their evenings summoning Bambi… Make no mistake however, those that can’t get past the so-called “kiddie” look of Mario or Zelda games won’t find this any better. As for kids, I do think the game is pretty grave for very young kids, and some of the mechanics are pretty complex also.

Gameplay and Control:

Rating: Weak at first, good later on. Sora is an interesting character to watch and control, with flamboyant and interesting moves and attacks. However, the motion, particularly while jumping, has a “floaty” feel to it that will definitely throw off those used to controlling of Mario, Spyro or Link. You will miss many jumps initially due to the odd feel until you adjust. Luckily, while there is a fair amount of jumping in Hearts, the penalty of a missed jump is never serious, resulting only in some inconvenience as you return to your jumping point.

The combat is fun and easy, really easy to get absorbed in. Punching the attack button results in rather simple attacks, but by toggling a button, the player can lock onto any enemy and start hacking away. This is where the “floaty” feel works to your advantage, as the character will automatically turn, leap and dive to reach a targeted enemy. Without even touching the jump button you can slash at one of the many airborne enemies multiple times before gently falling back to terra firma. The downside to the game’s fighting is that it can get repetitive. Entering or re-entering a room will result in waves and waves of creatures attacking. It almost seems unfair, because instead of residing in a room, they will “spawn” around you as you enter a given area, drawing you to fight until you clear out multiple waves with that area or eventually retreat. Luckily, as the game progresses, the variety of enemy types and your own abilities makes even repeated encounters with the same creatures engaging.

Enemies, Allies and AI:

Rating: Quite good. Throughout most of the adventure, Sora has two allies who fight alongside him, usually Donald and Goofy, although other characters such as Aladdin or Tarzan can be used also. The AI of these allies is very good. They are competent enough to take out enemies on their own, but are not so potent that you aren’t engaging in the bulk of the action. All characters have spells, and will use them offensively and defensively in appropriate situations. They navigate well as Sora jumps and climbs throughout areas, although the game does help out in cleverly “teleporting” them to you when you’re not looking. The only fault that might be had with them is that regardless of the aggressiveness level you set them to, they tend to vastly overuse resources such as healing and mana elixirs, so you generally have to ration out valuable items to them in very small numbers.

As I said above, the variety is the most notable element of the enemies. Most are carefully designed, with unique movements, patterns and vulnerabilities that inspire different strategies to defeat them. This is good, because otherwise the AI is not too special. Since the Heartless do not appear until you get within 10 feet of them, and since they disappear if you get too far from them, there is no need for serious navigation or tactics. I found that combat was pretty dull until a few worlds into the game, when there are enough enemies introduced and Sora picks up enough special abilities that things start to pick up. Finally, the large bosses are handled very well, many being very large ones that require you to actually jump on top of them and target specific parts of their bodies.

Polish and Presentation:

Rating: Ungodly. While I do think the gameplay is more rewarding further into the game, I have always told people that you really play Kingdom Hearts for the spectacle above all else. The Disney world is amazingly portrayed here, giving the worlds of Tarzan, Little Mermaid and Nightmare Before Christmas their own charm and flair, often with differing art direction within. Unfortunately the first world, Alice in Wonderland, is not quite as special as some of the later ones, but taking flight around Big Ben in the Neverland realm offers one of the bigger feelings of wonder I’ve felt playing a game. Some of the worlds are fairly small in size, but there is a lot of variety, and you find new Disney mythos popping up in a huge number of places. It’s really only in some of the original worlds where the spark is lost, seeming far more bland after being severed from the source material.

As if the sheer resources of Square weren’t enough, this game uses the Disney studio resources quite heavily also. The voice recording in particular is well directed, and sports a very good cast. More interesting than the menu of young celebrities chosen for the new characters, many of the Disney universe voices are taken directly from the same people who have done them for years, even for small bit-parts. Overall it brings the universe together very well.

The technology that is brought to bear to create some of the Disney spectacle is quite impressive also. While fighting opponents in real-time, it is possible to summon one of several Disney characters to help you out. The game segues immediately into a summon sequence with incredible effects, backdrops, and camera work. The game then puts the player right back into the fight, having covered up any loading that might have been necessary. The Lion King summon to me was one of the coolest things in the whole game.

Longevity:

Rating: Whatever you make of it. As an indicator for how much people will replay this game, the GameFAQs entry for Hearts is always in the top ten for visits, regardless of the other new games that might be out (Vice City and Final Fantasy X are the other ones that stay in there). There are a large number of player-made documents about collecting all the weapons, how to unlock secret battles, or how to defeat optional bosses like Sephiroth that are practically unbeatable. There is one misfire (the Gummi ship minigame is so terrible it could make kids cry), but overall I felt that there was still a fair amount of stuff for me to discover after finishing the game, and I had already invested around 60 hours.

Summary:

So why is this game successful? If it isn’t obvious already, the Disney license and the amazing quality with which it was realized is enough to net young and old. In addition, the easy, accessible play let younger players get involved, but in the end there is a lot of complexity and depth. The combat, puzzles, or even the story weren’t the things that made me feel good about this game. It was the variety and the incredible presentation that made it worth the time I put into playing it.