Category Archives: Game Design

Making the Rules: Pillars and Razors

A Pillar, obviouslyWith all the good reasons to keep your game design lean and mean, anything you can do to streamline the feature filtering process is worth it. Continuously asking yourself “Is this for the good of the game?” is difficult, and the answers are hard to trust when you get caught up in the details. A system of high-level priorities must be applied in all but the smallest of games.

The Power of Verbs
A lot of game designers like to talk about Verbs… They are a good tool for stripping down a game to its basic components, unfettered by a particular fiction or context. While some designers define their verbs at a fairly micro level such as “move”, “turn right”, “push”, or “draw weapon”, for the purposes of scope it is much more useful to keep those verbs big and chunky that describe objectives or major game states… These are words like “Fight”, “Explore”, “Customize”, “Build”, “Cook”, “Expand”, and “Destroy”.

While a game can have many verbs overall, it is also important to identify, very early in the design process, which ones are the Pillar Verbs… These are the core activities that the player will engage in 90% of the time… it’s really what your game is about. It is important to keep the list of these verbs as tight as possible, hopefully three or less. Here is where you are going to lavish the most love and attention, along with the most art and technology. These activities have the most depth and polish applied to them… even to the point of having the most buttons assigned to them on a console controller.

A great game has a tight list of Pillar Verbs that read loud and clear, even to a player:

  • God of War: Fight
  • Super Mario: Traverse
  • Halo: Shoot
  • Diablo: Fight, Acquire
  • Oblivion: Fight, Explore, Customize
  • GTA: Drive, Fight

Horadric Cube from Diablo IIThe above list may sound a bit simplistic… Halo had driving, right? So did Half-Life 2, but by far the greatest depth is placed in combat. A game may technically have many Secondary Verbs that provide an experience beyond the Pillar Verbs, but generally they add breadth (note I didn’t say “depth”) to the game experience or a sense of added value. Diablo II provided a secondary verb of “craft” via the Horadric Cube, but nobody would accuse the game of being about crafting.

On a big project with a big team and a big budget, it is critical to identify your core experiences as early as possible. This sounds intuitive, but many teams have difficulty with this point. The Pillar Verbs are the core of the game, the foundation on which the experience is built. Use them as a Razor for every new feature, bell or whistle: If new item X adds to the depth and richness of one of the Pillar Verbs, it deserves extra consideration. Items that don’t support the game’s pillars undergo greater scrutiny before being added to the final list of features.

Games spread their efforts around too many Pillar Verbs are likely to end up with a game that is described as “unfocused” or “unpolished”. Attempting to layer too much depth into too many verbs even might be (ironically) declared to be “shallow”, because of the failure to focus the player’s attention to their key strengths.

Gettin’ phat and fat in GTA San AndreasEnormous games like open-world titles can be the toughest to nail down. They are inherently about breadth… If you added all the micro-activities in Grand Theft Auto IV to a list of verbs, you’d end up with a page or two of entries. However, while some of us might feel that there was a bit too much of the “date” verb in the most recent GTA, it’s still very clear that the Pillar Verbs are still “drive” and “fight”… the same as it was in GTA III. It sounds simple but if you go back and play it, driving and fighting was all it needed to sell six million copies.

When Vice City added “acquire” with real estate and San Andreas added “customize” with clothing and fitness, they were merely window dressing on the core activity of getting in a vehicle and going to shoot something. If GTA IV required you to do more bowling or dating or web-browsing, would you doubt that the game experience would suffer? Worse yet, what if the team developing more of these side activities distracted them from creating a great driving or fighting experience? It would certainly be a disaster. God knows if Little Jacob invites me for a night of drinking one more time while I’m running from the cops, I’ll be hurling my controller through the TV.

Sticking to your Values
By nailing your Pillar Verbs, you will have an invaluable tool for focusing your game. However, there’s one other list that needs to be considered when you are prioritizing your features: the Pillar Values. For example, would you claim that the only emphasis in the direction God of War was to have great combat? What about all those memorable moments they provided, the huge monsters, or the crazy button-matching minigames? Clearly they were out to create a visceral, brutal character, and an epic, cinematic experience as well. Whether they were summed up in a formal list or not, you can tell that the team had a clear objective to provide these things from the word go.

Pillar Values are often expressed as “vision statements” that describe the most important aspects of the game experience, and help guide the high-level decision-making during the creation of a game. They should be established early, and ideally embraced by the entire team. Despite the immensity of the task, the Pillars will help you still put a focus on what’s important. What you are basically doing is locking in what you believe will be the main reason that players will enjoy your game, and what people will remember about it. Make ’em straightforward and memorable too… if nobody can remember them, they do no good.

Like Pillar Verbs, the Pillar Values should number no more than my favorite number of three. (Four shalt thou not count… Five is right out.) Too many values, or poorly-defined values, can once again result in a sub-par game, leaving the impression that you didn’t know what you wanted to accomplish.

One personal example of Pillar Values is the set held during the development of the superhero action RPG X-Men Legends:

  1. It’s about a team of heroes, not an individual.  The game isn’t about a single superhero, but giving the player control of an entire team.
  2. The most destructive game possible.  Technology-permitting, provide the most interactive, destructible environment possible.
  3. This is your own team of X-Men.  Allow the player to choose whatever team he or she wishes, and play the way he or she wants.

God of War 2 - The ColossusAgain, Pillar Values should be so strongly executed that they should be obvious in a game’s execution. It’s easy to tell what some of them were on successful games:

  • God of War: Unapologetically brutal character. Powerful, visceral combat experience. Epic environments and setpieces.
  • Halo: Cinematic Setpieces. Unique vehicles. Genre-defining multiplayer experience.
  • Devil May Cry: Fast, over-the-top combat. Style over substance.

This explains God of War’s massive success in using “quick-time events” (button-prompt minigames driving “canned” cinematic sequences) as a successful part of the their game experience, even while other imitators fail. While to some they might seem to be just “fluff”, every moment of minigame action provided in God of War is used to add more brutality, power, or epic action to the combat experience. It just so happens that canned sequences can convey certain actions extremely well. When similar games try to throw a button-prompt minigame at the player, it can sometimes just be a vehicle to make the main character do something clever that doesn’t necessarily reinforce the core game values. As such they just don’t provide the same magic as when Kratos leaps onto the Colossus’ face and stabs him in the eye (awesome).

Sharpen that Razor
Everything that I’ve said in the past couple of weeks is based around the idea that cuts are good. That’s difficult for many folks, developers and gamers alike, to accept. Too often we get wrapped up in that one favorite feature that didn’t make it to ship, and forget all the good parts of the game that did ship.

The RazorCuts happen, and they happen constantly throughout a project… They are driven by producers working to fit the project to a schedule, by artists or audio people who are asked to generate too many assets, or by programmers who must trim down an overambitious technical plan. They are a required part of a game reaching completion, and since a game that doesn’t ship is a guaranteed failure, it’s worth accepting cuts for the opportunity they can provide.

Whether there is a game designer making these calls, or if you are just looking to add some sanity to your corner of your project, these tools can allow you to control your cuts and make them up-front. By focusing your game development on pillars, and using them as a razor to guide the cutting process, you will see less wasted time, fewer tears, and a lot more of an enjoyable development experience. Better yet, I contend that if you focus on what’s important throughout a project, you will create a better game for it as well.

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More Part 2: Justifying the Axe

Last time we chatted, I gave a word of warning on how easy it is to get into the trap of “more”. As a designer, it’s seductive… you get on a train of thought, thinking about a feature, and you want to consider all the things that would make that feature great. Overambitious designs is one of the biggest mistakes you see from amateur designers… coming up with “stuff” isn’t particularly hard, and scope bloat is something that just about every game has to deal with at some point.

30 games in 1!Back when games were smaller (or more recently in the casual game space) scope choices were easier. You started with limited technology, manpower and time. Generally you started with a singular activity and fleshed things out from that root. Whatever you couldn’t accomplish would quickly get stripped from the design.

These days, as games get bigger and budgets get larger, the choices become more difficult. Feature sets have become very broad as shooters now come standard with vehicles, and driving titles get gun combat added to them… And when you’ve got a 10 or 20 million-dollar budget on a “triple-A” title, everyone’s got high expectations. It’s much harder to explain to an executive why you can’t just drop upgradable vehicles or clothing shops (or something as earth-shattering as multiplayer) into your game with just a bit more work.

As you start to debate the scope of a game, the boogeyman known as “player expectation” also comes into heavy use. Open-world games and MMO’s are the worst, providing the player with a large world and wide breadth of activities, along with incredible competition in that space. Grand Theft Auto is the poster child right now for breadth, with its bowling, fake internet access, cellphone upgrades, functional toll booths… they attempt to give players the closest thing they can to a full palette of features in a modern city. This means their game is just plain packed with stuff. Since it’s impossible to provide absolutely everything the player might expect or find “fun” in that space, the decision-making can seem arbitrary or even like guesswork.

I know that hardcore gamers hate to hear about developers delivering anything but the maximum they possibly can… Members of the hardcore can gripe that games are too simple these days and that they need as much depth and features as possible. I’ve been involved in heated arguments with good friends about what features in Oblivion (a game that I played the hell out of) might have been necessary or unnecessary. These folks are hardcore to the extreme (and also developers), and I respect their stance … but I did say before that making cuts can spark conflict, no?

Grand Theft Auto, boat, helicopter, etc etcDepth and complexity are awesome things, but are best served in more carefully chosen places. Features that are just “filler” can just distract from the pacing and action of a title, and poorly-crafted activities can turn a player’s early experiences into negative ones. While your average gamer might believe that “more” does no harm, the truth is that every game is created using a limited sum of money… even the mighty GTA IV. Anything created for a game, no matter how simple or small it may seem, takes manpower and brainpower. Design, code, art, documentation, testing, translation… These resources must generally be applied to get the biggest bang for buck.

So what do you consider when looking to spend your buck?

Does it support the game’s objectives? Ideally, the biggest share of richness and depth should support a game’s stated core values (combat, exploration, collection, partying, whatever). I’ll talk more about setting these “pillars” next time, but if a new feature does not help a game further its primary objectives, see if it can be modified to do so. If this is not possible, the feature isn’t necessarily cut (everything from UI to game saves count as “features”… they are of course required to have a functional game), but these elements should be scrutinized and kept leaner and meaner if possible.

Metal Gear Ice Cube Solid 2Is it worth the cost of entry? In a technically challenging project, it can be valuable to take an “all or nothing” stance on some features… When you implement a small feature, you are still creating new tasks for multiple team members, communicating objectives and checking on progress. There’s a start-up cost for something “new” that can be significant, even for something very light on technology or polish. Can that feature be filled out to be a more significant addition to the game experience? If not, sometimes that small feature is not worth the investment… and a game full of lots of tiny half-hearted features is rarely better than fewer, stronger, more robust features. A similar notion is that if it’s worth putting in the game, it’s worth making it good.

Is the gamer really going to notice? This particular statement is a rather cynical one, but it is a common theme in my posts if you’ve noticed… You want to put things into your game that gamers enjoy and tell each other about. Stuff that’s going to make your game stand out from the crowd. Stuff that makes critics sing and sales ring. Tiny little weird details are fun and all, but that realistic depiction of ice cubes melting is probably only going to amuse you, your buddies, and some forum-dweller named Monty in Arizona.  Fun is fun (and programmers like a challenge) but keep your eye on the prize.

These are some of the basic reasons to think twice before you think “More”, but I’ll talk more about the pillars of a game and aiming your axe next time.

Making the Rules: The Curse of “More”

In every game I’ve been involved with (and I’m sure most developers would agree), there’s a single teeny-tiny word that creates conflict more certainly than anything else: “More“. Developers want it. Gamers want it. Reviewers want it. Executives want it. Marketing people want it.

Complex StuffEverybody wants their game, whether the one they’re making or the one they’re playing, to be jam-packed to the gills with stuff. Why? Well, features just make everything seem cooler. A gamer feels like they are getting better value for their dollar… and extra bullet points on the back of the box makes everyone happier.

But you’ve gotta ask yourself, is a game with 500 weapons really better than one with 10? Sure, if the game is about acquisition, like Diablo… However, a lot of action games generally aren’t better off with 20 different models of assault rifles (and there are plenty to go around…  I used to play Phoenix Command, remember).

Is that extra stuff always worth it?  Was No More Heroes really a better experience for having that empty open-world you could drive around in your motorcycle? Would Kane and Lynch have been better if you could get into those parked cars and driven around their dense one-block-sized levels?

Spidey CarHow about Spiderman 2? I’ve noticed this one to be a bit more divisive with developers, since it feeds into the almighty “gamer expectations”… Sure, he ran around an open-world like Grand Theft Auto, but should Spidey have been able to hop in a car and drive around New York City? Would it still have been a Spiderman game if instead of swinging through the rooftops, he was tooling around town in a low-rider?

Game development is just as much about focus as it is about “doing neat stuff”. Your game is nothing if you don’t make a great core experience. Believe it or not, God of War really had a pretty simple combat system under the hood… they just polished the hell out of it. There weren’t 20 weapons, or an intricate collection of grapples and throws. There weren’t even that many enemies. They honed in on what their audience enjoyed and they were rewarded with a huge hit.

Bioshock started as a much more complicated game, reflecting its RPG roots in System Shock. There were a ton of cuts made to the game to make it more like a “shooter”. But dear lord, you sure can’t tell as a user of the end product… it’s still an incredibly complex game!  I’m sure there were tons of fights inside the development team when the axe started falling.

Niko’s Bowling NightAs I play GTA IV these days, for all its great gameplay and amazing accomplishment, it’s an iteration of a series that has been in development for over a decade. It’s got the biggest budget of all time. People are already starting to wonder what it’ll do to people’s expectations…  Do they really think that Gran Turismo will suddenly allow you to get out of the car, enter the stands and buy a popcorn? That Soul Calibur will add rocket launchers and monster trucks? That Halo will allow you to hop in a frigate and become a free trader across the galaxy?

And more importantly, would those great experiences be better for it?

I’ve talked before about making sure that your game is scaled appropriately, but when and where do those cuts happen?  I’ll hit this next time.

Sequel articles:  More Part 2: Justifying the Axe, Pillars and Razors.

See also:  Making the Rules: The Scale of a Game

Updating a Titan

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to post… I’ve been doing a lot of writing at work lately, so it eats a bit into my “write for pleasure” time. Sometimes it can be tough to keep the balance.

If you’re a long-time gamer (read: geek) like me, you may be waiting in heated anticipation for the Fourth Edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper game to be released. 8 years after the D&D 3rd edition did a revision of the franchise, Wizards are trying to get these rules into the modern age.

D&D Banner

What was the problem? While purists thought that the original system was fine the way it was, clearly it was a work over time built by thousands of hands… this created a rule-infested soup that needed a revamp. 3rd edition was like a breath of fresh air compared to the relatively lifeless 2nd edition that was launched back when I was in college (wow), but it, too, replaced a lot of old rules with new ones that were cool but didn’t come up very often…The biggest thing 3rd edition added was combat options to a melee character. While spellcasters always had a boatload of options from direct damage to crowd control, the humble fighter didn’t have much other than “attack with sword” for the previous 25 years. Now they could do interesting things like Cleave, which allowed you to slice through multiple enemies. Unfortunately, perhaps to avoid ruining the classic balance between characters, the application of many of these abilities were extremely limited (e.g. you could only cleave after purchasing the feat with your limited slots, then only if you strike the last blow when they are adjacent to someone else, etc etc).

There were new moves that were for free to use, like grapple, but they were generally ignored for the purpose of swifter play. However, at least it started to scratch the itch that melee players had to be something more than a meat shield.

And that is the crux of it, people want options but they don’t want to spend hours on every fight to do so. Consider it the influence of MMO’s or shorter attention spans or whatever, but I feel it too. Roleplaying is fun, but D&D is very much about spells and combat… If I want to mostly roleplay, I’ll play something in the World of Darkness. If I want to spend hours on every fight, I’ll play something from Leading Edge Games.

D&D Preview - Races and ClassesIf you are someone who follows game design (and if not, what are you doing here?), you should consider looking at the D&D preview books that were released a couple of months ago. While the information is really an informal collection of articles that most folk will consider obsolete as soon as the 4th edition is released, I personally found it enriching to get into the heads of people who had to completely rework a 35-year-old game system without pissing off too many rabid fans.

Tackling an update like this is doubtless harrowing stuff, to revise a seminal franchise to the entire gaming industry, both paper and electronic. You have to decide which favorite aspect must meet the axe to progress, but also figure out which elements to retain so that it stays distinctively D&D. And people will hate you no matter what you do… (My wife still bears a grudge about the elimination of the ridiculous Chromatic Orb spell.)

Just as interesting reading about the successes and failures of D&D third edition… That team made tremendous strides in adding player choice but it was still lacking. Individual play styles led to aberrant in-game choices… you might say that “the way the game was meant to be played” was pretty different from “the way it was played”…

Probably nowhere else will you read about some of the statistical challenges they faced. For example, the game has always suffered from problems in the early and late stages of the power curve. They expressed rather well the fact that a “sweet spot” has always existed in the mid-levels of D&D, where there was suitable risk yet enough options where play was enriching. There is a lot of volatility in the results of any one encounter, where “volatility” is defined as a significant chance of extremely bad (instant death) and extremely good (success with no challenge) results.

D&D Preview - Worlds and MonstersIn low-levels, you have very little hit points that cause you to rather easily perish… This makes it extremely challenging for a DM to challenge the group without risking that one of them will just fall over dead on a bad run of die rolls. Plus first-level characters just don’t have any options other than “blast the thing”.

In high-levels, you are extremely survivable with a huge pool of hit points and many more options. While enemies do a fair amount of damage, the biggest tool in the DMs chest is either creatures that do a tremendous amount of damage (and -10 hit points is the only buffer against death, whether you have 5 HP or 500) that run the risk of killing the player outright, or by using status ailments and strange effects, which can easily eliminate the player if they don’t have the right counters for it. Plus, the DM and the players have so many options at their disposal that campaigns often collapse under their own weight.

Remember previously when I talked about predictability being an element of fun? Well, it’s true, including games where dice-rolling is all the rage. Dice provide a great tool by adding an element of chance and potential for dramatic failure and success, but you can’t make a game that’s entirely about chance… that’s missing the point. In those cases you are taking the game-playing out of the player’s hand and reducing it to a coin flip.

The “aberrant behaviors” mentioned above were mainly about using tactics that reduced risk and eliminated variability in favor of survivability. To me that sounds like a grind in an MMO. Nice to know that while many of their combat tactics are inspired by MMO’s, they also seek to overcome some of the MMO playstyle.

The books are expensive, $20 each for not a lot of “meat”, but they may end up in the bargain bin after 4th Edition releases. That would be the perfect time to grab them and put on your designer hat for a couple of hours.

EQ the Return Part 3: Legitimizing your “Mistakes”

After an exploratory return to the game, we mulled last time over how “abhorrent behaviors” in Everquest became acceptable, reasonable tactics for players.  As silly as they were in the game, the players were still having fun, perhaps only at the cost of detracting from the immersion in game’s fiction.  Of course Everquest’s world seemed to be pretty much a lump of 20 years of the creators’ favorite Dungeons and Dragons campaigns (Racial languages? Foraging skills?) so there wasn’t a whole lot of immersion to break.

Spawn campingOf course that was okay!  They were forging new territory…  While Ultima Online was the first large-scale success in the online space, with Everquest it got even more widely-accepted…  and new gamers were still enamored with this persistent multiplayer combat-and-socialization model and discovering what they enjoyed doing.  If people found, say, staking their virtual claim on a small collection of huts, systematically killing every orc that appeared there to be effective (that is, spawn camping) perhaps there’s something to it.  These gamers didn’t want to wander around and trust that a patrolling creature might not jump them at the wrong time, but rather find an area of a reasonably predictable challenge and socialize while they waited.

Subsequent games tried to change that habit.  Dark Age of Camelot gave players an extra XP incentive to kill creatures that hadn’t been killed in a while, encouraging them to move between spawns rather than stick to a single one.  Star Wars Galaxies had the interesting take of creating monster “hives” that continuously spawned its supply of mobs until it culminated with a boss fight, after which the hive was destroyed.  A shame that the world wasn’t an interesting place to venture out in otherwise. :-/

But in both those cases they tried to change the core behavior of those gamers, which was to seek out a location of stability where they could grind in peace.  In most cases MMO’s since Everquest has tried to create alternatives, but I’m not aware of any (with the possible exception of Galaxies above) that tried to create new gameplay around it.I actually find that surprising because in many cases game developers are pretty good about taking an odd bit of unexpected gameplay and turning it into an asset.  Take the practice of kiting, for instance, where a player uses a combination of damage and incapacitating powers to keep a powerful creature at a distance while they slowly whittle them down to their eventual death.  In Everquest, this was seen as an abhorration that allowed players to kill things that were genuinely higher than their appropriate level.  A series of nerfs ensued to try to rectify the situation, but the tactic (there’s that word again) entered the basic toolkit of the everyday MMO player.

These days, kiting is less often frowned upon and considered more of a valid tactic in games like LOTRO and City of Heroes, although maligned by some.  It still bears the mark of being player-driven, however…  there are occasions where players accomplish feats that the designers never even dreamed of, like these WOW players that awesomely kited a devastating boss into the main human city of Stormwind.  My hat’s off to you, lads.

Anyway, games are full of unexpected surprises that delight gamers and even their creators.  When id Software added knockback damage to rockets to Doom and Quake, they didn’t initially do so with the intent of creating the technique of rocket jumping (that is, to fire your own rocket at the ground to blast you high into the air).  This only became apparently through play.  However, once it happened, they didn’t shut it down.  In subsequent games like Quake III they made it easier, and better balanced the risk-reward of liftoff versus damage taken.  These days, Team Fortress 2 has turned these antics into practically a twisted, explosive ballet.


Consider also the “errors” that gave us attack canceling in Street Fighter II (brilliantly explained in this article by God of War’s Eric Williams) that led to the lengthy combos that are integral to tourament play over 15 years after the game’s creation.  The ridiculous pistol juggling seen in Devil May Cry, where a “bug” caused a damaged creature to stop falling, was embraced by its creator and set itself as the hallmark move of the game.  The entire game of Deus Ex relied on emergent gameplay (whose very definition implies unforseen uses of gameplay elements) to deliver the player an experience made unique by their solutions to problems placed before them.

Without these “accidents”, gaming might be a lot less interesting these days.

Diablo and X-Men

I just noticed today that during my blogging hiatus, Citizen Parker had stumbled onto my posted Analysis of Diablo 2.  It was a fun write, and a Parker had some really cool things to say about it.  Thanks for the nod!

Thanks to Citizen ParkerA bit of history on this, I wrote it while I was in the midst of a job search.  They had asked for an analysis of this sort for one of several games, including my fave, Diablo 2.  I was uncomfortable revealing this at post time because it would have been unfair to reveal their hiring practices, but this was for the sadly-departed Iron Lore in Maynard, Massachusetts.

At the time they were looking for a lead designer for their ultimately entertaining and polished Diablo-like game Titan Quest.  I visited their studios in a cool old New England building, and met with folks like Brian Sullivan and Jeff Goodsill…  It was a nice operation with what seemed like a great culture and feel, and it saddens me that they weren’t able to keep the money flowing.  The public at large (and many developers) seem to forget how hard it is to have an independent studio these days…  New IP is difficult to get attention for, and the game-buying public tends to pool their money on a few selected hits and ignore the rest.

Anyway, back to Diablo…  It was kismet that they had asked me about that game not too long after I finished X-Men Legends.  As you get done developing a game, you mind is filled with the choices you made, and all the things you could have done to make the game better.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to close the book and move on, and it feels important to keep a log of what you’d do different if there was a next time.

God, my head was filled with stuff like this.  X-Men Legends had an early start conceived as a turn-based RPG ala Final Fantasy before I evolved it into the real-time adventure that got released.  Things get so clear after the fact, but in the midst of it we were struggling to get our new console technology going and iterating on AI.  The XML really wasn’t fully playable (particularly having good companion AI) until pretty near the end of production.  (Although I should say that the unstoppable Simon Parkinson really lived up to the challenge of making that whole package work together well).  But, as even the mighty Penny Arcade has finally begun to understand, sometimes games play like shit until they are fun.  It doesn’t happen with every project, but there are times when you just have to trust your instincts and carry out a plan.

Wolvie and SabertoothIn the case of X-Men, there were a few things that dawned on me too late to really get into the design.  The first was a smaller realization…  For a good chunk of development we were looking for solid gameplay elements that took advantage of the various forms of elemental attacks that the X-Men used…  Typically it was difficult because it was custom-scripted, and generally required one specific hero at the expense of all others in order to enact, which went up against our credo of letting the player choose their favorite X-Men and focus on them.  However, after Harvey and Randy Smith’s excellent talk on emergence at GDC 2004, I came back to work all fired up about the possibilities of the interactions of objects with elemental properties and how they could create some unique gameplay.  Creating more water that could be frozen or barrels that leaked flammable oil would have added a lot of variation to the X-Men’s activities, but the idea really came in too late to really act on.  We were pretty much at alpha at that point and couldn’t take the risk.  Ah well.

The second inspiration I got, however, came nearly at the very end of the game, as we were doing final tuning.  For so long, we had been chasing the dragon of encouraging the player to switch characters.  Ostensibly this was to support the X-Men chestnut of “combo attacks” like the Fastball Special.  These would have, ironically, been a breeze if we had stuck with the turn-based Final Fantasy model, but they were really hard to implement and control in the chaotic environment of a real-time, multiple-enemy brawler.  Anyway, switching characters with the D-Pad was a great combat option that existed, but generally any one character was powerful enough to deal with any challenge.  As it was still a bit disorienting to do a lot in battle (and a bit inconvenient because of the use of the D-pad), the player usually just switched for variety and flavor.

What was apparent to me right at the end of development (not that it was a revelation) is that using powers were always going to be the most exciting thing, because that’s where we lavished the most love and custom effects.  The unique opportunity that existed in X-Men Legends, however, was that there were four characters that were usable most of the time.  So, while in other games you shoot your wad and drain yourself of power, then go off and recharge or drink a potion or something, our players could continually switch characters and use that character’s powers while the drained character was busy recharging.  As such, we could have introduced a mechanic that encouraged the player to keep a power chain going, rewarding them for using power after power, ultimately reinforcing the fun that should exist with all these extravagant powres going off.  I think that would have completely cemented the “team” feel and brought the game beyond just being a multi-character elaboration on Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance (and I make no claims that we don’t owe that game a great debt).

Of course by then the game was nearly out the door, and I was gearing up to move on to new opportunities.  I feel a bit sad that we weren’t able to get that sort of thing in, but since that game has spawned two successful sequels built on the same mechanics, I guess I can’t complain.  It just proves that there is always one more feature, one more bit of polish for every game you work on. You can either kill yourself over it, or just save those ideas for next time…

Semi-Happy Endings

MySimsLately my wife has been playing MySims on the Wii. This game is best described as The Sims without the personal hygiene and a dash of Animal Crossing… Or actually a whole dumptruck load of Animal Crossing, where the truck in question has balloons and hearts and stars painted on the side.

The balance of building stuff instead of managing deep relationships led to lower reviews of MySims, but that’s fine, it’s what my wife always hated about the original. She wanted less of the voyeurism and more opportunities to build her house. (Women seem to dig building stuff, n’est pas?). This game not only let you decorate your pad, but build furniture and decorate them with standard carpentry hardware like anger and puppies.

Anyway, she threw herself headlong into it, playing several hours a day. She can obsess over certain tites (LOTRO being the most recent), so I expected the romance to last a week, at least. Three days later I noticed she wasn’t playing, so I asked why. Apparently, the town she was sprucing up had different sectors in it that needed exploring, like desert and forest and caves (no word on the lava-with-mine-cart sector). Each section had places that you could build houses for once you attracted a character to come to town. The reason she stopped, however, was that the town had a star rating that went up as you progressed through the game. Once you reached five stars, no matter what your plans were, the game “ended”, with credits and the whole deal.

AnimalCrossingWhaaaa? The Sims didn’t have an ending… Animal Crossing didn’t have an ending (did it?) These sandbox titles tend to keep players going for hours and days and months. Was it so important to the dev team to have a credit sequence that only 10-20% of audiences will experience anyway? After the MySims ending credits, my wife could still play and achieve and collect more, but she didn’t feel the motivation and quit afterwards.

Those of us who grew up with early 80’s arcade games and consoles like Atari and Colecovision, games without endings were generally assumed. Players just kept going, trying to get the best score possible. I remember playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time and feeling gypped that it was possible to reach the endpoint and have nothing more to play.

heavy-1Of course these endings gave us something to shoot for, not to mention some tiny semblance of a storyline. I quickly adapted, creating my own (meta) objectives after the in-game goal of “finish the game” was achieved. When I could beat Heavy Barrel on one quarter, I tried to beat it with one life (never quite got there). These days, if I play any game beyond a threshold of a few hours, I’ll push to the ending, as long as I know it’s out there.

But then I’ll stop. Sure, Resident Evil had all sorts of crazy nut-job unlockables for the truly obsessed, but I had other games to play. With few exceptions (such as achieving 120 stars in Mario 64), the conclusion of a game is an excuse for me to stop playing and move on.

I gotta ask myself, however… Do I play more or less of a game on the average because there is an ending? If after 10 hours I am forced to stop and watch a credit sequence accompanied by upbeat J-Pop, does it keep me from what might have been 18 hours of play? Or would I have stopped short at 7 hours, bored with the grind and without something to shoot for? I’m not sure…

I think I would have played less without an ending. I like goals.

The Halo Shields Rock

HaloShieldAh Peter… I see you like making a statement. Awesome, this blog is a mix of all our opinions, and you’ve done a good job of backing up your own point of view. I’m not particularly suprised about your reaction to Halo’s health mechanics though… You’re an old-school online gamer, forged in the searing online fires of Mount Quake.

In contrast, as I’ve stated before, I like to play shooters (starting with Doom and its awesome shotgun) balls-out fearless, working out interesting ways to leap into the fray and rely on guts and skill to get the job done. Sure I like sessions of strategy too, but there are times where I just enjoy acting like a hero and being rewarded as such. I don’t even mind getting mowed down in tragic fashion if it’s due to my bravado. Such an approach does play havoc with my survivability in certain online contests (notably against Mr. Carlson), but I have fun doing it nonetheless.

The classic 100% health model, however, played a bit at odds with my play style. For me, each room or area of Doom is a fairly self-contained challenge, but upon completion I might have lower health than is practical to move onto the next session and still survive… you can’t always rely on the placement of health kits to get you back up to snuff. I’d often load up a save and try to get through that area with more health. This honed my skill and let me practice new ways of clearing a room, but as time went on, I found myself starting to play the game very “safe”… luring enemies around corners, slowly harassing opponents and so on. Doom suddenly became a very slow game to me. I enjoy tactical exercises like Rainbow Six as much as the next guy, but it wasn’t what I was looking for in a classic action shooter.

doomIn 2001, however, that changed with Halo. By introducing shields that recharged once you remove yourself from immediate danger, it made my starting point for each challenge roughly the same. Suddenly, I could be heroic, and as long as I persevered, all was forgiven. Even sudden sneak attacks, where an enemy crammed into some unknowable corner got the drop on me, could be survived without excessive aggravation. I didn’t have to rely on reloads to teach me about each room. I still was “rated” on my progress by how much of my valuable ammo I used up, but by being encouraged to switch weapons on the battlefield quickly, I felt continuously propelled forward, ready to take the next challenge fully replenished.

I would have thought Bungie’s reinvention of the classic health system to be one of the most shrewd, calculated design choices in recent history, but I am told that it was a bit more accidental, borne of the sci-fi setting and the expectations of having a “force field”. This is evidenced by the fact that Halo 1 still had non-regenerating “health” under all those shields, replenished at an incredibly stingy pace. Halo 2 ditched all that and went for a straight regen model, ditching “classic” health altogether and cementing regen as something of an industry-standard model, like WASD and Half-Life’s “directional damage” HUD.

medicOther shooters adopted health regen in the meantime, like Call of Duty 2, Gears of War, and Blacksite: Area 51. Aside from the pacing differences, it was attractive because it eliminated the need to litter a battlefield with artificial constructs like easily-visible health packs (or worse yet, “food”). One would argue (Peter included) that surviving hundreds of bullets without tangible aid is unrealistic, but the regen model moves the issue behind the scenes, making the immersion a little bit stronger. In addition, health regen has invented a way to take a whole meter off the game interface, helping push forward a new generation of minimal-to-no-HUD games.

I certainly don’t consider the regen health model to be a panacea for all games. Multiplayer games have awesomely tense moments when one individual is reduced to low health and must either tough it out (e.g. in Counterstrike) or find a location or teammate to get healed up (e.g. in Team Fortress 2). You might consider it a bold evolution in shooters, but at minimum I don’t think anyone can argue that it’s not a great new tool for game designers to have in their gameplay toolbox.

Well, there’s my opinion. It’s ironic that I’m defending Halo since I’m not a particularly big fan of it… The second half of the first one was a slog for me, and Halo 2 seemed jumbled and punishing. I haven’t picked up the third one yet, so after I finish Bioshock (which will be after I get my poor, broken Xbox back from Microsoft) I’ll check it out. Perhaps we can get a post from a die-hard Halo fan, like Dan O?

[Ed: Check out Peter’s preceding article here.]