Category Archives: Game Design

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.]

Making the Rules: The Scale of a Game

Lately I’ve been working on both Surreal’s current game as well as concepts for future games, and this issue has come up a few times. As you may have guessed from previous articles, the concept of “more for the sake of more” is not something I subscribe to. Game development is always about the allocation of resources and determining where those resources are best made use of. So when it comes to adding details, sometimes there are tough conversations to have about the scope of a game, along with its sibling, the scale of a game.

Gettin' phat and fat in GTA San AndreasThink of the large, open-world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In this world, the player can travel around 10 miles end-to-end (representing a geographical space around 100 simulated miles long) You can drive along mountain roads, and enter cities and visit a few selected buildings. The game is primarily about getting in a vehicle and driving. When you deal with people at all, it is generally with a group or crowd. Enemies can be dispatched in 1-2 shots and can be destroyed several at a time. Aside from story moments, most of the player’s interaction level is in terms of streets, with objectives that take the player to “that building”. Sure, there are moments inside of buildings such as shootouts, but if we had to give an arbitrary scale to the game, we could say that there is perhaps 20 meters between items of interest in GTA.

Stranglehold-Patch_2Now look at Stranglehold, a game with a much denser environment. Each level is a few hundred meters in length, but the world is much denser. You cannot drive, but you can run from alley to alley and enter more detailed buildings The game is primarily about shooting it out with a half-dozen or less enemies at a time. When you deal with individuals, they take 4-5 shots and sometimes can be dispatched in elaborate ways. The interactive objects, such as pillars that can be destroyed and tables that can be slid across, are much denser in placement. If we had to give an arbitrary scale to the game, we could say that there are about 2 meters between items of interest in Stranglehold.

Now, there is almost no technical reason why Stranglehold could not have had driving, or why GTA couldn’t have had dense, destructible rooms, aside from those teams choosing where to devote their performance, memory and manpower resources. Sometimes gamers looking for the ubiquitous “more” or even aspiring game developers don’t realize that these choices of scale are very real and deliberate. Even the giant team at Rockstar North realizes that if they lavish attention into a single room or cluster of rooms, that can very easily take resources away from making the game better at the scale it was meant to be played… in a car.

Moments where the scale of interaction changes abruptly can often stand out as going against the pace of the game. If the player is cruising through GTA, blowing up entire crowds of people with grenades, when suddenly he has to close in and complete a 2-minute Tekken-style fight with a single bad guy, it’s going to stand out and completely change the feel of the game. Worse yet, to the developers this would probably be an entirely new game mode (and practically a new game), and as a result, be difficult to deliver at the same quality as the main free-roaming game is delivered.

Similarly, if Stranglehold were to suddenly have an area where the player jumps into a car, there would most likely have to be serious sacrifices to the interactivity of that drivable area. That driving sequence would also have difficulty living up to the experience provided in a driving-centric game like GTA.

Sims 2 Changing the type of gameplay can also be jarring when it affects the pace. What if we could walk up to any of the 30 individuals on a GTA sidewalk and start a conversation with him… learn of his likes and dislikes, and perhaps form a friendship or animosity to that individual based on your actions? Cool eh? But is it worth the development time to make that interesting when people are generally cast aside like tissue paper?

However, it is also very valuable to have what Harvey calls “alternation of gameplay”. This can often break the scale rule, such as Blacksite: Area 51 thrusting the player into a helicopter gunner position after a period of time prowling alleys with your squad of three. This is cool, but is often modal, so that detail can be placed at the appropriate scale for the action. Pillars may explode when you shoot them with your rifle from 5 meters away, but when you are firing an emplaced minigun at a building from 200 meters, you’d better see some larger scale destruction.

Games that let you significantly change scale are rare, but often are modal in their own right. The most prominent example of this is Spore, where you start as an amoeba and ultimately represent an entire race as they colonize the entire galaxy. However, it seems clear that as you progress from single-cell life to the actions of an entire civilization that you rather quickly leave the basic activities of feeding and mating behind. This follows, because it is unreasonable to expect the player to care about a single grain of sand once there is an entire beach to explore…

Bully vs. Harry Potter

BullyA while ago I was talking to Director of Design Richard Rouse along with some of the other Midway studio creative directors about our experiences with Bully. In my case, I really wanted to like it, but only played a few hours before giving up. Since it was blessed with many high reviews (the Gamerankings score settled at around 87%), I was left wondering… “What am I missing?” While we’re always in favor of immersing ourselves in new experiences and gameplay, there’s something about it that wasn’t clicking:

  • Boarding school culture: While the setting may be attractive to 30-something English males (as Simon Woodroffe of Midway Newcastle and Creative Director of Wheelman) pointed out with mentions of Billy Bunter, Jennings, and Ripping Yarns), as Americans we don’t really share the familiarity (hell, I’d never heard of any of those). Not only is the setting something we can’t identify with, it feels more like the world is a conservative culture reminiscent of the 1950’s, but with none of the music or nostalgia to go with it.
  • Class attendence: For me, what gave me the most negative reaction in Bully is the requirement of attending class. Racing to get to class on time is something I didn’t particularly enjoy 20 years ago, so I don’t particularly want to do in a game. If the class activities were more integrated with the regular gameplay, it might have been a bit better, but what bothered me was being forced into a schedule. Constantly being hounded to get to class or that told that I’m violating curfew (and having to avoid the “enforcers” as a result) distracted me from the simple pleasures of exploration (a critical component for open-world games). Since running across campus took nearly the entire couple of “hours” you had between classes, I always felt under the gun. In fact, it reminded me of GUN in a way, which kept pushing me to finish the story rather than have my own fun. A batter choice would have been to drop the player off at the school a week before classes began, to remove some of the schedule and population density while you get your feet wet.
  • BuffyUnattractive lifestyle: While it was generally done for laughs, the characters you deal with early on are all complete losers… You have to help the nerd to the bathroom so that he doesn’t wet himself, you date the ugliest girl in school… your only “friend” is a totally unappealing jerk. In the end, this was enough of a turnoff that I just stopped playing. From trailers and the like it seemed apparent that there was “better stuff” to build up to, but the game did not taunt me with them at all… I never met any cool people, and even attractive women weren’t anywhere to be seen. Bullworth Academy just didn’t position itself to be a place that I wanted to become the king of.

 Harvey Smith of Midway Austin (and Creative Director of Area 51: Blacksite) rightfully pointed out that high school has been a successful setting of great things like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Ultimate Spiderman comics. Richard noted that the high school of Buffy was populated by attractive, always-witty teenagers that killed freakin’ vampires. Those California high schools you see in TV and movies are probably some of the most idealized environments you’ll ever see.

Harry PotterThe comparison was also drawn with Harry Potter, which also depicted a “traditional” English boarding school. However, to me the appeal of Harry Potter in its earliest installments (in particular The Sorceror’s/Philosopher’s Stone) was the fact that while Harry was placed in a traditional kid’s horror scenario (first day in a new, unfamiliar school) he succeeds in ways that kids could only dream of:

  • The Center of Attention: Harry was unique and special, and everyone knew it. Kids admired him, and most teachers liked him too. People knew who he was, which paved the way for his ongoing special treatment.
  • A Low level of Conflict and Tension: In the early stories, any negative situation didn’t last long. While most tales in a school setting end the second act with a moment where the main character is suddenly taken out of his or her comfort zone (oh no, the bully has the upper hand, the cute girl is laughing at him/her), in Harry Potter, there is no extended moment of tension. Even the clear antagonists don’t get the upper hand for very long.
  • Frequent Success: Harry is a natural champion at sports, and manages to succeed in class without really “trying”… either through luck or magical destiny, his success is fated to be. He even has the best “car” in the form of his pimped-out witches’ broom.

I certainly can’t discount the fact that Harry Potter has very clever writing and appeals to a wide age group, but when you compare school tales like Bully to those of Harry Potter, you can see that there is a lot that makes kids love those stories.

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.

Making the Rules: Great Enemies

complicated_flowchartPreviously I’ve talked about how games adjust AI difficulty because of the need to fulfill the player’s fantasy, and provide them with success and positive feedback. This time I’d like to talk about perils and pointers for creating good combat AI. Now, while many articles that wish to address “great AI” contain heavy jargon or equations and diagrams depicting line of sight, or reticular splines or some such, let’s put that aside for now. It can be a great deal simpler than that (although in some ways more challenging).

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Imagine dropping a player in a sprawling maze… hedgerow, factory, prison, whatever… that is impossible to be known beforehand. Within there is one incredibly realistic, human-like AI… It operates on its senses, with no unfair information about the maze or the player, but it executes on some crazy supercomputer with a million factors that it takes into account, from its knowledge of combat tactics to its own preferences and personality. Hell, let’s even keep track of what it had for breakfast in case we want to simulate a chance of it having an upset stomach. This AI’s job is to start searching for the player and make assaults as he moves through the maze. For a moment, as we watch the AI, we can see it moving through the maze, tracking the player’s scent, thinking about how to flank him… when it hits a fork in the path, it decides to go left or right based on tactical decisions, or its own tendencies, or whatever a human-like AI should do. Perhaps it has a human-like idiosyncrasy like alternating… Whatever. The important thing is when it finds the player, whether by crafty wiles or just dumb luck, it switches to combat tactics and starts attacking the player without warning, pressing any advantage it can. When it is out of the player’s view, he is completely stealthy, undetectable until he encounters the player again.

Wolf3dNow imagine this experience from the player’s perspective. He’s moving through the maze, starting to get familiar with his surroundings. Assuming the brilliant AI is quiet like he is, the enemy could be around any corner. The first time he encounters him, the attack could be anywhere, behind, ahead… who knows. If the AI is particularly crafty and sets up a sniper ambush, the player could die in a single shot to the head. To the player it’s a chaotic, unpredictable experience… Perhaps a fun one for some, perhaps not.

Now let’s replace the AI with a more rudimentary version, one that makes more random decisions about what path to take while moving through the maze. This is sporadically punctuated with the AI taking the best path to the player, using perfect information. The enemy will still use intelligent tactical decisions once the player has engaged it in combat, but when it is out of the player’s sight, the AI is entirely artificial. For the player, assuming the general frequency and predictability of the enemy appearance is similar, very few audience members will notice the difference.

Now let’s go even further, and replace the AI with a spawning routine that creates an enemy at the edge of the player’s awareness at a similar frequency and predictability as either of the other approaches. Certainly there are a few cases where it would make a wrong choice, such as spawning the enemy from a dead-end, but how often would this become apparent to most players? .

Now what point am I making here? That “real AI” is worthless? Of course not! When the enemy is within the player’s view, it needs to act extremely effectively, to provide the player with sufficient combat challenge and to keep the illusion up that this is human-like behavior. However, once the player has lost all perception of the enemy’s movements, there is a significant drop-off in the impact of sophisticated AI on the player’s game experience… That enemy could go off and play chess, consult his favorite tracker’s handbook or compose humorous limericks about the death of the player, but none of it makes much of a difference if the player is not aware of these activities. And it doesn’t advocate delivering “good enough”, it’s just that we could be using that supercomputer for better things.

A Pinch of Player Feedback

Soldier of Fortune 2-1Of course there are better ways of selling an interesting “hunt” scenario between a player and an AI. The game might have remote cameras out in the world that allow you to sporadically see his activities. The enemy can leave a trail that you can pick up. He can make noises that might give away their position or distract you. These additions almost universally add additional player awareness of the AI’s activities when he is out of sight.

Sure, you can add some clever AI tactics that go beyond spawning… he might feint in one direction to lure you off, then work around and flank you. However, consider that we are adding to events in a chaotic, confusing combat situation to begin with. How would most players feel if they went towards an enemy who disappeared, appearing not much later to shoot him in the back? He might feel confused, or cheated, like the AI did something illegal. There is no satisfaction to be gained by guessing the enemy’s next action and planning accordingly. There is no learning process to “outwit” the opponent, nor is there any way to increase one’s skill to defeat him, aside from simple reflex improvement such as firing a gun accurately.

The development of most game features require the creator to balance of the investment of time and computer performance, versus the gameplay value created. No feature is free, and in a shooter, if the AI programmer spent all their time creating AI’s that can independently recreate all the works of Shakespeare, the time would generally be wasted… such effort and horsepower doesn’t help the player… this is a game about combating the enemy. Back when I was working on Soldier of Fortune 2, there were some enemies that had the ability of tossing clips to each other if one ran out of ammo. However, nobody knew that feature existed. Why? Well, the clips were never exchanged unless the two enemies were behind cover, completely out of sight. Also, the ammo level of any individual enemy was never a significant issue in the game, since fights tended to be very short and deadly. This was a time to invoke a cardinal rule of game development: Features that do not notably affect the player experience are usually not worth implementing.

Half Life 1Contrast that to the AI in the first Half-Life, which critics and consumers unanimously celebrated as one of the most significant contributors to their enjoyment of the game. In Half-Life the enemies did all sorts of things, from flanking you to spotting your thrown grenades and responding accordingly. However, combat against the deadly Black Mesa soldiers was a very hide-and-shoot affair, so there would have been little opportunity for the player to understand their tactics and smarts. However, some exceedingly smart individual at Valve decided to give the player a radio that intercepted the soldier’s communications, which gave the player a window on their reactions and strategies. Sure, it would have been even more challenging for the player if he had absolutely no clue to what the enemies were going to do next, but it is far more impactful to the player’s experience to allow him to understand how smart the enemies are. Arguably, beyond every other feature the enemies in Half Life had, the radio was the single most significant invention of that game.

Enemy communication of their intent has been used in other games, such as Halo, where the slightly comical alien grunts would spout exclamations like “there he is!” or “where’d he go?” when they observed a specific situation. Metal Gear Solid soldiers talk to themselves, saying “what was that noise?” and so on. Of course it’s not realistic, but it makes things more fun. Concealing those mechanisms actually creates a less compelling experience than when you lay out the rotating gears in front of a big window that the player can see.

Great AI lives in the player

mgs2iceSo if a more human-like opponent leads to unpredictable, and often unsatisfying behavior, and realistic, limited information plunges the player into a chaotic, random-seeming experience, what is the player asking for when he or she is asking for “better AI” or a “smarter” opponent? The answer to this harkens back to a previous point, that the player wishes to fulfill a specific fantasy that they have. They wish for their opponents to respond as they imagine they would in their fantasy. In the case of a super-spy fighting against armies of henchmen, it’s a set of opponents that appear to fight against the player effectively, yet die or fail to kill the player at appropriate moments so that the player can feel powerful.

In a player’s fantasy, an enemy is still capable of many things. There is a great deal that a gamer can imagine his electronic opponents doing to try to outsmart him. This includes flanking the player, hearing noises and investigating, changing ammo types, and spotting and responding to thrown grenades. In fact, it could be said that a large variety of actions at the enemy’s disposal is what might make him seem “smart”. However, again, with limited information confounding the player’s ability to appreciate this rich palette of AI options, there is but one avenue to make a character seem intelligent… we must inform the player of some of the choices that are being made while they are being made, so that the player can feel even cooler when taking them out.

Frantic, Fearless and Fun

Ridge Racer 7I picked up a PS3 the other day and still have yet to purchase a retail game for it…  Aside from staring at the crossbar and wishing I had a Blu-Ray movie to watch, I’ve spent much of my PS3 time playing demos.  After whipping through miniature slices of Motorstorm, The Darkness and even my coveted Heavenly Sword, I was still a bit bored.

Just for kicks, and because I was running out of diversions, I threw Ridge Racer 7 into my download basket.  God, I mut have been desperate…  That game hadn’t changed in like a million years.  I used to love RR, having played the hell out of the very first one on the Playstation, holed up in the basement offices during the early days of Raven Software.  However, other interests took my attention, so I hadn’t really played one seriously since R4, the last of the PS1 incarnations.

However, the moment I fired up RR7 and hit the accelerator, it was like coming home.

I raced around the track, not knowing the layout at all or the new mechanics like nitro boost and drafting.  However, I happily whipped around the corners like a madman and never even touchedthe rail.  I felt like a racing god for just a moment.  Holy crap!  After playing other (somewhat) realistic racers for a while like Gran Turismo and Forza, it felt incredibly liberating to just keep that accelerator down and try to skid around by the seat of my pants.  I don’t like to drive strategically, where I have to manage speed like a precious resource, I like to drive stupid fast and have to rely only on my wits to carry the day.  Obviously Burnout is the only other game that scratches that itch in the same way.

Sure, it’s not real racing, but it’s fun.

This got me thinking about other playing habits I exhibit.  For example, when it comes to shooters, from Doom all the way to this test build of Stranglehold I’ve got on my desk, I tend to really enjoy situations where I can head into danger, balls-out, and manage the situation on the fly.  Back in the Doom days, I got insanely good at shotgunning soldiers and imps, after leaping into rooms teeming with them and just barely manage to destroy each one as they lunged at my digital throat.  (I somehow did this playing only with a keyboard, somehow).  Does that mean I don’t like strategy, or a game that requires planning or thought?  No, I wouldn’t say that, but when it comes to shooters these days I do tend to lean more towards the Serious Sams of the world than I do the Ghost Recons.

Sure, it’s not real combat, but it’s fun.

To consider this to be a conflict between reflexes and strategic thinking isn’t the whole story.  To me the key is a loss of control, having to dive into danger and not quite know how you’re going to get out.  Assuming the game is forgiving enough and doesn’t punish you for those types of choices, it remains a fun experience.  If you can take the chaos of a situation and “surf it” to where you want to go, it’s a blast.  That’s what Ridge Racer drifting does for me, and sometimes my love for that type of experience leads to certain design choices I make, whether it has to do with driving, combat, or who knows what.

Storytelling in Children of Men

Since Children of Men was released on DVD, I picked it up and got to see it again. It’s a fantastic movie, just as good the second time around… I recommend it, and will try to avoid any spoilers when discussing it below.One thing we’ve talked about around the office is how game-y the script was. I’m not saying it in the sense sense that “boy, a Children of Men game would rock” (I’m not even sure it would), but rather that its method of storytelling was extremely well-suited to games…. It was simple, yet very powerful.

Game developers have struggled over the entire existence of video games to integrate deep stories into their gameplay… To an outside observer, it seems easy to demand that they “just hire a writer to create a story that doesn’t suck”. However, even with the most brilliant writer, it can be extremely difficult to get the player immersed in your fiction. Because of sporadic playing habits and limited attention spans, over the years I’ve seen subtlety whittled away from many scripts out of necessity. Unfortunately, as a result, characters with extreme depth and subtle motivations tend to give way to ham-fisted dialogue and characters that wear their hearts on their sleeves. For example, Japanese games that are renowned for great story is full of characters that puke up their deepest desires at the slightest provocation, and even very good stories like Final Fantasy XII is still delivered with very plain statements of motive.

In the case of Children of Men, a story was delivered where: Continue reading Storytelling in Children of Men

Thinking about GTA IV

A couple of months back, the gaming community was abuzz (thanks to a well-played hype engine) about the upcoming official trailer for Grand Theft Auto 4. What was the time period? Which characters would be in it? Where would it be set? Would they move on to new locations like Mexico or Europe, or would they return to the U.S.?

At the time, with a smug “experienced developer” sense of authority, I felt fairly certain of what GTA IV held for us. When they finally released that first trailer, I was surprised… they made a couple of choices I expected, and some others that I didn’t.

What led me to my assumptions were a few elements that I felt were key to the original success of the franchise:

Continue reading Thinking about GTA IV