Spectator Shorts

WCGThis weekend I spent some time at the World Cyber Games at the Qwest Field Event Center. I was manning a booth for Surreal, as part of an special section of the event hosted by local game school Digipen. They were holding a series of presentations, most notably a Symposium for Women in Gaming that included our own Brigitte Samson, who gave a presentation on the growing role of the technical artist in game development. There were booths from other local developers there too, so it was great to get a chance to talk to folks from Zombie, Flying Lab, Monolith and Valve while at the show.

The booth, which we had to whip together sort of last-minute, was purposed as somewhere between education and recruiting. Unfortunately we didn’t have an announced title to talk about or show, so the theme of our booth was more about Midway overall than specifically about the Surreal studio. Luckily, we had some nice materials from Blacksite and Stranglehold… and since we share technology and even assets with those groups (our kick-ass artists and FX group have contributed some great work on those games as well), we consider them to all be part of the same family, so it was cool to represent our peeps nonetheless.

Anyway, this since this was the World Cyber Games, there were of course matches going on all day, so while I was mainly walking around to check out some of the playable games on the floor, I couldn’t help but get a big dose of the craziness that is competitive gaming.

There was a huge screen at one end of the hall, with good-sized audience sitting and watching these matches over the course of the multi-day event. It wasn’t a sold-out standing-room-only type of event, but it was fairly lively. These contests had the trappings of a full-fledged championship-level event, the competitors sitting in soundproof booths, the announcers introducing contestants and calling out the events onscreen…

Honestly, the idea of watching a bunch of people I don’t know play Starcraft really had no appeal to me, so I focused my attention on the kiosks for Left 4 Dead and Crysis. However, while I was waiting for a chance to play, I couldn’t help but catch a dose of what was going on in the competition… and as the announcer excitedly described one competitor’s gutsy push through the enemy’s defensive line, I got a bit hooked.

romeroI’ve always felt that the attempts to legitimize gaming as a “sport” (no doubt to be spoken in the same breath as baseball and football) was something of a joke, much as I wished otherwise… The “gaming pros” are hard to give the same level of respect for people who play videogames as we do sports athletes who achieve so much physically… (C’mon, who can you name besides maybe Thresh? I’ll give you a hint). That’s too bad, because for an pastime that still evoked images of closeted nerds, hyperactive 14-year-olds and bong-hitting college students, we could still use some heroes with more mainstream appeal (like a certain Dallas developer achieved a bit of 10 years ago).

Back at Raven I worked on a lot of games that supported online multiplayer, and during the development of every one I got calls from people who hoped to turn online matches into a spectator sport… but nothing ever really happened. One problem is that these guys were always starting with a game in development and asking for support (such as special camera controls) so that it would be “broadcast-worthy” (a tall order for a dev team working to hit a deadline). What they thought they could do is create the competition and the people would come regardless of the featured game… but the audience didn’t bite.

StarcraftRTSScreenShotPeople want to watch games that they play themselves, or at least games they appreciate and understand. The problem with most online games is that there never are enough players to build a critical mass of people that are familiar enough to understand the strategy and drama behind it. Even fairly successful games like Battlefield 1942 are not as widely-played as something like Starcraft. It seems like every PC gamer on the planet has tried it… While it’s ten years old, it’s certain to be a standby (although perhaps replaced by Starcraft 2) for many years to come. You’d think that the games would update with the times, but you certainly don’t expect football to (significantly) change its ruleset every year the way gamers chew through new titles.

Maybe breakthrough titles like Halo could carry a similar audience, but there are few games out there that can. One thing that might increase the level of competition and get widely-publicized competitions some momentum is the evolution in shooters that we are seeing lately… With competitive games like Call of Duty 4 and Team Fortress 2 evolving to create meta-game elements like rankings, statistics, achievements and character-building, these games are going to be more competitive than ever. A player’s handle will be more than what he logs in as, it will be something that has an identity, complete with bragging rights. The top players will get more exposure as rankings become more prominently featured in these titles. Reputation and glory will become a major factor…

God knows that Korea is ten steps ahead of the rest of us. When the top Korean players appeared during WCG, those guys were rock stars! Perhaps it’s harder to find a charismatic gamer who measures up to a charming athlete, but somewhere down the line, competitive gaming will become accepted by the mainstream, and the industry will get those heroes that they are looking for.

Into The West

`Things have been really crazy lately at Surreal, but in spare moments I’ve been thinking about Rick’s manifesto on Japanese games and what it means to me. Certainly a great deal of the debate is personal taste… The cultural differences in the east that gain us interesting premises and memorable characters also net us irritatingly angst-ridden heroes, preachy monologues, immersion-breaking cutesy sidekicks, and existential, introspective endings. I had a similarly inspired discussion this week with some of the guys on the virtues of stealth games. Some love them, some hate them.

Somewhat coincidentally, I’ve been immersing myself in the work of three different continents lately: Bioshock, Overlord and Persona 3. While perhaps they are not completely iconic of the values of their respective region-coding, they certainly reminded me of some of the cultural differences I’ve seen in their products over the years. Here are some broad, possibly unfair generalizations on the qualities of Japanese and American games:

800px-Flag_of_Japan_svg
Japan:

  • Japanese games tend to mix up settings, so that fantasy is often mixed with sci-fi, psionics, westerns, or whatever. The setting and content often just serve the game creator’s style, creating a certain type of character, or having some sort of visual impact, even if explanations are thin.
  • Content is experienced in a fairly linear fashion, even in open-ended RPG’s. Major events are always presented in order, as there is no expectation of “the player writing their story”. The player is definitely being “spoken for” by the mostly mute main character.
  • Characters are strongly defined, very early in the game. Each has a distinct look and clearly identifiable motivations. Even when the game has customization of equipment, it tends to not interfere with the character’s graphic. Whether he or she is wearing a feathered cap or a robot helmet, they still appear in the stylish outfit the character designer created.
  • VieraAll characters, including NPC’s, tend to wear their heart on their sleeves and spew forth their deepest motivations at the drop of a hat. Cute characters or awkward females are frequently included as tension-relievers.
  • The first hour of the game often comes near to playing itself, with an extremely tightly controlled experience. From Square RPG’s to Mario, the Japanese slowly dole out setting and mechanics, even if it takes several hours.
  • Gameplay tends to be compartmentalized into smaller game areas in the interest of a simpler interface and smooth visuals. Interfaces vary depending on the game mode, with no fear of menus, overmaps, or stopping the action to allow the player to focus on a single decision.
  • Japan has an element of “fantasy” in most games. Suspension of disbelief is not a concern with unusual additions to a fiction. The visual and stylistic impact on these choices seems to take precedent over world consistency. Japanese don’t seem to expend much energy on explaining why the world is normal except for one weird element, or why one member of the party is a giant anteater, and the audience just lets it roll over them.
  • The locations in Japanese games are varied, but very often involve abstract interpretations of public spaces. A busy downtown street will be depicted even if the engine can’t support more than 5 NPC’s to occupy it and the camera must be kept top-down to avoid looking at the horizon. This is sufficient, however, to the gamer.
  • While they may seem to defy typical American genres, Japanese games have their own that get followed with some fairly specific guidelines as well: Turn-based RPG, Action RPG, card battle, screen-based sim (from horse racing to dating), turn-based strategy, and so on.

800px-Flag_of_the_United_States_svg

 

United States:

  • Americans tend to expect more of a consistent feel from their settings, with fantasy, western, or modern day delivered with certain expectations. When settings are mixed, there tends to be more energy spent explaining why when the Japanese seem to accept each new world.
  • Player choice is a highly valued in American games, even if it isn’t delivered all the time. The player’s ability to take an environment and solve it the way he wants to is very important to the public. This usually puts an emphasis on gameplay or mechanics, but this choice is often to the detriment of storytelling.
  • GordonfreemanU.S. games tend to take characters to the extremes… Either the game is about the main character, which forms the nucleus of a game’s style, such as God of War, or the character is pushed into the background, making the environment or the gameplay the “main character”, such as in Bioshock or Half-Life. Character customization is valued so the player can be anyone, which detracts from visual design as well as strong player motivations as portrayed in cutscenes.
  • The first hour of an American game is focused on “netting the player”, with awareness that the audience may have several games vying for his attention. A great deal of choice and ability is thrown at the player in short fashion to make sure that they understand everything the game is about quickly.
  • First-person perspective is also highly valued in American games. These titles universally push the main character into the background, allowing the player to be that individual.
  • American games are strongly focused on presenting a continuous experience for the player, with few menus or load times, and game controls and interface that must serve combat as well as during exploration. Menus are kept to a minimum, and real-time battles are always expected in the game world, leading to a more complicated control scheme. Online is also a strong virtue, which almost requires a continuous experience to be functional.
  • Settings in American games also are frequently pushed to areas that the designer can control without protest from the player. A dense city for example is often avoided because they are hard to deliver without the compartmentalizing practices of Japanese games. This can lead to more freely explorable games with a far lower visual fidelity, such as Grand Theft Auto III.
  • Ironically, however, Americans are influenced by mass media to be more attracted to “realistic” settings and subject matter. Film and TV fall into modern settings even when they explore the fantastic, from Quantum Leap to Bruce Almighty) Unfortunately, while theses settings make it easier for filming TV and movies, they are harder for U.S. gamemakers to place continuous experiences in (in a way that satisfies designers and audiences). Americans are much less interested in suspension of disbelief.
  • American games tend to more readily associate “settings” with “genre” than the Japanese. A fantasy game often has a certain set of gameplay expectations, as does a modern military or crime game.
  • Action in American games almost universally means combat because they are astronomically easier to put into real-time continuous experiences. And since there is so much pressure to set games in the modern day, the conversation usually turns to guns, because Americans can’t imagine a society that guns are not a part of.

cloudvselderI’m not here to simply rebut Rick and say that Western games are superior (maybe someone else will do that!). One common point of contention between those that enjoy Japanese games versus American ones is how stories are told. Japanese games get all that character data out to the audience quickly, and get right to the drama between them. The dialogue will often include long drawn out exposition on a given character’s motives, and generally those motives are not too deep. American developers are influenced by western cinema that places artistic value on subtlety, slow tension-building and multi-layered character depth. Sadly enough, these techniques are hostile to the average game-player’s patterns… Delivering a punchline to a joke that was set up only ten minutes of cinema-time doesn’t take into the account the chance that the player quit, saved, and waited for two weeks before picking up the game again. The player might miss the several subtle cues that told us that the main character is already dead, or whatever. Sometimes it’s frustrating enough during the development process that many developers either cut all the interesting side-plots before ship, or just fall back on summer blockbuster conventions, which leads to more guns and explosions.

As I touched upon in my post on Children of Men, brisk, bold, simple storytelling is probably the best thing for games. For all the posturing and monologues seen in Japanese games, they are getting the information out to the player and reinforcing it multiple times. The player will certainly remember Cloud and Dante more than Garrett or even Gordon Freeman. Ironically, when an American game guns for a memorable character like Kratos in God of War, the game ends up being more linear, with a clear character who is not bashful about his motives… In other words, it creates an experience like the Japanese have been doing for years.

[Ed: Check out Rick’s series of posts here and here.]

Now Playing: Heavenly Sword

Heavenly SwordAt E3 2006 I was surprised by a game that came out of the blue and had interesting, exciting combat, a very cinematic style and a cool-looking character. On the show floor I played through the arena they showed twice, despite the lines and all the other things there were to see. It was Heavenly Sword, and it was the reason I finally broke down and bought a PS3.

I had a brief moment of doubt when the demo came out and I didn’t have as much fun as I did at E3… it seemed to be missing a sense of context, and the frame rate seemed worse. Nonetheless, since I had owned a PS3 for two months and still had no games, I bought it this weekend and cracked it out on Sunday.

I love it. Screw the people that gave it weak reviews. It’s got:

  • Dazzling visuals: The game is beautiful from the character to the carnage, and never really breaks the polish.
  • Great storytelling: Sure, it’s a beat-em-up, but the story is simple but compelling, and contains some awesome moments.
  • Incredible Audio: The voice acting is top-notch, and when I reached one of the bosses and heard her lilting pizzicato theme song, I realized that there was something really inspired going on.
  • HS_KaiMemorable characters: Like a cast from Metal Gear Solid, the villains are over-the-top and tinged with humor. And Kai one of the most enjoyable characters I’ve seen in a game.
  • Entertaining combat: The combat makes a button-masher look cool doing it, but also has some fine tactical decision-making. However, success does not hinge on memorization of crazy move strings… the actions and responses logically fit into the system of blocking and stances.
  • Mass destruction: Anyone that knows me understands how I love Dynasty Warriors and being able to take down thousands. Part of that is the mild strategic decision-making, but the rest is being able to wade into a huge group and mix it up. Heavenly Sword is all about mass carnage, and the ability to ultimately litter the battlefield with corpses.
  • “Aftertouch” ranged attacks: Holding the “throw” button after hurling or shooting an object allows you to steer it with the tilt axis, and it works surprisingly well (although it makes it hard as hell to have a cat on your lap as you play). It never gets old, and is a blast.

Six hours of gameplay you say? Well, I’ve never been one to shy away from a great experience because of play time.

It’s clear that Sony put a tremendous amount of money behind this game. Often such flagrant spectacle can be wasted, but all the production values and great voice acting took a very high-quality brawler and turned it into a fantastic package to own. I’m glad my PS3 is finally getting a workout.

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.

Stranglehold and Art of Midway

John-Woo-Presents-Stranglehold-PS3We’d like to congratulate the team at Midway Chicago for completing Stranglehold for the Xbox 360! It’s been spotted on store shelves around here, so obviously that’s the official sign! We’ve been playing a lot of it as it approached completion, and it’s a really fun game. They really executed well… It isn’t just about mass destruction, but about using the world around you and gaining the high ground and playing with style. The game rewards you for being the coolest you can be.

We should also call out the incredible work of the Surreal FX team that appears in the game. Every column, chair, and statue all have all been translated into a visual symphony. Perhaps the game isn’t just about mass destruction, but in Stranglehold, even fruit can be capable of dazzling moments. Check it out!

art of midwayAlso, if you dig the visuals of Stranglehold, or if you liked the creepy vibe of The Suffering, you should check out the new Art of Midway book now available! This is concept art on overdrive, including some incredible work from our own Garrett Smith and Ben Olson. These guys create entire worlds with the sweep of their pens (or mice). This is only a sampling of what we see everyday… Thanks also to the Midway art directors for putting this together. Fantastic stuff.

 

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.

One Last PAX Experience

I hit PAX on Friday and Saturday, so I should post my notes before they become irrelevant…  It was my first PAX, although I’ve been to many similar con-type events in the past.

General show:

  • With its unabashed “nerdcore” attendee list, PAX is better described as a mini-GenCon than a mini-E3. They have an impressive size for being a fairly young show, but it still is very much centered around fandom of the Penny Arcade comic. The sessions with the authors and on the PA game were some of the hottest tickets, as opposed to other sessions talking about more “serious” topics of development.  Not surprising, it’s not supposed to be a GDC or anything, despite heady topics about PR and episodic content.
  • On the upside, it actually had a fairly impressive turnout of games in playable form, including many that I hadn’t seen before in any form. I assume that falling at the same time as Leipzig gave the publishers some ready-made material to show.
  • Aside from what I mention below, there was a great spread of playable games:  Haze, Eye of Judgment, Metroid Prime 2, Conan (console), Heavenly Sword (a new demo), Warhammer Online, a big America’s Army thing, and several dozen more I’m not thinking of here.
  • Nintendo, Microsoft, Sony and EA all made an appearance, which is impressive given recent news that E for All won’t have that sort of backing.
  • Overall PAX surprised me with an air of “legitimacy” as a serious show. It would take a couple more years, but if it ultimately balloons into a notable national event, it’ll be cool for Seattle. Continue reading One Last PAX Experience