Tag Archives: Heroism

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.]

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.

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 3: Hail to the Prince

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

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

Hail to the Prince:

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

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

Rube Goldberg:

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

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

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

A Ticking Clock:

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

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

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

Let’s Do The Time Warp Again:

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

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

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

Crossing Swords:

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

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


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

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

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.

Archive 2: Observations of a Developer

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

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

Play Appraisal: Observations of a Developer

By Patrick Lipo

March 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Rules: Realistic Battles vs. Fun Fights

There are things that developers grow used to over the years. One of them is the regular appearance of articles that basically say “Make better games!” or “Where’s my next-gen, bitch!?” They generally contain a laundry list of expectations, such as this one:

Where are the FPS bad guys who can adapt their strategy on the fly? Enemies who themselves have six different guns and switch up according to what the situation calls for? Bad guys who work in teams, who strategize, who create diversions to distract you? Where’s the enemy Solid Snake who sneaks up on you with the silence of a ninja’s church fart?

We have seen this argument since the days of Wolfenstein 3D, and it’s our own fault, really… We’re the ones who push the player into more and more realistic places. What should players expect from an incredibly realistic environment, except an incredibly realistic experience?

doom3_092303_001Computerized enemies are the most common target. That’s fair… many game enemies can’t even move properly, much less act realistically. But when gamers call for AI opponents that act as realistically and cleverly as a human player, you have to pause and think about what they are saying…

I mean, come on, how many of you want to be stalked by a ninja that silently sneaks up and slits your throat? To many, that would be like running around and then just randomly falling over dead due to a coronary or something. There are some tempting points in the above excerpt, like bad guys who strategize and all that. This sort of thing is great when it happens, but we have to make sure that we measure each advancement to the fun factor and more importantly, the core values of each game. To take the point to ridiculous extremes, I doubt that Pac-Man would be made better if the ghosts pursued you in 2-by-2 cover formation…

As for military games, how many players really want to feel like they are in a real war? To be cogs in an operation of thousands? To sit in terror that a bullet might come out of nowhere at any moment, striking them dead? Of course not. While gamers want to feel like they are in a “real war”, they also want to show off their skills by dispatching enemies and accomplishing important objectives. When they pick up Call of Duty, they want to feel like they “lived WWII”, but they also want to be the powerful, successful, and much-more-important-than-your-average-G.I. protagonist. Players generally do not want to be in a real war, but rather they want to be in a war movie.

mgs2icet’s important to remember that games are not just about storytelling or creating a realistic illusion, but they are also about fantasy fulfillment. Consider the source material that fuels the player’s fantasy… an enemy in a typical movie is often poor at being able to shoot the protagonist. He is dangerous in numbers, but he will warn the hero before doing something really deadly. Compare that to the typical hero, who can dispatch dozens of enemies without serious injury. So while players want to believe that the enemies are as deadly as they are, they still expect to be able to kill them en masse. He or she wants to feel potent, effective, and important… everything a fantasy is supposed to deliver.

A classic target for AI criticism is Metal Gear Solid. Gamers see an enemy that searches doggedly to try to find them, and then after a certain amount of time abandon the search and pretend the player was never there. “That’s unrealistic,” they cry. However, would the game really have been more fun if the enemy cornered him or her into a storeroom and then filled it with poison gas to guarantee the player’s death? Or perhaps the enemy should shut down the entire secret facility at the first sign of intrusion and begin a systematic burn of all areas, creating a “game over” the first time the player is spotted? Much more important than this is our duty to help the player feel crafty and smart.

DW3Another classic game where battle-lines are drawn is with the Dynasty Warriors series. The player is able to wade through hundreds and hundreds of warriors on a battlefield in an effort to turn the tide of a major battle. Gamers see combat against a single individual as lacking any depth, where they just slash at them a few times and move on. “Look at that unresponsive AI,” they shout. Of course, imagine having to engage in brutal, one-on-one combat with every individual… times a thousand. Or worse yet, these hundreds could use the strength of numbers to simply weigh the player down and skewer him like a trapped pig. Again, this isn’t helping the player feel like “an army of one”, a hero who can survive being outnumbered a hundred to one.

So, in conclusion, am I suggesting that enemy AI in games will never progress beyond where we are right now? Of course not. There are a hundred ways that game characters can be made to be more interesting, more resourceful, and more satisfying to fight, but that is a discussion for another time. There are also titles such as fighting games that need realistic one-on-one conflict against the most cunning enemies we can devise. Overall, however, it is important for us to understand our job when it comes to making games. Regardless of what players demand, we are here to help them have fun. It is up to us to interpret their fantasies and bring them to life.