Tag Archives: Power

Weapons of Awesome Power – E3 2010 edition

Recently I was looking at my old WoAP post and thinking about how the fundamentals of creating a good, solid-feeling weapon are evolving, and which basics are the same as they were 15 years ago.  Developers are definitely better at these things, but experiences are still all over the board.

I gathered more footage from games released in the last year in preparation of a WoAP section on this site (which is still locked for now), but I fell behind in capturing the newest of the new.  While that certainly won’t deter me, I did realize that I did have one source of state-of-the-art titles with readily-prepared footage…  E3 2010!  Sure the games are in-progress and the available footage varies in quality, but I thought it would be fun to see what the next year could be like in terms of nice, beefy implements of destruction.

As usual, I examined a number of elements to consider whether they contribute to a sense of power.  Check out the original article if you wonder, for example, why a real-world weapon still needs to follow these rules:

  • Gun Visuals: The visual effect of the weapon’s muzzle flash and bullet trail, and the animation of the weapon itself firing. It’s the first thing people think of when they consider how the gun looks and feels.
  • Sound Effects: How’s the audio, from the firing to the impact sounds?  This can be one of the hardest to get right, because the sound has to bear repetition thousands of times, and it has to compliment the rest of the arsenal.
  • Effect on Environment: Here we look at the visual impact of the bullet on a wall or floor, as well as environmental shifts such as lighting. We need these because the results of stray bullets give the player a sense of affecting their environment and with a potent weapon.
  • Effect on Opponent: This refers to the visual impact on an enemy, and how the enemy reacts to being shot, which is critical to give the player feedback that he is successfully damaging the foe.
  • Combat Effectiveness: I’m completely subjective here, which can be unfair when taken out of context, but it’s worth talking about. If I see a weapon limply pile bullets into an enemy with little sense of accomplishment, that weapon doesn’t get high marks.  Maybe it’s designed to be a pathetic weapon, I don’t know.

Each weapon is grouped with its general type:  They aren’t all identical models, weights or even technology, but each group of weapons fills a general role for players.  I found as much unadulterated footage as I could…  nothing from trailers or anything less than the game being played.  This is obviously not final weaponry, and I had to make adjustments for the situations where the audio or visual quality wasn’t the best.  Suffice it to say, they previewed their games to us and basically I’m previewing the weapons right back.  Wah.

I didn’t get footage from everyone I wanted (technical issues denied me Brink and Killzone 3), but there was plenty of material (in unbiased alphabetical order of course):

  • The Agency, Sony Online Entertainment
  • Blacklight: Tango Down, Zombie
  • Bodycount, Codemasters
  • Breach, Atomic Games
  • Bulletstorm, People Can Fly
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops, Activision
  • Crysis 2, Crytek
  • Halo: Reach, Bungie
  • Medal of Honor, Electronic Arts
  • Rage, id Software
  • Vanquish, SEGA

(Too many one-word titles that start with “B” this year…)

And away we go.  Watch the footage and check out the results:

Pistols

Almost 10 years ago Halo and Counterstrike created the first pistols that we actually wanted to use, and more recently Call of Duty cemented the concept of pistols as a quick-draw backup weapon.  This trend continues, although video is hard to find because these weapons aren’t “sexy” enough to appear in E3 demos.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

This pistol is a backup weapon in the Call of Duty world.  As such, this revolver is serviceable, but not flashy enough to encourage you to use it when you aren’t forced to (like this claustrophobic tunnel).  It’s hard to say much from two bullets, but the muzzle flash was nearly invisible and it didn’t light up the surroundings as much as I’d might expect in a dark tunnel.  The audio was also very basic, a clip we’ve heard many times in the last 10 years…  I hope by ship they can get some reverb to make it as deafening as I might expect gunshots to be in a space like that.

The effect on the enemy is hard to gauge since this was really a set-piece.  There was a reasonable bit of impact blood and a reasonable hit reaction, which hopefully will be true in all combat situations.

Medal of Honor

This footage is from DICE’s multiplayer mode, so it leans closer to Bad Company 2 in overall feel.  Compared to COD:BO’s period-authentic revolver, it has the advantage…  semi-automatic so that the player can unload quickly and go for a headshot, so its effectiveness appears pretty high.  The bulk of the muzzle flash is a classic single frame but it does the job, mainly because it is coupled with a satisfyingly “crunchy” sound effect…  not unlike Indy’s awesome pistol in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Stray bullets create a subtle puff of smoke with environment impact, but there was little impact on the character himself visible beyond the view-obscuring muzzle flash sprite.  This is often okay with pistols, as long as they have their role.

The Agency

The Agency pistol is pretty good, although it’s hard to judge it completely fairly because it appears that the game view appears a bit stretched, making the pistol stubby and awkward-looking in the player’s hands.  (I double-checked the footage to verify that this was the way it showed.)

The muzzle flash is very red, just a couple of sprites…  it’s got an okay punch to it, but red doesn’t get it looking “hot”, and the sprite never reaches full opacity, giving it a “flat” feel.  Perhaps it is an art style choice… this game is more colorful than most.  The weapon seemed somewhat effective, but during recoil, the weapon obscured the target denying me the ability to see what happened.  On the other side, the sound effect has a nice report and trail-off.

Rage

Rage‘s pistol has an okay muzzle flash, although its edges are fuzzy that looks a little “old school”.  In this environment the world lights up well in response.  From the audio present in this footage, sounds “crashy” and needs punch, but it’s hard to judge because it was not recorded direct-feed.

The biggest disappointment I felt was the weak sense of stopping power with this weapon.  The interview toted the enemies’ ability to react to shots realistically, but I think it could still benefit from a more prominent effect on impact.  In addition, the pistol just didn’t seem to be taking down that enemy effectively.  Bungie was the first to more or less prove that longer-lived enemies appear more intelligent, but I hope they can use their hit-reaction tech to give you a better sense of doing something to your foe by ship-time.

Shotguns

To me, shotguns are the most satisfying weapons to use.  They have a strong, easy-to-grasp tactical role (lotsa damage when close), but they also can deliver great pyrotechnics in the process.  I only found a couple at E3.

Crysis 2

It’s difficult to get a true sense of the Crysis 2 shotgun in the midst of all the chaos in this demo, but I do like the strong, directional array of “hit spangs” rising off the surface from impact.  That really speaks “multiple pellets” to me.  The muzzle flash is nice and hot with a one-frame “punch” to it with just a wisp of smoke after.  The audio was pretty boomy, but it was hard to single out in the footage.

I can’t figure out what’s going on with the shotgun against the enemies here.  Perhaps that is because of the situation, but the effect of weaponry should stand out in the chaos of combat (that’s the point).  I hope the weapon does more to the enemies than it appeared to there.

Medal of Honor

This shotgun is a big guy, serious business…  its size might set it apart from models in other games, but I’ll say that it looked menacing in the player’s hands, and had a satisfying muzzle flash and “booming” sound to it.

It also looked like it did a number on the enemy, sprouting multiple bloody impacts, and they didn’t get lost behind the muzzle.  I would have liked to see more of what happened when a surface was struck, however, it seemed fairly subtle.

Machineguns

Now we’re down to business.  Just about every game has one of these, and I define them loosely:  “automatic medium-damage weapons”.  They may be assault rifles or heavy submachineguns…  subtle variations on a theme, so hardware-heads shouldn’t get their panties in a bunch about terminology.

Halo: Reach

This one felt a little silly to preview since the beta has been available for a while, but nonetheless I wanted to compare it with other upcoming titles.  I was not a fan of the original Halo assault rifle because of its anemic audio and flash, but with this new version I’m feeling it more.  The “teletype” sound effect now has more rumble to it, and the muzzle flash has less of a cartoony feel to its “star shape”, and looks reasonably hot.

The weapon is still of the “hold down the trigger until the enemy soaks up enough bullets” variety, so in multiplayer it helps to have XP popping up to know that you did something.  Luckily with their newest animations, the enemy reacts more satisfyingly to the impact, even though there really isn’t much of an effect.  The world impacts are unfortunately subtle for this weapon, basically invisible from a distance…  It’s hard to be objective because historically this rifle deliberately lacked punch as a common weapon, but as one of the first things in the player’s hands it’s pretty important to feel good.  Luckily, it now seems to have evolved to no longer feeling like a second fiddle.

Medal of Honor

A typical sighted assault rifle, this weapon has a great “train chug” sound to it, and it does some nice damage, throwing dusty impacts all over the environment and struck enemies.  It definitely looks like an effective weapon.

The muzzle flash is nearly invisible however (doubtless matching the real-world weapon?)…  the in-view weapon’s subtle shake is the main visual cue that something is happening with it at all.  More importantly, the animation result on the enemy is still poor.  It can be hard to play proper hit animations while an enemy also is moving, but here it felt like they kept running until they died with a minor twitch.  This is a common challenge when shooting at multiplayer opponents, since they continue to run at full speed while taking damage.

Breach

What a difference from the previous MOH footage… without the background din of combat, Breach seems silent by comparison.  As for the weapon itself, it has a “tiktiktik” sound that makes me think of a biplane’s machine gun.  You still hear it sometimes in WWII games, but it sounds archaic because of its low rate of fire.  I believe this is supposed to be a modern assault rifle, so there are definitely options that could be used to punch it up.

There’s lots to do here, in muzzle flash, enemy and world impact…  I’m even not sure how effective the weapon was against the enemy given the feedback.  Also, I appreciate the trade-off offered when zooming the weapon obscures a lot of the view, but thanks to the Call of Duty series, so many people play this way that it seems ridiculously punishing.  This game could just get a bit more lively in ambience.

Blacklight: Tango Down

Another lesser-known title, Blacklight has a bit more tightness to its machinegun.  It’s still a light weapon, with a fairly teletype-sounding audio report, but the very high rate of fire (with a nice envelope as a burst is fired off) definitely makes me feel better about it.  The environment lights up well enough when firing, but the muzzle flash (from the footage) seemed very static and soft.  The tracers flying out to the target could have looked good but these are thin and hard-edged… making them look like a rendering artifact beneath the sights.  The big impacts (see below) helped a bit, but the weapon could use even a little bit more of a sense of danger.

The game seems to have a fictional dressing that allows for some sci-fi-looking elements sprinkled into the realistic environs…  They used it well with the strong blue hit impacts when an enemy is struck, but they are also very big and distracting…  you can only tell that you hit “something”.  I could an impact that big for a sniper rifle, but for a bullet-spewing weapon like that, I’d dial it down.

The Agency

Once again, the weapon appeared a bit stubby because of the odd aspect ratio, but in general it hit the Call of Duty mark pretty well.  Audio-wise, they went for a strong gunshot for each individual bullet along with a lower fire rate.  It makes the weapon seem heavy and mechanical (good), but over the course of a burst it grows pretty monotonous, like the old Doom minigun that just played the pistol sound over and over.  I’d love to hear a more defined start and end to the bursts.

The weapon itself could use a bit of shake or something to tell me that its doing something.  From first-person I can’t see the muzzle flash and it appears like the player is just holding down the weapon on its target.  It does do the job functionally, as an effective weapon.  Also, the environment impacts are nice and sparky…  a bit random but I did get a sense of the player tracking their target with successive shots.

Rage

The muzzle flash in Rage’s assault rifle looks okay, but the old practice of fading out “star” flash sprites reduces the feeling of a “fiery” effect, and I see it here as I did in the pistol.  Unfortunately, the audio from this footage is poor making the assault rifle sound “crashy”, but I’m sure it’s got the “pop” in person.

The weapon does light up the environment, but in this environment it can only be seen at a very close range, so I didn’t see it much. The weapon recoiled well with nice shells being thrown up visibly… However, I still wanted to see more feedback to where I was shooting.  The video quality makes some of these effects darker than they really are, but given that this is a dark-looking place it could be a general issue.  I wanted to see the results of my gunshots on the walls, and the floor.  Finally, I also didn’t see a real threat to the mutant again…  it’s like the pistol.  No stopping power visible.  Crank up the reactions with that reaction tech…  make sure the impacts are visible.

Bulletstorm

These guys are obviously about showing off as much as their game is, and I feel it here.  The rifle here felt dangerous, with a bright, fiery, and non-repetitive muzzle flash.  The gunfire audio is has a crunchy mechanical sound to it, and that worked great (unsurprisingly similar to Gears of War‘s).

The weapon’s seems very functional and effective in taking out enemies.  It was interesting to see the cartoony projectiles, almost like a scrolling shooter’s round bullets.  On issue was that there was so much going on at my muzzle and with the bullets traveling outwards (this is an unapologetically noisy game) that I wasn’t always clear on what was being hit.  I also didn’t see much in the way of impacts at a distance, although there was other footage against a close-up boss that was more tangible.  The game’s about chaos, and I imagine it’s a lot of work to make sure the player knows what is being done to whom, and where.

Bodycount

This footage isn’t great (to be fair, the video is wayyyy oversaturated), but I wanted to include it because of the blinding amount of feedback from the rifle.  The weapon has a huge star-shaped muzzle flash, which probably looks good in screenshots, but doesn’t have a lot of variance to make it vary over a sustained burst.  It also manages to cover up a ton of what is going on at the impact site.

The game shows a Crackdown level of feedback, with orbs flying out whenever an enemy dies…  The world impacts are also flamboyant at times, with some crazy cascading sparks.  Unfortunately the chaos meant that once again I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on when I hit an enemy.  I like “cartoony” as much as I do realism, so I’d have to reserve judgment until I get to see it without blurry footage.

Vanquish

Vanquish is clearly not a traditional FPS, but I wanted to include it anyway for contrast.  This machinegun has an extremely high rate of fire, with a somewhat “lighter” sound effect than blends into the background din.  This is the sort of machinegun that Japanese sci-fi games have exhibited for the last 10 years or more.  Whereas western games put the machinegun in a place of honor as a powerful workhorse, Japan casts them as easy-to-target weapons that chip away health slowly.

The muzzle flash and impacts flamboyantly throw around sparks, but this is still a backup weapon, like the MG on a tank or jet fighter.  They leave room for the more “cinematic weapon”, which may be a large explosive or melee attack.   I love these sorts of games to death, but it’s interesting to see how very different the influences are.

Scoped Rifles

I don’t generally include sniper rifles, but this time I figured I would.  The category includes bolt-action or single-shot automatic scoped rifles, so I didn’t want to get the hardware nuts mad.

Halo: Reach

This particular weapon is Halo‘s marksman or battle rifle, rather than their sniper rifle, but aside from stats they seem similar.  I’m surprised at how little feedback you get when firing while zoomed…  there is a tiny recoil in the view, but aide from that, the sound and the reaction of the enemy is about the only result.  The sound, however, is sharp with a great decay and the hit reactions are great.

The muzzle flash isn’t too important, but I would love to see something in the world.  A faint tracer, or a more clearly visible impact effect.  While there are caveats to this (too much pyrotechnics will render snipers too visible), it could use a bit of punch.

Blacklight: Tango Down

Blacklight‘s modern-seeming game goes far further in the “spacey” effects sometimes than the far-future Halo…  Their sniper rifle fires what appears to be a solid laser, with a large blue impact on the enemy.  This is fine for their vibe, but given that capability (freedom from “realism”!), I’m surprised to not see something more “impactful” going on.  The blue flash is a round cloud of sparks, and enemies more or less fall down in response to being killed.  The “laser” projectile could benefit from variance over its lifetime like a “railgun”, and the impacts are crying out for some sort of directional component, ricocheting away from the surface, or piercing the enemy somehow.

The audio is fine, but has less of a punch than Halo’s seems to.  A gunshot from a sniper rifle is never, ever work being subtle about.

The Agency

The sniper rifle in The Agency has gunshot audio that is slightly muffled for some reason…  it has a punch, but the decay is perhaps a bit less satisfying than Halo’s “throatier” sound.  The weapon itself does not move when fired, which is a disappointment, since there is no muzzle flash to see.  Since the zoomed view appears sensitive to control, it is even more important to deflect or disrupt the player’s aiming since the overall vibe is that the weapon is “light” and can get jarred more easily.

I found their distinct tracer interesting, but unfortunately the effect is so solid that some rendering artifacts (resulting from rendering it as a flat polygon) appear when shooting.  I like the idea of a tracer, especially for the “James Bond modern fantasy” world like this one, but work needs to be done to break up the line and make it seem less like a laser beam.  In addition, I didn’t feel like I saw the result of my gunshot on the surface or person being targeted, because the tracer obscured it entirely.

Caveat!

This is E3, and anyone who has prepared something for E3 knows that someone picking it apart can be infuriating.  Worse yet, the quality of E3 footage varies, so my comments may be influenced by lighting, background noise, or bad focus.

Not all the weapons or features or effects I’ve examined here may be final, but on the upside, just about everything I mention is remediable with a small amount of audio, art or balance work.  You can disagree with me too, that’s what comments are for.  The same goes if you are working on one of these.

It’s fun to look at these items regardless…  I think I got bit by the bug again.  In the coming weeks I’ll take another stab at getting that Weapons of Awesome Power section at the top going, and we’ll see where things go.

Making the Rules: Drawing Things Out

I’ve been playing Resistance 2 lately, taking in its new cooperative mode on the recommendation of a couple of friends.  Co-op in shooters has a long but spotty tradition, so it was neat to see Insomniac deliver a non-competitive experience with a different feel. This one gives the player one of three classes that can be leveled up independently by matching up to play short missions. Each class has a different loadout and responsibility when played: grunt, medic, supply. In addition, there is a resource that can be gathered during matches in order to purchase upgraded abilities and weapon packages.

It was a fairly addicting experience, as I pushed to each successive level like I might grind an MMO.  The matches themselves were entertaining on their own, with tangible sense of achievement every few rounds.  Unfortunately, I eventually ran out of gas, not because the game itself wasn’t fun enough…  but rather because each creature had 5-10 times the health of their single-player counterparts.  The campaign was a well-balanced shooter with crisp control aim and a great sense of power, but coop had me holding my machinegun on what should have been “popcorn” enemies for several seconds, watching XP pile up as I waited for each bag of hit points to fall down.  Quite simply, it didn’t feel at all like the shooter than I played when not online.

I cannot fault the concept of jacking up the time to kill each enemy…  it’s a time-honored tradition from many classic games.  In Resistance 2, it was clear that they needed to extend the experience and increase the effort required to bring each one down.  It’s probably a useful excercise to discuss why this might be.

The Numbers Game

One reason for enemies to soak up bullets in coop is to match the level of difficulty to the number of players.  If 10 players entered a level that was intended for just one, they would slaughter everything with their added firepower.  Some games ship this way, whether due to limited resources or to reward the effort that used to be involved to connect multiple PC’s for a coop session in the first place.   These days most do their best to notch up the challenge when new players join a session, and sometimes this is done by increasing the enemy toughness.   Diablo did this in the most overt fashion, by reporting to the player that “the enemy forces have grown stronger” when each additional player joins the game.  Behind the scenes it was increasing the experience level equivalent of all the enemies in the world.

Another reason for enemies feeling more invulnerable are in games with a progression track…  ones that reward the player for each hour of play with upgrades in ability and potency (like Resistance 2 does).  Unfortunately it’s easy to forget that in order to build a game where the player feels more powerful over time, you must hold back some of the most potent player abilities at the start of the game.  The player certainly feels a sense of achievement as he gains all the new kick-ass stuff over the course of the game, but sometimes that means he also feels anemic at the very beginning, where he has the least capability.  The damage potential for his weapons are less, his health is less.  His weapons aren’t as flamboyant.  Even the most basic enemies might take far longer to kill than they will later on.  This is a dangerous practice that must be handled with care…  these are the crucial early hours where a player should be falling in love with the product rather than feeling emasculated.

The Numbers GameSomehow this is an acceptable practice in RPG’s…  Those games are almost entirely about progression and acquisition, so it is expected that the player will evolve tremendously over hundreds of play hours (or thousands in an MMO).  But because of these incredible progression arcs, most RPG’s play what I call The Numbers Game.  You’ve doubtless seen it…  when players start off their game doing tiny amounts of damage to wimpy rats, but eventually grow to deal thousands of points while fighting giant dragons.  In these situations there is a continual arms race between the damage you deal and the health of your enemies.

For example:  I’m playing an MMO and start with a character who can deal an average of 20 points of damage to an enemy who has about 100 health. About 5 hits will take him down.   After some play time, I level my character to level 20, and can now deal 100 points of damage. Good for me! …except now most of the enemies have around 500 health. I guess it’s still 5 hits to kill one.  Finally, after months of investment I reach the coveted level 50, and I’m clobbering opponents with 1000 points per hit. Of course, you guessed it, my enemies have 5000 HP (or more).

This shouldn’t be a big surprise, because as you gain power, it would be anticlimactic to see a lessening difficulty…  we all want to grow up to finally beat that huge, scary thing that we fled from many hours of play ago.  Keep in mind what this means, however:  In a combat-centric game, a player’s primary metric of power is the number of hits per kill. (This abstracts to “the ratio of time investment per reward”… but that’s fodder for a later post).   But when I play the Numbers Game, do I really feel better about taking down a Level 50 Hoary Drake with my Level 50 character than I did taking down the Level 1 Scrawny Rat with my Noob?  The answer in RPG’s is often “yes”, but in shooters you can get in a lot more trouble.

The difference is in the essences of the genres…  RPG’s deal with skill advancement primarily on the character itself, as he “levels up” and increases his capability through higher numerical stats.   The player himself has less pressure to hone his actual playing skill, aside from juggling the new options presented to him when new abilities are unlocked.   He makes choices about how he wishes to advance, working with figures like “strength”, “speed” and “willpower”, even though they often just present different ways of hurting an enemy.  These various axes of advancement give the player something to aim for, a vast possibility space that he can explore and achieve in.

Since advancement is so tied to how the player’s capabilities are represented, the player keeps a much greater awareness of the numbers and how they affect him.  He understands and accepts that an enemy that is 5 levels above him is extremely dangerous, because the numbers say so.  This is totally fine, because most RPG’s are not about combat…  they’re about advancement, acquisition, and a bit of exploration.   (If you really believe that you played Diablo for the click-and-kill combat, I think I have some real estate you might be interested in…)

Shooters by comparison leave skill advancement largely to the player’s mind and body.  Your manual aiming ability is your primary “accuracy stat”, and timing, dodging and area management are all critical traits that don’t live in the game itself.   In most shooters the player’s character is just as effective with a pistol at the beginning of the game as he is at the end…  even though the game progressively demands more of the player himself with larger groups of foes and challenging level layouts.

Shooters also are tuned for action experience, living and dying by their weapon balance and ammunition management…  Killing one enemy is usually 1-3 shots, and an FPS starts to instinctively know which weapon is best for each situation.   This is the biggest reason that shooters are so seriously wounded by the Numbers Game. By increasing enemy health arbitrarily, the choice of weapon eventually becomes less important. Enemies that used to be demolished by a shotgun blast take several hits, causing players to switch from surprise or flanking maneuvers to attrition tactics. Pistols go from being the standby for taking out weak enemies with minimal ammo investment to becoming basically useless. Different skills and sometimes abhorrent tactics are adopted in order to succeed because the game becomes increasingly “unfair”.  Players might even start to think in terms of DPS (Damage per Second), a major metric in MMO’s and a strong symptom of the Numbers Game.

More Than Just Digits

So this argument does nothing to help out the intrepid FPS designer, who still needs to solve these difficulty issues…  He’s willing to do anything to make the game as fun for 10 players as it is for one, and to make gamers feel increasingly awesome for each hour he plays.  I don’t blame folks for falling back on the numbers when they need to; Diablo II is still my favorite game of all time, and when working X-Men Legends I personally applied the Numbers Game to near-excess (more on that another day).

Solving this problem through other means is really hard, but going the Bags o’ HP route should be a last resort.  I’ll see if I can scrape up some alternatives in the next post.

Weapons of Awesome Power (and some less so)

Marine with Pulse RifleLast week I got a nagging feeling that I needed to catch up on some of the latest games… I’d played and enjoyed Grand Theft Auto IV, as well as some other open-world and RPG titles, but occasionally there is a “huge” title that I just plain miss. This fall was a busy time…  while I’d played Bioshock and some (but not enough) of Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect, I’d completely breezed by Halo 3. As a long-time shooter fan/developer I figured I owed it to myself to put in a few hours and catch up with what’s held up as state-of-the-art.

As I played through the first few levels, I got reminded of weird thing that always bothered me with the Halo series. The weapon you start with, the Assault Rifle, always starts the game on the wrong foot for me.  It always felt anemic and ineffective against enemies, and the third installment wasn’t a whole lot better.  I have no doubt that some of this might be a design choice, since it would be foolish to give the player a powerful weapon at the start of the game.  Of course you need a lot of room for growth so that the player feels a sense of achievement as he/she finds new weaponry. However, for a weapon so obviously inspired by the Pulse Rifle from Aliens (one of the coolest movie guns ever), it’s always been tremendously disappointing to have my anticipation dashed…  The gun looked and sounded so subdued, and had little apparent effect on my opponents.

C’mon, watch this and tell me that you don’t want that rifle to be this badass sounding.

While I got past it and am now churning through Halo 3, the experience got me thinking about what elements make up a weapon that is satisfying to wield. Sure, making a weapon do more damage is what you’d expect, but there are a large number of intangibles that can add to the player’s shooter experience without disrupting the balance of the game.

Most of my roots are from Raven Software, where shooters are (mostly) a way of life. If there’s one thing that members of the studio preached constantly, most particularly my boss Brian Raffel, was that “the player must feel powerful”. It seems obvious, but a lot of times games don’t do enough to make the player feel like the gun in his/her hand is an unstoppable tool of destruction. This is about gratification and player expectation… Movies have trained audiences to expect that guns shoot massive plumes of flame and sparks and are accompanied by tremendous booming sound. In comparison, the sharp, loud crack or pop of a real gun can be a disappointment (although obviously they are intimidating nonetheless in person). Usually just modeling the audio and visual reality of a weapon isn’t quite enough.

Most games that have contemporary-style guns have a few standbys in their arsenal … the pistol, the machinegun or automatic rifle, and the shotgun. As an exercise, I cracked out a bunch of different first-person shooters and captured their weapons on video for the purposes of comparison. These games were:

  • Halo 3 (Xbox 360, 2007)
  • Resistance: Fall of Man (Playstation 3, 2006)
  • Half Life 2 (PC, 2004)
  • Quake 4 (PC, 2005)
  • Doom (PC, 1993)
  • Deus Ex (PC , 2000)
  • Bioshock (Xbox 360, 2007)

The Games

In each, I took shots of the weapon firing at a surface, and follow with shooting at a “common” opponent. The choice of a “common” opponent is arbitrary (and sometimes driven by convenience when I was capturing footage), but suffice it to say that I wanted to choose an enemy that the player was going to face frequently with a given weapon. A few of these weapons also have “upgrades” that make them more effective, but I wanted to provide feedback on how the weapon would be seen upon first picking it up… will the player be glad he did? Will he or she keep using it because it’s just awesome? Continue reading Weapons of Awesome Power (and some less so)

Diablo and X-Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.