Frantic, Fearless and Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storytelling in Children of Men

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

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

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

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

Vincent:
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.

Evolution:
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.

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.

Thinking about GTA IV

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

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

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

Continue reading Thinking about GTA IV

Archive 1: Kingdom Hearts Review

Over the past 15 years I’ve written a bunch of stuff, public and private, that I was looking for a repository for.  Right now I only have a few articles, but I’ll be growing this as I uncover material and write more.

 Anyway, I figured I’d start out light…  This is a review of Kingdom Hearts that I wrote for internal distribution at Raven.  If anything, it gives a feel to the style that I use.

Game Developer Review: Kingdom Hearts

By Patrick Lipo
February 2003

Kingdom Hearts was released in September 2002 to a reasonable amount of fanfare. The first effort of its type and scope, Disney worked closely with Japanese game giant Squaresoft to create an epic RPG that fused the world and characters of Disney with the concepts and design of a Square game. This no doubt was a true leap of faith for Disney to entrust such a large chunk of their closely-guarded properties to any company, much less one of an entirely different culture and perspective. Reportedly the new, Japanese-styled characters that were created for this game will even become part of the Disney mythos in Japan. The game certainly has the production effort to match the scope of the partnership. Vast armies of artists, animators, programmers and voice talent were brought to bear to bring the game to fruition. It went on to ship over 3 million copies worldwide as of December, and I believe that even now it is in the top 20 overall selling games. Gamerankings.com has already collected the reviews for a respectable
average of 87%.

The Disney tie-in:

Rating: Surprisingly cool. The story revolves around Sora, a boy who lives on a little island which is consumed by a black scourge known as the Heartless. Sora is thrown into another world where he meets Donald Duck and Goofy, who join forces with him and journey through various Disney-styled worlds to deal with the mounting threat. The cinematic sequences initially feel surreal to watch; seeing your character conversing with Goofy about such grave circumstances seems ridiculous at first, but quickly becomes quite natural. The explanation of all the different mythos of Disney being part of this multiverse seems a bit forced sometimes, but it goes together reasonably well in the end. Tying everything together was certainly a big challenge for the art staff, bringing together the more realistic forms like Snow White together with the more stylized characters like Tarzan and the all-out cartoony characters like Goofy and Ursula the octopus, not to mention the anime-styled original characters. Overall they did good work with this by blending the looks for the original content, by blending stylized forms with more cartoony clothing, or by adding splashes of color to some of the more dreary environments. However, I can’t guarantee that the mixing of styles will please you, as I have heard enough online grumbling from those who just couldn’t accept it.

All-Age Appeal:

Rating: Pretty good. Kingdom Hearts is rated E (Everyone), and definitely seems to want to have something for young and old. The grave subject of a black terror devouring worlds seems to defy the for-kids feel of the game, but everything is softened slightly by a Disney wrapper that gives even the shadowy Heartless a place alongside Alice and Minnie Mouse. Villains feel dangerous, but there is an element of whimsy to them to keep from really scaring kids too much. There’s a fair amount of gameplay depth, and the story is reasonably involved. I’m not really a huge Disney fan, and in general I believe that an older or hardcore gamer enjoy playing Hearts, although possibly in fear that their friends will somehow find out that they are spending their evenings summoning Bambi… Make no mistake however, those that can’t get past the so-called “kiddie” look of Mario or Zelda games won’t find this any better. As for kids, I do think the game is pretty grave for very young kids, and some of the mechanics are pretty complex also.

Gameplay and Control:

Rating: Weak at first, good later on. Sora is an interesting character to watch and control, with flamboyant and interesting moves and attacks. However, the motion, particularly while jumping, has a “floaty” feel to it that will definitely throw off those used to controlling of Mario, Spyro or Link. You will miss many jumps initially due to the odd feel until you adjust. Luckily, while there is a fair amount of jumping in Hearts, the penalty of a missed jump is never serious, resulting only in some inconvenience as you return to your jumping point.

The combat is fun and easy, really easy to get absorbed in. Punching the attack button results in rather simple attacks, but by toggling a button, the player can lock onto any enemy and start hacking away. This is where the “floaty” feel works to your advantage, as the character will automatically turn, leap and dive to reach a targeted enemy. Without even touching the jump button you can slash at one of the many airborne enemies multiple times before gently falling back to terra firma. The downside to the game’s fighting is that it can get repetitive. Entering or re-entering a room will result in waves and waves of creatures attacking. It almost seems unfair, because instead of residing in a room, they will “spawn” around you as you enter a given area, drawing you to fight until you clear out multiple waves with that area or eventually retreat. Luckily, as the game progresses, the variety of enemy types and your own abilities makes even repeated encounters with the same creatures engaging.

Enemies, Allies and AI:

Rating: Quite good. Throughout most of the adventure, Sora has two allies who fight alongside him, usually Donald and Goofy, although other characters such as Aladdin or Tarzan can be used also. The AI of these allies is very good. They are competent enough to take out enemies on their own, but are not so potent that you aren’t engaging in the bulk of the action. All characters have spells, and will use them offensively and defensively in appropriate situations. They navigate well as Sora jumps and climbs throughout areas, although the game does help out in cleverly “teleporting” them to you when you’re not looking. The only fault that might be had with them is that regardless of the aggressiveness level you set them to, they tend to vastly overuse resources such as healing and mana elixirs, so you generally have to ration out valuable items to them in very small numbers.

As I said above, the variety is the most notable element of the enemies. Most are carefully designed, with unique movements, patterns and vulnerabilities that inspire different strategies to defeat them. This is good, because otherwise the AI is not too special. Since the Heartless do not appear until you get within 10 feet of them, and since they disappear if you get too far from them, there is no need for serious navigation or tactics. I found that combat was pretty dull until a few worlds into the game, when there are enough enemies introduced and Sora picks up enough special abilities that things start to pick up. Finally, the large bosses are handled very well, many being very large ones that require you to actually jump on top of them and target specific parts of their bodies.

Polish and Presentation:

Rating: Ungodly. While I do think the gameplay is more rewarding further into the game, I have always told people that you really play Kingdom Hearts for the spectacle above all else. The Disney world is amazingly portrayed here, giving the worlds of Tarzan, Little Mermaid and Nightmare Before Christmas their own charm and flair, often with differing art direction within. Unfortunately the first world, Alice in Wonderland, is not quite as special as some of the later ones, but taking flight around Big Ben in the Neverland realm offers one of the bigger feelings of wonder I’ve felt playing a game. Some of the worlds are fairly small in size, but there is a lot of variety, and you find new Disney mythos popping up in a huge number of places. It’s really only in some of the original worlds where the spark is lost, seeming far more bland after being severed from the source material.

As if the sheer resources of Square weren’t enough, this game uses the Disney studio resources quite heavily also. The voice recording in particular is well directed, and sports a very good cast. More interesting than the menu of young celebrities chosen for the new characters, many of the Disney universe voices are taken directly from the same people who have done them for years, even for small bit-parts. Overall it brings the universe together very well.

The technology that is brought to bear to create some of the Disney spectacle is quite impressive also. While fighting opponents in real-time, it is possible to summon one of several Disney characters to help you out. The game segues immediately into a summon sequence with incredible effects, backdrops, and camera work. The game then puts the player right back into the fight, having covered up any loading that might have been necessary. The Lion King summon to me was one of the coolest things in the whole game.

Longevity:

Rating: Whatever you make of it. As an indicator for how much people will replay this game, the GameFAQs entry for Hearts is always in the top ten for visits, regardless of the other new games that might be out (Vice City and Final Fantasy X are the other ones that stay in there). There are a large number of player-made documents about collecting all the weapons, how to unlock secret battles, or how to defeat optional bosses like Sephiroth that are practically unbeatable. There is one misfire (the Gummi ship minigame is so terrible it could make kids cry), but overall I felt that there was still a fair amount of stuff for me to discover after finishing the game, and I had already invested around 60 hours.

Summary:

So why is this game successful? If it isn’t obvious already, the Disney license and the amazing quality with which it was realized is enough to net young and old. In addition, the easy, accessible play let younger players get involved, but in the end there is a lot of complexity and depth. The combat, puzzles, or even the story weren’t the things that made me feel good about this game. It was the variety and the incredible presentation that made it worth the time I put into playing it.

E3’s over

Another E3 has come and gone…  This is the first one I haven’t been to in years, and from most reports it’s a very subdued event.  Sounds like I didn’t miss much.

I’m a total game trailer junkie, so when E3 rolls around I completely fill my hard drive with as much footage as possible…  and then spend a week or more getting around to seeing everything.  I also Tivo all the coverage on G4 and zip through it at a rate of probably 10 minutes per hour of footage, which is good since there was like 12 hours of it this year.

After all that watching, however, there weren’t any big reveals, no huge news.  I enjoyed seeing more Super Mario Galaxy, but much of the coverage both on the net and on cable seemed to rehash and revisit the same few titles: Assasin’s Creed, Drake’s Fortune, Ratchet and Clank, Call of Duty 4, Bioshock, and only a handful more.  Perhaps the coverage just skipped over the smaller titles (IGN has a much larger list than GameTrailers), but I hope that despite the size reduction of E3 there will remain to be room for smaller games and smaller publishers. 

One of my professional responsibilities (and something I enjoy) is to scan E3 for existing or emerging trends in games.  Interestingly, while previous years seemed to indicate that open-world games were on the rise, they (thank goodness) didn’t emerge in the everyday GTA mold.  Instead, a number of the new games have a good dose of “player freedom” and “emergent tactics”, which you could call a semantic difference but it feels more meaningful to gameplay.  Bioshock, Burnout, Skate, Mercenaries, Medal of Honor, Turok, Assassin’s Creed, and others are starting to perhaps “get it” in terms of letting the player shape their own gameplay experience…  This is certainly a much more interesting lesson to gain from the success of GTA than to simply attempt to make “yet another thug game in a modern city”. 

Even the games without sprawling cityscapes seemed to have their hands full…  most of these games had some very long development periods.  That sh*t’s hard work, and next-gen is no picnic!

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.