Tag Archives: Metal Gear Solid

More Part 2: Justifying the Axe

Last time we chatted, I gave a word of warning on how easy it is to get into the trap of “more”. As a designer, it’s seductive… you get on a train of thought, thinking about a feature, and you want to consider all the things that would make that feature great. Overambitious designs is one of the biggest mistakes you see from amateur designers… coming up with “stuff” isn’t particularly hard, and scope bloat is something that just about every game has to deal with at some point.

30 games in 1!Back when games were smaller (or more recently in the casual game space) scope choices were easier. You started with limited technology, manpower and time. Generally you started with a singular activity and fleshed things out from that root. Whatever you couldn’t accomplish would quickly get stripped from the design.

These days, as games get bigger and budgets get larger, the choices become more difficult. Feature sets have become very broad as shooters now come standard with vehicles, and driving titles get gun combat added to them… And when you’ve got a 10 or 20 million-dollar budget on a “triple-A” title, everyone’s got high expectations. It’s much harder to explain to an executive why you can’t just drop upgradable vehicles or clothing shops (or something as earth-shattering as multiplayer) into your game with just a bit more work.

As you start to debate the scope of a game, the boogeyman known as “player expectation” also comes into heavy use. Open-world games and MMO’s are the worst, providing the player with a large world and wide breadth of activities, along with incredible competition in that space. Grand Theft Auto is the poster child right now for breadth, with its bowling, fake internet access, cellphone upgrades, functional toll booths… they attempt to give players the closest thing they can to a full palette of features in a modern city. This means their game is just plain packed with stuff. Since it’s impossible to provide absolutely everything the player might expect or find “fun” in that space, the decision-making can seem arbitrary or even like guesswork.

I know that hardcore gamers hate to hear about developers delivering anything but the maximum they possibly can… Members of the hardcore can gripe that games are too simple these days and that they need as much depth and features as possible. I’ve been involved in heated arguments with good friends about what features in Oblivion (a game that I played the hell out of) might have been necessary or unnecessary. These folks are hardcore to the extreme (and also developers), and I respect their stance … but I did say before that making cuts can spark conflict, no?

Grand Theft Auto, boat, helicopter, etc etcDepth and complexity are awesome things, but are best served in more carefully chosen places. Features that are just “filler” can just distract from the pacing and action of a title, and poorly-crafted activities can turn a player’s early experiences into negative ones. While your average gamer might believe that “more” does no harm, the truth is that every game is created using a limited sum of money… even the mighty GTA IV. Anything created for a game, no matter how simple or small it may seem, takes manpower and brainpower. Design, code, art, documentation, testing, translation… These resources must generally be applied to get the biggest bang for buck.

So what do you consider when looking to spend your buck?

Does it support the game’s objectives? Ideally, the biggest share of richness and depth should support a game’s stated core values (combat, exploration, collection, partying, whatever). I’ll talk more about setting these “pillars” next time, but if a new feature does not help a game further its primary objectives, see if it can be modified to do so. If this is not possible, the feature isn’t necessarily cut (everything from UI to game saves count as “features”… they are of course required to have a functional game), but these elements should be scrutinized and kept leaner and meaner if possible.

Metal Gear Ice Cube Solid 2Is it worth the cost of entry? In a technically challenging project, it can be valuable to take an “all or nothing” stance on some features… When you implement a small feature, you are still creating new tasks for multiple team members, communicating objectives and checking on progress. There’s a start-up cost for something “new” that can be significant, even for something very light on technology or polish. Can that feature be filled out to be a more significant addition to the game experience? If not, sometimes that small feature is not worth the investment… and a game full of lots of tiny half-hearted features is rarely better than fewer, stronger, more robust features. A similar notion is that if it’s worth putting in the game, it’s worth making it good.

Is the gamer really going to notice? This particular statement is a rather cynical one, but it is a common theme in my posts if you’ve noticed… You want to put things into your game that gamers enjoy and tell each other about. Stuff that’s going to make your game stand out from the crowd. Stuff that makes critics sing and sales ring. Tiny little weird details are fun and all, but that realistic depiction of ice cubes melting is probably only going to amuse you, your buddies, and some forum-dweller named Monty in Arizona.  Fun is fun (and programmers like a challenge) but keep your eye on the prize.

These are some of the basic reasons to think twice before you think “More”, but I’ll talk more about the pillars of a game and aiming your axe next time.

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.